Interview: Nolan Gasser

Nolan Gasser is an acclaimed composer, with compositions including American Festivals and two pieces written for NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope. He is also the Chief Musicologist for Pandora Media, Inc., which provides the popular Pandora Radio streaming music service; he is the architect of all five Music Genomes (Pop/Rock, Jazz, Hip-Hop/Electronica, World Music, and Classical). Moreover, he is the Artistic Director of Classical Archives which is the web’s largest classical music site.

This interview was done in person on 2/25/11 at UC Santa Barbara.

Jeff Moehlis: What is your musical training?

Nolan Gasser: It’s fairly extensive and fairly eclectic. I grew up in Southern California, and started studying piano very young, from age six. I went to classical about age 11, but I’ve been playing jazz and pop music from a very early age.

A lot of education has been actually quite practical. For my first gig, I was 11 years old and played in an enclosed shopping center food court for five years on weekends, from age 11 to 16. That really was one of the best educations I had, because I’d have people requesting everything from Scott Joplin to The Beatles to “Stairway to Heaven” to Rodgers and Hammerstein to Mozart. So, I sort of figured that if you wanted to be a musician, which I did, you had to be able to do it all. I played a lot of jazz, and obviously a lot of pop, but I always had an interest in classical.

After high school I went to sort of a musical trade school which was pretty well known, but it’s no longer in existence. It was called the Dick Grove School of Music. It was really geared especially toward people that wanted to go into film and TV, which I thought wanted to do. It was a one year course.

But while I was there I began to realize, OK, I have the bug for being a more serious musician, for being a more serious composer. So I got my Bachelor’s degree at Cal State Northridge, which at the time really had one of the best music departments in the L.A. area. I studied piano composition, and had some great teachers who really instilled in me the importance and, sort of, the obligations of being a composer.

My main teacher in composition was a Cuban-born composer named Arelio De La Vega. He was a very aristocratic white Cuban. That certainly has stayed with me, the moral importance of being a composer. But I knew that I wanted to do something dramatic, which has been such a valuable thing for my whole career. So after my undergrad I went to Paris for two years. I studied privately with the composer Betsy Jolas. She was the assistant of Messiaen, and took over his class of analysis at the conservatory, which is the most important class for budding composers.

I also studied at Fontainebleau, which of course has a famed reputation for American composers, starting with Copeland and Bernstein and all the way up to Philip Glass. The original teacher of Fontainebleau was Nadia Boulanger, and she had passed away so Betsy Jolas, who I was studying privately with, sort of took over as one of the head teachers of Fontainbleu, along with some other people, Gilbert Amy, and Tristan Murail. Tristan Murail is actually pretty prominent, with a very different aesthetic than I ever wanted to espouse.

Actually what happened to me, in terms of my education, globally as a musician, broadly as a musician, is while I was in Paris, and obviously surrounded by all this architecture compared to L.A., and all this history, I happened to stumble across this CD by Josquin des Prez. And like any sort of dutiful music student I had studied his music in an early-music history class, but when I came back to it, it was so different from what I was used to, that I sort of devoured it, and I devoured everything around it. I needed to know what made it work. The musical praxis was so different from that of the music that most music students, pianists or composers, learn as undergrads, especially from Bach on. It’s not tonality, it’s modal music, and just a different orientation, vocal rather than

So I was kind of at a little bit of a crossroads, or a little bit of a schism in myself, that I was writing music that was very contemporary, but I was listening to this music which was so expressive. Contemporary music, especially in the late Eighties when I was there and early Nineties, and the cutting-edge French music was fairly abrasive, especially to your average music lover. And it was just such a disconnect to me, that I ended up, almost thinking that I was going to move away from composition. I kept on composing, and I was giving performances and winning awards, and doing all the right things.

I returned to the States, and got a Master’s at NYU, still studying composition, but beginning to take classes in musicology. When I finished my Master’s I had basically made the decision that I wanted to go into musicology. So I came back to California, to San Francisco, and got my Doctorate in musicology at Stanford. Obviously that’s an eight year process, and a lot of changes take place in that. So that’s the extent of my formal education. As a musician education never ends.

JM: How would you describe your approach to composing?

NG: Well, it varies from piece to piece. I like to begin pieces by having a clear idea of what it is that I’m working towards. Some pieces are very concrete, obviously if you have a text that’s very concrete, but I’ve written a number of pieces that are in association with ideas. Even if they’re somewhat abstract.

For example, the pieces that I’ve written for Fermi, the gamma-ray space telescope. The first piece I was asked to write by some of the scientists involved was a Prelude to the launch which took in 2008 from Cape Canaveral. At that time, I knew as much about a gamma ray as I did about the life cycle of blackbirds. So I really went on a pretty rigorous self-study. The ideas and concepts in this case were grounded in science. So I ended up, in a very concrete way, reflecting some pretty hard science in music. Now, of course, it’s metaphoric. I’m not actually creating a gamma ray. But I think there are wonderful ways in which music is so flexible. And I think for me personally, grounding the music in something concrete, a concept or an idea, opens up my creativity, and opens up the realm of ideas that wouldn’t happen if I was just wanting to write a piece of music just for the hell of it, you know, art for art’s sake, which I don’t really buy as a philosophy and it doesn’t really work practically for me either.

Not to say that everything has to have a specific idea, and I don’t necessarily want to write The Sorcerer’s Apprentice where every single measure is corresponding to an action. But, sometimes broadly, sometimes abstractly, sometimes more concretely, if the music can be grounded in a concept. The next piece I wrote for Fermi was on the history of the universe, so you’re a scientist, you know there’s a lot to go on. And again, not being trained as a scientist, there’s a whole bunch of stuff I really had to learn. Then I’m able to sometimes even go back and sort of let it go, and let the music wash over, let the inspiration wash over me. But it’s now informed by this. And sometimes I actually do represent nuclear fusion, by representing the coming together of protons and neutrons, and I can say ‘Here’s where it happens’. Does it sound like it? Well, it does to me. It doesn’t really matter whether it sounds like it or not. Somehow it carries that semantic and expressive meaning.

One more example I’ll give you, I’m writing a piece now, a string quartet commission, where my patron lost his brother, and one of the movements is a memorial to him, In Memorium. So what I needed to do was I needed to learn about him, and to really find out as much as I could about not just what he did but his character, his preferences. For example, he loved anagrams, and was very good at them. So I created a musical anagram. But it’s not just the anagram, that’s kind of a device, and composers have had devices since composers started composing, and that’s something that can help ground the piece, whether it’s a form or a particular device like that. But so much of it is learning about his character, his sense of humor, his compassion, and these find ways of manifesting themselves in the work.

JM: How did you get involved with the Pandora project?

NG: I was at the tail end of my studies at Stanford. I had just finished taking my quals, which basically means you’re released to the dogs to write your dissertation. And I was really at a crossroads. I didn’t know at the time if I wanted to pursue an academic career or did I want to do something else. At that point I was thinking I wanted to get back into composing. I had almost gotten that out of out of my system, but I still loved it, and of course I wanted to apply it.

I got very fortunate because right after taking my quals I got an email from Tim Westergren, who is the founder of what is now Pandora. Back then there were four or five employees at the time just getting started in somebody’s house. The company was called Savage Beast Technologies. I think everyone’s happy that we changed the name. So Tim, who is a brilliant guy and wins the award for the most tenacious businessman ever, had this notion of marrying music analysis and database technology. It really was a marrying of his own interests at Stanford as well. As an undergrad he had studied engineering, and I think was a music minor. Not a classically trained musician, but he was a composer and played in bands
and stuff like that. So he was looking for people to help him carry out his vision.

He came up with the idea, called it the Music Genome Project, and met me. I was lucky to meet him, and hopefully he me, right at the perfect time. As soon as we met, we had a wonderful conversation at Stanford right outside the coffee house. It was a very moral and utopian sort of conversation. We talked about the woes and the challenges in the music industry, and how the record companies and the radio stations really put this big wall between the artists and their fans. There’s a practical reality to it. The record companies are limited in what they can promote. And sometimes they promote the bad stuff. The record industry occasionally does something bad [laughs], it must be said. And radio stations, of course, the same thing. They’re not going to play a bunch of obscure things. Of course CD sales were on their way down already. This was very early 2000, when music and technology were just being used in the same sentence. So Tim said, ‘you’re the guy’, so I was actually hired to be the head of the whole music operation. Basically Tim said, I want you to design, to construct – that’s why I’m the Architect – the Music Genome Project.

We started of course where the money is. We started with Pop and Rock, that’s our first genome. We dealt with all the pop genres. I wanted to do classical right away, but I was reminded that it is only 2% of record sales. So when I went ahead to do this, in all my work on the genome project, I took this analogy of the music genome project to the human genome project very seriously. Just the way that geneticists can identify all of the genes of the species, and find out the way that the genes are expressed, the make-up of each individual, and how individuals are related by virtue of how they have genes in common that are expressed similarly. So I said, we can do that in music, if we can define what the genes are of the “species” of music, you know Pop Music, and then Jazz, and Electronica, and Hip Hop, and World Music, and Classical, and then we can break down each individual constituent gene that makes each one of those.

The idea was that if we could hear all the individuals genes of this species of music, the way that each song manifests each one of these genes, then we could actually map, we’d have the genomic imprint of this song. If we have the genomic imprint of 10,000 songs, then they’re all going to have some relationship to one another, remotely or closely. And just as people are genetically related most closely to our parents and siblings, so two songs on an X album, both with Exene’s very, very idiosyncratic vocals on the same album, they’re going to be very close. Just like people can share different traits that are not related, you know certain allergies, eye color, height, certain propensities, similar with songs. Sy, two very different songs have a rockabilly guitar sound to them. So the idea is that people who like one…

The brilliance of the Pandora interface in that is that all that a person on the computer or cellphone, all they need to do is say I like it – thumbs up – or I don’t like it – thumbs down. What that teaches the database is that there’s something about this song, some attribute of this song that is pleasing to this user. As we gather more information, we say, ah, there’s four songs that got a thumbs up that all have a rockabilly guitar, so now we can start pushing in that direction.

One of my favorite quotes – a good friend of mine, an avid music lover came up to me and said, ‘Nolan, I’ve got my jazz piano station so trained, it only plays what I like.’ And therefore, it doesn’t play what he doesn’t like. It’s a genomic mapping of his musical taste. Obviously eleven years later a lot changes in the world, but it does come back to this moral vision that Tim had, and obviously that I embraced, that there doesn’t need to be a gatekeeper between him and his favorite jazz. He doesn’t only need to listen to what the local jazz station deigns to play, or what he is able to find in his record store. Therefore, he can discover. ‘Oh my God, I just heard this new pianist, an amazing pianist from Japan’ or whatever. So it’s been an amazing thing to watch.

I’m not involved in the company on a day to day basis, anymore certainly, because, sort of, my work is done [laughs]. We eventually did get, happily, through all the genomes. We went to Jazz, Electronica, and Hip Hop. The last one was Classical, which of course is the mother of all genomes, and is I think the most robust. It has to be able to cover everything from Gregorian chant to music by David Lang, and everything in between. Although those two are not so far apart [laughs].

JM: In the pop/rock genome, can you give examples of the genes?

NG: I’m always a little bit reticent to do that, because that’s giving away some of the family secrets. Rather than giving you any genes, just to say that pretty much any sort of aspect…

What I can tell you is this. When I looked at really constructing the full realm of the genome, as a musicologist drawing on analysis and theory, you break down music into its sort of domains, its paradigms of melody, harmony, rhythm, form, instrumentation, and when you have texts obviously that’s an important thing. So these are the broad parameters, but then, what’s going on in the melody? What are all the individual characteristics by which the melody can be defined?

So it does need to be global. So for classical, you can just imagine, you have a melody from something as timeless and meandering as Gregorian chant to Stravinsky. And with pop music, too. You have a very mellifluous melismatic, as we say, melody of something by Bjork. Or a very ornamented, embellished melody from Mariah Carey and all her offspring, of which there are many. To completely dry Bob Dylan. Or sometimes it’s somewhere between speech and song. So that whole range. Melodies are miraculously malleable things. It is one of the most amazing things. Even in our Western tradition – there’s only twelve notes. And how many melodies are there? And how a melody is capable of having such identity, and touching people, and communicating to people. And melodies do to that by doing all kinds of things, by having patterns, by having different registers and different ranges. So all of these attributes.

Then you go into rhythm and we all know how diverse that is. So what the Genome has to be able to do, because each song is analyzed by an individually trained musician, who has to be schooled not only in music generally but also in that genre, or in that species. They obviously have to evaluate every single parameter.

JM: You may not want to give specifics, but to help people understand how the Music Genome Project works, what genes would be given a high rating for “Let It Be” by The Beatles?

NG: I’m happy to talk generally. Basically every single aspect of that song… So you take the parameter of melody. I have to sort of go over it in my head a little bit. So, you think, what is the overall register of that melody? How wide is the melody. What kind of patterns. You think in the chorus, ‘Da da dah / ba da dah, ba da dah / da da dah”, you know, certain patterns that occur.

Obviously there are issues of form. It is a song which has kind of a traditional verse/chorus, right? There’s also the interesting aspect of that song that the verse is in major, but the chorus starts in minor. That’s actually also related to elements of stylistic influence. Clearly with the text, you know, that’s a song that has influences of spiritual music and Gospel.

There of course is the instrumentation. The thing about Pop Music, which is different from Classical, is that it’s about the individual recording. So “Let It Be” has been recorded by a lot of people. I don’t know off the top of my head who else did “Let It Be”, but for example, it’s been recorded by Paul McCartney as a solo performer, many, many, many times. And a lot of times it has the same instrumentation, but sometimes it’s very different. So instrumentation plays a major role. The presence of the piano in that piece is absolutely critical, but so is the organ. That great presence of the organ by Billy Preston there. That has a major influence.

The thing about Pandora that I always try to make present to the analysts and in my own thinking, is that it’s really about the experience of music. A traditional music analysis will kind of do a formal analysis, or a melodic or a harmonic analysis, ‘it goes to a 6th chord here and it does this’. That’s interesting to a point. But what really is important is how do people experience that.

And of course you can say that’s all sort of touchy-feely, but there are ways in which, you know, the presence of the organ, the growl of the organ, has a tangible impact on the experience of people. And that great guitar solo, and so forth. Even the way that the drums are used, that they’re not in the beginning. Of course Ringo was such a wonderful orchestrator on the drums. And the way that it just has the bass drum, in the second verse I think it is. These sorts of things, as opposed to something by The Who, where Keith Moon is banging away. The songs could have the same chord progression, but they’re very different experiences. They have a very different approach to instrumentation.

The text has a lot of repetition. “Let It Be” is said seventeen thousand times. It’s a message, it talks about Mary, so it’s a bit of a religious theme to it. There’s the sound of Paul McCartney’s voice. He sounds very different on that than he does on “Oh! Darling”.

JM: Or “Helter Skelter”.

NG: Or “Helter Skelter”, right, or the end of “Hey Jude”. So all of these things and many, many more. How it was recorded. What’s interesting about “Let It Be” is that it wasn’t an Abbey Road George Martin production, it was a bit of a live, somewhat informal thing.

JM: In what ways do you think your involvement with Pandora has changed your appreciation of music?

NG: Any opportunity to discover music that you didn’t know, as a musician or really as a person, is a blessing. Sometimes it may not seem like it at the time, like, full disclosure, when I had to do the Hip Hop genome. I had to listen to a lot of Hip Hop, a lot of Rap. Not my favorite thing, although I did come to appreciate what was vital, and what was vibrant about this music. I became a big fan of Public Enemy, I came to have great respect for Dr. Dre and for Eminem. Is this music I listen to on a daily basis? No. But, given the presence of Hip Hop in our culture, and how much impact it’s had on all music, whether it’s in that urban world or not.

It’s all part of the toolkit. Whatever you do, but as a musician, if you want to make a living and you want to keep growing, and of course we all do, it’s about having a toolkit that is as big as you can make it. Somewhere, somehow on some level, everything that I’ve heard and I’ve studied has helped to shape who I am as a musician. And helped to shape my ears, and give me inspiration for when I’m writing my piece, whether I know it or not.

Back in the early days, I analyzed songs just as much as anybody else did. When you really sit down, whether it’s a classical piece or a piece of North African music, or whatever it is, when you really get into it you realize that it’s got something. It’s got something valuable. So certainly it’s made me be a much more open-minded person, that I almost never say I hate something. Because that’s almost tantamount to saying I don’t understand it.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician/composer?

NG: There are four essentials to building a career as a musician, but I think they apply elsewhere.

You have to have natural talent. You have to be honest with yourself about if you have enough natural talent that’s going to make you stand out in a crowd, and be able to be employable. You have to work hard, because music, like everything else, if you have the audacity to think that you can become a composer, well good luck, buddy. Because there’s been so many geniuses, so many people that you’d be lucky to carry their water. So you just have to work so hard to be the best you can be.

The third thing is you have to be lucky. And luck is one of those things, of course, that you make. You have to be out there, you have to be pushing hard and be daring so that you have the opportunities to be lucky. Getting that email from Tim was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me. But I was there. I had put in the time as a musicologist, as a composer, as a rock and jazz musician, so I was ready for that. Because if you’re not ready for the lucky meeting… I always quote Emerson: “I pity he who is a victim of fate, but blessed is he who’s guided by destiny”. Fate is something that happens to you, but destiny is something that you make happen. You can call it luck. You ask anybody who is successful, they say, well I’ve been very lucky. But you make your own luck.

And the fourth thing is you’ve got to be smart. A lot of musicians, including a lot of great jazz musicians and a lot of great rock musicians, are not the most practical people. But if you want to raise a family, send a kid to college, pay your mortgage, and have a nice life, then you need to be smart. You need to figure out how can you take these tools that you have and translate them into making a living. And part of that is, you’ve really got to do all the other things, but you’ve got to have a big toolkit, you’ve got to make yourself indispensable by having skills that other people don’t have.

I always tell young people, do something dramatic. I went to Paris after my undergrad. And that has helped me in more ways than I can count. In part by people just saying ‘wow’, and suddenly you look different in their eyes. You’re not just a kid that grew up in Southern California and stayed there. You went across the ocean. And it wasn’t that hard. It was a lot of fun. But you grow so much. So be dramatic, do something dramatic. And think big. Especially when you’re young. Imagine your wildest dreams, and say OK, I’m going to get there. Maybe you won’t get there, but you’ll get a lot closer than if you say, well, I just want to be able to play at that bar down the street.


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