On Your Way to Brilliance

It’s the opening weeks of classes here at Visible Music College, and it’s my favorite time of year. Students come in with such sparks of brilliance, and I’m excited to lead them to the work—and in exchange, I’ll learn a ton from them.
Students are grabbing the important lesson of trying everything at once, and, at the same time, learning to say “no”.
We are all starting somewhere; some on our way to brilliance.
But we’re not there yet.
If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. ~Anaïs Nin
Some are artists, pushing genres and creative boundaries to their limits. They add beauty and wonder to the world, stretching our possibilities and our lenses. Art sparks our imaginations to ask, “What else could it be?”
 
EXAMPLE.
One of my heroes, James Murphy (Ex-LCD Soundsystem) is working on reformatting the NYC subway turnstiles to generate a harmonious cacophony of joy, called “Subway Symphony”. He’s got a corporate sponsor and moving forward with the Transit Authority. The video below outlines his vision and sets a high bar for his music-making. You don’t have to think of something ambitious as this—just ask yourself the question:

What else could it be?



But.
Some “content creators” don’t care at all, and are just adding noise.

Dave Allen talks about this in his (now legendary) article, “The Internet Doesn’t Care About Your Mediocre Band”. Maybe a more descriptive title might be: “Be Amazing or Get Out of the Way” (ht Never Was Podcast).
Allen encourages artists to make a decision to be great by doing great work.

It may sound like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth, as this blog has emphasized the necessary reality of putting in the hours in the woodshed, and just doing the work. I’ve written a lot about the noticeable gap between the work we’re doing and the quality of work we want to be doing. This can be an intimidating Law of Greatness to follow and give up. Yes, the Internet could not care less about your mediocre band. I know I’m the worst offender. If a song doesn’t grab me, I’ll not make it 30 sec into a song without turning it off. Many times even a poorly-staged or over-earnest promo pic will prompt me to just say, “Pass!”

Yes, we’re not there yet.

But.

On your way to brilliance.

Keep taking steps.

Decide on the front-end to make your voice rise above the noise.

Close that excellence gap.

Go for it. blow it up. the internet is the great democratizer. Rise above the noise.


Listening: Low – Ones and Sixes
Reading: Huck Magazine’s insightful interview with Ian Mackaye
Watching: The League – S6
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Wonder-Working Power

Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation. – Graham Greene
“MAGNETS! How do they work?!”, or so goes the notorious Insane Clown Posse track, Miracles. Insane Clown Posse was required listening among the cool kids in ’95, when I was in seventh grade (“Sevvies Suck!). It was Michigan, and The I.P.C. was still a budding regional act, with all of the punk rock accouterments found attractive to middle schoolers. Confrontational and striking visual image, antagonistic to parents, anti-establishment (other than a Faygo pop endorsement, so not anti-corporation, I guess?) chased with edgy, albeit–dumb, lyrics. I was certainly not cool, and I was not into IPC. But these same kids got me into The Wu-Tang Clan in high school, and for that, I am definitely grateful.
So I.P.C. released a song a couple years back lauding the wonder of this cosmos we find ourselves in, but not understanding that the scientific method has let us understand a little bit of the world around us. Hence, magnetism. Genetics. Rainbows. SNL parodied IPC’s video, but do we even need a parody?
So seventh grade science class. Biology, methinks? Formaldehyde, Drakkar Noir and bad decisions. My teacher was Mr. Sommers, in retrospect a marvelous, caring, and patient teacher. It was also light years before bald men hadn’t yet realized they should buzz all that mess still left over their ears. We were hellions hopped up on pop tarts and sex hormones, pounding our chests like silverbacks. And and the girls were no better, paper wasps, applying bricked layers of lip gloss on their bottom lip. It was Monday: dissection day. (Sorry PETA! Stop reading here! It gets worse! Rated “R” for “Reprehensible”!) We had been given frogs in teams of four, and were given scalpels, tweezers and these scissors that had vicious looking pointy ends. That day ended with me decapitating the frog and putting the severed head on my scissors so I could manually open and close it’s mouth by maneuvering the scissors. I used the sad animal as rude totem of my nascent sexuality, attempting to flirt(?) with the girl behind me, cackling and forcing her to look at the sad amphibian in its dead, dead, eyes.

“Hey ladies.”

I was watching a vid on music compositional techniques on The YouTube and made the mistake of scrolling down to the comments. Sigh. I just really can’t seem to help myself. Someone wrote “You cannot analyze creativity”. The “Magical Mysteries” song popped into my head. The writer’s tone was simultaneously insolent and wizened, doting sage words as some sort of svengali troller, it surprised me that it was one of the most upvoted comments. I resisted the urge to comment back, but the thought has plagued me for weeks. You can analyze and didactically communicate creativity. It’s what I do for a full-time job. Indeed, there has been hundreds of years of musicology, and we do know how and why music works. From the interaction between psychoacoustics and brain chemistry. One of my favorite artists and arrangers, Owen Pallett has written some enjoyable deconstructions of recent pop hits over at Slate.
Learning music theory, or art history, or neurobiology doesn’t suck out the magic out. but you do tend to have to kill the frog in order to dissect it.
Watching: The Americans, S2