Despite boasting a classical education from the Conservatory of Music at State University of New York at Purchase, Dan Deacon doesn’t buy into the elitist implications of being called a composer. “I think that the least pretentious way you could think about a composer is someone who writes music for someone else,” he muses. “But some composers don’t write music for humans at all. So the definition is flawed. You could call a taxi driver a composer. Or a performance artist. Or a choreographer.”
Deacon’s new album continues his tradition of stretching the perceived limitations of the term. Over the course of nine caffeine-jacked compositions, Deacon stitches together a crazy quilt of styles, moving from dense electronic passages to lush string interludes and back again. Featuring fuzzed-out dissonance, frenetic chants and moments of stunning serenity, America is a colorful grab bag — much like its namesake.
eMusic’s Laura Studarus went on a musical journey through the 20th century with Deacon, visiting some of the unexpected inspirations for his new album, including a boxcar-riding hobo, a Beatles sidekick, and the one icon that no list would be complete without.
It was "O Superman" that I first heard. It's such a crazy use of voice. The way it's processed is so clean and clear. It's sort of like the voice you think you'll hear in the waiting room for heaven, when you don't know if you're getting in yet. It's a stress-filled calm. I ended up finding [Big Science] in a record store in a town near my college. I finally got to hear the whole record, and it was so much different than that piece! It was jarring, but after multiple listens it made sense. Each one of the pieces had its own universe. That was also important to me.
I heard she was teaching at NYU for a while. She was teaching music history, and she was making it all up. For years! Maybe this is not true, but I love this story. I hope it is true.
I think my favorite thing about Partch other than the awesomeness of his music is that he was a boxcar hobo, and hopped trains for a long time, and lived in garages. He's such a real deal. When you think of American icons, I think he lived up to that really really well. He had the American dream really strong, but his American dream wasn't one that was put on television. The fact that he was so passionate and articulate about his ideas was so vastly important.
Musically, his approach to music is theater. Beautiful costumes, the instruments being built and designed by him and his crew. Massively beautiful; the sounds that they made so foreign, but so rooted in nature. His ability to see the complete package was overwhelming.
I think it's important to remember that music is theater, and people are watching something. They're there to hear something as well, but they're also there to watch it happen, to unfold before them. They want to know how it happens, but they want there to be an air of mystery. There's got to be a mixture of both. A mixture of, "Oh, I can understand this," and also the thought of, "How did that happen?" Not in a "magic show" kind of way, more of, "I know how that happened, but I would have never thought of that," or "I wouldn't have done that," or "I wouldn't have made that choice." That's what makes a lot of music interesting, that it has that ability to happen in front of you. Even if the music isn't improvised, there's always an element of chance involved, because it's happening as it goes. That's what people want to see live. The more of that you can give, and the more unique experience you can provide, the more that performance can resonate within your audience.
One of my favorite things about Stockhausen is that The Beatles love Stockhausen. They were obsessed with him while they were making The White Album. Supposedly, they were going to do a series of shows where Stockhausen opened. Stockhausen agreed to do it, The Beatles agreed to do it. It was going to be in stadiums. Back then, the PA systems for large concerts like that were just through the public address system. They had a couple of speakers, but for the most part it was nothing like we imagine today. There were no huge stacks of speakers. It was a very ridiculous production. Stockhausen was going to be playing his insane pieces through the public address system of Shea Stadium or something like that. That would have been insane. Kids would have gone there expecting to see The Beatles. But then they would have had to endure this set of sounds that they would have never in their lives thought that they would hear. Imagine how crazy different music would be if The Beatles had toured with Stockhausen. It would be fucking crazy as fuck! The tour was ill-fated. The Beatles stopped performing live, Stockhausen never got to open up for The Beatles, and the avant-garde sat in the cellar of 20th-century music.
He's one of those people who doesn't think of jazz as a genre, but as an approach. His music is jazz, but it's not what people think of when they think of jazz. When you think of music that's a form of populist communication or mass communication, you want people to be able to enjoy it who don't have an education. That was a big division between the avant-garde and the experimental – who they're making music for. The avant-garde thought they should write for the most forward of thinkers, the way mathematicians make high-end math. Experimental musicians were saying, "Let's make music as weird as possible, but let's make it for everybody. If they don't like it, they don't like it."
What I like about Cecil Taylor is that he took the idea of jazz, jazz hands, big bands, and all of that. His approach to jazz, and the way that he uses jazz, the way he uses dissonance, and the way his music is still very romantic with grooves, it's beautiful. I can't describe it, which is why luckily it's music.
I think Riley was the composer that I most closely identified with and was influenced by in college. Writing music for myself as well as other people is very important for me. I was struggling with finding musicians to play my music when I was in school. It just seemed like a waste of time. Reading about Terry Riley and his music, where he was a performer, all of a sudden it just clicked and made sense. Everything fell into place. It validated what I was trying to do. His music is really beautiful.
Later in life when I started hearing less of his overtly psychedelic works and started hear in his solo work reworked for other people, it opened up this very beautiful world of sound. Those radical, minimalist ideas were starting to emerge in pop music. I think why minimalism is so important in general is that it took classical music and brought it back to popular culture. People like Riley took everything that classical music was, destroyed it, and then started again and made it as unique as possible. If you look at the world at the time, that's what was happening. Europe was torn apart twice with world wars, there was a huge shift of power. So it didn't make sense to try to make music that was a reflection of that old world. The 1960s and 1970s brought in this new world. It was still based in war and pain and suffering, but it was also based in the comfort of modern technology and modern lifestyle. I think it was the mixing of those things that made everything so creepy and uneasy.
In college one of my teachers told me that I sounded like him, and that made me angry. I went back and I listened to him. It just sounded so utterly familiar. It probably is because of his film work, especially since it was so commercially pushed. His label wanted it be the classical record. They thought they could make it number one, and be like Enya or something. I don't know if Enya was out yet, but that's what they were going for, this new style of music. It already had a familiarity to it, it didn't sound new. It was like when you're a little kid and you hear The Beatles. It was like "This is great" rather than, "What is this?!" His film work is great. I love Koyaanisqatsi; it's my favorite collection of works from him, maybe just because I love that movie.
A friend of mine in school gave me a copy of Different Trains. We were showing our pieces in class and he said, "If you do stuff like this, you should listen to Steve Reich." That's when I sort of lost the chip on my shoulder. The whole "I want to discover the new thing! I want to a 20-year-old genius!" A lot of people want to do that and be like, "and then I made new art forms!" Well, you're a sophomore in college; you're probably not going to do it! I was a lot more open-minded with the sense of making music and not saying "I'm not going to write anything like this now because it's already been done!" If people focus on trying to make something 100 percent new, they're going to waste their life. It's like going to the bar every night, trying to find a soul mate. It doesn't work that way. You need to work with the tools of the past and try to make something new. You can't be like, "I need 100 percent original ideas and thoughts." When I heard Steve Reich it was cool. It's not the cluttered mystique of a lot of other music of that time period; it's sort of like, "Hey check this out, this cool? Check out what's going to happen now. I bet that you saw this coming, but it's pretty cool."
When we think about the masters of art or music, we're thinking about history's greatest hits. How many other great people who were like Bach who have been forgotten throughout history because they weren't as wealthy, or their work as preserved, or their work was lost in time? Or they just didn't have as good of a publicist?
There's this one video of James Brown bringing Michael Jackson and Prince to the stage. They're both really young, I think they're in Minneapolis. Michael Jackson is like, "It's cool to be up here." When Prince gets up there, in his mind, everyone went to that show to see Prince. No one was there to see James Brown. No one was there to see Michael Jackson. It is about Prince. Prince kills it! It's incredible. Seeing that video proves that he's the real deal. He saw the opportunity and didn't just grab it; he shoved it into the opportunity expander and made it so much more epic than it could have been. Prince has to be on the list. Can you imagine a 20th century without Prince?