It’s All People. And It’s All Connected
A jam session at the MAGFest video game music festival. We set up in the lobby of the Gaylord and started playing music from Tetris and Zelda.

It’s All People. And It’s All Connected

Previously in this space:

1. I talked about a dangerously irresponsible workplace and my escape from it to a life of music, from Boston to Arkansas to Austin.

2. I talked about Vermont College of Fine Arts, a school that profoundly shaped who I am in ways that I can barely begin to describe. (I tried valiantly to do so, regardless.)

3. I talked about the burgeoning scene surrounding video game music (as well as covers and arrangements thereof) and the way that I fell into that world.

And now I’m stepping back and looking at the thread tying everything together. Writing all of this down has been an opportunity to sort through some of the chaos of the last ten years or so. It’s funny. I’ve written humor columns, product reviews, how-tos, and plenty of ad copy. I’ve never really sat down and written about myself. I don’t generally find myself that interesting. After all, I already know how the story goes.

But maybe I don’t. This has given me a lot of perspective on my own life. And with that in mind, I’d like to talk about where I am now. But first I’d like to retrace my steps slightly, with an emphasis on the people that I knew, and the ways that they were interconnected.

Jazz band, first time through UCA.

Jazz band, first time through UCA. My one tenuous connection to the world of music at that time in my life. Photo by Rodney Steele

Everything that matters in my life is something I owe to other people.

One of the things that I already knew–and had already made a point of appreciating as often as possible–is that everything that matters in my life is something I owe to other people. I’m an enthusiastic evangelist for telling the people in your life that you love them. I rail against the weird American myth of the “self-made man.” And yet I am humbled anew when I review these articles and think about how much of my life comes down to the other people in it.

When I was working at the psych hospital, a handful of the people around me kept me from losing my own mind. (Mental health workers do break down, you know. We used to joke about whether we’d get an employee discount if we had to be committed ourselves.) My supervisor on the night shift did a lot to keep me sane. And the mental health supervisor on the women’s trauma ward, where I worked most of my shifts, was and remains an inspiration to me. Every now and then we check in. She’s in a completely different field of medicine, with new credentials, and a beautiful family. Seeing her current fulfillment compared to where we used to be means everything to me.

I am grateful to my mother, father, sister, and wife, for reminding me that the only one keeping me out of music was myself. They encouraged me from youth through college, and on into my adult life. Once I realized the only thing keeping me from creative work was me, I finally accepted the support that had always been there. I try now to honor their love with my effort. I am grateful to Kerri, a college friend from Arkansas. She became a psychiatrist in a nearby town. Her perspective on what mental health could be pulled me out of the gaslighting and downtrodden attitude that the hospital had filled me with and made me realize that the problem wasn’t “I can’t hack it.” The problem was that I was in a toxic environment masquerading as a therapeutic milieu.

I am grateful for Dr. Jackie Lamar, the noted saxophone professor who spent her career at the University of Central Arkansas to shepherd the program that her father had built there. When I shot her a “Hey, remember me?” email out of the blue, she welcomed me into her program with open arms. She helped me navigate my second undergraduate degree program and get out quickly, with my sanity intact. The entire time I was there, she begged me to do something more practical than composition. She steered me towards other avenues within music. I told her that I was through compromising with myself, and declined. But I never stopped appreciating the fact that she was looking out for me.

Dr. Paul Dickinson taught me how to make my best music, instead of his.

I am grateful for Dr. Paul Dickinson. A lover of 20th-century classical music, he showed me the wonders of Messiaen, Nancarrow, and Berio. Nearly every piece was introduced with, “This is the greatest piece ever written.” Despite his leanings, he taught me how to make my best music, instead of his. I am grateful for Dr. Stefanie Dickinson, who taught me ear training and advanced theory during the time Paul taught my private lessons. They are two of the finest musicians and people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

I am grateful to Jared Vincenti, a friend and filmmaker from Boston who jumped at the chance to let me compose for him for his master’s thesis film and for an entire web series. I am grateful to Amanda, a mezzo-soprano (turned airplane mechanic, turned airport administrator) who befriended and encouraged me. Likewise, Holly, a bassoon player, immediately became a good friend and confidant when I felt bad about the fact that I was in college with my little sister’s class. Years later, one of my Vermont College of Fine Arts pieces was programmed at Queens College, and I stayed on her sofa in Brooklyn to take in the performance.

I’m grateful to the Army of Kind Strangers band – Dolan, Terrence, Logan, Sam, Allison, Michael, Perry, Rachel, Malcolm, Barrett, Jimmy, Trent, Kaleb, Tyler, Ethan, Doug, Lance, Robert, Kayla, Jatrice, Matthew, Nathaniel, Brittany, Bailey, Anthony, Sean, Dylan, Morgan, Connor, Josh, Yuezhi, and Andrew (who played trumpet and recorded it all). Every one of these people took time they didn’t have to, on my account. All I had to give them was pizza and friendship, and they gladly and warmly gave of their time. Every hour we spent in a classroom with all the desks shoved off to one side recording represented at least 12 hours, collectively that they all could have been doing anything else.

Dr. Dickinson gave me the flyer that led me to the Vermont College of Fine Arts. There, Sarah Madru tried like hell to talk me into coming. She patched me through to Rick Baitz, then the faculty chair, who talked with me for hours as I sorted my feelings through. All of this is in line with the tone set by program director Carol Beatty, herself a good friend at this point.

All of this is beautiful and terrifying to me. Some of my closest friends, and literally dozens of other people that I love dearly, are in my life because one professor handed me a mailer, because he knew I’d been frustrated with my graduate school search. Without that friendship, I wouldn’t have had any of these others. And without any of these others, I can’t imagine a terrible lot going on in my life to be thrilled with.

Rick served as my first advisor, but all of my advisors have given me career advice and friendly counsel above and beyond their role through the school. Ravi Krishnaswami gave me my first big break composing. I landed an advertising jingle for a popular sci-fi video game series. The jingle wound up in the game itself, and the company has used it elsewhere at every opportunity. We’ve also done some songwriting together just for us, and it’s been immensely rewarding. Another mentor, Don DiNicola, has allowed me to collaborate on a number of projects now. I’ve done everything for him from script editing to voiceover work.

My wife Maegan first introduced me to Lauren, then her coworker at the ad department of a liberal arts school. Lauren introduced me to Sebastian as he was forming Materia, a tribute album that grew into an entire record label for video game covers and original soundtracks. Through that platform, I met – this sounds like an exaggeration – several dozen of my favorite people. If I start naming them, I’ll leave people out. I think it best not to try. But I’ve had tearful, heartful conversations now with people from Seattle to New York. Not to mention Scotland, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, and Sweden. Any time we travel for work or for vacation, I have friends I can call to meet up and break bread with. That is a priceless, precious gift. And when life throws me a curveball and I find myself on the road unexpectedly, it’s an incredible comfort.

Not all of my video game music (VGM) friends are far-flung, though. I met Sirenstar, Nate Chambers, not to mention Lauren’s bandmates, and the two other VGM bands, in town. Later another Materia friend and collaborator, Bonnie, had recently gone freelance and was mulling a move to town. We helped show her around while she figured out whether this move was really the life change she wanted. Since then, all of us have collaborated on a number of things. Nate and I have scored a game together, and pitched at least three more. We’re flying out to speak at a conference in October about some neat work we did with carefully composed music that can randomize itself for hours (based on minutes of music) before you hear the same thing twice.

It all circles back around to the people you know. I’ve made constant, conscious effort to let the people in my life know how much I love them. And I’ve certainly tried to be there for them. You don’t ever want to wind up with your own back against the wall, but when I found myself there, they gathered and lifted me back up in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Margie and my rotating band at VCFA, One Touch Relief, in February 2016. Zachary Kohlmeier, Amanda Laven, Thomas Avery, myself, Jesse Mitchell, Torrey Richards, and Margie Halloran.

Margie and my rotating band at VCFA, One Touch Relief, in February 2016. Zachary Kohlmeier, Amanda Laven, Thomas Avery, myself, Jesse Mitchell, Torrey Richards, and Margie Halloran.

When I lost my job in April, I called my graduate advisors. I called my friends from the VGM scene and from grad school. I called family. And people came together in an incredible way. Bonnie, now settled in Austin, sent me freelance work editing her voiceover for a computer game until I got back on my feet. Ravi, Rick, and Don all talked me through my options as I strove to discern whether I wanted to pursue freelance work or another office job. Nate’s wife, also a dear friend, wound up helping me find the job that I have now. She added me to a local Facebook group for digital jobs. I found a copywriting gig that I immediately fell in love with. I get to write, so I’m doing creative work to pay the bills. It’s remote, so I can spend time composing instead of dealing with Austin traffic. I adore my coworkers and the environment. And none of that would have happened without Ange’s help. (And Nate’s before her, and Lauren’s before him, and so on, because this is how life works.)

Through Materia, I found a software program that lets you write music using sampled sounds from old video game consoles – the original Nintendo, Sega Genesis, etc. A month or two later, a grad school friend needed retro video game-style music for a film he was working on. I was able to contribute, using the tools I picked up in this other sphere of my life.

Last year, my friend Sirenstar sang in Houston for a show with noted game composer Akira Yamaoka. This year, when the same concert series was looking for a saxophonist to accompany composer Darren Korb, she threw my name out and got me the gig. I got to spend a delightful day watching a fantastic composer practice harmonies with one of his most trusted collaborators, before accompanying them onstage. It was an absolute delight.

Each relationship shaped the prior one.

With each successive friendship, with each new opportunity, I am acutely aware of the way that each relationship shaped the prior one. Without people encouraging me to escape Boston, none of this would have happened. Without Mae, I wouldn’t have met Lauren, and in turn Sirenstar, and never would have played the Darren Korb show. I keep these things with me because each moment is filled with their spirit. Every opportunity is a chance to honor those connections more deeply with my actions.

Some of the connections have surprised me. In Chicago, a school friend and a video game music composer friend have known each other since grad school days. In Toronto, a friend leads a big-band swing group that covers Nintendo music. She knows another one of my grad school buddies.

I try to continue the cycle. A game composer asks if anyone plays any Indian or Middle Eastern string instruments other than sitar. I hook him up with an oud player that I met in grad school. I don’t know how that worked out, but I at least made the connection, because so many people have made connections for me. Another Materia member is a game music journalist, and mentions wanting to interview the composer behind the songs the street musicians sing in the Dishonored series. Well, that’s my buddy Ravi. I set them up on Facebook and before I know it, the interview is out.

One Materia album honors a game wherein you have three days to stop the moon from crashing into the Earth. The game’s atmosphere dabbles more than a bit in existential terror and omnipresent despair. One of my grad school friends wrote his thesis on the game’s themes. Not the musical themes, mind. The music was original. He was mining the emotional themes. He wrote a multi-movement suite where the music spanned fixed media, an early music ensemble, choir, and more, all exploring the internal turmoil of one of the game’s tertiary characters. I had to bring him onto the tribute album. He’s now a beloved member of the community, and he’s having the time of his life there.

I’m not out to “get” anything from anybody. It’s simply that I *am* nothing without the people around me.

The point of all this meandering is that it all comes down to the relationships we forge. I don’t say that in a disingenuous way. I’m not out to “get” anything from anybody. It’s simply that I *am* nothing without the people around me. That was true when I was in high school. It was true when I was at the psych hospital. And it’s true now. We are the links in the chains that tether us to a life worth living. The world is enormous and terrifying. Any sense that we can wrench from our unfeeling universe is going to be a group effort.

Be kind. Help each other up. Don’t close the door behind you. Say yes to everything. Nurture. Be brave enough to walk in empathy. And for the love of everything you hold holy, tell your friends you love them.

A cake with a photo of Garrett Steele's face on it.

The cake for my senior recital at University of Central Arkansas. Uncomfortable with the attention a composition recital represented, I played the whole thing like an egomaniac. The concert was called “Michael Garrett Steele Presents Michael Garrett Steele, The Concert: An Evening with Michael Garrett Steele”.

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