It all started with an old upright piano my family had in the living room, right between the fireplace and the front door. The piano came before I discovered my parents’ vinyl collection, before my mom and dad taught me about Tchaikovsky and Ella Fitzgerald, even before the radio really entered into my life. It was the first thing that ever taught me about music. Because of that piano, music has always been there for me no matter what else was going on. To this day, some of my earliest memories are of plunking out little nursery rhymes by ear, one note at a time. Even then, I can remember discovering little trends that recurred in the tunes and fooling around with them for hours. I had always simply taken the presence of music for granted; it was not so much something I had to pursue as much as something I simply could not live without.
There was always music in my life in some way or another, always some church choir I was singing in, a musical I was performing, or some new dance I was learning. The last year we owned the piano, sixth grade, was the same year I joined the concert band at school and took up the clarinet. When my family moved overseas to Saudi Arabia, I played in school bands over there, too. We lived in the Middle East for four years, and then moved to Nashville, Tennessee my junior year of high school, where I continued to sing and play until graduating in 2000. By then, I had fallen in love with everything rhythm and had joined the high school winter percussion ensemble.
At some point during my junior year of high school I began to get seriously interested in composition. A lifetime of learning and playing by ear, supported by my many talented and close friends, had driven me to begin to create my own music. It started out with emailing very silly little electronic pieces to a few friends (total running time of my first song: 10 seconds) that I made using the simplest of recording software on the family computer, but it eventually grew into a very serious hobby. At that point, I never thought how far these simple beginnings would take me. To me, it was just the natural progression of things – just another way to enjoy music as always.
My next stop was Lambuth University in Jackson, Tennessee. My major was Biology, with an incidental minor in music. I say incidental because I didn’t plan on getting a music minor. I just took so many music classes that I qualified for one anyway. It took less than a year to realize that music was what I really wanted to do. (On a side note, I finally realized I wanted to pursue music composition about halfway through the second semester of my Pre-Med major. Even though I stayed with the Biology until the end of the year, my grades actually improved and I made the Dean’s List. Isn’t it amazing what a little direction in your life can motivate you to do?) Lambuth was a small institution, but its music faculty is tremendously inspiring and crazy talented. By sophomore year, I was studying music full time and was a member of every major ensemble on campus: General and Chamber Choirs, a percussionist for the Concert Band, trumpet in the Jazz Ensemble.
By that time I knew I wanted to compose, but Lambuth did not offer courses for what I needed. My electronic music had become a passion, and film music seemed the way to go. Not only was I a self-proclaimed film nut, but after all these years I still favored the sort of music that anyone could enjoy – even (imagine!) a child. I had no urge to write music that was over anyone’s head. At the heart of all of my songs was a simple idea or message, at the time without any words at all. It was a small step for me to learn to write music that conveyed the ideas of others – or their films.
In the fall of 2002, I transferred to the Florida State University School of Music to study classical singing. I immediately started taking private composition lessons. About halfway through the semester, I got in touch with the film school and showcased my electronic works to the film students, then got to work scoring their films. By the end of that first semester at FSU, I had been accepted into the School of Composition and scored four short films for the FSU film school, one of which won an award in Las Vegas that January.
I went on to score many more films and two dance productions my senior year. I graduated May 1, 2004 and by May 3rd I was in my car, packed straight to bursting and on the road to Los Angeles. I worked jobs all over the city: movie extra, film runner, computer tech, studio engineer, and storyboard artist, all the while learning about life and music and always writing, writing, writing.
When I started writing lyrics, everything changed. I did gigs in little artsy dives singing through guitar pedals, performing all the parts vocally and looping them. The effect on the crowd was tangible, and I got hooked. In addition to the solo work I fronted and played in various bands, none of which were very good. I had a blast. Soon I was working for the Dust Brothers’ studio in Silverlake called the Boat. I met John Lydon, got fired, started a record label, released some things, and learned a lot.
After years of performing and writing in Los Angeles, enduring both affluence and destitution, I returned to academia to get my MFA in music from CalArts in 2011. I have now had my music performed all over southern California and am in the process of producing my feature-length banjo musical, Lunatic Sun, which premiered in a workshop on December 1, 2012. I received my MFA in music composition and vocal performance May 17, 2013.
The greatest feeling about the situation I’m in right now is the sense of knowing where I’m going, and knowing that it’s right. Just a few years ago it seemed like there were a thousand things I might have ended up doing, but now it seems so right I can’t imagine choosing any other direction in life. Who would have thought an old upright piano in the living room, right between the fireplace and the front door, could ever have such a big influence on a man’s life twenty years down the road?
Paul Nabil Matthis