In Fear of Fear

In Fear of Fear

NewMusicBox welcomes professor, composer, and new blogger David Smooke.

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David Smooke

David Smooke

A few weeks ago, composer David Smooke emailed us several ideas for articles he was interested in writing for NewMusicBox. We loved them all! So, instead of picking just one, we hoped David would want to join our merry band as a regular blogger and tackle every topic he’d suggested exploring and more. We’re super excited that he has agreed. Welcome, David!


Smooke currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland, where he teaches music theory, rock music history, and composition at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University. He has composed commissions for groups and individuals including the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), CUBE, bassoonist Michael Parker-Harley (of Alarm Will Sound), and pianist Amy Briggs. He received a master’s degree from the Peabody Conservatory, a bachelor’s magna cum laude from the University of

Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, where he received the Century Fellowship, the highest fellowship offered by the Humanities Division. His composition teachers have included Shulamit Ran, David Rakowski, Robert Hall Lewis, and Richard Wernick. In addition to his composition activities, David performs improvisations on toy piano with the support of Schoenhut toy pianos, and has often

played with the bassist Michael Formanek.—MS

I know that it’s a cliché to begin a blog with a confession, but I have a bit of a confession to make and so here goes: I am afraid of you. Yes, you. Sitting in that chair, reading at your computer.

I’m afraid that you will uncover the fact that I’m a fraud. That I shouldn’t be in music. That I should give up my position teaching at the Peabody Conservatory and leave professional music to the professional musicians. You know, the ones like you who grew up playing music and listening to classical music.

I didn’t grow up as a musician. I took piano lessons when I was very young—stopping as soon as I could—and briefly moved to the guitar before abandoning music for the joys of baseball and books and other adventures. I enjoyed music as a consumer, not a creator.

In my teens, I discovered the joys of sound synthesis and found that I could use these tools to sculpt sound itself, and that these sound sculptures could match the grim energy of the music I enjoyed—Goth, Industrial, and Prog bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and early (early!) Genesis. Several years of programming my Roland JX-8P and messing around with reel-to-reel tape followed, as did at-home band rehearsals. And the band never made it out of the living room. And I never found myself playing for others. I was so afraid of failure that I wouldn’t allow myself to work towards success.

Meanwhile, I discovered George Crumb and Philip Glass and Edgard Varèse and Anton Webern, and I found myself blown away by the confluences between their experiments and those of Brian Eno, David Byrne, et al. I decided to find out how these acoustic musicians were able to create such astonishingly beautiful sounds, which I knew were extraordinary and yet made no sense to me at all. I ended up in Philadelphia, where I studied music at Penn in an academic setting where instrumental performance study was not encouraged and where musicianship was folded into the general theory classes, allowing me to pass them without actually leaning how to sing or play. While at Penn, I was able to work closely with George Crumb, who constantly expresses pure love of music and supreme joy at being able to make a life in music (but this is a story for another day). I gained an excellent grounding in the historical and theoretical bases for experimental music, but I was able to thoroughly avoid practical study of music performance.

And so I reached adulthood without ever having performed music publicly (except rarely in choirs) and unable to notate the music that I heard. Which really wouldn’t have been an issue except I also reached adulthood completely fascinated by the art of sculpting time and knowing that composing was calling.

After nearly fifteen years of graduate schooling, I have filled in many of the lacunae in my education and can confidently discuss music in front of classes filled with incredible performers—many of whom are blessed/cursed with perfect pitch. I can extemporize on all sorts of musical topics and can analyze and hear music through silent score study.

And so recently I have found myself exorcising the spirit of this teenager who lives within me, pushing his fears aside and embarking upon the types of musical adventures which I formerly denied myself. I am starting this blog in order to describe my musical evolution and to invite you to enjoy exploring along with me.

It’s a beautiful world out there, filled with stunningly evocative music. I have a Schoenhut (toy) piano, and I’m ready to travel.