My love of instrumental music started as a very young boy in kindergarten when I was rummaging through my father’s record collection and found a recording of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. This symphony is called ‘The Pastoral’ because it is a musical depiction of different scenes in nature. Beethoven, it seems, loved nature and took long walks for his inspiration. Anyway, I flipped over this piece as I also shared a deep love of nature. Later I would take weeklong hikes on the Appalachian Trail with my friend Dave during spring breaks in music school.
Through grade school, though, I had a friend next door named Billy and we were very competitive; if he liked Chevys, I liked Fords and so on. He liked the Beatles, so I stayed with Beethoven.
In music school, though, things changed. One enchanted evening, while in a bit of an altered state, I wandered into a dorm room and someone was playing the White Album. I immediately had an epiphany and understood the Beatles and their lyrics from that time on. This opened the door to my finding more similarities than differences in diverse musical genre and an idea to create a music that was a fusion of classical and pop.
My friend Dave and I, whom I took week-long hikes on the Appalachian Trail with, discovered we could like music from practically any genre, and did. Attending a music conservatory that was strictly classical but living in the present age put us in an optimal position to expand our listening tastes to the maximum.
The music school we went to was the Peabody Conservatory of Music, but it shared its dorms with students from the Maryland Institute of The Arts, who tended to be much more on the progressive side than the average Peabody student. The music school students tended to be from conservative backgrounds and most never considered listening to anything but classical music. Needless to say, we hung out with the art students a bit more than the music students.
After awhile, we began an extra-curricular activity of our own design; it was called Music Appreciation. This took place in Dave’s dorm room and was open for whoever wanted to attend. Everyone brought recordings of their favorite music and there were no restrictions as to genre or anything like that. Everything was played and everyone listened in relative silence, without any critical comments.
Naturally, everyone had their own opinions about what they liked and didn’t like but we were not there to have a debate on what was good music. The purpose was discovering something that you hadn’t heard before and, most of the time, we came away with new music that we liked.
As I said, I had an idea at this time of creating a type of music that was a fusion of classical and pop music. When I heard the arrangements that Phil Spector had done on the Beatles album ‘Let It Be,’ I became really excited about instrumental music and songs that had a really large pallet of musical sounds, ranging from acoustic to electric.
I decided to change my minor to Composition. The only composition teacher that would take me at that time was a devout follower of Arnold Schoenberg, who was one of the Avante-Garde composers of the day. This Avant-Garde music was considered the logical evolution of the classical music by all the pedagogy at that time. To make a long story short, they were mostly trying to bypass tonality by using highly formalized approaches.
This was music that needed to be qualified; if you didn’t like it, it was because ‘you didn’t understand it.’ Well, I understood it and I understood myself and I knew I didn’t like it. It didn’t stand up to me criteria of ‘would I listen to this every day, like I do with music I like?’ My apartment in Baltimore was called ‘Tunelandia,’ because that’s what we did; we listened to tunes.
Did I feel about this music, the same way I feel about breathing, in other words? Listening to Beethoven has always been like breathing to me and, since I understood this composer from the first notes I ever heard, at the age of five, I’ve always had it fixed in my mind that you don’t have to have music explained to you first before you can like it.
The main problem I had with this composition teacher was that he wouldn’t allow me the freedom to explore the sounds that I wanted to but had a fixed agenda that he wanted to shape me as a composer with. At one point he even said ‘Let’s get away from these sounds,’ meaning the sounds I was working with. So we had a conflict of ideologies; a failure to communicate musically and don’t suppose for a moment that any genre of music doesn’t have political ideologies behind it.
I quickly became so frustrated and unhappy over the course of my composition studies that, mid-semester, I informed him that I wouldn’t be writing any more pieces and he could give me whatever grade he wanted. He gave me a C+.
I didn’t stop composing, however, but went underground with it and finished my studies at the Peabody with a performance major, as I had started.
In an effort to salvage my music career, I did some graduate work at Cal State Fullerton and this proved to be much more fruitful; I met a violin teacher who was able to change my whole approach for the better and I was playing professionally in short order.
I also started hanging around the composition department, playing in the workshops and such, and I was impressed by how diverse the compositional styles were. I spoke with the prof, and he said that he didn’t try to change what the students were doing but just help them do it better.
While there, I joined a group called D.O.M.E.S. This was an acronym for some non-sensical and pseudo-intellectual title, which I forget, but it was a group modeled after a group the composition teacher ran; a group of composers that played an eclectic assortment of electric and acoustic instruments. These were minimalist groups that followed the practice and politics of minimalism.
Our group had its share of drama, as you can imagine, being manned with all composers but it was a good platform for everyone to expand and experiment. We played regular gigs and recorded; our highlight being the opening band for Hunter S, Thompson at the Coach House in San Clemente.
One of our regular gigs was at a club in Long Beach called ‘System M.’ They didn’t really have room for such a large group so they would put all twelve of us on the roof of the kitchen. It was rather precarious with all of us up there and all of the amps and keyboards and such. Usually, a vicious argument would break out between a couple of the founding members of the group, during sound checks and the manager of the club would look at us, wondering if there would be a show that night.
Before I ever wrote anything for the group, I spent some time observing what was going on and I noticed what I considered as two bad flaws. The first was that the existing composers would simply double existing parts whenever a new instrument was added because they were too lazy to rework their compositions for the new arrangement. This created something of a wall of sound coming at the listener since everything was amplified and so many instruments were just playing the same parts.
The other thing was since everyone was amplified, there was kind of a one-upmanship going on to be heard which continually drove the volume up. This was especially rough on the singers who could not be heard and, hence, we could never keep our vocalists long. The other problem with the wall of sound effect was it tended to make a monotonous genre even more so and the audiences would tend to talk through the performances.
When I finally got around to composing a work for the group, I took the trouble to give each instrument its own part and made sure everyone wasn’t playing all at once, all at the same time. The result was that, when we premiered my piece, all talking in the audience immediately stopped.
There I learned that all you have to do to draw an audience in is to suddenly change the volume or texture of the music.
The founding member was quite affronted by the attention my piece got and that was the end of D.O.M.E.S.
D.O.M.E.S. served it’s purpose, however, for me and a number of others in the group, I think. It provided a catalyst and direction, even if the direction was figured from where one didn’t want to go. For me, minimalism wasn’t it, but I had a larger cognition as well; I had read the ‘Minimalist Manifesto,’ and it said some things that I agreed with and had actually held true for some time.
One thing it said was that there was not an evolution to an ultimate musical form, something the Avante-Garde school held up as true. It was as if writing in the latest musical evolutionary form would make or break you as a composer.
Now this was interesting; that the minimalist school would point out the falsehood of such an idea and yet there were all these minimalists around at the time. It brings to mind the movie ‘The Life of Brian,’ when he’s trying to get all his followers to think for themselves.
I realized, too, that there is a basic problem with this whole labeling of genres in music. This is something that is done in this age to market music but, for older music, it was all done in hindsight; it wasn’t like composers woke up, on the morning of 1750 and said “Oh! Baroque Period is over! Time to start writing Classical Music. Better follow the new rules!” There were no new rules to follow.
This always amazed me in theory class in music school where they would grind into you what the ‘rules’ were to writing a sonata and then the first Mozart sonata you looked at seemed to be making a mockery of these rules. This was because the rules were always created later by pedagogy.
So what rules did a composer such as Beethoven use to write music? Well, I believe the first rule was ‘music the way Beethoven liked to hear it.’ He was his best and, at the same time, most critical audience; he was not going to stop working on something until he was fairly delighted by it.
Also, creativity was a game to him. He didn’t want to think out of the box as much as he wanted to turn the box into an amazing geometric shape.
After D.O.M.E.S., I had more of an idea of the direction I wanted to go and I started my own group called The Jabberwocky. I was still playing in quite a number of other groups as well, from symphony orchestras to string quartets and blues groups. I still had not learned to become my own audience, however, and so my efforts were still quite cerebral.
There were two other events that were quite formative in my musical life. One was attending a lecture by the great author Ray Bradbury. He knew that his audience was mostly young, aspiring writers and delivered a speech that was informative and inspirational for them.
One thing he said was that, if you want to be a writer, you should read and read and then it will just start to come out. I understood what he meant, which was, a writer or any artist such as a composer, should not isolate himself in some ivory tower in the hopes of coming up with something original. All great composers, such as Beethoven had their own favorite composers that they listened to. This was their influence. For Beethoven, it was people like Handle and Mozart, and you can hear these composers in Beethoven but, what comes out, is Beethoven with these other influences in the mix.
The other event was when a friend and I went to a New Age sort of festival and spent the time getting readings from tea leaf readers. One, white-haired lady told me she saw me as if cooking, mixing a little of this and a little of that.
Well, I thought this was the worst reading I had ever gotten but I was polite and didn’t say so. It made no sense to me, at the time, since I didn’t cook and why would she be telling me about something mundane as cooking?
Well, she was talking about fusion composing, many years before I started doing it.