Boxcars: The Piltdown Music Interview
Mike Shafto, reliable INTJ on the MBTI and O65-C46-E7-A50-N66 Big Five
Mike Shafto has been writing music since 1962. Best known for his compositions, arrangements, and unobjectionable sax work with the Rick Hilleary Band in the mid-1960s, and with the evanescent Carleton College Big Band in the late 60s, he also reached an audience of dozens through his work with John Linner as a jazz DJ on Carleton's radio station, KARL. Then he dropped out for a couple of decades, and fans naturally assumed he had succumbed to alcohol, cigarettes, and beef. In fact, he was earning almost twice as much as a teacher and research manager as he had as a musician. He leaked back onto the scene in the mid-1990s as Visiting Artist for Life with Piltdown Music. Starting with a mixture of crudely written and awkwardly generated Korg X5D concrescences, published as MIDI files on the Piltdown website, he has doggedly developed Piltdown into one of the most cost-effective global sources of large-ish MP3 files.
We caught up with Mike on a Boeing 747 bound from SFO to LHR.
Piltdown Music/Production Value Productions:
Your career in music seems to consist of two periods of activity, 1962-1970 and 1996-present, separated by 25 years of useless sloth. How did that happen?
Well, the cultural climate and impeti in 1962 were quite different from those in 1996. A younger person has more energy and may be willing to spend hours copying parts, for example, during math class. (MIDI was two decades in the future.) Living at home, with free room and board, a teen-ager has time to hone his chops. At Carleton College, on the other hand, classes tended to interfere with leisure time, not only for the aspiring arranger, but for all the potential band members. It was impossible to keep a band together. Then in 1970 during the transition to graduate school at Princeton, times had a-changed, there were anti-war protests, Watergate, and all that. Developing some computing skills paid off later, and there were some fine concerts: Ella Fitzgerald at Carnegie Hall, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Beverly Sills, John Williams, the Metropolitan Opera; and Tom Ewell in Waiting For Godot.
Remember, 1970 was the year Bob Dylan received an honorary degree from Princeton and commemorated it with the song “Day of the Locusts”. Richard M. Nixon was in the White House. The same Richard M. Nixon who killed the Apollo space program after three successful manned lunar missions in 1972, and who also pardoned Lt. William Calley for his role in the My Lai massacre. Seventeen years later the family moved from Washington, DC, to Silicon Valley, just as the locusts were emerging in Northern Virginia. Ronald Reagan was President. And seventeen years after that (that is, in 2004), it was back to Washington, DC, serving President George W. Bush. There were locusts everywhere. Time don’t mean nothin’ to a locust.
But the music scene in Princeton circa 1970 was not easily available to a graduate stiudent. Thesis work demanded time and intense concentration. Ethics compelled -- again, remembering the context of those times -- listening to a lot of Pacifica Radio, WBAI in New York. This was educational, what with Julius Lester reading Ralph Ellison, in-depth Watergate coverage, and a wide range of fearless reportage. Even as penurious grad students, it was impossible not to tithe to Pacifica. But music was derailed, and eventually there was no escape from a mechanical, career-oriented track. At the time, of course, it seemed unimaginable that it would take 25 years to recover from workaholism, or that recovery might be impossible.
PM/PVP: What are your earliest recollections of music, your formative disappointments?
MS: Prior to 1957, a fourth-grader in suburban Kansas City would have no grasp of music beyond listening to WHB radio, 710 AM. On your satellite radio, just check out “The 50s”: That will provide the deepest insight into these cultural roots, which are pretty shallow. And there was white-folks church music, best ignored or forgotten.
Then my parents agreed to buy me a clarinet. It cost $100 (as much as my mom's rabbit-fur coat), and that was a fortune to a blue-collar family. They also invested in private lessons, which maximized my performance potential and let me be competitive for second chair all the way through high school. Later, when they saw how fanatical I was, they bought me an alto sax, then a tenor, and even a soprano. In college, I played some bari, too, but never owned one.
Along the way I tried to learn guitar, trumpet, flute, and bassoon -- but I didn't try hard enough! (laughs) The bassoon’s a real bitch! It's not actually a musical instrument, it's a medieval torture device -- a didgeridoo mated with a kazoo and decorated with 18 thumb-screws, or I guess they're supposed to be keys. Yet it has a wonderful sound when played by a pro. It can be humorous, ominous, or lyrical. For me, it was like a lover with borderline personality disorder.
But I was never more than casually interested in performance, and didn’t focus on it enough to get to a high level. Theory was captivating -- mainly chords and chord-progressions. The up-side was becoming comfortable with chords, inversions, and substitutions, as well as sight-reading in various key signatures, including bass and treble clef, even without piano or organ lessons. This idiosyncratic approach to music was no doubt shaped by thinking like a guitar- or keyboard-player, but only learning to play clarinet and sax. I fooled around on keyboards but never had any lessons.
The downside of learning this way, with a guitar player's concept of chords and chord progressions -- the guitar player in this case being my dad, who was a good player, still taking lessons in his forties -- was falling into the common stylistic trap called "boxcars". Boxcars are half-measure or one-measure or two-measure chunks that stay strictly inside one chord, and then abruptly jump to the next chord. This is caused by too much concern for knowing and playing the right notes, the notes in the chord. Also, the typical ear-training reinforces boxcars by emphasizing the right notes for each key, scale, and chord. It's a harmony-driven, rather than a melody-driven, approach. This problem was partially offset by horn-playing experience. A good example of someone who played conventionally, but not in the boxcars trap, would be Stan Getz.
Modern jazz, meaning the jazz that’s explained in books like Mark Levine's Jazz Theory Book, is largely the story of different ways to escape from boxcars: reharmonization, substitution, or slash chords; the modal approach; playing outside, as in the Piltdown arrangement of Mulgrew Miller's "Wingspan"; bitonality, as in "Caine Plain"; motivic or Wagnerian structure, as in "Owl's Clover"; atonality, as in "Foreign Song"; frequent, arbitrary modulation, used in "The Man With the Blue Guitar".
By the way, speaking of Wagner, I think he marked the beginning of modern music, and that he was a genius. Sophisticated people aren’t supposed to like Wagner, because he's too bombastic or too romantic or whatever. As far as I know, he was the first composer to come up with the idea that music could be organized entirely around motifs -- not only using motifs to unify melodic structure, but making them the basis of the whole architecture, even for entire opera cycles like The Ring. Then he developed and exploited the implications of that approach to maximize freedom from formal constraints.
The structural and harmonic freedom he created in no way left the audience behind. He was able to grab the unwashed masses by the short hairs where they lived. So here was a brilliant, intentional, theoretical break with tradition that was also successful on the emotional level. It paved the way for everything from Debussy to Crumb, not to mention the best of the movie soundtracks. Wagner supposedly thought of his work as musical drama, but his motivic architectural approach also allows a composer to think and work much like a painter. Wagner was allegedly a fascist asshole, like Nietzsche and Heidegger. If that's true, his politics can't be commended, but his music can still be admired.
Anyway, without being the best clarinet player or the best alto player, it was still possible to do a lot of playing, from pro-bono work with the Johnson County Civic Band to the steady-money gig with the Rick Hilleary band. The Hilleary band gave me the opportunity to write, and to hear the compositions and arrangements on a regular basis. While still in high school, it was possible to commit most major errors in writing for piano, bass, drums, and ensembles. The short list of lessons-learned naturally boiled down to "Keep it simple, Stupid". You don't get far writing stuff that people don't want to play. And because these were real gigs for real money, it was necessary to write things that real people would listen to without lobbing fruits and vegetables at the band.
Along with the gigs came some memorable events. Once the band played a dinner concert at Bendix, a major defense contractor in Kansas City. Rick's brother Tom liked to use steel-headed drum sticks, practice-sticks designed to be used with drum-pads. Tom hit the snare rim, broke a stick, and sent a steel-headed missile flying out into the audience like a dum-dum bullet. Another time at a Hungarian wedding reception, a dancing couple fell over together, a perfectly coordinated, though highly inebriated, unit. At the Lake Quivira Country Club, the crowd would not let us leave. Cycling through our closing sequence of "Jumpin’ at the Woodside", "Moon River", and "Moonlight Serenade", a couple of the band members were laughing so hard they could hardly play. How could we respect an audience that liked us that much? By the way, Rick’s still an active musician in Colorado, and we e-mail each other once in a while.
The Johnson County Civic Band was an invaluable experience. Mr. Andy Hagany, a neighbor across the street, was a retired professional trumpet player, and he recruited new members for the Civic Band. The band rehearsed on a week-night, usually Wednesday, and then played one or two public concerts at Antioch Park on the weekend. All the first-chair and most of the second-chair players were active or retired professionals. Mr. Hagany himself was a fantastic musician. He practiced almost every day, as well as playing in the Civic Band, and apparently never made a mistake. It was a pleasure just to hear him play scales, but he was only second-chair trumpet in the Civic Band. There was a French horn player from the Kansas City Philharmonic who played baritone horn solos that would bring tears to your eyes, and an excellent young flute player who was a big crowd-pleaser with the piccolo obbligato part on "The Stars and Stripes Forever", our "Big Finish" number.
It was barely possible to keep up while playing second-chair alto sax -- barely possible to keep my place in the score. At rehearsal, almost everything was being read for the first time. The lead alto player, a retired professional, was reading the E-flat soprano clarinet part, leaving the kid (me) to read the lead alto part. Mr. Kelly, the conductor, was always on my case, and Mr. Hagany had to tell him to lighten up. Chewing me out would have little beneficial impact on my musicianship in the short run. The kid was contributing mainly along the loudness dimension.
Meanwhile, the day job was high school, and this included learning to play alto and clarinet parts for Bye-Bye Birdie, Carnival, Brigadoon, and so forth, as well as playing in the orchestra, the concert band, the woodwind choir, the saxophone quartet ("The saxophone seems easy to play, but it's hard to play correctly", "A saxophone should sound like a cello", blah blah blah. Anyone who listened to Bird and Trane had a pretty good idea what a sax should sound like and how hard it was to play well.), and the marching band. Today the purpose of the marching band seems elusive, but back then it was just accepted as part of growing up absurd.
It's hard to express a kid's obsession with jazz and with music in general. Today there aren't enough brain cells to be that obsessed with anything. On the weekends, the Kansas City Public Library was the destination, my only mission being to track down Smithsonian recordings of Robert Johnson, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Ellington, Basie, or Jay McShann (Our son Jay was named after Jay McShann. My wife does not know this. He would have been named Bix, or maybe Dex, if that had seemed feasible.)
Almost equally enthralling was the limited vinyl collection of Dvorak, Brahms, and Liszt that Grandma Ackerman had somehow acquired, presumably through one of those record clubs. No one else ever seemed interested in listening to classical records. The whole family would huddle around Grandma's TV (My family didn’t have a TV, but Grandma lived nearby.) to watch variety shows hosted by Nat King Cole, Liberace (I saw him in a live performance once. I went with my aunt and grandma, who were dedicated fans.), Andy Williams, Perry Como, Lawrence Welk, and Glen Campbell. Glen Campbell was Paw’s favorite and not to be missed, due to his prodigious guitar skills. Occasionally the Starlight Theater had touring productions of The Student Prince, The Music Man, and similar shows. Victor Borge appeared there, too.
Grandma decided, for some unknown reason, to buy a chord organ. Maybe because it took up less room than a grand piano. It was not hard for a fifth-grader to play songs on it. The chord organ was basically like an accordion in a spinet configuration. Favorites included hymns like "Still Still With Thee" by Felix Mendelssohn; old-time popular songs like "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain", "Darktown Strutters’ Ball", "Charleston", "Sweet Georgia Brown", "Down Among the Sheltering Palms"; Jerome Kern songs like "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", "The Song Is You", "The Way You Look Tonight"; Rodgers & Hammerstein songs like "Bali Ha'i", "Surrey With the Fringe On Top", "If I Loved You"; and Sigmund Romberg songs like "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise".
All these were in ultra-simple arrangements for the chord organ. There was no need for correct left-hand technique (or right-hand technique, for that matter), and I never learned the bass clef until I started doing arrangements that involved bass, piano, and trombone. The reason was that chords on the chord organ were played with buttons like an accordion. They were laid out in a matrix, horizontally in terms of the circle of fifths, and vertically in terms of functionally similar chords. Diminished, augmented, 7th, and 9th chords were grouped together; major and 6th chords; minor and minor 7th; and so on. The layout made soaking up the theory a painless and automatic side-effect of playing the tunes.
Clarinet and sax lessons were at the Stephens-Dewar Music Store. Mr. Lamaray was the main teacher. Later some of the Hilleary band members took private theory lessons from Dave Izzard. Izzard and others who taught at Stephens-Dewar were associated with the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) jazz band, one of the top university jazz bands at that time. That was a hell of a band, no joke. There was a good sax player named Sy Gopman, and a virtuoso bass player who played a 5-string acoustic bass and had overpowering technique.
Shawnee Mission North was a huge, wealthy high school in suburban Kansas City, on the Kansas side, just about 10 miles from where Charlie Parker grew up. Because of the sheer size of the school, as well as the high standard of living, there were some damn serious musicians there. One of the best was Milton Granger, an unbelievable pianist who’s still an active professional in New York. He was one year ahead of me. He helped produce a performance of The Fantasticks one summer, and he was always experimenting with various instruments, for example, the English horn. While he was still in high school, he played a solo piano concert at the UMKC Music School that knocked their socks off.
“A Deconstructed Rigoletto
"Having staged and/or conducted numerous operas himself (including Offenbach's La Belle Helene at Bronx Opera), Milton Granger knows his way around the genre from all angles, and was able to maximize the comic effect of clashing cultures in his talk-show send-up of a deconstructed Rigoletto: Talk Opera, staged with great subtlety by Dona D. Vaughn.
"TV hostess Cookie (a suave Kelli Harrington) never loses her cool, even in a boogie-tempoed female trio with her studio audience -- one character is called Studio (the pert Linda Karry), the other Audience (Sahoko Sato), who urges the guest opera characters to 'find the child within'. Christine Arethas, Michael Kavalhuna and Mauricio Trejo O'Reilly as Gilda, Rigoletto (continually addressed as 'Mr. Letto'), and 'Duke' were true to their 16th-century characters and costumes, each singing their often large snatches of Verdi arias with excellent English diction and flair. The skillful and witty modern counterpoint recalls the second act flirtation with an offstage production of La Traviata in the opera Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines by Jack Beeson, who was present and, like the rest of the audience, glowing.
"When asked by Aufbau if he might possibly be Jewish (something Leonard Bernstein and others often asked Jack Beeson), Milton Granger replied: 'Sorry, not a trace of Jewish heritage in my background, at least so far as I know. My mother has diligently tried to trace our genealogy on both my mother's and father's side, but keeps getting lost somewhere in the Indiana prairie around 1850. I grew up in Kansas, and when I look in the mirror all I see is Wonder Bread, but on occasion people convince themselves that I am English (the usual guess), Norwegian (!), or some other more interesting background. It's a good question; I wonder what direction I might have taken if my ethnicity weren't so totally undistinguished.'” (from Artists in Residence)
About two years ahead of me in high school was Bob Peterson, a good alto player. He and Dolan Nichols, a professional caliber drummer, formed a quintet that would blow away the competition at the high-school talent shows. I can't recall whether or not Milton Granger played piano for them. They were on a different plane because they did not use sheet music. They could read all right, but on stage they played strictly by memory and by ear, the real McCoy. I had a job working as a soda jerk for $1.00/hour at Crown Drug, and it was a dark sad night when Bob came in, ordered a lime phosphate, and said he had sold his alto. He got married, and the gist was that art was one thing, life another. Non vivrò per l'arte.
Another influence from the high-school years was a coffee house in Kansas City called the Vanguard. Guitarist/singer Danny Cox used to be the main attraction there.
"Danny Cox was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1942. He started singing as a youth in a church choir. As an 18 year old, he began his professional music career in 1960 performing on a Hootenanny Folk Tour. His first trip to Kansas City was in 1963. On that tour, he was not allowed to stay downtown at the Muehlebach Hotel because he was black. So instead he was transported across the river into Kansas City, Kansas, for his lodging. For the past 35 years, KCK has been his home. Danny Cox has recorded for ABC Dunhill, Casablanca, MGM, and others." (see Brewer and Shipley)
The Vanguard was not too seriously into jazz, but once I caught Lou Donaldson at an impromptu session there, after a planned Charlie Parker tribute concert fell through. Nearby was the movie theater where I first saw Pennebaker's Don't Look Back.
For some reason, bands like Count Basie and Woody Herman would come through town and play free concerts at shopping centers. These concerts were relatively common and not to be missed. I would also go down to the Black Musicians' Union with a few friends to hear jam sessions. The black musicians and audience treated us great, of course, and they even let some white musicians sit in, some of the guys from the UMKC jazz band. Conte Candoli also played there sometimes.
PM/PVP: Besides live music, what kinds of records were you listening to?
MS: Well, the first jazz records were all the Dave Brubeck albums of the "Take 5" era: Time Out, Time Further Out, ... was there a third one? Forget About Time? Nuts to Time? Time in Outer Space? (laughs) And Jazz Impressions of Eurasia. Good, clean fun.
Then Grandma Ackerman gave me John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard with Eric Dolphy. Obviously she got some good advice from a clerk at some record store. I can just imagine Grandma with the headset on listening to "Chasin' the Trane"! Eyes closed, rocking gently, murmuring "Far out!" No, she probably never heard that album voluntarily.
I flat-lined with my three or four Brubeck albums and the one Coltrane that was over my head. The Dukes of Dixieland were a favorite for a spell, Pete Fountain and Al Hirt, who were popular guest artists on the Lawrence Welk show, Henry Mancini's music from Peter Gunn and The Pink Panther. At some point, influenced by my friend John Cashier, who played trombone in the Hilleary band, I began to get a bit more hip, reading books about jazz and jazz artists, and starting to collect jazz albums systematically. At first there were a lot of swing-era albums featuring people like Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Django Reinhardt, and Lester Young with Count Basie. I felt guilty because I never got as enthusiastic about Ellington as I was about Basie, but in Ted Gioia's book West Coast Jazz he says that a lot of post-swing-era musicians preferred the lighter, more agile Basie sound, and especially Lester Young’s tenor style.
Then there was a racist backlash against the Brubeck and Dukes of Dixieland stuff: only black musicians were acceptable. This attitude prevented me from paying enough attention to Stan Getz at the time. We listened to Bird, Miles, Trane, Ornette, and Mingus. We had strong opinions about the nuances of the tenor work of Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry, Ben Webster, Don Byas, and Lester Young. Our loud, endless listening/jamming sessions must have driven our parents crazy -- mine, Cashier's, and Hilleary's. We cranked up Art Blakey as loud as possible, played Dylan over and over, bashed away at my arrangements, hours on end of what must have sounded like pure noise by any civilized, Lawrence Welk standards.
I became obsessed with tight combos like Art Farmer & Benny Golson's Jazztet, Clark Terry & Bob Brookmeyer's quintet with Roger Kellaway, Stan Getz & Bob Brookmeyer's quintet, Shelley Manne's quintet with Charlie Mariano on alto. From listening to these groups and Gerry Mulligan, I eventually worked my way back to Birth of the Cool, and this whole West Coast thing finally broke down my anti-white racism.
A few years ago I gave away hundreds of albums. Sylvia and I downsized our residential situation, and there was no way to keep them. A few I gave to Jay: Savoy recordings of Fats Navarro, Charlie Parker, and Lester Young. It was like giving him the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unusual, to be sure, but mainly of historical interest. He actually looked them up on e-Bay and determined that they weren’t valuable as collectors’ items. The Supersax albums, on the other hand, seem to be pretty valuable, not having been released in CD form, for some unknown reason. I also had some classical albums and a ton of Bob Dylan, even obscure stuff like the early vinyl bootlegs and Band of the Hand. The truth is that almost anything I would want is available on re-issues now, and I own far more high-quality music than I have time to listen to. Toting around a few hundred pounds of vinyl makes no sense. A fair amount of this stuff is available at the public library.
PM/PVP: Apparently you came from a musical family. Tell us how your family has influenced your work.
MS: I mainly practiced by writing arrangements for the family trio, Dad (Gene) on guitar, Sis (Mari) on Hammond organ, and myself on alto.
My parents and my children have all influenced me, as well as my friends and acquaintances, mostly from high school, and Sylvia's family and friends. You can’t swing a cat near our family without hitting a musician. Mari and her husband Earl Robbins are very musical, doing performances and studio recordings of their own music. Jay has taken Flamenco lessons, and he studied classical guitar in college. At Pomona my daughter Meredith choreographed Push, and Jay wrote the music. Meredith has always been interested in dance, martial arts, and percussion, including vibes at one time. The MP3 of Push is available on the Piltdown Music web-site, and it's one of the most popular downloads. Production Value Productions re-mastered it from magnetic tape, since the original digital masters were lost. Sadly, there is no video of the dance.
Jay has the best ear in the family. He can sing and is all-around musically talented. As a freshman in high school he had the lead, the John Travolta role, in Grease. This was more than a routine high-school kick, as he was coached by the famous soprano Eilana Lappalainen, who was then with the San Jose Opera and was doing pro-bono work at his high school. What a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience! The angel of music smacked him with her magic wand!
Also in high school Jay was able to get formal instruction in electronic music, because he was in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which offered many exceptional opportunities. He studied MIDI and electronic music from 1988 to 1996, both in high school and in college (with Karl Kohn ).
When Jay graduated from Pomona in 1996, he and I bought a Korg X5D, and I later bought a Korg NS5R rack-mount. Jay has the X5D and the NS5R now, and I’ve pursued a different, sample-based direction with the Native Instruments Kontakt system. Jay’s style is totally different from mine, because he’s a natural ear, voice, and performance-based musician, whereas I'm a theory-based composer/arranger. It's a good bet I never would have learned MIDI if not for Jay, and that means I never would have got back into composing and arranging. So blame him! (laughs)
PM/PVP: How did things change for you after high school?
MS: Well, I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. Even with no knowledge and no strategy, back then it was possible to get a real scholarship. The dominant philosophy was that talent is scarce, it has to be identified and developed, and that's a national priority due to the Cold War. So even in my case, where I was just bumbling around aimlessly, they found me.
I applied to just three colleges: Kansas University, Northwestern, and Carleton. My "strategy" was as follows: 1) KU is close, and everyone from Shawnee Mission North goes to KU unless they go to one of the military academies. 2) I have two friends, John Linner and Cecil Tickamyer, at Carleton. 3) Another friend, David Johnston, has an older brother at Northwestern. Word-of-mouth, you see? Not only did we not know what to do, we did not know how to find out what to do. We were clueless.
I never visited Northwestern or Carleton. I visited KU, stayed at a frat house, hated it, and scratched KU off my list. I chose Carleton because it was the smaller of the two remaining choices, actually about half the size of my high school. I got a full ride on a Sloan Scholarship, and also a college job. Rather than shoveling snow or working in the kitchen, my so-called "job" was assistant director of the pep band. Boom! Back in the music business! John Jewczyn was the pep-band director. John was a fine trumpet player, though his true loves were film and photography.
Linner and I had a jazz show on the campus radio station, KARL. Albums were available through the station at discounted prices. I helped organize a stage band, but we could not keep it together. I wrote a handful of arrangements, "Alfie", "Soon It's Gonna Rain" from The Fantasticks, and a few originals. So I stayed involved in music, but nowhere near the intensity level of high school.
There were some excellent jazz concerts at the Guthrie and elsewhere in the Twin Cities: Roland Kirk, Monk, Mose Allison, Miles, Charles Lloyd, Ornette, the Paul Winter Consort, Flora Purim, Charles Lloyd, Gary Burton, and Cannonball Adderley. One time our pal from KARL, Ed Danielson, brought the Elvin Jones Trio to campus. When they took a break, half the audience left. Elvin said, "How come they're leaving?" Ed said, "Uh, they're going to get their friends", but we didn't believe that. We thought they were Velvet Underground fans who had just bailed out. Ed’s story turned out to be true, though! There was a much bigger audience after the break.
My friend Cecil Tickamyer brought Dave “Snaker” Ray to campus on more than one occasion. Dave was a white blues interpreter from the Twin Cities, well-known for his role in a trio with “Spider” John Koerner and Tony “Little Sun” Glover. Dave had a solo album on Elektra called Fine Soft Land, which remains one of my favorites. He and Glover also released a nifty duo CD in 1993 called Picture Has Faded. Dave died recently at the age of 59. By a miracle Fine Soft Land has finally been re-issued as a CD -- in 2010.
PM/PVP: Anyone who has heard your music can tell you're a pretty decent programmer. How did you get started in computing?
MS: I had an early interest in math, computing, and simulation games, especially simulating sports like baseball and football. I developed an intuitive understanding of probability by working on my own baseball simulation game. The technology, of course, was crude by today's standards, but the concepts were the same. I stole the idea from a commercial product that was already on the market in the early 1960s, so you can see it goes way back. Not the dumb electric football game with the vibrating metal playing field. This was a real baseball simulation game, functionally similar to today’s computer games or fantasy baseball. Remember, baseball cards were popular even back then, and this simulation game concept is only a short step from baseball cards. Baseball cards were the input to my game, the source of the event probabilities.
I never programmed until I got to Carleton in 1966. It was the late Dr. John K. Bare, then chair of the Psychology Department, who told me to go over to the computer center and check it out. My first language was Fortran II, and later I picked up IBM 1620 assembly. Carleton was closely associated with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), and I learned to program in Focal on PDP 8/L and 8/I minicomputers. Eventually a network of DEC machines and teletypes was up and running, but it was never very robust. I did not learn assembly on the DEC machines, only on the 1620 and, much later, the Z80.
Drop acid, go to the computer center at night, and watch the lights flash.
“There used to be a program for the 1620 that worked like this. You put an AM radio on the CPU console, and tuned it for the loudest noise. (They generated a lot of random RF noise that could play havoc on nearby electronic equipment.) Then you fed in a deck of cards. The radio would play ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ and the line printer would play the drum rolls.” (from )
An early digital/analog synthesizer running on a general-purpose computer, with a wireless interface!
It was also possible to play around with Wang and Hewlett-Packard programmable calculators. The Wangs were programmed by manually punching cards with a stylus, and the cards were read by single-card readers that looked like waffle irons. The waffle irons could be chained for longer programs. What a Rube Goldberg approach! There were probably rules like, “A loop may not span more than one waffle iron”. The HP was much more elegant and technically advanced. It looked something like an electric typewriter and stored its programs on small magnetic cards, about the size of credit-cards today.
This was during the era of punched cards, paper tape, and even oiled paper tape. Weird stuff. You could fix your program by picking up a chad off the floor, licking it, and sticking it back into a Hollerith card. If you wanted to program, you had to know enough mechanical engineering to service the card reader. If the paper tape reader malfunctioned, it would throw your tape around the room, just like a ticker-tape parade. This was a time of transition.
In college my computing education came entirely from my own trial-and-error efforts, guided by the expertise of some friends: Ed Giegler, who had worked at Argonne as a high school student; Mark Bramhall, who later worked for Digital Equipment and other IT companies; Dave Barstow, who actually got a Ph.D. in Computer Science and then did AI work for Schlumberger; and Stefan Michalowski, who got his Ph.D. in Physics from Cornell and later worked at the Stanford Center for Design Research. He is now with the European Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). His father had been Ambassador to the U.S. from Poland, and his brother holds a chair in Linguistics at the University of Michigan. Stefan speaks perfect American-accented English, as well as Polish, French, and Russian. He did not understand the concept of "having a foreign accent". He taught me to program in Fortran II. Barstow and Giegler taught me IBM 1620 assembly. Bramhall was the PDP 8/L and 8/I expert. At that time there were no Computer Science courses taught at Carleton.
One of the younger people who hung around the computer center was David Dyer-Bennet, nephew of the famous folk singer Richard Dyer-Bennet. David’s father, John, taught math and coached soccer. I actually took Linear Algebra from John Dyer-Bennet. He disapproved of folk music, jazz, and computers. He would stop by the computer center from time to time to ridicule David and the rest of us. That was motivational. John’s point was well-taken, though it took me many years to appreciate it: Computer Science is not about trial-and-error programming, it’s about mathematics.
In grad school I learned Fortran IV (G and H) on the IBM 360/91. I also studied PL/I and the Spitbol dialect of SNOBOL4. I did my entire thesis on punched cards, two Steelcase file drawers full of roff. All that keypunching gave me serious back problems. There were times when I couldn’t walk the few blocks from the computer center to Green Hall without stopping to lie down on the steps of the Woodrow Wilson Building.
After I got my first job, teaching at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN, I learned TRS-80 Basic, Pascal, and C. I did an implementation of the Wirth Portable Pascal compiler, including a P-Code interpreter, using SNOBOL4 and Fortran on Harris equipment that was roughly equivalent to the DEC Vax machines of that era, the mid-1970s. Besides Basic, I also used Z80 assembly on the Trash-80. We were at the University of Michigan (We saw Glenn Gould's office!) in 1981-82, and I needed to write my own terminal-emulation program. I was also using SNOBOL4 again, this time as an embedded component of the Amdahl 470 mainframe operating system.
You know, this reminds me, we were in Santa Fe for the 2005 opera season. We heard some wonderful things, including an opera about Lorca by Osvaldo Golijov. It was called Ainadamar, and Peter Sellars had saved it from obscurity. (It’s available on CD now.) You could argue one way or another about its artistic merits, but it was struggling to tell some truths about the life-and-death issues of our times. A couple of years ago we had seen a performance of Golijov's Pasion Segun San Marcos, featuring Luciana Souza, down in L.A. That was a monumental piece of work! Music is intrinsically boring, but I walked out of the theater wanting to hear Pasion again right away.
Why this digression from Ann Arbor? Well, it was while we were in Ann Arbor that I first heard George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children. Just saying the name of that piece gives me chills. Crumb is just an overpowering genius, perhaps comparable to Charles Ives or Miles Davis. And Crumb was a major influence on Golijov, a mentor if you like.
So we're in Ann Arbor, the kids are in kindergarten and second grade, Sylvia’s working on her M.S. in Computer Science (She already has her Ph.D. in Biology.), and we're grooving on the University of Michigan, some nice public radio (We had no TV!), classic movies, and Schoolkids Records, where we picked up some vintage Richard Dyer-Bennet and Ancient Voices of Children. When your kids are in kindergarten and second grade, they should be listening to Ancient Voices.
About that time Ralph Griswold, SNOBOL visionary, was working on a successor to SNOBOL4, the Icon Programming Language. Icon has a deceptively simple syntax but powerful, generator-based semantics with backtracking. For many years after that, I programmed exclusively in Icon. The first version of Mugix, then called ACIDE (Arrangers’ and Composers’ Integrated Development Environment, a title that reflected more a goal than a reality), was written in Icon. Before writing ACIDE, I wrote some early MIDI compositions directly in Icon, including note-level control and all the low-level MIDI-code generation. I know more than I should about the standard MIDI file format, and it’s not pretty.
While we were at Michigan I had my first exposure to real Computer Science, the work of Tony Hoare, Bill Roscoe, and Steve Schneider, the Oxford Programming Group. They did some beautiful work. Tony Hoare should get the Nobel Prize for Literature for Communicating Sequential Processes, and Jim Davies should get the Nobel Peace Prize or some humanitarian award for making it available free on line.
Working in Icon, one of the things I tried to do was to generate "ad-lib solos" by rule. This was unsatisfactory. I used a revised approach in Mugix, a more conservative approach, closer to conventional notation, implemented in Excel and Java. I experimented with VBA macros in Excel, but it was not worth the effort. VBA is far too ugly and limited. It just kills portability, and there’s not much payback for that sacrifice. I made some excursions into Java Swing, also too ugly and limited, not productive, too much overhead. You have to realize that GUIs are not appropriate for every kind of application, especially applications that are fundamentally algebraic. Notation-based GUIs for sequencers are the worst! They’ll put you on the fast track to carpal tunnel syndrome: clicking and pointing and dragging maybe three or four times per note is slow, tedious, error-prone, and painful!
So today Mugix is notation-oriented and conventional. It allows for some generation but so far, the more generation, the less listenable the music. Generation tends to be either too predictable or too unpredictable. Either way it’s boring. We have to seek equilibrium among the computer's power, the composer's skill, and the audience's attention span. The computer can let you do things that undermine the art. Wendy Carlos is very clear on this point. Early on, I did some things so stupid I don't want to mention them. For example, I would buy a 100-minute tape and write four 25-minute-long pieces to fill it up. Lazy crap, using the computer to do all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons.
PM/PVP: The time at Michigan was more or less in the middle of a blank spot in your musical life. What caused you to lapse into a musical coma for 25 years? How did you recover?
MS: Well, first of all, I was not in a coma! Maybe a comma. (laughs) I did shift my focus, after the Princeton experience, in a couple of ways, mainly working for a living and, as my creative focus, making audio tape mixes of Bob Dylan tunes and other pop music. It was the tape-mix activity that provided the path back into composing and arranging. I started experimenting with jazz mixes, and even some classical, based on my collection of vinyl. And then Jay convinced me that if I simply bought a synthesizer, I would be able to download free MIDI files from the Internet and make mixes of those. Gary Wachtel (GaryW0001) was a major force at that time (mid-1990s) and still is, I guess. Of course, these tape mixes had no commercial value, but my parents and other family members appreciated receiving them.
What? Well, I thought they liked them.
Eventually I developed an intense bootleg-tape trading habit around the Dylan stuff, including the rec.music.dylan newsgroup. I mean, I spent a lot of time listening to tapes I didn't even like. When I found myself running out of disk space because of ludicrous amounts of Kazaa activity, I knew I had to take the cure. Now I don't do newsgroups, and all that negative/passive downloading, archiving, and trading stuff has been replaced by a more positive energy around composing and arranging. I still have enough MP3 tracks for months – maybe years -- of continual listening with no repeats. But, as Jay says, “How much of that do you actually want to listen to?”
In the mid-1990s, the Monterey Jazz Festival was a good source of real music. We heard Bruce Forman, a masterful Bay Area guitarist who recorded with Joe Henderson. We also heard him in a duo with a singer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Imagine a nice rendition of “You Go To My Head” with a giant sunfish swimming lazily in the background. We were able to see several artists who have now passed on, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and Gerry Mulligan. I remember one warm Sunday afternoon Sylvia and I heard a set by Stan Getz that was just transcendent. I would say it was a religious experience, if I were religious.
PM/PVP: Was it the illegal aspect of bootlegs and downloads that bothered you? Did you feel perhaps that you, an aspiring artist, were stealing from fellow artists?
MS: Not at all. It was the low quality and the passive nature of the activity, kind of like reading books. I feel I'm more of a writer than a reader, and life is brief.
PM/PVP: Who are the top arrangers, and what are the memorable arrangements, in your opinion?
MS: Funny, there are lots of possible answers, but the first thing that popped into my head was Tito Puente's arrangement of "Take Five". It's in 4/4! I love that arrangement. Definitively hip.
There are many arrangers that I've admired. One of my all-time favorite arrangements is Gil Evans's "La Nevada" from Out of the Cool. It has a nice coherent architecture and develops good momentum, while at the same time leaving open space for the soloists. And speaking of cool, the entire Birth of the Cool album. And speaking of Gil Evans, all of his albums with Miles: Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain, and Porgy and Bess. Did I forget one? Remember, Miles wasn’t on Out of the Cool. I never owned Into the Hot, so I’m not sure about that. Anyway, these are landmark works.
I enjoyed Li'l Old Groovemaker -- Basie! with Quincy Jones's very refined arrangements. And Woody Herman 1964 -- "Hallelujah Time". Anybody would love to do an arrangement like that. I used to listen to it, pick up the needle, and play it again. And the Charles Mingus album Mingus Mingus Mingus. I loved the band, the soloists, and the arrangements, the ballads like “Mood Indigo”, as well as the up-tempo tracks like “Better Get It In Your Soul”.
One album that's not well known is Michel Legrand's Legrand Jazz. He did some unique arrangements for various instrumentations, all kinds of interesting ideas, and different on every track, even though he only used jazz standards like “Night In Tunisia”, “Django”, and “Stompin’ At the Savoy”. I can’t recall all the personnel off the top of my head, but they were top jazz talent, people like Miles, Bill Evans, Trane, Paul Chambers, Art Farmer, Phil Woods, Herbie Mann, maybe Jimmy Knepper – no, Jimmy Cleveland on trombone. But there was at least one track that used multiple trombones along with flute, so maybe they were both on there. Also some nice work by Ben Webster.
Of course, Monk's Big Band and Quartet.
Gerald Wilson’s still active. I used to enjoy his albums around the time Joe Pass was with the band. I recall a nice treatment of “Milestones”, and Joe Pass was impressive on “Round Midnight”.
Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Long Yellow Road. Though I wasn't a big Ellington fan, I liked Mingus and Akiyoshi, Ellington disciples.
I still enjoy some of those old Brubeck classics -- for example, "Blue Rondo a la Turk" -- I'm a sucker for the alternating 9/8 and 4/4 releasing to swing in 4. Probably the most ambitious arrangements for small combos were done by Brubeck and by the Modern Jazz Quartet. It's hard to do much with a combo. In fact, trying to do sophisticated arrangements can just kill the energy.
I liked George Russell’s work on The Stratus Seekers. That’s now available on CD. Also Ezz-thetic, Jazz Workshop, and other stuff. There’s something about those early albums that sounds immediate, engaging, and musical, mainly because they aren’t over-produced.
Miles was a major force for innovation all along the way. I like all his work, but especially Filles de Kilimanjaro. The Mahavishnu Orchestra did some innovative work around the same time on Inner Mounting Flame.
These are all things from back in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Currently, I don't see much innovation in composing and arranging. Some of the vocalists have used interesting arrangements: Kitty Margolis on Straight Up With a Twist, Lisa Sokolov on Presence, Kurt Elling, and Tierney Sutton. Personally, I enjoy Lorraine Feather's work. Her lyrics are funny, and her arrangements are hip. The main thing, though, is that she can really execute the vocals.
It’s hard to see how anyone can break new ground in the big-band idiom. What are you going to do that hasn't been done by Ellington, Gillespie, George Russell, Mingus, Quincy Jones, Monk, Michel Legrand, Gil Evans, Stan Kenton, Bill Russo, Tadd Dameron, Manny Albam, Gerry Mulligan, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Carla Bley, Gerald Wilson, Akiyoshi and Tabackin, Mahavishnu, and all the great Latin band leaders? Where are you going to go? What have they missed?
People who are pushing even a little bit on the boundaries -- Branford Marsalis, for example, or Osvaldo Golijov -- can make a living, but they don't have a large audience. I guess when I mention Osvaldo Golijov as an "arranger", that's getting pretty far from most people's definition of the word. But I mention him in particular because that's where there may be space for innovation: outside the jazz box and outside the classical box. There must be a lot of space outside those two boxes. Zappa, Crumb, Ravi Shankar, Afro-Cuban space.
PM/PVP: Is popularity important? How do you measure popularity?
MS: Remember that dialogue from Caddyshack? Chevy Chase says he doesn't keep score in golf, so Ted Knight asks him how he measures himself against other golfers. Chevy says, "By height." In my case, I would say, "By weight."
As an amateur, I don't have to be concerned about popularity. If you want to categorize me, put me in the amateur category with Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens. (laughs) I've been very fortunate in that I have not been the target of professional jealousy.
Overall, the aggregate popularity of piltdown.com has been increasing every month since the site went on line, sometime after 1996, I'm not sure when. It would be foolish to attribute this to anything but the general growth of the Internet, but at least the Piltdown site hasn't gone downhill. And I do try to keep it updated, add some new material, prune the dead links, and so forth. I now use a Java program I wrote to test all the links. Checking them by hand was a real drag.
PM/PVP: How much do you care about popularity?
MS: I never write with anyone but myself in mind, but I often change things based on feedback from Sylvia and Jay. I change things because I respect their perceptions. You can never look at your own work objectively, and smart people are giving you a unique gift when they listen and give you feedback: that bass line or that percussion track’s just not working, there’s too much chaos, too much repetition, too much timbral uniformity, or maybe you got something just right. Both Jay and Sylvia tend to say the latest thing I've written is my best, and they're usually right. I tend to elide older stuff and replace it with more recent stuff on the web site, but that’s not a rigid rule. If something’s relatively popular, it’s hard to take it off. On the other hand, if something’s chronically unpopular and I have my own doubts about it, then it’s toast. I guess the formula for survival is that I have to like it unequivocally or it has to be popular.
The point is, you can't judge those things for yourself, at least not confidently. I enjoy getting favorable comments. Linner said I should be on the Downbeat list of "talent deserving wider recognition" as a composer/arranger. He was joking, but not being totally sarcastic: It was a tongue-in-cheek compliment. The real gist was, “It’s amazing what you’ve accomplished with your crude tools and limited ability.” I like getting comments like that from people I respect, even when they're joking, but I still refuse to write with other people in mind. Realistically, I am the biggest segment of my audience. Much more than half of what I've written has been discarded because I couldn't stand listening to it myself. It became embarrassing or annoying or just boring to me, not to anyone else. No one else would listen to it enough to get bored. If you need the server-space and there’s something out there you’re not comfortable with, you retire it, chalk it up as a "learning experience", and move on.
PM/PVP: Explain the "5 Principles" at the bottom of the Piltdown Music Home Page.
MS: Of course, those are obviously only semi-serious. Maybe they seem silly. But for me they are reminders of some serious points.
"Moderation in the pursuit of a hobby is no virtue." Believe it or not, when I was about 15 or 16 years old, I was a big fan of Barry Goldwater. Of course, I was a political moron. But Barry Goldwater was, in retrospect, a man of honor and integrity, compared to a lot of we've had since. So I picked up on his infamous statement, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” My hobby’s what keeps me going. I'm a recovering workaholic, and I need to remind myself that no one can justify his life in terms of a paycheck. Aesthetics is everything.
"What's the worst thing you can do as an artist? Try to get people to like you." Well, that's fairly glib, and much easier said than done. Even an amateur wants to be appreciated. Too bad, since it's the amateur who should have at least a chance at being ruthlessly experimental.
"Lack of skill dictates economy of style." (Attributed to Joey Ramone.) Yes and no, actually. The technology available today on a cheap computer makes superficial complexity achievable without much skill. Programming skill may outstrip musical skill. On the other hand, new kinds of structure can be rendered – what it actually does is create a sense of experimentation, pushing beyond what humans happen to be able to play on instruments they happen to have invented. Yet if someone wanted to argue that this new technology just exposes the limits of musical imagination, I would have a hard time refuting that.
I believe that Piltdown shows a fairly broad spectrum of possibilities, from excessive technology-driven complexity to extreme simplicity dictated by limited musical skill. Maybe I can work toward some kind of pleasing balance as in the New Complexity movement. Since 1950 computer chess has progressed from laughable bumbling to beating the top human grandmasters.
"A mix is never finished, you just have to abandon it." I’d rather stop early than polish the electrons. To put it another way, I’d rather have two rough drafts than one finely honed artifice. If something really bothers me on repeated listening, I can either go back and work on it some more, or simply delete it. It’s a triage process: enjoy the flaws, try to repair them, or euthanize. In my opinion, you get pretty quickly to a point of diminishing returns.
"Time don’t mean nothin’ to a hog." My dad grew up in rural Missouri during the Depression. He had lots of jokes about farm life, and one was about the eager young ag-school student trying to convince an old farmer to use new and better feed. “If you use this feed, your hogs will gain weight twice as fast!” To which the farmer replied, “Time don't mean nothin' to a hog.” The value of technology is never absolute or objective. Technology modulates existing forms of life.
"Music is intrinsically boring." I'll simply quote my favorite music theorist, David Temperley, from his book The Cognition of Basic Musical Structures (MIT Press, 2004 edition, p. 235), “[W]ith enough hearings, the appeal of a piece will begin to fade.” Temperley presents this as a self-evident fact, and I believe he's right. My ideal goal, a goal beyond my reach, is to write music that I will not get tired of hearing. This involves a kind of triage. Maybe a piece is not very appealing from the get-go. Bye-bye. But it's hard to tell what the shelf life will be if it sounds o.k. at first. I don't know what to do other than wait and see.
In JazzImprov, Vol. 5, No. 4, p. 35, George Benson says: “[Grant Green] could make all the strings sound like one string, as if you're playing on one string. That's a trick -- the way you tune the amplifier and you adjust the guitar treble. [...] His strings all sounded even and that gave his lines more extension.... They didn't go from a high shrill on the light strings to a big boomy bass sound that happens in a lot of people's playing.”
Now when I wrote my arrangement of "Angel Eyes", or my swing arrangement of Palestrina’s "Kyrie", I was going completely in the opposite direction. Jay had criticized my guitar sound on things like "When I Fall in Love" and "Angel Eyes" because it did sound like one string! So I bought a top-notch, expensive 8-string-guitar sample library to get exactly the kind of sound that Grant Green and George Benson were trying to get away from!
Or consider my arrangement of "What's New?" I used all sorts of tricks, such as mixing different sample libraries from different vendors for the saxes, trumpets, and trombones; detuning each instrument slightly; varying dwell, attack, and release times slightly; all these tricks on top of the built-in tricks in Mugix, all to escape the organ sound and try to make it sound like a more realistic band. But you want to be in idea-space, not trick-space. Again, art not technology. By the way, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Saxes – listen to each other! Blend! It should sound like an organ!”
It's futile anyway: No one’s going to listen to my arrangement and say, “Wow! Is that the Basie Band?” And the bag of tricks reaches a point where you’re copying a digital recording of the Basie Band the hard way. Why not just buy a CD of the Basie Band?
PM/PVP: Looking toward the future, what are the most interesting threads in the winds of change today? What do you see yourself doing with your few remaining years of continence?
MS: Another good question, and one that I don't get asked often enough. Assuming I have time to program, assuming I'm retired, with infinite, or some, time on my hands, I still would not work on a snazzy GUI for Mugix. GUI development’s a swamp full of red herrings. Java’s a fine programming language, but Swing sucks. (The reason is that people like Hoare and Dijkstra gave us a theory of procedural programming, but there is no theory of graphical interface design.) Excel offers an interface that’s not perfect, but is good enough for what I want to do. There are a couple of icky little work-arounds I had to do in order to use Excel, but my point is that any GUI I can even imagine would be inferior to Excel.
I would definitely try to improve Mugix from a software engineering standpoint. I need to clean and tighten up the code. We computer-savvy types now call it “re-factoring”. From an object-oriented perspective Mugix is half-baked. In the O-O paradigm you have to build a working prototype to figure out what's do-able and worth doing. You have to use the working prototype to discover what’s required. The reason is that what’s needed depends on unimaginable details of the tasks at hand. You can’t arm-chair the design. Then you need to re-write the code to get it right from a software engineering perspective. I have just started the re-writing, and it's not pretty at all.
I have to simplify radically, drop the GM2 features and other features that will never be used. I need to make better use of Java’s Patterns and Regexp (regular-expression) Matchers. I am getting rid of some utility classes that were only needed because of my own ignorance. I can now make better use of standard Java IO, Buffered Readers and Writers. When I was first porting Mugix from Icon to Java, I knew a lot less about Java than I know now. One of the profound things I’ve learned is that, whenever you’re writing code in Java, you should stop and spend some time trying to find that code, either in Java packages or in open-source work. Don’t write it, find it – that’s the Java paradigm. Another fundamental error I made was to program what I thought I might need, rather than going incrementally and programming what I definitely did need. Now I am cutting back to what I know from experience is useful.
There’s a natural tendency in Java not to make programs self-contained. You want to leverage other people's work, especially open-source work, as I just said. I have done that to some degree in Mugix, and I should do more in that direction. The downside, though, is that other people’s work is evolving at various rates and in various directions different from your own work -- evolving and sometimes dying. Dependencies are always risky.
Above all, I need to do some serious unit-testing. I'm embarrassed to admit that not all the parts of Mugix may work the way I think they do! Testing takes a lot of time. Some parts have been thoroughly tested, some not.
I wan to experiment with different musical ideas, interleaved with code improvement and testing. I would like to create innovative sounds that are still musical and listenable. I will try to avoid imitation and self-imitation, and limit the production of etudes.
It's best to have a limited focus at any given time, and work on local development of ideas. I have learned the hard way that working on several compositions at once is, for me, a bad approach. I know some people can be productive shifting among different projects. For me interruption is disruption. My memory’s degrading, not improving.
I probably would continue to draw inspiration from visual arts & literature, as with the Wallace Stevens pieces (“Owl's Clover” and “The Comedian As the Letter C” are my favorites.), and some experimental things I'm tinkering with that were inspired by reading Morton Feldman, John Ashbery, and Frederick Seidel. Film music is another ineresting topic.
I’m trying to wean myself away from arrangements of jazz standards, although I still have several jazz and blues originals that would be easy and fun to arrange if I had the time. On the piltdown web-site, I would like to have server-space be the bottleneck, by which I mean that I want to like all the posted material. There’s some stuff out there now that should be replaced with better stuff. To be honest, though, it’s all I can do to keep myself from embarking on The Jerome Kern Songbook or some such sentimental journey. I really-really-really want to do arrangements of jazz standards. I have to get Jay to hit me with a brick and remind me that it’s all been done before, done many times, and done well. The compromise is to do no arrangements of other people’s compositions, only of original compositions.
I might want to revisit semi-algorithmic composition, using newer and hopefully more musical ideas, stochastic experiments, textures, but not letting that dominate the whole piece; that is, embedding those things inside more conventional structures. I have some ideas along these lines that I need time to explore. The trick’s to make algorithmic composition, or rather algorithmic elements in composition, musically interesting and listenable. I don't think anyone has accomplished that, certainly not I. If the listener’s reaction is “Oh, wow! That’s weird!” or “Ha ha!”, well, that’s not what I’m shooting for.
But even if I do start experimenting again with algorithmic approaches, I won't be trying to generate jazz solos by rule, because I think it's more effective to base them, more or less, on transcriptions of good solos. "Caine Plain", for example, is based on a transcribed solo by Uri Caine. More generally, I believe in the old-school classical idea, also a central tenet of jazz: you don't have to make up your own thematic material. Melodies and motifs can be found, not made. The composer/arranger's job is to try to do something interesting with the thematic material. It's often a different job from the song-writer's.
As far as the future of synthesis, there needs to be some kind of smooth merge between synthesis and sampling. Sample-based systems like Kontakt are just amazing. Kontakt made me drop conventional synthesis like a hot rock. But eventually all music becomes, in Wendy Carlos's words, "tiring to the ear". Early synthesis got tiring right away, additive synthesis took a little longer, sampling gets there more slowly, but it gets there. Even the best recorded music gets there eventually.
It's sad to see such entrenched audiences for conventional, repetitious performance, whether jazz, classical, rock, or pop. The audience undercuts the performers. With few exceptions, even the top performers are suspicious of innovation. Jazz has been riding a rising popularity curve as it’s given up on innovation. You can't expect the audience to lead the performers in new directions, and the performers can't afford to lead the audience. It's particularly sad to see jazz dissolving into a thousand community-college programs, because the hallmark of jazz was individuality and innovation.
PM/PVP: Well, who counts as innovative, in your humble opinion?
MS: Krzysztof Penderecki, 1959, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. I had the privilege of hearing this in live performance with Penderecki himself conducting. It restored my faith in natural acoustic music. It’s extremely unconventional and at the same time completely captivating, especially in the live performance. The audience was mesmerized and amazed. The orchestra was equally mesmerized and amazed. My college roommate Stefan Michalowski once brought me a vinyl LP of Threnody back from a visit to Poland. I also wore out a vinyl copy of Devils of Loudon. Penderecki’s definitely a factor in my composition "Foreign Song". You can hear his influence on composers like Gloria Coates and Thomas Adès.
The late Elliot Carter – his piano music, the string quartets. During the celebration of Carter's 100th birthday, we went up to San Francisco for some performances, and of course we bought the CDs. I thought he must have had some influence on the New Complexity folks, and a little research showed that was, in fact, the case. Some people don’t find Carter accessible. The San Francisco crowd was enthusiastic and highly appreciative. There was great rapport between the performers and the audience.
Miles Davis -- 1968, Filles de Kilimanjaro -- a spectacular achievement, a new and yet an immediately accessible idiom. Miles was a true artist, in that he never wanted to stop innovating, he was always searching for new sounds, but he always had an audience. At one time, so I read, he was the highest-paid jazz musician, even beyond Dave Brubeck. That might be true, false, or meaningless, but in any case Miles always had an audience. I tried to imitate Miles's sound in my little piece "Out-Take". My idea was, this was an out-take from Filles de Kilimanjaro. Ha ha.
George Crumb, 1970, Ancient Voices of Children. We wore out a vinyl copy of that in Michigan, as I said earlier. Again unconventional, it does not remind you of anything else, and yet it’s beautiful to hear. You are going to pay attention to every moment of it. You need both those elements: unconventional and listenable. If it seems pretty just because it’s familiar, or if it demands attention just because it’s arbitrary and grating, that’s not good enough. Some people would say, well, it’s not going to be listenable if it’s unfamiliar. Ancient Voices proves that’s not true.
Recently, under Jay's influence, I've been listening to a lot of Alternative and Indie music. There are some jazz musicians -- Brad Mehldau, The Bad Plus -- who have picked up on this style, too. There are definite roots in the singer-songwriters of the 1960s, such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Velvet Underground and The Beatles. Their influence is transmitted through a diverse group of musicians ranging through Laurie Anderson, The Roches (very important and pivotal), Talking Heads, Ween, They Might Be Giants, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Frank Black and the Pixies, Elliott Smith, Radiohead, Beck, and Björk. Now we have Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, The Felice Brothers, and Metric. For some reason, the genre seems to peter out south of North Carolina, and it seems to do well in Canada and Europe, nless so in Asia.
These are just a few scattered names in a landscape where literally hundreds of bands come and go. The denizens seems to accept (cheerfully?) the fact that most bands have no more than two or three good songs to offer, so the bands form, try, and die like mayflies. The names of the bands are as important as the music -- gotta have a clever, intriguing name , maybe humorous: Joseph Haydn, Wingnut Dishwasher Union, Michael Jordan Touchdown Pass; or an arch movie reference: Throw Me the Statue, Time to Die, Rosebud, Wheat; maybe something vaguely 60s-ish: The Wombats, The Coup, Icehouse, The Necks, Veil Veil Vanish, The Bug (& Warrior Queen), Toadliquor, The Crayon Fields, Poni Hoax; maybe defiant: A Place to Bury Strangers, Bomb the Music Industry, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, Sister Machine Gun, Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Depreciation Guild, Satanstompingcaterpillars, Kiss the Anus of a Black Cat; or transgressive: Kissing the Pink, Pearl Jam, Vaselines, Von Bondies, Binary Weeny, Dingle Wafer, Agoraphobic Nosebleed; maybe something like a Zappa song title: Western States Motel, Love is Chemicals, I Was a Cub Scout, Bark Psychosis; maybe just obscurely arbitrary or arbirarily obscure: Swervedriver, Close Lobsters, Jukebox the Ghost, Las Ketchup, Liquid Liquid, Wrekonize, Unlike Pluto, Shpongle; and for a while F-F names seemed especially popular: Fiery Furnaces, Fleet Foxes, Final Fantasy, Foo Fighters, Franz Ferdinand, Fred Frith, Fanfarlo, Friendly Fires, Flight Facilities, Flic Flac, A Fine Frenzy, Fahrenheit 451, Flatfoot 56, Faith First, Fantastic Four, Funeral Fog, Fear Factory, Funeral For a Friend, Five For Fighting, Fearless Flying Frog Brigade -- on and on. This trend seems to be fading now.
In any case,
there is more to it than cute or clever band names. The 1970s were occupied by the digestion
of amplification, the 80s tried to absorb synthesis -- and the early
80s were aggressively shallow -- and by the 90s there
was a turn back toward music.
Today there are some loose rules of
engagement that make for listenable and interesting music, while remaining
open to influences from just about any source. Singers should be
able to sing, and vocal harmonies are a good thing; lyrics should be poetic or
clever or otherwise not insulting to the audience's intelligence; it's o.k.
to use an interesting melody line and some non-standard chords;
respect the tradition, that is, throw in an occasional respectful cover; noise
is all right, but only if used in a musical way; use all the elements of music --
melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, lyrics.
Flight Attendant: Would you please turn that off for landing? PM/PVP: Oh, sorry.
Today there are some loose rules of engagement that make for listenable and interesting music, while remaining open to influences from just about any source. Singers should be able to sing, and vocal harmonies are a good thing; lyrics should be poetic or clever or otherwise not insulting to the audience's intelligence; it's o.k. to use an interesting melody line and some non-standard chords; respect the tradition, that is, throw in an occasional respectful cover; noise is all right, but only if used in a musical way; use all the elements of music -- melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, lyrics.
Flight Attendant: Would you please turn that off for landing?
PM/PVP: Oh, sorry.
Updated January 22, 2015, Piltdown Music