The Little Death: Vol. 1 out Tomorrow! May 25th, 2010




One more day folks! Pre-order on Amazon NOW! Also, here is the link to purchase the album on iTunes (link won’t work until tomorrow, btw).

In the meantime, there are soon to be a plethora of interviews with Mellissa Hughes and I about the project, which I will heartily link to. We did a fun one today with Ellis Ludwig-Leone from New Amsterdam. Here’s an excerpt:

And while I’m at it, here’s one more shot from our video shoot. This one from the Hamptons!

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The Little Death: Vol. 1 out this Tuesday, May 25th!

It’s almost here folks! Pre-order on Amazon now!

Also, stay tuned for news on our upcoming two-week run at the Ontological Theater in July!

Oh, and there’s a video coming soon by the masters at Satan’s Pearl Horses!

Plus, in case you haven’t yet, grab these two free downloads!

I Don’t Have Any Fun

I Like Stuff

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Is Discussing Music Counterproductive?

So I don’t mean to, ya know:

but I thought I’d weigh in once more on the ‘alt/indie/post/anti/whatever-classical’ debate, this time on the question as to whether it’s even relevant to discuss (a discussion on which is of course an awesome paradox).

Dennis Desantis weighed in on the ‘why are we even discussing this?’-tip:

The only thing that’s ever mattered about any piece of music, ever, is what it sounds like. Martin Bresnick used to talk about how a good piece of music should make you check for your wallet; you should feel like you got your ass kicked after listening to it.

How it got made only matters if what got made matters. No one gives a shit about your craft if your music sucks. Likewise, there’s plenty of music that makes you check for your wallet, even if it doesn’t hold up to analysis.

So what makes music good? What makes music relevant?

The answer is, “who cares?” Figure out what you like to hear. Then go listen to it and make more.

“Figure out what you like to hear. Then go listen to it and make more”. Words for a composer to live by. And of course as a composer I totally agree, but that is only one perspective. As I commented on his blog, “If I thought about all this shit while I was trying to create I simply wouldn’t create. I know this because I used to and I didn’t.”. Yes, anyone who is deeply considering these matters while writing a piece should probably stop. The alt-classical discussion isn’t primarily a discussion by composers though, it’s a discussion about composers and their compositions.

If you asked a football player what he was thinking about as he ran through a wall of linebackers he’d probably look at you strangely and say, “why the hell would I be thinking in a time like that?”. Should that stop the sports commentators from discussing what incredible maneuvers he did in the five seconds that made up the play? Of course not. But the more important answer is, should doesn’t matter. They’re going to discuss what they are going to discuss, no matter what the players involved think.

Should Greg Sandow, Allan Kozinn, Anne Midgette, or Steve Smith care if composers think “alt” as a label is tacky, or the discussion is futile, or that over-thinking your genre limitations is stifling to ones creativity? Hell no. They’re doing their jobs, and if they worried excessively about how composers would feel about any of these matters they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs any better than we could.

I believe it is healthy for this discussion to have some input from some composers involved. We wouldn’t want it to be solely framed by writers and critics. So I will add the Marks Corollary to the Desantis formula:

If you feel like discussing the current state of music do so. If not, then don’t. If you find it messes with your ability to create then stop. But others are going to discuss it and define it whether you like it or not.


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The Melly & Mafoo Variety Hour – Saturday, May 1st, 8pm @ The Gershwin Hotel

The Melly & Mafoo Variety Hour, my duo with Mellissa Hughes, has a show this Saturday, 8pm at the Gershwin Hotel.

In the spirit of television variety shows from the 70s, we play covers and medleys of “popular music”. I put that term in quotes because our pop songs come from a variety of sources: mainstream pop, internet memes, TV themes, songs written by our friends, and hits spanning almost a century. We have covers of Beyonce, Burt Bacharach, Gene Austin, Linda Ronstadt, The Magnetic Fields, and Corey Dargel (amongst many others).

The thing is, our covers tend to be pretty vast departures from the originals. For example, we just recorded our new cover of Paula Abdul’s Straight Up. Check it out below:

We’re going for a different aesthetic for this show, as opposed to our other shows and projects. The tunes are all live – as in no track – and tend to be simpler and more stripped down. It’s an interesting exercise, as opposed to working in the practically infinite world of the DAW. It forces you to be smarter and more creative about the arrangements.

So please come check us out, it will be great fun! Also on the program will be Galen Brown, who will dazzle you and mess with your head with his very unique covers and mashups. For example:

Here’s the details about the show:

Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 8:00 PM
The Gershwin Hotel
7 East 27th Street
New York, NY 10016

Read more about the show on and Mellissa’s blog.

And view more Melly & Mafoo videos HERE.

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Pop-o-matic Trouble

There is indeed “trouble in the bubble”! There has been a lot of blog-talk recently about the ‘alt-classical’ scene and its relationship to pop music. Being the new music troll that I am, I injected myself into some of these discussions and stirred the pot a bit. I’ll explain my perspective a bit more in depth here at my virtual home.

Let me preface this by saying: I don’t love the term ‘alt-classical’, but it’s fine. Sure, call me an ‘alt-classical’ composer/performer if it looks good in print, whatever. As I understand it ‘alt-classical’ is a loose description of the new crop of music written by predominantly classically-trained composers for predominantly classically-trained musicians, which often blurs the distinction between ‘classical’ and pop music. It’s a substantially broader term than say, minimalism, but folks tend to define it in a number of unnecessarily specific ways, even though it’s a very large tent. It includes folks who are influenced by post-rock, math metal or IDM; folks who write dense, modernist music with significant pop influences; folks who write atonal music for rock instruments; folks like me who literally write 3:30 pop songs; and innumerable other types. Those of us who find ourselves labeled ‘alt-classical’ almost certainly do not identify with all of its manifestations. Where it is in a fact a loosely-associated movement though, is in its tendency to use pop in strikingly less self-conscious ways than previous movements/generation.

In his blog, Brian Sacawa highlighted a comment I made in his discussion of whether the ‘alt-classical’ scene is a fad or not:

IMO most of the ‘compromise’ young composers make is in making sure their music sounds ‘uncompromising’. What’s unique about the ‘alt-classical’ scene is that these composers are no longer forcing their music to sound ‘challenging’ and are rather letting it sound like the music they (we) grew up with: pop. This seems to be the main difference between earlier generations and ours. They added (forced?) pop flavor into their pieces. We are simply allowing it to naturally come out.

Now, I’m not arguing against modernism or atonality or for the irrelevance of ‘uncompromising’ music here. In fact, I’m a huge fan. My favorite Alarm Will Sound concerts are usually the ones in which we play Birtwistle, Rihm, or our own John Orfe (even if it means I have to practice a whole bunch). What I am trying to highlight is what I believe to be the pressure that many young composers have faced to disregard the pop music they love as a serious influence. Brian mentions something to the same effect:

Composers, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that in the past when a student went to college to study music composition, they were more or less required by those in charge of their compositional development to check their pop music influences at the door. Though you could be a pop music fan, there really wasn’t any place for that sort of trite, repetitive music in the realm of “serious” music composition so composers were passive-aggressively required to repress these lascivious musical tastes; a sort of elitist musical don’t ask, don’t tell (and certainly don’t you dare write music like that!) policy.

It would be easy to create a caricature of the ‘alt-classical’ scene – and indeed many are – as a bunch of naive young composers thrusting their iPods in the air vowing to write un-self-conscious pop-style works as an affront to The Classical Music Establishment. That is not what’s happening here. This is not an active movement, its a passive movement. What my comment was acknowledging is the fact that the use of pop music in my generation, or the ‘alt-classical’ scene, is not deliberate, it’s organic. We’re not trying to put it in; if anything we’re trying not to keep it out, and trying not to assimilate it into the boundaries of classical music. This is what I mean when I write about why we shouldn’t ”compromise’ to make our music sound ‘uncompromising”.

This brings me to previous generations and their use of pop music and how that differs from the current generation’s. Gabriel Kahane responded to my comment on his blog stating his preference for art music that, while utilizing pop as inspiration, is more committed to the traditional ‘rigorous’ process of composition that, he claims, much of the ‘alt-classical’ scene ignores. He characterized my position as such:

In response to Sacawa’s exploration of whether or not the alt-classical scene— in which composers of new music draw liberally from contemporary pop sources (harmonically, rhythmically, texturally, otherwise)—is a passing trend, Marks suggests that in fact, this movement away from “uncompromising” sonic landscapes is actually a welcome unshackling of new music from its long-held snooty academic dogma that shunned any hint of diatonicism.

Whoa Canyonero! I could care less if someone’s music is diatonic or not, and I certainly do not think that adherence to diatonicism is any sort of litmus test for alt-classical music (btw, I’m officially losing the quotes since Gabriel just did). As I stated above, my comment was about freeing composers from the idea, mostly-self-imposed btw, that their music has to be utterly distinct from pop music.

[UPDATE: Luke Rinderknecht showed this LOLCAT to Chuckie Dubs himself, sentimentality ensued]

Gabriel goes on to suggest the work of John Adams and Thomas Adès as examples of successful uses of pop inspiration in art music:

It should be said that part of what makes Adams and Adès successful in this mode is that they are applying uncompromising procedure to vernacular music that they clearly love. When academics had a stranglehold over what was and was not acceptable vis a vis vocabulary in classical music, they were encouraging the marriage of, to put it crudely, uncompromising materials to uncompromising procedure. I have no doubt that the recasting of the vernacular by my peers into the concert realm is done out of a similar genuine love of this music we grew up with, but I wonder whether or not we have paid our dues in developing a craft that supports it sufficiently in the context of concert music.

This insistence on filtering pop sources through the classical idioms of thematic development, adherence to form/structure, etc. to gain legitimacy seems unnecessarily conservative. I don’t believe that high-quality, complex music has to contain the same compositional traits as classical music. A cohesive pop album is just as much a grand statement of art as a symphony, concerto, or song cycle. Now, I don’t want to insinuate false equivalence. I do not think The Fame Monster (though I love it) is the equal of the St. Matthew Passion and I think both sides of this debate discredit themselves by falling into this fallacy. Where I am somewhat conservative is in my opinion that complexity is, in the words of Joe Biden, “a big fucking deal”. Pop utilizes complexity in a very different way than classical and cats need to recognize.

Now a single song on a pop album or a single 5-10 minute pop-style alt-classical piece tends not to be the equal of a major classical work, in terms of complexity – or: stuff goin’ on. But as part of a larger work it can be similarly complex and cohesive, even if the other songs/pieces are not utilizing similar themes and/or contributing to a grand architecture in the classical sense. Where Gabriel and I agree is that many of these new alt-classical works fall short of being great works of art. But in my opinion it’s that they fall short of achieving the deepness and complexity of pop music, for two main reasons: the lack of  audio production as a major component and the lack of context as a part of an album or larger work.

In a similar discussion on the eighth blackbird blog – which started off as a debate on Greg Sandow but found itself in another art vs pop debate – I made a comment about the oft-overlooked role of production in pop music:

I worry that many folks from the classical world judge all music based on the notes, rhythms, counterpoint, etc. – essentially what the score would look like … Indeed if one were to take most pop music, be it The Beatles or Lady Gaga, the notes and rhythms laid out onto a score would look pretty simple. But that is only a fraction of where the care and work come into play. The producers behind the scenes meticulously shaping the audio work with just as much care and skill as ‘art music’ composers. No one would have heard of The Beatles if it weren’t for Sir George Martin. Behind every pop artist today is a producer (or producers), many of whom’s artistry is astounding, even if they tend to be ignored by the classical music establishment.

Whereas composers write crescendos they automate faders; whereas composers build sonic textures with instruments they create them. The crucial decisions about mic-placement, compression levels, synth patches, reverb, mixing, stereo panning, and hundreds of other facets are *musical* decisions. And whereas a great pop album might sound like a collection of loosely-related songs to the untrained ear, it is truly a unbelievably complex symphony of audio sounds, usually with hundreds or thousands of hours put in by the producers and engineers.

I think that many alt-classical composers compose acoustic works with the same “on the page” level of complexity as similar pop music, but ignoring a crucial element of its complexity, the production. This coupled with the fact that work is missing the larger context of the album as a large-scale work (again, equal to that of a symphony, albeit with rather different criterion), is why folks like Gabriel claim that “This music is often pleasant to listen to, but ultimately thin, lacking proper architecture and thorough procedure.”

In that sense he is correct, but it ignores an increasing amount of recent large-scale works that blur the line between pop and classical and are incredibly complex and meticulously organized. Examples that come to mind are: David T. Little‘s Soldier Songs, Corey Dargel‘s pop-album/song-cycle hybrids, Ted Hearne‘s Katrina Ballads, and Gabriel Kahane’s own Craigslistlieder (which I personally heart like a sweet tart).

However, I think it’s also important not to dismiss the less-complex works. Not every work of art has to be of the magnitude of a symphony. It’s incredibly healthy for composers to create works that are modest in scope: works that aren’t attempting to create a new harmonic language, works that don’t necessarily challenge the audience but are skillfully crafted. This has never been solely the realm of pop, but it seems to have become ghettoized into that sphere. Bach wasn’t trying to kick your ass with every new piece, many of which were quite modest in scope. He was simply getting the job done and exploring his unique voice. Young composers will learn to find their own unique (and complex) voice by learning to write the type of music they love rather than by focusing on challenging audiences and peers with seemingly ‘uncompromising’ works.


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This Month: Signal, ACME, and The Melly & Mafoo Variety Hour

After an Alarm Will Sound/Dirty Projectors February and a Little Death March, I’m looking forward to something new this April. Well, I’ve got it in that I’ll be playing (horn) for the first time with two new music ensembles that I really dig and respect, as well as playing in my improbably fun duo with Mellissa Hughes.

Horn Stuff:

On April 11th, I’ll be playing with Signal for two shows featuring of the music of Philip Glass at Le Poisson Rouge, 7 and 10pm. We’ll be playing the New York Premier of Glassworks, Music in Similar Motion (my fave Glass piece), and several other of his pieces.

On April 18th @ 7pm, I’ll be back at LPR with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) playing the music from the Louis Andriessen soundtrack for Peter Greenaway’s (!!) film, M is for Man, Music, Mozart.


After our premier performance in August, The Melly & Mafoo Variety Hour is back with our crazy show of warped pop covers. We’re playing a concert on Saturday, May 1st at the Gershwin Hotel at 8pm, along with another expert in the art of song cover corruption, Galen Brown.

For those that missed our last show, here are a couple of our videos on YouTube:

Narwhals/Don’t Know Much:

Yeah, Oh Yeah:

And as a special preview, here is the live recording of our infamous cover of Beyonce’s Single Ladies. It’s very special, I promise :)

(May not show up in all RSS readers)

Galen Brown

If you haven’t heard Galen’s covers yet, you’re in for a treat. A fun, somewhat psychologically-disturbing treat. :)

Here’s his twisted, gender-bending take on Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl:

and Smooth Criminal:

Word, so I hope to see some of you at some of these shows. And if you haven’t yet, please sign up for my mailing list! It’s up to the right of this page, or any page on my website.


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So I’m doing a small presentation on my upcoming post-Christian nihilist pop-opera, The Little Death, at a Live Arts Collaboration Salon – this coming Monday 11/30 at 7pm. I’m excited for a few reasons: A. I get to talk about myself (and what narcissistic artist doesn’t get off on that?); B. I’m going to perform some early versions of songs from the opera for voice and piano; and C. I’m going to play a newly mastered cut or two from the album. The main theme of my little talk is going to be the process of refinement and transformation in composition. I haven’t thought too intensely about the specifics of what I’m going to say, but I know the gist:

Once I stopped trying to have amazing ideas for compositions, and focused on the work, I made music that I felt was good.

Simple enough, yes?

I spent (in a more cynical mood I might say “wasted”) many years of my life with my only musical output being attempts to find a new voice, a new sound, one that would change things, add to the historical musical discourse. I sat at the piano attempting to write more clusters than anyone else, I imagined elaborate and shocking theatrical pieces, I made forty-minute noise tracks; basically I did everything but focus on craft. I spent more time thinking about what I would write than writing.

I’m a naturally lazy person – though I might prefer the term “relaxed”. I eventually came to realize that this tendency I had towards an over-reliance on ingenuity was actually just a desire for a shortcut to artistic achievement. Find (or wait for) a cool enough idea and achieve popular and critical acclaim!

Simply ridiculous.

We are at the point in history where almost anything that can be done artistically, in terms of uniqueness and audacity of the idea, has been done. Some artists lament and fear this, but I think it’s actually pretty wonderful. Perhaps art can stop being this pissing contest of ‘who did it first?’ and ‘how can I make this more novel than anything else?’ and become about the craft, the grueling challenge to oneself to deepen and improve upon an idea.

I came upon a major turning point when one day I sat at a piano and sang John Lennon’s final words – “Oh my God I’m shot – over and over while playing the piano. I ended up with a simple, sentimental song to which I felt a strong emotional connection. I left it as that for the time and repeated the process, but with different words and music, eventually coming up with the first piece I was ever truly proud of, a collection of five songs called: Five Little Songs. These songs formed the infrastructure for a project that has consumed my life for the past two years, The Little Death.

The songs are not particularly great, not very complex, and certainly not terribly original but I love them, and that love fueled literally thousands of hours of work developing them into something certainly complex, likely quite original, and hopefully great. I look back on myself from years past, idly attempting to think of novel and ingenious ideas, without even considering the elbow-grease I employ now – the obsessive revising, the harsh criticism, the abject self-indulgence – with a mixture of shame, scorn, and regret.

It is difficult not to think of that time as wasted, yet it is also difficult not to think of it as formative. Despite the decade or so poverty of output, I developed many of my current themes and inspirations: banality, bastardization of pop music, Christian music, sampling. I also learned my audio chops, but I didn’t really have anything to show for it. Once I realized a simple equation – a bit of music/sound I love + tons of work/self-indulgence = something I tend to be proud of – I began to think of myself as a composer.

Anyway, if you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading this little piece of self-indulgence. And if any of this interests you, come check out my presentation at the LAC Salon on November 30th, 7pm!

Here’s the info:

LAC Artists Salon – 11/30 @ 7pm

The Performance Project @ University Settlement
184 Eldridge St. @ Rivington, 2nd Floor

Featuring choreographer Julie Bour, composer Matt Marks, combined media artist, David Kagan, performance artists and visual story-tellers, Hannah Wolfe and Devin Moriarity, and singer/songwriter, Miriam Aziz.


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New Music Mondays (Tuesday Edition) – The Melly and Mafoo Variety Hour

If you are in and around New York on Saturday, Mellissa Hughes and my new variety show – The Melly and Mafoo Variety Hour – will be playing a set at The Gershwin Hotel at 8:00pm. The show – being run by our good friend and colleague, Alex Temple – is titled The Secret Life of Pop Music (sounds sexy, yes?). He’ll be presenting two of his pop-influenced pieces: Walled Room and Imogene.

We’ll being playing a set of covers, mashups, and remixes all based on very light bubble-gummy material, but set in distinctly different ways. I could try and describe to you what we’re doing, but hey, why not show you! :)

This is a mashup of the Narwhals song (the flash cartoon) with Don’t Know Much (popularized by Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt):

So if you likey (or are mildy intrigued) come check out our show! Here are the deetz:

The Secret Life of Pop Music

8pm @ The Gershwin Hotel

7 E 27th St. (Manhattan)
Here’s the event on Facebook with more info as well, see you there!


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New Music Monday – Jacob Cooper’s Timberbrit

Well, it’s not exactly new.. But it will be to some of you, and there is a fantastic new music video, and a feature on todays All Things Considered on NPR! Timberbrit is a very unique opera by composer Jacob Cooper that creates a fictional tragic narrative of the lives of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. I first became acquainted with it when my partner in crime, Mellissa Hughes, was cast as Britney Spears herself!

TB shares a lot of similarities with my opera The Little Death: written around the same time, pop-themed, heavy use of electronics, two-character casts, our bands share members, and sexualized portrayals of female death! :) But those similarities are actually pretty superficial; Timberbrit is a piece unlike anything I could have imagined. Jacob Cooper based many of his arias on Britney and JT songs slowed and stretched beyond recognition. The result is a surreal, tense, mindfuck of aching beauty. It’s also one of the few unapologetically digital large-scale compositions I’ve know, both in content and in spirit. Literally, the piece could not have been made without digital time-stretching technology (analog time-stretching affecting pitch and yadda-yadda…), and the expression is raw but almost mathematically restrained – the vocalists, Mell and Ted Hearne, have to recreate everything in slow motion, from the original vibrato to the once-minuscule moments of bad pitch.  In my opinion, academic composers have been very slow to embrace new technologies in a manner that isn’t either purely experimental or hearkening back to the past. Timberbrit sounds and feels comfortable in its DAW home.

Listen and watch the incredible and somewhat terrifying new video for Worst Fantasy, made by Switch Pictures:

Yup, that’s Mellissa. As Britney. Brillissa? Mellitney? It gets a little confusing as to whom is whom doesn’t it? No comment on what this may be doing to my psyche…

So if you are in and around America why don’t you flick on your dial to your local NPR station, somewhere between 4 and 6pm, or whenever All Things Considered is on in your neck of the woods. I’ve heard some of the interviews and it’s good stuff.


Looks like the broadcast is being rescheduled for another day. Stay tuned and check out the vid and links until then!


Listen to the broadcast, read all about it, and check out a rad Melly-tastic slideshow HERE.

P.S. The front page of

Picture 1

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New Music Monday!

I’ve added a couple of additions to the Music page. First is High Fructose, a piece I wrote for Joshua Roman‘s Seattle Town Hall concert series. It’s an odd piece, very difficult (though not intentionally so!), and the quartet rocked the hell out of it. The piece is about the composition process, as I attempted to stray from my sentimental tendencies – failing miserably – and coming up with an odd hybrid of über-sentimentality, frustration, and sadism. Enjoy!

High Fructose – Performed by:

Yuki Numata – Violin

Bill Kalinkos – Clarinet

Joshua Roman – Cello

Jason Treuting – Drum Set and Glockenspiel

Next is a piece I wrote for solo horn and laptop called Tallulah. I was obsessed with music from the Alan Parker film Bugsy Malone and ended up adapting melodies from the song Tallulah for microtonal horn, creating dense textures from the looped melodic material. This is from a microtonal solo concert I played at Roulette in November of 2007.

Tallulah – Performed by:

Matt Marks – French Horn

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