Textbooks, Orchestras, and Data

Several years ago I created a poster presentation for display at the 2012 American Orchestras Summit hosted at the University of Michigan. I’ve since shared my research privately, or within limited social spheres [read: Facebook], but have never shared my work with a wider public.

My friend, Suby Raman, has recently gained some much warranted attention for his analyses of both the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera and, more recently, gender in America’s top orchestras.

I am very much a believer in the utility and beauty of data visualization (and sonification), not merely to provide a pretty picture (or sound), but to provide fundamental insight into data by transforming it into information and, eventually, knowledge. Edward Tufte, almost indisputably our contemporary authority on the subject, wrote the following in his introduction to the seminal The Visual Display of Quantitative Information:

Modern data graphics can do much more than simply substitute for small statistical tables. At their best, graphics are instruments for reasoning about quantitative information.

“Instruments for reasoning” indeed. Repertoire has been on my mind since I began studying music within a University context. Although I, and virtually everyone else, within the discipline of academic music studies has some vague impressions in regards to the limited cultural, geographical, and chronological musics that are most frequently engaged in the classroom, my jaw dropped at just how limited it was only when I saw the data. I have witnessed others at conferences visibly stunned when presented with the following information, despite their expertise and even demonstrable erudition in music studies. “I had no idea it was that bad,” they’ve said. Self-rebuke and head shaking typically ensues.

I am not necessarily proud of the depth of the following visualizations; in fact, they are, for the most part, simply standard pie graphs and bar charts, but they, nevertheless, demonstrate to the eye, and consequently the intellect, the significance of their underlying data.

The epiphenomenal effects of artistic canonization and curation reach far beyond ostensibly benign choices of what we study or what we play. Curation unavoidably results in validation. In the classroom, the repertoire that is engaged is almost always accompanied by the implication that what is not being studied is, in fact, not worth studying. In performance, the repertoire that is frequently performed is almost always accompanied by the implication that what is not being performed is, in fact, not worth performing.

As I continue to research how to ensure our art (and our studies of it!) exert contemporary relevance, repertoire, canonization, curation, and their effects are still very much on my mind.

I have pasted the contents of the poster below. Click on the image near the bottom to see the information as it was originally presented on the poster.

harmony-examples“Despite the array of music theory textbooks currently published, Edward Aldwell and Carl Schachter’s book, Harmony and Voice Leading, a new edition of which was published in 2011, remains one of the most commonly used undergraduate theory textbooks in use by conservatories and institutions of formal music education. Despite the seemingly benign practice of selecting “appropriate” musical examples to demonstrate a variety of concepts, aesthetic values are conveyed and enculturated by means of such choices. In the case of Aldwell and Schachter’s textbook, a conspicuous Austro-Germanic bias dominates the musical examples, as shown in the figures to the left. Other popular theory textbooks demonstrate similar partiality, despite concerted efforts in recent years to make conventional music theory appear to be more widely applicable to a range of styles and repertoire.

orchestral-repThese students proceed to populate our professional music organizations, becoming members of orchestras, conductors, marketers, directors, etc., and the aesthetic bias continues to be propagated in these new contexts. Data from the 2008-2009 census, conducted by the League of American Orchestras, is depicted in the figure to the right, demonstrating similar, though certainly not identical, tendencies in orchestral concert programming.

To suggest that the Austro-German composers receive the most attention simply because their compositions are superior is both aesthetically and historically naïve. The origins of taste are a culturally complex phenomena, influenced by culture, class, wealth, and education. Regarding the latter, music theory, perhaps even more so than historical narrative, frames our musical understandings, systematically validating those musics which it is designed to most efficiently parse and invalidating those which do not so readily yield to conventional theoretical tools. Additionally, overly moralized language present in virtually every textbook generates a false sense of objectivity, an objectivity which breeds colonialist worldviews which later proceed to leak into marketing materials, mission statements, playbill notes, programming, publicity, performance practice, and policy-making.

Joseph Horowitz audaciously opens his history of Classical Music in America by characterizing classical music in the United States as a “mutant transplant,” a valuable perspective which is too often lost among the endless practicing, rehearsals, and concerts supported by both our educational institutions and professional performance organizations. While our mission statements and artistic objectives often contain claims of universal value, community development, and musical excellence, it is easy to forget that the vast majority of music performed is from a very distant place and time, and created by cultures quite different than our own. There is an almost insurmountable incongruity between our claims of providing great musical art to our audiences, which we sometimes go so far as to claim is the greatest musical art, and the relatively small coterie of Austro-German composers from several centuries ago whose music most frequently graces our stages.

Indeed, regardless of how diverse our activities may be, our repertoire is perhaps the most substantial contributor to our public identity, and the Eurocentric origins that are obvious to virtually any outsider or would-be concert-goer, are often taken for granted by those of us who engage in this musical practice professionally. Perhaps until we—as artists, musicians, conductors, and educators—are able to come to terms with the relatively narrow nature of our musical preoccupations, our aesthetic values, culture, and finances will always be out of step with the pulse of those who might otherwise become a devoted contemporary audience.”

How Our Education Precipitates Our Repertoire



Silence often weaves,
Its coursing drape
Through fissures in
The bedlam,
Mending chaos with
A ribbon of silken
Quiet reverie

But that day
When I stood
And watched the snow
Flakes, descending
Through the peace,
Amid the aching trees,
The silence spoke,

Curling up around
My limbs, the wind
Its chariot, trussed
My bleeding heart
then flicked its
Thousand tongues
Against the many
Ardent drums
I did not know I had.

It wrote new dreams,
Planted peace,
Pricked my passions,
And woke whatever
Lazarus had occupied
My inner catacombs.

Now, when it slithers
By, I hear the memory
And witness that
The quiet’s stealth
And fleeting voice
Is its prophetic
Role. My bread into
Flesh. My wine into blood.
It animates, transubstantiates.
Speaking, touching,
And healing with
The halting charisma
And power
Of silence.


I recently worked with baritone Robert Brandt and mounted a performance of these Birdsongs.

“While living in Michigan, the thick deciduous woods had a way of creeping into my mind. The many birds who lived there unwittingly (or not!) made it into my prose, and after a few years I realized I had handfuls of poems about various species and my interactions with them. I’m intrigued by the mysterious nature of this particular collection of words and subjects that I did not initially intend to make and realized I had only in retrospect. Here are only a few of them, collected and composed into a cycle, each giving glimpses into what these birds revealed to me in and around the majestic forests of the Midwest.

Performed by Robert Brandt (baritone) and Barbara Allen (piano). Jan. 29, 2015.”

On Children

The Little Girl

The little girl

Caught in class
Because her folded secret
Did not get there
In the corner.
“It wasn’t meant for you.”
She sobbed.
“It wasn’t meant for you.”

With the Chalk

My son held the chalk,

And rolled it in his hand
He gazed up
And past the hoop
And past the ash
And past the power lines
And past the rotting spruce
Into the fading ether.
Then he turned to me and said,
And so I did.
“I like that,” he said
Then bent to make
A lavender bow from the stairs
Across the crumbling walk.
“Look!” He said
Pointing down
Instead of up
Then he went inside to play. 

In the Desert

As the car passed through

The dry and aching desert
There were few things that
Caught the awe of the boy’s
Suddenly, after cacti, cliffs
And clouds, 
His arm extended 
And from a fist
Affirmative, a finger unfurled
And pointed to
A hypothetical.
“I think there’s a volcano out there.
“I know it.”