Electricity and Inspiration: A Conversation with Jonathan Cohen

Keith: We’ve known each other for quite a while but I know our readers would be interested in knowing what you do as a profession when you aren’t composing music.

Jon: My father was an electrical engineer, and since the age of six I was convinced that that was what I wanted to do.  I was extremely fortunate that three things were true: I did like it, I was good at it, and, most amazing, people wanted to pay me to do it!  That was all luck.  I did work hard, but mostly it was luck.  Along the way, I got a PhD in electrical engineering, and I’ve practiced as an engineer now since 1974, mixing engineering, physics, mathematics, and computer science.  In the process, I picked up some patents and lost my hair.  There is some sort of lesson there.

Keith: How did you first get involved with the flute?

Jon: The short answer: random stupid events.

Here’s the long answer: I played the clarinet in grade school; I was horrible.  I had a rotten tone, for one thing.  Another issue was that I really didn’t learn to read music then.  Apparently that was a problem.  At the end of high school I set the thing down for the last time, and a sense of relief was felt around the globe.

In the 80s, I admired a wooden flute at a fancy craft fair.  It was a keyless simple system flute made from copying something in the Dayton Miller Collection.  I had no idea that its maker, Patrick Olwell, made some of the best traditional flutes; I only knew that it looked cool and somehow appealed to me.  My wife, Claudia, made the biggest mistake of her life: she bought it for me.  I cast around for a teacher of Irish music and found the amazing Chris Norman, who was then living in Baltimore.  He would record my assignment, and I was to go home and learn it by ear.  It was fun, but very wearing on everyone around me, as I was terrible at memorization.  So I finally let it go in the interest of domestic harmony.

Some years later, a friend asked me to join his rock band, on the questionable strength of my singing and guitar bashing.  My inexplicable response was to buy a Boehm flute and join them, where I played guitar and flute and I sang.  But in an unprecedented surfeit of discipline, I decided to learn to read music and take serious flute lessons.  In self defense, Claudia decided to pick up the trumpet that she had set down 25 years earlier.  (It was the case then, and remains the case, that she is a better trumpet player than I am a flute player.)

Claudia was out playing one of those pickup gigs for churches around a holiday and was asked by the tuba player to join Montgomery Village Community Band, which was in need of trumpets.  I went along for moral support, with all of two years of flute and reading experience.  They put a pile of music on my stand and I set a goal to play one note right per line.  As it happened, I didn’t come close.  But the flute section was tolerant in the extreme, and pretended not to notice that it was often very quiet in my corner, and that when I did make noise, it was often the wrong noise.

Sometime later, Laura Benning joined and said that she was starting a flute choir and was looking for members.  She did a good job of hiding her mortification when I was the one who took up the offer.  So now I was in a flute choir called Flutes on the Brink.  Between Flutes on the Brink and Montgomery Village Community Band I had lots of inspiration, lots of challenge, lots of fun, and lots of quick growth!  (Incidentally, I’ve been the President of Flutes on the Brink now for well over half of its existence.)

Keith: When did your interest in low flutes begin? Was there a moment that you remember that inspired you to pursue low flutes specifically? What drew you to low flutes?

Jon: It was shortly after joining FOTB.  Lisa Fahlstrom played the one bass flute in the group, a Yamaha.  I loved the sound and was attracted to that great gold-brass alloy body.  And I confess that I also noticed that less velocity was expected of it.  So I got the same flute and started playing it exclusively in the group, which was good because Lisa had commitments elsewhere.  Now I found myself soloing a lot on a cool instrument; I was a low flute player.

Keith: How did your composing begin?

Jon: Maryland doesn’t get as much snow as many places, but when it comes late in the season, it is often more than the state can handle.  I think it was the winter of 2003 when snow trapped me inside for 3 days.  For reasons that I cannot recall, I had purchased Finale, and decided it would be fun to try to write a flute choir piece.  (I had had no experience writing before, but there was nothing to lose.)  So I wrote a one-minute thing, made an mp3 of it, sent it off to a few friends.  The response wasn’t negative, so with great trepidation I brought it to the next FOTB rehearsal.  They made the mistake of encouraging me, so I expanded it into a full piece, “Helen’s Backyard.”

FOTB performed “Helen’s Backyard” as part of a concert at the Columbia Flute Choir Festival that Sharyn Byer puts on every year.  In the audience was Rick Pierce, who started badgering me about publishing.  I finally acquiesced, and Falls House published it!  Stunned, I wrote a few more pieces, which Falls House also published.  Then in 2005 I heard that some group called the Professional Flute Choir was playing one of my pieces at some convention in San Diego.  I supposed that I had to go!  Well, I became hooked on the amazing flute community and the NFA conventions; my fate as a hack flute composer was cast.  As it happens, I’ve been to the convention every year since, and every year I’ve had music on the program.

Keith: What inspires or motivates your compositions? Which is your favorite composition or the one that you are the most proud of or tickled by?

Jon: Despite my lack of playing ability, music has always been a big part of me, even at a subconscious level.  My friends have said that as a child (and an adult) I was always humming some music, usually original.  I often suddenly become aware that I have spent the last half hour humming some piece in the style of something I had heard on the radio just before. 

I can be moved to write by a little theme that occurs to me, or an interesting rhythm or bass line.  Or I can be inspired by a mood or something beautiful or sad.  But I’m embarrassed to say that the most motivating thing is work avoidance: it is way more fun to noodle with my flute in hand and write it down than to practice the music on my stand.  This is how many of my themes are created, and sometimes whole solo pieces.

No matter the motivation, when I sit down to write I often have no idea what will come out.  Most of it winds up in the trash, by the way.

Favorite compositions?  Most proud?  That’s so hard to say.  I think I am most proud of being welcomed into the flute community as a member when I’ve not got the pedigree and certainly lack the talent of those who surround me.

As to the pieces, my music is such a part of me, a real expression of what matters to me and what I am feeling.  When it is played just the way I felt it, it makes me cry.  (Honest.)  So I suppose that when that happens I’m also proud of it.  Right now, perhaps I am most proud of “Playdates,” my trios for Flute, Clarinet, and Bassoon written for the Fortunata Trio, who really do make me cry with my music.  But also “Blueshift Red,” and “Grow as a River,” commissioned pieces that would have been premiered about now but for the pandemic.  I guess I’m usually the most proud of the pieces I’ve just written, and maybe that’s the way it should always be.

Keith:   You have a great sense of humor and it really comes across in your works. Where does that humor come from?

Jon: Everyone in my family is a comedian.  Like so many other things, I’ll blame it on my defective genes.

Keith:  Your personality really comes across in your works. How do you think your approach to a composition allows this to happen?

Jon:  Is that on option?  It’s hard to imagine it to be otherwise.  I guess I write what I want to hear.  I want music to engage me, to be amusing, to evolve, to surprise, to satisfy.  I seem to get bored easily, so I try to write those things that would not bore me.  I try to be honest.

Keith:  Do you have any advice for people who are interested in playing and composing for flute choir, especially when writing for low flutes?

Jon:  Write what you want to hear and what you think others will want to hear.  For me, composition isn’t a time to show off, it’s a time to establish bonds.  Give the player and listener the same respect that you would want.  Be honest.  As for low flutes: assume that the low flute players want to have as much fun and challenge as the other flute players.

Keith: Is there any other advice you would like to share for our readers?

Jon: Keith is a nice guy, but be careful around him or you’ll wind up doing an interview.

About Jonathan Cohen

JONATHAN COHEN was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1954. After passing through Palo Alto, California and undergraduate school in Akron, Ohio, he settled in Maryland, where he received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Jon has worked as a researcher in information retrieval and visualization, optical and signal processing, and related fields, for four decades. His resulting trophies include more than a dozen patents.

Confined to his house for several snow days in 2003, Jon began to compose; many of his compositions have been Winners of the NFA’s Newly Published Music Competition.

Jon plays flute in the Montgomery Village Community Band (Maryland) and plays “Tiny,” his contrabass flute, in Flutes on the Brink and Flute Cocktail, from which he draws far too much encouragement.

Jon continues his dubious contributions to science as he composes and plays. His business card says “Bald Technical Guy.”

  1. Sheryl Goodnight

    This is such a fun and inspirational article! This reminds me somewhat of my musical career. I received a degree in applied piano, and ended up winning a brass and woodwinds competition in flute shortly after graduation. The flute has been such a blessing to me, and the things I learned as a pianist have overlapped into my flute career, which has enriched my life as a flutist. I love the flute community!! This is a great on line magazine!

  2. This is Jon through and through — far more talented and accomplished than he ever gives himself credit for. I can say this as I first met him during the time he was “passing through Akron”, playing clarinet, and learning to play guitar. My flute and I got to sit next to him in High School orchestra. (Pssst — he also has a lovely bass singing voice and holds up his end pretty well in folk music jam sessions.)

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