Hello, everyone, and welcome to our installment, “Acts of Reading and Writing: Faculty Profiles.” This week we feature Dr. Michael McFerron, Lewis University Music Professor. Dr. McFerron was interviewed by Lewis student John Morrison. The mini-interview, that the Jet Fuel Review editors are also partaking in for the “Meet the Editors” series, is located after the profile.
The Power of Music
“Music is ubiquitous” is a quote that has driven Dr. Mike McFerron into a lifelong dedication of music. A quite fitting representation of a composer in the modern age whose writing is done primarily on a computer. Dr. McFerron believes in the freedom of music and how an abstract art can be relayed and turned into an individual’s interpretation. With a Doctorate of Musical Arts, he understands the ins-and-outs of music theory having obtained copious amounts of knowledge regarding acoustics and the science of music, which he accumulated during his time at The University of Missouri Kansas City Conservatory of Music. He is a scholar of the arts and a very interesting man; one that I had the pleasure of sitting down with one afternoon in his tucked-away office containing several book shelves and an upright piano, all very appropriate for the upcoming conversation.
Music often seems to be on the back burner for non-musicians, but McFerron’s passion runs deep: “I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t read music,” exclaims McFerron when asked who influenced him towards this life of music. He accredits this influence to his mother, whose love of John Denver encouraged him to pick up the guitar at age six. His mother’s love for music comes from her own mother, McFerron’s grandmother, a talented triple threat—actor, singer, and dancer—whose Irish heritage brought her into a world of the arts. “We were a very Irish family and when people got together they danced and sang; that was important to them,” says McFerron. With such a musical background, you might suspect him to be a virtuoso instrumentalist, but when asked how many instruments he could fluently play he responded:
“None, I’m not fluent in anything, I don’t know what fluency is in a musical instrument. My main instrument that I studied the most was voice, but I’ve dabbled a little bit in piano and a bit in guitar; I’ve played a little bassoon and I played a little percussion, but I would say I’m an expert in none of them.”
A surprising answer from a Doctor of the Arts, but we must recognize the advancement of technology. Since the 1960’s we’ve had the ability to compose with computers, and the music Dr. McFerron creates is composed in this way. The meticulous process requires skill so refined it could be compared to great literature. Musical notation is what McFerron finds himself reading most often; and, even in the books he enjoys reading, this nonfiction aspect remains the same. “Most of it has to do with preparing for what I teach and things like that. I’m in books like that all the time,” reveals McFerron, who commonly reads lots of computer programing books and literature that he shares with his students. Though there are many classics that he admits having missed as an undergraduate, he finds himself visiting them now: classics like Moby Dick and Robinson Crusoe.
Throughout McFerron’s life, he has been exposed to many profoundly influential events and it is hard for him to choose a single event that he finds the most profound. However, he recalls seeing Barbara Fox DeMaio as an undergraduate and having it change his life: “I had never seen anything quite like that, as it was my first exposure to real opera and I remember being moved.” There is one piece that has been particularly engrained in him, “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives. He recalls his first listening of the piece:
“I was coming back from a bar actually. I remember where I was in my life. I remember the girl I was chasing, how she was rebuffing me. I remember the guys I was hanging out with and when I think about that [piece] it transports me back to that time… and since that moment that piece has tormented me, helped me, driven me, and inspired me in ways that no other piece I can think of has. And every time I hear it I’m transported in some way back to that time.”
A stunning yet simple representation of a connection to music so defined that it can act as a time machine, a representation that I believe we all can relate to. With influences as such, I asked if opera was his favorite type of music, which he calmly replied “no” to, explaining his work in electronic music and his consumption of the electro-acoustic arts: “I listen to probably more electro-acoustic music than I care to even think about and that is what really interests me.” He added, “Music that I find entertaining, I want to sit through, and I would say I really like opera, love opera, but opera is something I came to later in life.” McFerron explains the time needed to properly consume opera music is too great for any college student to have time for, and it was not until he came to Lewis that he fell in love with opera.
I asked McFerron to name some of his favorite artists and composers; he mentions influences Charles Ives and Gustav Mahler whose music he can draw from and use as a foundation for his own works. He also mentions Polish composer Gorecki and an American composer by the name of George Crumb as favorites of his, making the point that, “my music is nothing like theirs but I really am moved by it, and I think that’s a healthy thing.” A composer that has probably influenced McFerron’s work more than any is Stravinsky. Making mention of Stravinsky’s The Right of Spring, McFerron says the piece “has probably had more profound influence over my compositional craft, more so than any other piece.” Since he started teaching music theory he has grown a great appreciation towards the work of Bach that he did not experience previously. Citing Bach’s piece The Well-Tempered Clavier as a piece that he always returns to, to find something new: “Wow, this guy was a real genius.” He compares the depth of Bach’s musical knowledge to the depth of the universe and how small we are in it is how small of a musical understanding we have compared to Bach.
From an early age, McFerron knew that he had to love his career, and upon going to college he was faced with two options, play football or pursue music—two ends of the spectrum. He explains, “I had a football scholarship and I decided that if I did that, assuming my knees held up, I would have a career until I was 30. Then, I’d have to get a Mass Communications degree or a Business degree, things that just didn’t interest me, and there’s a lot of life after 30, so I chose music.” And, a sustainable choice it was. He has spent his last 18 years teaching higher education. He has also spent time filling in as a sabbatical replacement as well as having dropped all his classes, but one, to finish teaching the classes of a professor who suddenly died. His dedication to teaching the arts is immense and has only continued to grow since coming to Lewis University in 2000. Dr. Mike McFerron is truly a man of great depth and knowledge. He concludes by saying the following:
“There’s no other art form that’s more abstract than music: none. You’ve got air pressures changing and how they change creates this music that affects us and it can challenge us cognitively as well as emotionally. So, for me, I would say what music has done more than anything is it’s created an opportunity for me to find ways to express myself where it might mean one thing to me and totally something else to you.”
Illustrating the beauty of music, this quote is truly a remarkable insight into the world of Dr. McFerron. It is clear to see that even though music is one of the more abstract arts, it is also the most intimate. For Dr. Mike McFerron, it has shaped his life in many ways, and I appreciate him taking the time to share his numerous experiences.
Acts of Reading and Writing: Meet Michael McFerron
A: Well, that’s kind of an interesting question. I read primarily nonfiction books. Most of it has to do with preparing for what I teach and things like that. A lot of computer programing books, things along those lines. But a couple years ago I decided that there were a lot of classics I hadn’t read in their entirety and so I started taking those on. And, so, I read Robinson Crusoe and I read Moby Dick. Right now I’m reading with my son Tarzan: The Ape Man. So I’m kind of going through the classics right now. Some of these books I missed when I was an undergraduate and in high school I thought “I’m going to revisit those,” so that’s what I’m doing now.
Q: If you had the chance to co-write with one other author, who would you choose and why?
A: Hmm. . . Alvin Lucier, he’s a composer, that’s what I do. And if I were writing a book or writing a piece I think I would like to collaborate with him. He has an interesting outlook on aesthetics in life, and I adore his music, so I would say that would be the person I would want to work with.
Q: Describe your perfect reading atmosphere.
A: I read all the time but when I sit down to read it’s right before bed. In bed, I have a lamp and my wife reads and my son goes to bed and we usually read for a couple hours and then go to sleep.
Q: What might your personal library look like?
A: A lot of nonfiction music books, and a lot of music scores; in fact, I’m looking for ways to consolidate because I’ve got book shelves like that (points to overflowing bookshelf in office) and I’ve got four of them filled up at home, so, I’ve got a lot of books. I know where every book is, and I know what information is in each book too. Mostly I have nonfiction, and I’m big into chess, so I have a lot of chess books. Also, I have a lot of books on science, and a lot of books on music. I mean I have fiction books, but that’s on another bookshelf somewhere; primarily I have nonfiction books.
Q: If you could remake any movie that was based on a book, what movie would it be?
A: Les Miz
A: That’s a great question. I rarely do that. But one book that I’ve read recently that I read for the second or third time is Camus’ The Plague. I just think it’s a really engaging book and I really enjoy it so I read it multiple times.
Q: Give a favorite quote (or any) from a book.
A: “Music is ubiquitous.” It’s the first line in an acoustics book. And I always like that line from many different elements because, in some respects, it’s a little condescending. It’s from an acoustics textbook and I just thought it was kind of a neat line to start a book with. I mean acoustics is about the science of sound, the science of music. Music is ubiquitous and I always enjoyed that idea; very short and to the point, very objective.
Q: If you were invited to have coffee with any fictional character who would it be and why?
A: I don’t read a lot of fiction, but let me give it a thought. . .Well, Jean Valjean would be a good guy from Les Miz.
A: There’s a book by Sam Harris that I read a few years ago, The End of Faith, 2004. It’s a great book, a book that a lot of people should read. Poetics of Music by Stravinsky and The Unanswered Question by Leonard Bernstein, that’s a great series of lectures. A book that nobody else would enjoy but me, I think, is a book by Charles Dodge called Computer Music. I just think it’s a fascinating book, which has to be from the 70’s. It sort of defines what computer music is, midi-sequencing, you know, and it talks a lot about synthesis. It’s a reference book, and if you need to know how to make a reverb unit and you’ve got an application where you can get in and get to the nuts-and-bolts, and you need to know settings of the all-pass filters and the comp filters and the delay lines, you’re going to find it in that book. It’s a book of very technical writing, but a book that I refer to a lot, a really great book. There’s a Charles Ives biography that I think is called The True Charles Ives or something like that. The other one is by Alan Fort called Atonal Music. For me, those are really great books; those are books that have influenced my life and that I continue to reference on a daily basis in my teaching.
Thanks, Dr. McFerron!