Making art by manipulating pressure waves in a gaseous medium

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’m into space and other nerd stuff. I like to think about life-in-the-universe and all those other mind-blowey sorts of ideas, and I realize how strange it is that we’ve grown up on a rock circling a somewhat humdrum yellow dwarf star, sort of like mold.

And then I wonder about what other forms of thought might exist in the universe because let’s face it, as much as we define “life” as that which takes in and transforms energy to create copies of itself, life when you get right down to it, is thought. On some level. And yes, in the end, I think that probably goes for animals and probably even plants. Life is awareness.

This opens up the whole concept of what life can consist of — electrical discharges in nebulae? Why not? (Hell, why not electrical discharges in the Earth’s atmosphere?)

And so … we’re pretty weird, really. We’re only one very specific form of life having arisen on a rocky planet like fuzz in the carton of tomato sauce in the back of your fridge.

And how “fundamental” to the universe is it when we create art by manipulating compression waves in the gaseous medium that has been gravitationally held to the surface of a little rock? I mean seriously, that’s just weird when you think about it.

“I’m a musician” = “I manipulate compression waves in a gaseous medium and call it art.”

We manipulate gas, and it makes us cry. Humans are goofy. Of course, this is how we communicate as well, which only adds to the goofiness. We turn vibrating gas into meaning.

(On a related but disgusting note: I’ve always wondered if, when you fart while sitting next to your dog, your dog doesn’t think to himself, “I wonder what he meant by that?”)

I seem to be an actual musician. And composer/arranger.

Insofar as one can be a “real” anything when one has not yet been paid to do it.

But I went and looked at my current My Music page, and damn but I seem to have actual stuff up there, and a not wholly inconsiderable amount of it.

And I’m also very pleased to say that it’s all been notated and is in sheet form as well.

It’s like I actually know what I’m doing or something! Cool! 🙂

And I’m back up!

After listening to these tracks and discovering that they didn’t entirely suck … at least not compositionally … I opted to reupload them on SoundCloud.

Anyhow — here’s my stuff! Give a listen and enjoy!

If you get a “404, we couldn’t find that playlist” or “can’t connect to server” error, just reload the page. SoundCloud gets pissy sometimes.

Moving past the crap

My past is what it is, and no amount of shuffling the pieces around on the board will change that. I cannot dig those pieces up out of my past and make them go away. Those are the pieces that are on my board. I need to find a way to play those pieces that will allow me to get the shit done that I need to do.

I need to move past the “therefores.” Shitty things happened to me, therefore I am damaged. Shitty things happened to me, and therefore I am strong and resilient. Screw the “therefores,” especially the ones that result in conclusions about myself. Therefore I am A. Therefore I am B. You know what? Fuck “therefore I am.”

“Shitty things happened to me, therefore shitty things happened to me,” is as far as I need to go. My past is damaged, and I need to build a fence around it so that it doesn’t bleed forward and soak into — and fuck up — my future.

My past is damaged, yes. Well guess what, I still need to get shit done — the shit I am going to badly regret not doing because I’ve decided that it’s the shit I was put on this Earth to do.

I also really need to stop swinging my fists at people who haven’t been in my life for twenty years, and hitting the entirely uninvolved people who are standing right next to me in the here and now. Somehow, I have to stop doing that. I don’t know how. I think it involves just not doing it.

It also involves going away for a while and just getting my work done a la Steven Pressfield’s “do the work.”

Down periscope. See you all in a bit.


I’ve got so much left to do. One thing on SoundCloud, not even in what’s really a final, polished form. A whooooole lot of other pieces still to go into the woodshed for refinement, or what little refinement I can give them since to be blunt, I am not a concert soloist.

This isn’t even step one. This is step 0.0000000001. Step a zillionth.

I’ve got a long row to hoe. I almost wish things were like they were in the very distant past, where the sheet music was the final finished product.

And in other news, I really have to stop swinging my fists at people who haven’t been near me for twenty years, and hitting the perfectly inoffensive people standing next to me in the here and now. The bursts of short-tempered biliousness are beginning to annoy even me.

Slow-mo practice is so …

… clearing of the mind, productive, reliable, useful …

… boring as hell.

It’s almost hard to trust it, because it’s almost like what I thought practice was as a kid — a way to just do something and have it get better by magic. Now, I get the neuro-wah-wah behind slow practice, but it still seems like magic on some level. I’ve had the experience of playing something painfully slowly with total focus a few times and suddenly experienced mega-leaps in my ability to play it. That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do, but it still somehow strikes me as mysterious joo-joo on some level, like those times when you’ll have a flying dream and it will suddenly feel incredibly self-evident that if you just have the right attitude and hold your body in the right way, you start to float and then swim in mid-air or fly. Well, of course!


Now in a dream, there’s no voice of reason that tells you, “You’re going to wind up on the floor, you.” In waking life though, there is. And I need a way to shut it up.

I also have to keep a lid on the power in my left hand again, or else I end up in a sort of arms race (*hyuk hyuk I said arms race* <—- points at the pun) where my left hand starts drowning out the right, and then I have to pound harder on that side, so my left arm responds by getting heavier, and pretty soon I'm exhausting myself and it all sounds like a mortar barrage. How many f's are in fortississississimo anyway? I think that's another thing I need to pay attention to with the Magic Joo-Joo Slow-Motion Practice™, just letting myself occasionally play something pianissimo and presto at the same time.

Rhythm and structure, algebra and arithmetic, concreteness and abstraction

Erica Sipes of Beyond the Notes is rolling around an interesting topic on Twitter at the moment, that of why in her experience so many people seem to have problems connecting with rhythm and are almost fearful of it. I’ve been mulling it.

I tend to compare music to math and language a lot, so it’s natural I guess that I’d see this in that light. Both math and language have structure underlying the actual words and numbers.

For example, you can diagram a sentence — illustrate the grammar underlying the words by putting the words into a tree structure. It turns out that when you do that, you reveal that there’s far more to any sentence than just the words themselves. There’s a whole tinkertoy structure underneath the whole thing, invisible but essential. You can diagram a sentence and then erase the words, and still have something vital sitting there that will tell you way more about that language than just whatever that one sentence was talking about.

Same with math — start out with simple arithmetic, something like 7+4=11. When you erase the numbers, you wind up with algebra: x+y=z. Again, it turns out that there was structure underneath those concrete numbers the whole time that is a vital part of the whole understanding, and the vast majority of mathematics lies in grasping that invisible structure — and many others!

I think that worrying so much, as classical musicians tend to, about the real, actual notes keeps students from seeing the underlying structure. Linguists and mathematicians are okay with putting their words and numbers on a tree structure, placing them relative to one another, and then wiping out the actual words and numbers and manipulating the structure itself. They seem to be more comfortable with a certain level of abstraction whereby the invisible structure is as real — or realer — to them than the actual words and numbers. They’re okay with that. Like Saint Exupery’s Little Prince, they regard what is invisible to the eye as more essential than the things you can stub your toe on. They (we, really — I know I’m like this) often regard the words and numbers as merely bits of lint the main function of which is to reveal to us the shape of the structure they attach themselves to.

Music students don’t have this attitude. They live and die by the notes. They are encouraged to live and die by the notes. Hence, making out the invisible structure behind the notes involves letting go of something that they have always seen as their one and only calibration point. As far as they’re concerned, their worth as a musician, and possibly their worth as a human being, relies on keeping a death grip on those notes.

The problem?

Rhythm lives on the invisible structure.

If the students can’t see that structure, they can’t sense the rhythm naturally.

And in order to perceive the structure, they have to relinquish their death grip on the notes.

(I think this is a big part of why improvisation is so useful — not just to get over fear of mistakes, but to help perceive the things that you can perceive in music once you do unclench your hand, rhythm being one of them.)

Now, there are up and down sides to these attitudes. I’ll never be a fussy soloist, and I was never qualified to be one. The notes mean less to me than the abstract structure, so a clinker every now and again is to be expected, as long as the abstract representation of the piece on paper is clean. This is part of why I’m going nuts with the recording process; the “who cares about a bum note here and there?” attitude is not acceptable once you plug something into AUX OUT. The audio recording now has to stand in for the sheet music, and well … the sheet music is 100% perfect, no clinkers, no pops or hisses, no skips or compression issues. As someone who regards abstraction as more real than reality, I resent having to be so detail-oriented about one transient representation of a piece. I will never be detail-oriented enough to make an acceptable performing classical musician.

And people who are concrete and very fussy about quality of the actual notes, who might have more trouble with the underlying structure or even dislike it (as many performing musicians dislike music theory), may make better actual performers since they are focused on the quality of the actual notes. (Although I reserve the right to go o_O at violinists who sound good and yet have no idea at all what key they are even in. Come on.)

Every person will probably lean more to one side than the other. An awful lot of professional orchestra musicians (who live and die by the notes) outright hate music theory, yet I’m reminded of Beethoven’s famous quote that a wrong note here and there means nothing, which indicates that composers may be more more worried about getting it right on paper; clearly composers are not likely to win auditions playing their own pieces.

And I think youngsters are more likely to focus on Getting The Notes Right as well, especially since they’ve spent their lives from the age of 6 immersed in an environment where grasping fine points of concrete detail matter far more than abstraction, and where authority figures will mark them down for getting the wrong answer no matter how well they grasped the broad strokes.

As we grow and mature, hopefully we all come to an appreciation of the side toward which we do not naturally incline. I’ve been made through my working life to realize that abstraction matters less if it’s not realized properly, and perhaps a more detail-oriented person will grow in awareness of the abstractions that surround us all.

Anyhow, there’s some babble for you.

The next bedpost

So rocking my thumb at the outermost joint is the way to do this. It’s working great.

Next bedpost up: the run of fairly simple sextuplets in the intro. I think I came up with a possible solution while lying in bed last night, and I need to give it a go tonight when I get home to see if it works.

Notching a bedpost

Well, that’s what I call the parts of pieces that you know are there, but that you keep stubbing your toes against anyway. This one is a gap between two notes at the end of the 26th measure and the start of the 27th. (Or 27th/28th, I’m not sure.)

Anyhow, there’s a gap there that bothers me, and when I wrote the thing, I recall turning myself in knots trying to smooth it out. I ended up spackling it (insufficiently) with a quick tap on the pedal, but it never sounded nor felt right to me.

Well, I’m fairly confident that I found a better way to do it by hitting the Bb with the joint of my thumb and then rocking the tip over to the Ab. It feels good, I can play it quickly, slow practice improves it, and it’s repeatable. So my aim this week is to “burn in” that move, and especially to overwrite the dozens of times I’ve played it the other way. And I need to go back and read through the old list of bedposts I made for that piece, and just knock them down one by one.