String quartet
Performing Quality

Performing Quality

String quartet

Last week, I talked about how new music shares its business structure with the academy. This economy runs by accumulating social capital; it builds complicated networks of people and distributes privileges among them. To keep growing, its economic body must churn out unsustainable heaps of new works and performances. This system compels constant productivity; its rhythm of overproduction overpowers any expression of quality. These overproduced goods, though, don’t arrive at concerts for sale – instead, they filter through concerts and emerge as recordings. In this form, musical products re-enter new music’s stock exchange of grants, residencies and other academic resources. Instead of an artistic end in themselves, concerts represent just one stage of a complicated, circular production line. Unlike in popular music, for example, new music sets aside an entire class of artists for the exclusive task of public presentation. Since concerts cost listeners time, money, and space, performing musicians alone are left to account for an audience’s investment. To me, the weird division of labor between composing works and playing concerts puts musicians in a difficult position. Performers have become new music’s coerced mouthpiece of accountability.

The student summer festival provides the clearest case study for this skewed power dynamic. I admit to gratefully experiencing many of the most profound musical moments of my life at such events. However, broadly speaking, student festivals exist to mill social capital. Applying and attending costs a significant sum, matching or exceeding what most undergraduate and graduate students might earn in a month. Students such as myself exchange money for futures – once I accumulate enough social capital, I have the opportunity to invest in better and better festivals.

Emerging composers buy into their own exploitation. Most festivals involve an anti-commission: composers pay to write a piece. From my experience, I’ve been assigned an average of two to three months between acceptance and arrival to write a work that I myself have financed. At the festival, these pieces receive their premieres under stressed and compressed conditions. One works with little rehearsal time and overtaxed performers to populate sprawling end-of-the-week concerts. Composers don’t care too much about these concerts, though. Instead, they invest their money and labor for something more economically substantial.

The student summer festival produces recordings, the commodities exchanged between festival trading posts. The live-ness of performance may wink out as soon as a concert ends, but its recorded objectification is hard and exchangeable. Student composers distribute these recordings with the hope of ensuring further performances, which get recorded and recirculate. Musicians traffic in recordings too, but because players themselves are the makers of sounds, they assemble recordings with greater autonomy. These commodities form the basis for public conversations with older, established faculty members. A masterclass is a formalized introduction, a site of exchange. Here, and at many other places within this system (with other students, with administrators, and with the name of the festival itself), participants trade in their recordings for social capital.

Festivals differentiate modes of labor: performers labor to play, composers have already labored to write. Both schedules are separated. This division of labor alienates performers from their work. Performers suffer through unsatisfying concerts, knowing that composers only appreciate their effort inasmuch as it can circulate as a standalone, exchangeable entity. Further, musicians undertake such staggering workloads, performing new and unfamiliar works, that they cannot possibly find the time or energy to express themselves as artists. The crammed rehearsal schedules designed by festival administrators prevent real composer-performer interactions. I think of this as an artifact of classical museum culture, treating living composers like long-dead historical figures. In exactly that way, composer and performer workdays tend to only overlap at such a late stage that a composer can’t possibly make any edits. Now, this pattern of behavior doesn’t only apply to the festival scene. The social gulf between composers and performers pervades the entire new music superstructure, from three-day university residencies to the highest order of orchestra commissions. The composer-performer discursive divide is perpetuated, if not caused, by the distributions of labor incurred by compulsory overproduction.

The student festival format affects young creative lives. It inures composers and performers to the rhythm of overproduction; it prepares them for the academic economics I discussed in last week’s article. It trains young composers to build commodities – to create works of similar length and duplicability, written during crammed timelines and with minimal conceptual and notational risk. It teaches young performers that music pre-exists performance and has nothing to do with concerts. One cannot separate festivals from the economy of new music, and I find myself in a similar position to last week, asking – “would new music, as I know it, exist at all without this infrastructure; is it desirable or possible to abandon it?”

If new music stays in the student festival, it ought to rethink its programming. These summer weeks should focus on composer-performer time – for example, they could consist only of lessons and discussions, with no compulsory concerts apart from whatever one might feel moved to do. Perhaps concerts might not be recorded, so that recording might not be performance’s end objective.  Recordings can happen elsewhere, in spaces designed for recording, such that the process doesn’t alienate performers from their labor. The idea of the recording-focused, lengthy, and premiere-oriented festival concert needs to change.


The overproduction of pieces and concerts injures performance practice. Because composers need more and more commodities to enter circulation, performers encounter an excess of new music. Many musicians have the discipline and training to keep their heads above water, but how can one think about artistry when performing piles of premieres? Quoting a young new music pianist friend of mine, “If I want to play new music for a living, I have to play all new music, including the music I don’t believe in.” He describes this process as one of desensitization, a feeling echoed by many young performers I interviewed. Performance quality suffers.  Last week, I described quality as the immanent necessity of a thing, its ability to supply its own reasons for coming into being. Overproduction hurts quality—it makes one act because one must, not because one needs to.  Overproduction makes one ignore quality—another young pianist described her festival experience as one of “train[ing] myself not to think about quality anymore.” I also know many performers who don’t think like this, who don’t have to, or who think around it, but the problem my friends pose is hard to ignore.

Of course, fatigue and desensitization don’t just result from a surplus of new pieces. Contemporary performance has to enter into real markets in ways that composition just can’t. Though it often seems like new music events consist exclusively of one’s peers, concerts provide the few and far between openings of the new music world to the outside. Performers speak to publics much more diverse and often much harder to convince than those found in academia. The performance infrastructure suffers from a more normative type of neoliberal behavior than the academic modality. One must advertise, sometimes with the music itself, in order to survive. Advertising is legitimation, it makes something appear necessary whether or not it is. Performance has the difficult task of dressing commodities made for private markets in the guise of public goods. New music happily accepts – its internal tautology persists.


I’ve outlined a social system as bleak and deterministic as it is ripe with exceptions and faultlines. I do sense that my dystopia of new music is neither exclusively mine nor completely inconceivable, particularly within the United States. However, no such system is absolute or objectively the case. Likewise, no musical score is essentially an instrument of capital, nor is any performance essentially a hopeless act of advocacy for a cold, dead thing. The absoluteness of this disciplinary divide is every bit as abstract and ideal as it is an institutional reality.

Glimmers of necessity inhabit even the most compulsory scores. Some composers exercise their agency in the margins. Many performers tell me that just knowing “where the piece came from” (why it was—not why it had to be—written) helps them sensitize themselves to it, helps them make their performance feel itself necessary. From, during, or after such conversations, a composer’s internal insistences might exceed their subconscious and enter the material of the work itself. Performers, too, should involve themselves – performers are artists! If a musician feels empowered, they should ask composers about quality, “What about this piece is important to you?” Most of all, players should exercise curatorial agency, they should look for and through composers for the reasons one performs. Concerts can be spaces for performers to truly make things of necessity. Concerts can be well-curated and intentional sites for public discussion. Concerts can be compositional ends in themselves. Through a stream of interleaved activity, necessity communicates itself forward, inward, and outward.

Next week I will finally devote an entire article to quality itself. As I write, this concept grows clearer and clearer in my mind. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard hundreds of conversations about musical quality, and I look forward to reporting the plurality of my findings.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

34 thoughts on “Performing Quality

  1. Stephen Ferre

    I think you misrepresent the purpose of these student festivals. You, as a student composer, are unformed. You go to these festivals to receive training, as well as create social capital. Most of these festivals have “advanced” (student) composer sessions of 1, 2, or 4 weeks. Let’s say you are asked to write a string quartet. Can you write a polished/quality quartet (with parts) in 1 week? Chances are that you will have to limit your length, and/or scope of your quartet. Wouldn’t it be better to have a longer (ultimately more marketable) quartet ready when you arrive, and then have time to work through it with the performers?

    Even if you have a month at the festival, you won’t likely have anything to show the performers for a couple of weeks, and even then, you won’t have time to rewrite as needed – again leaving you with a short, unfinished hunk of a work, that you will still need to expand and rewrite (blindly, with no access to the quartet) after the festival.

    Having a nearly-complete or complete-but-unpolished work to hand the quartet when you arrive, gives you more quality time with the performers, and in lessons with your master teachers. Actually, when I attended festivals, I spent most (but not all) of my time in lessons on other works, i.e. not my required work. The more time you have with the performers, the better your final performance will be, and the more usable the recording.

    Is it an anti-commission? No – unless you expect to get paid for all the music you write in college, or all the English assignments you write in English class. Would you expect a trainee pilot to fly a commercial jet with paying passengers? On the other hand, would you want to be one of those passengers? You are still learning your craft. Yes, the festivals are expensive, but when you are good enough, or have amassed that social capital, you will likely receive bursaries or fellowships for those festivals. Let’s face it. Your career success will be based on that social capital. There is no way around it. You are beholden to performers, audience and administrators for your ultimate success.

    And what about those performers? If they are a student group, they usually receive a fellowship to attend and play those pieces. Hence, anything else outside of that payment is additional to their job of playing your piece, and should be managed by the festival (as well as the group). Rehearsal schedules get tight, but let’s face it, you’ll probably still get more time with them than you would get out in the real world, especially if you can hand them “finished” works when you arrive. The more advance time they have with your piece, the more time they will have to practice and rehearse it, again like the real world. Enduring a live performance may be the ultimate goal, but having a recording session where they could do several takes is more useful to you, so you can edit together a recording you can send to potential performers.

    You are likely to have less time with professional performers, because they will probably also be required to mount a concert of their repertory. Their experience, however, will give you better feedback, and ultimately a better performance.

    I could say more about your opinion festival/performer/composer dynamic, but I’ve probably already said too much. I think the bottom line is that you have to take the summer festival experience for what it is and make the most of it. That is your prerogative, not the organizers’.

  2. william osborne

    You have some good ideas, but express them through very clever, academic, bad writing. Many complicated sentences could be translated into plain English much easier to read, and with no loss of meaning. This is ironic, because it seems related to similar problems with poor composition in academia.

    Noam Chomsky once observed that the principle function of elite schools is socialization in elitism itself. It’s not enough to be intelligent, one must convey intellectual and social superiority. It’s not enough to have a strong desire to say something (a “composer’s internal insistences” as you awkwardly put it,) he or she must also write music that codes the author as part of an elite. As you note, the recordings (and we might add obtuse articles) become “social capital” applied toward an academic career – preferably at an elite school where the process is perpetuated.

    So why do you present yourself with exactly this sort of mannered, academic language? (Though it’s not nearly as bad as the bilge that appeared in “Perspectives of New Music in the 60s and 70s – and you do have some interesting ideas.) It’s best to let being smart stand for itself and avoid putting a lot of effort into sounding smart. Authenticity is a large factor in artistic quality. My apologies for speaking so bluntly. Otherwise, I really do appreciate your efforts.

    Anyway, it felt ironic reading your article for several other reasons. I’ve never worked in academia. I take years to write pieces. (The latest is now reaching ten years including the long and massive process of revision after the premiere.) For the last 30 years I’ve composed only for my wife, because she is the only person who will take the time and effort to perform the pieces really well. I never apply for grants. I never attend festivals. (Donaueschingen is just down the road from where I live, but I never attend. It’s disgusting.) With rare exception, I never participate in new music concerts. And I’ve never spent time at colonies like McDowell & Co. (I did participate in the Munich Biennale 24 years ago with predictably bad results.)

    And to put it in European terms (where I live,) I haven’t done a state radio recording in a quarter of a century. They are as academic and cronyistic as all the rest – actually more so.
    I did this because my teacher decades ago, George Crumb, told me to stay out of academia. The school where he taught (Penn) even went so far as to stop offering doctorates in composition for a few years, though they quickly gave that up. It was also that school that *forsake* the serialist paradigm for more varied approaches to music.

    I took Crumbs’s word for it and turned down a full tuition Doctoral Fellowship to Columbia with a monthly stipend with no work requirements. I can’t say for sure, but I think I’m a better composer as a result, even if interacting with Chou Wen-chung would probably have been very educational and enriching.

    The American experimentalist school is not much better. They are just as cronyistic. They form hierarchies around their coded musical languages and concepts. And when they get the chance, they colonize music schools (like Mills and Cal Arts.)

    So sure, moving away from academia probably increases quality, if one can also avoid purely market approaches. It will be interesting next week to see how you try to define quality, and how it relates to your criticisms of both academia and the market.

  3. Scott Mead

    Funny, coming from someone who’s attending an elite school, writes for elite ensembles, quotes elite press on his website, and employs elitist notation systems. There are some interesting points, but you’ve got to be the change you wish to see to be taken more seriously.

      1. Stephen Ferre

        He goes to Harvard and composes in a proportional type of notation. When I replied earlier, I hadn’t looked at his music. Now, I can see why he disparages receiving good performances at summer festivals. That notation needs to be taught to the performers, and it takes time – a lot of it. He creates his own disconnect between composer and performer that needs to be overcome. On his website, he talks about the artistic beauty of scores (not his words, and they are beautiful), but I think that misses the expediency of performance. The one piece of his that I listened to on soundcloud, could have been achieved using mostly standard notation.

        1. Evan Johnson

          (His notation isn’t as non-standard as you seem to think it is, and to my knowledge it’s never “a proportional type.” The rhythms, in fact, are pretty simple.

          And it is precisely one of his points that, as one symptom of the larger phenomenon he’s addressing, these student-opportunities are tacitly designed to discourage anything that, as you say, “takes time.” God forbid something takes time.)

          1. Stephen Ferre

            OK, looking more closely at it, yes it isn’t proportional. But that begs the question: why make something simple difficult? If I rewrote his article in a language of my own invention, would you take the time to learn it, just so you can read the article?

            If you were at a summer festival and had 1, 2 or 4 weeks to learn a difficult piece of new music, would you want to have to learn a new language to do it? Especially if the piece was written completely during that period as well? Yes, they could start learning the language on day one, but that is inefficient, especially if they have to learn as many as a dozen other pieces as well. What if all the composers arrived with a piece that used a personal notation system? Asking the festival to hire a separate ensemble to work with each composer is unreasonably costly.

            A composer should work within the constraints of a given situation. If you were asked to write a piece for the Cleveland Orchestra and knew that they would only have three 1-hour rehearsals for a piece, wouldn’t you try to accommodate that restriction as much as possible. I used to write using a significant amount of aleatory. Every piece had to be taught to the performers (often filtered through a conductor), in spite of the simplicity of my notation system. Eventually, I learned to write as much as possible in standard notation and save the unusual notation for specific instances that required it. Unless one is going to compose exclusively for a small circle of performers, one needs to be conscious of the available resources. A time limitation at a festival is just one of those limited resources. To achieve the quality that you desire in performance, you have to consider all the aspects of a given situation – the skill of the performers, the time constraints, and their familiarity with your chosen notation system, not to mention the difficulty of the proposed piece.

          2. Evan Johnson

            I suspect you’ll find that you are vociferously agreeing with both me and, I think, Marek.

  4. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Nicely said, Marek.

    Reinvigorating the live concert experience is absolutely essential to our art form. Concerts are the only musical products that cannot be stolen (it’s been open season on scores and recordings for a while). I don’t mean to highlight the negative, but to say that concerts remain unchanged in their power to be deeply moving and transformative experiences.

    A quick response to your quote: “Performers speak to publics much more diverse and often much harder to convince than those found in academia.”
    Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but I have found audience reaction generally the opposite. I have been fortunate to come through a supportive and broad-minded academic upbringing, but in my experience classical musicians are the least enticed by new music. Conversely, I have received a good deal more kind and sincere words from uninitiated audience members who seem to have had a genuinely valuable experience at a new music concert. This is purely anecdotal, but I think it can be largely the case, especially when composers and performers do their best to make the concert experience a meaningful one.

    1. Marek Poliks

      Just to clarify, Mischa, I’m really only referring to the act of performance itself. I’m definitely not trying to generalize about the general social dispositions of classical musicians.

      1. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

        Ah ha.

        I see what you are saying. I see one potential side-benefit of overproduction, however (and I’m just thinking off the cuff here), which is that it contributes to “awareness.” I feel awareness can be as damaging to the value of new music as a commodity (lots of bad new music will pretty quickly reduce its value). But it can also satisfy a basic need which art fulfills that other commodities don’t: many people outside of the academy care about the learning and revelatory experience involved in art, in addition to its value as cultural capital. Overproduction certainly drives down value, but I think at worst it might foster cynicism when it comes to the personal experience of new music. For me, by recognizing concerts as something that cannot be stolen, we are diminishing their identity as commodities and pushing them instead in the direction of “experience.” This is what I mean when I talk about receptive audiences—I believe there is a connection here.

        Again, just a quick reaction. Very nice article.

  5. Melvin Backstrom

    What Stephen Ferre and William Osborne said. You use a lot of words, often of a quite fancy, academic kind (and thus reproduce, apparently unwittingly, the very elitism that you decry), but say very little of substance. I’ve read all of your posts and have absolutely no clue what it is that you think should be done to solve any of the problems (most of which are longstanding and have been debated for decades if not centuries) you so verbosely recount.

    Prime example: “The performance infrastructure suffers from a more normative type of neoliberal behavior than the academic modality. One must advertise, sometimes with the music itself, in order to survive. Advertising is legitimation, it makes something appear necessary whether or not it is. Performance has the difficult task of dressing commodities made for private markets in the guise of public goods. New music happily accepts – its internal tautology persists.”

    So the necessity to advertise in order to promote oneself now equals neoliberalism? Seriously? A better demonstration of how overused and thereby meaningless this concept has become would be hard to imagine. And what is actually different about the academic “modality”? (Why not just academia? What does “modality” do in this sentence other than make you sound really smart by making what you’re referring to much more obscure than needs be?) As an aspiring academic I can assure you that there is just as much of a need to advertise oneself in order to get ahead. But to blame the inescapable reality of fewer opportunities than those who would like them on “neoliberalism” is laughably ahistorical. And what do you mean by “surviving” in “One must advertise, sometimes with the music itself, in order to survive”? I hope you mean “survive as a professional performer” although your lack of qualification leaves the impression that this could be a matter of life and death, which is of course absurd. But if you do mean as a professional performer, how else is one supposed to justify what one does? Would you prefer the government to simply pay musicians regardless of their commercial success? That musicians should face no requirement to perform music that audiences are willing to pay to hear? And no, advertising is not necessarily legitimation, nor does it necessarily make something appear necessary. In our still highly Romanticized culture musical performances hardly need more legitimation; they are already legitimated to an almost absurd degree. Advertising can certainly make things seem more desirable but who in their right mind thinks that anything about musical performance is actually necessary other than those who benefit financially from it. Furthermore, how does performance “dress…commodities made for private markets in the guise of public goods”? Isn’t the primary problem that the commodities, i.e. compositions (?), are NOT public goods? That they’re produced for and within a wholly non-commercial, academic environment in which there is no need to please a wider public but only to present oneself as on the cutting-edge and thereby attain the necessary social and cultural capital that one can eventually trade for economic capital? Finally, what is the “internal tautology” of New music that it supposedly happily accepts? Not only is the grammar atrocious but it’s utterly meaningless verbiage. As opposed to an “external tautology”? How could a tautology NOT be internal and how could anything not accept its tautology—internal or external, happily or not—given that a tautology is simply the restatement in other words of what something is or, in logic, what is necessarily true of something. Did you perhaps mean “internal contradiction”? That could actually have made sense but then that doesn’t seem to be something you’re actually interested in doing.

    1. Marek Poliks

      I do feel the need to respond only because I worry that your freewheeling and irresponsible comment might induce an on-the-fence reader to ignore my political message.

      I feel zero pressure to defend my style. Reading takes time. Had you actually read the sentences you cherry-picked, you’d find they’re constructed with care.

      Two examples:
      a) The sentence needs the word “modality” in order to oppose performance’s more normative neoliberal behavior to the peculiarly academic way of acting neoliberal. Because you skipped this word, you think I’m equating neoliberalism with advertising. Instead, I’m merely saying (very uncontroverisally) that advertising is a more conventional type of neoliberal behavior than those exhibited by the academy.

      b) Performers “dress…commodities made for private markets in the guise of public goods.” You then go to explain my own sentence, which is super clear, and which just reinforces what I’ve been saying for many paragraphs. Yes, performers are coerced to present goods “produced for and within a wholly non-commercial, academic environment in which there is no need to please a wider public but only to present oneself as on the cutting-edge and thereby attain the necessary social and cultural capital that one can eventually trade for economic capital”to a public of people outside of this environment. If they manage to do so successfully, they legitimate new music’s problematic structure. External/internal – I think I’ve made my ‘real world’/’new music world’ binary pretty clear. Genitive – ‘the tautology internal to new music (as opposed to the circularity of some broader process) persists.’ ‘Contradiction’ does not make sense at all – everything internal to new music is constantly justifying itself.

      Your exercise in simplifying my text turns it into nonsense. You react to the nonsense you built and say “this is nonsense.” However, by demonstrating my text’s inflexibility to simplification you justify my own stylistic choices.

      1. Melvin Backstrom

        Freewheeling my comment certainly is but irresponsible? What BS. What gall you have to claim to dictate what is and is not responsible. As for your supposed “political message”—please. You think that throwing “neoliberalism” around somehow constitutes a serious political analysis when you, following the lead of many others on the left, have drained the concept of almost any meaning by claiming that mere advertising is somehow a neoliberal stalking horse.

        Yes, reading sometimes does take time. Sometimes the effort spent is worth it; other times it is not and your prose falls mostly in the latter of these two possibilities. I have read a great deal by writers with far more difficult prose than you (Hegel, Adorno, Heidegger to name a few) but whose writing difficulty is because of the complexity of the concepts they are dealing. You on the other hand are writing about pretty basic issues: the relationship of the creation and performance of challenging artistic practices to the demands of the economic and academic market places. This is hardly Adornoian negative dialectics or Heidegger’s unconcealment of Being. Your choice to write in such a turgid, convoluted way is not at all required by the ideas but only by your own apparent need to assert your educational, cultural capital over others. Thankfully some of us can see through your BS.

        No, that sentence does not need the word “modality” and I definitely did not “skip” the word and thus misunderstand you. I understood your meaning quite clearly since I certainly know what “modality” means. But you could have written the sentence in a much clearer way but you clearly, since you tell us your sentences were “constructed with care,” chose not to. Again, it’s quite clear why you do so and it certainly has nothing to do with the complexity of the ideas you’re dealing with.

        How ironic it is that you use the term “social capital” many times in your various posts and yet seemingly have no awareness of the very obvious position you’re acting out within the field of cultural production that Bourdieu, who first theorized the idea of non-economic (at least directly) forms of capital, delineated so well. You think you’re so cutting edge and radical and yet you’re just reproducing the same old modernist, obscurantist, anti-capitalist elitism that the minimalists broke free from 50 years ago. I’m sure you would have been a hit at Darmstadt in 1955! How very hip of you.

        And how telling that in your previous post “New Music is Academic Music” you refer to Babbitt’s “Who Cares if You Listen?” as “over-referenced” and “a product of heavy editorial intervention.” Clearly some serious anxiety of influence is at work here. Since your (and other commenters to my previous post) position seems to be that in order to avoid the dreaded taint of the neoliberal market you want the government—yes, that representative of the people whose aesthetic tastes you give two shits about—to subsidize you instead. How radical. We can disagree on the proper amount of referencing due Babbitt’s essay (although I hardly think it can be referenced enough given its perfect distillation of the attitude of the modernist musical mandarins of the mid-20th century) but your “product of heavy editorial intervention” is rhetorical, slight-of-hand bullshit. The only editorial intervention was the title “Who Cares if You Listen?” that Babbitt of course protested but is a completely fair, though rather polemical, distillation of the contents. This is hardly “heavy” since writers almost never write their own headlines in magazines and newspapers. But it’s a nice sophistic way to distance yourself from your quite clear antecedent that’s been so heavily critiqued for decades. Clearly the truth hurts.

        You really don’t know what the word “tautology” means, do you? “Internal tautology” is itself a tautology; a tautology is internal to something by definition since it is simply the restatement of what something is in different words or, in modal logic, what is true by definition. And, indeed, how could a tautology of New music (or anything else for that matter) not persist since it is what it is by definition? An “internal, persisting tautology” is as perfect an example of meaningless verbiage as I could possibly imagine. “Internal, persisting contradiction,” on the other hand, not only makes logical sense but captures very well the conflicting demands that New music faces.

        No, it was not my “simplifying” that turned your text into nonsense; you managed to do that quite well on your own. If you want to continue to propagate elitist sophistry while pretending to be writing something resembling a serious cultural-political analysis of the economic realities faced by music that wants nothing to do with commercial demands then there’s nothing I can, or would, do to stop you. But then your laments over the supposed neoliberalism of the marketplace only serve to point to your own contradiction: wanting the cultural capital that comes from composing challenging, difficult to learn, non-commercial music, while also wanting the social capital that comes from having your music performed in the best way possible and the necessary economic capital from the government, academia or private funding agencies to make up for your own music’s commercial impotence. How very 1950s of you.

    2. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

      I mean, since the article is about the professional world we inhabit, I think it’s fair to assume that “survive” isn’t being used literally.

      Quick thought: concerts may be highly Romanticized (if you haven’t been to many), but then why do so many people prefer not to go to any? New music appears to be unsustainable, so it strikes me as pretty clear why we would have trouble separating advertizing from survival.

      1. Melvin Backstrom

        But that “survival” isn’t qualified fits into a broader rhetorical slight-of-hand at work painting a picture of crisis in which musicians supposedly won’t exist any longer if they don’t, god forbid, advertise. But then why shouldn’t they? What is possibly wrong with musicians having to promote the music they want to perform or themselves as musicians? If they can’t find an audience then that should tell them pretty clearly that something is wrong with what they’re doing. There is an enormous market for live music of a vast array of differences at present. Some of it is really bad but some of it is not only really good but is also commercially successful. So-called “New Music”is unsustainable because its partisans have again bought into the modernist dogma that musical quality and commercial popularity are inversely proportional to each other. It wasn’t true in the 1950s and it’s still not true today.

        1. william osborne

          I think the rhetoric on both sides in this discussion is leading to oversimplified summations of opposing viewpoints. Has anyone really said that musical quality and commercial popularity are inversely proportional? I think all sides realize that the actual situation is far more complex and difficult to define. Mass appeal often by necessity resorts to aiming at low common denominators. And the excessive elitism that plagued modernism is also obvious. The truth becomes a very complex Gestalt between these poles.

          I wonder if the difficulty in reaching nuanced discussion narrows perspectives and affects musical quality on both sides of the modernist/postmodernist debate. I also wonder why music seems to generate more absolutist opinions than other fields like the visual arts or even film.

          Perhaps it has something to do with how the brain works. Psychologists at Stanford have explored how we can tolerate a lot of static and noise in visual images like with old, damaged films. The mind can easily filter out the irrelevant content and extrapolate what an image is supposed to be, but the scientists discovered that the mind’s ability to do the same with sound is far more limited. Static and noise in sound are thus far more difficult for humans to tolerate. Studies like these became useful for formulating the video codecs used on the web. Grainy images are little problem, but the sound has to be good or we won’t watch.

          In a similar way, feelings about music seem to be far more inflexible and absolute than what we experience in the visual arts where our minds seem naturally more open to a multiplicity of perspectives and adaptations. This might even relate to the way we can shift our eyes around and focus on what we want and even make comparisons, but that sound is all-encompassing and inescapable. I wonder if this understanding about how the brain works might be helpful when talking to people about sound and music. We need to leave them an open space and keep the static to a minimum. The enhanced dialog improves quality for everyone.

  6. Philip Fried

    “ demonstrating my text’s inflexibility to simplification you justify my own stylistic choices…”

    Now that we are getting closer to brass tacks things are heating up a bit. Still, at present, after reading all the comments here I am on the side of those who feel that your ideas could be clearer. To tell a tale is a fine thing. To tell a tale parsed through political ideas does not guarantee insight. On the other hand If you state your facts plainly the politics will become quite apparent.

    There is certainly nothing wrong with questioning aspects or even the totality of a musical career, if that is what you are doing. You can opt out at any time you know.

  7. ZTS

    The language employed in this article is an effective mode of writing to engage with the ideas being considered – and offers in many cases an incisive and indispensable clarity that is unique to its means. I should like to point out that Marek’s articles have inspired interesting conversations all over the web, whereas many of the comments in response – which “state the facts plainly”, as it were – have managed to say nothing but “what? I don’t get it.” Clearly what he is putting forth is interesting to a good deal of people – and so the burden of proof is on the commenters to put forth something more significant than “This is too complicated.”

    Take, for instance, the backlash against Marek’s “position on summer festivals”; many who read this mistakenly thought that this article was a whiny rant about the way summer festivals work. Instead, he was using the summer festival structure as an illustrative/concise example of larger problems – chiefly, a bent for overproduction, a lack of time on the production line spent between composer and performer, and a necessity for a artistic capital to put forth “proof” of your success against the authority of the market.

    To say, “if you don’t like this field, leave” is both childish and dangerous. This is a very carefully crafted (series of) essay(s) about a number of failings of our community, and should be considered with thoughtfulness, not defensiveness.

    Two questions for Marek: First: what, in more specific terms, would you describe as the role/realm of “artistic expression” (thinking of your statements “they cannot possibly find the time or energy to express themselves as artists” and “Performers are artists!”)? In new music (especially very complex, difficult new music), it’s easy to begin treating performers as clerks – so, in a music as complex and demanding as your own, could you give a specific example or two of what an “artistic decision” on behalf of a player might be? I recently had an interesting conversation about this with CC when she was in town, and am interested in your take. 2. What form or shape would you want this “public forum / discussion” to take? Pre and post concert talks? Mini-lectures before performances that demonstrate, a bit, about the piece’s manner of operation or compositional structure? What is your vision of this idea in practice? Or is a realization under the current conditions very difficult?

    1. Philip Fried

      “..,To say, “if you don’t like this field, leave” is both childish and dangerous…”

      But I did not say that, (I did not mean to) –rather I was pointing out that one can chose how they experience the musical profession. There are alternatives. Some of which I have taken myself. Rules can be broken.

      … “state the facts plainly”, as it were – have managed to say nothing but “what? I don’t get it.” Clearly what he is putting forth is interesting to a good deal of people – and so the burden of proof is on the commenters…”

      Since we all have different backgrounds and training I asked questions. My first question to Marek was technical. I wanted to understand his idea of “quality” yet his answer did not help as it lead me to a new term which I was also unfamiliar. Anyway, my lack of understanding is not a criticism it is a challenge because I want to understand. I’m not a hater. I believe my comments have been even handed. If this blog was intended as a private party I apologize. As for clarity, its own reward, I merely offer advise.

      The larger point is this; NMB is not a University forum, not a graduate student forum, but a public forum. Anyone who wants to communicate here needs to keep that in mind.

      1. Phil Fried

        Referencing the hypothetical music festival described — it seems that we have the equivalent of composer/performer speed dating. Bummer. That said many friendships and lifelong relationships come from such interactions. Careers are made. So festivals are not a discrete part of a musicians life but part of the whole.
        I know very few professional or pre-professional performers who say they have too much work.
        Since composers and performers are both workers they have much common ground. Yet I know many composers who do not align themselves with workers as they see themselves as management because in their view they work for whoever hires the musicians. Not me.
        The biggest change in the relationship between composers and performers (what of composer/performers) is the distribution of grants. 30 years ago grants were mostly given directly to composers now they are given to ensembles or ensembles and composers. This may not of affected composition but it does effect what is performed.

  8. Ian Power

    All of the critical comments made so far have made copious reference either to the author’s style of prose or to his position in academia. I would love to see someone legitimately challenge Poliks’ actual critique of the new music economy. Can we refrain from ad hominem? I see nothing particularly daunting about this prose, and, as a Harvard student myself, I just *love* the idea that to be a composition graduate student there is to have a penchant for verbose academicism of tone. Anyone that accuses Chaya Czernowin of encouraging that has obviously never read, heard, or met her… The author of this piece, as it happens, has spent more time at a conservatory “surrounded by musicians” than he has at Harvard.

    We are all engaging in an artform that operates due to mechanisms that have little to do with the free market. As such, and apart from such, we all have a remarkable stake in what the art we make means, and in how we execute it. So, when you say:

    ‘Would you prefer the government to simply pay musicians regardless of their commercial success?’

    Uh, of course. Yes, of freaking course. This is exactly what we want. The idea that we could want the opposite invalidates everything we are working for. And the inability to see alternatives to our current scenario reveals a naïve mindset that could seriously benefit from a serious examination–and critique, to be sure–of the ideas offered here, which shake the foundation of our (our, us new musicians’) economy.

    The issue of quality is, in my mind, inseparable from the issue of stake. We all have such a large stake in the art we make, societally and otherwise. If you agree with this, then the issue of how the free market threatens our stake is paramount. If you disagree, GTFO.

    1. Melvin Backstrom

      Clearly you don’t know what an actual ad hominem argument actually is if you think that’s a valid criticism of those of us who have critiqued Marek’s writing. “We are all engaging in an artform that operates due to mechanisms that have little to do with the free market.” Speak for yourself. One thing I will at least grant Marek is that he does seem to recognize that “New music” is inevitably determined by market forces. Even if you got your wish and the government did pay musicians regardless of their commercial success then such payments would obviously have to be rationed—there’d only be so much money to go around—which would create a competitive market, free or otherwise, for such payments. The government certainly has a limited role to play in funding artistic practices but this can never obviate the need for artists to create art that other people want to pay for. That the government, the representative of the people whose aesthetic tastes you consider completely irrelevant, should use limited tax dollars to pay for musical creations that few, if any, individuals would willingly spend their money to listen to is not only ridiculous (more important than making sure everyone has basic medical care?) but almost comically reactionary. You realize you’re regurgitating Babbitt’s argument in “Who Cares if You Listen?” don’t you? That you actually feel that “our stake” is threatened by the free market, the concatenation of how people choose to spend their money, is a remarkable testament to your own aesthetic impotence.

      1. NewMusicBox Staff

        Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.

  9. william osborne

    It would be a shame to lose sight of the important points Marek has made due to concerns with the quality of his writing style. One of the most fundamental aspects of a good writer is that he or she says important things everyone has been vaguely feeling but no one has said. Marek has that quality.

    Some points, or implications, I like are:

    + Neo-liberalism’s embrace of an unmitigated capitalism, combined with postmodernism’s aesthetic leveling, deeply complicates and in some cases weakens conceptions of musical quality.
    + Theoretical analysis might provide a way to sort out the confusion created by postmodernism’s blurring of the distinctions between commercial and non-commercial music.
    + The new music community outside of academia is often an extension of academia, which can make academic composition far more pervasive than we realize.
    + Academia often stress the quantity of production over its quality. And even outside academia, frequent premieres contribute more to success than really good but less frequent premieres. (There is a corresponding idea that name brand composers end up with more premieres than they can complete with quality, while lesser known composers with more time could likely provide a better work.)

    As for weaknesses, Marek needs to better clarify the differences between the usual marketing necessary to advertise concerts and the excessive commercialization of the neo-liberal ethos. The threat of neo-liberalism has not been so much in how we advertise, but in shaping programming purely for the sake of marketing. Film music and video game music, for example, has much to offer, but there are dangers with aesthetic quality if they become too dominate in orchestral programs. Pop influences in classical music can lead to interesting new explorations and popular appeal, but that in itself does not guarantee quality or truly meaningful relevance. In short, it’s one thing to zealously promote good concerts, but another to obtain a public through aesthetic pandering.

    A second problem is that the quality of music can only be determined by first establishing its context and function. So far, Marek hasn’t addressed that point.

    To attempt to define quality in music is hopelessly complex. I admire Marek for even trying to sort that out. It’s the sort of discussion very relevant to the professional groups for wich NMBx is designed.

  10. Ian Power

    We are in a business where it is important to measure success by other metrics than popularity. In order for something to be more and more popular, it must more and more mirror the mainstream. That mode of operation diverts our interest from the quality of our music to the marketability of our music; the stake we have in what our music sounds like, says, and does lessens and lessens.

    Poliks appears to be arguing for an MO wherein all involved–composers and performers–have very much at stake in the work. I think this is an extremely important viewpoint to cultivate if we want our field to be taken seriously–by ourselves, above all–as art. And frankly, I’m not sure what’s so controversial about any of this. For people to read this article and immediately resort to ad hominem arguments, I think, illustrates just that insecurity around whether producers in this field have (or should have) very much at stake at all in what they produce.

    As far as people who think going to Harvard encourages one to write with verbose academicism (which I don’t think this article is), I’m not sure you understand the relationship graduate composition departments generally have with the university at large. That’s sort of like expecting composers at MIT to use a lot of equations in their writing.

    1. william osborne

      Just to stress a small distinction. There are musicians who work the market who have a lot “at stake” in what they do – i.e. they are deeply committed to their artistic expression and deeply believe in its meaning. It would be a mistake to fall into the old modernist agenda and insist that only “high art” possesses commitment and integrity. Some commercial music is very meaningful, even if a lot of it is inferior.

      I think what Marek means to address is the neoliberal/postmodern obsession in classical music that stresses the marketability of what we do even if we know the quality is deficient – like orchestras forced to an excess of pops concerts to stay financially viable. Or like orchestras and opera companies that avoid worthy new music because of its unpopularity. In some circles, this now even extends to the idea that the market should be the ultimate arbiter of almost all human expression.

      This becomes even more complicated when we consider “high art” that is not only unpopular because it is complex, but also because it has low quality even within its own parameters. If we disengage from everyone except our own specialized publics, we run the risk of falling into an incestual hotbed of closed circuit applause. Quality can fall into a downward spiral because we exclude virtually all outside reference points. We have to admit that our elite schools have not been immune to this problem.

  11. Sugar Vendil

    I’ve never attended a new music summer festival, but I can see how the overproduction aspect translates into the real world. Often, we as performers want to play as much music as possible and play in multiple ensembles. I think the reason we overproduce is to connect with as many composers/performers as possible and not miss a single opportunity (#FOMO). The truth is that there are many opportunities out there and we can’t do everything. It’s not intentional, but we need to be aware that as human beings we simply don’t have that much time or energy. What’s the point of pursuing a multitude of opportunities if you’ll just be spreading yourself thin and doing everything decently rather than excellently?

    Similarly I’ve noticed that a pitfall of many young ensembles is over-programming: a ton of premieres on a concert, not repeating pieces in following concerts (a mistake I’ve made myself as an artistic director). Less is more.

    I agree and enthusiastically endorse your idea of composer-performer time. This is something we ought to do more often. My ensemble is collaborating with composer Trevor Gureckis on our ballet, ‘Potential Energies,’ and while he is still the one writing the music, talking through ideas together has been creatively enriching and rewarding. We’ve informed his process and also have a deeper connection to his music.

  12. Stephen Ferre

    I have to reply to Evan Johnson’s reply down here, as WordPress seems to limit the number of replies to a comment.

    Am I agreeing with Marek? I think there is a trade off. You go to a summer festival composer seminar to improve your craft with a master teacher and performer (student or otherwise) in a very short period of time. Does quality suffer? Perhaps. But who does he blame? The system? – the organizers and performers as well as the need to write a work for them – when he might look closer to home. If I was going to a festival that lasted a week, I would assume limited production time (composition and rehearsal). Somehow, I am expected to show off my best work and at the same time do it in an unreasonable time frame. Some festivals assign a work ahead of time, which widens that time frame, at least in the composers’ side of the framework. The performers still have a limited time. I would, as the composer, try to make that easier for them by providing the clearest, most readable materials I could, and music of a difficulty they could handle in the allotted time. Years ago, I showed up at Aspen with an aleatoric string quartet. I spent almost the entire month working through my notation with them, vying for their time with a dozen other composers, and only reaching a point where they could read it through on the day of the performance. Could I have spent more time with them? Maybe? Did I have time for rewrites? Not if I expected them to perform it.

    Yes, I was expected to produce. I needed that recording, but not so much the live performance. I also needed the exposure: to my colleagues, to the performers, to the teachers, and maybe to the public through live performance, but we all knew that most of the audience would be friends and other composers. Did the quality suffer? Yes. Was the live performance (and the recording of it) adequate? No. Other composers who wrote more conventional music did, however, benefit more from the performance experience. Yet I benefited in other ways, through networking and lessons with master teachers. (The string quartet broke up immediately after the festival, so that was a dead end.)

    In that case, was the pressure to overproduce (put something together in an unreasonable amount of time) a bad thing or a good thing? The quality of the performance (or my quartet) weren’t as good as I would have liked, but I learned valuable lessons about rationing time and effort. I went to Aspen again the following summer armed with a new piece with new challenges, better prepared to get the most out of the process. The performance was better, the piece was better, the recording was better, but the contacts with the other composers and performers were the most fertile. I am still in contact with several of them after over 25 years.

    In short, measuring the quality of the live (or recorded) performance is only part of the equation when evaluating in an artificial situation like a music festival. You should instead look at the totality of the experience and decide what you have learned from it and how well it enhanced your future (as separate from your career) as a composer.

  13. william osborne

    Marek’s discussion of festivals was just the illustration of a larger point that people seem to be missing. To be successful, a composer needs to churn out a lot of works. Frequent premieres and many fulfilled commissions are essential for a lively career. This is also true for students who need ample portfolios to win positions in grad schools and festivals. There is thus a pressure to churn out works at the expense of artistic substance and depth – i.e. at the expense of quality. Eventually, this can even habituate a disconnect with one’s work.

    I think this is more common in the in history of music that people realize. Many composers, from Bach to Richard Strauss, seemed to crank out a lot of perfunctory music. One of the oddest aspects of this seems to be that some prolific composers would hit upon great works more-or-less by chance – sort of like rolling the dice so often that good numbers would occasionally appear.

    The question becomes how to balance fluency and quality, and ultimately, how to integrate them. And for students and teachers, it becomes a matter of students writing quickly in order to learn from having many kinds of efforts tested, and for trying out a lot of techniques, while still trying to feel a connection with what you are doing.

  14. Marie Cutrie

    The uneven relationship of composer to performer has been an important locus of critique in musicology for at least the last thirty years, where it is also analyzed as a gendered and racialized relation. Hand-wringing about quality and composerly overproduction aside, this essay raises questions about how and why new music performers are trained, enculturated and disciplined (in the Foucauldian sense) to relate to composers and musical works in particular ways. (Polemics tend not to ask “why” or “how.”) Because it’s not just a relation to quality that at stake here, but a precarious, exhaustible relation the performing body. I’m surprised that, given your materialist orientation, that we miss this emphasis , here. Why, when the performer carries the burden of composerly overproduction do you also ask her to coax a composer’s ‘inner insistences’ to the surface? This servile, disempowering demand reproduces precisely the power relation you seem to want to critique.


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