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Central Standard

Composer Jeffrey Ruckman Knows His Tools, His Obsessions And His City

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Paul Andrews
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When Central Standard thought about asking Jeffrey Ruckman to create new theme music for the show, one of the things that made him appealing was his masterfully offbeat, genre-bending tendency.

With a formal education in jazz and experience in a handful of world music traditions, Ruckman has been known to work with both traditional and quirky instruments. He teaches piano lessons out of his house and knows how to rock the accordion, but he's also built tuneful instruments out of such ordinary objects as terra cotta flower pots and wine glasses filled to precise levels and tuned to scale. On a trip to Bali, he procured a gamelan, which is a set of gongs and brass instruments to be played by numerous musicians, filling a room.

You'll find the gamelan sitting in his living room. What you won't find is high-tech gadgetry. His television is on a rolling cart outside on his porch; he wheels it in for special occasions. He says he "went electric" -- like Dylan -- when he got one of those newfangled electric typewriters. Ruckman's fondness for the pencil and paper over the laptop has earned him a reputation as a luddite, but he insists he loves technology.

"I really enjoy technology, I think, as much or more than the folks around me that look at screens all day. I really enjoy technology. Who enjoys technology more than a musician and their instrument? Ask any violin player. They're so intimate with this object, this technology, on their shoulder. They're doing so much with it and they're so entwined with it."

There's no moral stance here, and Ruckman doesn't have rules. He used a digital device to record Central Standard's theme music, for example. He simply takes time to reflect on his tools before he chooses them, and that process often lands with a preference for the simpler option.

"I've had time to size up several things and say, hm, this doesn't really solve any problems in my life, this actually creates a lot of problems and pulls me away from other people. I don't think I need this one. So one by one they get eliminated and other, more efficient technologies come in and take their place."

Ruckman grew up in the Ozarks, and his earliest musical explorations involved using a Panasonic recorder to capture theme music from television shows, including the Peanuts theme by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It's almost as though he was fated to compose theme music. Part of what he likes about theme music is that the composer knows not only that the song will be spoken over, but also where in the conversation that will happen.

One of his ideas for how Kansas City could grow and develop as a music town is to diversity venues to include a place, say, for music intended to be played for a small quiet audience. 

"I would give anything if there were more venues for an even wider variety of music and arts. ... The number of venues that are available for quiet music of any kind are very limited. Even quiet jazz, for example. You know, the blender is a very loud thing in a club. And it takes precedence. If someone wants to have an emotional one o'clock in the morning set of very quiet Bill Evans jazz, it's a shame that someone ordering a frozen margarita takes precedence over that ... Everybody supports the arts and everybody supports music. It's just that we all prioritize everything above it."

Portrait Sessions are intimate conversations with the compelling personalities who populate our area. Each conversational portrait is paired with a photographic portrait by Paul Andrews.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.