Three big things!

(1) Starting July 1, 2023, I will be serving as Chair of the Division of the Humanities here at UMN Morris. I am humbled and honored that my colleagues selected me. I will be keeping the Assessment portfolio for one more year (at least), so one result of this is that next year I will likely not be teaching at all. This does sadden me a little; I’ve been doing this for a quarter-century, and as much as I enjoy and am pretty good at the research/creative activity and service side of things, the classroom is my natural home and why I started doing this in the first place. But I willingly put in for consideration for the new gig, and I am looking forward to the challenges and possibilities.

(2) I will be writing a new piece for band in honor of Lawrence County, Indiana’s own Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom. The Gus Grissom Boyhood Home has commissioned the work, which will get its title from an interview Grissom gave to CBS News a few weeks before the Apollo 1 disaster. The work will be called …and you go fly, and will be scored for band. This will be played by a large band consisting of members of the bands from Mitchell High School, Bedford-North Lawrence High School (my high school, back in the day), Orleans High School, and possibly others in the region. I look forward to working with the Boyhood Home and the band directors (Zachary Tibbs, Jim Jones, and Terry Burton, who is an old college buddy). I am making no money on this – this is a gift from one Lawrence Countian to another. The premiere is tentatively set for Summer 2024 at the Galactic Gathering, the annual big show put on by the Boyhood Home.

(3) I have finished The Why and How of Music Theory, my textbook for MUS 1151 and 1152 here at UMN Morris. It’s bare-bones, but if anyone wants a look-see you are welcome to it. Free of charge, of course, but if you do use anything from it, drop me a note.

And if you’re wondering, I’m getting closer to finishing the opera. Once Act II is done, I’ll post it.

Now if it would just stop snowing…


I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to write a poem about county courthouses.


Wood, brick, stone

Polished brass and gold leaf

Flags and charters and plaques

The hopes of the pioneers

The curses of Manifest Destiny

The records of a people

Crossing from “unorganized territory”

Into plats and plots and plans

Governance made tangible

Offices of old, renewed and reordered

Birth, marriage, death

Land, voting, taxes

Writs and torts

Redress of grievances

“We have, Your Honor”

Maintained lawn

Civil War cannon

Eponym’s statue

Seat of administration

Temple of self-governance

Edifice of America


By now the world has learned of the death of the great composer, songwriter, and pianist Burt Bacharach. He studied with, among others, Darius Milhaud, and elevated the pop song in so many different ways.

Since we haven’t done a Theory Thursday in a while, I thought it would be cool to talk about what makes Bacharach’s work so…well, cool.

In a lot of pop music – and in a lot of non-pop music – there are certain structural and tonal expectations. Two of the most common ones are:
1. Phrases (complete musical ideas ending with some kind of closure) are four measures in length
2. The most important relationship when defining a key is the dominant-tonic relationship (V-I).

Let’s listen to the song “Always Something There To Remind Me,” one of my favorite Bacharach tunes (co-written with the legendary Hal David). First up, the demo version from Miss Dionne Warwick:

Pretty cool, huh? Now let’s listen to the version I first heard in the 1980s, the synth-pop cover by the band Naked Eyes:

What jumps at you is the phrase structure. Instead of nice four-bar phrases, Bacharach gives us a verse with a phrase structure of five-five-three.

Example 1: The opening phrase, five measures long.

The asymmetry, coupled with the ending ii half-diminished chord (not a chord normally associated with the end of a phrase, though Robert Schumann uses one to great effect at the end of a phrase in “Widmung,” the opening song of the op. 25 collection), adds musical interest. Things are off-kilter. A romance is no more, but there’s always something there to remind you. Bacharach thwarts the first of the two expectations listed above.

The other expectation is thwarted as well; there’s not a V-I until you get to almost the end of the chorus, with “I was born to love you, but I will never be free.” Listen again. There’s not a root-position dominant The piece is clearly in a key (Naked Eyes uses D, so I shall use that as my reference point), but the V-I – the defining tonal relationship – is only barely present. You can go almost the entire form of the tune before you hit a V-I.

One last little bit: Naked Eyes’ version takes the descending chromatic line from the soprano in the original down to the bass. This doesn’t actually change anything harmonically, but it does add the dimension of possible reference to the lament bass, or a descending chromatic bass line used as the basis for a lament or sad song. (Purcell’s “When I am laid in Earth” from Dido and Aeneas is the go-to model.) Some websites list the second chord as A/C#, but as I hear it there’s not enough there to think in terms of it being a dominant, and even if you could hear it that way, it’s an inversion with strong chromatic linear motion, which goes a long way toward undercutting the idea of it being a V.

Example 2. The opening phrase as performed by Naked Eyes.

Bacharach was a titan for so many reasons, but for me it’s because he thwarted expectations, and in doing so created tiny masterpieces. May his memory be a blessing, and may he rest well.


  1. This article by Matt Reed has me thinking quite a bit about what credentials should mean versus what they actually mean. Are the distinctions between the PhD, the DMA, the DME, and the EdD so uniformly pronounced anymore? Do we do people a disservice when we make a big stink about that sort of thing? I am proud of my PhD, but I chose that over the DMA precisely because 26-year-old me viewed it as the Acme, the apex of academia. Nearly-50-year-old me isn’t nearly as impressed.
  2. We’re having some work done on the house. Nothing huge, just adding a shower to our first floor bathroom. Still, it’s been interesting to watch that process. I have zero aptitude for home improvement, and yet now I’m thinking, “Are there any projects I could do?” (Answer: No. My skills lie elsewhere, and Dad, much as he could have used an extra set of hands, was keen enough to recognize that me doing farm work and mechanical work was a bad idea. I have the fine motor skills of eggplant. Besides, David and Brad were good at it.)
  3. I am looking forward to this semester in the classroom, even as it is going to be busy and I have all my assessment and coordinator duties as well. Work on The Why and How of Music Theory continues apace (I have chapters 8 and 9 on my work computer, and need to knock out 10 and 11 before Spring Break), and that has been fun to distill 25 years of teaching and an imaginative curriculum into one document. I’ll also be teaching Intellectual Foundations of Western Music, which I love because there’s just so much richness in the topic, and for the first time I’ll be using Ed Nowacki’s Greek and Latin Music Theory: Principles and Challenges as the text. Ed was one of my professors at CCM, and is one of my favorite human beings. I’ll also be teaching Choral Arranging and Analysis of Popular Music, as well as a couple of composition students.
  4. I get to bust out the alto trombone with the Central Lakes Symphony Orchestra! Brad asked me to do Enigma on it, and it will definitely be appearing when we do Beethoven 9 in May. Maybe I’ll try to attend the Pokorny Institute again. I am enjoying performing, especially in an ensemble. Maybe next year I’ll do that solo recital, but only after I’ve finished the opera…
  5. Speaking of which, I was able to write about 3 1/2 minutes last week. I need to make sure in the midst of all this, I carve out time to make this happen. Now that SMT is done, I don’t have any large research project on the table, so back to composing.
  6. “It’s all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968, Memphis, TN (his last public appearance)


So here we are in Anno Domini 2023. I turn 50 in 53 days.

I like seeing expiration dates on food products. It’s a sign of hope, of a future.

Last year was professionally one of the best I’ve ever had, with three solid premiere performances (including one in Australia, so yay for “international reputation for full professor”) and the SMT presentation. Work on the opera continues, though not at the pace I would like. Gonna sit with that and with my textbook quite a lot over the next two weeks before classes start up again. I am proud of the work we’re doing in music – and the work we’re doing on assessment – at UMN Morris.

Of course, last year we suffered a tremendous loss as well, with the passage (on the one-year anniversary of my own mother’s death) of my mother-in-law, Lauretta Beck Philhower (May 26, 1951 – June 17, 2022). We spent the holidays with Amanda’s dad and with my dad, and I’m grateful for the chance to still have both of them in my life. Dad will be 88 in four days. Expect some kind of tribute.

I do not know what the future holds. If I did, I would build Biff Tannen’s Pleasure Paradise. All I know is that I must and shall keep learning and keep doing. I encourage all of you to do the same. Cynicism is no way to approach life.

Be well in 2023. Let’s meet back here on January 1, 2024 and talk about how it went.


(This was originally posted on Facebook.)

I am back home with my beloved and my kittens. Everything is unpacked.

It is no secret that I have a turbulent history with the discipline of music theory. The dissertation took far too long, and not all of that was my fault. I couldn’t get my work published or into conferences. The curriculum felt stale, like it was designed by people more interested in producing future graduate students than in actual pedagogy.

I was ready to walk away. Admin pays better, anyway.

Then some things happened.

We redid the curriculum. After about six years of the new curriculum, I feel like I’m getting a handle on it. In fact, I’m in the process of writing a textbook that aligns with our curriculum. It’s still loose and informal, but I’m happy to send it along for your perusal.

I got a couple of things published. The Journal of Band Research, the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, and most recently Gamut provided receptive outlets and a non-adversarial review and editing process.

I got into a couple of conferences. CMS was particularly good for this, but I also made it into a regional conference. The feedback was good, and I felt like what I was doing was working.

But there was still SMT.

Nothing I sent in seemed to get any traction. I submitted something like 13 times. Dissertation research, Carlisle Floyd, Morton Gould, pedagogy, the Overton window, nothing could get in.

Look, I’ve carved out a good life and career. I have tenure. I have the respect of my colleagues (and it is mutual). We own a home.

But there was still SMT.

I wanted that imprimatur, and it was denied me. So I made a decision: this was going to be the last time I submitted. I decided to swing for the fences and put in something that was unlike anything I’d put in before (or anything I’d ever seen there). If it didn’t get in, I was going to wash my hands of the organization and concentrate on other things.

April came, and people started posting the “Thrilled to announce” posts. A couple of hours into that day, I still hadn’t heard. I was preparing myself for the worst. Then I saw the “Well, not this year” posts, and was wondering if mine had somehow slipped through the cracks.

I checked the spam filter, and my world changed.

I wrote up the paper, practiced it, practiced it again, trialed it on Zoom and at UMM. Checked, rechecked, and re-rechecked everything. Got my travel grants, booked my flight and my room.

Saturday came. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was on HBO that morning, which I took as a good omen. I walked in. I set up. Stephen Rodgers introduced me. I started.

Four minutes in, an example failed to play. For a half-second, I saw it all fall apart. The laptop is old, man. Some quick thinking on the part of the room monitor and we were back on. The laugh lines (mostly) hit. The rhythm snapped back into place. “Live long and prosper.” Applause. “Are there any questions?”

Harald Krebs had been cited in the paper. Harald Krebs approached the microphone. I imagined a Marshall McLuhan moment (“You know nothing of my work!”) and steeled myself. I had told myself I didn’t care about the response. I got in, after all. But in reality, I *totally* cared, and I prepared myself for a explication of my ignorance.

“That was the most entertaining paper I’ve heard.”

Then he asked a question about emotion and Shatner’s performance. Apparently my answer was satisfactory, as he thanked me and sat down. Mark Spicer asked a good question and also remarked that he enjoyed the paper. A couple more questions, more applause, and I sat down, for the first time in ages feeling like a true music theorist.

I love music theory.


Welp, it’s been a summer.

I mentioned a “family health” thing a couple of posts ago. On June 17, exactly one year after we lost my mother, my mother-in-law Lauretta Beck Philhower died. She was only 71, and her loss has been a gut punch. Lauretta was a kind soul with a great laugh and a love of good music. We miss her terribly.

Then there was some reshuffling at work, and now I find myself running the assessment program for the entire institution. That’s fine. My predecessor did a bang-up job of creating mechanisms, so all I need to do for right now is top off the fluids and keep the tires inflated. This does move me into an even-larger administrative role. Be careful what you wish for, kids.

Also, I’m recovering, as the Covid finally caught me last week. Made it 2 1/2 years. Since I’m double-vaxxed and boosted, it was just a really bad cold for me. Still, 0/10, would not recommend. This meant I had to bail on playing in my first pit orchestra in nearly two decades. My guess is, the mute changes were so involved they wore me out, which weakened my immune system.

Long story short, the opera isn’t done yet. That’s OK. I have no performances scheduled. I hope to get back to work on it some this week. I can tell you that Acts I and III are finished, and if I’m being honest, the ending is beautiful – everything I would want. This is primarily due to Dave Cole’s libretto, but I’m going to allow myself a little brag and say the music is awesome as well.

The Australian performance of Triple Double had to be postponed for one month, but it happened last week. You can watch it here – it’s the second piece on the program, but do watch the whole thing, as Kara Williams and her accomplices play a variety of excellent pieces by a variety of excellent composers. This performance is easily one of the top three performances of my music in terms of quality. I was honored and humbled to sit in my living room Wednesday night and listen. My beloved, not one for effusive praise, said, “that was really good.” Check it out.

I have started opening some channels for a performance opportunity (well, the playing of a recording) that would be out of this world. More on that if it develops into something. Suffice it to say that growing up in Pinhook, Indiana (pop. 19) you don’t expect to hear your music at essentially the Antipodes of Pinhook. So once I’ve been heard in Australia, what else is there? (I’m still working on Asia, Africa, South America, and yes, even Antarctica.)

Also, I saw Antipodes of Pinhook at H.O.R.D.E. in 1996.

Thank you all for coming on this journey with me. Let’s see what’s next together.


I am thrilled to announce my first Australian performance!

Kara Williams of the Riverina Conservatorium of Music in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia is giving a lunchtime concert on June 30 (June 29 for us back in the States). Among the works on the program is my Triple Double, originally for woodwind doubler and big band (in an arrangement for doubler and string quartet with rhythm section). The concert will be at 1pm local time (11pm EDT on 6/29, 10pm CDT, 9pm MDT, 8pm PDT).

Further information can be found here.

After the past few weeks, this is welcome.


I’ve still got a lot of typesetting to do, but two acts (I and III) have been written.

Writing the Andrew Jackson stuff was exceptionally difficult. You want the music to reflect the person as the person conceptualizes him/herself, but you also think about the weight of history. John Adams (the composer, not the father of this work’s subject) once joked that Nixon in China was “an opera for Republicans and Communists.” He’s not far off. Almost all the main characters are treated in a fashion that aligns with their own self-perception. (The notable exception is Henry Kissinger, who deserves no quarter and no mercy and receives none.) Dave did a great job of depicting a monster who is convinced of his own rectitude in his libretto. I hope I have created an equal characterization in my music.

Now on to Act II; I have already sketched the dance variations at the heart of the Subterranean scene, as well as the transition from the outside world to the hollow world. This is allowing me to stretch out a little bit, explore different sounds. The trick will be to not rely on sonic stereotypes of “othering.” Please let me know if I fall short on this one.

I might be able to have the vocal score done by the end of July. I was hoping to have the orchestration(s) completely done by then as well, but life being what it is (family medical emergencies, “other duties as assigned,” and OH YES HOLY CRAP I GOT INTO SMT SEE YOU IN NEW ORLEANS BUT NOW I HAVE TO WRITE THIS PAPER TOO), that’s not going to happen. No worries – the plan is still to workshop it in late Spring 2023, and for that I only need the vocal score.

Like a cheap set of drugstore nails, we press on.


At the corner of two dirt roads sits a building.

Swan Lake Township Hall, Swan Lake Township, Stevens County, Minnesota. Picture taken by the author on June 2, 2022 at 3:00pm.

Once you get what folks call “out in the county,” buildings are further apart. This structure is probably a good quarter-mile from the closest house. You’ll see homes, barns, garages, churches, and in many places, one of these. This is a township hall, and I would argue it is the single most important building in its area.

A township, in American governmental parlance, is an area organized to facilitate land records, road management, public assistance, and other aspects of government. In places where cities and towns are not yet incorporated – or have been disincorporated – the township is the most local level of governance. In some places, the civil township corresponds almost perfectly with the survey township, the six-square-mile units of land surveyors mapped whenever new areas came under United States control. (That story is often not pretty, and the ugliness of it should never be discounted when we tell the story of who we are.) Stevens County, Minnesota is one such place. Other counties organize their townships by landmarks and rivers, leading to the same odd shapes that permeate so much of governmental cartography.

As the most local level of governance, the township provides the clearest example of the sclerotic nature of too many local and state governments. The largest township by population in Stevens County is Morris Township, with a population of 396 (2020 Census data). Some townships in Minnesota have less than 50 people. Like too many small towns and rural areas, the population of these structures has dropped precipitously over the past century.

It would be easy to abolish townships. Many states don’t even have them. Most are tiny, and the governmental functions could easily be assumed by county governments. Like small town speed traps (anyone remember New Rome, Ohio?), some exist only to provide sinecures and pensions for long-time “elected” officials who only needed to get the votes of those around their kitchen table. Yet I cannot endorse this move. The local government is the first – and in some cases, the only – point of contact citizens will have with the idea of government. If you make access to an official who can hear your petition for a redress of grievances more difficult, you also make it less likely that your fellow citizens will stay engaged. This leads to the aforementioned sclerotic structures. Self-governance – even at the most local of levels – requires effort and commitment. These smaller governments also provide the necessary training for higher levels of governance. Recent history shows us what can happen when elected officials want to start at the top. Not only do these sudden governors misunderstand processes, they through their ignorance allow malicious but intelligent people who do understand local government to use these systems and institutions for nefarious purposes. In both situations, the end result is the same – trust in institutions is eroded, and bad actors have an easier path to engage in chicanery.

Active local governance, even – nay, especially – at the township level, is how we preserve our nation, with its government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I promise to get back to opera updates soon, but it was important that I think about this out loud. Want to change the world? Change your corner of it. If a state has townships, that state likely has a township trustee/officer association. (Here’s Minnesota.) Learn more about your local government. Get involved. Make those township halls temples of democracy once again. The future of the Republic depends on it.


Another bit of block, this time because of the subject matter.

Look, anyone who knows me knows my politics. I don’t hide them. (In the classroom I am scrupulously apolitical in the electoral sense, but I also encourage discussion about the political nature of music theory. Remember that politics does not automatically mean electoral politics – it is simply how humans engage with each other on issues that affect entire groups.) Andrew Jackson was, to put it charitably, a genocidal maniac. My librettist (the incomparable David Cole) saw certain parallels with recent events. The last line of Jackson’s big aria is “make America great once again!”

Reader, I didn’t have the music for that in me. I tried. Rejected 5-7 settings.

So he’s shouting it.

I look forward to getting everyone’s reactions to the arc of this scene, how it goes from broad humor and folk tunes to something unabashedly sinister. In many ways it is the polar (ha, if you know Hollow Earth theory) opposite of Act II, scene 2, which shows humanity at its best in the form of Symmes offering his own life and freedom in the stead of a crewman.

We’re getting there. I won’t have the whole thing done (including chamber orchestration) by July 24 like I wanted, but that’s alright. Honestly, all I need to have done is the vocal score by January for what I hope is a June workshop. (Hey, if any opera impresarios are reading this and wanna workshop it, drop me a note! Otherwise, I’ll do it myself.)

In other news, went down to Minneapolis this week for the OPERA America conference. Learned a few things, met a couple of people, and then my introversion and impostor syndrome kicked in. Still glad I went.

Further bulletins as events warrant.