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Lessons Learned in the Church of Dissonance: Father's Day Thoughts on Edwin London (1929-2013) | jawjawjaw
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Lessons Learned in the Church of Dissonance: Father’s Day Thoughts on Edwin London (1929-2013)

Posted on | June 15, 2013 | 1 Comment

Edlondon1969bAs I’ve mentioned before on this weblog, there wasn’t much Judeo-Christian worship in our family growing up. Nevertheless, there was always plenty of religion in our home. Through the years, my brother and I absorbed large helpings of an eclectic gospel authored by our father, Edwin London, the founder and sole rabbi of the Church of Dissonance.

When we were growing up, our church didn’t yet have a name. It was more of a free flowing set of ideas and attitudes–a way of being, or an outlook, if you will. The name came much later, courtesy of our buddy Pete Sheehy.

At a summer barbecue around 1999 or 2000, I was describing to Pete the childhood experience of attending my father’s atonal, contemporary music concerts, and how hard my brother and I found it to sit still through music so difficult to absorb that 10 minutes of it often felt more like an hour.

“That sounds a lot like it was for me going to church when I was a kid,” Pete interjected.

“You’re right,” I responded, “I guess we were raised in the Church of Dissonance.”

Since that day, I’ve intended to record the most important lessons of our church for posterity. And now, on Father’s Day, in the year of Edwin London’s passing, I think the time is finally right.

So I give you 17 lessons learned in the Church of Dissonance (“COD”):

1. Avoid cheap beer, rot-gut whiskey, and sweet mixed-drinks.

When I was in high school, my mom cut a cartoon out of the New Yorker and put it on the wall in the breakfast nook of our kitchen. There was a guy sitting at a bar talking to the bartender. The caption read “The good Scotch James. My body is my temple.”

Drinking was not frowned upon in the COD. But drinking low-end alcoholic beverages was. On more than one occasion, I got advice along the following lines from my dad:

“If you don’t like the taste of an alcoholic beverage on its own, don’t drink it mixed with other stuff to hide its flavor. Very little good ever comes from doing that. If you can’t afford to drink the quality, good tasting stuff, save your money until you can.”

As I enter my 35th year of drinking on a semi-regular basis, I’ve found my dad’s advice on these matters to be solid. I don’t always follow it (I do enjoy a limeade Shandy; sometimes, I make it with cheap beer), but when spirits are involved, dad was right: If one anticipates a long night of drinking, it’s best to avoid the Well and confine the mixer to an H20 derivative (e.g., ice, water, or club soda).

2. Never leave a sporting event until it is over.

I attended my first major league baseball games with my dad in 1973 and 1974. They were San Diego Padres games. One such game was against the Houston Astros around 1974.

I had played a couple of seasons of little league, and I was in the midst of playing another one. So I was already a fan, and I understood the basics of the game. Nevertheless, as much as my ten year old self loved baseball, sitting still and watching the entire game could be challenging, especially when my team was losing.DadJakeBen1969cropped

As I said, it was 1974. At least for the purposes of the game with the Astros, our team was the San Diego Padres. The Padres were not a good team in 1974. By the time we got to the 7th or 8th inning, things weren’t going well for them, and I was getting bored.

“Can we go home?,” I asked my dad, “We already know that the Padres are going to lose.”

His response: “Jacob, you don’t leave a baseball game before it’s over. You never know what might happen.”

The great Willie McCovey was towards the end of his storied career around this time and he had landed with the Padres. In this particular game, a McCovey RBI in the bottom of the 9th helped the Padres tie the score and force the game into extra innings, where they won (at least that’s my memory).

As we walked out of the stadium at the end of the game, my dad looked down at me and said “aren’t you glad we didn’t leave early?”

Even in adulthood, it’s still not always so easy to stay till the bitter end of a game. On those occasions when I feel that I must leave early, it isn’t without a bit of internal hand-wringing and regret. For I always think back to that Padres game, and how glad I was that we stayed to see the end. You never know what might happen.

3. People who write well rule the world.

My dad and I took a lot of long car rides when I was a kid. I suppose it was one of the perks of being the first-born. Our first such trip happened in August of 1972, when our family went out to San Diego for the 1972-73 school year.

My mom and my brother flew out from Illinois, because Ben was only 5 years old. My dad and I made the long drive in a forest green Volvo wagon packed to the gills with our stuff. Somewhere in Nebraska, Wyoming, or Utah, I heard Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park” for the first time. Interstate 80 was not yet finished in some parts of Utah.

When we got to Las Vegas, my dad called his friend Virko Balley, who was a professor at UNLV. Virko met us and we went to an all-night diner across the street from the motel where we were staying on the Strip. It was probably already 8:30 or 9:00. Virko and my dad had some drinks, no doubt taking care to abide by the tenets of Lesson #1 above.

With some prompting from my dad, I ordered a hot fudge sundae. This was highly unusual behavior on his part, as sweets were typically frowned upon (See Lesson #6 below). But I suspect the desire to have a drink with his friend outweighed his commitment to natural foods in that moment.

I had never eaten a hot fudge sundae before. When the waitress brought it to the table, my eyes almost popped out of my head. Let’s just say it was Las Vegas sized. For the next 45 minutes or so, I drowned in that thing. It’s a vivid memory, even 41 years later. But I’m digressing now…

You get into a lot of long conversations when you’re on a car trip like that one to San Diego. Sometimes, you have some good arguments too. My dad always liked to debate. And he started asking me questions and challenging me to defend my positions at a very young age. The Socratic Method was a core teaching methodology in the COD.

One of our more memorable car-ride dialogues happened during the summer after 11th grade. It was about the importance of writing well. These days, I do a lot of writing in my life. Sometimes, I even enjoy it. But I was not a natural-born writer like my buddy John Shaw. Growing up, I avoided it, because it was hard and I wasn’t good at it.

Mostly, I managed to do well in school anyway, because I was good at reading things and remembering them. But my grades were mediocre in classes where we had a lot of graded writing assignments. I was resigned to that always being the case. Besides, what did it matter? My mediocre writing had not kept me off the Honor Roll.

On this car ride, my dad set out to convince me that I was misguided in seeing things this way. “People who write well,” he said, “rule the world,” and if I wanted to excel in life, I should “embrace the challenge of learning to write well.”

I thought a lot about that conversation after it happened. I struggled with writing during my first year of college. But with the help of some great teachers like Charlie Bright and James Robertson, I embraced the challenge. I worked at it, put things together bit by bit, and slowly I started getting better.

In grad school, I kept working at it. The same goes for my first year of law school, where I learned the value of writing more simply (but still struggled to write concisely, as I do to this very day). By third year, I was teaching writing to the first year students–something I continued to do for another three years after graduation.

It’s been a disappointment in adulthood to realize that many people rule the world just fine without being good writers or even very smart. But I have no regrets about following my dad’s advice. Whatever effort I’ve spent working on my writing skills has been repaid many times over.

Here’s why: Even if one is blessed with the natural ability to do something well, it usually takes considerable work to become great. Nothing teaches us more about the contours of this work than struggling to master a skill for which we lack natural ability. In the unavoidable frustrations and failures that are the essence of confronting our ineptitude, we develop the discipline and self-knowledge required to push past our limitations.

4. Much in life is done with mirrors.

In the lexicon of the COD, “done with mirrors” was similar to “Fake it till you make it.” I get the sense that it took my dad a while to appreciate the truth of this idea. He may well have been over 50. I don’t really remember him saying that to me until I was already out of college. Maybe he was saving the heavy wisdom until I was old enough to absorb it. Maybe it just takes some of us a long time to absorb that kind of wisdom. But as I approach 50 myself, it does seem to be true.

If a band goes on tour, very few people in their hometown are going to know how well-attended those shows were. All they’re going to know is that the band went out on tour. Often, being able to say you’ve done it is more important than how it actually went, for strange as it seems, those things have a way of compounding over time.

5. Rational discourse and procedural due process matter.

As I said above, we had our share of debate in the London house. These debates often extended to things that were not subject to debate in the houses of my friends. There wasn’t a lot of “Because I said so” in our house.

If I asked for permission to do something and the answer was “no,” I was typically offered the opportunity to follow up and see if I could reverse that decision by explaining why I thought the decision was incorrect or unfair. While the original “no” often stood, there were plenty of times where I did succeed in changing the “no” into a “yes.”

I’m sure this must have been annoying for my parents, but I always appreciated them indulging me in that way. For it helped me to appreciate how rational discourse and procedural due process can legitimate a decision-making process.

Growing up, I had a few friends whose parents had a top down, command and control leadership style. In these houses, it was not okay to “discuss” a parental decision. I can still remember the sense of injustice and helplessness some of my friends experienced after hearing a “no” from their parents, knowing as they did that nothing could change it, no matter how reasonable the argument was for doing so.

As we grew older, these people simply stopped discussing things with their parents. They figured out how to go around their authority, which usually involved lying to them. Perhaps at some level this is what the parents wanted, because the truth would have been too scary. But I kind of doubt it.

Of course, maybe these friends learned a valuable skill that I didn’t: The limits of rational discourse and how to navigate that.

6. Avoid caffeine and white sugar.

Coffee and cola were banned substances in our house growing up. To this day, people are shocked that I don’t drink coffee. Ironically, studies indicate that if my dad had consumed coffee regularly it might have helped protect him against the Parkinson’s disease symptoms that plagued him during the last 15 years of his life.

With this knowledge in mind, I have considered taking up coffee drinking. But so far, I remain mostly a coffee abstainer. Since I never drank coffee growing up, I’m very sensitive to caffeine. I’m not sure I would ever sleep if I drank coffee.

As for the prohibition on white sugar, well, I’m afraid that backfired. White sugar is perhaps my biggest vice. It’s my rebellion against the teachings of the COD. But that doesn’t mean my dad was wrong. More and more studies have concluded that eating too much sugar is one of the worst things you can do for your body.

7. Prefer natural (organic) foods.

More than anything else, food was at the center of the COD. My parents were early adopters on the Orthorexia bandwagon. Orthorexia means a fixation on righteous eating. My parents practiced the Macrobiotic Diet in the early 1960s. By the time my brother and I were kids, they had stepped back from being hardcore practitioners, but they never fully left the health food train.

They continued to eat brown rice exclusively, and they ordered other natural foods by mail until we left Northampton, Massachusetts. After we got to Champaign, Illinois in 1968, I spent plenty of time in places like the old-school, natural foods store in a house on North Elm Street near the YMCA in downtown Champaign, the hippie co-op near the U of Illinois campus, and Wolfson’s health food store in Urbana (where it seemed like the owner rearranged the entire store every few weeks in the desperate hope that it would attract more customers).

From time to time, we’d drive out in the country to a place called Zimmerman’s in Homer, Illinois. They sold organic beef, and we’d buy enough to fill up our freezer, which also contained grey, Shilo Farms hotdogs (no nitrates), whole wheat breads with sunflower seeds, and other food items permitted under the strict health food dogma.

When we lived in Del Mar, California, we would drive 35 minutes over the mountains to Escondido, because there was a health food store there that my dad liked.

Until he was wheelchair-bound, going to the natural foods grocery was one of my dad’s favorite things to do. During their last few years in Cleveland, it had become hard for my dad to walk. But he apparently always managed to get it together for the weekly trip to the Wild Oates on Chagrin Blvd near I-271.

Towards the end, eating was one of the few pleasures my dad had left. On the day before he died, I watched him eat a Yoplait strawberry yogurt about three hours before his caregivers noticed he wasn’t doing well and called an ambulance to take him on his final ride to the hospital.IMAG0437

Yoplait yogurt. Such a mundane food item in 2013. Who doesn’t eat yogurt these days? Who doesn’t care about the food they put in their body? Where it comes from? How it was grown? These kinds of concerns have become quite mainstream, especially in urban areas and college towns, where locavore eating, organic foods, and Veganism are all the rage.

Today, places like Whole Foods have the look and feel of a regular super-market. Natural foods is an industry. This industry has created “natural” products that have more of the look and feel of the stuff in the regular super-market, only supposedly more healthy and organic. If you want “natural” Cheerios or a fair trade peanut butter cup, they’ve got you covered.

But in the early 1970s, our family’s approach to eating was a fringe activity. People who ate this way were seen as freaky weirdos, at least in middle America. Yogurt was an exotic ethnic food. There were no natural Cheerios and candy bars, let alone a natural foods store that looked like a regular supermarket.

Like most kids, I wasn’t so excited to be seen as a freaky weirdo. I wanted to bring a regular lunch to school that I could trade with other kids and maybe score a Ho Ho from time to time. Natural peanut butter and honey on dry whole wheat bread didn’t really get the job done for that.

Buckwheat pasta and a cake made with whole wheat flour weren’t big winners at our birthday parties either (to this day, all I have to do is say “Buckwheat pasta” to my brother to illicit a sour knowing look on his face and a chuckle).

The list of petty indignities goes on and on. But somehow, these experiences did not kill our love for food. If anything, they made us appreciate it even more. Perhaps there was a little bit of the macrobiotic philosophy embedded in the way we approached food, even if we weren’t eating that cuisine (i.e., a sense that it is important to be mindful about what you eat).

In any case, it’s been very interesting to observe the cultural diffusion of these ideas about eating over the course of my lifetime. I can’t lie. Sometimes, when I go into Whole Foods or the PCC (local food co-op all over Seattle), a feeling of pride comes over me as a little voice inside my head says “Dad was right.”Londons@FrenchLick

At the same time, growing up as we did has also made me skeptical about Orthorexic approaches to eating. As with most things, food is a complicated issue without easy black and white solutions. It can be hard to tease out where science ends and fashion/marketing begins. Often, I have to hold my tongue when somebody starts going on a righteous panegyric about the virtues of locally grown organic food and the evil incarnate that is corporate factory farming.

It’s like listening to a 16 year old kid wearing a Black Flag t-shirt purchased in a suburban mall give a lecture on punk rock authenticity. You admire the passion of their conviction, you don’t want to throw water on their fire, but it’s still a little much somehow, because they never had to bring a peanut butter and honey sandwich on dry whole wheat to the Dr. Howard elementary school lunch room in 1974. So they don’t know what it was like to live those ideas when they weren’t cool and fashionable.

As a result, they don’t have the perspective that comes with that experience, especially the questioning it engenders. Why are we doing this? Is it really a good idea? What are the alternatives? Why is this better? Is it really better? Is it even feasible for everyone to eat this way? If not, what does that say about this way of eating? Is it elitist? Is it just one more example of the narcissism of small differences? The product of a phobia? Or is there more to it than that?

Anyone who thinks that there are simple answers to those questions, needs to think about the subject matter more.

8. If you want to understand what’s going on harmonically, first listen to what the bass is doing. Then build up from there.

Typically, I didn’t talk that much with my dad about music composition and theory. Through 35 years of playing the guitar, writing songs, etc., I’ve learned a fair amount about these subjects. But I’ve never been a “trained” musician in the way that my dad was. Music has always been an intuitive experience for me, and I found the more formal aspects of musical training (e.g., sight reading) unintuitive. I’m very analytical in the rest of my life, and it’s always been nice to have a place where I can take a break from that. So I’m content to play by ear.

Through the years, most of the questions I’ve had about music theory and composition have been practical in nature. I write pop songs. Pop songs are about structural and harmonic archetypes. There are accepted ways that things go together. Part of learning how to compose those kinds of songs is understanding the accepted ways of doing things and then figuring out when it makes sense to deviate from them.

Dad wasn’t very interested in the accepted ways of doing things. That sort of stuff was old hat and boring to him. He’d learned those “rules” long ago, and his life’s work was extending or breaking them. I was looking to better understand determinate, conventional recipes. He was more interested in the ultimate indeterminacy and social constructedness of all musical language.297_24097612004_5088_n

If I asked what chord substitution was, he would answer “It depends.” Then, he’d proceed to describe multiple ways that one could view that idea. To the extent it didn’t go over my head, I have no doubt he was right. But I was looking more for the sort of information that Jimmy Webb had about chord substitution in his book Tunesmith.

I suspect my dad would have thought that discussion to be an oversimplification. Or perhaps he would have argued that what Webb described wasn’t chord substitution at all. But for my purposes, it was just what I needed. So I tended to look to other sources when I had questions about things like that.

I did, however, get one very useful music theory/composition tip from my dad around 15 years ago. I wish he had given it to me long before that, because I’ve found it very useful. It was quite obvious once he said it, but not obvious to me at all before he did.

I was working on a song called Mr. Ambivalence. I had composed most of the words and melody in my head. I was now trying to figure out what guitar chords to play behind it. I had part of this process completed. But I was having a hard time taking it the rest of the way, because this song was fancier harmonically than a lot of my songs. We were home visiting Cleveland for the holidays, and as a last resort, I solicited by dad’s assistance, not really expecting much would come of it.

Initially, things began as they usually did on these subject. We sat down at the piano and worked through the melody and the chords I already had. Dad started giving me some abstract dialog about tonal centers and how viewed from this angle we were in this key, but from this angle we were in that one. Then, as he sensed my rising frustration, he got very elemental with me:

“If you want to understand what’s going on harmonically, first listen to what the bass is doing. Then, build from there. Now, why don’t you see what you can come up with. ”

In the days that followed, I went back, thought through what the bass was doing, built out the missing chords, and finished the song not long after that. I’m sure I’d done that process unconsciously many times before. But since that day, it’s something I do much more consciously, both in the context of songwriting and when I learn new songs by ear. Like many of the most important lessons, it’s a simple to apply, but yields a much more complex awareness of what is happening.

9. Don’t skate to where the puck is. Skate to where it’s going to be.

Actually, my dad never said that. But he often lived it. As I got older, I came to understand that he was something of a cultural entrepreneur, what Everett Rogers has called an “Early Adopter.” Whether it was bebop, organic foods, or personal computers, he got into a lot of things before other people did.

Many of those things are now a part of everyday life. But back in the day, most people weren’t into these things. And it was a pain in the butt to be into them. You didn’t get into them on a whim. It required vision, the courage of your convictions, a level of intentionality, and in many cases, a willingness to look like a fool to a lot of people.

People like my dad walked off in a direction because their intuition told them that it made sense to do so, even though almost nobody else was walking in that direction. Now, forty or fifty years later, everyone seems to be walking out there like it was obvious all along.

As somebody who was dragged along for the ride quite a bit as a kid, I can assure you that it was not always obvious. It wasn’t always fun either. Not everyone is willing to seem like a fool to a lot of people, just because their gut says that this is the right place to be. Indeed, most people won’t do that. But the only way to get somewhere before everyone else does is go there before they do. And there’s always going to be risk involved in doing that.

10. Practice, practice, and practice some more.

A year or so ago, I was asking my dad about his first semester at the Oberlin Music Conservatory.

“How was it being there? What kind of stuff did you do?” I asked.

“Mostly, I sat in my room and practiced the French Horn, often six hours a day. I was a working class kid, attending an elite college on the G.I. Bill and I was unsure whether I belonged there. I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.”72313752-SLD-002-0024

Repetition is the mother of skill, and the COD stressed the importance of practice. My brother and I didn’t always want to hear this message growing up. But I guess we both practiced our instruments enough that we eventually learned how to play them. Along the way, we also learned something else: Once you achieve a reasonable level of facility, practice increasingly becomes less about drudgery and more about joy.

The pianist Van Cliburn reportedly said that he was rarely more than 80% of his best in performance and that many of the most sublime moments playing music happen during practice.

My experience has been similar. We work hard in practice to stretch our personal ceiling higher, so that when it’s time to perform, we can come down a bit from our practice peak and still be really good. As John Wooden said: “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

11. If Notre Dame or the Dallas Cowboys are playing, always cheer for the other team.

If you aren’t from Texas or an alum of Notre Dame, this should be self-evident.

12. Look in the mirror before you point a finger at someone else.

Creative people tend to be sensitive. Part of their gift is picking up resonances about things that other people may have missed. Sometimes, it’s like they have dog hearing. But the line separating this special dog hearing from an auditory hallucination can be thin. It’s very easy to lose track of that line and project motives, judgments, and attitudes onto other people.

The life of a creative person is also an insecure one. Judgment from others is always lurking right outside the frame, and most creative people fail far more than they succeed. When things go wrong, people need a story to explain those outcomes. It’s surprisingly easy (and human) to write a self-serving story. And up to a point, the ability to do this is an important survival skill.

But if one is not careful, the creative person’s dog hearing can gradually lapse into a grim, paranoia, where everyone is out to undermine you and failure is always somebody else’s fault.

My dad consistently preached that the best antidote to this sort of drift was to always look in the mirror first, before blaming somebody else for a negative outcome. It’s not always so easy to do. That’s for sure. But the benefits of doing so accrue over time, as it encourages personal agency, accountability, and an openness to the possibility that other people can be a source of goodness and support, not just an easy scapegoat for failure.

13. Keep an open mind and always try at least a couple of bites.

As a kid, it seemed like we ate a lot of weird food. We also went to some weird places, and we met our fair share of eccentric people. We didn’t have to like this food, these places, or these people. But the teachings of the COD encouraged us to always start these encounters with an open mind.momdad2001

Through the years, by trying to follow this advice, I’ve eaten a lot of great food, been to a lot of great places, and met a lot of great people. It’s nice to see my brother passing this same advice along to his kids. They’ve eaten more different food in their first 8-10 years than I ate in my first 30.

14. It’s okay to play it loud, but tune it up first!

Loud sound wasn’t an issue in the COD. Dad appreciated the power of volume. He wasn’t above firing up a crazy atonal music recording on his Revox reel-to-reel and cranking it until the floor shook. (When we were growing up, my dad’s stereo speakers were two 15″ JBL musical instrument speakers in a brown cabinets somebody had hand-made out of wood. They weren’t exactly high fidelity. But they could get really loud. My brother and I later used them as guitar and bass amp speakers. (We still have those speakers, in fact.)BenAndDad1997

No, volume wasn’t a big deal. But playing in tune was. When my brother and I started learning the guitar, I don’t recall my dad ever asking us to turn it down. But I do remember him regularly encouraging us to tune it up.

That’s always good advice. And now that electronic tuners can be had for next to nothing, there’s really no excuse for playing with your stringed instrument out of tune.

15. Inspiration doesn’t create the Work. The work creates the Inspiration.

72313752-SLD-001-0018This one interrelates with Lesson #10. I once saw my dad give a talk about the process of composing music. First, he acknowledged that he was a crazy person, because he “heard sounds and voices in his head all the time.” Then, he shared what I thought was a very useful insight.

Once you become a professional composer, you don’t have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration. You have to create it yourself. The way you do that is by getting up and putting your composer hat on everyday, even when you don’t feel inspired to do so. Often, you may feel that you are starting from nothing. Many days you won’t accomplish anything. But just as often, you may surprise yourself and come up with something unexpected and great.

As with a number of the other lessons of the COD, I’m not always so good at putting this one into action. But I believe it to to be true, and it remains a good aspirational goal.

Find a creative person who makes a lot of cool stuff and ask them how their process works. I bet you a dollar most of them do it this way too. Everyday, they go to work, even when they’re feeling uninspired. In doing so, they greatly increase their odds of capturing lightning in a bottle and then refining it into something even better.

16. Be in it for the 20-year payout.

The year after I finished law school, I taught legal writing at Northern Illinois University College of Law in Dekalb (that’s where I got my first winged corn hat). Midway through the year, my dad’s old friend and collegue Salvatore Martirano came up to Dekalb from Champaign, Illinois with his wife Dorothy. They gave a concert at NIU. Afterwards, I went out for dinner with them and some other folks. During the course of a conversation with Sal he said of my dad “He’s into it for the 20 year payoff.”

I knew exactly what he meant. Many of the coolest things my dad accomplished in his life were the product of long and sustained effort. He had a picture in his head of what something could be, and then he worked steadily over many years to make that picture real.JakeandDad1985

Around the Bicentennial, my dad wrote an opera about Abraham Lincoln with a libretto by his friend Donald Justice, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet. It had some workshop performances at the Lake George Opera Festival in the summer of 1980 (another one of those long car rides I took with my dad). But it would be another decade before my dad finally managed to mount a full performance of it in Cleveland.

It would have been easy to pout when things didn’t work out in the first few years after the opera was finished. But if my dad felt disheartened by it, he never showed that to me. Instead, he gradually put into place the people and money needed to make it happen. Yes, it took a long time. But he never took his eye off that ball.

My dad’s relationship with Cleveland State University (CSU) was similar. I think he was drawn to CSU, because it was an entrepreneurial situation. In 1978, when we arrived in Cleveland, CSU wasn’t much more than the Rhodes Tower, the Fenn Tower, some parking lots, a soccer field, and a snack bar called “the Shire”.

The music department shared a floor of the Rhodes Tower with WCSB, the college radio station. The largest venue for musical performances in the whole college was a space called “the Main Classroom Auditorium.” It was neither very big nor very nice.

Compared to the University of Illinois, there wasn’t much “college atmosphere” to be found at CSU. I suspect that some of my dad’s colleagues thought he was a little crazy to leave Illinois for CSU. But dad saw possibilities in places where others often didn’t.

Dad didn’t see a commuter school with a campus that looked like something out of “Battle for the Planet of the Apes.” He saw a school in a major city with a large pool of talented musicians and a rich history of supporting music, art, and other cultural institutions. He also saw a place that was open and flexible enough to allow for experimentation and new ideas. That was exactly the kind of situation he usually gravitated towards.Londons2001

As chairman of the music department, he helped spearhead the design and construction of the current music and communications building. He also secured a number of grants for CSU, including a significant challenge grant from the state of Ohio. The music department grew and prospered, as did the university as a whole.

Looking at the campus in the mid 2000s, it was almost impossible to imagine how much of it wasn’t there when we arrived in Cleveland in 1978. But apparently, my dad had imagined this future when he decided to come to Cleveland, and along with a lot of other dedicated people, he helped make it real. From time to time, he also did cool things like bringing the world-renowned Art Ensemble of Chicago to the Main Classroom Auditorium for a free concert. That’s a concert I remember fondly.

While all of the above was going on, my dad also started the Cleveland Chamber Symphony. This group ultimately premiered more than 170 original compositions. It was, in many respects, my dad’s crowning achievement, for it brought together a number of his talents and interests.

Typically, the music performed by the CCS had a very high level of difficulty, and its budget didn’t allow for significant rehearsal time. But my dad could still get great performances out of the orchestra, because he understood the repertoire not only as a conductor, but also as an accomplished composer and player. For this reason, composers really liked having CCS play their music, and the stellar reputation of the orchestra steadily grew.

In the long run, the existence of the CCS provided my dad with the ability to do things like mount a production of his Abe Lincoln opera and complete many high quality recordings of a lot of his music (as well as a lot of other important contemporary classical music). The CCS was a perennial winner of the ASCAP award for small orchestras. Around the time of my dad’s retirement, one of its recordings earned a Grammy award.

A 20 year payout indeed.

17. A lot of the Creative Process happens when nobody is looking.

The most valuable lesson I learned from my dad about being creative is not something he explicitly told me; it’s something I intuited from watching him. I was already in my early 30s when I could articulate it clearly (I suspect my brother understood it at a younger age).

Here’s what I came to: A lot of the creative process happens when nobody is looking, whether that’s practicing alone in a small room developing your craft or playing a show somewhere on a Tuesday night with 4 people in the audience.Jake London and Ed London: Jan 20, 2013

Being creative means developing a vision of what you want to do and then having enough courage to go out and do it. Often, that means metaphorically walking out into the woods alone, doing your thing (sometimes for a very long time), and hoping that some other people eventually come out, see what you are doing and ask to join you.

Anyone who does that is a pretty fearless person. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s hard walking out in those woods alone even once, let alone doing it over and over again for a lifetime, as my dad did.

A lot of times, things don’t pan out. But over the long haul, if there’s anything to your ideas, it’s beautiful to see how far courage and sustained effort can take you.


One Response to “Lessons Learned in the Church of Dissonance: Father’s Day Thoughts on Edwin London (1929-2013)”

  1. The K-Mart Radio: An Xmas Tale : jawjawjaw
    June 16th, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

    […] I come from a mixed faith marriage. My mom is Episcopalian. My dad is Jewish. There are undoubtedly a lot of reasons why the faith of the mother determines the faith of the child in Judaism. But one reason might be that women are often the ones who maintain the family cultural traditions. That was pretty much true in my family. Perhaps because of the mixed marriage, I got very little traditional religion growing up. We never attended church or temple. Mostly, we worshipped in the Church of Dissonance, which really wasn’t a place as much as a way of being. But that’s a subject for another time. […]


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