Category Archives: Thoughts

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


Five Birds — Three Poems

The Cardinals

I traced the cardinals’ breasts into the canopy
Red strokes, blurred across
The honey locust’s pinnate feather wings
They were hosted in the leaflets
Stunning one another in vermilion sorcery

Head cocked and saffron crowned
The lady up and dove through the verdant stand
And disappeared into the wood
Darting round the knotted copse
And out, into the silence

The Magpies

A pair of magpies
Startled in the brambles
Flapped and rose out
Of thorns and morning dew
And let me see their
Ghostly eyes, dark-cast beads
Of stoic open wonder

Blinding black and white,
I saw chess upon their wings
And after a mocking dance,
Of knight and stalwart bishop,
They sprung up
Through the canopy
And laughed at me
And dawn’s lost stars

The Sparrow

The sparrow’s path
Hooked through the sun’s
Bright and bleeding rays,
Then burst through
A vast and clouded
Tortured teardrop
To undo the
And pain
And seal his love
upon the world

Poems: A March Triptych


at least oblivion
offers peace,
an unvoided contract
of open sky
and blue bliss
earned by so many
but reached by so few

in that space
between each step

in that space
between each breath

don’t blink

in that space
between each heartbeat
the moment glows

do you see it?


oh, the sinister muse
who takes me away
and shocks with,
demands a sacrifice.
all that it promised
is all it asks
in return.
The mimetic pain
following trails of
the Father of us all

in my hollow core
somehow I am full
or so I hope . . .
and hope
in the end
is all that can fill
and all that fills



In the trees
I hear the wind
even though it’s still
on the plain
I stand stop a peak
and the stars
hang and glow
in the night sky
even though it’s day
the grass greens
beneath us
and curls around
our toes
even though it’s cold
and winter,
and the ice melts
even as it’s made

earth, light, and air
speak to minds
who see and hear
beyond the moment
and there are whispers,
secrets to be told
if we will them in
and release
our imagination’s silk into
that wind
to wisp and glide through
arbor’s arms,
past peaks,
celestial glows,
flowing water,
and verdant, curling, grasses

The Allegory of The Love Doctor

Fascinated with the emotional, social, and expressive dimensions of one of the most complex and ubiquitous human concepts, Philo set out to learn more from one of the earth’s self-proclaimed masters in the subject of Love. Having received numerous degrees from prestigious schools, and having written and published dozens of very well-received books and articles in well-respected publications, the Doctor of Love, or “Love” Theorist, as he called himself, happened to live, teach, and work at an institution of higher learning just a few cities away. The trip was worth the time and energy, as Philo’s passion was understanding the phenomena of Love, its meaning, its uses, its difficulties, and its infinite complexities, and if there was one individual who could help him understand the inherent beauty and inner workings of such a seemingly impenetrable yet pervasive subject, then it would surely be this Doctor of Love.

The plans were set, the trip was made, and soon Philo was shaking hands with and sitting across the desk from this ostensibly brilliant individual. After getting comfortable in the worn leather chair, and exchanging warm salutations with the Doctor and his bushy brows, he eagerly asked the question that he had traveled so far to have answered.

“I’d like to understand Love,” Philo began, rubbing his child-like and humble hands together as he spoke. “I have felt it, I have expressed it, I have given it, I have received it — but how? Why? What makes it tick?” The Doctor was used to responding to such superficial generalities, as there were few other than those in academia’s upper echelon’s who could speak with authority about such a complex subject. He began slowly and meticulously, shaping each phrase as if it were his last.

“First, my son, you need to accept that this is no subject that one can master in a single afternoon,” he flatly stated as Philo nodded his head and scratched his chin waiting for more, “but I see that you are ready to understand this thing called Love, so let’s get to the details.” With that introduction Philo scooted forward to the edge of his seat, his eyes glued and ears cocked, ready and willing to learn. “Let’s dive right in, shall we?” said the Doctor.

“Love consists of L-O-V-E,” he stated with punctilious perfection, clearly hoping to get an enthusiastic rise out of his student right from the start. Any rise, however, was that of fawning educational zeal transforming into skepticism. With hope, however, Philo edged forward waiting for more. The Doctor continued.

“L, you see, is the 12th letter in our English alphabet. O is the 15th. V is the 22nd. And E, ohh! E . . . is the 5th. In fact, let me show you . . .” he said as he leapt out of his chair with a bubbly grin and approached a blackboard to the left of his desk.

“Here!” he said as he drew an L on the blackboard. “Look at the angle of this letter . . . uh huh . . . do you see it? It’s 90 degrees! And this O right here!” he mused as he, like Giotto incarnate, completed the perfect curvature of the letter’s circle. “The V is nothing but a transformation of the L, but turned counter-clockwise 45 degrees,” he remarked, and then suddenly fixing his beady and increasingly maddened eyes on Philo, revealed, “That’s exactly half of 90 degrees, you know . . .”

Philo, couldn’t believe his ears, or his eyes, for that matter. When the good Doctor began waxing about how the numbers corresponding to the alphabetic position of the letters, when summed together (for a grand old stinking total of 54) and divided by their own arithmetic mean (which was 13.5, by the way) gave you 4 (naturally!) he was beginning to shift around in that well-worn leather chair looking for a hidden camera in the room. Was this some kind of joke? Had he strolled into the wrong office and struck up a conversation with the department jester?

“Ergo. . .” the Doctor stated with an emphatic pause, “LOVE!”. He exhaled lovingly in a way which Philo found ironic considering the circumstances, and it cooled his own fuming temper for just long enough to let good ol’ Doctor Lovey Dovey start up again.

“Now, let’s venture to the word’s origins, shall we?” he said, lifting his luxuriant academic eyebrows up and down with such vigor that Philo swore he felt a draft. With that statement Philo actually thought that they might be getting somewhere productive, somewhere insightful, somewhere that would make his journey worthwhile, somewhere that would seal up all of this pseudo-scientific tommyrot and thoroughly defenestrate it.

“First, the Old English: ‘L-U-F-U’,” the Doctor continued, and with that Philo arose and stormed out of the room. “Don’t you want to know about the Greek?!” the Doctor called down the hall after him, but it was too late.

Philo grumbled to himself as he buttoned his coat and walked down the frozen ivory-white steps of the building. After a brief sojourn of city-hopping, he had returned to his home, having puzzled along the way, and was still dumb-struck at how utterly irrelevant the dear Doctor’s professorial postulations were as compared to the experience and act of love in the real world. “Surely, he must realize this,” Philo mused. “Surely, the personal anecdotes and garnered aphorisms of a layperson would be more descriptive, explanatory, and insightful than . . . than THAT.” He sighed heavily, and sunk into his chair, beginning an evening of hypnagogic travel-induced lucubration, eyes focused on the blank wall in front of him, continually passing between sleep and wakefulness.

Philo came to, stood, and began the walk to his bed. While climbing up the stairs, it occurred to him that Love was meaningful to him; he loved love; he loved the feeling; he loved the commitment; he loved the chivalry, the niceties, the traditions; he loved the symbols; he loved the ever-changing newness of it in conjunction with its aging mythic prominence; he loved that everyone loved differently, and that love itself meant different things to everyone while simultaneously being a quintessentially shared phenomenon, to which so many of us could ostensibly relate. In contrast, the explanatory trajectory of the professor, was so unique that it bore virtually no resemblance to the meanings of Love within contemporary culture — or any culture outside of the Doctor’s building, for that matter.

Philo, considering all this, was exhausted. He loosened his tie, collapsed on his bed, and dreamt.