Thoughts on Shaw’s Accessibility.

Chris Beroes-Haigis

Caroline Shaw is a living composer who stands apart from many of her predecessors with her accessibility to a wide audience, her clear communication of musical ideas, and her clean musical textures. Caroline Shaw’s compositional values, in fact, point towards music’s ability to communicate. In particular, she revels in the fact that music communicates things that cannot be expressed with words. While some of her music does have lyrics, her music communicates clearly and succinctly to a listener what spoken language cannot. Shaw evokes instrumental and harmonic colors particularly reminiscent of Philip Glass or Arvo Pärt, mixed with a clear nod towards Appalachian or Nordic folk traditions in terms of character and texture. Her recent album, Orange, recorded by the Attacca Quartet, quickly reminded me of another album, Last Leaf, an album of Nordic folk tunes arranged and recorded by the Danish String Quartet. Her chord voicings are more than often quite transparent. Her main musical material is kept present throughout a given piece, without too many added layers moving simultaneously, so it is quite easy to hear how each element of her music interacts. When she “shifts gears”, or moves to a new section, it is done in a readily understandable way that has a polished narrative. Overall, the affect of her music is delightful, lighthearted, and agreeable to the ear.

It is not a surprise then, that her music is decidedly “accessible” to a wide audience. She is widely recognized as a rising star in both the contemporary, classical and pop music spheres. She won a Grammy Award with her group Roomful of Teeth, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize (one of the most coveted classical music honors) for her composition Partita for 8 Voices, and has been involved in numerous collaborations with the famed Hip-Hop artist, Kanye West. Shaw’s ability to attract a wide audience is rooted in the way she values a clear communication of musical ideas. While her compositions range in complexity, intensity and intended audience, Shaw mostly stands in contrast to the academic or cerebral nature of some traditional Western composers of the 20th century. In some cases, such as with Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, Charles Ives, or Charles Wuorinen, she actually shares the honor of winning a Pulitzer, but Shaw’s music could not be any more different. While the Pulitzer could be considered an elitist organization — perhaps more so in the past than in the present — Shaw is actually the perfect example of a composer who counters the entitled, snobby, unapproachable, and isolated reputation that the traditional Western classical music world often holds. When describing the compositional process for her Pulitzer Award winning piece Partita for 8 Voices, she recalled: “I’d just spent a year playing all this thorny contemporary music. And I remember thinking, ‘All I want to hear is just one chord.’ So that was the beginning of the piece, how to make that one thing I wanted to hear.”

After listening to a number of examples of Shaw’s music, I noticed that transitions and “gear changes” are Shaw’s definite strong points. She is acutely perceptive of the passage of time in her music, especially during moments of tension and release. She explained, when speaking on tension and release in her music: “To get there, you have to sort of lead into it with a particular kind of energy so that shift has meaning. It wasn’t just random. There’s something that’s been built up and stretched, and then there’s this real tension. If you just pull it just enough, it’s so amazing. And then you’re like: ‘Boom!” I think that this very quote sums up Shaw’s effervescent musical personality. She brings an almost a Mozartian joy to her music and does not seem to take her occupation too seriously. In the context of many of the heady, cerebral, and inaccessible composers of the 20th century, Caroline Shaw is a beautiful breath of fresh air. It is a perfect entry point for those who will want to learn which pieces Shaw quotes unapologetically in her music such as Ravel’s String Quartet in F major in the middle of Plan & Elevation or Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion in Punctum. For many, Caroline Shaw’s music is a wide open invitation to the classical world that makes no harsh judgements, requires no acquired tastes, and treats everyone’s intellects equally.


Anderson, Stacey. “Is Caroline Shaw Really the Future of Music?” The Guardian, June 9th, 2016, New York.

New Music USA, “Shaw: Yes, a Composer, but Perhaps not a Baker!” YouTube, March 2nd, 2015.

Woolfe, Zachary. “With Pulitzer, She Became a Composer”, The New York Times, April 17th, 2013, New York.

Barone, Joshua. “Three Composers on the Necessity and Pitfalls of Political Music”, The  New York Times, Nov. 10th, 2017, New York.

North Carolina Symphony. “Five Questions with Composer and Musician Caroline Shaw”, YouTube, March 15th, 2017.

Fresh off the vine.

Caroline Shaw: ​Valencia​ for String Quartet (2012)

Jasper String Quartet; from their album ​Unbound

Caroline Shaw’s ​Valencia​ for String Quartet, written in 2012, contains a tangy vivacity suggested by the title, which refers to the Valencia orange, a type known for its bright floral sweetness and juiciness. Masterfully performed by the great Jasper String Quartet, ​Valencia​ is truly a feast for the ears. More frequently using the quartet in Americana folk-like textures rather than overt singing melodies with functional harmony and voice leading, ​Valencia ​is a piece with structural ingenuity and a convincing dramatic narrative. Permeated by repetitive musical fragments that expand and contract rhythmically and harmmonically, the piece leads the listener comfortably from section to section while always hanging on to something that has happened previously. In other words, Shaw uses the compositional device of memory to keep the listener engaged in the music through its almost 6-minute journey.

Memory plays an intrinsic role in the success of this music. Each new section contains something that harkens back to the previous section, while presenting something as fresh and new as a Valencia orange ripe off the vine. In other words, when at one moment, two textures are layered together, one of these textures will hold through to the next section while the second texture will drop out, only to be replaced by a texture that defines the character of the next section, almost like stitching two pieces of fabric together like a chain link fence. The texture presented is always layered with contrasting material, for example if the violins both have pulsating harmonics that remain stationary on a certain pitch, the viola and cello present short, jabbing material that moves vertically in pitch and in syncopated rhythm; if the cello and viola share a long, creeping crescendo, the violins will contrast this with a stationary vamp on a harmony, which relies heavily on the use of fifths (thus giving it its folk like quality). Upon the piece’s conclusion, one might be able to generalize and say that the piece is in ternary form — we are gifted with a return to a memory of the original pulsating violin harmonics from the opening of the piece in its finale. The textures, overall, while reminiscent of Americana or Nordic folk traditions of string music, are also heavily influenced, it seems, by Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor.

The piece does not sound similar to music written 200 years ago, but it does, however, sound very similar to music that was written 100 years ago, most notably the music of Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Kodaly. Caroline Shaw does not stray too far from the centuries old Western classical tradition that came before her, which has always existed tangentially and parallel to folk traditions of the many European countries where it originated (such as in the Hungarian folk influence in the music of Bartok and Kodaly). She pays great tribute to her influences in her music while presenting a fresh, youthful, playful, light-hearted and folk-influenced sound that has taken the contemporary classical music scene by storm. Upon listening to ​Valencia​ and her other string quartet music, it is immediately apparent to me that, above all else, Caroline Shaw values the careful passage of time in her music; she treats each transition with utmost care to ensure that each new idea enters the fabric of her work in the most organic way possible, unraveling in a similar fashion to a stream of consciousness novel like William Faulkner’s ​The Sound and The Fury.

Chris Beroes-Haigis

Nico Muhly’s Compositional Style in Relation to his Connection to an Audience: Modern Methods of Self-Promotion

When listening to the music of Nico Muhly, a composer whose compositional voice owes an enormous amount to his musical heroes, it

became apparent that Muhly does not prescribe to the idea that for new music to be “good” it must therefore be “different”. His music is firmly rooted in the Western tradition through its strong amount of influence from his predecessors. For example, in Muhly’s Cello Concerto, a formal concerto which does not stray from the traditional western f​ ast-slow-fast​ (Part One, Two and Three) structure, the overwhelming presence of Reich in “Part Three” coupled with the direct (self-proclaimed as “stolen”) quote from Dutilleux’s M​ etaboles​ in “Part One”, the concerto is overflowing with rehashed ideas and revisited concepts. However many influences can be directly found in Muhly’s music, Muhly’s own compositional voice shines through in the way which he combines seemingly disparate influences into a convincingly cohesive texture. What some may deem as unoriginal or stale in Muhly’s music is in reality what composers, artists, writers and filmmakers have done since the beginning; to take from the old and to synthesize their past experiences, influences and inspirations into a lifelong journey of expression that becomes something uniquely their own. What does stand out to me in Muhly’s music is the constant dialogue between minimalism and romanticism. For example, while Part Three of Muhly’s Cello Concerto begins firmly rooted in an insistent Reichian pulsation, it soon becomes overlayed, via the solo cello line, with a wash of lyricism reminiscent of Hollywood film composers such as Korngold or John Williams. These two musical styles in juxtaposition of each other create a unique voice that is enticing to the ear.

It seems like Muhly has found his compositional strength not in trying to do something “different” that would set him apart, but rather by composing sincere music that is most true to his own musical preferences. In fact, today’s American contemporary classical music scene contains many concert-goers, music students and composers alike who seem to hold a common misconception: it is a living composer’s job to do what has never been done before; to imagine a new type of music that breaks down every boundary and bends every rule to create a truly unparalleled musical experience. While it takes true innovators to move the Western musical language forward into the modern day, the novelty of being different has been the root of widespread alienation among concert audiences of contemporary classical music, leaving orchestras and chamber music presenters with no option other than to feature the Greats of the past. While living composers must not all simply become poor simulacra of their musical influences, it releases an enormous amount of pressure from composers life to realize that the most important thing is to focus on writing “good” music, not “different” music.

A graduate of Columbia University and Juilliard School of Music, Muhly is certainly no stranger to the academic world. But while some composers’ scholarly backgrounds have set them apart from popular culture, for Muhly, the opposite is the case. In fact, an area where


Muhly stands out among his contemporaries is his skill for writing anecdotal and relatable prose. Many of the articles found when researching his views on music are written by the composer himself, often describing a specific experience or viewpoint related to a specific musical event. Through his colloquial language skills, blog posts on his personal website, New York Times editorials, and writings on NPR, Muhly has constructed a public image for himself of a connection to academia, but an underlying “down-to-earth” mentality. Similarly, Muhly’s intuitive music stands firmly in this camp of the accessibility of modern classical music, in opposition to the 20th century music of composers like Arnold Schoenberg or Brian Ferneyhough that may present an impenetrable wall to most listeners due to its academic or cerebral qualities. Within an art form that has historically been produced by and for the upper classes of European society, Nico Muhly’s innovation within the classical music world lies in his ability to provide a himself as a companionable millennial figurehead for the world of contemporary classical music. In addition to the accessibility of his music, he has been able to use his relatable personality to attract wider audiences and ensuring the “relevance” of the Western classical tradition in the modern day.

Chris Beroes-Haigis


Muhly, Nico. “Nico Muhly’s ‘Mathematical, Organic And Achingly Beautiful’ Phillip Glass”, NPR Music, January 24th, 2017. ( ip-glass)

Muhly, Nico. “If You See Something, Say Something”, Nico Muhly, October 25th, 2016. (

Muhly, Nico. “Cello Concerto (2012)”, Music Sales Classical, Chester Music. (

Kings Place. “Nico Muhly Discusses Minimalism — Part One”, YouTube, January 19th, 2015. (

Muhly, Nico. “Nico Muhly on Why Choral Music Is Slow Food For The Soul”, The New York Times, April 1st, 2017. (

Know Your Audience: Similar Modifications to Classical Performance Culture Across Opposite Ends of the Musical Spectrum

Missy Mazzoli, born in 1980 in rural Pennsylvania, grew up with little exposure to the “new” classical music of her day. Rather, she developed a keen affinity for Ludwig van Beethoven, taking it upon herself to learn all she could from his life and music. However, now an established composer on the new classical scene, her music could be described as anything but “classical”, in fact some critics, such as Zoë Madonna for NPR, have even commented that “I’d play [her music] for people who would never go to a classical concert.” Mazzolli career is now tied to her connection to the “typical” life of a classical composer; she is now a composition faculty member at Mannes College at The New School of Music in New York, a classical music conservatory, and her work is regularly commissioned by some of the world’s leading classical symphony orchestras.

Jonny Greenwood, born in 1971 in Oxford, England, also benefited from an early exposure to Great classical music as a violist in numerous youth orchestras. However, his career as the lead guitarist for one of the world’s most famous rock bands, Radiohead, while influenced by his classical upbringing, did not at all follow within the Western classical tradition. Nevertheless, his interest in the unique collaboration between composer and performer, which occurs in the classical world drew him to deepen his work as a “classical” composer, including the creation of numerous award-winning film scores. But in the end, the word “classical” seems to be a similarly unsuitable word to define either Mazzoli’s, or Greenwood’s music.

These two composers, while seemingly existing on opposite ends of the spectrum, in fact share more characteristics in common with each other than differences; most notably, their similar views on performance practice and classical concert hall culture. Exemplified by her creation of a modern “band”, Victoire, as an outlet for her compositions, Mazzoli seeks a different interaction with an audience than most traditional concert hall experiences can provide. At the same time, Greenwood has been outspoken in his views of the “peculiar” nature of the “off-putting” classical concert culture, claiming that they have “lost their original purpose.” However, this does not mean that he believes classical music is tied to this method of presentation. In fact, he described a recent project with the London Contemporary Orchestra as “… all about trying to play classical music in slightly different venues with a slightly less uptight atmosphere than is usually found in concerts.”

Through her activity with Victoire, Missy Mazzoli, who listed Julia Wolfe as one of her main influences, could clearly fall in line with a culture of new classical performance championed by the now famous Bang on a Can – a group created by Wolfe and one of Mazzoli’s main mentors at Yale University, David Lang. This contemporary classical group, who flirt within the blurred lines between the pop and classical worlds, define themselves as “dedicated to making music new”. Their programs, self described as “inventive and aggressive”, share the value of contemporary classical music with a wider age group; no doubt, in response to the “aging” and “white-haired” patrons of the majority of orchestras active today.

In their aim to connect with a wider group of audience members than those present at a typical classical symphony concert, and their goal to create a different kind of musical experience, both Greenwood and Mazzolli speak to a larger issue within the classical world: its relevance to the modern era. They both express concern with how the chosen method of presentation of their music can be more inviting and engaging for their audiences, regardless of genre. However, in direct contrast to these perceived shortcomings of the classical genre, composer Aaron Gervais seems perfectly content with that fact that classical music is meant for older audiences, saying we should “stop apologizing” classical concerts. “You don’t see punk bands trying to attract grandmothers. Stop pretending your concerts are for everyone. Be honest about who you’re programming for, then make a program those people will like.”

Chris Beroes-Haigis


Gervais, Aaron. “Classical Concerts Are Great. Stop Apologizing For Them.”, Aaron Gervais Blog,

Patterson, Colin. “Live Classical ‘off-putting’ says Jonny Greenwood”, BBC, October 10th, 2014.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “Interview with CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Missy Mazzoli”, October 18th, 2018, YouTube,

Madonna, Zoë. “Missy Mazzoli is the 21st Century’s Gatecrasher Of New Classical Music”, NPR, November 16th, 2018,

Bang on a Can, “About Us”, Bang on a Can,

The Golden Ratio

An innocent, unassuming minor triad opens Missy Mazzoli’s captivating 2010 work for the string quartet entitled Death Valley Junction. As listeners, we are struck with the pure beauty of sound emitted from the string instruments, which here is featured due to the pure quality of non vibrato playing. The opening suggests a story that will slowly unravel. It moves from one musical event to the other with careful determination, the next event reacting in an almost lethargic, understated manner. In contrast to the pure non vibrato playing are moments of terrifying aggressiveness, with more vibrato than a single note can handle and quite a bit of bow pressure. The upper voices, mostly scored in the violins, feature an almost speech-like vocal quality, as if the musicians are communicating with us directly. Meanwhile, the lower voices, viola and cello, provide a firm grounding: a textural accompaniment well-suited for the violin protagonists. Pulsating chords and aggressive rhythms permeate much of the piece in the lower register. This texture lets up only occasionally. For the most part, this texture remains throughout. I heard colors of Steve Reich and Debussy within Mazzoli’s writing, harmonically, rhythmically and thematically.

What struck me most about Death Valley Junction was a use of narrative form based in the placement of the climactic moments within the piece and their proportional relationship to one another in terms of density, intensity and narrative context. The piece features a compositional form which works in the composer’s favor to pull the audience into her world, taking them on a action filled journey that utilizes tension and release to create a suspenseful narrative. Death Valley Junction is not a piece intended to wash over the listener, rather, it invites the listener to become an intrinsic part of the story as it unfolds, as if we were placed in the story itself. Mazzoli’s writing, because of its use of tension and release, suggests an immersive musical experience that demands active listening from its audience. Meanwhile, it is music that can stand on its own; it “speaks for itself” without the aid of a programmatic title or visual art/film to aid in its storytelling.

While there are many topographical points of interest along the way, the overall structure of the piece reaches its climax in a section of the piece which begins exactly at 5:28 (according to the time stamp provided by YouTube). In this section, which lasts from 5:28 to 6:40, we experience the most rapid rate of change between different musical material, the highest points of rhythmic intensity within the piece, the most dense harmonies (featuring a beautiful Ebmaj7#9#11 chord at 5:44) and the greatest use instrumental range. However, the most interesting aspect of this section of the piece is the fact that it begins at the Golden Ratio in terms of its chronological placement within the work itself. If we analyze the beginning of the new section (5:28) in terms of the golden ratio, we can find the section begins at the Golden Ratio “moment” of the piece; in other words, the moment exactly between “a” and “b” in the diagram below. If we translate the YouTube time stamp into the number of seconds that have elapsed since the beginning of the piece, we can find that this moment occurs 328 seconds from the beginning of the piece (here labeled as “a”) and 204 seconds from the end (here labeled as “b”). Entered into the equation below, we see that the ratio of the two sections equals 1.60784314…, remarkably close to the “golden” 1.618 value.

This detail may likely play into what Mazzoli values most in her musical work. She may deem the golden ratio (either consciously or unconsciously) to be an excellent attribute that is aesthetically pleasing to the ear, the apollonian brain, and the dionysian emotional psyche. However, we cannot say whether she intended to employ the use of the Golden Ratio, or if it appeared naturally as a result of her basic human aesthetic instincts. Although the Golden Ratio can be found in numerous different cultures and civilizations throughout world history, and of course in nature, Mazzoli’s use of the golden ration here ties her strongly to the Western classical tradition; it’s use in Western art can be dated back to the Acropolis of ancient Greece, and has considered a standard of aesthetic beauty, in all artistic practices ever since.

Provided to YouTube by NAXOS of America

Death Valley Junction · Jasper String Quartet


℗ 2017 Sono Luminus

Released on: 2017-03-17

“Object” Music

What immediately stood out to me from David T. Little’s 2004 chamber orchestra work entitled “Natural Valuable Resources” was the apparent lack of the use of the passage of time as a valuable compositional element. From my perspective, “Valuable Natural Resources” is clearly defined as a piece of “object” music; it can be experienced in a similar fashion to the way in which we can turn a three-dimensional object over and over again in our hands, orbserving this object from different vantage points until we have learned all we can from its surface. What drives this sense of timelessness is the fact that the Little’s music seems to exist outside of the traditional use of compositional methods such as rhythm, melody and harmony to move the emotional narrative of the work forward. In fact, it seems to move nowhere at all. It is fundamentally stuck in time, while the collection of sounds, textures, timbres and auditory atmospheres wash over us as if we are studying a physical object, not unlike how we experience a piece of visual art in a museum. Each time the composer changes the timbre of the piece, or introduces a new texture on top of an existing one, it is as if we have turned this object in our hands to the other side, or directed our gaze to a different part of the canvas. We are now still viewing this same object, but simply from a different angle. The cohesiveness of the work as a whole benefits from this “object” technique. Upon a first blind listening, I would be led to believe that the whole piece is a study of the same imaginary physical object.

Through my listening, it seems to me that Little seems to value the way in which different musical textures interact with each other, often overlaying multiple, contrasting timbres which compliment each other only in an abstract sense. However, because the use of time as a compositional device — a hallmark of the Western classical music tradition — is not an essential element “Natural Valuable Resources”, could be interpreted as a departure from the expectations of the past. However, the label “classical” would likely apply to this composer’s music on any CD release or Spotify playlist. This label may present us with many false expectations as to what to listen for within this music, or how to listen to this music. I believe that in order to fully experience this music, one must radically change their previously held concept of what a musical “experience” entails. While Little’s music borrows many textures, orchestration techniques, timbres, colors and affects from the past, he uses them in a fundamentally different way. We are captivated as listeners by a shifting topography within a vast musical landscape, as if we have been placed in a physical world and we are only to observe what is happening around us. While some sections certainly imply (perhaps not purposefully) an extreme sense of urgency, there is overall a sense of freedom to explore this world in whichever direction you wish.

Chris Beroes-Haigis

Live recording accessed on 03/07/19 from:

Valuable Natural Resources

Performed by ensemble courage

Modern Compositional Styles

Kevin Puts is a contemporary composer who possesses musical aesthetics and values which exist firmly within the Western classical tradition dating back centuries. His main aim in composition is to tell a story to the audience. His music has programmatic significance and uses the musical language of narrative to, in the composer’s own words, “hold the audience in [his] grip.” However, we live in a time when such composers like Puts, who sit at a piano and write music on paper (or a laptop, all the same) in traditional staff notation are hardly representative of the only type of musicians who write music today. No longer is the stereotypical romantic notion of a composer who scribbles their musical inspiration on a splotchy paper manuscript in the middle of the night the only example of an effective compositional method. With the advent of computer programs known as DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) — such as Apple’s Logic or Avid’s Pro Tools — and the proliferation of affordable consumer recording equipment, a new compositional method has emerged, one that completely bypasses the need for staff notation and has redefined what it means to translate one’s musical ideas into a form that can be received by others.

The most significant difference between the use of DAWs and the traditional Western classical compositional method of choice for Kevin Puts is how the music is eventually presented to the world. In one case, the composer has complete control of the eventual result of their musical work; with these programs, any combination and manipulation of sound you can imagine can be achieved with computer precision and recreated exactly every time you play the same audio file. They are intended to be handed to performers before they can be heard to the public; they are immediately available for the world to hear time and time again with the same results. On the other hand, with traditional Western classical composition, the notes you write down are specifically destined to be given to another musician, interpreted, performed, and, in Puts’ own words, “have something brought to them that you couldn’t have even imagined when you wrote it”. Also importantly, due to the live aspect of these performances, the result of the musical work will be slightly (if not drastically) different with each reading.

If composers do not pass on the responsibility for the outcome of their music to the interpretation of other musicians, they have more authority over the result of their music, down to the finest detail and nuance. Eric Drott’s article “Fraudulence and the Gift Economy of Music” and Joshua Fineberg’s article “Understanding Music” both discuss the importance, or lack of importance, of a composer’s musical intent when listening to a musical composition, but it is possible, in my view, that a heightened sense of authority over the direct outcome of your musical composition places a greater importance on the composers original musical, emotional, and communicative intentions.

In an age when many compositional methods are available to composers, Kevin Puts’ personal compositional method could be viewed as a conscious choice. He is not alone. Many composers exist today who continue to benefit from the use of traditional techniques of music making. The question then arises: what value does traditional composition hold that has caused it to remain relevant in the modern day. For Puts, this answer may lie in the human aspect he sees in the way that his music is interpreted by other musicians. Puts stated in an interview on his wind band piece “Charm” that he is “much more interested in composing for instruments that he can’t play himself.” While his music has been recorded by some of the greatest performers alive, for him, the moment when the music truly comes to life is during this “handing off” process, which we could assume he doesn’t believe this can happen when you are simply playing your own compositions. On the other hand, on album like In My Room by Jacob Collier, every musical sound was performed by one musician, Collier himself, and mixed to alarming precision with absolute control over the eventual outcome. At the end of the day, both compositional methods share the same musical value of communication. For Puts, the most important thing to remember is that “your music really has to communicate.” Similarly, Collier wants to communicate with his listeners by leaving things in his music for people to find within their own personal emotional framework. He explains: “I can only make music for myself” and it is important for him to aim for “people to then come to my music and find their own stories to tell.”

Meanwhile, we can also observe an important contrast between the two equally relevant composers. Puts, a composer who relinquishes some of the control over his music to the performers who interpret it, is very strict about the indented programmatic purpose of his music, including the images he wishes to portray to his audience. For example, in his operas, he deliberately attempts to paint the story with certain harmonies in order to make the audience feel a certain way about the characters. On the other hand, Collier, a composer with absolute control over his musical product with the help of Logic, the DAW he prefers to use, invites his listeners to find whatever they would like to find in his music.

Chris Beroes-Haigis


Fineberg, Joshua. “Understanding Music” In Classical Music, Why Bother?: Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture through a Composer’s Ears. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Drott, Eric. “Fraudulence and the Gift Economy of Music” in Journal of Music Theory, 54:1. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 2010.

American Composers Forum, “Composer Kevin Puts talks about what he finds fun in composing,” September 11th, 2012, YouTube,

FaceCulture, “Jacob Collier Interview”, YouTube, August 29th, 2017, YouTube,

Unison Media, “Kevin Puts on Silent Night”, October 8th, 2019, YouTube,

Kevin Puts: Seven Seascapes

Kevin Puts: Seven Seascapes (2013)

Recorded August 2014, Bridgehampton, NY
BCMF Records

Kevin Puts’ dynamic piece “Seven Seascapes”, written conveniently for seven players in seven movements, takes the instrumental form of an orchestra on a tight budget; strings, winds, horns and percussion (if we consider piano to be a percussive instrument) are all accounted for. In particular, the addition of the string bass to the group adds to its incredible depth of color. In this instrumental choice, Puts has opened up the possibility for his work’s timbral palette to be as bottomless as the ocean itself, like a full symphonic orchestra, while still maintaining the intimate communication and individual expressiveness characteristic of chamber music. Much like the sea itself, the surface texture of this music is constantly morphing, sometimes violently shaking, sometimes serenely still. Moreover, while the piece is demanding in terms of its ensemble challenges, it is here performed masterfully, convincingly, breathtakingly beautifully and with intricate detail.

Upon a first “blind” listening, I was struck by the use of extreme contrast, placing almost polar opposite musical ideas in close proximity to one another as a way of grabbing the attention of the listener. In fact, each of the seven movements presents a unique musical environment, almost like completely different locations on the globe. (The choice to include seven movements might also hint at the depiction of the seven distinct oceans of planet earth.) On the other hand, within each movement, the organic and seamless progression of musical events is clearly where Puts puts his genius to work. While Puts’ seems to value a use of “form” derived from an organic, intuitive sense of the relation of one musical event to the next, the character of each movement is set apart explicitly through seemingly unrelated musical material; they differ from each other (sometimes directly, sometimes abstractly) in each of the musical categories listed: rhythm, melody, harmony, texture and timbre.

Although each movement exists within its own musical ecosystem, at the end of the piece we as listeners have been presented with a convincing overall narrative that provides a sense of cohesion in the work as a whole. While we travel extensively along our journey of the seven seas, we are gifted at the end with a strong feeling of home and resolution; the beginning of the first movement and the end of the seventh movement relate to each other almost entirely in terms of timbre, gesture, texture and affect. Nevertheless, we have changed quite deal as humans along the way. The end is somber, lethargic, and could almost be viewed as an “aged” version of the work’s beginning; one suggests an unraveling of events to come while the other presents a conclusion of resignation, acceptance and ascendance.

“Seven Seascapes” fits nicely into the Western Art tradition through its strong use of narrative (in the composer’s own words “visual and visceral”) as a defining feature of its musical language as well as its direct depiction of nature. In addition, Puts use of the juxtaposition of consonance and dissonance to direct the flow of tension hints at compositional devices dating back to the baroque era. In the end, “Seven Seascapes” also follows along the Western classical music tradition in the sense that, save for a few glissando passages and some justly tuned chords by the performers, it is a piece which does not depart theoretically from equal temperament, the same tuning system used by the same Classical composers we have all known for centuries. On a first blind listening, I don’t think that “Seven Seascapes” was intended to be a microtonal work.

Chris Beroes-Haigis

Live recording accessed on 02/26/19 from:

Kevin Puts: Seven Seascapes for Flute, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, and Piano (2013)

Featured on BCMF Premieres: Seascapes
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Marya Martin, flute
Stewart Rose, horn
Amy Schwartz Moretti, violin
Choong-Jin Chang, viola
Nicholas Canellakis, cello
Jeffrey Beecher, bass
Gilles Vonsattel, piano

I. “Exultation is the going of an inland soul to sea…” (Emily Dickinson) 00:0002:27
II. “A lone gray bird…alone in the shadows and grandeurs and tumults of night and the sea” (Carl Sandburg) 02:2704:48
III. “A fragrant breeze wandered up from the quiet sea” (Douglas Adams) 04:4806:15
IV. “Out of the darkness…jets of sparks in fountains of blue come leaping” (D.H. Lawrence) 06:1507:46
V. “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric” (Virginia Woolf) 07:4609:53
VI. “I, while the gods laugh, the world’s vortex am; maelström of passions in that hidden sea” (Mervyn Peake) 09:5312:22
VII. “…let us find a place ‘neath ocean’s breast and bid her lie where waves are kind” (Benjamin Franklin Field) 12:2218:18

Recorded August 2014, Bridgehampton, NY
BCMF Records

In the Hands of the Creators

“I think it’s a very difficult thing to imagine that in 2017 the music industry could be alive and well. But, I do firmly believe that there has never been a better time to be a young creative person than 2017.” Spoken by Jacob Collier, a young musician from London who launched his career through a series of successful YouTube videos, this single quote provides an introductory look into the adaptations the music industry has gone through in the past 19 years. Since the release of Williams Velez’s article entitled “Performing-Rights Collectives: Dinosaurs of the New Millenium?”, a lot has changed with regards to how musicians are able to reach and inspire an audience. Collier, upon accepting a Grammy award for best vocal arrangement in 2017, here serves as a representative of the new “wave” of musicians, composers, artists and performers who have found their audiences, and funding, through online platforms. For one, YouTube, a simple idea from the year 2005 turned into a world-wide phenomenon (now owned by Google), not only allows a seemingly endless amount of information to be shared across the world instantaneously, it also provides a platform for “creators” — for our purposes in this blog, musicians — to share their work with a seemingly unlimited amount of people. Coupled with an increasing reliance on social media among a larger division of the population for daily information, news, culture and opinion, these internet services allow musicians to essentially create their own business models for how a successful creator can operate in the 21st century.

As Velez tends to imagine that a successful performing-rights business model would imitate a Charles Schwab approach to stockbroking, I have often thought that the current musical landscape (in the United States specifically but in other countries as well) resembles something akin to a free market economy. A increasing amount of today’s new music has remained in the hands of the creators themselves; meanwhile, their audiences — in this case, playing the role of “consumers” — with access to the technology which enabled the creators to reach them, have reached unabated authority in deciding who to listen to. In response to the emerging threats to the music industry in the 21st century outlined in Velez’s article, I strongly believe it is this growing crowd of “bedroom artists”, in other words, people who create music on their own terms, enabled by the internet platforms available to them, that will lead our generation forward through all of the challenges we face.

However, the rapid advance of technology and its effect on the way in which musicians can choose to reach an audience has not always been positive. With the advent of streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify, the artists responsible for the music we listen to, and sometimes ​rely​ ​onfrom day to day, have far too often received unfair compensation for their creative work. In an attempt to combat this issue, Congress found the power to pass a comprehensive Music Modernization Act through to the White House where it was signed by President Trump this past year, marking one of the few rare bipartisan bills in recent political history. The long awaited bill ensures that artists will receive royalties and compensations in the modern era with increased efficiency and reliability, was met with celebrations across the entire music industry.

On the other hand, as Velez points out concisely in his article: “The existing Wall-street driven business cycle augurs poorly for the continued support and/or subsidization of music genres such as jazz, classical, bluegrass, and folk, for which positive economic models have yet to materialize.” While these styles of music are not seen to be as profitable as the “enthusiastic corporate support of R&B, hip-hop and rap, and Latin music” tends to suggest, the contemporary classical music sphere continues to operate on a culture of subsidy outlined in Eric Drott’s article entitled “Fraudulence and the Gift Economy of Music”. This “gift economy” in fact revolves around the notion that compensation for the creation of musical work is contrary to the creation of that work in the first place. In this sense, the modern classical music world continues to stand at odds with the modern musical economy which supports the pursuit of compensation for musical creations and does not favor that artists to forgo these financial advantages in the the name of “art for art’s sake”.

By Chris Beroes-Haigis


Ben Sisario, “New Way to Pay Songwriters and Musicians in the Streaming Age Advances ” New York Times, June 28, 2018.

Drott, Eric. “Fraudulence and the Gift Economy of Music” in ​Journal of Music Theory​, 54:1. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 2010.

Velez, William. “Performing-Rights Collectives: Dinosaurs of the New Millenium?” In ​Reflections on American Music: The Twentieth Century and the New Millenium​. New York: Pendragon Press, 2000


The musicological study of the psychological effect of musical experiences  — “Psychoacoustics” —  struck me immediately due to its incredible history. While it appeared in 1863 in one of the earliest treatises on modern psychology,[1] Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik by German physician Hermann von Helmholtz, the link between music and brain has been on the close watch of human civilization since the time of classic Greece.[2]  From the human tendency to deal with all sensory information in patterns, to the suspenseful use of tension and release in music as a way of communicating narrative, to the ability of “great” music to transform us emotionally, the study of psychoacoustics has a multitude of areas to offer us as musicians who are curious about the potential effects that our music can have on listeners.

When considering the strong psychological effect of music on the brain, I have often found it interesting how, as humans, we generally have a clear perception of what music “is”; in other words, we all instinctively decide for ourselves whether or not what we hear is music or simply noise. In 1952, this seemingly simple definition was blown open to interpretation through the premiere of John Cage’s 4’33, a piece of music that includes no typically “musical” sounds at all, rather, only the sound or “noise” of the environment of the listener. In this legendary work, Cage was able to completely subvert our expectations as audience members and turn the experience of listening to music inward on itself, towards the listener and away from the performer. Now, our experience of sound as music or music as sound depends only on our psychological projection of aesthetics on a given situation. In other words, the sounds we hear only become music when we set our mind to perceive them in a certain “musical” way. Although our focus is now on the music of the 21st century, subverting the audience’s expectation in music is certainly an age old technique, so much so that one could say this technique is intrinsically tied to the act of musical composition. Even further, one could argue that the ability or lack thereof to allure the audience with expectation and surprise, tension and release, is where we can finally draw some line between what is noise and what is music.

The strong link between psychology and our human perception of sound. offers a clear pathway into the study of why these subverted expectations affect us so deeply. This connection becomes even more apparent when we consider the fact that the act of listening to or playing music uses more parts of the brain than almost any other activity.[3] When exploring the link between psychology, music and the science of sound perception, it is interesting look to the work of musicologists who “would like to bridge the gap between compositional and perceptual theory by making the results of psychoacoustic research more accessible to composers.”[4] Musicologists Richard Parncutt and Hans Strasburger in their article “Applying Psychoacoustics in Composition: “Harmonic” Progressions of “Nonharmonic” Sonorities,” present of compositional method which attempts to construct harmonic progressions of non-harmonic sonorites. Again, we are dealing with pattern recognition as a link to the human ability to perceive any sound as music, similar to the way in which human language evolved from the ability to perceive the difference in a variety of harmonically complex tones or vowels.[5]

Chris Beroes-Haigis

[1] Eric F. Clarke, “Musicology: Psychology and Hearing,” Oxford Music Online: Grove Music Online (2001, updated and revised, 31 January 2014), (accessed January 28, 2019).

[2] Clarke.

[3] Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Dutton, 2006), 31.

[4] Richard Parncutt and Hans Strasburger, “Applying Psychoacoustics in Composition: “Harmonic” Progressions of “Nonharmonic” Sonorities,” Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 88-129,, (accessed: January 29th, 2019).

[5] Richard Parncutt and Hans Strasburger.

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