What Is Music?

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On the first day of music history class at the Oberlin Conservatory in 1967, our professor asked, “What is music?”.

It was like a Zen kōan, and everybody contemplated it for the rest of the semester. We continued to learn music of the classical European repertoire, but I don’t remember if there was an answer to that initial question during the semester.

A follow-up question for me would be, “What is a musical instrument?”. The easy answer to that would be anything that contributes to making music. That does not establish what music is though.

Are windchimes a musical instrument? In my 40+ years of making Woodstock Chimes, many musicians have used our chimes in performance and on recordings.

We made several custom sets of windchimes for the jazz great Pat Metheny to accompany his specially tuned guitar. To open concerts on a tour, the musicians in his band would walk in from the back of the auditorium carrying these windchimes which accompanied Pat on stage, playing his harmonically related guitar.  

Jim Henson and John Denver gave Woodstock Chimes as gifts for many years. I assume that musicians received them and made good use of them. 

Peter Schickele (aka PDQ Bach) wrote a percussion sonata that included Woodstock Chimes which the Woodstock Chimes Fund commissioned and NEXUS recorded. 

One of the most revered Japanese composers, Toru Takemitsu, wrote a concerto for NEXUS Percussion which was premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1989 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and toured the world for many years. Toru requested that I make sets of Woodstock Chimes (totaling100 tubes) to be suspended over the audience and played by the soloists on stage during the cadenza. They were activated by pulling long ribbons attached to the chime sets. 

Each year, the Paul Winter Consort presents their annual winter solstice concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Devine in New York City. It features a huge spiral tree sculpture from which many Woodstock Chimes hang and are played during the concert.

I have concluded that music is whatever you personally think it is. I know that Woodstock Chimes are musical instruments because they are made of the quality of fine musical instruments and used by many great musicians. It also gives me much pleasure to think of the millions of wind-powered Woodstock Chimes performing in homes and in the great outdoors around the world. Thanks for listening!

An interesting English documentary addressing some of these thoughts. Includes members of NEXUS performing with Steve Reich.

French musicians playing an excerpt from Bizet’s Carman on instruments you wouldn’t normally think of as instruments.

One of two large sets of Woodstock Chimes suspended over the audience in Disney Hall for the Takemitsu Concerto with NEXUS and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

One of two large sets of Woodstock Chimes suspended over the audience in Disney Hall for the Takemitsu Concerto with NEXUS and the Los Angeles Philharmonic

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