straight lines

  • Pleasure of process. Pleasure of action.

    [I am exploring the generation of a musical composition on the composer's terms. Bear with me.]

    endgame – the outcome you foresee; it is the plan. In composing, this may be the sonic
                landscape you envision before putting pen to paper, or it may be a manipulative political
    process – the guiding rules which constrain your actions. Process is itself not experienced, but
                is instead a means to carry out actions which lead you to your endgame.
    action – the moment-to-moment experience of creating, recording, or preserving sounds.
                Whether with their own intention or not, actions can be carried out at the service of a
                process or not.
    craft – the facility with which you execute your actions.


            Years ago, I studied weaving. The act of weaving, from start to finish, involves two large stages: the first consists of preparing the loom, while the second is primarily executing the actions by which thread is added to create a pattern and build length. In technical terms, the first stage deals with the warp, or the lengthwise threads; the second stage is about the weft, or perpendicular threads.

            The generation of a successful weaving requires dedicated adherence to a process, and, much as it might be in a piece of music, the process is determined before any actions take place. Specifically, one begins by selecting a pattern and arranging the warp threads so that the correct pattern will be revealed by addition of the weft. Failure at any moment in the first stage can cause significant enough deviation from the process that the plan will not be realized—the pattern will have a noticeable imperfection running through it.

            One needs concentration to move successfully through the first stage. This concentration demands that the weaver always keep the process in mind, and so the actions taken during the first stage feel directly connected to the endgame. There is a pleasure I derive from the feeling that each element of the process I follow is directly contributing to an outcome which will be instantly recognizable as either successful or not. Weaving thus requires a deep devotion to the process, for it does not simply guide the weaver's actions during the first stage, but it mandates the actions with extreme precision.


            While the preparation of the warp is all rigor and exactitude, the addition of the weft is a slow and patient unfolding. Much longer than the first stage, the second stage feels somewhat like a prolonged exhalation. Very little can go wrong, and any imperfections are quickly and easily remedied. During the second stage, the weaver's mind wanders as the actions take over, often becoming automatic. There is a rote quality to the actions, as there is hardly any room for error, and the process, now at the back of the mind, simply hovers in the distance and keeps watch over the proceedings.

            There are many moments like this throughout the generation of a weaving, during both stages. In the first stage there is the measuring and stretching of the thread, for instance. Specifically, though, the second stage consists of sitting stationary for many hours while passing back and forth a shuttle carrying the weft thread. Each pass is punctuated by a stepping on the correct pedal. There is muscle memory involved, particularly in more complex patterns.

            This tedium is its own delight. The feeling of steadiness and the inexorable march toward the end of the project are comforting, allowing the weaver to both focus deeply on the minutiae of craft, and to get lost in the vast stretches of time. What's more, since weaving is both a visual and tactile art, within a few hours comes early an gratification as the weaver sees the endgame—the final product—taking shape. The weaver is locked into a pace during the second stage. I always relished this experience.


            In weaving there are few decisions of any consequence after the first stage begins; once a pattern is selected, colors and material have been chosen, and the winding out of thread has begun, there is little opportunity or reason to exert influence on the process. This is the point: weaving itself is deeply rooted in a highly formulaic process, and in-the-moment deviation from the process will rarely yield compelling results; the weaver is so limited by the process that such decisions are often fundamentally impossible. Again, the creation is a devotion to a process combined with a love of the actions.

            Musicians often enjoy talking about process. I assume this is because process (whatever its inspiration may be) takes the form of a rationally-devised schematic, whereas the endgame is far more subjective and personal, and people can communicate more easily about the rational than the personal. (Also, perhaps cynically, I believe that because the rational is quantifiable, musicians can use process to locate themselves on a continuum of sophistication.) What I find distasteful about this discussion is the equation of process with creativity. Maybe I am splitting hairs, but I believe process is the offspring of necessity, arising from the artist's conception of the endgame of the work. The creativity we look for in the process actually resides in the endgame. This is especially clear in weaving, where nearly all creative choices are made prior to actually commencing the first stage.

            What I find exciting is what happens once actions are being carried out at the service of a process or endgame—do variations arise? does something in the process get tweaked? does the artist feel so beholden to the process that he experiences guilt at any deviation or unjustified action? These micro-level decisions are what drive my own composing, and they constitute the part of the creative act which is rarely discussed.

            Unlike weaving, music can suffer or benefit dramatically from these decisive actions; their ramifications can be vast, and usually must be answered, regardless of the rigor of the process. This is, for me, simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. I usually compose with as loose a process as possible (though I often have a vague concept of the endgame in mind). The use of processes is said to facilitate action, but I simply find it boring when it comes to music. The difference in weaving is that I am locked into my actions by the physical limitations of the medium, whereas in music I am bound only by my own stubbornness. So I usually dispense with process. The challenge then is to make every action meaningful—here is where the responsibility to the creative impulse can become overwhelming.

            The middle ground between weaving and music is what I'm looking for. I take deep pleasure in the experience of pencil on paper, the action, and I cherish the consequences every physical stroke has on the creative act, the ramifications. Taking this approach, a composer has to believe in both the significance of action and the relevance of the individual. This approach carries both responsibility and the abdication of responsibility.

  • The Sound performed at the MA-ASTA competition

    The wonderful Dillon Robb performed The Sound at the MA American String Teachers Association string competition on March 15, 2014. The Sound is a reworking of the final movement of my larger piece Where I'm likely to find it.

  • Beethoven, Lucier, and the body

    There are few meaningful connections between Beethoven and Alvin Lucier. Beethoven is often regarded as the paragon of human achievement in music, representing construction and transformation. (These values are such a stark contrast to many modern composers, concerned with deconstruction and degradation). Beethoven attains vast peaks by manipulating the musical devices of harmony, form, melody, and orchestration. We often think of his music—not wrongly—as a city of cathedrals to the significance of the individual.

    Lucier's music builds nothing, nor is it about anything, per se. It constructs nothing, but instead offers a revelation. Simply, Lucier's music typically sets up a process which unfolds so as to elaborate an acoustical phenomenon as straightforwardly as possible. (Unlike with Minimalism, it is not the process that concerns the listener, but the result: the revelation). To achieve this, Lucier employs the same devices as Beethoven (harmony, orchestration, etc.), but strips them of their “music”—his harmony, form, melody, and orchestration are all used at the service of pure sound.

    Still, the two composers share one especially significant musical trait: both of them seek a transcendence in their work. Specifically, both offer a transcendence beyond the physical.


    Beethoven's deafness should plainly have ended his career as a composer. That he continued not only to compose, but to create some of the most powerful works ever known, is a testament to his effort. What his music achieves is a transcendence beyond the limitations of the body into the realm of the personal. In Beethoven's music, the personal is both the individual and the society, but never the body. Beethoven's deafness no doubt sharpened his intellect as a composer; without his impairment he would never have created such masterpieces. Yet his work does not celebrate the martyrdom we recognize, nor does it even celebrate Beethoven himself. It celebrates the abstraction of the personal.

    Lucier suffers from a stutter. This most explicitly affects his work I Am Sitting In a Room (1970), a work “scored” for speaker, two tape recorders, and a room. Lucier himself realized the first “performance” (tentatively recognized as such because is lacks the trappings of a familiar performance—no performer, no score, no instruments, nothing performable). The piece employs the human voice as a vehicle for tapping into the resonant frequencies of the room, typical inaudible in a natural setting. Through replaying and re-recording, the room's acoustical properties gradually overpower the human voice, until all “semblance of [his] speech … is destroyed.” This is transcendence at its clearest: a move beyond the inaudible into the audible.

    However, what Lucier does with such efficiency is to eliminate the “problem” of his body. The stutter vanishes as the room's sound engulfs it. Not only is the bodily imperfection erased, but his entire self is trampled in the inexorable crush of sonic purification.

    Thus, both Lucier and Beethoven find ways to subvert their bodies for the service of their work. What they seek may be seen as diametrically opposed (Beethoven, musical symbolism, the human; Lucier, acoustical purity, the imperceptible), but both compose from the understanding that the work is greater than the creator. It is, perhaps, ironic that Beethoven—the symbolist—overcame his physical limitation for practical reasons, while Lucier—the purist—overcame his for largely symbolic purposes.

    I find it particularly touching that one of Lucier's most recent works, Exploration of the House (2005), reworks I Am Sitting In a Room in a live setting, using as its source material fragments of a Beethoven work. But this is the only ritual Lucier indulges in; after the conceptual mise-en-place of these works, symbolism goes out the window, quickly replaced by determination toward transcendent goals.

  • messiaen, rosen

    Musician Charles Rosen departs our world at 85, and Messiaen's would-be 104th birthday is celebrated.

    A talented performer, Rosen is best known as a musicologist with a particularly sharp tongue. He was a thinker of alarming lucidity, and even when I have found his writings obstinate and wrong-headed, I have never found reason to deny his clarity of thought. A good composer is constantly fighting back a sea of unanswered questions, which makes Rosen's assured perspective on us all the more incredible.

    Messiaen the composer changed the course of music forever. Messiaen the performer, however, found stability in action; his 61 years of organ playing in the Église de la Sainte-Trinité must have grounded his adventurous mind. It should be a given that all musicians explorers and inventors, but perhaps it is equally important to establish in our lives the backdrop against which our adventures can be understood, for fear of going too deeply into our own brains.

  • iii. the sound

    Quick taste of my most recent performance...

    "iii. the sound"
    from Where I'm likely to find it

    Gabriela Diaz owned this performance on 11/8/12 as part of the Boston Conservatory New Music Festival. All movements to be posted to the piece's page shortly. Stay tuned....

  • Brubeck, Carter, Harvey

    In the face of three immense personalities departing from the world over the last month, all one can do is reflect on their contributions so that their impact is always felt.

    Alex Ross writes in the preface to Listen to This, "The difficult thing about music writing, in the end, is not to describe a sound but to describe a human being. It's tricky work, presumptuous in the case of the living and speculative in the case of the dead." In the case of Dave Brubeck, Elliott Carter, and Jonathan Harvey, it is too soon to be speculative, but too fresh to allow for presumptuousness. They are no longer with us, but they do not yet belong to our memories. Many of us have had too many personal experiences with these three people to distance them from our present life and relegate them to the past.

    Dave Brubeck's music was unique in the world of jazz, inviting yet exacting, nonchalant yet refined and deliberate. With sensibilities that veered toward a "classical" conception of musical construction, Brubeck straddled a line between music of entertainment and music of art. At his best, we couldn't tell the difference.

    Elliott Carter terrified me when I was younger, back when the first work of his I heard with the 3rd String Quartet. The music, which churns forward relentlessly like a machine, could only have been designed by a mind that grasped expressive motive on a level far beyond the interpretive bounds of the audience. It wasn't the sound so much as it was the determination with which Carter confronted his audience with something so unapproachable. Now his music has become familiar to many of us, and while the shock may have faded, our awe at the conviction with which it was produced should never diminish.

    We tend to view music as a reflection of the composer's personality—Mozart's subtle introspection and humor, Brahms' reservedness revealed despite his reliance on form, Stravinsky's cleverness and chameleonic adaptability. We observe the person through the technique, because the music is so often a clue to understanding the person. For Jonathan Harvey, however, the person is the clue to understanding the music. Deeply spiritual and fiercely original, Harvey's techniques tell us next to nothing. In the end, his music is not about music, it is about him. What greater achievement could an artist aspire to?

  • Gabriela Diaz performs new work

    The sublimely talented violinist Gabriela Diaz will perform my solo work, Where I'm likely to find it, as part of the opening concert of the 2012 New Music Festival at the Boston Conservatory.

    11.8 | 8pm | free
    Studio 401, 31 Hemenway St.
    Boston MA 02115

    read about the work, and check out the news page for more performances. Hope to see you there!

  • Economics of the Creative Mind

    Economics isn't ideology—it's hard work.
                                               –Bill Clinton, to John Stewart

    Artists tend to set their sights on their goals, and we often know where we are heading before we begin the journey. As a composer, I set out to “achieve” something predetermined with every piece. This—how we work, how we create—does not always reveal the same sense of exploration and experimentation embodied by the adjective “creative.” When in the process of producing a work of art the creativity can be said to happen places artists on one side of the line separating artistry from calculated effort and moral predilections.

    Speaking recently to John Stewart on the Daily Show, Bill Clinton said that “The problem with any ideology is that it puts the answers before the evidence.” Clinton was speaking about economics, but the application of this quote to music—and perhaps, by extension, all arts—should be obvious. But to understand the relationship, we first have to unpack the meaning of the word “ideology.” As Clinton means it, an ideology is a set of beliefs guiding one's actions with respect to the problem at hand. An ideology is typically an ethical stance, and actions within that ideology are based on a concept of right and wrong. Clinton's critique of Republicans is simple: to approach the American economy ideologically is to take an ethical stance on how we guide the flow of money. The opposite approach—the one advocated by Clinton—is to make calculated decisions based on decades of data and statistics, successes and failures. In Clinton's use of the word, ideologies aim for moral imperatives, whereas evidence allows us to calculate the easiest path to a desired result.

    Ideology for a composer is quite similar. Right and wrong in music may take the form of aesthetic preferences, misgivings about historical developments, performance traditions, of even genre distinctions. Ideological artists are less concerned with Clinton's success and failure, because they have categorically redefined those words as “right” and “wrong,” and placed them at the center of their ideology. For instance, performing Bach with rubato is wrong because it is sounds bad; mid-century serialism should be abandoned because it is less commercially viable than neo-Romanticism; atonality is the future because it succeeds in challenging the audience, etc. These are Clinton's accused Republicans, who put the answers before the evidence. If questions are answered, where does “creativity” appear?

    Artists may also rely on evidence. Say I am interested in composing a “successful” work: my decisions will be calculated using what I know to be effective writing practices. In other words—methods. But the application of these methods of composing constitute what we might call an “approach.” And isn't approach the same as Clinton's ideology? Musically speaking, setting aside ideology in favor of evidence soon leads full circle back to ideology. Whether we are interested in the outcome or a moral imperative, if we create a work of art based on calculated determinations, then which side of the line defining artistry are we on?

    This is what I would call the economics of the creative mind. An experienced artist, working from evidence rather than ideological conviction, economizes his/her decisions, and in doing so closes the window through which we can see “creativity.” And as I offer above—if questions are answered before gathering evidence, making art is just the act of codifying one's ethics, not creating. Both attitudes are ideological in the end, and neither fosters a strong relationship with creativity. This is where we stop being artists, and instead become politicians.

    All this only matters if we still hold artists accountable for creativity. Look at it this way: economics alone forces creativity into a narrow box, while ideology dismisses potential forms of creativity. I want to do it differently; I want to equate hard work with creativity. This is closest to what we mean when we say “creative,” and it captures the essence of creative work. If we are concerned with the path taken, this is the only way to approach our artistic problems. If, however, we become wrapped up in worries about the outcome and morals, then Clinton would have us abandon art for politics.