1. You have a huge compositional range – scoring for theatre, film, dance, concert and more. Did you start out in one genre, or were you always looking for collaborations?
2. You moved to NYC in the mid-80s. Could you describe the new music scene then? What elements have changed or stayed the same?
3. Your collaborations include working with theatrical giants such as Robert Wilson and The Living Theatre to creating music installations at The Louvre. How did they shape or influence your creative work?
4. You’ve taken three trips to Bali to study gamelan. When did you take these trips, and how have they influenced your work?
5. In light of your impressive compositional range, do you have a singular approach when it comes to deciding upon a composition or project? Or are there many factors that come into play?
6. We’re curious as to how you came to work with John Cage’s production team? And produce your first recordings in Philip Glass’ studios?
7. You created International Strange Music Day, a real holiday that’s celebrated on August 24. Could you describe how you conceived of this musical holiday and its activities?
8. You’ve been an active performer, curator and producer of many NYC events for almost thirty years, what are some of your favorite spots from over the years?
9. As an active and multi-talented artist, what keeps you motivated and fresh? What are some future project ideas?
10. Could you describe your plans for your Con Edison Musicians’ Residency at Turtle Bay Music School?
1. You have a huge compositional range – scoring for theatre, film, dance, concert and more. Did you start out in one genre, or were you always looking for collaborations?
The one thing that I can say with some certainty is that it is only through acts of collaboration that we can be assured of our continual growth.
I think I have been looking for collaborators ever since the first music I ever listened to, that really grabbed me, as a child. These were TV show themes and musicals like The Threepenny Opera that were played on our home stereo. There was always a visual element involved, something that was larger than the music itself. Being from Detroit and growing up there, I was exposed to a wide range of musical traditions that was an amalgam of genres coming from both sides of the Detroit River and that means Canada and its indirect influence from the BBC. Besides Motown, I had a strong influence of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams coming from my dad. The late 1960s saw a number of artists come out of my city like the Stooges, the MC5, Patti Smith, there was the birth of Techno, Madonna, and after I left, Kid Rock and Eminem. This was in my periphery; this was in my everyday ambience.
What really got me going at age 11 was the soundtrack to the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange. That was the first LP I ever bought. My family all played some kind of instrument but not necessarily classically and this was the album that opened that door for me. Not only did it make me want to begin to take my piano and violin lessons much more seriously, but it also exposed me to electronic music and a new world of timbres. Remember, the synthesizer was still very controversial at this time. There was still this huge fear that machines were going to replace people when it came to the creation of music. Maybe it had something to do with Detroit and proto-Techno, but I never thought for a second that there was anything wrong with using machines to make music.
I was lucky that one of my friend’s parents was a music teacher in our school system and we had early access to some of the monophonic synthesizers that were around in the mid-70s. At that point that was all that I was interested in, writing classical style of music with the possibility of electronics. I say possibility because it would still be many years before I could actually own one myself. In the meantime, I satisfied myself by writing classical music for my school orchestra and local church while beginning to learn guitar with groups of buddies. We mostly taught each other to play Rock & Roll, the Blues, and songs by the Beatles and Stones. By myself I would apply what I was learning on the violin to that instrument also.
I should say that I won a prize at age 14 for writing an Easter cantata. There were even a few attempts at a Rock Opera with a friend. It did not go anywhere. Whether it was Bach or the Who, anything that had a narrative created visuals in my mind, something that could be staged, something that could be screened. Even before I was interested in music, I was always considered advanced in the visual arts when I was grade school. These creative impulses must have become intertwined at some point and they remain so today. I have always been much more of a composer than a songwriter, per se, in that I love the structures and forms inherent in all music, sometimes more than the actual pitch content itself. I actively sought out collaborators and do so to this day but in the early stages it was more intuitive. I was trying to see how many different forms I could work within, especially so when I moved to New York City.
At that point, at age 22, I was pretty much split down the center creatively. One half of me was coming to the Juilliard School to continue my classical studies in composition and the other half of me was this spiky-haired, bottle-blonde kid, loaded with synthesizers, a veteran of the Post-Punk and New Wave scene. It would take New York City and the mentors and collaborators that I would meet that would guide me, that would show me, how it would be possible to unite these two sides of my creative self.
Listen to “Walk Thru Walls – Detroit 1984”
You moved to NYC in the mid-80s. Could you describe the new music scene then? What elements have changed or stayed the same?
I will admit that when I first moved here I did not have a clue. When I was in high school my family was going through some personal problems so I wasn’t prepared, financially or academically, for college like many of my peers had been. Even though I was accepted into the Wayne State University composition program at age 16, neither parent nor stepparent was willing to pay for it. After high school, I did go to Wayne State and stayed at the dormitory there but that was about it. No money for books or food and whatever money I did get from my grandmother for books I spent on a cheap Les Paul copy so I could play in bands. However, I did go to music classes and sing in the Men’s Glee Club during the day. By night, I played for chump change in various Punk and New Wave bands along the infamous Cass Corridor.
I tired of this after two years and moved back home to work at the family business, model and pattern makers from my mother’s side, to raise the money to move out of New York. During this time a coworker won a rather large sum of money in the Michigan lottery and gave me $1,000 to buy synthesizers and other state of the art instruments. This was a boon for my work and it enabled me to play in better bands, develop as a writer, and eventually, after exhausting all possibilities in Detroit, I moved to New York City.
The last band I was in when I was in Detroit had some members who were Newish-Wave Hare Krishnas. That was actually sort of in style at the time via other bands like the Eurythmics and Culture Club. They were good and I just wanted to play, have an audience. I moved out here with them since a few had New York City connections. My first job here was selling bonsai at a nursery on Long Island. I still played in that band but, after a couple of months, it fell apart. I longed to resume my classical studies now that I was finally here on the East Coast. That was still a couple of years off.
My next job was driving a radio car for a corrupt, cocaine-crazed organization based in Queens. The only good thing that came out of that was that I learned the geography of the Tri-State area very quickly and that I met some East Village artists who worked as temps. I would drive them home at night from the law firms and financial institutions that we had accounts with. One of these people saw all of my music manuscripts scattered all over the front-seat of the vehicle and they figured out very quickly how badly I must have wanted to be somewhere else.
Through them, I was introduced to a number of East Village writers, artists, and fledgling theater companies. I found out that to be a composer in their midst was a very good thing. The car driving gig brought about a period of financial ruin and dislocation, so, having nothing to lose, I immediately jumped in and started creating and performing theater scores and producing my first concerts. I could not have been happier. It was the first time I felt that both sides of my musical personality were beginning to merge. Still, one needed a real job to survive. One of these friends recommended me to the American Composers Alliance on the Upper West side. ACA was using an antiquated score reproduction system and needed people to work in their print shop. The skills that I learned there, within a year, got me a job in a similar department at the classical music publisher C.F. Peters. At the time, I really felt like I had achieved something by getting in there. I was hoping this would fill the financial hole needed to resume in finish my academic studies at Juilliard. However, the universe didn’t see it that way. Well, not exactly.
In the mid-1980s the classical music world in New York City was sharply divided. It sounds funny now but there was a lot of resentment on both sides of the total/atonal schism. John Adams’ Nixon in China had just premiered at the BAM Next Wave Festival and I remember many of the musicians at work denigrating it because its rhythms and harmonies were clear and clean. We even published some of the works of Lou Harrison and John Cage and even these works were getting short shrift from the management in deference to those of Brian Ferneyhough et al. I myself liked everything but not everybody is like that. The only thing that saved me through this time was the proximity that I had to the works and writings of Cage. Here I discovered his book Silence. Looking back on it now, it was a premonition of sorts that that book is dedicated to the Living Theatre, the only place that was willing to produce and premiere Cage’s works in the New York of the 1950s.
Meanwhile, I had applied to the Juilliard School and got accepted. Because of my work schedule and since I was handling my own financials, I could only afford classes in the Extension Division. I did this for a year. The next year I got accepted in the school proper. I arranged my schedule so I had two early classes and two late afternoon classes a week. It made me late for work constantly but I kept it a secret. The double-life was wearing me down.
Eventually I became manager of the orchestral rental apartment for a short time. I had tried to work out a situation where I’d be able to leave earlier in the afternoon as long as my work was done, so I could attend more classes at Juilliard. Other workers seemed to have similar situations. I naïvely thought that management would have seen this as an asset to the company, to have me better musically educated but that situation was declined. I became extremely resentful and the quality of my work went down. Performing and partying was much more important to this 20 something than anything else at that point. Eventually my employment was terminated, and looking back, rightfully so. It was time to find another situation. Yes, school was put on permanent hiatus too.
I spent the next eight months squandering my talents working for late-night local cable TV most notably on a show called Interludes After Midnight. This was a nude talk that showed a lot of soft porn commercials for escort agencies. I not only created many of the soundtracks for these spots but ended up writing and creating a number of them for 976 telephone lines. For those of you who do not remember, this was how erotic content was delivered to the consumer before the advent of the Internet. It was sort of depressing but what a time it was. After hours, much time was spent performing live music on keyboards for racy performance art, what was called at the time, smut-fests, at various artsy burlesque houses in downtown Manhattan. This was in 1990. This was the first revival of the neo-burlesque movement that has come back and seems to be sweeping the city again. Needless to say, whatever hijinks I had to get out of my system, happened during this time. That done, I was intellectually starving. I desperately needed to get back into serious artistic work.
Just when this had run its course, I received a call from a theater. I was told that the Living Theatre was in need of a composer since their current composer was moving to the West Coast. I was a little nervous about this because the Living Theatre, in reality, had quite a reputation, many reputations in fact, depending on which decade of their existence you are looking at. My familiarity with them, and my primary interest, was in their history of working with great composers. I knew this from reading Silence. LT co-founder Julian Beck had died five years before and now his partner Judith Malina was rebooting the LT on E. 3rd St.
I showed up for a rehearsal on the first day of April (no fooling) to see a run-through. I had a lot of questions and I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this. I did like the idea that the theater had a structure and a history that I could plug into. So, after the run through I turned to Judith and I said, “I have a lot to think about, maybe I could come back again?” She immediately spun around to the company to extol, “He’s coming back! We have a composer!” That moment pretty much determined what I was doing for the next four years after being in NYC for almost five. My 90s had begun.
Your collaborations include working with theatrical giants such as Robert Wilson, Gerald Thomas, The Living Theatre to creating music installations at The Louvre. How did they shape or influence your creative work?
It all started with the time I spent with the Living Theatre. It was such an education to work with Judith Malina! I spoke of how, when I first moved to New York City, I was working with a number of avant-garde theater companies. They idolized the LT’s work and their place in history. But this now, was the real deal. When I joined the LT they had just reestablished themselves in New York City. The company at that time consisted of actors from all of the decades of its previous 40 years. I think that’s what I liked about working in these theater companies most, and it is something that I see lacking today not only in theater, but in the music scene as well. That is, that these are self-created groups that consist of men and women of all different ages and stages in their careers. It’s a rare thing these days. Now it seems like the newer groups just stick within their graduating class. That’s just my opinion, just my observation.
What I remember most from these days was the ultimate sense of trust that was given to me as the company’s composer and music director. I liked being in the position to represent music within theatre, an art form that included so many other disciplines. We also had the added benefit of having an actual space of our own. Beyond any actual production that we are working on, those of us who hung out were able to use this space to put on concerts, poetry nights, and dance nights. I would even say that some of these self-produced side-productions even rivaled the main company’s productions when it came to audience and reviews. For all the things the Living Theatre was, and was not, it did give me a certain credibility and visibility within my field.
Then there were the tours all over Europe. We were performing in four or five countries for three months at a time. That taught me the most in terms of how my music communicated. I enjoyed seeing how, for instance, one piece or section of a score would be a hit, in Italy for example, and then that same section could be a disaster in Berlin, or vice versa. Ultimately, I started seeing how certain sections of the music seemed to resonate with all the cultures, certain sections that spoke universally to the public. This was something that I really took with me and still use to this day.
Still, the experience was not easy. Many of us were young and a lot of mistakes were made, creatively and socially. While the company seemed to thrive in its tours, when we returned, still had a hard time in New York and still does. In between tours I was actually living in the theater itself, sleeping on a mattress on the stage. I did have one part-time job within the music field that kept me going, but not enough to establish a real base yet. The music however, did hit some very high points despite all of the limitations. It was hard for me to do so well in these other countries while so little of my work was taking root here in NYC. That was frustrating. Eventually, I hit a point where I felt that I had done as much as I could and, having just turned 30, it was time to move on again so I could continue to grow.
Next was my gamelan phase but to continue this story of theater, I’ll have to jump back and then forward a little bit.
While all this was going on in the LT, I had been paying attention to what was going on in other theater companies, especially that work of Robert Wilson. The very autumn that I moved here I saw an hour-long documentary on PBS about the 1984 revival of Einstein on the Beach. That hit me like a ton of bricks. I have been a fan of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and the minimalists since I was a teenager. When I was 14, I got Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as a birthday gift. That was pivotal in the directions I took. Robert Wilson was new to me and it was through his work that I saw how modern music and the visual realm could successfully combine in an art form that meant something in our time. That had a lot to do with me deciding to work with avant-garde theater as soon as I had the chance.
Still, it wasn’t until 2002 that I actually had the opportunity to work with Wilson or rather, Bob. I’d met one of his board members at a social event and he told me that he worked for the Byrd Hoffman Watermill Foundation. He said that I should apply to work with Bob at his Watermill Center. To my surprise I was accepted and went out to work with him on Long Island for almost two months.
This was a whole new ballgame. The level of talent around was so high. Then again, some of the people were rather nasty so I had to fight very hard stay afloat. We worked on a number of projects, all in their beginning stages, but the real big deal that summer was to create the musical score for a spectacle that was to be the centerpiece of the 2002 Watermill Benefit. Talk about an “A-list” crowd. Under Bob’s direction the Russian artist Andrey Bartenev created and designed a scenario and I supplied the music. It was very abstract but it did have a good narrative and I think that, through the solid storyboarding skills that we learned there, it worked pretty well. It was called the Ladder of Red and had a text by Christopher Knowles.
I also had to supply music for the grounds (there were speakers everywhere) and music for what best could be described as a constructivist fashion show. I think one of the reasons why I got to work with Bob was my background with the Living Theatre. He admired them when he was coming up. One should consider how much the set design for the Living Theatre’s 1968 piece Frankenstein, which Bob and Phil Glass saw at its premiere at the Avignon Festival, influenced the look and feel of the Spaceship in Einstein. Google it, you’ll see what I mean.
Then I created a gamelan score for an art installation that Bob designed with a photographer for Miami that autumn, Sacred Sister. Returning to Watermill the next summer, I created an hour-long percussion score Music for the Knee Space for another central performance designed by the Cuban born artist Tanya Bruguera called Dated Flesh.
It is said that the best thing about working with Bob is not necessarily Bob himself, but in all of the other artists and potential collaborators you meet while you are there at Watermill. This held very true for me. Many projects ranging from concerts, commissions, dance, and film, were a direct result of the connections I made there and continue to cultivate.
The same applies to the work I did in France. One of their government’s culture directors that I was introduced to like my worked so I was commissioned to write music for an installation that was displayed at the Louvre. This was for the then-to-be-built musee du quai Branly. They also used some of my music for a couple of TV spots. Since the new museum was meant to concentrate on World Art, they wanted music that related to my experiences in Bali.
Directly after that in 2004 I got to meet Gerald Thomas, or shall I say, meet him again. I actually met him in 1997 at a party in the Dakota. I was just finishing my recording project at Philip Glass’s Looking Glass Studios. When he heard that he said, “Oh my God, I’m one of Phil’s best friends. We’ve worked together many times!” Gerald gave me his number and told me to call him so he could put in a good word to Phil for me. I tried calling him over the following days but, every time I called his girlfriend answered and said he was in the shower and couldn’t come to the phone. This went on for a while and I realized that he was blowing me off so I let it go. After all, I was just a guy he met at a party. So now the joke is, when I saw him after the 2004 show he created at LaMaMa, the first thing I had to say to him was, “Wow, that must’ve been a hell of a shower!” We laughed. That was the real beginning of our friendship.
Gerald’s background is rooted in Britain, Brazil, in New York City. No one can really say to this day which of these cities he is actually from but he lives in all three to varying degrees. He was an illustrator for the New York Times Op Ed page and then in the early 1980s decided to take his visions to the stage. His first productions were done at Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa theater. He credits her with being the person who launched his directorial career. Many of these early productions were drawn from the works of Samuel Beckett with whom Gerald worked. Many of these pieces had music by Philip Glass. Gerald’s career grew when he began writing his own pieces.
He moved down to Brazil and started his own company there, The Dry Opera Co. He became a huge success in Brazil and toured his pieces all over the world. Gerald has a very good ear for music in his productions and that’s what initially interested me about his work. Though I could not speak Portuguese, and still can’t really, it was his combination of visuals and music that drew me in and made me feel that this was something worth investigating. Most of my work for him has been done long distance, contributing tracks and such, but one of the pieces we did together in Rio de Janeiro, Bait Man from 2008, still continues to tour throughout South America and Europe.
Gerald also introduced me to other artists and theater companies in Brazil with whom I have worked. So you see, these experiences in abroad are sometimes a matter of me not fully understanding the language very well. I had to use other talents to get through. One of these Brazilian directors, Ruy Filho, could not even speak English himself and we were supposed to work together! We both agreed (through a translator) that we would have to communicate through the common language of theater, sound and movement. Maybe we got lucky but it worked. In the meantime, I am looking forward to future collaborations that I have coming up with Gerald. I’ll be scoring a number of Beckett pieces he’ll be directing in Dublin and an original piece, Entredentes, in Brazil in 2013.
I would say that the reason that I like theater so much is that it is the only art form that can contain everything that I’m interested in, including film.
You’ve taken three trips to Bali to study gamelan. When did you take these trips, and how have they influenced your work?
The first time I remember consciously hearing gamelan music was in a travel documentary that aired on PBS. I did not know what it was but I did know that it came from the island of Bali. I put a lot of value into these first impressions we get when we hear something new that we have no frame of reference for. They tell us a lot about how we hear and how we listen. I was immediately taken with the sheer brilliance of it. Much of that had to do with the speed at which it was played. I was also taken by the fact that it seemed to be made up of contrapuntal layers and, for somebody that grew up playing Bach, that’s what made it doubly interesting. It wasn’t until some years later in 1986 when Wendy Carlos released her album Beauty in the Beast that I came back to it. These were meticulously synthesized versions of the real thing but one of the aspects of that album was the emphasizing of the gamelan’s non-Western tuning, the Indonesian scales of slendro and pelog.
Just about that time, synthesizers were becoming programmable to play in tunings other than Equal Temperament, so that gave me new avenues to explore. That same year I began working at the American Composers Alliance. They shared office space with the now defunct Composers Recordings Inc. They had a stock room full of all different kinds of cassette tapes of 20th century music. Here I was able to discover the music of Lou Harrison. He had not only written for gamelan, but had an American version of those instruments built. I thought that was cool.
I should pause here for a second for those readers who do not know exactly what a gamelan is. Originating in Indonesia, it is a series of metallophones, with bronze keys suspended and arranged over wooden frames like that of a xylophone. Gamelan in Indonesian means orchestra or it can refer to the group of players playing it, up to 40 people. The full ensemble includes tuned gongs and percussion with some variation between regions. Each metallophone, ranging from highest to lowest, each covers a little more than an octave in one of its two pentatonic scales (I could go on this description but I will leave that here for now since it is so easily searchable). The gamelan tradition originated some centuries ago in the royal courts of Java and spread eventually southward to the island of Bali. The music played on these old Javanese instruments could be considered the culture’s classical repertoire.
However, in the 1920s, the musicians of Bali melted down these Japanese gamelans and recast them into new instruments built for speed that were more akin to expressing life on their island. They created a new style of music and performing, kebyar, that is truly a 20th century music. This new style was heavily syncopated and a far cry from the stately music of the Javanese court. The Javanese looked down upon the Balinese style much in the same way that Western classical musicians looked down on jazz when it came into its own, interestingly, in approximately the same decade. Harrison’s music favored the Javanese tradition and therefore did not retain my interest as much as the Balinese style, beautiful though it may be. When I was at Juilliard I had time to go to the library and was able to explore the book Music in Bali by the Canadian-born composer Colin McPhee who documented his experience there in the 30s. Those were the first transcriptions of the music I, or anybody, had ever seen. The last time I checked, that book is still out of print.
Just after I finished my work with the Living Theatre, I spent almost 5 weeks in Bali between December 1993 and January of 1994. That was my first trip. I have never been a very good tourist and was never the biggest fan of the beach so, while I was there, I immediately sought out musical activities. As it happened, I met an American living there who pointed me in the direction of a musician who was the son of the man who taught McPhee Balinese music many decades before. His name was I Wayan Lantir, son of Grindem.
I had lessons with Lantir every morning. This included initial lessons on the bamboo frame instrument the tingklik. I moved on to explore all the instruments of the gamelan. He thought it was funny how I would spend so much of my lesson transcribing what I was learning into my manuscript book. That is not their style of learning at all. For me, the patterns and the rhythms were so intricate, I really needed to have something visual as well as audible to help me retain what he was throwing at me daily. Plus, it was something concrete to bring back. When I returned after this first visit, a friend introduced me to the NYC new music gamelan, Gamelan Son of Lion. My first pieces for gamelan were written for them.
I returned to Bali for another five weeks in 1995 and learned a number of new techniques, especially in the art of kotekan, a Balinese style of hocketing between two instruments. Roughly, it’s a monophonic way of suggesting polyphony by breaking up a single melody between two (sometimes more) instruments. Through the NYC folks, upon my return, I found myself performing in a gamelan at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the Mark Morris Dance Group to a score by Lou Harrison.
Much of my music in the mid-90s was influenced by these experiences and, not having a gamelan of my own, I started expanding electronically. This was the time in which I was combining Son of Lion’s gamelan instruments with electronic keyboards that had altered the tunings of slendro and pelog, but most often a combination of both.
Just when that phase was beginning to run its course, I had an opportunity to go to Bali a third time. We had a friend that was getting married in Palau, Micronesia in the summer of 2001 and he asked me if I could find a Balinese gamelan that he could fly in for the weeklong ceremony. Of course! Not only was I able to find a gamelan perfectly suited for this event, but I also had plenty of time to work with them hands-on and to write some music for the ceremony.
After the wedding, I continued on to Bali to stay there for almost a month. I continued my work with Lantir and to work with this other gamelan I brought to Palau. Oh boy, what a problem! As is often the case in Bali, gamelans from different villages can have deep-seated rivalries, much like football leagues in the UK. I would spend the morning with my original teacher and then have to sneak off to the neighboring village to rehearse with the newer gamelan. It was the only way to do it.
One of the best things that came out of this trip was that I had sufficient time to digitally record the gamelan instruments note for note. When I returned home, I was able to use these samples to create my own virtual gamelan on my Kurzweil. The authenticity of these virtual instruments often fooled many an informed ear though that was never my intention. The real story is more interesting.
This whole gamelan phase of my output reached a head during the years 2002 and 2003 when, through an introduction by my electronic music mentor David Borden, I became Composer-in-Residence at Cornell University’s Ethnomusicology Dept. I used this opportunity to complete a piece I had been working on for a for a while. This was a ballet called The Philosopher’s Stone based upon a scenario by the French surrealist Antonin Artaud (La Pierre Philosophale, 1931). He too was fascinated by the Balinese arts and had written many essays on the subject. As a theorist on the future of theater, his writings were incredibly influential to the formation of the Living Theater.
Take into account that many pieces by Lou Harrison were premiered at the LT in the 1950s, and you see how I was able to pull together so much of what I have been talking about into one neat meeting point with this piece. The piece is scored for gamelan, strings, and synthesizers. I have yet to get a good recording of the piece but, I always felt that when the time was right, I will come back to it. (In my current music, if one listens closely, one will always hear the results of these Balinese experiences).
In light of your impressive compositional range, do you have a singular approach when it comes to deciding upon a composition or project? Or are there many factors that come into play?
I imagine that every artist finds inspiration in a number of ways. Over the course of one’s life what provides inspiration can radically change. There was a time when I was younger, a student still learning things, I was just happy to write music for the four walls around me. This changes when one feels that the music is not complete until it has a performance or somehow gets to the public. That is another of the reasons why I have sought collaborators from other fields, it would provide a framework and a clear target for any work that was undertaken.
I was amazed when, in close proximity to great artists, how much time they spent organizing performances and other doing administrative work as opposed to the craft they’re known for. By my reckoning, they spent two-thirds to three-quarters of their time on that just so, when they could do their work, everything was in place and they could focus solely on that. This is even more necessary when the work involves people other than oneself.
Lately I’ve come to realize, when looking back over my work, that the pieces of mine that worked best were ones that involved ceremony of some sort. Whether it was the cantatas of J.S. Bach, the Balinese gamelan, avant-garde theater, or the ritual of the rock ‘n roll stage, I began to see these in terms of ceremony. This means that there is an extra-musical element involved. This factor has manifested itself in my work in a variety of ways.
One who is familiar with my work will notice that beyond the music I like to incorporate a strong visual element whether in the staging, an eye-catching logo, or in the very title of the piece. When one or more of these elements falls into place, I feel that the piece is now existing in a universe all its own, a separate world with rules of logic unto itself. Now, it feels as if it were a place that I could actually go to, an actual physical entity that is tangible in every sense, a unique geography. Then I feel very comfortable and it’s as if the piece is writing itself. It takes a lot of work and preparation to get there. I tell myself, “There is always something to do,” so even when I’m hung-up on a piece, I’ll spend a lot of time preparing for the moment when actual inspiration arrives.
For example, let’s say I know a particular piece has to be some set duration because of the framework it has to set within, a condition of a commission, or that it’s a section within a larger work. I could determine the tempo of the section and draw charts showing the number of measures necessary to reach that target. I will then determine sub-sections within that structure and might even start assigning patterns of time signatures, possible tonalities, or harmonic planes. I can keep going like this until the piece is almost finished except for the actual notes themselves. That comes from having created some film scores.
It can also work the other way around too. I can spend a lot of time finding just the right combination of notes, the right musical DNA, the right seed from which the piece can organically grow. As in nature, there are good seeds and there are bad seeds and I won’t know what kind they are until I let them sprout a little. With each discarded seed I get a better idea of what I’m looking for before I actually find it. When I do, then again, it is as if the piece writes itself. I just have to shape it as it grows. I guess that experience at a bonsai tree nursery paid off after all!
Then there are those moments, rarely happening without the necessary preparatory work, that simply happen spontaneously. Those are good times. I wish I knew better how that worked. The best I can do is to be ready.
We’re curious as to how you came to work with John Cage’s production team? And produce your first recordings in Philip Glass’ studios?
I spent the summer of 1990 on a European tour with the Living Theatre. When I returned to New York early that fall I was without a job and had to find something to float my boat until we began a new piece. I forgot how it came about, but I believe I contacted Paul Sadowski, one of the very first people in the industry who commercially engraved music for the publishing houses here. He ran a shop close to Cage’s loft and was his personal engraver. He also provided the same services for Boosey & Hawkes, especially for their publications of Leonard Bernstein and Steve Reich. I had met him a few years earlier when I was working at C.F. Peters. He hired me because I had the necessary skills in printing and binding. Plus, as a musician, I was also able to proofread.
My major disadvantage was I was not into computers at that point. I simply did not own one. All of my tech was wrapped up in synthesizers, sequencers, and analog recording. I did have the advantage of knowing all of John Cage’s work since I had studied it intently while working at Peters.
The John Cage pieces they were working on then were his time bracket pieces. This work would involve picking up MS-DOS printouts of numbers and arrays and transforming them into musical notation that could be read by traditionally trained musicians. Also, Leonard Bernstein had just died. We were working with his estate to finalize the many versions of West Side Story and Candide. Working on those scores was a Masters Course in orchestration. The pieces by Steve Reich were all photocopies of handwritten works. Those presented their own problems to solve since many of them were written in a form of shorthand known only to him and his ensemble.
The best part of this job was that it was seasonal, that is, we had busy months and we had extremely slow months. This enabled me to come and go over the next couple of years since I would be going in and out of the country on tours with the LT.
Ultimately though, these two lifestyles came into conflict. Not everybody can grow as an artist while working for another. I may have had an easier time if my day job was not related to music at all. Then again, I would not have had the great opportunity to work so closely with these composers and learn so much from their work. The grass is always greener and all that.
Cage’s death in 1992 came as a shock to everybody. Though I was to work for Sadowski another year, one could sense that things were winding down. This had to do a lot with the fact that the mysteries of computer engraving were no longer so mysterious. Computers and music software were becoming increasingly affordable and many composers were finding it far more cost-effective to do it themselves in-house. I myself would be joining those growing ranks fairly shortly.
Jumping ahead a few years to January 1997, I had just given the first concert dedicated solely to my music with my own ensemble. I had written a number of acoustic works that were the result of my study of the gamelan in Bali. Everything was scored for woodwinds, strings, three pianos, with percussion, including some gongs. I used the recordings of this performance to raise funds for that first CD, funds were augmented by a loan. Having that together, I started looking around for a studio crew.
The engineer that I found, Gary Rindfuss, recommended a number of studios that were within my budget. Amongst those was Philip Glass’ Looking Glass Studios, for me a perfect fit. The studio had a reputation of recording traditional classical instruments with the latest digital technology. It’s a great sound. Again, the experience there was like another Master Class.
We began on Memorial Day weekend of that year. I was hoping that whatever recording I made would end up on Glass’ label Point Music but little did I know that that label was to disappear. Later that year, it went away in the huge corporate shifting that took place in the record industry when Seagram started buying everything up and dismantling it.
The recording did not get off to the best start. A number of my performers, while excellent in life performance, had a very difficult time making the transition to a studio environment. Those musicians had a hard time playing with click tracks in a multi-track session. It sounded loose and sloppy as hell. I ended up paying them for their time, but in the end, I went back and multi-tracked all the keyboard and gamelan parts myself. I milked that experience for all that I could learn. The editing and mixing took a while. Eventually, the CD was not so much finished, but I was running out of funds, just when I had enough tracks for an album.
The end result was a CD called “Fields Amaze” after the title of the opening track, a piece for gamelan and microtonal piano (keyboard). That was the hit of the CD and it still gets played live to this day and on the radio. It got very good reviews, especially from the Village Voice and from WNYC’s New Sounds. I felt very comfortable working in the studio. That came from the years of preparatory work working with music technology that lead up to that point. I cannot stress enough to classically trained musicians how important it is to understand microphones and the current recording technology, in our case an old version of Pro-Tools, but the same laws of acoustics will always apply.
The big plus from this experience, besides raising my game a number of levels by working with the crew at Looking Glass Studios, was that it really put me on the radar in the New York City new music community. Because a number of the pieces were gamelan influenced, I became pigeonholed as “that gamelan guy” for the next couple of years. It makes sense because that was how I was most widely introduced to the public. Most had no idea of what I had done previously since most of it was either live or out of the country. My mission now was to break out of that box.
You created International Strange Music Day, a real holiday that’s celebrated on August 24. Could you describe how you conceived of this musical holiday and its activities?
After having a hell of a time finding a label that wanted to put out my new CD, I decided to form my own label and put it out myself. That seemed to be the way that the future was heading and as we all now know, that’s what happened.
I chose the name Strange Music for three reasons. First, it would be a lot easier to remember than my own name if somebody heard it for the first time: strangemusic.com. Easy, right? Second, it would prepare the layperson for what they were about to hear. I admit, there is a lot of music out there that is far, far stranger than anything I compose. But for the average person, it was (at that time) not something they would be used to hearing, especially my use of alternate tunings and time signatures. The third reason says a lot about where I was compositionally at the time. I was fascinated by Chaos Theory and fractals. I still am. Much of my music from this period was pattern-based, self-similar, and self-described; my personal contribution to Post-Minimalism.
The fourth (and invisible reason) was that the word “strange” contains the five letters of my last name. I guess it was a good name because even the hip-hop world wanted to have it. A couple years after I started using it, a rapper in the Mid-West took it. His rationale was that what I did didn’t matter. We had a legal dispute and the court decided that we could peacefully co-exist even though I own the trademark on the name. For the judge, it all boiled down to who sold the most records. In a market economy, the market rules, I found out. Even in court. Personally, I don’t understand what’s so strange about hip-hop since it is one of the most widely copied styles of popular music. That’s strange, indeed.
So, for me, August is traditionally a pretty slow month. Having a new CD on my Strange Music label, I decided to stir things up a little bit and, in an Internet post to a number of music newsgroups on the Internet, I declared August 24th as Strange Music Day. It gave me an opportunity to come up with a cool graphic and drive home a point that I still believe in to this day: it is always good to listen and play music that we are unfamiliar with. It keeps our ears and outlook fresh. I took August 24th as the day because it was the birthday of my then-girlfriend’s father who had been very, very kind to me, who was very knowledgeable about the arts world, and was a mentor to me of sorts. So, I just kept repeating these postings every year and once I had a website in 2000, I would start posting them there too. It was just a fun thing to do during a slow month that didn’t contain any major holidays. Now it did.
Around 2002, I started noticing that various summer schools were picking up on it as an actual holiday. It gave them something to do with the kids on that day. The Internet being what it is, it started to feed off of itself. More sites around the country copied that and started posting it as an actual holiday too and including it on their calendars. Once I started seeing postings coming from Europe, I changed the name to International Strange Music Day. It’s just been getting bigger every year. People blog about it, various groups and institutions recognize it in a number of ways, and this year alone, on three different continents, it was a programming format for radio stations. This year was also extra special. The Library of Congress put it on a list of unofficial August holidays but, as far as I was concerned, that made it official in my book.
This year I decided to take it a step further and we had the first International Strange Music Day Performance Soiree. I asked the New York music community to submit their ideas and apply for spots on the concert. I wanted to see a lot of new music notables perform music that they were not usually associated with, to be willing to explore uncomfortable places, to reveal their guilty pleasures and hidden parlor tricks to the public. It was a blast! It was just one those things that came together and happened so well. I and everybody involved are already looking forward to raising the bar next year. You have been warned!
8. You’ve been an active performer, curator and producer of many NYC events for almost thirty years, what are some of your favorite spots from over the years?
One of the things that initially drew me to New York City was the tradition of the loft and gallery concerts that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. The Internet did not exist when I was a teenager, so information about these was only available in album liner notes and infrequent articles I’d find at the library. When I moved here in 1985 I was so disappointed to find that this tradition was in a fallow phase. I thought it was over. One of the reasons I began producing concerts as soon as I was able was to reinvigorate that energy. I didn’t know what I was doing when I began but I was too young to know better. This was when I was working for the classical publishers and creating scores for East Village theater companies. Any knowledge I lacked about my forebears was made up for in these environments. In NYC I was meeting musicians and audience alike who had attended these loft and gallery concerts of years ago.
It was difficult finding traditional venues to perform in since we were young and didn’t really have any names yet, so to build upon the loft model seemed to be the way to go. It all had a bit of that Little Rascals or Andy Hardy energy where we would be saying, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” So we did.
The first series started in 1989 and it was called Silent Treatment, a composers collective, really. These took place at the Middle Collegiate Church on E. 7th St. in the East Village. Can you believe it, I still have videos from those shows? We did five or six concerts spread over nine months. Eventually, that initial energy evaporated as people went their separate ways. Next were concerts that I did at the Living Theater and the Theater for the New City between 1990 and 1993. My core personnel had changed so I had to find a different name for that series. That was called, “Sound Minds,” and, ironically, I was anything if that in those days. I didn’t produce any concerts for the next seven years. Most of my time was taken up with studio work and activities with the gamelan.
The next phase of my concert production began on St. Patrick’s Day 2000 at the Annina Nosei Gallery. That was a big deal for me. Annina is a huge historical figure in the New York City art world and, in fact, had been a presenter of some of those early gallery concerts I had read about back in Detroit. Musically, this concert also represented a new phase in my music. I was moving away from the gamelan and was paring down my ensemble to a core of three keyboards and percussion. One thing I will tell any musician who has never played in the gallery before about their sound: remove all reverb from everything! Galleries are nothing but large rooms with hard surfaces so you will find that any reverb you could ever possibly need is already built into the space. This is a little bit of knowledge which I find still gives my mix a slight advantage over the other artists in a gallery environment.
I was really revved up by how well that Nosei concert went. As a result, I was offered the opportunity to create and curate a Sunday afternoon concert series in a very small gallery on Broadway just south of Houston. Because of the space limitations, the series would only be able to accommodate solo, duo, or trio performances. That is why the series was named One–Two–Three–Go! Also, it is how a lot of musicians count off a piece in 4/4. These concerts were a big hit, great community builders. 4 PM on a Sunday was a great time to put on a concert in the colder months. People had time to get up late, maybe have a brunch, come to the concert, and be anywhere they had to be for dinner and also, as I found out, and a big factor for a lot of people, to be able to get home in time for Sunday night television. A bigger factor than you might think.
Different artists on the series got some really good press as its reputation grew. As a result, this series had three seasons in roughly alternating years, in different yet similar locations. The last one with this name taking place in 2006, in of all places, a small theater, just the way it began.
Having this history, Jed Distler of ComposersCollaborative Inc. asked me in 2007 to help produce a large scale production of Terry Riley’s In C for Make Music New York, the annual summer event. The following year we did the same with a production called “Music for a Change.” Originally, that concert was meant to be a production that marked the 40th anniversary of the Beatles White Album, but there were concerns about getting the proper permission from the publishers to do so. So in 2008, an election-year, we presented music that had, to varying degrees, political themes.
Having been a part of these two events, I got to know MMNY’s founder Aaron Friedman, who proposed that I come up with something for MMNY in 2010. I chose to do a performance where I live, at Waterside Plaza in New York City, right on the East River. Finding a theme was easy: water. I pulled together colleagues from Composers Concordance and we put on a large-scale concert called H2Opus: Fluid Soundscapes for Multiple Composers. I followed this up at the same location the following year, in 2011, with Power Trios, a chance for me to rock out on guitar and synthesizers with a bass and drums, all contemporary compositions.
Last December, Aaron Friedman decided to launch the very first Make Winter New York on the winter solstice. He asked me to contribute a production for this event. That was a tricky one for me because I am always worried about the weather when it comes to outdoor performances and this one, being in December, presented an entirely new set of concerns. I came up with the idea of an electric guitar parade. When we think of electric guitars we always think of that instrument as being tethered to an amplifier but, through the use of miniature amplifiers we wore on our belts, we could go mobile. That event was called Tilted Axes because of how the tilt of the earth causes our changes of season and, being that “axe” is slang for one’s instrument, especially a guitar.
I was surprised at how much positive attention that event received from the public and the press. For me it was just an offshoot of the multiple guitar scores I had recently been creating but it also opened the door for much of the work I would be doing in 2012. That concert was particularly notable because I was able to find a number of sponsors that made it possible. Considering how long it can take to properly find and secure funding in the arts, it’s sometimes quicker to take the initiative and find sponsorship with companies that have products that could be integral to the event. In this case, Danelectro HoneyTone mini-amps.
Now it is time to put something together for this coming December and, based on popular demand, we will be doing Tilted Axes again. Receiving the residency from Exploring the Metropolis is a huge part in making sure that, not only is it going to happen again, but that it is going to go well, a bit bigger, hopefully a lot better. Fingers crossed!
These are only the highlights, as you asked. That is, these were the productions of a certain size worth talking about. I can’t even keep track of the small one-night events that were sprinkled in-between all these larger ones throughout the years. That info is available in the Performance History pages on my website. There are other ones that stand out in my mind but these are the ones that had the biggest impact on the new music community.
As an active and multi-talented artist, what keeps you motivated and fresh? What are some future project ideas?
I wish there was a magic answer for that one. I sure would like to know! Believe me, some days I just sit here and ask myself, “What am I doing?” So, I try to have a structure to my day. I have always been a list maker. My day always starts off with making a list of everything has to be done, the first 10 items always being the things that I would have to do any given day: my base list. For everything else, whatever did not get accomplished the day before, carries over into the new day.
Then of course there are the charts. I make all kinds of graphics and diagrams that help me understand better how I am partitioning my time and what I have to pay attention to. I think that has something to do with my visual side. Musically, it must have something to do with the composer in me who loves to understand complex things by examining relationships within its structure.
Also, I am notoriously punctual. It’s an overused excuse in New York City to say that one was late because of bad traffic, one’s crazy schedule, etc., etc., but, when isn’t it? Unless you have just moved here in the last six months, you’re not credible. There is really no reason to treat other people’s time that way. How can you pay back someone’s lost time?
A lot of what I do to stay motivated and inspired does not have to do with how much I work at music so much but as with how much time I spend looking into the other arts, but especially science. Through a process called mapping, many scientific concepts can be expressed musically. Compared to actual science, that’s highly subjective, but it can be a starting point that keeps us from falling back onto our personal clichés.
When one is working for oneself, one really needs to develop a structure that works for them. Better if it can be shared with others. There are many examples to draw from and the greatest way I could tell anybody is to study the work habits of anybody who is doing what you want to do and who is doing it better. That has been a way that I have been seriously exploring this year to, in a sense, send myself “back-to-school,” by studying and working with some really great people who have a lot to share. We are never too old for that. If you think you are, you’re dead.
I have notebooks and manuscript books that go back years with ideas that I have jotted down. Many of these contain ideas I wish to do in future projects and am simply waiting for the right opportunity. I think that for every ten projects that I try, I am lucky if three or four actually come to fruition. It’s all about things happening at the right time and the right place. Only preparedness can open the door for opportunity. That’s not news.
But, when things do work out in an ideal way, I like to move from a completed project to a new project that is a complement in some way to the one before. For example, I have been working a lot with acoustic guitars since the spring of this year. I know that when this phase is over I absolutely am looking forward to working with other instruments and other forms.
I am working right now on setting up some opportunities to return to theater next year with Gerald Thomas’ work and that excites me very much. There’s a number of smaller chamber works coming up in the next half year. Through it all, I fill in the cracks between the larger projects by adding to the solo pieces that I play on keyboards, guitar, and electronics just because that’s easy to take around. There are not as many moving parts when it’s just me.
One big piece of news from this summer is that, through a lot of negotiation and patience, Sony/ATV and Hal Leonard Music have given me permission to use the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” as the basis for a set of variations for chamber orchestra and rock band. That’s a big deal. That’s a huge deal. Look for that next year.
The one thing that still haunts me, is my backlog of unreleased tracks. I really have to get these together in order for everything else to move forward. Live performance is great but I really have to strike a balance. Add to that one or two larger pieces that I would like to revive. I’d like to be more specific about other projects but some of these ideas are worth keeping under wraps until it’s the right time to announce them. It’s a jungle out there!
Could you describe your plans for yourCon Edison Musicians’ Residencyat Turtle Bay Music School?
I have decided to take the word “exploring” at face value. Music in urban spaces? We are the Urban Spacemen! Much of my time in the first third of this residency has been simply setting up the conditions for its larger aspects to happen smoothly. Under the auspices of this residency, I have been creating a smaller works in my studio, but it’s the work that involves multiple guitars that was tricky to set up. For me, any large production is like writing a murder mystery: one starts out at the end, with the crime solved, then moves backwards toward the beginning.
Currently, as I write, a number of rehearsal dates have been scheduled at the school. Now I am tweaking the scope of the project to fit this and other circumstances just prior to putting out the call to interested musicians. I am building upon what I created last year for Make Music Winter, Tilted Axes, and I want it to be better, but not change it too much. One of the reasons why it worked last year was because I had a number of sponsors in place and a number of them will not be available for this year’s event. I have to fill in those gaps. Getting all of this accomplished will account for the first third of this project.
Secondly, I have to set up the core musicians on this project. These will be guitarists who are coming from all kinds of backgrounds and my hope is that we will have a melding of styles that will be in-itself a veritable sonic picture of the city. The tricky part, is finding a structure that works for the project yet is still a continuation of last year’s work. That’s my job. I want to open up the structure of bit where other musicians can have the opportunity to be in the spotlight. Just how is part of the exploration.
Then, I have a two-week break where I go to Argentina to work with Robert Fripp’s Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists. If I apply myself correctly, my wish is to come back with new insight into the creative questions that arise when creating with large ensembles.
Then we’ll begin the third and final section of the work and that is where I will be pulling in other players to fill be the outer core of the ensemble. I envision that on top of the set pieces of music that will make up our performance, there will be need for large atmospheric sections made up of simple elements. This is most effective with many musicians. It also opens up the opportunity for players of varying ability, this outer core. This returns to my deep feelings for a community music.
Tilted Axes takes place on December 21, after my residency has technically finished, but I will return to the school on January 25 to perform sections of this piece with others as well as my solo set with electronics. All of this work will have been developed during, and thanks to, the residency.
Then, it’ll be on to the next thing, all the richer I’m sure, because of the experience.
October, 2012 – New York City
The Con Edison Musicians’ Residency: Composition Program is funded by Consolidated Edison, Credit Suisse, the George L. Shields Foundation, the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, AOH Foundation, DJ McManus Foundation and individuals. The Con Edison Musicians’ Residency: Composition Program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and Office of Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn. This program is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.