Branding, and Other Distractions

As artistic types, many of us (particularly those in the early developmental stages of our careers) are forced to wear two very different hats on a day-to-day basis. These are the brooding, or otherwise mysterious creative tour de force we all so badly want to be, and the jet-set go-getter marketing guru entrepreneur type. Between these two extremes the similarities are scarce, and conflict abounds. How can we be expected to create meaningful art when we are constantly having to focus on the how the hell we are going to sell it? That, of course, is the big question.

I think the relative solution here is balance (which is pretty much always the case, right?) The problem is though, that balance is, in itself, a relative concept, and will vary from day to day, project to project, and person to person. And balance does not by any means translate to equal parts… occasionally that may be the best route, but it is anything but a rule. In fact, I think much of the time the balance between creative focus and business-mindedness should really weigh heavily in favor of the creative focus. After all, what is the point of tremendous marketing if you don’t have a product that is worth a shit? Of course, this inferred model of selling utter crap very well is the standard model of the mainstream (I hate using that word, but I can’t think of an alternative at the moment) entertainment and art industry. But if we ever hope to shift that paradigm in the slightest we must at least try to hold on to our artistic integrity and focus on a product that we find personally fulfilling.

Now, there is a reason this fluffy, warm, artistic integrity model isn’t the norm in our larger industries: it’s much more difficult. Especially when there’s tons of money to throw around. A simple product with an easily digestible aesthetic can be force fed via gross amounts of money and widely syndicated entertainment outlets all day, and turn a respectable profit whilst making no real statement, idea, or even being all that entertaining. The opposite, however, requires far more work. Not to mention real ideas, taste, and vision. These are commodities that cannot be bought, and therefore do not fit well into any big business model.

There is a big irony here, and that is that honest, idea and vision-driven art has a tremendous, visceral appeal on a massive level once it gets exposure. If it’s good, no big marketing campaign and well trained commentators have to tell you that you like it, or why you like it. We are all humans and we are all very capable of sending and receiving complex humanistic messages, through less-than-quantitative means; i.e. art. That is why I think the creative focus aspect of a project should typically take precedence over the marketing aspect. All that to say, really, if you have a great product that you really believe in, it is much easier to sell. It’s funny that this is actually a basic and well-understood sales principle, yet it so seldom seems to be in real practice.

Of course, eventually, you do have to put back on the jet-set go-getter marketing guru entrepreneur hat and try to get someone interested in whatever you have to say, and that is where my expertise runs pretty dry. I occasionally find some small success in this area, but more out of luck than anything, and I’m not going to try to advise you in this area today. More than any advice in either area, for that matter, I really just want to stress the importance in letting them be separate when they need to be, which I feel is a great majority of the time. Of course the two frames of mind come together, and there is quite a bit of creativity involved in marketing. But between building your product, whatever it is, and “selling” it, there needs to be distinction. Distractions are the enemy of any creative-type, and there are few distractions larger than the thought of “how am I going to convince people that this is good?” Just make it good, then focus on the rest when the time comes.

A Quick Thought on Songs and Live Backing Tracks

I love the idea of a song being this living, breathing sort of thing. It can exist in a state of flux, always taking on a slightly different form and varying from night to night. You have a recording, and that’s great…. but that’s just the song in the form it occurred the day or week it happened to be recorded. Its so much stronger (to me) when it can exist beyond that, and change form and evolve naturally. I guess that’s why I hate the idea of backing tracks live…. you’ve killed your song at that point. It can’t grow any more, so that you aren’t playing a show, you’re playing a funeral. How boring, to play a funeral night after night.

Scoring a Film – Part 3

This is the conclusion to my little “Scoring a Film” series, which I really have enjoyed. I’m not going to suggest that anything I’ve written so far (or will today) is particularly insightful, but I will tell you that it has been a great reflective experience for me personally, and has allowed me to look at the process I’ve been engrossed in in different ways, which is indescribably important. It’s easy to lose perspective and forget what you are doing when you are deep in a large-scale project such as this one. A step back is the best way to regain that lost perspective, keep your thinking and reasoning fresh, and take something away from the experience as a whole.

To get to my point, the film is finished! I delivered the final version of the score just about a week ago, and it will premiere later this week alongside two other (what I suspect will be) wonderful short films. I am extremely excited, and just a bit terrified, which of course goes with the territory. The excited part goes without saying, but the fear aspect at the end of the road isn’t something I had thought much about when starting this project, but it is very real, and seeded in a few different areas.

One area of my fear (or nervousness, let’s call it, that seems more appropriate I think) is technical. I am concerned with how my music and mix will translate to an unfamiliar audience on a sound system completely different from the one I worked on. If it doesn’t sound good, then all the good writing and taste in the world will be undermined, which would really suck. But an even larger anxiety is that the audience won’t think the writing and taste is any good, which would be crushing. I don’t think either of these scenarios will take place, not because I’m super cocky and think everything I do is gold, but because I worked very hard on it and had a great deal of trustworthy advice and criticism along the way to help make it good. Of course I have no way of knowing exactly how the evening and response of the film will go, but despite my inevitable nervousness, I am optimistic.

Now, since I mentioned the advice and criticism I received along the course of the project, I want to talk a bit more about that. I think this process of trial, critique, error, and correction that took place throughout the creation process was extremely helpful, especially given the point of the project. It is, after all, a student film. And I don’t say that in order to discredit or undermine the piece. On the contrary, I think it is a fantastic film of tremendous technical and creative caliber. I restate that it was a student film instead to remind that the point of it was learning. Now, I wasn’t a student for the project, I was a hired gun. But I got the added treat of the educational process throughout and I am extremely grateful for that (even though the critiques and changes were quite frustrating at times during the process.) Each week, my progress up to that point was put under scrutiny, and I was given notes of suggested changes and problems. I then did my best to address these comments and criticisms, then continue to move forward. The process was very back and forth, very elastic,  and very open ended. I was afforded some room to experiment, then ultimately be shot down and forced to try it a different way. Such a process can sometimes be creatively stifling I’m sure, but that wasn’t the case here, in fact quite the opposite. It was organic, even amongst the occasional tedium.

The end result, I think, was a balanced, well-informed, and entertaining musical accompaniment to a strong piece of film. I am endlessly proud to have been a part of it. The processes and difficulties made me that much stronger of a composer and musician (an effect every project done correctly should have), and I walk away with a strengthened sense of timing, space, and drama. I hope my brief commentary on the process has been helpful, or at least entertaining in some way. I’m happy to be finished, and cannot wait to see all our hard work on the big screen with a room full of people I’m excited to share our vision with. Exciting times indeed!

Sometimes things don’t work, and that’s cool.

When it comes to creative endeavors, we are slaves to our ideas. Over the course of any given project, many different ideas are required to see your original vision through to completion, even if that vision has been drastically changed in the process. The thing is, though, that some of our ideas suck. The truth hurts, I know. I think one of the most difficult skills to develop as a creative-type is being able to recognize aforementioned suckage, and move past it.

The concept here is pretty simple, but honestly quite difficult to put into practice. We tend to want to hold on very tightly to our original ideas, because they are ours’ and we just can’t help but love the shit out of them. Yes, even the ideas that flat out aren’t going to work we tend to hold dear to our hearts and not want to give up on. Sometimes we make them work, and there is of course plenty to be said about tenacity, but more often than not quality suffers as a result. Now, having said all that, every idea is important and deserves a shot. We can learn just as much from failing ideas as successful ones, and sometimes far more.

Given the two previous (rather conflicting) statements, we are forced to arrive at some sort of crossroads…  On the one hand, we have to recognize a bad idea and kick it to the curb so as to avoid any wasting of time and slowing of momentum, which is a tremendous force when it comes to creativity. On the other, we need to learn something from that same idea, so that it can be re-purposed, or at worst avoided, later on.

What is the solution? Hell if I know, if you figure it out, please tell me. I have figured out, though, that recognizing this strange little dichotomy is quite helpful in moving around the issue in a practical way. I’d hardly call it a solution, but it’s something. I personally try to use this knowledge to make an effort to identify an idea that isn’t going to work, then continue with it to a certain point anyway. In this way, while working through it I may find a totally different idea, a nifty way to rework the original one, or I may just waste a ton of time and tell myself “Damn it, I knew that was a bad idea,” hours later. You win some, you lose some I guess. But at least in identifying the potentially problematic idea early on, I prepare myself to try to learn something from it. There are obvious problems sure… like a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure for the given idea, but like I said, it’s less than a solution.

Anyway, it’s something to think about. Of course we all need plenty of those, so as to waste as much time as possible thinking about gibberish. For that, you’re welcome. But I promise it helps to stay on-guard for those seriously horrible ideas, and if you work at it, you can still learn a lot from them.

Scoring a Film – Part 2

Music has officially been recorded! Actually, a sizeable amount is finished, which feels really nice. For the sake of accurately documenting the process, I should probably step back a bit. Upon my last writing of this topic, no work had been done at all on my part, and I had only seen a rough edit of the film. Since then, the edit has been completed and I have been given a picture lock (it looks fantastic.)

Once I received said picture-lock, I had what is called a spotting session, which is a meeting with the Director and Music Director (and in this case the Audio Editor) and myself in which we watch the film in its entirety and discuss our plans for the music. These meetings can go different ways, depending on the director and others involved, and this one went quite well. It was very open-ended, which was refreshing, and was like a loosely structured, very collaborative brain storming process. Sometimes the Director and Music Director will come to the spotting session with temp music and basically all the cues and musical moments worked out, which has its own benefits, but in the case of this film I’m certainly glad it went the way it did.

Since the meeting I have been moving at a steady pace, knocking out the cues we came up with in a more-or-less chronological order. One interesting aspect of the music is that we are working with a country singer-songwriter named Nate Kipp (who is great by the way, you should check him out) who wrote two songs that are featured in the movie, and served as inspiration for much of the score. My favorite thing about that is that I got to produce the songs, and am super excited with how they turned out, being my first foray into working with country music. It’s also cool to have that extra material to draw from in creating the rest of the music, and opens up some great possibilities for thematic material and creating an overall sense of unity in the score.

I probably have a little over half of the music left to write, and hope to have it finished up within a week or so, and intend to conclude my little “Scoring a Film” series with final thoughts and all that after the completion. As of now, it’s back to writing!

Organicism is a word I like.

Alright, so this could very easily dissolve into a dumb, overblown, and frankly played out analog vs. digital argument, or something equally obnoxious, so I’ll do my very best to avoid that. What I really want to talk about is organicism, which, as stated, is a word. I checked. So what is it, and what does it have to do with music, and art in general for that matter?

Well, the word is a noun, and is kind of an abstract idea along the lines of being organic, to one extent or another. But, you may suggest, art is a creation of man, and is therefore synthetic in nature and cannot truly be organic. To you I say touche, and rather than offer a compelling counter-argument, I’ll simply side-step because that idea really has nothing to do with what I want to talk about. I’m more interested in artistic details (where, of course, the devil does reside) and process. I believe the details and how they relate to, or are a result of, a process are infinitely interesting and beautiful. They can also ruin an otherwise great work of art. There are questions we can ask about said details to help determine their perceived value. These questions could include: do they appear intentional, or thought out? Are they visible at all? Perhaps too obvious? Are they predictable or surprising? Do they create a sense of comfort, and was that their purpose? Clearly, these questions are quite abstract and could be formulated and asked endlessly, but on some level we evaluate much of our sensory intake this way. So why are some things so much more aesthetically pleasing than others, even when said aesthetically pleasing object or sound is much “uglier” or more “vulgar” or what-have-you than another object of less aesthetic value? I think the answer is largely related to it’s organicism.

At this point, I’m going to shift to talking about music more directly, since that is my area of assumed expertise, but I’m sure some concepts will translate elsewhere. As far as organicism in music, much of it is traditionally derived from the human performance aspect. Humans are organic and imperfect. Their performances therefore will contain many imperfections, and we, as other humans, tend to find this controlled margin of error pleasant to the ear. We even have words for some of these purposeful inaccuracies, such as “swing,” or playing “ahead of the beat.” Alternatively, when we have a computer play back music with perfect accuracy in regard to time, pitch, velocity, etc. we get terms like “cold,” and “rigid.” There is a similar effect when comparing recording mediums, namely analog tape versus digital. Analog tape works something like this: Tons and tons of little magnetic fibers cover the surface of tape, and as this tape passes over the electro-magnetic tape head of the recorder, these tiny particles are rearranged related to the varying voltages of the magnet to store the audio data. This process has some great advantages, namely a wonderfully pleasant sound to which we’ve attached terms such as “warm” and “punchy.” Much of the greatness we love about tape comes from its inherent limitations, that “warm” sound resulting from harmonic distortion generated in a process called tape compression, when the bandwidth and dynamic level of the audio going into the tape recorder exceeds what the tape can actually physically hold. That was a bit of a long-winded explanation but you get the point. It’s imperfect, and therefore has organic properties which we, being organic ourselves, can relate to. Digital (at its current stage of development) basically recreates perfectly whatever is put into it (the computer). Gone are the physical limitations, and a computer is able to translate every detail accurately into neat little 1’s and 0’s. This relative perfection sounds “cold” to us, to a varying degree depending on one’s ears. There is one other aspect of digital that may have a negative effect that is worth mentioning (which actually does introduce imperfection to the paradigm, but in a non-pleasing way), and that is the discrete nature of 1’s and 0’s. Tape records in a constantly variable way, not relying on points in a numerical system. Everything in the computer must be a 1 or 0, so even at a very high resolution, there is a “stair-step” sort of waveform. While this counts as an imperfection, it is a very mechanical, calculable one, and is therefore difficult for us to relate to. Fortunately, technology has progressed to a point where we can use various tools to add back into a digital recording some of the organic sounding randomness and distortion that we love to hear, and compensate relatively well for the “coldness.”

That last part was important. We, as artists, are consciously adding in a sense of organicism that was lost in our process. This is an adaptive trait in art, and reinforces the idea of what we as people can and cannot relate to on a sensory level. The ways in which this is done and the different extents are plenty. From purposely moving bits of MIDI data slightly off the quantized grid, to leaving small errors recorded in a guitar or drum track, or adding distortion or saturation plugins, the options are nearly endless. However it is achieved, that organicism is essential to creating a product that is identifiable on a human level, and should be a constant consideration, at least in my experience. Even music which exists purely because of the computer and digital process, such as modern EDM can benefit tremendously from a live instrument or two here and there, and some humanization in programmed drums.

We have so many tools available to us in the name of “perfection,” but never forget about the quintessential human element, that organicism. You’ll know when you have it if you pay attention, it will give you that great warm, fuzzy feeling that keeps you listening to music in the first place.

Why I think music theory rules (but also kind of sucks)

Okay, so the title of this one may be a tad confusing, if not just a bit silly. But I do think it is apt, because that’s the best I can describe my feelings toward “Music Theory,” in it’s common sense.

The term itself is strange I think, first of all. I mean music theory seems as though it could possibly refer to so many different ideas and concepts. However, its usual meaning is an organization of musical concepts such as pitch, rhythm, and harmonic relationships, into a system; more or less it is a language. Or, more accurately, it is a new set of terms and rules to add into our own language the ability to accurately describe music and have other people understand what the hell you’re talking about. That’s the most important concept to understand when thinking about music in its theoretical terms… it is NOT a set of rules, but merely a common understood language. It is a tool for understanding and description of general, and specific musical ideas. In this capacity, knowledge of theory is wonderfully useful. As a musician, to be able to describe to other musicians what you are playing, or what you want them to play so easily and clearly is invaluable.

I think this is a fairly easy way to think of music theory, and without a doubt the most important in my point of view. However, there are other uses of these concepts, but to be appreciated properly, I think a bit more background is needed before they are introduced. Where theory came from (in a conceptual sense, rather than a geographical one) is immensely important. The ideas and terms related to music theory have been developed over hundreds of years, and have come about as a result of studying the past. From the tasks of studying, cataloging, and explaining the thousands of significant musical pieces written throughout history, certain patterns have emerged, then developed and expanded, and so on. The process of development between music theory and of actual music have been ongoing, and fluid. But the important point here is that theory is a result of music, and not the other way around. So the idea that theory is a bunch of rules is debunked right there. If you want proof, do a formal and harmonic analysis of any Beethoven symphony and tell me how well he follows the rules. If you are well taught and learned, you will likely be able to come up with theoretical explanations for the things he does, but its only because terms were invented to solve that very dilemma. If you were wondering, this is the area in which theory starts to suck pretty bad, when dealing with some beautiful piece of music like a Mozart sonata or one of Beethoven’s symphonies. In many cases, it becomes an exercise of near-futility to really make sense of it, and that’s because the truth is that when these pieces were being written, the composer wasn’t thinking much about theory, or so it would seem. It seems much more likely that they were doing whatever the hell they wanted, and, of course, what they thought might sound cool.

So there’s my big statement: composers composed what they composed because they thought it sounded cool. Of course they were informed, they had learned the theory relevant up to their time period in one way or another (although historically it was learned much more through practice than lecture,) and that does have to be taken into account. But if they were following guidelines, it was because they knew it would work for whatever part they were working on, and showed little hesitation in shaking things up. So, in that way, theory is very useful information. Being well studied, it can be quite handy to look at a passage and have a great idea as to how Handel or Mozart might have treated it. The problems set in when you use your knowledge of theory like a rigid framework and let the music serve it, instead of the other way around. Many “old-school” composers dislike the idea of composing within a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) environment, or a piece of notation software, because you are inherently limited by that software’s capabilities, or the methods which it may promote by its interface design. Holding too tight a grip on principles of music theory is no different.

As I’ve said of past topics, none of this is new. I think everyone figures all this out eventually, or I hope they do. Even the high-art types in the music scene embrace the breaking of the rules (but only if you know those rules ahead of time.) However, there isn’t enough emphasis put on the practical reasons for learning theory when you are actually being taught it, in many cases. I know that was the case for me, and it led to a lot of frustration. Learn it as a tool, a multifaceted one. Remember the doors it can open in communication, and the great inspiration it can provide. Just never use it to dictate how you treat a new musical piece. Unless you want to… I guess the most exciting point in all of this is do whatever you want (musically that is).

Scoring a Film – Part 1, or something

It’s quite a large undertaking, daunting to say the absolute least, to score a film. Daunting in part because there are so many different meanings for that term as it relates to style and genre, the artistic intent of the director, the composers own artistic intent, and so on. There is no real formula, and no right or wrong way.

In the coming months I will be taking on my largest scoring project yet, it’s not a feature length film, but a solid 25 minutes and focusing on a genre and style I’m largely unfamiliar with… namely country and western. The film is titled “Of Blood and Brine,” and is being made by Film 5 Entertainment, for whom I’ve been fortunate enough to do plenty of work in the past. This film will serve as their senior thesis for graduation, and will premier at the Angelika Theater sometime this spring. It is a fantastic opportunity, and something I feel grateful to be a part of, but I can’t help but be more than a bit nervous about it (as I always am before starting a film project.)

These things typically come together in a way that is difficult to describe, like some sort of organized chaos… but by the time its all over with it’s nearly always surprisingly good, to me anyway. The fact that they get completed at all is astonishing based on my feelings of overwhelming, but they do. Anyway, this is the preliminary thought process I suppose, and I will continue to post updates of the process and whatnot as things continue to move along. So stick with me! We will get through this feat together, and it will be great fun I’m sure.

To find out more about the film and the people making it, check out http://www.filmfiveentertainment.com/