John Zielinski photo

John Zielinski

composer - saxophone - flute - synth - voice

In Search of the Lost Chord

This piece first appeared in Central Standard Time. It was a coincidence that the date was the anniversary of my birth. I’ve retired from the ordinary work world since then. I’m still making music.

This has turned out to be one of the most difficult pieces that I’ve ever written. I thought that it would write itself. It sort of did – several times over. Looking at my files I can see that this is major revision 7. Each time I’ve had to go back to a blank page. The challenge has been to have this make sense to someone other than me and not be as long as War and Peace. Maybe the problem is that I’m trying to explain something that I don’t exactly understand myself. 

One of the questions that I’m frequently asked when I meet someone for the first time and the small talk is flowing is, “What are you?” My typical response is, “I’m a musician, but I make my living in software.” This is often met with, “Oh, so you’re not really a musician.” Yes, I really am. One of these things is an essential part of my being. If it was somehow removed I would no longer be the same person. It’s something that I could no more easily give up than I could give up breathing. The other thing is what I do to pay the bills, survive and make it possible to create music. How did this happen and, more importantly, why did it happen? I know how. I wish that I understood why. 

I began formally studying music at the ripe old age of 7 when I started taking saxophone lessons. Why that instrument? No idea. It wasn’t like I’d always wanted to be a sax player. This was 1963. Thanks to the radio and my older brother’s records the instrument that had caught my ear was the electric guitar. Somehow, though, when I decided that I wanted to learn an instrument that curved piece of brass with the pearl keys and the incredibly flexible sound seduced me. That started me down a path that I’ve walked for almost 55 years now. 

One thing led to another. I wrote my first piece – a little thing in song form – when I was 8 or 9. I’d started studying saxophone a year or two previously, so I knew just enough about the rules of western music to be dangerous. I’m sure that I’ve got that little ditty around here somewhere. As you can probably guess, it wasn’t very sophisticated, and the scrawl of the manuscript is the work of a child. Still, I had written a piece of music. I had taken sounds that existed only in my head and translated them into a set of written instructions that would allow someone else to reproduce those sounds in my absence. I was a composer as well as an instrumentalist! After that came another and another. Several years later I got my first tape recorder and became a recording artist as well. The transformation had begun. I loved playing. I loved performing. I loved translating those sounds that only I could hear in my own head into sounds that other people could hear. I still love all of these things and would gladly devote every waking hour to them if I could. Unfortunately, there are these crazy things like clothes and food and shelter that have to be addressed. 

From the time that I was in second or third grade until just about the time that I graduated from high school everyone who knew me thought that I'd end up working in mathematics or one of the sciences – probably physics. Even I thought so. While I loved music, I also loved science. Throughout my high school years I wrestled with the thought of to which I would devote my life. Then, one day during my senior year I was talking with my physics teacher about the decision. He said, “John, there are a lot of good physicists out there. There aren't a lot of good composers.” The die was cast.  

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that kid first started blowing the horn and scribbling out pieces. While I was in high school I started actually making money working as a musician. I played with a number of groups who were well booked with wedding, anniversary, prom and corporate gigs doing standards with a bit of rock. They may not have been the hippest bands out there in a teenager’s mind, but it was regular income since I gigged nearly every weekend. It was my after-school job. That was the early to mid ‘70s and I was making almost as much working 1 or 2 nights a week as some adults were making at full time jobs. It was a much different time than now. As the years rolled on I played a lot of different kinds of music with a lot of different people. At a certain point, though, that road came to an end. 

I graduated from college in 1979 with a Bachelor of Music degree in composition knowing full well that I was unlikely to pick up a newspaper, turn to the classifieds and see ads that said, “composer wanted.” For the next year or so my professional life revolved around practicing, composing and arranging, teaching, rehearsals and gigs. The world was already changing, though. There were fewer jobs for horn players. There were fewer jobs for live musicians – period. Like so many other musicians I was taking pretty much every opportunity that came along just to pay the bills and the gigs were paying less than they had in the past. Eventually I needed to find a more reliable income stream. Thanks to having done some programming when I was in high school and having done digital music synthesis on mainframe computers when I was in college I found my way into the software industry. I convinced myself that I’d do that for a few years until I could get a full time musical career back on track. Talk about fooling yourself. Still, it yielded unforeseen benefits. 

As a much younger man than today I managed to juggle a work day that started with getting up at 5:00 AM and ended with getting home around 6:30 PM – maybe later – with my family life and musical activities. The trick was that to keep all the balls in the air I was getting by on about 3 hours of sleep a night. If I tried to survive today on a regular habit of that little sleep I’d probably end up dying, but I continue the juggling. It just gets harder every year.

Maybe I’m not making my living making music, but a significant part of my life is about making music. For a long time I carried some guilt about that. All of those hours and years of practice and study and here music for me was what a lot of people – even acquaintances from my days at the university school of music – thought had become just a hobby for me. A couple of things happened to screw my head back on correctly. 

One day, in my never-ending search for a gig that would let me  pursue music as a full-time profession, I encountered a classified ad from a well-regarded instrumentalist. He’d relocated to Chicago and was looking for “amazing or interesting” people with whom to play. I didn’t think that I was amazing, but I thought that I was at least interesting. We connected and spent a bit of time talking. I asked him how he ended up in Chicago. It turns out that despite being well-known, well-regarded, having done a lot of touring and having played on a number of albums none of that was really paying the freight. He had taken a day job in software development. Knowing his background and skills I said that I was surprised that he wasn’t working as a session player in one of the major recording centers. His response? “John, I care too much about music to do that.” He preferred to make his living outside of the music business so that he could devote his energy and efforts to music about which he truly cared rather than having to play something simply because he’d been booked. It didn't matter how well the gig paid. After that conversation I started feeling a little better about music being a sideline for me. Then I started thinking about Charles Ives

You may know that Ives was an amazing, innovative and iconoclastic composer. What you may not know is that after completing his musical studies at Yale in 1898 he elected not to pursue a life as a professional musician or composer. Instead, he went into business and took a job as a clerk with a life insurance company. He was quoted as having said, “If a composer has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let the children starve on his dissonances?” What a great point. Once Ives “quit music” (as he put it) in 1902 he was completely free to follow his ideas wherever they took him. If using a career outside of music to finance musical freedom was good enough for a musical genius like Ives then why shouldn’t it be good enough for a schmo like me?  

I’m not averse to making money from musical activities. Although that’s not my primary source of income it’s still one of my sources of income. The key is that I’m free to get involved only in those things that I find interesting without even a second’s thought about the payday. I don’t need to take a 3-hour gig with an accordion-saxophone-drums trio playing a wedding in the back banquet room of a biker bar simply because it pays $300. (Yes, I actually did that once.) In a certain sense, I’ve become my own patron.

Most of my musical activity these days revolves around writing, recording and disseminating my own work. That work has never been consistent with what’s considered popular in any genre. It’s not that I’m incapable of creating music that conforms to what’s popular. It’s that just like the kid of so long ago, what moves me to create is translating the sounds in my head into the real world. Those sounds are the result of everything that I’ve ever heard. They’re not sounds constrained by western music. They’re not even constrained by what’s considered music. They’re not sounds that fit neatly into labeled boxes that can be marketed and sold. It’s not pop, rock, jazz, “classical” or any other kind of music. It’s just my music. If you listen and like it that makes me happy. If you don’t like it that doesn’t really matter to me. When the score left my desk or the recording was released into the wild I was happy with it. Maybe that’s the real answer to the question, “Why do you do it?” 

In my heart, I create music because I need to create music. There are sounds inside me that want to be set free into the world. That may be as actual pressure waves hitting eardrums or virtual sounds when people read a score. So, I’m not a full-time professional musician. As much as I’d like to be one, I’m fine with the situation as it is. I’ll continue to write, play, record and set the sounds free. Why? Because it would be easier to give up breathing than making music. In the end, I’ll probably give up both at exactly the same time.

This article © 2018 by John Zielinski

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