In a police lineup of today’s most unique young composers, Dan Deacon would be easy to spot: big, red hipster glasses and a big, red half-moon beard. But despite the “charming doofus” look, Deacon’s blend of synthesizers, vocal effects, and acoustic percussion is some of the smartest electronic music around, and he owes its complexity at least in part to his time studying composition at the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase. Here he discusses what his education meant to him, the enormity of student debt, and forcing musicians to study math.
You don’t need a degree to make electronic music. Why did you decide to study music formally?
Well, like a lot of Americans at the time, I felt like I had to go to college. So I went for two years, and I was undeclared. It was fun, but I realized I was going into debt. I figured I’d always be poor, so I might as well study music and seal the deal on that. So I auditioned for the music conservatory, got in, and fell in love with it.
Do you have any thoughts on how the performance and experimental worlds could be bridged?
No, I think it’s important that they’re not. Academia is academia for a reason. They’re studying what exists. I used to battle with that constantly, like, “This is fucking bullshit.” But after I got out of college, I was like, “It sort of makes sense.” You’re going to school because you want a specific outcome. I’m not going to borrow thousands of dollars from the government for an experiment. Obviously, I think there should be a bit more experimenting going on, but I think that’s up to the student.
Have you been able to pay off your debt with the music you’ve made since?
I’ve been paying it off. I haven’t paid it off entirely because I’m irresponsible. I went to state school, and I got a lot of financial aid, but I did take out loans. And when you’re 17, you don’t realize that when you borrow $5,000, you actually owe $10,000. It’s insane that they give children — I mean, I was technically a child when they gave me that money. Fucking crazy.
Has learning theory been valuable to you?
It has opened a lot of doors. I get to work with So Percussion and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. When I first started, I was relegated to the electronic realm because that’s what I had available to me. But look at a band like Matmos. They’re probably two of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever met. Neither of them read sheet music, but they’ve also worked with Kronos Quartet.
Can you imagine what the musical landscape would look like if everyone making music today had a degree in music?
I have no idea. [Laughter] If everyone studied it, I think it would be pretty much exactly the same — you know, if everyone was forced to study it. I think you’d have a lot crazier landscape if everyone was forced to study college-level math.