Monthly Archives: July 2012

Berg and Zacheus

Thank you, Kelly Ann Bixby! Today she sang my Poems of Stephen Berg in recital at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, with Joseph Smith, clarinet, and Laura Ward, piano. What gorgeous singing and playing! Kelly was superb. Laura and Joseph remembered that they played this at AVA in 2002, accompanying soprano Latonia Moore, so it was a thrill to hear them together again. It was brand new and wonderful.

Tenor Kevin Radtke shared the recital, in supple readings of Handel (glorious!), Britten folksongs, and the Vaughan Williams “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” Smith playing clarinet on those.

Kelly sang some of the Britten also, and surprised me with one of my earliest songs, “On Zacheus,” a setting of the metaphysical poet Francis Quarles (1592-1644), this from my Three Songs, No. 3.

She brought this bit of innocence to life, and in the experiential Berg texts showed the range of mature emotion he calls for. And can she get around on the coloratura passages! That plus a truly beautiful voice made me grateful to hear her sing. Joseph plays like a dream, as does Laura, strong and sensitive throughout. How fortunate was I to hear such artistry, such collaboration, given over to these songs.

I was delighted by the afternoon, all of it. Thank you, Kevin, Joseph, Laura, and Kelly!

Cosmic Speculation

Even though we’re in the dead of summer, let’s take an appreciative look at the world around us on Now is the TimeSunday, July 29th at 10 pm on WRTI. McClelland and Bathory-Kitsz sing from tradition and wryness, and an excerpt from Gandolfi’s symphony on a sculpture garden is counterpoised by Adler’s classical string orchestra work. It’s American contemporary music on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at

William McClelland. Song for the Rainy Season
Samuel Adler. Concertino No. 3
Dennis Bathory-Kitsz. For the Beauty of the Earth
Michael Gandolfi. The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Part 3

Now is the Time combines all styles of concert music by living American composers, every Sunday night at 10. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

Music doesn't evolve

[This article has been republished with permission from Broad Street Review.]

At Imperial College in London, Bob McCallum spends his days researching mosquitoes. At home, he puts composers under his microscope. And has concluded, according to BBC News, that we composers are unnecessary.

I don’t know how many mosquitoes have died in his experiments, but he’s killed off my species by way of a computer program he wrote called “DarwinTunes.”

That’s what he’s saying, anyway. Music evolves, he says, and DarwinTunes proves it.

Here’s how it works. The software randomly generates two noise-loops from randomly selected sounds. These combine and generate four loops, then eight, 16 and, pretty soon, 100.

I thought the doubling sequence goes from 2 to 4, then 8, 16, 32, 64 and then 128, not 100. But I’m a composer, not a mathematician.

Anyway, DarwinTunes, or McCallum, mixes in other mutations along the way, and whatever the number, there’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on before he hits the “Off” button.

‘Pretty horrible’

Since, as McCallum himself concedes, the examples are “pretty horrible,” and since DarwinTunes doesn’t accomplish anything more than what it’s already done, McCallum calls in volunteers. Perhaps he filters out composers or filters in mathematicians, but whoever’s there listens and chooses what they like most (or hate least). Then McCallum throws the selected loops back into the program.

DarwinTunes goes back to work, and McCallum waits. Something interesting, he says, starts to happen “after about 3,000 generations… There starts to be a kick drum or a bass drum.”

And that’s it. I read the article several times and, yes, that’s it.

Tweaking the results

Let’s review. Bob McCallum creates a computer program. It uses instruments and pitches that McCallum has implanted in its code, in a mathematical process McCallum has written. It runs the results through signal and amplification generators McCallum has already connected to it.

Then McCallum stops the process, tweaks the result and brings in other folks to tweak it further. McCallum runs it again.

This process continues for months, until McCallum is attracted to something, oh, perhaps, drum-like. Then he halts the process.

Well, he’s demonstrated something, all right— but it’s not evolution. To me it looks an awful lot like intelligent design, or maybe The Bob of the Gaps or McCallum ex machina.

A million monkeys on a million typewriters could never, ever type “To be, or not to be, that is the question” because, first of all, even humans rarely put the paper in correctly, and second of all, even if a monkey happened to get it right, it would never know it.

Who tells the monkey to stop? Who tells DarwinTunes to stop? Who changes the ribbons?

Who decides?

Every step in the DarwinTunes process is a step that a composer already takes, incalculably faster and more efficiently. All of McCallum’s coding, generating, processing and volunteering are just fig leaves covering up this truth: In music, somebody must make a decision.

The smallest decision is the original idea. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The bigger decision is what to do with the idea, and the biggest decision is when to stop— none of which DarwinTunes can do.

Going McCallum one better, composers even do a better job of getting rid of composers. We’ve been doing it ever since we invented the repeat sign and “Vamp Till Fade.”

McCallum may not have heard, but John Cage eliminated the composer about 60 years ago. In his pieces he sets wheels in motion— be they musicians, microphones, radios, silence— and leaves them to play out for the audience, if there be any (and if there isn’t, that’s just fine with Cage). McCallum could’ve put on a Cage concert and saved himself loads of volunteer-hours.

Would it be Mozart?

Nevertheless, Armand Leroi— professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, also at Imperial College— is jazzed.

“I’ve no doubt that if we ran this experiment for longer, using bigger, faster computers, and millions of people rather than thousands, and for years, instead of months, we could evolve fantastic music,” says Leroi. “Would it be Mozart? No, I don’t think so. It would have no composer behind it; it wouldn’t be the act of any individual musical genius. It would just be the people’s music in its purest form.”

Did he say Mozart? You couldn’t evolve the “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” drum solo (bup-bup-bup-bup, bup-bup-bup, budilleeyup-bup-bup-bup, bup-bup-bup) this way. Please, professor, never again speak of Mozart.

There is no People’s Music. I have no idea what “music in its purest form” means— and neither, I suspect, does Dr. Leroi.

All music— even folk music— is created by a person, never by People (unless it’s a small group of people playing together, and somebody else is buying). These persons make decisions. If the music’s good, somebody else will repeat it.

Is music improving?

Music changes, of course. But it doesn’t evolve.

Music isn’t better now than the music of centuries ago, however much it has changed (and it hasn’t changed much). There is as much music in Machaut as in Mahler.

Today’s music isn’t even more complicated. Try singing Ockeghem without having your life flash before your eyes. Follow, if you can, a Senegalese griot plucking a harp made out of a gourd, or beat two sticks to a tune from the mountains of Transylvania without getting lost. Do that, and suddenly “modern” music doesn’t look so difficult.

On behalf of composers everywhere, let me say this to Dr. McCallum: When you evolve a mosquito into a fruit fly… no, better yet, when you write a program that evolves a paper on evolutionary developmental biology, that will attract our attention. Until then, we’re safe.

Dr. McCallum’s premise was all wrong, anyway. Music never comes from noise. It comes from a human soul, singing.

Flute Moon

Whether the flute is light or dark, amiable or exotic, it’s always lyrical. On Now is the TimeSunday, July 22nd at 10 pm, we listen to flute music by William Bolcom, Elizabeth Brown, and Bright Sheng. It’s American contemporary music on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at

William Bolcom. Lyric Concerto
Elizabeth Brown. Blue Minor
Bright Sheng. Flute Moon

Now is the Time combines all styles of concert music by living American composers, every Sunday night at 10. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.

Recording The Nobility of Women

The Nobility of Women will be on the next Mélomanie CD, as we wrapped up recording the eight dances yesterday. Andreas Meyer of Meyer Media recorded my 20-minute work with the Baroque / new-music group at the University of Delaware, in Gore Recital Hall, after recording music by Haverford College’s Ingrid Arauco on Monday. More works by other composers will be added in the coming months.

What a pleasant group to collaborate with! Harpsichordist Tracy Richardson and flutist Kim Reighley have been running Mélomanie out of Wilmington, Delaware for almost 20 years. Douglas McNames is the cellist, Donna Fournier plays gamba, and the newest member, Christof Richter, is the violinist. They are as affable as they are talented, and immediately get to the heart of the music.

For Nobility, Priscilla Smith joined on Baroque oboe. What a thrill it is—and a bit of a fright—to write for one’s daughter. The obvious joy is to hear her play so beautifully what I thought up. The angst comes from worrying over what I thought up… and trying to make it better.

More about this six-person chamber work, including audio samples from the January 2012 premiere, are here. Here’s a link to my notes on the first rehearsal of it. Mélomanie will perform this on September 29th as part of their season kick-off; more details to come.

Now is the Time. Strings in Combination

With divisions, collaborations, and repetitions of strings on Now is the TimeSunday, July 15th at 10 pm, we hear the spice of Antoniou, the romance of Baksa, and the transparency of Glass. It’s American contemporary music on WRTI-HD2 and the all-classical stream at

Theodore Antoniou. Suite for Violin and Harpsichord
Robert Baksa. Nonet for Winds and Strings
Philip Glass. String Quartet No. 5

Now is the Time combines all styles of concert music by living American composers, every Sunday night at 10. Here are the recording details and complete schedule.