Compose everything

Walter Rhoads


The notion that the artist does only one thing is a stupidity inherited from the Middle Ages. Walter Rhoads has done many things. A lifelong painter and sculptor, he has also written fiction, owns an art gallery in Tahoe Park and played the strongman in a circus sideshow. In January 2008, in Cylon-like fashion, something clicked on in his head and he began composing music. Within a year, he’d put out a self-produced CD, Sleepless in Stalingrad, and begun work on an opera about the ancient Egyptian gods Seth and Horus. He plans to illustrate the opera’s libretto as a graphic novel and, if it’s ever produced, even design the set. Art-mad Richard Wagner had a term for this kind of ambition: gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”), and it typically leads to either fascism or Looney Tunes. Visit Rhoads’ Web site at to see what direction he is heading toward.

Describe what your music sounds like.

It sounds like Bach on a bad day when he had food poisoning, and he went into a fevered dream and dreamed about a future composer named George Gershwin, with also some snatches of Motown off the radio.

You compose on the computer with MIDI software because you don’t play an instrument. Is MIDI what brought you to composing?

No, I started composing before I discovered software that would allow me to compose in MIDI, but it has greatly facilitated the process. It’s so easy to try something out, get immediate feedback about how it sounds and then make corrections or modifications as needed. I couldn’t possibly have composed as much as I have without that process.

How much haveyou composed?

Over 300 short piano pieces, plus an uncounted number of other pieces where I’m trying to orchestrate several instruments.

How did you compose before MIDI?

I was singing into a tape recorder, actually my cell phone, then relaying it as a phone message and storing it on the computer.

Did you ever dabble with guitar or piano?


Nothing ever?

Well, OK, I have to qualify that a little bit. We had a toy organ when I was a kid. I did play with that a little bit. And we had a four-note xylophone, a sort of relic from the Southern Pacific Railroad, where my dad worked for years. It was the instrument that the porter would play to announce that dinner was served. That’s about it.

Is composing a similar experience to painting for you?

Yes. Although my conscious mind is very engaged, I find a lot of decisions are made for me at the subconscious level. I’ve made a decision to trust my intuition. Both in painting and in music.

How is it different?

It’s less material. There’s less physical effort, especially since I’m not playing this on an instrument. So kinetically, I don’t get involved doing it as I can with painting. In that way, it’s not as fulfilling.

What’s your opera about?

It’s about the rivalry between the god Horus and his uncle, the god Seth, and Seth’s abduction and murder of Horus’ father, Osiris, and Horus’ effort to restore Osiris’ rightful place as king of the underworld and lord of the dead. In my version [of the myth], Seth, who has a bad reputation and is quasi-satanic, has taken control of the underworld and has stopped the process of people being prepared for the next life. Everyone who dies in the story goes immediately to Seth’s remodeled duat, or Egyptian underworld, where they are tortured, regardless of whether they’re good or evil.

For Seth’s own amusement?

For his own amusement. Seth is called the god of chaos, and he’s the apparently the necessary antidote to Horus. Seth is evil, and yet the Egyptians saw him as part of the necessary balance of life. While he must never be destroyed, he must be controlled. And that’s how the opera ends, with Seth being chastised and once again banished to the wasteland. To the land outside the Nile Valley, the land that the Egyptians feared. He still lives, he has learned perhaps something of the error of his ways, but he still nurses a grudge.

That sounds very operatic.

I think it is.

You’re teaching yourself to play piano now. Do you plan on playing your music live someday?

If I ever get good enough, yes. (Long pause.) I’d better live to be 100.