Monthly Archives: May 2016

Towards the end of Daniel C. Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, he proposes a sort of Faustian bargain.

A) You solve the major philosophical problem of your choice so conclusively that there is nothing left to say (thanks to you, part of the field closes down forever, and you get a footnote in history).


B) You write a book of such tantalizing perplexity and controversy that it stays on the required reading list for centuries to come.

Which would his fellow philosophers choose?

Dennett noticed that “[s]ome philosophers reluctantly admit that they would have to go for option (B). If they had to choose, they would rather be read than right. Like composers, poets, novelists, and other creators in the arts, they tend to want their work to be experienced, over and over, by millions (billions, if possible!). But they are also tugged in the direction of the scientist’s quest. After all, philosophers are supposed to be trying to get at the truth”.

For musicians, like Dennett implied, it would seem like (B) would be the obvious answer. Why would we not want to be heard by as many people as possible?

The practice of music could be like making messages and putting them in a bottle and trying to direct it towards someone. Further hopes hedge on that we made the bottle look appealing enough for these people to open. But that is not all either.

Then, we hope that these people will then read the little note over and over again. And that is just the beginning. Afterwards, we pray that these people will send the notes to their friends and make copies and keep circulating the note.

Some score big while others have bottles that are still drifting in the sea or messages left in the sand. This is the price we pay for pursuing (B): Attention or Obscurity.

Obscurity is the fascinating factor of Dennett’s bargain. It is the driving force. Do you want your work to live on forever or be forgotten (even if from time to time we foggily recall that your studies solved that problem we had that is now common knowledge)?

In some way, music is driven by obscurity. Do you want your art to live on (to continually play shows and be listened to) or be thrown to the side? What if your musicianship is not remembered? Could all that effort we put in be for trying to make an impression on as many people’s memories as we can?

To put all the eggs in that basket has a hint of unreason. Not everyone plays a guitar or is in a band in order to be remembered. Option (B) is not everything to everyone. Yet the existential question option (B) poses to us as people in music deserves more time for interrogation.



There is a recent article in Creative Review titled, “How The Toronto Symphony Orchestra uses graphic design to guide its audiences through its music”.

The subtitle is as follows: “The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s listening guides make use of symbols and morse code-like notation to aid the experience of live performance. We talked to their creator Hannah Chan-Hartley, about how she is helping the TSO to visualize its repertoire”.

Article here


“In 1954, the Book-of-the Month Club introduced ‘Music-Appreciation Records”, in which recordings of the standard repertoire were backed with spoken analysis and musical examples, ‘to help you understand music better and enjoy it more’. The free, no-obligation tryout record was Beethoven’s Fifth: ‘You have heard this great work countless times – what have you heard in it? And what may you have faled to hear?’ Notice the aim of the tw0-pronged sales pitch – inducing anxiety that one’s individual experience both requires recategorization (what have you heard?), and is still somehow lacking in comparison with majority opinion (what may you have failed to hear?)”.

-Matthew Guerrieri, The First Four Notes


Selections from the Creative Review Article:

“In developing the listening guides for Key, Chan-Hartley says she ‘wanted to remove some of the barriers to comprehension that more ‘traditional’ guides you see in print tend to have. For one, these traditional aids often have a lot of descriptive text, which you have to read through and then remember as you listen to the piece. I wanted my guide to be visual, and one that you can follow along with in ‘real time’ while listening.

Secondly, only people who can read musical notation would find the excerpts in the traditional guides useful, so I wanted a graphic way to represent what is being heard so anyone could understand.

And finally, I wanted the guide to be in a format through which you could visually grasp the overall structure of a symphonic movement or an entire symphony – by showing when the main musical themes are presented, developed, and recur, and thereby help to structure your listening”.


“While apparently urging recognition in order to help people to ‘enjoy’ music, the Music Appreciation Hour actually encourages enjoyment, not of the music itself, but of the awareness that one knows music”.

-Theodor Adorno


“This is brilliant work! I am a graphic designer and violinist, and it’s wonderful to see a design solution that involves both realms of artistic endeavor. It’s a beautiful way for those unfamiliar with musical notation, or those who learn more through visual aids as I do to feel the structure of a piece. Having a guide like this is a fantastic keepsake and way to process through the music even after the concert, especially because of the ephemeral nature of live performance”.

-Comment on Creative Review Article


Theodor Adorno proposed the idea of developing a relationship with music as being uniquely personal; that it, as Matthew Guerrieri explains, “is open-ended and individual, and thus far too inefficient for mass media, which relies on the mere illusion of an individual relationship. Recognition, though, is instant gratification”.


“I can say that for those who don’t go to the symphony often or those who do who sometimes come away from a piece a little baffled this is a great tool to use. Obviously the listener has the choice to not use it. Also there are listeners who want a bit more understanding because they are not a professional musician. I think this is a great tool to keep poor Joe Schmoe involved in the concert rather than to be bored and fall asleep drooling on his or her date because their brain has shut down”.

-Comment on Creative Review Article


“I started listening to music when I was four years old. I reacted emotionally and let my mind be bathed in the washes of sound and let the music transport me to faraway places. Later, after I’d become a conductor and could read a score, I still made time to experience music as a sound experience and let it touch my soul. While this expository approach may appeal to some, I wonder if it would keep them from going to that deeper, experiential place.

This movement to ‘understand’ the music has been with us for some time. As a retired professional musician, I have never gotten far from that spontaneous reaction to the sounds I’m hearing. I don’t need a diagram to show me what’s happening at any moment, or what’s coming up next. Nor would I want it (But for people who do, I’m sure this is wonderful)”.

-Comment on Creative Review Article

John Kaler describes two types of stakeholders (those who can affect or be affected by an organization’s objectives). There are Influencer stakeholders and Claimant stakeholders. The second is of particular value.

Claimant stakeholders are those who “have some kind of claim on the services of the organization”.

Taking Kaler’s typology, Linda Essig describes the claimant stakeholders of art incubators. She breaks down the claimant stakeholders into two further categories.

One kind of claimant stakeholder of an art incubator is the artist: “Broadly construed, the primary objective of such incubators is to support artists and art making. In such cases, claimant stakeholder and client are the same”.

Like with Kaler, the latter type will be of interest to this writer. The latter type has to deal with the community as a whole being the claimant:

“However, objectives to ‘nurture the growth of the business of art in our town (Carizzozo Works 2013) or ‘plan for, build, develop, foster, and nurture a creative economy in the City of Stone Mountain, Georgia’ (Stone Mountain Arts Incubator 2013) do not target individual artists. Rather, the community is the target of the organization’s objective and therefore its chief claimant stakeholder, although individual artists or arts enterprises may be the incubator clients. Arts incubation, in these instances, is a means toward community development rather than an end in itself”.

In creating a network for artists to collaborate and create, the community wins. Any thriving music scene is a testimony to this: it is the claimant stakeholder. Those within that musical sphere create networks of incubation be it bands, venues, zines, open mics, or whatever else.

As these avenues give a chance for musicians and music related persons to thrive, the community feeds off of this relationship. For one, people start becoming more interested in what is going on in that community and they too want to contribute to its growth.

If we replace ‘art incubators’ with ‘music’, one of the key claimant stakeholders of music is the community. To always keep that in mind as we nurture our craft, lest we create sounds in a bubble…

“A remake’s a nice idea, but I don’t think it’ll work. What makes Commando so enduring and endearing is, I think, that at no stage did any of us think we were doing anything comedic. We were gung-ho, out there killing each other in fields of battle. No one tried to be funny – we were all taking it deadly serious. Even when Arnold is dangling people over cliffs, the dialogue was treated like Shakespeare. I don’t any of us knew any better”.

That is Vernon Wells who played Bennet, the bad guy opposite to Arnold Schwarzenegger, in Commando. He gives a unique observation here: they did not know any better. What would be cherished as an over the top action movie was taken as a serious piece of film. To try and revisit Commando would remove the film from its original thought process. There would be the cult action movie reputation of Commando in the heads of those working on the project. A new sense of distance (with irony and a bit of humor) would come into the fold. That is what Wells seems to be worried about: knowing better does not always help.

There are times when a music is diluted of such earnestness that it contained. Think of how this happens when we bash bands that cover classic rock at bars. It is easy to dismiss such as diluted because the musicianship and inventiveness might be lacking. And yet who knows how much work these musicians put in and how serious they take their craft of playing Aerosmith tunes.

Like Arnold reciting lines as if they were Shakespeare, an Aerosmith cover band could play with sensitivity and precision as if it were Mozart. A cathartic and artistic experience could be taking place that we are unaware of. Again, all because we thought we knew better.

I find myself looking down at some music from time to time, not taking it as seriously (like Commando). But what needs to be remembered is that there are countless Vernon Wells out there (including ourselves) who take these musics as a craft, a high art. To change the phrase, these musicians do not know any different as we do not know different.

Knowing better can weaken our empathy with other people in music. Perhaps empathy can be strove for when we realize that nobody knows any better than the next person. To be curious of all the different knowings might be a better route.

In a previous post, the observation was made that Kanye West had switched up the lyrics to Arthur Russell’s “Answers Me” to fit the hook for “30 Hours”: from “where the islands go” to “30 hours to you”. Curiously enough, there is a video of a live rendition of “Answers Me” where, around the two minute mark, Russell changes his own lyrics: from “where the islands go” to “where the firemen go”. Was this just a slip on Russell’s part?

It seemed merely accidental to me until I read a wonderful article by Ben Ratliff that brought up Russell’s own music writing process. Here are some fascinating bits from the article (the third quote is from Matthew Marble, a scholar who did his dissertation on Russell and who Ratliff corresponded with):

 “But what the paper archives make clear, through Russell’s personal notes — often written in small music-composition notebooks — is how much he sought to incorporate a conscious sense of openness and flexibility into his work. Some of his most useful notes, probably from the early 1980s, deal with ‘World of Echo'” (Russell’s 1986 solo album which includes “Answers Me”).

“Here he wrestled with the idea of form and completeness in fascinating ways, often using the notation ‘p Idea’ (the p may have stood for parenthetical). Such as: (p Idea: the construction of structure which can be abandoned at any moment, and that is transparent — W.O.E.)”.

“…he had nothing but time to work on music, which most people assume means honing cello skills or playing concerts — but the archive shows that he spent a lot of time working mental alterations on music. He got fixated in this kind of Rube Goldbergian way: His mind functioned like that. He craved complexity”.

“The percussionist Mustafa Ahmed told Mr. Marble that Russell used a mantric alphabet to come up with sung melodies; that could be a key to the flexible construction of the ‘World of Echo’ lyrics, which were often written down with three possibilities for a single word, and mumbled all the same (‘NON-VERBAL/POP FEEL’, says another note to self in the composition books)”.

To say that Kanye West had manipulated Arthur Russell’s lyrics implies that these lyrics are a static creation, written in stone. As it turns out, that was not even the case for the man who penned them himself. What we hear from the recording pulled for West’s “30 Hours” is just one permutation. Who knows what other variations Russell could have wrote down, recorded, or improvised. Was there even a definitive version to begin with?

This was the messiness to Russell’s process. With many versions of songs recorded and lyrics edited and rewritten, many of his friends believed Russell had a difficult time finishing anything. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts recently received Arthur Russell’s archive. Mind numbing does not even begin to describe the task of organizing the archive of a musician who was constantly a work in progress.

Ben Ratliff makes an aside that Russell would have been interested in West’s constant revision of his most recent album. There is a point here. All of this makes Russell and West seem less like strange bedfellows and more like fine examples of process embodied: figures of the past and present showing the future of music.

Here is a thought experiment brought to the table by Soren Kierkegaard in The Present Age:

“If we could suppose for a moment that there was a law which did not forbid people talking, but simply ordered that everything which was spoken should be treated as though it had happened fifty years ago, the gossips would be done for, they would be in despair. On the other hand, it would not really interfere with any one who could really talk. That an actor should have mispronounced a word could only be interesting if there was something interesting in the mispronunciation itself, in which case the fifty years make no difference…”

Kierkegaard’s test works well within musical endeavors.

Say we think of bands from fifty years ago, from the sixties. Surely we will talk about the band’s revenue from LP sales and numbers for gig attendances? Or perhaps they are on the tips of our tongues because their music connects with something uniquely human that we all experience?

Even take recent topics like social media’s affect on music. If we pushed that back fifty years ago, what would we say of its impact? Will maximizing followers through click bait be the highlight? Maybe it will be that we were able to follow a musician’s process that embodied vulnerability and generosity in a refreshing way?

The important bits rise to the surface from the depths of time. Meanwhile, the inconsequential time sensitive elements remain on the sea floor.

What rises to the surface deserves our utmost attention. It is what we focus on in music regardless of time, place, or technology. That is where our work lies.

One of my good friends recently shared this short Vine compilation with me.

It is fascinating because the video is set up as a theme and variation. The theme, however, is not based on a melody or harmonic progression. It is a segment from a viral Youtube series. There is only the rhythm of obscenities spewed and the chandelier smashed. Each variation takes this material and fits it within other popular artist’s work – from James Brown to Survivor. The result is something both inventive and comedic.

The variations in the compilation were probably grabbed from various uses across one outlet (Vine most likely). With the brevity of Vine and other social media like it, themes can quickly beget widespread variations without one painstaking creator. Other people find a certain theme with potential for variation and craft accordingly. They then only need to be compiled into a theme and variation.

That is another point: thematic material can be anything. From failed stunts to wolves howling, the sound bites from each can be manipulated to fit a hook or chorus from a particular tune. The resulting juxtaposition creates a surprise. Is this surprise not one of the reasons to watch these short clips? To get a dose of humor and originality from brevity?

What these Vine compilations suggest is not entirely new. Sampling and manipulating preexisting (non)music material have been around for quite awhile. Vine, however, has not. That is the kicker.

With Vine and social media like it, entire pieces can be created without knowing it. Like a plant, these works need a seed: the Tourette’s Guy clip for our example. From there little remixes spring forth and create a network of threads which are weaved together. Thus a composition is formed.

Social media creates a host of means of creating musical work that is beyond what we think of in the traditional sense of composing. That is why it is difficult to call these compilations musical pieces, let alone theme and variations. There has been a new wrinkle to what we thought the acts of creating and consuming music were.

Now there is the news feed, the Twitter feed, the Vine feed, the Youtube feed. Now there are millions of ten second clips spread and shared. That is the world we live in today.

The fascinating question from here on out is social medias implications to music making. Will we have bands who write music exclusively for distribution on Instagram? Will there be composers who write a theme and variation that is based exclusively on people sending in Vines of their variations upon her theme? Will there be more concertos scored for soloists that are of the feline variety?

What is next from what we have now?