Friday, December 4, 2009

Tiana Gregg (on the right) with her business partner Paula Echanove has been running the Green Frog Café here in Palouse for years, and all the while Tiana has also been running an active music scene around the Green Frog. Not only that, but she also is a seriously great singer and songwriter. One afternoon last September she spent a few hours here recording 19 wonderful songs and she's coming over this Sunday to record a couple more. I just finished getting these basic tracks edited and cleaned up, and I am stunned by how good she is.

She intends to flesh some of these songs out with a little production, and that will of course be fun to do, but I am struck by the power of her music with nothing other than her voice and guitar, recorded live.

How about this one? Is this not an absolutely fabulous piece of music and poetry?

It is an interesting dilemma to have a track like this. I could hear all sorts of parts in it, a drum kit, electric guitar, piano, bass...but, isn't it more amazing with just her incredible voice and that quiet guitar back there? Sometimes good production is NOT doing things...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

I have completed the planting of the prairie for the season. I had planted virtually everything a month ago, but I got a bit of Gentiana affinis seeds that had been collected by my friend Nancy Hegg and put that in yesterday in my wettest spots. Altogether around thirty species have gone in and now I wait to see what will actually come up. The photo above was taken at the end of August, my intention being to show the clean slate with which I began, the result of a significant onslaught of Roundup. Hopefully next year I will be able to take photos from the same vantage point for comparison. It is already more green than this, even at the end of November. I am sure some of the sprouts are undesirable, but I was surprised that eight Rocky Mountain Iris seeds that I had planted last year came up in the middle of that barren view several weeks after I took this photo, and other natives take advantage of the fall growing season, including grasses and an intriguing biennial called scarlet gilia (gilia aggregata). One thing I love to see is a plant contributed by the birds and it appears that they have put in a blue elderberry in a perfect spot, as well as a couple of other shrubs I couldn't yet identify.

In the studio I have at last dusted off my opera and confronted the least-worked-out piece from the original effort. Back in the late 1980s when I started, I had sought to create a few songs that could live outside the opera, and the clumsiest one of these was a sort-of "love song" that hung on in the back of my mind until this month when I realized that my characters had a whole lot more to say than that; in fact, they don't actually get along all that well. A few lines, part of one verse, survive in the new song, but even the basic instrumental texture of the song was transformed once I put the new vocal parts to it. Such a relief to have gotten back into this project again. At this point it looks a lot like the prairie--barren with a lot of potential, but hopefully by next Spring...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Actually, I am never there on Thursdays, but I thought I should post office hours.

The oddest thing about my departure from WSU was that the music department is apparently unaware that I am no longer employed by the university and so never asked for me to vacate my office. I had the good sense to get everything important out of there but decided to maintain my office as a kind of installation. I had shared the office for several years with Ron Pond, a genuine Umatilla/Palutspu shaman who taught Native American music at WSU, but they found some reason to get rid of him this last summer too--I have no idea what the reason was (there is some sort of gag order about it because it involves "legal issues"). We had thought of our shared office as a kind of ghetto for non-European music, and the quiet elimination of our positions speaks volumes about diversity in the university.

I just pulled out my materials on my musical Cassandra yesterday, the real work I need to do now. I am finally getting some projects out of the studio that have been an obstacle to that work, but I have really enjoyed producing CDs for other people here, too. I have been able to use these productions to explore textures I want to use in Cassandra, and working with other people has made me much faster at getting work done in the studio. I decided to post examples from productions I have done the last few years on my website ( and thought I would comment on them here.

Steptoe, "Raleigh & Spencer" (traditional), from Doggone Sophisticated (2007)
Listen to "Raleigh & Spencer"

Steptoe (Von Walden, Tina Hilding, Paul Hill, Paul Anders) is a great bluegrass-esque band from Moscow, ID. The three tracks on their 2007 CD that we recorded here represents the least amount of production I've ever done as a producer, as they had very particular ideas of what they wanted and very high standards. It was exhiliarating to work with great musicians with great ideas and do my best to realize them, producing as a team, and I think they made a wonderful record here. They had an excellent sense of how to capture a "live" performance and also enhance the production artistically. The live rooms I've set up here with good mics and preamps are perfect for this music.

Shiloh Sharrard, "Santa Can't Stay" (Dwight Yoakam), from Don't Make Me Go to School (2007)
Listen to "Santa Can't Stay"

I first heard Shiloh when she was eleven, and she had a great country voice even then. Her 2007 CD, Don't Make Me Go to School, recorded when she was fifteen, was conceived by Shiloh as a concept album around her parent's divorce, and she chose an intriguing set of a few new country songs embedded in a foundation of the country classics of failed marriage, including "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today." She came in on one day and played all her guitar parts and sang all the songs on the next day. Maybe we did one or two things later, but the approach to this CD was that it would be based around what she does when she walks out on stage with her guitar, and Shiloh is an authentically great performer, so you should see her if you get a chance (her website is I decided that this should be an acoustic production, no drums, and feature the piano in the "band," since I was finding such elegant Floyd Cramer and Pig Robbins piano parts in all these old country songs. I took it upon myself to learn their parts where I could and inject them into these interpretations, though in this song I went with a fat boogie-woogie left hand groove that I came up with years ago. And then I had three great musicians to back her up: Shayne Watkins, who plays the fattest almost-electric-sounding acoustic guitar lead I've ever heard, Alane Watkins, who had a perfect complimentary harmony voice for Shiloh (and these two have performed a bunch with Shiloh and knew her stuff), and Richard Kriehn who plays fabulous fiddle lines and driving mandolin percussion on this track. On this Dwight Yoakam tune (which sounds so intriguing coming from a still-young-sounding voice, as do many of the tracks on this CD), I sought to create the most driving trainwreck of a groove I could using acoustic instruments.

Mike and Olivia Haberman, "September Song" (Mike Haberman), from as-yet-untitled-and-unreleased (2009)
Listen to "September Song"

Olivia and Mike Haberman are a daughter-dad team of singer-songwriters, based in Lewiston, ID. I worked on their CD this last summer and we're about to finish mixing the album as I'm writing this. Besides Mike and Olivia, we brought in Richard Kriehn who plays duet fiddle on this track, and I added piano and bass. Piano and guitar textures will be a central part of the sound of Cassandra and I came up with a simple part I liked around Mike's guitar part. Olivia is another unusual young talent in the area; she just started at the University of Idaho this fall.

By the way, all the links I use to the website access the broadband version of the mp3s. There is also a lower-fi version on the site. If you have trouble playing the whole file, you might try downloading the other version.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

This gate/arbor and fence for my wife's garden was the big house project this summer. The fence boards, gates, and roof of the arbor are recycled cedar siding that I had stored in the barn for 18 (!) years. I knew I would use it someday! It is a little hard to see the old-fashioned wire fence between the boards, but that fencing used to run down the east edge of the garden all the way to the barn, and Dona and I pulled it up and reused it here. Like all recycling projects, ignorance is your friend. If we had known what a pain it was to unbend all the nasty kinks in that fencing we probably wouldn't have done it, but it sure is nice now that it's done. Dona made the gravel paths and did all the brickwork. And is planting a thousand plants and flowers inside.

I almost titled this post, "What I Did with my Summer Vacation." School just started this week at WSU, and it is a little weird not to be going through the stress of getting the semester going. Not so weird that I miss it, however. While teaching world history (which was my odd WSU gig of the last 15 years besides teaching music--odd because my training is in music, of course) was a great education, I have neglected a lot of important music work over the last two decades because I had this great day job. That WSU ended the World Civilizations program because of a stupid turf battle (having nothing to do with budget cuts, in spite of what they say publicly) is tragic for the quality of undergraduate education, but they don't really care, and ultimately it was a good thing for me. I may go back to teach a course in world music for the Honors College at WSU, but that is on the back burner. Still, today is a day I would be running around on campus, teaching my two sections, and with my son in his first week of second grade, he isn't around is a little unsettling. I feel like I'm playing hooky to work in the studio today, but really it is that I've called in "well" for the rest of my life.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thomas Arthur was visiting earlier this month and he took this photo about a mile east of here just before the Idaho border. His inspiration is infectious, and after a few days of hanging out with him, I found myself in the studio to start recording my gourd banjo, and came up with this version of "Cluck Old Hen".

I have a little AKG (C411) mic that is stuck with some odd black goop on the head of the banjo and I ran that into a simple ART tube preamp and set it up to give me just a little warm distortion at the high points. That signal is sent to an "acoustic" amplifier (I have a Centaur amp) to give it some volume. Then I put a ribbon mic near the amplifier and a large diaphragm condenser mic in front of the banjo itself to record the actual sound in stereo. I think I will try a Sennheiser 421 on the amplifier next time, but this gave me just the hint of an electric guitar sound.

The other parts I just played in. A shaker made out of a little can (with rice inside, I think--it was given to me by a student and I've never opened it up, but it has a wonderful sound), my djembe (made by Jim Trivelpiece, who took most of the photos on my recent CDs), piano, and the acoustic bass sound on my Kurzweil.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Clarkia in bloom in the prairie, 6.13.09

I realize that I entirely missed the month of May. I intend to be a regular correspondent, but May began with the end of my regular job at WSU (involving much grading), and the first year ever that I had some time to maintain the prairie in what is really Spring here. Starting this blog was coincident with my finding out that my position (in which a musician teaches world history since 1500 to freshmen at a major university) would be ending this semester. The actual music part of my position went away several years ago (see my first post), and now I was going to return to being a full-time musician, though I still had to finish out my last semester. Then I had to hit the ground running, catching up with Spring unfolding in all its splendor on the Palouse.

Eighteen years ago when I moved to this house, I took on a wonderful place with a soul, but I also took on a house that needed rebuilding from the inside out. I also took on about three acres of a decrepit alfalfa pasture that still had hints of native Palouse prairie in the fencerows. A lone clarkia flower would manage to reseed itself for about five years in the eastern part of the pasture. Mainly it was a mediocre hay field with a lot of nasty, nasty weeds.

I had no idea what to do with this land other than that I wanted it to be "low maintenance," and had a vague paranoia about the use of herbicides and the "right way to do things." Fortunately I planted 20 ponderosa pine sprouts, since they have taken on some presence in all that time (well, except for the ones I mowed over the years...they were less than two feet tall for years before they finally took off). One spring (1994?), Thomas Arthur and I went out and tried to pull all the salsify plants. We made two huge piles of them and burned them. It seemed somehow to inspire the salsify population, as though the immolation of their brethren put the fire into the bellies of the rebels who remained, since they came back with a vengeance the next year. I found out that field bindweed plants have several stages of evolution of the mother plant. When left unmolested for five or so years, waves of increasingly more lush, tightly-knit bindweed emerges from the mouth of Mom, vegetally upchucking her spawn into ecstatic reproduction. It's a cross between Alien and the botanical Kama Sutra.

I had identified the worst weed-choked area in the center of the pasture finally to carefully spray a little Roundup (I still used the little spray bottles, pumping by hand) and armed with a little Idaho fescue seed from Grassland West (a great source), I thought I would see how some native plants would do in the midst of that chaos. I asked the person at Grassland West how I can recreate Palouse prairie; she said, "Wow, great idea! No one's ever done it. Let us know how it goes!" I planted a few camas plants, some native aster and gallardia seed I collected from east of here, down by the river. Some of the plants actually lived.

About this time my neighbor had a grass-burning exercise get out of hand and about half my pasture burned. I assumed this was a blessing in disguise (since the house and garden weren't threatened). The worst damage was from the fire trucks that apparently made sport of running over my ponderosa pine seedlings. The fire kills the weed seeds, right? And now I can plant a load of grass seed and it will take over, without using evil chemicals!

It is true that a lot of the Idaho fescue and bluebunch wheatgrass I planted did sprout enthusiastically. And so did every Siberian Death Weed known to agriculture. In intense profusion. I began to see that I was going to have to embrace better living through chemistry. Anyone who says this can be done organically has not done it. If you try to cultivate out the weeds, you stimulate the weed seeds in the soil!

So I had to overcome my fear of herbicides in order to create a place where I wouldn't have to use them. I learned about Weed-b-gone and graduated to 2-4-D and generic Roundup you get in 2.5 gallon containers of concentrate with "sticker" and "spreader." I began by recycling the little pump bottles, went through a couple one-gallon pump sprayers, and finally graduated to the four-gallon backpack weapon-of-mass-destruction. I have a lyric to a song I haven't yet written, a kind-of punk country groove..."Winnin' the West with a gallon of Death..." In fact, every serious prairie restoration has had to make serious use of herbicides, but I was a slow learner.

I started by trying things on little areas, tentatively applying these weapons in fear of ruining the land somehow. And then life intervened--a push to make the house livable, which meant building a kitchen, which in my case meant recycling fir flooring rescued from an old department store in Palouse, being demolished because of damage from the Flood of 1996. I caught the guy tearing down the building just as he was confronting about 5,000 square feet of fir floor with a front-end loader puffing diesel smoke. I asked him what he was going to do with it and he said "firewood." I begged him for a couple of hours with my crowbar and he gave me the afternoon. I've been trimming the house with it ever since. Then I got divorced. The prairie began to be consumed with waves of prickly lettuce, sow thistle, mustard, that ever-present field bindweed. One guy keeping up with the house project and the prairie wasn't possible.

In the last four years or so (being blissfully remarried), I have been able to spend enough time on this land to keep up with the work. This is the first year that I haven't had to mow and spray 2-4-D. The perennial native grasses have come back strong, while mowing the annual grass knocked it back. And I have learned that when I approach a new area that I really need to nuke it, as they say. I started to do that in the last few years, and areas that begin with me taking out every evil weed with Roundup (or 2-4-D in areas where I have good grass and I'm not about to plant anything), multiple applications from April through July if I have to, the natives I plant in fall really take off and fill in. In those areas, I am able to maintain the area by pulling a few odd items by hand, and I don't have to spray. In those central areas where I started by tentatively using Roundup, evil things moved back in, settling among the native plants. Those areas are the hardest to maintain now.

I did have a few success stories from my earlier efforts. Inspired by my neighbor Jim Roberts, who knows all the plants by their proper Latin names, and grows them in a spectacularly subtle garden that he tends by hand, I tried to tend one spot along the south fencerow of the property. Jim had spotted swale desert parsley (one of the plethora of lomatiums that thrive in this area), Douglas hyacinth, native delphinium, and prairie star growing there and so I wanted to see if I could cultivate out evil stuff and entice these plants to spread north. They did! And the birds planted a nice big elderberry there. I did some careful early spring and late fall spraying in that area and succeeded in eliminating some nasty weeds, and now that area has moved north 20 feet in places.

So, I take some real satisfaction in tall prairie grass and drifts of clarkia coming back, tall lupines budding out with puffballs of yarrow flowers floating over a sea of waving fescue. It is another ongoing composition of Palouse River music, coming into harmony at last.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In 1990 I wrote a piece for choir called Canntaireachd ("caunderakt").

is a Scots Gaelic word for a system of remembering bagpipe music through sung syllables. This idea of using syllables to remember music is also found in very sophisticated systems of remembering drumming patterns, as in the classical music of India. I had always wanted to make a piece around that and the puirt-a-beul sung dance music of Scotland, which I heard in several different contexts when I was there in the late 70s. To me the most interesting interpretations I heard were produced by the Bothy Band, a legendary Irish group that was just breaking up when I came to Dublin.

Listen to Canntaireachd

Armed with Donal Lunny's dense harmonies, some old records of Scottish field recordings (the first part of the piece is based on my twisted transcription of an old Alan Lomax recording of the legendary singer Mary Morrison of Barra in the Hebrides), and memories of a bunch of performances, I sat down in 1990 for the first time with notation software and a little MIDI rig. The idea of being able to hear ideas instantly in real time as they were written and edited was a catharsis for me. Because the classical European tradition focuses on the understanding of music through the filter of notation, allowing the non-corporeal experience of music outside of time, I had always had such a difficult time getting my notated music to feel right to me when I finally experienced it in real time. This epistemological flaw in the Eurocentric musical system as taught academically is the elephant in the room in the discipline of music, as far as I'm concerned. When I made music through playing in real time, repeatedly going through things in performance to create, revise, and tune a composition (starting with the Ellipsis experiment of the 1980s) I could get closer to what I was trying to do, but the vast number of repetitions of ideas in this process was ultimately numbing to me. I could and did produce work through these methods but both seemed to me inadequate to represent what I could imagine.

With this new technology, I was able to create music notation that like canntaireachd or solkattu could be experienced in time; I could not only properly revise and edit my ideas based on how they actually felt in real time instead of how I thought that they would feel through symbols, but I could also create textures that could make a machine swing. What better way to test this than on a group of classically-trained singers, singing an unfamiliar language of dance music? Once the piece speeds up into the Brachan Lom part, I stay only tangentially connected to any actual traditional music and derived most of this part of the piece from playing the fiddle, ending up in a place that is as much South Africa as it is Scotland.

Working with digital audio editing in the modern computer-based recording environment has been the next quantum leap for me, where music can be preserved and altered and the experience in time can be worked as though it were sculpture in sound. I have found the visual representation of sound files in a digital editing environment to be a new form of notation, actually. Not that traditional European notation isn't useful--it is enormously useful in causing performances and capturing extremely complex performance information--but these new technologies have transformed the way a composer can create music to such a degree that it is clear to me that the tired systems of European harmonic analysis and counterpoint are hopelessly anachronistic as the sole foundation of professional music education. Musicians learn how music works in spite of that education, not because of it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An old student of mine recently emailed me, asking if I had a recording of the Wind Quintet that was performed by the Solstice Woodwind Quintet back in 2005 at the WSU New Music Festival. I had actually forgotten all about this piece. There was quite a bit of drama going on when I wrote of the people in the Solstice Woodwind Quintet was trying to get me thrown out of the department because a student had told her that I had been critical of European classical music (see the first post, below), and after asking me to write them a piece it appeared that they now weren't going to play it. Once the department had actually decided to eliminate my position, however, the Quintet deigned to play my piece once in performance and the last time in my recording studio. As you might imagine, I was not terribly inspired to work on anything for these people, and I ended up taking the sketches I had created for three movements before all of this unfolded and put them together in one piece. Actually, it seemed to work quite nicely, its somewhat fragmentary state being for me deeply expressive of the context of its composition and performance. Click here to hear the piece.

A problem for me with "Art Music," or whatever you want to call this peculiar withering branch on the old tree of European classical music, is that composers in this tradition are left with spending hours and hours creating a piece of music that generally will be played badly once. I was lucky this time that the Solstice Woodwind Quintet at WSU actually did work this up and gave its best performance right here in my studio.

My wife remembered this piece and reminded me that the original idea for the piece was that it was a kind of soundtrack for a "Three Mile Idaho," a ritual walk we take east of here. I have written about this ritual on my friend Ashley Cooper's very cool blog (she has a bunch of really cool blogs), "Rituals for Healthy Living," the link is below (scroll down to January 2009), if you would like to read that...You will notice the same photo as above, taken by Thomas Arthur, looking east from our back porch.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

I am going to begin posting music that I'm working on, or things from my past that may not be accessible otherwise...

Click here to hear my arrangement of Beethoven's "Sonatine in C for mandolin and piano." Richard Kriehn is the extraordinary mandolin player, and I'm playing the piano part on guitar, tuned in "DADGAD." I have been producing a CD for Richard here this winter, and this is the only track I'm playing on. You've got to hear this guy play his transcription of the "Fuga" from Bach's Gm violin suite, but for that you'll have buy his CD, or maybe he'll post it eventually on his MySpace music page.

I have flirted with playing classical European music like this off and on for years. My first album had this exact piece, except that I played the mandolin part on the banjo. I love the music, and it is so fun and challenging to work these things out, but I realize that this isn't my language, exactly. It is as though I have learned to pronounce the music, ABBA-like, through my peculiar voice. Richard, though, can really do this stuff as a classical player, but he also has a wonderful way with the language of American music. It is thrilling to work with him, honestly.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I was recently sent this image of myself from late December of 1992, in Lucknow, India. I think my friend Paul Brians took this photo, and somehow it languished on a WSU image database for years until a friend happened to see it and sent it. "Is that you?!"

I heard the musician on the left for awhile before I found him. I kept hearing bits and echoes of soaring melodies fading into the hum of the streets. And suddenly there he was, walking through the streets of Lucknow selling bamboo flutes (whistles, really) by playing very lovely improvisations on bhajan (Hindu hymn) tunes. So I bought one and finagled a lesson on the spot. Our lesson immediately attracted the attention of kids in the area who began pressuring parents to buy flutes and for a few minutes this fellow did very good business, but it was clear that he feared attracting too much attention and soon made a quick exit. I have always been drawn to this sort of Indian music that thrives under the radar of "classical" music, which, while wonderful, is also burdened by the rigorous hierarchies of British India as well as its own aristocratic heritage. Competitions, grades, judges. But there are plenty of musicians like this fellow, who played soulfully and beautifully without those institutions, whose improvisations may or may not correspond with classical ragas, but follow the rules of a more human raga.

This photo also serves as a cautionary tale to me, growing my hair long again...In six months I will look as scruffy as I did in this photo, except with a lot more gray hair.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

This is a blog about a musician (me), putting music into the world after almost two decades in a kind of seclusion. This first post is about my history in getting to this point, so read on if that interests you. I made the decision to focus on music in my life while in college (though I had played piano since I was eight, composed music since then, and had picked up several instruments in high school), as I became obsessed with trying to bring out the music that consumed my insides. I wasn't very good at this, but I was persistent. My training was nearly useless, even though I was good at all that stuff. I had gotten a little record deal with Flying Fish in the 1980s, doing somewhat-peculiar projects (the 5-string banjo as a "serious" instrument; minimalist music for folk trio), but my real "voice" (in a metaphorical sense) took much longer to emerge. As a matter of fact, part of that was about a year resurrecting my actual voice with an incredibly-gifted voice teacher, Kim Scanlon. Bringing that out was transformative to me, and I should write about that at some point. At about age 30 I decided to go to graduate school in Music Composition at UCSD, while I started work on my opera and recognized that I needed an entirely different set of musical skills, and needed to begin serious study of a bunch of things in order to bring my music to life, even if this work was going to take a very long time. I had to play the guitar. I had to reinvent, design, and build the guitar. That sort of thing.

I had the idea to start this blog on January 1st, 2009, as it was just at the end of 2008 that I decided to change my path significantly. Since 1990 I had been teaching at Washington State University, working on my music mostly in seclusion and slowly (I have been rebuilding an old house during this period as well). While teaching has been very stimulating in many ways, working with college students is consuming too. I also realize that struggling with the anachronistic Eurocentric agenda of music in academia has taken a toll. Here's an example: a student who did not do well in my course reported to another faculty member that I had said in class that I didn't like European classical music. That wasn't true, actually, but it doesn't matter. The funny thing was that this faculty member stormed into the chair's office demanding that I be confronted with this. More disturbing was that the chair actually called me in and said this had been reported and what did I have to say about that. I said that I didn't suspend my first amendment rights when I enter the classroom, and that it was a sad thing that we were even having this meeting.

I wasn't tenured or anything; I had always been in the crosshairs whenever budget cuts were threatened. In fact, I think my MA in Music Composition from University of California, San Diego is not even officially a terminal degree. The way I had gotten a teaching job was serendipitous...I had finished the MA, and been accepted into the PhD program at UCSD, but I had enough of that pretentious crowd and I longed to return to making my music without those demons looking over my shoulder, and when my wife at the time was recruited by the WSU English Department, I saw it as deliverance back to the Pacific Northwest.

I didn't have a position at WSU, but a much-loved music professor had just died suddenly and they were desperate for someone to teach a music appreciation course. I was hired on the Friday before classes started in August, 1990. I had team-taught a World Music course at UCSD, and was stunned that WSU had no such course, and so, in addition to teaching the Dead White Guys course (for which I felt qualified, being a future dead white guy), I was able to design an entire curriculum in World Music. For eleven years there was a substantial budget to produce two "World Music" concerts every summer (between $3-4K each summer!) and since no one at WSU seemed all that interested in what I was doing, I brought whomever I was interested in. A kind of state-sponsored ethnomusicology education--it was wonderful, actually.

Eventually "diversity" fell off their radar screen, and my budget evaporated. I should say that I poured my heart and soul into designing a course that empowered every student to explore whatever music moved them, in a context of exploration of the soulful languages of music from throughout the world, and allowed them to add their own heritage or one they chose to borrow that semester. It was the only place in any academic community I have been in where musicians could study whatever they wanted to study, exploring a personal path into the musical knowledge they determined was most important. It is a sad comment on music in academia that to treat an 18-year-old musician as an artist is a revolutionary act. The World Music course I developed was the only critical-thinking student-centered musical undergraduate course I have ever heard of. I didn't see it in graduate school either, honestly. Anyway, the course was extremely popular and there was considerable pressure on me to expand past the 150 students I taught in two sections. Because I insisted on essay exams that I could read myself, along with research writing, I refused to be pressured into expanding into huge sections with mechanical right-answer exams. They were making a serious profit on the 300 students I taught each year. They stopped funding the World Music curriculum in 2004 in budget cuts. The dying gasp was just this year, when the administration eliminated the course from the catalog along with other courses that had not been taught for three years. Sigh...

This experience has made me powerfully aware of my own musical creative process, seen in a kind of relief against what seems to me to be a soulless landscape of the corpse of European music. I have been trained in this tradition, but always as an outsider acutely aware of the dwindling number of musicians working entirely within the European classical tradition in a climate of intense musical creativity outside that tradition. I have been equivalently "trained" in traditional Irish fiddling (on the whole, a much more delightful journey), and self-taught in the traditional American manner on the banjo, guitar, and so on. Preservation of European classical music is not threatened, of course, but as an outsider it was obvious that the music theory and history I was required to study explained virtually nothing of value in most of the music I was drawn to. Once, when I was given the 20th century music theory course at WSU, I was required to teach that stuff, and I also got in trouble for throwing out Stockhausen and replacing him with Robert Johnson--come on, people, who is really the more important 20th-century musician here?! European music theory works fine for Beethoven, of course (though not for explaining what I find miraculous about his music), and there is much to enjoy in the European classical tradition. And this approach to music guarantees mastery of notation (a problematic way to represent music, but very useful in crafting performances), and detailed thinking about very subtle aspects of music. This discipline of awareness is absolutely important, though I think I could better teach it in a recording studio than in analysis of the resolution of Neapolitan sixth chords. I learned more in the studio with Micheal O'Domhnaill than from all my teachers in my academic work. As much as Bach was inspiring, there were any number of vital threads of music that moved me that were entirely out of the scope of serious academic inquiry, much of it more closely related to American musical roots in the music of West Africa and the traditional folk music of Western Europe. It is still common for my classical colleagues to dismiss actual American music, "popular" music, as beneath them.

This blog is going to explore my musical work this year (and maybe later, who knows), as I emerge from my self-imposed musical exile. At age 50. Better late than never. Maybe. Anyway, I also want to capture my thinking about my experience training young musicians, since the system seems to be such a miserable failure, and the discipline appears to be hopelessly unable to reform itself. The reason this needs to be done is because generations of creative young musicians can get virtually nothing in support or useful training and education from undergraduate music programs. The investment needs to be spent in a far more productive way. What could be done to help musicians connect to a path with a heart? Maybe even a path with a soul.