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Raw materials: Jody Diamond and Larry Polansky

Larry Polansky and Jody Diamond live their lives immersed in music. Polansky is a composer, guitarist, professor in the Dartmouth music school, and co-director of its electronic music studio. Diamond is head of the American Gamelan Institute, which is dedicated to the music of the gamelan, an Indonesian ensemble consisting mainly of tuned percussion instruments. She also teaches at Dartmouth, and leads gamelan ensembles at Dartmouth and Yale.  And they are the founders and directors of Frog Peak Music, an important cog in the world of experimental music. Frog Peak is a music publisher and recording label dedicated to experimental music. 

In three excerpts from my interviews with them, they talk about their work with Frog Peak; Diamond talks about how she became involved with gamelan; and Polansky talks about composing with computers. First, Frog Peak. 


 

How do you describe the mission of Frog Peak Music?

LP: Frog Peak began about 25 years ago as an artist-run artists' collective, the home for the work of experimental and radically visionary composers and artists of all sorts. 

 

The kind that doesn't easily find a home in the recording or publishing industry. 

LP: That's right. We're helping the homeless, in a way. 

JD: There's some ways that Frog Peak is very, very different from a traditional music publisher, and those ways are very important to us. One is that we don't take performance royalties from the composers. We don't take the rights to the pieces; the composers still retain all the rights over their music. And one of the most important things is that we take people, not pieces. So we don't listen to someone's music and judge it, and say, 'Well, we like your string quartet, but we don't like that work for oboes and trashcans.' We talk to an artist, and we feel like we're kind of in the same tribe, and we have an affinity for each other, and they have the same kinds of goals that we do, and they join as a person.   Once a person is in Frog Peak, it's completely up to them what music, art pieces, or other objects go into the catalog. 

 

Why should people make an effort to understand experimental music?

LP: Well, I'm not sure that everyone needs to. I'm not so sure that everyone needs to love Jackson Pollock or John Cage or the work that I do. I'm just fairly certain that it needs to exist. It needs to be supported to at least the extent that it's not endangered. Because I think that important deep thinking on any topic is essential to us as humans. 

JD: And the people who make experimental music have a real commitment to doing that. They don't really have a choice to do something else; this is what they have to do! 

 

They're certainly not doing it for the money. 

JD: No, [laugh] they're not doing it for the money. It's like, if you're a composition teacher and a student comes to you and says, 'What do you think? Should I be a composer?' And the answer is, 'If you think you have a choice, then probably not.' 

 

Larry, do you give the same advice for your composition students?

Very much so. I say, "My only goal in composition teaching is to get them to keep composing."  It's almost irrelevant to me what somebody composes, as long as they keep doing it. Because I believe that if you do keep doing it, you'll find some sort of sincerity and intention and vision of your own. So I do believe that. And I'm also sort of congenitally terrified of a world without poetry. And I envision that happening unless it's caretaken by people who love things like poetry and film and music. 

It's always been the poets and the artists and the composers who've taken care of each other's work. Mendelssohn took care of Bach's work. Henry Cowell took care of so many people's work. It's always the artist who knows what's the minimal configuration needed to keep this kind of work alive. 

JD: That actually touches on something else that's very important about what we do. We both have a big commitment to helping, supporting, disseminating other artists' work in addition to our own. The reason that this is so important is that, if you want to do something new in the world, you have to create a context for those new things to exist in. That's part of your work. 

 

Has Frog Peak taken over your life? Or at least your garage?

LP: Well, definitely our garage. 

JD: Actually, two garages. 

LP: I had a revelation about that in the middle of winter. I realized that, for the last 15 years, Jody and I are the only ones out there shoveling our cars out in the winter because there's no room in the garage. And we're out there shoveling two feet of snow off our cars. And at first I said, "This is terrible. I hate this thing that's made me shovel snow." And then I realized how lucky I was, to have the opportunity not  to have a simple, middle-class existence, not  to have my cars in the garage, but to have this ridiculous stack of books, CDs and scores that no one really wants, forcing me to get a little exercise. 

JD: It's just something that's always been in our lives. In fact, when we met, I had already started the American Gamelan Institute, which is a very similar guerrilla, artist-run publishing venture to support work in Indonesian and international gamelan music, and then when Larry and I got together, he had the idea and we worked together to start Frog Peak. There's such a thing as a husband-and-wife team, but each of them running their own experimental publishing venture, kind of made for a full house. So AGI and Frog Peak have always shared an office and an office manager, and the garages. It's just been part of our lives since we met. 

 

What's Frog Peak's top selling album?

LP: Oh boy. Well, we've had a couple go out of print, which is nice. 

 

You sold all the copies you printed?

LP: We sold them all. 

JD: Or gave them all away. 

LP: I think that we did a very important CD of the works of James Tenney, the computer works of James Tenney, which were some of the first computer compositions. Tenney is an example of a Frog Peak artist who is world-recognized as an important 20th Century composer. And we have some people like that: Lou Harrison, James Tenney, Anthony Braxton. And we also have people who  nobody's ever heard of, and we have some people who nobody is ever going to hear of. But we don't really distinguish between those people. 

Jody likes to say, and I agree with this, we don't really care whether something sells one copy or a thousand copies. It's really irrelevant to us. Not just in a philosophical way; we don't make any money on anything, so it doesn't matter how many we sell. It just means we have more room in the garage. 

 

I understand there's an interesting story about how the two of you met.

JD: Well, oddly enough, we had taught for almost a year at the same school without ever meeting, before we met. We were at Mills College, which is a women's college in Oakland, California. And Larry had been brought there to do electronic and computer music, and he was in one end of the building, and I had been brought there by Lou Harrison to teach Javanese instrumental techniques for the gamelan. 

 

Lou Harrison was a well-known contemporary composer who blended Western and Eastern music. 

JD: Right. So those were at opposite ends of the building, and we never met. 

And Lou Harrison had a birthday party for John Cage in his backyard. So we both went to that, and met each other: "I teach at Mills College." "Oh, well, I teach at Mills College, too!" And we sat down on this stone bench and started talking: "We could do this project together," "we could do that project together." It was a great meeting. I was really excited to meet Larry. And Lou often felt like he had matchmaked us and brought us together. And we kind of became Lou and his partner Bill Colvig's children. 

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Jody Diamond is one of America's leading experts on gamelan music and performance. In this excerpt from a 2008 interview, she talks about how she got involved in gamelan. (And Polansky chimes in once or twice as well.) Diamond was born and raised in Pasadena, California. 

 

JD: I thought high school was a terrible learning experience, so I was really interested in alternative education. And I applied to CalArts [California Institute of the Arts] with a portfolio of poetry, photography, and an interest in different ways of learning. I played guitar and wrote folk songs like everybody did, but I wasn't planning to do music at all. 

It was actually discovering the gamelan in my first year at CalArts -- I got hooked on that. So I started dong gamelan, and the next summer, I went with a group of 18 American players to Indonesia to study. We went to Java and Bali, and studied Javanese and Balinese gamelan. 

I came back from that, not quite sure what I had seen. It was a very important experience, because up until then I thought I knew everything. I could study all night and get all my papers done the night before, but this was something I couldn't fake -- I had to learn it. 

 

Not just the music, but the culture and the whole experience. 

The whole experience. There were lots of things that were different, but I didn't understand why or what. 

So I started taking some anthropology classes. And my breakthrough was that human beings all ask a very similar set of questions: Who can we marry? What do we do with the body when it dies? What can we eat? What happens when a stranger approaches? If we want to be happy, how do we express that? 

There's this question set. And culture is the different groups of answers. 

 

And then my Javanese teacher, who I was very committed to, moved to Berkeley, so I transferred to UC-Berkeley, and eight years later got my B.A. I was taking fewer and fewer classes, and playing more and more gamelan. 

And then I thought, if I had a masters degree, it might help me get jobs. So I did an interdisciplinary M.A. in education and music at San Francisco State. For that, I went back to Bali and did research on how Balinese learn music. 

 

My sense is that, with gamelan, you can be part of an ensemble and enjoy it without knowing much about it. Perhaps unlike Western music. 

JD: Well, there's lots of Western music that's like that. Everyone sings in the choir. They don't have to be good. Everyone can go sing shape-note stuff, everyone can sing around the campfire. I'm very sensitive to this East-West thing. The East doesn't have a corner on accessible artistic experiences, and tereh's plenty of elite performing groups there that, not only can you not get good enough, you have to have eight generations of people good enough. 

LP: It's in Europe and the US that gamelan has become a vehicle for people who don't consider themselves to be musical. Like African drumming. 

We don't know how bad we sound. If you picked up a saxophone and you sounded like you did when you played gamelan for the first time, you'd know it. But with gamelan, you don't know it. 

JD: One of the great gifts that gamelan has given to the world outside Indonesia is a chance for people to reconnect with their innate musical ability and make music in a group. If their choir teacher told them, "You're singing out of tune. Just move your lips." And that's the last time that person ever sang. Or a  piano teacher said to the parents, "You're just wasting your money. I'm not going to teach him anymore." And that person never again thought of themselves as musical.  

The ways in which we are deprived of our ability to be musical in our culture are many and tragic. 

 

Going back to your education, what did you do after San Francisco State?

JD: My Javanese teacher was asked to bring our gamelan in 1976 down to San Jose State, where Lou Harrison was teaching. This was the first time he'd had Javanese instruments; he'd been building similar instruments. So Lou was studying gamelan along with us. And then my teacher suggested that he start composing music for the gamelan. And he said, "Okay, Jody, you go help him."  And that's how Lou Harrison and I started working together. I showed him how all the instruments worked together. 

I had no idea about composing. And then Lou came to Mills College in 1981, and I had been teaching at UC-Berkeley since 1976. And he called me and said, "I want you to come over. We're going to build a Javanese-style gamelan, and I want you to teach Javanese techniques and help me with composing." And I said, great. 

I never took composition lessons from him per se. He always introduced me as his composition teacher. But I learned from him was that all human beings are creative, and we want to be creative. And that when we allow ourselves to do that, we're going to create with whatever resources we've internalized and acquired. Whatever we've learned, whatever we've heard, whatever we've liked or not liked. But that's all available to us. That's what Lou did. 

The other thing that was seminal for me artistically was, we would do these gamelan concerts, and I got more interested in different kinds of pieces, and showing people all the things that gamelan could do musically so they would appreciate it more. And the audience would come up to me afterward, and all they would say was, "Oh, those are really great gongs!" 

They were just hearing the timbre. They weren't hearing melody or layers or resolution -- all these things that I became more and more fascinated by. So I thought, "What could I create so that they would know when the big gong plays, it's an important point of arrival?" So that's when I started composing. 

I took the folk song "Wayfaring Stranger" and I used that as the core, and I did all these Javanese things to it. But the audience could hear the song in English, and understand what was going on. So I became a composer to try to open the door into the gamelan more. 

Ironically, those pieces became really, really popular in Indonesia, because people understood the gamelan and because pop music is world music, they understood the western melody also. 

 

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Larry Polansky possesses an incredible array of musical talents. He's an accomplished guitarist, a composer, and a composition teacher. In terms of his impact on the landscape of modern music, one of his most important contributions has been his work with computers. He was co-creator of HMSL, a widely-used computer language for composers; and he does a lot of his compositions with computers. Here, in a 2008 interview, he talks about how he got involved with computers.  

 

This was 1973, maybe, and the little school I was at had a computer. Big deal at the time. And that sort of seemed cool. And there was one class in Fortran or Basic or something. So I took it, and it became immediately obvious to me that this was important to me. In a couple of ways. One, I was taking counterpoint at the same time, and I had to write these 16th century counterpoint exercises. And I said, I can program the computer to do that. So I wrote this little program to write counterpoint, and came in the enxt day, handed the teacher 50 exercises, and said, "I wrote these last night." He looked at them, and said, "These are all correct, but they're not interesting." And I said, "Well, I just wrote a computer program." 

It occurred to me that the blurring of the line between a certain kind of creativity and the implementation of a foreign intelligence was something I had been searching for. I'd been looking at formalisms in music, Webern, Schoenberg, Cage, and Partch. What interested me about these guys was the establishing of an alien language, and then using the alienness of it to blossom into something new. I think that's just my nature. If you tell me some rules, I immediately am not interested in them. 

 

But if you come up with your own rules, that's different. 

That's right.  I realized that computers were probably the most interesting and appropriate way to pursue this. And so I did, from that moment on. I've been programming since 1973. Almost everything I've done since then has involved the computer in some way. And often it's writing software that writes music. 

Computer music was criticized for being bloodless, or being perfect but not having life to it. I guess that's the challenge is injecting some life into it, some intiuitiveness, some human element. 

Yeah, that's one side of it. But there's another side to it, which is what's so great about that human thing? As manifested in American Idol, or the music of John Williams? There's this vaunted, perhaps over-respected humanity that we don't quite understand. And that can result in manipulation, adherence to dogma, and all kinds of other things that are not so interesting and actually quite pernicious. And what I find interesting about combining the two is, the computer may have the issue of its machineness, but it never has the other problem. It's never inexplicable. So you can never fall back on the interesting and dangerous position of, well, we can't talk about it. Which can be the shield behind which one hides for a lack of ideas. 

Humanness may be the last vestige of dumbness. I mean, if something is dumb enough, you say, "I'm channelling my own inspiration, and I can't really talk about it." Well, that may be true, and with Stravinsky it probably was, but with the rest of us, it's probably bullshit. It's probably a kind of protection for a lack of serious ideas. I think music should have both: the very difficult criteria of explicability, transparency, depth, that writing a computer program must have, with the ineffable quality that music be transcendent. 

That's a much harder challenge, because you're not letting yourself off the hook either way. And there are computer musicians who say, "That's a cool algorithm," and they don't care what it sounds like. So you're letting yourself off the hook that way. I think we should all be reaching towards a common goal. 

My next question is, okay, tell me what makes this interesting, and let me see if I can do that. But usually the conversation stops there, because they say, "Well, you can't really do that." I'm always suspicious of somebody saying "You can't really explain it," because that means it's a kind of a power situation, and I don't think it should be. 

I want to know, if somebody says something is ineffable, if writing about music really is like dancing about architecture, why shouldn't we be able to dance about architecture? I'm a skeptic of this kind of stuff. 

It's been borne out in my experience that the great composers in history have also been the most articulate about their work. Especially in the 20th century. The greatest writers about music I know of were Cage and Partch and Webern and Schoenberg. And they were also the great musical thinkers. 



Email me at john [at] johnswalters [dot] com