A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

Great day in the Newton house today, the mizzus and I are celebrating a decade under the influence. TEN years of matrimony. I think that Nietzsche quote is probably the most applicable, “For anything great to happen, there needs to be a long obedience in the same direction”. It’s the long con, I’m playing. I landed the brightest fish in the school, and I’m daily fooling her into thinking I’m worth sticking around for.
Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 10.29.55 AM
Art and writing also come to mind when I think about the “long obedience”. Information is instantaneous in the Information Age—how has that affected our craft? Enlightenment balloons neural pathways and pixels fire our synapses but skill—true craftsmanship is built over time. Craftsmanship is a waiting game, a daily putting our hands to the plow and developing the scar tissue of experience. This is a difficult concept to grasp. There may be an inverse line relating the height of expectation to achieve with the younger one is. If somebody has grown up with instant information at their fingertips, patience is difficult.
I want to encourage you today to continually develop your body of work. Let your stream flow the world’s collective ocean of work. I again bring up that Jean Rhys quote:
 “Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake’.” ― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
This is the key for us. For me. I have these bi-weekly dips of insecurity. Did I choose the wrong career path? The music industry is collapsing under it’s own bloat, like Baron Harkonnen, and graphic design was where I originally started from. I see my peers excelling in that field and wonder why if it’s too late to restart.
Either way, I seek an obedience to the craft. To submit myself to those that have gone before, and the endless stream of constant work. Putting in the time separates the raw talent from the seasoned. There is a bushel-basket of difference between being a great songwriter and writing great songs. I’m confident that is true for any discipline. The former puts the crushing weight of identity and collapses itself under the entropy of every latest work. This one is as only good as her last song/poem/script/choreography/lecture. The other sees herself as one who loves and is beloved, and expresses out of that place, feeding the stream. We feed the stream. One fits himself into the mold of those who have (excellently) gone before, but that mold is an iron maiden, closing in over time. I see it every year with my songwriting students. I saw it with myself. We feed the stream.

No, not really what I meant.

There is a superb scene (below) in David O. Russell’s I Huckabees where Brad Stand submits himself to an epiphany. He had also been feeling a cognitive and soulish dissonance I’m speaking of. One stands on the outside of himself and looks objectively–a Descartes-esque fever-dream of mind-soul sundering. He began to see himself as one thing, devoid of a toxic shame stemming from over-externalized self-awareness, the 6th grader who, in the middle of her class, realizes she has b.o.

How can i not be myself?

Reading: Just Do Something, Kevin DeYoung
Watching: The Hunt with John Walsh – his face/voice is a familiar comfort to me. Saturday nights as a kid watching  COPS with a chaser of America’s Most Wanted.
Listening: Automusic – Brian Reitzell
Playing: Alien: Isolation, Xbox 360
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Writing…Getting Things Done!

“Writing is not difficult, what’s hard is sitting down to write”
– Stephen King
Getting things done is hard. Writing is hard. And no, it’s not the actually doing, it’s actually sitting down and writing. It’s the active decision to alter our brainwave patterns into a different state. I’m good. My current Alpha Waves are pretty comfy. Those Betas are harshing my mellow.
Today I’m going to throw out some tips and tricks to help you get more done with your writing/songwriting.
Take A Bite Outta Crime
I love the 10 Minute Rule—when I want to put off a task, simply begin it for 10 minutes, then abruptly stop.

There.

We get over the hardest hurdle which is simply having started. Originally, I heard this from a student of mine who used this method to get a jump on her assignments. The paper no longer hung over her head, cramping her style, but she had already had a bite taken out of it. It became easier now she just had to “finish” the project.

Take a bite outta crime

Tomato/Tomahto
A more fleshed out version of the 10 Minute Rule is the Pomodoro Technique. In fact, I’m using it right now. Here is a great rundown of it. When I’m procrastinating and have an afternoon with an open block of time, elves run out playing flutes, and it’s suddenly a great time to do laundry, bathe the dog, or chip away the honey-do list instead of the thing I need to accomplish. I become yellow and squeamish and it’s hard to begin, knowing i’m going to be locked in the task’s prison all afternoon. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato. The technique originally encouraged a little red kitchen timer to “chunk” out your big task into smaller, fun-sized bits of 25 minute increments.
1) 25 minutes of hard work
2) 5 minutes break

3) Every third break should be 20 minutes long



I personally love the free app FocusBooster—it’s free, really customizable, and already on my computer. There is even a built in “break” that will auto-sound so that you can lift your head out of your prairie dog hole and know when it’s time to go back. I do happen to have a personal reward system for that “break” time—my mind is jumpy and creates ideas and distractions and things I want to Google and songs I want to hear RIGHT NOW, so i just jot them down on a “parking lot” on a separate sheet so my toddler mind knows it won’t forget them. It is a great way to juggle projects. I’ve had buddies tell me that starting a new Netflix show intimidates them in the same way. They don’t want to watch Daredevil or Kimmie Schmidt because the feeling of multiple seasons slogging thru is intimidating.


First Things First
One common trend in most of the people’s lives in Daily Rituals is that almost all the men and women start early. They get their work done first before the rest of the days’ tasks. Not everyone, but most people. Ever since reading that book I have decidedly awoken an extra 90 min before I need to and have that time to write, meditate, and read. I literally crank out 750 words before breakfast. I start with Morning Pages, and most people agree that the mind is better able to handle tasks involved with critical thinking early in the morning. (esp once the caffeine bean kicks in). I personally try to disregard email (not very good at this) and jump right in to writing projects of different kinds, scheduling conundrums, and critical project management. The afternoon is saved for emails/correspondence, meetings (read re:work), grading, and editing. I have dear friends that swear by their late night workloads, and that does have it’s own magic, but that’s a blog for another day.
Lastly, don’t try and do it all in one sitting.
The outstanding remainder will compel us to complete. Hemingway said the secret to his workflow was that he stopped at a point where he knew he’d obviously know where to pick up the work the following day. It created a forward momentum to help him continue a kinesthetic workflow.


Watching: True Detective S2 (Anyone else see that the lyric’s to the Leonard Cohen intro tune changes every time???)
Listening: Brian Reitzell – Auto Music
Reading: Law & Gospel – Mockingbird Press

PODCASTS!

Mainly been sticking to the SG straight through the Vox, dry--no pedalboard.

Mainly been sticking to the SG straight through the Vox, dry–no pedalboard.

I heard somebody say once that a musician in the studio should try to avoid outside influence in order to not let last minute influence negatively affect the work. Another way I understand it, is that the recording stage is the “end” of the musical creative process, and we deal enough with the unruly Crappy Valley. Have you heard of this? Malcolm Gladwell writes about a place between epiphany and validation where the artist struggles against toxic second-guessing.

Crappy Valley

Crappy Valley


I’ve been feeling that a little bit—however I will say that I listen back through my Spotify playlist of influence songs to help keep me on-track. It’s an inspiration board for my ears. As promised last week, thar she blows—->


So what do I do now that I’m not listening to much music? PODCASTS!
Here are some of my fresh selections; I’ve picked ones in particular that stick to the theme of this blog:
 
Excellent peer into the minds and craft of some much-beloved songwriters. Adam Schlesinger, Nick Lowe, Van Dyke Parks, Neil Finn, They Might Be Giants, Todd Rundgren, Al Jarreau, Mike Stoller, Neil Sedaka, just to list a few. With two interviewers you’d think things might become unruly, but the presenters are verbally conservative and know how to position the right questions to draw out golden juices from their subjects to satisfy audiences.
Stand-out episodes: Mike Viola, Stuart Murdoch (Belle and Sebastian)

A fun, shorter (10-20 min), episodic romp that features songwriters/composers going wide and deep on the inspiration, development, and production of a single piece of music. I appreciate how there is no outside presenter’s voice. It is purely the writer’s narration, interspersed with clips of their track. Recently the podcast has accessed a lot more of TV/film composers like Alexandre Desplat, Game of Thrones and Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Stand-out episodes: The Postal Service, The Microphones, Converge.

Full disclosure: I’ve actually only listened to the first one with John Luther Adams, but a great listen. The editing feels more in terms of an NPR-journalistic style, which stands out from the rest of the efforts on this list. The interviewer is out-of-the-way and sounds more like a talk magazine. If the first episode is any indication, this is a solid listen.
Stand-out episodes: John Luther Adams (doy)

The singer/songwriter and Get-Up Kids frontman interviews various indie-rock friends and musicians, many time covering songwriting ground. Love this one because it feels really blue-collar.
Stand-out episodes: Chris Conley, Andy Hull, Kliph Scurlock, Rocky Votolato, Kevin Devine

Exceptional productivity advice from not-high-strung dudes Seth Workheiser and Bill Meis.
Stand-out episodes: #5 Project Management without Email
What other writing/craft/music related podcasts are you jazzed about that didn’t make the list?
Listening – currently tracking, I try not to listen to music that might influence me while I’m making records. I did really like the freshly-released. Low single. (link)
WatchingOrange Is The New Black S3
Reading – Back issues of Tape-Op, for the feels.
PlayingAlien Isolation – Xbox 360

“Bach in Wartime”, and New Song!

One thing Brian Eno points out, is that art should be an extension of an artist’s philosophy of all life. Some might say that the effect is similar to the observations of anthropologists who note that members of a culture are unable to accurately perceive their own culture. Many times this is done unintentionally; we don’t take time to self-reflect and parse the weeds to suss out a “life-philosophy”.

But we artists ARE communicating something.

What is that something?

Is it the same thing that I’d want to communicate?

It could be chaos and its descendants. Punk rock. Rock n roll deconstruction from nihilism made sound waves.

It could be the excruciating and exact reproduction of the image of a ship (like the Neo-classicists).

It could be transcendence through beauty. (Like the Existentialists/Romantics)


Maybe Dadism and Surrealism strikes your fancy? Letting anti-art wash over your mind, allowing neural pathways to try to create order where there is none.


So you can see where I’m going—philosophy influences style.
Shoenberg, Webern and Berg needed a way to communicate the heartbreaking horror of the Holocaust, and they settled into atonal 12-tone serialism.
In her fantastic collection of reflections Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle comments that folks love Bach in wartime because even tempos, fully functional harmony, and deliberate cadences gives us a sense of structure, rigidity, and security. In peacetime people can dance. They can experiment.


What other examples can you think of?
There’s a musician I’m familiar with that only uses modular synths from a certain era ALSO is a Quaker and tries to put the Quaker view of plainness and simplicity into all his work—something I found very interesting and to my point.
Limitations for a Creative System
As I’ve mentioned, I’m in the deep of tracking a new full length record, Precious Melodies Against Satan’s Devices, and it should be released by the fall! I’m very stoked on the new songs, and I discovered years ago that creative limitations help the whole thing go quicker. I generally make records by myself, and limitations help create the “voice” of other band members, dissidents, opposing view points from which to carom—without ever talking to a soul. I look at the “Fredkin Paradox principle—(your decisions take longer the more similar your options) which I’ve written about before, and I use the creative limitations to create riverbanks for my creative stream to flow through.
The last record (Unreliable Narrator) I had a few limitations:
  • No electric guitars (broke this one, but that’s ok)
  • Always choose the weird way – between two choices, I’d choose the one more elaborate, baroque, or rabbit-trailed
  • Drum programming over live drums
If you’ve listened to the previous record (Slingblades of Husbandry) you may notice an inverse relationship. Slingblades centers around electric guitars, economical pop songwriting, and live-band drum and room sounds. Many of the artistic/musical movements listed above are reactions to other movements on that list. In fact, ALL artistic movements are reacitons against other philosophies, trends, and movements.
Current Limitations for Precious Melodies Against Satan’s Devices
now I’m trying a few different things, I have a type of album-structure archetype that I like to follow, mostly dynamically and a “vibe” kind of thing. Maybe that’s a whole ‘nother blog for the future.
  • Thinking about a fictional band and sticking to a lower number of tracks for the arrangement.
  • Try to use more “live” instruments: MicroBrute, Juno, rather than in-the-box instruments. But if they sound better, then hey.
  • I wanted to use a Rickenbacker electric through a Vox AC-30 for the backbone of most tracks. I wasn’t able to get my hands on one (if you have one you’re looking to lend me or sell, hit me up!) so I’m borrowing an SG. I’ve been sticking to single-coils the last decade or so, especially my Jazzmaster.
I like fast ones, slow ones, that means really upbeat/driving, and at least one acoustic one thrown in there to really bring down the whole dynamic level. I actually tracked that one yesterday, and here is a link to an unfinished version, just for the followers of this site! It’s called “Shine for You”.


Watching: Orange Is The New Black – S3
Listening: Candy Butchers – Hang On Mike
Reading: Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung
Playing: Alien Isolation (XBOX 360)

Practical Magic

How do we use technology without it letting it use us? Been thinking about this idea lately, some recent films have thrust this theme to the forefront (like the superb Ex Machina) and smart men like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk’s implicit cries not to develop a high-level artificial intelligence give me gooseflesh. But has there been a recent shift in the way technology has been approached in filmmaking?

Maybe we’ve reached critical mass?

Maybe we’re learning to use technology and not let it use us–letting every action movie smear into a Michael Bay-brown?

Tech used to make us feel like we could do anything, now it has its own trademark, which becomes limiting.


Each one of Mad Max Fury Road’s vehicles was a functioning car. Maybe the functioning cars were from the mind of a demented 8-year-old’s Cirque de Solie fever-dream, but all the vehicles ran and stunt drivers actually drove them! Director George Miller wanted the grounding of practical FX to anchor his far-fetched future.

Going to Zaxby’s


And then there’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As a Star Wars devotee, I was guardedly optimistic about the new J.J. Abrams-helmed trilogy. The prequels gave me buyer’s remorse (although if you are a serious fan, this “Ring Theory” has been making the internet rounds this week and it’s worth a look) and I believe in Abrams so so much, just based on his previous cinematic history, both on the silver screen and the small.

Here’s a passage from Vanity Fair’s SWTFA production observations that beautifully surmises this “grounded” approach:
The several minutes of footage I saw backed Willams up, as much as any several minutes from any movie could. Case in point: At the effects session, Abrams was demonstrating his commitment to the more retro, more tactile filmmaking Kasdan had talked about. One scene featured an alien creature that abruptly pops up out of the desert landscape with glowing, flashlight eyes that make it look like a distant cousin to the Jawas of A New Hope. Abrams later called it “a classic, old-school seesaw puppet. We just buried it in the sand, and Neal Scanlan, the creature guy, pushed down on one side and the thing came up on the other side.” At the session, the scene, with the alien suddenly sticking its head over a dune, got a big laugh. Some perfectionist suggested a few digital polishes, but Abrams was wary. “It’s so old-school and crazy,” he said. “We could improve this thing, but at some point do we lose the wonderful preposterousness?” – VF (ht i09)

Family reunion at Zaxby’s


Also working on the films is screenwriter Rian Johnson, who puts it this way;

“I think people are coming back around to
[practical effects]. It feels like there is sort of that gravity pulling us back toward it. I think that more and more people are hitting kind of a critical mass in terms of the CG-driven action scene lending itself to a very
specific type of action scene, where physics go out the window and it becomes so big so quick.”

I’m no luddite, but how can we use tech in music production, writing, etc. and not let it “use us”?

Deep, Deep, nerd stuff, but the DragonAge Inquisition characters quote this line all the time: “Magic was made for man, not man for magic”

I wish I could be John Vanderslice, only recording to analog tape at Tiny Telephone Studios, but it’s financially prohibitive and I need to use what I have. And that said—let it not use me.
I’m taking a break from trouble-shooting my M=Audio FireWire 410—my Mac’s not recognizing it and I can’t uninstall the software in order to re-install. I’m hoping that my day won’t be spent down-grading back to OS 10.10.1 (after I just went up to 10.10.3 yesterday). The demos for the new record are almost done, and they’re being sent to the geniuses involved in the project. Be very stoked.


Listening: New Tame Impala singles

Reading: Marvel’s Civil War 
Watching: The Staircase (RIYL Serial)

How Hoarding Can Help Your Songwriting/Writing

I tell people my twins are “thirty-three months old” because, duh, it’s hilarious to watch people’s faces while creating living satire. Maybe I’m getting older and suddenly I’ve devolved to that 8th grade history teacher that quotes Simpsons references just for their own amusement. Well my thirty-three-month-old/two-year-old daughter bojangles behind the whole fam when we take walks. She’ll find rocks, dandelions, forgotten lego pieces, and teeth from drifters she’s murdered and tries to bundle them all in her hands and pockets (with cumbersome success). My wife says this is a typical girl phenomenon called “collecting”.
I call it “hoarding”.
I walked into her room the other day and next to her My Little Pony collection there were five stacks of yellowed newspapers yay-high, a pile of old phone books, and 8 black trash bags full of McDonald’s-limited-edition Beanie Babies. Gotta get that toddler an intervention.


When it comes to songwriting/writing how can it be to our advantage to collect and hoard? The more you have, the more you have to draw from. Don’t sit there and try to brainstorm ex nihilo. We descend from the Information Age and with the world’s collected knowledge at our fingertips, our songs and prose should be savagely different than the last couple of centuries.

I’ve been accumulating ideas for years, My Evernote is Smaug’s horde, huffing around as a dragon amongst seas of gold doubloons. Where do these ideas come from? This list about sums it up. I read once that every quarter or so we should go through our backlog of ideas to see if our psyche can make the coveted connections that we call “inspiration”.
I did this very thing recently. So I I had an original (failed) song draft of that was more a noir crime story, but the plot wasn’t compelling enough. I re-wrote with aggression, digging into my steamer trunk of “good” and “inspired” ideas, dumping as much as I could into one song. I guess it was an event of spring cleaning. The song evolved into more of an impressionistic owl pellet of ideas. You ever have to dissect one of those in grade school? We did in 6th grade in northern-lower-peninsula Michigan. The owls eat mice, rats, and bowls, digest the usable proteins and cough up the unusable bones and hair in a compressed pellet. Yes, another dissection story. My mind seems to absorb inspiration and ideas over time and eventually combine them into an owl pellet of finished work.

Here is the result:

Superbowl Sunday
It was this Superbowl Sunday
I took a jawbone of an ass
I went in to the house of jackals
Took a deep breath of laughing gas
Walking through a thicket of antlers
I thought I smelled somebody telling truth
Then you flashed your Cold War glamour
And said “We’ve been expecting you”
I was fumblin’ thru the wreckage
Thought ’bout Jesus and his dad
It was last Super Bowl sunday
The best that I ever had
It was this Super Bowl sunday
“Dharma bummed” in your parlance
You were my burnside companion
A friend of friends of friends
A man born under hunches
I fought up into welterweight
Though I retired in the Winner’s Circle
But caught the Legionnaire’s Disease
Autopsy showed no foul play
But I know something had
On last Superbowl Sunday
With Jesus and his dad
I’ve continued cleaning out my personal inspiration horde/hook book because I feel like my mind has become stagnant. My boat is waist-high in grouper, why would I need to cast my nets overboard? I’ll put my mind in a place of need for more, and my subconscious should begin collecting the items I need for me to write down in Evernote. Why Evernote, you say? Well, that is a post for a different day…

Does anyone know of any studies done on the the fact-gathering/holding phenomenon that our brains have?


Listening: The Descendents – Everything Sucks
Reading: The Voice of the Heart, Chip Dodd
Watching: Netflix’s Bloodlines

“Gimme Something Good” Analysis

Ryan adams
Something I’ll do occasionally here on the blog is deconstruct great songs for our songwriting learning purposes. I love anytime others do this, whether it’s this blog, or Owen Pallett’s analyses of pop hits for Slate.com.

I want to look at Gimme Something Good from last year’s superb self-titled release. This song has a number of music theory magical elements at play here, but I’m going to zero in on one in particular—the effect of where the rhythm of the lyric lines begin.
Here’s the tune:


The primary electric guitar riff firmly establishes a strong assertion on beat 1, forcing the song to feel very grounded, while a blues-influenced vocal line sashays around the verse. The verse lines come in on beat 3, which establishes an assertive mood (beats 1 and 3 are the “strong” beats).
Verse 1 
Line 1: enters on beat 3
Line 2: + of 2
Line 3:+ of 2
Line 4: 2
Line 5: 3
Line 6:+ of 2
Line 7: 3
Line 8: 2
Chorus: There are two two-measure lines at the top of the chorus that enter firmly on the downbeat of beat 2.
Line 1: (beat 2) All my life…
Line 1: (beat 2) Holding…
The title/hook line appears directly after these “set-up” lines on beat 1. This is the first time we’ve heard any line fall on a beat 1, and it assumes a position of power in the listeners ear. Whether intentional or not, placing the hook/title line on beat 1 creates an undeniable mental cementation.

Gimme Something Good (chorus analysis)
bt 1 Gimme something good
bt 4 Gimme something good
bt 3 Gimme something
bt 1 Gimme something good
bt 4 Gimme something good
bt 3 Gimme something good
THEN the primary electric guitar riff slams on beat 1 of the re-intro to verse 2, leaving the listener very satisfied.
This is idea is reminiscent of Frank Black/Black Francis’ writing for Pixies’ choruses to provide an addictive and disorienting 3-over-2 chorus feel. They’ll use a 3-bar phrasing in 4/4 time. See: “Wave of Mutilation” and “Hey” (this article goes into great detail on this concept). Also, Jimmy Eat World’s “For Me This Is Heaven” achieves the same effect, over a linear drumset pattern for even more unruliness.
The good ideas don’t end there—, that last “Gimme something…” before the end of the chorus leaps up a minor 7th from the B to an A, leaving the listener with a feeling of urgency.
Anything anybody else wants to add to this analysis, or disagree with anything I said? Comment section, y’all!!


Listening: Ryan Adams, S/T
Reading: The Voice of the Heart, Chip Dodd
Watching: Daredevil, S1