BeingJonnyMusicMemeHTML

In Realizing Electronic Dreams: A Composer's Notes And Themes, this is the final essay; it concludes with 51 illustrations—posters, programs, photos, reviews, articles, and interviews from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—that provide evidence of my Johnny MusicMeme obsession.



Being Johnny MusicMeme


Discovering Johnny Appleseed in grade school gave me a rush. Unlike all the adult models I knew at the time, Johnny lived free. He had created a life that combined being a pioneer, a missionary, and a gardener, which meant he explored uncharted territory, shared what he discovered, and practiced his art with the future in mind. That I was inspired by such notions as a preteen is an understatement. Even though, at that early age, I was capable of grasping only a small percentage of what those notions actually meant, I didn’t really feel the need to grasp any of it. What I did feel was the need to experience that sort of freedom in my own way.

So as a preteen in the small industrial town of Kenosha, Wisconsin I would convince a friend or two to join me in summer day adventures. We knew there were farms just outside the city limits so we’d hop on our bikes and take the nearest road out of town in search of people harvesting the fields. When we found them we looked up the field boss and asked him whether he needed more workers. Invariably the answer was yes because no doubt he figured that any kids who made it to this point were probably go-getters and would help to pad his bottom line. We worked alongside migrant workers picking strawberries, raspberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes. The picking was piece work so we were paid according to how many containers we managed to pick: the pay was fine for kids but we did manage to supplement it with all the berries and fruit we could eat while we were working. Especially as preteens we enjoyed having some loose coins and a little roll in our pockets; that way we didn’t have to ask adults for permission to play a pinball machine or buy a Mac’s Nut Bar—that’s financial freedom preteen style.

As we cycled back to town after the end of our workday, we kept our eyes peeled for whatever might be growing alongside the road; we always found wild forms of asparagus, blackberries, grapes, black walnuts, and gnarly old apple and pear trees with fruit of unparalleled richness. Such goodies, the gifts of Natty Allseed, were gathered with our mothers in mind so they might be better inclined to overlook, at least for the day, our youthful risk-taking.

As we grew older our forms of risk-taking morphed into those that elicited stronger spankings from our dads (more than once I heard the command “GO DOWN TO THE BASEMENT AND PICK A GOOD STICK FROM THE WOODPILE!”), more lectures from police who could barely contain their smiles despite their harsh admonitions, and even a fine from a judge who felt obliged to teach us a lesson (we learned it). Eventually the risk-taking led to more socially acceptable energy sponges such as sports and performing arts groups, but their leaders, the authorities with their book learning and their half-baked plans seldom showed much in the way of imagination; so whenever possible we sought opportunities to play on our own.

There was no better fun to be had than pickup games and free play so we adapted to life as teens by finding a harmonious mix of supervised games to please the adults and free play to keep our spirits healthy—the story of my life and that of many other artists I know. Any artist who wants to live in society must find ways to tune those competing forces. Go too far in one direction and you become a mechanical cog via a long slow dying process. Go too far in the other direction and you break your connections to society and lose your reasons for being. So the question becomes: “How do you achieve harmony if everything is in flux, including the ground and the variables?”. The answer is: “You are always tuning on-the-fly and learning what’s necessary to be as good as possible at that tuning game.” And that sort of nonstop tuning is the ultimate form of real time composition; everything else is an exercise or a study to improve tuning prowess.

Such observations are possible only after decades of struggling with the nonstop tuning process. Contrary to the middle mind set, struggling, as an exercise is not something to be avoided or overcome. With new challenges come new struggles. When struggle disappears you become set in place like a good little machine and you can be certain your spirit along with your brain will take a hike. As part of your long line you can rest from time to time, but you have to boot it up again and again to keep the meaning alive. Otherwise you might as well take a long nap curled up next to a tank of carbon monoxide with an open valve.

Where there’s struggle, there’s learning. As struggle is reduced, visceral fat and mental fat are increased, and together they grease a fast track to the dementia ward or any of its metaphorical equivalents.

Contentment is for the dead, the evolutionary team dropouts. Embracing struggles means welcoming challenges and when they’re slow to find you, going on a quest to find them. Even if victory over a struggle results in only minor improvement, it’s worth remembering that a small positive difference is still a contribution to the evolution of our species. Neuroscientists today all agree that embracing struggle is one of the keys to brain longevity even when the wrestling match can’t be won. Neurons are born, synapses are exercised, webs are made richer, and proteins happily fold themselves into long term memories that serve as foundations for further improvements. The final score is inconsequential; the struggle is the creative generator.


I didn’t set out to be a Johnny MusicMeme; the notion simply emerged from the circumstances of my life. Certainly I had the disposition but over the decades environmental factors gave it a form—not a set form but a recognizably coherent one nevertheless. From as early as I can remember I was always attracted to learners and teachers who were learners, especially if they took a playful approach to the learning process. I did my best to steer clear of the sloggers and pure technicians because they tended to have a joyless, acquisitive, and mostly materialistic approach to the learning process.

One of my best finds was Rudolf Kolish, a major force in music during the middle of the 20th century who happened to be teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1960s when I was a graduate student. At the opening session of the first graduate seminar (Beethoven’s String Quartets) I took from Rudolf Kolish, one of the students asked him what book would be required for the course. Kolish smiled and responded by saying that we would write the book via our concerted efforts. Kolish’s response sparked a bright flash that remains with me over four and half decades later. The message that the combination of researcher and materials being examined are the primary source changed my attitude toward my studies; the lesson was that it is far more personally edifying and of greater societal and evolutionary value to be a generator of new insights, new information, and new perspectives rather than just a consumer and dispenser of second hand information.

I also learned from Kolish that inspiration that comes from being one with what you’re doing is a wellspring that nourishes not only you but anyone else who might have your inclinations. That realization has been underscored many times over the years. For example, several years ago on the road I met an East Coast academic composer who, with unbridled enthusiasm, was describing to me the work he was doing with visual music laser animations. When I inquired when, where, and why he became so involved in the medium he responded by saying that, when he was a student at Cornell in the early 1980s, some guy from the West Coast gave a presentation that fired his imagination. So there I was years ago at Cornell on a book tour, an anonymous “some guy from the West Coast” spreading music memes and, in retrospect, I was completely comfortable with the idea because decades later someone was tending one of my memes. Of course artistic and intellectual content creators always want appropriate return on authorship, but, especially in today’s environment, the fact is that when you project an idea any-which-way, you’re sharing it. Without the sharing of a piece of information it has no value to the evolution of humanity. Most of my memes emerged from experiences and that is why I found the energy to do so many public events even when I knew they might barely break even financially—running experiments keyed my way of learning.

Despite my best efforts to communicate clearly and simply, I know the subjects in my books, lectures, and articles tend to be esoteric, enough so that those pieces will have a limited following. Especially in the early years my solution to that problem was to make myself and my studios available to public information media which has a far greater reach than I could ever get with my own publications. What follows is a small sampling of newspaper interviews, brochures, programs, and posters for public gigs that I plucked from one of the drawers in my filing cabinet. My filing system of four decades consisted of throwing material into boxes and drawers until they were full and then finding another box or drawer and doing the same. Most of the oversized and odd-sized materials were destroyed or lost in one or another of a dozen major moves and many smaller ones.

After several decades of exploring public outreach as a method for spreading the word it became clear to me that thieves interpret some of those activities as invitations to gather materials for their favorite pawn shops. A number of times after out of town gigs I returned to one or another of my studios in the San Francisco East Bay to find them much thinner than I left them. So unless the target audience was very specialized I put a stop to all TV and radio interviews and talk shows; I also bowed out of the newspaper and magazine interview scene. Furthermore I discovered that most media people tend to ask the same sorts of questions so my extremely low tolerance for repetition mitigated against continuing such activities anyway. Contemplation, peace of mind, and the quiet time for thoughts to find their pals and order themselves trumps media madness any day.

I also view the thinking that leads to writing as a form of prayer that flies off into the ether in search of resonant souls. That there are such souls is one of life’s great gifts.


Therefore, the following illustrations are taken from my exceedingly loose collection of materials gathered over the decades mostly by chance. As a file clerk I would be in quick receipt of a pink slip. Over many years I’ve stumbled over interviews and reviews of some of my productions as I was scanning one newspaper or another to get a take on the current state of our madness; more often I was on the receiving end of materials from friends who knew of my undisciplined approach to collecting materials of potentially historical interest. Some of those materials were thrown into boxes and forgotten for decades. Others were dropped into one or another of the four drawers of my office style filing cabinet. Some weeks before writing this section of the book I happened to be out in my garage organizing my electronic equipment moving box collection, and by chance I uncovered the filing cabinet. Out of curiosity I started flipping through the material in just one of the drawers. Some of what I found is included as illustrations of my Johnny MusicMeme disposition. This chapter of this book would not have been written if I hadn’t uncovered that filing cabinet by chance.

My Johnny MusicMeme disposition is, like this book, simply a reflection of an inherent need to learn by teaching. Ask any dedicated teacher and they will tell you that teaching focuses the mind on a particular area to create and articulate meaning and formal structures that function as intellectual devices that promote clarity, facility, and understanding. The rational part of the mind puts reins on the intuitive part and steers it in directions that facilitate exchanges of perspectives with other minds. Those exchanges are two way streets, so ideally the teacher also learns from those being taught. Without that openness to learning, the teacher might as well be a machine.

Enter programmed teaching. If I’m not personally inspired by the learning process of a live teacher, I prefer programmed teaching systems because through them I can move at my own pace and in my own direction. Those of us who love to learn are aware of the need to tune our learning pace to the needs of the moment. In fact, such tuning is another form of real time composition (composing an aspect of your life), a form that’s done in private rather than on stage or for the purpose of recording. Taking time for contemplation and accepting daydreaming triggers are highly desirable when learning at your own pace. With an inspiring teacher you forgo your personal needs and preferences and do your best to resonate with their pace and follow their directions.

The best interviewers are those who truly want to learn and to translate what they learn into language that will have general appeal for their readers. Mastering that translation process is a difficult job that tends to be under-appreciated.

Organizing these illustrations reminded me of an educational dream I pursued in the middle 1970s. At that time I was so impressed with the positive educational effect of the execution of the visiting composer aspect of Oberlin College’s New Direction Series that I was convinced that notion should be expanded and developed into a national university system. In a nutshell such a system would function as a countrywide internet for artists and academics; information and inspiration would flow in the form of people rather than any sort of abstract data, digital or otherwise.

For a year or so I discussed the idea with artists and academics around the USA as well as officials from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The idea was fairly straight forward. The endowments and participating institutions would contribute funds toward travel, accommodations, and per diem and honorarium stipends; a special clearing house would be informed by artists and academics of their offerings and presentation requirements. The clearing house would create schedules and attend to pertinent details; and students, faculty, and campus communities would benefit from the flow of people and ideas around the country. In response to my inquiries in 1975 mostly I received blank stares despite the fact that many institutions were already participating in a rather clumsy, disjointed, and inefficient form of this circuit. After a year or so of floating the idea I decided I would realize it on my own when the time was right. It should be apparent from the illustrations that the Johnny MusicMeme notion is my personal form of the National University System.

It’s also worth noting from the illustrations that my residencies are realizations of my personal preference for a one room schoolhouse approach to education as well as extensions of my 1971 experiment that produced Metabiosis III (see the last paragraph of a prescient review on p. 174). It was not uncommon for me to include in my public events undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and community members from the full range of art disciplines. It rarely happened that I felt the need to ease an individual out of an event and that was only because I might have felt that there was a high probability that their participation would have resulted in their embarrassment. Notice from the illustrations that my public events (and their preparation by default) included all sorts and styles of musicians, instrument builders, visual artists, sculptors, storytellers, dancers, light artists, poets, theater artists, and other artists who wanted to join our play.