MC Escher: Inspiration for a Perpetual Canon by George Pepper
One of my sayings is, “if your life is not a spiritual adventure, you’re doing it wrong.” It applies to music as well. I feel connected to the Holy Spirit when I’m in the zone composing.
A mighty wave is crashing through the culture. The elitist strategy of Postmodernism has gone stale, and people are tuning out the institutions it has corrupted. The crisis of relevance that the visual arts have been undergoing for decades has spread. Now the media, entertainment, sports even, are paying the price for converting themselves into virus-like Postmodern replication vehicles. In larger society, viewership and trust are way down.
A healthy art movement spreads its influence into positive developments across varied forms of expression. As I’ve written about Remodernism in this blog and elsewhere, many have reached out to me to share their stories. Many truly creative people have been exiled by an establishment art scene that promotes the falsities and facades of Postmodernism.
Music is the most visceral of the arts. It puts the outpouring of the human spirit into a form that can be physically felt. This is probably why the efforts to redefine serious music was one of the least successful areas of the Modernist gambit. Nobody wants to listen to the meandering, atonal noise offered up as a substitute for the thrilling beauty of great music. Listen to this selection by Anton Webern, if you want to be bored: Symphonie op.21. Like the old joke goes, if you get near a song, play it.
Postmodernism made things even worse, like it does. It brought us John Cage. His masterpiece was 4’33. Spoiler alert: it’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. Watch it “performed” here, if you’ve got some time to waste. Such a gimmicky mockery of the artistic abilities of humanity.
Charles Thomson and Billy Childish, the co-founders of the art movements Stuckism and Remodernism, were both musically engaged. Childish, with his band Thee Headcoats and its many mutant offshoots, in particular spawned a whole subgenre of punky garage rock, such as Thee Oh Sees. But there’s more to music than thrashing guitars.
Based on what I’ve been exposed to, I assumed there was no one who was interested in creating music with the same ambition, scale, and profundity of traditional music. Thank God for the internet! It proved me wrong again. A link from Instapundit led composer George Pepper to contact me.
He had an intriguing story to share about his own life. He responded to the spiritual emphasis of Remodernism, in contrast to the soulless stylings of most contemporary culture. George understands we need to build on the traditions of the past to create a vibrant contemporary culture. Best of all, he shared his work with us: graceful, soaring, inspirational music.
This is his five-voice Ricercare for symphony orchestra, the last movement of his first symphony. It is filled with perpetual canons and was inspired by the art of M.C. Escher, who he had loved since he was a boy.
This sonata he describes as a thought experiment: what if J.S. Bach knew the swing style?
Remodernism is rising to take the place of crumbling Postmodernism. Although it started in the visual arts, there will be Remodernist authors, film makers, and composers as well. Remodernism will reprogram and improve the efforts and expectations for the arts across society. Remodernism as a creative force is accessible to anyone who works with integrity to create the timeless, uplifting communal experience of art.
I asked George Pepper to share his experiences as he pursued his craft, moving against the ideological tides that have diminished our culture. It is a Remodern story.
Question: When did you begin your musical training? What was the first instrument you learned? Who influenced you?
George Pepper: The first albums I asked my parents to get me were Meet the Beatles and Beatles ’65, so I was about six or seven when Beatlemania hit. Saw the movie Help at a Saturday matinee, and so I was a huge fan. Later I got into all the wonderful popular music of the 60’s. Everything from Peter, Paul and Mary and Burl Ives through The Mamas and the Papas to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Motown too. My taste has always been eclectic and fairly inclusive.
I didn’t start my musical training until sixth grade, when I took violin lessons for a year. That got me started with the basics of reading music and the mechanics of string instruments. Seventh grade I made an abrupt shift to trombone, so I learned how brass and wind instruments worked, and bass clef that year. Then in eighth grade I was at a school that had guitar classes, so that was that. We learned easy guitar pieces like “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and others in that vein, so I learned the open chords that year.
Q: How did you realize you wanted to pursue music as a vocation?
GP: It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that I realized I didn’t love anything in life as passionately as music. I had gotten pretty good on the guitar by then with the usual garage bands one went through in those days – I was just before the Wayne’s World generation, and of course I had the Frampton Comes Alive album, which came out my senior year – so my plan was to go to Berklee [music college in Boston -Ed.]. However, I decided to attend Texas A&M for two years to get the required courses out of the way. I didn’t want any distractions from music at Berklee. Then, a miracle occurred. Two guitar teachers from The Guitar Institute in California opened up The Guitar Institute of the Southwest in San Antonio, along with jazz guitar legend Herb Ellis. It was a one year course, and I used it as a prep school for Berklee. My earliest compositions that I’ve kept are from that time. A bossa nova that is an Aria in a sonata for two guitars now, a samba I’m planning to use for a guitar concerto, and a swing tune that is now the scherzo of my first sonata for solo classic guitar. Those were in the bag before I got to Berklee.
At Berklee I took the Professional Music degree program, which was their, “build your own degree” offering. I was going to major in Jazz Composition and Arranging, but it required a portfolio of pieces, and I knew they would be half-baked if I was forced to check off boxes. Many people used PM to make an easy degree, but I took every theory and composition course Berklee offered. A swinging jazz fusion piece from that time ended up as the scherzo in my sonata for two guitars, so I throw jazz pieces into my classical compositions. It’s a natural part of me, and that’s that.
Q: What were your experiences as you studied music in higher education?
GP: Berklee was a 24/7/365 blast. Just a wonderful experience all around. I developed so much those years – I went every semester including two summers, fall of ’80 to graduation in May of ’83 – that I was an entirely different musician when I got out. It was a super productive whirlwind.
After my rock band and electronic music days in NYC, I decided at 30 I’d had enough of that, and went to Texas State University (Then Southwest Texas State) for an MM (Master of Music) in traditional theory and composition. I figured a small program would allow me more freedom and would also allow me to rectify any shortcomings in my understanding of traditional theory and composition. As an aside, I began my voracious study of classical theory/comp when I was in NYC. Every week I’d go to Joseph Patelson Music across from Carnegie Hall and buy a theory or composition book. I was writing simple counterpoint pieces for classic guitar by then, and had eight keepers by the time I started at SWTSU. It was there that I first encountered some resistance to my quest, which I was quite firm about. But the school’s only composition prof was a fan of atonal music, which I always detested. It was a weird situation, because I was a professional musician and 31 years old, and I didn’t even consider him a peer of mine. But we got along well enough that I was able to earn the degree, but then another weird thing happened. When I got the degree, it was in Music Education and not Theory. A much more marketable degree than Theory! I never did get an explanation for that.
During that stint, I composed my first keeper fugue, and another half-dozen guitar studies, plus six or so preludes. So I was on a roll by this time.
I spent a lot of time trying to decide if I wanted to get a PhD in Theory, a PhD in Composition, or a DMA (Doctor in Musical Arts) in Composition. The Composition PhD and DMA programs were the same except for the thesis; the DMA didn’t have one, but they both required a composition of about twenty minutes duration. I decided I’d had enough theory, and I just wanted to compose. So, I went to The University of North Texas to pursue a DMA in comp. It was there that I began to encounter more direct conflict. I’m kind of a larger than life character in some ways, and these comp profs were very strange people to me. A couple of them flat out didn’t want me to compose traditional music! I had to toe the line with their postmodern views, or they wouldn’t award me the degree. Well, again, I considered myself to be a better musician and composer than any of them, so I wan’t going to do that. I took all the coursework, and composed a lot more great music, and then I moved on to greener pastures. But before I left, I had to play a colossal joke on them. I composed a subjective bit of BS I called “Division.” It was based on random pitch wedges opening and closing, and it was just valueless as music. The comp profs loved it! I didn’t say anything, but it was hard to keep a straight face.
I composed another set of guitar studies, more preludes, my first sonata process pieces, a fugue in J.S. Bach’s late Art of Fugue style – a huge breakthrough – and a fugue on a subject that is a twelve-tone row just like the atonal guys used, only it’s beautiful and not ugly. Beating those guys at their own game was deeply satisfying. So, I went on to other things and kept composing.
Q: What are some of your favorite compositions you’ve created?
GP: I have a literal lifetime of pieces now, and they have to have, “the magic” for me to keep them, so it’s not an easy task to single out a few. I would say the traditional Scherzo I wrote while still in NYC was a breakthrough piece – it’s in a pre-sonata I call Sonata Zero now – and the fugue I wrote at SWTSU was another. The J.S. Bach style fugue for sting quartet I wrote at UNT is a biggie, as are the two super-fugues I call Ricercares; One that is the Finale of Sonata One for solo guitar (Composed in 2005 after years of prep work), and the other is in five voices for symphony orchestra (From 2013, again, after many years of research: Ricercare means a researched piece).
But there’s also the electronic pop music I wrote in my twenties that is just otherworldly, and the jazzy pieces are also all gems. Those electronic pop pieces are arrangements of band pieces I did on the Synclavier, which was bleeding edge tech at the time.
Q: How does music express spirituality?
GP: It always has for me. Even music by other composers moves my spirit. And lots of genres too. The first thing I learned to jam on was the blues, so Stormy Monday Blues is one I’d say moves my spirit. Then lots of Charlie Parker, Larry Carlton, Jimi Hendrix – “Rainy Day Dream Away/Still Raining Still Dreaming” always moves me – The Who – I wore Quadrophenia out in high school – many others. In classical music, my single favorite piece in all of the symphonic literature is the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It is, in fact, my first musical memory. When I was really little, like three to five years old, that Scherzo was the intro music to the Huntley Brinkley Report news program. My dad watched it every night, and I would just stand there spellbound until it faded out. I remember it like it happened five minutes ago. But that piece takes me on a spiritual journey, as does the opening movement and the slow movement. The Finale, for some reason, doesn’t really work for me. It’s a sublime masterpiece by any objective measure, but it’s stubborn or something. The vocals and chorus don’t help for me. In fact, I actually prefer Liszt’s transcription of the finale for solo piano!
As a composer, every genera I touch has to move me spiritually. Latin jazz was the first jazz I fell in love with and started composing. Then swing, bebop, and fusion. Pop in my band days in NYC, with electronic on the side. Finally, classical. The feeling of spiritual connectedness is the same in whatever genera I’m working in, and the sense of satisfaction is profoundly deep when I complete a piece. Larger forms are deeper, but the euphoria after creating a simple and novel tune is indescribable. Just last year I wrote a Waltz. It was inspired by a theory and composition book I was studying. One of the examples was of a melodic formula Mozart used in several compositions, that was already ancient when Mozart discovered it. I took it someplace entirely different, and it ended up as the Scherzo for Sonata Three, which is for solo guitar again (Sonata Two is for two guitars). I listened to it over and over. It’s just a pluperfect little gem.
One of my sayings is, “if your life is not a spiritual adventure, you’re doing it wrong.” It applies to music as well. I feel connected to the Holy Spirit when I’m in the zone composing.
Q: How would you describe the state of music today?
GP: Awful. Symphony orchestras are unionized and sclerotic, playing the same music my grandfathers listened to. String quartets are the same. Pianists are the same, and forget classical guitarists; some of the most arrogant and opinionated musicians there are (Many are cool too, but not nearly enough). There are two other composers of guitar music I like, and both are friends of mine.
How many recordings of the Ninth do we need? If I never heard a Beethoven piano sonata again, it wouldn’t matter, because I have them all already! In a vibrant musical culture, conservatories would be producing composers with real, actual technique, and orchestras would have composition talent scouts.
Q: What changes are needed in the music world?
GP: Real requirements for composition faculty at universities and conservatories. If I took over, I’d demand first a simple 32 bar tune in AABA form with eight bar phrases. Just harmony and melody. If they couldn’t pass that test, bye. Then, if they want to head the department, they better be able to compose a four voice fugue, otherwise, hit the road, Jack.
As I mentioned above, orchestras should be open to playing new music, but that’s the catch-22; if there isn’t any good music, and/or they’re not looking for it, nothing will happen. I just do my thing and shake my head a lot.
Also, get politics out of music. If your music is a political statement, it certainly isn’t art and it’s probably not even music at all (Talking about instrumental music here). And if your politics makes you tell other composers what they should and should not write, you’re just a talentless scold who should probably have nothing whatsoever to do with music. Much less should these people have teaching positions.
In three years at UNT I heard exactly zero faculty compositions that were musical in the slightest. None of them could really, actually compose real, actual music. And this was in the 90’s, it’s way worse today.
This is why I only compose instrumental music. Absolute music’s it’s also called. No words, just music.
Q: What are you working on currently?
GP: A lot of things have started to gel over the past several years. Sonata Zero and Sonata One for solo guitar are settled in their final configuration now. Sonata Two for two guitars is 90% complete, and Sonata Three for guitar has just come together over the past few months. So Sonata Two is occupying my thoughts right now.
I have managed to rescue the electronic music I composed in the 80’s last year – from thirty year old 5.25” floppies! – by getting a Synclavier again, and I’m going to release that this year.
I’ve been working on a symphony since I was at Berklee, and one movement of that is now finished, the Ricercare for Orchestra. Plus, there are always a few ideas I’m tossing around in my head at any given time. I’d say only about one in ten ever see the light of day.
Here’s the title track to the electronic album. I’ve decided to realize all of my music with the Synclavier now. It’s the only instrument I was ever a virtuoso with. Almost all of the sounds I programmed from scratch.
*Update: Richard Bledsoe will be offline for an extended period due to an unexpected medical situation. I am Richard’s wife, Michele Bledsoe – and for the interim I will act as his hands and eyes.
A few years ago, Richard used to write for the punk ‘zine AZKAOS. This was one of the vintage music reviews he contributed from 2010.
Rudimentary Peni “Cacophony” Album Cover Art by Nick Blinko
Outer Himalayan Records
And then the matter of that phonograph record…It must mean something; whether animal noises deceptively like human speech, or the speech of some hidden, night-haunting human being decayed to a state not much above that of lower animals.
-H. P. Lovecraft
Does genius lead to madness, or is the other way around? Mental illness in reality is usually a drab and frustrating situation. The romantic cliché of the brilliant lunatic persists though, supported by the occasional rise and fall of some inspired martyr; there is some truth to the template. When an inventive mind gets caught up in a wave of mania, astonishing creations can occur.
The Rudimentary Peni album Cacophony feels maniacal, as if it were recorded at the height of some delusional frenzy. A rare hardcore punk concept album, an obsessive riff on horror pulp author H.P. Lovecraft, it captures that writer’s atmosphere of melodramatic creepiness. The recording seems like an organic whole; songs blend into one another, connected by snippets of dialogue and sound effects, racing along at breakneck speed. It is one of those records to be played in its entirety, to better appreciate the story arc.
Rudimentary Peni (named for a biology class definition of clitorises) grew out of the busy London anarcho-punk scene nurtured by the musical collective Crass. RP’s front man Nick Blinko is the songwriter, guitarist and singer; he also produces the horror vacui outsider art that illustrates the albums-teeming landscapes of grimacing faces, skulls and religious icons. Blinko could be a character out of a Lovecraft work-a talented outsider whose mind was broken by the pursuit of arcane knowledge. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, Blinko has spent some time institutionalized for his condition.
Nick Blinko Artwork
Despite the burdens of Blinko’s mental state, and all the growling death rock themes explored, Cacophony is a rollicking, playful album, bursting with excitement at its own inventiveness. The lyrics echo Lovecraft’s quaint verbose style in a manner that is both tribute and satire. The content veers between Lovecraft’s biography, his works, and more oblique rants. The original vinyl fortunately came with a 6 page lyric sheet, because the elaborate, articulate poetry Blinko wrote is often buried in layers of distortion and noise, or is barely intelligible. Blinko produces literally dozens of accents in his vocals-he chants, mutters, shrieks, hisses, croons and babbles; it’s an amazing theatrical performance. “Things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl,” he croaks in one interlude. Some pieces are nothing but sounds-chattering teeth, rude squishy noises, wheezing or screaming; others are little collages of tombstone inscriptions or buzzing alien voices.
The music swings between tight little punk gems and ominous droning soundscapes. The catchy hardcore passages throughout the album suggest Zen Arcade vintage Husker Du. In “The Only Child, ” about a bad seed murderous little girl, the delivery is a snarling Exploited style stomp; “Arkham Hearse” swings with a Sex Pistols sneer. “Dream City” warbles like the Buzzcocks: “The weedy old spires like veins in marble/The old gold domes/were just ancestral homes/The citadels of yore with their broken bronze bells/ tottering towers/shadowy staircases/spiral like ammonites…”
Rudimentary Peni, despite some hiatuses, continue to release albums, though nothing has ever topped this perfect storm of cult influences. Cacophony works on many levels-it ranges from being sinister and aggressive to being literate and tongue in cheek. It presents horror with mighty impact but doesn’t take itself too seriously. This highly personal and entertaining experimental album is a neglected masterpiece.
Richard Bledsoe “At the Crossroad” acrylic on canvas 24″ x 30″
I’ve written before about how vital music is in our studio, as the soundtrack of our art. Recently my wife Michele Bledsoe and I took our musical influences to an even greater intensity. One afternoon while we were painting, we identified songs that we felt epitomized the way that each other approached creating our art.
You see Michele and I have very different methods to the way we paint; we are diametrically positioned, which is why being a married artist couple works so well for us. Opposites attract. We both act as conduits in our artistic expression, but it’s very different forces that we channel.
Michele has spent years watching me paint in a kind of frenzied trance, taken outside of my normal senses in service of the art. While I paint I tend to pace, curse, pray, rant. It’s an ecstatic process for me; not just in the sense of happiness, even though it fills me with joy. It’s so intense I’m not paying attention to the way I’m behaving. An unknowing witness would not understand all my frantic swearing is actually a sign of overwhelming engagement, as I push further.
Michele’s song for me is “Crossroads” by Tom Waits, a collaboration with writer William Burroughs. The story it tells shows the sense of abandonment to the demands of creation, no matter the personal cost. There is nothing diabolical about what I’m going for, but the reckless commitment is there. I always say painting is my healthiest addiction.
Click the image to see the video “Crossroads” here:
Now, George was a good straight boy to begin with, but there was bad blood
In him someway
and he got into the magic bullets that lead straight to
Devil’s work, just like marijuana leads to heroin;
you think you can take them bullets or leave ’em, do you?
Just save a few for your bad days
Well, well we all have those bad days when we can’t hit for shit.
And the more of them magics you use, the more bad days you have without them
So it comes down to finally all your days being bad without the bullets
It’s magics or nothing
Time to stop chippying around and kidding yourself.
Kid, you’re hooked, heavy as lead
And that’s where old George found himself
Out there at the crossroads
Molding the Devil’s bullets
Now a man figures it’s his bullets, so it will take what he wants
But it don’t always work out that way
You see, some bullets is special for a single target
A certain stag, or a certain person
And no matter where you aim, that’s where the bullet will end up
And in the moment of aiming, the gun turns into a dowser’s wand
And points where the bullet wants to go
George Schmidt was moving in a series of convulsive spasms, like someone
With an epileptic fit, with his face contorted and his eyes wild like a
Lassoed horse bracing his legs. But something kept pulling him on. Now
He’s picking up the skulls and making the circle.
I guess old George didn’t rightly know what he was getting himself into
The fit was on him and it carried him right to the crossroads
Michele’s mode of painting could not be more different.
Michele Bledsoe “The Great Fear of Falling” acrylic on canvas 14″ x 11″
I have spent years watching Michele work tranquilly at her easel. She sits down and the art just begins to flow out of her, methodically, with great order. Layer upon the layer the intensity builds without interruption until she has crafted a mysterious and moving environment. She calmly renders complex compositions with profound depths and eruptions of otherworldly expressiveness.
What musician other than Ludwig Van Beethoven could reflect such a method?
My song for Michele is Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major, Op. 92, the second movement, Allegretto. It starts so quietly, but goes through cycles of growth until it is truly cosmic in scale. Such precision and feeling. That is how Michele makes her art.
There aren’t any lyrics, but there’s no need for those when the music speaks so eloquently on its own.
Click on the image to see the video for the 7th Symphony, “Allegretto” here:
What would be the theme song of your artistic method?
“The Remodernist’s job is to bring God back into art but not as God was before. Remodernism is not a religion, but we uphold that it is essential to regain enthusiasm (from the Greek, en theos to be possessed by God).”
My music collection has been decades in the making. It’s mostly CDs, which I regard as an endangered species these days.
I was sad when CDs overtook vinyl back in the 1980s as the dominant form for music releases, but I adapted. I’m glad vinyl still exists as a popular format, however I haven’t kept up purchasing records. Going digital is unappealing to me. Part of the fun of collecting is having an actual object.
A big driver of the music collection is inspirational painting music.
My wife Michele and I always have music playing while we paint in the studio we share. We turn it up loud enough to make an impression but no so loud we can’t talk to each other.
Michele and I have very similar tastes in music, though I go to more weird extremes than she does. She has been enjoying movie soundtracks lately, and they really set a great epic tone to work to.
When Michele takes a nap I put on headphones and listen to obnoxious punk rock and abstract hip hop.
This is the stack of CDs that have accumulated in our home studio recently. These could be seen as the soundtrack for our recent work: