Nolan Gasser is busy these days. The composer, musician, musicologist and chief architect of Pandora’s Music Genome Project has several projects in the works. He’s finishing a Broadway musical, writing a book and working on several commissioned compositions that “involve the intersection between art and music.”
Tuesday night, Gasser will speak at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Library as part of the Ideas forum for Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest. Gasser, who is no longer officially associated with Pandora, recently to talked to Ink magazine about music therapy, the Music Genome Project and Prince.
Q: The Music Genome Project was designed to lead people to music they will probably like but might not have otherwise discovered. Looking back on it, what’s your perspective on the project and streaming services like Pandora?
A: The first conversation was very much a morally grounded one. There was a problem in the music industry when it came to sale of music and CDs and with radio. Record companies want to make money, and most records don’t sell. The percentage of available recordings that actually got promotion or radio airplay was incredibly small, just the top 1 or 2 or 3 percent. So it was a challenge for the artist to make money and find their audiences, and especially for listeners to discover music they would love.
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The Music Genome Project came out of that imperative to open the dialogue and exchange between artists and audience. Sixteen years later, it’s not just Pandora, it’s all these different services that you can start with something you know and discover something you did not know. Obviously, I think Pandora does it better than anyone else because we were the only ones who took the crazy step of diving deep into the details of each recording of each song.
It has been an incredible boon to the average listener. And we hear all kinds of anecdotes from artists making money and finding audiences. To have an audience that already knows you by virtue of these kinds of services is incredible. I’ve benefited myself as a composer and an artist.
Q: You are involved in a music therapy project that is based on a smaller model of the Music Genome Project. How did that transpire?
A: It came about after a confluence of things. I was contacted by doctors at Sloan Kettering hospital in New York, where they have one of the earliest active music therapy programs. It goes back to the 1950s. They wanted to take a more targeted approach to music therapy.
The first conversation I had with Gary Deng, the head of integrative medicine. He used a metaphor with cancer treatment. They used to take a carpet-bomb approach to cancer therapy, which involved heavy radiation treatment and chemotherapy, which eradicated cancer cells but also killed healthy cells in the process. Now they have more targeted treatments to isolate the cancer cells.
He wondered whether there was a parallel in music therapy. Instead of just playing, say, Mozart, try to find a correlation between specific attributes of music to particular ailments that especially affect cancer patients — not to eradicate the cancer, per se … but to more narrowly target some of the ailments that accompany treatment, like fatigue, nausea, pain and stress — those kinds of things.
I don’t have much of a specific background in music therapy … but I’ve always been intrigued by it. This gave me the opportunity to dive into that realm. It’s still very much in the early phase but the idea is to develop a mini version of the Music Genome Project but focus on a few musicological attributes that relate to a particular repertoire and relate those to the individual tastes of the patients and get a sense of the potential efficacy of some of these musicological attributes in terms of creating a positive change.
Q: What have you learned about music therapy?
A: I learned how little the literature provides with any specificity how individual music works and even less so with certain musicological aspects, how they can relate to therapeutic aspirations of music therapy.
Aside from that, there’s no doubt that music therapy has demonstrated a viable methodology for positive treatment. Through this Sloan Kettering program, we’re hoping to add something to that literature and that understanding of how taking a more targeted approach can be more efficacious.
When you stimulate the brain and send out endorphins, the body has a tremendous capability to heal. There’s no doubt in my own studies and philosophy we are musical beings. Music is part of our overall evolution. … Our species is only about 100,000 years old and we have evidence of a manmade instrument going back about 60,000 years. So there is something within us that benefits from music and (it) probably aided our evolution. Music speaks to the human condition in ways very few other external stimuli do.
I’ve been really taken with the passing of Prince. It’s really amazing when you think about the kind of outpouring and the kind of devotion that’s in the coverage this is getting in the news outlets. Yes, it does speak to the genius of Prince and the cultural importance he played with people of a certain age.
But a larger meaning can be extracted. People who fill our lives with music that speaks to us — there’s a certain sanctity to that. Not to say we wouldn’t give great coverage to the passing of a great painter or architect or author. But there’s a certain reverence that I think is an intrinsic part of who we are that we have for music.
There’s a connection between that and the fact that music can play a role in healing the body when it’s in need of healing, but even when it’s not, music is something that can make life better, richer and more successful and certainly part of my mission is to extol the virtues of engaged listening, which will be part of the talk I’m giving in Kansas City: the depth to which we are musical and how to exercise our musicality more than most of us probably do.
Q: Technology has changed how we listen to, and even how we perceive, music. What’s your perspective on its pros and cons?
A: At the end of the day, access to information and access to content can only be a good thing. Imagine what people of prior generations would think, how astonished they would be, that we can take two minutes and hear practically any piece that has ever been recorded or ever written, if it has been recorded. It’s remarkable … how great it is, how lucky we are, that we can listen to music from West Africa or from 1730s in Eastern Europe or whatever it is.
At the same time, there’s always a downside. Maybe it can make us a little complacent about the need to really dive into the music. Maybe we can take it for granted. But, overall, it’s a net positive.
Q: What other projects are you working on?
A: Happily, several things. Several commissions I’m working on in a classical capacity, some involving the intersection between art and music. I’m also working on a Broadway musical that’s pretty far along. It’s called “Benny and Joon,” based on the film. That’s hopefully going to be Broadway-bound in the next year or so. I’m also doing some film composing.
The main project I’m working on now, which is very time-consuming, as a writer you’ll appreciate it: I’m working on a book that’s called “Why You Like It: The Science and Culture of Musical Taste.” It’ll be another six months or so before I’m done with the manuscript.
It’s kind of a magnum opus for me. I’ve always been inclined to want to talk about music and share some of the under-the-hood aspects with people who love music but feel intimidated by its technical aspects. I’m hoping it will appeal to all music lovers, regardless of the genres they are attracted to.
I want to get into to some of the science-based and culture-based and psychology-based aspects of why we like the music we do and what it says about us, then pairing it with the music therapy aspects, how engaging with the music we love can make our lives better.
Nolan Gasser will speak at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, 4801 Main St., part of the Idea forum for Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest. Gasser will follow author Tom Vanderbilt, who will speak at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $25.