Fun on the front burner: Interview with James Bohn

James Bohn is a composer and music technology specialist. His music has been performed internationally as well as throughout the United States. An Associate Professor at Stonehill College, Dr. Bohn earned his DMA in Music Composition from the University of Illinois.

James Bohn

ASN: As a musician, educator, and scholar, you wear many hats. Where is your primary focus these days?

JB: Honestly, my primary focus is usually getting through the week. However, when I am in a place where I have the headspace to prioritize, I am trying to front burner happiness. I am privileged enough to have a full time, non-tenure track teaching gig. While it would be great, and arguably appropriate, for my position to be turned into a tenure track gig, given economic realities of higher education, I think that is an unlikely prospect. Thus, I am probably at the highest rank I can expect to hold.

My desire is to frame this situation as an opportunity for me to focus on joy. Since I likely am no longer in a position where I feel obligated to relentlessly build a portfolio for advancement, I am no longer obliged to ask myself what’s best for my career. Yes, I do have to do a certain amount of maintenance to my CV to maintain my contract contingent teaching position, but there doesn’t seem to be the same pressure to breathlessly sprint from achievement to achievement.

Accordingly, while I work as a teacher, a scholar, and a composer, any extra bandwidth I have tends to go towards the project that seems the most fun, and / or the most interesting. Since the onset of the pandemic, that has primarily been creating music using multichannel audio recording.

ASN: You’ve mentioned to me that you’ve moved on from the “New Music” scene. What led you away from this and into your current projects?

JB: I love New Music, and I loved creating New Music. However, after a quarter century working in the field I have a file cabinet overflowing with pieces, a minority of which have been performed. Those that have been performed were usually only performed once, and often to an audience of as little as ten people. It seems to me that there are more composers out there interested in writing New Music than there are performers who are willing to play it.

On the other hand, I’ve been teaching multitrack production for over twenty years. When I first started, there were few DMAs out there who could teach the topic, and those who were able to teach it often lacked a graduate degree. Hence, I found that multichannel recording became my teaching specialty. About five years ago I realized the incongruity of having a considerable degree of expertise in production, but not using it as part of my creative work.

The primary benefit targeting multichannel music recording rather than live performance allows me to be in control of what pieces of mine see the light of day. This approach better aligns my teaching with my creative work, and it also forces me to work on my improvisation skills, which has been a goal of mine as a performer.

I feel that my desire to be a composer is driven in a large part by my love of musical instruments. I love them as sonic producers, as cultural artifacts, and as pieces of engineering. Multichannel recording allows me to indulge my, perhaps misguided, desire to be a multi- instrumentalist. To put it another way, writing for multitrack production gives me an excuse to buy more musical instruments.

I record an amalgam of techno, rock, minimalism, and experimental music under the name Darth Presley. I enjoy creating alter egos. I find that it frees you from your personal history, and it allows you to design a scenario that can aid in creating what you want to create. It also allows me to indulge a love of costumes and a certain degree of performance art.

I’m under no illusions that I will be any more conventionally successful with this approach to making music than I was with New Music. However, being in control of what pieces of mine are available for people to listen makes a world of difference for my mental health.

Can you give us some insight into your creative process? Perhaps an overview of one piece,
from seed-of-an-idea to finished work. What do you think about when creating?

ME7ROPOL17AN 7RANSPOR7A71ON AU74OR17Y by Darth Presley and Slash Gordon

JB: ME7ROPOL17AN 7RANSPOR7A71ON AU74OR17Y was my pandemic project, and it was the first large project undertaken under as Darth Presley. In fall 2020 I needed some distraction, so I decided to purchase my first drum machine. After a bit of research, I settled on the Arturia DrumBrute. This analog drum machine offers two robust features: individual outputs and the ability to do polyrhythms. Individual outputs allow one to record each component of a drumbeat (kick, snare, hats, etc.) on a separate channel, enabling unique processing for each track (reverb on the snare, flanging on the hats, etc.). The DrumBrute permits polyrhythms by being able to set different lengths for each component. I was sufficiently pleased with what the machine would do and purchased a clone of the Roland TB303, a bass synthesizer with a built-in sequencer that allows for odd time signatures.

The plan quickly became to create an album and a live performance that would happen when the album was ready to launch. Unfortunately, the live show never happened as the Omicron variant hit its stride when the album was completed. I wanted the album to consist of many short movements the segued into each other. I came up with a plan for 36 short pieces, using a sudoku matrix to determine the tempo of each movement as well as well as the meter for the bass synthesizer and each layer of the drumbeat. Ultimately, I used five time signatures: 4/4, 3/4, 7/8, 5/8, and 11/16.

Arturia DrumBrute
Arturia DrumBrute

It is relatively easy to trigger the wrong sequence on the Behringer TD, so in order to avoid problems with the live performance I had planned, I decided that all 36 movements should only use notes from a C major scale. While each movement has its own set of pitches used, if you trigger the wrong sequence by accident, it will at least be in the same key.

I invited a former student of mine, Benjamin Phinney, to provide guitar tracks for the album. The tracks he created were wonderful, giving each movement a unique personality. Accordingly, I put his pseudonym (Slash Gordon), and gave him co-author credits on every track.

Finally came my overdubs. These overdubs are really a way of fattening up the orchestration a bit. In the interest of variety, I used different combinations of instruments on each consecutive movement. Throughout the entire album I play: theremin, synthesizer, rhythm guitar, pedal steel guitar, electric cello, trombone, bass harmonica, and fretless bass.

I should note that the strings on the album are a real string orchestra. It may not always be obvious, as I often process them (filtering, echo) as if they were synthesized. I contracted a string orchestra in Budapest to play a bunch of isolated chords that I had voiced, both arco and pizz. I then isolated each chord and sprinkled them generously throughout the album.

To unify the concept, I needed 36 titles, and wanted the album to convey a sense of motion. My wife and I love traveling to New York City, and I am a fan of complex transportation systems such as subways, trains, and airports. Accordingly, I used the New York subway system for the title of the album and the movements.

ASN: How does your creative work and scholarship inform your teaching?

JB: In terms of the former, it’s kind of the other way around. My teaching has really informed my creative work. As previously stated, the decision to pivot towards multichannel recording as a compositional workflow really came from my teaching experience.

I try to not bring my New Music / Classical composition skills into the classroom much. I find very few students come to college wanting to write New Music, or even Classical music. Most of the students I encounter want to write rock, pop, or hip-hop. I feel very uncomfortable telling students, either explicitly or implicitly, that the music they love, the music that’s meaningful to them, the music they aspire to write is somehow less important than notated music written in a style that descends from European practices, or that in order to compose something that is serious you have to abandon the music you love, as well as most of the skills you may have accumulated thus far as a musician.

For scholarship it’s kind of a two-way street. My book, Music in Disney’s Animated Films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to The Jungle Book, came out of a writing in the disciplines course I was teaching. Early in my research for the book I had thought I would focus much more on the backing score for each feature. However, it is very difficult to get access to adequate research materials, and the songs for the movies are so prominent and so important, such that the songs stepped more into the spotlight in the book.

For almost a decade now I’ve been teaching songwriting. It has become my favorite class to teach. I try to bring a different song into each class session that is related to the topic of the week. Not surprisingly I bring in a significant number of Disney songs.

Darth Presley really came out of my teaching. Once I started teaching songwriting, I felt like I should be doing songwriting myself so I could bring in my own work from time to time and go over how I approached various challenges. So, I started taking tracks I had been using for a multitracked minimalist piece I had been working on under my name, re-ordering sections into conventional pop song formats, and writing and recording melodies with lyrics to work with the backing tracks I was creating. While I haven’t released an album of songs yet, you can listen to that material on Bandcamp.

ASN: What do you like to do outside of being a professor/musician? How do you unwind?

JB: This question was harder for me to answer than I thought it would be. I think at times I’m one of those people who is in danger of having music consume their lives, which sounds great in a way, but it can be damaging to wrap one’s identity up in their work. I think one of the reasons this question is difficult is that in terms of hobbies I think I’m somewhat of a dilettante. I tend to pick interests up quickly, but then discard them almost as quickly.

A good example of this was the two worst years of the pandemic. To keep myself occupied and at home I flitted from one activity to another: jigsaw puzzles, model making, crafting, miniatures, painting, etc. I always imagine I’m going to settle into something, but I never seem to. The one thing that is a constant in terms of leisure activity is that I love spending time with my cats.

ASN: Thanks for sharing your experience and insights, James! Readers, you can listen to the MTA album on Spotify or purchase it from Bandcamp:

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