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Interview with Jon Appleton

Pie, Song, and Doggerel

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #156, 16 May 1998. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:32:37–1:45:37].

Jon Appleton is a composer and author born in Hollywood, California in 1939. He was educated at Reed College, the University of Oregon and Columbia University. His work includes both instrumental and electro-acoustic music. Appleton is best known for the latter, much of it composed for the Synclavier, a digital performance instrument he helped develop. Appleton has been awarded Guggenheim, Fulbright, National Endowment for the Arts and American-Scandinavian Foundation fellowships. He has taught at Dartmouth College, Stanford University, Keio University (Japan), University of California, Santa Cruz and each year at the Theremin Center at the Moscow Conservatory of Music.

[Kalvos] Our guest today is Jon Appleton. Welcome to the show. OK, let’s do the history. This is the five-minute history because we’ve got to keep it down.

[Jon Appleton] OK. I’ll go very fast.

[K] Because it’s such an amazing story. Not only your story as a composer, but your story as, shall we say, a technologist, your story as a person who can whip any kind of equipment into the shape that produces remarkable musical compositions, and all those things. Let’s do that.

[Damian] And don’t forget the wonderful SEAMUS organizational chapter of his life.

[K] Oh, yeah. Part of that organization, the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States that we didn’t cybercast.

[JA] Well I’m a former member. But I will give you a five-minute biography.

[K] Yes please. Jon Appleton…

[JA] Born in Hollywood, California, 1939. Father was a writer, worked for Twentieth Century Fox. Mother worked for MGM as a film editor. She was an abusive and seductive woman who put me in a home until I was six. I was rescued by a Russian stepfather who had played in the New York Philharmonic and in the NBC Symphony. He raised me to be a musician.

[K] Did you move east?

[JA] No I did not. I was born and raised in Hollywood, California. Then I went to college at Reed College in Oregon, and then I traveled around the United States at various institutions of higher education until I could find someone who accepted me. When I finally found my place in Oregon it was only because they would let me do anything I wanted. In those days you had to write serial music and I didn’t like cornflakes.

[K] Those days would have been when?

[JA] That would have been in the late 50s, early 60s.

[K] Did you know Arpad Elo?

[JA] No I did not.

[K] Because he’s written the Battle Creek March which in fact is a serial piece. We’ve had it on the air.

[JA] Alright. Then I got interested in electroacoustic music and I went to Columbia University where I worked for one year, because that was one of the few places you could do that in the United States.

[K] Those were the halcyon days of Columbia.

[JA] They were. Yes, there were very many wonderful people in my class. Charles Dodge, Richard Turuskin, Jacob Druckman. People of all ages. Emmanuel Ghent, Walter [now Wendy] Carlos. A lot of people who later went into the field of electroacoustic music and some who didn’t. And then I, by some chance wound up at Hanover New Hampshire.

[K] From Hollywood you’re migrating east up to Oregon and then out to Columbia and then up to Hanover. How does that happen?

[JA] Well it happened because my parents were communists and they were also Jews. Since Dartmouth did not want to have any communists or Jews on their faculty I took a new identity, thus Appleton because I was born with the name Applebäum. So I hid my true identity in many ways [as] I have described to you now, including being married with two children and leading a perfectly normal life as a young college professor at an all-male Ivy League school. I fit in so well that I was rapidly promoted and became the Arthur R. Virgin Professor of Music, a position I now hold at that distinguished institution to the south.

[K] Distinguished? That’s good. And that’s the C.V.?

[JA] That’s the rest of the story.

[K] And how about the Synclavier story.

[JA] Ah yes. Well, secretly I only wanted to write music that sounded like Rachmaninov, and he still remains my favourite composer. But because I was living in the late…

[K] …this is true [Laughter]?

[JA] This is all true. This is all true. But because I was living in the second half of the twentieth century I had to write avant-garde music. Well, I didn’t know what that was, but by chance I discovered electroacoustic music. That enabled me to write very beautiful music that was also avant-garde. And so I did that and after a while I discovered that the audience was so small and I assumed that that was because people could only hear it on loudspeakers and couldn’t see anybody make it. So for a number of years I worked with some engineers and helped develop a live performance instrument for musical composition and performance. It was called originally the Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer and then became known as the Synclavier, quite by chance. My first choice was the Clavisyn but since sin seems to be something that is verboten (forbidden) in New England, we called it the Synclavier, and that is where the clavier can wipe away the sins that are committed by the composer. And the purpose of this was to be able to play live electroacoustic music; that’s what it was invented for. But it very rapidly proved that it was impossible to sell such a rarified device for so much money, and the pop world took it over.

[K] Right. And it was very expensive back in those days?

[JA] Yes, the first one was thirteen thousand dollars. The third one was about three hundred thousand dollars, and in fact it’s still very much in use. Even that great film that…, you know the one about the German ship that sunk called the Teutonic? Well that soundtrack was all done on Synclavier, still is used by the premier studios because of it’s ease of use, but I don’t think anybody plays it live for the purposes that I originally helped design it.

[K] When I first was in Vermont, the first few years I started hearing about it and then I got to actually visit the place of manufacture in the early 80s, and there were some support people on the telephone with pop stars from around the country who were demanding their repairs immediately. It was quite a scene. I love that idea, that in this little town in Norwich, Vermont people were shipping out this equipment and giving support to some of the top people in the entire country.

[JA] It was a very interesting chapter and one that I am glad has been closed in my life.

[K] Why is that?

[JA] Well, because the premise was that you could make electroacoustic more attractive to people by performing it live. That turned out to be incorrect.

[K] What happened?

[JA] Well you see I used to believe that was possible but I don’t believe it anymore, because it’s like food. Music is like food. Some people are just curious about trying new food, so that if you give them inoshishi or nekoashi or monosashi or you know, some kind of strange food some people will say “Well I’m not going to eat that” and other people will be quite willing to try it. That’s what music is like. It doesn’t matter how it’s produced. Some people will be interested in trying something new and some people are not. It doesn’t matter whether it’s played live or over a CD or the radio or the internet or whatever.

[K] So there’s a problem with electroacoustic music. Is that what you’re saying? With the way the audience perceives it, or the way the composers create it? Or what’s happened?

[JA] It’s a minority music. It’s a music that appeals to only a small group of people who are curious about new sounds.

[K] Shall we hear some?

[JA] That sounds like a terrific idea.

[K] Let’s do that. We got some words in, so let’s hear some music. We’ve got the first one up that you suggested we listen to, Brush Canyon.

[JA] Right. Brush Canyon is the little canyon north on Canyon Drive in Hollywood where I grew up. You’ve seen it because you’ve seen it in westerns where they film the horses running into the canyon or the Indians chasing the cowboys into the canyon. So I used to play up there and so this recalls that canyon. But it is a piece also that I used to play live on the Synclavier.

[K] Let’s hear it. This is on this great Centaur CD series, the Computer Music Series, Volume Six. We’ve played a number of pieces from this series. We’ve played the Joan La Barbara piece, we’ve played the Laurie Spiegel [see interview in this issue of eContact!] pieces. Just a whole bunch of them. Really… really nifty. This one… Brush Canyon from 1983, it looks like.

[JA] Yeah, that’s almost yesterday isn’t it?

[K] Almost yesterday… [Laughter]. Here it is. Music by Jon Appleton.

We listen to Brush Canyon, by Jon Appleton [0:43:16–0:56:07].

[K] You said while we were off mic you still remembered playing it. You played this live?

[JA] That was part of a programme that I toured with for a few years, and yes I do remember quite well playing it. That was the wonderful thing about the Synclavier. It always worked.

[K] Well, it was very sturdy.

[JA] It was very sturdy. It was very heavy. I finally stopped touring because it cost me more to transport the instrument — which weighed about 450 pounds — than I could earn for the concerts I gave. So I stopped. Also, in the process — I’d always wanted to be a performer when I was a kid — I discovered that I really don’t like it, playing the same pieces over and over is very boring. I’d much rather be writing new ones.

[K] Which we are about to hear. We’re going to make a 15-year leap.

[JA] Right, well it is a 15-year leap in chronology, but æsthetically…

[K] Still Rachmaninov?

[JA] No, it’s like the pieces for which I first became known. They were kind of movies for the blind. OK, this is a great piece. It doesn’t work for Americans and it doesn’t work for Japanese.

[K] Well wait now! [Laughter]

[JA] I know. I just discovered that listening to it today in the automobile driving here. But, I figured we could talk about what this piece is.

[K] Do you want to hear it first and then come back to it?

[JA] Well let’s give a little introduction. So, I will speak in English, and then my colleague Hayashi Akinori will translate what I say. This is a piece which tries to capture the sounds of Tokyo.

[Hayashi Akinori, repeats in Japanese] これは東京の街で出会う様々な音をとらえようとする作品です。

[JA] It is a piece in which you hear the sounds one might hear if you were on the Yamanote Line, which circles central Tokyo.

[HA] この作品は、東京の中心部を一周する山手線に乗車した場合に自然に聞こえてくる音から作られています。

[JA] On this train you hear the sounds from the stations, from radios, from every possible source, including traditional instruments like the Shakhach.

[HA] この山手線の列車の中では、駅からの音やラジオからの音、そして、尺八のような伝統的楽器を含む、あらゆる音源から様々な音が聞こえてきます。

[JA] In driving up here today, my friend Jonathon Ross was driving and it was his CD player we were using. I imagined how he must hear the piece, and I thought this would only be a piece that would be attractive to an American who had been in Tokyo and heard all these sounds, but if you hadn’t been there it might not mean anything to you. So I turned to my friend Hayashi Akinori and I said, “But what does it mean you? and this is what he said. He said to me… go ahead…

[HA, in Japanese, not repeated in English] 今日はここまでの車を運転してくる途中、私の友人であるジョナサンロスのCDプレーヤーを使ってこの作品を聞いてきました。私は彼がこの作品をどのように聞き入るだろうか想像しました。たぶん、この作品は、東京に行ったことがあり、これらすべての音を実際に聞いたことのあるアメリカ人にとっては魅力的に聞こえるかもしれないが、東京に行ったことのない人にとっては、全くわけのわからないものになるのではないかと私は思います。そこで私は私の友人である林晃紀にむかって尋ねました、「あなたとってこの作品の音はどんな意味を持ちますか。」すると彼は私に答えました、「。。。前に進んでください。。」

[JA] So why don’t we hear this piece then called Yamanotesen To Ko and Ko is the nickname of Umezaki Kojiro who plays the Shakuhachi in this recording and who is in fact celebrating his 30th birthday in New York today. So this is in honour of his birthday, Umezaki Kojiro, and the name of the piece Yamanotesen To Ko.


We listen to Yamanotesen To Ko, by Jon Appleton [1:00:53–1:09:25].

[K] Tell me a couple of things. First of all, you seemed very ambivalent about the piece. Not only what you told us when we were talking before we played it about audiences — either Americans or Japanese — maybe not responding to it for various reasons, maybe go into a little bit about the Yam Song and also about your own ambivalence about this piece. You said that you’re not sure it’s a great piece?

[JA] Well I started doing these pieces way back in ’67, ’66, where I took the sounds of a culture where I was visiting. I recorded and mixed them and tried to give the impression, or sometimes tell a story. Some of these were very good, like Times Square Times Ten I think is a real classic and I did that in 1970, and so I really have confidence in it. There were other times that I did it more recently that I felt my association with the sounds were so personal that it didn’t really communicate to the audience. I did a piece using the voice of the late Russian singer Dmitry Pokrovsky, and I recorded a lot of songs, Stalinist songs — [singing in Russian] “Dem bruig kikomen gardmondia zal la ti bla ti” (Walking arm in arm with a beautiful young girl on the collective farm) — and these are songs that for me have a real personal history but to anybody else they wouldn’t even get what it’s about, you know? These were songs about Stalin bringing light to the little villages in Russia and stuff. So to make pieces out of a pre-existing music, that’s fine, but if the music itself and the associations don’t mean anything to the listener, then I guess it’s not a terribly successful work as far as communicating my feelings. And I think feelings for me are the reason that I compose music. I am not interested much in the intellectual side of music but rather in the emotional side of it and how people are moved by music and what that means to them.

[D] I thought this piece though in particular had both the Yin and the Yang and of course the Yam and I thought it had the tricotomy which was particularly appealing.

[JA] Well you see, you’re my first fan for Yamanotesen To Ko, which hasn’t been really played. I’m sure this is the first time it has been broadcast. This is a radio premiere!

[K] Alright! We’re glad about that! How about your relationship to Japanese culture? Other than being born in Hollywood you didn’t point out in your history about that, and particularly why you’ve learned the language, and why you would be spending time in Tokyo?

[JA] About a few years ago I was trying to extricate myself from a relationship in the United States and I thought the best way to do that was to travel 9000 miles away and I had an opportunity to teach in Tokyo. I went there having been in Japan once for ten days in ’84 but never having really known anything about it but I thought it would be a challenge. I didn’t speak any Japanese and I still don’t. I only teach in English. I know a few phrases and they’re obscene. But I went there and I was captivated by it, because I thought first of all I had spent so many years in the countryside of Vermont and here to be in the middle of a big city where I felt as safe as I do in the countryside of Vermont is quite wonderful. And I like the idea of being in a culture where I don’t really understand, not just the language, but the meaning, of people. It’s a cliché perhaps that Japanese people to Americans are like onions — you keep peeling away the layers and find layers beneath it — and I still don’t think I have any insight into Japanese personality, but that’s intriguing to me. So I taught there actually, I started by teaching a course in American history from 1945 to the present. Having lived during that period I thought I was an expert, and then I started to teach a course in the arts in American culture and I’m going back to do that next year. I like it very much. It’s kind of a second home.

[K] How long did you spend there altogether?

[JA] Well, two five-month periods and this, I’ll go back for a little more. I don’t know. I’ve lived in a lot of places in the world and I’m sure I’ll maybe find other place that will appeal to me too. Maybe some of the places that you read weather forecasts for.

[K] Maybe. We’ve played a couple of other pieces that incorporate local sounds and… how would you describe — not even the form — but how would you describe the piece as a sort of category, if you will?

[JA] Collage.

[K] Collage. Alright. Collage. We played excerpts from Clarence Barlow’s CCU, which was done from Calcutta, and certainly some of Carl Stone’s [see interview in this issue of eContact!] pieces which also…

[JA] Right. But his are much more focused and draw… the single sound drawn out.

[K] I was thinking in terms of I think Young Jump is the piece for many many little cuts recorded off the radio and on the street as well.

[JA] Right. The name for his favourite Thai Restaurant.

[K] Yes! Each of those pieces are very different ways of bring this together. Yours gives us time to hear words, and Carl’s gives us a highly rhythmic look at it, and Barlow’s is kind of almost a great architecture of sound. A very different way of treating sound.

[JA] I think that’s a good way of describing them and I’m interested in that programmatic aspect to music. I still love Peter and the Wolf  very much, and I’ve done, by the way, a lot of children’s music.

[K] Ah ha! Peter and the Wolf was played on Vermont public radio this morning so you’re right in tune…

[JA] That’s a little avant-garde for them!

[K] You’re right in tune! You’ve done children’s music? Let’s hear about the children’s music! Does that lead into these we’re about to play?

[JA] I don’t know. But, actually in Vermont at Old Filo Records, I did a [couple of works that] Folkways released, two children’s pieces: The Tale of William Mariner and The Snow Queen. These were tales that I told, and played the accompaniment on the Synclavier at the same time. Then a few years ago I did pieces for children’s choirs in France but this quite spectacular really, 5000 children singing at the same time! And that is a quite remarkable thing to do. I did one again on the South Pacific and then I did one on Hopi Indian legends. So I have this love of working with dramatic situations in music. Now, these pieces that you are turning to here…

[K] From a brand new compact disc called Contes de la mémoire. This is just out recently?

[JA] A year ago. It’s produced by those wonderful friends north of us in Québec. Diffusion i MéDIA, Jean-François Denis, tous ces gens sont très agréables.

[K] And we will be getting a little chunk of recordings from them in the next few weeks. They’re sending down a large part of their catalogue so we’re also looking forward to a trip up there, an interview tour.

[JA] You’ll have a wonderful time. That is a vibrant electroacoustic music culture in Québec, in Montréal right now. Anyway, these two pieces.

In 1969 I was doing electroacoustic music — we called it electronic music then. Nobody seemed to know what it was and that bothered me because here I was dedicating my life to it. I was stuck in the Newark airport, and I interviewed people; I said I was from a radio station and [asked], “What do you think of the new electronic music?” I recorded 100 different responses and cut out the best ones, and put them together over a kind of Moog Synthesizer background and that’s what this piece is. It’s meant to be humorous and it was released, in fact, on a 45 single by the Flying Dutchman Company in 1969.

We listen to Newark Airport Rock, by Jon Appleton [1:18:54–1:21:06]

[K] I think it’s a beautiful thing myself! That’s great!

[D] Wait. This is only one of two airports is it not?

[JA] That’s right, because in 1996 I re-did the piece at the suggestion of Esmé Thompson, once my wife (actually she was my third wife). But in 1969 what was wonderful is — if you know the situation — nobody who answered that question knew what electroacoustic music was, or electronic music. They said, “Oh you mean tape music? I have a tape machine. I like it.” Or of course you know “The thing we hear on the airplanes.” Or “We need something while we’re waiting.” That’s a common theme. Or “Oh, it’s cool.” That’s from a young girl who wants to be “with it”. Everything’s cool. Everything’s wonderful. Today they’d say “Awesome,” “Wonderful.” So that’s how the history of that piece evolved.

[K] And then you went to San Francisco?

[JA] And then in 1996 I recorded in San Francisco. This time I put the responses I edited, the best responses, and I put them over a very kind of gentle spacey midi-track. So it has the feel of the nineties but the questions are, well why don’t you listen to it.

[K] And this is a radio programme of the nineties if ever there was one.

We listen to San Francisco Airport Rock, by Jon Appleton [1:22:54–1:26:18]

[D] I suppose you were able to get signed releases from all the people whose voices you quoted?

[K] That’s just… the difference in eras and the way people will still say the same things. Wow!

[JA] That’s right.

[K] That’s just remarkable.

[JA] That is kind of remarkable. You get a general awareness… some people do know what it is now, or at least they know that it involves computers, that it’s synthesized sound, that it involves electronics, some people know that. So there is a greater level of awareness although someone said to me, “That’s just because you were in the San Francisco Airport. If you had been in the Newark Airport in 1996 you still would have gotten the same response.”

[K] It’s interesting because either yesterday or the day before on CNN’s entertainment show, they said, “Upcoming, a look at electronic music and how it’s sweeping the world,” and I thought “Whoa! What did I miss?!” You know and then they had a series of interviews on rave, on techno, and then lots of other forms that are using the instruments in the sort of pop way and the use of the sampler and all of that as a pop form and I was pretty stunned that not one single example of the other realm of that appears, but I guess concert music or no matter what you call it is still that really niche kind of thing.

[JA] That’s right, and you know of that idea where “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” well, when we first were inventing the Synclavier I had this feeling that it was a revolutionary breakthrough and I remember doing different radio shows about it and demonstrating it, and the thing that people always said about it “This is amazing! One man can sound like a whole orchestra”. And then I began to look back in history and discovered that the earliest mechanical instrument, that was the same thing that they said about them. The whole idea was that they were great because one person could sound like many musicians, and of course the differences between these instruments, it’s still used as hype. That’s what Yamaha uses, Roland, all of those companies, to sell their synthesizers. One person can sound like a whole orchestra, and that’s what I’ve dedicated my life to.

[K] Well, you’re not off yet now. We’re not done with you yet.

[JA] Oh, please…

[K] We have to do the future thing.

[JA] The future. What’s going to happen in the future?

[K] Well, you know, it’s easy to get off and say, “Well I don’t know. Look at Wagner, he didn’t know either,” or something like that. But seriously, you’re going somewhere with your music. Where is it? Where are you headed?

[JA] Oh, with my music or with musical culture?

[K] Well, I’ll take them both if you would like.

[JA] Well with my music, I’m going backwards. I’m writing the most Romantic music I can. It may be a temporary phase but I’m trying to get at what moves people the most within the cultural framework I have inherited. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that or if I’m just going back to my roots. I don’t feel avant-garde or the motivation to be so anymore and I once did. I once took pride in the fact that people didn’t understand what I was doing and now I don’t anymore. I don’t really care what anybody thinks, I just do the music that I find beautiful. So if there is any pleasure in being older that is it. Now, as far as the culture is going, I don’t think that one can say much about the future of electroacoustic music except what Steve Reich said almost thirty years ago that it will disappear into the fabric of just plain music and I agree with that. I think that electroacoustic music has never been a style, it has been a medium of expression. I think more interesting is the means of distribution and the enormous amount of music that is available. You just spoke earlier about all the CDs that were suddenly in your lap of new and experimental music that it was hard for you even to sort through it.

[K] But not only so many but so much of it was so wonderful.

[JA] Right. I think that’s more the case now that we have such an embarrassment of riches that it will be very difficult for people to make decisions. It’s like getting sucked into the web. You start surfing the web, all of sudden ten hours go by, so [you had] better not even go near it. I don’t know how people are going to sample all the music that’s available to them, but I think it is wonderful that much more music is available to them on the internet and they will be able to try out musics that they never knew existed before, and maybe they will be able to access that music directly. It seems outrageous to me… I remember when I was a kid growing up in Hollywood, on Santa Monica Boulevard there was a record store you could walk by and on the street were the windows where there were these little booths where people would listen to records. You checked out a record and you went in and you put it on the turntable and listened to it. Well that was a 78, so it was sort of indestructible and nobody cared, you know. If you want to buy a record, you’ve gotta have a chance to hear it. How did that suddenly disappear and people had to buy LPs on the basis of what was on the cover? OK, cause they were scratchable. Now we’re in the CD culture, you can’t do anything to a CD unless you really try hard but people don’t let you listen to the stuff. You have to buy it by the cover and the cover’s small!

[K] Now the cover’s small…

[JA] That’s right. And there’s so much hype and stuff. So now — the joy of the internet — the internet is going to let people sample music and try out all kinds of music that they’ve never heard before and I think that’s a wonderful thing.

[K] You headed there? You’re creating any pieces specifically for the medium?

[JA] Nobody’s asked me to yet, but I will.

[K] Hey! We’re asking.

[JA] OK. You got it.

[K] We’re beginning an experimental project with some of our composers to create pieces specifically for the Kalvos & Damian site with the idea that there’s kind of an interaction that’s happened there. Many composers are now really connecting with each other through online mentoring programmes we’ve had and a few other things, so we are just starting with the idea of creating pieces for the medium.

[JA] Well, it sounds like a great idea and [“old man” voice] it’s you young folks that are really going to be able to do important things in the world.

[K] We got to talk to somebody who’s older than us for a change!

[D] It’s about time!

[K] Well let’s put something else on. Let’s leave with your preference. We have something new, something old…

[D] Do you have something with a beat?

[JA] Yes.

[D] Oh you do. We would like something with rhythmic interest.

[JA] OK. You’ve got it. A piece done in 1971 in collaboration with Don Cherry, the late and great American jazz and experimental musician. We worked together for a year and we released a record on Flying Dutchman, an album called Human Music, and here I’m playing a Moog Synthesizer and I’m processing the sounds that Don is making on a variety of percussion instruments and wind instruments including a flute and his famous pocket trumpet. This is I think Bow, is that right? From Human Music 1970 or something.

[K] ‘69

[JA] 1969, my god. I knew ’69 was my favourite year.

[D] And we’ll see the Woodstock influence in this piece.

[JA] Oh, definitely, and it has a beat, believe me!

[D] That’s what we want. Jon Appleton, thanks bundles and oodles for being a guest on the Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar and we would like to present you with this official autographed copy of the Karmora Papers by Kalvos Gesamte himself.

[JA] Thank you so much, and it has been a great pleasure, and domo arigato gozaimashita. Thank you so much.

[D] Do svidanya.

[JA] Do svidanya.

We listen to Bow from Human Music, by Jon Appleton [1:35:56–1:45:37].

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