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Dr. Rock

From the tavern stages in downtown Indiana to Carnegie Hall in New York City, Mike Barnett’s entertainment career has taken a route that no musical Mapquest could calculate within any logical standards.

Where that path leads next also would be a matter of conjecture. But know that this trail is not strictly a geographic one; nor has Barnett, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Music Department at IUP, relied on the same kind of vehicle on this journey.

From anchoring the popular garage band Phantom Crew with friends in the 1980s and ’90s to composing classical music that’s been performed on the world’s most prestigious stages, Barnett has defied expectations for the career he has developed.

Consider, too, that Barnett this year composed and produced a CD of progressive heavy metal music for a session band, Terminal Degree. Instead of upfront headbanging guitars, the CD showcases the electric violin and viola performances of one of his IUP mentors, Stanley Chepaitis. This, while Barnett serves as an adjunct professor of music at the University of Colorado.

As he tells it—and as Chepaitis evaluates it—Barnett’s career started with expectations that were ripe to be exceeded. A self-taught musician, he picked up sticks and made himself a drummer. He listened to music and made himself a songwriter.

Mike Barnett

Mike Barnett teaching a class at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Photo: Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado

“I wasn’t the kid with the traditional musical upbringing; we didn’t have that luxury,” he said. “But ever since I can remember anything, I was in love with music. I went to sleep at night with the stereo playing and woke up in the morning with the needle popping in the last groove.”

Becoming a professional musician became his dream during his teenage years in Indiana. At that time, Barnett was playing by ear and creating songs in just about the same way. He formed Phantom Crew with his friends Randy Weitzel, Jamie Bonatch, Mike Ball, and Bob Busch in 1988. They built a following throughout western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia through live performance, recordings of original music, and radio airplay.

But in the years that followed, Barnett felt a need to grow. “I had reached a point in my development as a musician where I wanted to say things but didn’t know how. I didn’t have the tools to do that. So it made sense to go to school. And IUP was in my backyard.”

With basic public-school music classes as his only formal musical background, Barnett enrolled in IUP in the summer of 1992, the same year Chepaitis joined the Music Department faculty. Chepaitis said the odds are against students with no formal training, and Barnett was “at the fringe.”

“He was like a lot of students we get at IUP. He wasn’t sure who he was yet; he wasn’t sure where he was going. He had a background in rock music, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into being a music major.

“A lot of those kids don’t really fit anybody’s niche. Many eventually float away into a different field and find themselves in a different way. But I observed him through his first couple of years and watched him find himself. The remarkable thing about Mike is that he found that he really belonged here and made the most of it.”

To Barnett, being a nontraditional student was an advantage.

“I felt awkward about being six or so years older than most of my classmates,” he explained. “But I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of it. I had more life experience. And what brought it into focus was the contrast with my peers, just out of high school. Although there were some really talented kids, they weren’t always centered.”

Stanley Chepaitis

Stanley Chepaitis recently collaborated with his former student Mike Barnett on a progressive heavy metal CD, "The Middle of Nowhen." Photo: Keith Boyer

Barnett worked with intent, connecting with professors who would encourage and later collaborate with him long after he graduated from IUP. He had an ear-training class with Chepaitis and was accepted into the composition program with Dan Perlongo.

“Mr. Perlongo taught me to not settle for ‘good enough,’ to try to constantly improve,” Barnett said. “It’s one of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned, and that philosophy informs everything I do.”

Barnett later took viola lessons from Chepaitis to better understand how to write music for strings and to build the skills he would need to perform in the IUP Symphony Orchestra.

But playing drums remained his forte and first love. “I consider myself a composer who plays the drums,” he said. “I play and I write every day.”

As Barnett followed a rigorous schedule working toward his bachelor’s degree and playing with Phantom Crew, he felt burned out and considered giving up on the idea of graduate school. Instead, an experience in New York re-energized his musical drive.

In the city with the IUP orchestra for a holiday season concert at Carnegie Hall, the musicians had a grueling practice schedule.

“The conductor was running us ragged,” Barnett remembered. “I’m ready to say, ‘I’ve had enough and I can’t think of music anymore.’ It had become too cerebral—so much work and not fun. It seemed like I had lost touch with the feeling of music.”

One morning on that tour, they went to play for a frail, aging audience at a West Side retirement home.

“When we walked in there, it was so depressing I thought I would cry,” he said. He concentrated on the music sheet before him.

“I’m just trying to get through this, playing Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, about halfway through the first movement, when I happened to glance up at the crowd and they were all on their feet…dancing. They were totally transformed! The hair on my arms was standing up.

Mike Barnett composing at the piano

Mike Barnett composing at the piano. Photo: Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado

“At that moment I thought, ‘This is the reason I play: to create joy.’ At the most unexpected moment, I felt the power of music again, and I never looked back.”

Barnett earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music composition in 1996 and 1998, respectively. He still harbored a dream of being a rock star but set a practical goal of teaching.

“At some point, I thought, ‘I need a plan B.’” He thought if he pursued a doctorate, he could get a teaching job at a university and share the benefit of his experience with others. “I’ve always known that if I could build a life that is centered on music, I could remain true to myself and always be happy.”

In 1999, Barnett enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder, served as a graduate assistant, and earned his doctorate in 2004. He stayed on two more years as an adjunct professor, then left Boulder for several years before returning in 2012 for the job he holds now.

In his time away, he played in a heavy metal band in Hollywood for about a year, then returned to Indiana in 2007 to play drums in Dofka, a Pittsburgh-based band that he said “ran its course artistically” after a few years.

Meanwhile, Barnett conceived a major composition project that led to the release this year of the Terminal Degree CD, The Middle of Nowhen. 

“I wanted to create a progressive metal album without using guitars,” he said. “I thought of writing for electric violin, bass, and drums.”

Stanley Chepaitis came to mind for the violin part. “I knew he was capable of playing anything you could put in front of him. He’s a musical thrill seeker—he’s a renaissance man, he loves a challenge.” 

On a chance encounter in Indiana, Barnett sounded out Chepaitis on the idea.

“He said, ‘I want to write this heavy metal album for you,’” Chepaitis said. “I said, ‘Well, sure. Why not?’ What am I getting myself into this time?”

For Nowhen, Barnett composed the parts for viola and violin but, in each solo, left several bars of open space in which Chepaitis could improvise. The collaboration of Barnett, Chepaitis, and the bass player, former IUP faculty member Nathan Santos, worked beyond anything Barnett had expected.

“Stanley brought a phenomenal flavor and a feel that I hadn’t anticipated entirely. He has a unique flair and brought a very jazzy vibe to the recording.

“He makes me sound a like a better composer than I really am. Nathan’s work is nothing short of incredible as well.”

Chepaitis said the blend of styles is like no other. “What came out of it was an indefinable mix of heavy metal, rock ’n’ roll, a kind of jazz fusion, and—because Mike now is an accomplished composer in a classical sense—a highbrow sense of avant-garde modern music. We’ve got this product that pulls together things that really don’t normally live in the same universe—like nothing you’ve ever heard before.”

While Nowhen was in production, Chepaitis’s faculty string ensemble, the Litton Quartet, gave a premiere performance of one of Barnett’s newest classical compositions, “Caress of the Serpent.” Chepaitis is familiar with many of Barnett’s other compositions as well.

“Those works are very advanced, very much out in the front of what really high-level, well-known composers are writing for the New York Philharmonic and so on,” Chepaitis said. “Mike has developed his own language of writing music in a modern style: extremely complicated, sophisticated, advanced. It’s pretty amazing, in a way, for me, thinking back on this kid who was sitting in my ear-training class. This is a huge leap.”

Working together on the new projects has redefined the relationship born in the Cogswell Hall classrooms.

“He is a person who I worked with as a student who has become a colleague,” Chepaitis said. “He has reached a level where I’m not teaching him things anymore. We’re joining forces and doing things together. When you reach that point where you cross the line from a student-teacher relationship and you’re equals, putting your talents on the table and creating things, I think it’s pretty rare. There’s a mysterious chemistry of things coming together.”

The appreciation is mutual.

“Stanley has been involved in helping to make my music happen for a long time,” Barnett said. “He’s a champion of new music and has, on many occasions, been there to help me get my stuff done, not only as a violinist but also as a conductor. He’s always been an inspiration to me.”

Barnett remembers how it felt when Chepaitis and two other faculty members played one of his pieces in concert while he was pursuing his master’s degree. “That was the coolest thing,” he said. “That was a pretty high honor.”

Since then, their working relationship has grown in many different directions. In addition to their collaboration on the Terminal Degree and Litton Quartet projects, Chepaitis commissioned Barnett to write a piece for the IUP String Orchestra that he conducted at Heinz Hall.

Today, listeners can download Terminal Degree selections in MP3 from iTunes and other online music distribution sites, or find the CD on CD Baby and Amazon.com. It has far from the needed promotional oomph to climb the Billboard charts or make mainstream broadcast playlists, but Barnett is just as far from caring about programmers’ opinions.

“I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, to sell a certain number of records or make a lot of money,” Barnett said. “I don’t compare myself to other musicians; I only try to outdo myself. That’s one of the skills I learned from Dan Perlongo. Always try to best your last effort.

“That’s my idea of success.”

More from the Fall-Winter 2013 Issue of IUP Magazine



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Photo Gallery | Letters to the Editor | In Brief

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