The Intent of Art


I had a conversation with a close friend of mine the other day (5/30/2015) about the intent of art and what makes a music “product” for consumption and who consumes it. This was what he wrote on the subject and I thought it was appropriate to share with you.

It seems that it’s not as much of even the music that I play but the conviction of it, and how much I and the band believe what we’re doing. Sure you need the other sides – marketing, playing the right rooms. Yes the product needs to be there, but you can sell a lot, and it could go many different ways and be equally successful.

When the Intent of Art Changes


                           In regards to the current recording methods and process of modern popular music, I feel that we have lost honesty and integrity in the art, among many other truths. What happens when the intent of art changes? When that initial spark of inspiration is fanned by a wad of cash? When you have time and time again to pick apart a MOMENT, it doesn’t work. When you try to make something perfect through unnatural means, it doesn’t work. Those things don’t work in life or nature and they don’t work in music and art.

In the earlier days of recording you had to get tune down in all one take, without many edits and fixes.   In this manner, you capture the fluidity of a sentiment, the whole story so to say, and if it’s a real talent, the story will be interesting. That story could change from one take to the next, it could change drastically in the course of a day, but whatever it was it would be captured fully and honestly.

“I went to the live show and they sounded terrible”. Why is this statement so prevalent? There are some real-deal, straight to the heart talents out there and they, of course, set the bar. When everyone else without as much to give want to sound great and sell records like the talents do, they are forced to find a way other than the natural one. Those people now have the means to do it, with pro tools, auto-tune, and beat detective. Even many of those who are so gifted use these crutches because it has become such a standard. Though in my eyes much more is lost than gained. More is lost in the actual process and what it meant to record to tape. The great care that went into finding the right song and players, Rehearsing the arrangement (and not in different parts of the country), and then that special moment that no one can explain when all take in one breath together and begin to play, in the same room…together. As we move further away from this direction the natural progression is for us to be less appreciative of those more naturally musical and artistic people, as a society. The singers and storytellers. The people who pass it all on.

All this said, I still believe that people can feel when it is truly from the heart and when someone knocks their Fucking socks off with a breathtaking, emoting voice or brings tears by way of a haunting melody. But if there is less and less of real art being pursued, displayed, and represented in the public forums, will it continue to disappear further? Or at least lose the grit and salvation of humanity realized, because the world has changed? Will it continue the purpose of art and represent exactly what has happened to society, and it’s me who doesn’t like my surroundings? As humans I don’t think we’ve changed much in the last bit of our development, our needs are close to the same, maybe more worries, maybe not. But if we keep buying what they’re selling, soon we’ll have tainted the fertile soil of creation, and that which does grow will never be the same. But everyday many artists are born, and they are already hardwired to challenge all that exists and will exist in their time, for that is a cornerstone of art itself

-Mixers only look at screens now

-People recorded so they could have more and wouldn’t have to go to a club or to that city or town to see a specific person

-it doesn’t sound like that when you perform live so why would you want to give the people a misrepresentation of who you are

Here is the score I have been mesmerized by recently. Alan Hovhaness Symphony No. 2



2014 In Review


Here we are again, looking back on a year of battles won and lost. Looking back on a year always includes a bit of deception for me, at least as far as my memory of time goes. The one thing I took from looking back on this year was how my perception was so skewed. I had a couple of rough patches and I let myself remember those as the definitive times of the year, and further let it define my attitude towards all of 2015. The reality is that I have gone through a lot of ups and downs and experiences this year. To judge them at all is not only incorrect but also not very healthy.

I hosted far more events with live music then every before. I wrote more music consistently, and with a higher level of musicianship. I took a lot of chances and let a lot of opportunities slip past me. I conducted more frequently than ever before, and I realized some things about myself and my values that give me solace and a sense of empowerment. So, here it is: my life in 2015 with all it’s ups and downs without judgement.



I hosted my first of 3 improv gigs at Aster Cafe and started a house band of my own original tunes, “Velma” with Nelson Devereaux (Flute/Ten. Sax), Ben Kelly (Bass), & Andy Fleeser (Rhodes) for a Zombie-themed bar called “Donny Dirks Zombie Den”.

This was really liberating for me as a composer and organizer because I was able to get great musicians to play a bunch of weird experimental music I was writing. The genres I was given by the owner of the bar were: 70s porn/50s Vegas Lounge/80s Horror film. The residency didn’t last long for one reason or another but we had a great time.

This was also the month a lot of friends went up to Kevin Dorsey’s cabin to celebrate Todd Smith’s bachelor party. We played a lot of ping pong and had a lot of great eye opening conversations that eventually led me to breaking up with my girlfriend of a year and a half.


ChelseaIMG_1993 and I broke up on good terms after deciding we were better off as friends. This was a hard decision but definitely an important one for me.

After only two seasons in the Minnesota Flag Football league, I took my team to the Championship and won! We finished the season 8-4 and took home a memorial shirt along with our new Jerseys. “Cool Ranch” made a name for itself.

I spent a lot of time writing a couple arrangements for LA Buckner’s recital and Potted Meet Mondays as he was the featured musical guest in February. Martin Dosh showed up to that one, and we had quite a large turnout for only our third event. These are quiet months in Minneapolis.


IMG_2112This month I sold my first house as a Real Estate agent of Keller Williams to my friend Madelynn. She and I were both happy and everything went smoothly. I think we both have a special place in each other’s lives because of this and the last two years of friendship. I value our relationship greatly.

I also wrote and conducted all the music for the very first episode of Ben Kelly’s live variety show called, “Bear & the Barrel”. In March I couldn’t have realized the extent of what I was going to learn from doing 4 of these shows this year but it marks my life so far as being the largest professional gig in my career. Over the course of four shows I wrote 38 arrangements for every genre of music, some live underscore and 4 live film scores (2 of which were improvised using both written “gestures” and hand signals I created). From the research I’ve done, I have yet to come across any evidence that a partially or completely improvised film score has been created for a live audience, using a conductor. What a monumental shift in what I thought I was capable of achieving.

A picture of the main theme I wrote for the show is shown on the right. It’s in the style of Count Basie and orchestrated how Sammy Nestico might have done.


In April I was independently hired for another Chris Jopp film called, “Motion Poem”. The film is about some of the different Psychological thoughts on humans and their patterns. It has a little bit of an existentialist twist to it which was fun to bring out in the music. This marks a special film score for me for two reasons: First, it’s one of the only times I’ve mixed live instruments with electronic instruments and techniques and secondly, it was the first time I’ve recorded a film score that had guided improvisation for the players. I wrote out some chord changes and gestures for part of the score and let them come up with what they heard based on some background tracks I created previously. The effect was marvelous. Later this year, the music would be used for a live play in Los Angeles created by a middle school friend of mine by the name of Jessica Richmond. I’ve attached a YouTube link to the film and a Soundcloud link to the score:

I also asked long standing friend and bassoonist, Trent Jacobs to be a featured artist for Potted Meet Mondays. The result was I sketched out the first and second movement to an electric bassoon concerto that involves both improvised conducting and more improvising that normal for the bassoonist.

IMG_2120I was asked by an old professor, Sean McMahon to host a master’s class on film scoring and the result was my realization for my love for teaching as well as being featured on Charlie McCarron’s podcast, “Composer Quest”. I have copied the link below.

If that wasn’t enough, I also cowrote an original score to my second live theater show for Theater In The Round. All in all, it was a busy month.


IMG_2019May was far less eventful musically but emotionally it was charged. My cousin and best friend Brandon came to visit me in Minnesota and we drove down to Iowa to visit his twin sister Brooke. I don’t know how healthy or open minded I would be if it weren’t for Brandon and Brooke. We have been through a lot of things together both bad and good and although all three of us are supremely different in our every day decisions, I can’t imagine two people who know me better. After the ups and downs in the first part of 2015 and his trip out to Minnesota, it was obvious that Brandon has been the Yang to my Yin. This was a special trip indeed.

This month I also got close to a new friend and roommate, Eli Elstad. We stayed up many nights talking about personality traits and chess tactics. I will always look back on these memories with great fondness. I don’t know when circumstances will align again and this will be possible so I will never forget it.


IMG_2520Brandon’s trip ended early in June with a bike pub crawl. Maybe 12 of us rented NiceRide bikes and took them to six different bars where there were docking stations outside. After a drink, we would hop on the bikes again and head to the next bar. Nothing could be cooler than my best friend becoming family with all my friends in Minnesota.

Ben and I also undertook our second year of Gossip Orchestra in the Northern Spark Festival. Gossip Orchestra was our way of getting non musicians involved in the creation and spontaneity of Improvised music: 12 musicians set up in a circle (with a gap at one side as an entrance). Each musician has a button and a light set up in front of them and an iPad is set up in the center of the circle. Viewers are allowed to enter the circle 1 or 2 at a time and push the buttons in front of the musicians which turns on the light and tells them to start improvising. The iPad at the center has 9 squares on it with different colors. All colors are linked to a word that guides the “flavor” of the improvisation but only the musicians know what the words are. When a color is tapped, all lights in front of musicians that are on turn to that color, and the result is a change in the improvised style. We played all night from midnight to 6am. My fingers were sore from hitting the keys.


IMG_2655July marked the second Bear & the Barrel show and my mom came to visit me. I don’t know if it was the pressure of the second show, or having my mom there with so much going on, or maybe the reality of not having Chelsea in my everyday life hitting me, but July was a really hard month for me. Maybe the hardest month I’ve had. I hit some low points and at one point thought about some dark solutions. Todd and I had many talks as well as with my mom and others. I wrote some of my most idiomatic work and invented a notation style for doing partially improvised live film scores. It was extremely successful.

IMG_2648The end of the month capped off with Ben and I donating a week to East Side City Arts Council- Art Mobile. We went around to different parks and taught kids about music, how to build a kazoo and generally marched around banging things together.
After this month I decided I needed to make a change in my lifestyle and I gave up smoking pot. This had been pretty habitual for me since I was 21 and although the effects weren’t immediate, the result has been life changing. Having depressants in my life on a regular basis doesn’t do me well as I am easily susceptible to negative thoughts. The rest of the year got progressively easier after this huge decision. I’m grateful to my friends for supporting me on this.


IMG_2769August, I didn’t write very much music but I got to conduct Brian Lenz’s musical for the Fringe Festival, “Pandora’s Box”. This is the most conducting of one show I’ve ever done and I was very pleased with the outcome both of the music and harnessing my skills as a leader and communicator.

Much to my mother’s dismay, I also got another tattoo. In fact, my first color tattoo. Of my original concept David O’Donnell of Broken Hearts Tattoo Club gave me a very beautiful and illustrative image of a living “tree-boy” on the outside of my left calf. It was a six hour sit and the last two hours were not pleasant but the outcome was magnificent.

As if to say, the world isn’t as hard as you think it is, I got a job teaching middle schoolers private composition lessons. They came in one at a time in two hour sessions with the lyrics and basic idea of a song that I was to transform and expand upon to their liking. This was amazing musically and developmentally for both me and the kids but one little girl changed me. In asking her the song she wrote about her sister with Cerebral Palsy, this little girl felt comfortable enough with me to divulge some very personal information on how she came to appreciate her sister so much. Five years ago (almost to the day) she was 8 years old, when she witnessed her mother and father’s death by her father’s own hand. This brave 8 year old climbed on top of her sister and covered her eyes while reaching for the phone and dialing 9-1-1.

She told me that experience made her grateful to have her sister and appreciative of life. I took to not complaining as a lifestyle.


IMG_2646In September I got hired by my college piano teacher Leah Siltberg to be the conductor of handbells and choir at First Christian Church in Uptown. This is a blessing since it is so hard to get these jobs with no prior experience. For the first time in my life I am getting paid monthly to be a musician who leads other musicians. There couldn’t be a better job for me at this point in my life.

This month Bill and I restructured Potted Meet Mondays to make it more sustainable with a bigger crew of workers and said goodbye to Chelsea as a member of our staff. These are big changes for PMM but we have a lot of confidence in what the next couple of years will bring to our organization. September was memorialized by having an all string Improvestra. What a sound that was!

I wrote a lot of music this month and bought myself a bike getting ready to turn 30.


IMG_2933I turned 30 years old and organized a 30 mile bike ride with friends. At certain points along the way, I told stories of that age in my life that corresponded to the mile we were biking. Also, I asked friends to write me letters of advice for my fourth decade. Those who weren’t able to bike with me would be posted at different points on the route and hand off the letter and wish us well. After the ride, a lot of people met at my place and helped make pizzas and a bonfire. We drank and told stories all night. It was the perfect way to kick off the decade and say goodbye to the last.

George Krikes and King Washington came into town while they were on tour every weekend in October and November. They were the featured musical artist for Potted Meet Mondays and my relationship with George became a bond that won’t break under any circumstances.

IMG_3035Our 3rd episode of Bear & the Barrel was a halloween show and it featured some of my favorite music from Ben Kelly and for sure my favorite film of the four episodes. I wrote Danny Elfman like music to a horror comedy called “Melonheads”. The music was slap-stick, horrifying, driving and extremely colorful. I wrote a lot of Bi-tonal music with weird modulations and movements. It has been my favorite music to date. The main theme, I stole from Mahler 3 and in the opening I put it against a modulated version of another section in Mahler 3 creating a Mahler on Mahler collage of sound with a hint of me in the orchestration. I like to think of myself in this period of my life as a smahler Mahler :-).

I got a little better at chess openings and was Finn (from the cartoon Adventure Time) for Halloween. Life had definitely improved since the second episode of Bear & the Barrel.


IMG_3012I took in a cat from outside Madelynn’s house and named her Ding. I think she is a long haired siamese around 4 or 5. She is sweet as can be and loves to be held over my shoulder and sit on my Rhodes while I write music. My dog is enamored and they both sleep on my bed whether I’m on it or not.

Improvestra started gigging out more and opened for King Washington at the Turf Club and closed out an art gallery for Gamut. I got a new music student from New York who is a prolific song writer named Elizabeth Ziman.

I started the “Gin & Stout Chess Club” with some buddies and for the first two months ever, financially leaned on music alone. Starting to feel very confident in myself and my abilities. I am comfortable being who I am. I started dating again after a couple of failed attempts.

Snow fell for the first time since last winter and I am really looking forward to the final episode of Bear & the Barrel in December.


282280Bear & the Barrel’s last episode was a hit! We sold out every show and the incredible Coffee Pot Orchestra was the only force in supporting Brian Just. The film score was a little bit of Randy Newman and a lot of cliche but went off without a hitch. I wrote 8 arrangements and a 7 min film score in 7 days. I feel confident that I can do anything I want musically.

Potted Meet Mondays celebrated it’s 1 year anniversary! What a journey that has been. I’ve written at least one arrangement every month for that (13 in all). I couldn’t be happier with how I am making my stance in the twin cities and in the music community.

I started a hashtag called #mugaday for the month of January where I auction off a unique mug everyday on Facebook to the first person to show me a receipt that they donated ANY amount of money to ANY charity.

I got my first Chess student online and started playing in some online tournaments. My uncle Dan came out and visited me for about 4 days. We had a blast talking about Grandpa and music and telling each other jokes. I am finally able to have deep meaningful conversations about the abstract and practical implications of music with Dan. I got a notification regarding the foreclosure of the house I live in and have made movements towards buying it.

In Conclusion & Goals:

I am excited to start the new year and have a feeling it might hold the start to a couple of new relationships.

Non-specific goals I have include: Donating more time to those in need and promoting charitable work; building stronger, longer lasting relationships with people who deserve my love and time; working on becoming a more complete version of myself mentally, physically and emotionally as well as accepting my natural traits and tendencies instead of trying to be something I can’t be for the sake of someone else. I would also like to spend more time being organized, consistent & cherishing important memories.

More specific goals I have include: Recording my first album of my own tunes; recording at least 15 other works (hopefully for Brian Just and Scott Bergman); doing 4 film scores; continuing to expand Potted Meet Mondays; take on more music and chess students; visit 2 new places (Austin for sure), be open to new possibilities; and finally, to let myself be okay with NOT taking on projects or other people’s problems.

This is an exciting time in my life and I’m ready to take on the more difficult challenges that adulthood holds. Thank you for reading.

Song a Week (1/27/14)

Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 is especially special to me after it was the topic of a final paper in a class titled “Piano Music of the 19th Century” created by Michael Holloway, Josh Bourdon and I and taught by Linda Chachiolades.

It’s my belief that it paints the picture of a story written by Adam Mickiewicz named, “Konrad Wallenrod”. The story is meant to inspire the uprising in Poland regarding the partitioning of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

The music follows the story and the emotion of the main character almost flawlessly.

Artistry and Craftsmanship

In every musicians life he will have many discussions about his “artistry” and what it means to be an artist. In music school, there are often questions or concerns on learning archaic styles or practices of music. This seems like a contextual problem to me. Let me see if I can shed a little light.

Recently I spoke with a composition student of mine who put up some defenses regarding the music he writes. From his point of view, I stifle his creativity by limiting what he can do. So I ask my student about the reason for his defenses.

“Do you feel like I am infringing on your creativity?”

“Yeah I guess I do.” He says, “How am I supposed to say what I need to say with all of these rules and margins?”

I think about this quietly for a while and then respond with another question. “How difficult would it be to explain the complex feeling you get when your wife engages in conversation with a good-looking man? Her eyes fix on his and she is connecting with him mentally. Jealousy is an easy answer but how does jealousy feel? How would you describe the feeling of jealousy?” Knowing my student’s weakness and insecurities, this is a difficult and emotionally charged question.

He is immediately and visually upset and with his mouth slightly parted, his eyes search the ground as if following a ‘connect the dot’ pattern that isn’t there. He is trying to hold back his feelings and understand them simultaneously. After a moment he responds, “I’m not sure. It’s difficult to understand that feeling. It’s a lot like anger but the way it makes me feel is hard to put into words.”

“It’s almost as if the English language isn’t enough, or maybe, if you don’t mind, you don’t have enough understanding of the language to express yourself correctly.” I ask him, “If you have spoken English everyday for 29 years and were taught correct usage of English in school, then why is it so difficult to express these regularly occurring feelings?”  I answer myself, “Because the artistry of expression is the most difficult craft to master, especially through a disjunct and awkward medium like the English language. Now imagine a language that is intangible and primarily based in emotion and perception. The risk-reward factor is much higher. We, as composers and creators of music, have the ability to make people feel how we feel and understand the nuances in such complicated emotions as jealousy, but with their own comprehension.”

Finally I answer his question, “I put barriers around your composition to focus your energy towards content in the lesson plan in hopes that you harness each tool. This will one day give you the ability to build a mansion with your extended language. That is the work of a craftsman, and hopefully one day someone will look at your work and see the artistry.”

As I grow older, I understand my grandfather’s teachings and in turn, more and more I understand him. I wish he were here.

What’s In A Name?

Talking with Todd Smith today about names for the new generation we are on the forefront of creating. It seems kind of strange to think that we are, as a people, generally responsible for naming the people destined to take over. I guess thinking of those “people” as adults is tripping up my perspective.

He told me they (he and Jacy) have already decided as a couple that Everett will be the name of their first-born son, assuming they have one. It’s a good name for a boy, Everett “Rhett” Mitchell Smith. I like the name Cotton Ferguson to continue my lineage. I think it has a certain amount of charisma. It’s an older style of name, which I like because it pays homage to an older generation of good, hard-working men and women. Cotton Ferguson starts at the back of the mouth with a soft but powerful “K” sound and closes on a tongued consonant that acts like a springboard into the last name.

“Name” as food for thought.  

Song a Week (1/20/14)

Today’s song is brought to you by my friend and ex-roommate Todd Smith: Thundercats, “Is It Love?” took me a while to appreciate. It does have an instant grove and nice feeling but I don’t tend to rely on that. This song also has that “artsy” feel that takes me a while to enjoy. Not an easily comprehendible melody, more abstract ideas but still simple. I grew to love it, especially the melody in the chorus. The lyrics are nice how they describe a destitute lover that regrets holding on so tight. When you love someone, you have to trust that they will love you back without holding them down. So here ya go:



Film Composition Folley

Recently, I was hired by a director to score a short film. This is the story of how I try and make a living.

I meet a man at the gym in the sauna where both of our members are exposed. It’s a little awkward for a first meeting but I feel confident that we’ll hang just fine. He agrees to listen to my soundcloud account and I agree to watch his most recent film. A couple of days later we speak again and express enjoyment at each other’s work enough to talk further about working together. He brags something about “commissioning” a composer to write a song for his last film. I think to imply that he has done this before but it’s a strange thing to say. Almost as if he is defending himself against an attack on his experience that isn’t being made. The “composer” turns out to be his niece, which is strange but like my grand daddy always said, “there’s no such think as a naked liar”. Well, I don’t know that he ever said anything like that but I’m confident that he would have if the opportunity presented itself.

This new director, which I will from now on refer to as Dick, is a retired architect so my assumption that he is a man of politics, structure and aesthetics is strong. I see Dick as a man with enough money to retire in his fifties and pick up film making as a fun adventure in his new life. This makes sense as it allows him to still be the boss and flex his creative muscles. He hasn’t made three films and is novice to the process of film making but confident in his ability to create. He sends me the script of his newest film in progress. It is good. (Surprisingly good compared to the dribble he sent me when we first met). He prefaces this latest email with “I’m not sure if I told you or not but everyone on my films work on a volunteer basis, that is to say, you won’t be getting paid”. (Thanks for decoding that for me Dick.) The film features a panhandler that plays a clarinet and has no voice to speak of so the character’s emotion is extremely dependent on the melodies he plays.

In response to Dick’s email, I tell him that I love the script and will work on his 10 min short for the same price as the clarinetist he will need to hire for a days work: $100. This is a severely deflated price but I believe in the script and the potential for more money in the future. He declines me using flattery and repeating that the entire staff is on a volunteer basis including the professional clarinetist he has already contracted. I begrudgingly accept no money in exchange for lending my services to his film. Dick is thrilled at having a real composer working on his film for free. I am ready for the challenge of writing solo clarinet music.

His latest email talks all about his “vision” and uses contrasting, generic descriptors for the music. “I envision jazzy blues pop clarinet infused with upbeat dancey type sounds. Then it gets more sad and I need a sonata.”

It sounds like this Dick has been marinating in a sauna of his own cerebral juices for too long. A sonata is a classical form in music not a style or genre. This might not seem so bad to anyone else but in my experience, a director is a lot like the manager of a business and when your job is telling stories, language is too important to be squandered. A phrase like “I envision” or “I need” is maybe a little pretentious and assuming when talking to a professional who is working for free.

For a little perspective, imagine if you will, me hiring Dick to design a small guest house for my property but asking him to do it “for the love of a creative endeavor” (as he so eloquently put it in his email to me). Dick agrees because he wants to get his name out as a young architect. Then I describe what MY vision is for the creative side of the guest house by using similar descriptive words: “I envision a woody modern classic look for the structure of the guest house. Then I need it to be a Frank Lloyd Wright”.

Working as a film composer is highly rewarding on many levels, generally speaking. Working hand in hand with a director who has many more obligations and a larger span of vision makes my job as a facilitator very inspiring. This is all to say if the director knows how to do the one job that is required of a person in that position. The main responsibilities of a professional who oversees every facet of a project is to convey the ideal direction in which to head and delegate the tasks to professionals who head each department. In other words, they should use whatever tactics necessary to help the cinematographer understand the shots desired and then let him find the best way to get it done. This is a great business model. This is how creativity flows.