photo by Andrew Gill
March 6th, 2012
First of all thank you so much for doing this.
Yeah, it’s a cool idea.
I wanted to start with the Hunchback Variations opera because it’s fresh on my mind and it’s currently playing [run extended at Theater Oobleck through March 11]. I was curious how long it took you to write that seventy-five, eighty minutes of music?
I did it off and on for a couple of years. I wasn’t able to find a long span of time to work on it constantly. There was a grant that Oobleck used to help that happen, but still, with that sort of thing, you’re always putting in some of your own time.
So a couple of years basically?
Yeah, off and on, maybe a hundred days or so. I tried to make it happen faster, but it just wouldn’t. All the text is prose. There was no verse. So when you write a song with verse you come up with a verse melody and a chorus melody, and if there’s fourteen verses, you’re still repeating the same melodies; same cycle, same idea. But with this, it’s prose and it’s also this constantly developing logic, and so I would try to go fast but sometimes it would be twelve, fourteen lines in a day, wrestling, because the music had to be faithful to the structure of the writing. And it’s complex. And so you would get a paragraph-
Of the prose?
Yes, right, and you analyze it because it has it’s own form, it’s own integrity, with high points and tempos in the language. So it was a process to honor that structure that’s already there. Also in verse, you can kind of let go of logic sometimes because it’s really repetitive. But with this you have to follow it with your mind because of the logic that it demands.
It’s guiding you.
Yeah. I mean some music you can turn off your brain and it’s very physical and you don’t have to think and that’s kind of what’s so pleasurable about it. With this I didn’t want it to be intellectual only, and only driven by logic, over an hour and fifteen minutes. So the real struggle was to try to find ways of repeating motifs, repeating ideas, and feel like the music would have a momentum of it’s own; a groove. Find a groove, but still be able to work with the logic. So it became complex. Sometimes I could get a groove going, but then it had to stop because the writing demanded that it stop, and then you do something different. So it was great, a really amazing learning process.
I’m wondering with that idea of intellectual vs. emotional writing, outside of The Hunchback Variations, how that plays into your composing? If those two are at odds with each other or if they are working together when you’re writing?
I think an interesting analogy is in improvisation, learning jazz. There’s a time when you study chords and chord symbols and it expands your ear, and you can read music and read a melody and know what the chord symbols mean, and play according to that but at some point you have to forget that and just follow your musical ideas according to that structure. If you’re thinking theoretically all the time it’s kind of hard to get very soulful. There’s a lot of music theory and a lot of methods out there and it’s easy to get caught up in them. There’s a lot of technology out there. It’s easy for that stuff to take off and take control of the project. So yeah, there is a tension because I have studied music a lot and I like the theory, and it’s very interesting. But I have a rule that if your head starts working harder than your ass, or your heart, there’s a problem (laughs). You need to back up a little bit.
Ok so when you create a song, when you have an idea for something, how much is your intellect flushing that out and bringing it into fruition; as far as embellishing an original sound that you create?
I think that it’s useful to think of alternating from the intellect to something else, whatever else it is that’s going on. So maybe you start with an idea or a goal and then start working, and as you’re working you forget about the intellectual part of it and you’re just following the music. You’re in the midst of it. And you’re not being critical at all, you’re just following instincts and ideas as they come. And then you get to a point and you take a break, then you look at it and you’re your own critic.
Someone told me that John Cage said about a mental block, or a creative block-just to start working, just to get busy, and then at some point your critical faculties will take over and correct the direction or correct what you’re doing.
The other thing is, is I think it really takes awhile to warm up to the process, to get going. It’s like anything, like you think of a story that you forgot about and you remember a little bit of it, and maybe a conversation, and you say, “Oh yeah, remember that guy? Remember when they showed up at that place, and they did that thing?” And all of a sudden these little grooves start waking up again, and you get warmed up to the whole reality of that story.
When you’re writing, or in the creative process, it’s the same thing. If you think that you’re going to come out with something great in the first hour, forget about it. You just have to start working. And your brain starts finding this groove and these little pieces of, I don’t know what it is, the way the brain works, but after an hour or so you enter into this language. And things are instinctual and natural for a while.
So I’m wondering if, over the years, is it easier to enter into that language over time? Do you feel like you can access it quicker?
Not exactly. I think that what’s easier is just believing that it’s gonna happen - not worrying. When you sit down and start working and all your ideas are stupid for an hour, it’s fine. Just start working on a stupid idea, and work it and work it, and work it, until you forget that it’s stupid and you find something interesting.
Whereas when you’re younger, you stop. You just stop and you throw the whole thing away.
You might stop or you might think it’s the most brilliant thing in the world and you repeat it over and over and over again (laughs).
So what instruments do you primarily write on?
I try to write without any instrument; to hear the idea, so to write with the ear.
How do you do that?
I will write on paper, and then if I feel like I’m getting lost or it’s getting a little too complex to hear, then I’ll put it into a music writing program, like Finale, and listen to some of the ideas and critique them and then get back into it. I do write on the piano a bit, but it’s limiting.
That’s interesting that you start on paper. Then if you don’t put it into Finale, where do you go with it, if you start on paper? Then you go to piano with it?
Eventually. I think it depends on the instrument though, too. If you’re writing for orchestra, it’s great if you can imagine playing each instrument as you’re writing so the ideas that come out are idiomatic.
I’m wondering if writing for less instrumentation is more revealing?
Oh yeah, it really is. You mean as far as exposing the music and if the motifs any good and does it go anywhere? Yeah. That was a great challenge too [with The Hunchback Variations]. Also, I thought it would be great to use these two instruments because they’re such Western icons; the cello and the piano. The Hunchback and Beethoven are also Western icons; giants, of the classic age.
It really felt like Beethoven was the intellectual one, musically, and Quasimoto was the emotional one. You definitely got that stronger sense of emotion in the music that represented him with the pizzicato cello parts, and some of the darkness that came through in that. It was neat.
Along the lines of writing still, do you have your audience in mind when you’re composing? Do you feel like you’re keeping in mind what they like, depending on what you’re writing?
That’s a double-edged question. That’s a great question. So, yes and no. You know what it is, I think? I think you can either have an audience in mind, and target something to an audience that they’ll like, and the grossest version of that is being an impersonator; when you write for advertising or jingles, or to make a hit. It’s like the president who checks the polls and says, “Ok, I want to get elected, here’s the polls. What the polls say, I should believe in.”
Yeah. So that’s a skill. It’s a great skill. And it’s great for developing a skill. And I’ve done some of that; done some writing for advertising and writing by formula. But the most interesting stuff to me is when someone’s writing as true as they can to themselves and writing out of their own experiences. An example; the stuff I really like, you know my favorite composer is ‘Anonymous’ because those were melodies that came out of peoples lives and sometimes it’s a matter of survival. Like you’re working, and working really hard and the only way you can keep going is because you have this song that you sing to yourself, and it’s born out of your physical movements, or your labor and the repetition. It’s got the same rhythm as that. Or you’re traveling; you’re marching somewhere, and you have this song that keeps you going. Or you have this moment of joy or this time of sorrow and it comes out, and it comes out and it’s so strong, it’s physical. Ah, so it’s all physical. So I think that that’s the best stuff. But then to bring it around; is those experiences, those physical experiences that trigger your voice and your mind and the desire to make music, don’t come in isolation. You’re working with people, or you’re marching to something, or you’re running from something, or something’s happened in your life because you live in the world. So I think you can say, do you write for an audience? Or do you write because you live in the world and we’re all the audience?
Or how much does the audience influence what you’re creating? So the extreme end of that is writing for advertising. If you bring it to the other end, being in isolation and writing, without an acknowledgment or consciousness of shutting off what would influence you as a human being. So I’m just wondering where you fall, with your writing? (MM laughs) Is that possible to determine?
Yeah, I think it is.
Or does it depend on the piece, probably?
I think of writing for my community, honestly.
I’m curious, as a writer, because you write for so many different venues, what makes a piece that you’re working on, important to you? And then what is an example of an important piece that you’ve written?
(Laughs). That’s great. Well the Oobleck one [Hunchback Variations], certainly. It was amazing to see them debate about extending the play, extending the opera that’s in now, because it’s not really a money-maker. There are only a hundred seats there - with the expenses of rentals, renting the room and paying people respectfully, they could stand to go in debt by extending it. But they were talking amongst themselves and saying, “Well, you know, our mission is not to make money, it’s to put beautiful things in the world.” And I’ve seen that over their history. They put these amazing, rare plays into the world, and I walk out of those performances with my mouth open. I’m stunned by how amazing they are. So yeah, I love working with people who are just following an idea because it’s somehow a great idea that’s come and they happened to be in the way and they go with it. Or it’s just such a burning great idea and it’s very original and they want to produce it. Mucca Pazza’s that way because people do it because it’s so much fun to be in a large group. There’s twenty, twenty-five musicians, and it’s not often that you have a club like that where you can compose for that many musicians.
So we have a new album coming out, finally, after a few years.
And we’ve been recording it here, so I decided to take advantage of the fact that we have this nice room and a bunch of musicians and not to write for a marching band, but just to write for an ensemble; knowing the instruments we have and the colors. So I wrote a piece that’s not intended to be performed live, but was just an interesting, necessary exploration.
You didn’t want it performed live?
Doesn’t need to be. No, no, no. That came out great. All of our compositions are usually … we learn something through the composition. So I’m very, very excited about that. It feels like an important piece, personally.
When did you finish that?
I wrote that in a week, sometime in the fall. Took a little break.
So it will be on the new album then?
Oh neat. When is that coming out?
Probably around the end of May. May 29th or so.
I was gonna save my one Mucca question for the end, but maybe we’ll just get into that. So I’m just curious where the idea came from, the idea of Mucca, as a co-founder?
The biggest impetus was the realization that we had a lot of musicians around. I had met a lot of musicians through performing with Redmoon and through being with lots of bands for over thirty years in Chicago; and through some of the protests, during the beginning of the Iraq war, the marches out in the streets. I met a lot of musicians during that time. And a combination of all of those things - of theatre, of playing your instrument in the street while you’re moving (marching band), I thought it would be just a nice expression of joy, to get a large group of musicians together and play just for the fun of it; not because there’s any emergency or special mission, just because it was pretty fun. And then the thought of a marching band where they’re not supposed to be, in a nightclub, was really funny to me. So I asked about half a dozen people just to start playing together in the winter. I don’t remember what year it was, maybe ’04. And then we went to a parking lot by Finkl & Sons, and started rehearsing and then just spread the word that we’re playing music outside, and it’s kind of a marching band because we want to be able to move around and go to a place, or escape from a place, quickly if we want to. So then we brought in a few people; a couple of theatre directors and a choreographer just to collaborate with us. Not to specifically direct a piece, or choreograph a piece, but just to stimulate our brains to be open to that sort of thing. And then as we got into it we realized that a lot of that attraction to that sort of thing, a mobile group, is again the connection between the mind and body. So some of the exercises we’ve done have been thinking about moving first as an impulse, and then seeing what kind of sound follows that; where as sometimes in choreography you have a piece of music and you react to it physically. So that’s actually why that project is really fun is because we have these games and we play these sounds and we’re allowed to move our bodies. You’re not allowed to do that in orchestra. Nothing against an orchestra, it’s a whole different thing.
Were you in a marching band in high school?
And what instrument did you play?
All four years?
Yeah, you couldn’t march with a bassoon so I picked up the sousaphone. Love that big horn. And that’s also huge, having a public school with a marching band and a full music program. We had a wind ensemble and jazz band. We had a band director who was completely dedicated to the program and the kids. Amazing what he taught us.
Where was this?
Near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Ok, so how long have you been in Chicago then?
About thirty, thirty-five years.
And that was after undergrad?
Yeah. But we had a band director who taught us that if you dedicate yourself to something and practice, and find a little discipline, and put the time in, over a period of time you’ll get good at it. It’s key. I mean it sounds very simple, right?
Hmm. It’s a novel, novel idea.
Sounds so simple.
Somehow it registered for you, that’s great. I’m still working on that.
Well you start to see the results and you realize, “Oh I can do something!”
What music did you listen to growing up? Or what did your parents listen to?
Yeah, it’s funny, a little bit of The Beatles. Stravinsky.
Yeah, and Prokofiev, and some of those popular twentieth century classical pieces. And then T.V. themes of the sixties were great for like exact instrumentation of a Mucca Pazza; brass, drums, guitar, violin, accordion, synthesizer, those things. That’s where all those things were together, in the same spot. So definitely T.V. themes had a big influence.
And what are you listening to now?
I keep going over the last thirty to thirty-five years. The last year I’ve just been re-discovering Ligeti and John Cage. But then I’ve always been hooked on Prokofiev, Bartok, and those sounds; that kind of post-Romantic, extended tonality. It’s pretty gorgeous to me. The other thing is Organum, Plainsong - love that stuff because it’s so soulful. So, yeah, the best stuff for me is the stuff that you can tell comes from a human being, cause you can hear the breath in it and how it follows language or work, or some physical activity, but it’s also interesting harmonically. You know how the history of music just progressed up the overtone series through the centuries and that’s happened in subset kind of ways too, with jazz; started out very simple and more complex jazz started combining keys and extending the tonality. So I don’t know what that’s about, maybe it’s about hearing resolution; finer and finer resolutions or something.
Weatherman’s aim is to help expose Chicago composers who are under the radar, and I’m just wondering if there are any that come to mind, that you work with, or that you’re aware of, that you feel like should be maybe a little bit more better known then they are?
Hmm, ok, is Jeff Thomas on your list?
He’s on my list.
Fantastic. Daniel Knox. Beautiful songwriter. I do love Paul’s [Paul Bessenbacher – Opus Orange] compositions. We worked together on a couple of plays, and I thought his motifs were amazing. Really wonderful. Tim Kinsella - fabulous. Really really wonderful. Very impulsive writer, but also very informed. That process of education; being informed and then forgetting about it. And then just writing from who you are, where you are, instinctually, after you’ve assimilated these things.
Have you ever thought about leaving Chicago?
What has kept you here then?
When I got here I thought I’d be here for just a couple of years and was either going to end up in California or New York, but it’s just gotten better and better and comparing the two coasts it seems like you could always live here as a working class artist. There’s not so much pressure to be great or be hugely successful. There’s not so much pressure to be the greatest or get rich, or whatever you might consider success in some of those places or the top of the world. It’s always about the work and pursuing interesting projects and collaborating with people. And then the rent has been cheap enough to work a part-time job and do your art.
Are you doing that now? Are you doing art full-time?
Yeah, I’ve been lucky enough to concentrate on that for awhile, you know, twenty or thirty years, but it is a pretty humble vocation so often you need to work if you’re just doing composing/performing - you’re working twelve, fourteen hours a day to keep things going. There is a lot of wisdom to having a part-time job, if you have one that you like. If you’re bartending three times a week, if you’ve got some other thing that’s flexible, it helps you get out of your head and take a break. Also you never feel pressured that your art, your music, has to do something commercially. You can follow your muse. I love the bumper sticker I saw, only in Chicago, “Real Musicians Have Day Gigs.”
Yeah, that is only in Chicago. Cool. What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
Let’s see, I’m gonna work with Blair Thomas on a Halloween show. We’re gonna write scary songs for kids and adults. That will happen in October. I’m excited about a whole new batch of stuff for Mucca Pazza.
This is post-album release in May?
That’s right. We spent the first six or seven years learning how to play together and in tune. And so now I think I want to steer it the other way, now that we have some skill as a group. Also, I never used to write for words a lot, always instrumental. Now I’m hooked on it. I didn’t realize how much fun it is.
I was wondering about that.
Yeah, so with the G8 coming up and NATO coming to town I thought it would be great to write some songs from poetry, beautiful poetry. So I’m gonna start researching. I love poetry and used to hang out with poets a lot, so I want to find a few very simple poems that affirm humanity and find a hundred people or so and sing a simple melody.
When the summit is going on?
Yeah, it’s not necessarily to make a protest but it’s just a nice contrast to this big machine that’s coming to town. So yeah, I’m excited about writing some simple melodies that people can sing in a group.
That sounds fantastic. Well thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. And for all the things that you’re working on, it’s exciting to hear about and to kind of pick your brain a little bit.
Yeah, I’m really glad you’re doing this. I’d like to see what the other composers say, and it’s nice to have some exchange.
It’s nice for you to be the first though, you know, paving the way. Thanks again!
Far out. Thank you!