Sunday, February 8, 2015


I formed String Power in May, 2007, shortly after moving to Brooklyn. A friend I had known at U.C. Berkeley, Jody Redhage (an excellent cellist and composer), had moved to New York several years before and she introduced me to some great string players. We played together in a string section on a concert with a jazz ensemble led by the great trombonist/composer Alan Ferber at the Tea Lounge. Playing in the section was so enjoyable I thought it would be great to have an ensemble of just string players to highlight the many different sounds, textures and stylistic possibilities in string music. A year prior to moving to Berkeley I put on a concert of my more experimental music featuring the groups I worked with between 2002 and 2006. While the concert was well received, I did get a vitriolic response in the form of a hate mail letter from someone named Brad. I later set Brad’s letter to music and we did several great performances of that piece- Your (so called) ‘Music’ - with String Power and my friend and great spoken word artist Lee Todd Lacks. As much as I hate to admit it, Brad’s letter was influential in my decision to start an ensemble that would be closer to pop music than experimental music. I wanted to draw on all the music that I loved- funk, folk, country, jazz, tango, in addition to classical and experimental music. My original intent was to compose all original music for the group, which drew on these influences. My housemate, Krista, had an amazing CD collection and she was generous enough to let me listen to it. As I sampled various CD’s it occurred to me it would make more sense to transcribe and arrange this music. I figured I could learn more from the process of doing this and perhaps down the road some elements of this music might organically find it’s way into my own composition.

I had been, and continue, to deal with a bit of an artistic (and probably more than just artistic) identity crisis. I wrote a music theater piece about it called This is the Real Me. I call it a distilled opera. Gelsey Bell has done amazing performances of this and my goal is to, at some point, fine tune that score and get it out in the world for other people to perform. As I grow older this identity crisis has started to work itself out. The reality of course is that we are always changing. I remember back at Berkeley, my friend and professor Catherine Bergeron introduced me to a highly successful young jazz musician she knew. She mentioned the various things I do (compose, play jazz piano, fiddle music, classical music, etc.) and his response was “oh, a dabbler.” I took offense to that dismissive response. But it is true. I’ve dabbled in a lot of things but never really focused all of my energy into one project. Until now.

 It started out when my friend violist and original member of String Power Megan Berson, posted an old video of String Power on Facebook last year. It was around that point that I was realizing I needed to just choose one project and really do it. And, after Megan’s post, I realized that String Power was the one project that I felt was strongest and had the most traction. So I went about booking another gig, back at the Tea Lounge, for April. The response to the group was great. Especially rewarding was the fact that the staff of the Tea Lounge enjoyed it. That, to me, says a lot because they are not just there by choice, and they of course, hear a lot of music every night of the week. So we were asked by the booker to do a residency there starting in the fall. This was a huge confidence boost for me. We then played twice a month from September to December when, sadly, the Tea Lounge went out of business. But during that time the group really solidified. Being a group of professional musicians, schedules change and if the opportunity for a well paying gig comes, we have to take that as opposed to a pass the hat gig at a café, no matter how great the vibe at that café might be. So String Power really is a pool of about 30 or so string players who I draw from for any given performance. Despite that reality, there was enough consistency in the line-up throughout the fall to build up a solid group dynamic. This is what made String Power into a cohesive group, rather than a pick-up group. This cohesion is what really inspired me to take the ensemble to the next level and finally record a CD.

So what is String Power? A novelty/parody act? A vehicle for the performance of my compositions? A jazz string ensemble? It’s some combination of all those. We have arrangements like Raining Blood (by Slayer) which I would put closer to the novelty act category. I don’t mean to disparage Slayer at all, but the fact of a group of classical musicians playing Raining Blood has an element of humor to it. That being said, I do hope to capture some of the real vibe of that music and not some sort of pristine classical version. I wasn’t familiar with Slayer at all actually. I believe it was a record store proprietor who suggested that Raining Blood would work well with a string group. And it means lot to me that people who are more familiar with Slayer, who perhaps grew up with Slayer, have expressed their approval of the arrangement. It has something to do with not being too precise- and going all out with the force. It’s the “power” in String Power, afterall. But still, I would put this tune in the Parody category.

 I would also put our Boogie Wonderland arrangement in that category. It seems to be one of our biggest hits. And one of our regular listeners at the Tea Lounge expressed particular enthusiasm for this one. And he wasn’t familiar with the original Earth, Wind and Fire version. It really is an excellent piece of music with all kinds of interesting compositional things going on in it. And Earth, Wind of Fire of course was made up of some of the top studio musicians and arrangers in the country. And it does work very well with strings. I was a bit disappointed when the contract wedding band I was working for played Boogie Wonderland. The instrumentation was closer to the original, but I think that was about the only difference. I wanted String Power to have a different feel than a wedding band or one of the many “String Quartet plays [insert genre here]” CD’s out there. Those are great- but there is something generic, or interchangeable about them. What, then, sets String Power apart? For this CD, I wanted to select material that had more layers, more meaning to it. The arrangement that means the most to me is Charles Mingus’s Fables of Faubus.


Mingus recorded many versions of this tune. The first was a slick version on Ah-um (on Columbia Records). This is probably the one that most people are familiar with. The next version, actually called “The Original Faubus Fables” (on Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, on the independent Candid Label), had lyrics to it and, to me, has a more immediate, visceral quality. There is some debate as to whether the lyrics were originally intended to be included on the first version. There is a possibly apocryphal story about Columbia considering the lyrics too controversial. It is certainly plausible. I would say that if executives at Columbia Records were aware of Mingus’s lyrics they most certainly would consider them too controversial. Fables of Faubus was written in response to the events of September 4, 1957 when Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus called in the National Guard to prevent integration of Little Rock Central High School. This was three years after the U.S. Supreme Court (in Brown v. Board of Education) declared segregation unconstitutional. The lyrics being with “Oh Lord, don’t let ‘em shoot us.” Sadly, the message is still very relevant today.

    It was the story of the first two recordings of this piece that inspired me to make this arrangement. It was also the fact that this is a satirical piece. Parody and satire are similar, of course, but satire makes a comment on society as a whole whereas parody is more of a straight imitation for humor value. Mingus’s Faubus does have humorous elements. The very corny and square way the second, higher theme (to the words “Name me some one who’s ridiculous”) is presented is (to my ears, anyway) making fun of Faubus and people like him. And the musical responses to this (under the the words “Governor Faubus”) are also funny- when I hear them I imagine someone thumbing their nose or making fart noises. But the message of course goes way beyond humor. The song is really about the realities of racial prejudice that Mingus and the members of his band had to face every day of their lives. While it would make no sense for us to actually sing the lyrics, I wanted the arrangement, and our performance of it, to reflect our frustration that not nearly enough has changed in the 55 years since Mingus wrote it.

    Of course the lyrics are the most obvious difference in Mingus’s first two Faubus recordings. But even without the singing, I hear a sense of urgency, purpose and a certain kind of looseness that serves (rather than detracts from) the music in the second recording of Faubus that I don’t hear as much in the first, slicker major-label version. I am aiming for a similar sense of immediacy with String Power. Mingus and his band were all superb musicians, of course. The looseness I am referring to is an intentional looseness. For example, the way Eric Dolphy articulates the musical responses with over-the-top slides and vibrato. This is also apparent in Mingus’s conception of swing (detailed in his book Beneath the Underdog) where you imagine the beat as the center of a circle and the notes don’t have to fall exactly in the center of the circle but can land anywhere inside it. This is something I think about a lot. This conception of the beat is evident in all of Mingus’s recordings, but it might be true that in the second version of Faubus the “beat circles” are a little bigger than in the first. The challenge for us in String Power is to still know where the center of the circle is and feel that together even if we choose to place our notes within the larger circle.

     It’s a fine line to walk between being precise enough to honor the music and yet not so precise as to detract from vitality and the original intent and meaning of it. I just hope that our version of this piece makes musical sense and that we can do this piece, and the great tradition of Mingus, justice.


      I had heard of the 70’s cult TV show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman over the years but I got hooked on it after reading an article about its executive producer Norman Lear and finding episodes on youtube. The show has been described as a soap opera parody but is more in the realm of satire, full of biting critical commentary on the role of television in society (interestingly for a TV show), the role and perceptions of women and much more. It works as a straight soap opera, with engaging plot lines and cliff-hangers that draw the audience in, but it is full of subtle satirical touches as well. Although never a huge hit during its two seasons on the air, it received critical acclaim from the beginning of its run. The theme song features a lush violin melody that is perfectly suited to a soap opera. It is called “Premier Occasion” and was written in 1965 by British composer Robert Charles Kingston, whose pen name was Barry White (not to be confused with Barry White of disco fame). Kingston wrote music for production libraries so it was probably not written for any specific purpose but was selected by the show’s producers. There is a great duo version of this song by Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden on the album Soapsuds. They incorporate the tones of Mary Hartman’s mother whining “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” which is heard in the show’s opening, just before the music begins. Sammy Davis, Jr. also does a version but it is more a song about Mary Hartman that includes just a few bars of the opening before it goes into something entirely different.

      In transcribing this sappy theme I actually found quite a few interesting harmonic touches and countermelodies. Some of these have found their way into my violin concerto. We play the Mary Hartman theme relatively straight and then we ham it up quite a bit the second time through with a lot of slides and wide vibrato. I’m currently working on some other ways to stretch out the theme to reflect the spirit of the TV show.


      I wrote my first violin concerto 20 years ago when I was a senior at Tufts University. Now that I am approaching middle age, I figured it was a good time to take stock of everything that’s happened to me musically and find a way to incorporate some of that into a violin concerto. Since I’ve been making my living mostly by playing solo on subway platforms for the last six years, my technique has grown in some ways and faltered in others. I’ve also gained more of an appreciation for catchy melodies. My tone, I think, has gotten much fuller, my approach to phrasing has gotten more subtle and I am able to get people’s attention better than I ever have, partly out of necessity. My technical precision would probably benefit more from being alone in a practice room for the number of hours I spend on subway platforms. My intent with the concerto is partly to play to my strengths as a violinist and also to fine-tune some of my technique that’s fallen by the wayside. But most importantly, it’s to find some answers as to what exactly it is that I want to say musically.

     My original idea with String Power was to seek out the elements of music that I truly loved and find a way to incorporate them into a musical voice that I could call my own. Having spent the last 7 years arranging and playing music that had an immediate appeal to me and to my largely subway platform and café audience, I want to take these basic building blocks of music- clear, concise, memorable ideas; energetic, propulsive rhythmic drive; melodies that draw in and engage the listener, full rich harmonies; using the most resonant parts of the instruments, etc. All of this is pretty standard fare. No real ground-breaking ideas here. Then there is of course, intentionally not doing any of that; perhaps using the highest note of the cello for a particular effect etc.. There are infinite possibilities in all of this of course, that is the whole point. But at this moment, I like the idea of using these standard aesthetic choices as jumping off points. I also like getting deep into to the characteristics of these styles of music that I love so much- the articulations, the rhythmic feel etc. In the process of writing this concerto I am searching for what it is that is exceptional about my approach to composing.

      I was listening to WQXR the other day and a very pretty piece of newly composed music came on. The composer (I believe) is also a director of programming for the BBC. But as I listened I wondered, is this all that this piece is going to do? Is this just a beautiful, not particularly interesting, piece of music? Will there be any conflict or drama? Will an opposing theme come in? Will there be some kind of ironic treatment of this theme? Some kind a wink and nod? Will this opposing theme comment on this beautiful and bland music somehow? And these things I was expecting are nothing new at all- this is, to a large degree, what classical music does. To me, this piece I heard on the radio reminded me of the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman theme in that it was just what it was, the whole time. I imagine that the Mary Hartman composer wrote that kind of music purely for money; and this composer’s authentic style would have been much different. Otherwise, he would not have used a pen name. So, although I don’t make any money from anything String Power does, I think of Boogie Wonderland and Raining Blood as sort of one dimensional, parody pieces that perhaps I might write for money. That being said, I enjoyed writing the arrangements and I enjoy playing them. I’m just not sure that is how I want to represent myself- at least not on a debut CD.

      So I wrote some sketches for this concerto. I wanted to write concise, one-minute pieces that could work as a set or even on their own. My main goal was to make them memorable and with clear beginnings and endings. And I wanted the ideas to be concrete and something I could build on and stretch out when I write the concerto. The first is a sort of romantic ballad, or perhaps a lullaby. I was flattered that a friend of mine’s baby (the same friend, Megan, who initially posted about String Power and got me started thinking about this group again) enjoyed this one. I wanted to write a lush theme.  I improvised some things on the violin and came up with something I thought worked. I realized that the opening few notes are not too far from Ellington’s I Got it Bad and that Ain’t Good, that familiarity is probably why I liked it so much. The rest of it sticks pretty close to a descending scale but skips around, mostly in 6ths. When I set out to write the accompanying parts I ended up coming up with jazz harmonies peppered with the requisite ninths, sharp 11ths, 13ths etc., and then arranging the string parts from there. I also altered the theme to make it a bit more interesting after adding these more colorful harmonies. It was challenging to make the accompanying lines work because the melody skips around so much. I also wasn’t sure which rules to follow- I could probably get away with parallel 5ths in this scenario- my main concern is that it sounds full and nothing sticks out in an awkward way or detracts from the main theme. I was quite satisfied with the end result. I was less satisfied with my own slightly out of tune playing on our first performance- but that will improve. I ended up with something similar to the piece I heard on the radio. A pretty - perhaps too smooth - little ballad. The difference will come next- when the ballad gets twisted around and has some adventures.

     For the second sketch, I wanted to make use of all the slides and articulations that I use when I play fiddle music. I called it “High Lonesome,” a title I’ve wanted to use for a long time. The term refers specifically to bluegrass musician Bill Monroe’s voice. I came up with something that is really just a stringing together of some stock-phrases in blues and perhaps bluegrass music (whose roots are in blues music, after all). There’s a call and response section in the beginning. At one point I have the bass play one little phrase by itself. I wanted to see what would happen if I took one phrase and put a kind of frame around it, I wanted that one little phrase to acquire a significance that it wouldn’t have if it just appeared as part of the bass line. The great bassist Ken Filiano was gracious enough to join us for our last performance and he of course played it excellently. It’s just a little bluesy line, meant to be played with a heavy, sliding blues feel. I am more interested what is between the notes, the articulation, the feel. Notes themselves are less interesting. And in this piece that is especially true. 

     What I like about music by composers like Webern and George Crumb is how much significance there is in the tiniest phrases. I’m trying to get to that significance of the phrase- of even one note; to make every sound matter and have meaning. Of course a note does not have any meaning by itself but the context and how it is played are what give it meaning.

     There’s a whole argument about meaning. What do I mean by meaning? is it mean to mean meaning? Is meaning mean? What is the mean meaning of this meaning? What I mean by meaning here is significance. I guess I’ve been using those terms interchangeably. You can repeat something and give it meaning. Someone I know was mentioning a jazz solo where the same idea was repeated over and over and acquired more and more meaning each time. Or I suppose if something stands out- maybe is only heard once- but is memorable. Then that is another way a sound can have meaning. Or it can have meaning if you associate it with something else- either another piece of music, or a memory- an association you might have with a piece of music- or a fragment of a piece of music- or a particular musical style, or the hint of a musical style. All of these things trigger neurons in the brain. 

     When I play in the subway or at Yellowstone National Park during the summers, I get a lot of requests. When people request songs from musicals, I often imagine they associate that song with an entire set of memories, perhaps going to the show with loved ones, the experience of the show itself, the singers and the costumes and everything, the atmosphere of the theater and perhaps even the whole evening or even the whole trip if it was, for example, a trip to New York. When I hear “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks, I remember my trip to New York with my parents when I was 8, the experience of the dinner theater, seeing the musical and the whole trip. So who I am I to judge people for wanting to relive happy memories by hearing a favorite song? But of course playing requests at a hotel in a National Park is completely different than composing a violin concerto. But I am still trying to find a way to relate these things. I want to compose with an awareness of this effect that music can have on people’s memories. I wanted to start with the basic building blocks of music that is associated with certain styles- hence the writing of a jazz ballad and a bluesy, bluegrassy number.

     Again, this sort of approach is nothing new at all. Nearly all composers have at least at some point incorporated folk and popular music. Bartok and Charles Ives are two examples. The hymns and folk tunes Ives used had very specific meanings for him, of course, and the experience of hearing these familiar tunes is powerful. Even if you don’t recognize the tune but only the style, it cannot help but influence your experience of listening because the brain latches on to what it recognizes. On the other hand, part of me thinks it is less artistically valid to consider the associations the music has. It is far more noble, and of a higher moral standard, to view music only as sound. John Cage often talked about the liberation of sound. He says (I'm paraphrasing here)  “can we please just let sounds be themselves without forcing them to tell stories or be beholden to our own little personal histories.” But when I listen to John Cage’s music- even the music generated by the I-Ching or astrological charts, I can’t shake the friendly image of John Cage, the endearing fellow with a quirky sense of humor, going on the talk shows and playing an amplified cactus and so on. In my brain, the neurons connected to John Cage the person fire when I hear John Cage’s music. Which is exactly what he didn’t want. Or at least he said he didn’t want this. He wanted to take the ego out of composition entirely.

      I was watching a video about coaching chamber music that I found at my Mom’s house (she is a cellist). One of coaching tips the woman gives is to discuss the historical context of the music and what was going on in the life of the composer at the time of the piece’s composition. Does the fact of Beethoven’s deafness influence the way you play his late String Quartets? In music appreciation class, we of course learn all about the historical context of the music. This is part of the way we “appreciate” music. All of this gives the music more meaning (or significance) in our minds. When I hear a piece of orchestra music that I played, I associate it with all the memories of rehearsing and performing that piece. That’s as much a part of the enjoyment of the piece as the sound of the music itself. I’m not even sure that is something I should admit as a composer.

     In the process of doing this album I have connected everything in my mind. I posted photos of my Mom and me as a child, posing with our instruments. I posted photos of myself in my high school chamber orchestra and playing in violin ensembles at my violin recitals. These experiences really did influence String Power so it’s not just that I was using cute photos to try and convince people to contribute to my Indiegogo campaign. And of course when it comes down to it, what matters by far the most really is the sound of the music itself. But still, to me at this moment, I’m thinking of all of it, my whole musical life, the experience of playing with String Power over the past 7 years and particularly the last 5 months in our residencies at the Tea Lounge and our recent and upcoming performances at Branded Saloon (complete with a portrait of a bull and the sounds of people playing pool downstairs) – all of it is context in my mind. And I somehow want to include it all in this album.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Real (?) Me program

Here is the program from a concert I presented in Brooklyn. I am very excited about all the performances and I am looking forward to putting on the whole concert again on March 19th at Roulette. Click on the names of the pieces to watch complete performances or click here to watch the concert in its entirety.

November 15, 3pm Douglass Street Music Collective

“Be devoted to the unification of the diverse aspects of yourself.”
-Tom Waits


by Tom Swafford
Tom Swafford, violin
members of the audience

by Tom Swafford
to Suzanne Fiol
by Tom Swafford
String Power
violins:Anna Brathwaite, Mark Chung, Liz Hanley, Tom Swafford, Helen Yee, Jeff Young
violas:Megan Berson, Leanne Darling, Nicole Federici
cellos:Loren Dempster, Brian Sanders
bass:Peter Maness

Times Square Shuffle
by Tom Swafford
The Swizzy Winds
Erica Von Kleist, flute; Sally Wall, oboe; Mike McGinnis, clarinet;
Rachel Drehmann, horn; Sara Shoenbeck, bassoon

18 Germs
by Tom Swafford
1. Fanfare
2. Shitty Fugue
3. Shiny Turds
4. 70’s Car Chase
5. “Pass the God Damn Butter”
6. Crappy Canon
7. Groovy
8. Fuckin’ Fast
9. Doubles
10. Free, baby!
11. Austere, baby!
12. Gently, Delicately
14. Crappy Canon #2
(Proust in his first book
wrote about, wrote about)
15. Pass the God Damn Butter Pt.II (Pass the God Damn Peanut Butter)
16. A Simple Device
17. Awkward
John McDonald, piano

This is the Real Me
by Tom Swafford (with Gelsey Bell)
Gelsey Bell, voice

by The Ensemble
Tom Swafford, violin; John McDonald, piano; Loren Dempster, cello
Mike McGinnis, clarinet; Sara Schoenbeck, bassoon

Your (so called) 'Music'
by Tom Swafford
Lee Todd Lacks, voice
String Power

Interstate 81
by Lee Todd Lacks
Lee Todd Lacks, voice
Pete Maness, bass
Jeff Gretz, drums

Cracker Jim Crow
by Tom Swafford
lyrics by Andy Mullen
Andy Mullen, banjo and voice
String Power

Much of the text in Hecklepiece comes from comments made to me in various performing or composing situations. I am interested in the psychology of musical taste; what criteria people have for judging the value of a particular piece or genre of music. I am very aware of this while playing in the subway and looking at the expression in people’s faces as I play, for example, a fiddle tune vs. something classical. I’m especially intrigued by the rare instances when a person seems morally offended by my musical choice. The text in this piece also represents my own inner critic. I have recently come to the conclusion that I need to listen less to both inner and outer critics.

I formed String Power in May 2007, soon after arriving at New York. Inspired by my roommate Krista’s extensive CD collection, I first set out to write a set of music in various styles (funk, jazz, old time, thrash metal) and then realized I might learn something by transcribing the actual music. My goal was to showcase the many excellent NY string players and to demonstrate the often overlooked capacity strings have for textures besides pretty, lush backgrounds. Leanne Darling and I do the arranging and I also program my own compositions. Expectorant and Lozenge are influenced by the music we’ve played in String Power. I am dedicating this afternoon’s performance of Lozenge to Suzanne Fiol, the founder of Issue Project Room, who passed away last month.

I wrote Times Square Shuffle soon after arriving in NY and (not surprisingly) it represents my impressions of the atmosphere of midtown Manhattan. The honking of horns and yelling of angry drivers transforms into a original shuffle feel blues tune that becomes less and less hidden. I also quote a bit of Fugue 4 from book two of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. I think that the fugue texture works well to depict hectic pedestrian and vehicular traffic situations.

18 Germs was written in January 2009 for my composition teacher from Tufts and the guy who inspired me to do what I am doing, John McDonald; much of the piece is influenced by John’s playing and compositional style. The pieces can work as is or as jumping off points for compositions or improvisations. I had not written my own music in a while and I felt the need to re-establish my own compositional voice by forcing the music out as fast I could without worrying about quality. This is one reason for the irreverent titles. I am also in the process of working out my aesthetic and, at least for the moment, I am more concerned with broad, spontaneous gestures than carefully worked out music. This comes partly from my experience in free improvisation.

This is the Real Me is like no other piece I have written. It could be about many things and there is a lot of room for interpretation for both performer and audience. For me it is about figuring out who I am as an artist and as a person. The end of the piece is influenced by my experience playing with the folk-punk band Meisce. While I would not call myself punk, I like the joyful and at the same time aggressive energy of the punk culture.

It is this piece that inspired me to put on this concert and the process of working on it has opened up a new direction in my artistic thinking. I now feel like am starting to figure out what I want to say with music. Words cannot describe how grateful I am to Gelsey for working on this piece with me. It would not exist if not for her. It is not the kind of piece that can be simply notated and handed to a performer. Her input and her enthusiasm for performing this piece have been invaluable.

John McDonald introduced me to free improvisation when I joined the Tufts University New Music Ensemble in 1991. Loren Dempster and I played in the Roosevelt High School Chamber Orchestra together from 1989-91 and from 1997-2001 we played together in the Bay Area in the free improvisation ensemble ø24c. I met Sara in Seattle several years ago and I met Mike last year in New York. All four of these people are some of my favorites. To me, free improvisation is more meaningful when you have a history with the people you are playing with. TOJOLO MISA is just my not so clever way of indicating the order I want people to enter and the groupings for the beginning of the piece.

Your (so called) 'Music' is a musical setting of an actual piece of hate mail I received after the last big concert I put on in Seattle in 2006. That concert featured the three improvisation groups I worked with: Doublends Vert, Cipher and The Golden Crackers as well as music inspired by my work with those ensembles. I was both proud and ashamed to receive such a vitriolic response. It does lend itself well to outlandish musical expression. I am very happy to have my good friend Lee Todd Lacks (who I met in 1993 when he joined the Tufts University New Music Ensemble) joining us on this piece, playing the part of the angry letter writer, Brad.

Lee Todd Lacks writes:
Interstate 81 is the title number from a performance piece that recounts my family’s experience of traveling from Cohasset, Massachusetts to New Orleans, Louisiana. This particular piece deals with a late night driving dilemma that occurred towards the end of our first day on the road. As I was writing what some might refer to as a rant, I was inspired by the unique vocal style of the B-52's lead singer, Fred Schneider, whose delivery freely alternates between speaking and singing.”

Cracker Jim Crow is written in the Old Time style. I was introduced to Old Time music while busking in Seattle. Soon after I joined his group Potbelly Gumbo, Andy Mullen turned me on to some great old time fiddlers like Bruce Molsky and I became very intrigued with all the rhythmic subtleties, particularly with the bow hand. I also started to believe there is something more healthy in old time players approach. In a memorable scene from the short film “My Old Fiddle,” legendary fiddler Tommy Jarrell is given a Stradivarius to try. He doesn’t like it. It is not the same as his own, beat-up fiddle that he has had all of is life.

I am finally realizing what most of us already know: I can write whatever I want! I can make my own aesthetic decisions without adhering to any one else’s concept of what is good or bad. What I am asking myself most lately is: What makes music meaningful to me? Why do I write music? What am I trying to communicate? It is not any one particular thing but more of an attitude towards music making that can be applied to any style. For me music is as much about sound as it is about all of the experiences I associate with making music and the people who I make music with.


Gelsey Bell is a vocalist who regularly performs with new music ensemble thingNY and moonlights around with various other music, theatre, and dance groups in the city. She is also a singer-songwriter (and will be releasing her second album In Place of Arms sometime this spring), a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at NYU, and the Managing Editor of TDR: TheDrama Review. She wants to thank Tom for the opportunity to work on developing this piece with him: it's been a joy!

Hatched from a 1967 Dodge Dart, Lee Todd Lacks came into this world at a time when music was changing forever. During his formative years, Lee Todd spent many hours riding in the back seat of the Dodge listening to his mother’s favorite tunes on the radio. Recognizing her divine obligation to foster the genius of her first-born offspring, Mama Lacks exposed him to only the most aesthetically-stimulating repertoire of The Guess Who, Three Dog Night, Rose Royce, and The Bee Gees. When he reached the age of first awareness, Grandma Alice and Grandpa Dick showed Lee Todd the Way of the Coupe Deville. Under grandma and grandpa’s loving tutelage, Lee Todd flourished, and many years later, he was admitted to Tufts University with the intention of pursuing a masters in ethnomusicology. However, while at Tufts, he fell under the influence of some rather extraordinary characters, who subsequently encouraged his penchant for self talk and clarinet squawk. As a member of the New Music Ensemble at Tufts, Lee Todd began to develop a modest reputation as a performance artist and has since performed at venues in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and now, Brooklyn! He currently resides in South Portland, Maine, with his wife, Heather, and their two dogs, Henry and Eliot. After a long hiatus from the stage, Lee Todd is eager to resume his peculiar practice of speak and music. Lee Todd’s retrospective album, Reassembled, will be released later this fall.

John McDonald was recently promoted to Professor of Music at Tufts University, where he is Director of Graduate Music Studies. He is a composer who tries to play the piano and a pianist who tries to compose. McDonald was named the 2007 MTNA—Shepherd Distinguished Composer of the Year by the Music Teachers National Association, and received the 2009 Lillian and Joseph Leibner Award for Distinguished Teaching and Advising from Tufts University. His recordings appear on the Albany, Archetype, Boston, Bridge, Capstone, Neuma, New Ariel, and New World labels, and he has concertized widely as composer and pianist. New releases include pianist Andrew Rangell’s performance of McDonald’s Meditation Before A Sonata: Dew Cloth, Dream Drapery, on Bridge Records. Recent performances at the Goethe Institut of Boston and at Tufts have been highly acclaimed. McDonald is a member of The Mockingbird Trio, directs the Tufts Composers Concert Series, and serves on the boards of several performance organizations in New England.

Tom Swafford performs with Emanuel and the Fear and Potbelly Gumbo, freelances with artists in a wide variety of styles and busks in the NYC subways. Current composition projects include Anthropomorphic: The Musical with book and lyrics by Timmy Young presented by The Puppetry Arts Theatre (December 12, 13 at Court Street Regal Cinemas). Tom grew up in Seattle where his musical parents encouraged him to start violin and piano at an early age. He played in orchestras, jazz and rock bands in middle and high school. He attended Tufts University where he majored in music and clinical psychology and studied composition with John McDonald. He received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley where his principal teacher was Olly Wilson. He then studied in Amsterdam for a year with Louis Andriessen. He returned to Seattle in 2002 where he soon joined up with Seattle’s vibrant experimental music community. He also began busking at Pike Place Market and joined the Irish punk band Meisce. He moved to New York in March 2007. Tom received a Charles Ives Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001 and an Eisner Prize (1998) and Hertz Traveling Fellowship (2001) from the University of California Berkeley. He has received grants and awards from 4Culture, Jack Straw Foundation and CityArtist. This is about the 8th full length composition concert Tom has presented since his first at Tufts University (with the encouragement of John McDonald) in 1993.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Real (?) Me

Today in the subway as I was packing up a guy gave me a $20 and wanted change. As I was fumbling around trying to give him a big wad of ones he asked me what everyone always asks me "where do you study?" I suppose to most people I look like a young music school student. Then I explained that I attended Tufts University and the University of California at Berkeley. I don't usually go into too much detail about the fact that I studied composition and not violin performance or the fact that I am actually way older than I look or that I have had a wide range of musical experiences outside of the school setting. Lately I have felt a bit adrift playing and writing in such a vast and often contradictory set of genres- country, rock, musical theater, experimental, classical, etc. Many of us wear these multiple musical hats. But I have been feeling the need to narrow it down and decide which musics (because it could be more than one) are my true voice. So I am presenting a concert of my own music called The Real (?) Me. See my myspace site for a slideshow of the very talented Gelsey Bell rehearsing the centerpiece of the show: This is the Real Me. I like the fact that this slide show appears in the "About Tom Swafford" section. The reality is I'm not sure how much the piece is about me, or if it is about Gelsey, if it is about everybody or if it's about nothing. It will mean different things to different people. I did a workshop performance of it in August and in that situation it was definitely about me. As I looked at the pictures of Gelsey I thought "Do I actually do any of these gestures?" I think there may be a few that I do. The piece consists of musical material (various styles of singing, extended techniques like grunting, etc.) and mime, gestures, facial expressions and audience participation. All of these are indicated in the score, although I have made it less and less specific realizing that it works far better to give the performer a general indication and have her run with it.

We all form opinions of people based on what we see. And everyone has different sides of them that they show in different situations. In every musical situation I'm in - playing pop string arrangements, playing in a bluegrass band, playing in a rowdy Irish punk band, busking, playing at a wedding, writing a musical, playing free improv- part of me wants to show the sides that people aren't seeing. This concert will provide me with the opportunity to show the sides of my musical self that I most want to show. It will be what is, at least for now, closest to my true musical/artistic soul.

Go to for more information about the concert, including links to some of the other performers.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

letter received by Tom in February 2006

Here is a marvelous letter I received in February 2006 in response to a concert I presented in Seattle. The concert featured three improvisation ensembles I had worked with over the previous 3 years: Doublends Vert, Cipher and The Golden Crackers; and two compositions inspired by my work with these groups. I hope you enjoy...

Below the letter are some thoughts about the things this letter brings up.


At first, after listening to your (so called) ‘music’ on the 19th at Consolidated Works I was upset that I’d wasted the time and the $15.00. But then I realized the value of hearing the worst example of composing (so called) (or improv or whatever) that I could imagine, because at least it makes me better appreciate actual/real composing. It was embarrassing to sit through it though and see people think they were actually listening to something and applauding. And it was also painful to see otherwise probably very good musicians being gullible enough to waste their time and respect (or dignity etc.) playing it.

Other than sitting through a Junior High Concert once, that was the Absolute Worst music (so called)experience of my LIFE.

Do yourself and other people a favor and do something else with your time.

Otherwise all you are doing is degrading people’s music sensibility.


I had gone to the concert there on the 12th with Karen Pollick (& Sokolov) and thought I’d discovered a sort of Gold Mine to hear (great!) music, but now I somewhat doubt I’ll ever go there again. The guy on the phone who gave me your address asked me if I’d heard the part with the drums and violin. I left before that. (I just couldn’t stand it anymore).

But so what if that drums and violin part was good.

It was probably nothing compared to the dullest part of the previous week’s concert,

and no matter how it was, it would not have compensated for the previous hour of drudgery and ridiculousness.
What was especially aggravating was the droning on and on of notes – such as that 1st thing with the accordion, flute, violin, bassoon and/or oboe etc. I was thinking

“OK, so this first piece of ____ is a drag, I’m sure things will get more interesting.”
But then the next ‘piece’ is the same droning and droning (and also a lot of the clarinet and piano at the start of the 2nd half when I finally just left).

Actually I think that’s sort of an arrogant thing to do to an audience – as if you’re some sort of Buddah (sic.) forcing everyone to endure this boring droning – as if it is somehow ‘meaningful’-
I don’t care how much of an audience might be duped into thinking it is. But even the fast stuff was not that interesting, at least not for me.

(This letter is not about your own personal violin playing. For all I know
you might be a very good violin player when playing actual/real music. And I
didn’t stay to hear the drum/violin ‘piece’)


This letter brings up a lot of issues that a lot of us in the contemporary music world consider from time to time.

At the moment I'm particularly interest in Brad's comment: " if it is somehow ‘meaningful’- AND IT IS NOT." I am thinking a lot about what makes music meaningful.

Brad is not lying. This drone music that we were playing I'm sure had no meaning for him because he had nothing to relate it to. Without some way in to this kind of music (or any art really) it will not have meaning for people. For Brad to assume that because it meant nothing to him it was devoid of meaning from an objective point of view is of course very arrogant and ignorant on his part.

One thing I learned in my undergraduate intro to Ethnomusicology class is that music is not a universal language. A friend of mine at Berkeley told me that her father enjoyed Chinese Opera but hated Puccini.

One of my goals as a music educator is to give people a reference point so that all music can become meaningful.

The "droning" music on this concert was in fact, in my humble and subjective opinion, very beautiful. The trio Doublends Vert (myself with Annie Lewandowski, accordion and Adam Diller, clarinet) had been working together for three years and release two CD's. A self titled CD on Present Sounds records and one on Line called Cistern which was recorded in the empty 2 million gallon reservoir with 43 second reverberation at Ft. Worden. We had developed a way of blending our timbres and creating very slowly developing and subtle music. I had never thought that deeply and carefully about sound until playing with that group.

I hate to admit it but I think that Brad's letter was part of the reason that, when I moved to NY a year after this concert, I decided to form a group to play pop, jazz and folk music arrangements and I decided also to try my hand at writing Broadway style musicals. I wanted to create some music that people didn't hate.

I am proud of Brad's letter, however. I feel honored to have provoked this strong of a reaction. I had a feeling that Brad had been introduced to contemporary music the week before in what was probably a slightly more conventional concert with notated music and probably no drones.

Another interesting thing about Brad's response is, although the concert was rather drone heavy (in addition to Doublends Vert, the Lake Washington Woodwind Quintet performed my arrangement of a recorded Doublends Vert improv) the other improv group, Cipher (me with Tari Nelson-Zagar, violin and Greg Sinibaldi and Jesse Canterbury, clarinets) played some very active non-drone music. And Beth Fleenor, clarinet, and Tiffany Lin, piano, played my composition Dubious Diversions which is very driving rhythmically although, OK I admit, the end was slow.

And Matt Crane (drums) and I of course played no drones but Brad missed that part.

In addition to educating people so that they can gain meaning from contemporary music I am interested in composing music that will have meaning even for people outside the contemporary music community. I believe that every sound is potentially full of significance for any listener. I am not interested in pure sound but in sounds that have associations. They may suggest other music or extra-musical sounds. I like the idea of composing with this in mind.

Of course all music has meaning for the person creating it or what would be the point of creating it? I think about that too though. I want to really write music that is full of meaning for me personally. It's easy to just think of an instrument and start to write a bunch of notes for it. I am understanding more now why my professors had me listen to (for example) every oboe piece I could before I wrote an oboe piece. Every time you write for an instrument you are in some way relating to every sound that instrument has ever made.

I like to write with specific people in mind too. This helps me a great deal to know something about the personality of the person I am writing for.

I remember in my lessons with Andriessen he said he is more interested in ideas than in talking about notes. I would just plop down my scores in front of him and wait for him to start talking. Only now am I beginning to understand the concept of writing music about ideas.

I think as I start to discover my own musical identity I will write more and more pieces with a certain idea I am trying to convey. It might be an image, an experience, a processing of some life event, etc.

I wrote a little piece based on this letter. It's a silly piece but found it very therapeutic both to write and perform. And I think it (like the letter) brings up some issues that are worth considering for composers, performers and audience.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


Here is a blog I wrote a few months ago but never published. Who writes drafts of their blogs? Well I do. I don't know who the heck is ever going to read this. But anyway here's what I was thinking back in February:

Last October I took part in a festival at Tufts University (my alma mater) honoring composer T. J. Anderson. Anderson was on the faculty for many years and retired just before I studied there. I performed Anderson’s trio Ivesiana with fellow alum Jason Coleman on cello and my composition teacher from Tufts, John McDonald on piano. The parts are independent so we each had a lot of freedom- it was a piece I could really sink my teeth into. The whole weekend was inspiring. There was a seminar on African American composers during which my main teacher from Berkeley, Olly Wilson, spoke as well as many others. I especially liked what Wilson had to say about his experiences as a composer. Someone asked about racism and Wilson said he and all the other African-American composers (including Anderson) working in the 50’s and 60’s had a “fire in their eyes.” They had to prove that they were just as valid as white composers in an environment considerably more racist than today’s. The act of composing music had an added meaning for them at that time. And of course it wasn’t only in composing but in everything that they did. And, as Trevor Weston (one of my fellow Berkeley graduate students) mentioned, this is something that continues to be an issue.

Wilson mentioned something that resonated with me. He said that the reason he writes music is to express his life experiences through sound. He uses music to communicate something about his life. I have been thinking a lot about how I can write more personal music; music that is true to me. Not every composer considers music so personally. Every composer’s music reflects something about the composer’s personality; but not every composer views music as a form of personal communication. For some composers music is more about ideas, or the structuring of sound.

I am always asking myself: “Why do I write music?” What is the point? What am I trying to accomplish by creating music? I believe my goals are the same as Wilson’s- to communicate something about my life. I have heard that the average person needs to say a certain number of words every day. If they don’t, they can feel blocked up and they may have trouble sleeping at night. I would like to say much more than I say, in an average day. I am fairly quiet most of the time. So I think that music is a way for me to get out what I can’t seem to get out in normal every day conversation. But I have realized that creating music is not the same as speaking and, no matter how much music I have made in a particular day, if I haven’t gotten words out I may still feel unsatisfied.

But creating music does fulfill a need, even if it is independent of the need to speak a certain number of words in a day.

I have written a lot of music that is not really me. I’ve written a tango, quite a few pop string arrangements and I’m working on a musical. I like all of that music but I don’t think it reflects who I really am. Many composers have their public and private musical styles. At some point, all composers have to write for someone else, whether it is a school assignment, a film score or a commission. The trick is to fulfill the obligation while at the same time being true to your self. How do you really know if you are writing what you truly want or writing what someone else wants? Maybe a sign of a mature composer is that he or she is really writing only for him or herself. I used to think you have to consider your audience but maybe I’ll only feel like a real composer when I forget completely about who I am writing for (musicians or audience) and follow only my own musical path. But I hate the idea of alienating an audience. If my goal is to communicate something about my life I want the thing that I am communicating to be clear.

But instrumental music is always abstract. It is difficult to communicate specific ideas through sound. It is of course easy to communicate feelings. It sounds to trite to say that I want to write music about my feelings. Music expresses_________? You can write music about music. you can write music about world events, you can write music about politics, you can write music about ideas, music can be a cultural expression. Music is always a cultural expression- but whose culture? Is it your culture? it a culture that you have appropriated? Is it really you? Is your music really you or are you acting? Are you just playing the role of the composer? What do YOU want? I ask myself that all the time- what is it that I want to write? What kinds of sounds do I want to make?

I got a little write-up in one the Seattle papers that said “Tom Swafford, avant-violinist.” And that’s the majority of what I did in Seattle- play avant violin. But is it who I am? I play a bit of fiddle, a bit of this, a bit of that- but I haven’t delved in to anything deeply enough to call myself a bluegrass fiddler. I can play in the style and sound fairly authentic- although to discerning ears it still will sound like a classical violinist playing fiddle. I have to work to avoid sounding like a classical violinist.
I remember when ø24c (the improvisation group that I played in when I went to Berkeley) performed at Mills College one of the Mills students described our music as “EGO MUSIC.” That was collective improv- but we did all have our own voices and we showed off- it was extroverted at times. There were solos.

I write EGO music.

Boulez says: “Too great a knowledge of things inspires respect in us and prohibits spontaneous usage” So do I have enough knowledge of these styles of music to appropriate them? Or maybe I have too much respect now and my usage of them will not be spontaneous…

While busking- angry lady says “play something else!” I say “what?” “stop playing these silly little songs and play something else!” I was playing Ashokan Farewell. Before that I think I was playing some bluegrassy type of thing.

What she doesn’t understand is that real composers appreciate the simple- in folk music, in popular music- they don’t look down on other forms of music as inferior. What causes this distorted, delusional thinking in people? This disgusting, repulsive flaw in logic that would cause such a ridiculous, absurd reaction to a piece of music? That someone would actually be offended by a piece of music. That any piece of music could actual anger someone is beyond me. But even more so is this idea of taking offense- who is this woman to be offended by “silly little songs”? It’s a form of prejudice- admittedly not as serious as racism but still in the same category. One example maybe the association of something that sounds like fiddle music with hillbillies- backward country bumpkins who are inferior to other people…. something like that….

At Tufts freshman year in discussions with my friend Ulysses I realized that there is no such thing as good, bad, better or best- no such thing. we’re all the same. No one is superior or inferior. But then I went back to Ayn Rand- my dad wrote “trash but provocative” on a collection of her writings… she says there are indeed good and bad quality people. So are there objective criteria for good and bad music? That’s the big question, isn’t it… I say no, it’s all subjective.

LIVING it--- I call playing with Meisce (the folk/punk band I played with in Seattle) and even these other rock bands and all this other music—that’s living it, being in it, being part of it, being an active participant in the culture, in the fabric, even playing on the subway, much better than sitting in a room studying – maybe it comes into the music

I wouldn’t write a piece and say it’s based on Gangsta rap – or some other music that isn’t part of me

that concept I like a lot- taking the essence, one gesture, one element of one gesture, one nuance- what is it about this music that identifies it as this particular genre? what is meaningful? what are people connecting to most- a certain bend of the note makes it country music- something like that- I think about that all the time

also I like DECAY- slowly, naturally, organically, something changes, disappears- but the patterns that this makes, pieces missing, changing, being changed
I like the subway posters that people have defaced too
and I’ve always liked ruins, and what’s called urban decay too
and mold,

part of this natural process- does this make it authentic?

also intuition- letting it out, letting it be what it is

like my friend artist Guido van der Werve’s talk today- the chess players who just look at the pieces, and intuit what to do- based on the visual experience, and based on their feeling- something beyond thought-

and also I liked what Guido said about being direct- simple- simple ideas. without making them complicated and therefore art can become obscure

his ideas, like walking in front of the ice breaker, or his film “the day I didn’t turn with the world” where he stood at the north pole for 24 hours and turned exactly opposite to the way the earth was turning on it’s axis. very powerful- someone could write a lot about the power of this gesture- this act. but it’s the act itself (and it’s documentation) that guido is concerned with.

My friend studied Kurtag as a musicologist. She asked him for permission to write about his music and he said “do whatever you want. I won’t read it. I despise academics.” and so she quit musicology and became a singer instead.

authentic – how can you be authentic- what is real? what is really you?

any time any situation when are you acting and when are you being your true self? or do you have a lot of selves? we all wear a lot of masks- different personas we take on.

but what about music- when is music real?

Some composers are criticized for writing “film music.” What is film music? What makes music film music? These critics are not talking literally about music written for films- they are referring to a style.

Is it impersonal? Written for some other purpose besides expression?

Other composers are praised for pushing the envelope of what music can be-

guess what? I am not interested in that either.

at the same time I am- but it is not what is most important.

I want to distill this authentic music. this bluegrass. this old time. this country. even Manu Chau’s Cladestino (a song I like a lot that I learned at a jam session)

it goes back to a personal expression. emotional. real. authentic.

I am expressing both my own experience and the experience of others in my culture- but what is MY culture? I’m not a member of any culture particularly, especially being a white male. Which is why I want to go to my family reunion in Tennessee. I was disappointed to see that a Swafford was on the committee to discredit Obama’s presidency b/c he submitted a photocopy of his birth certificate- making it doubtful he was even born in the USA and therefore ineligible to become president. But he is president now.

who am i? what group am I part of? what music is really mine? what music do I have a right to appropriate? how can I make authentic music? how can I reflect the multiple musical experiences I have and continue to have in my music? Will it come naturally if I just let it? Is it something that I really need to think about?

and can I write about these things without seeming like an egotistical asshole?

every composer believes they have the potential to write the greatest music ever- they might not have written it yet- but at least the potential. so do I- what I’m trying to do is write music that I like. That I really really like- better than anything I’ve ever heard- because it’s a distillation of all the elements of all the music I’ve ever heard- combined- taking all the elements of all the music I like. But reducing it- not taking a particular motive, or rhythm, or timbre- but reducing it further to the nuance. to the very specific, microscopic thing that makes it what it is. and that thing- that thing is what moves me as a listener.

I’m writing for me. I want to write music that, even if I didn’t’ write it, I would think- gosh I love that. It’s my tastes.

I don’t want to write or play music that I wouldn’t want to listen to.

It is an unattainable goal. Just like Guido’s movie about unattainable goals, like playing every possible chess game. or counting every star, or tuning a piano perfectly (these are the three sections of a movie) and somehow tuning a piano is supposed to relate to building a house on a fault line – darn I should have thought of asking that at the talk- then I would have seemed really smart.

Friday, September 26, 2008

What I am trying to do

Lately I've been playing some fiddle music with a great singer/songwriter Andy Mullen. The band is bass, drums, banjo, guitar and myself. Andy plays Old Time music and gave me a couple of how-to videos by Brad Leftwich. It's a completely different philosophy of and approach to music. I found the tune Boll Weevil on the videos. Leftwich includes sheet music but this doesn't communicate the subtleties of the style- you really need the video for that. This kind of music really requires aural transmission. He talks a lot about Tommy Jarrell- who is kind of folk hero of Old Time fiddle. He died in 1985. There are a couple of movies made about his life, Sprout Wings and Fly and My Old Fiddle- both by Les Blank. According to Leftwich, Boll Weevil is one of Jarrell's signature tunes. On My Old Fiddle Jarrell plays and sings Boll Weevil., which is told from a cotton farmer's perspective, after the boll weevil has destroyed his cotton crop.

I wanted to write a piece using these gestures from fiddle music. The same gestures are in blues music- and Boll Weevil is an especially bluesy song. According to one website it is originally a blues song. So you have both black and white tradition. I think when people think of fiddlers, Old Time and bluegrass music they may not realize how much influence African-American people had on this music- and there are many African American fiddlers.

My original intent was to write a piece that just used these gestures, which I use a lot when I improvise. But it was much more meaningful to take an actual tune, with all of the history behind it- of white and black people, of the cotton industry etc. I think that by playing this particular tune I am connecting to my own Southern roots (my dad's side of the family is from Tennessee and my mom's side is from Ohio). By tuning my violin in this tuning and taking these few notes and particular articulations I am attempting to channel the past. Right now there isn't much to it- my "assignment" (given to me by my former teacher at Tufts, John McDonald for an upcoming festival) was to write a two minute violin solo. It's an idea I want to explore more. It's nothing new at all. Composers have always used folk music. What might be different is the use of the fiddle timbre and these articulations which I believe I can do fairly authentically. I want to incorporate not just the notes but the way that I play into the composition. And I want to be able to translate these things for other players.

I tried a version of Boll Weevil with my good friends ( and great musicians) fretless guitarist Tom Baker, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and clarinetist Jesse Canterbury for a performance last week at the Fretless Guitar festival. It went very well. My next step is to integrate these things into a more fleshed out, notated composition.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why Slayer?

I put together my group String Power last May. I was inspired by my housemate’s extensive CD collection. Originally I intended to compose music in these various styles. But after listening I thought I could learn more by arranging the music. My ultimate goal is to absorb elements of this music into my own compositional style. It’s been a real treat putting on shows with these folks because they are superb musicians- they can basically sight-read anything I put in front of them and play with the right feel. Plus they are very enthusiastic. It’s not often that string players get to play music outside of classical music. And we enjoy playing with each other. It’s amazing to write something one week, then a week later walk one block to the rehearsal space and hear it played by the full ensemble, and two days later, put on my fancy orange bellbottoms (courtesy of Stuart Dempster) and perform it at a club on the lower east side. So far our hit seems to be Slayer’s Raining Blood- which I arranged last year. I doubt this arrangement will help me get a college teaching position (my ultimate goal) but it’s been fun. Here is a video of it. What follows is a long and rambling explanation of why I chose Slayer.

Why Slayer? My arrangement is ok- it still needs work though. And certainly the players are excellent- they can really pull it off. I could not have asked for more. But it still sounds like classical musicians playing Slayer because that's what it is. Many of us play other styles but there’s no getting around the fact that we are classical musicians at heart. And there is nothing wrong with that. I thought that if I transcribed Raining Blood for string orchestra it would sound a bit like Bartok. When you take any music out of its context you lose a lot of the original intension. Obviously, without Dave Lombardo’s drums and Tom Araya’s vocals a lot is lost. And I haven’t precisely recreated what guitarists Hanneman and King played either. What I want to do is tap into that energy.

Slayer means something to me. I’m not a big Slayer fan. I hadn’t owned any Slayers albums and I bought the CD in order to transcribe the tune. But I have had different peripheral associations with Slayer through people I’ve known. The Irish punk band I played in, Meisce, are part of Seattle’s punk and metal scene. Several of the members play in metal bands and we were always on the bill with those bands. So, as a fiddler in the band I was associated with that world though certainly not really part of it. I wouldn’t have attended those shows if I wasn’t in Meisce but I did pick up something from being there. It is more than just the sound. Like any community, the members of the punk scene share a similar outlook on life. It was never me, exactly, but there are aspects of that world that resonate with me.

These days there are a lot of musicians working in many different and contrasting styles. Being one of these musical chameleons enables me to gain some insight into how other people live. At 35 years old I still have not completely settled on an identity of my own. But I am determined to live life on my own terms and stay in touch with what is important to me.

Yes I want to be famous. Yes I want to be respected in my field. But I want to do it in my own terms. I want to create the music that I really feel most represents me. In order to do that I am trying out everything. And from that I can incorporate aspects of any musical genre that resonate with me into my own musical identity and personal style. I want to be open to everything. I want to be able to access any style of music and any lifestyle and consider it carefully with a completely open mind.

I visited some antique shops last week and it occurred to me that being a composer is not unlike being an antiques dealer. I thought about where these objects came from; probably from thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets. The antiques store owner purchases these items, no doubt very cheaply, and then sells them at a much higher cost. They take items out of one context and put them into another. Of course, even at a thrift store the item is out of its original context.

I think of Aaron Copland and Rodeo. He came across the fiddle tune Bonaparte’s Retreat. He dusted it off, shined it up and placed it in a ballet. Now Rodeo is more often heard as an orchestral work without the corresponding dance and people pay $100 a ticket to hear Bonaparte’s Retreat at Carnegie Hall. Copland removed it from its original context, played perhaps on someone’s porch and handed down from generation to generation and moved it into the concert hall. An antiques owner might find an old wooden toy at a flea market, recognize its potential value, clean it up and sell it for one hundred times the original price. The object has the same inherent value no matter what context it is in. The composer (or antiques dealer) makes an object appear to have heightened value because of the context it is in. Bonaparte’s Retreat has the same value whether it is played on someone’s back porch or in Carnegie Hall although it’s been moved from a “lowbrow” to “highbrow” context. The same is true for a wooden toy. Upper class people might not feel comfortable at flea markets and they won’t want to take the time to sort through lots of junk to find a gem. I like flea markets, back porches and rock clubs. I like the whole process of being at least peripherally involved in the original contexts where the music exists. I don’t consider any of it junk although I’ll admit I don’t like everything I hear.

I often think of the quote “Good composers steal, bad composers borrow”. It’s been attributed to Stravinsky and many others. I understand what it means to steal a musical idea- it’s a fairly straightforward concept. But what about borrowing? What does it mean to borrow a pre-existing piece of music? I mean, once you take it and incorporate it into your own music you can’t give it back. You took someone else’s music.

Appropriation has been going throughout the history of music. Mozart incorporated Turkish Janisarry (military) music (cf. Rondo Alla Turca); Debussy took gamelan music, Ravel took blues, Brahms took Hungarian gypsy music. Not to mention the countless variations on popular and folk themes that have been written.

So what does it mean to borrow music? I interpret that as taking pre-existing music without really incorporating it into your own style- to quote a piece of music as a joke, for example, in a piece of music in a different genre. So how does a composer incorporate music into their own personal style? Bartok was Hungarian. He spent the greater part of his life traveling around Hungary and elsewhere transcribing folk music. He considered himself as much, or more, an ethnomusicologist as a composer. So can we say that Bartok stole rather than borrowed from his folk sources? Stravinsky appropriated Russian folk themes in the Rite of Spring (as well as the Firebird and Petrushka). But he was Russian- this music formed part of his identity. What about the Ebony Concerto or L’Histoire Du Soldat- two pieces where he incorporated elements of ragtime and jazz? Did Stravinsky know enough about jazz to use it in his music and call it stealing rather than borrowing?

So stealing is ok but borrowing is wrong.

I think many of us can hear it when a composer has attempted to incorporate music of another style and achieved an awkward result. One dangerous move is to ask classical musicians to swing. Some can, some cannot. This feel is something I don’t think I have ever been quite able to acquire- as a jazz pianist or violinist. It is one reason that I decided not to be a jazz musician.

I never felt truly immersed in that musical culture. I had a few jazz records which I enjoyed. But nothing like my pianist friend from middle school. We went to different high schools. And our two school jazz bands had a bit of a rivalry. He was a true jazz fan and had every album by Ramsey Lewis and George Shearing and knew all the other great pianist. I liked Monk (but only had one or two albums) and I listed to a bit of Bill Evans and of course loved Herbie Hancock. I have to admit, my favorite of his music was Chameleon. I certainly did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and therefore felt like a bit of an imposter playing jazz. And this feeling persists today though I am considerably more knowledgable about jazz now then I was then.

And I do feel like an imposter playing Slayer. I am of course not a true metal fan. Although I do like Black Sabbath- and ACDC. I have never wholeheartedly embraced any one genre of music and learned everything there is to know about it. I listen to a little bit of everything and I know something about a lot of different types of music. I am a generalist.

If had to name one music as my true musical heritage it would be classical music. Because that is how I grew up. My parents were classical musicians who played chamber music every week. My dad would always play the piano after work- Mozart, Schumann and Chopin mostly, as well as his own compositions. My mom played in an orchestra (and still does) and many different chamber groups. I took violin and piano lessons. Music was the closest thing to a religion I had growing up. It provided (and still provides) a sense of community and camaraderie that I don’t get from any other activity in my life. And, while (I imagine) not having the level of spiritual connection that people who belong to a church feel, the act of playing music with other people is richly fulfilling for me.

But I strayed from the flock. Very early on I ventured outside of classical music into jazz and rock. And, when my grandpa gave me his mandolin, I tried out a little bit of bluegrass as well. But I’ve never settled on one musical style.

I am a jack of all trades and a master of none. I can fake folk music and jazz and rock- and what of those is really me? I can play classical music- and I love it. But I still wouldn’t call myself a dedicated classical musician. I don’t know every piece of classical music ever written. I only know the few pieces in my life that have really resonated with me. Many of those were pieces I’ve played- and some, like the Firebird (which I did play, actually, in a simplified version for children’s orchestra)- appealed to me viscerally. I remember dancing around to the Firebird when I was 10. I also remember, finding a record of Shostakovich’s 10th symphony. The album cover was appealing- black and red, some sort of abstract art. I think just the cover itself made me a Shostokovich fan. And then I performed the 8th Quartet- with the Nazi’s knocking at the door. And I heard the piano trio and the piano quintet. I was sold on Shostakovich.

Then I went to Berkeley and I found out the Shostakovich was passé. I had already written a lot of pieces that sound like watered down Shostakovich. I shouldn’t belittle my own music like that- I think my college pieces were very good- I still like them, even if they do sound like Shostakovich and Bartok.

Even at Berkeley I felt like an imposter. At Tufts I was one of very few student composers. So, even if some of the other Tufts composers knew and loved Feldman etc. I never felt too guilty for not fully immersing myself in his music or any other music (other than Shostakovich and Bartok- in fact I’d say I did not immerse myself even in their music).

But at Berkeley of course all the composers (and the musicologists specializing in modern music) all seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge of every 20th century composer and every piece ever written. I was so behind. And most importantly, they seemed to have a genuine love of this music. I didn’t. I didn’t love anything- especially after finding out that Shostakovich was passé.

Why does any of this matter?

To be a composer means you create music. It doesn’t matter how much you know or how much music you have studied. It does not matter even if you know how to read music. It’s about you- your personal voice. But if you want to steal music- I mean really steal and not borrow- you had better immerse yourself completely in that music and that music must become part of your identity. It has to be part of your soul before you can use it.

My (white) friend once said that white people should not play jazz. I wouldn’t go that far. There are as many white jazz musicians as there are black jazz musicians—but which race can take more credit for jazz? Black people, of course.

But I understand the sentiment. The result of taking music that is not really part of you- “borrowing” it- is just unsatisfying music. I don’t consider it a moral issue. There are way too many real atrocities being committed in the world to attach moral significance to someone writing bad music

What is bad music anyway? It’s completely subjective. Of course that is a giant can of worms to open up- and thousands of highly intelligent people spend their lives trying to figure out what is good and what is bad and explain it in a highly sophisticated way.

All I am saying is that the result of someone appropriating music that is not part of their own culture is often an awkward, possibly ineffective piece of music.

After our last show, I received very enthusiastic feedback from one audience member who asked me if I was influenced by Bartok. He was referring, I assume, to the Slayer tune. Interestingly, one of the cellists in the ensemble is a real thrash metal fan and he said the Slayer tune is his least favorite. Anyone with real familiarity with Slayer’s music- anyone for whom Slayer has played a significant part in the forming of their musical and personal identity- would regard our Slayer cover as a very tepid, highly inauthentic and unsatisfying rendition. Real Bartok aficionados expecting to hear something like Bartok would probably be unimpressed by our take on Slayer as well. Yet it seems to be the most popular tune. Probably because of it’s kitsch quality- it really is a bit of a joke but done with respect to Slayer, and all that the genre represents. The joke is that, as classical musicians, we have not had the right background to be playing Thrash Metal (with the exception, perhaps, of our cellist). Yet, we do understand the intensity, the vitality and perhaps the anger in the music. And of course, the screaming at the end is always a big hit.

I put String Power together to demonstrate that string players, classical musicians in general, and classical composers- can express the same intensity and drive as musicians in other genres. Though we are not part of that culture, as human beings we do experience the same emotions and we have the same desire to express them.

I am still trying to figure it out. Yes I want to be famous. Yes I want to be respected in my field. Yes ultimately I want a job being a professor at a small liberal arts college; but most important for me right now is finding the music that I am most comfortable in. My plan is to take something from all of the music I am playing and writing and incorporate into my own style. And I don’t just mean the music itself- I mean the people who play it- I mean the attitudes towards life. I’m not talking about our string group since we are all classical musicians. I’m talking about musicians who play other types of music. Yes I will steal music. I will consume it- I will digest it- I will make it my own. I don’t want to borrow it. I don’t’ want to discover a Slayer CD, transcribe it and just paste it artificially into my music. I don’t want whatever I take from Slayer to be superficial. If I do end up using anything from Slayer- I want it to be organic. I want it to be part of my musical identity. I think of the arrangements I have done with String Power as ways of digesting these styles. It’s still superficial because I have not immersed myself in any of them. Some of them, like funk, disco and jazz, I have assimilated somewhat because my brothers listened to that music when I was growing up.

As I said, I have never felt I have had exactly the right feel for jazz and, since my knowledge of jazz is not encyclopedic, my jazz CD collection is paltry at best, I can never consider myself a true jazz musician. I will never be let into that club and my jazz feel will never be right. That is because I don’t love it. Although I have to say Lester Young, Miles Davis, Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington, Mingus, Basie- when I put the CDs on I am moved. Yet at the same time I can’t name off every album ever recorded- and who played what on what, and what date and where the recording occurred. And I don’t listen repeatedly. I’m moved. Then I move on to something else. And months or years later I might come back to a CD and be moved again.

I want to live my life on my terms. I want to do what I truly want to do. I do not want to compromise. Of course, I probably will have to compromise in order to eat. I will again have to take a job I don’t want. But, ultimately, I want to truly know what kind of life I want to live and I want to truly know what my musical voice is.

In reality, I will probably always write in many styles. Many composers have done that. But still- I am hoping in the next few months I will settle on something. I will be able to say “this is me”. Then I can be more aggressive, make some professional quality recordings and really push my music.