Four Simple Notes Captured Listeners Across Centuries

Can I just say I hate it when “the news” gets this stuff all wrong? “Yeah, let’s call it the diatonic phrygian tetrachord so that it sounds fancy and sophisticated and classical!” This is not phrygian — yes, it’s the same four notes as the beginning of the phyrgian mode, but it doesn’t function as the phrygian at all. It’s just your basic, run of the mill, boring old minor. It’s a i-VII-VI-V or a t-D/tP-S/tP-D perhaps? I still need to get a grip on Riemannian theory. Terms like “phrygian” don’t exist simply to shut people out of our discipline. They have meaning. Bandying words about takes away that meaning.

Are people uncomfortable with, or just plain unaccustomed to, being alone with their thoughts?

Back in October 2011, I attended the BGSU New Music Festival as a guest composer. We were all put up in a hotel about 20 minutes from campus in a giant outdoor shopping mall. Having been raised in southern New Hampshire (where, because of the absence of sales tax we have a lot of malls) and having lived in Germany for the past five years (well, at the time two years, but still…), it was something of a culture shock. The waste of space, the lack of character, the obvious failed attempt at creating a sense of place and community, but the most egregious was the constant canned music being broadcast outside. I went out to look for coffee at 6:30am — sure enough, the music was already playing. (I’m not even going to go into how pedestrian unfriendly such an outdoor mall is and how far I had to walk to find a coffee shop — at least it wasn’t Starbucks.)

The main guest composer was David Lang, who gave the keynote speech and — sure enough! — he talked about the presence of “unwanted” music, specifically citing our quarters as an example, while all the composers nodded with a knowing smirk.

Let me clarify the difference between art and entertainment. Entertainment is not the opposite of art—please Lord don’t let entertainment be the enemy of art, be opposed to art in any way, or we are goners. What distinguishes entertainment is that it happens within what we already know. Whatever your response to the entertainment presentation—laughing, crying, getting excited—underneath the surface, it confirms. Entertainment says, “Yes, the world is the way you think it is.” It feels great to have your worldview confirmed in the many dynamic, imaginative, exciting ways our entertainment industries provide.

Art, on the other hand, happens outside of what you already know. Inherent in the artistic experience is the capacity to expand your sense of the way the world is or might be. The art lives in an individual’s capacity to engage in that fundamental act of creativity—expanding the sense of the possible—every bit as much as the art resides in the what’s being observed.


I was recently invited to participate in a community outreach educational project spearheaded by akademie : der steg. Architect Matthias Loebermann’s work Unschärfe provided the focus and locus of the workshops on music, dance, photography, and art. The goal of my workshop was to guide students to compose and perform a ca. 15 minute piece inside the structure.

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This is a great project and I can’t wait for people to do this with other composers.