The Forever and Ever-New Melodies of R. Michael Perry
(Picture Credit: “Opus 1”. Photographer: Abu Farman, 2007)
R. Michael Perry is more than a PhD, the Care Services Manager at Alcor Life Extension Foundation, an author (Forever for All: Moral Philosophy, Cryonics and the Scientific Prospects for Immortality) and a universal thinker. He is a composer. He composed “Opus 1” in 2013. After purchasing his CD at a life-extension conference recently, I didn’t open it to play for a week or two. It merely sat on my desk as if it was beckoning me to play it. Frankly, I loved the image on the cover of the CD, and having known Mike for two decades or longer as a life-extensionists and an ordained Minister of the Society of Venturism (in fact, he was the minister who married my husband and me back in 1996), I had no idea he was also a composer.
One afternoon while driving across the desert on Highway 101 from Scottsdale to Tempe to the University where I teach, I put the CD in the CD player and hit play. Little did I expect such a translucent, melodic sound from R, Michael Perry. Such a sound that gets under your skin and transforms time.
(Picture Credit: “McDowell Mountains at sunset”. Photographer: Harald Nagel, Wikipedia Commons)
Natasha:. How do you set yourself apart as a musician?
R. Michael Perry: Well, I would say I am not the usual musician as I imagine it. I work with a computer, which is the “instrument” I play. And the way I “play” it is, as a start, to use a music-notation software ap which displays a musical score sheet on your monitor screen, to which you can add notes using a mouse. While doing this you can at any point play back what you have written and make alterations or additions as you wish, so this is how I “play an instrument.” I add the notes one at a time with mouse clicks, with copying so different instruments can play the same notes together and produce a blended sound. Provision is also made for a keyboard hookup through which you can play music and have the notes automatically detected and copied to the score in real time. But really I don’t play an instrument in the usual sense and this feature is useless to me.
Natasha: Well, you did get some experience somewhere. Let’ me ask you more concertedly, Mike – when you were a child, did you have any interest in the piano, which could have been a type of forerunner of your musical interests?
R. Michael Perry: Ha! Actually, I remember that at about age 4 at my grandmother’s in Alabama someone taught me to pick out the opening bars of “Chopsticks” on the piano. So I guess you could say “piano” though as I said I never really learned to play an instrument.
Natasha: You lived in Morocco as a child, did the lute-like plucking sounds of a sinter or the percussion of the tbilat influence you?
R. Michael Perry: I think it is influenced by some folk tunes and such I heard at an early age, through my parents buying some “78” recordings for us kids. And there were many other influences at least to some extent as I grew up. But probably the greater part comes from listening to classical music which started in earnest only after I left home and went to college.
Natasha: How does your knowledge of mathematics and/or computer science affect the musical rhythm your compositions; or, alternatively, do you find correlations between experiencing the beauty and vast scope of Haleakala and your music? (I hiked the 33 miles through the volcano in 1981, and even made a film inside the volcano – it continues to inspire my own work to this day.)
R. Michael Perry: I really don’t think it has much effect. The “music” coprocessor is in a different place from the “math/comp.sci.” [Experiencing nature,] possibly a bit, or more generally mountain scenery. (Colorado where I lived many years has lots of mountains too, and Arizona has some.) But the main influence on my music I think is other music which in turn might indeed suggest the grandeur of mountain scenery or other inspiring sights but is a step removed.
Natasha: Can you tell us how you go about writing a composition? At what point do you use your skills in computer science to make music? For example, do you get a “tune in your head” first, and then transfer this to electronics or do you, start putting notes together at the computer and then the full composition evolves?
R. Michael Perry: I’d say the latter. Long ago, when I had no computer to work with, I would just have to create the whole composition, as far as I could, in memory. I had vague hopes then that someday I would get the music performed, with instruments, etc., without much in mind as to specifics. But no more, now that the magic of computers has made it possible, in effect, to have your own orchestra ready and waiting. I do get ideas for tunes then try to enter them in, do playback, make changes and additions, etc. and the composition evolves.
Natasha: Let’s discuss the themes of your scores. Do the pieces reflect your thoughts or feelings of life and death? How would you describe your sound?
R. Michael Perry: Well, I like making a joyful sound, such as you hear for instance sometimes in baroque music, which is one of my favorite genres and maybe the favorite. And there is a place for solemn, minor-key material, to provide contrast and gravitas. (The latter too might come about in other ways.) And that’s about it, really, I just aim for what I like to hear.)
As for life and death, well, I am a dyed-in-the-wool immortalist and I think that is reflected in the music I create. I am hopeful of everlasting life while cognizant of just how far from that things can seem at times, and no doubt that shows in the music.
One other thing I should mention is that I also try to write music that is satisfying without the usual amount of thematic repetition you hear, especially in the classical music that often inspires what I write. I trace that particular obsession back to a course I took in college that in part focused on music. One day we were considering a certain composition by J.S. Bach, “Sleepers Awake” from Cantata 140, and the instructor remarked that the beginning went longer than expected without repetition (though the theme did eventually start to repeat itself). So the thought struck me, why not just avoid all repetition and have ever-new melodies, much as in a literary composition like a novel, where you would not just repeat the same page of writing over again? Anyway I’ve pretty much stuck to that kind of free-form approach ever since and it now seems natural.
(Image Credit: “Apophysis”. Joshua.com) Natasha: What about getting a hold of a CD?
Natasha: What about getting a hold of a CD?
R. Michael Perry: No, not yet, except for special occasions such as the Venturist Convention. I am updating it all the time so this year’s version will differ in some details from last year’s.
Natasha: Ah, the iterative process. Got to love it.