Totalism as a New Rhythmic Paradigm

My post on the postclassical paradigm for meter, though it dealt with Janacek, was particularly relevant to progressive music of the last 20 years. The tendency to think about meter as quantity, without heirarchical subdivisions of the measure, was avidly developed by the composers who were part of the totalist movement of the 1980s and ‘90s: Mikel Rouse, Michael Gordon, John Luther Adams, Art Jarvinen, Ben Neill, Evan Ziporyn, Tim Brady, Diana Meckley, David First, Larry Polansky, myself, arguably Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, and a few others. In the wake of minimalism we created a new conception of ensemble rhythm that left the traditional concept of meter behind. (I speak of totalism in past tense now, because I have no clear evidence that the movement is continuing as such, most of its original proponents – myself included – having more or less moved on to other issues, relegating rhythmic complexity to the background.) Minimalism is still, to this day, ignorantly caricatured as a simplistic music. But by 1983, the young composers most impressed with it were hearing it as a technical basis for a new rhythmic practice so sophisticated that there are still only a handful of music ensembles who have learned to negotiate it.

In particular, totalism was, almost centrally, concerned with using conventional musical notation as a language with which to generate a feelable and performable rhythmic complexity. Some of the simple polyrhythms (usually 3-against-2 or 4-against-3) embedded in Steve Reich’s and Charlemagne Palestine’s music, as well as the irregular phrase rhythms found in Phil Glass’s early work, suggested that minimalism’s stasis might support even greater rhythmic complexity. Of course, the previous few decades had been awash in rhythmic complexity, but mostly of a conceptually abstract kind: the polyrhythms of Elliott Carter, Stockhausen, et al usually avoided articulating a steady beat for any period long enough to register tempo contrasts. Inspired by minimalism, rock, and world music, the totalists wanted a music of steady beats that allowed the listener to focus on tempo contrasts in a sustained way. Nancarrow’s player piano music offered a model, but his music generally wasn’t performable, nor was his emphasis often on sustained steady beats. What the totalists wanted was a new kind of ensemble performance that retained minimalism’s clear, doubled lines and motoric rhythm, but also offered a perception-stretching simultaneity of rhythmic layers, usually within the confines of comfortable live performance.

The trick was to use the inherent polyrhythmic implications of different note durations. The most common totalist strategy was to mix different pulses of quarter-notes, dotted quarter-notes, and triplet quarter-notes. Michael Gordon had gone down this road as early as 1983 with his Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!. By 1993, in pieces like Yo Shakespeare, he had stripped down to almost pure rhythm (the doubled instruments here being guitars and electric keyboards):


(Hear the excerpt here. I have chosen the excerpts here for their rhythmic clarity, not because they are the most well-developed or beautiful examples of the style. If I were trying to convince the reader that totalist music is a compelling repertoire, I might in some cases have chosen other and more recent examples. My purpose at present is merely to prove that in the ‘80s and ‘90s, these composers were generating their music from strikingly similar rhythmic ideas.) Note the use of triplet quarter-notes in groupings of other than three. This was not unprecedented; Henry Cowell suggested it in New Musical Resources, Boulez toyed with the idea in Le Marteau sans Maitre, and I used it myself starting with my I’itoi Variations of 1985. What it means performance-wise is that the performer has to forget about the meter entirely (though it still conforms to 4/4 in this example) and, having internalized the tempo of the triplets, play them in tempo irrespective of bar lines. The meter’s 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 must be forgotten about.

The most fertile totalist contrast was that between triplet quarter-notes and dotted 8th-notes, either of which could easily be sustained against a dominant quarter note beat. The typical totalist ensemble circa 1993 would keep a quarter note beat in common by tapping their feet or nodding their heads, and achieve a faster 8-against-9 rhythm by having half the ensemble play triplet quarters and the other half dotted eighths. It was amazingly effective – even if the effect of everyone nodding their head to a beat no one ever played was, visually, a little humorous.

My own technique has often been not to play these tempos simultaneously, but to shift back and forth between them, as in my Snake Dance No. 2 of 1994:


(Hear the excerpt here.) By this point, of course, the “meter” has become an irrelevant bookkeeping activity: the fact that 13/8 follows 23/16 is of no importance whatever, for either the performers or the listener. One performs this music by getting a feel, throughout the piece, for how fast to go when the beats are quintuplet 8ths, how fast when they are dotted 8ths, and so on. It takes awhile to rethink your rhythmic sense this way. The day the group Essential Music started rehearsing Snake Dance No. 2, I came home to two answering-machine messages from percussionist Chuck Wood. The first was: “We just started rehearsing your piece. We hate you.” The second, from an hour later: “Actually, we’re getting the hang of it. It’s going to be all right.”

Some totalist rhythmic strategies bear a closer conceptual relationship to minimalism. For instance, one can see the influence of Reich’s Piano Phase and other phase-shifting pieces in Murphy-Nights by Art Jarvinen, in which the keyboard plays an ostinato in 8/4 (32 16th-notes long) while the bass simultaneously plays an ostinato in 33/16, thus going out of phase one 16th-note with each repetition:


(Hear the excerpt here.) The other instruments come in over this in 6/4 meter. To this day I have no idea how the California E.A.R. Unit achieved this in performance, since it doesn’t seem possible to conduct it.

Mikel Rouse has engineered some of the most complex effects of totalism, inspired by his readings in A.M. Jones’s Studies in African Music and also his early immersion in Schillinger technique. Early pieces like Quick Thrust (1984) were based entirely on rhythms generated from patterns like 3-against-5-against-8. Much of his 1995 opera Failing Kansas was energized by five-beat phrases falling across the 4/4 meter, or the superimposition of 4/4 in the accompaniment with 12/8 in the lyrics (the 8th-note being equal). Mikel has also used intricate isorhythmic effects in which lyrics (and/or pitches) go out of phase with repeated rhythms, such as this devilishly difficult passage from “Never Forget a Face” on his 1994 album Living Inside Design:


(Hear the excerpt here.)

Too, John Luther Adams has achieved more notationally conventional but still difficult polyrhythmic textures by dividing a standard measure into 4, 5, 6, and 7 equal beats, much as Cowell suggested and as Nancarrow continued doing his entire life. Simply from rhythms alone, Adams’s In a Treeless Place, Only Snow (1999) is not too visually different from Nancarrow’s Piece for Small Orchestra No. 2:


Unlike all the other totalists, though, John’s music is soft and gentle, creating cloudy textures rather than perceptible tempo clashes.

Much more loudly, Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca used totalist rhythmic structures in their works for massed electric guitars. Glenn has used simultaneous tempos of 3:4:5 in his Symphony No. 6 (1987-88) and a quasi-tempo canon of 7:8:12 in the second movement of his Symphony No. 10 (1994). In An Angel Moves Too Fast to See for 100 electric guitars (1989), Rhys solved the problem of many guitarists not being able to read music by employing a totalist strategy. He gave various sections of the guitar orchestra single chords to play at varying rhythmic intervals: every 5 beats, another evert 7, 8, 9, 11, and 16, the music resulting naturally from the rhythmic process. (Hear the excerpt here.)

Not all totalist music is live-ensemble-oriented. Ben Neill and Larry Polansky have both made computer-generated tempo continua with rhythms similar to those of the enesmble composers. For instance, Neill in his 678 Streams performs on trumpet over a computer-generated ambient texture in which tempos of 6-against-7-against-8 are apparent. Among many other types of experiment, Polansky has made rhythmic canons of prerecorded samples, using similarly Nancarrovian tempo relationships. My own Disklavier pieces, notably Unquiet Night, have gone much further out than my ensemble pieces, articulating steady beats of 7:9:11:13:15:17. Even so, the principle remains the same: the fact that we use inherent notation-based properties of MIDI sequencing means that we’re still using notation to generate ratio-based tempo relationships.

In terms of live performance, however, there’s a limit to how far one can take these rhythmic relationships, which strikes me as one reason totalism has probably ceased to cohere as a movement. Rouse, having reached the perceptible extreme of his type of complexity, has become more interested in overlayings and spatial separation in his home-produced recordings. Gordon has been writing for orchestras, which can’t be trained to execute these rhythms in any reasonable manner. As I write more and more for existing ensembles, I’ve had to sublimate my rhythmic schemes to the more subtle background level of structure. Perhaps only Adams continues to write in the same rhythmic style, and he was always more interested in a certain kind of cloudy sound and texture than in discrete rhythmic perception anyway. Many of these rhythms can’t be conducted; Essential Music can feel my 23/16 followed by 13/8, but how would you indicate it with hand motions? I’m not convinced there’s not a way, but the gung-ho incursion of strictly totalist music into the repertoire of conventional classical ensembles was never a very feasible option. Even so, classical musicians need to start learning to deal with some of these rhythmic techniques that have become quite common.

Of course, none of this is officially recognized in musical discourse. Some of the most authoritative critics in the business have stated publicly that the totalist movement never existed, so by mentioning it you’re likely to subject yourself to the most withering looks of condescension. If you happen to accidentally mention it, try to cover by saying, “Ohh… it’s just something I read in Kyle Gann,” with a dismissive wave of your hand, and you might get away with it. Remember: there’s no such thing as totalist music (wink, wink).


  1. says

    A very interesting post. And although I can’t think of an example predating the Marteau, it also bears mentioning that Morton Feldman wrote a number of pieces using the dissected-tuplet idea.

  2. mclaren says

    Kyle Gann remarked:
    “Mikel Rouse has engineered some of the most complex effects of totalism, inspired by his readings in A.M. Jones’s Studies in African Music…”

    This goes a long way toward explaining why there’s no such thing as totalism to the critical establishment. Clearly totalism derives from African and other non-Western (Balinese, etc.) paradigms for music, rather than European models. And America’s music-critical establishment seems to have a simple axis for measuring new American music: if it’s like traditional European art music from the common practice period, it’s good; to the extent it’s unlike traditional European art music, it’s bad.

    Africa is of course as unlike traditional European art music as you can get…so totalism gets tossed into the Orwellian memory hole. It isn’t even music to most critics, since it refuses to adhere to European patterns of classical composition.

    Ultimately this boils down to racism, which, as Katrina showed us, remains alive and well in America. Europe = good, Africa = bad. “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.”

    Gann went on to aver:

    “In terms of live performance, however, there’s a limit to how far one can take these rhythmic relationships, which strikes me as one reason totalism has probably ceased to cohere as a movement. Rouse, having reached the perceptible extreme of his type of complexity, has become more interested in overlayings and spatial separation in his home-produced recordings. Gordon has been writing for orchestras, which can’t be trained to execute these rhythms in any reasonable manner. As I write more and more for existing ensembles, I’ve had to sublimate my rhythmic schemes to the more subtle background level of structure.”

    This brings up a lethal Catch-22 in modern music. The big three areas of exploration for new composers remain timbre, timing, and tuning. Timbre has been pretty thoroughly explored courtesy of computers and non-Western (mainly percussion) isntruments…tuning falls outside the purview of most live acoustic ensembles, since as a practical matter performers must use the instruments they’ve got, and a xylophone or a marimba can’t be retuned to non-12 without damaging it permanently.

    This leaves timing as the great new frontier for most new composers. But live orchestras remain a huge retarding force on the exploration of new rhythmic relationships in modern music because they just can’t produce the rhythms. If you ask a highly trained orchestral musician to play something like 13 against 11, they just giggle. They can’t do it. It’s not part of their musical DNA. And if they try, chances are you’ll get a rushed 12 against 10. Symphony musicians have lots of finely honed skills…but exotic polyrhythms like 13 against 11 ain’t one of ’em.

    This means that the farther a new composer goes toward pushing the edge of the envelope of new rhythmic structures, the less performed that new composer gets by major orchstras. So we’ve got a deadly Catch-22. To get noticed, a new composer must get performances by big orchestras…but to get performances by big orchestras, a composer can’t create genuinely cutting-edge music. Totalism is out, microtonailty is out, and for the most part (except for occasional extended performance techniques) exotic timbres are out.

    To my mind, this is the main reason for the relatively slow percolation of the genuinely new and exciting contemporary music that’s being composed nowadays into public consciousness. It’s not anybody’s fault, really. The orchestras do what they do very well, but they’re just not trained to perform things like 37 against 17, and I don’t think an ensemble that large _can_ be trained to perform 37 against 17 in any reasonable amount of rehearsal time. Small ensembles can do it because their time isn’t worth anything — they can spend a month getting some new piece of music right. But a major metropolitan orchestra cannot afford to do that. Rehearsal time costs something on the order of $50,000 per hour for a major metropolitan symphony orchestra. If they tried to burn that much rehearsal time on a single piece of new totalist music, they’d go broke.

    It’s certainly not contemporary composers’ fault, because they’ve got computers. The computers can realize these rhythms faultlessly. So why not compose ’em?

    Nobody’s at fault here. There aren’t any villains in the drama of serious contemporary music. But this does leave a huge gap twixt what new composers can write and what the major prestigious orchestras are physically capable of performing…and the gap keeps widening. So far the solutions haven’t worked. Some new composers don’t bother with trying to get live performances — they just stick with MIDI or Csound or whatever. Other composers, like Bill Wesley, have built an orchestra of their own microtonal instruments and happily perform exotic polyrhythms like 33 against 17 on ’em live. Either solution, however, locks the new composer out of the major performance venues and keeps new composers invisible.

    Something’s gotta give. Either audiences will get tired of hearing so-called “new” music which boils down to diatonic cut time and they’ll move away from orchestras to the internet and streaming radio or downloadable mp3s for genuinely new music… Or the new composers will give up and toe the line, composing nothing mroe difficult than 4/4 or 3/4 with only moderate amounts of chromatics, all in 12-equal, of coruse. (Heaven forfend they compose music outside 12…as so many younger composers are doing nowadays.) So far, there seem no signs of major movement on either side of the gap. New composers remain stubbornly on course, creating music that major ensembles can’t play…while the big orchestras keep cranking out performances of Sibelius and Brahms with the occasional John Adams thrown in — none of which even remotely represents what’s really going on in new American music nowadays.

    What will happen when the gulf between new composers and what major ensembles can physically play gets wide enough? Well, that remains to be seen. There’s a train wreck coming somewhere down the tracks, that’s for sure.

    There’s also the crucial issue of the hardwired limits of the human ear/brain system here. Just as Gann remarked some months ago “there’s a limit to the amount of meaningful dissonance in a composition” (something the Second Playskool of Vienna failed to recognize, to their detriment), there’s also a limit to the amount of perceptible complexity in rhythmic relationships. At some point a sufficiently complex rhythm collapses back into a simple but slightly skewed rhythm. So 37 against 12 sounds like a slightly weird 3 against 1 instead of what it really is. Even more complex rhythmic patterns, like 71 against 53, tend to sound like slightly off-kilter 7 against 5s. These limits on rhythmic perception aren’t cultural. You can’t train an audience to overcome ’em. These limits are imposed by the human nervous system, and at the outer extremes they represent an ultima thule beyond which composers can go but beyond which audiences cannot perceive additional complexity. Leonard B. Meyer wrote a supremely important article in which he pointed out all of this stuff: “A Universe Of Universals,” The Journal of Musicology, Vol XVI, number 1, Winter 1998, pp. 3-25.

  3. says

    I spent a summer studying/playing early music. We’d start the day by going through rhythmic exercises in Hindemith’s Elementary Training for Musicians, and then work on examples from early music. The 14th century French composers were a challenge. One day we did 27/8 against 29/8 (or was it 28/8?). We felt we were “cheating” because half of us played one line and the other half the other line (as opposed to each hand taking one line). In any case a lot of rhythmic complexity got lost when barlines appeared, and you’ll find a lot of early music performers much more adept at playing non-standard rhythms than your average performer of standard repertoire.

  4. Colin Broom says

    McLaren, you make some good points which for the most part I would agree with. However you seem to make a basic presumption that the orchestra should in fact be the ensemble to present cutting edge music, and this is the one thing I would challenge.

    There seems to be a very prevalent notion that the orchestra should represent the creative apex of a composer’s output; that it’s the best possible ensemble that s/he could write for, and one to which s/he should ultimately aspire. I personally think this notion is flawed on a couple of levels: firstly the assumptions it makes about the composer. Certainly a large number of composers do in fact want to compose for orchestra and probably do see it as the best possible ensemble for their musings. But I can’t help but wonder how many feel this way about writing for orchestra because that’s what they’ve been taught. They’ve gone through their studies hearing countless examples of “groundbreaking” orchestral music, they know off by heart the story of the Rite of Spring premiere, and so they learn that the orchestra is obviously the place to make their big splash. Then they go on to study orchestration – even the very name is telling. All through their studies they learn about great and significant orchestral works, and all the big composition prizes are orchestral commissions – is it any surprise that many remain focused on this objective throughout their career? And yet the majority of their output that is performed tends to be works for smaller forces. I would wager that most composers less established than say Adams (and probably even him) have way more chamber compositions in their works list than orchestral ones. Furthermore most composers accept (and you yourself acknowledge in your post) that they will probably get more time with a smaller ensemble and thus most likely a more accurate performance. But they still “chomp at the bit” to compose for orchestra, still see it as the significant composing opportunity. From a practical perspective, it does not make a lot of sense.

    Why do we want to write for orchestra? Is it because we want access to a bigger palette of sound? Is it because we have musical ideas that could only be realised by an orchestra? Is it because we want to work with a really large group of musicians? Or is it because it feels more important to write for orchestra? Like a badge to wear with pride, the Rolex watch of compositional opportunity, and something to put on our résumé.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I like orchestral music. I’m not suggesting that no-one should write for orchestra, I’m not even suggesting that I won’t write for orchestra – I’m just suggesting that the orchestra might perhaps be deposed from its throne of compositional supremacy, and that the composer should question very carefully why exactly s/he wants to compose for orchestra, and perhaps we can get things in a little more perspective.

    The second reason that I question the predominance of the orchestra as the primary exemplar of what’s good and cutting edge about contemporary music is to do with many of the reasons you have already touched on yourself. The orchestra has been trained primarily to play music of the 19th century. Every piece they approach, they will and for the most part can only approach from the perspective of that training. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees a problem in approaching 21st century music with 19th century performance sensibilities.

    You cited the problems of composing complex rhythmic relationships for orchestra. This is a difficulty to be sure, but a discernible and quantifiable difficulty, and one that theoretically could be solved with more rehearsal time (though as you correctly state, this is not always in abundance). I would submit that there are other difficulties inherent in getting classically trained orchestras to play contemporary music that run deeper, are more subtle, more hard-wired and as a result much more difficult to get round.

    We’ve all grown up listening to all kinds of music. We’ve listened to rock, jazz, pop and whatever else as well as classical music. Whether one is a performer or a composer this is probably the case. However I think there is a difference in the response to this musical upbringing. Classical performance training is effectively a closed book: it is established, worked out, refined and pointed at perfection. It has no need and almost certainly no intention of allowing non-classical influences to infiltrate its ranks. Such influence would almost certainly water down the meticulous attention to detail, and thus the striving for this musical perfection. So the classical performer keeps his/her listening background separate from his performing practice. It’s amazing how separate they can keep it. Some will go clubbing one night and play Mahler 5 the next.

    Compositional training is on the whole less closed. A composer has no need for such walls between his/her listening habits and composing practices to be erected. We’re encouraged to listen to as much different music as possible. So the composer has taken in influences from all over and allowed it to develop in conjunction with their own training into an individual voice.

    Immediately we have a mismatch between the performance practice and compositional intention, and it can demonstrated in the most banal of ways.
    Let’s say today’s composer is working away in his/her computer and writes eight straight 8th notes, without any marking or articulation on them at all. Give this passage to a jazz saxophonist for example and they’ll most likely get 8 entirely smooth 8th notes (assuming you tell them not to swing it) with no particularly pronounced separation more than is necessary between the notes. Give it to a classical cellist and there will be a much more pronounced separation between the notes, each note clearly articulated. Part of the reason for this is that classical players are as concerned with how a note ends as how it begins in a way that a jazz player is focusing more on the phrase as a whole. More generally the classical player has been trained to pay tremendous attention to articulation of every note, sometimes even at the expense of the overall feel. This is precisely why it’s so difficult (I would argue impossible) to get an orchestra to convincingly play a swing pattern.

    The problem this presents is that I believe that more and more composers are emerging for whom overall rhythmic feel is more important than precise articulation and notational exactitude, and for whom in the above example would choose the jazz saxophonist’s interpretation as the one closest to their own intention. The fact of the matter is that the whole approach to rhythm in classical is worlds apart from other musics, and the composer who openly acknowledges and actively incorporates the influence of other music such as funk or jazz or rock or whatever in his/her orchestral compositions is going to be faced with several problems, and not just the explicit totalist/polyrhythm ones.

    What’s the solution? Well, it seems to me that you either have to temper his rhythmic explorations (not just the polyrhythmic ones) somewhat when writing for orchestra, or you find another group of musicians to play your music.

    Failing either of these, you can just go ahead and write whatever you want and hope for the best. Just don’t be too surprised when that quasi-funk bass clarinet line sounds a bit stiff, and the whole thing isn’t quite as groovy as you thought it would be.

  5. says

    Great post; I knew some of this music a little but it’s not extremely available all here in Holland and I’d like to learn more, some time. I’d love to read a good book-size study on the subject, for example.
    Meanwhile, I’d just like to mention to the music of my former teacher, Diderik Wagenaar, who has been doing things that seem quite similar in Holland in the late 70s/early 80s, working in the general stylistic idiom now known as The Hague School whose central figure would be Louis Andriessen. “Tam Tam”, from 78/79, is based on a 5-part bar which always has a triplet (3:2) followed by a quadruplet (4:3) – almost what you describe above; and Metrum – actually an orchestra work! – is based on two layers of 4:3 for a total relation of 9:12:16. One would have to admit it seems to work better in its chamber ensemble version, though, played by Icebreaker on Donemus’ Composers Voice CV94. What I like about the work is that it does not only maintain a very sharp sense of meter and rhythm throughout – it never gets fuzzy – but it does so within a sound world of very advanced (and again, clear!) harmony, and very rich textures full of levels and change, where at the same time every detail seems structural. It’s quite exciting.
    Myself, I’ve been using somewhat related techniques, particularly in my glockenspiel piece where they play 3:5 all the time, but the melodic patterns are heard in 3 or 4 note grouplets, which gives shifting emergent tempo presences of 9:12:16:20. Vastly more complex rhythms should also be feasible, so I’m not too sure yet about just how complex the maximum performable complexity is. However, if what counts is subtle tempo differentiation as such – ‘tempo shadings’ – rather than the precise tempo relations and polyrhythmic patterns themselves, I’ve found that a minor degree of indeterminacy, for example with the aid of a stopwatch, can greatly – and easily – increase rhythmic complexity.

  6. David Preiser says

    Fascinating post, and very interesting comments. I experienced something along these lines myself recently, trying to convince a professional European string quartet (all supposedly veteran contemporary music players) that it was okay to count to eleven. They wanted a slow movement which I had set in 11/8 to be subdivided into 6+5 or 5+6. However, this only go them lost amongst the details, they were no longer playing the main 11-beat motif correctly, and they got even more confused. I even got a friendly lecture from the local conservatory director about simplifying meters, and how composing on a computer got in my way.

    The latter would have been a valid point, except for the fact that I can play the movement myself (the cello part, anyway). I’ve played (or read through) plenty of modern works with all kinds of rhythmic structures, and there’s definitely a big learning curve involved. But it can be done. Sure, there have been a couple of times where I objected to what I felt was an unnecessarily convoluted metric structure, but mostly it seemed like the key was more about the craftmanship of the composer, rather than the specific difficulties of learning to play 6 against 5 or whatever. Don Ellis wrote tunes in what would seem like punishing meters to many highly trained classical musicians, but his music turns out to have these great grooves that reach beyond mere beat counting. Quite playable, but you need some experience before you can get to those complex grooves.

    Along the lines of mclaren’s comment about complex rhythms and non-Western music, the music of Rabih Abou-Khalil, for example, made me scratch my head when I first looked at it on paper, with all the sharp metric turns. When played, though, it really swings. You’d never know it just counting beats.

    All this music is accessible to the untrained listener. I wonder if having grown up with rock and roll (especially prog rock) is giving the more recent generations of musicians some rhythmic sensibility that is lacking elsewhere in the classical world. I think this might give music with totalist tendencies an advantage that hardcore serial music didn’t have. Which means it’s up to composers to write music that will reach them.

    It’s pretty clear that just about all the big orchestras and organizations (even The Met) have to change their repertoire, and lots of groups are slowly coming to that realization. If audiences really start to demand the kinds of complex new music being discussed here, it will be because they heard a recording, or computer realization, far more often than at a show by some intrepid ensemble. Once the audience is established, the big orchestras will have to adjust, die, or attempt to survive as museum pieces.

  7. Jon Szanto says

    Great entry, Kyle. What I like most about it (besides exposure to more pieces new to me) was your coupling of score excerpts with the recordings. Illustrates quite well how fortunate your students are! (and thanks for the “Yo! Shakespeare!” bit, as I’ve listened to it for a number of years but never seen it)

    I also have enjoyed the various commentaries on rhythm, precision, orchestras, and the rest. I’ve played in orchestras professionally now for 30 years, and frankly agree with the general consensus that there won’t be any more breakthroughs in rhythmic usage there (with, naturally, the occasional rare exceptions – look out for David Robertson and Esa-Pekka…). Not only will rehearsal time not increase in the future, but even when classically trained performers play difficult rhythms correctly, they usually sound that way! Much of this is about feel and that is usually lacking in conservatories.

    Fortunately, I was playing 35/16 and more in the works of Partch during my first year out of high school, and I never looked back…

    Cheers, Jon

  8. says

    Then again:
    This afternoon we’re sitting in a sushi bar happily munching away, when the background soft-jazz keeps trying to push into my head and say “you know me”… It sounds a bit like… but no, it’s all wrong… my god, it is… “Take Five”, reworked into absolutely straight 4/4!

  9. says

    I remember attending the world premiere of Cowell’s Quartet Romantic when I was a kid (I think it may have been in Alice Tully Hall, but I could be off). The performers did an amazing job, but had to play their parts to a click track since the rhythms were largely fractional (in the first movement) and were thought by Cowell to be unplayable. Nowadays with the use of MIDI, pretty much any rhythm is possible. And even live performers can, I would think, train to perform very complex rhythms, although admittedly very difficult.
    This is a very useful article, as I see others have indicated as well. Regarding the orchestra, I also think that it’s not necessarily the end all, be all of instrumentation. I’ve written for full orchestra exactly once, and am not sure I would do it again, mainly because my own interests lie in smaller ensembles. Like Colin Brown, I wouldn’t suggest no one should write for orchestra (Coptic Light,Common Tones in Simple Time and the Ives Fourth Symphony are major favorites of mine. But there are advantages to smaller ensembles, not the least of which are rhythmic as well as sonoric.

  10. Jules says

    Yes, I think the orchestra – and indeed the concept of a live ensemble in general – is only one ‘major’ stream of legitimacy. Personally, I think recorded music is the main lingua franca of our times and I intend to devote much more energy in getting widely distribution for my work through recordings than through rare orchestral performances. I’d rather have a wide cross-section of society hear my sounds than the pretty buttoned-up orchestral crowd!

  11. says

    The thing about the orchestra though is the sheer number of people you reach through it – to me, that’s what’s really tempting about it. You can write for a great new music ensemble, and if they have great turnout, maybe 100 or even 200 people will hear your piece. If you write for a major symphony orchestra, and they perform that program 3 or 4 times, maybe 6 or 7,000 people will hear your music! It’s pretty hard to top that. I recently had the experience where I was asked to compose an arrangement of Good King Wenceslas for the San Francisco Symphony’s Christmas concert, my first performance by a majpr symphony orchestra. I did my best to put some sort of personal stamp on the arrangement, but ultimately it had to fit the bill, and so it wasn’t a piece that I felt extraordinarily proud of or felt showed my most interesting or inventive work; but seeing that sea of people listening and reacting to my music turned out to be incredibly exciting. I agree that the orchestra is not the wave of the future, but it’s still the biggest game in town currently, and it still is the primary way the bulk of the general populace interfaces with live concert music. This is not to disagree with any of the serious shortcomings people have pointed out (I encountered these shortcomings myself, as my arrangement was a funk/gospel-y sort of take on the piece, which many, though not all, of the players and conductor had trouble feeling), but just to say that purely from a practical, publicity sort of standpoint, rather than any aesthetic standpoint, it would be very advantageous to any new musical style to find some way of harnessing it.
    KG replies: All true enough, but some of us would rather work to change the status quo than simply capitulate to it.

  12. bill wesley says

    I aplogize for the spelling…..The old orchestral model parralles the old political model. The conductor/composer (they used to be the same)Is a TYRANT who SUBJIGATES the symphony. Politically, writting for a large orchestra is a chance to be seen and heard publicaly dominating a large group of people.The main attraction is political.not artistic. The three fold increase in size for symphonies since Betovens day was not an artistic development but an economic one. Larger symphonies fill bigger halls and sell more tickets.The instruments of the middle ages sound much richer than thier modern counterparts but much less loud. This richness was sacrificed for sheer volume, just like the rock bands of today. Volume is political also, louder is more imposing. Bottom line; almost nothing about modern practice is actually motivated by artistic concerns. Only in the field of music is a racist urocentic attitud still tolerated.The symphony would sound a lot better at about a 4th the size, an 8th the cost is still too much. Classical music represents the aristocracy, its political function is to celebrate the status quo, its very perpose runs counter to innovation and in my mind all forces reactionary to it (Jhon Cage, Showenberg.) are contenders to the thron of oppression.