There are few things more challenging one can do with their life then trying to make it as a musician. But equally daunting can be carving out a career in academia, where the long hours, low pay and solitude spent working on something new and novel are just as prevalent. That doesn’t stop many electronic artists from dividing their time between books and beats. We spoke to several respected underground acts for whom higher education is a calling as strong as the club.
Dr. Drew Daniel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Johns Hopkins University. He is also known as a groundbreaking experimental musician who has released nine albums as half of Matamos, produced and toured with Bjork, and recently released an album of electronic black metal covers as The Soft Pink Truth. As of this interview, he was awaiting final confirmation of his tenure.
First off, did you get your tenure? If so, what does that mean?
I’m at the very last stage in a seven year long process of being considered for tenure. The Board of Trustees and the President of my university will be voting on my case in June. So far I’ve been unanimously approved by my colleagues in the English Department and, just the other day, by the members of the Academic Council, the highest governing body at my school.
Tenure means that, barring malfeasance, you are guaranteed academic employment for life and cannot be fired; it’s the cornerstone of academic freedom and an indicator of the institution’s commitment to the enduring importance of your scholarship. It’s very hard to get now, and “tenure track” positions are rapidly disappearing nationwide.
What academic path led you there?
I have always been an avid reader and someone driven to keep talking about stories and plays and poems and paintings and ideas and how they work and what they mean with anyone who will listen. I can remember wanting to go to graduate school when I was a sixth grader! But I always wanted to be an artist too. I’ve always wanted to be two things: like when a little kid wants to be an astronaut AND a fireman. Only there aren’t any fires in outer space.
Were there times when one overwhelmed the other?
I formally withdrew from my PhD program to tour the world as part of Bjork’s band. My advisors all assumed that I would never return but I kept my promise and Bjork was very understanding about cutting short one of her world tours so that I could go back to the dissertation.
You could argue now that academia has overwhelmed the musical side of my life as I can only tour in the summer now because teaching is something I take seriously and spend nine months of the year doing.
What kept you from finally veering off towards one or the other?
I refuse to stop doing both until someone/something forces me to stop. I love the independence of mind that it gives me to always have “another world” in which I can go off and be different. When I’m with academics I can imagine things from a musician’s point of view, and when I’m on tour in a van I can see things as a professor would. I like that double-citizenship feeling.
It seems a bit incongruent that the make of mainly instrumental music would study words.
I think because I have so much respect for language, I try to use it very sparingly in Matmos, or in contexts in which it acts more like a found text-object and less like “lyric poetry”. But there are influences because my academic work is largely about how community can form around sometimes disturbing, jarring or difficult emotions, and about how meaning happens through the re-combination of elements. “Composition” is something I think about through the poetics of both literature and music. But I don’t force one to map onto the other. Sometimes it’s better to have distinct zones of thinking so you can refresh yourself and avoid repetition.
Have you ever felt that your music career was compromising your standing or reputation in the academic world?
I’ve sometimes worried about it, but don’t forget that academia self-selects for perfectionist paranoiacs and the tenure process massively amplifies that. The key there is to stand behind what you do so if you are challenged about it, have something compelling and clear to say about what your work is about.
Separate from the content, there’s the context issue: For me, the fact that I’ve played at Carnegie Hall and that our work gets discussed in papers of record like the New Yorker helps to legitimize what I’m doing in the eyes of some of my colleagues, I think (maybe, I’m guessing here).
Do you plan on continuing both?
I plan to keep being a scholar and keep making records for as long as I possibly can. Tenure will mean that I stop worrying about tenure, but it’s not going to slow down (or speed up) the process of making records or writing books. That always takes as long as it takes.
Classically trained pianist Kate Simko began her musical career creating delicate electronic compositions before spending the past decade producing highly-effective house and techno tunes for prestigious labels such as Ghostly International/Spectral Sound and Leftroom Recordings. She recently completed her masters in Composition for Film at the Royal College of Music in London, opening the door to yet another stage in her musical journey.
What’s your academic history?
I started college at University of Miami studying classical piano and photography. The first day of college I joined the radio station, WVUM, and was set up as an apprentice on the IDM show run by the Soul Oddity/ Phoencia guys. They had just been signed to Warp Records, and introduced me to the music of Autechre, Aphex Twin, Black Dog, Plaid, Skam, and the other Miami guys doing stuff at the time (Chocolate Industries, Beta Bodega, etc).
This electronic listening music was a game changer for me. Growing up in Chicago, I thought dance music was loop-based dance floor music only, and not something for 18-year-old white girls to even think about. IDM brought dance music and my classical background (music without words, it’s all the same thing) full circle. So, I quit University of Miami and returned to Chicago determined to write my own music instead of just playing classical pieces. I switched into a program at Northwestern University called Music Technology where we were taught to compose on vintage synths, alongside classical theory, ear training, etc.
What did you hope to gain from the academic study of music that you couldn’t get as an independent artist?
This time around I’m getting a masters in Composition for Film at the Royal College of Music in London. After a decade of scoring films independently I realized that the only way I would really grasp how to write for orchestra is to work directly with the orchestral players. The RCM program allows composers to work directly with players and practice recording music for film. Being in the same room with the players has taught me so much in terms of technique for individual instruments and how they blend with each other.
Have you academic pursuits affected your artist output from a creative perspective? How about logistically?
I’ve started a new project called London Electronic Orchestra, which meshes my background in electronic music and classical music into one project. We did the first debut LEO concert in London in March with a 40-piece orchestra, and I’m working on the first EP and future concerts now.
Logistically I’ve started writing written scores for full orchestra, which is something I didn’t know how to do before moving to London two years ago. At first it seemed tedious, but now I’m really happy to be able to email a PDF to another city and have an orchestra be able to play the written music.
Do you ever feel as though your study of music has been looked down upon by the DIY community your produce and perform in?
Honestly I don’t know. One good thing about stepping away to go back to school is that it’s put a lot of things into perspective. I care less about what people think, and care more about making the most out of my short time on this planet.
Is academia a “Plan B” from the club scene?
I got into this music when I was fifteen—six years before I was even allowed into a club in the states. Being a musician has always been Plan A, whether it’s piano, dance music, orchestral music. It’s all creative expression via music. That’s my passion.
How has your academic success altered your ambition for what you want in your music career?
Yes. I want to pursue the London Electronic Orchestra project, performing live electronics sets alongside the orchestra. I want to do a lot more work orchestrating electronic music and working with other DJs and producers in this realm.
Were you ever concerned that dividing the time as an artist and a student meant not committing fully to either?
No, I just slept less and worked harder.
Given his substantial output of evocative and complex ambient and techno sounds, one can hardly call Max Cooper lazy. But the British producer did step away from a career as a PhD in Computational Biology to pursue music full time. His recent album, Human, is a conceptual piece of art that considers several conditions of being, er, human.
In academia, there is a lot of politics. It’s very competitive and very strategizing. How does it compare to all the politics of the music scene and the business of music?
Uh yeah, there are a lot of similarities. It’s like publishing papers is like releasing your album or EPs. Who you know is very important. There is a lot of politics and back patting going on in both academia and music, but at the same time, the most important thing is still the quality of the research or the quality of the music.
It sounds like you were, not ushered out of academia but that the funding slowly dried up. Maybe it was because you were not playing the game?
The way I see it was that I was spending too much time doing music and not enough time focusing on science. I’m sure if I had decided to drop music and just focus on science then that would have been fine. At the time I saw an opportunity for making a living from music and I thought I’m just going to try this. If it doesn’t work then I’ll go back to science. That was four or five years ago.
I wonder if anyone has ever decided to pass on the music career and go with science.
I’m trying to think if there’s anyone. . .I think it depends on what science they were doing or what music they were doing. I still read a lot of science for example, and I still think about a lot of things and I’m still writing down a lot of ideas, and developing ideas and concepts, and doing my own sort of fun home science. If I ever landed on a great idea or something I thought had a lot of potential, like serious scientific potential, I probably would stop music and just go with that.
It doesn’t seem like it’s that much fun.
I really enjoyed doing my PhD. It was sort of one of the most enjoyable periods of my life. Apart from the writing of thesis, that was really painful, but the research period, I found really enjoyable because I was working on a topic that was very new and wide open and there was so much room for exploration.
Because I was doing computational science, it was a fast process. I could think of new things and write a code and get the answers or the results the next day. Sort of creative type of science, all about ideas, trying things out rather than being stuck trying to make difficult experiments work, which is most of science. Most science is torturous experiments not working for years.
I was very lucky to be doing a topic that wasn’t like that and everything was working nicely. We were exploring things and it was just exciting, finding new things out. That was really enjoyable. Luckily for me, because it was a very new field, there were a lot of new things to be done, which was great.