Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Internet is a series of tubes.

I have a YouTube channel now! Check it out here!

The Zen of Drumming

Hah. That's a pretty ambitious title for a blog post, especially for someone who has no clue about zen (or drumming, for that matter). However, after having spent a few hours playing the same four notes in the same rhythm tonight, I came to some pretty startling conclusions about music, and about life, and I'd like to share them with you, loyal reader.

To explain further, I have been rehearsing the third movement of Steve Reich's "Drumming" for an upcoming chamber recital. Of the four players in this piece, I play one of two parts that are rhythmically "static". This means, in short, that they do not "phase", or accelerate out of rhythm, during the course of the movement. This position is arguably as difficult as the position of the players who DO phase, however, because the two players who do not phase are forced to keep mathematically perfect tempo and not adjust to the other players, as is typical in small ensemble settings. With that in mind, these are the insights that I have gleaned.

The phasing sections are a bitch. I mean, a REAL bitch. They are hard to play. I tried a number of different strategies to try to play these correctly. First, I ignored everyone around me. This didn't work. I could never block everything out completely, and, even on the rare occasions where I could "trance out" and achieve a state of focus, I found that my tempo would falter dramatically, usually slowing, as my body and mind relaxed. So, that was no good. Next, I tried listening to the other player who was playing a static part. Again, no good. While we were doing the same thing, we reacted and fed off of each other's tempo inconsistencies and, eventually, our mutual lack of confidence in a single tempo resulted in failure. Next, I tried listening to the patterns of the two guys phasing, trying to discern where their downbeats would eventually line up. This didn't work either. I would end up anticipating where they were going to place the downbeat, and, when I adjusted myself to line up with them, I would screw them up and the whole thing would fall apart.

Finally, in frustration, I just gave up. I said to myself: "You know what? To hell with this. Nothing I listen to is going to work, so I'm just going to hope that my tempo is right and let things go." And you know what happened? Everything worked great. I played in time, the guys around me played right, and everything came together perfectly. What's more, I experienced the phasing sections in a whole new way: whereas I had struggled with them before, when I just let go and let the cacophony of complex rhythms reign, I was introduced to a whole new beauty, one of radiant, glowing timbre.

As a percussionist, one of the hardest things for me to let go of is my sense of rhythm: from day one, percussionists have the all-consuming concept of "time" beaten into their heads. However, it was only when I let go of that concept that I really understood Drumming, and, to an extent, minimalism, for the first time. When I thought about it, it seemed like maybe my experience drew some parallels to real life, too.

Remember when I tried to ignore everyone around me? It failed completely. In just the same way, you can't ignore your peers, no matter how hard you try. They'll always be doing something different, something more interesting, something that challenges you. If, by chance, you do manage to exclude them, your own shortcomings become so self-evident as to consume you with error and doubt. That's no way to live.

What about when I listened to the guy who was playing the same thing? Our mutual inconsistencies fed off of each other, and, eventually, the things that neither of us realized brought us down. In life, you can't just hang around people who think and act the same way you do. If you do, your shared shortcomings, whether you're aware of it or not, will be amplified by your shared presence, and bring you down. It's not bad to have like-minded people around, but you can't have them around to the exclusion of others.

And when I listened to the phasing players? I failed there, too. I absorbed their work, and tried to anticipate their next moves. Inevitably, I failed to predict accurately, and, in turn, my plan collapsed. I wasn't focused on myself at all, and so my playing failed as well. In real life, you can't ever predict what someone else is going to do, nor can you shape your actions around what other people are doing. Eventually, you'll guess wrong, and the whole thing will come tumbling down, or you'll realize that your intense attention to their actions has diverted attention away from your own work.

So what worked? It was when I decided that I was going to be responsible for my own playing, and just let things happen. Note that I didn't just decide to let things happen entirely of their own volition. I made sure that I was doing my job, but, removed from that, I didn't try to influence or pay undue attention to any one thing. When I took a step back, I realized that the world of sound around me was amazing, and, when I learned to appreciate the chaos around me, everything fell into place. I experienced the piece in a whole new light than I had before. If we just all did our work to the best of our ability and then took a step back and observed the totality of experience around us, not trying to exert influence, but merely trying to exist in symbiosis, we would be able to appreciate so much more, AND we would achieve our goals, both personal and mutual. And, the best part of it is, we would get a whole new, fantastic perspective on the world around us.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wrap it up, B!

Oh, man! It's been a while since I've posted- for this I apologize profusely. Things have been busy in the real world, and I'm afraid the blogosphere has suffered as a result. In any event, the last few days have been hectic, but, overall, spectacular. So, here's a wrap-up of what's been going on.

I have, as of last week, accepted an offer to attend NYU's Steinhardt School of Music, Culture, and The Arts to pursue graduate study in Music Technology. This is, of course, assuming that the costs to live in NYC are not so exorbitant as to leave your intrepid blogger penniless, destitute, and disheartened. So, we'll see. The Zappa concert went well, all things considered- the lion's roar, which I had just FINALLY gotten to speak vociferously during the dress rehearsal, broke during the performance. However, the thumbs up and enthusiastic applause from Gail Zappa, Joe Travers, and company, was enough to bolster the spirits of yours truly.

Travers, the drummer for Zappa Plays Zappa and the ZFT vaultmeister, also entreated that Varese's Ionisation was a "pretty bitchin' piece of music", and, despite the flu, found enough energy to instruct fellow percussionist and piano player Brian Archinal that "THERE'S NO ENO IN HERE" (in response to an abentmindedly noodled version of Music for Airports). A man of great humor, indeed (check out his dance for birthday boy Steve Vai- extremely funny if you're familiar with Vai's onstage histrionics).

Speaking of Vai, check out this cool article he wrote about polyrhythms- this is a great primer for a student who is ready to take the next leap in his or her rhythmic training, or a nice refresher for the musician who has let their skills with polyrhythms lapse.

We've started work on Part III of Drumming, as of Saturday. Stay tuned to find out if we can actually phase or not.

Sorry, there's no new thinkpiece this time around- I've been too busy stressing about my fiscal well-being, playing with some cool new software, and grooming my beard to engage in some deep thought, music-wise. But I DID get some rad new Hi-tops- that's gotta count for SOMETHING these days.

Monday, March 3, 2008


What can I say about Zappa that hasn't already been said? Well, not much, but there are plenty of people who can, and many of them are descending upon Lexington next Friday (March 14) to discuss and perform his works. The American Musicological Society is having its South-Central Chapter meeting at the University of Kentucky, and the highlight of the symposium (the summit of the summit, if you will) will be a keynote address by Zappa's widow, Gail, and performances of both Zappa's work and the work of his inspirations (a particular highlight will be the UK Percussion Studio's performance of Varese's Ionisation, on which I will be performing the siren and lion's roar). Also of note are presentations on Danish Modernity, Avant-garde jazz, the Rutles, the Rolling Stones, P.J. Harvey, Bjork, and "Modern (Electronic, Jewish, and Gay) Motherless Children". Whatever that means, I have no idea, but I am certainly excited to find out! More info can be found here, and a complete program of events can be found here. Try to attend if you can! I'm sure it will be a slammin' time for all involved!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Sine Waves, Serialism, and Slasher Flicks

What is it that draws us to horror movies? I'm a huge horror movie geek myself; from the big budget Lion's Gate slashers to the so-bad-it's-genius Troma horror comedies, I love em' all, and not at all ironically (I even harbor a legitimate affection for 80's grind-horror, so lovingly satirized/paid homage to by Robert Rodriguez with his Planet Terror). For me, there's really no way to ruin a horror movie: even the crappy ones are, at worst, mindless fun.

However, the best ones have an ability to do something completely different: rather than letting us suspend our disbelief and lose ourselves in a movie for a couple of hours, these films send a message to some oft-dormant receptor inside of us that our fears are real and valid; that things like we see in the movies CAN actually happen. These films are the ones that evoke real emotion, and it's these same films that, understandably, attain classic status.

So, what's all this about my horror movie fetish doing on a music blog? Well, as any horror buff knows, half of horror is in the movie score. Horror movies have always pushed the envelope, score-wise: from Bernard Herrmann's classic Psycho score, to Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" in The Exorcist, to John Carpenter's eerie electronic textures in The Thing, horror movie scores have kept abreast of contemporary composition trends, rather than wallowing in a morass of outdated and uninspired (if not often plagiarized outright) Neo-Romantic tripe (I'm looking at YOU, John Williams). Let's look at the three scores I mentioned and place them contemporaneously with their respective compositional movements. The famous Psycho stabs would be equally at home in Penderecki or Xenakis' mid-1960s output; "Tubular Bells" could easily be a Rhys Chatham or Philip Glass composition, and Carpenter's Thing score? Well, Carpenter's work is weird enough that it probably deserves recognition among 1980's electronic musicians independent of its merits in film.

However, all hoopla about horror scoring aside, horror movies take us to a different side of emotion. Horror reminds us that sometimes, we WANT to be scared; we WANT to take a few hours and walk on the dark side, knowing full well that we can retreat into the safety of our locked houses when the movie is over. This is where I find the real parallels between horror and contemporary music. Horror movies aggressively challenge their viewers to suspend disbelief and invite emotion in the same way that contemporary music challenges listeners to suspend preconceived notions of musical precept and invite emotion from that which is new and different. Contemporary music, like horror cinema, is not afraid to explore the darker emotions of the human psyche. Because of this, many listeners and viewers retreat into the safety of that which is not so challenging. This isn't to cast judgment upon that which has established mastery already; certainly, both Brahms' 4th Symphony and Lawrence of Arabia are masterpieces of unparalleled beauty, but do either of them challenge us to explore our most difficult and uncomfortable emotions? If the purpose of art is to explore the realms of human emotion, then shouldn't music (and cinema) seek a total understanding of emotion, not excluding the darker side?

Contemporary music is often marginalized in much the same way horror movies are: people unwilling or uncomfortable with the experience of challenging emotions often reject the art that evokes them outright. It's a good thing that composers and filmmakers with integrity continue to soldier on under the banners of expanding the human experience. As for myself, you can find me in the basement with a copy of Phantasm and my Xenakis recordings.