Co-hosts of the Trilloquy podcast Garrett McQueen and Scott Blankenship share their experiences with depression, therapy, medication, cannabis, creativity, and addiction. They also discuss how they continue to navigate their professional and personal relationship following Garrett’s controversial termination from American Public Media, the original owner of Trilloquy and parent company to Minnesota Public Radio, where the two worked together as broadcasters and Garrett served as the only Black classical music host. Scott and Garrett share how they put their relationship first, how they stay motivated in their work to decolonize classical music, and the importance of being vulnerable and honest in conversations surrounding mental health.
Joshua Fried begins each of his RADIO WONDERLAND shows with a spin of a boombox radio dial, snippets of caught commercials and DJ chatter popping out of the static and drawing his audience’s ears in on a raft of mainstream culture before he starts cutting it apart.
There is also a boombox in nearly every room of Fried’s apartment, which after a few hours in his company chatting about processing sound, seems to be not just a fun decorating choice but also an illustration of how connected he is to his music-making tools.
More than sharing space, however, it’s time that Fried has invested deeply in his music, labor-intensive processes becoming something of a hallmark. As a result, his projects have a tendency to spiral out across years of his professional life. Splicing elaborate tape loops and coding his own software have been just par for this artistic course—intimacy with the tools and materials an essential part of the work.
Yet whether in a dive for self-preservation or simply a yin-yang bit of balance, Fried sets up his musical game boards with elaborate care, but then prefers to play out the final aspects of his creative process live in front of an audience. In the ’90s that meant feeding his performers their material in real time over headphones. Since 2007, it most often finds him alone on stage, a couple pairs of men’s dress shoes concealing gate-triggering microphones and a Buick steering wheel drawing the audience’s eyes as he grabs bits of radio chatter from which he builds each RADIO WONDERLAND concert.
His creative path has led him from The Pyramid Club to more esoteric new music circles, but he hasn’t abandoned his pursuit of great grooves, and it’s a prime driver of RADIO WONDERLAND. “I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable,” he explains. “As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on.” In live performance and in track after track on his just-released album SEiZE THE MEANS, the drive of the pulse, the transparency of the process, and common commercial radio core prove to amplify rather than dilute the music’s broader unique aspects.
Fried anticipated that his lack of interest in “high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about” might result in his work being dismissed in certain circles, but while that has happened, he has actually felt accepted and free to pursue the work he wants even if it comes attached to a beat that encourages serious toe tapping. It’s not something he’s looking to transcend. “I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.”
Joshua Fried: I think I have long had this idea that I’m going to be the thorn in the side of some establishment that isn’t going to like me, and it turns out they do.
Molly Sheridan: But you don’t trust that?
JF: I have a little bit of imposter’s syndrome, but I’m on much more solid ground than I was when I started. It’s funny because “new music” is awash in people doing sophisticated things in funny meters and odd things with tonality and pitch, and whether I do or don’t, I tend to be accepted and no one has a problem with 4/4. It’s kind of amazing to me. I’m sort of waiting to be dismissed—and that’s happened to me—but I feel very accepted and able to pursue what I want. It just so happens that what I want is rather clubby, especially with RADIO WONDERLAND.
MS: I actually wanted to start by just talking about the evolution of RADIO WONDERLAND, especially for readers who may not be familiar with this project. It seems to me there’s a sort of ritual to these performances and to the pieces you create, including the equipment that you use and have used for a number of years now.
JF: Oh, yeah.
MS: So I want to trace the evolution of that visually and sonically, whether you have to go back to 1987 to do that, or just 2007.
JF: I have been cutting up sound and processing sound since I first started composing, and I started using radio really early on. I did one piece where I would start with FM radio playing the easy listening station—cascading strings and completely mellow “beautiful music”—and then cut to this underlying tape loop that was cut up very precisely. I would do it several times and it was random what I got from the cascading strings station. Then I was performing in clubs in New York with multi-channel tape-loop processing. Basically I was taking the technical structure of dub reggae, only instead of remixing an existing reggae song, I would remix a multi-channel tape loop that I had constructed laboriously and do that live.
I also had a thing where I would use something to trigger a gate. Like I would speak into the microphone, but it would be opening up a gate on a tape loop. It was theatrical. As a performative schtick, I started hiding the mic inside various objects. I put the mic inside a shoe and took it to the Pyramid Club where I was performing live, and I was whacking the shoe with a drumstick so the tape loop could be in time with my underlying groove. Then as I evolved as a composer, I wanted to do more with gates, so I said, let’s have four shoes. And this is 1988 at the La MaMa New Music Festival. I had the shoes and a radio—two channels of shoe-controlled gates from radio and two pre-recorded ongoing sounds.
Then a few years later, I realized I could do something that’s all radio. What I had to do next was the club-oriented funky tape loops that I had done in the ‘80s, only make those collages in real time in front of an audience and all out of commercial radio. I could do that with technology. I didn’t know what technology, but I knew I could do it with technology. I could trigger the radio with the shoes, but I wanted to do more. What I was doing in the ‘80s in clubs, these tape loops that I mentioned where I did things based on dub reggae, got increasingly intricate and I would do very high-precision tape splicing. As digital sampling was taking off, I would kind of say to myself, oh, I can do that with splicing and I would end up with something that was like those samplers, only more hi-fi because I had a quarter-inch tape deck, which was giving me better quality than the 8-bit or 12-bit samplers at the time. So there was this kind of odd period where, because I felt that I would live forever and it didn’t matter how long a project took, I would just do even more labor intensive, high-precision tape splicing.
But I slowly transitioned to MIDI and sampling, and so getting back to the beginnings of RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized that I could use technology to precisely cut up the found sound that I got off the radio and turn that into a groove. I have notebooks full of notes about what I could do and the more I thought about it, the more I got serious about it. I went through a period where I thought: how far am I willing to really elaborately process? Because what I love most in processing is the cutting up, running backwards, playing at different speeds, collaging as opposed to the high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about. The simple processing that has a big musical payoff is more fascinating to me. What’s the least I can do, the most transparent processing I can do, and have it give me my musical result?
And I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable. As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on. And sometimes I think it doesn’t matter so much what that framework is. You need it. Especially when it comes to structuring things over time.
I was doing the tape loop stuff in clubs, and that was more or the less the ‘80s, and in the ‘90s it was the headphone-driven performance, [concert work that requires performers to try and imitate vocal sounds that are played over headphones]. Then halfway through that, I realized the next thing I wanted to do was club-oriented again, but by that time, I was so steeped in sort of the new music scene, it was no longer the Pyramid Club, it was the Bang on a Can Festival. And so when I first started doing RADIO WONDERLAND, it was music festivals and electronic nights, the Juilliard Electronic Music Festival and Boston Cyberarts. It didn’t really steer back to the clubs until I went through this long, long period of software development and then started channeling it to the clubs, and that’s a transition I’m sort of still making because I had so many years with the—if you want to call it—new music audience. The NewMusicBox audience! I still sort of feel like I’m steering back. In the late’80s, I was known if you read Billboard and not if you read the American Composers Forum newsletter. And then that switched. I still sort of feel I’m switching back.
MS: Was that all self-selected or did you feel pushed?
JF: It’s funny because I’ve sort of been following my nose the whole time as far as what I do. I was so involved with the clubs in the ‘80s, and to me it was equivalent with innovation. No, that’s not right. It’s not that simple. I was doing experimental stuff, and I was working a lot with Linda Fisher who’s a composer who worked with Cunningham and David Tudor and Douglas Dunn, who was a Cunningham dancer. But I was focused on the clubs; I was working in clubs. I could go on stage in any open-minded nightclub if I had my tape-loop act—I say open-minded, because at the time there was a certain population of people who enjoyed popular music but had to see a drum kit and/or a guitar on stage. There was one guy who said to me at the end of a gig, “If you had just had someone with a guitar on stage, even if they were just standing there, it would have made me feel more comfortable with what you did.” I was amazed at that. And I also really appreciated his honesty. He knew how absurd it was, and he was being completely real about it.
And then I got a record deal with a big record label. It went nowhere and it’s a long story, but it was a great thing that happened to me. I think I was kind of blown away emotionally, because I had this major label deal and I sort of didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have the skill to adapt. I tried to write some conventional pop songs for the occasion, but I didn’t do very many. They didn’t really fit. I needed to be like Howard Jones or M, the guy who did the song “Pop Muzik,” but I wasn’t versatile enough to do that. So I was just the tape loop guy doing my innovative stuff—which certain people really loved—marketed the wrong way.
It took me a long time to sort of get over it and decide what to do next. I didn’t have a next step for the record label, or I guess for the clubs. And then the headphone-driven stuff kind of took off, although it’s a slow motion take off. Over a few years, I did a lot of that stuff, and then the Bang on a Can All-Stars said, “Well, can we perform it?” And I said okay and I worked with them. I basically won’t let people perform this work unless I feel that they can do it—because it’s so awful if people don’t have the proper training. It’s hideously boring and uncomfortable, and it gives me and it gives the music a bad name. But if performers can handle it and they have worked with me or someone that I’ve worked with to know what I want from it, it can be this compelling, rigorous, worthy stuff. So anyway yes. The Bang on a Can All-Stars did it and then other people said they wanted to do it, and it had this life, including a 16-week series at HERE Arts Center in 2001.
It was so enormously labor intensive. It was amazing to be able to do it, but each performer can do each headphone role only once, so I rotate through performers. We had a total of 64 people over the course of this run. I would have to get more and more performers. How could I tour with this? I decided that this piece, if it can’t walk on its own, is going to have to be set by the side of road where if it wants to walk, it can walk, but I can no longer be pushing it along. I need something more practical, and that was going to be this radio, found sound, groove-based thing.
That’s also solo, so it makes so much more sense. Then all that was left was the years of doing the software programming. I did it myself in Max/MSP and it was a wonderful adventure, but it took years. It was absurd. By fall of 2007 I realized I have not utterly, thoroughly 100% debugged my own code. However, the state of performing this is hampered more by my lack of knowing how to do it and lack of rehearsal than by the bugs. I could put this on stage, work around the bugs, and six months of being on stage is going to put this out in the world. And it’s going to get that much better. Better than six more months of programming to iron out the last few bugs or add the last few features that I want. So all of sudden, I realized, oh, it’s not a matter of being done and then going on stage. I’m going on stage now. Let’s start gigging!
I decided that for a year I would just perform any and all performances—paid, unpaid, bring my own PA, what have you. This adventure started and I was going to do this for a year and then record. So that was fall of 2007. And then 2011—that’s a year after, right?—I realized I was doing more and more gigs. I started going out of town. I performed at this big sort of techno/rave-y complex in Venice, Italy. It was so great, but it was also crazy. I didn’t have a record to sell at the gigs. It seemed almost counterproductive. And also I didn’t mention, I made a deal with myself: not only was I going to stop coding—only since it’s Max/MSP, it’s drag another line with the mouse—but I was declaring a technology freeze. I wasn’t going to upgrade any piece of hardware or software until I had that record out. So I figured I’d gig for a year, do the record, upgrade the software. Instead it was a few years of gigging. Now, it’s antique software and a G3 Powerbook. It’s the same thing with my tape-loop stuff. When I started doing tape loops, it was high tech, but then I did it for so many years. Same thing kind of happened with RADIO WONDERLAND where I had a Powerbook that was state of the art and I just kept it. And I was so glad that I did.
Now my case might be extreme, but there are musicians and composers who are upgrading so fast, I feel like they’re not going into depth. On the other hand, they don’t need to go into depth the way I do. I get really involved with materials, the tools, and that is a big part of what I’m doing. Other composers are different. They’re pursuing other things, and they can have a—not a derogatory use of the term—more shallow connection with the nuts and bolts of their technology and it’s not such a wrenching big deal to upgrade. If they throw out their old software and have new software, great. They take advantage of that.
For me, it just couldn’t be that way. I wrote this software myself. I’m very intimate with it. It’s just not the same deal. I love that kind of intimacy with tools and materials. I guess for some composers, the intimacy is on the level of the score, or the concept, and the technology is secondary.
MS: Okay, that was a lot of answers to a lot of questions.
JF: Whew. So we’re done?
MS: We’re done! No, we’re not done. You were talking about intimacy, which makes me think about your use of commercial radio as your raw material. I’m curious, of all the things you could pick, what is your attraction to that specifically as your primary source?
JF: Well, there are a couple things that really dovetail nicely. Since I was kid, I’ve had this attraction to the commercial stuff and just reframing it as something that’s funny. When I was in fourth grade, we had a field trip to the L.A. airport and we got to walk inside an airplane. Then the next day, or maybe that afternoon, we were back in our homeroom in my elementary school, and we were asked to write about it. I wrote some spiel and at the end of it I wrote, “Welcome to the friendly skies of United.” It was a laugh line that has a certain needling twist to it.
Maybe that’s the whole sort of appropriative, ironic shtick that we’re all so tired of now, but I think I am of a generation where that is compelling to me. It’s a way of talking and of negotiating the world by quoting the mainstream stuff in this kind of snarky way. I feel in many ways, culturally we’re past that, but that kind of appropriation is like a language. And maybe this is a loaded word, but it is subversive. It is knocking, needling, and when I am cutting it up, it is cutting up the mainstream culture. It may be very basic, but great—be basic. Also, it’s ubiquitous, so it’s something that’s familiar and when I process the familiar, the process is that much more transparent. Just like when you do a cover tune, if you have an odd musical bent, your odd musical bent can be revealed by performing someone else’s work.
That’s why Devo’s version of “Satisfaction” is so satisfying, because we know this song and you get what Devo is. FM radio is dynamically compressed and has a decent frequency range. It is made to be grabbed and sampled. It’s so technically easy to grab the pre-compressed feed from FM radio. I know exactly where I have to put the volume control on my boombox. I don’t change the input level on my rig. I haven’t had to. And that’s great. It is perfectly pre-processed for the stuff that I’m doing.
MS: Is your choice of controllers born out of that same instinct—the steering wheel, the shoes? I mean, is that a joke? Is that a commentary? Is that playing off familiarity?
JF: It’s not the subversive appropriation kind of thing. I’m not knocking the industrial age because the steering wheel is a symbol of something evil. Arguably, it is. But I am doing it because of the transparency of the process when the controller is so large. I don’t want a tiny little knob that no one can see, so I want this object that’s the wheel.
Instead of the shoes, I could use electronic drum pads, but they have this sort of added message to me that you have to have something that looks like fancy high tech music hardware in order to whack something. But this is a completely un-acoustic instrument. The sound that you’re triggering has nothing to do with the physical makeup of the thing that you’re hitting. There’s this disconnect between the controller and the sound that results, and I want to underscore that disconnect. It’s a funny thing, and I’d rather have it be that funny thing than have it be like the cool drum pad. If you had the money to buy this in the music store, you could have this cool drum pad. I don’t like that.
Once I had the shoes, I knew that I wanted to have not just a large knob, but an ordinary object taken from life and give it that surreal feeling. I was really taken by surrealism when I was kid. It’s that kind of twist I was talking about before with appropriation. There’s a different, maybe related sort of twist when there’s something absurd. I just love it so much.
Another thing about the wheel is that, technically, it’s no different from the little knob you can get in the portable controller, which is a lot easier to pack on an airplane than a steering wheel, but you would never play a melody on that little knob. With the steering wheel, I can, and so now I practice the wheel, and it’s become this whole other level of instrument that I didn’t even realize. The quantitative difference of size is a real qualitative difference, and it’s so much fun.
MS: You’ve been working with commercial radio for a long time now. I’m curious if you’ve noted any changes to that particular stream of media and how that’s impacted your work.
JF: Well, part of it’s a little sad because when I started doing this, radio was more monolithic. Everybody knew half the songs on any of the pop stations. I don’t feel that’s the same thing now. Radio, even mainstream commercial radio, is in its niches. There was a sort of lingua franca of pop in the heyday of Michael Jackson and Madonna and Culture Club. They were so ubiquitous and corporate and massively popular. I was dismantling this common mainstream.
I have developed my aesthetic, but I haven’t really adapted. That’s just the way it goes. My projects take absurd numbers of years to fully play out, and that’s more acceptable in the movie business than it is in the music business. But I’m here, and so part of what RADIO WONDERLAND signifies has evolved out from under me. I’m using vintage technology now in a way that I wasn’t back then by virtue of not changing the technology. Very recently, I decided to use AM radio because I need more topical stuff because of what’s happening in the world. That’s one thing that I decided only in the last few months. It’s not enough for me to know that crazy stuff is happening in the world. They’re kind of talking about it on NPR, but I want to be dealing with more commercial culture and they’re not talking about global warming on the rock station.
MS: Not just RADIO WONDERLAND but also your work with headphone-driven performance leads me to thoughts of how it pushes and pulls on the ideas of Cage, which is something you address specifically on your website:
It celebrates randomness in a way that’s utterly different from Cage. Chance choices can be simply better—in the right context.
What are the elements of that “right context”?
JF: Well, there’s no one right context. But if you can create a context in which the best choice is going to be by the roll of the dice, you’ve created a beautiful situation.
I guess what I’m talking about is hey, we’re stochastic instead of completely random. I like the negotiation of what’s chance and what’s not chance, and also the extremes of how much I prepare, how much I work on my algorithms, and then how much I’m dependent on what happens to be on the radio or, with headphone-driven performance, how rigorous my input is and how it interacts with the complete lack of control of the performers. The chance choice can be the right choice, if in the right context. Building the kind of context that can do that gives me something that to my ears is just better than any other way. And it’s such a beautiful thing. You feel like you’re tapping into something, instead of sort of cheating it. Well, there’s my chord progression and if I avoid all the leading tones in the first half of the phrase, and then I hit octaves in the second half, then it will kind of cover up the fact that this is a lame chord progression. No, no, no! I want this. I want the dappled sunlight to fall on my fabric and it just has to be good enough fabric so that it looks good, however the sunlight falls on it. Something like that.
MS: I want to dig further into the process of the headphone-driven performance and learn more about what is really happening in those headphones—the audio score, if you will—that is generating the performance you want. Can you pull the curtain back? I’m sure that there’s a lot of thinking that went on with why you’re even doing that in the first place.
JF: You want to understand the mechanics.
MS: Yes, but you can be philosophical too.
JF: What the performers are hearing is mostly spoken word and some singing, and a lot of the spoken word is taken from very expressive, emotional parts of old movies. Like Richard Burton bellowing.
Just to be clear, I have six different channels of headphone material, all independent. So they can be unison or not, and they can have conversations and such. But it’s completely, rigorously timed because they’re not separate tape decks that are running out of synch; they’re all coming from the same multi-track sound source. The synch is maintained, and the accompanying music is on two additional tracks for left and right playback over a PA system. So the musical accompaniment and all six headphone tracks are audio scores—or audio parts, you could say—sent out via a headphone feed to the performers.
My instruction to them is not to repeat immediately after the input, which would be a sensible thing to do, but my instruction is to talk along with the input, which is not sensible. It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. I’m asking them to be listening and talking at the same time, which kind of ruins their chances of hearing most of it, because they’re talking over it. But the headphones are fairly loud. They’re listening, they’re picking up stuff, and they’re vocalizing and catching stuff as they can, and as the headphone material repeats—and it repeats a lot—they get more of it and their proportion of gibberish to regular language gets more towards the regular language. I work with performers, one-on-one or in a group of two or three people, I demonstrate, I have them try this. It takes some understanding and most people don’t really believe until they try it that this really means doing this ridiculous thing of talking over. Now, sometimes your cue to start talking is the input itself. So obviously at that moment, the performer will enter late. I know that. That’s just the laws of physics. But I tell them, don’t think about that. You are there the whole time; just imagine that and keep on jumping ahead to the present moment. Try this for about a minute, and then you’ll kind of find a place where you can just go.
Headphone Driven Performance (demo)
This evolved from a party game with these performance artists that I was collaborating with, and they called this party game the Nancy Sinatra game, because they were using a cassette tape of Nancy Sinatra’s greatest hits. I kind of took the idea for my own compositions and started making my own source tapes with the musical accompaniment. That covers a lot of it, doesn’t it?
MS: That does cover a lot of it, and it leads me very neatly to my next question, because even before knowing that bit of backstory, I was already struck by how big a role the aspect of game play or a puzzle to solve in the moment figures into both in the headphone-driven performance and RADIO WONDERLAND. Because you have a structure and there are rules, but then you’re getting things that are chance-y that are being thrown into the mix, and then you’re having to do something with that for an audience.
JF: The game is how I handle the input. That makes it exciting for me. One thing I sometimes say is that I feel like I come from a planet where it’s not live music unless it’s completely unexpected. If it comes from a score and you’ve rehearsed it, what’s that? You can’t do that. That’s just cheating. That’s not anything. Where we come from, live is where you deal with life as it comes, or something like that.
I don’t actually come from that planet, but this sort of thing is compelling to me. It is such a great discipline, and it also puts the emphasis on things that I think should be emphasized. In this case, when it comes to RADIO WONDERLAND, it’s the process. It’s the juxtaposition. It’s what I do with it, as opposed to choosing the perfect sample—which would be, I think, just an awful way for me to compose. I’m kind of a perfectionist. So, given that, what would I do? I’d go over what’s in the commercial media and decide what’s best to dismantle because it’s sonically good, but more importantly, the content is what I think is just the thing that needs to be interrogated and subverted. I’m exhausted just thinking about that. I don’t want that. It’s not a good compositional challenge for me. It might be sort of a moneymaker, if I can grab something that’s so telling and it’s so hysterically funny. Then maybe I have to bargain to get the rights to it. Then I cut it up, and I make it into a dance track that could be fun and maybe get a lot of attention, but that’s so not the discipline that I want. To me, if I can develop the algorithms and train myself as a performer to deal with it as it comes in, those are good musical processes. That’s good performance training. It’s going to be a good performance.
It’s amazing how well things fit together, how the synchronicity seems to come up again and again. I remember one time when Will Smith, the movie star, was in the headlines a lot. I got the name Will Smith off the radio, and someone said to me, “Unbelievable! How did you get that? It’s so amazing that you got that because he’s iconic, and it’s such a coup.” Well, but that’s how this thing works because the stuff that’s the most popular comes up the most. And I love that. I find I’ve really learned a lesson that you can take two different pop songs from two different times—let’s say a commercial or a station ID and a pop song—cut them up, try to juxtapose them tonally, and your odds are better than even that they will somehow work.
Now maybe I’ve had this sort of brilliance at improvising and choosing things that I don’t give myself credit for, but I think a big part of it is that there’s more sense in the stuff that we would grab by chance than we ever imagined. When I first made RADIO WONDERLAND, I made sure that there would be a means to take any of the individual bits and suck away the pitch—the De-Pitcher, I called it. Turns out what I used was ring modulation. Boom! Computationally, it’s incredibly cheap and easy, but I found after a while—it took me a long time to even believe it—I almost never have to use it! The pop song that I get 15 minutes after I grab the other pop song is gonna work. Or I can transpose with the wheel, so I have these five different bits from a pop song or a commercial from 15 minutes ago. Here’s a new slab of audio. I take a couple of different bits, juxtapose them, they’re in rhythm and maybe two thirds of the time I need to transpose with the wheel. And that’s it. I never suspected it would be that easy. I was kind of terrified. I figured you take two random songs, even if they’re both based on A-440, then we have like 24 different choices of different modes and stuff, different keys. They’re not going to match. They’re going to be badly dissonant in that way that’s just not fun musically, especially when I’m trying to be funky and groovy and melodic in a more-or-less conventional sense. It’s just not going to work out, and I’m going to need the De-Pitcher. I’m going to have to transpose like mad, that’s just how it is. That’s going to be part of the game of RADIO WONDERLAND. And it turns out that it wasn’t. It just tends to work.
MS: Does this process ever feel like it “fails”? Or maybe just that you couldn’t easily see how you were going to make it work in a way that was going to satisfy you and you had to sweat through that on stage? It sounds like that hasn’t happened.
JF: Oh, it happens and of course I blame myself. To the extent that I take credit when it works well, I also blame myself when I think it isn’t funky. I’m highly self-critical and I also have this absurd metric where I want it to be as danceable as my favorite dance track, even though that was worked over in a studio for three weeks and I have five minutes in front of people. I do have to scramble, and a lot of it has to do with timing. It’s also a question of how well I can hear, because it’s a most unforgiving set up in terms of monitoring.
If you’re in a rock band, or even if you’re playing from a score in a formal concert setting, you know your instrument is tuned. You know where the underlying beat is. You know what the conductor’s doing. You know where your hands are. You’re okay, even if you can’t hear that great. In a rock band, things are loud and chaotic, but your guitar has frets and you have your tuner. You feel the kick drum. You’re good to go. But with me, I don’t know what my instrument is until I’m on stage with it. I’m taking a piece of radio, usually around one second, and I cut it into eight bits and deploy them. I need to get a sense of how they differ from each other and what they sound like, and then decide how I want to further deploy them and transpose them. I have to hear them really well. I can’t decide that since my finger’s on the right fret and I know my telecaster and it’s in tune, that I’m okay. I’m kind of sunk. So it really depends on them.
MS: Why is the dancing so core to you?
JF: It’s a metric that I can believe in, and it’s so great to have that metric as a composer. I almost feel a little embarrassed because it’s so basic. A lot of my favorite music has never been assessed on the basis of whether or not people dance, and it’s successful on the basis of much more subtle things, but I’m in this situation.
But in addition to that metric, I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.
And when the emotion isn’t completely positive, when it’s not just catharsis or love, when it’s sad, angry, difficult, and it’s danceable, oh that’s so powerful. It’s dark, but there’s this cathartic dancing. It can work so, so well. And I go out dancing; I’m still going to clubs. I feel a connection to that culture or cultures. I am also looking forward to going back to other stuff. There are areas I want to go with it that aren’t quite so dance-y, but the initial concept is so focused on that, mostly because of this idea of a metric.
And what a great guide it is. Because otherwise, if I was going to do a sound collage with radio and sophisticated algorithms, it doesn’t matter where you go with it. To put RADIO WONDERLAND through this almost absurd metric of having to be done in real time, without choice of material, and have it be danceable, to sort of make it through to the other side gives me these incredibly powerful tools, software which I intend to finally further develop now that I have the album out. I think I’ll be able to do longer-scale things and different time scales. It won’t be as much about dancing, which is a little bit like the dance music artists that branch out.
I kind of imagine that trajectory. This first album is basically a bunch of dance tracks with kind of a slower one at the end, but even the slower one at the end has this boom-boom bass drum. I like that trajectory, not because it matches to some sort of commercial flight pattern, but artistically, that discipline and those rules are putting me in a great position for the next step.
It’s a little bit like my performance technology which, believe it or not, does not allow me to loop anything that I have just played. It allows me to loop what was just on the radio, but when I process the radio with the shoe or the wheel, that doesn’t loop. It’s crazy if you think of the current state of Ableton Live and live processing technology, which is all about the live looping. You’re a soloist with your instrument and a bunch of pedals and software. You play your thing, you loop your thing, you play over the thing you looped. I don’t do that with RADIO WONDERLAND. If I’m not hitting the shoe, that sound doesn’t come out, and it has been such a discipline over the past few years to perform that way.
Now I’m ready to revise my software and say okay I’m going to include the ability to retain that pattern. When I transpose on the wheel, I’ll make a riff, and here’s this piece of radio, it’s deployed over one bar. It’s got some nice syncopation, but it’s all taken from one second of radio. Then I transpose it with the wheel, so all of sudden we have a four-bar phrase, and it’s fun, it’s tonal, and there’s something cool about the transition because it’s transposing a whole chord, which is a little bit like classic house music where there’s a sample and the musician just has one finger on the keyboard and they’re transposing the sample of that. That’s part of the house music sound that I really like. I do that with the wheel, right now, but if I have that four-bar pattern, it stops being a four-bar pattern when I turn away from the wheel and go back to the shoes, or what have you. But it’s been I think a more interesting, at least for now, that I got to this point without these various crutches or enhancements.
MS: So you’ve mentioned a few times since we’ve started the milestone position this record has in your mind. Let’s talk about the fact you have a new record out.
JF: That’s right.
JF: Thank you very much.
MS: Why did this record become so important for you? Every bit of the philosophy you’re underlining here is how exciting it is that it’s live. It’s live radio. You’re doing all the processing live. Why the hell did you want to make a record?
JF: You know, it’s funny, the turntablist Maria Chavez has talked about how she does not release recordings. And boy, I respect that. I’m a good candidate for not releasing recordings, but I wanted to. For one thing, and I’m glad you reminded me of this, one of the motivations of RADIO WONDERLAND was to become prolific because my process became slower and slower. I had this thing that became Headset Sextet. I finished it—or so I thought—in ’94, and then about three days before the opening night at La MaMa, I realized no, this is too good not to make it right. So I renamed it Work In Progress, and then I spent about another five years revising it, but the time scale is indefensible. It’s just absurd, but I’m proud I finally finished it.
But with RADIO WONDERLAND, I thought okay, let this be a ticket to being prolific. The album is part of that process. Can I be prolific in that I generate this new material and can have it out on recordings, which do this great job of representing you when you’re not there playing it? I never had a full album out, which seems crazy because in the ‘80s I had a record deal on a major label. I worked on remixes for famous recording artists. I work with recording technology, and yet I didn’t have my own album.
So the emotional stakes became kind of high, and it’s too bad because I’m older now, and maybe I’m less resilient as far as the sheer emotional strain of getting it all done. Part of the test of RADIO WONDERLAND is: Are these algorithms, or the algorithms plus me manipulating them, are they so robust that this can be a dance groove even without the loud PA and me up there in the excitement and electricity of live radio? I love that electricity. I live for it, and it is still fundamentally a live show. But I wanted to put it to that test.
Given that I wanted this album to sound good to my ears, I knew there was going to be some post-production. Well, how much? That is something I had to answer by doing it. One thing I’m happy about—and this had a lot to do with my co-producer Marcelo Anez—is that each track really is taken from a single concert without any non-radio overdubs. Some of it is highly processed—more processed by a long shot than anything I was able to do on stage. But a lot of this extra processing I can do on stage in the future. So it’s somewhat of a prospectus for new projects.
MS: What about that fact that you’re going back and revisiting the work for this, because you’ve avoided that in the live version quite explicitly. It was all about the new, the first brush, and now you’re going back and not just looking at them once, but looking at them many times as you crafted them into an album.
JF: Well, I did resist that. I did a sort of test album—it was just three songs—a few years ago, where I chose three different concerts that I edited, not very carefully. I have hundreds of concert recordings, so isn’t it the perfect test of RADIO WONDERLAND to pick concerts at random and see how well they work as recordings? That was really dumb. What I want to do is choose the best concerts, and for me, a lot of that was the best grooves. It makes it a heck of a lot easier to go through hundreds of hours of concerts when you’re looking for good grooves, as opposed to simply looking for the best music. In order to favorably represent RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized what I had to do was listen more and edit less. So I went through and listened and listened and listened, and chose the best shows, the ones which needed the least amount of editing. And that felt fine. I’m very focused on live and real time and all the ephemeral stuff that we talked about, but I also like to geek out in a studio. I’ve long used recording technology and I love making records. This was a good reason to go and get into that headspace.
Some of the issues that I had to address on the album were almost purely technical having to do with the low end, and I can address that with the next iteration of the software, and that’s a really exciting prospect. So maybe instead of working on a track for three weeks before it’s really ready for a final mix, I can work on a track for a day before it’s ready for a final mix. My fantasy is that I will be able to put out as a live recording whatever I did that night without any post-production.
MS: But weren’t you distilling to a larger degree, because these tracks are like seven minutes, and it does seem like there’s a ritual to RADIO WONDERLAND performance. I don’t know if they’re always 30 minutes, but it has that kind of scope. And then you’re condensing it in some way.
JF: Oh, absolutely. Part of the process is to distill a 30-minute concert into a four- to eight-minute album track and not to pretend that they’re mini RADIO WONDERLAND concerts. The idea is to take a half hour to create a great groove, and that’s going to create a monster five-minute radio mix and twelve-minute remix of a dance track. It is perhaps an easy adjunct to the RADIO WONDERLAND concert format, but that is the needle I seem to be trying to thread. And it’s worked out okay. But you’re absolutely right. That’s a crucial part of it. Yes, I’m condensing them.
Oh, you brought that up because I was talking about releasing a live concert as is. Yeah, that would have to be a different thing. But that’s not what the album was. The album was to see, if I throw you right into the middle of the groove, is this going to make sense without the construction of the groove and without me jumping around and spinning wheels and stuff?
My enthusiasms for “World Music” have been exuberant and far-flung. I also tend to embrace independent, analog media, such as locally-based broadcasts from the heart of a community. One special radio changing-of-the-guard I look forward to each time I’m able to listen in happens weekly on New York’s radio ether: Saturdays just before 8PM on WNYE, a brokered [rent-by-the-hour] public service station, this certain transitional moment occurs between two vibrant programs. Winding down their last hour is Elena Marouletti’s Aktina FM—“the only Greek Cypriot American radio show in America”—and coming up, Trinidadian DJ Trevor Wilkins brings on “the longest-running calypso show in the world.” Not only do I enjoy listening to two of my favorite musical genres airing back-to-back at 91.5 on the dial, there’s also what sounds like real camaraderie between the enterprising hosts whose personalities shape what is for me a bonus to this prime-time non-commercial double bill. At this sign-off/sign-on cusp, they seem genuinely fond of one another, and of each other’s musical traditions, too. From mics in separate studios, each encourages their respective loyal followings to keep listening and tune into the other’s program offerings. They represent year-round commitments to keeping their own cultures vital, and in this ephemeral pivotal sequence, also voice mutual respect and affection, warmly acknowledging each other’s music, heritage and listenership.
While we can only wonder how many of their regular listeners actually heed this call to keep their ears open—and certainly both hosts must run fund drives about twice a year, so it never hurts to cross-promote to another fleetingly captive audience—it’s sweet to imagine rembetika fans staying tuned to enjoy climactic chromatic “pan” [steel drum] passages and syncopated patois innuendo, and West Indian music fans maybe developing new tastes for modal melodies and odd meters. Both the shows feature a wide array of vocals and instrumentals, from various eras: vintage and newer selections, all drawing from highly eclectic island heritages. Though I tend not to favor the more slickly-engineered contemporary ‘pop’ varieties of either repertoire, each show seems steered by its own savvy producer/host (going on a first-name basis) to nurture appreciation of the rootsier side of their playlists. Both Aktina’s Elena and her Caribbean counterpart (whom she affectionately refers as “Trevi”) operate as MC/curator/ambassadors, peppering their multi-hour broadcast stints with community announcements, music dedications and song commentary, on-air call-in contests, event promotions, homespun spots with the “kind compliments of our sponsors,” and occasional fund drives—to subsidize what Trevor reminds us is “precious, expensive airtime” which really could be lost if not enough contributors come through. I am grateful that these devotees have found a way to share their music and earn support to keep it available this way. And while I’m already familiar with many tunes from each of these traditions, each show brings me both new retro discoveries and the pleasure of familiar songs I’ve already grown to love (sometimes with different riffs or settings I’ve never heard before).
One added appeal for me on the current-day WNYE—in addition to the modal, mellifluous music of the Aegean and the syncopated rhythms of the Caribbean which nurture my ears and my being, and the very human presentation by Elena and Trevi—is that while I am usually able to hear these shows full of down-to-earth vibrancy, I still have the privilege of visiting as an auditory tourist. Only occasionally am I aware of any cultural politics which might affect my pure enjoyment of this artistry in community context.
Of course, motivated aficionados can surf the web on their own for the most obscure “ethnic” music examples, and closely study audio online. I have even pursued specific pieces after tantalizing or intriguing introductions on the radio shows. There are great live performances which I’m thrilled to be able to attend sometimes, often with dance and even singing along—something I revel in even if I may not jump in myself. Generally, resources abound for study and involvement: music workshops, CD liner notes, ethnomusicology treatises, and “world music” magazine format shows, both independent and syndicated. Meanwhile for a weekly connection, whether in my car or my living room, the radio context is far more interesting than any Pandora stream, even if I’m not fond of all the music on offer in the course of any show or may not relate to every point of view I hear.
Even as a non-native listener, I respect and try to understand whatever issues may come up in these broadcasts. Naturally I may sometimes want to remain either oblivious or able to keep my distance about any drama behind the scenes or within the material that might distress me, I am sometimes keenly aware both of liberation politics I respect as well as controversies that are upsetting. (On one occasion I heard a fascinating but distressing track from the early ‘70s—“London Gay”—and when I wrote in to Trevor Wilkins, he avowed himself to be no homophobe, saying this was just “West Indian satires.” Those lyrics are very clever indeed if I even catch half their meanings, but ending with a rhyme of “fail” with “jail” and “no bail” still leaves me wondering, given the deadly serious homophobia in many parts of the Caribbean and its diaspora. And the show host’s on-air laughter—with no commentary—also made me question, but I’m glad he took the trouble to write back. I give him the benefit of the doubt and was in a sense grateful for the revelation of an artifact I would never otherwise have found.) On the other hand, hearing Greek vocals often touches my emotional core even though I understand only a smattering of the words. And in yet other instances, it’s been truly touching to be aware of what’s happening, such as Trevi’s on-air grief and remembrance when his mother had recently passed away.
The “tradition” of communities and musicians overhearing each other goes back centuries, probably millennia, before radio. By the broadcast era this certainly created interesting infusions for New Yorkers even more commonly back in the “Golden Age of Radio,” which was also an era without air-conditioning, leading to even more open windows and doors and ears. I’ve seen accounts of various crossover hits born out of the curiosity and enthusiasm of cultural mixing this way. My own affinity for Yiddish and Greek music reflects the interplay between these genres, demonstrated by shared melodic repertoire which bands I’ve been part of (more on that in the coming weeks) have covered in styles reflecting both sources, and likewise by recordings made by the such renowned greats as klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras under his own name as well as under pseudonyms for other labels to put music by the same players out to various different ethnic markets from New York’s industrious studios, labels, and distributors!
Actual crossover with commercial intent is yet another vast topic spanning various eras which can be charted in copious novelty tunes superimposing two seemingly unlikely genre combinations (often reflecting excellent command of each style in their arrangements and performance, even if using clichéd material in juxtaposing digestible, stereotypical forms). I’m fascinated by these, too, in part as a reflection of how well musicians did know at least certain aspects of each other’s traditions, and how curious neighboring people might be about each other’s languages and customs. Through various instances, both in heterogeneous “Old Country” settings as well as in the challenging worlds of immigrants thrown together, musicians might have both the opportunity and the impetus to take on tunes, style vocabulary, knowledge of dances and popular repertoire etc. to make themselves employable for as many situations as possible, whether as performing or recording artists, and sometimes even cross-cultural impresarios or polyglot producers.
Back to considering what commonalities fascinate me among these distinct genres, trying to generalize beyond superficiality, I find variously energetic, aesthetic and even intellectual connections. In both Greek and Yiddish genres, as with other related musics of “Near Eastern” provenance, inherently majestic, mysterious and emotive qualities, effusive yet controlled, are carried by highly variegated modal sounds. As to Calypso and Klezmer, though these may share no discernible links of direct mutual influence, I am attracted to the propulsive, rowdily sophisticated rhythms and structure in each genre’s upbeat dance forms, as well as the hilariously nuanced wordplay often found in both of these genre’s vocals—each originating in a humorously incisive macaronic mindset commenting semi-covertly from a vantage point outside, but very familiar with, the dominant culture.
As a drummer and an enraptured listener, many more related worlds beckon too—Brazilian music and Balkan music offer huge joys encompassing many of my favorite qualities in a plethora of gorgeous, challenging forms. As to West Indian and Greek: So far my schedule has never yet allowed me to join in the Brooklyn steel drum rehearsals I used to contemplate, and I only once sat in on dumbeq at Astoria’s now long-vanished Akroama nightclub ages ago when called up unexpectedly by someone I knew on the bandstand (the same person who later introduced me also to Portuguese fado). My ears and my heart liven up with these sounds, which—in lieu of a live concert, parade, jam, or party—are still great to hear on-air, programmed by people rather than algorithmic formulae. I’m grateful for any regularly-scheduled, lovingly-grounded radio infusions with a real sense of context, personalities, language and human connection; it’s an atmosphere where the music lives and breathes.
Eve Sicular is a New York-based drummer and the founder/bandleader of Metropolitan Klezmer (1994) and its “sister sextet,” Isle of Klezbos (1998). Eve’s arrangements have been heard on Showtime’s The L Word, HBO’s Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, CBS Sunday Morning, and London’s Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, as well as in pieces at New York Theatre Workshop, the Museum of The City of New York, The Wexner Center, The Jewish Museum, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Sicular’s debut as a composer/lyricist/playwright, J. Edgar Klezmer: Songs from My Grandmother’s FBI Files, was performed at HERE Arts Center in New York in June 2015. Her publications and lectures include topics and titles such as The Yiddish Celluloid Closet and Music in Yiddish Cinema.
“Is radio dying?” I’ve been hearing this ominous question for years, especially in the context of the plethora of digital music platforms—Spotify, Pandora, our personal music collections, YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and many more. Can good old-fashioned radio continue to thrive among the other options out there? I believe the answer is yes; radio is evolving, not dying, and there are foundational principles of radio that can’t compete with fancy new technologies.
On February 7 I hosted Musochat, a weekly new music Twitter conversation (Sundays at 6 p.m. PT) to discuss related topics with this passionate online community. You can read the entire summary here, but since I didn’t chime in with my own answers I’d like to share them here.
Do you still think of “radio” as on-the-dial only? If not, how do you define it in this day and age of digital platforms?
It’s definitely not on-the-dial only, but in order for it to be radio, it must be a unique channel of music curated by a human that cannot be paused, skipped, rewound, or altered in any other way. This includes terrestrial/HD radio, their online streaming simulcasts, and continuous streaming channels like KING FM’s Second Inversion, WQXR’s Q2 Music, and New Music USA’s Counterstream Radio. Some people mentioned Pandora in their responses, so I added the sub question, “Do you think Pandora is radio?” I say, “no,” as Pandora’s model is opposite to my definition of radio: the infinite channels are not unique, they are generated by a computer, and the listener can control the experience.
What is your #1 most used music platform and why?
Outside of my office, where it’s the endless wealth of new music new releases (roughly 70% on physical CDs and 30% digital files) for airplay consideration on Second Inversion, my go-to platform is radio. Since I spend so much of my work week choosing music for other people to listen to, I take immense pleasure in consuming playlists that other humans have curated when I’m on my own time. I listen terrestrially if I’m in my car or at home and stream the audio on my phone if I’m walking or bussing, and I rotate between Seattle’s public radio stations, including KPLU (jazz), KEXP (a little bit of everything), KBCS (folk & bluegrass), KING FM (classical), and KNHC (pop and dance remixes). I value that I can count on these stations to help me discover something new almost every time I tune in. I’d also define radio as a community of listeners hearing the same thing at the same time and the ethereal bond that I have with who-knows-how-many other people at any given moment is another fundamental reason why I love radio.
If you could change one thing about your #1 platform to make it better, what would it be?
I’m tempted to say nothing, because what I love about radio is its reliable unpredictability. Unrelated to the audio product, I would love to see a space where listeners can chat about what they’re hearing in real time to turn the aforementioned ethereal bond into a more tangible bond.
How much talk do you want to hear when you’re listening to music?
Not a lot but definitely some. Roughly 60-90 seconds of historical or anecdotal information is ideal for me. The human voice is something that radio uses in a meaningful way that other streaming tools such as Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube don’t offer. This furthers my case for radio being a reliable source for learning, discovery, and context.
Research shows that the #1 core value for classical radio is “to relax.” Does this apply to you? If not, what is yours?
And to clarify, this applies to audiences of major market classical radio stations which typically play mostly Baroque through early 20th-century repertoire from the Western canon. For me, classical music can be relaxing, but I don’t listen to it to relax. I listen with intent, focus, and an analytical ear and hope to feel something, whether it’s good or bad. If I don’t feel anything, I turn it off. From the peanut gallery on Musochat—most people firmly said, “no,” and offered some great answers: to engage, to get pumped, to discover, to think, to question existence, “to kick my brain into gear” (@EdWindels), “to ponder new sounds in a more solitary setting than a concert” (@ursulasahagian), to be thrilled, stimulated, excited. While I wasn’t surprised to hear the lack of agreement with relaxation amongst a group of adventurous listeners, I was thrilled to see such a wide variety of very strong values for radio.
How much does the actual video content matter in YouTube videos? Do you use it mostly for the audio?
I brought this question up because video has become a presence in the evolution of radio. As people are choosing to stream radio stations on devices with screens, creating a visual reflection of the station’s mission is a natural step. This is one way for radio stations to infuse their identity into additional content that can be spread across widely used platforms, such as YouTube or Vimeo, and embedded into social media.
I think the video content does matter, tremendously so (“Like, if you’re gonna have a video you gotta make it worthwhile, even if it’s just a great performance video” @sammelnicomposer chimed in), but YouTube has become very saturated with content that doesn’t actually have any video, e.g. a still image of a CD cover, a headshot of the composer, or a nature shot. This does not constitute a proper video experience for me, so I tend to use YouTube as an audio search tool. If there is a well-produced video attached, I’ll save it to watch again later, tweet it, or e-mail to a friend. Good videos should be shared actively and put on a pedestal and at KING FM and Second Inversion, we’re trying to set the standard for what classical music videos can and should be.
If you were in charge of a new music radio show, 24/7 stream, or podcast, what would you include? List 1-3 things—general or specific.
Since I am in charge of such a thing, I’ll say that with Second Inversion, I’m most excited to present a wide variety of musical flavors, brief spoken introductions from passionate voices (composers, performers, advocates), and on-demand content (videos and live concert recordings). Common answers included current performances from cities all over the world, diversity (music from non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-cisgender composers), strong opinions, humor, interaction, and emerging composers who don’t already have national recognition. I’m proud that all of those are already integral parts of Second Inversion’s programming, and we’ll continue to include them as time goes on.
To recap this interview with myself, there’s no doubt in my mind that radio will continue to be one of the many valuable media consumption options. The human-curated element and innate community of radio is unique to the medium and something that you simply cannot get with an algorithm-based streaming aid (Pandora), nor a searchable music database (Spotify). In this day and age, radio has evolved with digital technology such that you can stream a radio station in your city, seek out another station that offers content you prefer, or maintain the connection to your hometown station if you move to a different city. At KING FM, we’re proactively thinking about what the “21st-century radio announcer” is, and it’s not just someone behind a microphone in a booth. That’s still part of it, but producing creative audio content, having active voices on social media, and engaging with the community are important pieces of the puzzle, too. I’m even more assured about radio’s ability to keep reinventing itself and adapt to changing trends, with research to be conducted by Station Resource Group (SRG) in the coming years.
If you don’t share my optimistic outlook or feel like you’ve lost touch with your local radio stations, I encourage you to visit one of them today online and check out what they’re doing. Are you surprised? Positively or negatively? Either way, I’d love to know your take on the state of radio and its future.
Community is a beautiful thing. It’s been on my mind so much lately, and in such positive ways, that I’ll sometimes find myself in a dreamy state, unable to focus on concrete tasks because I’m so verklempt about everything that this word means to me and the important roles it plays in my life.
I’ve also been asking myself questions that delve a bit deeper into the personal importance of community. Step into my head and think about how these apply to you: First of all, what does community mean? To me, it’s a like-minded group of people who socialize at scheduled OR spontaneous times to share experiences, grow, engage, encourage, challenge, empower, and support one another in verbal or nonverbal ways.
Furthermore, which communities do I belong to? Why are they important to me? What is my role in each one? Does community mean the same thing to me as to other people? What value do they add to my life? How can I impact my fellow community members in positive ways? Though I’m a part of many communities, I realize now that I’ve spent much of my life simply existing and participating in them, but not fully appreciating the innumerable facets of beauty and possibility that they offer.
Various sectors of the Seattle classical and contemporary music community—a big web of talented, daring, artistic people—have been a part of my life since 2008. Initially, I was immersed in graduate school at the University of Washington School of Music, which has many communities within itself. After graduation, it was time to break out of the school bubble and into the “real world” for new performance opportunities. From there, I played with the Seattle Modern Orchestra, newly founded in 2010 by my classmates Julia Tai and Jeremy Jolley, which sparked a bit of a renaissance for Seattle’s new music scene. SMO has since grown significantly and is getting a lot of attention for reaching younger audiences with new music, sometimes in unorthodox venues.
Along the way, Second Inversion (a bit of history in my previous post) has been trying to cultivate and connect the new music community in Seattle and become the “hub.” It seemed like a tall order at first, but one by one, we’ve made connections with composers, performers, and presenters. Our tactics have been straightforward: streaming music and interviews by local artists, live broadcasting select concerts from Town Hall and the UW World Series, co-presenting concerts, and engaging with new music concert-goers by handing out magnets with our logo and spreading our gospel. KING FM’s Community Advisory Board meetings are quarterly open forums for anyone from the community to come and talk about anything they want. Since April 2015, I’ve facilitated the meetings and steered the topics toward new music, and core attendees have been many of these composers, performers, and presenters. Simply getting everyone together in a room for roundtables on a regular basis has made us feel more connected, supported, and open to collaboration.
For example, during a brainstorming session about new ways we can all support one another, the idea of a monthly flyer with new music concert listings for each ensemble to share in their programs emerged. The hope is that audiences will cross-pollinate by gaining awareness of other similar events in an “if you like this, you’ll like these” kind of way. At the end of the meeting, Shaya Lyon of the Live Music Project asked me if Second Inversion would like to collaborate on this, I said yes, and we made it happen. We’re printing and distributing it to the performing ensembles, community boards, and coffee shops all over Seattle, and posting it digitally on our websites and social outlets. We include events ranging from the Seattle Symphony’s [untitled] series to the Racer Sessions (a weekly showcase of original music with a jam session based on the concepts in the opening presentation) to community orchestras delving into new music.
That leads me to a related tangent, because I want to debunk the blanket identity that “community orchestra” often has: unprofessional, hodgepodge, low-quality, and unworthy. When I realized I didn’t want to be a professional flutist, the thought of playing in a “community orchestra” was a little bit unsettling. Would I be disrespected by fellow musicians who are forging ahead with regular paid gigs and contracted orchestra jobs? I’m ashamed now that I even had those thoughts because of my participation in the Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra, which truly puts the community in community orchestra. Not only do we play our hearts out and deliver excellent performances to 400-600 people at Town Hall Seattle three times per year, we socialize far beyond the small talk and catch-up at weekly Monday rehearsals. A trek to Pies & Pints to share some pitchers, tots, chicken fingers, and extended conversation is a ritual that makes Monday a little less dreadful for most of us.
This big pot of warm, cozy thought soup is thanks to the 2016 New Music Gathering at the Peabody Conservatory, an event that this year focused on the ideologies, configurations, and cultivation of communities. Composers Danny Felsenfeld, Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Jascha Narveson organized this face-to-face meeting space for composers, performers, and advocates of new music to mingle, discuss, perform, and encourage one another. Hundreds of people attended and broke out into sessions to discuss scheduled topics like Music and Community Building, How Large Scale Projects Inspire Community, Virtual Communities in New Music, Building New New Music Communities, and more. It was inspiring to learn about projects from nationwide community leaders on the panels, ask them questions, and think of local applications in Seattle, but what struck me the most about NMG2016 was how naturally this group of people meshed with one another in the hallways, at meals, while moving a gamelan, and at the watering holes until the wee hours. It felt like a summer camp where I got to meet a whole bunch of pen pals (e-mail and Twitter contacts) in person for the first time. My favorite sentiment from the entire conference was from ICE saxophonist Ryan Muncy who described community as a group of peers, equals, with different roles but no hierarchy (artist vs. donor vs. audience member). That simple, humble reminder of humanity is so beautiful and universally applicable.
It’s been about six weeks since NMG and I still feel energized and rejuvenated by these fresh perspectives, and it’s made me more consciously grateful for the new music community in Seattle. Not only do I feel more strongly rooted as a community member, I’m starting to feel more comfortable as a leader and more confident that Second Inversion is truly making a difference. We are only one piece of the puzzle, but I’m more and more hopeful we can be a hub for new music not just in the Northwest, but for the whole West Coast and beyond.
If you’re earning a comfortable wage and living a happy life doing Exactly What You Thought You’d Do With Your Degree(s), I applaud you. Sincerely! I am among the many people in the music world who are not, but I couldn’t be happier with where I landed.
A brief history: I went to school for flute performance and, along the way, I learned a lot. Music history, how to maintain sanity after being in a confined, solitary room for hours on end, music theory, flute repertoire, patience (see “practice room”), a little jazz improv, pedagogy, large and small ensemble playing, and many other things that are specific to the field of music performance. Mission accomplished, right? Sort of. In the first year out of my master’s degree, my desire to win a full time orchestral flute job (What I Thought I’d Do) was diminishing at a rate that didn’t align with my increasing desire to lead a more diverse career and lifestyle.
So, what next? First, I’ll share a few things I wish I’d learned in school: marketing, web design, sound recording, grant writing, and public speaking. I’m delighted that some institutions are extremely forward thinking in training what I’ll call the “Whole Musician.” Exhibit A: Paul Taub at Cornish College of the Arts teaches a career development class to junior and senior music majors which covers representation and promotion, fundraising, music business, recording, and graduate school applications. Exhibit B: Brian Chin at Seattle Pacific University leads a quarterly series for all music majors called “Futures in Music: A lecture series providing vocational exploration through engagement with renowned artists.” Last week, students heard from Roomful of Teeth’s Caroline Shaw and Cameron Beauchamp. Up next will be New Music USA’s Kevin Clark, and later this year Seattle recording emperor David Sabee.
Awesome, right? I bet all former music majors out there are thinking, “I wish I had a class like that!” If you’re still in school and there isn’t such a course but you have some extra credits to fill, consider exploring the communications course listings. Volunteer or apply for internships. Looking for some extra cash? See if the recording engineer at your school is hiring student techs. Seek out an expert in one of these areas and ask to shadow them, or to have a coffee and ask them some questions. Most professionals will be willing and there’s nothing to lose by asking.
These seem like such obvious ideas to me in hindsight, but in the trenches of playing in at least one too many ensembles, practice time, class, papers, group projects, and more practicing, it was hard to stomach the thought of adding something else. If you’re like me and didn’t seek the aforementioned opportunities, you are not imminently doomed. I can offer some coping mechanisms and philosophies:
- A creative and open mind is crucial to exploring career paths
- Proactively continuing your education is strongly advisable (whether through formal courses or informal mentorships)
- Timing and luck do account for some success
Those principles led to my current job as assistant program director at Classical KING FM where I co-founded Second Inversion and currently manage all it’s content and platforms. It’s a project dedicated to rethinking classical music through a 24/7 audio stream, blog, Seattle event calendar, and collection of music videos filmed in our studios and eclectic venues around town. After a year of four young KING FM staffers brainstorming, sketching logo designs, making contacts, and building the website and stream, it launched in 2014 out of our general manager and program director’s desire to reach a younger, more diverse audience for classical music.
Entrepreneurship and advocacy—two buzz words from a session at the 2016 New Music Gathering called “The ‘How to Be’ of Being a New Music Musician”—are foundational to Second Inversion, and I’ve been thinking about them a lot ever since. While many agreed that the E word can have a bit of toxicity attached to it in the music world, Claire Chase reminded us of entrepreneur’s Sanskrit meaning: inspiration from within. On advocacy, Claire went on to say, “It’s doing something for oneself and the community in the same in breath and out breath.” NANOWorks Opera co-founder Kendall A. added, “Advocacy is the rising tide that lifts all ships.”
Second Inversion began as a grassroots, entrepreneurial project and has grown into a thriving, active community joined together by and advocating for the common interest of new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre. I didn’t learn about these things in formal ways in music school, but rather through trial and error (entrepreneurship) and relentless passion (advocacy). For new music to thrive, we need composers, performers, recording engineers, promoters, audience, donors, and advocates. We’re all in this together and none of us could do our work—whether it’s Exactly What You Thought You’d Do or not—without each other.
Maggie Stapleton is the assistant program director at Classical KING FM and manager of all programming and platforms for Second Inversion. As an active flutist, Maggie plays regularly with the Seattle Rock Orchestra, Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, and Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra. Outside of the office and rehearsal hall, Maggie loves to cook, rock climb, run, bike, hike, and explore the beautiful city of Seattle and surrounding areas of Western Washington.
Krista Tippett’s On Being, the widely syndicated NPR show formerly known as Speaking of Faith, doesn’t record interviews with just anybody. Each week, Tippett sits down for in-depth conversations with some of the most influential figures of the 21st century, from superstar poet Mary Oliver to the Thich Nhat Hanh, from “living saint” Jean Vanier to marketing guru Seth Godin.
With its expansive, hour-long format and intimate feel, On Being allows listeners to feel like they’re getting a one-on-one with today’s spiritual and creative heroes. Or maybe that’s just me—I’m a huge fan of the show and have chopped many rounds of vegetables in the kitchen while absorbing its wisdom and good vibes.
When a journalist like Tippett can interview anyone in the world, which musicians does she choose? And what does this tell us about musicians’ perceived impact in the wider world? Below, I’ve linked to five On Being episodes featuring musicians that Tippett found interesting enough to interview: engaging songwriters, legendary performers, and even a few composers of concert music. Although each interview is intended for an audience of musical laypeople, there’s some great stuff here for the field insiders, too.
Mohammed Fairouz: If you interpret “composer of concert music” strictly, Fairouz is the only On Being interviewee who fits the bill—and he’s not even thirty yet. Specialists may roll their eyes a little at the characterization of Fairouz as a “post-millennial Schubert” or gawk at the swaggering bravado he demonstrates when discussing everything from composition to statecraft. But there’s no question that Fairouz’s engagement with political issues has come to national attention. (NewMusicBox, of course, was way ahead of this and featured Fairouz in a Spotlight three years ago!)
Gustavo Santaolalla: Film music—perhaps our culture’s biggest remaining gateway into concert music—is the subject of this episode. Tippett chose Santaolalla because he’s scored some widely beloved films, including Brokeback Mountain, and makes compelling use of “world music” idioms such as tango. Santaolalla makes for a charming, slippery interview subject. He’s clearly an artist whose work is better experienced than discussed; he is congenial but refuses to “describe” or nail down his music with glib descriptions or sound bytes.
Meredith Monk: The wise, funny Monk is the perfect match for Tippett’s wide-eyed interview style. Monk is utterly endearing in this interview, and demonstrates her spiritual commitment to live performance: “When you are that present, and you are that awake,” Monk said excitedly, “the audience experiences the deepest part of themselves—and the whole situation becomes transcendent. The way we live our lives is not necessarily with that level of presence.”
Rosanne Cash: A fabulously intimate interview with the respected songwriter, author, and daughter of the late Johnny Cash. Lovers of the elder Cash will treasure her candid memories of her father, and her reflections on finding one’s creative voice are valuable for artists in every field. She tells an amazing story about the day she decided not to be a dilettante: “I was leading myself into an ever-narrowing corner with my work. I knew that if I kept dabbling, and trying to make hit records, and not going deeper into what I did or developing a mastery of it, that that was it. I was going to end up doing parodies of myself.”
Yo-Yo Ma: In Chicago, it’s starting to feel like the famous cellist is just a loyal friend who shows up at every party. Ma spearheads the ambitious, populist Citizen Musician initiative and is the Judson Greene Creative Consultant at the Chicago Symphony. In this interview, we get a taste of the idealism and boundless energy that have made him one of classical music’s most prominent figures. “I often ask musicians, do you think of yourself as your instrument? As a musician? Or as a human being? And what is the ratio between the three? I think the citizen part is towards the human part.”