My Bachelors in Music is from Eastern Michigan University, which has a typical classical music program. There, I studied the theory of the traditional Western art music tradition primarily. The guitar program was small and enjoyable, somewhat more dynamic than the music program as a whole. Overall, I felt disconnected from many other students who had much more performance experience and technical training but little or no creative or theoretical experience.
I continued to record and compose and finished a couple short pieces. I also explored recording some fun, improvisatory tracks with friends. I studied classical guitar technique and traditional literature and greatly improved my technique through hours of regular practice. I also took formal lessons in composition for the first time.
Here are some examples of work from that period which was not formally published:
Scnuggets, written in 2001, is a MIDI composition that has exceptionally detailed percussion layers. I initially conceived it as a background to which a rap or melody (or both or more) could be added, but never got around to settling on something. I appreciate the depth of the groove as is, and it is an excellent jam-track to improvise over.
Dedication in A, my first solo guitar piece, was written for my
girlfriend (now wife) Samantha. I later revised it, and I
have a few different recordings with varying interpretations.
Bushes, also produced in 2001, is partially an example of recorded improvisation. I improvised the guitar theme, and then my friend, Robbie Reid, improvised all of the lyrics and vocals on the spot - that's him singing, not me. I then edited and composed around it, adding all the other parts.
Tango is a piece by Francisco Tárrega that I played at my senior recital in 2004. It is actually one of the simpler pieces of the recital, but is one that I know is public domain songs and I can legally distribute online. The other pieces I played were Koyunbaba by Carlo Domeniconi, three of the guitar solo pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos, a couple other pieces by Tárrega, and a couple contemporary pieces by Francis Bebey and by Andrew York.
My introduction to barbershop harmony
In 2001, while starting my second year as a music major, I met Drew De Four, a singer and exceptionally talented pop-style pianist. Though we jammed and talked of band possibilities, we actually ended up together in a barbershop quartet. Short version of the story: it took about two years of exposure and trial (including lots of semi-rehearsed, unsolicited performances imposed on our peers) before something clicked and I started to really get what this whole barbershop thing really was.
Barbershop harmony at first seems like just another interesting style of music, but it has some wonderful aspects that make it quite distinct. Fundamentally, four guys are hanging out and trying to harmonize a known tune. Over time, this hobby developed into quite complex stuff that is limited primarily by the physics of human voices. However, the tunes do historically come from the American classical/pop tradition, and there is certainly some classical influence. There is a focus on the 7th partial of the harmonic series, which is culturally more common in Africa than in Europe, although it is a natural occurrence that has had influence in harmony all over the world.
The main thing barbershop brought to me was a focus on harmony. The melodic voice-leading of the parts is less important to the style than the resulting fused, "ringing" harmony. Barbershoppers even hold chords for extraordinary lengths just to enjoy the sound of the blend. The subtleties of the best blend only happen with very careful listening and tuning.
After I learned what to listen for, an entire sensitivity to pitch opened to me that I had not experienced before. I tried to tune my guitar and my Stick more sensitively only to find, to my frustration, that it was impossible to tune one chord without damaging the tuning of another. The resulting exploration into tuning, tuning history, theory, and physics consumed my focus and time for the next few years. I read the vast majority of available literature, discussed things with professors, friends, and online groups that shared my interest. Though an overly simple summary, the idea is: there is an infinite range of possible pitch possible (within the limits of human hearing) beyond and between the limited notes of the piano or guitar. Certain combinations will blend in various ways and have varying degrees of tolerance to the human ear based on complex issues of the physics, and the physiology and psychology of the listener. (2010 UPDATE: I have completed a treatise on the subject as it applies to barbershop theory and hope to publish it in some form after dealing with editorial feedback on the draft)
I learned much in completing a music degree. Unfortunately, in the course of really mastering music traditions, theory, and technical skills, my creative output drastically reduced. I learned how hard it can be to balance creative exploration with technical, ambitious study of an instrument or style. The creative possibilities now seem more vast than ever, making it even harder to sit down and feel I have enough time to realize an idea. I do not regret the degree, but I have a lot of disagreement with the approach to music education that seems typical of American universities like EMU. As a teacher, I hope to help my students navigate all these things better than my teachers did for me. Learning from history and tradition, spending time being personally creative, and learning technical performance skills are all valuable in music study.
© Aaron Wolf