Monday, May 28, 2012

Bleeps and Blurps: The Difficult World of Electronic Percussion

I don't have drums or a drummer. Thirty years ago this would have been a major problem. Today it is a minor problem, but the process of solving that problem creates, as a sort of byproduct, unlimited opportunities for creative thinking. But this freedom no doubt comes with a caution.

At the risk of stating the obvious, here is the golden rule of electronic beats: If you're going to use electronic beats, do not use them to imitate real drums. Instead, use them to create new and different sounds that do not resemble real drums

In other words, no pattern you come up with using drum software is going to sound as good as a real drum kit. You can't really get around this fact. Non-drummers, such as myself, might trick themselves into thinking they've done it, but they're wrong. When I first started recording, and even as recently as a couple years ago, I broke this rule often, and it was a major problem for my music. That's not to say that it rendered the music unlistenable, it was just far from what it could be. I thought to myself "I like a rock sound, so I should create a pattern that sounds like someone playing a drum kit." Bad idea. It sounds fake every time.

Fortunately, the golden rule of electronic beats cuts both ways. Just as electronic beats cannot effectively replace a drum kit, most of the cutting-edge electronic music of today cannot be replicated by someone playing a drum kit. The moral of the story: everyone stick to what you're good at.

Indeed, there are no limits to what electronic beats can do, but you need to emphasize the electronic aspect.  Radiohead is an interesting example because they demonstrate both sides of the coin. They have a drummer in their band, so the usual "I don't have drums or a drummer" excuse does not apply to them. When the band went electronic, it was because they had a reason to do so, not because they wanted to fake something.

When you spend hours programming beats, it's easy to get caught in the monotony of it instead of taking a step back and saying "why am I doing this?"  Any sound you could think to record or synthesize can be sampled into a piece of software and used in a creative way. That freedom is liberating, but also daunting. Anything can be a drum...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why Words Are (Not) Hard to Write

At my job I work as an advocate for crime victims, and on Tuesday mornings I sit in the arraignment part in Rochester City Court, meeting clients if they are there, and writing down the outcomes of each case, so my co-workers and I can call our clients and tell them what happened.  Arraignment court takes a very long time, and there are a good number of cases where I'm just waiting.  So I started bringing a notepad and during the wait, and I've been writing poetry.

When I write poetry in arraignment court, or at any other time, I make no effort to rhyme. In fact, my writing is just as close to prose as it is to poetry, but there is not a coherent narrative.  When I was younger it was the opposite. I had always tried very hard to make my first drafts rhyme.  Now, I almost never do that, and the rhymes are only added after the fact by ungarbling and rearranging the source material.

The shift in style was significant for me, and it occurred when I was a junior in college. I took a West African drumming class with a very cool instructor named James Holland.  I took the class despite already having a full schedule, but perhaps not surprisingly, it turned out to be the best thing I did all semester, a semester that was otherwise difficult.  We were required to keep a journal in class, and usually had to writes responses to various readings.  I enjoyed the journal because there were no rules.  It was "write what you feel."  One day James made an assignment that was unusual: "There's no reading. Just write the first thing that comes into your mind. Don't stop to even think about it. I don't want you to sensor yourself."

If there is anything resembling a "breakthrough" in my artistic life, this was a strong contender. I really went to town with this assignment. All kinds of bizarre insecurities came out, along with strange contortions of text, broken narratives, unexpected twists and turns, and a rawness I didn't know was possible.  The calculating and restrained version of me would never have thought to put it on paper.  The result was perhaps a little too weird for an academic assignment, but James got totally behind it.  He commented later, "I wish your classmates had really ran with this assignment the way you did."

So "free-writing" became the norm for me.  Whether it is poetry or prose, I don't know, but everything I have written since then has, in a way, been trying to chase that first high.  There is a certain freedom one gains from not having to worry about structure, form, rhyme, cohesion, or audience.  You can just write and charge ahead with a singular, if disjointed, purpose.

Now I hardly ever gaze at a blank page and wonder "what words am I going to write down?"  But the reverse dilemma can be equally frustrating. I've built up a somewhat sizable collection of word soup, and it's sometimes hard to pull up workable material from it, especially since I keep adding new ingredients every Tuesday morning.  For a songwriter, free-writing can feel like a strange exercise because typical song structures are far too rigid to accommodate the unfiltered text that may come out in these exercises.  Songs have meters, and the words need to fit in that meter.  Rhyme still remains strong in modern day song-writing even though a great deal of other contemporary poetry has already abandoned it.  Even though my free-writing exercises do not produce rhymes initially, I do make an attempt to organize the words into rhymes later because songs have a more natural flow when listeners hear those common tones.  This often means adjusting syllables, re-wording phrases to make rhyme, or even changing the word order entirely.  But is something lost in this change?

The process of sorting through pages of freely-written material can be problematic because you are editing the words and taking them out of the artistic context in which they were created.  Some songs I have written have actually taken some of their individual lines from two separate and seemingly unrelated poems.  This is indeed a necessary evil, but an evil all the same. Some words lose their true effectiveness when they are no longer in the stream of consciousness that exists somewhere between poetry and prose.  I suppose the reason why spoken words have always been an element of my music is because some ideas can only be expressed outside of the constraints of a rhythmic structure.  If, like me, you find words hard to write, I would recommend free-writing as an exercise as a way to at least get something down on paper.  Shoot first, ask questions later.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I always get the names Maynard James Keenan and John Maynard Keynes mixed up. But one had very important things to say about the world we live in, the other was an economist.
 Just kidding (sort of). I don't actually know anything about economics...

Monday, May 21, 2012

Who is the Better Guitarist?

So who is better anyway?

Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders:


David Gilmour of Pink Floyd:

Who can play faster?: Tosin Abasi
Who has more rhythmic precision?: Tosin Abasi
Who has more advanced knowledge of music theory?: Tosin Abasi
Who has probably practiced more?: Tosin Abasi
Who can come up with more complex musical structures?: Tosin Abasi
Who can better play in obscure time signatures?: Tosin Abasi *
Who has more mastery of many different musical styles?: Tosin Abasi
Who better understands classical counterpoint?: Tosin Abasi
Who can more effectively layer and overdub contrasting guitar parts?: Tosin Abasi
Who dresses better?: Tosin Abasi (not a real category, but really T-shirt and jeans while playing in front of thousands of people???)
Who plays more beautiful melodies?: David Gilmour

Who is better? Tosin Abasi or David Gilmour?: It's a tie.

Feel free to weigh in.