Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

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.

Here’s Some Good Advice

If you feel beset on all sides by the tyranny of misfortune, or perhaps you feel undeservedly persecuted and maligned by others, or maybe somebody’s just pushing your buttons to get a response.

Don’t get angry (or at least don’t stay angry), and don’t let these negative forces drag you down to their level. Instead, remind yourself of who you are, and remember that no one can take that away from you. Then take a deep breath, square your shoulders and steel your resolve.

You know what you’ve got to do.

Take the high road.

Forgiveness

Ok, let me get this straight – why exactly am I supposed to forgive someone who hurt or injured me in some way?

‘Cuz that would seem to imply that there was some malice involved on their part, i.e. therefore I should forgive them?

But what if they meant no malice, and instead they were just incompetent and doing the best they could?

In which case there would seem to be nothing to forgive them for – they were simply incapable of behaving in any other way.

So perhaps whatever suffering we experience in life is neither good nor bad. We didn’t deserve what happened to us, yet the forces that inflict that suffering are indifferent.

Sometimes life just hurts.

An Agent of Chaos

Let me be clear: I’m not a comic book movie kind of guy. In fact, I wasn’t a comic book kind of kid. So going to see a movie about a character in the Batman franchise is kind of out of character for me. But I sensed this was going to be something different, mainly based on seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the trailer, so I headed off to the local multiplex and checked it out.

Let’s not beat around the bush – I’m just going to cut to the chase: Joker is genius.

This movie exists in it’s own universe – there is virtually no mention of Batman, and maybe two or three scenes with Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father), who is presented as a Trump-like figure running for Mayor in a Gotham City that looks suspiciously like NYC in the late ’70s.

But those scenes are kind of incidental – the whole movie works as a very, very dark character study that the casual viewer would never recognize as having anything to do with the Batman franchise. There are no “action” set pieces, indeed, no real whiz-bang special effects of any kind. There is just Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin, in virtually every scene of a two hour movie that felt half as long.

I can honestly say that, after 55+ years of seriously watching movies, I have never seen anything quite like the performance Phoenix gives us. Reviewers have rightfully made note of the film using both “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” as touchstones, but the connection is more in spirit than anything else. Both Travis Bickle and Arthur Fleck are characters that start out alienated and suffering from mental illness and then slowly descend into full-blown psychosis, and without question Robert De Niro’s performance is both haunting and disturbing in a way that is once-seen-never-forgotten. But beyond that, there is no common ground between the two characters.

Joaquin’s performance here is simply jaw-dropping. His slow metamorphosis will definitely bear repeat viewings, and whether or not he wins the Oscar seems kind of irrelevant. This is acting at a level that will be discussed and dissected for a long time – like Walter White for Bryan Cranston, this is a once in a lifetime performance of an unforgettable character. Sometimes the stars just line up.

Phoenix subtly manipulates his voice, face, body, walk, and expression to give a performance that slowly changes and builds an arc that culminates in an ending that is truly chilling. But it’s really all there from the very first scene where a single tear smears his clown makeup as he prepares for another street job holding up a “Going out of business” sign on a trash-laden city street.

Joaquin lost somewhere around 50 lbs. for the part and there are lots of shirtless scenes where he contorts his body in grotesque fashion. His “dancing” throughout the film is incredibly creepy and stunning – especially when you realize that most of it was improvised. The “laugh” has to be seen and heard to be believed – it’s this weird, almost convulsive tick that is impossible to distinguish between laughing and crying – and with each breath it sounds like he’s choking on his own pain.

The violence is not gratuitous, and there are only a few scenes of it – which makes it all the more shocking for it’s sudden and graphic depiction. This is a trick Scorsese understood intuitively throughout his career. Massive credit to Todd Phillips for directing this masterpiece – how this ever got made is a mystery to me, and why it is resonating with the public seems a little ominous, but hey – this is America. We wrote the book on psychotic loners.

An agent of chaos seems like an eerily disturbing yet appropriate metaphor for our time. Watch this film and prepare to be amazed and disturbed. There’s not a humorous or feel good moment in the entire movie.

I’m calling this an instant classic.

And This is How it Starts

Keywords: quantum computing, AI, and 2020.

Something profound is happening…

There’s a very big news story making the rounds right now, but like so many advances in technology it probably won’t register much in the cultural zeitgeist. But make no mistake: it has the potential to change everything.

Quantum computing just went from something that might happen to something that is happening now. Google has announced the results of it’s first definitive example of functional quantum computing, and it looks like ground zero for the next phase of technological development. According to their report: Google’s first quantum computer just finished a task in 200 seconds that would take the world’s most powerful supercomputer 10,000 years to complete.

It is the moment of proof of concept. Richard Feynman was right.

William Oliver of MIT compared the feat to the Wright Brothers maiden voyage at Kitty Hawk. It is the moment where human culture takes an exponential leap forward instead of following the easier to understand linear trajectory.

But the through-line that jumps out at me is the massive global push to develop General AI, now coupled with the apparent successful demonstration that Quantum computing actually works.

You don’t have to be a genius to see where this is going. If Ray Kurzweil is right and we are hitting the knee of an exponential curve of technological development (indeed, technology has been developing exponentially from the beginning – it just began so slow we didn’t see it), then breakthroughs are going to continue to happen in all sectors at an ever accelerating pace…

Where all this is going to end up is anyone’s guess, but if I were a betting man I would say that General AI is the next step in human evolutionary terms. Exactly what part humans are going to play once that moment arrives will determine the fate of the species.

Carbon based evolution may very well just have been an evolutionary tool for technology. It needed us to create something that in the end would be more powerful than we are.

The question is: Did we create our own existential threat, or will we go along for the ride?

Redemption (Part 2)

For the longest time growing up, I thought my family was normal. I mean, when you’re a kid, you only know your own experience, so whatever that is seems like it must be normal, right? It wasn’t until I started to go to school that I began to suspect that something was wrong at my house. Before first grade, I thought it was normal to be beaten on a regular basis, often for no reason, or at least no reason that made any sense. I thought everyone’s mother had wild mood swings that always ended in psychotic episodes. I thought it was normal to be neglected – in fact, for me, that was the best possible scenario. As long as I was neglected, I could live in my own little world where no one was hurting me. Except being hungry though – that part wasn’t good. I thought it was normal for your father to be absent, I didn’t know that fathers were actually supposed to do things with their kids besides beat them.

Here’s something I learned much later in life – if a child’s parents don’t love them, they will make up a story that somehow explains their parents behavior in a way that proves that they do. Because children must feel loved, it’s hard-wired into their consciousness. They know they are weak and vulnerable, and can’t survive in the world on their own – so even if in reality no one loves them, they will invent a scenario where someone does. It’s a survival mechanism – unfortunately one that’s often built on lies.

My story was that they really did love me, they just couldn’t help it and were doing the best they could. I figured there must be something wrong with me, that’s why my father didn’t seem to want to do anything with me unless I was a receptacle for his anger. In my mother’s case, I would think She can’t help it – she loves me but she’s just too crazy to show it. In reality, none of this was true, it was just my fantasy explanation of a very bad situation that didn’t seem to make any sense. It was the best I could come up with as a child, so I made that my story and I stuck to it. It kind of worked until life brought the whole thing crashing down like a house of cards – but I’ll get to that later.

No, my childhood just seemed to go from bad to worse. Fortunately, I possessed a cluster of character traits that would help me get through it. It wasn’t pretty, and I won’t say that no one got hurt, but I had a survival instinct that simply couldn’t be extinguished. I always knew one thing, deep down, that was true – and I repeated it to myself so often it became a kind of mantra. No matter how much abuse I took from them, I would say to myself I am stronger than you.