Saturday, January 15, 2000

Teachers, Gurus, Guides and Swamis

I had several music teachers I thought very highly of, –though what they thought of me, I will never be sure. Dorothy Kitchen, (Mrs. Kitchen to me), –Director of the Duke Youth String Orchestra– seemed to believe I had talent, though perhaps my commitment to classical training waivered during the time I studied with her. I was also captivated by electronic music –especially Morton Subotnik's Silver Apples On The Moon– and modern dance (not to mention modern dancers). I modeleed myself after Alwin Nikolais. Nikolais was not just a composer but also a choreographer. He had been Bob Moog's first customer and I would go on to study choreography and stage lighting under his direction for seven or eight months in the mid eighties.

Mrs. Kitchen’s husband, Dr. Joseph Kitchen was never a formal teacher of mine, per say. However, for three years I served as his assistant in his role as music director at St. Stephen’s Church in Durham, North Carolina. Turning pages of Bach and Widor –Sunday after Sunday– was an incredible education in sight reading, arranging and –believe it or not– the physics of sound. That Flentrop Pipe Organ was a music student's pedagogical dream.

I was further influenced by Nicholas Kitchen, Dr. and Mrs. Kitchen's son. He was a violin prodigy whose dedication to music greatly inspired me (and somewhat intimidated me, as well). The Kitchen's also had a daughter, Julie, whose subtle idea of humor –and intolerance for imperfect tonality– taught this then wired teenager a bit more about patience than I should have liked at that age.

Stephen Jaffe, a composer in residence at Duke –and a protégé of George Rochberg– was my first formal teacher in composition. Jaffe surely considered me an idiot. I'm pretty famous for thinking sideways. Sometimes it works to my advantage; sometimes I come across like an alien life form.

I spent three months in Vermont studying dual compositional studies. Firstly, I had been drawn up there to study computer music programming with a pioneer in the field, Joel Chadabe, via my readings of MIT's Computer Music Journal. It was Joel who sent me off to work for Jonathan Elias –another previous student of his– with his gracious recommendation.

Secondly, and quite fortuitously, I discovered Free Jazz trumpeter Bill Dixon living up there, and he shared with me his tremendous insight about both harmony and life. He also endowed me with an ethic that while mistakes are absolutely intolerable, not to confuse them with spontaneous bouts of human expression, which often tear out of the soul in what can only be described as a messy experience.

Later in life, after what seemed a lifetime in a recording studio, I abandoned technology for several years in order to reconnect with the simplicity of steel strings, and studied guitar with Richard Lloyd of the legendary band Television. There are teachers and their are wizards. Richard is a wizard. He imparted on me an idea to think less in terms of linear melodic structure, more like a guitarist –fingers and inner ear surfing a three dimensional diagonal navigation across a pitch/emotion axis.

It’s also worth mentioning that at nineteen, while in attendance at the 1984 Synclavier II Summertime Seminar, the legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson offered this advice to a young musician, which has stayed with me my whole life. He said, “If you want to be a great musician, read –not music, read books.”

Friday, January 14, 2000

The Silicon Chips

In the ninth grade, in Chapel Hill, circa 1979, during what has been called a Golden Age of Music In North Carolina, I started a band called The Silicon Chips. The Chips were a middle school punk band, whose name was a direct homage to The Boomtown Rats single, 'I Don't Like Mondays'. There were punk rock bands in North Carolina before the Chips, notably The Psuedes (which featured Sara Romweber), The Secret Service, Th' Cigarettes, the X-Teens and the Durham Dots –but the age range for those bands' members were mostly college kids or older, and not many of my peers even knew who they were. In fact, there didn't seem to be any Triangle bands under the age of 18, and certainly none tapped into the emerging new wave.

It was a pre-MTV era, when the three primary flavors of American popular music were Rock, Country and Disco. Everything else was relegated to late night new music transmissions from Chapel Hill's 89.3 FM, WXYC. I no sooner admitted my fascination with David Bowie one day at school than to instantly learn that mere admission to being a fan of any European act, especially a gender bending drag queen, charted me somewhere off-center a graph measuring normalcy. But it was into this venue that the Silicon Chips were born, and to other newly minted Triangle teen agers, we must have seemed downright bent combining rockabilly with European flavored, sexually ambiguous rock'n'roll.

The Silicon Chips were, in fact, an international band.

My songwriting partner and our deft lead guitarist Tony Scott,  was an American, as was our pseudonymous drummer, Zeke, and our pianist, Kevin. But our bassist, Lars Mage, was Danish, and our rhythm guitarist was a German kid named Klauss. I was myself fresh from two years in Mallorca, and a childhood in Puerto Rico before that. Needless to say, being out of the loop, I didn't quite understand yet that American kids didn't generally like The Sex Pistols and Giorgio Moroder, much less both at the same time. So, like refugees in small town, somehow we found each other, and together we formed a rockabilly flavored, Euro tinged, Socially conscious, New York Dolled up Jr. Highschool punk rock band. Not only were we determined to challenge small town American pubescents with our idea of Avante-garde music, but I was absolutely certain we were The Next Big Thing.

To that effort, The Silicon Chips performed our one and only show  at the 1980 Guy B. Phillips talent show, lighting up the beginning of each act with one original song: 'Ann', and 'Radio Men' (Scott/O'Gara).

'Ann' was written about (and for) three different girls actually –all of them named 'Ann'–and none of which I had the courage to speak to, but any one of which I thought would have made the perfect girlfriend. Hello, ladies, available rock star here, for the taking. Only thirteen; get me before the rehab and groupies show up. Didn't happen, though.

She's into being flexible
Keeps her freedom
It's tedious ecstacy
But it feels good

Oooh Ann–

Other performers that evening included two amazing drummers that would both go on to have notable careers: Rob Ladd and Martin Levi. In high school Rob would become a founding member of The Pressure Boys and then after that, go on to  play on Alanis Morissette's international hit album, Jagged Little Pill.  Marvin Levi became drummer for the way-ahead-of-their time band, The Veldt.

Anyway, after that gig, that was it. I would like to say that if you saw the Behind the Music documentary, you would already know by now that between the excesses of hedonism, failed relationships, band tensions, internal litigation and Tony constantly bringing his design school girlfriend to rehearsal, that we finally just decided to split our millions and call it quits. But of course it didn't happen that way.

Tony's parents, who were college professors, simply re-located to where, I never found out. One day he was there, and the next he was gone, like Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix.

Kevin, also, left town, returning to Wisconsin.

Didn't either of their parents understand what they had on their hands? Apparently not.

So, like every legendary band, we lived fast and died young –with out the speed or death part, of course.

For about ten years thereafter, all through the eighties, the Chips recordings increasingly sounded dated to me. But then punk came back repackaged as Seattle Grunge and when it did, it went wildly mainstream. And all of a sudden the Chips, too, sounded positively contemporary. In fact, I pretty much convinced myself that Nirvana stole our thunder.

In my head, I still have conversations that run like this:

"Dude, U2 is cool, but I wish you could have seen the Chips live."
"It's amazing how their music influenced just about everyone. It's like even the name of the band was prescient. Are any of the band members still alive?" 
"Well, just a rumor, but I read in Rolling Stone that O'Gara is living the Irie life in a shack in Jamaica, and Tony Scott writes movie reviews under another name for some Indy press."

Without a band to front, or another collaborator with whom I shared such artistically combustible chemistry, I bought a MiniMoog and began my high school reinvention as a solo electronic music artist. Indeed, when Tony left town forced me to stop thinking myself as only a lyricist and to get my own musical chops in order. While contemporaries like Dexter Romweber appeared as Flat Duo Jets and Michael Rank's ragged-around-the-edges Snatches of Pink came on the scene, I called myself Teri O. and performed with a microcomputer and a Radio Shack TRS-80. I think Teri O. probably sounded a lot like Brian Ferry by way of Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill.

In 1985 I also left Chapel Hill, finally landing in New York City, where I ended up producing music for TV commercials, radio and newly emerging interactive media.

This Silicon Chips had long fizzled but Mommy's little rocker had finally grown up and figured out how to fit into America.

Thursday, January 06, 2000

Listening to Dylan in Saudi Arabia

When I was three or four years old, my father, James O'Gara, got a job in Saudi Arabia, where he became a close associate of Prince Mohamed Al Faisal, then the head of the Saudi Water company. My dad was in charge of building the first sea water desalinization plant in Saudi. I still remember visiting the construction site, where the desert literally meets the sea, and seeing camels walking among bulldozers, tractors and other equipment.

In fact, our home sat on what was once the eastern perimeter of Jeddah, on Khalidibm Al-Walid street in the Sharifia district, and abutted the edge of the open desert. However, in the intervening years Jeddah has experienced so much growth that the same plot of land I used to call my backyard now sits squarely in the center of the city.

Whereas now that house is surrounded by a dense metropolitan development, at the time it sat next to an empty sand. The land to back of of our house stretched out to the blue horizon, and next door, quite often, Bedouin would pitch their tents and settle at times with their families.

Whenever the tents went up, I used to go play with the Bedouin kids. One of the games we played was called 'Death to the Infidels'. Death to the Infidels is the Islamic equivalent to Cowboys and Indians, except that, technically speaking, I am an infidel, something I didn't realize when I ran along the dirt branding a wooden sword or pocket knife.

It's in Saudi that I have my earliest memories of Television. This during a time when Television was pre-cable, pre-satellite, black and white, analog and mono. But I recall watching performances by Fairuz and Om Kalthoum, famous Divas, Lebanese and Egyptian, respectively, and their music abounded with depth and color.

Om Kalthoum spins out classical Arabic poems that emerge from her lips like cobwebs of sound. When she sings, words are transformed into transparent math and honey.

However, as we are living in the Royal Kingdom, the only images I have ever seen of Om Kalthoum at that point, capture her wearing a black abaya. To this day, when I picture the singer in my mind’s eye, I do not see a chic Egyptian woman dressed as she might be for the western stage; I see black fabric draped around a microphone.

But what I remember most, what I can hear still, is adhan (also 'azan', 'athan'), the daily calls to Islamic prayer which were (and I imagine still are) broadcast over roof tops and through the city streets and alleys five times a day.

Then, if the programmers at Saudi Television were feeling especially Christian, perhaps they might afterwards air an intermittent episode of Lassie.

And so because one could never tell when Lassie might air, I would sit and watch Islamic programming (for what seemed like forever), waiting, waiting for just a few moments with Lassie.

One wonders now just what effect the combination of Lassie and Adhan had on the young, developing brain.

In fact, in those first six years of my life, I had lived in the Caribbean, South America and the mid east. In all that time I heard very little western music beyond the nursery rhymes my mother sang to me. Which is to say, that at the same time my brain was trying to make sense of Mother Goose, I was also assimilating Calypso, Huayño, and microtonal Arabic scales.

But, at the time, it all seemed ordinary to me. I think that's because in my so-far short life, I had not lived long enough in anyone place for anyone music to sound anything other than normal and ordinary. Live in any one place long enough, and art gets embedded, even frozen into the culture, not simply because it belongs in one place or another, but because that's where you assign it.

On the other hand, keep moving, so the only thing constant is change, and human culture converges so that Arabic violin music, Bach, Afro-Caribbean grooves and Hollywood TV scores come to represent equal but different elements along a sonic continuum.

And that's also why I have always associated Barry White with Puerto Rico, because that's where I first heard his music, pouring out of the windows of teenager's cars and little cinder block houses while I was running around the streets of La Rambla, trying to avoid predatory packs of stray dogs.

If you're lucky like that, the brain will build bridges connecting what some might consider disparate sounds but to a traveler (or a child) they sound neither strange nor foreign, but actually quite comforting.

Which is not to say, that I accepted and liked everything I heard.

As it happens, my older brother and sister turned me onto Rock'n'Roll, at the same time I was living in the Mideast. And let me tell you, the first time I heard it, I didn't like it one bit.

Both were teenagers attended boarding school in the United States. So, naturally, I was excited when they came to Saudi to visit us at Christmas. In order to survive a few weeks overseas, my brother brought with him The Doors, and my sister brought with her Bob Dylan and The Beatles.

Today, classic rock is considered so innocuous and it is often played to and for children, who also seem to like it. But that was not the case in the years which this music was first emerging. It was then thought to be radical, noisy and dangerous, and it was.

No surprise then that upon entering the country, the Saudi authorities confiscated some of my brothers tapes (and shortly thereafter those tunes started to be heard on local radio... coincidence?)

Anyway, to this day I remember sitting on the floor with my Legos, being no more than five years old, and for the first time in my life I was conscious that I was listening to something called American rock'n'roll (not to mention at the peak of its golden age!).

And I recall thinking in not exactly these words:

"What is this crap?"

Because, it was obvious to me –not The Beatles, not the Doors, not Bob Bylan– there was simply nothing in this American music that compared to the Islamic call for afternoon prayer, broadcast live from Mecca.

Wednesday, January 05, 2000

Huayño and the Andean Eternal Golden Braid

When I was two years old, we moved to Peru for three years. Our home was located in the tiny coastal village and mining town of San Juan de Marco, in the state of Cuzco.

Most Northern hemisphere dwellers who possess any familiarity with Peruvian music usually think first of the Andean panpipe bands that one can now hear on seemingly every public square throughout the world.

To my ear, this music is reminiscent of the Eternal Golden Braid featured in the book Gödel, Escher, Bach (by Douglas Hofstadter), so do the melodies seem to spiral and loop.

But I was also exposed to both the gypsy-styled Musica Criolla and the cacophonous Huayño music.

Huayño is the style that made its biggest impression on me as a young child.

First because of its dense sound, and secondly, because I heard it in the markets, where I was always treated to an Orange Crush.

The result is that today, over thirty years later, I can't so much think of an Orange Crush without also thinking of Peru and hearing Huayño in my head.

Talk about a case study in music branding.

Huayño itself is dance music, performed by a band consisting of harp, harmonica, mandolin, saxophone, panpipes, accordion, guitar, violin and charango, a South American version of a lute. Lyrics are sung in both Spanish and Quechua –an indigenous language of South America and at one time, the official language of the Inca empire.

The best description of Huayño music I have read or heard is 'Urban Mestizo'. Like all Peruvian music, its genius is in its simultaneous capacity to convey immense joy along with profound sadness, within the context of a single song.

If Huayño music has any US counterpart, it is perhaps in the country swing, made popular by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

Everyone north of the equator knows one Huayño song; it is the Simon & Garfunkle remake of 'El Cóndor Pasa' by Daniel Alomía Robles for the Bridge Over Troubled Water album, rechristened 'El Condor Pasa (If I Could)'.

In recent years I've noticed that Huayño has merged –or is merging– with other South American mixed band styles. What we are seeing, and hearing, I think, is the emergence of a pan-Latin America urban dance music. Whatever it will become, and eventually be called, any time you hear a blend of aching violins, accordions, and brass or reeds over danceable beats, you hear the influence of Huayño.

To North American ears, perhaps only a musicologist can tell the difference between Huayño and Cumbia. Cumbia is an Afro-AmeriIndian invention, but even to my ear, both increasingly share an intertwined musical destiny.

As it happens, I think Huayño has left its mark even on me. I have long noticed in myself the tendency to compose melodies centered on the thirds and fifths (a feature of Huayño, of course). It is, I can only imagine, the aural legacy left to me as a result of living in Peru at such a young an impressionable age.

Hey, and by all means, I'll take it, –that and ice cold Orange Crush, please.

Tuesday, January 04, 2000

The Music @ The Beginning of The World

I don’t remember my own birth, obviously –or fortunately– even though I was not just there for the event, but apparently the center of attention. I imagine I heard a woman screaming and though I didn’t know exactly what a woman was, I instinctually and correctly understood which animal in the room was my mother. Records indicate I made my first appearance on the planet to a sold out crowd at midnight, between the 11th and 12th of March, in the city of Charlotte Amelia, St. Thomas, VI.

But of course, all of that is just hearsay. It’s just as possible that I was born on another planet, abducted by pirates, and abandoned here on Earth, where I was adopted by two humanoid-creatures while they were in the midst of conducting their own investigation of the blue-green planet. I think that would actually make more sense to me in a way, and explain so much.

However, if I were from another planet, then there would have to be calypso bands in orbit, because my earliest recollection of sound happens to be that of the Steel Drums which filled the Caribbean night air of my childhood, and later, floated up off my parent’s suitcase style record player. I have uncommonly early memories, but I won’t pretend to remember the names of any of those classic bands. I don’t even really remember the music, per say: I remember the sound of it.

As I stumbled towards maturity, and picked up a taste for popular American music, I left calypso behind with much of the indigenous music of my youth.

I have yet to return to St. Thomas, but I have often returned to steel drums, whether to attend a live performance or in recordings I've purchased. Something, I sensed as an adult, was different about the music that had once conjured in me a magical feeling. Had I outgrown it? Had living in United States re-engineered the way I heard things? I couldn’t quite put my finger on whether it was the music, or me –but I was cognizant of having a different reaction to it. Something in the way these contemporary pan players sounded was weirdly off to me.

As it turns out, quite the opposite. It wasn't that the new drums were off, but that they were on,–that is, they were perfectly on –or in– pitch. By happenstance I learned that modern pan players were using electronic tuning systems as guides while they hammered the instruments, when I knew that once they simply relied on their own ears. Over the course of my lifetime the practice apparently became ubiquitous.

While the steel drums from my youth were hammered as close to the tempered scale as human hearing allowed, that meant in practice that most often the resulting finished ‘pans’ were never exactly centered. However, it was just this off-tuning that created the ‘magical effect’ I remembered from my childhood: When a musician played a melody, the overlapping resonances of each note cascaded one over the other; the whole sounded just a bit richer because of each note's slight and uniquely different imperfection. In effect –no pun intended– each tone of each instrument was built with its own natural chorus.

Then along comes this new fangled technology whereby modern steel drums are now hammered until they're perfectly aligned within the bounds of western temperament. This should make for a better sound, right? Well, it does make for a different sound, which can be described as a purer tone, which is certainly better suited to playing in concert with other instruments. You know, sometimes –most of the time– it’s just nice when everyone’s in tune and playing in the same key. But see, hear, while the melodies might now all be right on pitch, it turns out the magic is all in the cracks.

Monday, January 03, 2000

Education of a Music Producer

I was born in the Caribbean, and grew up in South America, Saudi Arabia and Spain. I came of age in North Carolina, and after moving to New York City, lived for many years in various degrees of chic metropolitan squalor, putting in time at a rumored mob controlled welfare hotel, the 92nd St. Y, and a crumbling basement apartment in Gotham’s most notorious heroin infested neighborhood during the drug’s hey-day.

But no sooner than you can say popular zeitgeist, then did I find myself producing music for national TV commercials, theme parks, electronic games and devices; pitching audio concepts for complete cable network redesigns; speaking brand speak with the big boys; and providing music supervision and production consulting to Fortune 500 advertising agencies.

Once upon a time I was a barista who'd been told by big time record producer or manager-types –one after another– that my ideas weren't marketable. A year later I’d be producing tracks that by the week’s end would be in heavy rotation on national television, and have a direct effect on the market shares of my clients.

Many of my ideas were executed without change or revision and aired around the world, heard by millions of people, and even –perhaps– convinced some of those very same lame label execs to wear a certain brand of jeans over another.

So, I guess I do know a thing or two about ideas that sell; about maximizing entertainment value; about branding with sound; about how to influence people with music; about how to make fans out of customers and how to drive customers into stores –which is more than I think you can say about 90% of aspiring pop stars who can supposedly deliver a ‘hook’.

You want to give voice to Fortune 500 Brands? You need more than a hook –you need to tap into some socio-psychological juju. I can think of at least one famous classical composer –whom I idolize, by the way– but he thinks scoring a commercial is simply about ripping himself off. And maybe that's why it's not working for you, dude.

lemon lime
make it rhyme
mom that's me
on prime time

So, just how the hell did I end up becoming the Executive Producer of three acclaimed music production companies?

It turns out that the life of a philosophical buddhist artistic expat loner who played guitar on roof of the 92nd Street Y for three years whilst waiting for his life to begin provided the perfect credentials necessary to accurately analyze the American popular psyche and sell it stuff.

But don’t think it’s some kind of Cinderella story…

Sunday, January 02, 2000

Sonic Lives Leave Sonic Booms

I once had a teacher who delivered a summation of 20th century world history as the culmination of advances in contraceptive techniques. Depending on one’s interest, history may be described through the varying disciplines of politics, war, religion, art, or gender relations –to name but a few choices.

So setting aside the lasting effects of World War II, the subsequent cold war, the nuclear arms race, the space race, the civil rights movement, feminism, the invention of the automobile and interstate, the development of capitalism, communism, globalism, and the increasingly widespread distribution of fresh water, electricity and human rights across the globe, apparently one may dispense with all that and rather convincingly argue that the story of all human achievement may be summed within the story of The Pill.

But I only mention this in passing because this blog examines life through a different filter than one is usually accustom: It is an examination of life connected by distinctly appreciable and audible moments, though not necessarily in chronological order –We live in a non-linear age after all. For now, let us imagine the first gasp of breath to the last, and all the music in between.

I think that even those without a proclivity for music must have a deep, biological connection to sound. What else accounts for the murmur of nostalgia? –Soft but present critical noise –like whispers– though barely detectable they nonetheless endure in memory.

You were born and you cried, and would like to believe that though that cry is now many years distant, it too still exists. That, indeed, it will even out live you, that sound waves never die. That instead, they continue to spread across the universe, growing thinner, and ever fainter, ever fainter, but never ending. And that though some lives are quieter than others, I believe that –like jets– every life produces and leaves in its wake a sonic boom.

* * *

Photo collage by Terry O'Gara

Saturday, January 01, 2000

Critical Noise

CRITICAL NOISE examines the impact sound has on our lives.

About my life, in particular:

My childhood was spent in the Caribbean, South America, the mid east, Europe and the American Southeast. As a toddler my Peruvian nanny called me 'Xaui' –pronounced 'chowie', and which describes a songbird –a prophetic sign if ever there was one.

I grew up a violinist, violist, dancer, composer and amateur ethnomusicologist; and became an early (and obsessional) adherent of microcomputer-enabled composition and sampling technologies. I spent fifteen years as a commercial music and sound design producer, producing national and international projects out of both New York and LA. Along the way, I fulfilled Senior Producer, Executive Producer and Creative Directorial roles at three acclaimed music houses: One being the leading sonic branding house in the country; another, the leading sound design firm; and the last, a pioneering interactive enterprise called Blister Media, which I co-founded and rode the dot com bubble like a methamphetamine cowboy.

My contributions can be heard on hundreds of Television and Radio commercials, and in theme parks, kiosks, installations, and a variety of electronic devices, web sites and electronic games.

And I've also been known to step up to the occasional open mic.

Much of my life has been defined by sound, –or that's the way I've simply chosen to define it. Which brings us to the origin of this blog. Without actually keeping a formal dairy, I find myself writing often about my sonic experiences: Mystical, Commercial, Natural, Primal, Tonal, Physical –and Musical.

And I can't help but want to consider and comment on the similarly sonic experiences of others, as relayed to me –either through something I read, or via direct conversation.

I've thus decided to create a repository –this blog: CRITICAL NOISE– where I can 'park' these thoughts –nearly all disparate from one another save for having to do with all things audio. I guess that means I will eventually get around to writing about everything in the known universe, if I live long enough to do so. And when I am done, I suppose you can say that I will have a produced a document of my life as it was lived through sound.

If nothing else, I hope that by putting these thoughts to these virtual pages, I might also banish a host of interloping mumbles and murmurs currently occupying my mind. And by so doing, free enough space that therein new melodies form where once words lay cluttered, and stir my senses again with the sublime power of music.

Testing 123

Testing, testing 1 – 2 – 3...