Saturday, March 26, 2016

Midlife on the edge

I believe I was four years old — meaning it was 1962 — when the rules of life were read to me. I didn't understand at the time that this was the only time I would hear them, or even what the rules of life meant. I was pretty busy filling a little pail with sand and then emptying it, and figuring out which shoe went on which foot. It might also be noted here that I didn't know the names of colors yet (I failed those first few quizzes in kindergarten the next year), so any of the rules of life that included a color in them zipped right over my head. For all I know, a Blue Christmas is included in one of the rules of life, and if so, I've had only part of the life for which I was destined.

I hadn't remembered that I even knew the rules of life were until my first midlife crisis. I was 42, and the most outwardly outward sign of said crisis was the fact that I had recently purchased Elton John's Greatest Hits. Elton John! I always hated Elton John's songs in high school, with the exception perhaps of Levon, and to a lesser extent Bennie and the Jets — not that I actually liked the song, but I could play the opening couple of bars at the piano, and that always made me instantly popular in high school. Yes, popularity was simple — and fleeting — in those times. And there I was, with Elton John's Greatest Hits. Which, all these years later, registers zero plays in iTunes.

And our band The Silver Finger had Levon on its playlist. People never danced to it, because, you know, Elton John.

One of the rules of life was there will be exactly one midlife crisis. I mean, how many times can you buy albums from your childhood with music you didn't like? It turns out that's not a rhetorical question. The answer is almost five.

So about a decade later when the second midlife crisis kicked in — this one was milder than the first, and I already had a whole buttload of CDs with shitty 70s music — I was a bit amused. Amused, too, that I recognized that it was another midlife crisis. Hey, I had German measles when I was 5 and red measles when I was 16 — if there can be two measleses, there shonuff can be two midlife crises, right? I think the chief activity of this particular one was wondering how many other of the rules of life were also wrong or even misspelled. At this point, I also remember that the rule of life riding a bicycle is like riding a bicycle was there just so there'd be something meta and silly in the list. And when turning left in traffic, be sure to leave room for others to go around you is apparently one that's not on a lot of other peoples' rules of life list. In the second crisis, I do remember spending a lot of time wondering whatever happened to cereal boxtops? Caused in no small part, I guess, by the fact that I don't eat much cereal.

Beff probably said it best: You should never be the Chair. That has nothing to do with anything, but it can't be said enough. Actually, it's a nice mantra. I was the Chair once, and it was positively just about the least good year of my existence. Worse than red measles. Except no year-long scarring on my legs.

That does it. You should never be the Chair is now a rule of life, officially. Something needs to hold the place formerly occupied by riding a bicycle is like riding a bicycle, and this is it. Now when some well-meaning person at work turns on the guilt machine, I can fend it off with my rule of life.

Accolades do not cause midlife crises. That was not an official rule of life (in 1962 I didn't know what the word meant, so it's possible it was supposed to be one), and as it turns out, it's a good thing. Because I currently am going through the third midlife crisis, caused in no small part by an accolade, and it's the sort of accolade that is a kind of hump that sharply divides your life into my life until now and the rest of my life. No one said accolades didn't speak in vague and generic terms.

This crisis is kind of a happy crisis, as it turns out. The hump aspect has caused me to look back, mostly in soft focus, at the teachers and colleagues that had no small part in enabling the accolade. One of the first things I did when the accolade was made public was to write to my high school music teacher, Verne Colburn simply to thank him. And I was surprised as I was writing it just how many details I remembered from those four years. It turns out much was retained from the years 1972-76, even in soft focus. It turns out "thank you" takes two single spaced pages. Yes, that's a rule of life.

Here is a picture from 1974 — staged for the newspaper — of Verne handing me a $50 check as my prize for playing the first movement of the Gordon Jacob concerto — Verne was actually the accompanist in the performance — as Cindy LeBlanc, Steve Rainville and Bob Barker — also owed 50 bucks — look in in wonderment, and probably no small shock, at the gold rope that inexplicably encloses my left shoulder. Which probably has something to do with why it looks like I don't know what to do with my hands.

I have resisted the urge to write to others to thank them, as it turns out the list is pretty long, and at a certain point it starts to look creepy.

Another rule of life was you can take as long as you want to get to the point, and a lot of posts in this blog, including this one, have happily followed that rule. There has been no grudging following of that rule here, not ever, never.

And so without the benefit of an actual segue, we come to Paul Lansky. That took a while, didn't it? Paul is getting the same accolade, and for all I know he's pretty busy doing the soft focus thing, too. The it's about time thing truly applies in this case, though it's rarely expressed in italics. And we go back to 1980, the year I entered graduate school.

Put as succinctly as possible (too late), Paul singlehandedly transformed computer music from squeaks, squawks, and long passages of amoebas arguing to something living and breathing and with a sense of humor. He gave personality and humanity to computer music, and I know, that hardly sounds like me talking there. But his music is personal, has a unique voice, and is instantly recognizable as his. What's more, when he got tired of doing computer music — upon which his reputation was based — he simply walked away from it. Wow.

And the first time I met him I remember rather vividly. In January 1980, Mac Peyton advised me that I should visit Princeton, where I'd applied for grad school, saying it might increase my chances, and piling on guilt for not already knowing that. So I hastily covered myself in polyester (being allergic to wool is a bitch) and took the train to Princeton, with a new fresh recording of my Dylan Thomas setting for baritone, two trios, and offstage horn that wasn't in my application. I don't remember much about my half-day spent being a nuisance in the music building, except when I met Paul. The first thing he said was, "I feel like I know you already, since I've listened to your music." Slobbering slightly, I told him I had a new tape for my application, and he said, "let's listen." He liked it, and made special mention of the offstage horn (I did not know at the time that he had been a horn player, and that he sometimes got paid for playing horn).

At the time I was writing a bigass septet that I thought would be played by a Boston group, and it was complicated and notey and full of instrumental tricks lifted from Martino scores. And when I took the computer music course taught by Paul my first semester, one of the first things I did was to make a squeaky squawky computer representation of the opening of that weirdly complicated septet. It had all the notes and rhythms in exactly the right place, and it sounded like really big amoebas arguing and throwing dishes at each other. Paul's wry comment about the realization? "That's not your piece."

At a later stage in the writing of said septet, I took it into lessons with Milton Babbitt and with Paul. I showed a big chart of pitch fields, motives, and long range voice leading to Milton, who said, "This tells me everything." I showed the same thing to Paul, who said, "This doesn't tell me anything." This was exactly when I knew I had chosen the right graduate program.

For my next trick, I decided to try and demonstrate that if choirs sang in tune, they would go out of tune — a tautology that Ezra Sims was fond of. With the computer, I had, for the first time, micro-control of pitch; thus did I take a few tonal chorales I had written for my sister's church choir, and programmed them in such that fifths and thirds were pure; over the course of just eight bars, the chorale, having pure intervals and being perfectly in tune, went flat a little more than a quarter tone. When I explained this and played it for Paul, he said, "I don't think you're doing what you really want to do."

He was talking about my turgid and notey compositional work of the time. And it's the wisest thing a composition teacher said to me. About fifteen years later, I realized he was right. Because Davy is a slow learner. You're not doing what you really want to do.

Since I had demonstrated facility with the computer — I learned the EXEC and EXEC2 macro programming languages on the IBM 3081 available to us all — I soon became Paul's teaching assistant when he taught the computer music course. Of course, a lot of the programs I wrote simply typed a naughty word back at you when you typed their names, but eventually I got good enough to write a program that would move the cursor in a search to the correct place rather than refreshing the whole screen and moving the cursor — one that Paul asked for, since he did a lot of work from home on a slow modem.

And slow. Computing was slow and cumbersome then, but at the time we didn't realize it because it was cutting edge. In the first class I TA'ed, Paul showed us how to do LPC -- linear predictive coding, it turns out (what did you think it meant? Lollapalooza Pooping Constantly?). Our minds were selectively blown by the power that it gave you to change pitch and speed independently of sampled sounds. But the sampling itself was cumbersome, and using LPC was also cumbersome — since the only storage option for such stuff at the time was very large digital tapes, upon which we would put our data, and then truck over to another building entirely for playback to see if what we tried worked. Making microadjustments meant another trip to return the tape, changing some numbers, getting the tape back, repeat.

Given all that, Paul's Campion Fantasies, which were quite recent, and available on vinyl, were miracles. While the rest of us were busy giving voice to amoebas, Paul was busy making beautiful and nuanced music. This track here was one I listened to over and over, being as I've always been a big fan of tight scoring. It was probably the first piece of electronic music I heard about which I didn't immediately think Boy that must have been a lot of work. And hey — here is Paul doing Whitacre before Whitacre was doing Whitacre. Being that said Whitacre was 8 years old at the time.

One of the other movements of this piece has an incredible moment where you hear the words "But still ... but still but still ..." where there is an opening up of ... well, of something I won't try to mansplain. Paul simply called that movement an apotheosis of the comb filter. Yeah, he was doing études before I was. And it's about more than comb filters.

One of our graduate colleagues had a Commodore 64 that he brought to our rented house once so we could play around with the goofy speech synthesis program. We played weird games wherein we would type numbers and use them as parts of words (for instance, fornik8 and 0-bber took my jewels), and then we got the brilliant idea to use the robot voice as the message on our answering machine.

You've reached 609-448-9214. Davy is bouncing on his bed. Martin is doing LIMEY things. Beth is playing with the cat. Please leave a message.

It sounded really dumb, just the kind of dumb that grad students think is really funny. Shortly thereafter, we got a string of messages left on the incoming message tape. Hee hee, hee hee it's just Lansky. I wanted to hear it again. *click* Hee hee. Lansky again. *click* Hee hee. Hee hee.

Soon after we had gotten a cat (it was an abandoned cat given to us), we discovered or rediscovered that we were all allergic in varying degrees. So when Paul came to visit us once, we were complaining about sneezing and sniffling, and Paul told us One thing you don't do is you don't rub them in your face. It was very good advice.

Paul's kids (Jonah and Caleb) were very small at the time, a fact that most people attributed to them being very young, and he brought them to the end-of-school-year picnic and softball game the department always had. I recall having to pitch to a very small Lansky in one game, and of course you want the kids to get a hit. He hit the ball maybe 6 feet, and I made a special point of fielding the ball badly and throwing to first base wildly so he would get on base. I think Paul must have liked that, or at least I hope he did. I also think he scored.

For one semester, I was the worst ear training teacher ever for Paul's theory class, and to that end, I got to see him teach a few classes. He was relaxed and straightforward, with nary a Roman numeral as far as the ear could hear. There were lots of what-ifs to show why the final composer choice was a good one. And, well, I teach theory that way, too. Except for the part about the Roman numerals.

I always looked forward to the first lecture in the computer music course when he described what sampling was. He would gesture at one of the speakers in the classroom, speculate what it would be like to have the ability to write down the exact position of the vibrating part of the speaker as fast as 28,000 times every second, and then be able to recreate that sound by spitting those numbers back at the speaker. And then he explained Nyquist frequency as being like the wagon wheels in old Westerns that seem to spin backwards. Brilliant. And since LPC worked a lot with formants, he explained how formants are how we understand and differentiate vowel sounds, and he did an ee-ow-oo-oy-oo-ee thing with his own voice to demonstrate which partials were being attenuated when he changed the shape of the inside of his mouth. Indeed, he made a cassette of himself doing the same thing, every once in a while interjecting oo-eee-oh-oh-ah...eleventh partial ... ee-oh-ee-oooh-ee...thirteenth partial .... which, if it were a commercially recorded piece, I would buy it.

In one of our lessons, and apparently after a long slog with a complicated dissertation, Paul got all cosmic and asked me, "What would your music be like if you didn't have octave equivalence?" I was silent just long enough to make it look like I had some idea what he was talking about, and said, "It'd be different. That's for sure."

At the end of my stay in Princeton, I established a dossier in the office, just in case I ever wanted to apply for a teaching job. I asked for letters from all of the faculty for the dossier, and Paul's came in pretty quick. When I was about to embark on the four unpointful years of part-time word processing jobs for hardly any money, I checked with Didi Waltman in the office about the dossier. She said Yes, and here's your letter from Paul. She looked over it, and nodded, and nodded, and remarked, "Ooh. 'a natural rapport with students!'". So yes. I guess Paul wrote me a nice letter.

Paul and I kept in touch — we always had lunch when I was in town for whatever reason, and that was perhaps a good thing. Because, you know, I had a dossier, and suddenly I found myself with a teaching job, and Paul gave me very good advice on negotiating salary — twice. The teaching jobs really wanted me to have a doctorate, and for that I needed to write a dissertation. Which I had done once, really crappily. The reader I had inherited was a sumbitch, and had no helpful hints about how to write a dissertation that he would like. He simply said no, not really, don't think so, this sucks. So you see I was at loggerheads.

And then out of the blue, Peter Westergaard and Paul wrote me and offered to lift me out of the diss doldrums, calling my situation in the letter Poor Fit With Reader. And by the way, they did that, too, with Beff, who had the same reader and the same problem. So Paul was my new reader. He, too, admitted that what I'd written sucked, but he actually told me why, and how to fix it. Woo hoo! I needed a thesis (facepalm) and I couldn't just describe things and let all my observations just evaporate. So he suggested a thesis, I ran with it, and I wrote my fucking dissertation. I'm pretty sure I would not be typing this as a doctor if Paul and Peter had not intervened.

And in the meantime — several of the chapters of my dissertation became lectures in theory classes. Indeed, this post and this post are adapted from things in my dissertation. Thanks, Paul. Dissertation: born, 1989. Filed, 1996. R.I.P. And the sumbitch? No hard feelings (not really). In gratitude, I promised to let him know he was a stud at least once per year for 16 years — which was the time from matriculation to Doctor — and I did.

Ever since we killed off the diss, Paul and I send music to each other (I have a lot of CDs from him in my collection and he probably has every one of mine) and we make nice comments about it. We have a mutual admiration society going, and I especially like listening to (and watching) the percussion ensemble music. It's inventive and fun, and, if I may, efficient. I have used the online videos in my orchestration class.

And then I was paid the ultimate compliment: he dedicated a piece to me (I had dedicated Scatter to him in 1991, so in this case, I still win).

Our most recent encounter was lunch two years ago in Princeton, where Beff and I had come for a thing with the Institute for Advanced Study. It was good to see him for the first time in quite a few years, and we asked him to pose with John Phillip Sousa, which I had procured from the US Marine Band. I'm glad he obliged. The reason he looks so relaxed is that he is mere months from retirement.

And now the accolade. I'm thrilled to share it with my teacher, my mentor, my dissertation reader, my friend. It's about time. When I wrote him to congratulate him, he responded, simply, I'm proud of you.

Thank you, Paul.