Features and Occasionals

The Emily Dickinson of Salt Lake City

By Sophie Silverstone

Jon Scoville has witnessed generations of dancers bow in gratitude after classes while teaching and accompanying at the University of Utah for 40 years in the dance department. He has produced 10 albums, composed for choreographers around the world including Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis, U of U luminaries, Shirley Ririe, & Joan Woodbury, founded and led the local samba drum group Samba Gringa (now known as Samba Fogo) for 15 years, and is the music director for Tandy Beal & Company.

For a man who has spent so many years allowing others to showcase their talents while he played alongside offstage or on a recording, it’s Jon’s turn to be in the spotlight. It’s about time Jon takes a bow.

Humble doesn’t begin to describe Jon. Good thing he’s got Tandy, his wife and director of Tandy Beal & Company, to articulate Jon’s rare gifts. As I spend the early afternoon in Jon and Tandy’s charming cabin-like apartment in Allen Park, the little area known as “Hobbitville” right across from Westminster, Jon tells the stories, and Tandy, who is working quietly at the kitchen table, periodically inserts her perspective when Jon’s modesty makes her ears perk up. Like the graceful snow that is silently falling in the sunshine outside, Tandy’s presence is almost unknown, until she gently reminds me of the magnitude of the wonderment that this man brings to the world. “Jon is almost equally balanced in his ears, in his eyes, and in his wit, in his mind. He can go into somebody’s work at all these different levels, which makes him such a unique collaborator,” she says.

Jon, the son of a Presbyterian minister whose family had been on the East coast for 250 years, was very clear from early on that he would not follow in his family’s footsteps. Jon studied at Yale to be a writer, but dropped out junior year after seeing a Joseph Spence performance. Soon after he moved to New York City.

Fate introduced Tandy and Jon in a blind date. Tandy, who had been dancing for Alwin Nikolais in New York City, introduced Jon to modern dance and electronic music. Then, “along came the ’60s and California summoned me,” he says.

Well, Ali Akbar summoned him, to be exact. Jon studied at the Ali Akbar College of music in San Rafael and was eventually offered to tour the U.S. as road manager with a student of Ravi Shankar’s. The tour led to more tours that took Jon to Korea, Indonesia and India where had the opportunity to “marinate in the music of another culture” during his 20s. Jon was also influenced by African music of the Bantu and the Pygmies.

Rather than imitating his predominant influencing styles, “I’ve just tried to remember what it is about that music that is so magical.”

Learning by doing

In the early years of living in Santa Cruz, Jon was playing guitar in a jazz/funk band called Women and Children First. Tandy asked him to accompany one of her dance classes at UCSC. So he borrowed his bandmate’s drum kit, showed up to the class and realized “I didn’t know anything about drumming, number one. I thought jeez, Scoville, you’ve gotten yourself into deep doodoo now. You’re on the spot. I realized the only way I could do it was by watching the dance and reading what they were doing and trying to turn it into time and sound. So I really thank dancers for teaching me how to accompany.”

Scoville learned to teach by accompanying Tandy’s classes at UCSC and getting the unique vantage point of a third party observer, but also participant. He began teaching at the University of Utah as an adjunct associate professor in 1974. Now he teaches mostly Elements of Music, Rhythm Analysis, and Choreography in the dance department. Dancers are privileged with the opportunity to learn about choreography by using composition techniques utilized by composers for thousands of years, such as motif, augmentation and diminution, retrograde, and counterpoint from a musicians perspective.

From a donkey to a BMW: Music technology evolution

Jon remembers how he “begged, borrowed and almost stole” to invest in a modular synthesizer in 1977. During the years of accompanying Tandy’s classes, he got tired of his traditional instrument kit and decided to make his own. He and a friend got so carried away they published a book on their contraptions. The publisher’s advance helped supplement the down payment for the synthesizer. “Haven’t made a homemade instrument since,” admits Jon.

Now that the digital age has exponentially decreased the amount of time it takes to record and compose, he still lovingly appreciates the countless hours weaving audiotape through two tape recorders across an entire room. “It’s like having a donkey, and getting really close to donkeys, and liking donkeys as your mode of transportation. Suddenly, 20 years later and you’re driving a BMW, and you’re like, ‘How did that happen?’ I know how it happened, and so I was glad to be along for the ride. I still love my donkey. I keep my little tape splicer as a memento of how I had to spend late nights with a razor blade to try and splice together lots of little pieces of tape, and now I can do it all electronically.”

Putting it out there with Paolo

It’s curious as to why Jon had made so much music for years, and hadn’t put out an album until 1999. Now he has 10.

As it turns out, much like Emily Dickinson, if no one had forced his music out into the daylight, Jon would be happy spending his days making music in his quiet “other” home with his wife in Santa Cruz, never distributing it to the world. Yet Tandy pushed and Jon’s dear friend from Brazil, Paolo Brandão, pulled, and in 1999 Wide Life was released. Paolo Brandão, who is like a brother to Jon, is a singer and bass player who lives in Rio de Janeiro where he runs his own recording studio called Estúdio. All of Scoville’s albums have been mixed and mastered at Estúdio.

Although his albums have only been coming out for a little more than a decade, his music is more recognizable than you think. If you’re a modern dancer, or have taken a modern dance class in Salt Lake, chances are your teacher and a third of your class were pupils of Jon Scoville. You might even recognize a song or two of his in one of your classes from Pirouette Park, a high-energy modern dance class resource album by Jon. Having gone to West High, I recognized his music immediately. Hilary Carrier, West High dance instructor was one of Tandy and Jon’s students.

His albums vary from lullabies for adults (A Field Guide to Sleep), soundtrack of the afterlife (HereAfterHere), to a nod to important pianists (Palmistry) to name a few. An album titled Albert’s Bicycle —yes, referring to Albert Hoffman’s culture-shifting bike ride (see story in this issue)—is as unashamedly trippy as the title implies.

HereAfterHere is the curious score composed for the dance, video and theatrical production that explores the afterlife by Tandy Beal & Company that will be playing in Salt Lake in early May. A Field Guide to Sleep is extremely comforting and effective (not recommended for your car CD changer). Wide Life is definitely the essential Jon Scoville album to have. It allows you to climb inside his brain and ponder.

One thing that makes Scoville’s music so accessible is the refusal to declare a genre. Without a specific genre, his music is never pinned into a corner that he can’t get out of. It’s free to roam about. You expect nothing from it and gain everything from it. One song is able to impress you with its classical complexity, yet another song has a beat that almost starts out like dubstep (In What Furnace in Wide Life—the first song on his first album). Say what? Yes, Jon Scoville likes dubstep. And I think he was catching on to it before he knew what it was.

“I think Jon is on the forefront, but quiet. He never makes a big deal of it. He was early working with world music. He was early working with text. I’ve watched this working through the years—he’d be working with text, and then 10 years later other people were all interspersing text. I think Emily Dickinson is a good title,” laughs Tandy.

“Emily Dickinson who’s a music slut,” Jon adds with that humble twinkle in his eyes.

This article was originally published on March 29, 2013.