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Heard This One?

They laughed when he sat down at the mouseketier. But when Mark Applebaum plays with sound, the audience is all ears.

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

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By Brett Campbell

Twenty years ago during a study-abroad semester in Copenhagen, Mark Applebaum went to see Oscar Peterson in concert. Like everyone who beheld the jazz piano legend, the budding young jazz musician initially marveled at Peterson's superhuman keyboard technique—whirlwind runs, fusillades of notes. As the concert continued, however, he found himself sinking into a funk. How could he even think about being a jazz pianist when there was no way he could come close to Peterson's breathtaking virtuosity?

Fortunately, Applebaum found a way around his problem. If he couldn't master jazz piano, he would invent his own instruments. Beginning in 1990, he started creating devices such as the mousetrap, which he describes as “an electro-acoustic percussion contraption, a musical Frankenstein's creation built out of assorted junk and found objects—threaded rods, nails, wire strings stretched through pulleys and turnbuckles, plastic combs, bronze braising rod blow-torched and twisted, doorstops, shoehorns, ratchets, squeaky steel caster wheels, springs, lead and PVC pipe, corrugated copper gas tubing, toilet tank flotation bulbs, Astroturf, parts from a Volvo gearbox, a metal Schwinn bicycle logo, and mousetraps,” all mounted on a soundboard, augmented by various electronic devices, and amplified through speakers. The inventor himself played them with “various strikers, including Japanese chopsticks, knitting needles, combs, thimbles, plectrums, surgical tubing, a violin bow, and various wind-up toys.” He began to write solo music for his creations and during the next few years integrated the mousetrap and similar “sound sculptures” (the mini-mouse, midi-mouse, double mausphon, micro mouse and the mouseketier, built in 2001) into works for ensembles.

Now an associate professor of music teaching courses from composition to rock and roll history, the 40-year-old Applebaum enlivens the campus community with his extravagant hair, boldly painted instruments, sly humor and eagerness to expose students—not just music majors—and the greater community to the sometimes inscrutable joys of contemporary classical and postclassical music. He's a character as vibrant as his music scores, which may contain diagrams, colors and instructions. Unusually, in this era of computerized notation software, he writes them by hand. As his music makes its way into performances around the world, Applebaum has found a way to overcome those doubts and fears—by creating his own instruments, making his own rules, forging his own offbeat path into the future of music.

Applebaum grew up in a musical family in Chicago. His father, a high school physics teacher, studied classical music and has composed throughout his life. The elder Applebaum played piano in dance bands and has issued albums of jazz arrangements of klezmer and Jewish sacred music. But though he too was classically trained, Mark “really got engaged in music in high school when he got involved with a rock band,” his father recalls. Bob Applebaum attributes his son's onstage “flair for the dramatic” to Mark's paternal uncle, a percussionist fond of interpolating “bizarre theatrical interludes” to cover stage resets during concerts.

Even as a student at UC-San Diego, Applebaum was fond of playing with audience expectations. He once staged a concert in which a string trio began playing for a few minutes, then was interrupted by someone who strolled onstage, settled into a lounge chair and watched TV, changing channels at leisure while a pianist accompanied the broadcast music with fragments of composed material.

Applebaum regards such onstage escapades as much more than stunts or gimmicks. “I have a broad definition of music that gives me a lot of space in which to create and gives me permission as an artist to annex other media, visual arts, theater,” he explains. “I'm also increasingly interested in absurdity— creating unusual things to see what kind of alchemy results. There's a 'don't-box-me-in' ethos behind all my work.”

That philosophy puts Applebaum squarely in the experimentalist camp exemplified by composers such as John Cage and Frank Zappa. He also draws inspiration from jazz pioneers like Miles Davis and from maverick composers such as Conlon Nancarrow and Harry Partch, who found it necessary to use unusual instruments or create their own to realize their expansive artistic visions. Applebaum also credits his “artistically courageous” mentor and now Stanford faculty colleague, composer Brian Ferneyhough, for inspiring him by his “fearless posing of questions.” (Ferneyhough is a pioneer in the so-called New Complexity movement, which employs unorthodox techniques, unusual instruments and complex, unconventional tunings, timbres, instruments and rhythms.)

“All of my work is experimental in the sense that I aspire to succeed but I'm willing to fail,” Applebaum says. “I'm more interested in creating a noble experiment from which we can learn something.” That means trying different techniques—rhythms, instruments, musical colors—and applying the successful ones to his next works. To Applebaum, composing is about more than making pieces of music. “I'm living a life through composition. I'm constructing myself through art.”

Yet unlike some navel-gazing artists, Applebaum, maybe because he's also a performer, is acutely interested in his audiences and their reactions. They tend to be diverse and open-minded, but not necessarily youthful. And though his core constituency is new music aficionados, Applebaum's colorful variety and good-humored generosity engage even casual listeners who are prepared to open their ears to new sonic vistas, much like theatergoers who have to adjust to 400-year-old English to enjoy Shakespeare. He likes to provoke listeners to ask questions, to shake them out of their comfort zone.

Such ambitions might easily slip into pretentiousness, but in Applebaum's case, they're leavened by liberal doses of humor. There are his mischievous titles, such as Theme in Search of Variations, Concerto for Florist and Ensemble, Tlön for three conductors and no players, 5:3 for eight cracklebox players and two amplified dice rollers, and Quadrivium B in four movements: Home Economics, Acting, Sexual Education and Wood Shop. A wry grin peeks out through the notes of works such as his eight-channel Pre-Composition, consisting of a composer's “inner dialogue” about a piece he'll write, and is evident even in complex ensemble pieces such as Magnetic North.

In fact, Applebaum regards his penchant for experimentalism, for asking “What if?” and trying new approaches, as a form of play. “I'm not interested in performing music anymore,” he insists, “but in playing music the way kids think of playing. It's experimentation as play, and the audience picks up on this and I think they feel the joy I feel.”

The combination of innovation and humor is reflected in his self-made instruments. A strange contraption like the mouseketier might be a little intimidating to an unsuspecting audience; that's why Applebaum painted it in DayGlo colors, heavy on the pink. Unlike some of the mid-century European modernists who bludgeoned their audiences out of complacency, Applebaum is more inclined to play the trickster magician who gets listeners to smile at his musical audacity as they realize music offers more possibilities than they previously imagined.

The fact that his music has its whimsical side doesn't mean it's all a big joke. Complex, meticulously planned, rigorously thoughtful, and often as loquacious as its composer, Applebaum's sound world is a distinctive mix of sometimes contradictory styles. “I like it when people realize that the chaos is bordered in weird ways by hyper-orderliness,” Applebaum says. “I also like the mercurial juxtaposition of musical ideas or materials.”

“Mark works in idioms of music-making that for a long time had been separated,” says composer Paul Dresher, who has commissioned two Applebaum works for his Bay Area ensemble. “It might have been thought impossible for such radically contrasting styles—New Complexity with improvising, and inventing instruments in an electroacoustic environment. It's remarkable that somebody can make authentic music with such radically different premises. Mark is at the leading edge of a new generation of composers who may be able to do that successfully.”

Dresher notes that academic orthodoxy often compelled earlier generations of composers to choose either “popular” or “serious” styles, and the fact that a prestigious institution like Stanford can accommodate and even encourage Applebaum's cheerful amalgamation of jazz, progressive rock and avant-garde experimentalism reveals a developing openness to diversity in the academy.

Applebaum's works certainly range widely, from his early-1990s Janus Cycle, 11 acoustic works that share a common bipartite form, to electronic music including “networked performances” played simultaneously at Stanford, in Belfast and in New York City, to a slew of works for percussion, for his various sound sculptures and for conventional instruments such as piano and trumpet. In fact, for all his innovation, Applebaum welcomes commissions from conventional symphony orchestras—it's another chance to play, to try on a new role. He has received commissions from various orchestras and ensembles, including the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. His compositions have been performed around the United States and in Europe. They are featured on 10 CDs, with another coming soon.

Applebaum's early love of jazz and other forms of improvisation remains; he plays jazz piano in a small combo and in a duo with his father, who recently moved to Menlo Park.

The composer's eclecticism and desire to provoke questions extend to the classroom. “My goals as a teacher are to increase my students' courage to be curious and open-minded and to pose questions about their world,” he says. “It's my job in training them to confront ideas different from their own, so conversations can start. I remain idealistic that I can make the world a better place through teaching.”

His methods seem to be working, resulting in long waiting lists to get into his classes, such as Rock, Sex, and Rebellion, says doctoral student Per Bloland, who served as Applebaum's teaching assistant for several semesters. Along with teaching some basic theory and history, Applebaum has brought in a band to perform. Using digital composing tools, he will enlist even a large class of nonmajors in the collective creation of a song during class.

Bloland appreciates Applebaum's “boundless energy” and “ability to get to the essence of what you're trying to say musically. He has no interest in pushing you in any aesthetic direction,”

Bloland says. “His agenda tends to be to push you to do more what you want to do.”

Applebaum's lessons transcend the classroom. He started [sic]—the Stanford Improvisation Collective. He and his wife, Joan Friedman, regularly invite students to dinner parties, where important pieces of music often are discussed. “The emphasis he places on maintaining a sense of community has had a big impact on the music department,” Bloland says.

Applebaum opens ears outside the lecture halls, in a series of public “How to Listen” talks at the University. “I'm trying to turn people on to the music,” he explains. “A lot of people are confused or repelled by new music. So I'm trying to illuminate some things that increase their curiosity and enthusiasm and courage as they confront some of these new and strange things [and] to get people to understand the sometimes disturbing challenges of new music's profound diversity.”

He might play a recording of a discordant 1950s string quartet and make a facetious set of statements, like “This is bad music because the lyrics are really boring and the second guitar solo is really unimpressive.” Of course, the piece contains neither. Or he'll hold up a candy bar and say it's a useless product because it neither fixes his flat tire nor cures leprosy nor improves LSAT scores. His aim is to help listeners realize that not all music pursues the same goals, and to encourage them to ask whether a given piece succeeds in what its composer is trying to do, not what, say, Mozart was trying to do.

Onstage, Applebaum makes a persuasive advocate for new music. During a performance of his Magnetic North at a Stanford Lively Arts concert at Dinkelspiel Auditorium in February, a member of New York's crack Meridian Arts Ensemble extracted a sheet of aluminum foil from a paper bag, crumpled it into a ball and handed it to the trombone player, who rolled it across the stage to the trumpeter. The players consulted Applebaum-made watch faces for cues. One stood up for precisely 12 seconds, then sat back down. Similar high jinks followed, all precisely indicated in the score, as the musicians were negotiating fiendishly difficult time signatures and extended technical challenges, and Applebaum manipulated various strikers (such as chopsticks) and sound controllers on his mouseketier.

Despite all the onstage action, the music reveals a surprising amount of subtlety and—once you adjust to Applebaum's sound world—even order. Little whirligig trumpet figures alternate with tuba blasts. Metallic percussion rattles are interspersed with short, fast brass exclamations and the occasional vocal outburst. Much of the music is actually quiet; rather than a cacophonous assault, it's more of a delicately constructed sonic tapestry composed of lots of brief musical threads. The odd rhythms mean that every musical event comes as a surprise, yet it's clear that every sound is painstakingly orchestrated and integrated just as conventional instruments are in a classical symphony. But the range of sounds and the pace of change are more appropriate to a 21st-century pace and palette.

“It's a pairing of ultracomplexity with Dada performance art moves,” explains Meridian trumpeter Brian McWhorter. “It doesn't take itself that seriously. That's where he departs from the New Complexity movement. Here we have the same kind of complexity, but behind it is this guy with tongue in cheek making strange faces at you as you're playing it. That also translates to being more enjoyable for the audience.”

It helped that the musicians were gregarious enough and just plain good enough to pull it all off with grins and high spirits; none of the difficulty affected the listeners, who smiled and applauded enthusiastically.

“At the end of each performance, I like the audience to ask two questions,” Applebaum says. “'What the hell was that?' and 'Hmm, can I hear more?'” It's safe to say that he succeeded this time.

BRETT CAMPBELL writes about music and the arts for the Wall Street Journal, the Oregonian and others. He is based in Portland, Ore.

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