Beyond the Surface: Musician and Composer Jack Curtis Dubowsky

04/12/2017 06:10 pm ET

To be one’s true self is the goal in life. This blog series would not exist if it werent for a reunion with an old friend who had all the makings of a modern-day Mozart. But at a pivotal fork in the road, he chose the path behind a desk, instead of one behind a keyboard, which would’ve honored his gift - like Mozart did. Now, 20 years later, he’s unrecognizable, this friend who once had music radiating from every cell, especially when singing in random bursts of happiness. The years have taken their toll - not just in the added 20 pounds that don’t belong, but in the heaviness that comes when living someone elses life, and not one’s true purpose. The life you came here to live.

As a writer, this inspired me to highlight the special souls who chose to follow their true path. The tougher path, but one that honors and expresses the powerful gift of music they’ve been given. To live the Mozart life. May some of their words help or inspire you to find your true calling in life.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky is a musician and composer based in Long Beach CA and found of the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble, new music group that combines acoustic instruments, electronic hardware, composed material and structured improvisation. The ensemble has released three albums and performed nationwide including New York, San Francisco, and Cambridge, Mass. The Long Beach Post describes their last recording “Jack Dubowsky Ensemble III” as“an experimental collection of tracks that are likely to take the listener to a rarely-visited psychedelic state of mind…the sometimes-structured, sometimes-abstract free-form instrumentals and electronic sounds transcend traditional musical boundaries and require an open mind and an appreciation for creative exploration.” Dubowsky attended UCLA as an undergrad and earned a Master of Music degree in composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The ensemble is gearing up for the release of “Zorro,” an instrumental interpretation/score to the classic 1920’s silent film “The Mark of Zorro” in an all new album engineered by Earle Mankey (Beach Boys, Sparks, Elton John) on April 28th. They will also perform to the film live in Los Angeles area April 27 at the Santa Monica Library and downtown at HM130 on May 13.

When did you know you had this gift of music and how did it manifest for you? How did you start to do the human discipline it takes to channel your gift, hone it and bring it forth?

My mom taught me to play piano and read music when I was a kid. And once you can read, you can write as well. By the time I was in high school, I really enjoyed playing in bands, and it was a good time for a pianist because synthesizers were a thing. They were expensive and monophonic, and my first synthesizer was a used Roland SH-1000. My second one was a Roland SH-101, which I bought new. A professor at my undergraduate university initially helped me get into recording engineering, but writing and composing and performing music was a compulsion for me. I just kept doing it, and so I decided to go back to grad school at conservatory and learn more.

I would say that it’s not so much that music is a “gift,” because in many cultures everyone participates in music-making. I would say that real musical opportunities in our culture have become rare. Music and the arts have been largely pushed out of our public schools, and this has been going on for decades. We really need to do a better job supporting and encouraging arts education and arts funding.

What advice do you have for people who have the gift of music, but don’t know how to start channeling it, to develop that gift and bring it out?

Practice. Take lessons. Go to conservatory. Audition. Perform. You learn the craft. You develop your techniques. You hone your skills. If you need to write that antiphonal anthem for double-chorus, you take the text, memorize it, speak it, learn the rhythms, figure out the form, and set to work. You don’t need to be inspired or channel anything. I think in a broad sense, the decline of arts education in the United States has encouraged a view of the artist as having some kind of magical powers or spiritual connection. We are just as lost and uninspired as everyone else. If anything, my superpower is that I am rather unconstipated when it comes to music; it just leaks out of me. I will place my order at a café counter in the form of a little melody. Maybe this is goofy or annoying. But it’s just raw material. You have to learn what to do with these snippets, how to develop something interesting out of them.

What inspired this blog series was seeing an old friend who has a special gift of music, but didn’t choose that path, who, 20 years later, isn’t living the life he thought he would live. People who make music and get to travel the world doing so are a rare example of a life where one is able to honor and channel their gift of music. What are your thoughts? And do you feel you’re consciously living the life you thought you would be living?

Speaking for myself, I am pretty sure that I am not living the life I thought I would live. I don’t get to travel the world, though I’m certainly open to offers! There’s a quote that I’ve heard attributed to John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I think this is really quite true. I also think that it is increasingly difficult for people to make a living solely within the arts, especially in the United States, which is very driven by commerce. The current president has indicated a desire to defund the arts, education, and humanities. This will reduce opportunities for Americans to travel the world as musicians.

I have a friend who, upon retirement, took up painting. And he is really good, and his paintings sell for a lot of money. So the 20 years thing is neither here nor there in my opinion. Right now the classical world may have a fascination with young, rising stars; Bill Doerrfeld wrote an interesting post about this. But you don’t need to write for the symphony hall; you can write for choruses, or marching bands, or just put on your own shows. Music doesn’t disappear because you hit a certain age. And people generally pursue music because they love it, because it is a compulsion, not because it’s a savvy career choice.

Pink Floyd has a song, “Time,” with the amazing couplets, “And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.” This is about an insecurity that we are supposed to start our careers or lives at a certain moment, and we risk it all if we dally. This may be true, but for me, I believe it is largely about that insecurity, and this may resonate with your friend.

Likewise, Talking Heads have a song “Once in a Lifetime” with the lyrics, “And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, With a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here?” So no one really lives the life they thought that they would live. And we all question who we are and how we got into our current predicament or stasis or situation. This is just a universal thing as our society has become transitory, transient, migratory, and uncertain, personally and professionally. It’s completely natural to look back and say, why didn’t I do this? And everyone does that. But we always still have some time now, to do things.

It’s been a tough time for music, losing many of its legends or those we grew up with whose music was our soundtrack. What are your thoughts on time, how it seems to go by faster each year. Perhaps it’s made you reflect on what you want to achieve in the time we’re given here? Do you think about time much and what you want to achieve in the time we have?

I do think a lot about time. I had not done an album since 2011, largely because the economic landscape makes releasing an album a money-losing activity. But I was aware that I needed to put out another album to document what my ensemble is doing now. So that is how Zorro came about. Also, I’m working on a new, two-year book project. So I am planning multi-year projects and looking at projects that consume a pretty good chunk of time. To me larger projects are very rewarding.

Unlike any time in history, we’re in a overwhelming digital era. There is so much detritus, noise and schadenfreude. What’s your view on that, and how do you find quiet in this era? What do you do to connect with your Higher Self, your true self? Do you have a day you unplug for example? How do you ground yourself, focus on your own life path and purpose?

I think it can be wonderful to spend some time living in the past. Read a book. Kill your television. Write with pen or pencil and paper. Don’t pick up the phone. We are inundated by new technologies, and we are living in a moment of phenomenal cultural shifts. It’s similar to how the industrial revolution changed the lives of absolutely everyone in society. This is happening again right now. So while it cannot be avoided, you can still sit down with a book of poetry, or put on an LP.

How do you find inspiration for the music? Is there somewhere deep within where the inspiration comes from? It’s said that when we’re most connected to our true selves for example, some of the best songs were written in minutes. What’s your take on that, do you feel that in those inspirational moments you’re most connected to your true self? Have any songs come to you in that way, with such ease?

I’d like to begin with a disclosure that I don’t agree with a lot of the underlying assumptions behind many of these questions. My approach comes through conservatory training and approaching music as a craft, rather than a metaphysical quasi-religious experience that promotes a mythology of the composer as a guru with a special connection to a higher self.

There is no “true self.” That’s an assumption I’d like to question. Who we are or pretend to be, at any point in time, is entirely an artificial construct. We adopt roles, we play a part, we construct our own image. I am not real or true. There is a fascinating dissonance between authenticity and artifice. Consider Prince, or David Bowie. Bowie is all about artifice; every year he would come out in new drag and new musical styles. And yet, there is still something authentic about everything he did. I believe Bowie was not connecting to a “true self,” but connecting to a creative process. I argue that there is no true self, that people are complex, layered, and shifting. Audiences may fault music for being “fake” or inauthentic - consider popular responses to easy listening or jazz fusion; in spite of this, the most engaging music often creates nonsensical or imaginary worlds and unusual journeys – consider the artificial primitivism of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the fanciful space music of Klaus Schultze. Yello Magic Orchestra has an amazing song called “Behind the Mask.” It’s been covered by Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton, among others. I think this song is open to interpretation, but in my mind, the original lyrics are really about the creation and maintenance of identity. This really connects to other things like Jungian psychology as well: how we are composed of archetypes and their interactions, and to what extent can we control those and actively create ourselves?

It’s true that, when composing music, sometimes things come very fast, but I attribute this to the subconscious, or to engaging musical tropes or techniques that you have assimilated really well. It’s like an “aha” moment where things make sense very quickly: oh, this theme can be inverted, I can slow it down, that will create a slow section, and then that section I can also use here, and so on. Why, I could just turn that polka into a waltz and put it in a minor key, and wow, there I have what I was looking for.

The way you write with ease, or “in minutes,” is by perfecting your craft, by studying form and compositional techniques. You need to write a piece of music? Great. What’s the form? What’s the purpose? How long does it need to be? Should we do a slow-fast-slow, three-movement form? Where is the climax? Does it need an introduction, or a coda? You plan these things out. Oh you can’t think of a melody? How about just a phrase? What can it do? Can it become a period? What would the second period be? What can we do with it? Can we reharmonize it? Can we make an inversion, an invention, a canon, a prelude, a fugue with this phrase? If you have the right training, there is a craft to these things, and you are not waiting for a moonbeam to come and hit you on the head. You sit down and work through the possibilities, and recognize what works.

Do you have a daily musical process?

I wish I did. I recall a fellow student in conservatory, the pianist Lukas Swidzinski, telling me I should be writing eight hours a day. This had a big impact on me; his point was that you need to take your craft seriously, and you need to be doing it, not waiting around for an idea.

There are divine moments of serendipity, where a catalyst opens the door that leads to the path we’re meant to be on, the one where we live out the fullest expression of our true selves. What was that moment for you and how did it happen?

I don’t agree with this basic premise at all. Divine moments of serendipity? No. Consider Voltaire’s Candide for an articulate, Enlightenment rebuttal of divine providence. Furthermore, if we consider how racism, misogyny, and bigotry limit access and opportunity in the arts, it’s clear that people do not have a “path we’re meant to be on,” because for many people that path is blocked, and for others it’s encouraged, and there is no divinity involved in that. Musicologists and folks like Sheryl Sandberg and Brian Lauritzen have noted that women composers are rarely commissioned or performed by major symphonies and opera companies. Does that mean that those paths are not meant for them?

People will generally gravitate to where they are rewarded, either monetarily or through positive reinforcement. For some people, like Charles Ives, composing was something they did in their spare time, for themselves. For others, like Julius Eastman, composing was something they did even if mainstream success was pretty much impossible at the time. But most people will follow the money or the adulation, and that might be in real estate or computer programming.

There are perhaps a few watershed moments in our lives – I remember musicians playing for me who encouraged me to go back to grad school in music. But overall I would say that what happens is a natural progression, not magical or divine moments of serendipity. Motion picture editor John Axelrad has said that success in the entertainment industry happens slowly; there “is no one big break,” but rather “a series of small breaks.” I believe this is completely true. There is a mythology about being “discovered” or having a “lucky break,” but that’s a false narrative. It is just slow, gradual, hard work and persistence.

I’ve said in that blog post about living the Mozart life, that it may be a tougher road to choose, but you’re fully living your true selves. Do you resonate to that? You did not choose the 9 to 5 path.

People who I know who work in the arts are working many more hours than 9 to 5. They might not have that schedule, but the amount of work that goes into writing, performing, and producing music is incredible. Jake Heggie kindly took a look at my score in progress for my Halloween in the Castro opera (2009), and he told me, “no one will ever know how much work you put into this.” And it is true. Those were very memorable words to me. It’s hard for people outside the profession to see what was done very quickly and what involved countless weeks of labor.

Mozart is a great example to challenge your paradigm here, because Mozart really wrote within harmonic rules and structural formula. A genius yes, but look at the structural similarities between the Bassoon Concerto, the Clarinet Concerto, and the four Horn Concertos. You sit down and you do it. There’s a craft and a formula. He’s a master and a genius, but there is no moonbeam. It’s the work of someone who knows exactly what they are doing, and has done it many times before. Even his operas, the magic is in the dramaturgy and the control. Often he’s writing for specific singers; he’s doing what he does as a matter of craft and expertise. It’s interesting to note that historically, in his day, Mozart’s operas were not the #1 box office hits; the more successful operas at the time were far more simple and repetitive, and are largely forgotten today.

But to embark on this path you chose, was that difficult? Because you didn’t know you would get here.

As an undergraduate in college, I remember taking an economics class as part of my “general education” requirements. The professor told me something I’ve never forgotten. He said that people who are successful in the arts, like music or painting or acting, are not the people who are the best at those things. Because if they have other skills which are better reimbursed, they will go do those things. The people who are successful in the arts are people who cannot do anything else. That’s a socio-economics take on the arts. The corollary that I propose is that people in the arts are not only the people who can do nothing else, but they also include people who are completely obsessed, have an idée fixe, or are compulsive about finishing that painting or writing that book. You see, everyone wants to have written a book. Few people want to actually spend a few years sitting and writing one. So the people who actually “do” are people who are obsessed.

How did you know that this is your life path, your calling? How does someone know when they’re on the correct path?

No one knows. I feel like I’m toiling in obscurity. No one knows if they are on the “correct path,” either. Correct path for what? There are composers who are writing angular contemporary classical music who wish they were doing film scores, and there are composers writing film scores who wish that their music was programmed in concert halls. There are folks writing choral music who wish they were writing symphonic music. There are people who secretly wish they had written a “Mandy” or a “Wasting Away in Margaritaville” because they would be retired.

There are some interesting parables about the path to stardom. There’s a Brady Bunch episode where Greg thinks he’s being discovered for his talent, but it turns out it’s really because the jacket fits him. This is a great parable for the music business. Another parable, albeit tragic, is the story of Milli Vanilli; Fab and Rob were the Grammy-award winning public faces for producer Frank Farian. This was a collaboration that was highly profitable but ultimately exposed and seen as deceitful. To me these are insightful stories because they show the difference between commercial success and artistic success. Which is the correct path for you? There is no single path. People today tend to be their own little cottage industries. I write, I teach, I compose, I edit. Most people seem to be juggling several jobs, even if they are not in the arts. They code, they barista, they uber, they have a “side hustle,” they are working on a vlog. I think we may be living in a world that is necessarily post “path.” It’s like you are an octopus with all these tentacles reaching out for various objectives.

What is your idea of success, especially on the path you chose?

I have no idea. As I said above, I think it’s just about being compulsive. I feel if you finish a piece, if you get a piece performed, if people are interested in what you are doing, that is success.

Life gives us catalysts, a release valve, which often is our lowest point in life, that allows us to push up to the next, hopefully better chapter. Like a desert, wilderness period in life, that helps raise our consciousness and stay true to yourself and your own path. What was that low point for you that helped you push yourself further, evolve and do better, and what did you do when you had that epiphany?

Again, I think these questions belie assumptions that I would dispute. The “low point” sounds like an AA narrative, like “hitting bottom,” and I’m not sure that we ever do that. Things can always get better, but they can always get worse as well. Every day you wake up, well there you go, you’re one step ahead. And again, I don’t think there’s such a thing as staying “true to yourself.” I’d spin this question around. What can you do to create an imaginary self that is beautiful and artificial and completely new to everyone around you? How can you reimagine or reinvent yourself every day? Isn’t the self-creation of our own image a form of self-empowerment and creativity?

I’m a firm believer in doing mitzvahs, especially in the tougher times of our lives. To give back, be of service in some way, to use our time most wisely, can only help us in the end. What are your thoughts and do you try to do your own mitzvahs to help others, even in the smallest way?

I enjoy teaching. I wrote an article for New Music Box about how our new music community would like to help marginalized communities and what we can do. This article was intended to suggest ways we can both look within our own musical community, and ways we can join with others in progressive, activist communities. I hope you’ll check it out.

What do you do to help pick yourself up when you’re feeling down, and help you stay the course? Is there a song you play that inspires you when you’re needing some inspiration or to pick yourself up?

Depression afflicts artistic and creative personalities at an alarming rate. This has been studied by many psychologists and is written about in books like Touched With Fire and Manic Depression and Creativity. You can also see this, for example, in cases of people like Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, and Vincent Van Gogh. No, a song does not help. I think we in the arts all have some pretty advanced coping mechanisms. It does help to have a strong support network, but we don’t always have that. In closing, I’d like to say that this interview has been a challenge for me. I’ve never had interview questions quite like these. I think I get what you are going for, and the questions are difficult for me just because I see the world in a very different way. I sense the questions are “leading questions” that presume I agree with some basic premises that I actually don’t agree with. I see music composition as mostly “perspiration” rather than “inspiration,” and I adhere to a traditional kind of conservatory approach that, while it certainly allows for ideas and unexpected adventures, also encourages composition as a craft and a learned skill set. My musical approach is very grounded in counterpoint, and while the listener might not always hear that, many players and conductors see that right away.

I tend to bristle against notions of “divinity,” “true self,” “Higher Self,” a “correct path,” or music as a “gift,” because to me those concepts seem grounded in a quasi-religious paradigm that is biblical and heteronormative. I don’t feel comfortable supporting such thinking. I prefer to see people create themselves and their own unique identities that are not constrained by dogma or doctrine, however vaguely implied. I have a great deal of respect for religious musical traditions – consider Gregorian chant and Bach’s sacred works – and for organizations like the Metropolitan Community Church, the Unitarian Universalist movement, and the Religious Society of Friends. At the same time, I think that the role of the artist is to question societal structures and mores. I personally find organized religion quite restrictive and ultimately about hierarchical social control. So a lot of my work, such as my Quaker Peace Testimony, actually involves rebellion and resistance, even though this is a somewhat sacred text, it’s also a secular anti-war manifesto. I don’t want to fault anyone for having an approach that integrates spirituality in the manner presented in these questions; a lot of people think along these lines and integrate spirituality into their lives in this way. It’s just that I personally don’t see music as a “gift” from a “divine” presence, but rather something that is intrinsically human, and exists within all of us. If you can speak, you can sing, and if you can move, you can dance. I would like to inspire everyone to make music and to create their own selves and realities.

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