Category Archives: Biographic

Musical Expression

Some time ago, In 1989, I was invited to observe San Diego Symphony rehearsals for a series of performances by means of which, the Symphony’s Orchestra Committee hoped to choose a new conductor from a select group of invitees. I was the only person in the audience (musicians were paid a lower fee for private rehearsals, according to the AFM Local 325 union contract) to witness the selection process as well as the conductor’s craft, when. over several weeks, the 80-odd symphonists ambled onto the stage carrying their instruments, found their appointed chairs before their specified music stands, and sat quietly in a semi-circular formation. Promptly at 9:55, a woman or man they’d never before seen walked up to the podium, uttered a few words advising where they were to begin in the score, raised a baton, and as if by magic, the assembled lot, were transformed into a symphony, simply by playing notes printed on their score parts. I remember in particular, a part from Prokofiev’s Suite for Romeo and Juliet in which the tonal harmony rises from chaos. On another day, they attacked Dvorak, cajoled Beethoven, led Britten, engaged with Sibelius, and so on. It wasn’t lost on me that the ideas of these composers were enduring in global human memory by means of an arcane and complex set of traditions and conventions that span many cultures through time and distance.

I was there simply because I’d asked a neighbor, who I knew was the operations director of the symphony, to allow me observe the conductor try-outs, which were held the day before the public performances, at ten on Thursday mornings. As it turned out, the symphony was unable to hire a conductor because it was bankrupt, as the Board had refused to continue funding. However, I did two things I hadn’t previously considered. First, before I began to study music (and recently earned a master’s degree education in composition), I outlined a series of video programs for use by educators in San Diego’s public schools and with the support from local foundations and the assistance of a conductor I’d met during the rehearsals, I produced The Nature of Sound, which was the first in the series of educational videos I’d outlined in which elementary school students are given the basic distinctions about music and the science of sound. (Teachers in every school in San Diego Unified School District have shown it to countless students since 1989.)


Someone asked how I became a composer so late in life.

Caveat: Work in Progress! Biographic material subject to revision as things appear differently sometimes, when looking back, as time, unfolded, reveals me to me, as if I’m elsewhere and then it seems that I-today remembers me differently. I-today wasn’t present and what was sometimes humiliates me to consider. This line leads me to why am I here now? I have a human need for creative projects. I’m loved by my daughter, who is almost a sister.

I didn’t understand the longterm impact of an emotion of disgust in the presence of an older person, a not wanting to be them; that I couldn’t imagine becoming old and I didn’t want to. I also feared I would die very young. Thoughtlessly, I found myself on the threshold of my own age bias. Perceptions of age in this culture reflect the relationship of erotic love to power and it’s not a sliding scale.

My feelings and the empirical evidence presume that life means something, I’ve given it thought and I rationally choose it despite the evidence. That I wait for things to change is a prayer. Then, there’s music and reading and for some, who can afford it, whoring. The world would change direction if we subsidized sex work. A voucher system. There are epic possibilities for corruption. Expressions of anger and revenge would show up in new ways. A mini series.

My character’s genetic structure must reflect at least a couple centuries of music and theatre. However,  the creative process is a form of madness and I had experiences of abandonment at unusual events in the early years. I’m always editing names. Memory delivers images of events that I describe using words, sometimes  imagined events. It’s helpful to know the difference and many times it’s hard to say. Memory is not the interpreter but it remembers interpretations associated with emotions in different ways depending on the experience and awareness of the rememberer.

I remember when she went to work as a typist at the Philadelphia Navy yard in 1940, placing me in Loretta’s hands. But I didn’t know where she went nor what people did there. Yet I got how she felt about working at the place. She had literally left the house she and my father rented in Hollywood with my brother, who was 3 at the time. I was born in Chicago on a stop-over to Philadelphia. I met my father finally at the age of 35, when I was on or just over the brink of divorce. He said he married, in sequence, three women, producing two children with each. I’m afraid that’s in the genes. I’ve felt the weight of karma, which endorses my underlying Jewish mentality.

Mother had no time and less energy nor a great desire to oversee temperamental talent but she understood and even felt compassion for its provenance, everything about her experience of my father disgusted her, including the music profession. I get the efficacy of practicing scales but I don’t do it well enough to be profitable. In my world, we have technology that has allowed me to make distinctions in music with as much if not more attention, to hear the Bach in Mahler and v.v. Where would we be with technology if we couldn’t make it possible for a composer to create a symphony without his becoming a skilled performer of an acoustic instrument? This is one of the reasons why I had to wait so long, longing sometimes for the day to come, surrounding myself with instruments I learned to make lovely sounds on but not to play. I avoid playing with others and am generally, uncool. I’ve been a demon for getting jobs done when I’m called upon to do and I’m mostly useful in creative work. I’ve been prescient as a writer, taking things to logical conclusions and remaining alert to changing circumstances.

When I was four years old, she had farmed my brother out to live with our uncle and moved us into the large flat above the store her mother’s second husband owned in Camden, New Jersey and I got to know black people when I wandered away when grandma was inattentive. My brother was unwanted by his aunt having to do with my brothers effect on his cousin, her son, who became the chief administrator of a significant psychiatric hospital.

So she moved us from my grandmother’s flat in a Jewish ghetto on Kaighns Avenue to a flat in a brownstone on North 15th Street in Philadelphia. The three-story house was a long block north off Allegheny, on a corner of a cultural vortex at the intersecting boundaries of black, Irish Catholic, Protestant and Italian Catholic communities. No other Jews lived here. Kids played in their own communities and learned a xenophobic interest in those of other communities but there was no Jewish community in this intersection. I felt it was safer to be invisible. It was a strategy to disappear, like a chameleon, hiding in the background, as I passed from world to world to world  walking to and from school.

With the experience of a chameleon not unlike Felix Krull, I commenced a life and even though it included assumptions of privilege of race and intellect and  even though fortune presented opportunities and even though I can’t avoid accomplishing whatever is set before me to do, I have felt compelled to deprecate my natural talent and move forward as if methodically. In a high school, in Norwalk, California, I was identified by a perceptive teacher as a clever communicator and my mother began collecting trophies I’d win in forensic contests. It was thrilling to be emotionally committed and emotionally detached in the performance. At Long Beach State College, I continued to compete and discovered sculpture and radio theater. I directed two and wrote two for the college radio program. I was in love but introduced to sex by a sexually avid 19 year old theater student from Santa Ana. I was grateful also for the degree because I was starving at the time until a girlfriend arranged for me to get a job as a social worker, providing I got the diploma.

A couple years later, I met Anne Webster; shortly before I was fired from my job as a probation counselor by the new manager of an LA County probation camp for emotionally disturbed male juvenile delinquents. They brought in Ira from Israel where he’d worked in a  military boot camp. He wore khaki and introduced the camp to the Israeli tough love approach to behavior modification. Since I had  more in common with the juvenile charges we oversaw, I didn’t fit Ira’s pictures. I was in angst over a woman I adored, who didn’t want to know I existed, not that I could have changed that then.

Had I read Don Quixote then, as my girlfriend’s mother suggested, I wouldn’t have recognized myself anyway.  I don’t remember what inspired it but I went to Puerto Vallarta  by train and bus and when I returned, I moved into a house in Santa Monica with Anne. 1967 was not a bad year, give or take Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam war.

Anne introduced me to Buñuel, Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini and so on. It occurred to me that, if a storteller can show photographic images in addition to the audio, making a narrative fiction in film is a piece of cake and the universe smiled and agreed. I began making films first for use in elementary school classrooms. Viewers followed my stories, young children and black people; especially. When I was 11 years old, I was the only white male at Gillespie Junior High School, which later led to a connection with John Birks (Dizzy)  Gillespie and a tour to Upsala with him and Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Thelonius Monk, Ben Webster, Don Cherry, Sahib Shihab.

Several years later, after Anne and I had split up and I was in LA and she and my daughter lived in Oakland, I had an idea for a movie based on a  magic building but, instead of producing the story, I got Xerox to help me make the building. My chameleon act: “Can you do that?” “Sure I can do that”” The media called the building the most intelligent building in the world, an oxymoron. McGraw Hill published my book about it, called, Architectonics. I discovered that I can write pretty good.  I then led a new nonprofit corporation in San Diego and before I knew it, I’d developed hundreds of homes affordable to families of people with whom I have nothing in common but my human physical form, not unlike those around whom I grew up in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey.

In the morning of February 17, 1997, during my daily 7 A.M. run on the beach, I fell unconscious into the Pacific Ocean due to oxygen starvation in my brain when the aortic valve didn’t open sufficiently. I regained consciousness as the blood rushed to my head when I was floating face down in the water. For a few minutes, although I was, in a sense, awake, my eyes took in the view of sand settling below the surf, I had no memory.. “I” simply didn’t occur. Nothing occurred. I felt nothing but a sense of awe. No desire, no regret, no pain, no judgment, I felt lucid, satisfying sensation. As my eyes scanned  trees and residences along the bluff above the beach, I felt vague familiarity and curiosity. My attention came to rest on a large, round window in the gable of a grey clapboard house. It’s peculiar shape connected with the name of the neighbor who designed that house. As her name occurred to me, my life came tumbling back to me through that round window like a tornado in reverse motion. I thought, in the words of Jackie Gleason, “Pow! Right in the kisser!”

 Following a “pulmonary autograft procedure” (open heart surgery), my heart was successfully reconstructed. The medical profession is unable to acknowledge the post traumatic stress disorder created by terrifying medical procedures, leaving parents to their psychological fate, which varies depending on the patient’s immediate family and I had none. Systematically, I gave up everything, though I tried to keep my dignity. I gave up human relationship. I gave up my home and I drove off, heading north from Del Mar in an old pickup truck with a camper shell, with a dog and a cat. A year later, when I was camping alone, in a 1973 Southwind RV, in a redwood forest 13 miles from Ft. Bragg in Mendocino County, first the cat and then the dog died. I then truly had nothing and it wasn’t any better that I knew I had nothing, however, there was a stark authenticity about it that reminded me of my experience on the beach in Del Mar that day when I didn’t remember anything.

The road into the place, where I camped in Jackson State Forest was an ancient logging road that winds down the side of a canyon from Highway 22 to a tributary of the Noyo. The road is a litany of jarring potholes and bone rattling rocks constantly overturned by logging trucks. Twisting ruts deepened in frequent rains and then filled with dust again when it was dry.  The occasional pile of bear shit and fallen branches added surprise and color each day but I grew to know that road “like the back of my hand”. I timed the four miles of ruts, rocks and hairpin turns above precipitous drops and tried to beat my time from camp to highway and highway to camp.  At speed, sound and movement became rhythmic and, my brain, soaked in adrenalin, gave me a short-lived feeling of being alive. It was at the start of one of these trips, when I was taking Bear (the dog) to a vet, that I first heard the music.

At first I thought I only remembered the Can Can from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. I was frightened, when I couldn’t make the music stop. Then the music stopped when I stopped the truck at the stop sign at 22, starting again when I turned onto the highway.  I could stop listening to the music by putting my attention on something else, but the music continued. When I focused on the music, I could hear all the instruments and I found I could change the tempo and I began playing with the arrangement and orchestration.

By now, I’ve read Oliver Sacks studies of patients in his book, Musicophilia (Random House,2007) but when this happened, I had a thought that going mad is unfairly criticized that being nuts isn’t so bad. That I heard the Can Can seemed profoundly ironic.  It started at the instant the truck started and it only stopped at the completion of a perfect cadential phrase and I would carefully stop the truck and modify the tempo towards this end.  I experimented with turning the music on and off while imagining driving. Tales of Hoffman was the first piece of theatrical music I heard, when my mother left me in the care of my grandmother and I played with her Victrola records.

I’m astonished and a little bitter thinking about my long unacknowledged capacity for creation of music, like an unrequited love denied through a lifetime of emotional poverty, persisting  through all my careers during my time as a chameleon. How remarkable that during all those years, I’d always owned and toyed with instruments. For several years, when I lived in Canada, there were five pianos in my home and a bass viol, vibraphone, several guitars, flutes and some drums. I played them for fun and relaxation. And I often chose the company of musicians, whom I envied  for making a living doing what they loved to, but also, I envied them their musical ability. I felt intuitively that I could learn to play but I’d never learn to use an instrument like Casals, Miles or Ellington. I was resigned that I wouldn’t make music.

Offenbach’s Can Can is a musical rendering of Hieronymus Bosch’s vision of The Garden of Earthly Delights. When I moved out of the forest and into an RV Park in Ft. Bragg. I also began to suspect that my interest is music was a message. In light of my fascination with music since those early days with my Grandmother’s Victrola,, it seems strange that I avoided taking it up seriously. But it makes perfect sense that I should feel as I do for I knew no other way to develop knowledge and ability with music except by mastering an instrument because this is conventional knowledge. Ask any music teacher in any school anywhere. Nevertheless, my ambition has always been to conduct the philharmonic and while I’d avoided any serious study of music, my experience of the most complex harmony grew intuitively. To not study music now was no longer an option. Offenbach’s high kicking line of dancers launched me into my career.

It seems astounding that five years later, I’ve earned an MFA in composition. I’ve deconstructed and recreated works of Bartok, Bach, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven and I’ve learned enough about Arabic Maqam, Indian Carnatic and traditional Chinese music to understand and use their idiomatic forms. Most importantly, I feel satisfied when I’m writing music.

Much of what I’ve learned about music has been through reading, taking classes and learning how to listen acutely but my progress has been mostly empowered by new professional audio software for programming midi mainly using samples sold by Vienna Symphonic Instruments. Years of dedicated practice might allow a gifted musician to play in a symphony orchestra but you can learn more about a complex piece when you program the shape of each note by each instrument. This technology allows you to stand on the practice of all music ever by anyone anywhere and anytime.

The best part of this story is my journey in music has only just begun.

When I was a child…

White children and children of color
Went to different schools
Kenya was Rhodesia
South Africa was apartheid
Germans gassed 6 million Jews
But not those who weren’t allowed to own homes in California

Dictators ruled in Spain, Italy and Chile
Blacks didn’t play on major league teams
Or wear the uniforms of officers or leaders
Or teach white children how to read
Or get into California universities
Or fly commercial airplanes or be firemen

Nor could women compete with men
Homosexual people were mentally ill
Japanese citizens were incarcerated
Their property taken by their neighbors
Young men were pressed into military service
On penalty of imprisonment

Children recited their pledge of allegiance
Under God in secular public schools
There wasn’t treatment nor prevention
For polio, heart disease, influenza, malaria,
Mental illness was abhorrent
Sex workers punished with imprisonment
Hospitals and doctors wouldn’t serve the poor
Jobless people were called, indigent

In 1997, I fell unconscious into the sea
After heart surgery
My ambitions were irrelevant
I felt I was as good as dead
Material surrounded me,
An accumulation of ironies
That I watched disappear as
Scavengers celebrated their luck

Ten years passed, while I,
Miraculously still walking,
Went off to seek an answer
I wandered, a kindly dull misanthrope,
Taking no joy in the company of men
Ignoring the comfort of women

Fascinated by nature’s extravagant variations
I stopped in sleepy coastal towns and inland villages
In the company of deep-throated ravens
Chuckling at me in detaché observations
From branch to branch,
Perched, rocking in the wind
Of follies and ambitions
Frets and cares of those below,
Living on the fringe of bourgeois desire

I awakened in a redwood forest
To Offenbach’s Can-Can in my ears
Looking for a source, the music was within
Waking me with the dawn,
Drowning in the silence of each night.
To escape the constant Can-Can, I returned
To the place I thought I’d never see, to find…

Nothing much had changed
A few more lanes of concrete on I-5
Poor are poorer; rich richer
Those of color now celebrate the short end of their shtick
Young men still pressed into military service
By lack of other opportunity
Property taken now by Department of Transportation
People powerless in the service of Technology
They speak about as if they owned
Subservient in a social agreement
That dooms them to irrelevance at 65.

And then…I heard the Can-Can
And scales fell from my eyes
I saw concrete crack into powder
Dancing in the dust, I saw that
Orwell’s vision missed the algorithm:
The fallacy of a heart’s design;
Love has no reason and it doesn’t rhyme.

Pt. Loma, August 2015

(For my brother, Jan Charles Myrow, on his birthday)

Mea Culpa

I thought our brains experience in the same way at a physical level.

Evidence points to the opposite: male and female brains work differently and we understand the electro-chemical processes. We don’t leap from this to expect that brains will be different in the same ways due to cultural and ethnic differences but again the results of peer-reviewed laboratory science  shows that mutations can occur over just one generation and the implication of this is that people with similar cultural experience are likely to show similar differences in the way their brains process input and cognition. More interesting, however, is that while we distinguish similarities in cognition and behavioral phenomena in conditions of schizophrenia, depression, autism and neuroses, we don’t understand these phenomena as physical differences and view it as illness, while we do view gender orientation as a difference in physical brains.

I know there are differences in the way my brain works from others and immediately spot people with the same functional difference no matter what their gender, ethnicity, age or culture. We expect a brown cow to be essentially the same cow as a black or white cow but of a brown color; we know that color doesn’t distinguish cowness. And when we see a human being, only their behavior tells us where they are on the autistic spectrum. We expect them to be the same kind of human being and have the same relationship with their world as a human being with a brain without this function. But unlike the brown cow, they don’t relate to the world in the same way.

We also view variations from that which is typical as imperfections and assume the normal model human being is perfect. Media stereotypes have given this greater meaning during the last century. The effect of this stigmatizes those who show up with a different mental skill set from the normal, for instance, those toward the brighter side of the autistic spectrum. Since approval of peers became the primary source of core value absorption in predominant societies, when we perceive ourselves as different, we feel the need to apply “make-up,” dress differently, get a haircut, lose weight, buy a car, play tennis better and harbor  a deprecating self-view, all of this exacerbated by fear of having our differences outed, leading to being ostracized due to differences we are powerless to change. Marketers take advantage of this psychology to advertise products that supply this need. It’s such an immense part of our lives now that we don’t notice how strange it is to be in an Apple store among a population of people salivating over technology for this reason.

After a few experiences of traumatic peer disapproval, a child, whose brain differences show up as on the autistic spectrum becomes sensitized to nuances of alienation and without knowing how and why they are physically different, can only conclude that the difference is unique and personal, that there is something wrong with them. The threat that they may feel this way is enough to trigger defenses that “normal” people may see as instability.

We hadn’t scientifically recognized differences between human beings related to differences in the way our brains work when I was a child. We also thought there’s something wrong with with people who had physical differences; who had hearing deficiencies or couldn’t hear at all or who are blind or blond or black or homosexual. This type of assessment was commonly portrayed in media and extended to views of gender as well as gender orientation, age, ethnicity, language and other cultural differences. The mainstream population still views others in this way, in part, because the way we view things has been inherited, in part because of the language and cultural attitudes implicit in jokes and in part because there are economic advantages to being included in groups that require maintenance of xenophobia, in other words, excluding others on the basis of arbitrary differences. Scientifically, this view of human being is mistaken but media constantly reinforces it with stereotypes.

However, the problem with autism is exacerbated by the fact that autism shows up as a difference in degree and how each individual relates to it is shaped by the way their autism was understood, respected and nurtured during childhood. Some are capable of the focused intensity of Adolph Hitler or Napoleon, the linguistic power of William Blake or Virginia Woolf and/or the visual acuity of Vincent Van Gogh or Jackson Pollock but a common trait of each of these people is a difficulty with intimacy and feeling love.

Something about autistic brains is structurally, electro-chemically different, analogous to differences in the operating systems used by a computer processor. In every other respect we can vary in appearance like anyone else. Short, tall, black, dwarf, male, female, gay, straight, whatever. But theres a similarity in the way our brains work differently from most people, which impacts our lives depending a great deal on our experiences as a child, because human beings are social mammals and the way our brains work with autism, among other things, is associated with emotions.

People with autism are not to be pitied. Empathy naturally drives us to such a concern. Compassion is laudable but to what end is it appropriate to pity a person whose body developed differently, for instance, if they are dwarfed or giants? Or to patronize a person because they are blind, deaf, old or gay? Or to segregate children in schools because of their color, intelligence or ethnicity? On the other hand, the sensitivities of a person on the spectrum requires that they must be treated with conscious carefulness because if they are not, their emotional trigger immediately distances them.

Traditionally, the social purpose of ostracizing and alienating those who are different is to homogenize and force cooperation. These techniques drive away people who are on the spectrum.  Cultures are defined by what they don’t tolerate and although it wasn’t done on purpose, a bi-product of promotion of homogenous stereotypes in media is that people with autism are not tolerated. Even if we could give autistic their own state as we did with the Jews who were chased out of Europe, this would have a worse effect on our culture than did the exile of the greatest minds of the century from Europe during the Nazi holocaust because the positive side of people on the spectrum is the creative power of their particular brain anomaly.

An analogy to this is the intolerance expressed in neoconservative biblical literalism.  Biblical literalism isn’t about spiritual values, it’s intolerant of diversity of experience to a degree that limits the ability to adapt to a narrow band of thinking.  Today, due to the methods we are using to maintain the growth of  the human population, we are confronted by global climate change that could evaporate the atmosphere of the planet over a relatively short period and at the very least cause catastrophic waves of destruction, death and possible extinction.  We need to think outside the box.

Ways of thinking that are common with autism are not only creative. We possess an ability to sustain the imagination of vastly complex ideas while at the same time, absorbing and accommodating new information in real time, making global changes in huge networks of images, sounds and ideas “on the fly.”  Among those in the mainstream “normal” population, many have a facility for driving cars, flying airplanes, surfing, playing video games, but a line is drawn between this ability and the facility for synthesizing and sustaining an intuitive grasp of complex systems outside of language, while still maintaining analytical functions that allows autistic people to intuitively predict the probable future location in time and space of hundreds of objects moving at different velocities and directions.

While we commonly think of autistic focus in terms of Rainman maths, but when this ability is applied in music, you get a Stravinsky, Coltrane, Monk, Messiaen and so on, individuals who feed their hyper-cognitive brains with harmonic relationship data and synthesize complex systems of music and then reduce this to notation on a page. Similarly, the ability can be nurtured in sciences and any of the arts and even spirituality. The area of great difficulty for those who are sufficiently colored in the spectrum of autism, is emotional hypersensitivity. We learn to protect ourselves by avoiding intimacy and group situations in which political gaming is commonly practiced, aspects of life in our culture that are primary themes of motion pictures and television soaps and sitcoms. The downside can be experience of separation.

Although my view of this is prejudiced by the fact that I identify as autistic, please, bear in mind that I do so in the same way as another might identify as gay. I’ve never had to face placard waving gangs of homophobes or laws preventing me from forming a domestic partnership but like many gay people, throughout my life, I’ve hidden my autistic nature to avoid stigmatic references as it is was a crime of which I should feel ashamed. I learned early on as a child to tolerate the derision of schoolmates and my own family and to bear without understanding why they should fell this way, the pity of  parents who saw peculiarities as an imperfection of my brilliance instead of what it really was, the source of this brilliance.

Like my neighbor, who identifies as a lesbian, I’m not suffering from a mental illness but I do feel sometimes, the separation.