I grew up in Western Massachusetts, playing in rock bands and studying a bit of classical piano. In college, I was the last person in history to get a traditional modernist/twelve-tone education, studying composition with Milton Babbitt, Leon Kirchner, and Bernard Rands. This led me to quit music for a while. After graduating from college, I received a scholarship to do graduate work in philosophy at Oxford University, but spent most of my time learning to play jazz piano. I was such a bad philosophy student that I was eventually asked to leave the program. (It wasn't that I didn't try: I tried too hard, and wanted too much to do my own, not-very-academic thing.) I spent a few years kicking around Boston, thinking about music, working as a freelance teaching assistant, and doing a little journalism. (My big hit was an essay in the Atlantic Monthly about the philosophical significance of William James's drug use.) In 1997, having failed at everything except music, I entered the Ph.D. program at the University of California, Berkeley, where my teachers included Steve Coleman, Olly Wilson, David Wessel, and Edmund Campion.
Since coming to Princeton I've been working at the intersection of composition and theory. As a theorist, I like to ask questions like "what sorts of scales are musically useful?" or "how can we represent the various contrapuntal routes from chord to chord?" As a composer, I often take inspiration from these questions, letting my theoretical work point me toward particular scales, chords, or techniques. In 2011, I published a book, A Geometry of Music, which explains these ideas in very great detail. My music can be heard on the CD "Beat Therapy," which combines jazz sounds and rhythms with a more classical sense of formal development. A second CD of more classical music will be released in late 2012.
I suppose that I'm motivated by a few basic musical convictions. First, I think that tonality, rather than dying a sudden death around 1911, has continued to evolve over the last 100 years, in both the "classical" and "popular" traditions. A second conviction is that musicians tend to make too much out of differences between genres. I like to think of myself as participating in a culture that includes not just contemporary concert music, but also popular music, jazz, folk music, classical music, and pretty much everything else. In particular, I try to try to think about what I am doing, not just from the vantage of contemporary academic art, but from a more general perspective that (hopefully) encompasses fundamental human values. (This involves forcing myself to ask questions like "who in the world am I writing for?") A third (and perhaps more prosaic) conviction is that technology is fundamentally changing the nature of music, not just by providing us with new sounds, but also by providing us with new ways of thinking in and about music. I am very interested in computer-assisted composition, analysis, improvisation, and the interactions between these.
Finally, since coming to Princeton I have realized that it's important to have fun when writing, and I now try to think of composition as an elaborate and very important sort of game. In the end, we make art to make life better!