This will be a quick post about my recent practice making electronic and computer music. My creative process has always been… complicated. A contributing factor may be that I rarely reuse compositional systems or take on projects that closely resemble previous ones. I have diverse and varied interests so there’s always something pulling me away from whatever I am currently working on. However, a thread that weaves throughout my work and has been a part of my process for the better part of two decades now is improvisation.
My interest in improvisation began when I was about 10 years old and I discovered I had more fun making up songs at the piano than I did practicing and playing the pieces of those composers who were assigned to me((I still enjoy “correcting” the notes of those great masters when I play their music through extensive (and non-traditional) ornamentation or more dramatic transgressions such as playing pieces in the wrong mode. If I may suggest a couple, Prelude 22 in Bb minor played in major is an absolute joy. You will have to get creative around bars 10-12 as the piece modulates. Prelude 8 in Eb minor is also really quirky and great in major, but requires even greater feats of musical athleticism as the modulation keys are completely ill-suited for a major key :D)). This eventually led to study of music composition and a formalization of compositional process that took me further and further away from the practice of improvisation over the years. Without realizing it, I was losing the love of what first pulled me into making music in the first place.
In the late 1990s I began studying Zen Buddhism and the Japanese Zen arts through D.T. Suzuki’s (who else?) seminal writing on the subject. Little by little, and quite unconsciously, I began to reintroduce improvisation into my practice. In little pieces here and there, I mixed compositional indeterminacy with performance options and wrote short pieces in an extremely limited amount of time that I called Instant Music (just add ideas®). This eventually led to the formation of a regular practice creating improvisational electronic music with my friend and Yale colleague Brian Kane under the name El MuCo (Electronic Music Composers). We were active for a little over two years during which time we played shows from Hartford to Miami. It was an extremely rewarding time — I learned a lot both from the process and from Brian. We made a lot of electronic instruments, programs, and music and detailed our process in a series of blog posts.
As it goes, somehow I again fell away from this practice as life demanded more of Brian’s time and I undertook the academic job search full-time (yes, it is a full-time job). Later, I struggled with time management as a new lecturer teaching full-time for the first time at Yale. Then, in October of 2018 I learned that my former teacher and mentor at the Eastman Computer Music Center (ECMC) Allan Schindler had suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack. It was my time at the ECMC that was most formative in my compositional life as it introduced me to electronic and computer music and the ever-widening horizon of possibilities they offer. My friend and composer Matt Barber began organizing a memorial concert and invited all of Allan’s colleagues and former students to submit 60” pieces. I contributed with a piece I called Coleoptera A.S., an homage to Schindler as a person, some of his teaching style antics, and his music which was impeccably crafted and produced. This was the beginning of a return to the practice — now an integrated effort to not only find joy in improvisational endeavors but to continue to integrate that practice with the more laborious, less instantaneous process of composing music again. More on that effort soon, I hope.
For now, I continue to find joy in making music with others and have had the extreme fortune to make music with friends and colleagues from Yale and beyond through the OMI Synth Jams that we schedule from time-to-time. Last night was one notable collaboration. It has been an exhausting year so the jam was a very welcome occasion. It began like so many with about 30 minutes of tech setup and testing before launching into the music without so much as a “here we go!” The music that comes out of these jams, which are never rehearsed or even talked-through beforehand, is entirely created through practice and serendipity. Sometimes the music is great, sometimes less so. But the practice is always joyful.