The Long And Winding Road, Part III
"Oh, when I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Yeah, I'd always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life"
-- "Summer of 69", Bryan Adams
Thanks for reading The Many Worlds of Neal Hallford! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Some late night following the end of my first semester at the University of Oklahoma, I'm sprawled on my couch with a bag of Cheetos and re-watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for the billionth time. It's astonishing that the tape even plays considering how many times I've run it through my cheapo yard sale VCR, but it's one of my go-to movies when I need emotional comfort. I can practically recite the entire movie word by word, but I find that there's an I-Ching like quality to it, and different things jump out at me depending on what's going on in my life. Tonight, it happens very early on in the movie, when Kirk and Spock are discussing Kirk's dissatisfaction with his role in Starfleet, and Spock chimes in with one of my favorite lines, "If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material."
Spock's statement really hits me in that moment. I'm only a year and a half away from graduation, but I've been pondering lately whether I'm pursuing my first best destiny. There's no question that I enjoy my classes at OU, particularly the RTF production-oriented classes, and I know that I'm at least a reasonably good writer...but I'm not sure that I actually want to be a journalist after I graduate. I'm uncomfortable with approaching and talking to strangers to begin with. The thought that I'll be required to do that all day, every day for the rest of my career is making me increasingly anxious. I'm balancing this against how I'm actually spending most of my free time, and it's not tallying up with what I say I want to do for a living. While I've absolutely tinkered on several projects in which my narrative skills played an important role, my audio production skills - and particularly my music production skills - have been playing a larger and larger part of my work. Is being a journalist really my heart's desire?
In consideration of the evidence, all I have to do is turn my head and look back into the second bedroom of the tiny house into which I've recently moved. I quaintly call it my office, but for all practical purposes it's a private recording studio. In addition to the Yamaha DX7 and the Fostex 4-track recorder I'd picked up while I was living with my parents in Tulsa, I've now got my Atari 520 ST, a dedicated Yamaha sequencer, a loaner Fender bass guitar, a couple of rack mounted effects units, and a super simple, battery powered Roland Boss DR-220a drum machine that I can carry around in my pocket. I've also got a crappy trap set crammed into my garage because there isn't room enough for it in the office, and the garage is too narrow to house the behemoth of a Buick station wagon that I'm driving these days.
GIMME A BEAT - The Roland Boss DR-220a was a no-frills drum machine, but the price and the convenience made it one of my favorite pieces of kit for a long time.
If all the gear that's accumulated isn't evidence enough that my hobby is something slightly more to me than just a hobby, I also have to consider that I always carry staff paper everywhere, just in case I need to jot down a few bars of something during class. During my breaks at OU, I'm usually parked underneath a tree on the south oval with an issue of Keyboard or Electronic Magazine spread across my lap, and I study each issue as though I'm cramming for a final. At home, I'm spending hours in my office trying to teach myself music theory, creating original compositions with Steinberg Cubase, learning the technical ins and outs of MIDI, and creating countless custom patches for my DX7. While I might not be officially enrolled at OU to learn music, I've definitely been minoring in it on my own time.
ROCKING THE PIANO ROLL - Steinberg Cubase was the first DAW (digital audio workstation) I ever used and was an excellent introduction into the production of electronic music. The "piano roll" view in particular was reassuring because it reminded me so much of my grandmother's player piano, connecting me with some of my earliest memories of playing music on the family farm.
YOU CAN'T DANCE TO THIS ALGORITHM - The Yamaha DX7 synthesizer uses a process called FM Synthesis to generate its sounds (also known as patches). Every patch is created using six oscillators which can be arranged in one of thirty-two possible configurations to create sounds. These configurations are known as algorithms, and the chart above shows those that were originally part of the DX7 architecture. FM synthesis would go on to be used in many later generations of Yamaha synthesizers, and it is still available on several of their latest workstations.
With all of this considered, I decide I need to know more about what I might be giving up before I professionally take the veil. I add two music classes into my already overcrowded schedule and dive in. The first is a rudimentary piano class, useful because I've forgotten most of what I'd learned from my abortive lessons in elementary school, and it demands that I re-learn and practice all my scales. It's good discipline and it restores my belief that music teachers can be decent human beings. This time around, I don't have a psychopathic band director heaving music stands at me if I miss a note. The second class is a bit more abstract, an introduction to electronic music that's a hybrid between a theory and a survey course, but it opens up my eyes - and my ears - to even broader possibilities. In many ways I've already been exploring these ideas at home, but I learn some foundational concepts that would have taken me much longer to figure out on my own.
My dalliance with OU's music department is intoxicating, exhilarating, and even a tad bit dangerous, at least in terms of diverting my attention. I'm studying things there that are wildly more engaging to me than my official course of study, and I find on most days I'd rather be struggling to do something new and musical than cakewalking my way through most of my journalism classes. It's not as if my journalism classes are bad - they're actually quite excellent - but by the time I'd reached OU I'd already honed most of my writing skills in my high school and junior college journalism programs, and the media production skills they were teaching were a bit rudimentary, at least for me. I'd already had four years of practical audio production experience at a radio station before I ever stepped foot on OU's campus as a student. My journalism degree at OU was intended mostly to officially affirm and reinforce what I already knew, while my musical studies were taking me into unexplored territories.
Several times a week, I drift over to Carpenter Hall for inspiration, and I sit and secretly listen to other students as they practice. At other times I turn to the public bulletin boards at Homberg Hall, scouring them for notices about concerts, public lectures, lessons, band auditions, or gear for sale. While I'm wandering through the dark warren of corridors at the back of the main hall, I feel like I'm treading on foreign territory, an alien in a part of town I'm not supposed to know about, waiting for a mysterious guy in an overcoat to pop out of the shadows and whisper "hey kid, want to learn Middle Eastern sambacore?" And maybe it's because of this feeling. Maybe some subconscious part of me knew that something would happen in those hallways that would push me to dig deeper and try something that had been profoundly outside of my musical confidence zone until then.
The event finally happens sometime in 1988. I'm once again at Homberg and lingering over a posted notice for a keyboard when a strange man appears from around the corner. When I look up at him, I find my attention is suddenly and absolutely rivetted on him, and there's an alert going off inside my head...though I'm not immediately sure why. The first and most obvious explanation is that the dude simply has a look about him that's hard to ignore. He's got a Prince-like vibe, a head full of curls, and he's rocking a long, dark coat that immediately marks him out some kind of wild artiste. He's got stage presence out the wazoo, and he isn't even on the stage. I definitely recognize in him a spiritual kinship, but the alert in my head is responding to something else. I know this guy from somewhere, but I'm drawing a blank when it comes to the details. I can't just let this guy walk off without knowing why the hell I'm having this reaction to him, so I wave him down for a well-meaning interrogation.
"Where the hell do I know you from, man?!"
It only takes a brief interchange of questions for us to establish that we've been living on the periphery of each other's lives for a long time. His name is Carvin Knowles, and he's most recently from Tulsa. We've probably crossed paths dozens of times at either fan conventions or possibly through Society for the Creative Anachronism events. The more that we talk, I also realize that it's not just the face that I recognize, but also the name. It's unique in my experience up to that point. Carvin. Though we'd attended different schools and were in different grades, we'd both dated the same girl from my high school. This guy and I had been ghosts in each other's lives for at least a decade.
Once we'd established the common points of our geographies and histories, we got down to talking about the stuff that really mattered: music and gear. He commented that he liked the DX7 pin on the lapels of my jacket, and I shared that I had one at home that was my pride and joy...though I still had a lot to learn with it. As I talk more about it, I see a mad, devilish gleam start to shine in his eyes and he makes me a proposal.
"You want to play in my senior recital?"
"Uhhhh, do I what?"
"I need another keyboard player for my senior recital, and I'd love to have you and your DX7 up there."
He begins to lay out his plan, explaining how we'd sequence the DX7 for a pipe organ part and I'd do a bit of stage acting along with it, dressed in a lab coat. I'd then be back for another number, playing live along with the rest of his stage band as a second keyboardist. It would all be part of his composition recital that he was required to complete in order to graduate from OU.
At first, I was speechless. I was tremendously flattered that he took it on faith to let me, as an absolute stranger for all intents and purposes, go up and play music that he'd written. It was a tremendous honor. At the same time, I was cognizant of the profound risk that he was taking. His grade and his graduation would be riding on the line for this, and if I screwed up somehow, I was concerned that I could jeopardize all of that for this genius madman that I'd just befriended.
As painful as it was to admit, I laid out to him all the reasons why it probably wouldn't be a great idea to use me, not the least of which was that I was more of a composer than a performer. I'd not played in front a live audience since ditching high school band four years earlier. I'd never played keyboards in front of anyone other than a handful of very patient friends (well okay, no keyboard performances apart from a 4th grade piano recital which in no way counted as far as I was concerned.) I could see a dozen different ways this could go south for him, and only one chance in a hundred I wouldn't absolutely fuck it up. Surely, he didn't want to take that chance.
At that point he dug a piece of paper out of his pocket and scribbled down his phone number and address before handing it to me.
"We're gonna start rehearsals soon. You'll need to come over so that we can get the organ part sequenced on the Atari before that."
The next several weeks would turn into a blur as I threw myself headlong into keyboard practice, trying to master the incredibly complex part that he needed me to play live. At the same time, I was also struggling with the finals for my regular classes, so my plate was more than full. A few times I expressed my concern to Carvin that I wasn't progressing fast enough and that he might be better off calling in someone else, but he repeatedly told me to hang in there. He had confidence that I'd master it, and I'd be fine.
During our rehearsals at Carvin's house, I got the chance to meet with the other performers he'd picked for the recital, and I couldn't help but wonder what they made of me as the only rank amateur in the lot of them. I felt sure they had to be embarrassed by my second rate playing, but if they felt that way, they never said as much to me out loud. I only recall them being nice to me. For my own part, it felt good to be playing with other people again, and in particular I appreciated Carvin's patience. With so much riding on the line for him, I wouldn't have blamed him if he'd kicked my ass more, but once again, I had to re-educate myself that band leaders weren't all sadistic tyrants by default.
By the time the actual recital rolled around, I was still feeling some trepidation, but the discipline I'd gained from both high school band and drama came to my rescue, and I realized all I could do now was concentrate, do my best, and no matter what happened, keep going. After weeks of preparation and stress and hard work, we all got up on that stage and we put on a damn good show...though it wasn't entirely without its flaws. I flubbed a couple of notes during a particularly chaotic part of one song, but that was far from the worst thing that happened. At one point, our lovely third keyboard player accidentally erased every sound on her Korg Poly 800! Live. Onstage. It effectively silenced her keyboard for the rest of the show, but she remained onstage, and just danced in front of her synthesizer until the end, like that had always been the plan. Thankfully no one in the audience was any the wiser that a part was missing from the composition.
When everything was done, I realized I needn't have worried so much. I acquitted myself at least respectably if not phenomenally, and Carvin still got his well-deserved A for the compositions and the credit he needed to graduate from OU with a degree in music. I walked away with more confidence in my musical skills, though I still felt certain that my greatest strengths lay in composition rather than performance. But now I knew I could play live, if I absolutely needed to do it.
Following the recital and his graduation, Carvin moved off to California while I returned to my full-time journalism studies, with a news internship first at KGOU, and a brief stint as a disk jockey at KRXO while I finished off my final year of college. Spurred on by Carvin's energy and enthusiasm, I spent most of my free time working on increasingly intricate musical compositions which had been inspired by my time working alongside my mad genius friend. The next time we crossed paths, it would be another accidental encounter two years later, this time at the Renaissance Faire at Glen Helen Park. Following that, it wouldn't be until the foundation of Facebook that we'd finally reconnect again, but it would kick off a fresh series of creative collaborations that allowed us fuse together our talents both as fellow composers and filmmakers.
JUNO WHAT - While Carvin and I's friendship had begun with a discussion of my Yamaha DX7, I actually fell quite hard for his Roland Alpha Juno 1, a tiny, light little keyboard that packed an amazing analog punch. It was an excellent counterpoint to the lighter, airier digital sound of the DX7, and perfect for when you needed to add some bite to a track. Many years later, I'd pick up one for myself and it became one of my favorite keyboards that I ever owned.
Keeping Score - The opening of Carvin's score for "Heart Land," the final piece we performed during his senior recital. If you note the parts that are called out for the DX7, those were the bits we sequenced using my Atari 520 ST.
Thanks for reading The Many Worlds of Neal Hallford! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.