Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Other Album

A few weeks ago I posted a very weird instrumental track called "My Own."  After a little bit more post-production, mixing, and mastering, I have decided to release "My Own" as a single, and it is now available on digital retailers.

Aside from its length of 3:49, there is very little about "My Own" that warrant its release as a single.  There are no discernible words, and no appealing melody of any kind.  The point of the track is only to express layered electronic textures.  From a compositional standpoint, there is very little material to speak of.  But I guess the track's lack of appropriateness as a single makes me particularly inclined to release it in that form.  I've never been one to do things the conventional way.

Usually a track is released as a single to anticipate the upcoming release of an album.  But as I mentioned earlier, "My Own" does not fit the organic feel I want to have for the upcoming album "Hydrogen."  So I then thought "My Own" could be released as a stand-alone single, not attached to any album.  That is where the tracks stands right now.  However, I think about music in large chunks, and so I am fairly convinced that "My Own" will not remain an orphan for too long.

One day I was thinking about expressionist art.  (Don't you love paragraphs that start off like that)  The movement began started to gain ground in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  There are a number of famous expressionist paintings, and probably the most well-known is "The Scream" by Edvard Munch.  Wikipedia has this to say about expressionism: "Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas. Expressionist artists sought to express meaning or emotional experience rather than physical reality."

I had begun to think recently about creating a musical project based around this idea.  Of course, expressionism as a musical style already exists, and it is largely associated with the atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg, and his followers in the Second Viennese School.  Now I don't intend to create an album of atonal classical music, but there is something that can be learned from it.  In the early 20th century time atonality was a new discovery, and it was used to convey certain emotions that previous music could not quite grasp.  Atonal music did not really catch on as it were, except in academic circles, perhaps to its dissonance and rhythmic obscurity.  But atonality as a way to express emotion, often uncomfortable emotion, did filter its way into the popular imagination.  (Seen any horror films lately?  Listen to the soundtrack!)

Just as atonality was a new discovery 100 years ago, I asked myself "What is the new discovery of today that has the potential to change music?"  Of course, the answer is electronics.  To be fair, electronics have been used in music for quite some time, but with the rise of digital recording and editing, the artistic potential of electronic music has really exploded in the last 20 years.

So if you were to mix the artistic goals of expressionism with the electronic technology of today, what would you get?  You might actually end up with something that sounds a little bit like "My Own."  So before long I found myself with the lead single I wanted, but it was the lead single to an entirely different album than the one I was already working on.

But why would this be bad?  "Hydrogen" is mostly written and planned, but very little of it is recorded.  "Expression," on the other hand, is mostly not yet written, but the parts that are written are already completely recorded because they were created spontaneously from the ground up.  Having another album as an outlet is actually quite healthy.  The tracklist for "Hydrogen" is already pretty much locked in, but I also wanted to allow myself to come up with other new music spontaneously, and not have to worry about whether or not it fit with "Hydrogen."  So having "Expression" as a vague parallel project will be a very good thing.  Just don't expect either to be done anytime soon. (At least you get to listen to the single...)

Friday, July 20, 2012

The "Nine Questions" press release

Finally, my last completed studio album "Nine Questions" is available on iTunes and other digital retailers.  I can now safely say I have the album where I want it, and to mark the occasion, I will not listen to it again for a very long time.

Why is this?  To put it mildly, this album took a lot out of me. Almost all of it was recorded by the end of 2010, and the final tracklist has not deviated since that time.  But for the last year and a half I have let the album sit on a hard drive, while occasionally spending a weekend adjusting the mixing and mastering.  This process was very frustrating because I was seeking sonic perfection, even though I knew all along I was not going to get it, at least not with this album.  I could have been the best musician and producer in the world, but I was still recording an album in my parents' basement using subpar equipment and free software.

But as cheesy as it sounds, the journey was just as important as the final product.  Over the last year and a half I have been listening to music more for its production value than I ever had before.  So many times I asked myself "Why can't I get 'Nine Questions' to sound as well-engineered as ______?"  (insert your album of choice).  And even the final version is nowhere near the audio engineering standards of today.  When I was a music major, I learned the elements of music, but I feel like "Nine Questions" has refined my skills of putting that music on record.  "Nine Questions" was an overly ambitious project, stretching over 20 tracks, 71 minutes, and countless musical styles.  It may have been unwise to be so ambitious, but the hard work of combing over every inch of it obsessively and repetitively made me into a much better producer as I begin new projects.

As for the music itself, it is very weird, and highly varied.  This is perhaps the other reason why I found "Nine Questions" such a difficult album to produce.  It was never clear that there would be any payoff, certainly not a financial payoff, but also perhaps not an artistic one either.  The album has some very interesting moments, but it does not follow a cohesive narrative, and the general flow is awkward at times.  There are long instrumentals stretches, and a fair amount of spoken poetry mixed in.  The album does not grab the listener in any meaningful way.  Furthermore, too many of the tracks feel like dead end ideas that could have been developed further, but were not, mostly because the album tries to cram too many styles into one product.

I suppose the idea for "Nine Questions" came to me from a song I wrote on the previous album that contained the line "now he falls into the sea, trapped by the questions, answers were irrelevant."  And so one day, I sketched out nine pieces snippets of text, none of which were actually questions.  The snippets were unrelated to each other.  Some were political, and others were spiritual, but they were all brought together by the last one, which simply said "Why?"  These nine fragments were used as the text for the album's title track, and formed the basis of all the lyrics on the album.  The title track serves as a microcosm of the entire disc.  So is "Nine Questions" a concept album?  Decidedly not!  The words on the album, just like the "questions" they are based on, don't relate to each other, except that they appear together.  "Nine Questions" has always felt like an uneasy collection for that reason.  Why should spiritual pieces appear on the same disc as highly political songs?  You could even go as far as to say that such a thing is highly inappropriate.  Even though the album is released with its original tracklist unchanged, I've never been comfortable with the juxtaposition, and that is part of the reason why I have decided to avoid political music on my new projects.  Even so, the political references on "Nine Questions" are vague enough to not be too upsetting.  Even though I speak with my music, I still want the listener to dig.  You're not going to know the meaning right off the bat.

Perhaps I've spent too much time discussing this album's shortcomings.  In truth, it is unlike any album you will ever hear, and whether that's good or bad, I leave that up to you to decide.  The other night I went for a 71 minute jog, and listened to the album in its entirety, my "last listen" (at least for a long time).  As I was running next to the Genesee River as the Sun was setting, I had a feeling I had been searching for a long time: "Nine Questions" felt like art.  I hope you enjoy it.

Cover art by Edith Hanson.  Many thanks!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I Drove Away: (new track with MP3)

Friday was one of those nights when nothing was going right and I didn't want to talk to anyone. So after going to Eastman to record some improvised piano over a click track, I came home and locked myself in my room to see what I could do with it. First I spent about an hour trying to figure why my beat software wasn't working right. (I think it's working now, but I still don't totally know what happened)  But around 10pm things started rolling.

Perhaps I'm making this sound too dramatic. But the music that came out was intriguing. And in less than 24 hours (including sleep) the track went from not existing at all, to being completely recorded and mixed. How's that for progress? If I didn't have a job, you might think that I could write and record an album from scratch in just two weeks. Crazier things have been done, I suppose.

As for the track itself, it is too moody. It is piano-driven, and with any piano-driven pop track you run the risk of the "cheesy factor."  I'm not sure why this is.  The piano is one of the most beloved instruments ever, but when not used correctly, can sound cheesier than other instruments might sound when playing the same chords. So I tried to mitigate the "cheesy factor" by creating strange electronic dissonances and using Mammut to create a menacing soundscape in the introduction and conclusion. Since the introduction and conclusion are played in free time without a click track, it was a bit tricky to overdub instruments on top. You might notice rhythmic inconsistencies as a result. Just try not to be bothered.

Here it is:

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Free Throw Percentage and Franz Liszt

People who know me know that my favorite sport is basketball. I've recently begun going to a court near my house and one day I was practicing my free throws and I thought about the process behind it. A few things came to mind:

  1. There is very little variability in the task of shooting free throws. The height of the basket never changes, and the distance from free throw line to the basket never changes. The weight of the ball may vary slightly from case to case, but in an ideal world, this would not be so.
  2. Due to the task having so little variability, it would seem that deliberate practice would improve one's effectiveness. Inversely, if the rules suddenly changed and stated that the free throw line must move arbitrarily between shots, then one could hypothesize that it would now be more difficult to practice the task of free throw shooting because the new variable would make the task less repeatable.
  3. Free throw shooting is not a task which requires or benefits from creative thinking. In other words, there are no shortcuts to becoming a good free throw shooter, except deliberate practice.
  4. You are only competing against yourself. There is no defense on free throw attempts, and it is impossible for the other team to somehow outmaneuver you into becoming a worse free throw shooter.1
  5. For some reason, free throw percentage varies greatly among professional basketball players. Shaquille O'Neal converted approximately 50% of his free throws,2 whereas Ray Allen has a free throw percentage around 90%. Most players fall somewhere in between.

Now there seems to be a disconnect between item 5 and the premises that are established in items 1 through 4. Item 5 suggests that it is clearly possible for a person to shoot a free throw percentage of 90%, and items 2 and 3 would seem to imply that the best way to get there is through deliberate practice. Shaq no doubt could have improved his team's effectiveness considerably if he had put in the deliberate practice required to master the task of free throw shooting. So how do you explain his poor percentage? Perhaps Shaq considered his own value as a player to be so high that his poor free throw shooting was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.3 (This would certainly shed some light on his defiant reaction: “I make them when they count.”4

It might be better instead to consider marginal players who are also poor free throw shooters. For some players, free throw percentage could mean the difference between staying in the league and washing out for being too big of a liability to ever make it into the game in clutch situations. Or put more succinctly, it could be the difference between being a millionaire and not being one. And if one can become better at free throws simply by practicing them more, and not by some other factor outside of one's control (such as height), then it stands to reason that no marginal players should be poor free throw shooters because the risks of poor free throw shooting are too high from a career standpoint. But for some reason, such players do exist. Louis Amundson is a good example, who has only started seven games in a seven year career, while scoring just 4.0 points per game and shooting an abysmal 45.5% from the line.5 Poor free throw percentage is a serious liability for Amundson, and it would seem that this would be the element of his game it would be easiest to improve. So why doesn't he? After all, as far as basketball-related tasks go, free throw shooting is less complex and more repeatable than, say, figuring out how to drive to the hoop against a seven-foot-tall human being (a task which clearly fails item 4 above).

To highlight this problem, consider an example from the musical world. A couple of years ago I saw the Philadelphia Orchestra perform Piano Concerto No. 2 by Franz Liszt. The name of the soloist escapes me now. I'm sure I could find out his name if I did enough Googling, but for the sake of this post, I actually prefer to leave him anonymous as a subtle commentary on the lack of respect we give to classical musicians. Needless to say, the performance was totally lights out. I cannot think of another musical performance I have heard that had such speed and precision. This leads me to another set of points, which parallel the ones I laid out above.

      1. There is very little variability in the task of performing Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2. The score never changes. Any variability is actually introduced by the performer for the sake of artistic interpretation. But any musician knows that artistic interpretation is best applied when you already have complete command of the piece on a technical level. Furthermore the level of precision required to memorize and reproduce an entire piano concerto would seem to be higher than the level of precision required to make, say, 80% of one's free throws.
      2. There is not really any debate that deliberate practice increases one's effectiveness at performing a piano concerto. Just like the example of the moving free throw line, the concerto would be more difficult to master if, for some reason, the notes written on the page changed before every performance. Repeatability is key.
      3. Playing a piano concerto does benefit from creative thinking, but mostly in the area of artistic interpretation. There are no real shortcuts to learning the piece on a technical level. Deliberate practice cannot be avoided.
      4. You are only competing against yourself. There are no factors working against you trying to trick you into giving a worse performance.6

  • The ability to play a piano concerto varies greatly among those who play keyboard, and even among those who play professionally.

  • It is good to consider an important difference between music, which is open to interpretation, and sports, which are mostly judged by absolutes. Louis Amundson almost certainly increases his market value if he improves his basketball skills. On the other hand, if the keyboardist from Maroon 5 were to acquire the skill necessary to play Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2, would that increase his market value? Probably not.7

    Now if someone were to say “I will pay you $10 million one year from now if you either learned to play Liszt flawlessly or shoot free throws above 80%,” which would you choose? To me the answer seems obvious.8 So then is Louis Amundson just a lazy idiot, or is there more that goes into it than deliberate practice? Could we all learn to shoot as well as Ray Allen if we had the time and dedication? I do not know.

    And then consider the examples moving free throw line and the piano piece that changes before every performance. Ray Allen is relatively a very good shooter from every spot on the floor. If the free throw line were to move before every shot, Allen's individual percentage might change, but the fact that he is a far better shooter than Shaq would likely not change. Similarly, a constantly changing piano piece would be more difficult to perform in an absolute sense, but a trained soloist will always be able to play it better than an untrained musician.

    This all goes to show that specific skills do not exist in isolation. One does not become a great piano soloist by only playing Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 over and over again, but by playing a wide repertoire of difficult and expressive music. Ray Allen is a great free throw shooter because he is also a great three-point shooter and a great mid-range shooter. It is difficult to draw a one-to-one correlation between the time practicing a very specific task and effectiveness at that same task. This is because skills complement each other, and practice at one task could affect one's effectiveness at a similar task. So is Louis Amundson's free throw percentage low because he is not willing to practice that particular task, or is it because he is relatively bad at scoring in general, and his free throw percentage is just an expression of that? Either way, 45.5% is REALLY bad.

    1 Though I'm sure players have found ways to out-psych opponents into missing free throws.
    2 The Wikipedia article for “Hack-a-Shaq” is unsurprisingly quite amusing.
    3 Does anyone know if this is really true? I'm legitimately curious.
    4 I've been told that all free throws count for one point regardless of game situation.
    5 On good days I can shoot nearly 50% from the line, and I'm going to law school, so I see no reason why someone making millions of dollars should not be able to shoot greater than 50%.
    6 Unless you count music critics. It's been said, “why do you need a license to drive a bus, but not to ruin people's lives?”
    7 Though I hope I'm wrong.
    8 And I consider myself much more of a musician than a basketball player.

    Friday, July 6, 2012

    Hats Off to Paul Hofmann

    So I just went to Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music and watched the jazz pianist Paul Hofmann give a truly remarkable concert featuring a number of guests who make up some of the best jazz musicians you will find anywhere.  Paul played a program made up entirely of the music of Keith Jarrett, not an easy task for any musician, and he knocked it out of the park.

    Paul Hofmann was my piano teacher for four years while I studied at the University of Rochester, and I have to say I really lucked out. The Eastman School of Music is part of the University of Rochester, and even though I never could have dreamed of making it into Eastman myself, my status as a student at the University of Rochester allowed me to take advantage of many of the opportunities the Eastman School had to offer.  So in other words, I got to experience a piece of Eastman without having to be "Eastman material."  And from Day 1, I also felt like I was out of my league, that I was surrounded by genius the minute I stepped off the Red Line bus, and nothing I could do would ever match up.

    And in most ways, I was absolutely correct. Everyone who goes to that school is on a different planet of musical excellence and that really can't be disputed.  In a way I had the most frustrating position of all, because I possessed musical knowledge myself, but only enough knowledge to realize why I'd never be as good as the rest of the people I saw walking around.

    Despite my lack of confidence, I soaked up a great deal from Paul and my other teachers, Chris Petit and Michael Unger for organ, and Michaela Eremiasova and Elizabeth Kelly for composition.  But part of me looks back and says with one nagging thought:  "I wish I could have been a better student."  I wish I could have practiced a little harder, picked their brains a little more, and absorbed even just one more piece of musical inspiration. As an undergraduate perhaps I did stretch myself a little thin, being a double major frequently taking over 20 credit hours, while also managing a full plate of extra-curricular and volunteer activities.  Even within the music major I lacked focus, bouncing back and forth between piano, organ, and composition.  I do believe I made the most of time in college, but after seeing Paul's concert part of me wishes I had had the discipline to lock myself in a practice room for four hours a day and come out a genius.  But even if I had somehow conjured up the discipline, the fact of the matter is that I never was going to have the time, unless I had sacrificed other aspects of my undergraduate experience that meant a great deal to me.

    Even two years after graduation, I still attend Eastman concerts frequently, and it is one of the things I will miss most about Rochester. There have been times when I walked out thinking "Why even bother doing music myself? I'll never be at their level!"  But at the same time the amateur brings forth a unique perspective to the mix.  When music isn't your life, it frees you up to think in a different space.  When there are no expectations to live up to, there is more potential for unique results.

    So I exist in one of the following realities:
    1. I have the best of both worlds. I was able to learn from the best while still maintaining the unique perspective of an amateur.  So despite my lack of technical skill, I can tap into musical ideas the professionals would never bother with.
    2. I have the worst of both worlds.  My own level of musical skill will never exceed the level of an amateur, but I've seen the very best first-hand. So therefore I'm doomed to a life of never living up to what I know is really good.

    Let's think positive thoughts.