Category Archives: Contemporary Music

A Rough Guide to Slide Whistles

This week I’m performing Ligeti’s Violin Concerto with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The percussion part includes difficult passages for two tuned slide whistles. In addition to the finer points of tuned slide whistle, this article might also help to illustrate the sheer amount of collective effort it takes to put on an event like this. Dozens of musicians will play hundreds of thousands of notes during this concert. Even for me, the slide whistle part isn’t on my top 5 list of concerns. I also have tons of hard cimbalom notes to play. Aside from the musicians, there is also the administrative side of BMOP, raising the money to produce the event and handling all the logistics. All of that makes a few slide whistle notes being sort of in tune a relatively insignificant detail, yet several man hours went in to that task alone.

While spending an inordinate amount of time modifying a slide whistle, I often wondered “Does it really matter if these notes are in tune?” It would make my life a lot easier if it didn’t. But I remembered an experience I had 10 years ago playing Steve Mackey’s Eating Greens, which involves a comparably fussy part for tuned flexatone. I practiced flexatone for three hours to learn the feel of where the pitches were. At the first rehearsal, the conductor made me play the part with in unison with the violins, so in that case the practice paid off. Better safe than sorry.

The slide whistle is typically used as a non-pitched glissando sound effect, but Ligeti writes specific pitches in moving lines, and if that wasn’t enough, he also has the two slide whistlers in parallel fourths. Given that it is written for slide whistle, I seriously doubt the intention is for it to be perfectly in tune, but I at least want to be in the right ball park. So I could either practice the slide whistle until I become so familiar with it that I can navigate the intervals by feel alone, or construct some sort of tuning gauge. I went with the gauge.

This particular slide whistle worked well because of the L-shaped slide. It has a range of E4-C#6, not counting higher notes achievable through over-blowing.

The actual process of making the tuning slide was not difficult, but coming up with the design took some effort. I asked some of my crafty neighbors if they had any ideas, but their suggestions were far too complicated. I ended up with a simple design using a square dowel rod, double sided tape, and gaff tape.

I cut a length of the dowel equal to the length of the slide whistle, drilled a small hole in one end, and attached it to the slide. I also used to small bits of dowel to keep the moving dowel centered on the slide whistle. I attached the two small bits with double sided tape, then gaff taped them all together. I then marked the pitches with black sharpie on white gaff tape. The end of the dowel rod marks the pitch.

The cuts bits of dowel rod. I didn't end up needing the anchor nuts.

The cut bits of dowel rod. I didn’t end up needing the anchor nuts.

Dowels attached with unmarked tuning gauge.

Dowels attached with unmarked tuning gauge.


A few shots of the completed tuning gauge.

A few shots of the completed tuning gauge.


Making the tuning gauge was somewhat frustrating because the pitch changes dramatically depending on the dynamic. So I guess beware of that if you have to undertake this project.

It occurs to me that the ideal solution for tuned slide whistle would be for the body of the instrument to be transparent with the pitches etched directly on to it. The stopper inside the instrument could then act as the gauge. I was genuinely surprised to learn that Kolberg hasn’t thought of this already with a specially made “Ligeti Slide Whistle”.

I bought a few other slide whistles in preparation for this part. Here’s some info on those.

This one has by far the biggest range (D4-F#6 on the one I have. I’d be surprised that was consistent from instrument to instrument). It is also sounds a bit airy when played loud, as opposed to the Acme which has a more pure pitch.

This one sounds as cheap as it looks. The range is A5-F#6.

And here is a dog slide whistle. It has a one octave range of G4-G5.


Flexatone, Vibraslap, Guiro, Ratchet… ugh

The addition of flexatone, vibraslap, guiro, or ratchet to a multi-percussion setup can throw a wrench in the proceedings. Mounting the instruments for easy access with hardware widely available in the US is difficult, and navigating the techniques required for each instrument can make for some awkward choreography.

I recently performed Cells by Hanspeter Kyburz. In addition to tons of hard notes on keyboard instruments, Kyburz threw in the odd vibraslap, bowed flexatone, or guiro scrape, often with less than a second to get from one instrument to the next. Here are some solutions I came up with for that performance.


If you see a guiro part in a modern European piece, odds are the composer has this in mind:

It is about three feet in length so playing a long, loud note is easy, and it is simple to mount on a stand.

This is what we usually have access to in the States:

The grooved portion is less than a foot long, so playing anything loud that isn’t staccatissimo is difficult, and your mounting options are limited. Without access to an extra-long Kolberg, my preferred guiro set up is a Meinl wood guiro with a Meinl guiro holder. Pearl also makes a guiro holder but it should be avoided. I like the Meinl wood guiro because it is quite durable compared to a traditional gourd guiro. You can throw it in a trap bag and not worry about it being crushed.


There aren’t a lot of flexatones on the market. The LP models are ubiquitous, but I prefer this Dobani model that I found on Amazon. The resting position of the beaters on an LP is right up against the metal, so it is difficult to pick it up and put it down without making a ton of noise. People often solve this problem either by putting moleskin on the beaters to soften them, or for bowing purposes, by rubber-banding the beaters to the metal. Fuss with that if you want, or just get a better (and cheaper) flexatone. On the Dobani model, the beaters are further away from the metal, so you can pick it up and put it down silently. It is also possible to do bowed glisses without interference from the beaters. The size and range of the Dobani is similar to the smaller of the two LP models.



LP products should generally be avoided, if for no other reason than to spite them for building the most poorly designed percussion product of all time:

Worst Stand Ever


LP vibraslap mounts are completely worthless, yet they seem to be the only ones on the market. They do not clamp solidly to the vibraslap so they need to be constantly fussed with and they dampen the vibration. I found a solution that works very well for mounting vibraslaps:


That is a Meinl product designed for mounting cowbells and the like to conga, bongo, and djembe lugs, because I guess that is something people need to do? It works perfectly as a vibraslap mount. They should really market it as such.


This doesn’t have anything to do with the aforementioned Kyburz piece, but could prove to be useful information if you are ever playing Chaya Czernowin’s Sahaf or another piece where you need quick access to a ratchet.

“Whirlybird” style ratchets can be easily mounted to a cymbal stand or clamp.

The common CB ratchet can be attached to a cymbal stand by adjusting the clamp that is supposed to attach it to a music stand (which never works).

Remove that wingnut

Then you are left with this

Then jam it into a stand

Tolberg Percussion: How to Make a Crotale Stand

The DIY ethic is intrinsic to the percussion world. Percussionists are frequently required to perform on readymades rather than “real” instruments, and most proper percussion instruments can trace their origins to crude prototypes using the simplest of raw materials. The lack of an established performance practice for modern repertoire also leads us to find our own solutions for realizing a given piece. And, as I’ve mentioned before, it is expensive to acquire all the things you need. Cheap, homemade solutions can be a lifesaver. Even over a relatively short career, I’ve come up with (and stolen) some ideas that have helped me immensely. Most of them involve a skillful navigation of Home Depot.

This week I’m playing Olga Neuwirth’s Torsion for solo bassoon and ensemble. The percussion part requires crotales, but only three pitches. This is just one of many pieces that only requires a few pitches out of the 2.5 octaves of available crotales, and having all the unneeded pitches can make a large percussion setup more difficult to navigate. With that in mind, I set out to make a stand that could hold just a few crotales.

I started with a standard steel bar from Home Depot. I’m not sure if they have an official name, but they are usually next to the dowels. The length of the bar will be too long, so you’ll need to saw it in two. This can be done with a simple hacksaw. It won’t be the most fun thirty minutes of your life but it will work. Then, make drill marks where you want the crotales to go using a laser level for alignment.

For drilling the holes, do yourself a favor and get a corded drill, not a battery powered one. As you can guess, drilling through a steel bar requires a lot of power and a battery charged drill won’t get it done. The drilled bar will look like this. The larger hole in the middle is for the cymbal stand that will eventually hold it.

Now you are ready to put mounting bolts in the bar. I used three-inch 10-24 bolts since they are compatible with Zildjian crotale wing nuts. Make sure they are three inches long so that the mounted crotale has room to sit above the cymbal stand wing nut. To secure the bolts to the bar, make sure to use stop nuts. This will prevent the bolt from loosening. After this step it should look like this:

Now you need to add another stop nut about halfway down the bolt that the crotale will sit on.

Then put one layer of moleskin around the bolt so the crotale won’t buzz against it.

It is helpful if you can get your hands on the rubber washers that Zildjian uses on their crotale mounts. I happened to have some lying around, but if you don’t have access to any, I’m sure Home Depot will have a suitable substitute. Do not use metal washers. They will buzz. Here it the mounting bar on a cymbal stand with the bottom washers on.

Now you are ready to add the crotales, the top washer, and the wing nut. I made this bar to hold six crotales, and the finished products looks like this:

Since the stand is long enough to hold six crotales, there is room to hang more instrument underneath the crotales without hitting the cymbal stand.

I mentioned above that the original bar from Home Depot had to be sawed in to two pieces, so I used the left over bit to make a three-crotale version.

These little items will make countless pieces much easier to play, and the total cost of the materials for both stands was $25.

Composing for Cimbalom

UPDATE JANUARY 2020: I’ve made a much more detailed version of this blog post available on my website at

I’m deeply committed to expanding the repertoire for cimbalom, and I’m publishing this informal how-to guide in hopes that composers will be inspired to write for the instrument.

Pitch Layout and Range

The pitch layout of the cimbalom is unlike any other instrument. All cimbaloms have the same pitch layout, and vary only slightly in size. Some older instruments are on a much smaller scale and have a smaller pitch range, but these instruments most likely will not be encountered because they are unfit for professional performance situations.

Screen Shot 2013-04-05 at 1.22.48 AM

Cimbalom Pitch Layout

The normal beating area of the string is between 1-2 inches away from the bridge. As one moves closer to or further from the bridge, sul ponticello and sul tasto effects are achieved.

The standard cimbalom range extends from C2-A6. Unlike its close relative, the hammered dulcimer, the cimbalom is completely chromatic and has no repeated notes. G5, A5, and B5 appear on the diagram to be repeated, but these strings and these strings only have two accessible bridges, and thus two acceptable beating spots. C2 has one large wound string, C#2 and D2 have two wound strings, and the next 1.3 octaves (up to F#3) have three wound strings. From G3 to the top of the range, the strings are unwound and each pitch has four strings. Some modern instruments have a range of A1-A6, but these lower notes should be avoided because such instruments are exceedingly rare, especially in the United States.

On the wound strings in the bass register, the beating areas are on the opposite sides of the instrument, with the C whole-tone scale on the right and the C# whole-tone scale on the left. This makes rapid passages in the bass register difficult to execute since the beating areas on each side of the instrument are 26-28 inches apart. Because of this, I try to keep each hand dedicated to one side of the instrument when playing in the bass register, if at all possible.

Damper Pedal

The cimbalom has a single pedal used for dampening. Like the piano, the dampers do not affect the high notes of the cimbalom. All pitches from G5-A6 are undampened with the exception of G#5. This is only worth noting because the pedal will not completely cut off the sound of the instrument by itself. Hand dampening must be used to dampen the aforementioned pitches. The sympathetic resonance and sustain of the cimbalom is comparable to that of a piano.

Single Staff or Grand Staff

Cimbalom music is sometimes written on a single staff and sometimes on a grand staff. It really depends on the specific musical passage. Obviously if the music stays primarily in the treble range, there is no use for a bass clef and vice versa.

This passage from Pierre Boulez’ Repons illustrates an effective use of grand staff cimbalom writing. Also notice the precise pedal notations.


In this passage from later in the same piece, Boulez does away with the grand staff when it is no longer necessary.

Repons 2

Dividing Music Between Staves

Because of the bizarre layout of pitches on a cimbalom, it is difficult for a composer to guess which hand will play which note. Because of this, range should be the only factor in determining which pitch goes on which staff. Stravinsky employed the technique of separating the right and left hand on different staves and as a result, his cimbalom parts are difficult to read.

This example is from Stravinsky’s edition of Renard.


This is the same passage of music from my personal edition of the part with corrected staff distribution.


Four Mallets on Cimbalom

It is generally not possible to play with four mallets on cimbalom. Four mallet technique as we know it was developed on mallet keyboard instruments, which have a horizontal note layout. The cimbalom has a vertical layout. This renders the technique one might use on a marimba useless on cimbalom. That being said, some composers have found ways around this.

In this passage from Renard, Stravinsky asks the cimbalom player to play two adjacent notes with one stick.


The right hand alone would be used to play the Bb and G, since those strings are right next to each other. This type of writing is only seen in older cimbalom parts (see also Bartok’s First Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra) because cimbaloms were smaller in the early 20th century and this technique was easier to achieve. Stravinsky also learned to play cimbalom to some degree and composed his cimbalom parts at the instrument, so he verified that this technique was possible himself. I personally don’t like seeing this technique in music. It is a bit like playing two adjacent marimba bars with one mallet: it happens by accident sometimes but it is very difficult to do consistently.

The entire second movement of Alessandro Solbiati’s Quaderno d’immagini for solo cimbalom employs four soft timpani mallets. Notice however that the music is extremely slow, and that the performer has ample time to contort himself into the correct playing position.


Stick Types

The standard cimbalom mallet is a small wooden shaft curving upward at the tip covered in either leather or cotton. Leather mallets are more common in Western Europe while cotton mallets are more common in America. There is not an enormous difference between the sounds of the two, so when writing for standard mallets, only the hardness and not the material should be indicated.

Composers have asked for various non-standard types of mallets over the years. György Kurtág often asks for fémver­­­ó, or metal covered mallets. In this passage from Scenes from a Novel, Kurtág pairs metal covered mallets with violin played col legno battuto.


When writing for metal covered mallets, it is best to keep things below forte to avoid damaging the strings.

In his cimbalom concerto, Gramigna, Stefano Gervasoni asks for a multitude of standard and non-standard mallets.


Extended Techniques

Pizzicato is frequently used on cimbalom and is quite easy to execute even while holding mallets. It is also possible for one hand to pizz several pitches simultaneously assuming they are all within reach. Because of the note layout, there isn’t a standard intervallic reach, so check with a cimbalom player with your specific requests.

Glissandi are also frequently used in cimbalom repertoire. Chromatic glissandi are extremely difficult to execute and should be avoided. Most commonly, composers ask performers to gliss on a particular set of adjacent strings, resulting in a pitch collection specific to the cimbalom. The following example from Ju Ri Seo’s Etude illustrates this concept.


The glissandi in this passage use the notes on the left mid-treble range, and skip chromatic pitches that appear elsewhere on the instrument.

Harmonics are also possible on cimbalom. It is best to keep harmonics on strings that are not divided by a bridge (C2-B3, C#4, and Eb4). Harmonics are possible, but less effective, on lower bridge-divided strings. Starting at F5, the first overtone is barely possible, and will sound more like a muted string than a discernible pitch. As with any stringed instrument, harmonics closer to the start of the harmonic series produce the strongest sound on cimbalom. On the wound strings, it is easy enough to produce the first five overtones. Anything beyond that would be a bit of a challenge. The high overtones also tend to get drowned out by the resonance from the rest of the instrument. On the unwound strings that are not divided by a bridge, the higher overtones sound weaker than on the wound strings, but are still possible. On the bridge divided strings, it is best to stick to the first two overtones.

When notating harmonics on cimbalom, indicate which string the harmonic is played on, as well as the sounding pitch, as Gervasoni does in this example from Gramigna.


Keep in mind that producing harmonics on cimbalom is by necessity a two handed technique. One hand stops the string and the other strikes it. This requires at least some preparation time. It is possible to prepare harmonics on the cimbalom by placing something like Blu-Tack on the strings, as Gervasoni requires in Epicadanza:

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 3.25.08 PM

Alternate Tuning

Proceed with caution when considering an alternate tuning for cimbalom. Changing the tuning can be a very time consuming process, and on a program with other cimbalom pieces in standard tuning this could cause quite a problem. Making adjustments to only a couple pitches is easy enough though. Cimbalom strings are extremely taut in their natural state, so tuning upward more than a quartertone should be avoided. For general tuning maintenance purposes, I wouldn’t want to tune my strings downward more than a major 2nd.  Also keep in mind that when tuning a pitch that shares a bridge with another pitch, both pitches will be affected. For example, tuning C4 down a quartertone will also tune G4 down a quartertone. This example, again from Ju Ri Seo’s Etude, represents an acceptable scordatura tuning, both in terms of execution and notation.


When composing for extended techniques on the cimbalom, a general rule of thumb is that anything you might consider writing for the inside of a piano is easier to execute on cimbalom. Also, new extended techniques for cimbalom are being invented all the time. Essentially every extended technique in Solbaiti’s Quaderno d’immagini and Otto Canti are used for the first time in those pieces, so one can be imaginative. And, if you are writing for cimbalom and I’ve glossed over an area that needs further explanation, please let me know.

Recommended Listening

Historic Cimbalom Repertoire

Modern Cimbalom Repertoire

Learning the Cimbalom

Repons cymbalum3

The cimbalom is a Hungarian instrument related to the hammered dulcimer that was invented in 1874 and is primarily known as a Roma folk instrument. It weighs about 200 pounds and requires at least two strong people to move it, so it is the only instrument I own that I can’t move by myself. Tuning the instrument can be a hassle (they’re tuning cimbaloms in hell, I always say). Things like cimbalom mallets and replacement strings are very difficult to find in the United States. The average American orchestra requires a cimbalom player once every 3-5 years or so. I’m frequently asked, given those circumstances, why I bothered learning the instrument to begin with.

My obsession with collecting recordings led me to the music of György Kurtág. One day during undergrad when I was perusing the old Virgin Megastore on Newbury and Mass Ave in Boston, I picked up a CD that included a work of his for baritone, string trio, and percussion, since I was always looking for new chamber music to play. The score proved impossible to acquire back in 2003, but the music was amazing. Brutally expressive yet introverted, and not losing its stoic dignity. I bought all the Kurtág records I could find, and unfortunately learned that he had no other chamber works for percussion, but myriad pieces for cimbalom.

In 2007 I began studying with Frank Epstein at the New England Conservatory, and for my first lesson he asked me to make a list of things I wanted to accomplish that year. I wrote down things I considered to be realistic, like various auditions that I wanted to take (I didn’t end up taking any of them) and on a whim, at the end of the list I added “learn cimbalom?” I was almost embarrassed to even mention it, but when I did, Frank lit up and was very in to the idea. To be honest, if Frank was anything less than totally supportive in that initial expression of interest, I never would have bothered.

Frank later introduced me to the only other cimbalom player in New England (that I know of), Richard Grimes, who helped me find an instrument to rent and showed me the ropes. In the beginning of 2008, an extraordinary coincidence led me to a cimbalom for sale about three miles from my house in Jamaica Plain. I have no idea how many cimbaloms are in the United States, but I’d be surprised if it was more than two hundred, and the number of professional quality instruments in great condition is probably somewhere around twenty-five. The number of those instruments for sale ranges between zero and two at any given moment. So being able to hop in my car and check out one of these instruments after a ten minute drive at the exact moment I needed to purchase an instrument is quite miraculous.

Humble Beginnings

Humble Beginnings

The reason why there are so few cimbalom players in the United States, aside from the scarcity of instruments and the even bleaker scarcity of work, is that the pitch layout makes no sense. Although the cimbalom has close instrumental relatives in most cultures on Earth, knowing how to play one or another of them will do you no good whatsoever in learning the cimbalom. I suppose percussionists might have the slightest advantage over other instrumentalists in as much as we are used to hitting things with sticks. So my strategy in learning the cimbalom was mostly just to repurpose the old books I used when learning how to play xylophone and marimba, and to import my general performance practices to my new instrument.

The biggest hurdle I faced after learning where all the pitches are is that the technique required by traditional cimbalom sticks does not work for me at all. Most cimbalom sticks require one to play with the thumbs facing up. Percussionists might know this as the “French” timpani technique. While a lot of percussionists have success with this grip, my left hand has never been able to do it.


I don’t like this.

Furthermore, it seems logical to me that the most successful technique in holding any type of stick or mallet is the one that most closely resembles one’s snare drum grip. When playing snare drum, each hand holds one stick, and the only concern is to play on a single large surface as efficiently as possible. That technique should lend itself well to situations with additional considerations. In my experience, the farther away a technique is from snare drum technique, the more likely it is to be nonsense.

Not nonsense.

Not nonsense.

Because of the way cimbalom sticks are designed, it is not possible to hold traditional sticks with my preferred snare drum style grip with the top of the hand facing up. In 2009 I finally found someone that makes adjustable sticks that allowed my to use my favored technique.

After a couple years of practicing cimbalom, I still wasn’t able to do much, and I was pretty discouraged. The opportunity of a lifetime came in March, 2009, when I was given the chance to play Pierre Boulez’ Repons that September at the Lucerne Festival Academy. I’m convinced it is the most difficult piece in the cimbalom repertoire.

Thank you, Mr. Boulez.

Thank you, Mr. Boulez.

So, I had six months to learn a ridiculously difficult part by rote. I didn’t nail every aspect of the piece in the performance, but it went pretty well. You can watch it here.

After learning Repons, things got a lot easier. Since then, I’ve been able to play a lot of the standard rep for the instrument with some of the world’s top orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Montreal Symphony. Without a doubt, the performances I’ve had on cimbalom have been the highlights of my career.

The opportunities open to me as a cimbalom player would be completely closed if I had remained what I was in 2007: a slightly better than average new music percussionist with a tenuous orchestral background. I’m definitely not advising everyone reading this to go out and do what I did, but the more general insight here is that in the cutthroat world of the music business, the more you can diversity your portfolio, the better off you’ll be. But, of course, I didn’t have any of that in mind to begin with. I just wanted to play Kurtág.

My 2006 Interview with Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt was gracious enough to grant me an interview at Tanglewood in 2006. I conducted the interview in support of a research paper I was working on at the time whose theme now eludes me. Since I transcribed this text from an audio recording, any errors in grammar or syntax are mine and not Babbitt’s (please let me know if you notice any mistakes!). He gave me explicit permission to share the contents of the interview, and with his signature wit, encouraged me to try to make money off of it. No paywalls here though. Enjoy!

(I highly recommend watching the documentary “Babbitt: Portrait of a Serial Composer“. I love the reference in the title. I hope it was Babbitt’s idea.)

August 6th, 2006, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA.

Nicholas Tolle:  “For if the formal conditioning of potential and eventual musicians and their audience demands informed guidance and the informal conditioning presumes the constant presence of informed performance, the former has long been and is increasingly threatened by the conditions of music education.” (Milton Babbitt: “Collected Essays; Brave New Worlds” page 461)  What do you mean by informal conditioning?

Milton Babbitt: That is the conditioning that you acquire from the moment you’re born; with all the music you hear, the music you’re subjected to, with all the discourse you hear on television and radio, very often incorrect or sometimes just naïve. For example, the music you’ve picked up since you were born without any say over it is totally different from the music I picked up. I mean, I know a thousand pop songs from between 1920 and 1935. You probably know one or two of them at the most. Have you ever played pop or jazz?

NT: Yes

MB: Well then you might know a couple of them because they became what they call “standards.” This has certainly conditioned me. I can’t possibly define how it’s conditioned me, by its very nature I can’t define it because it’s having an effect on me that I’m unaware of when I sit down to make a composition.

NT: What is it about this informal conditioning that assumes the constant presence of informed performance?

MB: By informed performance I mean exactly what you’re seeking. That is performance which, presumably, starts from some conception of the total piece. I mean, for example: when some conductors start, let’s say, the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, some will be aware of the fact that the Eb to F in that opening motif will return as the Eb to F of that so-called second theme and that there will be this continuity, this connection, featuring the so-called first theme and the second theme, whatever you call it; first collection, first so forth. How he thinks about the rest of the piece will reign through a different light depending on how he thinks on that very first Eb to F which occurs in the first couple of measures. And that will certainly affect his performance and choices he makes with regard to dynamics and everything else which the listener will hear very easily.

NT: What is it, aside from the decline of availability of music education, that threatens informed performance?

MB: Well, first of all, you’ve got to mean the availability of music education which (and I don’t know today, I haven’t seen the latest books) reached a point of sophistication about twenty years ago when some people were writing books called Elementary Music Education which reflected a knowledge much beyond that and a very sophisticated knowledge of contemporary analysis, and therefore an attempt to reflect a little of that in the most elementary music education. That seems to have disappeared. The books are no longer even being published. You can’t publish a book called “An Elementary Course in Music Education.” No, let’s forget music education, “An Elementary Course in Introduction to Music.” They used to be very sellable and very profitable. Well, they’re not anymore. They’ve stopped being written, they’ve stopped being published, and they’ve been allowed to go out of print. Courses of that kind used to attract three hundred or five hundred students at a good university. They either don’t exist or they attract a very small group of students. Where did you go to school?

NT: I went to the Boston Conservatory.

MB: See, that doesn’t count. I am talking mainly about universities. Most of the conservatories have no introduction or appreciation of music courses because it is assumed that the students will be able to read music, and heaven knows how they do it, who gets these kids to music these days, but that is a different story. The conservatories are yet a different problem because very often, the students are never made aware of those, if you wish, verbal methodological considerations which precede the very possibility of what we consider discourse about music or anything else. In the universities, some students will be, I don’t want to say subjected to that, but will be aware of that and concern themselves about it. Not necessarily but often they will.  If you give a course in so-called “theory,” at a first-rate university, and you are bound to have some students who say “You call that a theory? It’s not a theory.” I mean, in Princeton they’ll say, “We’ve taken a course in theory construction with Carl Hempel and this isn’t a theory at all.  At best, this is a series of observations or a few general cases.”

NT: What sociological changes have brought about this change in the last twenty years?

MB: Well, I’m not a sociologist and I really can’t answer that in any definitive way. It probably has something to do with the fact that the masses have taken over. There has never been a pop music that took over and dominated our culture the way that rock, and now what’s followed rock, hip-hop, or whatever it is, has. There has never been anything like that. Never before. And now that is certainly what is regarded as the popular music. I was saying something earlier to a group of composers about the fact that you can’t go out on the streets of New York anymore at night, and, night after night, learn the complete literature of piano music, for example. And one of the students didn’t think that it was of any importance because you can go out and go to four or five joints in the village and hear a few rock groups. That is the fundamental change. You can’t hear the music anymore. Where are you from originally?

NT:  St. Louis.

MB: Well, I don’t know anything about St. Louis and I wouldn’t dare talk about St. Louis, but in New York, where I went to in order to be able to hear all this music, the transformation is such that the halls themselves have disappeared. There is no place where you can play this music.  So that, if the music isn’t available, people are not going to hear it, and people who are seeking it become discouraged. The works that were heard constantly on the stool during the season are not being played at all. Halls like Town Hall which used to have at least one concert a day and four or five over the weekend don’t have concerts at all anymore. Times Hall has become a radio station, and so on and so forth. And, for example, people are not even aware of the music because the newspapers, which were never exactly the….well I should be careful about this while serving the province of sophisticated discourse about music. Nevertheless, you could get information. You could find out about what happened last night. You can’t find out what happened last night anymore because they don’t do it the next day. You don’t even know when a review will appear. And you’re not interested in the review because of the normative aspect, but to find out what happened so to speak. They don’t cover most of that anymore.

NT: It’s funny you mentioned that, because the New York Times review of the “Soldier’s Tale” performance (note: Babbitt had recently played the part of the devil in a performance of Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” at Tanglewood) just last week still accused you of writing an article called “Who Cares If You Listen?”

MB: Of course. Well there used to be six or seven people covering these. Some of them would come with scores and so on. A great many of those people have gone. The only thing I can say about it is how are we going to get reasonable information forgetting the judgmental aspect of it? If people don’t know it has been happening or is happening, and if its taken over by even worse public radio where the people are completely uninformed and pretentious. They’ll tell you what is important and isn’t. Our little singer over here (note: Babbitt is referring here to Jo Ellen Miller, who performed in Babbitt’s 90th birthday concert at Tanglewood on the day of this interview), whom you know, and who will be singing my music tonight; she’s new to this part of it. She comes from Michigan, and she was terrified to be interviewed yesterday by public television, a couple of wise guys, and no matter what she said they would disregard it because they didn’t know who these people were that she was talking about, and they had their own questions such as “What roles would you like eventually to sing?”… these generalized questions which had nothing to do with her specifically and didn’t represent anything that would define her as a musician or as a person. I hate to be an enemy of public television but they have these pretentious… I don’t whether you have them or not. Maybe Boston is a little better, because public television is not the same everywhere.  But they have these people that presume to tell you what is beautiful, what is powerful, what is important, and then they’ll always tell you what they like best. The problem is one of public communication. Forgive me. We are off the track, but really we aren’t off the track at all. I mean, what are you going to do when you are through with school? How do you make a living? You either have to abandon this, or find some support. Where is the support going to come from?

NT: Like my colleagues, and your colleagues I am sure, teaching will be a big part of it.

MB: Exactly, well that’s it. That is why when one writes that the university is virtually the only hope for a composer, one is talking in very practical terms.  Who has not taught at a university?  Even an extremely wealthy composers like Elliott Carter, nevertheless, has taught at a university, if you call Yale a university. He’s taught at a number of places, Columbia for example, where he was let go because Frank Wigglesworth was returning from Italy. I put that in as a bit of academic, what shall I say, not gossip, but academic fact which might startle a few people. Look, Elliott taught a little bit because he wanted to be in contact. He didn’t have to, but he thought teaching at a university was a good idea for a composer. He’s one of the few composers who’s strongly supported by his own devices. His own devices being what he inherited. There are few composers like that, but not many. What composer do we know, no matter how successful by public or private criteria, is not teaching at school or has not taught in a school? I’d be hard pressed to think of one. People think that Aaron Copland didn’t teach.  Aaron Copland too had private money, but Aaron Copland taught.

NT: You once said that “Communal commonplaces, rather than singular discriminants, become the constituents and ultimates of the vocabulary of analysis.”  How does that vocabulary compare to the vocabulary that is used to teach analysis to music students?

MB: I didn’t want to go too deeply in to that. The communal aspects of that of course, as you know perfectly well, refer to pieces as beautiful. We can get very technical about this, about the fact that “beautiful” is a supervenient and these are unexplicated supervenients and there is simply no way of finding out what these words mean in that vocabulary. If they don’t explicate the supervenient, we’re stuck. Or it can be nothing other than something of which they will never admit is some incorrigible statement of personal disposition. They will never say, well very few of them except Virgil Thomson, will say “I like it and that’s the end of it.” Even he didn’t say “I like it and therefore it’s a great work.” He would come close to it sometimes. But he sort of reveled in his irresponsibility, I mean, he was a clever guy. But look: there have been serious critics, and there have been critics who tried to deal with the public aspect of criticism, and use a language that was responsible and explicable. For example, Benjamin Boretz. Benjamin Boretz, when he was a critic for The Nation, which was a political magazine, but nevertheless for the general reader, the general political reader, he managed to do it. And I want to say that that points out something else: there was a time when The Nation and The New Republic and The New Yorker, which was very different from what it is now, all had music critics who wrote in that magazine every week. That’s gone except the New Yorker. The general readers aren’t even aware of the fact that people are writing about these things. The records are occurring less and less of course that there is any contemporary musical activity going on.

NT: In your essays, you say a lot about program notes, positive and negative. In your experience, is your work received more enthusiastically if it preceded by some sort discussion or pre-concert talk?

MB: Yes, it is. It usually is. Enthusiastically may be an exaggeration. But more calmly, and with more acceptance. For two reasons: now we are talking about when I appear in person and talk in advance. Because they realize I take seriously something they weren’t prepared to take seriously. Either they think it’s a hoax or something totally meaningless. Just consider the difference, and this is something that came many years ago that at your age you would have been unaware of, of the question of so-called abstract painting. That’s when Clem Greenberg, who was a very sophisticated critic (we had nothing comparable in public music), used the expression “autotelic,” by which he meant that it didn’t represent a reference to any object in the world outside of the canvas. I would use the word automorphic with regards to our wholly context-dependant music. But think of the difference of those two fields from that point of view. When someone sees a painting that seems totally, absolutely without any reference, they always say “what is that supposed to represent?  A tree?  A bird?  Superman?” When they hear a piece of music, what do they say? They say “you call that music?” By which they mean referenced to other music. It’s important because they compare music with regard to familiar music; they compare paining with regard to references outside the paining, and that makes a great deal of difference because that brings us back to the point that it will be much more difficult for them to regard the music with any degree of serenity and coherence.

NT: Is it important to you that a musician performing your work understands the musical language on which it is based?

MB: We won’t quibble at the moment with understanding. That’s a toughie. That is very hard to come to terms with. But let me say that…I’m gonna be careful about this. The best performers I’ve ever had to deal with certainly have tried to approach the generalities of the musical language and the specifics of a particular work. The answer is yes. But to what extent, that’s very hard to define. I am not sure I can. The point of understanding a work… you’ve slipped in a toughie there. Did I write that?

NT:  No.

MB:  Good. Thank god. Because what does it mean to understand a piece of music? But, I have many examples of where performers who thought they understood what I was doing had misunderstood it so violently that they played the piece… I won’t tell you who the performer was, but it was a very well known violinist… they looked at my pencil writings. That is my original manuscript. I always write with a pencil in a notebook. They saw these numbers, 3 and 4, 2 and 4, and so forth, and thought that it was the secret that was behind work, because they think numbers, 12-tone and so forth. Well, it’s shorthand that I use no matter what the piece.  If I put 2 of 3 it means the second note of a triplet. That’s all it means. And he began to unravel what he thought was the secret of the work. And he played the piece very badly in terms of a kind of conception that had nothing to do with the piece. That’s an extreme example of course.  Mainly I find that the best thing is a performer comes along, who plays the piece and then begins to get curious about it, and then begins to make his own analysis. He may come up with things that are a bit deviant from what I thought, but that doesn’t mean I’ve always thought of the best possible way. I just think generally that experienced, intelligent performers will get in to the piece, and then we’ll work on it together. I’ve heard many performers play Beethoven’s Opus 111 who had never gone through the Schenker analysis of it but it would have helped them if they had.

NT: We kind of take it for granted that musicians performing tonal music have a working knowledge of tonal music theory.

MB: Oh, no!

NT: Well, to some extent, at least more so than contemporary music.

MB: That’s true.

NT: I am wondering to what extent should performers of contemporary music concern themselves with the theory behind it. 

MB: Well, I can’t think it would hurt, because we have extraordinary examples of contemporary theory as I know and you know. We have a sophistication of contemporary theory now that is so considerable that how can you read it all? I can’t possibly read all the articles I would like to read forgetting all the other ones out there that I am not sure I’d care to look at. I mean you have at least a half dozen publications in this country which are loaded with relevant articles in every issue, and you can’t read them all. You pick out what you think will be most valuable to you. I think of six publications which I would assume that any musician would find something in, and there are more than that when you consider that there is one magazine in England.  That’s as far as you can go across the ocean. It’s called Music Analysis. Quite characteristically it is very expensive, but it is a very good analytical magazine. It’s the only one over there, and the English one is very close to the American model. But there are differences and it’s a very interesting magazine. But there is nothing in any of the others. You find the other extreme:  you find the quasi-mathematical, the quasi-technological, or who knows what. Getting back to the question again, of course, I’ve always found that the performer, and I know a few of them, who read some of these articles, and have questions about them, and question me as they are learning a piece of mine, yes, of course it’s better. They make decisions about certain ways of playing certain passages that they would not have made if they hadn’t read them. So I mean obviously to read analyses about a piece is to acquire knowledge about a piece that you may decide is useful to you, or not. When you don’t have that alternative, you may stumble through the piece. People have stumbled through my pieces.

How To Make Parts: Circles

Luciano Berio’s landmark 1960 piece Circles is one of the most problematic scores I’ve encountered. It isn’t especially difficult to play, but the printed music is completely unusable, at least for the two percussionists. As you can see from the diagram below, the percussionists are more or less surrounded by instruments:


So to accommodate the setup, each percussionist must have several stations of music to facilitate reading. Some pages of music should be next to the xylophone, some next to the vibraphone, etc. To make matters worse, there are of course no parts for this piece, only a score. Here is what we are dealing with:

My favorite part is the 50% negative space.

My favorite part is the 50% negative space.

I first played Circles when I was 24. Back then, I wasn’t quite as adroit at part making as I am now, and this is what I came up with:


…and for perspective…


Also, because of the aforementioned set-up issues, I had to make two of those. I think it took three full days to complete. That’s three full days cutting up paper and gluing it to poster board, then taping those pieces of poster board together. The parts I made were problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, your sheet music should not be more difficult to carry around than your vibraphone. More importantly though, the audience doesn’t want the performers to be hidden behind such monstrosities.

I’m about to play Circles again at the upcoming Fromm Concerts at Harvard. I suppose I could have used my old parts, but I knew I could do better this time because now I have a system that works.

This requires somewhat of a digression. The ideal part for me is coil bound (NOT COMB BOUND. Sure it is cheaper, but it sucks.) with protective front and back covers. This will make for durable parts with pages that are easy to turn. Until recently, I had to go to copy shops to get this done, which anyone who has bothered to read this much about this subject knows is a giant pain in the ass. Your average copy shop worker has no knowledge or interest in the intricacies of printed music, and why should they? After a series of bad experiences, I became determined to eliminate Kinko’s from my life.

My initial research was discouraging. The machines that punch oversized paper for coil binding cost at least $400. I have no intention of making that kind of investment in a hole puncher. I was ready to give up when I found, which sells pre-punched coil binding paper. It is a little more expensive than normal paper would be, but after doing the math I figured out that I would have to buy 6,000 pieces of pre-punched paper before it became more expensive than just buying a hole punch. So using the pre-punched paper was an easy choice. also sells protective covers, the actual coils you need for binding, and pretty much anything else related to binding that you can think of. On top of that, their customer service is superb. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

The only other bit of equipment I needed was an all-in-one printer that could handle 11×17 paper. I bought this one:

So now I can do everything that I used to have to do at Kinko’s from the comfort of my house. If you hate Kinko’s as much as I do, it is well worth the investment.

My first step with my new equipment was to make a pdf scan of the entire Circles score. With the right printer, this is pretty easy to do. From there, I used the Preview program on my iMac to copy and paste bits of the score on to a Microsoft Word document formatted for 11×17. Unfortunately the source material is 11×17 in landscape format, so there is nothing I can do about that. As a result, my finished parts are also 11×17 in landscape format. I wish I could do portrait layout, but you can’t alter the source material.

The first three pages of the printed score, for some inexplicable reason, look like this:


Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 12.21.52 AM

With a layman’s knowledge of computers and 60 spare seconds, you can turn these three pages into usable performance materials:

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 12.22.23 AM

This exemplifies the strategy I took with making my percussion part: I eliminated the negative space from the score, copied my part on to a new page, and generally included the vocal part in my own part (sometimes I included the harp part as well). The cues I needed from the percussion 1 part I wrote in to my part with a red pen. So these two pages:



became this page:


To cover the contingency of needing several parts on several music stands, I made a part for xylophone, vibraphone, and toms with the appropriate edited pages in each part. My finished parts now look like this:

A lot better than my 2.5 ft tall aberrations from 2008.

A lot better than my 2.5 ft tall aberrations from 2008.

These parts are coil bound with protective front and back coverings, and I did it all from home. No more Kinko’s.

How To Make Parts: Developing a Method

Frequently in modern music, parts are not provided with performance materials, thus requiring the performers to construct their own parts. This is most often the case with composers that came of age in the Darmstadt scene of the 1960’s. I wish publishers like Universal Edition and Ricordi would go through their back catalogs and modernize some publications. There are some pieces for which I have the score but that I have not yet programmed because doing so would require having the music re-engraved. And there are some pieces that, barring an incredible performance fee, I would simply refuse to play again if asked because the performance materials are such a nightmare to deal with. I’ve unfortunately come to expect these nightmare scenarios with one of my favorite composers: Franco Donatoni.

I’ve had the score for his Cinis II (for clarinet, marimba, and percussion) for years, but the music is written so large that each oversized page only has three measures of music.

This page is 11x17. Three measures of music. Thanks, Ricordi.

This page is 11×17. Three measures of music. Thanks, Ricordi.

Since I am no wizard with Finale (i.e. I don’t know how to use Finale), I would have to pay someone to re-engrave the music in order to play this piece. Professional engraving would reduce the 35 page score to a part that is 10 pages or less and with workable page breaks. The piece is only 105 measures long, after all.

As bad as that is, the score for Cloches III for two pianos and two percussionists is even worse. The percussion set-ups are so large that both percussionists would need multiple copies of the music spread across several instrumental stations. However, the single score that each percussionist receives from the publisher is so large that it can not be photocopied. And again, the music is written so enormously that each performer has to make a page turn every 10 seconds. Needless to say, the page breaks are not in convenient locations. It would take a talented copyist a week to fix both of those scores and then Ricordi would actually be able to give out workable performance materials for one of the most respected composers in its roster instead of the oversized study scores they currently send out.

In a perfect world, all sheet music would come off the shelf ready to use and performers wouldn’t have to fuss with it so much, but sadly that isn’t the case. It is not uncommon for me to spend more time making my own part for a piece than I do practicing it. The two most frequent problems I have to solve are making a part from a score and binding a part from loose pages.

I recently received the performance materials for Barbara White’s Third Rule of Thumb for percussion quartet, which I will perform at the upcoming Fromm Concerts at Harvard. It is an expertly prepared score. My part (player 2) is enlarged, while other parts are miniaturized in the staves below. Furthermore, only relevant parts are included in full, and other important events are indicated with text (see bar 232).

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 2.31.25 PM

My part consists of 15 loose, single sided 11×17 pages. It won’t work well to just have all these loose pages sitting on a music stand during performance. That would increase the chances of the music falling off the stand, and it would make page turns needlessly awkward. So, I’m going to bind the pages together with masking tape. It is a quick, easy, and low-tech way to deal with the issue.

Since the pages are formatted to be turned every two pages, I’ll start by taping two pages together at a time. Here, I’ve taped together pages 1 and 2, and pages 3 and 4:


In order to set up the bind, I’m now going to tape together pages 2 and 3:


To finish binding the first 4 pages together, I’m going to fold the pages in half, with pages 3 and 4 facing up, then turn page 4 on top of page three, then tape down the middle for a center bind:


The finished version of the first four pages looks like this:


Repeat these steps until there are no more pages. From start to finish, binding all 15 pages together took 15 minutes or so, and now my page turns are all worked out for performance.

In the next post, I’ll discuss my more recently developed high-tech method of part making.

How To Make Parts (part one)

I first realized the importance of page turns when I was a sophomore in college. I was auditioning for a chamber music honors concert with Elliott Carter’s Esprit Rude/Esprit Doux II, and all three members of the ensemble were playing from the score instead of from the provided parts (a wise move with that piece). Since we were all around 19 years old, no one had a better idea than to just tape several pages together at a time and then discard them to the floor when the time came. Before we could finish the last bar, a judge said to us “you can play in the concert but only if you do something about the page turns.” I still see people throwing 4 or 5 taped-together pages to the ground during performance regularly, and it is one of my biggest pet peeves (along with the old fortress of music stands trick that wind players seem to enjoy so much, but really just makes their performance look like watching something download.)

In the decade I’ve spent playing mostly contemporary music, I rarely receive a part or score that I can perform from without altering it in some way. I’ve toyed with various solutions over the years, from cutting and pasting music on to poster board to binding loose pages together with masking tape. In part 2 of this post I’ll detail one of those processes, and later will explain my newest solution which I think is a keeper.

Not to state the obvious, but the best solution to this problem would be for composers, copyists, and publishers to see to it that the parts they give to performers actually work. Every minute I spend making a new part is a minute I don’t spend actually practicing a piece. This is especially important advice for student composers. The quickest way to make an enemy out of someone performing your piece is to give them a part they can’t play from. No one is expecting the next Pierrot Luniere to come out of a conservatory undergrad, but as long as the printed music itself is prepared on a professional level, the experience should be positive. This first of three posts on this topic will address common pitfalls of music copying.

1. Don’t use landscape layout

For the life of me, I can’t comprehend why so many composers insist on using landscape (horizontal) page formatting. It causes many problems:

  • Landscape layout necessitates more music stands. If using ledger sized paper (11×17), one sheet occupies the space of the entire music stand. If in portrait layout (vertical), two sheets of ledger paper fit on one stand.
  • It is easier to move one’s neck and eyes up and down than it is from side to side.
  • Landscape layout puts the extreme sides of the music further away from a stationary performer.

(Update: John McDonald wisely pointed out that landscape format works well for piano parts, since the piano’s built in music stand isn’t tall enough to support portrait layout in most paper sizes.) 

2. Insert page breaks in convenient spots in the music

Don’t worry about leaving half of a page blank or inserting a completely blank page if that is what it takes to make the page turns work. In the last month I have played pieces by students and professionals alike where no thought whatsoever was put in to the page breaks. I wish I didn’t have to state the obvious again, but:

  • Musicians can not turn pages in the middle of a rapido passage.
  • Percussionists can not turn pages in the middle of a roll.
  • Page turns should be avoided during dramatic pauses in music.

3. Mind the gaps

I’m referring here to the distance between staves. This can make the difference between legible and illegible. I recently performed a 35 page part that easily could have been around 20 pages if not for the 40% negative space per page. A later post will address Berio’s Circles, which contains more blank paper than any piece of music should.

4. Consider whether or not performers should work from parts or scores

Factors that determine whether a performer would perform from a score include the size of the ensemble and thus the amount of music possible on one page of full score, and whether or not a piece will be conducted. When dealing with complicated music for small unconducted chamber group, I prefer to play from a score with my line on top and the other instruments miniaturized below. If performers prefer scores, you should still prepare different page breaks for each musician if necessary.