Undertow circa 1985

I’ve detailed before (including in this previous blog entry) that I started writing music using a Commodore 64 when I was 11. The Commodore 64 was an 8-bit machine, and sounded like… well, first-generation Nintendo.
I also grew up obsessively playing games on that Commodore 64. So you can imagine how excited I was about this remix of Undertow, created by Logan Richey.

It joins earlier 8-bit versions of Asphalt Cocktail (arranged for Mario Paint):

and Aurora Awakes, also for Mario Paint:

Those are pretty true to the original, but Logan’s is a remix. OMGGGG I love it SO MUCH. Thank you, Logan! (And extra kudos to him for asking permission!)

This is up there with the metal band version of Xerxes.

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Shiny and new

It’s been over 5 – almost 6! – years since I’ve updated the blog. The blog used to be super active, sometimes with multiple posts a day, covering everything from the post-renovation pictures of our house in Austin, to what is still the best meal I’ve ever had, to a post about an epic trip to FSU, complete with football game photos, to my advice about publishing, to the time Loki, our beloved former cat, got high on catnip, to… well, a lot has been covered. But then I, like many, turned more often to Facebook or Instagram to share things. It’s a lot easier (i.e. lazier) to post two sentences with one picture than to post a full story of a trip with a dozen pictures all at once, but it’s definitely much more disposable.

I’d love to blog more, and I’ll make an effort to do that. In the immediate-term, though, the reason for THIS post is that this is a BRAND NEW, SHINY WEBSITE!

For some history, here’s what my first website looked like…

Frames! NEWS! Textured “wallpaper!” Colors and fonts that only I thought were acceptable!

I don’t know when the site was eventually re-done – around 2006, I think? Just to document it, here it is:

This worked fine for a while, but when you’re looking for a piece, you had to just… scroll.

You couldn’t sort the titles. Some pages used an embedded MP3 player that stopped working well a few years ago, so you could hear maybe two minutes of a piece and then it would just START OVER. Some audio was on Soundcloud. Adding a new piece required manually coding a new php page, because every page was a standalone page – not from a database. It was… a mess.

But then I saw Michael Markowski’s website, and was blown away, not only by the functionality of it, but how CLEAN the design is. I asked him who his designer was, and was told that she didn’t have time to do my site. After MUCH pleading, she agreed to take on the project.

This was all nearly two years ago. It was very hard to find a developer who could handle all of the custom coding that I wanted. What’s custom? Well, here’s one example. I wanted the customer to be able to rent a piece of mine, and not have any back-and-forth regarding the paperwork. In the old days, here was the process:
1) Visit my website
2) Find the piece you want via a mess of links
3) Visit that page
4) Figure out that if you wanted to rent it, you’d “Click To Buy,” even though the piece was a rental
5) You’d end up on the list of my ENTIRE CATALOG.
6) You’d scroll until you found the piece again on that ever-lengthening list…

7) You’d see that you could buy the score, so you’d click “Add To Cart,” and you’d find yourself on a new page showing your cart. A page that didn’t look like the rest of the site, because the credit card processing company I’d been using broke the way it handled templates:

8) You’d maybe finish your order, then realize you had only ordered the score, not the parts, so you’d have to go back to that list of pieces and realize there was a separate link so you could set up the rental.
9) You’d type an email to my business manager, Sarah, saying you wanted to rent the piece
10) Sarah would reply, asking for a bunch of information – the performance date(s), the billing address, whether you wanted to pay with a credit card or a check – stuff like that
11) You’d reply, and you’d forget some piece of info, so she’d write you back, asking again
12) You’d give that info, and she’d manually write up a rental agreement and an invoice and email those to you
13) You’d sign the rental agreement, email it back, and pay the invoice
14) Sarah would send you the PDF of the parts
15) After your concert, you’d try to remember to mail a program to Sarah, so we could document the performance for BMI licensing
16) You’d forget
17) Sarah would email you, asking for the program, which you’d send
18) Once every 5 years or so, I would add your performance to a list on the website, but that was a single webpage, with all manually-entered text. I eventually gave up on that, so there was no way you could see who played what, when, but even if you had wanted to, you’d have to SCROLL THROUGH A NON-SEARCHABLE LIST OF LIKE SIX HUNDRED PERFORMANCES IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER.

Well, that sounds just miserable. I can’t believe anyone ever ordered anything.

I wanted it to be easy for everyone. And now it is.

Now the process is:
1) Go to the Music page, where you can see basically every piece I’ve written since I was 15. You can search by category, difficulty, title – whatever. You can even hear pieces you’d never have heard otherwise!
2) Go to the page for the piece you’ve selected.
3) Select how many scores you want, then select the performance date(s) from a clickable calendar.
4) Add those to your cart.
5) Go through the checkout process, where you’re presented on-screen with your rental agreement, which you click to agree.
6) You receive your watermarked set of parts within seconds of checkout.
7) Your performance date(s) automatically go onto the Performance Calendar.
8) Your performance information automatically goes to BMI.
9) You have a GREAT PERFORMANCE and were so thrilled by the ease of the experience that you immediately come back and order more.

Finding a developer who could code it – and make it look like the beautiful design! – was not easy. I eventually found somebody in France – a friend of a friend – and he was unbelievably slow, but he seemed good. Then he begged me for the rest of the money with the site maybe 60% done, I agreed, hoping it might speed things along, and he GHOSTED ME. So I didn’t have to just find somebody new – I had to find somebody who wanted to finish the site AND fix all of the bugs that still existed in the other developer’s code.

I did eventually find somebody wonderful, and finally – here we are! A new, beautiful site, with tons of functionality that will make it easier to find music, listen to music, and order it.

I’m pretty excited about it. And I’m happy you’re here!

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How I Spent My Teen Years

Whenever I do a Q&A with a band, inevitably somebody asks me:

“What instrument do you play?”

When I answer, “none,” there’s skepticism, and then the logical follow-up question, “how did you get into writing music if you never played an instrument?”

The answer is that I have always used a computer – from the time I was really young.  My grandfather was an amateur musician who played clarinet, oboe, and flute in community orchestras – and in the Army years before that – and who, as a career, owned a music store and repaired instruments.  One afternoon, when I was about 11 years old, he showed me how to write music using a music program on his Apple IIe – a program called Music Construction Set. You’d grab rhythmic values from the bottom of the screen, drag them to the piano staff using a joystick (yes, a single-button, Atari 2600-style joystick), and then press “FIRE” on the piano icon, and your music would play.  Here’s one of the original demos from that software:

I had nothing to do with that demo, so I can’t take credit or responsibility for the ending!

My dad got me a Commodore 64 for my birthday that year, and I got my own copy of Music Construction Set for Christmas, and started writing music. I mean, “music.” It was awful, and none of that earliest stuff survives.  The software was incredibly limited, as you can see from the above example. It couldn’t play triplets, unless you wanted what I call “marching band triplets” – dotted-8th, dotted-8th, 8th. Sounds and tempo had to be consistent throughout the piece, and – worst of all – so did time signatures! I’m still trying to right that wrong with pieces like “Wine-Dark Sea.”

Before long, I got a new program called SidPlayer.  This program allowed much more control over the three voice sound chip in the computer. (Yes, I was limited to only three notes at a time.) I could change meters, tempo, and sounds. I could approximate articulations or vibrato. I could “fake” a crescendo by programming a slow attack value for a note. As an 11-12 year old, it felt like I could do just about anything.  The editor looked like this:

Mostly, at that age, I didn’t write my own music – but I did write some.  Here’s my earliest piece.  There was apparently something before this – I indicated this was “opus 2!” – but in my memory, this was really the first piece. (Maybe “opus 1” was everything I wrote in my early pre-12 years?) I wrote this for my grandfather (intending him to play the clarinet part). The movie “Amadeus” had just come out, and I was obsessed with it, so I wrote a “Lacrimosa.” I seemed to think it was in Bb minor because the key signature had 5 flats, but it’s in Eb dorian. Go easy on me – I was 12 (and no Mozart). Also, I have no idea why I didn’t try to make the “clarinet” sound like a clarinet.

It went on a little from there, but you get the idea, and there’s no need to make you suffer through more of a 12-year-old’s idea of angst.

Here’s a piece I wrote in 8th grade, when I was 13 years old.  I still kind of like it – especially for being by a 13-year-old dork.  Abby thinks I should use take this tune I wrote in middle school, transform it, and use it as the tune for a middle school piece I’m about to write. I think I just may do that. I kind of love the idea of a piece for middle school kids using material written by the composer when they were actually in middle school.

When I wasn’t writing my own music (or “music”), I went to the library and checked scores out, took them home, and painstakingly programmed that music into the software – again, using a joystick.  In SidPlayer, you’d edit one voice at a time – you couldn’t see the other voices while editing a voice. That’s probably why I write so many ostinatos now (and why my publishing company is Osti Music) – because it was easier to keep a repeated figure in my head while I wrote a new layer on top of that layer (being unable to actually hear the first layer while writing the second).  I mean, you hear nothing but loops in that above piece.

So I’d select a voice, slide the joystick up or down a piano staff until you got to the pitch I wanted, move the joystick left or right to select the rhythm, then press FIRE and the note would be entered.  Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.  Imagine doing this for a three-part Bach fugue, and it’s not so bad:

(That’s maybe my favorite Bach fugue – largely because of the jazzy little ending.)

That 2 minutes probably took a day to enter – and I programmed all six Bach Brandenburg Concertos this way.  (That link is to my arrangements of the complete Brandenburgs. You’ve been warned.) That alone is about 90 minutes of music.  It never sounded “good,” but it was an incredible way to learn about music — voice leading, transposition (since I had to manually transpose the instruments – and those Brandenburgs had some unusual horn and trumpet transpositions), and arranging (since I had to reduce pieces to 3 maximum notes at once).

I programmed a ridiculous amount of music into this software. The last movement of the Dvorak Cello Concerto. The complete “Peter and the Wolf” by Prokofiev.  The first movement of the Haydn D Major Piano Concerto. The complete Barber Violin Concerto, and the first two movements of his piano concerto – and the Adagio for Strings. (You haven’t truly felt pain until you’ve heard an 8-bit computer playing Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as interpreted by a 15-year-old.) I programmed most of the Poulenc Gloria. I even programmed the complete “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky. Yes, it sounded awful, but it was fun, and without trying, I was learning a lot about music.

I mentioned that the Commodore 64 could only play three notes at a time.  I eventually got a SECOND Commodore 64, hooked one up to each of the two stereo channels on my receiver, hit the space bar on both at the same time, and got SIX GLORIOUS 8-BIT SOUNDS AT ONCE!  Shortly thereafter, a cartridge became available that contained a second sound chip, so everything could be done with a single computer. WOW! Six notes at once on ONE COMPUTER!!!

Here’s the first movement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” as sequenced by me when I was probably 15 or so. Does it sound good? No, it sounds awful. Plus, I was working from a piano reduction, which assigned the bongos to pitches in the piano part – so I programmed those pitches. But this is the piece that taught me about 7/8.  (So, you can blame Bernstein for most of my music.)

Here’s the second movement of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. It’s gorgeous music – but you wouldn’t know it from this. But you can hear that I was trying to make it sound a least a little musical, adding programmed rubato all over the place. And if you’ve heard my piece “Hymn to a Blue Hour,” you’ve heard the piece of mine that is essentially a huge rip off of this piece.

So when somebody says, “this is how you spent your teen years? Not chasing girls, but this?” I have to admit, “I tried chasing girls. They were not interested. So I spent a lot of time playing with my joystick.”


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Jessie At Home says

This makes me giggle.
As one of my other old HS friends pointed out to me, we were clueless in HS. There were more girls interested in you than you realized, John. I seem to remember several friends of mine going all doe~eyed when you were around.
But, it all works out the way it is supposed to in the end. :)

Aaron richards says

Loved the barber! One of my favorite pieces and it was so awesome to hear it in that way, see you at TMEA!

Aaron richards says

Loved the barber! One of my favorite movements ever and was awesome to hear it in that way, see you at TMEA!

Hunter says

When i was in middle school/a freshman in high school (06-09) i had this midi guitar tablature program called tabit. its website a lot of people would post tabs every day of not only tab outs of classics and random tunes and dittys and all sorts of things (with midi guitars and way more than all you had of course). The almost forumy culture of that website and how simple it was and so many things getting posted and the rating system, it had a serious impact on my development as a songwriter and i definitely relate to. the site now is dead but this post has made me redownload the software and listen to all my old weird stuff. great read.

Jonathan says

I feel like we all have these kinds of stories. I remember when I first got Finale Notepad 09. I wrote probably thirty bassoon duets because I like bassoons. I did the same for trombones and violins and basically every instrument I didn't understand. It is really strange to stop and look back at all the old stuff, genesis. I remember rewriting the Jurasic Park and Harry Potter themes (was a big John Williams fan) for various instrumentations just to see what it sounded like. And though I would like to say I've matured as a composer from middle school until now, at the end of the day I'm still just a kid fucking around on his laptop. But I guess I still have plenty of time to grow out of that!

Ola says

Hors Concours sounds exactly like, and if I may hazard a guess, might be just a little bit influenced by 80s arcade music. Theme from an imaginary horse racing game? (I'll get me coat.)

Sarah says

Okay, this peek into your early years is interesting, but 6 months ago you promised photos of your house renovation. Come on!

Kerry J. Gilliard says

Your story reminds me a bit of how I ended up training my ear (almost 'perfect' pitch). Strange musical things happen to 10-14 year olds.

Nicholas Gioletti says

Which would you say your favorite instrument is?
I've listen to your incredibly characteristic music lately and I'm stunned that you're able to use every single instrument in the ensemble so well!
Do you have a favorite at all?

Aaron says

Such an interesting and inspirational story of how you got into composition! I try to compose a few things as well but they certainly don't come close to the quality of your music. Really hope I can write a song that's anywhere near half as good as anything you've ever written one day!

Luis R says

That last line was perfect. I know what you mean.

Jon M. Hamilton says

As a young composer myself (19), I find this very inspiring and motivating. Lots of my music is inspired by by what you write and how you orchestrate chords. I'm a very big fan of dissonance. I find it more beautiful and intriguing than regular 1-3-5 chords and other basic chords.
Reading your story really gave me a boost!

Thanks, Mr. Mackey!

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