Into the Darkness now available on Bandcamp

Improvisation has been an essential part of my musical life ever since I was five years old and sat at my mom’s newly-acquired Kimball upright piano and “told stories” with sounds I came up with on the spot. I couldn’t read a note of music–and it probably sounded like it. However hideous those early experiments might have been, they were the first hints that I was not going to be satisfied simply with playing Other People’s Music–though that can be fulfilling too.

Over the years the improvisation has taken many forms–free improv at the piano, jazz on the trumpet (though I was quite staid in that style), and liturgical improvisation on the organ. In the past five years I’ve gotten into synthesizers, and this has opened up a whole new world to me. Every Wednesday night I head into the studio. We set up the MIDI keyboards and roll the tape, and I sit down and see what comes out. Some nights go better than others, but it’s amazing how fast useful material piles up. Into the Darkness is the first installment of these improvisations. It gets its title from one of my foremost impressions about the creative process–going into the great unknown.

This record can be streamed for free. If you enjoy what you hear, please consider purchasing the high-quality files, which also allows for unlimited streaming. And of course, please tell your friends.

I would like to thank Matt Taft once again for the stunning artwork he made for the cover of this album. I would also like to thank Mike Sabolick, who set up the equipment, running the mystery cords to all their mystery places–I can never remember what goes where–and who also helped solve some pesky issues in the mastering process. Their involvement in this project made it all the more enjoyable.

 

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Cover Art for Into the Darkness

As my new EP, Into the Darkness, took shape, I started thinking about artwork. I decided I wanted something unique for a few reasons. First, the more interesting an album cover is, the more interest the album might generate. Second, working with a visual artist creates synergy that benefits everyone involved, including the respective followings of each artist. Also, good cover art can become good promo materials. Finally, commissioning someone to make something unique allows the visual artist to respond in his or her own way to the music on the record. In a way, it’s the album’s first “review.”

For this cover I asked Matt Taft, who happens to be one of my bosses at the Wanamaker Organ, to take on the project. I explained to him that the EP got its title not only from the mood of the music it contains but also because going into the darkness reflects my perception of the creative process. Things are murky, uncertain, at times seemingly hopeless. At other times they are in fact hopeless; these are the takes that end up in the trash. Beyond this little bit of input, I turned Matt loose. Here’s what he came up with:

JPEG File - Into the Darkeness - Cover Art

I’m no impartial observer, but I love it. When he finished painting, Matt then took a high resolution picture of, in order to optimize its appearance on digital platforms. We added the text later. We’re also going to promote each item, the album and the artwork, separately, in order to benefit both of us and hopefully expand our audiences.

Keep your eyes on Bandcamp for the EP release October 15.

The Mahler Family Letters

If you really want to know who someone is, a friend of mine once contended, read their emails–not their essays, novels, or poetry. This is the 21st century version of reading someone’s letters.

I think this is good advice. Often when reading the letters of famous people I feel like they’re in the room with me. I enjoyed the collection of George H.W. Bush’s letters under the title All the Best, Charles Bukowski’s missives known as On Writing, not to mention one by Hemingway under the same title, and the correspondence contained in The New Bach Reader. Add to this list The Mahler Family Letters, masterfully collected, translated, and edited by Stephen McClatchie.

“I am hitting my head against the walls, but the walls are giving way,” Gustav Mahler once said. These letters reveal that this quip could have been his life’s motto.  In addition to being a sought-after conductor and a composer, he was also in charge of mentoring and financially supporting his younger siblings after the untimely deaths of both his parents, often from places far from the family home of Iglau, such as Leipzig and Hamburg. As much as this would have been inconvenient, Mahler exhibits a certain kind of caretaker personality, sacrificing his own financial health in favor of the good of the whole family. How he managed it might almost be as much of a mystery as how Bach found the time to write 2,000 compositions in a house full of children.

Mahler’s thankless task was fraught with one bitter tragedy after the next. Aside from his sister Justine, Mahler’s relationship with his other siblings was troubled at best, particularly with respect to his brothers, Otto and Alois. One letter after the next begs these two to get their lives in order, to no avail. Otto was lazy; Alois, if Mahler is to be believed, dishonest. Their continual blunders in life were a constant distraction to Mahler as he tried to navigate his way to the highest echelons of music-making in late-19th century Europe. Alois somehow ended up in Chicago, where he died in the 30’s. After dropping out of the conservatory and failing at a post or two that Mahler got on his behalf, Otto shot himself to death in the mid-1890’s.

These were not the only tragedies Mahler knew. Beginning with the death of his parents, it seems he never got much of a break from misfortune, including the death of a child, and it culminated in his own poor health near the end of his short life, along with the realization that his wife, Alma, had engaged in an affair with the architect Walter Gropius. It seems that he was constantly paying it forward but never had a whole lot to show for it. Was he the nice guy who was easy to take advantage of? It seems possible.

As a composer, Mahler had a titanic output, but these intimate letters with his family bring a sense of humanity to his work, and I have begun returning to his music with a new appreciation of what went into it and what Mahler had to overcome in order to get it done. I am familiar with almost all of it, as I had a Mahler phase early in life like many musicians do. I wonder, though, if Mahler’s work, like youth itself, is wasted on the young, now that it packs so much more power for me as I listen to it a few decades later. His music can go from intimate to bombastic in a flash, he was a master orchestrator, and he weaves musical lines together such that they are essentially contrapuntal, even if they are not technically imitative. Getting through one of his gigantic symphonies is a formidable task not only for the performers but for the listeners as well.

Many of us like to regard the great composers as gods. We hang their portraits and sculpt their busts and display their furniture items as if they are third-class relics. This is understandable, as there is a genuine sense of awe surrounding these geniuses. I’ll never forget the sharp jolt of ecstasy that coursed through me when I heard the floorboards creak under my feet in the Figarohaus, or when I laid my hand on Brahms’s composing desk, or when I saw Mahler’s piano in the Vienna Opera House.

But I think I’m done with making these people out to be gods. In a way, that’s just making sure they’re safely dead. They are far more interesting and inspiring when regarded as full-blooded human beings who struggled through life not only with tragedy but often with problems that are as boring as our own. Out of that mess, they were able to make music. Many of these letters are exceedingly mundane, but piled up, year after year, they tell us exactly who Gustav Mahler was–a man whose music could not be repressed by anything, not even an unruly family.

 

Studio session 8/21/19

This past Wednesday I went into the studio as usual and came out with this synthesizer jam. Hope you enjoy. If you like what you hear, don’t forget to like and share the video and subscribe to my YouTube channel.

For those of you who might be curious, we used an E-mu Virtuoso 2000 synthesizer, hooked up to a stack of keyboards that used to be part of a church organ, if I remember correctly. We are currently looking for a pedal board to go along with this set-up, which would add even more versatility.

How to Make It in the New Music Business by Ari Herstand

As I’ve mentioned a few times before, I’ve been working on an EP release on Bandcamp, Into the Darkness, a set of four synthesizer improvisations (one of which is featured in the video below). This comes at a time when I had to make some decisions about my future in terms of grad school. Financially, it just hasn’t worked out, so I’ve deferred to next year on one condition–that, in the meantime, I leave no stone unturned in learning how to get my music in front of more fans. I’m going to go about this like I am in school.

That makes this a perfect time once again to dig into Ari Herstand’s excellent book, How to Make It in the New Music Business. (A second edition is being released this November which, given the fast pace at which things change, I highly recommend getting.)

I discovered this book by cold emailing Derek Sivers, the founder of CDBaby, who bravely announces on his website that he responds to all emails. I told him that I was trying to find a label for an album I’d made–one that to this day hasn’t been released–and confessed that I had no idea what I was doing. He pointed me to Ari’s book, which he wrote the introduction for, and I will be forever grateful to him.

Ari is not intimidated by what many have described as a bleak landscape for independent artists in the 21st century–the paltry returns on streaming plays, the ubiquity of would-be music stars, or anything else the naysayers might mention. Instead he offers by a point-by-point how-to on making your own success. And much to his credit, he points out that fame and success are two different things, and that fame isn’t necessarily desirable. (I like to say that I don’t need to be rich and I sure as hell don’t want to be famous. I just want to make enough money from my music so that I can focus on making music.)

Usually a lot of music business information is shared by people on the business or legal side of music. This material can be dry and, worse, lack empathy. What makes Ari’s book so good is that he is an artist himself who’s sharing a lot of information about the very kinds of nuts and bolts that musicians dread. While he’s encouraging, he also doesn’t pull any punches: One section is entitled, Why No One Cares  About Your Music. He admits it’s an uphill battle, but he shows you the path to take. It is wonderful tough love.

I’m not going to get into all the details here, but if you have questions about recording, releasing, and performing music, they are likely answered in this book. Same with touring, internet marketing, finding royalty money, getting your music placed on radio and TV, and a whole lot more besides that. I read through it once, and now I use it as a reference guide. Right now I’m focusing on his checklist of 26 things to do before releasing an album, which was the subject of his appearance on the DIY Musician Podcast. I was also able to get a review of 60 Minute Cities–Philadelphia by researching blogs on Hype Machine, which is another gem that Ari talks about. I’ll freely admit that I have had the temerity to occasionally lay aside his advice, but only after careful thinking about its relevance to my particular work.

I suspect I’ll be living in close proximity to this book long after my newest record is released, and as much as I try to get things right the first time, I’m sure there will be issues I need to revisit, with Ari’s help. Trying to get people in a noisy world to listen to your music, let alone any music at all, is a hard sell, and I have no idea where the future will take me, but if it in any way involves even modest success at selling records, I will have Ari Herstand to thank for it.

Jose Maceda

Aki Onda’s talk on Jose Maceda

It was about a year ago that Aki Onda delivered a lecture on the work of Filipino composer Jose Maceda at the Asia Art Archive of America, which is located in Brooklyn right down the street from the promenade. I attended and enjoyed it very much.

Last week Aki Onda announced on his Facebook page that there is now a transcription of the talk available. I encourage everyone who head over there and check it out.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

I’m breaking a rule with this post. I only write about music on this blog, but this book explores themes so obviously important for the work of a musician I thought I could get away with discussing it. It may even prove to be an indispensable conversation. You be the judge.

I first heard of Deep Work by Cal Newport on the Tim Ferriss podcast, if I’m not mistaken. The title instantly appealed to me, and I added it to a long list of books I keep that I intend to read eventually. A few weeks ago, in need of new material, I found it on this list and grabbed it from the bookstore.

This is not a quick-fix life-hack book as so many seem to be. The author does not attempt to make the objective seem cheap or easy, particularly given the prevalent culture of shallow work that permeates most workplaces. If you want to really dig into a task, you often have to risk coming off as antisocial, or worse. The makers of shallow work (meetings!) and small talk seem to have hijacked the high ground of social acceptability. The person who does not want another meeting or dinner to attend is the one who has the explaining to do, no matter how productive such “loners” might be in the workplace.

Against this culture of shallow work, Newport outlines the virtues of deep work and, perhaps most frighteningly, points out that our capacity for prolonged concentration can be permanently damaged by constant distraction.

In reading this book I’ve come to understand some of the mistakes I’ve been making–trying to cram important work into the cracks and edges of my schedule, trying to shoehorn a little bit of meaningful work amidst a legion of distractions–and often trying to do it in the wrong places–restaurants, coffee shops, or any other place I’m more than likely to be interrupted. The white-knuckled desperation out of which I did this was not enough to overcome its counterproductive nature. Thanks to the advice in this book, I’ve been getting better at marking out the proper blocks of time to do the work that really matters to me in an appropriate environment.

To cut through the culture of shallow work, Newport offers four rules to follow, along with the tactics that go with them. As I read through these pages I could feel my blood pressure dropping, like I was finally finding my way out of the hectic morass that is contemporary life.

The first rule, simply, is work deeply. To do this, decide on your depth philosophy, that is, how you engage in deep work. There is the monastic approach, which is more or less what it sounds like. People who take this approach are often nearly impossible to reach at all–a luxury most of us don’t have. The bimodal approach employs short periods of monasticism, kind of like a retreat, in order to get things done. The rhythmic approach is the one I most often use–scheduling deep work throughout the weekly routine, when no distractions are allowed in order that the flow state can be achieved. Finally, there’s the journalistic philosophy, which involves dropping into important tasks more or less on cue, as necessary. This last one is the most difficult but can be helped by the second tactic–ritualization. The ritual can be almost anything–time, place, drink, a specific order of operations. I even read somewhere that letting out a long string of expletives can be a good ‘cue’ to achieve the flow state, a suggestion I have more than happily embraced. Josh Waitzkin has a lot to say about entering the flow state in his book The Art of Learning.

Making grand gestures is the third tactic to achieving deep work. Newport notes a story about J.K. Rowling, who was languishing in distraction at home as she attempted to finish The Deathly Hallows in 2007. She rented an expensive suite at the Balmoral Hotel, the investment of which helped to propel her to the finish line. Newport gives other examples like this, but it seems to me that grand gestures don’t have to be expensive, necessarily. I think of Townes Van Zandt literally locking himself in a closet until he finished writing a song. I often do something similar when I write music but might be short on ideas: I force myself to sit in front of the blank page for a predetermined amount of time. A commitment like this makes magic: it is nearly impossible to have a blank piece of paper after an hour of staring at it.

Newport’s fourth tactic is not to work alone. This seems counterintuitive, especially as he criticizes, as many others have, the open-office plans so prominent in workplaces today. The author is referring, however, to well-honed collaboration between people with a shared goal. Each feeds off the other. I think of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and there are certainly a thousand other examples.

Next, Newport advises his readers to execute their tasks like a business by focussing on the wildly important, maintaining accountability, and the like. This can be counterintuitive to many artists, but as Steven Pressfield notes, the professional artist shows up every day, no matter what. As a counterpoint to this, the last tactic for working deeply is to be lazy. Newport notes the many benefits of downtime, along with the diminishing returns that we get with a grind of constant work.

The second rule encourages us to embrace boredom. Noting that we crave distraction once we’re wired for it, as many of us surely are in the digital age, Newport’s first tactic with this rule is to take breaks from focus. This involves scheduling internet time rather than constantly running back to email and social media with every urge that comes along in a fleeting idle moment. The second tactic is to work like Teddy Roosevelt, which is more or less Parkinson’s Law: pick an important task, then set a slightly unreasonable time limit for accomplishing it, in order to create a very fast and intense work pace.

The third tactic is to meditate productively, i.e., focus on a single problem while being physically active–walking, jogging, etc. This is a piece of advice that I see repeated over and over again in interviews and books: get out of your head and into your body. I find it to be an extremely reliable way to get un-stuck. The last tactic is to memorize a deck of cards, as memory training improves the ability of humans to concentrate. This isn’t for me, though–but come to think of it, maybe I should start memorizing music again.

The third rule gives the provocative advice to quit social media. This headline is a bit of an attention-getter, as Newport does not demand the reader delete Facebook completely. Though he has never used Facebook, the author’s real aim is not to eschew social media entirely but rather to get it under control and only use those platforms that truly add value to one’s life, rather than falling for the “any-benefit” approach which is far less discerning. He advocates a craftsman’s approach: use tools that bring the most advantage with the least amount of drawback. Newport insightfully compares the quality of interaction over social media as opposed to in-person encounters, something I think most of us have forgotten about from time to time. Do we remember the time a friend ‘liked’ one of our photos, or the time we went on a road trip together? (At this point I may be confusing some of what’s in Digital Minimalism, another excellent book by Newport that focuses more on the internet specifically.)

Perhaps the third rule’s most important tactic is never to use the internet for entertainment. This can be a tough one, especially if you’re stuck in a boring place that prohibits deep concentration and you can’t get out. But I’m trying to remember this rule and employ it as much as possible, even if it means I end up counting the dots on drop ceiling tiles for a few minutes.

The fourth rule is to drain the shallows. I love this phrase. It has the ring of ruthlessness of someone who means business. The first tactic Newport offers here is to schedule every minute of your day. This is precisely so that the truly important does not get buried by the merely urgent. He also advises the reader to quantify the depth of each activity and to ask supervisors for a shallow work budget. While this is discussed within a workplace paradigm, it can be applied to all aspects of life. This lays the groundwork for the next tactic: finish work by 5:30 every day. (I suppose the time can be adjusted for circumstances.) This is only possible if priorities are respected and shallow work is kept to a minimum. I would think this also keeps burnout infrequent. Finally, Newport advocates becoming hard to reach, particularly through email. He suggests both making your correspondents do more work when they write, and also doing more work in the reply. The point of this, he says, is to reduce back and forth, as the initial message will have been more thorough and less in need of follow-up.

This summary will hopefully show the compelling nature of Newport’s work, but it cannot possibly do justice to his thorough research and compelling rhetoric in advocating a culture of deeper work, without succumbing to thoughtless Luddism. Almost anyone could benefit from it, and I highly recommend it.