Repertoire — final post

Some years ago, I hosted and coprogrammed a concert series for the famous new audience, with the Pittsburgh Symphony. We did many things — play the first movement of Mozart’s Paris Symphony, with the audience told to applaud whenever it heard a passage it liked. (Because that was the practice in Mozart’s time, as he explains with great delight in a letter to his father. He was delighted because he’d gamed the audience, written music that guaranteed they’d applaud.)

(And — digression, but an important one — the result was revelatory. The quality of the applause varied greatly from moment to moment, showing that the audience was listening carefully, and reacting to various moments differently. Plus, they’d stop applauding as soon as the music went on to something new, because they didn’t want to miss anything Mozart threw at them. So any fear that letting the audience applaud would result in them not listening carefully proved wrong. The result was the opposite — they listened more carefully than they would if they weren’t applauding.)

We also shaved the head of a volunteer from the audience while the orchestra played the “Bacchanale” from Samson et Dalila. 

Radiant silence

And on one concert I programmed the shortest of Webern’s very short Five Pieces for Orchestra, played twice, with the John Cage silent piece, 4’33”, in between.

As I explained to the audience, the problem with the Webern pieces, for a listener, isn’t that they’re atonal. It’s that they’re so short. Each one is over before most people have fully focused themselves on listening. So why not play one of them twice, with silence in between?

I explained the point of Cage’s piece, which is that there really isn’t silence, that sounds are always happening, and that the piece becomes a space for listening to those sounds. Which can be restful, and also make us more peacefully alert. So when Webern came around again, maybe we’d be more ready to focus on it.

Judging from conversations I had, people in the audience reacted in various ways to this, which is only natural. But some — and not a small number — really loved it. One woman who came up to me in the airport when I was flying home went wild for Cage. With vivid excitement, she told me that during the silence she’d imagined music paper covered with rests.

(Which makes me smile. I’ve written a string quartet called Mahler Variationsa 28-minute set of variations on the theme of the last movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony. The variations go all around the barn, stylistically. There are 12-tone Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg variations, written in the style — and 12-tone manner — of each composer. There’s an Elvis variation, with a 1950s rock & roll beat, and written so that any bar or two might have come from an Elvis song.

(And the next to last variation is a Cage variation, totally silent. Calling it “Cage Variation” is an affectionate joke, because what I really wanted was a very — very — long silence before the final variation, which is my own shot-through-with-emotion Mahleresque fantasy on the harmony of the Mahler theme. What’s most important in the Cage Variation score is the verbal direction, that the length of the silence is up to the players, but that they should resist all temptation to make it too short. Then I supplied a couple of pages of rests, which is why the woman in the airport made me think of this.

(This is the only major piece of mine that has never been performed. Is any quartet interested?)

The point of this story is that the Cage silent piece is a classic of a new kind, and can really charm an audience. It’s a mistake to ask what the standard classical audience thinks of it. We’re talking here about a new audience. And in a world where (as I keep saying) installation and conceptual art are all over the place — and, for that matter, a world in which many people practice meditation — a silent composition isn’t remarkable, can delight people, can at the very least cleanse the aural palate. In classical music’s future, when the new audience is firmly in place, I’ll let myself imagine a gala season opening concert, given by a major orchestra, that begins with Cage’s 4’33”. Just to whet the heart and ears for the music to come.

(Carlos Fischer, who often comments here, suggested a program that begins with the Cage, and moves on to a solo piece, two duos, a string quartet piece, and then a piece for full orchestra. So the concert starts in silence, and then builds, adding more and more sounds. What a great idea!)

Radiant resonance

Another story. When I was in graduate school (Yale School of Music, 1972-74, M.M. in composition), Alvin Lucier visited our composers’ seminar. I hope I remember this right, and that he really came! But either he played us, or someone else did, a recording of his quietly arresting piece, I Am Sitting in a Room.

Or maybe he created the piece for us, in our composers’ seminar space. That would have made sense, because even though there’s at least one recording, the piece really asks to be remade in any space you care about it in.

Here’s how it works. You speak a text, and record it. The text can be anything, though it shouldn’t be too long or short. Lucier’s text begins “I am sitting in a room,” and goes on to talk about how the piece is made, ending with the lovely thought that what the piece becomes might “smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.” A lovely, gentle thought, because he stutters.

You then play back your recording, and record the playback. I mean record it with a microphone, rather than simply feed it electronically into a recording device.The point is to capture the sound of your voice in the space you’re in, and rerecord that.

Why? Because as you keep repeating this step — playing back your most recent recording, always in the same room, and once again recording it — the sound of your voice is slowly, gently, magically transformed. What you begin to hear is the room resonance — the echoes of your voice, which might be so soft that you don’t notice them in normal life, but which get magnified each time — in this process — you make a new recording. The echoes, it turns out, emphasize certain frequencies, which are different from space to space.

So no two versions of this piece will sound alike. What happens, as you keep recording, is that your voice vanishes, submerged in echoes. Which, however, pulsate in the rhythm of your speaking. The result is radiant and charming — and also very simple — beyond my powers to describe.

I can imagine this being done at classical concerts. If the entire process takes too long, and we fear the audience will get restless, then we could start making the piece before the concert starts, and let it take shape as the audience is being seated. Then, finally, the last recording plays as the first piece on the program.

A group that did this could then invite members of its audience to make their own versions, which could be posted on a web page. If the group went on tour, it could make new versions in various halls it played in. I don’t mean that every group should do this, but in our new world (new, at least, for classical music), I think many people in our new audience would love this.

Radiant singing

And finally, Pauline Oliveros. I’ve loved taking part in her vocal pieces which “the audience” performs. I put “the audience” in quotes because of course we aren’t the audience when we do this. We’re the creators.

A few years ago, at one of the Lincoln Center Outdoors summer concerts, one of these pieces was done, by maybe 250 people. Oliveros always gives instructions for what participants should do, and, though they’re simple, their effect is profound and absorbing.

In this case, if I remember correctly, we were all asked to sing or hum any note we might choose. And then, as the piece went on, we were asked to pick some other note, something someone else was humming or singing, and hum and sing that note.

And then, after a while, to move on. The result, happening all around me (and all around everyone else who participated) was a deep wash of vocal sound, a soft glow of many notes. Out of this glow individual notes would start to shine (as people began singing notes they heard others singing), growing in quiet strength, and then subsiding.

That was all. But it was enough for perhaps 20 minutes of stimulating calm. What didn’t work so well was an attempt to hook up, via audio, with other groups around the world doing the same piece, but I’ll forgive that, because it also didn’t do any harm.

I can imagine that the normal classical concert audience would be surprised, maybe put off, if it was asked to hum or sing. But on the other hand, the students at the National Orchestral Institute created a piece very much like this at the concert they produced this summer (which I blogged about), and in that setting it worked as if everyone involved had been doing pieces like this for years.

So who knows? Maybe you don’t do a Pauline Oliveros piece at a standard classical concert. Or maybe you do! But you could certainly do it at a concert for a new, younger audience. And the result could be magical. Imagine 4000 people doing this at the Metropolitan Opera, before a performance of something suitable. Or imagine a new opera, designed to begin with something like this, something the audience creates.

I suppose it’s partly my history — for years I was a critic in New York, reviewing pieces like the ones I’m describing here — that makes me so open to music of this kind, and so eager to see it more widely done. But pieces like this are part of classical music history. Whether or not most people know that! But if many people don’t know it — or know it and scoff — that’s one of classical music’s problems. Unlike other arts, it hasn’t (in its mainstream form) expanded to include pieces of itself that are legitimate, powerful, and rooted in the ways our culture has changed.


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  1. Carlos Fischer says

    Greg, i’m flattered that you liked the program and thanks for the mention in this post. That’s exactly the idea …plus the mix of music from living and past composers who have the power to speak to our culture and to engage a new audience.

  2. Kyle says

    Hi Greg,

    The opening words of “I Am Sitting in a Room” are: “I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now.” So it’s really meant to be made in one room, played in another. But it’s a shame there aren’t recordings from different spaces.


    • says

      Hi, Kyle,

      Thanks for reminding me. I should have tried harder to find the text, which I wished I’d had before me when I wrote my post.

      I’ve seen the piece created live, though, and I believe Lucier himself did it. So in that case the text must have changed. The exact words of the text, in any case, don’t feel canonical to me. The piece works the same way no matter what the text says, as long as it’s an appropriate length. I can imagine the text talks of a room the listener isn’t in on the recording, because when someone hears the recording, this will be the case.

  3. says

    very stimulating thoughts. i looove the idea of the audience clapping wherever it likes. i’ve been searching for a unforced, organic way to break the stiff performance practice of classical concerts and this may be it. and thanks for reminding us about so many innovative and beautiful ways of creating musical art.

    • says

      Thanks back to you, Tracy. Glad that what I wrote gave you stimulating ideas. There’s a lot to be learned from performances in the past. I’ve made a compilation of anecdotes and scholarly accounts of past-centuries performances, which I use in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. You can find it here: One of the most interesting things in it is piano preluding — pianists, even into the 20th century, used to improvise preludes to everything they played at recitals. I’d love to see that revived!

  4. Dymitry Wos says

    The reason most people do not know that those pieces are part of classical music history is the same reason that most people do not know that the sky is green: because the statement is obviously false.
    Out of the pieces mentioned, only the Webern even potentially qualify as music (and the problem with those is indeed that they are atonal and not that they are too short; prolonging them would only increase the suffering). In compositional treatises from the old masters, there is plenty of space devoted to explaining how music should be constructed melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. The rules are not arbitrary, they exist as a guide for the student to create music in accordance with classical ideals. Not all of them are consistent from author to author, especially across generations, but it is easy to see principles that they have in common. Likewise, no one will confuse paintings by Raphael, Poussin, David, and Ingres with each other, but it is easy to see why they qualify as classical artists, and why Renoir and Cezanne (or Baselitz and Rauch) do not. People humming random notes are never going to arrive at any results resembling an actual classical composition, and the Cage and Lucier “compositions” do not even have discrete pitches. One does not need any background in music theory or classical aesthetics to understand why they have nothing to do with classical music (though that can help with understanding the un-classical nature of less obvious hacks such as Glass, Adams, Bernstein, Gershwin, and most “accessible tonal composers” of recent memory).
    If one tries to pass off music that is practically the antithesis of classical music as classical music, at a time when the supply of genuine classical music is practically nonexistent, of course some people are going to scoff; that should be the very least that they do in response to such an insult. Far too many excuses have been made for the content (or more accurately here, lack of content) that such clowns “compose”, while practically no effort is ever made to encourage the production of real music. If the Italian renaissance workshops were as inefficient as Jokelliard (or any other conservatory, as there is no real difference) in terms of their capacity to train anyone with the ability to create real art, we would still be waiting for Verocchio, never mind Leonardo.
    For all the empty hype about new repertoire and new audiences and cultural change, this is still basically the 1950s. Once again, pushing for more performances of “classical music” that has nothing to do with classical music, followed by assumptions that something is wrong and outdated with people who expect actual classical music, while Cage and Webern make an appearance on the program. All that changed was the addition of the latest internet marketing, and the performers now worship popstars featured by Alex Ross within his latest 384 pages of toilet paper (who are just as musically inept as other popstars). I would say from experience that there are enough obstacles for classical music already, and no one has any need for “solutions” offered by someone who composes in the style of Elvis and promotes “compositions” that could be made by the mentally retarded.

    • Andrew Yen says

      Do you even make music? And just what comprises your listening palette anyway?

      The environment and context that has led to the music of the Common Practice Era that you so highly venerate beyond what is rational no longer exists, and the new sound world we live in now is a turbulent and passionate pool to draw a multitude of views and interpretations of.

      Even though I personally lament that people don’t write music like they used to prior to Modernism, I do not hold this against them and I still give a lot of music a fair review, and have even come to enjoy them even if they do not speak my “language”. And I think that is one of the greatest things to have especially in the world flooded with data, that we can listen to virtually anything we could find.

      What makes all the examples Mr. Sandow used music and even classical in the small “C” sense, is that they all create their own ideas of the musical experience, whether it is from the absence of structured sound (Cage), the ever shifting context of place and memory (Lucier), or the changing whims of social groups (Oliveros). All these have legitimate questions that have come up in our times that they answer in their own way, without the need to have to employ only the tools and ideas that composers used 200 years ago. That is not to say the past is inferior, but, as I said earlier, working from a different point of view and context.

      Your brazen display of elitism only shows not the superiority of the masterful art that almost everyone can appreciate in their own way, but the wild and unmastered emotions not unusual to devoted partisans to an high art that in truth is incompatible with them.

      • Dymitry Wos says

        I do make music, though none of it is publicly available just yet. I saw no need to make mention of it as many valuable statements about music have been made by non-musicians (such as I describe in my post at the bottom of the June 28 article, among many other things). I listen to baroque music of all sorts, renaissance masses, occasional pieces from the classical era, and a few martial industrial bands.

        While I do live in a different environment from any of the composers that I listen to, that has had no effect on how anything actually sounds. A great deal of trial and error with combinations of intervals and durations only confirmed much of what authors such as Zarlino, Nivers, Kirnberger and H.C. Koch directed.

        To “create their own ideas of the musical experience” does not make people classical composers. Classical painters have to do more than simply “create their own ideas of the painting experience”, and the same for classical sculptors or architects; one can ask any visual artist who has studied at an atelier in recent years for confirmation. Ateliers teach classical principles with some consistency, while conservatories have frequently moved the goalposts, usually in the name of “progress” or “context”.

        If you find my emotions wild and unmastered, you must not spend very much time online.

  5. says

    Why do critics constantly wet their pants over the need for new tyhis or that. New for who? The audience has plenty of great Beethoven, Schubert, Copeland to listen to–and never enough time.

    • says

      That audience is disappearing. A new audience will have different tastes. In fact, already does have different tastes.

      So that’s one reason to call for something new. The other reason is that you just plain love the music you’re talking about. Which is certainly the case for me here. In any case, the music I’m talking about is hardly new. The Cage piece, for instance, dates from 1952.

  6. says

    I agree that the avant-guard period offers many opportunities to spice up the classical world. Those, who like myself, are ambiguous fans of the avant-guard will love the movie (untitled), with its sympathetic skewering of the avant-guard music and art scene in NYC (it’s got a beautiful score).

  7. richard says

    I love Webern. I also love limburger cheese. Most people don’t like either. So I’m wrong, or “defective”? What’s your point?

    • says

      Not sure what your question is, Richard. If only a few people like Webern and any kind of cheese, so what? It’s fine for something to be a minority taste. One of the great lessons of popular culture today is that taste falls into niches, some of them not large at all. And we honor that. Remember — the Long Tail.

      There’s also the wonderful joke about the Velvet Underground — that only 14 people bought their first album, but all 14 went on to start important bands.

  8. richard says

    Soory, I was trying to reply to “Dymitry”. He’s probably a troll, so I shouldn’t have bothered.

    • says

      No problem, Richard. It might be better than you didn’t respond. You might have noticed that I didn’t, just as today I didn’t respond to Andrew Yen. Civil disagreement is one thing, abusive attacks are another. In my experience, it’s a waste of time to get in a public debate with people who hurl insults. Privately, they’ll sometimes come around, but they normally don’t in public.

      Now might be a good time to repeat a rule I’ve made for comments. Commenters can abuse me as much as they like, but if anyone abuses another commenter, that person will be banned from commenting.

    • says

      No problem, Richard. It might be better than you didn’t respond to him. You might have noticed that I didn’t, just as today I didn’t respond to Andrew Yen. Civil disagreement is one thing, abusive attacks are another. In my experience, it’s a waste of time to get in a public debate with people who hurl insults. Privately, they’ll sometimes come around, but they normally don’t in public.

      Now might be a good time to repeat a rule I’ve made for comments. Commenters can abuse me as much as they like, but if anyone abuses another commenter, that person will be banned from commenting.