Biography: the Extended Version
The first music I can remember loving was the Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album Going Places (which features the classic "Spanish Flea" known to many from its use in "The Dating Game", as well as their incredible versions of "Third Man Theme" and "Zorba the Greek"), and the Herbert Von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic recording of Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
My first real instrument was the bagpipe; I had tried the trumpet for a year at the age of ten, but it hadn't been unusual enough for my youthful taste. I also didn't enjoy practicing, but I managed to stick with the pipes for a few years because it was a sufficiently weird venture. I joined a "pipe band" of middle-aged men, and once went to an outdoor "Highland Games", where I placed third, of three contestants, in the chanter competition.
In high school I joined the chorus. Singing was good for me because I was reasonably talented at hitting the right notes at the right times, and I didn't have to learn many new skills. Reading music appealed to me because of the simple, mathematical logic of music notation. I also sang in a community chorus, performing, among other scores, Randall Thompson's The Peaceable Kingdom and Beethoven's Choral Fanstasy, which remains a favorite.
I went to Harvard for my undergraduate degree. Joining the radio station at Harvard, I dove head-first into the world of punk rock. By the end of sophomore year I was playing the bagpipe in the punk band Anything Family, which would later become Fat Day. The bagpipe lasted just a few practices, and I was soon the vocalist.
Majoring in math lasted a year and a half, at which point I realized I would fail out of school if I continued in math. I switched my major to "Music for Theater and Film" - a concentration which I designed myself, and the best way, as I saw it, to pursue my passion for music on my own terms.
Under this new concentration, I studied electronic music for two years with the composer Ivan Tcherepnin - the son of composer Alexander Tcherepnin, brother of musician and inventor Serge Tcherepnin, and a great mind in his own right - discovering that I had little affinity for purely experimental music, or music produced electronically.
I also took a wonderful class in 20th Century classical music with the composer Bernard Rands, whose soulful readings of Joyce are among the few experiences of poetry that have really moved me, and who introduced me to a whole world of composers who tempered their experimental searchings with a strong sense of beauty and aesthetic rigor: Stravinsky, Bartok, Berio, Xenakis, Satie, Riley... I found my voice. I rather uninspiredly began a class assignment in twelve-tone composition, in typical fashion leaving it unfinished until hours before the class. On the way to class, I sat down in the science center and quickly wrote out what came into my head; minutes later my first composition was performed by the world-famous Mendelssohn String Quartet. I've had the piece peformed a few times since then. I'm very proud of it; it's a skittering pizzicato thing (except for the viola, because in my haste I had forgotten to write "pizz" on the viola part) like evil cartoon music, Raymond Scott or something.
In 1994 I wrote my senior project, Virgin. It was a short chamber work, exploring the idea of repeated phrases of differing lengths, performed simultaneously to create phasing effects. The opening section is for four voices; this is followed by a section for guitar, cello and violin, and a closing section that does away with the phasing, uniting all the players in a dark, beautiful, scary climax.
For many years after college I threw my creative energies into creating music with my band, Fat Day, often described as "snotty" due in large part to my screechy, hysterical vocals, and "arty", presumably because we favored linear over cyclical song structures, odd and often overlapping meters over regular, song construction over instrumental technique (no guitar solos), and conciseness and brevity over repetition and overstatement.
During this time (1994 - 1997) I created several ensembles to play the chamber music that I was continuing to write on the side. I dubbed this project WACSAC, for Williamsport Area Community Symphony and Chorale (Williamsport, PA being the city nearest to my childhood home of Muncy, PA).
In 1997 I purchased a record store, Pipeline Records, which I ran for three years until early 2000, honing my appreciation for all forms of musical expression. My composing went on hiatus, though I was given a piano during this time on which I would later begin to write all my music.
By 2000, Fat Day had begun expanding our sonic palette to include various homemade electronic instruments. The culmination of this expansion was a set of four 8-keyed analog synths built out of construction helmets that we wore to produce music with our heads. Originally these were fully tuneable, but we quickly settled, for simplicity's sake, on an SATB arrangement of two C-major scales and two G-major scales, with most accidentals obtainable by depressing multiple keys in various combinations. Having this electronic string quartet at my disposal allowed me to begin to find real compositional satisfaction; the pieces I wrote for this configuration are simple and beautiful, perfect to my ears.
By the time of the final Fat Day album, recorded in 2004, I was beginning to think about composing on a larger scale. We included a full orchestra on this record, and while the arrangements I created were still for small groups, seeing the orchestra in action took away some of my fear, and I began to allow myself to think, on a practical level, about how I could use an orchestra to make my own statements.
In 2005 I got married and moved to Chicago. Concurrent with this, the breakup of Fat Day led me to rethink the way my music could sound. I began to foreground in my compositions influences that had previously been dormant: inspiration came from the compact song structures and sinuous, surprising melodies of Nino Rota and the great Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis; the self-taught rethinking of tonality and rhythm in the works of 20th Century American composer Louis Hardin (known as "Moondog"); the unsentimental creation of new harmonic worlds by Satie; the grandeur and syncopation of Villa-Lobos and Colin McPhee; and my own sense of structure, harmony and rhythm. During 2007-2009 I composed my first major works, including a string quartet, a symphonic cycle for full orchestra, and a wind quintet, along with a host of smaller songs for chamber groups. Each of these, along with what I produced before and my continuing compositional activities, have become unique facets of my life-long search for a unique voice.