Let me tell you how I became an electronic music composer. This is the beginning of the path that led me to where I am now.
After four years in the (then) NTSU music composition department, I was ready to move on. I’d gone as far as I could go as an undergraduate.
And, undergraduate was where I intended to stay. A composer only needs a degree if they want to teach. I wanted to make fun noises. If I was going to stay in Denton, I needed to go see the wizard.
Here’s the scene: I was living with my girl friend in a big, trashy old house within easy walking distance of the campus. A gay capitalist, a physics major, and I had started “Laser Magic,” which was the first laser light show outside California (in the U.S.), and we were putting on several shows a week at the planetarium in Fort Worth.
I was also playing piano one or two nights a week in a very good Western Swing band, which paid pretty well.
Low income but lower expenses. Life was good.
In addition to the girlfriend and a pretty solid support group of music-major buddies, Denton was a fun place to be. Fry street was a constant party. There were recitals in the music department of all varieties of music. For a hick from East Texas, this was a revelation. I bathed in music from the French renaissance, through the classics (which I somehow missed growing up- we had one radio station and it played only country music), bounced around with Bartoks angular stuff, and really enjoyed the modern classical stuff.
I was happy in Denton, but I was out of options. I either had to sneak into the graduate electronic music classes or I had to go find somewhere else to make noises.
Remember, only the very wealthy could afford the noise-makers.
Today, a laptop computer and a couple of hundred bucks worth of software and you can rule the world. Back then, tape recorders cost five figures, tape cost hundreds of dollars for a 15 minute reel, and synthesizers were rare and expensive.
Merrill Ellis was the Wizard. He was a pioneer in modern and electronic classical music. He also was head of the electronic music program. The only way to keep my key to the synth lab was to get into his program.
I talked it over with my father. He was understandably curious about my plans since he was footing the bill for tuition and books. He recommended that I just go talk to Dr. Ellis and see how I could get in.
So, I did.
The graduate lab was off campus in a shack of a house. As I approached the door, I could hear voices. I knocked on the door.
Now, at this point, I’m scared shirtless. Dr. Ellis was much larger than life to me. The grad students who were in his program were the chosen few and seemed to have secret knowledge denied the rest of us. That sounded good to me. I wanted in. Bad.
The door opened: grad student. I asked for Dr. Ellis. A Merlin like head appeared in the crack between the door and the wall. Long white hair. Old.
I stated my case clearly and simply. I wanted in his program. What did I need to do?
He looked at me as if I was asking him for a boiled weasel on a bun.
For a long time.
Finally, he asked one of the grad students to hit a note on the piano. They did.
He asked me what the note was. Guessing, I said, “A F#.” (not really guessing. That’s what I would have hit thinking it would be the hardest one to guess. Least likely note.)
It was a C. (which is what I would have said if I was really guessing.)
Dr. Ellis informed me that I wasn’t qualified, never would be, and that I should go away and not come back.
Weird. The music that he and I were composing had nothing to do with pitch, melody, or key. Perfect pitch would not have been any kind of advantage.
He never asked about my grades in electronic composition, which were all A’s. He never asked to hear my work.
Because I didn’t possess a talent that was irrelevant to the program I was disqualified.
Well, that was depressing. Now what?