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One Picture Is Worth One Thousand Notes – An Interview with Composer John Dante Prevedini

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Our First Featured Interview!


For our first interview on the Perennial blog, I spoke with composer and educator John Dante Prevedini. John was kind enough to reach out after reading my article, Beauty Is In the Eye (and Ear) of the Beholder – 5 Examples of Augenmusik or Eye Music. John has composed many works of Augenmusik and was eager to share his process. We also spoke about the significance of music theory and history, how social media influences art, and much more! For more information about John and his work, visit prevedini.com.


The text to the full interview on Patreon. Select highlights are below.


Or, you may listen to the interview audio in the top video. Scroll bthrough the article to find videos with examples of John's music.


If you enjoy high-quality, educational music and arts content, please consider supporting me on Patreon or send a contribution via Kofi to help.


Thanks again to John Dante Prevedini for speaking with me. If you are a working content creator or artist and would like to share your work with us, please feel free to reach out to janae@perennialmusicandarts.com




Janae: Hello, John!


Thanks so much speaking with me today!


The first thing I would like to talk about is your eye music (Augenmusik) compositions. What inspired you to begin composing in this way?

John: Well, I’ve always been vaguely aware of Augenmusik. When I was a young teenager, I first became interested in the music of the medieval period. One of the most interesting aspects of that period in music history is that this Augemusik genre first begins to appear in the record. They’re may be older examples that we are not—or I am not—aware of, but it really begins to appear in a way that’s recognizable as such in the late 14th century thereabouts. It was sort of on the back burner in my mind for years and years and years.


Independently of this, later on, by the time I was in my late-20s/early-30s, which was a few years ago, I began experimenting with the whole process of transcribing visual contours into melodic content—for example, landscape, the shapes of natural hills, the shapes of natural objects. It didn’t really hit me to go on fully as a 21st century art form until the COVID lockdown. And, part of this was, we, as musicians, were in this situation where concert performances were impossible. One of the things I start asking myself is: How can we as composers shift the focus so that we can experiment with the possible of social media?


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So let’s say, you’re scrolling through your social media feed and you see two posts both from content creators that are unfamiliar to you. One of these posts, let’s say, is a very attractive photo of a sunset on the beach that takes ten seconds to see by a photographer you don’t know anything about. And the other link is a inaudible thumbnail to an audio demo that takes four minutes to hear by a composer you know nothing about. All things being equal which would you be more likely to click on, an image that takes ten seconds to see or an audio that takes four minutes to hear? And for that reason I say that a picture is worth a thousand notes. And to me, that is easy to say that, but in the spring months of 2020 when we were all in lockdown and as a composer, I was having this existential question about how the heck can we as composers build audiences in this state, in this sort of limbo where we can’t perform our music. And, it’s so hard to build our audiences in this culture, in this format, of social media, in this visual preference that the format lends itself to. Then I started to think back gradually to Augenmusik. Not just Augenmusik, but other forms of music notation that are really compact, maybe on one page, or are really visible. In other words, [music notation] that can convey something, not everything, but something about the music in a visual way quickly as if it were a photograph. So in other words an “Instagram-able” score so-to-speak. So that was the genesis of how I got into this series of experiments, reinventing music composition to work well in the visual culture of social media.



JJA: How do you think Augenmusik or algorithmic composition techniques can enhance the music education experience?

JDP: That, I think, is a very big question with a lot of angles for exploration. The first thing that comes to my mind is as teachers one of the things we always have to consider is how to engage the act of participation with our students at all levels. I think one way that Augenmusik does that is that it engages multiple learning styles simultaneously. There is a visual elements; there are sonic elements; there is a kinesthetic element in that we feel rhythm, melody, and harmony, especially if we are performing. There’s also the potential of transcending the senses with language; a title that’s well-conceived and well-strategized can direct the attention to the visual image and the sonic structure. So you may have a piece [of music] that teaches a concept like geography, chemistry, world languages, or history. Imagine a piece of Augenmusik where you have a visual image that gets the concept across, but at the same time, there’s something about the musical structure that conveys a natural process or the feeling of a historical event, and then at the same time, you have a title that focuses the verbal attention. So, all of these things have the potential to come into play and engage the different aspects of learning. Another [aspect] is the participatory element.

An algorhythmic composition score by Prevedini
An algorhythmic composition



You also mentioned algorithmic compositions. Algorithmic compositions may include Augemusik or they may not. Algorithmic composition refers to composition based on logical processes that convert of sort of information into another. So, how do you concert information from the natural world around you into musical information? Gardner talks about multiple intelligences with musical intelligence being one of them. [Note from JJA: Howard Gardner (b. July 11, 1943) is a noted developmental psychologist. See this post, Multiple Intelligences & Music Lessons, for more on Gardner’s educational theory.] So, music may be not just an activity but a way of making sense of other subjects. How do you engage people in the active process of realizing an algorithmic performance? I know this is a lot of different angles to the question you’re asking, and that’s just scratching the surface. These are all different things that I am exploring simultaneously as I compose and test this music, and as I do research about how other Augenmusik practices and algorithmic practices from the past have potential today.

JJA: Kind of relating to that, I would say that Augemusik is kind of a technology… well, it’s really a process. Speaking of music technology, how does that play a role in your music creation process? And, what kind of technology? Are you looking to just pen and paper? And you looking to the computer? Are you looking for inspiration in, like you have mentioned, in social media?

JDP: I use technology constantly as a composer. Every single thing that I use to aid in the act of composition involves some stage of technology. Whether it's the piano, whether it's music notation, whether it's a software program to produce scores or audio realization technology, it plays into every aspect. And, technology is nothing new.


When you look at medieval manuscripts that are written using different colored inks and using different notational conventions, that's engaging with cutting edge technology too, in that time and place. So technology is not a new thing. We're in a new chapter of it now, and new chapters will be opened to us after this. It's an ongoing process.


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JJA: What tools do you consider indispensable as a composer? What do you “have to have” or you can not create music?

JDP: Well, honestly, the most indispensable tool I think I have as a composer is language. In the absence of anything else, language can communicate intent.


Now, this is the funny thing. Whenever you look to the frontiers of notational practice and development, you will see composers using plain vernacular language to communicate their intentions.


We all know what pizzicato and tremolo are now, but at one time, that wasn't something to be taken for granted. Composers like Monteverdi who pioneered those tools, have explained what was meant by them. Concepts like piano and forte, we take musical dynamics for granted. But, when composers like Gabrielli were pioneering those terms, they had to be explained. There are intentionalities behind the conventions that we use today that are forgotten—or easy to forget—because we take them for granted.


I think that process is still playing out. To this day, there are composers who do not have standard notation conventions to easily communicate their intents because there hasn't been a need; there hasn't been evolutionary pressure to make notation do those things on a regular basis. So composers still rely on language to explain what they mean. I think that's especially true when you look at contemporary open form or algorithmic compositions that involve live process, interactive process, etc. So I would say to this day, language is still the most powerful tool that I have as a composer, and I would say that other composers have a similar relationship with language.


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JJA: Sounds like you find having a limitation or a goal in mind when you start really helps you accomplish your goal as a composer. I feel that limitations really help or having a deadline. Otherwise, I find myself keep working it over and over and over again and I hate it by the time it’s finished.

JDP: I think it was Leonard Bernstein who said “to achieve great things, you need a plan and not quite enough time.”



...


JJA: What do you think is different for you as a composer rather than a performer? And, how do you “practice”? Do you feel that practicing an instrument helps you compose? Do you feel that just composing regularly helps you practice? What are your thoughts on practice and the difference between the role of the composer and the role of a performer?

JDP: That’s a wonderful question. I do think that there are many helpful ways to practice different aspects of composition. The compositional process itself has many dimensions to it, and each of those dimensions benefit from practice.


...


So I would say for composers who want to practice, just dive right into it, know what you want to do, and just do it as much as possible, and watch yourself doing it, watch how you do it, and observe yourself and be open to the mistakes that come when you're practicing. That's the place to make mistakes.

...

And on the other hand, I think technology is partly to blame for that extreme anxiety. And the reason I say that I think one of the most valuable tools that any music student can access is the Library of Congress Audio Database [https://www.loc.gov/audio/collections/]. In the Library of Congress, they have archived hours of audio material from the turn of the 20th century, and these are home recordings made on wax cylinders. So these are not professional musicians. These are regular people who lived in the 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, who were making music at home. And these people are clearly non-professional performers who absolutely are engaged with what they're doing, who love what they're doing, and their culture, their community, their family life, their social network. “Social network” in the sense of that generation. They all support it. There was not this pressure to be “perfect musicians” because music was something everybody did. It was just a part of everyday life, and there wasn't a pressure to be a flawless, polished performer.


Constantly, nowadays, we are absolutely flooded with “perfect” recordings of professional musicians, and so it creates this pressure to hold up to that level. And that pressure is a very modern phenomenon. People have to remember that there is value in non-professional music making, that it's not just so you can be a musician as a career, so that you can be a, well-rounded, human being, a member of your community, to engage with them at the musical level.

JJA: Just going on TikTok I know I've seen accounts where they like this is so and so singer without the “autotune.” Usually it's not even autotune. It's just they stripped whatever the processing is off of it. But that's the difference between a professional mix and someone singing raw. I mean, you just can't compare them. It's not fair to the singer. And some singers, have voices that work really well in a mix, in a band setting, for example. But maybe they don't sound as pretty a capella. But there are other singers who are great choral singers who might not sound as great in the more popular genres. Does that make sense?

JDP: Absolute sense.

JJA: We need to take something in the right [appropriate] lane where I think where it's coming from.

JDP: I think important aspect of that is that it creates an unnatural expectation for what the human voice should do or metaphorically what the human performing of an instrument should do.


Almost analogous to when we look at magazine covers of models that are Photoshopped and they're brushing and you don't even know it. If you look at the unedited photos that people take for fashion magazines they show models in their natural state, and it can be vastly different from the finished product. And I think that technology of audio processing can create something like that for musicians who are listening to a performance. They may not realize that what they're hearing is actually an unnatural result, that it’s not the consequence of pure human skill.




...


Now I think many of us have outsourced music to performers, and we have forgotten that there is a participatory value to music-making, not just a music-making, to provide music for an audience at a performance. If it makes sense.



JJA: It's a really great point. Yeah, definitely. If you think about the past, they had, like, those large choral traditions, for example, where people would come together and sing or they would come together with their instruments. Local brass bands used to be a huge deal in Britain, for example.

JDP: Absolutely.

JJA: We definitely lost something there. Though once in a while, you do see, like, little tiny sparks. If there’s enough interest maybe we can reignite that, and maybe, we can even reignite that with tools like social media, for example. You've seen those videos on TikTok or other platforms?


...


JDP: I remember the “sea chantee craze” last year around this time with the wonderful interpretations of the sea chantees that were viral and TikTok. That was something that was so unexpected. And I think it put that technology to really wonderful use as a community tool for participatory music making. I think that’s a really great example of how technology can be used to foster participatory music making.

JJA: Well, you've brought up some things from music history and how the medieval period has impacted you as a composer. But how did studying music theory and music history impact you? And, do you have a preferred era, for example, the Classical, Romantic, Modern or preferred composer like Stravinsky, Debussy?


...

JDP: I have always felt very drawn to the Medieval period, yes, but also, I would say, the beginning of the Baroque era. So Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz really, really speak to me in terms of their text painting, their use of drama in musical form.


I'm also very drawn to William Byrd. I’ve recently begun describing his music as sort of a fusion between emotionally deep lyricism, but also a sense of forward momentum in the rhythmic and contrapuntal texture of his music. I would say that my relationship with Byrd’s music—particularly his instrumental works—is something that I've had a long-term relationship with. And that [it] continues, I think, to impact my way of feeling music, maybe even more than any other composer! But that's my experience with Byrd. That may not be someone else's. So, again, I would encourage them, meaning other musicians, to take their own journey.

And also, you did mention Stravinsky. He speaks to me very strongly as well, and I find endless inspiration and surprise in his music, as well as some of the more contemporary composers, too, particularly in choral tradition.

Now, to go back to your first question. How has the study of history and theory impacted my work as a composer? Well, history certainly has opened up my awareness of the repertoire and what composers have done. But on the other hand, it's made me aware of cyclical processes and history. So, for instance, if you look at the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and then the Baroque period, you will see fluctuations between very open, unstructured experimental stages and then followed by stages that are very controlled and measured. There's a common practice and there are strict rules to structure and musical form, et cetera. And it waxes and wanes over and over again as you go through the centuries. So that's made me sensitive to the question of, "Okay, what sort of a broad musical cultural stage are we in globally now in art music and in popular music, given what we've seen in the large picture of history? What therefore could we expect to come next?” That's a historical question that you ask involving theory.


Theory, in many cases, comes as a response to practice. So when you look at theoretical practices of description, notation, and classification, they oftentimes are in response to the music of a generation beforehand. So I think it's very interesting seeing theory as a response to composition. But on the other hand, theory also gives you the tools to dive into earlier practices if you want to revisit them or maybe respond to them somehow. Maybe you don't want to continue in the tradition, but you want to respond in opposition to them, or maybe you want to change one element of it and then explore some different aspect of it. Theory can help you do that. And for that reason, I think theory is very helpful. I think there perhaps are some limits to what I'm about to say. but in many cases, I also think that theory can help performers to relate to a work in terms of bringing out certain aspects of their structure and also can help listeners.


If you're talking about in the Western classical tradition, I like to think of theory being something that helps with listening because we tend to use theory to engage, to inform how we listen to music. Whereas in Jazz, theory can oftentimes help us as performers too, because we're improvising over chord changes. We're feeling the possibilities of melody, harmony, variations and ornamentation, et cetera. So depending on what traditions inform your practice, you could have a listening or a performing relationship with theory.

JJA: Kind of related to that and to finish up, harmony and tonality might be considered “musical flavors.” Do you have a favorite flavor of chord, mode, or scale? Is there one that you find popping up in your music over and over again?

JDP: Oh! That’s a wonderful question. I think that it really does, again, depend on the piece. It's like cooking for me. If you know that there's a certain spectrum of flavors or textures that you want to use in your cooking, then there's a sense of how each individual ingredient is going to play a role within that universe. You've constructed that universe of flavor or of tone, color.

...


I love the juxtaposition between the familiar and the strange. That's something that I find very fascinating because life is like that. Life is a juxtaposition between things that are very familiar and things that are always surprising and sometimes a little bit disorienting. But one hopefully has the faith and the hope that there will be a way to make sense of it and respond to it. So in the subliminal level, perhaps I'm predisposed to that sort of harmony in my own musical psyche for that reason.

JJA: I really love that you're talking about when you hear it in choral music. I love it when they have singers singing really tight intervals. I don't know, like a magical quality to it.

JDP: I agree. Yeah. That is something that's especially difficult to achieve with the human voice. It takes a great deal of voice leading skill as a composer to compose melodic lines for the voice that are natural to audience and to produce with dissonances like that, especially chromatic dissonances. So I have the utmost respect for choral composers who were able to make sense, both audibly and in a way that's natural and performable for the ensemble, definitely.

JJA: Well, thank you very much, John.

JDP: Well, thank you so much, it's been a pleasure!




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Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.

 






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