29 April 2008

Ensembles of Unusual Size (EOUS): Where to Look for Help, Ideas, Financial Analytics


W  e are thinking about doing piano quintets next year. We realize that it will increase our expenses. And the logistics will get more complex by adding another member to the group. We have a vague idea that there must be ways to calculate and anticipate quantitatively what the advantages and disadvantages would be, financially. But none of us really has any background in that. Is there anyplace we should look, for pointers on how to figure that out?”
  —  Anonymous.
Many ensembles’ formation can be credited to organic causes—shared “motives, means, and opportunities” the founding members have, that incline them to commit a certain species of musical ‘crimes’ together; similar personalities and temperaments; compatible work schedules and living arrangements, enabling convenient rehearsals and coordinated travel to performance locations. Other ensembles’ origins are more tactical or happenstantial—having to do with chance availability to collaborate in a particular configuration; a viola or a cello is needed and what was imagined at the outset to be transient grows into something enduring.

But increasingly ensembles look to add repertoire that will enhance the group’s repertory breadth, and provide timbral contrast and broadened ‘curb’ appeal. Frankly, the latter probably has more to do with creating market differentiation in a classical music competitive environment that is more crowded and fragmented than ever before. For presenters hungry for artists who will perform exciting, seldom-performed literature, it’s a way to construct a [yet-more-] special ‘experience’ that will attract attendees who do not ordinarily subscribe, and bond [yet-more-] tightly with regular patrons.

Easier said than done, though. Each change in programming or personnel brings marginal (incremental) income and marginal (incremental) expenses. Logistics inevitably become more complex if the ensemble grows or the repertoire involves auxiliary members. Unless your ensemble has a member already whose skills and natural propensities lean toward finance and operations, quantitatively planning and managing those incremental changes can be daunting. [For those of you who are so inclined, there are several decent non-profit management books below that you will find helpful.]

In my view, the far more difficult aspect is figuring out what the options are that you can do and that have market appeal and address an unmet need that nobody else is filling. You start with the chicken, or you start with the egg. In smaller cities / college towns, you may have the colleague (egg) at hand—the one whose instrument and playing and preferred repertoire and personal tendencies are well-known to you—and you try to devise a way of integrating that person into your ensemble or add repertoire to specifically utilize that resource as auxiliary to the regular ensemble. In larger cities, you may have the concept and the repertoire to realize that concept well in mind (chicken)—and you try to locate a copascetic colleague to help make it happen.

But it’s probably harder to find and integrate a copascetic violist into a piano trio (piano, violin, cello) than adding a pianist to three-quarters of a string quartet (violin, viola, cello). [Supply and demand! Demographics, by instrument! Sociology, of those who self-select to play each instrument! Asymmetric versatility, based on size and diversity of literature various instruments force performers to assimilate. Instruments’ ‘personalities’! Acyclic directed-graph theory, to account for all of the above! Arggh!]

Aspects regarding particular ensemble instrumentations are nicely covered in the new second edition of the Maurice Hinson - Wesley Roberts book . I’ve had a used copy of the excellent 1977 first edition on my shelf but had not seen the new edition until recently. It’s a wonderful book for many reasons, not least of which is the treatment it provides of ‘unusual’ ensembles. Admittedly, it addresses this from the perspective/premise ‘ensembles-one-member-of-which-is-piano’, and the repertoire cited is exclusively that which has the prerequisite piano part, but the principles and discussion readily generalize to other ensembles that are piano-less.

In a way, adding a member, even as an occasional or auxiliary to your regular ensemble, is a kind of ‘security infrastructure’, to help protect the market viability of the ‘product’ your ensemble is offering. And the return-on-investment (ROI) for infrastructure of any kind can be difficult to quantify. Some companies don’t even try to quantify ROI for infrastructure, and go ahead and implement it based more or less on instinct or qualitative argments.

Here is a very basic equation for calculating the ROI, one that neglects the time-value-of-money (applicable interest rate):

   ROI% = [(Payback - Investment)/Investment)]*100

The payback is the total amount of incremental money earned from your investment in your ensemble. Investment is the incremental amount of expense incurred, to generate the payback. (Of course, if payback is less than your investment, then ROI can be negative——not a good thing.)

At some point, calculating the ROI for ‘infrastructure’ becomes unnecessary, because the capabilities the infrastructure enables are both mission-critical and readily understood by others. For example, when is the last time any commercial business required an ROI analysis to decide whether or not to invest in enabling infrastructure such as computers or e-mail? The same might be said for your decisions about ensemble repertoire or personnel adjustments. Quantitative ROI for EOUS can be viewed as somewhere between ‘very difficult’ and ‘not necessary’, between a leap of faith and a matter of course.

If, however, your ensemble’s operating expenses are underwritten by a foundation or other sponsor who requires a quantitative financial analysis from you, you may find yourself forced to justify the marginal expenses in terms of the marginal income that will be generated—in terms of the improved operating ratio that your proposed ensemble personnel changes make possible. If you are in such a situation, have a look at the books in the link list below. Your cost estimates should be captured for a reasonable period of time, typically two to three years. Put those in your pro forma financial statement—your Excel spreadsheet [click link to open example template sheet] showing rows of income items and expense items and columns for each year. In considering a variable-ensemble framework, however, here are three obvious, but important, caveats:

  1. Use incremental analysis. ‘Total Cost of Ownership’ (TCO) calculations [‘ownership’ of the EOUS ‘asset’ that your modified ensemble and its expanded repertoire represents] should include only those investments that are incremental to those that have already been made and that are directly attributable to the EOUS ‘asset’.
  2. Use the line-item veto. Variable ensemble configurations with thematically-varied or period-varied repertoire is a sophisticated approach with many available options, and obviously not all options are required for each season. If a particular cost element doesn’t apply to a particular season within your pro forma planning horizon, don’t include it. Structure your plan with a ‘Plan B’ and a Plan C’ so that you can gracefully accommodate contingencies that may arise, with reduced impact on the ensemble’s overall market and income and with minimal risk to the financial health of the core ensemble.
  3. Keep costs in perspective. TCO is a perfectly appropriate metric for ROI calculations if one or more of the sources of your funding requires you to prepare a financial justification for the programming you wish to undertake, but cost is certainly not the sole criterion for vetting what repertoire you will offer. Qualitative justification, in terms of social diversity or other arguments, may be equally persuasive depending on the mission and remit of the funding organization or state. Your regular management agency should be able to assist with ‘qualitative’ justifications—it is within the scope of management, servicing, and public relations services that are the routine province of managers.
In summary, by properly framing the ROI discussion you can quantify financial returns using a straightforward and widely-accepted approach, such as one of those commonly used in business management of small not-for-profit organizations.

27 April 2008

Meta-Revision as Practice: Brahms Piano Trio in B (Op. 8), Stanislav Ioudenitch and Friends

 Left to right: Ben Sayevich, Stanislav Ioudenitch, Martin Storey

I  no longer know at all how one composes. One instead ‘creates’ [and creates, and re-creates].”
  —  Johannes Brahms, 1855, quoted in New Groves Dictionary of Music And Musicians, 2e, Vol. 4, p. 181, Macmillan, 2001.
B  rahms could be such a good player, but he will not stop his incessant composing [and revising].”
  —  Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel, 1852, quoted in Hofmann (in Musgrave), p. 11.
Stanislav Ioudenitch (piano), Martin Storey (cello), and Ben Sayevich (violin) delivered a vibrant performance of Brahms’s ‘Piano Trio No. 1 in B’ (Op. 8, 1854 and 1891) on Friday evening in Kansas City. The motivations of the revisions that Brahms made are still the subject of vigorous scholarly debate. But even for an amateur like me, there are nuances in the 1854 verson that evoke a youthful stance, fascinating for the directness of the composer’s ‘voice’.

Such a piece, well played, imposes special demands on the performers, in terms of interpretation and recreating this voice. Ioudenitch, Storey, and Sayevich succeeded brilliantly in enabling the ambiguities in the music to come through and linger in the air and in our minds.

It seems to me that the point of revisions lies in ‘metaphoric indirection’——for the composer surely, but also for the performers and us listeners. The subjectivity in the 1854 version is ‘stubborn’——it valorizes experience, a succession of experiences. The 21 year-old Brahms did not at the time of composing Op. 8 have such a long experience, and the accretion of each experience could not help but carry more significance than a comparable experience late in life. The drama that we hear in Op. 8 is, I think, not so much that of a young Brahms finding his ‘chops’, but rather the urgency and fascination that someone who is 21 experiences in each day. Or maybe we are hearing in Op. 8 a sublimated expression of his love-life, or lack thereof?

F  or all the wealth of good reasons for loving differently, loving better, loving despite not being in love, etc., a stubborn voice is raised which lasts a little longer: the voice of the Intractable Lover.”
  —  Roland Barthes, Lover’s Discourse, 1979, p. 22.
 Brahms at 21 years, (c) Naxos
Roger Moseley, Nick Cook, and others have compared the 1854 and 1891 versions of Op. 8, to see how musical allusions in the piece revealed Brahms’s attitudes to critics, friends, other composers. Allusions to the music of other composers are heard in the 1984 version, but the 1891 version expunged the allusive material. And in successive drafts and sketches and revisions the political aspects of the Trio became subdued.

T  here is nothing innocuous left. The little pleasures, expressions of life that seemed exempt from the responsibility of thought, not only have an element of defiance, of callous refusal to see, but directly serve their diametrical opposite ... Mistrust is called for in the face of all spontaneity, impetuosity, all letting oneself go, for it implies pliancy towards the superior might of the existent ... The chance conversation in the train, when, to avoid dispute, one consents to a few statements that one knows ultimately to implicate murder, is already a betrayal. No thought is immune against communication, and to utter it in the wrong place and in wrong agreement is enough to undermine its truth.”
  —  Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 25.
So Brahms was not satisfied with the 1854 version. Possibly this derived from his conflictedness over ‘absolute music’ versus ‘Zukunftsmusik’ (“future music”), and his conflictedness over his own expectations for himself as a composer. It would be good to go and read his letters from 1853 and 1854 to see what light they shed, regarding his state of mind ...

Interestingly, Moseley comments on parallels in surgical innovations by Brahms’s friend and musical ally, Theodor Billroth. According to Moseley, both Brahms and Billroth were “engaged with the removal of ‘foreign bodies’ in order to preserve organic integrity” or improve the function and its coherence/reliability/authenticity. This observation will delight musician-physicians who have not previously known of the Brahms-Billroth connection. Iatrogenic (composerly) musical bezoars as the indication for the repeated surgeries on Op. 8!

There is persistent linguistic playfulness in this Piano Trio that distinctively resists any totalization or summation of meaning. In this respect, I feel it resembles some science fiction texts that are similarly distinctive for their discontinuous sign-functions and progressive dislocations of the author and the reader, a persistent play of reorientation and inference. Ultimately, the sci-fi composer/reader/player/listener wonders about her/his emplacement, and feels a tenuousness arising from the need to continually, actively ‘construct’ the text in the process of reading/playing/hearing it. Ioudenitch’s, Sayevich’s, and Storey’s account of Op. 8 reminds me of this—an allusion to musical ideas of others and events whose urgency is exaggerated by youth; a spontaneous youthful ‘non-terminal’ identity; and a hunger for what comes next. Brahms: This is me! Is this me, really? This is my place! Is this my place, really? Where am I?

Emplacement and displacement: just as constructing ‘landscape’ is how we turn terrain into territory and territory into something knowable and then known, so emplacement is how we figure out the specifics of selfhood and human nature in a musical ‘landscape’. This is, I think, what Brahms was doing (and re-doing)——and what Ioudenitch, Sayevich, and Storey accomplished in their performance, in their brilliant ‘meta-revision’ of Op. 8: Successive revised, tenuous, intimate emplacements, leading finally to the Allegro molto agitato and a standing ovation.

  • Allegro con moto
  • Scherzo: Allegro molto
  • Adagio non troppo
  • Finale: Allegro molto agitato
 Bukatman book

 Frisch book

26 April 2008

Sound Art: Beyond Mere Music

 Christopher Biggs; Rebecca Ashe
Interactive Gestures, a performance of electroacoustic music and multimedia works, with guest artist João Pedro Paiva de Oliveira, was held last night at La Esquina, in Kansas City, co-sponsored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and by the UMKC Conservatory. One could say that it was a healing of the wound between ‘fixed-media’ and ‘live’ electroacoustic performance. The unity of the aesthetic effect of the musicians who performed live and the composers who engineered their fixed-media playback was among the best I’ve ever heard.

Composers who create works for fixed-media (recorded and edited in the studio; replayed in performance halls) are maybe more comfortable in the studio than on-stage. For them, performance is in the studio, but probably not more so than for traditional composers. The spatialization that’s achieved in concert may be subject to many environmental variables and interpretive choices that are out of the composer’s control, just as any chamber or orchestral work is out of the composer’s control at the moment of performance. Last night, as in other electroacoustic events, we had the composers as performers——at the mixer control board, conducting the performance and responding (by improvisatory actions on their MIDI keyboards and controllers) to the playing of the live performers.

Although the array of 8 Mackie SR-450 speakers and the excellent mixing mitigated a number of problems, the La Esquina performance venue lacks acoustic features that are essential to the transparency and crispness of delicate, wide-spectrum works like the ones last night. (That La Esquina is an AIA venue is ironic.)

By contrast, NOVARS at Manchester University uses chilled-water cooling of the structural steel to silence the architecture of the studio and performance spaces. The total absence of architectural sounds arising from thermal expansion-contraction of the building frame—unwanted noises—is a great advantage for electro-acoustic performances at NOVARS. La Esquina, though, is a 20 x 40 meter warehouse ‘box’ with the railroad across the street, less than 50 meters away. Freight trains rumbled by every few minutes during the Interactive Gestures performance last night, an intrusive aleatoric element that seriously impaired the sonic integrity of several of the works. The roaring Burlington Northern diesel engine can ruin your ‘Time Spell’, for example, unless you happen to be casting a magical abjuration against a wizard who has morphed into a train.

Probably the works that were least affected by these complications were de Oliveira’s. The 8-channel pieces were at a sound pressure level that exceeded the ambient distractions, and the timbral and rhythmic diversity of them were riveting. The spatial articulation of sound was dramatic: we were listening to a master storyteller. The title of the event, ‘Interactive Gestures’: clinically correct. Gestures, comma, interactive, comma, in your face.

That the sound reinforcement gear and the building itself can interfere with pre-composed material is no surprise, just as the concert hall architecture and ‘system’ can interfere with traditional acoustic performance. In fact, anytime you perform a piece you transform it—its tone colors, reverb, spatialization among the channels/speakers, and amplitude shaping are different in ways that are idiosyncratic to that performance and that venue, even if the equipment is the same and the controls’ settings are the same as on a previous occasion or the same as when the piece was composed in the studio. We get a great degree of variability in the timbre, in the directed spatial distribution or trajectory of sound from the monitors, in the acoustic morphology, and in the temporal structure as perceived by members in the audience.

In the de Oliveira pieces, the acoustic spatial diffusion that was rendered via the 8-channel playback through the Mackie SR-450 300W monitors (8 loudspeakers, placed on 5-meter centers, 4 on the left side and 4 on the right side of the audience) revealed the works’ rich internal spaces. Oliveira creates a wide range of textural and gestural acoustic shapes, with semantics and phrasing that have trajectories from milliseconds to tens of seconds long—very much like intense conversation.

From sub-50Hz to sounds above 5KHz, Oliveira establishes a captivating ‘spectral occupancy’ with figures that serve as anchors to his composition/story. He structures processes around these to ‘articulate’ or define interactions of his implied ‘characters’ within the performance space.

Fluctuations are then introduced into the acoustic material either locally (at individual loudspeakers or clusters of speakers, via EQ or layering of channels and phasing effects between channels) or globally (via pitch morphing; granulation; splintering; master output from mixing console; replaying/looping; interrupting/restarting; montage). These sonic gestures evoke dynamic relationships between the elements—imply characters/actors and processes amongst them, musically.

A particular textural motion leads the live musician who plays with the fixed-media to react and respond with her own spatial and musical trajectory. Rebecca Ashe’s interpretive sense in this regard was superb. The human responses in turn introduce yet further mutations of timbral coloring, and then meta-articulations of the textural/spatial/motion arise.

For example, Rebecca Ashe introduced a sforzando spatial articulation, and this was ‘answered’ by de Oliveira in Channels 1 and 2 in response to the gesture, not only by increasing the levels to these on the console, but with chunkier density via delay and transposition layering.

 Licht book
Each interpretation creates a unique realization of a piece, just as any other chamber music performance generates a unique realization. Some reshapings were vehement and improvisational, bordering on realtime recomposition. Other reshapings were gentle and dutiful—especially those near the compositions’ ends, where the composer and performers are providing acoustic gestural ‘cues’ to the piece’s ending. Electro-acoustic may be a different language than you are used to, and the under-40 median age of the audience may be a different culture than you are used to in classical music performance, but the semantics are just as understandable and trustworthy as Beethoven.

That said, the risks in electroacoustic performance are clear. Like traditional performance practice, there is the chance that a multi-channel fixed-media interpretation that is not well-planned, or that is executed poorly, will work against a piece, no matter how fancy the performance venue architecture is and no matter how state-of-the-art the sound reinforcement gear is. All performance practice carries huge risk of error or misinterpretation. Jacob Gotlib and his collaborators did an excellent job of insuring that the performance risks were minimized. Wonderful!

Admittedly, these composers’ and performers’ works are often closer to cinema or theater than to conventional music. Whether the stories they create are conscious or unconscious, narratives are implicit in the sampling and aleatory. Every story leads to another story to another story to another story. Some of these stories are, I think, surreal or ‘pre-linguistic’ ones, in the way that de Oliveira confesses. In all, a very enjoyable evening was had by the 50 or so attendees at La Esquina last night. Bravo!

 Kahn book

25 April 2008

Conversation Pieces: Electro-acoustic Music and Open-Ended Dialogue

 João Pedro de Oliveira

M  y music will not break with the past or confront it … It only tries to communicate something very personal, something which may even not be communicable. I try to create something that may eventually have a glimpse of beauty.”
  —  João Pedro Paiva de Oliveira.
T  here is a small left-shift, to a position where sound becomes an expression of equivocal encounters with technology’s pervasive presence ... The ‘emblem book’ is a quirky kind of hypertext that reached its peak in Europe in the mid-17th Century. Each emblem is composed of three elements: a motto, a visual symbol, and some epigrammatic prose ... The assemblage of poetic/acoustic, visual, and literary spaces invites personal reflection on the analogies to be made between its separate components. As a form, it invites readings from several directions and offers the opportunity for each reader to reach their own individual conclusions. The various metaphors, symbols, and digressions allow room for internal flight within the space of interpretation. There is freedom to travel back and forth.”
  —  Katharine Norman, Sounding Art, p. 29.
Interactive Gestures, an evening of electroacoustic music and multimedia works, with guest artist João Pedro Paiva de Oliveira, will take place tonight, Friday, April 25 at 8:00 pm at La Esquina, at 1000 West 25th Street, Kansas City, Missouri. The event is co-sponsored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and by the UMKC Conservatory.

Portuguese composer João Pedro Paiva de Oliveira, visiting professor at the UMKC Conservatory, will be a featured artist. Oliveira has written in a variety of idioms, including chamber opera, requiem, orchestral, string quartet and other chamber and solo instrumental ensembles, and electroacoustic music. He currently serves as Senior Professor at Universidade de Aveiro where he teaches composition, music theory and analysis.

Interactive Gestures will include the following works by Oliveira:
  • ‘A Escaba Estreita’ (winner of Musica Nova, Czech Republic, 2005), Rebecca Ashe, alto flute;
  • ‘Time Spell’ for clarinet and tape, Cheryl Melfi, clarinet;
  • ‘Aphar’ for eight channel playback (winner of the Concours International de Musique et d’ Art Sonore Electroacoustique de Bourges, France, 2007); and
  • ‘Bloomy Girls’ for fixed media and video.
The program will also include:
  • ‘MHCHAOS’, Chris Biggs, computer, Rebecca Ashe, flute;
  • ‘Tone Goblin’ for fixed media and video, Noah Keesecker;
  • ‘Infested Readings’, Nihan Yesil;
  • ‘Tower of Babel’ for eight channel digital playback, Jacob Gotlib; and
  • ‘Third Option’, Jon Robertson, narrator, Joey Crane, guitar.
These are tremendously ‘open-ended’ pieces, as is typical for electro-acoustic music. It’s especially apropos to unite the acoustic experience with architecture and art—both of which similarly place substantial interpretive responsibilities on the viewer. Here’s an example. You’re standing in front of the Vermeer painting, one with a woman in it. Looking through a doorway, the woman is holding a lute. She has just been handed a letter by another woman. Naturally, you vicariously construct narratives in your mind, in which you contemplate the contents of the letter and confabulate the relationship between its author and the woman who is beginning to read it. (This natural human tendency is specifically what Paul Lansky’s ‘Things She Carried’ is about. And it’s also characteristic of Oliveira and other of the composers whose works are represented this evening.)

 Mary Simoni book
It’s paradigmatic in electro-acoustic music that very little is explicitly stated and that much is left to chance. But the drama is every bit as rich as more traditional forms. The music situates you in a pleasant altered state of awareness, peering as it were into your own subconscious, watching your mind form thoughts and associations.

Socially, this is not a solitary thing. Instead, it can be a shared experience that is every bit as much a stimulus to conversation and convivial speculation as any other chamber music event can be. The audience arranges itself in the midst of 8 loudspeakers, surrounded by 8 channels of exquisitely-mixed stimulations. Private confabulations become shared conversations, on topics that would never have arisen in any other way. That’s very much the spirit of the event at La Esquina this evening. Promoted on ClassicalLounge.com, it promises to be an exciting gathering. See you there!

 Katharine Norman book

 Collins-d’Escrivan book