I met Jon, or "Professor Appleton", as I knew him, when I was a student at Dartmouth College. Jon taught music, and in particular, "electro-acoustic music", which was exactly the kind of weird, technology-enhanced noise I wanted to learn more about.
Jon was patient with me, at a time when I had more ambition than skill, and more interest in making rock music or what he called "disco shit" rather than serious art music.
My first class with him was a large survey class -- Music 3. It was my favorite class that year by far. I would go on to take any and every class I could with him, including an independent study course for which I received a special commendation.
Jon thought I had potential and talent, and his statements to that effect were the kind of encouragement and validation I was starved for. I was eventually invited to be the first undergraduate to be allowed to take classes at the graduate level, as part of his brand new electro-acoustic music graduate program.
His impact on my musical education is hard to overstate. He helped expand my compositional horizons, my ear for textures, and my sense of what was allowed. He encouraged me to try new things, to experiment, to play, and to be rigorous.
One of my favorite classes found him throwing out the syllabus a few weeks in, saying "I don't think this is working, what do you all want to study?" We ended up learning about songwriting, melody and other forms of pop composition. I can still hear him singing and playing "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" by The Beatles and analyzing how the song was put together.
Many of Jon's other students went on to become composers and professors of music themselves, including Paul Botelho, Ted Coffey, and Michael Casey (who now heads up the Dartmouth Digital Musics program!). I would also work with another friend and former student of Jon's, Tim Schaaf, at PlayStation.
Jon was a unique individual. He had strong opinions about everything -- music, people, the world -- and he was not shy about voicing them. He stood up for what he believed in. He was also kind, warm, and had a quirky and unusual sense of humor.
Jon was extremely intelligent and creative. In addition to English, he spoke French, German, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Tongan. He made weird videos that would have made him a TikTok or YouTube sensation, had those things been available back when he was creating them.
Jon was also an emotional and passionate person, married multiple times. He felt things deeply and strongly, to the point that he abandoned at least one composition I knew him to be working on because it was turning out to be too sad.
Jon mostly worked in what was called "electro-acoustic music", a serious music genre focused on timbre and construction. Jon's earliest pieces were musique concréte, when tape machines and oscillators were the only way to compose, and then adopted the then-new analog subtractive synthesizer and early computer tools for music composition.
Dissatisfied with their limitations, he helped create the Synclavier -- the world's first digital synthesizer, and helped make sure it would be able to go beyond "disco shit" and do micro- and macrotunings, sample, record, and edit, sequence at high resolution, and have multiple synthesis methods.
These are all things we take for granted today, but they were unheard of on any instrument in the late 70s and early 80s when he and the rest of what became New England Digital began to work on it. It is a sign of progress that this device, which cost $500,000 in 80s dollars can now be purchased in an emulated version for your computer or phone for a few bucks.
And it was used for some pop music, by Michael Jackson (the intro to "Beat It" and a bunch of Thriller), Sting (Nothing Like The Sun and other albums), Trevor Horn, Laurie Anderson, Duran Duran, and countless other artists you and I love. Frank Zappa was a big Synclavier fan and perhaps the best example of an artist bridging popular and serious with it.
Appleton himself was fast and creative on the Synclavier, and used it to compose a number of beautiful and interesting pieces. In his later years, Jon returned to writing traditional tonal music for piano, choir, and strings.
Jon was an inspiration to me and countless others. I created and taught my own 20th century music class inspired by what I learned from him and how it changed me. I continue to teach songwriting and compose in no small measure because of him. I use the things he taught me every day.
I am grateful to have been his student, and later, his friend. I saw him all too briefly back at Dartmouth to celebrate his retirement back in 2009, and a few times here in San Francisco as he was passing through.
Thank you for the music and the wisdom, Jon.
You can find some of Jon's work on various streaming services, music stores, and YouTube.
Here is one of Jon Appleton's pieces for Synclavier:
A short documentary about Jon from 2011: