Space, Time and Timbre

There are many ways to create in every domain and music is certainly no exception. One reason this is so is the very many types of musicians who bring music into the world. One would imagine singers and players of other monophonic instruments usually begin with a melody, percussionists and drummers with rhythm, and bass players with progressions of chord changes. The majority of composers are able to play polyphonic instruments, capable of simultaneous notes or chords, with the two most prevalent examples being piano and guitar.

When playing an instrument capable of melody, harmony, and rhythm one can start with any of them. Less obviously powerful, composers can also begin with space, time or timbre. Sound is a function of the three spatial dimensions and time which is why listener and source location can profoundly impact the listening experience. Directionality or lack of directionality and immersiveness, the quality or degree of being immersive can add tremendously to the emotional engagement of music. The acoustics of the listening environment (architectural acoustics) and psychoacoustics (two listeners perceive physical sounds) are two more variables a composer can control to a meaningful extent as can how sound varies as a function of time. Notes produced by different instruments bloom in a range of time-varying manners which also contribute to timbre or tonal quality. Another extremely important attribute, of not only pieces of music, but the places within which it is performed and the instruments upon which it is performed, all in combination impact tone or timbre.

Included are several (or the many) definitions of timbre. My Mac’s dictionary says the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity. And the Mac thesaurus says the timbre of the reeds: tone, sound, sound quality, voice, voice quality, color, tone color, tonality, resonance.

Wikipedia has a long definition the first paragraph of which is; In music, timbre is also known as tone color or tone quality from psychoacoustics) is the perceived sound quality of a musical note, sound or tone. Timbre distinguishes different types of sound production, such as choir voices and musical instruments, such as string instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments. It also enables listeners to distinguish between different instruments in the same category.
And finally The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) Acoustical Terminology definition 12.09 of timbre describes it as “that attribute of auditory sensation which enables a listener to judge that two nonidentical sounds, similarly presented and having the same loudness and pitch, are dissimilar”, adding, “Timbre depends primarily upon the frequency spectrum, although it also depends upon the sound pressure and the temporal characteristics of the sound” (Acoustical Society of America Standards Secretariat 1994).

Suffice to say timbre is such a big deal as to be considered another dimension of music and this is one of the main reasons composers study orchestration just as painters study color. It is so critical that some instruments can cost millions of dollars and others are worthless. There are some popular musicians including both vocalists and instrumentalists who can be identified by hearing a single note. Timbre can also be extremely subjective.

The next to time you listen to, perform or create music loosen for timbre, it can be just as important as melody, harmony or rhythm.

Closing the Loop

Have you ever returned to a dream you had at the other end of your life? If you have worked a few decades, are in your retirement years, and there are still uncompleted and unfulfilled, it can be incredibly rewarding to re-engage dreams from the past. You know the ones I am talking about, the ones you had already rationalized as impossible, impractical and as unlikely, and also you did not have the ability, so it was wiser that you did not go down that path. Yeah, those!

Let’s say you had practical parents who were somewhat justifiably frightened that becoming an artist, musician, poet, playwright or any of those soul fulfilling but pocket emptying pursuits would damage your ability to have a reasonable life. So being the dutiful son or daughter you went and had a practical life.  It happens all of the time and is far more prevalent than those who went against their families and pursued something improbable. 

Right now for a large and growing population,  65 is the new 40 and 9PM is the new midnight. And guess what, this population is not yet ready to hang it up and go quietly into the night, or at least a sizable portion of them is not. And as universities struggle with defining enrollments some of them are attempting to reinvent themselves by offering new programs to nontraditional populations that are either younger or older than typical undergrads. Even some prestigious institutions who have no shortage of applicants to reject are sometimes engaging in out of the box thinking and offering extremely high-level instruction to new nontraditional populations who they subject to rigorous requirements. 

If there was a field that attracted you in your youth or anytime along the way to becoming a pragmatic adult, it may not be too late. And returning to earlier dreams can be incredibly rewarding for they may represent unfinished business. Just maybe you can once again go after the one that got away?

As a seventeen-year-old, I had briefly dreamed of becoming a composer and conducting a symphony where not all of the notes were predefined and where improvisation was not only tolerated and accepted but welcome. In other words a bridging of classical music and jazz. In today’s world, there are plenty of examples of crossover artists and ensembles so it is probably too late to be first, but not too late to join in the fun and close the loop from a long time ago. 

Even prestigious schools like Harvard, MIT, and Juilliard offer evening coursework not usually, but sometimes leading to a degree. But then again these dreams were not generally about degrees but about doing something you loved and were told you were unreasonably attracted to. Hey not everyone married the love of their life the first time around. For some of us, it took a second try. And the love of a field that attracted you as a younger person can be just as exciting as an adult. In fact, it can even be a kind of forbidden fruit and therefore more exciting even if there may be no one left to tell you not to go for it.  

Whether you had a successful career or even a set of careers, there is something to be said about closing the loop, a phrase originated by techies but which has entered more common usage. All I can say is as a student studying composition and orchestration in the evening division of Juilliard, that it is even more thrilling decades later than it would have been when I was seventeen when I took all of my opportunities much more for granted. 

Even if you do not have an existential crisis, and are not entirely retired, and actually did enjoy the careers you had and still have, it is never too late to close the loop and add some icing to the cake your life has been. And if your life has not been a cake, well, then you have even more motivation to close the loop!

Keynoting Composers

When SVII was founded in 2005, it was to support Innovators and Innovation Advocates everywhere at all levels. Although founded in Silicon Valley on Sand Hill Road in the Quadrus Center, one of the top tech venture concentration centers in the world, we were interested in supporting the arts as well as technologists and entrepreneurs from the very beginning. Three tag lines we use are variations on the same theme; to turn vision into value, insight into income, and concept into commercialization. This was because having a great idea has never been enough. The idea has to be continually and continuously delivered by a compelling and directed individual to many others in order to get enough traction to prevail. This is just as true for the arts as for business and science. The SVII definition of innovation is simply applied insight. It is a lot easier to have insight than to apply it as anyone possessed of insight rapidly discovers. Resistance to new ideas does not discriminate against particular groups. Pretty much all new ideas are resisted.

Most of my life has been spent with technical and business innovators but in recent years a new group has become close to my heart, composers. In asking composers what their single largest problem was and is, the answer was getting our works performed. This familiar territory is the same as inventors experience – getting someone to use their invention. Or entrepreneurs experience getting someone to pay for their product or service. All three groups also have need of some sort of patronage or investment. During the extended period, these creators are working on getting traction with investors, patrons, audiences, and customers to secure contracts, commissions and outlets they frequently absorb a certain amount of negative feedback while also learning many new skills to communicate about and manage their creations and teams.

An old but still useful concept, especially to creative populations is Group Mind, the notion that the mind of a group is more powerful than the mind of an individual. This is also one of the underlying principles of collaboration. New York seems to have a larger population of composers than technologists so the notion of gathering composers came up, and n0t just any composers, but those with something to say in addition to some works to play, hence the name Keynoting Composers. Think about extended interactive Ted talks occurring within the context of musical works.

Ted talks are great for audiences. As creators are more interested in creating than consuming, they like to be part of an exchange of ideas more than part of an audience. Conversations amongst peers can be inspiring and emotionally supportive and they can be accelerated by conversation starters. Who better to start a conversation than a keynoter, someone who has something to say that inspires dialog. And for composers conversations revolving around musical works that they are composing are hot topics. Or at least that is the theory as we are kicking this off this month.

A New Business Arts Model


Perhaps you have noticed how much more difficult it is to make a living being creative, than doing the same old thing that has been done  forever. Perhaps it has always been this way. After all, who wants to pay someone, to do something they do not already know how to do. It is risky for the creator may never learn how to do it, or get a good result or have a market. Also it will probably take longer and cost more  than expected, which anyone who has ever invested in a new direction quickly learns. On the other hand this where tomorrow comes from so it is exciting but you have to pay to play. If tomorrow is to be different from today, than someone has to pay for it with time or money, usually both, in addition to other things like emotionally, psychologically and psychically as well.

Fortunately,  creative people do not like to keep doing what they already know how to do, they want to do new things. They get bored with too much repetition which is a prime reason they create, because they have to, certainly not because someone told them to.  Since machines will be continuing to replace most repetitive work, as they cost less than people, it is a good thing that there are those among us, who do not want to do what is replaceable by machines. For if they do not continue to involuntarily create, humanity will be in big trouble.

Artists, innovators, entrepreneurs, and other nonlinear creative types have always had to sell their ideas in some form or another, in order to get funded, unless they already had the resources to pursue their dreams. This means they have needed to become s good at storytelling. No story means no stakeholders.  In some way or another, creators benefit from patrons. Which could be feudal lords, the church, family, friends or even alumni associations,. anyone with the resources. 

So far, this is probably not news to you, especially if you had to learn to tell stories and suffer the consequences or rewards. Sometimes story tellers are charming and funded, and sometimes investing parties feel burned. Both can happen at the same time! One size outcome does not fit all here. Here is a take on current conditions at the intersection of technology, the arts and customers (audiences).

Lets start with the market for usually they are precondition to get funded. Current audiences for culture, and lets focus on music for the moment, have decreasing attention spans. There are two very good reasons both technology driven, desire for diversity and convenience. The democratization of technology (meaning it cost little enough for everyone to have it) has provided for audiences nearly infinite choices and infinite convenience at the same time. If everyone has a 100 course smorgasbord available at every moment the attention given to any one course tends to shrink. So factor one is the market wants smaller units of excitation but lots of them so they can binge. 

Now lets shift to the product, what is being offered and continue sticking to culture in general with music in particular. The barriers to entry to write and perform music are pretty low which has enabled tens of millions of amateur musicians out there. If only 1% of them want to attempt to be professionals and earn enough to live pursuing their art, there are hundreds of thousands of wanna be music professionals out there.  The current prevalent success model seems simple;  outperform everyone around you all of the time, and also be extremely lucky by finding a market. The act of creating a following takes a great deal of effort, time and money, and is therefore not very motivating to the hundreds of thousands considering this career path. One reason is it is too ego driven and not enough art driven. 

Here is a potential solution, I have participated in for the last two years. Collaborate and cooperate instead of trying to outcompete everyone around you. Here is what we did, with the we being a bunch of night school students at Juilliard.  Imagine a concert where instead of two or three works being performed, written by two or three composers, there were 25 pieces performed, supplied by ten composers. This drives huge changes. The length of the pieces is shorter permitting more different pieces and types of pieces to be performed. This addresses and provides for both the diversity smorgasbord and the shorter attentions which seem to characterize modern audiences. Theoretically, this is a better way to create a market.

And, by including ten composers instead of two or three, there are more hands available to share the work through a collaborative cooperating community, as well as a larger initial audience for ten people have more friends to invite, than two or three people. This makes a concert event far more likely to occur and far more likely to work.

I will save for another time, the discussion of how ubiquitous bandwidth will be dramatically impacting the delivery of intimate performances to larger audiences, becoming more fiscally viable.

The bottom line here is if you want to make it as an artist or by extension an inventor, you need to do  things that require getting your ego out of the way. Become a better story teller, collaborate more, and put yourself in the audiences (customers) place.

What does the market want that you can deliver? How can you reduce required resources. Solve these two and create a viable business model which shrink competition from 500 thousand down to a manageable number – for how many people can collaborate and get their ego out of the way.