BY BECKI DEGEEST
For the published version of this article, click here
Where did you grow up?
Connecticut, about two hours from NYC.
How long did you live there?
All through high school, and then I went to Rochester, New York for college at the Eastman School of Music for music composition. It was a bad choice. I think I should have gone somewhere else, so I have kind of bittersweet memories about it.
What do you remember from college?
Now that I am doing the kind of work that I do, I remember that I was sitting in kind of a study hall when it was 1970 and having the thought that what I’d like to do is study all of the arts. Not just music, like theatre, art and dance. I thought that was what really interested me. I came to the conclusion that I would study music first, and that I would do the other art later. And I had forgotten about that particular incident until about three or four years ago. Considering what I’m doing, video art, I’m incorporating all of the arts. It seems very interesting to me that I would have had that thought when I was very young, starting my education, and then finally ending up where I thought I wanted to be. But in between those years I had totally forgotten. So when I think about my thoughts during my undergraduate that is foremost in my mind.
Where did you get your masters degree?
I did my masters at Hartford at the Harrt School of Music, and it was really miserable there. And then Cincinnati College Conservatory where I was happy, and I did a doctorate there and came directly here (MSUM).
That is when you started teaching?
Yeah, it was about this time in 1981 that I came here for an interview, and it was ideal because I was graduating and finishing my academic studies, and there was no gap. I just got to come here, and that was something I had always wanted to do.
Did you teach previously?
In your graduate studies you do what is called ‘graduate assistantships,’ where you grade papers for other teachers. When I did my doctoral studies I taught music composition for non-majors and theory.
What is your favorite class to teach?
I think I like lecture situations the best. Being a musician and a performer lecturing is kind of a performance. What I am best at, I think, is the music composition lessons, but that’s also the most demanding because you’re working with students who are trying to be creative and imaginative, and you don’t know what they’re going to bring you. And you have to listen and look at what they’re doing, and try to say the right thing to them to help them. There is no preparation involved other than natural preparation of doing my own work. So, it takes a lot of a certain part of me that is very concentrated, because I realize very easily that one person can say the wrong thing or be taken the wrong way, and of course, that’s not what I’m supposed to be doing; I’m supposed to be helping. It’s a lot more work than doing a lecture class.
Do you think about your students outside of the classroom?
I’m the kind of professor that, when I leave the place that I leave, I enter into my own professional world, and it works out well for me. When I come back I’m able to give 100 percent when I’m here for them, and when I leave, 100 percent for my work.
What kinds of music do you prefer to listen to and/or work with in your own compositions?
I don’t listen to music anymore, no. I mean, I used to a lot of course, but because my work changed in the ‘90s to video art, I’ve gradually become more involved in that world. I find it unrewarding to listen to music now unless it’s really good stuff. It’s not that I’ve become old and cynical; I just look at video stuff every day, so that has taken the place of that. What new things come to my attention in music don’t really sound that new to me. I’m really in kind of a different place, and I’ve thought about that, thinking I should feel guilty about that because I’ve always imagined myself as a musician. I think for me it’s a natural evolution. I still love it. It still moves me, but when I was your age I listened to so many things throughout the years that I think I amassed over tens of thousands of hours of listening. I think that it’s natural for a human being to get saturated at a certain point. As long as they’re not cynical about it, they can move onto something else. And I think that’s a wonderful thing about having more years with yourself. I think more years with yourself as a human is that you can be more interested by all sorts of things, and keep growing and expanding which is the kind of model you want to set for students and that’s what a university should be about.
So you changed your mind or path in music in the ‘90s. Could you explain that change and kind of how that happened?
I was doing a live performance with electronic instruments in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and I was traveling a lot, and I wanted to expand my work and make it larger in some way. I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I got a software program called Focal Point, and it was special music software where you can move the sound in space, either with speakers or with headphones, and this is what I was looking for. So, I wrote these two pieces, which are on my CD and are my first pieces of what is virtual audio where the sounds actually have a special dimension to them. At the time I was going to virtual reality conferences and conventions that were very big in the ‘90s that aren’t big anymore because of their virtual audio. I was also looking at virtual reality, which was very big in the 1990s. As I was experiencing these virtual reality works, I was exposed or introduced to computer graphics. I bought one, a very cheap 8-bit graphics software program, just as an experiment, and I got a feeling and I hadn’t got that feeling since I was 16 years old about music. It scared me because I was going outside my comfort area. I thought about that feeling for a year, and I decided that I would try to expand my work using computer graphics, which was a big life change for me. Once I got started, it was a natural thing for me to do. I had been studying visual art prior to that for about 10 years, so I was interested in it. I didn’t know at the time that I was sort of preparing for this. So, it seemed like a very natural evolution for me, and I just kept going in that direction and found that it was really what I wanted to do. I then started to get screenings of my work internationally, really, first and that’s really continued and I have never looked back.
Do you consider yourself as a musician then, or do you prefer the title artist?
I guess I’m an artist. My video art is more musical than other video artists who come from other arts. People come to this field from conventional art fields, film worlds, theater, dance and I think my work and the thing that is different about it is I have a more musical approach to it in terms of how it feels. But I do really consider myself an artist, but once a musician, always a musician. It occurred to me that what I’m doing now might, in fact, be music. Music of the presence. It’s not just sound. It’s the way in which one approaches artistic materials. I’m not sure about that, but we may look back in 100 years and say, ‘you know what music started to be was back in the change of the millennium when the change wasn’t sound anymore it was something else instead.’ What is commonly thought now, may be thought as ‘oh that old stuff.’ I don’t know. But in some way, I don’t really care if I’m thought of as a musician or not. But I say that to myself and I feel like that’s kind of an old designation for me.
What instruments do you play?
The electric guitar.
And you did some performances and traveling?
I performed electronic music and did some touring for four to five years, where from 1988 to 1992 or 1993 where I was traveling every month and did about 40-50 concerts/recitals a year. I enjoyed it. It was very tiring, but I like performing. It also made me have certain ideas about the American public, and who goes to these concerts and who doesn’t go, and the difference between art galleries and universities as far as the philosophies. You can feel the difference between these spaces when you perform at them as an outsider. I’d still be doing it if I hadn’t switched to virtual audio, which doesn’t have any live performances, so once my work changed that changed too, and I didn’t pursue that anymore.
Do you enjoy showing your work to the public now even though it isn’t live?
Oh yeah. What I do every day is to publicize my work. Like yesterday, I found out I’m going to be part of a gallery show in New York. Since I’ve been doing this I’ve had my work shown usually about three times a month; it’s usually in Europe, and that’s been pretty constant.
Do you ever see the galleries where your art is shown?
Rarely. I’m not famous, so they won’t pay for me to go and it’s kind of irrelevant for me to be there, because I know what my work is. I’m happy with it just being shown to people. I think as an artist you’re obligated to make your work public. How you want to make your work public is up to you, but for me it means I like to have my work shown on a regular basis.
Last year I was part of a live show. I just had one piece on the show ,and there were 100 artists on the show with works from all around the world. I think my work got shown once a week for a whole year anywhere from the Philippines to Tiran, Europe, Asia.
Do you have any musicians or video artists who have influenced you or helped with your work?
So many musicians that it would be difficult to narrow down. For my generation, you know I’m 62, so for my generation in 1964 was The Beatles. I found out later that there were a number of composers around my age that were affected by The Beatles. If it wasn’t for that, it might have been something else. I was very fortunate that I was 12 years old in 1964, which was when they came to America and influenced me to learn the electric guitar. It opened up a whole new world for me.
In terms of video art, I suppose one of my favorite filmmakers is Russian Andrei Tarkovsky, and French filmmaker Jacques Tati. There are a couple of films I saw of his after I started my work that I’ve found a certain connection to. There is just so much stuff in terms of visual art. Almost anyone you could name, there is something about their work that I like. When I was a graduate student, I went to Europe for the first time and one of the trips I made from Switzerland was to go to Florence because I really liked renaissance art at the time. I’ve gone through various phases of being interested in art and architecture.
Why did you choose MSUM?
Well, it was the only place I got an interview. It’s probably more interesting to ask them why they chose me. At the time in the early ‘80s and perhaps the way it is now, if you were doctoral student looking for a teaching position you took whatever you got because the market was so competitive. I think when I applied for this job there were around 120 people who applied for the job, and I’m sure most of them had doctorates. I think that in my graduating class that out of all of us applying for teaching positions only two of us got a teaching position. When I got here I found that I really liked the faculty, and they were really enthusiastic about my work, and it felt like a very nice fit for me. I was hired predominately because I think they wanted a composer, and they also wanted someone who had knowledge of popular music. They were beginning to get a lot of students who came from a rock’n’roll background, so they wanted somebody that had at least a sympathy with it, and that was me. I have to say for the past three decades that has remained true as far as the demographic here. In fact, it’s gotten more so over the years. Most of our majors that have that connection.
Do you think there are more or less students in music composition now versus when you first began teaching?
Probably the same. Although, I think that when I started here, of course they didn’t have a composition teacher. There was like two to three students. However, most of the years I’ve taught, I’ve had at least twice or three times that amount of students taking lessons on a regular basis. I think the quality of the students has gotten better in terms of composition. I don’t know why that has been the case, but there has always been some really talented students who have come through here, and I’ve had a good opportunity to work with them.
Why did you want to become a teacher?
I wanted to become a teacher at first out of practicality. In other words I was a composer, and I realized or assumed that I couldn’t support myself doing that, and I thought that I had always been comfortable in academic situations in school. I saw professors and I thought, ‘that’s something I could do.’ I found that it was something that was natural for me to do. I also taught guitar when I was 15 years old. There was something about instruction that appealed to me. In some ways, I had never thought of myself as a teacher, but more as a person who was interested in helping other people. My philosophy of that process has been, rather than learning teaching techniques of a mastery of the materials that I’m instructed to teach. In other words, if you know a great deal about a particular subject, if you have a natural desire to speak then you will be interesting and knowledgeable to people listening to you. Teaching techniques are something you can learn, but it’s more knowing so much about a specific thing that you can’t help but be interesting to people who are interested in what you are saying. I don’t have to learn how to teach composition because I can understand what they are going through because of my own experiences. Because I’m interested in the creative process, it’s fascinating to me to work with other people. That’s not what I would consider who a teacher is. A teacher is ‘here is a bunch of information that I have to communicate to people’ and I don’t really have that. I’m trying to get as good as I can about subject matters, and if they are interested, that is something that happens naturally. The higher you get to the understanding of a subject matter, I think the more interesting it becomes. I don’t teach what people expect you to, except when you have to, but more what I think is important about that subject matter.
Have you noticed any change of mind or interests between students from when you first started and now?
In terms of the music department, the student body has changed a great deal. When I first got here there were mainly music education students. Now it’s not gone, but has greatly changed to music industry students. As I said, though, in the last 10 years or so I think the student quality is better.
What are you working on now?
I’m always working on new artistic projects, because as an artist that’s who you are. You are always working on something. Also as an artist, every day you are publicizing your work in some way, and that’s kind of an on-going thing. It’s something that’s central to your life. In some ways it’s who you are. Right now I’m working on a large series of pieces, probably something that’s going to take me several years, I suppose. They’re all short. Even as we’re talking, my computer is rendering. I get these ideas and they interest me, and they end up being multiple pieces in a large series. It’s not like one big piece, but it can be played as one big piece, which is what I’m working now, which involves a lot of virtual humans. Usually my pieces in the past have been one or two, but these have been more of an ensemble piece that starts with about seven virtual humans and ends with about 26.
Are there motives or themes to your work?
I don’t really know what each individual piece is about until I’ve finished them or rendered them. I just trust and hope that in the creative process it makes sense. But, when I’ve finished rendering it, I get really scared to look at it because I haven’t seen it all put together, and I’ve spent quality time putting all the parts of it together. Before I’ve started I kind of have a general script I follow, so I have a working method that kind of hopefully works out. So hopefully, when I get to that final moment, all the pieces come together and it’s good. It’s scary because I spend so much time on it, and I get frightened that I may have wasted my time if it doesn’t turn out well. What’s interesting to me is that only when I watch it do I realize what its theme is, and usually it’s not what I thought it was. It’s almost like my subconscious has its own artistic agenda, and it’s not telling me what it is, except that it’s something that I’m interested in. I did a work about a year ago, it’s called “Choice,” –boring title– and it’s a man standing on a center of an island with a boulevard on either side, and people crossover and I just put myself in that situation and wrote the script out. But I didn’t see choice as being the name of the piece. I don’t do that. Then when I saw the work I saw that it was all about choosing and the ramifications of that. For me, it doesn’t work to have that thing from the beginning. There is this part of my imagination that doesn’t care about what I think. It’s going to do whatever it wants to do. I know that sounds weird, but our brains have different functions, and I’ve learned through experiences to just follow that. And usually it ends up finding something that’s far more interesting than I thought of doing. I mean it’s still me that did it. As an artist, I think you need to allow yourself that experimentation and the courage to not know where the piece is going. I’ve met artists that say they know exactly what their piece is going, and I don’t do that. I think I know what I put into it, but I don’t know where it’s going. Another part of the artistic process is that I’m discovering what I like.
I didn’t have hobbies for a while. I have two. One is I read a lot about Formula 1. I have only gone to one race, but I read about it historically. I would never want to do it. It’s far too dangerous, and I’m sure I have absolutely no talent for it. The other one I started two years ago was fencing. I didn’t think I had any athletic ability, and then my wife and I took some fencing lessons and she didn’t like it. She thought I had talent and I had no athletic ability so it was a shock to me to find out maybe I did. So for the last year I have been taking private fencing lessons.
The music composition degree is being phased out and is no longer available. How do you feel seeing as it started with you and will also end with you?
I still can teach composition, just not as a major. After the sabbatical, I will be teaching via Skype for another year. I’m sure I will have music composition students then, too. After that, I don’t know what the department will do. It’s up to them. I have always covered the student who has been creative and wanted to create music, and there will always be those kinds of students here. They come knocking on my door because they want to explore that in themselves. I think they will probably continue whether I’m here or not.
What are you doing for your sabbatical?
I’m going to continue my artistic work and my career work, and then I’m going to be investigating this Skype teaching and work out the technical aspect of it. I also want to figure out how it will affect my teaching and my approach. Looking at what will change for the better and if there are things that won’t be for the better and how I can fix that.
Will you be teaching music theory as well?
I assume so, but I don’t know. I know I’ll be doing music composition, and that seems like the easiest transition to do. The students can send me their files, and then I can talk to them via Skype, but it can be less formal versus setting a specific time.
For some of my students I think that would be better, because the more advanced students find that the weekly setting is not productive for them. They’d rather send me stuff when they’ve got something. I think that’s going to be easiest. The virtual world now is a normal thing. I like the idea of my last year being in a new year. That way I’m not leaving doing the same thing I’m always doing, but rather I’m exploring something new before I finish my years of teaching.
What are your plans for retirement?
My wife and I have a home in Pacific Palace. She’s originally from Los Angeles, and I enjoy it there and living in an urban area and by the ocean. That’s where we’re going to be moving, and that’s where I will be doing my Skype teachings. I also will be continuing my artistic work. I don’t think that will intensify because I’ve been able to do it here.
What was your favorite part of being a professor?
The privilege of working with the students I’ve worked with throughout the years.
Any advice for students?
Never lose sight of what you would really like to do, no matter how impossible it might seem. The people who don’t give up are the people who succeed.