I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desire and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds — nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of creation is almost 180 degrees from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.
Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one’s work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes something because the opportunity is there), it doesn’t mean that creation must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usually find a way in, and the tailoring process — form being tailored to fit a given context — is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don’t even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention. The emotional story — “something to get off my chest” — still gets told, but its form is guided by prior contextual restrictions. I’m proposing that this is not entirely the bad thing one might expect it to be. Thank goodness, for example, that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we make something.
In a sense, we work backward, either consciously or unconsciously, creating work that fits the venue available to us. That holds true for the other arts as well: pictures are created that fit and look good on white walls in galleries just as music is written that sounds good either in a dance club or a symphony hall (but probably not in both). In a sense, the space, the platform, and the software “makes” the art, the music, or whatever. After something succeeds, more venues of a similar size and shape are built to accommodate more production of the same. After a while the form of the work that predominates in these spaces is taken for granted — of course we mainly hear symphonies in symphony halls.
In the photo below you can see the room at CBGB where some of the music I wrote was first heard. (Photo 1) Try to ignore the lovely décor and think of the size and shape of the space. Next to that is a band performing. (Photo 2) The sound in that club was remarkably good — the amount of crap scattered everywhere, the furniture, the bar, the crooked uneven walls and looming ceiling made for both great sound absorption and uneven acoustic reflections — qualities one might spend a fortune to recreate in a recording studio. Well, these qualities were great for this particular music. Because of the lack of reverberation, one could be fairly certain, for example, that details of one’s music would be heard — and given the size of the place, intimate gestures and expressions would be seen and appreciated as well, at least from the waist up. Whatever went on below the waist was generally invisible, obscured by the half-standing, half-sitting audience. Most of the audience would have had no idea that the guy in that photo was rolling around on the stage — he would have simply disappeared from view.
This New York club was initially meant to be a bluegrass and country venue — like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville. The singer George Jones knew the number of steps from the stage door of the Grand Ole Opry to the back door of Tootsie’s — thirty-seven. Charlie Pride gave Tootsie Bess a hatpin to use on rowdy customers.
Below is a photo of some performers at Tootsie’s. (Photo 3) Physically, the two clubs are almost identical. The audience behavior was pretty much the same in both places, too. (Photo 4)
The musical differences between the two venues are less significant than one might think — structurally, the music emanating from them was pretty much identical, even though once upon a time a country music audience at Tootsie’s would have hated punk rock, and vice versa. When Talking Heads first played in Nashville, the announcer declaimed, “Punk rock comes to Nashville! For the first, and probably the last time!”
Both of these places are bars. People drink, make new friends, shout, and fall down, so the performers had to play loud enough to be heard above that— and so it was, and is. (FYI: the volume in Tootsie’s is much louder than it usually was in CBGB.)
Looking at this scant evidence, I asked myself, to what extent was I writing music specifically, and maybe unconsciously, to fit these places? (I didn’t know about Tootsie’s when I began to write songs.) So I did a little digging to see if other types of music might have also been written to fit their acoustic contexts.
WE’RE ALL AFRICANS
Percussive music carries well outdoors, where people might be both dancing and milling about. The extremely intricate and layered rhythms that are typical of this music don’t get sonically mashed together as they would in, say, a school gymnasium. Who would invent, play, or persevere with such rhythms if they sounded terrible? No one. Not for a minute. This music doesn’t need amplification, either—though that did come along later.
The North American musicologist Alan Lomax argued in his book "Folk Song Style and Culture" that the structure of this music and others of its type — essentially leaderless ensembles — emanates from and mirrors egalitarian societies, but suffice it to say that’s a whole other level of context. I love his theory that music and dance styles are metaphors for the social and sexual mores of the societies they emerge from, but that’s not the story I aim to focus on in this book.
Some say that the instruments being played in the photo below (Photo 5) were all derived from easily available local materials, and therefore it was convenience (with a sly implication of unsophistication) that determined the nature of the music. This assessment implies that these instruments and this music were the best this culture could do given the circumstances. But I would argue that the instruments were carefully fashioned, selected, tailored, and played to best suit the physical, acoustic, and social situation. The music perfectly fits the place where it is heard, sonically and structurally. It is absolutely ideally suited for this situation — the music, a living thing, evolved to fit the available niche.
That same music would turn into sonic mush in a cathedral. (Photo 6) Western music in the Middle Ages was performed in these stone-walled gothic cathedrals, and in architecturally similar monasteries and cloisters. The reverberation time in those spaces is very long — more than four seconds in most cases — so a note sung a few seconds ago hangs in the air and becomes part of the present sonic landscape. A composition with shifting musical keys would inevitably invite dissonance as notes overlapped and clashed — a real sonic pileup. So what evolved, what sounds best in this kind of space, is modal in structure — often using very long notes. Slowly evolving melodies that eschew key changes work beautifully and reinforce the otherworldly ambience. Not only does this kind of music work well acoustically, it helps establish what we have come to think of as a spiritual aura. Africans, whose spiritual music is often rhythmically complex, may not associate the music that originates in these spaces with spirituality; they may simply hear it as being blurry and indistinct. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, however, thought that the temple and cathedral are attractive because they spatially and acoustically recreate the cave, where early humans first expressed their spiritual yearnings. Or at least that’s where we think they primarily expressed these feelings, as almost all traces of such activities have disappeared.
It’s usually assumed that much Western medieval music was harmonically “simple” (having few key changes) because composers hadn’t yet evolved the use of complex harmonies. In this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as they would have sounded horrible in such spaces. Creatively they did exactly the right thing. Presuming that there is such a thing as “progress” when it comes to music, and that music is “better” now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t “improve.”
Bach did a lot of his playing and writing in the early 1700s in a church that was smaller than a gothic cathedral. (Photo 7) As you can imagine, there was already an organ there, and the sound was reverberant, though not as much as in the giant gothic cathedrals.
The music Bach wrote for such spaces sounded good in there; the space made the single instrument, the pipe organ, sound larger, and it also had the nice effect of softening any mistakes as he doodled up and down the scales, as was his wont. Modulating into different keys in the innovative way he did was risky business in these venues. Previously, composers for these rooms stayed in the same key, so they could be all washy and droney, and if the room sounded like an empty swimming pool, then it posed no problem.
I recently went to a Balkan music festival in Brooklyn in a hall that was almost identical to the church pictured on the previous page. The brass bands were playing in the middle of the floor, and folks were dancing in circles around them. The sound was pretty reverberant — not ideal for the complicated rhythms of Balkan music, but then again, that music didn’t develop in rooms like the one I was in.
In the late 1700s, Mozart would perform his compositions at events in his patrons’ palaces in grand, but not gigantic rooms. (Photos 8, 9) At least initially, he didn’t write expecting his music to be heard in symphony halls, which is where they’re often performed today, but rather in these smaller, more intimate venues. Rooms like these would be filled with people whose bodies and elaborate dress would deaden the sound, and that, combined with the frilly décor and their modest size (when compared to cathedrals and even ordinary churches) meant that his similarly frilly music could be heard clearly in all its intricate detail.
People could dance to it too. My guess is that in order to be heard above the dancing, clomping feet, and gossiping, one might have had to figure out how to make the music louder, and the only way to do this was to increase the size of the orchestra, which is what happened.
Meanwhile, some folks around that same time were going to hear operas. La Scala was built in 1776; the original orchestra section comprised a series of booths or stalls, rather than the rows of seats that exist now. (Photo 10) People would eat, drink, talk, and socialize during the performances — audience behavior, a big part of music’s context, was very different back then. Back in the day, people would socialize and holler out to one another during the performances. They’d holler at the stage, too, for encores of the popular arias. If they liked a tune, they wanted to hear it again — now! The vibe was more like CBGB than your typical contemporary opera house.
La Scala and other opera venues of the time were also fairly compact— more so than the big opera houses that now dominate much of Europe and the United States. The depth of La Scala and many other opera houses of that period is maybe like the Highline Ballroom or Irving Plaza in New York, but La Scala is taller, with a larger stage. The sound in these opera houses is pretty tight, too (unlike today’s larger halls). I’ve performed in some of these old opera venues, and if you don’t crank the volume too high, it works surprisingly well for certain kinds of contemporary pop music.
Take a look at Bayreuth, the opera house Wagner had built for his own music in the 1870s. (Photo 11) You can see it’s not that huge. Not very much bigger than La Scala. Wagner had the gumption to demand that this venue be built to better accommodate the music he imagined — which didn’t mean there was much more seating, as a practical-minded entrepreneur might insist on today. It was the orchestral accommodations themselves that were enlarged. He needed larger orchestras to conjure the requisite bombast. He had new and larger brass instruments created too, and he also called for a larger bass section, to create big orchestral effects.
Wagner in some ways doesn’t fit my model — his imagination and ego seemed to be larger than the existing venues, so he was the exception who didn’t accommodate. Granted, he was mainly pushing the boundaries of preexisting opera architecture, not inventing something from scratch. Once he built this place, he more or less wrote for it and its particular acoustic qualities.
As time passed, symphonic music came to be performed in larger and larger halls. That musical format, originally conceived for rooms in palaces and the more modest-sized opera halls, was now somewhat unfairly being asked to accommodate more reverberant spaces. Subsequent classical composers therefore wrote music for those new halls, with their new sound, and it was music that emphasized texture, and sometimes employed audio shock and awe in order to reach the back row that was now farther away. They needed to adapt, and adapt they did.
The music of Mahler and other later symphonic composers works well in spaces like Carnegie Hall. (Photo 12) Groove music, percussive music featuring drums — like what I do, for example — has a very hard time here. I’ve played at Carnegie Hall a couple of times, and it can work, but it is far from ideal. I wouldn’t play that music there again. I realized that sometimes the most prestigious place doesn’t always work out best for your music. This acoustic barrier could be viewed as a subtle conspiracy, a sonic wall, a way of keeping the riffraff out — but we won’t go there, not yet.
At the same time that classical music was tucking itself into new venues, so too was popular music. In the early part of the last century, jazz developed alongside later classical music. This popular music was originally played in bars, at funerals, and in whorehouses and joints where dancing was going on. There was little reverberation in those spaces, and they weren’t that big, so, as in CBGB, the groove could be strong and up front. (Photo 13)
It’s been pointed out by Scott Joplin and others that the origin of jazz solos and improvisations was a pragmatic way of solving a problem that had emerged: the “written” melody would run out while the musicians were playing, and in order to keep a popular section continuing longer for the dancers who wanted to keep moving, the players would jam over those chord changes while maintaining the same groove. The musicians learned to stretch out and extend whatever section of the tune was deemed popular. These improvisations and elongations evolved out of necessity, and a new kind of music came into being.
By the mid-twentieth century, jazz had evolved into a kind of classical music, often presented in concert halls, but if anyone’s been to a juke joint or seen the Rebirth or Dirty Dozen brass bands at a place like the Glass House in New Orleans, then you’ve seen lots of dancing to jazz. Its roots are spiritual dance music. Yes, this is one kind of spiritual music that would sound terrible in most cathedrals.
The instrumentation of jazz was also modified so that the music could be heard over the sound of the dancers and the bar racket. Banjos were louder than acoustic guitars, and trumpets were nice and loud, too. Until amplification and microphones came into common use, the instruments written for and played were adapted to fit the situation. The makeup of the bands, as well as the parts the composers wrote, evolved to be heard.
Likewise, country music, blues, Latin music, and rock and roll were all (originally) music to dance to, and they too had to be loud enough to be heard above the chatter. Recorded music and amplification changed all that, but when these forms jelled, such factors were just beginning to be felt.
With classical music, not only did the venues change, but the behavior of the audiences did, too. Around 1900, according to music writer Alex Ross, classical audiences were no longer allowed to shout, eat, and chat during a performance. One was expected to sit immobile and listen with rapt attention. Ross hints that this was a way of keeping the hoi polloi out of the new symphony halls and opera houses. (I guess it was assumed that the lower classes were inherently noisy.) Music that in many instances used to be for all was now exclusively for the elite. Nowadays, if someone’s phone rings or a person so much as whispers to their neighbor during a classical concert, it could stop the whole show.
This exclusionary policy affected the music being written, too — since no one was talking, eating, or dancing anymore, the music could have extreme dynamics. Composers knew that every detail would be heard, so very quiet passages could now be written. Harmonically complex passages could be appreciated as well. Much of twentieth-century classical music could only work in (and was written for) these socially and acoustically restrictive spaces. A new kind of music came into existence that didn’t exist previously — and the future emergence and refining of recording technology would make this music more available and ubiquitous. I do wonder how much of the audience’s fun was sacrificed in the effort to redefine the social parameters of the concert hall — it sounds almost masochistic of the upper crust, curtailing their own liveliness, but I guess they had their priorities.
Although the quietest harmonic and dynamic details and complexities could now be heard, performing in these larger more reverberant halls meant that rhythmically things got less distinct and much fuzzier — less African, one might say. Even the jazz now played in these rooms became a kind of chamber music. Certainly no one danced, drank, or hollered out “Hell, yeah!” even if it was Goodman, Ellington, or Marsalis playing — bands that certainly swing. The smaller jazz clubs followed suit; no one dances anymore at the Blue Note or Village Vanguard, though liquor is very quietly served.
One might conclude that removing the funky relaxed vibe from refined American concert music was not accidental. Separating the body from the head seems to have been an intended consequence—for anything to be serious, you couldn’t be seen shimmying around to it. (Not that any kind of music is aimed exclusively at either the body or head — that absolute demarcation is somewhat of an intellectual and social construct.) Serious music, in this way of thinking, is only absorbed and consumed above the neck. The regions below the neck are socially and morally suspect. The people who felt this way and enforced this way of encountering music probably didn’t take the wildly innovative and sophisticated arrangements of mid-century tango orchestras seriously either. The fact that it was wildly innovative and at the same time very danceable created, for twentieth-century sophisticates, a kind of cognitive dissonance.
With the advent of recorded music in 1878, the nature of the places in which music was heard changed. Music now had to serve two very different needs simultaneously. The phonograph box in the parlor became a new venue; for many people, it replaced the concert hall or the club.
By the thirties, most people were listening to music either on radio or on home phonographs. (Photo 14) People probably heard a greater quantity of music, and a greater variety, on these devices than they would ever hear in person in their lifetimes. Music could now be completely free from any live context, or, more properly, the context in which it was heard became the living room and the jukebox — parallel alternatives to still-popular ballrooms and concert halls.
The performing musician was now expected to write and create for two very different spaces: the live venue, and the device that could play a recording or receive a transmission. Socially and acoustically, these spaces were worlds apart. But the compositions were expected to be the same! An audience who heard and loved a song on the radio naturally wanted to hear that same song at the club or the concert hall.
These two demands seem unfair to me. The performing skills, not to mention the writing needs, the instrumentation, and the acoustic properties for each venue are completely different. Just as stage actors often seem too loud and demonstrative for audiences used to movie acting, the requirements of musical mediums are somewhat mutually exclusive. What is best for one might work for the other, but it doesn’t always work that way.
Performers adapted to this new technology. The microphones that recorded singers changed the way they sang and the way their instruments were played. (Photo 15) Singers no longer had to have great lungs to be successful. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were pioneers when it came to singing “to the microphone.” They adjusted their vocal dynamics in ways that would have been unheard of earlier. It might not seem that radical now, but crooning was a new kind of singing back then. It wouldn’t have worked without a microphone.
Chet Baker even sang in a whisper, as did João Gilberto, and millions followed. To a listener, these guys are whispering like a lover, right into your ear, getting completely inside your head. Music had never been experienced that way before. Needless to say, without microphones this intimacy wouldn’t have been heard at all.
Technology had turned the living room or any small bar with a jukebox into a concert hall (photo 16) — and often there was dancing. Besides changing the acoustic context, recorded music also allowed music venues to come into existence without stages and often without any live musicians at all. DJs could play at high school dances, folks could shove quarters into jukeboxes and dance in the middle of the bar, and in living rooms the music came out of furniture. Eventually venues evolved that were purposefully built to play only this kind of performerless music — discos. (Photo 17)
Music written for contemporary discos, in my opinion, usually only works in those social and physical spaces — it really works best on the incredible sound systems that are often installed in those rooms. It feels stupid to listen to club music at its intended volume at home, though people do it. And, once again, it’s for dancing, as was early hip-hop, which emerged out of dance clubs in the same way that jazz did — by extending sections of the music so the dancers could show o! and improvise. Once again the dancers were changing the context, urging the music in new directions. (Photo 18)
In the sixties the most successful pop music began to be performed in basketball arenas and stadiums, which tend to have terrible acoustics — only a narrow range of music works at all in such environments. Steadystate music (music with a consistent volume, more or less unchanging textures, and fairly simple pulsing rhythms) works best, and even then rarely. The roar of metal works fine. Industrial music for industrial spaces. Stately chord progressions might survive, but funk, for example, bounced off the walls and floors and became chaotic. The groove got killed, though some funky acts persevered because these concerts were social gatherings, bonding opportunities, and rituals as much as music events. Mostly the arenas were filled with white kids — and the music was usually Wagnerian.
The gathered masses in sports arenas and stadiums demanded that the music perform a different function—not only sonically but socially — than what it had been asked to do on a record or in a club. The music those bands ended up writing in response — arena rock — is written with that in mind: rousing, stately anthems. To my ears it’s a soundtrack for a gathering, and listening to it in other contexts recreates the memory or anticipation of that gathering — a stadium in your head.
CONTEMPORARY MUSIC VENUES
Where are the new music venues? Are there venues I’m still not acknowledging that might be influencing how and what kind of music gets written? Well, there is the interior of your car. (Photo 19) I’d argue that contemporary hip-hop is written (or at least the music is) to be heard in cars with systems like the one below. The massive volume seems to be more about sharing your music with everyone, gratis! (Photo 20) In a sense, it’s a music of generosity. I’d say the audio space in a car with these speakers forces a very different kind of composition. The music is bass heavy, but with a strong and precise high end as well. Sonically, what’s in the middle? It’s the vocal, allocated a vacant sonic space where not much else lives. In earlier pop music, the keyboards or guitars or even violins often occupied much of this middle territory, and without those things, the vocals rushed to fill the vacuum.
Hip-hop is unlike anything one could produce with acoustic instruments. That umbilical cord has been cut. Liberated. The connection between the recorded music and the live musician and performer is now a thing of the past. Although this music may have emerged from dance-oriented early hip-hop (which, like jazz, evolved by extending the breaks for dancers), it’s morphed into something else entirely: music that sounds best in cars. People do dance in their cars, or they try to. As big SUVs become less practical I foresee this music changing as well.
One other new music venue has arrived. (Photo 21) Presumably the MP3 player shown below plays mainly Christian music. Private listening really took off in 1979, with the popularity of the Walkman portable cassette player. Listening to music on a Walkman is a variation of the “sitting very still in a concert hall” experience (there are no acoustic distractions), combined with the virtual space (achieved by adding reverb and echo to the vocals and instruments) that studio recording allows. With headphones on, you can hear and appreciate extreme detail and subtlety, and the lack of uncontrollable reverb inherent in hearing music in a live room means that rhythmic material survives beautifully and completely intact; it doesn’t get blurred or turned into sonic mush as it often does in a concert hall. You, and only you, the audience of one, can hear a million tiny details, even with the compression that MP3 technology adds to recordings. You can hear the singer’s breath intake, their fingers on a guitar string. That said, extreme and sudden dynamic changes can be painful on a personal music player. As with dance music one hundred years ago, it’s better to write music that maintains a relatively constant volume for this tiny venue. Dynamically static but with lots of details: that’s the directive here.
If there has been a compositional response to MP3s and the era of private listening, I have yet to hear it. One would expect music that is essentially a soothing flood of ambient moods as a way to relax and decompress, or maybe dense and complex compositions that reward repeated playing and attentive listening, maybe intimate or rudely erotic vocals that would be inappropriate to blast in public but that you could enjoy privately. If any of this is happening, I am unaware of it.
We’ve come full circle in many ways. The musical techniques of the African Diaspora, the foundation of much of the contemporary world’s popular music, with its wealth of interlocking and layered beats, works well acoustically in both the context of the private listening experience and as a framework for much contemporary recorded music. African music sounds the way it does because it was meant to be played out in the open (a form of steady-state music loud enough to be heard outdoors above dancing and singing) but it turns out to also work well in the most intimate of spaces—our inner ears. Yes, people do listen to Bach and Wagner on iPods, but not too many people are writing new music like that, except for film scores, where Wagnerian bombast works really well. If John Williams wrote contemporary Wagner for "Star Wars," then Bernard Herrmann wrote contemporary Schoenberg for "Psycho" and other Hitchcock movies. The symphony hall is now a movie theater for the ears.
BIRDS DO IT
The adaptive aspect of creativity isn’t limited to musicians and composers (or artists in any other media). It extends into the natural world as well. David Attenborough and others have claimed that birdcalls have evolved to fit the environment. In dense jungle foliage, a constant, repetitive, and brief signal within a narrow frequency works best—the repetition is like an error-correcting device. If the intended recipient didn’t get the first transmission, an identical one will follow.
Birds that live on the forest floor evolved lower-pitched calls, so they don’t bounce or become distorted by the ground as higher-pitched sounds might. Water birds have calls that, unsurprisingly, cut through the ambient sounds of water, and birds that live in the plains and grasslands, like the Savannah Sparrow, have buzzing calls that can traverse long distances.
Eyal Shy of Wayne State University says that bird songs vary even within the same species. The pitch of the song of the Scarlet Tanager, for example, is different in the East, where the woods are denser, than it is in the West. (Photo 22)
And birds of the same species adjust their singing as their habitat changes too. Birds in San Francisco were found to have raised the pitch of their songs over forty years in order to be better heard above the noises of the increased traffic.
It’s not just birds, either. In the waters around New Zealand, whale calls have adapted to the increase in shipping noise over the last few decades — the hum of engines and thrash of propellers. Whales need to signal over huge distances to survive, and one hopes that they continue to adapt to this audio pollution.
So musical evolution and adaptation is an interspecies phenomenon. And presumably, as some claim, birds enjoy singing, even though they, like us, change their tunes over time. The joy of making music will find a way, regardless of the context and the form that emerges to best fit it. The musician David Rothenberg claims that “life is far more interesting than it needs to be, because the forces that guide it are not merely practical."
Finding examples to prove that music composition depends on its context comes naturally to me. But I have a feeling that this somewhat reversed view of creation—that it is more pragmatic and adaptive than some might think — happens a lot, and in very different areas. It’s “reversed” because the venues — or the fields and woodlands, in the case of the birds — were not built to accommodate whatever egotistical or artistic urge the composers have. We and the birds adapt, and it’s fine.
What’s interesting to me is not that these practical adaptations happen (in retrospect that seems predictable and obvious), but what it means for our perception of creativity.
It seems that creativity, whether bird song, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius — the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work — seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.
In my experience, the emotionally charged content always lies there, hidden, waiting to be tapped, and although musicians tailor and mold their work to how and where it will be best heard or seen, the agony and the ecstasy can be relied on to fill whatever shape is available.
We do express our emotions, our reactions to events, breakups and infatuations, but the way we do that — the art of it — is in putting them into prescribed forms or squeezing them into new forms that perfectly fit some emerging context. That’s part of the creative process, and we do it instinctively; we internalize it, like birds do. And it’s a joy to sing, like the birds do.