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Monthly Archives: November 2019

Building Music Like an Architect

This idea is really not so unusual – classical forms of composition had strict rules within which the composer would create – but in contemporary pop music I’m not sure how common this thinking is.

I was looking at 17th century architecture today in Amsterdam when this idea struck me – if one is stuck composing using one paradigm, it pays to think in different terms to generate new ideas. I like this one, because it implies thinking about structure before motifs or themes are explored.

You could even reverse engineer another piece of music in this way. I’m thinking beyond the obvious intro-verse-chorus type structure, actually incorporating macro-dynamics into the picture, e.g. Where does this composition build in intensity? What is the overall arch of the thing? Does it change dynamically, and if so, how and where?

I almost always composed from musical ideas first, most often chord changes, but sometimes from melody or rhythm. Once I had these themes in place, then I would begin to construct the music around them. This, of course, illustrates how my mind naturally works – for me, the music had to be interesting first, then everything else came from that.

But every style works differently – with rap/hip-hop, I’m guessing either the beat or the vocal comes first. With metal, it’s going to be the guitar riffs, with jazz, it’s chord changes/melody/structure.

It might be fun trying to compose something this way…

Writing is Freedom

I just visited the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam – it’s a sobering and powerful reminder of the systemic cruelty humans are capable of inflicting on each other. But the most salient point of the experience, for me, is the humanity of it all. You are not left with an abstract reading of the events of WWII, instead, you sense what it felt like to live in fear.

But for the sake of this post, I was struck by some of her writing – mind you, this is from a 13-15 year old girl, albeit a very smart and clearly well educated one.

So imagine she’s living in an attic, hidden, with seven other people – for two years. Not only can she not leave the hiding space, the windows are blacked out so she can’t even see outside. And yet…

I’m paraphrasing here, but she makes the point that “writing is freedom. When I’m writing I can go anywhere, be anything, and do whatever I please.”

When I read this, I thought yes! This is exactly what writing is! You create whatever world you want, making up your own rules (or not) as you see fit. It is the ultimate in simple human expression. I say simple because everyone who is literate can write, so you already have the basic tools needed at your disposal. As opposed to, say, music; where getting to the level of self-expression requires quite a bit of study and practice – there’s a pretty steep learning curve.

I guess my main point here is that everyone should write. In her case, the decision to write something everyday about her existence turned into a historical document. It is certainly one of the most powerful and remarkable written records of a child facing the great horror of the twentieth century. She annotated the last two years of life on her own, simply to express her humanity. It is an innocent child staring into the gaping maw of the abyss, unable to fully comprehend her own existential threat (or worse yet – understanding it).

She died of typhus at the age of fifteen in the Bergen-Belson concentration camp in Germany, 1944. It is believed she died within weeks of the Allies liberation of the camp.

Her voice will never be forgotten because she took the trouble to write it down.

Redemption (Part 3)

I slowly lowered the gun until his head was centered in the sight. I had no real idea who this person was, nor did I care. See, I was a different person then – I’m not like that anymore. I realize that doesn’t erase the fact of what I did – but make no mistake, I took no pleasure in it. I just needed the money to survive – or at least that’s what I told myself. How did I get here? Well, let’s back up a bit…

When I was fifteen, my older sister was dating a vet that everyone called Spider, who, years before, had been deployed as a sniper. He enlisted voluntarily at the age of eighteen, and as a result of his personality type and physical traits, eventually ended up in the United States Marine Corps Scout Sniper School. Spider was about fifteen years older than I was, and took a liking to me immediately. At first, the feeling wasn’t mutual – mainly because I had learned not to trust anyone. I wouldn’t aggressively push people away, instead it would quickly become clear that there was very definitely a wall beyond which you weren’t going to pass. At the same time I was sending out this message, I could be smiling and deceptively friendly – but that was as far as I’d go.

I guess he admired my fierce independence, so he gave me plenty of space whenever I would see him – because of this, I eventually let my guard down and we became friends. He wasn’t exactly a father figure, or a big brother, but because of his age and experience he seemed to fall somewhere in between. Eventually we became close, or at least as close as I’d ever been with an adult. He didn’t seem to be working at the time, and had a drinking problem coupled with an impressive taste for weed. It seemed as though there was always either a cigarette or a joint in his mouth, but no matter how much he drank or smoked, his demeanor was always pretty much the same – unflappable. Nothing, I mean nothing, ever seemed to get him excited, he just always had this Zen-like sense of cool, looking at the world through what appeared to be coal black, emotionless eyes. It got to the point where I would feel proud if I could make him laugh, if only because it seemed so hard for him.

Spider only had one skill, and at first glance it appeared to be pretty useless in the civilian world. He was a sniper, and although he didn’t talk about his military experience, it was obvious he had been good at it. So it seemed natural for this older man to want to pass on the skillset he knew to a boy on the cusp of manhood. Especially since there was this dynamic of father/son, or big brother/little brother underlying our relationship.

The summer I met him, we would go out into the mountainous woods of western Virginia and shoot a few times a week. In the south, everyone had a gun, so the idea of an older man teaching a boy how to hunt was the most natural thing in the world. Occasionally we’d run into other hunters, and they would always look approvingly at both of us, smiling through their beards stained with tobacco juice. They’d usually have a bottle of bourbon, and would share a swig with Spider before grinning and saying A’ight, we’ll let you boys have yer fun, see y’all later and ambling off.

The thing was, we weren’t really hunting – at least not yet. Spider had his Steyr SSG 69 rifle outfitted with a high-powered scope, it was one of the rifle’s he had been trained to use in the military. He said under the right conditions it was accurate up to a half-mile. No, he wasn’t teaching me to hunt per se, it was more like he was teaching me how to shoot. More precisely, he was teaching me how to shoot like a sniper, and it turned out that I was a natural, or at least that’s what he said. It was the first time I had ever been good at anything. I grew to love our time together, and because he encouraged me, I wanted to be the best for him, to make him proud of me. Spider was the first close relationship I ever had with an adult, and he was the first one to ever tell me I had something special. If you’ve made it to fifteen and no one has ever told you that, you’re starving for it, even if you don’t know it. His lessons and attention were like water to a man dying of thirst, only I wasn’t even aware how parched I was before I met him.

For better or worse, the skills he taught me changed my life. Change, however, is neither good nor bad. It just is.

Oh My

Why does flying to Europe feel as though I’m traveling to a high-security penal colony on some distant planet? Because here’s the thing – I love traveling, or at least I love the idea of traveling.

But of course that’s not entirely true – I love being in different cultures and environments, but I absolutely loathe flying. It’s as if a whole committee of the most brilliant minds on the planet were chosen to set forth with a single, overarching goal: How can we make this as unpleasant as possible?

I mean, dysfunction, poor planning and seemingly willful incompetence can all manifest as a kind of natural Darwinian model in reverse. But the level to which air travel has fallen is truly shocking. And make no mistake – we are as complicit as them. We chose to continue giving up amenities in return for what we originally thought was a fast and easy buck, all for a slightly cheaper ticket.

And please, don’t even get me going on the Subject of the T.S.A…

Milestones (Part 1)

I almost let it slip by, but I guess I should acknowledge it – yesterday was my 1000th post – hurrah, hurray! Oh Jesus- who the fuck am I kidding.

Honestly – This fucking blog has gotten hard – sometimes I’m pretty sure I’ve got absolutely nothing new to say, and I’m fairly certain it sounds like it. But since I have a readership of 3 (with one of them being me), I’m under no pressure to please anyone but myself. BTW, I’m really grateful the other two people actually read it – they’re both highly intelligent and honestly should be bored with anything I might have to say at this point. Thank you nonetheless!

But for God’s sake why do I keep doing it? Maybe precisely because it is getting hard. I always knew that eventually it would.

Perhaps, in fact, this is the point I’ve been waiting for. What do you do when things start to get difficult? Do you pack it in and fold like a cheap suit? Or do you see what happens when it’s no longer easy? You know – see what you’re made of…

Truth be told, I already know what I’m made of – but I’m still not sure what I’m capable of. They are, of course, two different things. When you hit the wall, does greatness lie beyond? Or total and abject failure? Or maybe worst of all – just more of the same?

Regardless, I’m not quitting yet. If nothing else, my tenacity is formidable, I can be extremely self-motivated and disciplined, and I’m mean on top of that. I do try to be nice, though – I mean I really, consciously try everyday, and most of the time I succeed.

So forward ho! Let’s see what this thing can teach me about myself…

News Flash: We Are All Flawed Human Beings

Who knew? Seriously, it might be instructive for everyone pointing fingers and demanding that the next person be “cancelled” for saying or doing the wrong thing to remember this painfully obvious statement.

We are all imperfect and make mistakes. All of us.

In fact, I would argue that it’s not the mistakes we should be judged by, rather it should be our response to them. Do we acknowledge our mistake? Because if we don’t, then the only reasonable assumption can be that we either didn’t think it was a mistake at all, or we just aren’t big enough to admit we made it.

Or do we acknowledge it, apologize as necessary, try to learn from it and move on? Isn’t this how we grow as humans?

I get that there are a spectrum of mistakes – hurting someone’s feelings isn’t the same thing as murdering them. Making a mistake because you blundered isn’t the same as lying for profit. But still…

People do change, and it seems to me they deserve the opportunity to do so. If they acknowledge their mistake and apologize, shouldn’t they deserve forgiveness? If the offense was more serious, should there not be the opportunity for redemption by paying a price? Prison time, say, or recompense commensurate with the offense?

But “canceling” people, as if they never existed? Who gets to make that judgement? The mob? Twitter? The “media”? You?

As if you’ve never done anything wrong. Really, if you take part in this bullshit you’re pandering to the absolute worst in human nature. And in case you think no one’s looking, let’s be clear:

You’re not fooling everyone.

Nada

They can’t all be winners.

– Billy Bob Thornton as Bad Santa

I love this line – it’s applicable to so many things in life.

Like today.

Reductionist

One of the charming things about late 1940’s bebop was the limited palette with which the composer had to express their ideas. What I mean by that is this: say you’re Tadd Dameron in 1947 and you’re writing compositions interpreting the world around you. You just happen to live in NYC and your mode of expression is bebop.

So the compositions you write will use the instrumentation of the day – a quartet, quintet, or sextet. For the composition in question today, “The Chase,” Tadd used a six piece band featuring the great Fats Navarro on trumpet. He wrote this tune after watching two squirrels chase each other in Central Park on a fall day – this, of course, is what artists do – they find inspiration in the everyday experience of living.

I don’t know what made me think of this particular tune – maybe just seeing the same phenomenon outside my window? I guess it triggered a memory of listening to this recording so many years ago. See, there was a point in my life when I was young where I became absolutely obsessed with jazz, particularly from post WWII to the mid-sixties or so. I mean really obsessed – I not only intimately knew the playing styles of pretty much everyone who recorded in that era, I could tell you who their influences were.

Anyway, for whatever reason, this beautiful memory just came to me. And with it, the reminder that artist’s use whatever tools are available to express themselves, processing life and showing the world their unique perspective on what it means to be alive.

We all have a unique story to tell, whether we think so or not. And we should neither denigrate it or be afraid to express it. It is our unique contribution, and it is important.

God Left the Phone Off the Hook

WTF – I punch in and within 30 minutes I respond to:

  • Cardiac arrest #1
  • 5 minutes later cardiac arrest #2 (both died)
  • 2 minutes later severe bradycardia – HR 28 ( this one made it the ICU)

And then it was just a long, long parade of very sick people with assorted emergencies over 12 and a half hours.

Subdural hematomas, transfusions, peri-anal abscess, cholesistitis, stroke, suicidal ideation, drug-induced psychosis, 94 year-old Alzheimer’s lady with full right-side ecchymosis, pulmonary embolism, altered mental status status-post dialysis, and on and on and on…

So excuse me if this post isn’t one of my better ones. I exhausted my brain power somewhere back there in the ED.

Nothing a goods night sleep can’t fix.

A Year From Now

I just read this Seth Godin post and it had so much resonance for me I don’t want to forget it:

Will today’s emergency even be remembered? Will that thing you’re particularly anxious about have been hardly worth the time you put into it?
Better question: What could you do today that would matter a year from now?

– Seth Godin

Session 9

I love movies that don’t seem try fit into any pre-defined category – like life, you’re never quite sure where they’re taking you.

Were “Silence of the Lambs,” or “The Sixth Sense,” or even “Psycho” horror films? I would strongly argue no – they were way too complex and multi-layered to qualify as genre films.

To me, they were simply great movies – it just so happened that (again, like life can be), they were unnervingly disturbing. I don’t mean disturbing as in you watch them and think “Wow – that was scary.” No, I mean disturbing as in “WTF – I’ll never be able to get that out of my head…”

Session 9 came out in 2001, and I remember seeing it at the time and being completely drawn in – the writing, acting, music and sound design were uniquely immersive, like a dream. I thought it was great…

I recently watched it again and was really struck: this film deserves to be called a masterpiece. Like “Hereditary,” it fits in no genre, but holy fuck is it disturbing. It is so richly layered and complex that I’m sure I’d still be catching details after 10 viewings.

But underlying the whole thing is where it was shot: the Danvers State Insane Asylum, a structure built in 1874 and opened in 1878. It closed its doors in 1985 and in a brilliant stroke of inspiration, Brad Anderson filmed the entirety of Session 9 inside the decaying and abandoned structure.

To say that the set pieces are creepy and unsettling is a huge understatement. The theme of psychosis was based on a true crime, but it’s character depictions are so real I felt like I knew these guys.

It’s one of those hidden gems that never really got the attention it deserved. My verdict? Four stars and a big thumbs up.

You won’t be disappointed.

Point of View

If you’re an artist, that’s really all you’ve got. You can call it different names (your filter, vision, taste, ears, mind, intellect, etc), but at the end of the day it’s your point of view that sets you apart from everyone else. It’s what defines you.

Everything else is just technique and execution – which, BTW, aren’t even necessary to make great art. Brian Eno couldn’t play an instrument or read music yet he became one of the most interesting and influential musicians of his time.

You may think your ability to execute your ideas is the ultimate manifestation of your artistic expression, but you’d be wrong.

It’s your ability to express your point of view.

Broken

Sometimes broken is fixable, so let’s just focus on that. It’s not as if I don’t have plenty of practice with this concept.

Of course the repairs may patch things up back to working order, but they’ll never return whatever was broken to factory spec.

This is what getting old is really all about. If you’re lucky, you get to keep repairing things as they go. You’ll never be young again but hopefully you retain a pretty good quality of life, at least until the next thing breaks.

If you’re unlucky, however, the whole thing just gives out and it’s time to call it a day.

My particular machine unfortunately doesn’t seem like it was designed for the long hall. Lots of major repairs in the last eight years, with another one on the near horizon. At least I was fortunate enough to get a good CPU.

Well, more or less.