The Music I’d Like to Put Back Into My Life

When I was in grade school, my grandmother taught me how to play the C major scale, bass and treble clef, on the Steinway upright piano she had in her apartment. From that moment on, I wanted to be a musician and, from that moment on, everyone in my family did everything they could to discourage me. My mother and stepfather did not allow me to join the orchestra in the elementary school I attended; and every time I brought the idea up, my grandmother made sure I understood there was no way I’d ever make a living at it. I didn’t know this at the time, but she had sung professionally when she was younger, on the radio (though I don’t remember the name of the program), and, if I remember the story I’ve heard correctly, Jimmy Durante was her accompanist at one point.

When I was in high school, I took revenge on my mother by joining the local drum & bugle corps. I wanted to join as a drummer, but the corps needed horn players, so I ended up playing the bass baritone bugle. I got be pretty good at it, but the hours I spent practicing drove my mother, and my neighbors, a little bit crazy. For a while I thought I might stick with drum corps, which is a pretty big deal once you get past a certain level, but that didn’t work out, and so making music was something I did pretty much only at my grandmother’s on that same Steinway upright—the original sales receipt for which my mother gave me recently so I could take, as she put it, “a trip down memory lane:”

All that playing at my grandmother’s must have done me some good, because when I finally had the chance to take piano lessons, a semester’s worth during my senior year of high school with a teacher named, I think, Ms. Wise (or Weiss), I was good enough to take a stab at Ernesto Lecuona’s Malaguena:

It’s a beautiful piece of music, well-worth listening to, if you have a few minutes:

By the time I started college, I was already beginning to think I’d be a writer, not a musician, so when I played piano—which I did for hours each week in the practice rooms at Stony Brook University—I did so only for myself. I never tried to learn any actual songs, though, preferring the improvised music I made based on what I’d learned in the couple of music theory courses I took, until I started working at Surprise Lake Camp and got involved with the drama program. I learned there to fake my way as accompanist through the music of Cats, A Chorus Line, Fiddler on the Roof and more. Then, I met my friend Bill, who had ambitions to become a singer-songwriter, and we started writing music together. We even performed once at The Bitter End, though whoever did the publicity spelled my name wrong:

When my friendship with Bill ended, maybe because it ended—we did not part on good terms and I was angry and devastated by the loss—I lost the desire to perform on stage. I was getting serious about my writing and I made a conscious decision to focus my energies there. I still played for my own enjoyment, and sometimes I’d play for friends at a party, but I no longer thought of music as something I wanted to pursue seriously. That changed, for a time anyway, when I discovered how easy it was to compose music with a MIDI synthesizer, a computer, and the right software. I might not have wanted to perform in front of an audience, but the idea of writing music appealed to me. So I bought the equipment I needed and got started.

Over the next three or four years, I composed fifteen or so pieces that I thought of as complete, but the five in the Soundcloud playlist at the top of this post are the only ones that survive. I found them on my computer not too long ago and I liked them well enough that I thought them worth preserving and sharing with others.

These days, I don’t play much piano at all, but I miss it. I really do.

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6 Responses to The Music I’d Like to Put Back Into My Life

  1. 1
    Jake Squid says:

    Cool stuff, Richard. All 5 of those pieces are better & more complex than anything I’ve ever done. I liked An Ordinary Coat the best out of those tracks. It reminded me of 50s/60s pop jazz and made me smile. The other pieces sound like they’re strongly influenced by the sound of mid-80s synth, which is less my cup of tea, but still really nicely done. I kept expecting another theme within Believe Me, but that might just be my mistaken understanding of the style.

    Thank you for posting these here.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Jake. When I first listened to the pieces after such a long time, I was pleasantly surprised at how well I felt they’d held up, so it makes me really happy when other people confirm that impression. I make no great claims for them, just that they are enjoyable to listen to.

    “Believe Me,” I think, was the first piece of music I finished that I was actually happy with, that felt like it made sense sonically and formally, even with that synth french horn coming in at the end. There was originally a bass line, but when I converted the MIDI into a .wav file, that part got lost. My ear still waits for the bass it to come in when I listen to it.

    I was listening to a lot of Tangerine Dream when I composed these pieces, which is where the mid-80s synth sound comes from, I think, though I was also just having fun playing with the different sounds on the machine. The jazz/rock/blues is just part of my musical DNA, so to speak.

  3. 3
    David Simon says:

    Richard, do you still have the original MIDI? The bass instrument might be missing in the sound font your synthesizer program is using, so you might have better luck with another one. I’ve had good experiences in the past with Timidity. Though, the last time I messed with any of this stuff was ages ago and there is probably newer & better software out there as well.

  4. Thanks, David, but I don’t have those files anymore.

  5. 5
    LadyProf says:

    Thank you for sharing–inspiring for those of us who do music at a level below yours. Do your music and poetry support each other or (recalling Stephen Jay Gould) are they non-overlapping magisteria?

  6. LadyProf:

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I guess I would say that music supports my poetry in the sense that I bring what I know about how music works to the writing of my poems. I mean by this, for example, that I think about each line of a poem in the same way one might think of a measure of music. In formal poems, I treat the meter very self-consciously like a time signature; in free verse poems I think of each line as having its own time signature, if that makes sense. And I think about the relationship between line breaks and syntax in ways that resemble—at least as I understand it—the way composers of music/musicians think about phrasing in terms of a melody.

    Whether or not a musician or musical composer would see what I am doing in the same, I don’t know, but, for me, what I know about and how I feel through music definitely informs the way I write poetry.

    This does not work in the other direction, though.