By Scott MacClelland
Academia never knows quite what to do with the self-taught musician. The more self-taught, the greater the challenge. Then again, musical autodidacts seeking instruction in the academics—history, theory and composition—are relatively few and far between. And so it was that Jon Scoville—“raised in Connecticut, ruined in New York and restored in California”—who had already composed a fair amount of ‘vernacular’ music for guitar decided to fortify his instinctive skills with music theory. That was back in the 1970s, when Scoville elected to follow one of his Yale professors who had been invited to join the literature faculty at the fledgling UC Santa Cruz. “I had intended to go to San Francisco,” he says, citing a need to escape 250 years of his Connecticut Scoville heritage. Once here, he played bass in local bluegrass, jazz and R&B bands.
Scoville had met dancer Tandy Beal in New Haven in 1963 on a blind date. After he had settled in Santa Cruz, she accepted an invitation to teach dance at Cabrillo College. She needed a musician to accompany her work there and Scoville—who has often described Beal as his muse—stepped in. Watching the dancers he learned how to drum, adding “John Cage gave me the confidence to write scores.” Over a span of five years during that time, Scoville road-managed visiting Asian dancers and musicians.
Scoville’s best known music is that composed in conjunction with other media. Locally, that means the scores written for Tandy Beal, his life partner, and her various collaborations with other artists. Most recently, it was for Beal’s HereAfterHere, “a self-guided tour through eternity,” a dance/theater/video production, premiered at Crocker Cabrillo Theater in Aptos in 2010, that explores the question, What happens after we die? (It was revived in Salt Lake in 2013 and again at Santa Clara University last spring.) Scoville composed 12 numbers for HereAfterHere, the largest of which, a montage titled Bardo 1, runs a full 14 minutes. It begins with an infant’s cry, then, as a sonic scrim unfolds, gives focus to voices from such language cultures as Buriyat, Arabic, Inuit and Xingu. Sound effects give rise to ephemeral fragments of rhythm and melody. Bits from Erik Satie’s piano Sonneries are discernible. For all its complexity of textures and atmosphere, Scoville says it was a “gift piece,” explaining “the music arrives without undue exertion, as if the muse says, ‘you deserve a break; here’s one for you.’ [Famed Aptos composer] Lou Harrison used to exhort, ‘Write something every day; that way you’ll keep your appointment with the muse.’ I pretty much follow that advice, and on occasion she rewards my blind persistence.” It was Harrison and Harry Partch who “inspired me to build drums and co-write a book on the design and construction of musical instruments.” That led to Scoville acquiring his first synthesizer, “a beast that created otherworldly sounds.” While that device proved to be high maintenance, Scoville has used upgraded synthesizers ever since to work out his musical ideas.
The musical score of HereAfterHere is available on CD and, even without the choreography and visual displays, offers a beguiling soundscape. It opens with Hour of the Call (Cries and Whispers), another scrim of obscure sound effects and murky textures through which a rhythmic pulse fades in and out. The voices of children are heard indistinctly. In Hour of the Shroud, Helen Craig reads lines from Czeslaw Milosz’ Encounter. This is followed by Hour of the Clue which features Art Lande on keyboard guitar. Bardo 3, with the sound of an urban commuter train, contains the singer voice of a Bengali child and a quote from Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The other movements from the one-hour sound track are titled Echo Hunters (strongly rhythmic with flute-like melody), Hour of Watching, Better Angels, Hour of the Fragments, The White Plume (keyboard wind instruments), Hour of Waiting (a tango on keyboard guitar) and Hour of the Garland (The Tower is Cleared) which quotes from nearly every pop artist and political pundit of the last two or so centuries.
Scoville’s vast work with dancers—“dance is my musical salvation”—included a semester each year over the past 40 years at the University of Utah where he taught “double mode,” six classes per semester, including world music, drumming and dance and choreography. Now retired, he says, “every day but Sunday feels like Saturday” admitting that he feels “a little bit untethered.”
In contrast with Scoville’s stage and visual collaborations are his collections of ‘pure’ music. For his CD A Field Guide to Sleep; “Lullabyes for Adults” he teamed up with keyboardist Art Lande. His Certain Twilights, a reworking of earlier pieces, was the third in his “imaginary” instruments series, this one for imaginary harp. These pieces, commissioned by Phil Collins of New Music Works, reflect the holiday music heard in the Scoville household while Jon was coming of age. “I grew up in the church. My mother, sister, grandmother all played piano. When I went to Cabrillo to study theory I had to write a lot of hymns, stuff I grew up with.” But by then his curiosity had grown far wider. “I was a music slut, as long as it had emotional content.”
An overview of Scoville’s output makes it clear that he does not aspire to large-scale works. “John Adams does that very well,” he says. Instead, his works are individually more miniature in scale. As friend and fellow-traveler Phil Collins sees it, “Jon’s music is more reflective of initial stimuli. He’s almost like a living Baroque composer whose pieces are based in dance. Large forms don’t generally come out of that.” This has been true for the dozens of dancers and performing arts producers for whom Scoville has written on commission, including Alwin Nikolais, Laura Dean, Murray Louis, Phyllis Haskell, Steve Koester, Doug Nielsen, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Compagnie Hors Taxes of Paris, the Høvik Ballet of Norway, the Pickle Family Circus, the Oakland Ballet, and Tran Chan of Brazil. His resume lists some selected 41 works composed between 1984 and the present.
Collins has commissioned pieces from Scoville on several occasions, including Hats (1997), a suite in six movements for winds, strings, piano and percussion. “His score for the silent 1929 Man Ray film Les Mystères du Château de Dé is incredibly fine,” says Collins.
Scoville has published a dozen CDs on his own label, Albert’s Bicycle. Beal’s effect on Scoville’s life and career cannot be understated. “If I hadn’t met Tandy on a blind date 50 years ago, I’d likely be playing guitar in a country & western band in Nashville, voting Republican, and raising pit bulls,” he says.