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What to expect if you’re expecting

from Sunday, May24th of the year2009.

I just finished a set of two performances in Minneapolis at the Southern Theater, with Son Lux. Minneapolis is so wholesome! Everybody was painfully kind to me and to Nadia, my travel and concert companion. Minneapolis seems to me like a city that is trying very, very hard to do a lot of things and is actually succeeding at most of them. There are people walking around downtown, there is an active young community inside the city borders (unlike, say, Detroit, where it seemed like nobody under 30 was going to ever show their face downtown). The theater we were playing in is one of those 200-seat gems, which, if it existed in the Lower East Side or something, I would try to buy it so fast. It’s a perfect size, the sound is great, and it features a dilapidated arch! It’s like the Angel Orensanz Center but with a proper theatrical seating scheme and a light grid.

This is my second pair of concerts this month, the previous being in England a few weeks ago. One thing I’ve noticed and been thinking about a lot is a specific type of question I get from press before concerts. food-mold-fish5“What can we expect on Thursday night?” I’m not sure why, but this question really makes me uncomfortable. It’s one thing to ask, “what are you playing,” but an entirely different thing to ask, “what can we expect.” Imagine if your friend invites you over to her house for dinner. “What are you making” is easy enough: salmon. “What can we expect” is a whole other thing, to which there really is no good answer, unless your friend has recently bought some kind of device or special potion that will render the salmon Unlike Any Other Salmon.

With a concert, though, what can we expect? I tend to expect very little, relatively speaking, from a concert. I want a well-programmed series of good pieces, played well, in a comfortable or otherwise engaging environment. Anything above and beyond that is extra. Anything less than that is disappointing. When putting together live shows, those are sort of the same criteria I apply. I will put together a thoughtful sequence of good music, and my friends and I will proceed to play it well, at that time.

One of the other difficulties about “expectation” as we use it here is that it implies a sort of horizontal line that can be reached, surpassed, or missed. My instincts as a musician embrace this line (because it relates to standards, which should never move around), but my instincts as a composer fully resist it. As a composer, there is a built-in but secret expectation if somebody commissions you and says that they loved a piece from 2005 ““ the implication is that that work, in their head, delineates their expectation level. Whenever I see that horizon line, I always try to restructure the conversation, at least in my own mind. I think historically the model for this is Stravinsky. To listen to his first three ballets (Firebird, Pétrouchka, Le Sacre du Printemps) is, in a sense, to be able to draw a single narrative line of musical development through it ““ it’s like those old games where you say January, February March, what’s next? There are a lot of natural developments through those three ballets: they get increasingly less centered in terms of tonality, but also increasingly fetishistic about the tonal centers they do employ. It would be easy to expect that the next gesture in Stravinsky’s life would be a continuation of this pattern, but instead, he fully resists it with a bright neoclassicism in the next projects like Le Chant du Rossignol & Pulcinella. Does P’nella “exceed,” “meet,” or “fall short of” expectations? Who knows; Igor has changed the question up.

I am guilty of the same unfair expectations in the case of John Adams’s music, for instance, which took me a while to overcome. I used to “expect” of his music essentially that it would always contain the force, breadth, and rapturous power of Harmonium. When I was a teenager, listening to his music more and more, I’d put on something like The Death of Klinghoffer and be, like, disappointed. Expectations not exceeded! The shapes are too small! The chords are too weird! Is that a synth tom-tom? Why are there Arabs everywhere? I want Emily Dickensdóttir or bust! That having been said, I got over it; Klinghoffer is one of my favorite things ever, and the first chorus has some Harmonium juice in it if you’re paying enough attention. Now, for me, to go to a new Adams piece is exciting, because I neither know what to expect nor do I expect anything aside from that the music will challenge, engage, & delight. This is a good position for a composer to be in; it’s terrifying to think that a meshwork of people’s expectations would influence a composer’s output such that he would write the same piece for the rest of his life.

(The other side-thought here is that church music has a wonderful built-in resistance to the horizontal expectation line because the music itself is pointing elsewhere. Church music isn’t saying, here here, listen to my wonderful five-part mass; instead, it’s saying, turn your thoughts to those around you, and upwards, while this wonderful music unfurls. Unless the music is distracting or terribly performed, it’s hard to run afoul of the basic contemplative program.)

In the case of live shows, however, I wonder if the expectation question is code for something else: perhaps it’s code for some kind of magic trick or gimmick? I could have put Nadia in Cherokee warpaint or recited from the Bhagavad Gita or had an actual piece of codfish on stage for Helgi Hrafn to gnaw on…?

Part of the difficulty, too, is that press can create a lot of false expectations. The thing to remember about press ““ and this is true for everybody everywhere ““ is that the artist is the only person in the world for whom the article has not been written. It’s for everybody else, but the artist has no agency or control over what appears. Press is for strangers (and proud grandparents, for whom the printed word bears An Enormous Weight Even Still). I’m anxious to get to the place kitchenshowwhere people are excited to hear my music regardless of what has or has not been promised by me or by others in the press; I think I’m getting there ““ Minnesota was a really good example of this. People seemed genuinely interested to hear me and Nadia play together even though I did not promise them 4,000 pounds of human hair and a fibreglass pony and a pile of skulls.

Another funny expectation development is what people expect of this blog. For the most part, I think this is a space where I record things that are interesting to me, mostly relating to music, language, or food, and sometimes to my limited engagement with The Political, or whatever. I assume that people come here with the expectation of good sentences about interesting things, and if the things aren’t interesting, maybe the sentences will be, and if the sentences aren’t interesting, maybe the things will be. However. There is some kind of poisonous troll up on this space who seems to expect More. Let me break it down for you. A few days ago, I wrote a post about diacritical marks in the New York Times. I think this is supremely, insanely interesting, because English whatthephohas so few diacritical marks and other languages have so many. Even visually, a paragraph of Vietnamese looks and feels totally different than a paragraph of English, or French, or Icelandic. I took especial notice of an article about Icelandic musicians in which my homegirl Ólöf’s name was rendered Olof. It’s funny, but it looks Crazy Different to me. It’s like a picture of somebody without their eyebrows or something:


The grain of this language is informed by the diacritical marks. The American eye is drawn to (and made anxious by) the briar patch surrounding the original letters. Think about the movie Koyaanisqatsi. The eye is intrigued by the inscrutability of those a’s, that q without its u! If that movie had been called “Life Out Of Balance,” you had better believe it would not have done nearly as well. Also think about how there is a developing internet ebonic (?) which misspells swear words: azz, shyte, pu**y. Also, isn’t anybody else obsessed with how different newspapers render Al-Qa’eda? The moral of the story is that I find this stuff really interesting. I got a comment on my (I pause here to let the implicationz of the my sink in) blog reading, simply:

Oh God please write about something meaningful.

Now, I read that comment, and thought, well, sorry! I thought I had been! Have I not met expectations? I went back and re-read the post and I thought it was pretty meaningful (watch at least 35 seconds of it); I checked the IP address of the commenter to make sure it wasn’t a drunk family member or whatever, discovered that it was the same person who a few months ago made a series of funny attacks about me on my (pause) blog and I let it be. But then! A valiant person came to my rescue, writing:


I like how you write.
David can go autofellate.

To which our mean friend responded:

“David can go autofellate.” Charming. Nico, evidently this is your audience. Knock yourself out. Enjoy it; be grateful you have enough famous friends to get you noticed.

And then I thought, you know what? Fuck it. This is out of control. I’m not on some Maoist radio in this guy’s house, blathering on about dear leader and satellites and transliteration and the Qatsi trilogy. So I decided to write to him directly, and this is what I wrote:

Why on earth are you using the comments space on my blog to be so mean to me!? Are you the same person as “Dana” from a few months ago? I’m happy to keep the whole exchange up there in the interests of not censoring anybody, but keep in mind that I didn’t respond to your last comment: other strangers did. I’m sorry if you don’t think I’m writing anything interesting ““ I am in Seattle at my grandmother’s funeral, which as far as things go is pretty uninteresting. But if I write about the food that we eat ““ which I undoubtedly will, please don’t take it upon yourself to attack me on my homepage. Instead, take the five minutes out of your life you would have used to be inappropriately rude and donate to the Parkinson Foundation here.

I think that’s pretty good, right? I mean, I know I’m not meant to engage but sometimes I feel like people cross an invisible line. When Pitchfork sent random straight people to be mean to me, I thought it was inappropriate and responded, against the advice of many. I ended up feeling a lot better about the whole thing afterwards.

For what it’s worth, my grandmother’s memorial featured a really delicious copper river salmon with a smushy ramp gnocchi. On the plane from Minnesota to Seattle I listened obsessively to this new recording I just got of Blow‘s Salvator Mundi

[audio:10 Salvator Mundi.mp3]
Blow Salvator Mundi
The Choir of Norwich Cathedral

I just can’t get enough of this piece. There is so much to love, but first and foremost, I love how Blow has divided the text up:

Salvator mundi, salva nos,
qui per crucem et sanguinem redemisti nos,
auxiliare nobis, te deprecamur, Deus noster.

It seems like the obvious thing to do is to have a three-part structure where the first line dealing with salvation is straightforward, the second, at the mention of the cross, becomes twisted, and the third part references the first. However, Blow has divided in such a way that the setting of the first two lines deal with the gnarled wood of the cross: keening, extremely high chromatic figures in the trebles answered by low altos descending a scale ““ very successful. In this recording, check out at 1:09 and thereabouts: the trebles are just whimpering right down a chromatic scale, and suddenly the basses are doing it too. A sudden key shift from D-major to B-major slaps the choir into a unison chorale, followed by an outrageously beautiful inverted pedal point (which is to say, a held note in the sky) on the words auxiliare nobis. I don’t know why this sounds so modern to me, but it always has. We proceed in this glorious D-major garden until in the last fifteen seconds of the piece we look back and see the looming cross. It’s an outrageous coup and it always takes me by surprise.


  • nico nico nico, this is by far one of THE most interesting blogs there are. write about what interests you, because it interests many of us too, and everyone else has too much time on their hands and nothing to fill it with, hence the bullshit remarks. can’t please everyone, but i know i’m happy.

  • Hey Nico, how come when I open your website on my new phone I have to scroll past a million links for cialis before I get to your post?
    Be thankful you get any comments – it’s like the “any press is good press” rule. One mean comment means a hundred people read & enjoyed what you wrote.

  • I like your writing.

  • (1) This was really great
    (2) Google “cherokee warpaint” and things get interesting:

  • Whatever, your blog is great.
    A True Joy To Read.

  • A true joy to read, indeed. Never stop.

  • Congratulations on having a hater! The way I figure it, that is the true measure of success. First you have fans, then imitators, and then haters.

    I must concur with Chris and say your blog is a true joy. Whenever you’ve got something new up, I’m always wait to read it until I can give my full attention.

    Looking forward to seeing you in Kitchener in October.

  • A few years ago I took my wife to see a performance of the Yuko Fujiyama Ensemble at The Stone while we were in New York visiting friends. Before we went, I made the mistake of just telling her we were going to be seeing a “jazz show.”

    She had prepared herself for an evening of standard post-bop faire, and she was not pleased with the experience. Had I prepared her in advance and managed her expectations better, she might have gone into the evening with a different mindset and had a better time.

    I would think the question “What can we expect?” really means “Should we prepare our audiences who aren’t used to seeing the work of contemporary composers for anything they might find shocking and outside of their usual comfort zone?”

    I may be totally comfortable with the idea of seeing a quartet play along with two taped tracks they had recorded earlier (while wearing headphones), but you can be sure I would prepare my elderly grandmother for an experience like that in advance.

  • I was intrigued by “Pitchfork sent random straight people to be mean to me.” So, I followed the links.

    After reading Pitchfork’s review and your response to it, I confess I’m mystified.

    ‘Pretentious and Overambitious Faggot Makes Indefensible Artistic Statement ‘ seems an enormous leap from a review that makes absolutely no mention of anyone’s sexuality.

    Is Pitchfork sending people to be mean to you when they write a review? (Or did something else happen that we’re not aware of?) Is Jayson Greene even straight?

    It doesn’t matter, and that’s just Nico being Nico. Your blog is cool because you tend to speak very freely. It’s refreshing to hear such a candid reaction to a bad review.

  • I said this to you in person after the Thursday show, but for what it’s worth, you and Nadia put on one of the most worthwhile evenings of music I’ve seen or participated in this year. The music itself is great, of course, but your easy manner onstage is a great contrast to the starchy formality that a lot of us in the music world are expected to conform to. Thanks for a great night, and I’m glad you liked Minneapolis…

  • I read your blog because you have wonderful, well-written music recommendations. and are crazy funny. how else would I know about Kill the Vultures or be able to have the phrase “Tot Mom” run around in my head for hours on end?

  • A half cadence in D -> B (MAJOR!) has to be really the most extravagant modal shift I’ve ever heard of. Seriously, there are easier ways of getting from g minor to G major. Yet another reminder that Blow is a underrated/overlooked composer.\n\nP.S. I would very much like to adapt a piece of yours for period instruments (perhaps Flexible Musick?). Since I have no grant(s) by which to commission you and they all seem to be shriveling up is this within the realm of possibility?

  • This was an extremely interesting post that I really enjoyed reading (just like most of what you write despite those nasty naysayers).\n\nI was fascinated by your comments about concert expectations, and I couldn’t help but thinking that if the press and audience wanted to create expectations for their concert experience, they wouldn’t want to ask the artist at all. Whether the composer responded with accurate, understated or overstated expectations about what was about to occur, wouldn’t that ruin the entire experience of listening, comparing and making up one’s own mind independently? \n\nRegardless, I think your writing is only surpassed by your music. Thank you for this blog!

  • Valiant? gawrsh\n. I think it is very good that you take criticism seriously. (Even really mean criticism from azzholez lyke David and Jayson.)\n\nManfred Eicher and company have written an essay or three about expectations, etc. \nI can’t say I remember where I’ve come across any of them, but I remember that they’re really well put together. You/ECM I think have a lot of similar ideas about music. \n\n… Kill the Vultures. Yeah. \n\nYour show at the Southern was fabulous. Come back to the midwest soon!

  • Nico,

    Your honesty and humbleness made me a Nicoholic! and yes, that sublime music is a 1..2.. punch in any one’s spirit!

    it is always an honest pleasure and a joy ride to read you and hear you!

    Thank You Nico

    P.S. thanks to you, I am so in to weird exotic food!

  • So much in your posting was wonderfully provocative. Of course it sent me back to a 2005 piece, “Expecting the Main Things from You,” wondering how much of your uneasiness with the word should be read retroactively into your choice of that poem and and your decision to end the piece so ambiguously (I have never heard it). Then realizing how important the fulfillment or frustrating of expectation is to my appreciation of a piece or a performance, I wonder whether the question “what to expect” is not, in fact, a request for an aesthetic starting point rather than an instruction for listening. Having studied the score for “Expecting the Main Things. . .” has inevitably created an expectation. Whether an actual performance meets, enriches or challenges it, approaching a performance with expectations seems both inevitable and desirable.

    Thank you for the stunning reflections on Blow.

  • Hey Nico, I know you’re not phishing for rallied support, but I also know that you’re a human being and as such you have feelings and all that. It makes me happy when you take issue with rudeness. Write on! I unicode WHITE HEART SUIT you and your blog.

  • I don’t *expect* that you wrote this as an attempt to draw out all of us quiet lurkers who love your blog. But we’ve shown up anyway. Forget the troll and know that for every one of them who fixes his fingers to type something insipid and negative, there are surely thousands (tens of thousands?) of us who read and smile and appreciate your wit and wordplay and novel takes on things. Keep on keepin’ on Nico. (My only complaint: I want more!)

  • Nico–this is one of your most interesting blogs ever. I’m 76 yrs old & learned about you last Summer at Edington. Since then I read every blog. I think those diacritical marks would be used appropriately if our US keyboards easily produced them. I agree with your remark about Church music. Loved the Salvator mundi.
    Keep blogging. I wish I had your brains!

  • oh, oh, oh. that newsweek piece. you are soooo cute!

    just wish scratching the magazine paper would play a brand new snippet of one of your beautiful creations.

  • Nico- thank you for everything you write. I admire your freedom in choosing what you write about. I’ve always felt a bit stifled on my blog, which is why I haven’t written there for a while. You inspire me to just write about what excites me.

    I love your curiosity about life, language, music, food, travel, etc. I’ve discovered great Icelandic music through your site and have fallen even more in love with the place, although I haven’t been there yet.

    You have strong opinions, so you are going to attract ‘haters’ from time to time, I’m afraid. It’s so much easier to try and knock someone else down rather than to create something of one’s own (cf youtube comments, which I can’t read without wanting to throw up).

    Just keep doing what you do. We love you for it!

  • Nico, if it matters, I think your blog is most definitely interesting. And also entertaining. And also, often, educational. And if it’s ever *not* all of these things (which has never happened thus, and I sincerely doubt), it will undoubtedly be, at the very least, one of them.

    I’ve read all of your blogs since discovering your music last September, and I do plan to continue the habit.

  • Was reading a waterlogged Departures magazine found in a reststop in NY and liked what they wrote about you so here I am. Haven’t yet listened to one peep of your music, but if it’s half as good as your blog, I’m sure my expectations will be exceeded. ;)\nHeather

  • your writing is so alluring to me.
    both at musical and “blogger” level.

    eat up!

  • I don’t *expect* that you wrote this as an attempt to draw out all of us quiet lurkers who love your blog. But we’ve shown up anyway. Forget the troll and know that for every one of them who fixes his fingers to type something insipid and negative, there are surely thousands (tens of thousands?) of us who read and smile and appreciate your wit and wordplay and novel takes on things. Keep on keepin’ on Nico. (My only complaint: I want more!)

  • Nico, I’m sorry to hear of your grandmother’s passing. Thank you for sharing your unique spirit with those of us who enjoy your music, your blog and your originality. You are a breath of fresh air~

  • just to be clear, we expect music at concerts.

  • I came to your music because of my enthusiasm for Arvo Pärt (of which you’ve written) and Benjamin Millepied’s enthusiasm for Muhly; then I discovered your website and blog and was hooked. Thanks for your curiosity and discernment and your beautiful writing (an antidote to much that is cringe-worthy on the Web) — and of course your extraordinary music. Also thanks for mentioning John Blow, whose “My God, my God, look upon me” I recently sang and loved. The “Salvator Mundi” is magnificent, and I’m ordering it right away. Please ignore all trolls and continue to share your thoughts and enthusiasms with us. Yours diacritically….

  • I hate a lot of people on the internet. Which is funny, because I so rarely indulge those feelings when I’m offline. It makes me think about supposedly sacred properties of words, and the psychological difference between physically writing something down on paper and typing it on a screen.

    I think most people have to struggle so hard to find their voice and be able to say anything that wields even a trace of authority or influence, and defaulting to meanness is the easiest way to feel temporarily powerful. Illusory, short-term, Pyrrhic victories online are all most people can muster with their voice, and they are too insecure to accept anyone who’s found or created his or her own authentic voice. Everyone wants to be the one pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes on — funny that we all seem to have read that story imagining ourselves as the observant child, not as the Emperor, though it’s obvious that the tale’s lessons speak to his foolish behavior.

    You have your own clear voice, and you make no apologies for it. You present yourself as yourself and nothing more, which many people find to be quite beautiful, and I think all of that must drive lots of people to say cruel and dismissive things. But of course, your fellow Times commentor reminds us of the enduring truth of the matter, which will one day be written in golden garlands on the moon: “HATERS CAN SUCK IT.” That’s really the final word on the subject in my book.

  • I agree with the people who posted above me: your blog is a True Joy.

    Excellent point on Adams, and on music / art in general. The Philadelphia Orchestra is going to perform Adams’ “City Noir” the spring after Dudamel conducts it in L.A. While I could probably hunt around the internet and hear it, I’m with you in that I’d rather sit back, be challenged and surprised. Also, clicking on all the links in the above post led me to a comment on your Philadelphia First Unitarian show. You should come back soon; it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended.

    Regarding diacritical marks and pronunciation, the English tend to bastardize foreign languages much more than Americans. British Airways, for one, left my brother and I suffering paroxysmic laughter in Madrid International. The floor really isn’t all that clean, so I don’t suggest rolling on it. The loudspeaker directed us to board a plane headed for “Palma de Mallorca”. They got the first word correct, but proceeded to pronounce “de” like “duh” and “Mallorca” as if it were a description of Free Willy misbehaving. Maybe you had to be there. Probably.

  • I like your writing too. I think you are really cute. I don’t know anything about music, but I think you are real smart.

  • The J. is only to distinguish myself from the other Chris’s (from now on?).

    I tweeted you and hope I didn’t offend by asking about “jazz-inspired” music. I think it’s sometimes thrilling to, say, watch “The Reader” and listen to your music and then have you tweet me and be able to tell my music-loving friends in Podunk, Colorado about it. But apart from trying to be a part of “celebrity” or some derivative of that, as [almost] everyone else above has already said, it is a Joy (no religious connotation because of capitalization) to read your blog and sympathize/empathize with things happening musically, grammatically, gastrointestinally, and otherwise in the/your world.

    And, a propos, wonderful double reed work in the movie. I play the violin, but bassoonists (and sometimes oboists) are my favourite people.

    So don’t let what’s-his-face get you down. He should go read some other blog, like this one. Uh-oh.

  • Nico,
    Thanks for writing about the things that you find interesting. The rest of us find them so as well, else we wouldn’t be here. The upside of the internet is that we all get to easily find your musings. The downside is that it facilitates that .01% of the world that are crackpots.

    I don’t know much about being a musician, even less about Iceland, diacriticals and which selections an orchestra should play together, but I find your intelligent comments on them fascinating. Thank you for sharing a piece of you so publicly!