Bekah Simms' Microlattice: Aural landscaping and the prospects of recording in 21st century concert music

September 10, 2016

by Nick Storring

I don't know who concocted that silly unspoken rule in Music School in the first place. The one that dictates that the contents of any classically-trained musician or composers' record collections should remain their dirty little secret.

Where and when I went to school, it certainly wasn't coming from any of the three main composition instructors, nor any other discernible source for that matter. And yet, in spite of that, my peers were most often sheepish and unforthcoming about their interest in anything outside the great Western Art Music Canon.

Whatever the source of this poisonous thinking, I hope this mentality dies a quick (but painful and possibly televised) death with the most recent generation of trained composers. Composers like CMC Associate Bekah Simms.

CMC Associate Composer Bekah Simms.

Some readers must be wondering why I am already harping on people's tucked-away Luther Vandross albums (oops... guess they're not so tucked-away anymore). After all, if we're indeed about to get into the nitty-gritty of a work of concert music by a recent composer, shouldn't readers be poring over a spectrogram by now, ideally nestled among some arcane numerical charts, carefully-plucked score excerpts, and, of course, copious footnotes?

If that sort of blatant rigour is de rigeur guess I already fucked up pretty good—goofy wordplay, writing in the first person... oh yeah, and cursing.

I'm actually completely serious though, about this, snark notwithstanding. And, yes, this rant does come back to Simms. Why am I so vehement, though?

In my previous entry for the CMC's Library Residency blog on Norman Symonds' The Nameless Hour I articulated a separate but closely related frustration: the drive to narrativize the idea of 'progress' in 20th century concert musics, and how this preoccupation has unfairly relegated other parallel aesthetic developments to a secondary status.

Glenn Gould's 1966 essay The Prospects of Recording shares this same discomfort with narratives of innovation: "Our sense of history is captive of an analytical method which seeks out isolated moments of stylistic upheaval—pivot points of idiomatic evolution—and our value judgements are largely based upon the degree to which we can assure ourselves that a particular artist participated in or, better yet, anticipated the nearest upheaval. Confusing evolution with accomplishment, we become blind to those values not explicit in an analogy with stylistic metamorphosis."

Gould sees a solution to these issues in recorded music and the listener's agency. He posits that there "is a new kind of listener—a listener more participant in the musical experience. The emergence of this mid-twentieth century phenomenon is the greatest achievement of the record industry. For this listener is no longer passively analytical; he is an associate whose tastes, preferences, and inclinations even now alter peripherally the experiences to which he gives his attention, and upon whose fuller participation the future of the art of music waits."

Perhaps most crucially he notes that said listener "is also, of course a potential usurper of power, an uninvited guest at the banquet of the arts, one whose presence threatens the familiar hierarchical setting of the musical establishment."

He later describes the potential of listeners actively engaging with commercial recordings, editing and re-shaping them to match their own preferences.

Lo and behold, some 50 years later, with recordings now so readily available in the digital domain, as well as easy-to-use editing and production technologies, this novel concept—once somewhat of an audacious pipe dream—is nothing short of a concrete reality. This reality is occupied by Simms and her peers.

Born in 1990, Bekah Simms grew up during one of the densest periods of technological evolution—precisely that which ushered Gould's concepts into the realm of tangibility. Before she had finished the 9th Grade, CD ripping, peer-to-peer music sharing and YouTube had all emerged, rendering vast bodies of recorded music work available on a hitherto unimaginable scale, so long as one had a decent internet connection. (N.B. I'm not condoning illegal downloading but the impact of these and other channels, both legal and non-, is irrefutable)

The fidelity of home recording sky-rocketed within this time frame as well, making recording-based musical experimentation much more accessible.

Simms' generation is the first group of composers working professionally that has experienced this saturation of such resources within their formative period. I'm only nine years her senior, and I remember my early teens well. I'd read a review in a magazine or online, call into the community radio station requesting music that piqued my interest, and then I'd wait patiently— index finger parked on the pause button of my cassette machine.

Within the span of my life, acquiring new musical thrills has gone from an almost arcane pursuit to an activity that is potentially as mundane as typing out any other search term. Yet for those of Bekah's age, music consumption has almost always been seamlessly embedded into one's day-to-day existence.

Recorded music is (almost) always this generation's first composition teacher—whether they'd choose to acknowledge it or not. Nowadays, nearly anyone who is predisposed toward composing/ creating music has extracted their formative concepts of flow, form, texture and sound from recordings. This isn't, by the way, an altogether new phenomenon but certainly its prevalence is increasing with each subsequent new crop of composers.

I'm not certain that Bekah Simms is the exemplary "alumnus-of-her-own-CD/ LP/ MP3-collection/ Spotify library"-type. I'm not even certain about the extent to which she has engaged with the manipulation described above more than anyone else who's compiled a mixtape, CD-R, or playlist.

My aim is not to identify a perfect ambassador for this entire generation of currently-emerging composers; it's about understanding, and asserting the importance of the dialogue between these composers and recorded music. Increasingly, the canonical concepts of music history that are cultivated in music pedagogy are being mediated by, supplemented with, or even supplanted by one's individual tastes and the (perceived) lineages that accompany them.

In other words, at today's "banquet of the arts" (as Gould calls it) the younger invitees, while very much official guests, are intuitively—even unconsciously—"threat[ening] the familiar hierarchical setting of the musical establishment" It's no longer something of a novelty, movement or a byproduct of postmodernism—it's just the default for most young composers.

The way in which I first listened to Simms' work Microlattice, follows from this spirit and is thus worthy of discussion. I wasn't there for the premiere, nor did I have a score in front of me. I didn't even have an inkling of the piece's instrumentation or whether or not there were electronics involved.

I simply put on a pair of headphones and pressed play.

Without any of the aforementioned cues to situate me, the initial experience was deliciously disorienting.

The clang of an orchestral chime thrusts the listener into an opaque mass of colour. It's the aural equivalent of being pulled suddenly from broad daylight into a pitch-dark room. The strident timbre of the bell masks the emergent sonority, as though it's the leftover light in one's eyes preventing discernment of new and darker surroundings. As the ears adjust they ascertain a strangely hoarse choral texture lurking amidst the obscurity. But, just as one is able to begin disentangling the constituent sounds, a bowed cymbal signals another chime toll, which again saturates the scene with its clear metallic colour.

Members of the Toy Piano Composers pictured at a concert in April 2016 which included the premiere of Microlattice. L to R: Fiona Ryan, Chris Thornborrow, Monica Pearce, Elisha Denburg, Nancy Tam, Ruth Guechtal, August Murphy-King, Bekah Simms, and Dan Brophy.

As this gesture repeats, the mystery slowly begins to unravel, though rather gradually. With each successive iteration this composite sonority reveals itself as an amalgam of contrabass, piano, and bass clarinet expertly woven together. This becomes especially apparent once bass clarinet slips onto its own trajectory. The ensuing percolation of notes, while sufficiently distinct and introducing a new sense of momentum to the piece, still retains its position amongst the opaque background.

While the listener, by this point, will have undoubtedly acclimatized fully and acquired a sense of the instrumentation and flow of the work, this initial scrambling of one's auditory sense successfully primes the ears for a deeply and sensitized mode of listening. As such, every subsequent colouristic detail in the work is imbued with strong gravity.

Using traditional vocabulary, one must certainly applaud Simms' gift for orchestration, as the piece overall demonstrates a tremendous ear for foreground, background, blending and instrumental colour.

I'm not disputing that the disarming impact of this initial section is partially the result of her skillful combining of sonorities. That part is obvious, yet in many regards the term 'orchestration' is both antiquated, and inadequate for describing the quality of the piece's opening moments.

To cover the former beef first: nowadays orchestration, for most, has been integrated into the act of composing rather than being treated separately. It used to be more common that composers would explode their concepts from a sketch. Ravel is a famous example both for his mastery of orchestral hues and for the fact that many of his most noted ensemble works first existed as piano work.

A work like Simms' Microlattice, though, could only have been conceived in a manner where instrumental colours are considered at the outset. This is more the rule than the exception now. Orchestration is no longer a secondary process by which the skeletal pitch and rhythmic material is decorated by virtue of its distribution to different mixtures of instruments and thus use of the term belies the thinking behind current composers' creative processes.

Orchestration's terminological inadequacy also relates to this integration. In the specific case of Microlattice, the word's deficiency is that it fails to describe the clear and conscious shift of aural perspective; Simms' deft manipulation of the listener's vantage point.

Let's return to precisely that vantage point.

In his book The Recording Angel, Evan Eisenberg explores the varied relationship that people have with recorded music through a series of portraits of particular individuals and corresponding topical essays. In one chapter, he describes the shift in meaning of the word 'amateur' from positive to almost pejorative. It's telling of the extent to which our current concert-music establishment values this perspective:

"Nowadays a 'musician' is a professional and a 'musical amateur' is someone who plays or sings. In 1800 whoever could sing or play competently was called a musician, while an amateur, true to his etymology was called a musician. (In French this is still the first meaning.) Etymologically the word was active, but one could love music actively in any number of ways: not only by playing an instrument, but by going to concerts and patronizing musicians. In an age of gentle leisure, 'amateur' was a compliment." (Eisenberg, 145)

It's no surprise that many would reject the willfully 'illiterate' approach that I adopted to first hear this piece, insisting that the only way to truly get to know a work is through the score. (I bet you it's the folks holding this banquet of the arts that Gould mentions! They're probably behind that rule keeping music collections private, too!).

On a more serious note, it's an attitude that would also construct the score as the text of music—believing that the parameters represented therein (visually) constitute the primary means to access a given work. Meanwhile, the oft-forgotten fact is that the score's foremost function is to instruct performers how to play the work. It's just a recipe, not the meal! Because of this fact, it's not exactly responsible for conveying the sound of the work itself visually—even though sometimes, if we're lucky, it does. This is another piece of the puzzle, insofar as the issues mentioned in context of orchestration. The formatting of conventional notation stubbornly insists that rhythmic and (tempered) pitch information are the unequivocal primary aspects of music, even in cases like Microlattice, where the sound of the music would tell you otherwise.

It's my feeling that distinguishing between the aural and visual realms is hugely important to understanding the work of today's composers, especially in terms of how they themselves relate to their musical influences.

The other concern I have with following the score whilst listening the first time is that it robs the listening experience of a degree of surprise—potentially in more ways than one. For instance, sometimes, particular combinations of pitches and articulations can yield peculiar results that confuse the ear. If that's the desired effect of the composer, why not experience the sonority the way the composer intended without being able to instantaneously decode how it was achieved? The same applies for reading ahead in the score, as one anticipates what's coming next rather than immersing themselves in the sensation.

This, however, is not to say that one should remain completely oblivious to the score's contents over the span of their relationship with a given piece. My assertion is merely that one should strive to cultivate an embodied sense of musical works and allow this to frame any other knowledge they glean pertaining to said works.

Embracing the "listener's-ear-view" also connects to Gould's aforementioned forecasting of a shift of power. While the shift transpires on a cultural and institutional level, it also occurs within the individual. Musicians educated in a Western context might feel as though they're relinquishing something when they let go of the score—namely their grasp on what they have been conditioned to regard as the salient features of a work. As I mentioned before, notation creates a hierarchy in terms of musical parameters, but I would argue that it has the additional effect of hampering the vocabulary we acquire for speaking about music. The further a sonic attribute lies from notational representation, the less tangible it seems, from the standpoint of the traditional glossary of musical terms.

So even if one does manage to let go of the idea of 'knowing' a work through an educated and intellectualized lens, how does one in turn start to quantify all of these elusive elements that exist within this more nebulous experiential realm?

Practitioners of electroacoustics, while not without their own theoretical rigidities seem more at ease with letting sound represent itself, and treating discussion of the music accordingly. While a number of listening and analysis rubrics have emerged since its inception, there isn't necessarily a single dominant, cohesive model for approaching the work yet. Rather, there's a plurality of approaches. Some theorists/ composers tend to think in terms of audio analysis—focusing exclusively on the nitty-gritty of purely sonic properties. Others, due to the music's frequent use of sounds from recognizable sources, zero in on how meaning is generated through these successions of auditory images. Even within and between those two categories there's an enormous amount of variation.

Two things strike me about this fact. First of all, I feel that it's time that educators, theorists, musicians, and composers, of a more classically-grounded bent begin to welcome a more provisional, multifaceted, and unstable approach to music analysis, as they do within the specialized field of electroacoustics.

For example, while there are a number of complementary theoretical viewpoints, the concept of the 'acousmatic' is a prominent conceptual thread among a number of thinkers. Pioneering electroacoustic composer Pierre Schaeffer was the first to apply the concept to music, using it to describe a sonic discourse in which the origins of each sound are obfuscated completely. The term derives from a widely-held, albeit disputed, belief that Pythagoras would teach pupils from behind an opaque veil in order for them to better focus on his teaching, as opposed to on his personal features.

Although this widely-held conception of how electroacoustic music functions can prove problematic on a number of levels, with some coaxing, it's something that can end up being rather relevant when translated to other musical expressions.

I'll address the issues first before describing it efficacy for treating non-electroacoustic musics such as Simms’ Microlattice. Composer Trevor Wishart asserts in his article Sound Symbols and Landscapes that severing the connection between a sound's source and its intrinsic auditory qualities denies the complex semiotic terrain that unfolds when real world (concrete) sounds are juxtaposed and interwoven in a musical composition. Not only that, it negates our brain's innate drive to identify sounds — something which we once relied upon for survival purposes. More recent research on mirror neurons and how they respond to auditory stimuli also corroborates the importance of sound recognition.

I would also posit that the entire acousmatic premise conveniently forgets the inherent transparency of Pythagoras' curtain in favour of its own idealism. It is not as though the curtain made it utterly impossible to determine the source of the information. Surely his pupils knew, for instance, that they were being addressed by an adult human male, most likely they even knew that it was Pythagoras. This is also the case with music—sound sources most often reveal themselves by default, and frame the listening experience despite the composer's intentions to direct the listener toward decidedly abstracted discourse.

Yet, somewhat in spite of itself, Wishart's own critique of the acousmatic outlooks also reveals precisely how adapting acousmatic listening as a strategy for approaching instrumental music can actually stimulate new models of reception and analysis.

He says: "The formalization of musical parameters — the lattice of the tempered scale, the rhythmic coordination required by harmonic structuration, the subordination of timbre to pitch and its streaming to separate instrumental layers — is in many ways an attempt to negate the impact of recognition of the source (human beings articulating mechanical sources) and focus our attention upon the logic of the musical structures." he asserts. "Part of our enjoyment of the music, however, remains an appreciation of the human source of the sounds themselves, which is also in a sense distinct from the articulation of non-notated parameters of the sound through performance gesture." (Wishart, in Emmerson, 41-42)

The essence of conventional music training, and by extension the analytical models it advances, consists of this very process of formalization and negation. Notation itself is the physical incarnation of this process of formalization and can risk supplanting our connection to sound sources, performative gestures, but also the sound itself. Much of one's theoretical training operates from the aforementioned score-as-text assumption. I am certain that most trained musicians have at some point or another analyzed musical excerpts on the page, without even hearing how it sounds. The repetition of such exercises conditions students to accept that the score is capable of standing in for music as a sonic phenomenon. Thus, a false synonymity is forged between the visual and aural, and from there, the ear begins only to listen for that which scores renders visible.

Yet once the ears are relieved of their "duty" to formalize incoming stimuli, they begin to perceive and accept a work's natural sense of gravity rather than filtering it through theoretical models.

The alternative to acousmatic listening and composition proposed by Wishart's writing is also valuable to the present scenario—both 21st century composers generally, and Simms' Microlattice specifically.

Wishart champions a model whereby the so-called landscape of sound (the actual/ imagined sound sources) is permitted to connect to the contexts they evoke, rather than being banished as it is in acousmatic thinking. Take for instance the sound of shattering glass. Proponents of acousmatics would argue that its musical features are the only relevant ones—emphasis on higher frequency spectra, a burst of sharp attacks rapidly decreasing in rhythmic density and so on. Wishart would suggest, on the other hand, that the sound also functions symbolically\. When one hears the sound of glass breaking it elicits very specific feelings: trespassing, destruction, perhaps a feeling of emergency. For those of us that grew up binging on music or using any sort of electronic interface the idea that sounds carry meanings probably isn't a radical concept.

Wishart only really applies landscape to the realm of electronic sound. When it comes to instrumental music, he goes to great pains to differentiate the concept of a program music (which relies on associative, extra-musical cues to signal particular images) versus how landscape functions in instrumental music (the sound source is, and is perceived to be, musicians playing instruments).

Yet he does leave some significant wiggle room. First, he acknowledges that in vocal music "recognition often plays a significant role in our perception of the music itself", citing the mob soundscapes conjured strictly by the vocalists in Lutoslawski's Trois Poèmes d'Henri Michaux.

Perhaps more crucially he notes:

"Previously the landscape of a sound had been perceived as the physical source of the sound; what now was to be made of a recording of Beethoven's 'Pastoral' symphony played on loudspeakers. The physical source of the sounds is the vibration of the cones of the loudspeakers, but as the loudspeaker is able to reproduce sounds from any other source this tells us nothing about that sound except that it has been recorded. We must therefore seek a redefinition of the term 'landscape'. If the term is to have any significance in electroacoustic music we must define it as the source from which we imagine the sounds to come. The loudspeaker has, in effect, allowed us to set up a virtual acoustic space into which we may project an image of any real existing acoustic space, and the existence of this virtual acoustic space presents us with new creative possibilities." (Wishart 43)

It's important to note that Wishart's article was published in 1986, a good thirty years ago. In the intervening years much has changed. Again there's also the question of the aforementioned access to recorded music and studio technologies. In addition to these factors, quotation, cover versions, sampling, remixing, plunderphonics, mash-ups and various other forms of reference and re-composition have become utterly ubiquitous. As a result, listeners now carry with them a sense of interrelationship between discrete pieces of music—the idea that music frequently has a meta-musical information encoded within it.

We also live in a radically more mediated environment with public loudspeakers everywhere, as well as smartphones and other electronic implements that emit recorded sounds into our everyday realities. As such there's far less separation between the virtual acoustic spaces to which Wishart alludes, and the natural acoustic soundscape.

This all has had a dramatic impact on our perception of sound. Our ears have been tuned by constant and omnipresent electronic sound, and as a result I would argue that many purely acoustic compositions now exhibit concerns directly relating to landscape. And even if they don't, it's very likely that our ears might perceive them that way. Moreover, so often when listening to acoustic musics, we do so on recording anyway.

Microlattice demonstrates a keen awareness of this fact—but, as with many pieces of this recent repertoire, it's hard to say whether it's conscious or a result of its composer's internalization of constant exposure to the environment to which I allude above.

Specifically in Simm's work, not only does listening to Microlattice warp the aural perspective of the listener in a peculiar dance that is simultaneously acousmatic and landscape-oriented; it also, in a nuanced and idiosyncratic manner, reflects a fascinating affinity for particular bodies of recorded music in its sonic profile.

Consequently, it seems as though Wishart's concept of 'landscape' might offer a solution to the shortcomings of the term orchestration. While Simms is, without question, a highly adept orchestrator, it would seem that her landscaping prowess deserves equal praise and I would say that this is increasingly an interest that is beginning to be expressed within the works of other recent composers.

This long tangent all circles back quite neatly to the topic of a composer's personal collection of recordings—guilty pleasures included (do people still have those in 2016?)

Simms' nascent influences were eclectic—she had a pronounced interest in video game scores, the strange and sophisticated folk of singer/harpist Joanna Newsom, and french prog-rock group Magma. Metal—of the really heavy variety— was another source of inspiration, one that's audible in Microlattice, although not in the manner that one might expect.

For many it was American pulse-music (Riley, Glass and Reich) that initiated the discussion around assimilating rock approaches into concert music. When this work blew up, it was amidst a prevailing climate of peak modernism and the appropriation of rock ethos is largely framed as a rebellious move. These minimalist composers employed constant pulse, harmonic simplicity, dynamic uniformity, even, at times spectacle, as a contrast to the intricacies and intellectualism that grew from serialism.

It's important to note that this was an important step in dismantling the wall between “high” and “low” art, a step toward composers being able to be more open about having diverse tastes. Yet this compositional approach, while initially an incendiary gesture, has since been reabsorbed into the mainstream of concert music (and its institutions) as a sort of convenient emblem for the fusion of rock and so-called art music. I say convenient because the aspect it extracts from rock are the easiest identify and evaluate through the formalized lens mentioned by Wishart: rhythm, pitch and dynamics.

The work of more recent composers (Simms among them) reflects a different approach to this question— more reconciliatory than rebellious, their integration of rock elements often springs from omnivorous listening habits and a desire to fashion a personal soundworld from an array of influences.

Where in the case of minimalism, rock was treated as an antidote to avant-garde strictures, pieces like Microlattice demonstrate an emerging dialogue between these two supposedly polar musics through the channel of timbre and texture.

One of the most rampant and glaring omissions in common narrations of rock music and its enmeshing with concert music, is the issue of timbre. Yet one could easily argue that sound is the foremost musical element in rock's evolution. Take Link Wray's 1958 instrumental single Rumble. Poking holes in his amplifier's speaker, Wray defined the fuzz guitar tone, variations of which are heard throughout rock's subsequent history. The violence implied by this peculiar 'extended technique' (in conjunction with the title, of course) led to its censorship, making it the best-known banned instrumental recording.

As rock splintered into numerous sub-styles, timbral distinctions—specifically those of the guitar instruments and vocals—became crucial in demarcating these boundaries. As much as the campaigning legions of prudish parents would love to dismiss them as a bunch of oafish noise-mongers, heavy metal musicians are among the most fastidious when it comes to sculpting their guitar tones. Especially as it ventures deeper into the tenebrous chasms of black metal, doom and other ultra-heavy abstractions, it's an unholy communion of the various amplification components, gain settings, and effects pedals—and of course the various shades of guttural howling.

Whether or not Simms or other composers inspired by metal are likely to trace this back to Wray's amp-violating tactics, they get it intuitively. They get that the peculiarities of amplified guitar sound—distortion, feedback— can provide an intriguing 'landscape'-derived framework for coloration within ensemble music.

Microlattice's title and program note allude to precisely this relationship, albeit through a suitably subtle means. "With a density as low as 0.9 kg/m3 (0.00561 lb/ft3), metallic Microlattice is currently one of the lightest structures known to science. It is made from an alloy of nickel and phosphorus," Simms writes in her accompanying notes to the piece.

The reference to metal is neither a mere coincidence nor superficial pun. Gesturally speaking, the first third of the piece has more than a passing resemblance to the doom metal subgenre. Known for its ultra-slow, lumberingly deliberate pace, it's also one of the more adventurous styles within metal. Rather than unspooling riffs with which one can easily follow along, the listening experience can be extreme: infrequent, molar-rattling slabs of sound that decay slowly. Certain bands even decorate the spaces between these monolithic convergences with freeform rhythmic concepts and textural abstraction.

Simms' stylistic references, as such can easily be treated as "the source from which we imagine the sounds to come" (in Wishart's words). It's as though she's sampling and manipulating a recording: we imagine the "source" to be this particular branch of heavy music. It's different than quotation, and from programmatic allusion, as the associations arise as a direct result of the sound, rather than extra-musical framing or citing particular works. Where minimalism explored rock through re-mapping musical parameters, Microlattice intuits a spectralist translation of the sounds themselves—engineering a sort of quasi-sample 'objet sonore' (to borrow Schaeffer's famous terminology) to serve as a basis for various sonic manipulation over the course of the piece.

It's the behaviour of the signature clang-plus-growl sonority that really drives the doom metal reminiscence home. There's its powerful coming together: a large, rich down beat, that slowly decays and subsequently returns. But more important than its temporal profile (sporadic punctuations) there's the question of its frequency contents. Grounded in the low end of the spectrum, it's easy to imagine that these coarse, spectrally rich sonorities were inspired by the total sound world of doom: distorted, down-tuned, feeding back guitars, and screaming vocals. In fact, if one were told so, the sounds that begin in the opening bars (comprised of "raunchy overblown" bass clarinet tone, bowed cymbals and bass sul ponticelli), could easily pass for the result of an actual spectral convolution between a screaming singer and some sort of fuzz-saturated guitar tone. There's a distinctly hollow vocal quality present but also an intense turbulent quality that seem to converge mysteriously.

Although I spent considerable time discounting them, the musical pitches also play an integral role in conveying this image of metal-derived 'objet sonore' especially because of their collusion with the aforementioned colouristic elements. This is a case where Simms did in fact derive the pitch content of the work from several sources within the headbanger pantheon. As such, the piece leans toward a droning harmonic stasis—a hallmark of doom and other metal genres. There's also the general emphasis on minor seconds, fourths, fifths and octaves which anchors the piece in a harmonic world where metalheads would feel right at home.

It's not as though Simms has merely translated the basic tenets of doom into chamber music, though.

For one, doom's portentous upbeats (in anticipation the aforementioned hefty surges) are conspicuously absent, giving Bekah's gestures a slightly lighter quality. The distance between each of her aforementioned "signature sonorities" at the beginning also would suggest a slightly faster global tempo than the phrasing of many doom bands.

The title is perhaps a better tool for illustrating the apparent relationship to metal music, although it's important to stress that the relationship here is too cryptic to make it a case of programmatic insistence. And it's not as though Wishart's own body of landscape-focused electroacoustic work, (cf. Red Bird: A Political Prisoner's Dream) doesn't grease the wheel of allusion, so to speak, with deliciously evocative titles.

The piece's namesake is a strangely contradictory substance—unfathomably light (the much-touted image of a seeding dandelion supporting a chunk of Microlattice illustrates this well), yet resilient. Simms' form is comparable in certain regards, just like in the case of the titular object, the base material —metal—is recognizable but the anatomy is rather surprising. The weight aspect isn't applicable through direct metaphor but it's not as though the lightness of Microlattice is of no consequence to the images afoot within the work. In Simms' work, the reason the listener senses the presence of 'metal' is on account of a certain auditory heft. Yet, over the span of the piece, the heaviness relents, while the sound retains it basic properties. The effect is one of simultaneous élan and magnitude: the sounds she uses have a particular density that imbues the work with a 'metallic' quality, the overall tenor of the piece is porous and transparent.

21st century concert music arises from a very complicated and historical-unique set of circumstances. On the one hand its practitioners are typically highly educated: indoctrinated with traditional senses of musical representation, performance practice and music history. On the other, composers like Bekah Simms who have come of age within the past 35-or-so years have had their musical imaginations flooded with an unprecedented amount of information that directly challenges the aforementioned pedagogical structure. This glut of bewildering auditory data primarily comes from recordings.

Consequently, it's not entirely fair that critics, theorists, historians and fellow composers only apply the listening rubrics we glean and refine through our respective educations. We need to adopt and cultivate a model (or models, plural) for analysis that size(s) up the various factors that contribute to today's creative process. Traditional music theory and its 20th century theoretical appendages do offer particular insights, but what of the ways that electroacoustics dissects its own musical corpus? How do other musical fields with substantial pedagogical apparati (for instance improvised music or jazz) examine their practices? What of musicology and so-called new musicology—why are these disciplines staved off, and even deemed superfluous and extramusical, when cultural artifacts are so blatantly woven into music's fabric? Not to mention the fact that all other artistic disciplines—visual art, theatre, literature, film, dance—treat those critical theories as an utterly integral perspective.

There's a reason beyond the current technological trends that explains why composers are inspired by records. It's also, in my mind, a compelling reason for composers to listen to the work of their peers in this way. Music is a paradoxical artform — it's simultaneously intoxicating and a vehicle for mental clarity, it unfolds inside and outside of time, it's both rational and irrational. Yet most aspects of our education are slanted decidedly away from music's experiential dimension, and thus its Dionysian/ psychotropic attributes.

Using notation as a text, the conventional model privileges a prudent and sober grasp over the most readily controllable and extracted elements, over a surrender to the totality of a work. Yet the image it propagates is completely dysmorphic and preventing mystery and even emotion to enter the equation, even though one of music's foremost appeals is its ability to ensconce listeners in unfamiliar and ambiguous frames of mind.

Recordings offer us the opportunity to engage with those elements and listen to, and scrutinize music on our own terms. They create a space for music's most hallucinatory elements to come to life: illusory manipulations of time and space. Perhaps most importantly, they afford us, as artists, space to situate ourselves within our lineages and dissolve the oppressive euro-centric historical narratives advanced by formal training—the ones that cast us all as mere descendants of Palestrina, Bach and Mozart (yes, I did say “mere” in the same sentence as these greats).

This is not to refute the value of formal training. I'm certainly grateful for every last scrap of musical knowledge I've acquired in my life. There are things like identifying French 6th chords, manipulating tone rows, and the values of the Ars Subtilior that I learned in school, but there’s also stuff from outside sources: granular synthesis, the value of audio mastering, or even what's lurking the shadowy corners of Prince's expansive discography.

What I am saying is that works like Microlattice, in addition to existing as fascinating pieces in their own right, also make a case for the fact that's it's finally time that we let go of all the pretence around how composers of "serious music" are learning their craft.

No matter which way you cut it, composing music today comes down to an ever-deepening personal listening practice first and foremost.

You can learn more about Bekah Simms by visiting her CMC profile page, and you can access the score for Microlattice through the CMC library and publishing services. This is part of a series of monthly blog posts that highlight various works from CMC Associate Composers. Check back regularly for new posts, and new pieces!