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An interview with John Morton
music box
A reconstructed music box.

ALAN BAKER: What sounds were around you when you were growing up and did they become part of your composition?

JOHN MORTON: Certainly growing up in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by a huge array of pop music, classical music, new music, and film music. (My father was a film composer. He worked at home so I would hear him composing at home.) It was a pretty rich world. Although I think I was mostly interested in rock music at that point. I would attend the Monday Evening Concerts and hear latest things from [Igor] Stravinsky and [John] Cage. It was a pretty remarkable setting to hear music. And it was very rich.

Who was performing Cage then?

I was probably 10, 12 years-old and I don't think I was focused on the performer so much as I was about the new music listening experience and about it just being something different and something that had vitality versus going to hear a philharmonic concert, which had its value, but this was something that really attracted me. Especially, they did happenings, things like that, spontaneous music that was very interesting to me. I was fascinated by the idea of music not being in the regular concert hall but being in unusual places.

So from your earliest memories of music, it was outside the typical setting that you were most interested in?

Yeah, I think I grew up knowing more about what was happening currently, even though I played piano and played trumpet, I sort of knew what was happening in contemporary music more than I knew the classics. I think I picked up the classics later on in school, but my interest in music came from contemporary music.

Do you have a specific concert or a stand out moment that sticks with you?

I can't recall the concert, but I remember there was a concert where the musicians were placed all around the hall and you walked in and they were just playing music. There are lots of pieces like that nowadays, but back then it was a completely novel experience and I didn't know whether I should sit down or walk around or - and it may have been a Cage piece like "Winter Music" or a radio piece, I'm not sure, that was going on - but it was so refreshing to not feel constrained as an audience member. To feel like I could leave and come back if I wanted to and something would still be happening. I could refresh my ears and I didn't have to sit down and be captured. I could leave, come back, space out, change my place so I could be closer to a sound I was particularly attracted to. I remember that concert and I can't remember what it was and a lot of people were just laughing and thought it was silly, but I was really taken in. Like I said, I was probably 12 or 13 at the time and it was liberating.

When you got interested in music, you were in school, I'm assuming, when you got serious about it?

Well, I didn't get serious about it until I dropped out of college, and went to study privately in San Francisco with David Scheinfeld. And that's when I really decided I wanted to be a composer, so I did all the counterpoint stuff, and did all the harmony, and sort of learned the rigorous techniques of composing music. And then I went after that to Cal Arts for another year and a half. So I finished up college immersed in composing—but it was only probably two years of actual composing—then they let me out of college and that was it. I came to New York.

So when you came to New York—set the scene. What was going on musically—the establishment musical scene and the crowd you were in?

I wasn't in a crowd—I was a loner. I came to New York and my friend was a photographer and he had grown up here. I just took in the whole city. It was incredibly rich although I felt that everything was very centered - there was a certain school here and a certain school there and you could expect this here and could expect this there and because it's so big and there's so much music maybe that's the way it has to be. But coming in from L.A., it was music that you wouldn't know what to expect anyplace. You could hear different things in different places. So I was shifting my attention all around. I don't think I had found my voice as a composer certainly. I was looking around, I was trying things out, trying to hustle my music. I still was in the classical tradition, classical avant garde, writing orchestra pieces, peddling orchestra pieces, not getting orchestra pieces played, not getting chamber music pieces played. Finally writing for friends who would play my music in small loft concerts, working at a bookshop, struggling to stay alive and keep my interest in music going.

I think I was really responding to an expectation about what classical music was, what new music was, feeling that there was always some very strong music around that I could write in that style, but was that really me? I really don't think I had my own voice at that point. I think when I started writing pieces for friends that became more of a focus for my own interest, because I knew who was going to play it, I knew it was going to be played and I knew the idiosyncratic qualities of these people. So I could say, well he really likes very harsh staccato notes followed by lush notes, well I can do that. That probably brought out more of a voice in me, just being able to relate to the individual instrumentalist.

So your first performances were by friends in non-traditional settings?

Yeah, my first performances were actually in lofts of friends. We would just get together and play and I would send out postcards to everybody I knew, and basically everyone who came to the concert were people I knew or their friends. So it was sort of "salon-style," I guess you would call it. And then I had a concert at The Kitchen. So I presented that stuff to the people at The Kitchen and they said, "Yeah let's do a concert." I did a concert there and that was really great because I got to do a larger piece, but it was still within the classical setup—it was all chamber music, it was piano music. There were some interesting things there but I think I was still fiddling around with what was happening around me rather than what was inside of me. There was a relationship between my environment and me, and I'm not sure who won at that point, maybe it was my environment.

Tell me about winning, how did you get there?

I wrote one piece called "Slurry" in 1987. It was for three clarinets (for a clarinetist I knew who was actually a chemist but loved playing new music clarinet more than anything else.) So I wrote this piece for him and he basically recorded two tracks and played the third on top of it. And that I think was the first time I actually used other material, other than original material, I used an Irish ballad singer, who used a lot of different ornamentation in his voice. So I started to play with the ornamentation and really focused on that and made three layers of this ornamentation. The melody is still there; it's fragmented and broken up. I really focused on the ornamentation. And that was a revelation to me that I could just take a singular idea like that and play with it and it really didn't have to go anywhere and I could just take it and work with it. But then, I think I wrote more chamber pieces after that, and none of them quite got on that level. I felt at that point I had hit my stride but I hadn't quite figured out what it was that really interested me, but I had done it at least.

And then it wasn't until about 5 years ago—this is the persistent composer here, who doesn't give up—that I started working with music boxes. That's when I felt finally freed from the constraints of instruments, that I could create not only a music that I was excited by but also an instrument that could play the music for me, that was unique and specifically designed for my music. Once I put those two together I think it really became a fascination for me—a real, driving, focused necessity to continue to create for that medium.

Tell me, what actually led you to discover the music box?

It's actually a funny story. My wife, who's a sculptor, was asked by a gallery dealer to create a work for a show of artists' toys. She approached me and she said, "I have a great idea. Let's make a music box. I'll make the top that spins around and you make the music." And I said, "Well, I don't want to take some music like 'Love Me Tender' and add some clunks to it. I'm not interested." She said, "Well, make it your own music, you can figure out a way to do it." So I got a couple of music boxes from a ceramic supply house and proceeded to smash them up and destroy them and figure out what was going on in them. I'd never really investigated a music box. It was something that I was totally uninterested in. I really had no interest in the sound of them, I had no interest in the way they were put together, but once I started playing with them I realized, well hold it. I can take something that has a given sound and I can turn it into something that I can call my own and still have it sound like a music box. It was sort of a fascination, but it wasn't really that serious.

So we made this object, and it was so precious that the gallery dealer had to keep it behind the desk and show it to people rather than put it out on display. But I enjoyed that and in the process of making it I discovered that if I put two music boxes that I was composing against each other—they always travel at slightly different speeds—they never come back together, sort of like a phase piece. In this case, you can't really keep track of it and they create an improvisation in a sense. They run against each other and create a sound world that isn't predictable. So I continued to play with this idea, adding more and more music boxes and we built a couple as sculptures—some that were four feet long and had six music boxes and six figures rotating—it became very involved. It was actually as a collaborator to a visual artist that I began this.

Through the American Composers Forum I received a commission to do a piece with a dancer. I showed him some of these music boxes and he was interested and he said, "Can you add some electronics to it or how are you going to do this?" I said, "That's an idea." So it seems other people are constantly feeding me ideas rather than me always generating them, which is very nice to have allies give you some ideas. I really knew nothing about electronics, and had friends who were guitarists and friends who had studios and they had some old equipment that was lying around that they lent to me—which I'm still using actually—guitar effects units, sound processing units, studio delays, things like that, that I started using in conjunction with these music boxes. That really opened up the sound world because I was able to expand the pitches, because music boxes have a really limited pitch - it's like an octave and a half in the upper middle range - and that can get very tiresome. So by having octave displacements and things like that I could really broaden it. It just opened up a whole other sound world. That's been my world for the last 3, 4 years, just playing with music boxes and playing with electronics.

There's two approaches—talk about the juxtaposition of mechanical versus electronic manipulation in your work.

In mechanical I feel like a jeweler. I feel like I'm working on these miniature devices and my composing I'm using different tools. I'm using files, drills, and epoxy, rather than a pencil and a paper, but I'm actually creating the notes and I'm creating the rhythm and I'm creating a texture—I'm doing all the things I want to do but I'm doing it in a very jeweler-like mode. I'm very careful and exact, and if I take off a little here it makes a different sound. So I really enjoy working with those little details. And then the electronic becomes much more unpredictable. I like sort of piling up the electronics so I don't know what's happening. I don't want a note so much that I can figure out if I do this, this will happen, I'd just rather experiment with it and see what happens. And sometimes, it seems to have no logical reason for the sounds I'm getting. I'm sort of running them through multiple devices so they're sort of - who knows what's actually functioning at that point. So I think in one I'm trying to be very exacting and clear and in the other I'm trying to be as open and free and unpredictable. Once again, once I get that sound, it's sometimes very hard to recreate it. I've lost sounds that I really wish I could get back, but they're gone.

I was going to ask you, if you've got a hit piece, because you've got a CD that's got some great stuff on it, and you do perform live?

I think that's true with any musician who performs live; it's always going to sound different. There's a piece I do now that's a set of variations on "Amazing Grace" and I've actually built into it a response to what's happening because it's unpredictable what the electronics may do at any given moment. So I've got to be ready to be able to respond to it. So it becomes sort of a dialogue with the electronics rather than saying, ok I push this button and this happens. I push this button and it may happen or something else may happen or nothing may happen. I've got to be ready for that and willing to accept that and I think giving up the control as a composer has been very liberating also. To realize that if it's a dialogue and it's happening in front of people and if there's something that doesn't happen, it's exciting for me and exciting for the listeners who have a different experience. But I think it's the spirit of the way the music's made, rather than the exact tones, that comes off.

It seems that you've got three very distinct disciplines in the live performance and they all come together to do what you were just talking about. You've got the very detailed, no mistakes, because it's mechanical and you've built that on purpose. And you've got the ability to perform that and you've got improvisation that comes in on top of that because you never know where it's going.

Exactly. And it keeps you going. It keeps you aware. And I imagine, even though I don't play jazz, I imagine things happen in improvising with an ensemble that you have to respond to and are unpredictable and can leave you out in the cold sometimes and sometimes you find yourself as the leader but you didn't expect yourself to be there. So I think it's improvising with oneself in a way.

You mention that these inspirations come from outside, a couple of them have. A lot of composers aren't open to that. The music box and the electronics - they were both kind of requests that came in.

I think it's the willingness to experiment. Once you start down that path then you sort of are eager to try out just about anything that will come your way. I even tried humming on top of the music box to see if I could get the tines working—any kind of experiment. I think that's part of the joy of, whether you're writing an orchestra piece, what can you do that's fresh and different and what can you do that's never been done before and have it relate in a musical way to what you're doing. I think that's very exciting. And other people hear things that you don't hear and that's important. Especially when you're doing something that's never been done before, people are going to hear all sorts of ideas and give you suggestions.

How have audiences responded - I mean how does a guy sitting in front of a crowd with music boxes convince him that he's serious?

Well, most of the audiences that I've performed for are familiar with a lot of different kinds of music, so they're prepared for just about anything. But I think there's a fascination because almost everybody has an experience with a music box either as a child or as a grown up. Music boxes are basically the first sounds that most people hear, organized sounds that a baby will hear. If it's an infant and they hear this music, it's the first time they'll actually hear non-verbal sounds put together in an organized way. So I think people respond to it very intimately and then they're a little shocked by what comes out of it because it ends up not sounding like a music box.

One of the things I do is remove the springs of the music boxes so I'm able to control the cylinders by my hand. I'm able to speed things up tremendously until it just becomes a cluster of sounds. Imagine you have a tune and it goes faster and faster and faster until it goes so fast that all the sounds cluster together. So it doesn't sound like a music box at all, it sounds like a huge chord that sort of revolves and then out of that I might have a very simple tune coming through it sort of like something rising out of the mist. So I think people have an expectation of what a music box is going to be and they're interested to hear that but then they're very surprised. And then I think it gets on a whole other level and it no longer becomes a music box it's just an instrument that they haven't ever heard before.

One of the questions for new music in general is, how do you find the audience?

I've been very lucky in that there's been interest in the music, and there's been particularly radio that has played the music. I don't know how you get an audience. I'm not sure I have that big of an audience. Certainly there's interest out there. It's a mystery. I wish I knew because I could certainly use a bigger audience and I'm sure all new music could use a bigger audience. But I think it's challenging, it's music that you don't get sometimes on the first time around, so people have to be willing to invest some of their listening skills and some of their time to figure out what's going on. At least just listen to it a number of times so they can get familiar with it.

Do you consider yourself an instrument builder in, say, the tradition of Harry Partch?

I guess not. I mean he really worked with original scales and original instruments. He really created from the ground up. I'm working with existing instruments and altering them. In a sense it's instrument building because I'm combining them but I'm not really building a completely new instrument. A music box actually is a musical instrument, it was a way of bringing music into the home in the 1800s and that was a performance of music as far as they were concerned, that was it. I'm just sort of continuing that tradition. Once recorded music came into being, the music box lost favor and so I think I'm just picking it up and continuing a development, maybe an unexpected development, but just continuing the building and altering and manipulation of the music box.

Have you had any interest from the people making music boxes—is the influence going the other way?

I've tried contacting some people who have these things and I think they're just more interested in sales. I don't think they quite get the whole idea that there could be a new music. If it wasn't familiar music then why would—traditionally it's a collector's kind of thing, a music box. So why would somebody want to collect contemporary music? It just sounds a little weird. Even though my wife and I did this residency at the Kohler Arts Industry Program in Sheboygan, where for three months we worked in the pottery and built music boxes, and we have a collection of contemporary music boxes, now some with six music boxes, some with just one. We have a garage filled with these things and we're showing them and selling them. So there is some interest but it's very small. We've shown them to dealers of that stuff and they're just, "Oh, that's interesting." I'm more interested in actually collaborating with different artists with the music boxes. Getting back to what I said about being in Los Angeles and taking music out of the concert hall, I'm more interested in where can these music boxes, where can this sound be that wouldn't be expected? I'm working on a collaboration now with an artist where we're actually going to make an installation - his work will be on the wall and the music boxes will be in the gallery, hidden but creating the sound in a random setting. That really interests me, just walking into a space and there being live music but nobody playing it. I'm more interested in that than the actual object and somebody collecting these objects.

So mass producing your greatest hit..?

If Disney would like to do it, that sounds fine to me. I have no problem. I can sell that just as easily as the next guy, but as long as I can keep doing what I'm really interested in.

It sounds like a great public art thing to sprinkle these around a city, or you walk into a space.

Right, I've thought of installations - just walls where you walk along and turn them on and they would play or you would walk by and the piece would exist as you walk by it and you go from spot to spot and it makes connections. One of the great things for me is my imagination has really been excited by it. I could go on forever about ways that I could play with this. And I think if I were writing for an orchestra, I would hope that I would be able to think like that, but when I was writing more of that kind of music, I didn't think like that. I didn't have grandiose ideas. I just wanted to write a piece. I couldn't see how one piece would lead to the next piece and here I can see how one thing can lead to the next.

Will you do a piece for music boxes and orchestra?

Oh, absolutely. One of the things I love doing is mixing live instruments with the music boxes. In fact I'm doing a piece with the group Dare to Breath out in Minneapolis in February [2003]for five voices and music boxes. They're literally going to be onstage with five music boxes on the stage with them and manipulating them themselves. It'll be a pretty straight music box sound and then there's a vocal piece that happens on top of the music boxes that's meant to mesh with the music boxes. But once again, the music boxes, you cannot control what's really going to be happening. It's somewhat predictable, there may be a clank or a cling that happens and I hope they'll be able to respond to that in the way that they sing. Not improvising, because it's a fully written out score, so I hope there'll be some articulations that they'll be able to do in connection to the music box sound.

So the arc of the piece is fairly well defined - it's not going to radically differ like some of your live electronic manipulation does?

No. This is like you start music box one at this point, turn it off at this point, start the next music box at this point. It's very, very clear. But what actually happens in terms of the actual sounds you don't know because you don't know where the music box is going to start, you don't know where the other music box is going to overlap. So that's an unpredictable quality that I hope will be fun to work with, that they won't be frustrated by and say, "Well hold it. The last time we did it, it sounded so great because there was this sound right when I said this word." It's not going to always happen like that.

Do you give each music box a pitch set and then you know what you can write over the top of it?

Well basically I take an existing music box and it consists of two things: the tines, which are like the pitches, sort of like the strings of a piano, and then there are the pins, which are on a cylinder and they sort of pluck the tines and that is really the rhythm of the music box. So I can manipulate both of those - I can exchange tines, I can remove pins, I can add news pins, I can do all sorts of manipulations to them to get the sound that I want. And I usually work with two or three music boxes at the same time so I get an overlapping quality and then I can always remove one if I want but I like the idea of overlapping and unpredictable combinations happening. And interestingly enough, when I do a piece that involves live instruments and music boxes, I always start with the music boxes and out of that generate the music for the live musicians. So I always let the music boxes speak first and then out of that will come the other stuff.

Tell listeners what they're hearing.

It's the last piece, "Lulabelle." It's different for me because I wrote it for a friend of mine who's a jazz musician - Ted Piltsecker. I wrote it for his birthday and gave it to him as a music box with a set of chords that I worked out on the piano that could be played on top of the music box. You know, "Here it is Ted, enjoy it." And he kept it on his piano and every once and a while I would say, "Did you do anything with it?" And he'd say, "No, I'm not quite sure what to do yet." I was starting to put together the CD and I said, look, I'll come over and let's see if we can do something for piano, I'll play the chords and you play the vibes and we'll have the music box. He kind of chuckled and said, "I've never done a music box gig before. Sure, why not?" We sort of worked with it and got very comfortable with it playing chords that actually fit into the music box structure, and then particularly him being able to improvise on top of it.

The music box is called "Lulabelle" and it's made up of Braham's "Lullaby" and "Jingle Bells," are the two music boxes I sort of combined to create that. So it starts off with the piano and vibes playing the chords. And then the music box comes in. And we continue with the chords and then start to improvise against it. And it was very fun to do that. Here you are, you're sort of setting up these typical jazz chords and playing a jazz piece and all of a sudden this unusual creature comes crawling in and all of a sudden it's controlling what you are doing. The fun thing for him at the end is the music boxes naturally slow down as the spring unwinds. And so that became the predictable ending but we had to follow the music box as closely as possible as it did a gentle ritardando. Then we had to finish the chords, we couldn't just leave it up in the air like that. That was a very unusual piece for me. I don't play jazz and I am a poor improviser in that tradition. I feel like I could improvise endlessly on the music boxes, but within the jazz tradition I don't really know what I'm doing. It was a lot of fun for us.

I guess in the first piece "Outlier," I was able to create a sound plucking on the on and off levers for the music boxes. And by running them through the electronics, they created a deeper, more resonant sound and running it through a delay, was able to have the delay create a rhythm. So the combination of that, I was able to get a Kalimba like sound and get a groove going. And as I'm plucking those, I'm able to manipulate the music boxes with the remaining fingers. As I'm plucking with my index finger and my thumb, the remaining fingers I have them on music boxes and can sort of press them into action and get half a rotation or something out of it. It's a live piece, it's very complicated to perform, but it's a lot of fun because it fits right inside my fingers. I'm really working with the rhythmic part of the plucking which creates an arrhythmic ostinato. When the music boxes actually come in themselves, they're completely unpredictable. They just sort of run however they're going to run. Once I start them up, I don't know when they're going to stop. So that's really an exciting improvisation for myself; that there's this dialogue between my hands, what I can do predictably and what I can't control.

You've talked about being a bit of a loner when you first came here. What's your take on what is a 'maverick' composer, if there is such a thing?

I think a maverick is somebody who just listens to themselves and doesn't at some point - I wasn't always a maverick, if I am a maverick - at some point they really go off on a limb and really don't have to do it, [it's] because they really have to do it. Whether other people can come along with them or not isn't that important. But this is something that they're driven to do and they need to do and they are excited by it and there's a correctness about the spirit. There's a need to create something that's never been there before and you can hear it and you hope other people will be able to hear it too, but you really need to hear it yourself. That's the main thing, for a composer, you really need to hear it and it's never been there before. It's a tough question because it implies a certain amount of acceptance that one's a maverick. I'm not sure. Those are things that are easier to say about dead composers. They were mavericks because you can look at where they started, where they came from and where they ended. But when you're in the middle of it, hey, I'm just trying to compose. I'm just trying to do it and make it sound the way I want it to and be able to continue doing it.

Do you believe there's an American music?

To me, American music is such a broad term. It encompasses so many different things. If there is an American music, it's certainly rock and roll. That's real American music because I think it came from the roots of this country. For me, I look at so many traditions now and listen to so many different traditions. You can hear it in New York in just about any year, music from just about any part of the world. Maybe that's America, all these traditions end up coming here or residing here. Maybe that's American music, it's made up of all the different cultures that are in this country at this point. I don't think there's an American sound, it's such a broad term, and everything in the world is so different now. The idea that you can draw upon any other tradition and make it your own or take just a tiny little detail from that tradition and use it. It could be an ornamentation that you really like in Indian singing. Or it could be the way a particular culture plays a certain drum that you want to use. I guess the freedom to use all those possibilities, maybe that's something intrinsically American, whereas if you come from a different tradition, maybe it's harder to absorb other cultures into your music.

You studied with Morton Subotnick, right? We can talk a little bit about his music, but talk to me about him as a person.

He was a terrific teacher, a terrific composer, and one thing I remember him saying to me, one of his composition lessons was (and I'm probably paraphrasing him terribly) you can always look at places where a particular composer changed and left a certain style or place in their music and you can pick up there. Find out why they abandoned it and what you can do with it. I think I'd taken that to heart when I started with music boxes. Without knowing it, I started with an abandoned music and continued it like there was a 150-year blank for music boxes. Then all of a sudden I've picked it up and figured out, it's not completely ruined, and you can still play with it. The way deejays use discs, record albums now to create some of their sounds that weren't obviously intended when they put out those records.

What music of his do you most remember?

I think the electronic music was really special growing up. That was all happening in L.A. when I was growing up and I remember hearing some of that. "Silver Apples of the Moon" and those pieces were fascinating to me, just the whole idea of electronics. And I think his ghost pieces were really interesting. He wrote these pieces that were… they had, as I recall, live musicians would play and the electronics would kick in at certain times and rotate the sound around the room or alter the music. So the idea of having something live and then having it altered while they were continuing to play. That must have had an important effect on me because that's sort of what I'm doing with the music boxes. And I think he even had built a box for him that would go out with the score, that the orchestra would hook up to and a whole set of instructions.

He seems to be a person who by the time we figure out what he was doing is worth something, he's on to something else.

Right, right, I know. And I think he's done a lot of stuff in education now with the composing software and stuff.

Any of those composers that you were inspired by or have comments on themselves or their music would be great to hear.

I think Charles Ives, definitely. The idea of one kind of music being piled on another is a very important part of my music. Almost the collaging of music that is definitely there in some of his pieces and almost sounds chaotic in his music, although they got it so they can play it the same way twice so it's not chaotic. I think he must have been imagining a world where interruption happened. And not predictable things would happen inside of those interruptions. That I think is very important for me. The idea that something stops, something starts and you're not quite sure what you're listening to, and also that you can focus your listening as a listener. You can take in the whole picture or take in details of the picture or take in part of the picture, it's up to you. But setting up that world rather than driving a listener to a particular place, that's important. I've had an experience with all of these composers, almost always positive and all of that has become part of me, so it's really hard to be very specific about any one composer. Even if it's a negative reaction, at least, because there are people I don't really care for on this list. But that is a very defining moment when you don't like something in the same way I didn't like music boxes when I started with them. That's a very defining moment, and then choosing to use something that I don't like to base my music on. Morton Subotnick always said I was very stubborn and I guess that's my stubbornness coming out - I don't like it and I'm going to turn it into something I can live with.

Do you still not like it?

It bugs me when I hear a music box by itself play a music box tune. It really bugs me. There's just something, I see little ballerinas jumping around, maybe I want to smash them. There is a response I have to it. When I hear a music box, a classical music box, there's a response, definitely. I want to go in there and I want to change it.

So tell me about a career high or a career low.

I think a career high would be, I've always been uncomfortable performing. I used to perform on piano and I never was happy with my performance, I never felt that it was exactly what I wanted it to be. So when I started working with the music box, and performing with it, I found that it was very liberating and that, this is my instrument. Whatever I did on it was stuff that I was responsible for. Nobody else could do this stuff. And I think performing live on it is a real high for me. I'm transformed to the point where I'm so comfortable with it and I want to reach out to an audience when I perform. Friends of mine who really love performing have said, well that's part of performing, maybe not loving to reach out to an audience but being able to reach out to an audience. It doesn't have to be some sort of flamboyant thing; it can just be wanting them to hear the music. And before when I would play on the piano, I really didn't care if they got it or not. When I play the music box, I really want them to hear this. I feel like they need to hear this. So performing has become a tremendous high for me. It's a thrill. It's really a thrill. And they know, that took me 30 years to get there.

As opposed to being intimidated and frightened?

Intimidated and nervous and stage fright and shaking, all of that just passes. It's cool. So I guess the career low is performing on piano.

Do you listen to a lot of music, do you have favorite recordings - what three recordings would you not want to do without?

I'm always changing what I listen to. It'll be fascinating for a moment and then it'll be part of me and then I'll have gone on. The idea of continuing to listen to the same thing over and over again or being able to revisit it in the same way over and over again really isn't appealing to me. I'm more interested in something that I haven't heard. I remember hearing a Beach Boys song recently. They do this, Brian Wilson does this sort of thing where he plays the music backward while he's singing. And I just loved it, I listened to it over and over and over again. This is about a year ago. I just said, wow, what a great sound. He worked it into his voice, he worked it into that classic Beach Boys sound. That was all I wanted to listen to at the moment. I still enjoy listening to it. It was also a sound that I grew up with in L.A. - typifies the L.A. rock from the earlier 60s. This had a real trippy sound to it. It was very cool.

In either listening or going to concerts, have you tripped across composers or performers that you think are doing outstanding work that aren't getting recognized?

Oh, all the time. Most of the things that really impress me are probably not in music. They're probably in dancing or in visual arts and my responses, when I have a response, there's really no reason for it. It's just because I like it and I see something refreshing in it and something that I haven't ever seen before. It really doesn't make any difference for me if it's in music or other - if I see an artwork that has that thing in it that I like, then it's just as valid to me as a piece of music. In fact, it's easier for me to be inspired by other art forms for me. I'm maybe not as picky and also it's maybe easier for me to see without all my conditions of listening. Maybe I'm a little bit more innocent. Plus I'm also interested in working outside of the concert hall, outside of even the musical tradition. I'm going to be working on a piece with an amateur musician, one who's a totally untrained, self-taught guitarist. And that really excites me, because there's a playfulness there that's very hard to get from a trained musician. Even if you ask them to do something they're not familiar with, whereas someone who's truly there because they love it and don't really care about getting all the techniques together, that's kind of exciting to me.

And the commitment is very different.

Exactly.

What's the one question that you wish people would ask you and they never do?

You guys are pretty good.

What have I overlooked?

One thing that I reflect on is the idea that music boxes, people have this response to them. And the response has been fed to them. Everybody started on a music box and they grew out of that. So everybody has a response to it and sometimes it's psychological and I'm playing with that psychology in a way and nurturing that moment and then getting released from that moment and moving on to that moment and then revisiting that moment. To me that's very rich that there's a shared experience that people have or don't have as it may be. It's there sort of in the consciousness. Whereas a big orchestra may not be a shared experience to many people or they may have come to it only seeing movies when they were a teenager or something like that. But this is something that people have an involvement with from a very young age and I like that connection.

You talking about it that way makes me think it's almost therapy, coming to terms, because some people don't have good reactions.

I don't particularly. It's not so much therapy as it is - maybe it is therapy - working out the demons. The demons of sounds that are part of me that maybe I wasn't ever that comfortable with and needed to find ways to turn them into my sounds.

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