In last week’s issue, Alibi interviewed David Bashwiner about his musical career with local band Cactus Tractor. On Friday, Dec. 18, at 7:30pm, Bashwiner's folk ensemble plays the Outpost Performance Space (210 Yale SE). Cactus Tractor describes themselves as “a seven-person bohemian pop folk disco (beau-pop-faux-disc) band with four songwriters, toothsome harmonies and a multitude of fun, stringed and unstrung instruments.” For this week's interview though, we talked about his work in music theory.
Alibi: Can you talk a bit about your career at UNM?
David Bashwiner: I’ve been there five and a half years. It’s a tenure track position—this is the year I’m being reviewed for tenure—I actually just heard the department’s vote today, which was a unanimous positive! It doesn’t mean all the hurdles are cleared, because the vote just has to go up in the university. But definitely super awesome. I love the people I work with, and it seems like they at least like me!
My job is teaching music theory. To people who don’t know anything about music theory, I often say that it’s pretty much the grammar of music. Like, when you diagram sentences in school—label the adjectives and nouns and prepositions and such—you suddenly realize that you’ve been speaking in grammatically correct sentences all your life without ever really thinking about it. And you don’t consciously employ the rules of grammar when you’re speaking, but when you hear a sentence that’s grammatically incorrect you know that there’s something funny about it, intuitively. Everybody who really likes music is kind of parsing musical sentences as they listen all of the time, without necessarily knowing the “rules” of music theory. Just like with linguistic grammar, there’s this hugely complex set of operations that we do automatically when we’re listening to music, that we don’t have conscious access to.
What sort of research have you been doing while at UNM?
For the most part, my research is about the emotions that people get from music. Looking as much as possible into biological processes that are involved in those emotions. So, I like to ask people on the street why they feel the way they feel about a song; most of the time, people will say it’s because it reminds them of a certain person or a certain moment in their life. The thing is I don’t think that’s true. Neuroscience studies have proven that a massive percentage of the time, we don’t know why we feel the things we feel. When the conscious brain doesn’t know what the answer to a question is, sometimes it will try to logically figure out the answer, but more often than not, it will just make up a believable, understandable answer. It’s not that we’re lying to ourselves—it’s just that our emotions are almost entirely based in the subconscious. In reality, we have very little access to our feelings.
Do you feel that your approach to songwriting is more technical or theory-driven than other musicians you’ve worked with on account of your academic/theory background?
Definitely compared to some other musicians. Interestingly, I have always tried to keep my songwriting and pop music production pretty separate from my academic life, because I notice that I get extremely constricted when I start generating music for academic contexts. My creativity dries up. As a result, making songs and pop recordings is like “finger painting” for me—I’m purposely trying to be “primitive” in these processes of creation, not at all aiming for a certain product but trying to let my subconscious get some exercise and get into the spotlight a bit. I really try to turn off the analytical brain and engage more emotionally, especially when I’m writing music for film.
A lot of people’s first understanding of how emotionally affecting music can be comes from film. Like, in a horror movie, you automatically get anxious when those violins start speeding up. Did you have those emotional highs and lows in mind when you’ve written music for film in the past?
Yeah. It’s kind of like cooking: Everybody eats food, but when you cook food you kind of become the ultimate eater, as it were. You taste the recipe along the way and get the perspective of the consumer, as well as that of the producer. I’ll work with a song until it’s really emotionally powerful to me. When I first started writing music for film, I had trouble finding sources on composing emotionally impacting scores—there’s no manual on “How to Write Good Music for Horror Movies,” for instance. So I had to kind of cobble together a method from theory and philosophy, from texts that weren’t really focused on the composer’s perspective.
In what ways have you seen the fields of music theory and cognition change during the time you’ve been studying them?
Theory conferences have gotten more fun, I’m happy to say, in part because there are many more women and people of different ethnic, cultural and musical backgrounds attending. No longer is a talk about Schubert or Mozart deemed to be higher in register than a talk about punk or electronica. I saw a surprisingly good one recently on timbre (quality of sound) in Neutral Milk Hotel’s album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I still like Schubert, though. Don’t get me wrong.