Author: Michael Garrett Steele

It’s All People. And It’s All Connected

Previously in this space:

1. I talked about a dangerously irresponsible workplace and my escape from it to a life of music, from Boston to Arkansas to Austin.

2. I talked about Vermont College of Fine Arts, a school that profoundly shaped who I am in ways that I can barely begin to describe. (I tried valiantly to do so, regardless.)

3. I talked about the burgeoning scene surrounding video game music (as well as covers and arrangements thereof) and the way that I fell into that world.

And now I’m stepping back and looking at the thread tying everything together. Writing all of this down has been an opportunity to sort through some of the chaos of the last ten years or so. It’s funny. I’ve written humor columns, product reviews, how-tos, and plenty of ad copy. I’ve never really sat down and written about myself. I don’t generally find myself that interesting. After all, I already know how the story goes.

But maybe I don’t. This has given me a lot of perspective on my own life. And with that in mind, I’d like to talk about where I am now. But first I’d like to retrace my steps slightly, with an emphasis on the people that I knew, and the ways that they were interconnected.

Jazz band, first time through UCA.

Jazz band, first time through UCA. My one tenuous connection to the world of music at that time in my life. Photo by Rodney Steele

Everything that matters in my life is something I owe to other people.

One of the things that I already knew–and had already made a point of appreciating as often as possible–is that everything that matters in my life is something I owe to other people. I’m an enthusiastic evangelist for telling the people in your life that you love them. I rail against the weird American myth of the “self-made man.” And yet I am humbled anew when I review these articles and think about how much of my life comes down to the other people in it.

When I was working at the psych hospital, a handful of the people around me kept me from losing my own mind. (Mental health workers do break down, you know. We used to joke about whether we’d get an employee discount if we had to be committed ourselves.) My supervisor on the night shift did a lot to keep me sane. And the mental health supervisor on the women’s trauma ward, where I worked most of my shifts, was and remains an inspiration to me. Every now and then we check in. She’s in a completely different field of medicine, with new credentials, and a beautiful family. Seeing her current fulfillment compared to where we used to be means everything to me.

I am grateful to my mother, father, sister, and wife, for reminding me that the only one keeping me out of music was myself. They encouraged me from youth through college, and on into my adult life. Once I realized the only thing keeping me from creative work was me, I finally accepted the support that had always been there. I try now to honor their love with my effort. I am grateful to Kerri, a college friend from Arkansas. She became a psychiatrist in a nearby town. Her perspective on what mental health could be pulled me out of the gaslighting and downtrodden attitude that the hospital had filled me with and made me realize that the problem wasn’t “I can’t hack it.” The problem was that I was in a toxic environment masquerading as a therapeutic milieu.

I am grateful for Dr. Jackie Lamar, the noted saxophone professor who spent her career at the University of Central Arkansas to shepherd the program that her father had built there. When I shot her a “Hey, remember me?” email out of the blue, she welcomed me into her program with open arms. She helped me navigate my second undergraduate degree program and get out quickly, with my sanity intact. The entire time I was there, she begged me to do something more practical than composition. She steered me towards other avenues within music. I told her that I was through compromising with myself, and declined. But I never stopped appreciating the fact that she was looking out for me.

Dr. Paul Dickinson taught me how to make my best music, instead of his.

I am grateful for Dr. Paul Dickinson. A lover of 20th-century classical music, he showed me the wonders of Messiaen, Nancarrow, and Berio. Nearly every piece was introduced with, “This is the greatest piece ever written.” Despite his leanings, he taught me how to make my best music, instead of his. I am grateful for Dr. Stefanie Dickinson, who taught me ear training and advanced theory during the time Paul taught my private lessons. They are two of the finest musicians and people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

I am grateful to Jared Vincenti, a friend and filmmaker from Boston who jumped at the chance to let me compose for him for his master’s thesis film and for an entire web series. I am grateful to Amanda, a mezzo-soprano (turned airplane mechanic, turned airport administrator) who befriended and encouraged me. Likewise, Holly, a bassoon player, immediately became a good friend and confidant when I felt bad about the fact that I was in college with my little sister’s class. Years later, one of my Vermont College of Fine Arts pieces was programmed at Queens College, and I stayed on her sofa in Brooklyn to take in the performance.

I’m grateful to the Army of Kind Strangers band – Dolan, Terrence, Logan, Sam, Allison, Michael, Perry, Rachel, Malcolm, Barrett, Jimmy, Trent, Kaleb, Tyler, Ethan, Doug, Lance, Robert, Kayla, Jatrice, Matthew, Nathaniel, Brittany, Bailey, Anthony, Sean, Dylan, Morgan, Connor, Josh, Yuezhi, and Andrew (who played trumpet and recorded it all). Every one of these people took time they didn’t have to, on my account. All I had to give them was pizza and friendship, and they gladly and warmly gave of their time. Every hour we spent in a classroom with all the desks shoved off to one side recording represented at least 12 hours, collectively that they all could have been doing anything else.

Dr. Dickinson gave me the flyer that led me to the Vermont College of Fine Arts. There, Sarah Madru tried like hell to talk me into coming. She patched me through to Rick Baitz, then the faculty chair, who talked with me for hours as I sorted my feelings through. All of this is in line with the tone set by program director Carol Beatty, herself a good friend at this point.

All of this is beautiful and terrifying to me. Some of my closest friends, and literally dozens of other people that I love dearly, are in my life because one professor handed me a mailer, because he knew I’d been frustrated with my graduate school search. Without that friendship, I wouldn’t have had any of these others. And without any of these others, I can’t imagine a terrible lot going on in my life to be thrilled with.

Rick served as my first advisor, but all of my advisors have given me career advice and friendly counsel above and beyond their role through the school. Ravi Krishnaswami gave me my first big break composing. I landed an advertising jingle for a popular sci-fi video game series. The jingle wound up in the game itself, and the company has used it elsewhere at every opportunity. We’ve also done some songwriting together just for us, and it’s been immensely rewarding. Another mentor, Don DiNicola, has allowed me to collaborate on a number of projects now. I’ve done everything for him from script editing to voiceover work.

My wife Maegan first introduced me to Lauren, then her coworker at the ad department of a liberal arts school. Lauren introduced me to Sebastian as he was forming Materia, a tribute album that grew into an entire record label for video game covers and original soundtracks. Through that platform, I met – this sounds like an exaggeration – several dozen of my favorite people. If I start naming them, I’ll leave people out. I think it best not to try. But I’ve had tearful, heartful conversations now with people from Seattle to New York. Not to mention Scotland, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, and Sweden. Any time we travel for work or for vacation, I have friends I can call to meet up and break bread with. That is a priceless, precious gift. And when life throws me a curveball and I find myself on the road unexpectedly, it’s an incredible comfort.

Not all of my video game music (VGM) friends are far-flung, though. I met Sirenstar, Nate Chambers, not to mention Lauren’s bandmates, and the two other VGM bands, in town. Later another Materia friend and collaborator, Bonnie, had recently gone freelance and was mulling a move to town. We helped show her around while she figured out whether this move was really the life change she wanted. Since then, all of us have collaborated on a number of things. Nate and I have scored a game together, and pitched at least three more. We’re flying out to speak at a conference in October about some neat work we did with carefully composed music that can randomize itself for hours (based on minutes of music) before you hear the same thing twice.

It all circles back around to the people you know. I’ve made constant, conscious effort to let the people in my life know how much I love them. And I’ve certainly tried to be there for them. You don’t ever want to wind up with your own back against the wall, but when I found myself there, they gathered and lifted me back up in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Margie and my rotating band at VCFA, One Touch Relief, in February 2016. Zachary Kohlmeier, Amanda Laven, Thomas Avery, myself, Jesse Mitchell, Torrey Richards, and Margie Halloran.

Margie and my rotating band at VCFA, One Touch Relief, in February 2016. Zachary Kohlmeier, Amanda Laven, Thomas Avery, myself, Jesse Mitchell, Torrey Richards, and Margie Halloran.

When I lost my job in April, I called my graduate advisors. I called my friends from the VGM scene and from grad school. I called family. And people came together in an incredible way. Bonnie, now settled in Austin, sent me freelance work editing her voiceover for a computer game until I got back on my feet. Ravi, Rick, and Don all talked me through my options as I strove to discern whether I wanted to pursue freelance work or another office job. Nate’s wife, also a dear friend, wound up helping me find the job that I have now. She added me to a local Facebook group for digital jobs. I found a copywriting gig that I immediately fell in love with. I get to write, so I’m doing creative work to pay the bills. It’s remote, so I can spend time composing instead of dealing with Austin traffic. I adore my coworkers and the environment. And none of that would have happened without Ange’s help. (And Nate’s before her, and Lauren’s before him, and so on, because this is how life works.)

Through Materia, I found a software program that lets you write music using sampled sounds from old video game consoles – the original Nintendo, Sega Genesis, etc. A month or two later, a grad school friend needed retro video game-style music for a film he was working on. I was able to contribute, using the tools I picked up in this other sphere of my life.

Last year, my friend Sirenstar sang in Houston for a show with noted game composer Akira Yamaoka. This year, when the same concert series was looking for a saxophonist to accompany composer Darren Korb, she threw my name out and got me the gig. I got to spend a delightful day watching a fantastic composer practice harmonies with one of his most trusted collaborators, before accompanying them onstage. It was an absolute delight.

Each relationship shaped the prior one.

With each successive friendship, with each new opportunity, I am acutely aware of the way that each relationship shaped the prior one. Without people encouraging me to escape Boston, none of this would have happened. Without Mae, I wouldn’t have met Lauren, and in turn Sirenstar, and never would have played the Darren Korb show. I keep these things with me because each moment is filled with their spirit. Every opportunity is a chance to honor those connections more deeply with my actions.

Some of the connections have surprised me. In Chicago, a school friend and a video game music composer friend have known each other since grad school days. In Toronto, a friend leads a big-band swing group that covers Nintendo music. She knows another one of my grad school buddies.

I try to continue the cycle. A game composer asks if anyone plays any Indian or Middle Eastern string instruments other than sitar. I hook him up with an oud player that I met in grad school. I don’t know how that worked out, but I at least made the connection, because so many people have made connections for me. Another Materia member is a game music journalist, and mentions wanting to interview the composer behind the songs the street musicians sing in the Dishonored series. Well, that’s my buddy Ravi. I set them up on Facebook and before I know it, the interview is out.

One Materia album honors a game wherein you have three days to stop the moon from crashing into the Earth. The game’s atmosphere dabbles more than a bit in existential terror and omnipresent despair. One of my grad school friends wrote his thesis on the game’s themes. Not the musical themes, mind. The music was original. He was mining the emotional themes. He wrote a multi-movement suite where the music spanned fixed media, an early music ensemble, choir, and more, all exploring the internal turmoil of one of the game’s tertiary characters. I had to bring him onto the tribute album. He’s now a beloved member of the community, and he’s having the time of his life there.

I’m not out to “get” anything from anybody. It’s simply that I *am* nothing without the people around me.

The point of all this meandering is that it all comes down to the relationships we forge. I don’t say that in a disingenuous way. I’m not out to “get” anything from anybody. It’s simply that I *am* nothing without the people around me. That was true when I was in high school. It was true when I was at the psych hospital. And it’s true now. We are the links in the chains that tether us to a life worth living. The world is enormous and terrifying. Any sense that we can wrench from our unfeeling universe is going to be a group effort.

Be kind. Help each other up. Don’t close the door behind you. Say yes to everything. Nurture. Be brave enough to walk in empathy. And for the love of everything you hold holy, tell your friends you love them.

A cake with a photo of Garrett Steele's face on it.

The cake for my senior recital at University of Central Arkansas. Uncomfortable with the attention a composition recital represented, I played the whole thing like an egomaniac. The concert was called “Michael Garrett Steele Presents Michael Garrett Steele, The Concert: An Evening with Michael Garrett Steele”.

Surfing on a Constantly Shifting Bed of Earthquaking Sand Dunes

Last week, I talked about going to a school that changed my life. The thing is, you don’t get to just change one part of your life at once. That’s not what life is. Life is where you surf on a constantly shifting bed of earthquaking sand dunes and you try to grab what happiness you can as it floats by amidst the chaos.

Or something.

Here’s the recap:

1. It starts with a bad job in Boston, and me hightailing it back to Arkansas to pursue music after a lifetime of pushing it away.

2. Then it moves to a grad school in Vermont that fundamentally, completely blew my existence apart and reassembled it in the best way possible.

Going back to undergrad was meant to refocus my attention towards music study. But after getting my second degree from my Arkansas alma mater, I sort of backslid a little bit on the creative front. I didn’t know much about recording. I’d grown a lot in my theory knowledge, but it wasn’t enough to compete in the modern media scoring landscape. I eventually just took a sales job for a tech company out of a need to stay afloat. That turned into an administrative job, contracted through the state.  Once again, I’d wandered away from music. But there was one upside to the gig. For exactly one week a month, I had an enormous pile of work to do. For the other three weeks, my job was to frantically look busy – and I wasn’t allowed to take work off of anybody else’s plate. It wasn’t great, but nobody tried to stab me at work, either. And after my first gig, working in inpatient psych, that was sort of my metric for what a “good job” looked like. I never got stabbed, and I never took work home with me. In my mind, it was sort of a dream gig for a grad student. I could research and listen quietly at my desk in the off weeks. And whatever else happened, I knew I’d get out on time to go home and write. And that wouldn’t be too bad, right?

But I was starting to get mired again. I felt depressed about not advancing any further musically. And ironically, that depression was about to pull me into chickening out of grad school. So, despite not having any prospects of my own lined up, I jumped at the chance to change things up when my wife Mae told me she’d landed a job in Austin, Texas. It was a job similar to the one she had—working in the marketing office of a small liberal arts school. But there was more room for advancement, and an exciting environment. We packed up and took off.

So everything was in chaos at once. When I traveled out for my first week-long grad school residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, we were subletting a one-bedroom apartment filled with cardboard boxes that we weren’t even bothering to unpack. While I was at school, I was dealing with all of the glorious chaos mentioned in my previous post—constant workshops, concerts, masterclasses, lectures, and more. But I was simultaneously fielding emails, texts, photos, and forms as my wife tried to find us a place to live.

When I came back, I started plugging along on my grad school work—and on our bills. I got work as a temp. That was a beautifully surreal stretch of time. Temping, I worked in a jewelry warehouse. I worked in a printing shop. I worked front desk jobs and go-fer gigs at an ad agency and a title company, and I directed traffic at football games. Whatever non-sequitur direction life took me on a given day, I came back home and tried to figure out new ways to write music. In the past, I’d always been a dots-on-lines person. But if I was going to be serious about scoring for media, I had to learn to write pieces that could exist self-contained in software.

I was going to be serious about scoring for media, I had to learn to write pieces that could exist self-contained in software.

A lot of modern composition happens in programs called digital audio workstations. (You can say DAW, if you’re short on time). There are a few of them (Logic, Cakewalk, ProTools, Reaper), but they share common functions as well as a lot of complexities that I was going to have to figure out.

As an undergrad, I did all of my film scoring work using sheet music. Frankly, it always went over better than I deserved. Scoring film demands precision. Programs like Logic will lay the movie out with the music under it, so that you can minutely adjust the way that every piece fits together. I didn’t have that. I had a stopwatch and a quick finger on the pause button of the films I was scoring. Somehow, it always worked out. I scored three student shorts that way. I’d write the music out on a student version of Finale from 2003, and I’d record it with my classmates. I blared a click track in my ear and became known for my wildly animated conducting. We recorded it all live, in classrooms that weren’t built for it at all, and we made it work as best we could. Looking back, I’m proud of what we did for a group of people feeling our way through the dark. We built a community around it. One director called the band my “army of kind strangers,” and the name stuck. It reminded me of how incredibly fortunate I was to be taking these steps, and working with these people.

But my experience was fairly limited. I’d never written music without a film to score, or at least a story to tell in my own mind. (The academics refer to that as “programmatic music.”) And I’d never really used a DAW. I struggled along at both. In grad school I was given assignments to analyze, understand, and rescore—everyone from Bernard Herrmann to Tan Dun. I used gosh-awful MIDI instruments because it’s what I could afford and I had to keep going. Meanwhile, I wrote a non-programmatic piece and realized it was maybe my most complete summation of everything I loved. It had late-Romantic French sax quartet schmaltz, as well as nods to Japanese video game score harmonies and Stax Records vibes. It also had a fully realized form. (Scoring gives you a lot of opportunities to weasel out of doing that.)

Meanwhile, my wife was getting to know her co-workers. Completely coincidentally, one of her new friends at the marketing office, Lauren, was heavily involved with Austin’s surprisingly robust video game music scene.

Playing video game music on guitars is like playing Charlie Parker melodies on a trombone.

When I say that, I don’t mean “composers who write music for video games,” though there is certainly a healthy number of those, many of whom I’m delighted to now call my friends. But in this case, I mean “rock bands who plug guitars into giant amps in bars and play video game music.” If you’ve never seen this happen, it’s incredible. Most of this music was written for computer playback. As the composers were writing wild arpeggios in parallel 3rds and 6ths, they weren’t actually counting on human hands ever playing this music. But people do it. They go to the woodshed and they learn these impossible melodies the way an aspiring sax player will work over a Charlie Parker solo. But at least Parker knew what suited his hands. This is like playing Parker melodies on a trombone.

The Video Games Live orchestra, which features a few of my buds

Our friend Lauren’s band is called The Returners. They’re not the only band that does this in Austin. There’s also Gimmick!, Descendants of Erdrick, and a few others here and there. If you live in a city of any size at all, there’s probably at least one band doing this near you. (Or a string quartet, or a group of improvisatory jazz and new music nerds.) But it’s pretty unusual to have a whole web of them like we do in Austin.

Every now and then, The Returners would need a vocalist for a piece, and I’d get to join them onstage. We played everything from writers’ retreats to bars to enormous video game conventions. But as fun as it was, it was just a portent of what we were about to get into.

One day, Lauren sent me a message. Her friend Sebastian was doing a large-scale, licensed tribute album to a landmark Final Fantasy game. She wondered if I wanted to put a track together. I’d never done much arrangement, but I jumped at the chance. Older video game scores are ripe for re-interpretation. There are some fantastic musical ideas happening, but owing to the restrictions of the technology, there’s a lot of room to arrange and interpret. Some tracks are clearly emulating an orchestra or a jazz band. Some are more of a Rorschach test. All of them feed into a cover music scene infused with a vibrant, buzzing, anarchic fervor for a broad body of often-haunting, widely overlooked music. For my part of the album, I took one of the most gorgeous, haunting melodies that Nobuo Uematsu ever wrote, and turned it into a gleefully shambling P.D.Q. Bach-esque monstrosity full of Otamatone, whistling, and bassoon reeds.

In case you’re curious to hear an Otamatone, this is Mklachu’s Otamatone cover of “Rainbow Road” from the console game Mario Kart: Double Dash!

It was a blast, and the album took off in a way we weren’t expecting. That tribute album blossomed into a full-on record label called Materia Collective. They continue to release community-driven tribute albums on a regular basis, but they also put out original game scores now as well. It was a blast to get in on the ground floor. But most important (at least for me) are the friendships I’ve made through the organization and the scene at large. That’s grown to include not only performers, but composers, as well. Like any scene, there’s a lot of overlap in roles. It’s not at all uncommon for people to become favored session musicians for scoring after making a name for themselves as fan arrangers and performers.

My most recent track for Materia includes a trumpet player from Chicago, a bassist from Connecticut, a guitar player from Portugal, and a flutist from Brazil. (Many of them are composers to some extent in their own rights.) At this point, I can hardly go anywhere without running into a friendly face—whether it’s someone I know from the Internet, or someone from a video game music conference. (I’ve been to two of them and can still scarcely believe such a wondrously niche thing exists on the scale that it does.) That interconnectedness is perhaps what defines the scene.

In fact, it led me around the world and right back home. Several of my closest friends from the group are actually people from right here in Austin! They’ve become confidants, friends, and frequent collaborators. Some of my favorite music and greatest opportunities have spun out of it.

Stephen Robert Froebe, Brian Diamond, and Michael Garrett Steele

Stephen Robert Froeber, Brian Diamond, and myself at a game music festival. Froeber is currently in Germany and Diamond is an Irishman living in Scotland. We met up in National Harbor, Maryland.

The larger my world gets, the smaller it is.

Our ability to write and record music around the globe relies on our ability to produce and deliver polished recordings, wherever we may be. Between my newfound technical acumen and the increasingly confident voice for orchestration I picked up at VCFA, I have been able to find—and have become an effective member of—a community of people as wildly committed to my most esoteric passion as I am. And the more I enmesh myself into all of my various spheres, the more they start overlapping. One of my VCFA friends is from Toronto. I asked him once, as a joke, whether he knew a game music friend who leads a jazz band in Toronto. It turned out he did. A Chicago VGM friend and a Chicago VCFA friend went to school together. And so it goes. The larger my world gets, the smaller it is. These convergences and connections are endlessly beautiful to me, and I feel more at home in more places than I ever dreamed that I would. I’ve even gotten to be the person to *make* those connections once or twice.

Both of these musical worlds thrive on connection. VCFA, with its emphasis on distance learning with modern tools, and the video game music community, made of far-flung, passionate devotees who grew up embracing technology. In the end, I owe just about everything I have to these groups of people, and the connections that I’ve made among them.

The Magic That Happens in a Week

When I first arrived at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier for a campus visit, I was just in time for the electronic music showcase. I’d had a long flight and a drive through unfamiliar country. I was a little weary, and a little wary. I’d been to a lot of electronic showcases and fixed-media installations over the course of looking for a grad school. They’d started bleeding into each other. And none of them made me feel like my voice had any place in the programs I was visiting.

The works didn’t feel like student works. They were furious searches for answers to burning questions.

VCFA’s was something special, though. The works didn’t feel like student works. They were furious searches for answers to burning questions. In that sense then, they were student works – in the sincerest form of the word. I heard delicate soundscapes, interwoven with rotating samples of the composer’s family. I heard brutalist musique concrète. The whole thing closed with a meditative improvisation among some of the faculty. Jazz pianist Diane Moser performed in an emotional feedback loop as her sound was manipulated by Mike Early and John Mallia. It was unlike anything I’d heard before. And woven throughout this exploration of electronic art music was something else—there were snippets of video game music. There were synthesizer pieces from the ‘70s that students had pulled out of mothballs and retooled. There were straight-up techno dance pieces. And in the context of that breadth, a realization emerged – every single piece I heard that night was exactly what the composer wanted it to be. Nobody was following the dictate of an overbearing tutor or trying to impress a department head. They were following their muse, guided by folks who were equipping them to do it better every time. And the program was richer for it, in breadth and in depth. At a school that had room for me, even the musical styles that felt like a barrier to me were beautiful, because the only people composing in that space were the ones who were truly called into it.

VCFA operates in week-long residencies, followed by six months of one-on-one mentoring with a faculty member. Because there’s so little time spent together, they go out of their way to make the most of it. Every minute is accounted for, between the lectures, workshops, showcases, and concerts. My visit was only for a couple of nights, but it felt like I was there for at least two weeks. The breadth of the lectures bore out the promise of the electronics showcase. I caught the film music showcase and an ensemble concert. After that concert, I stayed up talking with one of the student composers I’d met. As we talked and I packed, I realized we’d carried our conversation on until 5 in the morning, and it was time for my cab to take me to the airport. I flew home, with something like two dozen new Facebook friends in tow.

A group of VCFA students standing inside one of the buildings there.

These are some of those friends…

Those Facebook friends turned out to mean a great deal in the coming months. Even though I was on the fence about attending, I was welcomed into the community and talking to students daily. When the time came to make an admission decision, I had two offers on the table. The assistant program director called me – not to sell me on it, but to talk through my creative and financial anxieties.

She, in turn, put me in touch with the faculty chair at the time, Rick Baitz. Rick talked to me for over an hour while he was stuck in New York traffic and I was stuck in Austin traffic. His advice was enthusiastic, if cryptically Zen. “Well, I think you should come. Unless you don’t want to come. But then you probably shouldn’t be listening to me. Listen to yourself.”

In the end, I wound up listening to him. It was one of the most positive life changes I’ve ever made. Frankly, it still is. My time at VCFA is very much a going concern and a part of my daily life. I still collaborate with my VCFA fellows. I still work with them, and occasionally work for them. And two years after graduating, I still fly to Vermont every six months and take a long drive to be part of every residency.

Vermont College of Fine Arts plays up the “low residency” aspect of the program. You study remotely with a grad advisor for six months, and then you reconvene on campus for a week-long combination of a conference and a festival. But the real value of the school isn’t in the semester format. It’s in the magic that happens in that one week.

Because there’s so little time spent together, they go out of their way to make the most of it.

The residencies start to bleed together in my mind. They’re separated by time, and yet they’re timeless, and oddly recursive. As I walk through this week, most of the examples I think of are from the most recent residency, August 2018. It is the freshest one in my mind. But as I reach through my memories to think of all the things that the program can be—and has been, for me—I have reached for a few memories from earlier residencies stood out for me. The guest presenters and visiting performers change from residency to residency, and at least one priceless, life-changing memory seems to emerge from each one.

That first evening I experienced there may have been the best introduction to the program I could have hoped for. I quickly found that the genre-agnostic approach I encountered was de rigueur for the program at large. It bore out in the lectures, as well. Andy Jaffe is the man who wrote the book on jazz harmony—quite literally. His pet topic is recontextualization through reharmonization. He’s the kind of speaker who, even if you can barely keep up with him, will leave you with a tiny piece of insight that you can apply anywhere. In a flash, he will immediately deepen your understanding and broaden your view. Andy insists repeatedly that there’s nothing mystical about jazz harmony. One of his core assertions is incredibly simple—the more tones you have in your chord, the more common tones you have to propel you wherever you want to go. If you’re a newcomer to the world of jazz—or even unengaged completely—that’s a tiny, but powerful idea. You can hang onto it, take it home, and mull it over as you work on your own music for six months. And Andy’s approach to harmony starts quietly bleeding into student work as they progress through the program.

An impromptu jam session involving VCFA students and faculty (including Andy Jaffe at the piano) as well as visiting musicians (including violinist Fung Chern Hwei)

An impromptu jam session involving VCFA students and faculty (including Andy Jaffe at the piano) as well as visiting musicians (including violinist Fung Chern Hwei)

John Fitz Rogers speaks adeptly about principles of orchestration. This semester, his lecture is about controlling dynamic intensity artfully, by baking it into the structure of the piece itself rather than giving each part a dynamic marking. As he sifts through 300 years’ worth of examples, he casually opens windows of insight into a bottomless wealth of expertise. Even his basic thesis is one that is simultaneously core to orchestration and yet wildly underappreciated.

A trio of working media composers offer practical advice that is rooted in their years of first-hand experience.

A trio of working media composers hold court to a steadily growing cadre of starry-eyed film-scoring hopefuls. Their advice is practical, rooted in their years of first-hand experience. Rick Baitz gives a survey course in conveying story information musically. He uses Little Miss Sunshine as an example of how you can lead a viewer to intuit things about your characters without needing to make them speak. In other years he’s shown a tense, ambiguous scene from a horror movie. A character is in a stranger’s home, looking for information on a serial killer. He’s either in grave danger, or he’s become hilariously paranoid. Rick shows us the original, and then uses several rescored versions to illustrate how much weight a good score can pull in setting the emotional tone of a scene. Horror is rich with emotional potential, and thrives on the discomfort of ambiguity. An expert composer can tip the scale on way or another to tip off a canny viewer, or to misdirect and surprise at a crucial moment.

Ravi Krishnaswami gives canny lectures in music business and deciphering client needs. He also holds a workshop each semester during which students are asked to score an ad, integrating sound design into the music itself. Sometimes he deliberately gives the assignment out last-minute, for the sake of verisimilitude. This semester, Don DiNicola talked about the importance of collaboration in an age that increasingly demands musicians do everything themselves. People came away deeply moved, almost exuberant. DiNicola himself has been a music supervisor for television studios for years. His insight into navigating through various stakeholders and getting paid is almost as incisive as his musical instincts.

The VCFA community listens to a talk by the members of the Sirius Quartet at VCFA's Alumni Hall during the summer 2018 residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)

The VCFA community listens to a talk by the members of the Sirius Quartet at VCFA’s Alumni Hall during the summer 2018 residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)

Professors sit in on each other’s lectures as well, despite their time being at a premium. The collegial atmosphere is shaped profoundly by their curiosity and camaraderie, and by the cross-pollination of ideas. You’ll see the classically oriented professors sitting in on a lecture about the Futurists, given by a singer-songwriter with a wild new music streak. You’ll see the jazz cats turn up at the film scoring lectures with fresh insights about the way harmonic motion is driving a scene. That boundless insistence on the permeable nature of what we do is at the heart of the program.

Some of my classmates were fresh out of college. Some had recently retired.

Similar convergences occur among the students. Some of my classmates were fresh out of college. Some had recently retired. One is a heart surgeon who had trimmed his hours to focus more on his lifelong music obsession. An avant-garde jazz composer from Chicago takes an evening away from lectures to listen to a discussion about her work on Swedish Public Radio. One of my childhood heroes in television scoring is here, trying to rediscover his own voice after years of being asked by studios to sound like other composers. And all of these people are thrown together. They encourage each other through difficult masterclass sessions. They learn each other’s songs for the weekend showcase. They gossip about John Zorn and recommend TV shows to each other at lunch.

Garrett Steele sitting on a piano bench next to Margie Halloran who is playing the piano and singing with Torrey Richards playing guitar to their right.

I join another VCFA alum Margie Halloran for one of her songs along with Torrey Richards on guitar during the Singer-Songwriter Showcase

Evenings are for showcases and concerts of student work. In addition to the electronic showcase, there are nights for film music and songwriting. All of those styles bleed into the ensemble concerts—ostensibly the meat of the residency experience. Groups like Talujon, Sirius Quartet, and loadbang offer feedback and insight for several days before delivering their performances. They impart idiosyncratic notation tricks for their instruments. They give practical career advice. A common theme in their feedback is that it’s a performer’s market when it comes to new pieces. The performers here are all strong enough that they can play anything you throw at them. But they’re also honest enough to say, “If you want someone to actually play this thing beyond these walls, you need to tweak this, this, and this to make it manageable.”

Sometimes ensembles take student work with them. My own percussion quartet was programmed by Michael Lipsey for his percussion students at Queens College. And even if the music doesn’t travel, the relationships do. Students from Florida couch-surf with students from California. Session musicians from New York make time to grab drinks when students from Texas come to visit.

David Cossin make some edits on his part as Michael Lipsey looks on at a rehearsal of Talujon during VCFA's summer 2018 music composition residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)

David Cossin make some edits on his part as Michael Lipsey looks on at a rehearsal of Talujon during VCFA’s summer 2018 music composition residency (Photo by Jay Ericson, courtesy VCFA)

Those relationships are fostered by the evenings after the concert. The on-campus café supplies enough wine to get the conversation going, and before too long everyone wanders down the hill from the campus to the bars downtown. It’s in one of those bars that I won a minute of recording time from a Julliard instructor in a bet. Here I get lightly berated by a conservatory head for not being familiar enough with Biggie. Here a visiting music journalist breathlessly enthuses about a ‘50s pop singer from Hong Kong that I need to hear.

The professor renowned for orchestration can go on a tangent about Led Zeppelin.

Beyond encouraging breadth within the program, VCFA encourages people to explore their own full richness. The professor renowned for orchestration can go on a tangent about Led Zeppelin. A songwriting student can do a multi-movement piece for brass quintet. And the people on the periphery of each of these moments get to experience people who are living in holistic fulfillment of their best artistic selves.

VCFA is a swirling vortex of bizarre, beautiful convergences, built on the idea that it’s all music. Maybe, in the end, everything is.

A photo of the 2016 VCFA graduating class in music composition during graduation all holding their diplomas.

At the end of every residency there is a graduation ceremony for the people who have attended five residencies and have completed all of their work toward the degree. During the ceremony. For each of the graduates, one of the faculty members offers a personal statement and ceremony attendees also get to listen to recorded excerpts of each of the graduate’s musical compositions.

From Hardwired Pragmatist to Nontraditional Undergrad Student

Every time I’ve ever interviewed a TV or film composer (mostly for a website called NerdSpan), I’ve asked if they can pinpoint a moment when they fell in love with music. I’ve gotten the same answer so many times now that I’ve considered just asking, “Which moment in Star Wars made you want to be a composer?” I had my Star Wars moment, too. For me, it was the twin sunrise, with the “Force Theme” swelling up in the strings after that horn solo. That was the moment I fell in love with music—though my mother tells me that I used to dash into the living room and start running in circles when the NBC Nightly News fanfare came on (which, as it turns out, is also a John Williams theme), and she claims that “Put Down the Duckie” on Sesame Street propelled me into my choice of instrument.

Garrett as a young child playing with a toy saxophone and a toy piano.

Mom says I had a habit of putting a toy candlestick on the piano and saying I was “going to play a little Beethoven.” I blame the Muppet Show.

My story looks similar to those told by a lot of musicians—up to a point. I came up through an education system with plenty of opportunities to play, but very little in the way of a meaningful theory education. Even if it had been offered, I was zooming down the Type-A hellroad that is the province of the “gifted student,” and so arrived at college extremely well-prepared to take standardized exams, but with precious little else going for me.

My own hardwired pragmatism steered me away from music and towards psychology.

I had a wildly supportive family and the full faith of my girlfriend (now my wife). And yet my own hardwired pragmatism steered me away from music and towards psychology. It wasn’t a decision borne of academic ambivalence. I had genuine interest in the field, and a powerful drive to help people. And I was good at it. My first paid job was through the National Science Foundation. I wrote for an educational website about two prominent local behavioral scientists—both students of B.F. Skinner—who had settled in Arkansas and quietly turned behaviorism on its head with their research. I helped a professor edit a study on the ways that in-group bias expresses itself across the political spectrum, and we wound up getting it published. I won presentation awards at state conferences and executed an undergraduate thesis attempting to map models of real-world behavior into virtual worlds. I was doing well. But I was ignoring another need. The whole time, I relegated my musical life to simply playing in the college jazz band every semester.

Garrett and his wife Mae at the Boston Marathon

Even that piece fell by the wayside when I moved to Massachusetts to help my wife pursue her Master’s. My grad school applications had been received lukewarmly, so I thought that working in the field for a while might be beneficial. And so it came to be that my first job out of college was at a for-profit, acute-care, inpatient psychiatric clinic. It was for people who posed an immediate danger either to themselves or others. The problem was that being for-profit, budget surpluses rolled over into administrative bonuses. You might imagine what that looked like. Staffing skated by on the bare legal minimum, occasionally dipping below it. Patients would come in who had been homeless for weeks, and we would learn while preparing their toiletries that we had run out of shampoo. The phlebotomist who came by in the mornings once found a bottle of medicine that had been expired for two years. (These are a few of the less-horrifying, safe-for-work examples.)

One evening in 2010, I walked into the diner on the corner. My routine was to buy a giant cup of the last of their coffee and nurse it over the course of my night shift. (Funny enough, hospitals aren’t too keen on calling it the “graveyard shift.”) The coffee wasn’t typically great by midnight, and half the time they didn’t charge me. One night the cashier saw my nametag and said, “Oh, you work at the place that caught fire?”

I stammered a bit.

“I, uh…I sure don’t think so?”

As I rounded the corner, the strobe of emergency lights immediately proved him right. A patient had stuffed his mattress with newspaper and lit it with a lighter he’d snuck from a cigarette break. In a bizarre moment of clarity, I suddenly realized why my grad school applications hadn’t been going well. My desire to help people was earnest, but my whole heart just wasn’t in clinical work. That night, we trudged through waterlogged hallways bringing patient belongings out to another building. As I looked at the clinic, ruined by sprinklers and smoke, I decided to burn the rest of my life down along with it, and finally, fully accept all of the encouragement and support that my family had been offering me for so long.

I fell in love with theory. I loved that the moments that invariably made me cry had names.

I contacted my saxophone instructor from undergrad, the incomparable Jackie Lamar. She helped me figure out a path back to getting a music degree. Once I dug into the program, I fell in love with theory. I loved that the moments that invariably made me cry had names. You could understand them, you could master them, even. I was delighted. I hopped onto the (fairly new) composition track, studying under Drs. Paul and Stefanie Dickinson.

I was what they called a “nontraditional” undergraduate student. Functionally, that meant that I was attending college with my little sister and her friends from high school. On top of that, I was an odd duck for a music student in the 21st century. I was studious, but decidedly tonal. When I absorbed a new nuance of quartal harmony or tone clusters, I immediately started bending it back towards euphony. Dr. Dickinson graciously put up with my goofball operettas and spy jazz suites, but I had no idea whether I’d be so lucky in finding a graduate school.