Bounce to Disc

more thing about composing, since these theme columns tend to come in threes.

This is
a guilty secret. When composing, I usually
imagine more how the piece will sound on
recording than in live performance.

is, as we classical types all too seldom recognize, a difference. I love
listening to Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett
on disc; I can just melt into it. But I heard
it live once (John Kennedy conducting at Lincoln Center), and I felt nearly
suffocated, sonically claustrophobic. Ten minutes into it I had an impulse to
flee the hall – but I didn’t. On the other hand, I don’t think Feldman’s Second
Quartet would mean nearly so much to me if I had heard it only on CD, and not
live. I had to live through it in real-time experience to fully get it. And
those are two extremely different examples within the same composer’s output.
In live performance I expect to be a little more entertained, and can appreciate
a more volatile sense of drama. I tend to pick CDs to listen to more for
ambience, based on overall consistency and a paucity of dramatic contrast.

And I
have many reasons to imagine my music on recording. One is that 98% of the
music with which I am extremely familiar I know from recordings, not from live
performance. Opportunities to hear my favorite works live are extremely, extremely rare. I was in my 50s before I got to hear Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune and Harris’s 3rd live, and I’ve loved them from high school. As for my own music, for every one person who hears it live, there will be 300, or
maybe 3000, who will hear it on a recording. I think most of us are pretty much in the same boat here.

But the
most important reason is that I like records. Let me amend that: I
records. I started collecting records when I was 12. (I went down to Melody Shop in downtown Dallas – this was 1968 – and bought, for some reason, The Threepenny Opera and Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet. Heaven opened up to me. I still adore both pieces.) Here is almost a
third of my CD collection:


appreciate the immediacy of live performance, and in some sense I realize I’ve
never really heard a piece until I hear it live, and many live performances
have changed my life, but I have a lifelong love affair with records. Live performances are nervous-making, and almost never go completely the way you wanted. Becoming
a critic was, for awhile, the perfect profession: most of the discs you see
there were sent me free of charge. (It’s a fairly small collection by music critic standards, because your average living composer doesn’t put out new discs nearly as often as jazz and straight classical musicians do.) What would really, really make me feel like
a composer, though, as I’ve said before, would be to have my music on an RCA vinyl
record with a clear plastic inner sleeve and long, readable liner notes on the
back, and maybe Ormandy conducting, with, say, the Berg Violin Concerto on side
2. That’s what composers were when I was a kid, and that would make me feel
like I finally achieved composerhood. I don’t expect to ever get it (certainly not with Ormandy).

That is
not to say that I put out CDs conceived as “records,” any more than most
classically trained composers do. For some reason we keep writing as though
for live performance. I
haven’t managed to put out “concept albums,” although some of my electronic
works have tended that way, if I could get enough of them together on one disc. I think The Planets
works well as a total CD
because of its length and stylistic unity; it’s my best record whether it’s my best piece or not. As I’ve said many times, I think the
only new-music composers who are really geniuses at putting out records
have been Bob Ashley and
Paul Lansky. Perhaps there are a few others I’m not thinking of. But I do
suspect that the flatness, the consistency, the Zen, the drama-lessness of my music
stems not just from my personality, but partly because I want to listen to it on a record.

UPDATE: I should add the obligatory depressing postlude. A few weeks ago I threw away, for the first time, a CD that had deteriorated to the point of unplayability: Brahms string quintets on Nonesuch. Picked it up out of the machine, held it to the light, and it had a dozen or so pinpricks where the coating had, I dunno, fallen off or collapsed or something. I listened instead to the mp3s on my hard drive. I’ve transferred most of those CDs to three hard drives, and hopefully will transfer those files to newer ones before the hard drives quit working. I can pass my vinyl down to my grandchildren if they want it, but I will probably outlive my CD collection. The only permanent storage medium my music is preserved on is the paper the scores are printed on. Everything else is designed to expire.


  1. Casey says

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I become increasingly dissatisfied with “classical” and new music concerts I’ve attended. I don’t know if it’s the uncomfortable chairs, my short attention span, or the funny smell of so many old people, but I’m finding it more and more difficult to get excited about going to see live music. Which has me thinking, if I, as someone who loves this music and knows a bit about it, have trouble enjoying myself, how is anyone else going to? But as a composer, I’ve been trained to think about putting on a concert as the end goal of the piece. So, I think focusing on recordings and putting out albums rather than just collections of pieces, is another frontier ripe for exploration if composers wish to stay relevant. Another composer who seems to be concerned about putting out albums is Nico Muhly. [I]Motherhtongue[/I] works well as a cohesive album and even mentions in the liner notes a focus on the work as recorded material not necessarily to be reproduced live.
    P.S I’m a long time reader of your blog, but this is my first time commenting. I really enjoy your posts and I believe you know my former teacher, Elodie.
    KG replies: Elodie Lauten is one of new music’s great unsung heroes. And yeah, I rarely enjoy live concerts as much as I pretend to.

  2. Freddy B says

    I’ve long assumed I was the only one to have that experience with a live performance of For Samuel Beckett! I heard it played by the SEM Ensemble a few years back and “claustrophobic” is an incredibly accurate term for how it seemed. I found the piece increasingly upsetting as the music really seemed to close in on me with its suddenly endless repetitions. Totally caught me off guard as I had never had such an epiphany about it on record. If there had been an easy escape route, I would have absolutely taken it!
    And talking to people afterwards about this sensation convinced me that I must have just sat through a completely different concert than everyone else…. Nice to see someone confirm I MIGHT not be crazy.

  3. says

    I think we’ll see more and more of a trend with younger classical composers choosing at times to conceive of things as “albums.” For both a generation of classical composers who grew up unconcerned with pop-classical boundaries and who also grew up hearing things primarily in recorded form, the notion of the “album” may feel rather normal as a way of thinking about structuring work.
    As one example, Nonesuch just released Timothy Andres’s new hour-long piece for two pianos, which he states in the notes he very much conceived of as an “album for two pianos” (though it can and has obviously be performed live). And as a corollary, there are many examples of composers who put together a rather different version of a piece in the context of the “studio recording”, as compared to what was played in live concerts.

  4. msk says

    I hope your future grandchildren DO want your vinyl collection… my dad has a magnificent collection of vinyl and the only reason I could ever possibly want a bigger house would be to preserve it once he decides to downsize. CDs are all fine and good and I have plenty of them. But there is no comparison, in my view, between the two media.
    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with composing for recording at least as much as for live performance. Both have their merits as distinct experiences of art.

  5. says

    Even those paper scores are going out of style as authoritative documents, as you’ve written before. I’m always immensely relieved when I can submit PDFs rather than hard copies. Hopefully this development allows us to think of the score in a more utilitarian way. Digital scores are certainly inherently more mutable, which would seem to alleviate the pressure of making them infallible.
    Also, another great thing about recording as the primary document over live performance is how it allows people around the world & outside major metro areas to be engaged with what’s going on in new music. Hopefully local/regional aims can to some extent survive this and we don’t just end up with big, boring monoculture… me, I have great faith in human quirkiness. We’ll see.
    KG replies: Anybody wants to proclaim me king of the PDFs, I’ll accept the nomination; nonetheless, I always breathe a sigh of relief when I print one of my own new scores out on paper.

  6. says

    The dynamic range of much mainstream 19th and early-to-mid 20th century orchestral music is too great for any but the most de luxe at-home audio systems to do anything with but compress, but other than that, yes, I wish more composers would think about recording as a distinct medium.
    What strikes me as odd, though, is when a composer indulges in a recording-dependent technique like multi-tracking, but then still sticks with the 19th-century classical (romantic) shtick of a wide dynamic range, such that I have to continually fiddle with the volume on my playback in order to hear the quiet bits. Not naming names, just saying.
    Seems to me that the relatively small dynamic range of minimalist and much post-minimalist music might be thought of an *effect* of having been composed in the recording era. (I’m sure others have mentioned this before.)
    In the mid-’80s, my college band had put all of our earnings for the year into producing a piece of vinyl, which I thought was a bad use of the money at the time. It *was* a bad use
    of the money, but I’m really glad we did it!

  7. Bob Gilmore says

    Among the very top life-changing musical experiences of my life, two came thanks to TV, one thanks to radio, two thanks to vinyl, and two thanks to live concerts. Curiously I can’t really think of any that came from CD. I don’t suppose this proves anything much, except perhaps that you never know in advance which encounters are going to have the biggest impact on you – best to maximize your chances of encountering them.

  8. says

    That is quite a CD collection. And just a third of the total! Time was you could walk into a someone’s house, look at the CDs and instantly know something about what informs their artistic sensibilities. Now we all have the same anonymous plastic mp3 players with their mysterious contents. CDs were an investment in time and money – a committment to something. Now I wonder if mp3s are collected just because they are readily available and you can quickly load them into an 8 GByte player. The landmarks for musical success seem to be morphing before our eyes.
    For the first time in history composers have the means of production and the means of world-wide distribution of their art within their full control. The institutional support structures – performing organizations, record labels, the academy – are no longer necessary for new music to find a listening audience. New music may already be moving in this direction. Exhibit A is ‘The Same Sky’ by Carolyn Yarnell. The CD included playing by Kathleen Supove along with a Yamaha SY 77 – a hybrid of live performance and electronic realization. (for details see comment 9 in the discussion here:
    Music performed by talented musicians will always be with us, but will they lead the way forward? We look for clues about the future of new music in its form and content – but perhaps the bigger changes in the 21st century will come from the new paradigms of creation and distribution

  9. Paul Beaudoin says

    Ok, you win – yours is bigger. But here’s two practical questions – with so many CDs how do you organize them? Mine are alphabetical by composer which seems the easiest except when getting those “compilation” CDs, so I now have a world section, an electronic section, etc.
    A few years back some of my collection was stolen after my apt. was broken into. Secretly I smile when I think of the criminals putting on Atlas Eclipitcalis to reap the rewards of their plunder. I was able to replace many of them but my insurance company wanted exact info for replacement value – Label, catalog number, etc. Do you have a hard copy inventory of your collection? If so, how do you manage that?
    As always, thanks for sharing!
    KG replies: Ah, the practical and important questions. I keep them chronological by birthdate of the composer up until John Coolidge Adams, whose position in history and the alphabet makes him a convenient “pivot composer” into an alphabetical system, followed by John Luther Adams (although I have to squeeze Frank Abbinanti in there). My rational is that often I feel in the mood to listen to Baroque, or Romantic, music, and I want all those composers grouped in one place. Plus, on a multi-composer disc, composers are more often grouped by era (Albinoni-Locatelli-Vivaldi) than alphabetically (Bach-Babbitt-Beglarian albums are rare). I’d hate to be in mood for something in the Scriabin-Busoni-Reger range and have to check them each out separately, running across Steve Reich in-between. But of course, almost half my collection is composers born after 1943, and despite a generally amazing memory for dates, I can’t possibly keep everyone’s birthday in my head, so I have to go alphabetical. I tried making it all chronological once, but got tired of calling my women composer friends to ask them how old they were.
    As for insurance purposes, I need to do something. About half of my discs are transferred to hard drive, so I could make a case for those if I (knock, knock) lost them. I just got a video camera, and I’ve been meaning (as the insurance companies tell you to) to run along my collection and make a linear video of all the titles. Hell, I may get a fond kick out of just watching it from time to time.
    I’ve been a little defensive myself ever since I went to the Voice and a not-very-nice jazz critic expressed scorn at the smallness of my collection. .

  10. says

    It’s great to know someone else has even heard of Thomson’s Symphony on a Hymn Tune…that and his film scores were some of my earliest introductions into new music.
    I’m curious as to whether or not you actually write your works differently with the recording in mind as opposed to live concerts. I’ve wondered for a while if the recording techniques that started in the 1950s in film scoring with Henry Mancini and Bernard Herrmann with close microphone placements of individual instruments through today has changed our concepts of what the instruments should sound like, since the timbre right next to the instrument is considerably different than 40-80 feet away, and whether or not we’ve ruined our ears to live performances because they’ll never have the presence of a recorded medium…

  11. says

    The first violist on your “late” Nonesuch Brahms CD is my father, who is now retired from the BSO (he turns 80 in a couple of months).
    KG replies: Tell him I will cherish my memory of his recording.