Once upon a time, I was a geeky kid, with all that implies about my social standing. And my geekiest interest was electricity and electronics. I wrote a big paper on how vacuum tubes worked, tried to figure out the bands on resistors, almost started a fire in front of a class by hooking up some thin wire from a transistor radio antenna to one of those big horking dry cells. I was well on my way to what could have been a happy and prosperous life, though it wasn’t at the time particularly happy.
What happened? I discovered music.
Now, it wasn’t that music was cooler than electronics, particularly the music that interested me. But what Tchaikovsky and Mahler taught me was that music made it possible to reach inside of somebody and rearrange their guts. I’d been emotionally manipulated my entire life, deliberately or accidentally, and this was my chance to get even with the world. And if I was going to be a stranger in a strange land (hadn’t read that one yet, but it would come), well, composition was stranger than wiring. If I was in study hall looking at wiring diagrams, I was doing what everyone else was doing: studying. If I was writing music, nobody else could do that. But that also meant I could play the misunderstood victim a little harder. Once, I was working on an orchestra piece and was approached by the best rock guitarist in the school, who enthused about what I was doing. Maybe he actually understood! Then he pointed at an empty measure.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“It’s a whole rest,” I said, crestfallen.
And composers could be culture heroes. Beethoven was forever, but did anyone write fan letters to the guy who invented the transistor? Electronics guys all worked behind the scenes. Even scientists in general did. There never seemed to be a personal public face of science, in the 1960s.
So I resolved to be a composer, and decided I didn’t need science stuff. In high school, I never took biology (which was icky and gross) and took the physical science and chemistry that I had to. I bailed on math after geometry. I was a terrible math student (by my lights; Bs rather than As) because I really didn’t care, and nobody tried to make me care. It wasn’t until later, helping my dad lay out a building, that the light flickered on briefly: “Oh, Pythagorean Theorem!” To this day, I am largely STEM-illiterate. I’m not proud of that, but it doesn’t pain me enough to cause me to change it, at this late date.
45 years later, my music is still about rearranging peoples’ guts, shamelessly emotionally manipulative. But the gut-rearranger has to be engineered. Is this material strong enough to support 20 minutes? Is there enough mass here? Is weight distributed evenly? Yes, that’s architectural, not electrical; one could draw parallels between my use of tonality and various elements of electronics, but it’s more of a stretch. It could be that I think I’m designing churches and am actually designing strip malls. And I’ve learned, very slowly, that one has to design to the capabilities of the builders. I’m not a Gehry, or a Xenakis. But I think my music is comfortable to live in. And some people like having their guts rearranged.