I’ve had a complicated relationship with music.
All my life, I had music in my head. My earliest memories have sound — the percussive staccatto of hammers, the asymmetrical rhythms of unintelligible speech, strains of 70s rock wafting off a push-button radio in an old Pontiac.
I learn best listening. I remember things primarily by their sound. I guess that’s how my brain organizes.
What follows is an abbreviated history of my relationship with music. I’m sure many details are misremembered, because that’s how memory works. If I’m a liar in the end, at least I’m an honest liar.
Mom and dad always had music playing on an old turntable, or they were singing to each other, or sometimes both. My dad was a carpenter, and he thought my mom was a lady, and so he’d sing, “If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady; would you marry me anyway? Would you have my baby?” (My favorite version of that one is by Johnny & June Carter Cash. But let’s be honest: My favorite version of every song is by Johnny Cash.)
I was the baby he was talking about.
Back then, my mom was an astrologer and a Wiccan — although it was called “white witchcraft” back then — who grew up in Texas. My dad was an atheist, a political science major, and an anti-war activist from Washington state. The soundtrack of their lives was a melange of protest stongs, golden age country, the Doors, Mozart, acid rock, Thelonius Monk, and whatever struck their odd fancy. My mom played piano a little, by ear, and when we went to my grandmother’s house, she’d play the hymns her mother loved so much: Amazing Grace, Old Rugged Cross, Nearer My God to Thee.
I was around four when my mom found Jesus. Or rather, Jesus found her, in the form of a little country house church in rural Texas. We lived out on a farm with my mom’s mom and my mom’s mom’s mom — grandmother and granny, we called them. I remember my mom quietly gathering up her house idols, which she kept in the windowsill with her house plants to keep away the evil spirits, and dumping them in the trash.
Meanwhile, my dad was working at the nuclear power plant in Glen Rose, Texas, a two-hour commute. He didn’t have time for Jesus at first, but he came around pretty soon after mom. He held out maybe a year?
Well, with the zeal of the newly converted, they built a bonfire in the front yard and burned almost everything they had: books of magic spells and evolutionary biology, cards (Tarot and playing), paintings, carvings, pamphlets. If it seemed even remotely pagan or overtly secular, it went on the pyre.
(Both my parents think I was too young to remember this. I think they’re wrong. The hiss and crackle of the fire, the clinking of household items falling into the flames. I remember them arguing about some of the pieces — they had this one expensive silver goblet with a satyr as its stem that they decided to sell to a jeweler on the understanding that it would be melted down. They were zealous, not reckless.)
Now, you have to understand, my mom was actually worshipping spirits at the time, and according to her, she had … seen things. This wasn’t an academic exercise for them. It was a purification. If the windowsill gods had been a way to protect the family before, burning them was the way to protect us now.
The music went, too. Anything “secular” had to go, because they’d heard a preacher that told them that the two-four backbeat had originated in shamanistic cults in Africa and was a gateway for demons to get inside you. It was the 80s. Satanism scares were all the rage.
(Whenever I tell this story, I think people expect me to be bitter about it. I’m not. I don’t feel deprived by not having rock-and-roll in the house any more than I feel deprived not drinking yak’s milk or skiing the alps. It was just a condition of my upbringing, and it turned out all right, I think.)
By the time the embers burned down, this is what was left:
- Beethoven, Symphony Number 9
- Beethoven, Moonlight Sonata
- Mozart, Symphony Number 40
- Grieg, A Minor Piano Concerto / Peer Gynt
- The Very Best of Andrés Segovia
- Rodrigo, Concierto de Aranjuez
- Prokofiev, Peter and the Wolf
- Henry Mancini 40 Greatest
I know, because I wore those records out.
They agonized over the Mancini, I have to tell you. In the end they decided it fell just on the holy side of the line, mainly because it didn’t have any lyrics, and because Dad had already given up so much, and couldn’t part with the Pink Panther Theme.
Can you blame him?
Anyway, until I was in the sixth grade or so, we didn’t have popular music in the house. We just didn’t. I heard it, of course. I went to school, and I had friends who tried to get me hooked on Journey or Run DMC. But I tried not to listen. That was the bad music. I sure didn’t want any backbeats putting any demons inside me.
(Not music-related, but I saw the Star Wars movies out of order. They tell me I saw A New Hope in theaters in 1977, back when they just called it “Star Wars.” I was three, and there’s no way I remember it. I actually do remember watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture at a drive-in, though. Then in 1984, Return of the Jedi finally came to the little podunk theater in the next town over, and my mom and dad broke the NO POP CULTURE embargo. Empire Strikes Back? First saw it on a TV rebroadcast. When the updated editions came out on DVD, I bought the box set and watched them all in order.)
We started going to a little storefront church that was more wild than the local Pentecostal church, but less than the snake handlers the next county over. (Mind you, it was debated.) Mom and dad became song leaders. My mom played piano and my dad led singing. (The running joke was he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he made up for it in enthusiasm.) We often sang as a family, like we were the Partridges, tambourines and all.
So. Many. Tambourines.
My grandmother’s piano was odd. It was an old upright piano, not a brand name you’ve ever heard of, and it was painted with cracked off-white paint and teal blue pinstriping. It had faux-grecian columns made out of moulding and half the keys were missing their ivory. I like to pretend it came from an old western-era saloon.
It’s in the family picture below, circa 1981. In those days, we didn’t buy music. We made it. (My mom didn’t buy our clothes, either.)
That piano was where I first learned about intervals, by which I mean I sat there and played every possible combination of two notes from bottom to top, first the notes that were next to each other, then the ones that were one key apart, then two keys apart, and so on until I was stretching as far as my little arms would reach to play one low note and one high one. Then I moved on to three notes, and then four. Hour after glorious hour. There were no books, no primers. I had no idea what I was doing, except trying to understand the sounds. It was years before someone told me the notes had names. My favorite intervals were what I now know as the perfect fifth and the perfect fourth.
Yes, as a kid, I had favorite intervals, in the same way people have favorite colors or a favorite flavor of ice cream. A major ninth sounds to me just like pistachio pudding tastes — nah! I had you going, though. (Synesthesia is a real thing, but I don’t have it.)
One time, my cousin Chris and I furtively disassembled grandmother’s piano. I mean we took out all the bolts and removed all the keys, the pedals, the rods, the dampers, the hammers. We stripped it down to the harp and thank the good lord the bolts were too tight for us to unscrew or we would have gotten the harp out of it, too. The piano was in the back bedroom, and we laid all the parts out on the bed in order so we could “remember how it went” is how I remember Chris putting it.
I swear it was all his idea.
The adults were in the next room, enjoying Thanksgiving (probably). My aunt Rhonda came in, gasped, and then told us in her best scolding voice that we’d better get that piano put back together, and fast. Thinking back, she was probably resisting the urge to laugh out loud. It took about four hours, but we finally got all the hammers back in, all the felt straps hooked back up, and all the keys back on.
I would bang on that piano incessantly. The perfect fourths, usually a C plus an F above it, sounded like soldiers marching along, Da-da-da daaaa, da-da-da DAT-da. The fifth sounded open and lonely, but so, so pure and beautiful. You could make the low notes at the extreme end sound thunder bom-bom-bom. There was a lot of thunder in my childhood, out there on the west Texas plains. I might have used the high notes to mimic bird calls.
It should be coming clear to you by this point that while I spent a lot of time with that piano, I never played much music on it. Someone tried to teach me “Chopsticks,” I’m sure. Someone taught me “Heart and Soul” at some point.
That’s not what I was using that piano for. I was using it to try to understand how the world worked. I was trying to understand how the sounds I felt inside mapped on to the sounds that happend outside. I was learning my place in the world.
Maybe that sounds stupid to you, but it makes sense to me. I’m about one and half diagnostic criteria away from being on the autism spectrum, which makes me “eccentric.” It doesn’t bother me, and I try not to let it bother anyone else. I can sit quietly — real quiet — and I got good grades and all of that. I don’t have focus issues; quite the opposite. When I was three my mom wanted to take me to psychiatrist because I spent all day drawing the same face over and over again — circle, two dots, straight line mouth. Never a smile. Never a frown. Just a straight line. Fortunately, they couldn’t afford it. There wasn’t anything wrong with me; I was just figuring out how to draw. That one thing.
And on that piano, maybe I was figuring out how to me.
Okay, that was overwrought. After all, music is a thing I do, not a thing I am. But it’s also a thing I need to do, and I guess that need is part of who I am.
To this day, when little kids go banging on the keyboard, I let them. Or I want to, assuming no other adults are around to get upset. People don’t like to be jangled, I guess. Seriously, thank God for headphones, but when I can get away with it, I let them. You go ahead and figure out what that noise means to you, little person.
Go ahead and figure out how to you.
I often think I would have benefitted from more structured education along the way. Then again, I wonder if it wouldn’t have made me less offbeat in certain ways that I’m pretty attached to. Hard to say one way or the other.
Chaos is definitely how I learn.
Fancy-schmancy churches had hymnals, but we had cassettes that got passed around and duplicated from spirit-filled church to spirit-filled church. You’d play the tape, write the lyrics down on a transparency, and teach the tune to the musicians and the congregation by ear — which is to say, by trial and error. Each song evolved as it got passed from church to church: choruses were extended, verses rearranged or dropped, bridges added. Sometimes they said you could hear no-kidding actual angels singing along on the tapes.
That was our music catalog: bootleg mixtapes from neighboring churches.
Imagine how excited I was when my dad bought an old set of National Geographic magazines, and inside the 1979 edition was a vinyl record bound in with the pages. It was a recording of whalesongs through a hydrophone. It was a treasured possession.
(This is one of the inspirations I drew on for my Creation suite, which has a movement covering “great sea creatures.”)
And all the while, the music inside ebbed and flowed but it never left. I didn’t listen to a lot of rock-and-roll, even after the secular music embargo, and I don’t even now. It’s not that I disdain it — oh, I did when I was in high school. It was a way to feel elitist and superior over my classmates. “You listen to Madonna? How gauche!” But these days, I know music is music and people like what they like and it’s best not to go too much deeper into it than that. There’s no “real music” or “fake music.”
But I don’t identify with contemporary popular music. Oddly enough, it’s just as easy for me to get into pop music from other parts of the world as it is for me to enjoy the US pop scene. I mean, I have my favorites: Paul Simon’s Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints albums are, as far as I’m concerned, the best ever. Add to that Peter Gabriel, So. (I went to high school in the 90s, what can I say?)
Philip Glass, though. That’s a bridge between here and there for me. You’ll hear little Glass-ian figures all throughout my music.
I first started composing in high school, by which I mean I recorded songs on a Yamaha PSR500 keyboard that I bought with my first paycheck working for mom and dad at the gas station. (They managed an Exxon when I was in high school. Long story.) It had all the standard MIDI voices, the ability to quantize to 16th notes, and a limited number of pattern banks you could record and arrange into a song. I was hooked. I spent so many hours alone in my room, still plinking out intervals — but this time with feeling! (Mostly angst.)
During this period I was in the band, and started learning how to read music. It was marching/pep band in the fall and concert band in the spring. I played F horn because it was a horn the school could lend me, and they needed horn players. (Did I mention we were never very well off? You could probably tell from looking at the pictures.) Yes, I marched with the concert F horn, a silver-nickel plated Holton double. It was a nice horn. Nice and heavy.
I started to cultivate a taste for dark, brassy classical music. It matched my teenaged moods. I’d walk to the library and check out CDs. (Uphill, both ways, in the snow. But seriously, kids, there wasn’t internet back in 1991.) I’m talking stuff like …
- Bruckner symphonies, especially 4 & 9
- Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition
- Shostakovich symphonies, especially 5
- Saint-Saëns, especially the “Organ” symphony (Nr 3)
- Hovhaness, 2nd Symphony
- Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion
- Sibelius, Franck, Berlioz
- You get the picture.
Oddly enough I skipped Brahms and Mahler. It wasn’t on purpose; they just never came up in the rotation. Still don’t, much. I know I’m missing out; they don’t call it the Titan for nothing. This is odd, because I’m told sometimes that my music reminds people of this or that piece by one of them and I have to shrug. No, I’m not really a Mahler fan, and I can’t explain why, because by all rights, I absolutely should be.
Listening to this stuff in my headphones, usually in the evenings after everyone was settled in, I started to get a vague notion of timbre and orchestration. Of harmony and counterpoint. All along I heard music inside, but I’d never had anything like an ability to express it. If I had taught myself the letters, I had no idea about the language. If I had known that I eventually wanted to make music, I might have thought to check out a library book about it. But no, I was still just having fun exploring.
Meanwhile, in band, I was playing Orff’s Carmina Burana and Handel’s Watermusic — but mostly we played Sousa marches. If you’ve never had the unique joy of playing 96 measures of offbeats, you’ve never played F horn in a Sousa march. One *blup*, two *blup*, one *blup*, two *blup*, one *blup*, two *blup*, one *bladda blap blap*. Repeat for five to seven minutes. It’s fine. I never was a very good performer anyway. I was just happy to be there, and you may not be surprised to learn that I’m highly focused when I assign myself chores, and not at all when other people do. Scales? Nah.
(I’m not going to talk about the first girl I had a crush on too much here. She was first chair horn. Her mom was a piano teacher. She played Chopin and Bartok. She was sweet, and I wasn’t. I was in love with the music anyway.)
Playing with that Yamaha P500 I learned a little bit how to structure something that sounded like music — how to move from chord to chord, how to put a melody on top of chords, how to put a countermelody underneath and alongside. I proceded entirely on intuition. Oddly enough, I had sort of a natural intuition about voice leading. When you want to move from one chord to another, you generally want it to be smooth, and I don’t know where I figured out that you want to move as few notes as possible, but that’s what I did. And I loved singing rounds, and so I loved writing them, too.
I shouldn’t romanticize it too much. I learned a metric ton of bad habits, including never really learning how to play a piano as a piano. I envy people who can sit down and play fluidly with both hands. At the same time. (Maybe someday I’ll just break down and take a piano class.) And now that I’m grown, I envy performers who practiced their scales and can zip up and down four flats or five sharps without getting bogged down.
Eastern Washington University is a GOOD school, but only just. It’s a state school, kind of out in the country, which is one reason I picked it. (The other reasons are complicated. My wife knows. Story for another time.) I had three majors I was considering: English/creative writing, graphic art, or music. I picked music education because I thought I would enjoy the job. So I was a music-education double major. I was in the orchestra and the band, and like a lot of performance classes, you’d get two credits for five credit hours worth of rehearsals, plus practice time, plus concerts.
Also, you had to buy your own pair of Dinkles Oxfords, black. I didn’t know shoes could cost that much.
Eastern is where I fell in love with composing, though. I was a mediocre performer in high school. I only got a little bit better in college. The rule was that you had to get at least a B-minus in all your major classes to stay in the program; but if you were a performance major, you had to get A’s in all your instrument classes. This makes perfect sense. At my first instructor eval, I played my etudes, and my faculty mentor, the principle horn player at the Spokane orchestra at the time, pursed her lips and got a really pained look on her face. Finally, she said, “Are you an education major?” When I said that I was, she said, “Oh thank God. You’ll be okay with a B-minus, then. I thought you were a performance major and I was going to have to flunk you out.”
I was just happy to be there. We played real music. Beethoven. Copeland. It was a blast. And I was fourth horn — chord support mostly. And more offbeats. But I didn’t even care, because I was part of it. More importantly, I was taking ear training and interval singing and music theory. I finally had the names for all the things I was already doing, as well as a whole brave new world filled with things I had no idea existed. I was learning how it worked. I read scores, I made scores. I learned the basics of engraving, analysis, interpretation. I learned how to appreciate music I wouldn’t normally enjoy.
Most importantly, I learned how to put pen to paper and make music come out.
Sort of. Again, I don’t want to over do it here. I was in no way some kind of wünderkind prodigy who was able to breeze through theory. I dropped out after a year and half of school. I got a good taste, not a whole meal.
Why’d I leave? (The more honest word would be quit.) The reasons are complicated, but you can spell them L-I-F-E. Mostly, the closer I got to being a music educator, the less I wanted to. What I really wanted was to switch my major to composition.
I wasn’t even a little bit convinced I could make a living as a composer, and I’m sure I was right. (Right?) My south-midwestern Christian upbringing hadn’t hammered into me much of a work ethic, but it sure gave me a bunch of complexes about putting your effort toward useful things. An honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work. And doing something you love just because you love it is somehow dishonest.
To be clear, nobody ever came right out and told me that in so many words. But I looked around and saw how everyone toiled and worked themselves sick at jobs they hated and I figured that’s how it works.
If you never expect to be happy, you won’t be.
Hey, that belongs on a coffee mug …
Meanwhile, the Internet kicked off in a big way. In those days the browser wars were between Netscape Navigator, Mosaic, and a flat rock. I got into computers, hard. I learned HTML, about the same way I learned music, chaotically. My dad worked sales at a software company, and called me up to say they were hiring in the digital publication department. Right about then, an education prof made it abundantly clear that there were 80 of us in that program alone competing for a total of 8 jobs statewide, and that she hoped we’d be happy teaching PE to middle-schoolers. Around then a distant relative of my wife at the time died and unexpectedly left her just enough money to pay off our debts and rent a truck to move back home — $4,200.
That was my price.
Computers is how I make my living, and just on that basis alone, it was a good choice. I lucked into the ground floor of a company whose vision and mission I care about, with people that I enjoy working with and for. #blessed
Nevertheless, I have regrets. Who doesn’t?
My first marriage was a mistake. I wouldn’t go back and undo it — we have a daughter together who I love to death. But I spent about fifteen years being mostly dead inside, creatively stagnant, just going through the motions. I turned off the music because in the end I had to turn off everything. I was a husk by the time we got divorced. As much fun as it would be to carp about my ex, it’s not necessary for this story. Suffice it to say that we were badly mismatched, and everyone knew it but us. She figured it out first, and went to live with her boyfriend.
So I was single for a while. Two mostly grown kids in the house and me. I was bored, and I needed a hobby. Around about that time, my youngest brother moved in with me. He’s twelve years younger than me, and was having a hard time at college. L-I-F-E was happening to him, too, and hard.
He had been in a garage band, and wanted to start making music again. I decided that I could help him out. So I bought a digital audio workstation, scoured the web for terrible soundfonts, and we messed around with it.
I dusted off my “chops” such as they were, and I pulled out some of my old college assignments. I decided that if I was going to make bad dance pop music with my brother, I could try to make bad music that was meaningful to me, too. And I did. I made a lot of really terrible music. It was therapeutic, to be honest.
That and Jesus is what kept me alive.
I remarried, this time to my best friend. (The real reason I went to Eastern, as it turns out. If only I had known at the time.) And I’m not dead inside, for a long time. We just crossed ten years, and I’m happier than I ever have been.
And so the music kept flowing. And one night I was showing off my latest creation — which must have been a one or two minute track, because that’s all I made back then — and she said, “You could make something big if you wanted to.” She says it was an observation, but I took it as a challenge.
I thought about it off and on for a few weeks, and decided that if I repurposed three of my best tracks, extended them, reworked them, I had maybe a third of an orchestral suite already. I thought about ways to group them and eventually landed on a narrative. (I like stories — can you tell?) I knew I wanted to write about nature, and I knew I wanted to do something worshipful.
Nature. Narrative. Worship … creation!
It took about four years, but I managed to pull together a whole orchestral suite. That will be the subject of my next post, and I promise it won’t be this long.
Like I said, I have had a complicated relationship with music, all my life. And it’s still complicated, and I love it. There’s no such thing as a right to compose music, but if there were, I wouldn’t have it. I’ve got no credentials, I’m barely educated, and I haven’t been “honing my craft” for years of hours. Much respect to people who do and have. Nevertheless, I love it, and I’m going to keep pressing forward.
Whew! Since you made it this far, here’s a cookie — a musical cookie. Here’s the first track from the first cassette that I recorded for my mom in 1992 on that Yamaha PSR-500 keyboard. It ain’t great, but it sounds like me, even back then.
(That image at the top is a Lorenz attractor, and I’m not going to pretend to understand the math, but it’s a chaotic orbit where the body seems strangely attracted to various points. It’s a pretty metaphor, ain’t it? And someday I’m going to figure out how to turn the math of that wonderful thing into music.)