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Meet Michael Jones

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michael Jones.

Michael, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I was born in a small town in Connecticut called Middlebury. Connecticut is a weird place because even though it’s so small, there are like, a billion small towns. You can meet someone from a town you’ve never heard of but you can be sure that it does technically exist, just because every 20 houses is a “town.” Middlebury is one of those. Both of my parents are really into music: my mom is a music therapist and my dad is an amateur pianist and music historian with an extensive record collection, so I grew up with music in the house all the time. My first experiences playing music were at the piano, which I hated, so I quit, and now wish I hadn’t, haha. I picked up drums through my public school program when I was ten because I thought they were cool, and they became a much more serious thing for me when they became a gateway to making friends in school. I guess that’s when I first began to understand music as more than just an abstract idea related to “beauty” and “truth” and got a sense of it as a deeply social thing.

I played in my school’s concert bands, the drumline, various jazz bands and combos, and was pretty active in a prog-metal band at that time. Honestly, I kind of consider metal my real native language when it comes to music, it being what I played and listened to most seriously until I was 18 or so. I think I maybe had dreams of not going to college and just pursuing touring, etc. full-time, but I came from a pretty traditional and middle-class environment where going to college and getting a degree was what was expected, so in some ways I think studying music at a conservatory was a kind of compromise, like “fine I’ll go to school but I’m still going to do music.” Of course, percussion programs in universities are almost exclusively geared towards classical music, so that was the language I had to kind of learn to speak. I know SD Voyager has talked to a lot of other musicians from my program at UCSD and I think we’d all agree that we’re still learning to unlearn this language to varying degrees.

For all the baggage and trauma and anxiety that comes along with music school, however, I still really value my time there. I mean, I am who I am because of the experiences and relationships I had there. I spent five years studying at the Hartt School in Hartford, CT. Somewhere over the course of my time there, I encountered what we call “avant garde” or “contemporary” or “new” music, and it was there that I encountered the music that I felt was the most challenging from both a performance and an intellectual perspective (not that these things are mutually exclusive). Still, a lot of that music is very hard to listen to and esoteric (dare I say “unenjoyable?”), and there was kind of a creeping feeling in the back of my mind that even though it was very rewarding to study and play that there was something selfish about it. Most of my activities since then have been about working out how to frame this music so that it’s meaningful to people who aren’t white, upper-middle-class people who are also in music programs; how to have my cake and eat it, too. I’ve had a lot of help in this from mentors and teachers over the years who have shared my concerns.

I graduated from Hartt and moved to Berkeley, CA in 2017 with my partner, who got a job there. I spent that year accompanying dance classes, freelancing, working for a concert presenter called Other Minds, and scheming about how to get into grad school. I had my eyes on UCSD since I was an undergrad because the percussion professor, Steven Schick, wrote a book that was very important to me when I was younger. I’ve shared this with him, but it was important to hear a man write about percussion in a meaningful and vulnerable way without compromising intellectual rigor. It’s kind of significant because percussion as a field is a pretty masculine space in terms of culture and representation, and speaking of your art poetically is often ridiculed as lapsing into sentimentality. Anyway, 19-year-old me, who had always been somewhat of a sensitive person, felt very vindicated reading Steve’s book, and I knew I wanted to work with him.

So, I’m going into my 3rd year at UCSD, now working at a doctoral level. It has had its ups and downs, but I’m extremely fortunate for the unconditional support I’ve received from friends and family, and for the privilege to pursue my art largely unfettered by economic burdens that many of my peers at other institutions experience. This is especially clear during these uncertain times. I do still miss playing in metal bands, but I guess I can read a treble clef now, so I’m chalking it up as net-positive, haha.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
I think compared to most people, I’ve experienced a fairly smooth road just based on being born into a privileged demographic and having very loving and supportive communities of friends and family.

The main struggles in my life have definitely been due largely to my own mental health: I’ve dealt with general anxiety my whole life and that has manifested in different ways. Going into a field with “low job security” like music has definitely exacerbated this condition and caused friction and depressive episodes. For example, the anxious compulsion to chase opportunities (a condition I think many musicians experience) has led me to being long-distance with my partner for most of our relationship, and that’s not an easy tension to ease. Even with her complete support, it feels very stressful in my brain sometimes.

One of the things I’m most interested in researching (read: therapizing, lol) at UCSD is the impact of late capitalist precarity (to borrow a term from Judith Butler) and anxiety amongst percussionists in my generation, and the way in which the uncertainties of 21st century America impact the way art is made. This uncertainty also extends to art’s institutions, which both alleviate and exacerbate these anxieties.

Can you give our readers some background on your music?
My friends and colleagues I think would say that I specialize in “long, quiet, pretty music,” and I think they’d be mostly right. Composers like Morton Feldman, John Cage, Peter Garland, David Macbride, Eva-Maria Houben, and others are all touch-stones for me. I think if there’s a nexus to this kind of music, it’s the primacy of listening as a musical act. How we listen, how we interpret, and how we communicate to each other about music, I think, is more important than the actual notes on the page or even necessarily how it’s played. Quiet, long pieces have been my favorite vessel for this kind of experience. Pieces that are long (and by long, I think I mean > 30 minutes) require a different kind of engagement from shorter pieces, which I think tend to be consumed and evaluated more casually.

I have this theory that listening to music in a usual concert setting happens in cycles. You start listening to a piece, you get invested, after a while you get bored, and then right when you’re about ready for it to end, it does. What happens, though, when it keeps going? I’ve found that I’ve learned the most about myself as a listener when I can experience this cycle of engagement, detachment, and re-engagement a number of times. I get a sense of what brings me in, what pushes me away, and what feels meaningful to sit in and reflect on as it happens. I think you also get more aware of the fact that there are people in the audience experiencing it with you. I saw a performance of Feldman’s “For Philip Guston” last year, which is a piece that’s like 4 hours long. People came and went, as was the intention, but myself and one other person sat through the whole thing and at the end we shook hands and talked a bit about it. You know, like, even though we had never met, we had just experienced something objectively identical but subjectively different from each other, and there was a dialogue to be had about our mutual and respective experiences. A kind of kinship through musical interpretation and feeling. That what it’s kind of all about for me.

Quiet music I think serves this purpose best because it’s conducive to marathon-style listening. David Macbride, a mentor of mine, once said to me that “all the most important things we say in life are whispered” and that music operates similarly. All the climaxes of his pieces were these beautiful, fragile, and often extended moments. I think this kind of listening is extremely intimate and connecting, and in a world that feels very alienating and frantic it feels political to just sit in a room with other people and listen for an extended period of time.

So I guess “what sets me apart from others” is that I can tolerate being bored a bunch of times during a piece and still walk away saying I enjoyed it, haha. I don’t consider myself exceptional by any means, but I think if I had to pride myself on anything, it would be my patience and endurance when it comes to preparing and executing performances. Like, if I’m preparing this intimate space for people to inhabit, I work hard to prepare my mind and body to execute pretty sensitive actions for long periods of time. “Touch” might be the word I’d use: my “touch” on the instruments I use is curated and rehearsed, so that performance feels like an extension of my natural breath and movement. That sounds like some hippy granola garbage but I believe there’s some metaphysical truth in there somewhere, lol.

Maybe this is where I can plug something? I have an album coming out later this year on Edition Wandelweiser Records of a piece by my friend Kevin Good called “slow, silent, singing.” It’s a ~78 minute long glockenspiel solo that I think is just an amazing work and I’m very excited for everyone to hear it. I’ll post info to my website as we get closer to releasing it for those who might be interested in picking up a copy.

What is “success” or “successful” for you?
Oh man! What a question. Success is obviously a thing that has changed in definition for me throughout my life. These days, I think success for me is really closely related to optimism. Optimism as the connection to things and ideas that we put our trust and effort into. The goals and dreams we have are instantiations of optimism insofar as they’re reflective of futures that haven’t happened yet but that we believe in nonetheless, and want to make true. Lauren Berlant has this book called “Cruel Optimism” which is all about how some of the things that we put our faith into (things like the idea of marriage, stable employment, the American Dream, etc.) are concepts that can actually be damaging to us in our pursuit of them. Like, one might stay in a marriage that is toxic because one believes in the concept of marriage as integral to their vision of happiness, or one may submit to a soul-crushing job because they’ve put their trust in the idea of employment as a type of personal deliverance from all the things unemployment symbolizes. In our culture, I think a lot of the classic signifiers of success are pretty complex and, in our current economic environment, less attainable than they’ve been for previous generations.

So, that being said, I guess my idea of success is the placement of my optimism in ideas and concepts that ultimately do more good than bad, both to my own health but also to those I interact with. Obviously, material comfort is a part of this because you can’t do good in the world if you’re dead, but I think I could fulfill any number of professional roles as long as I have the feeling that I’m making myself and those around me happier and healthier for it. Teaching has been maybe the most rewarding path that I’ve found but is by no means the only one. I guess real success can only be seen in hindsight: I’m putting my optimism in the idea that I will be remembered for having a career and life that was ultimately empowering and transformative for the individuals and communities I engaged with, no matter how small. All this with the knowledge that this optimism might hurt sometimes. That’s what success would look like to me right now.

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