Music & Academia: Interview with Jon Fielder

In this series, I interview musicians about their experiences in academia. I hope their stories will help readers forge their own paths, in or out of the institution.

Jon Fielder

I recently interviewed Jon Fielder. Jon is a composer of electroacoustic and acoustic music, with strong interests in timbre, texture, spatialization and narrative. His music is inspired by natural landscapes, various topics of science and mathematics, the human voice (spoken, sung or just noise), and literature. Jon’s music has been presented and performed on numerous conferences around the US. He is also an active researcher and music theorist. He received two B.M. degrees in composition and theory from Ohio University, a M.M. in composition from Bowling Green State University, and a DMA in composition from the University of Texas at Austin. Previously a full-time instructor of audio and music at SAE Expression College in Emeryville, CA, he now resides in Cleveland, Ohio.

ASN: You recently left a teaching career and moved back “home.” What led you to make this shift?

JF: I relocated to Cleveland in September 2021 after living in the Bay Area with my wife since early 2017 (she had been there since 2013. We left the Bay Area because my wife has a chronic health condition that had gone undiagnosed for 8 years and we realized the medical treatment in the Bay wasn’t what she needed. We decided we wanted to relocate for financial and personal reasons but Cleveland seemed like a good stop-gap location so Michelle could be seen at the Cleveland Clinic. It ended up working out because she got a diagnosis after only a couple of appointments.

Deciding to leave academia wasn’t actually that difficult of a decision. I had been teaching music and audio technology full time at a digital media college for 3 years and had the longest creative rut in my career and found myself with almost no time to work on personal projects. When I decided I wanted maybe a different teaching job it became immediately evident how little agency I had on where I lived if I put a teaching position as my top priority for work (gotta go where the jobs are).

Basically it came down to asking myself if I wanted to base where my wife and I live on where my job is, if I wanted my actual training and passion (composition and programming) needed to take a backseat to teaching, if I was ok with working significantly more hours than I get paid for, and if I wanted to join the rat race of adjuncting until I got lucky enough to find a tenure-track position. The answer to all of those questions was an emphatic no, so the choice to leave was actually very easy for me in that regard.

ASN: Tell me about your current pursuits – jobs/gigs/creative projects – and how they fit together (e.g. to make a living).

JF: I’ve gone full Charles Ives. I started a new full-time job for a payroll software company in late September after leaving academia. I work from 9-5 Monday to Friday and outside of those hours I have all of my time to myself. In the last few months of 2020 I wrote and finished a substantial flute/electronics piece, wrote a solo flute miniature, edited the electronics for an older piano/electronics piece, and put out a follow up to my Acousmatic Christmas album.

I have a small collection of pieces I had on the back burner from 2018 to now that I’m working on and have a couple new things in the works as well, and have been working on more freelance audio engineering/mixing/mastering projects. I’ve also been working on more performing and instrument building – these are all very early stages so I don’t have much to go on there. What I can say is that pulling down a regular salary and knowing I always have my nights and weekends has been incredible for my work ethic and general stress levels.

ASN: What are your upcoming career plans and how are you preparing/positioning yourself?

JF: I’m working on a long-term plan to transition into full-time freelance work. I worked as an audio engineer for a few years while I was finishing my DMA and ended up really enjoying that work. The idea is to eventually have an ongoing body of audio projects – mixing/mastering, some music/sound editing work, recording engineering and things of that nature – and to (hopefully) have a steady influx of composition work. Because I have more time that I’m not spending on grading, lesson plans and attending faculty meetings I have time to work on a lot more in my off-hours. The goal is to take on a small number of jobs (like I’m currently doing) and gradually over time build a portfolio of projects and clients. Once the incoming projects are consistent and large enough to sustain a living I’ll make the transfer from whatever my current full-time job is to full-time freelancing.

The beauty of my current situation is that my job gives me the financial security to not feel like I’m in a constant hustle, and I find that it’s much less mentally and physically draining than teaching was. I can easily put in an 8-hour day and still have the energy to put in an additional 2-3 hours of composing and programming, or work on one of my freelance projects.

ASN: What aspects of audio engineering do you like best? (For me, I love editing more than mixing, I love AND hate FOH sound)

JF: I really like most aspects of the engineering side, though I would probably be happy never running FOH sound again. I did so much of it during grad school and doctoral school, and did a lot of freelance live sound when I lived in Austin. Working on films really got me into the post-production world, and I’ve been spending a lot of time honing my mixing and mastering skills. I do find audio editing to be a very calming activity, though. When I was an oboist I always felt like reed-making was initially very stressful, but eventually was a nice decompression activity. I guess audio editing is the reed-making of the sound engineering world!

ASN: Tell me about your blog KLANG — what were your original motivations and where are you planning to take it?

JF: KLANG is an ongoing project that has its ups and downs. I started that blog in the final months of 2013 and it never really became what I hoped it would be in terms of regularity of content. My goal was to make it sort of a small scale New Music Box or I Care If You Listen, but which catered specifically to experimental music. Those other new music outlets are great, but I often find myself reading about Neo-Romantic composers, prominent figures in the post-minimalist and pop-crossover styles, and in general a focus on contemporary concert music that has a broader mass appeal. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when I want to read about really thorny atonal music or electronic music I found myself needing to resort to music journals, YouTube channels, and independent bloggers like 5:4 and Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s The Rambler blog. I wanted to create something like that, where people interested in the fringes of contemporary music could find articles about compositional techniques, writing about various topics related specifically to avant-garde music, interviews with specifically young and emerging voices, and reviews of recordings, albums and conferences/festivals.

I think what I ultimately created is what I wanted, but I sadly don’t have the time to keep up with it as regularly as I would like. That actually segues into future goals, I’ve started looking into having guest contributors come on board so I can have a more steady stream of content, as well as get more diverse voices involved so I’m not creating my own echo chamber. The blog has taken off and I’ve seen full PDF exports of my posts uploaded to Scribd, it’s been referenced in a few music journals, and over the last couple of years I’ve been getting a consistent influx of recordings from Dan Lippel at New Focus Recordings and some stuff from Gold Bolus out of New York. For anyone reading this, if you’re interested in contributing, hit me up!

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