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[Magazine Article] In Praise of Unremarkable Music

Originally appeared in two parts on (part 1, part 2), the web magazine for NewMusicUSA. Full text below.

Part 1

Why did you start writing music? Now, what do you hope to accomplish? This year? This decade? By the end of your life?

In response to these questions, you might envision your music’s success according to a variety of measures:

  • The awards, press, and publicity it receives
  • The size of audiences it attracts
  • The money it makes
  • The joy you had in creating it
  • The degree to which it meets a performer’s need or fits their skill level
  • The experience shared by those in the room when it is performed
  • The appraisal of your colleagues and other connoisseurs
  • The social impact it has

Given your creativity, I’m sure you can come up with dozens of other metrics (and I’d be curious to hear them). 

But it should be obvious that rarely, if ever, does a piece of music succeed across all these dimensions. Whenever we create music—whatever kind of music we write—we create something that is, at least in a few dimensions, unremarkable. Because individuals and groups value these various dimensions differently, no piece of music can be universal in its appeal or usefulness. Even Bach can be considered an also-ran by many people in many contexts. Thus, it is not intellectually or socially honest to ask, “Is Piece A better than Piece B?” without being able to identify the terms of comparison and explain why those terms matter. 

It may seem sacrilegious to suggest that our prized repertoire is not inherently more worthy than other music. It may further seem counterintuitive to consider that the uninteresting and mediocre, or even the lackluster and substandard, may help us achieve our goals better than our lodestars—not just as cautionary tales but as exemplars themselves.

What does unremarkable music have to teach us about achieving our goals?

On a social level, we all share a fundamental need for validation and belonging. Though some composers may be content to write for themselves, most of us write music because we want to connect with those around us. Regardless of whether we get paid, a large part of what we do constitutes a gift to our collaborators and communities. We hope our music may inspire, challenge, stimulate, touch, or delight those who hear it. When that gift is poorly received or rejected, it stings.

This sting can be all the worse because many of us hold ideals of meritocracy and social justice. We believe that the good and the marginalized should have at least an equal seat at the table as the powerful and the privileged. Further, we want to believe that our music has merit. When that merit is ignored—particularly because of structural discrimination—we feel a righteous sense of injustice.

But from what table does that injustice exclude you? And from what power? Indeed, to whose aesthetic values are you trying to appeal? Or whose opinions are you trying to influence?

Often, our success as composers is only loosely based on how good our music is. And as inarguable as the benefits of power and privilege may be, they hardly constitute the only way to create and sustain communities. Further, the powerful and the praised are not the only communities worth serving or creating. (On these points, see also Elliot Cole’s article “Questions I Ask Myself.”)

This, then, is what unremarkable music can teach us socially: our success as composers, however you want to measure it, reflects most strongly the quality of the relationships that our music fosters. As humanity’s most ephemeral artifact, music may catalyze these relationships, but it cannot constitute their substance. Inasmuch as your music enables you to make others feel seen, treasured, cared for, and empowered, it can be said to be doing its job. 

We are not fundamentally composers: we are human beings who use music to love others. 

Likewise, other people are not fundamentally our audience: they are human beings with a rich capacity to receive and reciprocate that love. 

Whenever we connect with other people through our music, it constitutes only a part of the whole relationship. Even our ties to the so-called “great composers” have just as much, if not more, to do with the myths and institutions built around them as they do with their music. Why, then, do we insist that our professional status must stand or fall primarily on our scores and recordings? You would never communicate with your mother only via sheet music. So, too, we can only fully cultivate our professional impact through the stories we tell, the meals we share, the conversations we have, the memories we make, and so on. 

It should be obvious that you don’t have to be stereotypically successful to do this. Anyone—the 17-year-old YouTuber, the part-time production music composer, the obscure grad student, the band teacher from Montana—can make an impact through these means.

Still, when that impact goes viral, it can leave some observers bemused, jealous, or defensive—an honest reaction, inasmuch as its roots go deeper than common pettiness. These roots tap into the implicit messages behind certain measures of success, messages about which relationships matter more than others. For many of us, it requires a great struggle to uproot our uncritical embrace of these values. Does the New York Philharmonic and its milieu truly matter more than the seventh graders of the Springfield Middle School Band and their families? Is the only route to financial security truly through becoming an A-list Hollywood composer?

Yes, attaining such stereotypical success through “remarkable” music will constitute impact and bring influence, and these are not unworthy goals. Yet unremarkable music can be subversive and transformative in ways that music of “merit” cannot achieve. Think of punk rock. Think, too, of educational and film music. Despite all the flack that these genres receive in some quarters, many of us became composers because we loved John Williams’s Star Wars scores or Eric Whitacre’s choral works. That these examples are wildly successful in some spheres but disparaged in others serves only to underscore my point: whose opinion matters?

This disconnect between impact and merit brings to mind the common aphorism, “One person’s trash is another’s treasure.” It, in turn, resonates with a “philosophical conundrum” in ethics that Agnes Callard explains in a recent essay:

Morality requires we maintain a safety net at the bottom that catches everyone—the alternative is simply inhumane—but we also need an aspirational target at the top, so as to inspire us to excellence, creativity, and accomplishment. In other words, we need worth to come for free, and we also need it to be acquirable. And no philosopher—not Kant, not Aristotle, not Nietzsche, not I—has yet figured out how to construct a moral theory that allows us to say both of those things.

To this conundrum in music, I propose an answer akin to Captain Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru: Sidestep the issue. Rig the test. Embrace what is unremarkable about your music. Cherish it. Prize it. Stop trying to be all things to all people. Stop trying to convince the haters. 

This isn’t to say we should stop fighting for a more perfect world (never!). Still, in this present, imperfect world on a Tuesday afternoon, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “there are alternatives to fighting.”

Part 2 of this article will show how some of those alternatives emerge from identifying why unremarkable music bothers us personally.

Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, I surveyed some common measures of success in music and discussed some observations on a social level of what music that doesn’t meet these measures might teach us. I proposed that one way to deal with these issues is to sidestep them—to embrace what is unremarkable about your music as an alternative to fighting the system. In Part 2, after examining unremarkable music from a personal level, I will argue that embracing the unremarkable in your music may empower you to achieve your goals.

Many of us have feelings about what is true, beautiful, or good in music which match the fervor most people hold only for politics or religion. I know I have on occasion felt viscerally offended by “bad” music.

Soberly considered, such reactions make no sense. It’s just sound. But it would be unwise to stifle your “musical conscience” on that account. That muse lives to remind you of your deepest musical values and messages. Perhaps ironically, identifying and owning your “musical conscience” is what allows you to embrace what is unremarkable in your own music—because it affirms that the unremarkableness of these features is not salient to the truth, goodness, and beauty you have to share.

But honoring your musical conscience can be challenging when surrounded by other artists, each with their own strong feelings and compelling visions. Even if you admire them, it is crucial to recognize that when other artists lambaste certain music—whether it’s by John Cage, Lennon, or Mackey or Joan Baez, Tower, or La Barbara—those strong feelings do not come from a place of “I am a dispassionate, knowledgeable observer whose opinions are objectively true.”

For the compliant and sensitive among us, this lesson would have been especially useful before college and grad school.

True, as my teacher Murray Boren put it, “attending school is an admission of ignorance.” Every undergraduate composer has skills they must learn and unfamiliar repertoire they should experience. We need these skills and experiences to help us grow and refine both our musical consciences and our ability to articulate their messages.

Unfortunately, though our professors did have plenty to teach us, we generally were not experienced enough to distinguish their wisdom from their opinions. In academia, as in all musical subcultures, we learn that “people like us do things like this,” as Seth Godin puts it. By no coincidence then, the music that academia generally prizes as “remarkable” sounds a lot like the music that academia generally writes.

As a consequence of this dynamic, our training often unintentionally (though in some shameful cases quite intentionally) delivered the message, “Your music is existentially not good enough.” (“People like us DON’T do things like that!”) Indeed, a colleague of mine once quipped that the professorial feedback he received in a composition seminar amounted to “The problem with your piece is that you’re writing the wrong piece.” 

David Rakowski’s “buttstix” catalogs the kind of neurotic and narrow-minded expectations too many of us heard and internalized during our time as students. For those who have yet to attempt it, it is an empowering exercise to exorcise your own list of “shoulds.” 

For my part, I internalized that good music “should”:

  • use extended techniques and extreme registers
  • look rhythmically and texturally intricate
  • require virtuosic players, in both their technical dexterity and their musicianship and ensemble skills
  • avoid tonal and metrical references and focus on timbre and gesture
  • (or conversely) embrace the intersection of indie rock and post-minimalism
  • push aesthetic, technical, and disciplinary boundaries
  • not repeat itself within or between pieces
  • create new forms and systems for each piece
  • be obscure in its emotions and evasive about its extramusical connotations
  • dismiss or transcend culture-specific musical symbols or topics
  • have a sound intellectual justification for its pre-compositional plan or its compositional structures
  • be itself virtuosic in requiring exceptionally long hours, decades of study, and arcane technical skills to create (anything easy or instinctive is dismissible or, at least, suspect)

Now, none of this aesthetic agenda is problematic in itself. In fact, it describes a lot of music I admire by many colleagues whom I deeply respect. Aspects of it even describe things I value in my own music. But this agenda has the same relationship to my musical conscience as Amy Sherald’s portrait has to the real Michelle Obama. Sherald’s painting may capture one essential facet of Obama, but no painting can ever capture her living whole. Likewise, when I pressure myself to conform to those dead expectations, I cut myself off from my living musical truth.

The despondency and insecurity that comes from being cut off from your musical truth is the emotional counterpart to being offended by bad music. In both cases, your musical conscience is telling you, “You do not belong here.”

It is further calling you: not to a wholesale rejection of your colleagues’ and mentors’ opinions, but to greater discernment and integrity of your own. To say with confidence, “This is what matters to me musically. By these features, I know in my gut I have succeeded in speaking my truth. Accordingly, I trust the value of what I have to share—that some people will treasure it, even though others will find it unremarkable.”

Recently, a composer friend and I attended the concert of a famous cellist. At the intermission, we were relieved to discover we both felt he was overhyped. Yes, his renditions of the solo cello literature were good—but no more so than any top cellist from any world-class conservatory. It was only at the end when he played his self-arranged encore that, for the first time, the music felt honest. At that moment, it became clear, “This is what people hear in your playing.”

For me, this recital was a prime example of the power of unremarkable music. It helped bring into focus the thoughts and feelings I have had while slowly emerging these past six months from my post-dissertation, post-graduation haze. From this example, as I have pondered what I want to accomplish musically and how my music can make a difference, I realized two things:

First, “I am not yet as good of a composer as I hope to be”—that part was already obvious, but it was the next part that was liberating—“but I am already a far better composer than I need to be.”

Second, “I already have all the compositional chops I need to make an impact in music.”

My unremarkable music is good enough to matter. It’s potent enough to form communities, to influence lives, and even potentially to make a living. And so is yours.

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[Encyclopedia Entry] Lansing McLoskey

I wrote three biographical entries for the Center for Latter-Day Saint Arts’s Encyclopedia using existing materials and original interviews. The entry for Lansing McLoskey exemplifies that work:

McLoskey was born to Robert and JoAnn McLoskey in 1964. Growing up in Cupertino, California, Lansing came from a musical family. His mother played piano, his father played saxophone, and his grandfather, Illinois congressman Robert T. McLoskey, played violin in a regional orchestra.

As a teenager, McLoskey learned to play piano, guitar, and saxophone. He started writing rock songs at 14, after purchasing an electric guitar and distortion box from a flea market. Although his tastes were eclectic, he found himself drawn to music outside the mainstream, including art/prog rock and punk rock. He played in several punk, surf, goth-dance, and experimental bands in high school and college, including The Suburban Lemmings, The Minority, The Bruces, Spangled Blew, and a “punk opera” project he co-wrote, called “Stanly in the Sewer.”

Read the full entry at

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[Interview] The Voice of the Sibyl in Boston: A Conversation with James Primosch

Article originally posted at

Congratulations on your upcoming premiere with Collage New Music! Your latest song cycle, A Sibyl, will be premiered this October 15. How did the commission come about?

The project came about as the result of a commission awarded by the Fromm Music Foundation, which is based at Harvard, and has long been a generous supporter of new music. I contacted David Hoose and Frank Epstein about the possibility of applying for a Fromm [Music Foundation] commission, asking if they would commit to performing the piece if the grant came through, and they agreed to do so. The application was successful and here we are! I’m grateful both to the Fromm and to David and Frank for putting their faith in me and committing to a piece that didn’t yet exist.

What has it been like to work with Collage New Music over the years? Is there a specific highlight in your collaboration with the ensemble?

My relationship with Collage actually goes back decades as the late Gunther Schuller conducted my Septet on a Collage program back in the 1980s. Later David Hoose conducted my Four Sacred Songs, with Janice Felty as soloist, and most recently Christopher Oldfather, the fabulous pianist with the group, gave the Boston premiere of a set of piano pieces that he had co-commissioned. (In fact, that most recent performance was the last time I saw Gunther, sad to say.) I can’t single out any one of these concerts as a highlight; I’ve been terrifically pleased every time with the high standards Collage brings to its performances.

In addition to working with Collage over the years, you’ve also had a long working relationship with Susan Stewart. A Sibyl marks the fourth time you’ve set her poetry. What initially drew you to Stewart as a collaborator? For this most recent work, what about the Cumaean Sibyl spoke to you and Susan?

Susan Stewart, poet
Susan Stewart, poet

I came upon the work of Susan Stewart about 20 years ago thanks to a newspaper article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the occasion of her receiving a MacArthur Fellowship. The article included a short poem of Susan’s called “Cinder.” As soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to set it; it spoke to me that powerfully. I did not realize that Susan was at the time a professor in the English department at Penn, where I also teach. We met, she gave me permission to use “Cinder,” and my setting of her text became the fulcrum of my song cycle Holy the Firm, composed for Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish — in fact, my setting of “Cinder” is my most performed piece. Subsequently, I used two of Susan’s poems in a cycle with baritone entitled Dark the Star, and she wrote new poems specifically for a piece with baritone and orchestra, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony, Songs for Adam. The poems of A Sibyl were again created especially for this project.

Speaking for myself, I understand the sibyl as an archetype of a singer, her voice guiding us to moonlit places, speaking of fate and the mysteries of life, death, and love. Susan’s poems reflect on the mysteries the sibyl utters, but also ponder the vulnerability of the sibyl herself and how her power and identity are embodied in her voice.

You’ve noted the “amazing trifecta of good luck” to have two other Boston performances on October 15. In addition to the afternoon premiere with Collage New Music, Emmanuel Music will present one of your motets in the morning and Winsor Music will play your Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano in the evening. What would you say to a Boston music lover considering to undertake the full Primosch marathon? What kind of experience might they have hearing these pieces back to back? Do you have any favorite Boston restaurants you might recommend between concerts?

I will certainly be delighted — thought a little surprised — if anyone wishes to attend all three performances. There is a nice variety of performing media with these three pieces: choral, solo voice with ensemble, and purely instrumental ensemble. There is also variation in the age of the pieces. The work for Collage is a premiere, while the piece Winsor Music will play is receiving its second performance, having been first played earlier this year. In contrast, the motet that will be done at Emmanuel’s morning Eucharist dates from twenty years ago. I don’t see a lot of stylistic difference between the recent pieces and the older one, but maybe that will become apparent by hearing the pieces in close succession. Certainly all three pieces, written specifically for these organizations, have deep Boston connections, as I have been lucky enough to have all three groups engage my work over the years. (Even the text for the Emmanuel piece has a Boston connection in that its author is Denise Levertov, who attended Emmanuel for a time.)

As for dining options on October 15, I will leave that kind of advice to those more informed than I. I’ve certainly had lovely brunches within walking distance of Emmanuel over the years, as well as some fine dinners in Brookline, not far from St. Paul’s, where Winsor Music will perform. I hope my contribution to the music of the day provides its own kind of nourishment.

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[Blog Post] BYU Animation’s Latest Success: Jacob Wyatt and Metro

Article originally posted at


This past summer, Jacob Wyatt’s short animated film Metro became the latest product of the BYU animation program to win significant critical praise.

To date, Metro has been screened and won awards at 10 film festivals, including receiving Best Short Film from 2012 Nantucket Film Festival, a Student Award from the 2012 Blue Plum Animation Festival, and the Audience Choice Award from BYU’s Final Cut Film Festival.

Metro relates the adventures of a little girl as she tries to ride the subway but gets lost, as Wyatt put it, in the “dream-world at the edges of the metro station.”

Wyatt created the film with funding from KBYU and with the help of his friends at BYU. The camaraderie of working on the film was his favorite part of the project.

“I either was or became friends with everyone who worked on the film,” Wyatt related. “I really enjoyed getting help and input from those guys and seeing people send amazing work back.”

Wyatt’s collaborators enjoyed working with him as well.

The film’s composer, Michael Wyatt, related, “It was an absolute joy to work so closely with my brother, who, turns out, is a great director. We had so much respect for what the other was doing, and we had great communication despite both of us not really knowing much at all about the other’s field.”

According to Michael, not only managerial instincts but also artistic ones contributed to the success of the final product.

“It’s all about the emotions,” he said. “Jake could communicate so much with such simple things like posture and timing.”

Kelly Loolsi, one of Jacob Wyatt’s mentors, attributed the success of the film to several more factors: “It is successful because it is different, well articulated and visually beautiful.”

“It is one of my favorite films we have ever made,” added Loosli. “Attending the Nantucket Film Festival with Jacob this summer was quite fun and seeing him win his award was very rewarding.”

For Wyatt, completing the film was a personal victory.

“I’d been involved in making these two other movies that just sort of fell apart because of a variety of reasons, and I had come to fear that I just couldn’t make a movie,” he said. “So making Metro, finishing it, sending it out, broke a bit of a bad streak for me, ended this line of unfinished projects and unrealized hopes.”

After his time at BYU, Wyatt has since moved to Los Angeles where he works doing storyboards for film and animation while developing his own creative ideas on the side.

Watch Metro by Jacob Wyatt.

Metro: Honors and screenings to date

  • 2011 Final Cut Film Festival – Audience Choice
  • 2011 Epiphany Children’s Film Festival (NYC)
  • 2011 Animation Block Party – Best Student Film
  • 2012 New York Int’l Children’s Film Festival
  • 2012 Love Your Shorts Film Festival
  • 2012 Blue Plum Animation Festival – Student Award
  • 2012 Nantucket Film Festival – Best Short Film
  • 2012 Seattle International Film Festival
  • 2012 Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival
  • 2012 Milwaukee International Film Festival Short List Film Festival
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[Blog Post] 8-Bit Serendipity: Whiting Speaks On His Artistic Process And Growth

Article originally posted at


Museum-goers may have noticed the large, brightly colored sculptures that have recently sprung up in the gardens of the BYU Museum of Art. They are the work of artist and BYU alum Michael Whiting. The exhibition, michael whiting: 8-bit modern, opened this past June, and on September 20, Michael Whiting returned to BYU to speak about his work at a lecture cosponsored by the BYU Studio Areas of the Department of Visual Arts and the MOA.

His lecture covered a variety of topics, including his aesthetic origins, his career trajectory, and his creative process.

The roots of Whiting’s artistic voice emerged while living in New York. As a student at the Pratt Institute, he created an MFA show of steel-canvas paintings.

“No one liked the paintings,” Whiting related. “But they did like the steel canvas”

Knowing what to do with the materials came later and was sparked by a trip to the New York Museum of Modern Art.

“When I walked in, there’s a painting right there. You don’t have any context.” Without any obvious clues, Whiting thought he saw “something that was talking about 80s video gaming. [I was] thinking flashing lights and Pac Man.”

In fact, it was Piet Modrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, painted nearly forty years before Pac-Man existed.

“That was the experience I had: I misread a painting, but at the same time, I started thinking about this,” said Whiting.

As that connection between 8-bit video games and minimalism took root, Whiting was still developing into his current focus on sculpture.

In one of his early shows, a reviewer was critical about his artist’s statement in which Whiting called his works “paintings.” Said the reviewer, “Being creative is essential to any artist, but technically speaking, these painted steel constructions are obviously sculptures.”

From that review, Whiting concluded, “Maybe I need to hit them over the head a little harder,” and began to allow his sculptures to develop into the more representational forms they do today.

Speaking of that evolution, Whiting explained, “Every project you do builds upon the last project. Every experience you’ve had somehow comes out in what you do and what you say. And I think that that’s really the best way to come up with ideas.”

Over the course of his career, Whiting has found success in both public and gallery settings. Speaking of these differing venues, Whiting explained, “Even though the stuff I’m building looks similar in both instances, it’s a completely different experience and it’s a completely different set of people. You put something in a public space and the people that encounter it aren’t people that came there specifically to see your object. . . . Whenever you see something in a gallery, you’re expecting it to be art.”

When artist Michael Whiting got the opportunity to put on a show at the BYU Museum of Art he was thrilled. “Having gone to school here,” Whiting related, “the idea of doing a show at the museum: I was over the moon, really excited, and really wanted to go all out.”

Whiting also explained specifically how he creates his giant, pixelated sculptures:

“When I draw, I don’t draw in a sketchbook: I actually go on my computer to Paint, I blow it up 800%, and I just start drawing one pixel at a time.” He creates pages and pages of sketches that start out complicated, but he works hard to reduce them “until it gets a lot more simple, so you get the basic idea but [they’re] not so representational.”

After he finds a sketch that satisfies him, he takes it into a 3D modeling program, in which he can get more specific about the sculptures physical dimensions and create mockups. He then builds the sculptures himself using mostly a welder, a grinder, a welding table, and a crane and with occasional help from friends and family.

Whiting concluded the question and answer session with some words of wisdom for aspiring artists: “I started thinking about what I saw and what I liked. I wanted to make something that I liked rather than sounded good in an MFA thesis. I think that makes anything easier. When you’re interested in it, you can really pursue that.”

Listen to Michael Whiting’s lecture here:

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