Playing with Music, Part II: Learning to Play the Game

Let’s Play a Game

One of the universal behavioral similarities between birds and mammals (and some child-rearing reptiles as well) is a tendency to engage in play behavior. This is usually broken down into social (i.e., playing with others), object (i.e., playing with a ball), or locomotor (i.e., chasing your tail) play, or some combination thereof. It seems that for these species the well-being of both the individual and the group are improved by engaging in play, thus building social bonds, reducing group tension, and promoting the development of both muscle and intellect.

In the ubiquitous genre of the “Cute Internet Pet Video,” we have a canine engaging in novel object and locomotor player with an automated ejection device, or “Dog Plays with Ball-Throwing Robot.”

Humans play in uncountable ways. You could probably count a good handful of play behavior patterns throughout the day: linguistic (puns, jokes, water-cooler stories), raffles, competitions, sports, play with children, play with colleagues, and, for musicians, engaging in our art—which hopefully has retained a sense of play and wonder through the years. Retaining playfulness is essential in the ongoing artistic quests of discovery, re-evaluation, self-challenge, and, hopefully, fun.

One of the elements of music-making that sometimes loses a sense of playfulness is concert programming. For programmers and presenters, concerns for vital practical issues—audience attraction, audience retention, rehearsal time, capability of the performers, length of concert versus listener attention, performance and advertising budgets, ethics, demographics, etc.— have the potential to stunt the natural creativity of concertizing. How does one go about crafting a musical presentation—be it a solo concert, a tour, or an ensemble’s or venue’s full season—that also balances a sense of play, engagement, and wonder that leads to the most natural music-making?

One way to address this question is by looking at the way that game designers approach play. Both game designers and musicians are dealing with interactional frameworks that should, at their best, be fun (and/or fulfilling) to engage with, and, for professionals, need to be economically viable. That is, they are balancing experiential qualities with practical quantities. Approaching programming with game design elements in mind can give musicians (and artists in general) a fresh set of variables to consider in the quest to present their art.

Here are the Rules

Most successful games (and you can place your own value on what success is, whether it be cultural endurance or economic viability) tend to have a few things in common:

  • There is some sort of interaction. This interaction might be virtual (with a computer or video game system), with another human player with or without methods of intervention—cards, board, dice, etc.—or possibly even against oneself, in the case of playing solitaire, or practicing (“solo play”) for a sport or art.
Calvinball Image © Bill Watterson

Image © Bill Watterson

  • There is context for understanding what is going on. Typically, this is a rules set, whether explicitly defined or implicitly understood by the players. Sometimes, the rules can be changed (as we saw in the last installment of this series, or as any readers of Calvin and Hobbes know full well), but the common understanding of the players help them to parse the actions of the game.
  • There is a balance between novelty and familiarity. The rules and setting of the game help to create expectations amidst unexpected events, which could be generated either through chance operations (the result of dice rolls, shuffled decks of cards, or computer-generated spawning sites and rates), the actions of another player (“Will she pass the ball?” “Will he tag me?”), or simply novel surroundings (e.g., I have a soft spot for Star Wars Monopoly, despite having played seemingly eternal “Classic” Monopoly games growing up).
  • There are opportunities for fulfilling experiences. Having rules also creates goal-oriented action, the pursuit and attainment of which can lead to a emotional and psychological fulfillment (oftentimes known as “fun”). However, these goals aren’t necessarily always about winning. (which in general is less applicable in the art world, as I and others have written about).

“You Can Learn How to Play the Game…It’s Easy”

This set of game design aspects certainly resonates well with programming in general. Most artists already strive to foster interaction and understanding, balancing familiar and unfamiliar repertoire, and creating fulfilling experiences. These are easy enough to discuss in the abstract, but implementation can prove challenging, whether due to over-generalization of an idea (what is a “fulfilling experience,” anyway, and how does one even approach quantifying it?), or to colleagues, boards, or directors who might not share the same types of programming goals. Over the next few weeks, I’ll break down the above ideas through pertinent questions that offer a fresh look at how we choose to program and present our art. As the Beatles (above) suggest, “all you need is love,” but it’s always helpful to have a few guidelines along the way to figure out the best way to share the music you care passionately about.

Decanting the Descant: In Memoriam David Willcocks

In his novel The Great and Secret Show, Clive Barker writes of a postal worker sifting through “dead” letters, week by week, culling, processing, and moving on. In this process, however, the character begins to find references to a behind-the-scenes magic that is at work, and, by chance, recovers a talisman that is a locus of power for the magical society of which he has read.

This may seem an odd way to begin a memoriam to Sir David Willcocks, the great CTL-Sir-David-Willcocksmusician who passed on September 16. He was a figure who brought “light and life” (to quote from Mendelssohn, one of the many hymn tunes he arranged) to his compositions, recordings, and choirs. A remembrance of any life, though, is not just the mountaintop experiences of well-known works, but also attempts to encompass the passage of days that moves from peak to peak, as any work of mountaintop or talismanic importance is preceded by days of mining the deep in the creative quarries. Briefly, then, I want to meditate on the type of life that led to Willcocks’ body of work, focusing especially on the descant as a metaphor for our own artistic explorations, and such a life affects and can continue to inspire musicians and artists.

Day by Day

Willcocks is remembered foremost as a church musician, having sung as a boy in the Westminster Abbey choir, serving as Organist at King’s College, Cambridge, holding positions at Worcester and Salisbury Cathedrals, the Bach Choir, and (most famously) directing the Choir of Men and Boys at King’s. He was also influential in the general music-making of Britain, directing not only the Three Choirs Festival but also serving as director of the Royal Academy of Music. Few ensembles publicly perform as much music per week as the singers, organists, and directors of choirs in the Cathedral and Collegiate choral tradition that exist throughout Europe, and Great Britain in particular. In the most active parishes and schools, Evening Prayer may be sung almost daily (replete with virtuosic organ voluntaries, introits, hymns, psalm settings, prayer settings, canticles, and an anthem—all just for one service) in addition to performances of morning prayer or Eucharistic services on weekends. This was Willcocks’ world, for decades.

This is not necessarily to extol the virtues of a religious musicality, though that can lend an artist a purposive potency of belief in their writing and performance. What is technically and aesthetically astonishing, however, is to consider the amount of music that passes the hands, minds, and mouths of musicians who engage in this tradition. This is not merely the daily practice of reviewing music in the practice room, but of realizing it in public performance, honing one’s ability to work closely with other musicians in a chamber context, think quickly and expressively, and learn—deeply learn—a wide variety of music at a very rapid rate. This deep and daily interaction with the flow of music from throughout the centuries has a dual effect: on one hand, it scours clean infelicities of sight-reading and the lack of confidence; and, on the other, it creates a build-up of instinctive knowledge—of phrasing, ornamentation, style, harmonization, and general musical interaction.

High and Mighty

It is important to understand this daily interaction with music when we approach what Willcocks is (perhaps) best known for: his arrangements of descants for hymns and carols. Though these certainly were not his sole compositional creations, their proliferation throughout any region of the world touched by British culture is certainly impactful, and his inventive arrangements have now become gold standards.

The fluency that results from daily focused practice or performance allows a musician the type of flexibility akin to a chess master seeing where pieces can and must move to create a desired effect. Rather than playing against someone, though, a composer, arranger, or organist creating a reharmonization or descant must necessarily play with and for multiple people. The only “opponent” (if there is one) is the original material, the melodic line that (whether you’re Bach harmonizing a chorale, Beethoven creating a variation, or Brahms delving into Baroque and Renaissance counterpoint) should be at least somewhat preserved. And, in the case of the descant tradition that arose in the mid-20th century, the crafting of a soaring soprano line above a hymn tune, how to balance the agency of a singing group of amateur of non-musicians with the complexities of chromaticism and counterpoint.

Take Adeste Fidelis, the classic hymn heard at Christmastime as “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The hymn tune lends itself easily to a diatonic progression, the first phrase ending in an open half-cadence. It would be easy to harmonize a simple descant on top, moving mostly in parallel thirds:

Adeste 1

However, ease does not necessarily result in excitement. This descant, though viable in fulfilling the harmonic progression, noodles around the same high point (D and E), and, lacking the melodic directionality heard in the hymn tune, seems to just be harmonic icing rather than a potent spotlight of sound.

Another option can be created by opening with an arpeggio that creates a more dynamic entrance, followed by a fanfare figure that hearkens back to the opening, and an upward scale with occasional, fleeting pitches that do not fit the chord, then breaking the melodic ceiling before arriving at an inverted fanfare for the half cadence:

Adeste 2

A decent offering, and certainly with a modicum of drama.

But more possibilities open with reharmonization, or the inclusion of stronger, lingering dissonances; possibilities branch off, seemingly without end, and it is up to the arranger to bring these possibilities together to create an experience worthy of the text, occasion, audience and performers—a creative process in which Willcocks excelled, as is shown so resplendently in this now-iconic realization (skip to 2’20” for the descant and following reharmonization):


An artistic life is one of multiplicities, of ever-branching possibilities. Willcocks’ was no exception. A veteran of World War II, a life-long musician, conductor, organist, arranger, composer, administrator, and visionary for what things could be—not just in the harmonic variables and equations of arranging, but in what a choir could sound like, what their role could be in the burgeoning international forum of choral recordings. He pursued a musical future, offering to others the opportunity to engage with the same tradition that sculpted his own powerful musical intellect. May we be so lucky to fully engage with our art, day in and day out, and to pursue our own potentials to re-invent, re-harmonize, and re-arrange our lives to a more artistic end.

Review: “A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was,” September 8, 2015

Abecedarian “Baby” Composer Deftly Expresses Fragility, Grace, Hands

Dr. David Smooke (Photo Credit: Britt Olsen-Ecker)

Dr. David Smooke
(Photo Credit: Britt Olsen-Ecker)

Over Labor Day weekend, the New York-based new music ensemble loadbang breathed into Baltimore, filling the newest performance venue at the Peabody Institute, the Centre Street Performance Space, with lung-powered energy and verve. The second of their two concerts, occurring on September 8, was comprised solely of composer and Peabody Faculty member David Smooke’s monodrama commissioned by the group, A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was. The work is based on the abecedarian poem by Baltimore Writer Michael Kimball, and accompanied with video by hometown filmmaker Margaret Rorison.


the loadbang ensemble

loadbang—described aptly by Smooke as “astonishingly good”—includes a baritone vocalist (and occasional percussionist/zitherist), bass clarinet, trumpet, and trombone. Though an unlikely grouping, the ensemble has premiered an impressive number of works, leaving in their trail an amassed repertoire of uniquely orchestrated compositions and arrangements. Though the Pierrot ensemble and its kin remain regular features of contemporary instrumentation (and rightfully so, as one can hear with the LUNAR ensemble, which kicks off its season this Friday in Baltimore), groups like loadbang provide not only richly crafted music acrobatically realized, but also a shining example of an unusual ensemble that is making its way in the new music world—a hopeful sign to younger performers who may be interested in more experimental timbral pursuits.

The monodrama—which (spoilers ahead) eschews a precise plot (though Smooke writes of the “narrator gradually develop[ing] a sense of self, growing up with a doting mother and a nearly absent father”)—creates a series of resonances, emblems and touchstones that allow the listener to alight upon abstract stories-within-the moment. The text proceeds alphabetically, repeating words in sometimes minimalistic patterns with virtuosic grooves spiraling amidst vocal lines (“baby, baby, baby,” bounces buoyantly between my ears, still); sometimes the lines are operatic: the quiet statements of “eyes” give way to a Verdian “face.” Much of the important words are bodily images: “eyes,” “face,” “fingers,” “fat” (its counterpart, in the third part of the work, “thin,” receives similar textural treatment, a sudden emphasis on low, soft, slow tones that somehow convey both adiposity and a skeletal washed-out sensation).

Some of my favorite moments in Smooke’s music are the quietest: here, a natural, unhurried beauty emerges (his nonopera, Criminal Element, has a movement which takes place by the sea that is one of the most beautifully arresting pieces I have experienced). loadbang matches their earlier virtuosic vigor with variegated volume in these tender passages, such as “breathe” and “heart.” Here, Smooke paints words directly, with non-pitched air passing through the instruments for “breathe,” and soft slap-tonguings for “heart.” Though some might suggest such depictions are obvious, they do more than text-paint: they bring the listener into a state where one comes close to embodying the protagonist. In the hall, we are forced to experience the awakening conscious and conscience of bodiliness directly, and the room becomes aware of its own breathing, beating, organicism.

Images Jump, Keyed, Linking Mnemonic Newnesses Onto Performance

Rorison’s images offered living snapshots of Baltimore along with the awakening eyes of the singer/speaker/feeler: Penn Station, Old St. Paul’s parish, flocks of birds diving past swaying branches in local parks. These were accompanied by fingers, hands, feet—though never faces: Rorison was careful to enter into the spirit of the text penned by Kimball and enlivened by Smooke, leaving out anything that would grant the specificity of a personal identity. The images set up an interesting resonance with the text and music, sometimes mimicking onomatopoetically (electrical wires seemed to hum along with “mine, mine, mine”), sometimes suggesting alternative texts (the flock of birds occurs prominently amidst the “F”s). Though the videos were, perhaps, non-essential to the musical realization, they allowed for expanded sensory opportunities that, for me, led to un-looked-for connections.

The murmurations of birds, weaving and spinning and creating new shapes, seemed an apt metaphor for Smooke’s compositional process. In full disclosure, he had spoken with me leading up to the performance, mentioning that the second two parts of the work were re-configurations of the first. Incidentally, the same conversation also touched on his own misgivings of his contrapuntal chops. But, I feel, this work suggests a different sort of counterpoint, a temporal flocking that expands and contracts, shadowy outlines re-envisioned and turned over, revealing slowly pulsating, and, at times, entropic temporal zones (especially as we slowly approach the long-fermata’d “sleep”) that mirror our process as an audience endeavoring to parse the sea of semantic saturation in which we swim for this hour-and-a-bit. Again, we find our consciousness emerging, our surroundings novel, constructing our own meanings from this combination of sound and sense which glimmers and bubbles uniquely, depending upon what angle of incidence the musical ideas are struck by time and form.

Questing Repetitions, Sung Timbral Ululations, Xylophone-esque Yips: Zounds

More could be said about the many aspects of the work that add to the alternatingly hypnotic and dramatic experience: the microtone-and-mulitphonic-infused “no’s” (or is it “nose?” Or “knows?” As listeners, we don’t.) which incite a bell-like timbral recreation that would make any Spectralist composer jealous; the imaginative use of the singer-as-percussionist to provide timbral organization through the recurrence of a glockenspiel, and, especially the (spoiler alert) microtonally tuned zither that is played in place of the words beginning with the final alphabetical sigil; the wonderful “waves” created as we approached the end. But a detailing of these aspects would only desiccate the potential meanings of the work: its power comes from a potential to grow in each person, to interact uniquely with each observer and performer, at once a cipher and alpha-numeric decoder ring, growing in, growing out, growing bigger than up was.

Playing with Music, Part I: Assumptions and Amendments

One of our most difficult tasks, as artists and as people, is understanding our own assumptions. These sets of foregone conclusions define our own realities, and our actions and interactions therein. Many of these assumptions can prove beneficial—“this steaming soup bowl must be hot, better wait to eat it”—or are relics of past learned experiences—for instance, knowing where a friend, colleague, or loved one might be if you want to talk. But some assumptions can negatively impact ourselves and our surroundings when they take the form of prejudices. Taken to extremes, these may prove harmful: here in Baltimore, particularly, the history of racial and class prejudice has been violently brought to the forefront of the city’s cultural consciousness in recent months. But even without such a telescopic view, assumptive acts can hinder an artist’s development because they re- and de-form one’s interactions with the world about one—sometimes with benefits, and sometimes with challenges.

Coming to grips with what we assume can be extraordinarily difficult, as it requires both the intensity of focus to observe what we ourselves are doing, and a broadness of vision to take in a bigger picture with which we may compare and contrast our work. The resulting awareness can certainly benefit the development of an artist’s “voice,” that distinctive and personal way in which the artist uses her or his materials to create and frame their works. For composers, this voices can change throughout a lifetime, but in retrospect frequently has clear technical elements—a widely spaced major chord in first inversion is a common Beethovenian trope in his late works, and an ascending 4th followed by two-three descending steps is common contrapuntal “stuffing” in late Bach (a reference, perhaps, to the passion chorale O Haupt vol Blut und Wunden). For young composers (or artists of any stripe), this process of balancing technique, form, and message (if there is to be one), along with all the other ineffable elements of art-making within an ever-widening global culture can seem inexorable. This magnifies the potential time for self-doubt that seep between individual compositional decisions that might be glossed or taken for granted later in life.

This intense questioning period affords the chance to create novel and individualistic works, setting the composer on a path to find her or his “voice;” at the same time, it can be an aesthetically dangerous time, easy to fall prey to assumptions of how something “should” be or sound, what “should” come next, whether defined by a composer’s peers, teachers, or cultural heroes.

One of my roles at a liberal arts college where I teach is to lead a Composer’s Forum where we explore repertoire of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. To choose the works for the semester’s repertoire list, I try to use a variety of strategies, sometimes moving by time period, or stylistic/technical “movement,” or even instrumentation (a particularly fruitful method that dovetailed well with an orchestration class I was teaching at the time). This year, we are exploring music by continent as a way to expand the students’ (and my own) musical worldview. Through reading and listening, we can also discuss what compositional choices and what creative or sociological forces are shaping composers within different nations.

To demonstrate how pre-existing assumptions can affect personal choices and interactions—casting light on aesthetic evolution on a larger, cultural scale as well as on a smaller, individual one—we took the last half of our first class session together to play a game—Nomic.


Peter Suber

Nomic is a game about creating rules. As such, it makes a good deal of sense to introduce it to composers, who are both working within a certain set of “rules” (or, rather, cultural expectations) in their music theory classes, while at the same time having to create their own, individualistic rules set for their personal creative pursuits (which may or may not be based on or influenced by previous rules sets they have learned). The game was invented by philosopher Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Ammendment, and popularized by Douglas Hofstaddter (the polymath computer-programmer-cum-counterpoint-aficionado who gave us the wonderful labyrinth of a book Gödel, Escher, Bach) in his column Metamagical Themas. The basis of the game is that there are two sets of rules, mutable and immutable, that govern play. Players take turns in which they first propose a rule change (defined as an addition, deletion, or emendation of a rule), and then roll a die, adding the face value to their score. The original game included some very specific definitions of rules and actions which I glossed in the interest of time; also, it included the win condition of “the first player to 100 or more points wins.” For our classroom purposes, here were my rules which I gave to the students:

Immutable Rules:

  • Rules changes may be discussed; following any discussion, they are voted upon. Each player has one vote. Immutable rules must have a unanimous vote to change; mutable rules may have a simple majority to pass.
  • Once a rule is voted on, it is in effect, but is not retroactive.
  • Play proceeds clockwise from the professor.
  • The professor serves as arbiter.

Mutable Rules:

  • One turn consists of: (1) Proposing a rule change (a deletion, addition, or emendation or a rule) and (2) throwing one die and adding the face value in points to your score
  • When a proposed rule change is defeated, the player who proposed it loses 10 points.
  • When a proposed rule change is adopted, the player who proposed it gains 10 points.
  • If a proposed rule passes without unanimity, those who voted against it gain 10 points.
  • Only one player may win. The object of the game is find a way to do so.

Additionally, I instituted a global rule that existed outside the game, forbidding any action which was illegal or disobeyed the school’s code of conduct.

I felt Nomic would be perfect to simulate simplified cultural interactions and evolutions. Change is certainly possible, but requires communal buy-in to take root. For purposes of this class, I had kept win conditions (and several other aspects of the game) open: after all, for artists in the 21st century, “winning” is not nearly as defined as it once might have been—and, if we think it is so defined, we may sometimes find we have painted ourselves into an aesthetic corner.

A brief summary of play:

The early part of the game was spent alternately testing the rules (and, it seems, the other players), as well as vying for points. After several turns, the players realized that, although there were conditions to gain points, there were no actual specifications for winning. A number of proposals for win conditions were suggested, with one eventually succeeding and resulting in a lucky win.

Interesting highlights included:

  • A proposed amendment (defeated) that, in order to win, one must lose the game (this may have been too arcane to gain acceptance)
  • A proposed amendment (accepted) that doubled the points value of a dice roll (a clear “rising tide lifts all boats” amendment)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) that made on of the players the arbiter (a role I had purposefully left nebulous; the gist of the defeat was that there were few tangible “campaign promises,” essentially quid pro quo elements, that would give value to the other players in return)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) whereby a defeated amendment would still garner points (I assume that self-interest trumped egalitarianism here)
  • A proposed amendment (defeated) whereby win conditions specified the first player to 50 points was the winner (there was then discussion as to whether this was supposed to be 50 points exactly, or 50 or more points)
  • A proposed amendment (accepted) whereby the win conditions became: the first player to attain a points value which is a multiple of 9 is the winner (this was first 10, but was thought to easy because of the points values of amendments—thus, rules changes are controlled in part by the pre-existing rules)

In the end, luck won out: a player with 5 points rolled a 2, which, due to the multiple rule, resulted in a gain of 4 points, and thus a score of 9: a win!A lucky win.

An observer who walked in post-game saw a certain player’s score who had accumulated a fair number of points: “It’s too bad! You had so many points.” Of course, as the students discovered, when win conditions are created communally, the illusion of value (points) can result in biases that define our actions, e.g., the early push to accumulate points in-game, or the definition of win conditions based on pre-existing points values.

When asked what factors led the students to vote for or against an amendment, one of the overriding factors was allegiance: “did they vote with me or against me last time?” (This is an interesting resonance with the Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario which we’ll look at in the next installment of this article). Self-interest, loyalty, and egalitarianism thus spin together, resulting in a unique web of interactions—demonstrating how competition for the control of ideas can create a specific culture of creation (in this case, rules creation) that both forms and deforms itself—and instructive revelation as we begin to look at musical cultures beyond our borders. Most importantly, however, we found that, as artists, we must (literally) decide what our own win conditions are, and what assumptions we must overcome to create our own worlds.

NB: All identifying marks have been removed and privacy of students maintained in keeping with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99). Permission was gained from students before writing.