by Bintang Perkasa
Although it doesn’t relate to number of age, the word “exploration” is closely associated to young people; be it in the arts or other scenes. Talking about youth, LTTW recently had an opportunity to interview an adventurous young musician.
Meet David Scanlon (Dave), an explorative and persistent young musician and composer from Michigan, USA. He had his first taste of music when he was a teenager. Since no one in his family is a musician, Dave learned about the world of music from mass media such as radio, magazines, and early internet. Much like most teenagers, Guitar was his choice of musical instrument, while Jazz became his entry point to music – which later became his way of life. Dave has always had a hunger for exploration and never ceased to learn new things; he moves from one city to another (New York, Boston, New Haven, and so on) and explores diverse musical forms (Avant Garde, Experimental, Jazz, Rock, etc.), not to mention modifying his own guitar.
When he chose his path in music, Dave understood very well the consequences of becoming a musician and the need to be self-reliant, to be able to overcome every obstacle he will be facing. Dave’s self-reliance mechanism helps him in knowing more about himself; what he needs to learn and improve. Dave’s passion for music drives him to search here and there, from learning at music institution to working in music venues. In the process, Dave gains not only diverse knowledge in theories and techniques, but also opportunities to get acquainted with many individuals and communities in the music circle. Because of that, collaboration becomes a huge part of his musical exploration; he co-founded several bands such as JOBS and Pet Bottle Ningen, just to name a few. Besides being active in his bands, Dave is still able to manage to do collaborative works with other artists.
The chat we had recently with Dave was stimulating and exciting, and we would like to share it with you in the following interview.
LTTW: Before we’re going deeper, could you tell us about yourself? Where you were born and raised?
Dave Scanlon: I am from Michigan, USA, however, I moved around a lot as a child: Michigan – Illinois – Pennsylvania – Michigan – NYC. When I moved to Pennsylvania I became a bit enamored with playing guitar. I was a teenager and it was kind of the typical thing to do. However, I practiced obsessively.
I didn’t know much about being a musician or composer and no one in my family is a musician so I was a bit on my own.
Who introduced you to music then?
Hmm… hard to say; radio, magazines, the early Internet – things like that. For example, I wanted to listen to Jazz so I got DownBeat magazine and then read about Dave Douglas and listened to him so I ended up hearing modern musicians way before I even heard say Miles Davis.
I found a music high school called Interlochen on the Internet and applied on my own. I ended up getting in and that really helped. Probably my first great teacher was there, John Wunsch.
I then went to Miami – moved to New York City to attend New School and finished my studies there. Being in NYC, I started doing the door at a venue called The Stone. That was an education and opened my eyes to an underground music community. I then started my own bands like JOBS and Pet Bottle Ningen with other musicians in the community.
So, Jazz is your preference from the beginning…
“Later a friend said, “Oh… if you like that you will probably like free jazz” and played a Peter Brotzman record. I was hooked. “
That is a hard question. When I was in High School [Interlochen.Ed] I really loved Jazz Fusion; Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Return To Forever, Weather Report, etc. However, that music has not aged well and now when I hear it, things sound aged. During that time I was also going to the Hardcore shows that many kids go to in the USA. I was used to hearing that music and somewhat liked it – particularly a subgenre called Grindcore. Later a friend said, “Oh… if you like that you will probably like free jazz” and played a Peter Brotzman record. I was hooked.
From then on I was sort of searching for different experimental recordings. Free Jazz like Derek Bailey, classical music like Morton Feldman and the early Philip Glass ensemble, rock bands like Sonic Youth and things like that.
Why guitar by the way?
That is a great question! I still ask that a lot and to many guitarists.
At the moment I play less guitar and make a lot of music with a computer, but the guitar is a big part of my process and I think guitar causes interesting things. For example, it seems that there is a tradition of the “composer/guitarist.” If you are a guitarist in any genre it is very common to compose your own music where as that is less common for other performers.
I started guitar in the same way that many people do, trying to play in rock bands, however, that in some ways changed and I still feel grateful for that instrument; the social aspects of the instrument (there is always a guitar around) and the prevalence of the instrument in so many different cultures. In addition, a composer/guitarist, Cyrus Pireh often talks about the extremely wide range of timbres that the guitar has.
Yes, we remember Larry Coryell also loves guitar because it’s portability… By the way did your family support your interest in music?
Of Course! They were always very excited about it. Even when I was making quite experimental music they were very supportive.
After college I lived in some pretty bad apartments because I had no money. I think they didn’t love seeing that but they also didn’t seem to mind or they seemed to understand that it went with the territory. For example, I lived in the hallway of a larger apartment and then later I lived in this falling down apartment in Bayridge that had lead paint everywhere and stuff.
Wow, that’s great Dave!! While in Indonesia many parents don’t agree with their kids to choose arts (in this case music) as a way of living. Anyway, you found Interlochen on the Internet, but what made you decide to study there?
All I knew about music was that good musicians were supposed to go to Julliard and that many Julliard students came from Interlochen, so I wanted to go, however, it wasn’t until I was there [Interlochen.Ed] that I learned there wasn’t a guitar program [in Julliard.Ed]. Haha…
I also quickly realized there were many different paths to take as a musician and I didn’t want to pursue a strictly “classical” or strictly “jazz” path. Being in NYC, or any large city, was very helpful for that, seeing that music making and music participation is very porous.
As far as we know, Interlochen has a routine program that invites artists and musicians to perform and doing workshop there…Did it impact your way of seeing music, and how?
Certainly, but Interlochen was more of a place where I practiced a ton, learned a lot of music theory, and was given records by the other students. I was there during the hay day of burning CD-R mixes for your friends so I would say I was more influenced by that.
Any giants whom you’ve considered as your role model?
Wow! Well, certainly in some ways, I got to think about that!
I would say John Zorn is in many ways a role model for numerous musicians. In the way that he has created so much different music, been so dedicated to the music community, and been able to be involved in the arts outside of just music.
So because of him, you also dedicate your life to social community outside music scene?
“I think I see communities as hugely important to all of us…”
I don’t think I can honestly say that about myself. I think I see communities as hugely important to all of us, and the community that I am most actively and widely involved in would be a music community. I would like to think that I both give and take from that community but someone like John Zorn through starting both a record label and a music venue has given so much.
You told us about your study at the New Music School. Why? And what did you find and learn there?
I went to New School to finish college. I would say it was “fine”. I met so many people there and most of my closest friends and collaborators, but the classes were kind of a joke. I had tested out of all the music theory offered because of my high school background [Interlochen.Ed]. However, there were a few gems – there was a rhythm class that was so amazing taught by this person Rory Stuart. Through New School I started working at The Stone and that was more of an education than the school and it allowed me to interface with music and participate in music that was not tied to an institution.
Alright, this is interesting! Can you tell us more about The Stone?
The Stone is/was* a music venue started by John Zorn and musicians curate who plays. I did the door for a while every Tuesday and Thursday; saw so many amazing musicians and I also saw so much bad music. I also met many “younger” musicians and found out about other spaces like Zebulon & Death By Audio and places like that. I eventually needed to work a job, which kept me busy at night so I had to stop working the door, but I was there for many years. Though for a while I only worked say once a month.
*The Stone was relocated to the New School’s Glass Box Theatre on February 27, 2018.Ed
Dave Scanlon live at The Stone | Youtube
So this is one of the reasons that drive you the most…We notice that one of your groups, Pet Bottle Ningen, performed at Wesleyan, do you study there?
“About three years ago I was feeling like my artistic life was not changing/progressing so I wanted to change a few things in my life.”
I played with Pet Bottle Ningen at Wesleyan years ago…but yes, at the moment I am a composition graduate student at Wesleyan. About three years ago I was feeling like my artistic life was not changing/progressing so I wanted to change a few things in my life. The first thing I did was leave NYC, which wasn’t entirely successful, I missed the city a lot and I am currently moving back there. I also wanted to start making more “chamber music” and electronic music. I needed a bit of help to get that moving, so I came to Wesleyan.
Pet Bottle Ningen at Cake Shop | Youtube
What do you mean by “chamber music”?
Wow really hard question!! Well “chamber music” suggests a small ensemble “classical” music piece, however, it’s slightly a wider term than that. I should say I wanted to write pieces that I didn’t need to perform, like writing for cello or other mixed ensembles.
Besides Pet Bottle Ningen, you are also involved with other groups. Could you tell us more?
Yeah! So JOBS (which was formerly killer BOB) has been going on for about as long as Pet Bottle Ningen, actually about two years longer. For lack of a better word, I would say it’s an experimental rock band. The music is made collectively with Max Jaffe, Rob Lundberg, Jessica Pavone, and myself. We will have a new recording coming out soon and will be doing some touring.
JOBS – Rhythm Changes | Youtube
I also collaborate often with musician Shannon Fields. He has been a huge influence on me and I think he is a very interesting musical-thinker. He has a project called Leverage Models and used to have the band Stars Like Fleas and Family Dynamics. I also work sometimes with Alena Spanger of Tiny Hazard. Recently I did a show and a residency with quilter Emma Banay, it’s a confusing project but you can find info here: http://www.rhizomedc.org/new-events/2018/2/18/performances-quilt-music-w-dave-scanlon-emme-banay-the-quilt-music-players and http://www.wesleyan.edu/cfa/events/2018/02-2018/02032018-between-systems-and-grounds.html
Haha… That’s pretty much it, but a lot.
In addition to these projects, you still perform as a solo artist; how different is it between playing solo and playing in the band?
I would say that is your easiest question. I get to make all the decisions. Haha…
No I am actually serious though the bands I play in are collectives, so anyone can change the composition. The same goes for the other collaborations. I value the democratic attitude of the projects. When playing solo or when making electronic music, it’s a bit like being my own boss.
Not many musicians aware that we can practice democratic values in a band. What are the challenges and the “requirements” for it?
“Part of being in a band is giving all members equal voice.”
Part of being in a band is giving all members equal voice. This does not mean that each member needs to write songs or lyrics or preconceived compositions but during the process of working on the material, each member has the ability to change the material in anyway. This process is largely fruitful and often leads to better results. I would say the only challenge is that this process is significantly slower. The decision-making, learning process, and even simply getting in the same room together can take a very long time.
We know that you invented your own instrument, and I heard that you call it electro acoustic guitar. What motivated you to design the instrument? Is it because there’s a particular sound that you want to “capture”?
Haha… I do use a modified guitar but I have not used that name… Maybe I should start!!! I think the eight-string guitar that Elliott Sharp uses on the Octal recordings is called an electroacoustic guitar.
What I use is a technique borrowed from Fred Frith [one of the Founders of the legendary Canterbury Progressive Rock band, Henry Cow. Ed] of a humbucker floating above the first fret. As a result, if I tap the notes instead of plucking them then each note is a dyad because it is resonating and being amplified from both sides of the fretting finger. What interest me about this sound is that the dyads then move in a reciprocal relationship to each other, one in 12-note equal temperament and the other with a reciprocal relationship to equal temperament. It was initially a way to bring microtonality into my music while utilizing my skill set as a guitarist.
Is there any other instrument you designed besides the one you mentioned us?
Yes!! I have been trying and constantly putting off building an amplified monochord similar to what Pythagoras used for his tuning experiments. I am sure I will get a version of it made within the year. I am a bit obsessed with the inventions made by New Complexity guitars. I don’t have the money for those instruments so I have been interested in adapting the techniques to other guitars; at least the 3rd-bridge idea that New Complexity does so elegantly.
In addition, over the past few months I have been learning fretless guitar. This is a real challenge but given my interest in tuning systems I no longer wanted to be bond to a fretboard.
As far as we know, you move to many places (From Michigan, New York, Middletown to Boston and so on). Is there any specific difference(s) that is uniquely appealing between these places (especially from the artistic perspectives)?
“Boston and New York both faces intense challenges of finding performance spaces and allowing those spaces to stay open and exist sustainably.”
First, the only places I have lived as an “adult” were New York, Boston/Cambridge, and New Haven. I spent some time in Miami and Alaska but I didn’t interact with the larger community in those two places. I lived in New York the longest, roughly eight years. I love it there and I think I will in some way always be tied to that place. It’s no secret that life is hard there. Even to give a seven year old a piano lesson, you have lots of people hustling for the position. I never quite saw a way to have my life be economically sustainable in New York.
Also, before I moved away [from New York.Ed] I didn’t feel like I was growing as an artist. I wanted to find a way to change how I made music and to interact with a music community more broadly. Cambridge/Boston is wonderful and there is so much going on there through Boston Hassle and Non-Event. I sadly wasn’t living there long enough to truly feel like I knew the town. Had I stayed, things could have developed but sadly I learned that I would be moving again after only eight months. It’s a great place though. Boston and New York both faces intense challenges of finding performance spaces and allowing those spaces to stay open and exist sustainably. I don’t have the answers to questions of that nature though.
Throughout history, art forms are the offspring of aesthetical struggle in dealing with existing or developing cultural/social/political/technological condition. In today’s situation, filled with divisiveness, racism, terrorism, mass-shooting, hatred, and so on, how do musicians in the US respond to this? Any respond in terms of music?
Music has the ability to represent or demonstrate different social, economic, and political forms. This can be used in a negative or positive way. You can certainly read various socialist/collectivist ideas into many musical practices, or authoritarianism into certain artists’ behavior; a lot of these ideas are explained beautifully by Jacques Attali. If musicians present content that is in some way subversive or subverts the situation, it ideally encourages a reimagining in both the performers and listeners/audience. I don’t know if I personally do this very well but it is a large part of my thought process. I feel that composer/performer Cyrus Pireh does this very well and I admire both the subversive and inclusive nature of his work.
Let’s talk about Internet. It provides a hell lot of data; with this amount of information, we should learn and appreciate diversity much more than we used to. But if we look at the music scene, most hardly progress in this issue. It seems people still favor the same music over and over again. So ironically we become uniformed instead. What is your view on this?
“Music with the most money behind it will be exposed to more people.”
This seems true for more than just music and tied to larger capitalistic forces. It is true, there seems to be a uniform interest in music that has a large amount of capital behind it. This seems to be a result how music is distributed on the internet, radio, and within other media sources. I don’t think the internet has the power to save us from those forces. Music with the most money behind it will be exposed to more people. There are certainly exceptions to this. Absolutely, we should be more diverse and appreciate diversity more, however, I don’t think the internet is going to save us from the economic forces that make this difficult.
Last question, what is your plan for the future?
Release a new JOBS recording, continue a project of compositions making large diverse sounds with a small amount of concise computer code, learn the organ, and build an amplified monochord.
Thank you Dave!!