Author Archives: Byron McQuain

Score Reading Project – Day 1

I just finished reading a really interesting book, So Good They Cant Ignore You, by Cal Newport. The book is ultimately about how we find joy in what we do for a living. A big piece of advice is to approach whatever you do with what Newport calls a craftsman mindset; focus on the quality of your output and the fun stuff will follow (he has other good tips as well, but I’ll skip those). According to the book, the primary way we get better is through constant deliberate practice, rather than accepting your work once it is considered good enough. As a musician, I am familiar with the idea of deliberate practice. But I had never thought to apply this way of thinking to my day-to-day job as an attorney. So while I have some ideas on how to ‘practice’ law, I also got inspired to start a new music project: improving my score reading.

I was a piano performance major in college. And after that I accompanied singers and instrumentalists professionally for two years. So, even with a few rusty years in between, I am still a pretty decent sight reader. But I have always thought it would be really neat to be better at reading open scores. For those of you who don’t read music, or aren’t music geeks, here’s how it works.

Normal piano music looks like this:

There is a Treble clef and bass clef. Pianists get used to reading two staves at once.

Bach chorales in open score looks like this:

Four staves at once. Obviously, this is harder. Not to mention here there are C clefs, which pianists (me included) aren’t used to reading.

Haydn Symphonies look like this:

You get the idea.

I had a great teacher in college that introduced me to the concept of reading scores. It was hard work then, and with everything else going on at the time, I didn’t give it a lot of effort at the time. So, why not now?

My ultimate goal is to be able to play through some symphonies with a friend. One person takes the string parts; the other takes the winds. I mean, can you imagine a better way to spend a Friday night?! Plan is to start with the Bach chorales, and go from there. I will use this to log my practice–kind of a practice journal. See you soon!

Carla Bley

I had the great pleasure of hearing Carla Bley perform last year about a month before we moved to Denver. Ethan Iverson just wrote a great piece on her this week. Give it a read! Highlight: Carla on Basie, “He’s the final arbiter of how to play two notes. The distance and volume between two notes is always perfect.”

Piano Samples

Here are two live recordings of me playing the piano.


I moved!

Hi everyone. I offer my apologies for the two years of radio silence. My wife and I moved to Colorado last year, and with all the life changes happening, this blog certainly fell into disuse.

I am going to shift gears a bit and use it as more as a public journal. I accepted a full time position and my music law practice is currently on hold. Now that my wife and I feel a bit more settled in Denver, I may start playing music again or teaching lessons. I will share my thoughts here. You have been warned!

Copyright Silver Lining at Supreme Court?

As a musician, you may not think that the Supreme Court affects you. Well, think again. Lawrence Hurley at Reuters noticed that the evenly divided Supreme Court may have picked more IP cases this term to avoid 4-4 splits as they continue to serve with only 8 justices. Compared to issues like abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, IP does seem a more likely area to for the justices to find common ground and perhaps issue majority opinions. More IP cases may mean good news for musicians as the court settles some questions in copyright and other intellectual property law. Three cases look particularly interesting to me.

Did you know that you can’t register a “disparaging” trademark? Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, or 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a) for you legal eagles out there, prohibits the registration of a trademark that “may disparage … persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.” So who gets to decide what is disparaging? Well, usually the examiners at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. But what if you disagree with them?* And how does this law fit in with free speech under the first amendment? And is this law too vague? The Supreme Court will hear two cases this term from both sides regarding these questions. One likely-non-disparaging application was denied; another likely disparaging mark has remained protected–for now. The trademark application for the dance rock band, The Slants, was denied as offensive.  The band members are Asian American and choose their name to reappropriate a term typically used disparagingly.  Also, The Washington Redskins‘ trademark will be up before the court. Trademark law is a crucial way to protect your public identity; it is hugely important for artists in particular. These will be fun cases to watch.

Another case will decide whether owners of copyrights can face liability if they incorrectly issue a take-down notice when a use qualifies under the “fair use” exception under copyright law at 17 U.S.C. § 107. This case is about a video of a baby dancing to Prince’s song, “Let’s Go Crazy.” Zooming out from this particular case, there is currently a big political tug-of-war going on right now about whose responsibility it ought to be to police the copyright status of user-generated content. A victory for the baby might make it harder for artists to protect unauthorized postings of their songs. Or it might help emerging artists post covers and fans post content to positively spread the word about their favorite band. There is a push right now in the US (and a similar one in the EU) to get rid of the good faith exemption in the American Digital Millenium Copyright Act, Section 512(c), which allows web-based, user-generated content companies like YouTube to avoid liability for infringing content posted to their site if they, among other things, comply with take down notices.  This would seemingly put a huge burden on YouTube to police all its videos, and bring in more revenue for artists, but imagine the hurdle for new music start-ups and other competition to YouTube? How will the next SoundCloud grow up under such rules? I am currently not sure where I stand on the broader issue yet, but Julia Reda’s article was an insightful essay that swayed me a bit from pro to con. For the standard take on it, check out Billboard’s article.

Look for more thoughts in the weeks to come. I hope to change it up and talk about my own musical experiences, my take on the music industry, a few in-depth thoughts on legal issues in music, and if you’re lucky, a few interviews. Stay tuned. For now, I am planning to post once a month.


*You don’t get to go straight to the Supreme Court, though. Here, Simon Tam of The Slants had to appeal first to The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, then the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, then again at the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit but with more judges because one judge requested it, then finally, asked the Supreme Court to take the case. Another crazy fact: Simon Tam filed his application 5 YEARS AGO!

Hearing Veils and Vesper

Screen Shot 2016-08-14 at 12.03.17 AM

Credit: Andrew Gresham

11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31.

Oh! Hi there. I was just counting prime numbers–I mean listening to music. Well, really I’m not too sure. I guess I better explain myself.

One of the many wonderful things about life in Knoxville is attending the Big Ears Music Festival. Personally, I couldn’t have hand-picked a better local event for my own enjoyment. Or even dreamed of it. What? A lot of wonderful, adventurous, top-notch musicians are going to appear on the same weekend, performing and collaborating? And I get Listen? Great. And I don’t have to drive across the country?!? Nope, they all come to good ole East Tennessee. Never in my wildest dreams would I have predicted this.

I heard much great music. But you can get better reviews of the festival by reading the professionals. I’d rather share my story about listening to the six-hour long sound installation, Veils and Vesper, by John Luther Adams.

The piece took up a large block of the festival schedule, starting at 1pm and ending at 7pm. I arrived at the church at about 12:45. I was expecting to be able to enter and take my seat a little early, but when I approached the large columns of the old First Christian Church, there were probably about 10 to 20 people standing and waiting outside. They weren’t letting anyone in yet. After about five more minutes John Luther Adams came out and spoke to someone he seemed to know explaining that the piece would in fact start on time.

The first thing that struck me as I entered the church was that the music was already playing. There were nine speakers on the floor, three on each side, a sub on the northeast corner and the southwest corner, and four speakers surrounding the stage.

At first I thought the music was pretty (huge insight); it had a metallic tinge to it and seemed to be overall a major tonality, varying between adding and taking away most other major scale tones. Occasionally the tone would shift from metallic to more woody almost like a woodwind organ stop. It was loud. Or maybe it just seemed loud because there so many notes.

Towers of Notes! I tried to isolate them as I listened but it was difficult to do. There was this feeling that above the highest notes were more notes still–higher than I could physically hear, and also deep notes, lower than I could hear as well. This was disorienting and kept making me think of a infinitely tall tower.

‘The piece was six hours long,’ I thought to myself. ‘How long should I stay?’ I should stress here that while the piece did shift and shimmer in slow and subtle harmonic ways, it was ultimately six hours of constant droning tones. No pauses. No rests. No singing. Just constant sound. I decided to wait in the church until my friend Mark arrived even if it took the whole time. I told myself that it was a good opportunity to experience a large piece of music on such a scale that would take such a long time to listen to. So began my irrational desire to sit through the whole thing. I saw another friend who came and sat with me for about thirty minutes. Then she left. The concept of pacing yourself for a long weekend of listening was lost on me.

It was a constant wall of sound, a sustained chord with notes only very gradually ebbing and flowing. The changes happened slowly. So slowly I would only notice changes after they were already established. All of the sudden a fourth is the dominant interval now. And while I listened to that fourth for maybe 10 minutes, I might think nothing was changing. Just a immovable wall of sound that could never change. But then again, I realized that all of the tone had changed from metallic to much warmer during that time I thought the piece was standing still. At 45 minutes in I was falling asleep (this happens to me more than I would like to admit at great sit-down concerts…why? Maybe great music relaxes me so much I just drift off…) After a couple head-bobs and a few solid snoozes, I was wide-awake and ready for the long-haul.

But then at about an hour and 20 minutes in the music and change so slowly but so substantially that I had the sensation of floating. Yes, please!

After that I could’ve stayed easily the whole time. I didn’t get up and move around until maybe about two or three hours into the piece, and it was neat to experience the difference in the sound by walking through the church. The bass would occasionally pulse, a large whale of sound suddenly crossing the church, swimming through the pews.

About three hours in, a few notes rose to foreground, quick strokes on a violin. The sound of someone warming up a bow. I actually thought there might be a musician about to come in and play along with the piece. Hey, this was new territory for me. For all I know a marching band might walk in any second. (ok well maybe not a marching band…). Anyways, this was the most mysterious part of the piece to me. It was like being stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean. All you can see in any direction is the flat roiling of the ocean surface. All of a sudden, something jumps out of the water, but it is far away and you can’t quite make it out. Just as soon as you saw it, it is gone.

My friend arrived around 5:30, and I left shortly after in order to go the performance of Become Ocean, another work by John Luther Adams which won the Pulitzer Price for Music in 2014.

I got to hear John Luther Adams the next day discuss the piece with Steven Schick at a festival event. JLA explained his general interests and philosophical reasons for composing (this will certainly inspire a later post) and also discussed Veils and Vesper. He explained that there were three veils and one vesper in the space. The first veil is in the back of the church and it is the falling veil; the second veil is in the middle of the church and it is the crossing veil; the third veil is in the front of the church and it is the rising veil. The piece is composed purely in an algorithm using pink noise. It is a perfect pitch tonal system using prime numbers between 11 and 31. Huh?!? After looking up pink noise and pondering his words, I decided to return on Sunday to finish out my last hour with the piece.

I heard JLA say before the piece that he thought it sounded really good in the space and that this was his one of his favorite pieces. It is an homage to one of his favorite composers, Johannes Ockeghem, who lived in the 1400s and as was typical of the times for a famous composer then, worked for the church. I was introduced to Ockeghem in music school. Let’s just say it is absolutely beautiful. I can only imagine what it must have sounded like back then.  It is fitting then this piece was installed in a church. JLA described the piece as his ‘most mathematical, and most sensuous’ piece.

After a long weekend of listening to a lot of great music, I came back on Sunday afternoon to sit in the church a few more hours and finish out my time with piece. JLA had told the audience in his talk to bring a book, take a nap, or just walk around the church during the piece to experience the piece in a spatial way. So I dutifully took some reading I had to do for work with me over to the church to what I thought would be the last two hours of the piece.

Actually the piece had started an hour later than I thought on Sunday, so when I walked in I really would have three more hours until the piece ended. Eerily, just about when I sat down I heard those strokes on the violin again! ‘Aha!’ I thought. I had been wondering if the piece even sounded the same every time it was played, or if those prime-number-throwin, pitch-perfect-singin algorithms spun the music anew each day like the fates. JLA hadn’t mentioned the Vesper at his discussion, and I hadn’t thought to ask. He had mentioned that he had experimented with making the piece last from 1 hour to up to 1 year(!), but that 6 hours ‘felt right.’ ‘Vesper’ comes from an old latin word meaning evening star. Hearing those quick notes shoot out across an otherwise six-hour expanse of sound was not unlike seeing shooting star.

Thinking back to that piece, I now think about veils in my own life. They might be frustrating when I know what is holding me back or obscuring what I am looking for. Or they might be taken for granted, hidden in backdrop of my everyday existence. They might even sometimes shield me from a cold, hard, or dangerous reality. There are many, many overlapping veils at any point in time, and each comes and goes. But, just like that, a Vesper may shine down for just a moment, and then pass. Everything continues as it always has, and everything changes.

Sound installations, for me, are a strange cross between the visual art world and a ‘traditional’ music concert. I arrived for the beginning on the piece fifteen minutes early, expecting to take seat before the music started. But when the doors opened at 1pm, I walked in to the ocean of sound. For all I knew it had been playing for hundred years already. About thirty people dispersed and slowly took seats in various pews. The first few minutes had a gradually decreasing amount of pew-creaking and extraneous sounds as people picked their spots, and a slow descent ensued into meditation on the music. So on Sunday, as the piece neared its end, I wondered how it would end. Would we be asked to leave as the music droned on like the beginning? I noticed Ashley Capps, promoter/creator of the festival, sitting in the stage area, basking in the music. With only 15 minutes left, three festival staff approached him to chit-chat. Their pleasant conversation and smiles, combined with the muffled but excited chatter of the festival security workers (about to be off work) in the narthex below my balcony seat, was like a gradual surfacing of a submarine. I kept expecting at any minute for a worker to ask me to leave. As I stared toward the sunny Knoxville sky through the stained glass window, enjoying hearing human voices after many hours (days) of intense sound, the music ceased.