The Hypnagogic Method

Composition means a lot more than just learning scales and modal harmonies. In the vein of Stephen King’s On Writing, I wanted to actually talk about what I do when writing music.

The single most helpful thing I did for increasing output was eliminate setup. A guitarist would probably think of this as keeping your strings in tune. For a long time, every time I wanted to make music I had to go through a minor but annoying connection of wires and controllers and microphones and things. I’ve come to learn how important it is to be able to just sit down, hit a few power switches, and then run with it.

A lot of us are used to writing at night, simply because that’s when we get the time. There’s a reason they don’t call it sunlighting, right? Lately I’ve been fortunate enough (har har) to have freetime every morning, and that has made all the difference. But lately I’ve found, and Stephen King backs me up in his book, along with Bobby McFerrin and a host of other professionals, that being creative in the morning is the way to go. Your mind is fresh and clear from daily strains, and you aren’t constantly battling exhaustion or the threat of imminent dawn.

My current project is a musical/rock opera, which is a first for me. It’s challenging because all the music has to have a very direct purpose and meaning, so I can’t go with my usual method of simply improvising and seeing what happens. So I’ve developed a method I call “The Hypnagogic Method of Composition,” whose sole purpose is to direct my thoughts when I first wake up to a certain creative problem. All you have to do is go to sleep reminding yourself to think about your current problem in the morning, and give yourself a little time between waking and actually getting up. That’s it. It’s a bit like magic, honestly, but it works.

After that it just takes practice. In order for this method to work, you have to be able to start working immediately after an idea strikes. One of the key elements to the hypnagogic stage is amnesia, so unless you start instantly you’ll forget your idea. If you manage to get down your concept/solution/spark of brilliance, later that day you’ll go back and listen to what you recorded and it’ll seem like someone else made it, but that’s the beauty of this method. You don’t think, you just do. It’s also remarkably handy in that you work for a reasonably short time every day, which is far superior to an eight hour session once every Tuesday night.

My set up is simple. I have one condenser mic, a nice soundcard, and a 49-key MIDI controller. I run that through a plethora of softsynths and ultimately Ableton Live. I use Ableton as opposed to other more technical programs because, since it’s intended as a performance tool, I feel it’s most conducive to improvisational composition. I’ve got a bunch of fretted instruments that I tune every day. This is because I can’t count the number of times I thought I was recording a scratch track, only to later discover that that recording was absolute magic and I’ll never get that sound ever again. If all that went down with out of tune strings, I would be, to put it mildly, displeased with myself.

I’m pretty good at getting the sounds in my head out via Reason and Guitar Rig. I’m most inspired by new sounds, which is why so many people find my music so oddly eclectic. It’s also why electronic music is so valuable to me, because the possibilities are quite literally endless. So I wake up, stew for a while, fading in and out of the real world, then notice something good has floated to the surface. I flip open the Macbook, hit two power switches, and activate phantom power. I open up Reason and Ableton, and either start cycling presets or singing or playing or whatever. Cycling the presets used to take a while, but once I got comfortable with altering parameters left and right I cut browsing time down by something like ninety percent.

In On Writing, King gripes a lot about people asking him The Question: “Where do you get your ideas?” I think the musician’s equivalent is, “What do you start with, music or words?” The answer is almost always, “I dunno, sometimes music, sometimes words, sometimes both.” With the rock opera, I’m trying my best to start with at the very least a title, and even that is sketchy. In the words of David Drederer, music is magic plain and simple, and he’s right. You never know how or when it’s going to hit. All this paragraph is really trying to say is this: The quick setup is essential, because I never know whether I’ll be sequencing, hammering, strumming or singing until about thirty seconds before I’m doing it.

So that’s my method. I just got used to convincing my mind to mull over the correct creative dilemma during that not-quite-dreaming state, and watched my creative output flourish. These days I save my nights for reading books and internet research, or sometimes sketching or design. I watch TV with my friend Matt one day a week, on his DVR. When my brain gets too tired for anything else I watch a movie. Preferably something with a lot of subtitles and flying knee-jabs. Occasionally I even get sunlight.

Whether this method seems brilliant to you or so wrong it makes your head spin, by all means leave your take in the comments.

LAU – Unquiet Grave

Know your folk music. This features Kris Drever, one of my favorite folk guitarists around right now.

The wind blows cold today my love
A few small drops of rain
I’ve never had but one true love
In a cold rain she lies slain

I’ll do as much for my true love
As any young man may
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave
For twelve months and a day

The twelve months and a day be gone
The dead began to speak
Who is it sleeping on my grave
And will not let me sleep

Sleeping who sits on your grave
And will not let you sleep
I crave a kiss of your cold clay lips
And that is all i seek

You crave a kiss of my cold clay lips
My breath smells earthly strong
If you want a kiss of my cold clay lips
Your time it won’t be long

In down yonder garden green
Love where we used to walk
The sweetest flower that’s ever been
Has withered to a stalk

The stalk is withered dry my love
So will our hearts decay
So make yourself content my love
Till God calls you away

10 Songs That Changed My Life

In the spirit of KCRW’s ongoing Guest DJ Project and also in the spirit of the fact they probably won’t be calling me to ask any time soon, here is a list of ten songs that helped to shape me as a musician.

To make this easier I restricted myself to songs I discovered before college. I also decided not to include any classical choices, because those could easily make up a list of their own.

1. Andrew Lloyed Webber – The Phantom of the Opera
A bit of an embarrassing first choice, but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a major influence on six-year-old me. My mom had this on the original vinyl release and I listened to it more than anything else when I was younger. Michael Crawford, regardless of your opinions on his technique, has a hell of an instrument. For me, this song had it all: electronic drums, strings, vocal harmony, minor tonality, and of course a heavy freakin organ. I used to put this on and dance like a villian when no one was watching.

2. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On?
As a kid in Houston, I heard a lot of RnB on the bus to school, a fact for which I’m still grateful to this day. Dad had the eponymous album on vinyl. I played it constantly. I think I’ve always been a sucker for strings, and no one I’d ever heard before could sing like that. I didn’t come across Al Green until much later. I blame that Marvin Gaye record for a certain stretch in fifth grade where all I listened to was Boyz II Men.

3. Michael Jackson – Smooth Criminal
My uncle Lahab gave us a VHS that had some claymation Mark Twain adventure and Moonwalker on it. Of course, I became obsessed with Moonwalker and I remember one week I watched the Smooth Criminal scene every night trying to learn the dance. I got pretty far into it, too, until the bit where the music stops and the cat walks across the piano. I always hated that part, it bored me to death. It was even worse than the dinosaurs in Fantasia.

4. B.B. King – The Thrill is Gone
My family lived in Saudi Arabia for a while, where the best you could hope for CD-wise was the occasional cool soundtrack. Every summer we’d go back to the States, and all I ever asked for from my parents was more CDs. Once for some reason I bought a B.B. King collection and played the crap out of it. This particular song blew me away. I love the simple arrangement, the way the guitar transitions seamlessly from punchy to wailing to weeping, and the strings filling it all up. Wonderful.

5. Live – White, Discussion
Throwing Copper was the first album I ever bought. I’d heard a remix on the Virtuosity soundtrack and then my friend Mike played the original at a pool party. I bought the CD off him then and there. Everybody has a favorite off of this album, and this is mine. In truth I love every song on Throwing Copper, it’s one of those rare perfect albums.

6. UNKLE feat. Thom Yorke – Rabbit in Your Headlights
I feel clever, because this combines DJ Shadow with Radiohead, thus saving me a spot on my list. I found UNKLE’s debut Psyence Fiction at a listening station while visiting my aunt in California. Mom bought it for me when she saw how excited I was. I listened to it so many times I think it eventually broke in half. This is one of the first really good proggy singer/hip hop dj mash-ups that I’m aware of and definitely the first I’d ever heard. Hell of a music video, too.

7. The Prodigy – Smack My Bitch Up

I first heard this in a club in Bahrain, just before my family moved back to the States. It was the summer between tenth and eleventh grade, and musically it was a really important time for me. I hadn’t wanted to move again and I think my parents pitied me, so they let me buy ten CDs at once on Amazon. I still remember it. It was like Christmas in July. Three of those CDs were Fat of the Land, Crystal Method’s Vegas and Propellerheads Decksanddrumsandrockandroll. I was astounded at the sound coming out of the stereo. That was when I started making my own tracks on our family computer, and I’ve been an electronic musician ever since. I’ve never looked back.

8. Squarepusher – Iambic 5 Poetry
Squarepusher is probably my biggest influence, and I owe his discovery to my small but indispensable group of friends from Franklin, Tennessee. I’m a bona fide Squarepusher fan, so much so that it was hard for me to pick just one song. His sound changes radically from one album to the next, so just check him out. He’s amazing. This particular track off Budakhan Mindphone is really laid back. It’s so different from anything else he’s done, which is probably why it sticks out for me. Because of this song, plus maybe Port Rhombus, I use vibes/xylophone in my music all the time.

9. Benny Goodman – Sing! Sing! Sing!
I played clarinet in the school band for years. My dad bought the Ken Burns jazz documentary, which was full of revelation from start to finish. I’d never heard anybody play the clarinet like that, and the rest of the band sounded incredible, especially Gene Krupa on drums. I came across an old static-y recording of their 1938 performance at Carnegie Hall and it was love. I played it louder than most people play metal.

10. Cornelius – 2010
I hardly ever hung out with the guy who introduced me to Cornelius, so it’s kind of funny that he pretty much changed my life. This quirky, fast-paced track introduced me to Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor, which became something of an obsession for me after high school graduation and well into my freshman year of college. I was originally a biochem major, but for months I sat in the campus chapel every night learning the fugue by ear. When I finally played it for the girl I was dating at the time, she asked my why the hell I didn’t just switch to music already. Two years later when I applied for a transfer to Florida State, I nearly bombed the piano section of the audition until I played this fugue. In large part because of that piece, the guy passed me and I went on to be accepted to the FSU music department.

Plus it actually is 2010 now, so that makes it relevant. Got your own list? Feel free to drop it in the comments below.

Why I Should Go to Walt Disney Concert Hall More Often

Having heard legends of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the flawlessness of its acoustics, I was very excited to see such a fearsome foursome as the Kronos Quartet, Matmos, Mike Einziger, and Terry Riley all in one go.

First off, the WDCH does not disappoint in the slightest. We sat in the cheap seats behind the orchestra. Despite the fact that the performers are facing away from you, these are by far the best seats from which to eavesdrop on an electronic duo’s setup, not to mention hear an organ performance since you’re sitting directly under the pipes. Even given our weird positioning, the sound was so clear that as the orchestra played full tilt alongside 12 guitar amps for Einziger’s piece, we could still hear a lonely cellist turn a page.

The night, which kicked off the West Coast, Left Coast Festival, had a rolling cast. It began with the Kronos Quartet, who performed a piece by Thomas Newman. It involved live electronics and Newman’s trademark melodic rhythmicism, dissonanced up here and there to ensure no one forgot they weren’t listening to a film score. The Kronos Quartet has a sound so free and yet cohesive you’ve got to see it to believe it, and David Harrington is nothing short of a rock star.

Following this, Matmos and the Kronos Quartet performed two pieces, which to me was a highlight of the night. If you’ve read other articles around this site, you’ll know that I’m obsessed with quality reconstruction of electroacoustic music without any prerecorded tracks. Matmos, whose myriad influences date back to tape loops and musique concrète, seamlessly blended their infectious grooves and quirky live sampling with the furious sawing of two violins, a viola and a cello. The quartet dutifully supplied samples to Matmos when required, shaking rattlers, baby bells, and even smacking their own violin with a bright red squeaky hammer. This is how the future of electronic music should sound: masterfully beautiful with a twinkle in its eye. I have had it up to here with contemporary chamber electronica always taking itself so damn seriously.

Matmos then performed two tracks to video. I can understand how such music can be underwhelming to those expecting a more club-oriented electronic duo like Plaid or Autechre, but I was delighted by the freedom inherent in their soundscapes. I felt it was a celebration of sound more than a celebration of themselves, a sentiment too often lacking in musicians the world over.

Next, we had the privilege of hearing Mike Einziger’s Forced Curvature of Reflective Surfaces, a through-composed process piece inspired quite clearly by the shape of the concert hall in which we sat. After an (extremely) short introduction by the ever low key Einziger, the piece began with a series of rises and falls, one side of the orchestra mirroring the other, interspersed with bits of tonality here and there. The guitar amps surrounding the string players like the earth’s crust included that of the composer himself, placed surreptitiously at the end of the row. Suzie Katayama, who conducted his piece End.>vacuum in the past, conducts with an easy, flowing style perfect for such an amorphous composition. At one point, when the song got to the big bulbous part of the building near the center, the incredibly long fall drew chuckles from the audience. Sure, Mike might be the guitarist for the pop alternative band Incubus, but don’t let that get in the way of the brilliance of this infinitely curious and tirelessly humble artist.

Matmos returned and jammed with Mike for a while, then Kronos and Terry Riley joined them for a session that really knocked me out. There I was, watching eight musicians who probably never expected to be so popular or successful, still down to earth and inspired by life, no one soloing wankily over the other, in one of the most acoustically perfect rooms in the world. What a treat! Terry Riley, as the elder, definitely seemed the Patriarch, Wise Man, and Shaman of the session, immediately setting up a bluesy ostinato and running over it, left and right and up and down and across and under and through. The cellist took up the hook and everyone just went off. When Terry Riley began singing a raga a la Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it really took the performance to a level usually reserved for sex and prayer. I am ever impressed by the voice and to what heights (or depths) it may take us.

Terry Riley then left the stage organ and moved slowly (he is 74) up to the big organ roughly 15 feet to my left. The eccentric woman on my right remarked, “It is a gift to music lovers everywhere that the best seats in the house are the cheapest!” Terry played for one glorious hour, which we believe only involved 3 songs. Some people left, to my shock and horror, and some stayed until he finished at 12:30. Unbeknownst to me, he has been known to play concerts well into the sunrise, which were attended in the old days by acid trippers and families with sleeping bags alike. His music is not for the faint of heart, but to the heart of a thinking person it is undeniably a celebration of life and deserts and oceans and people and an endless stream of universal loveliness. He constantly toyed with rhythm, and not just in the conventional hey-look-5/4 sort of way. Sometimes he’d just skip a beat, so I would often be tapping along for a good bit before I realized I was now on the off beat. He plays music as if life were overwhelming, yet beneath it all is a beat that goes on and on despite the supersaturated humdrum of it all. Which is true… especially in Los Angeles.

Here’s a song by Terry Riley called A Rainbow in Curved Air, which someone synced up to 2001: A Space Odyssey because Youtube is funny like that. Happy Thanksgiving!

The Economics of Impermanence

My friend Alexa is the daughter of an economist and quite the fan of many a popularly unpopular cultural icon. My friend Craig is into desert raves and spiritual healing.

They’re essentially opposite in every possible way, besides the fact they both love the outdoors and are incredibly intelligent. Here is the interchange that got me thinking.

Craig and his girlfriend had been living in a house that was set to be demolished. Before the date came along, they threw a big party in which everyone came over to paint all over the house. Walls, floor, ceiling, doors, windows, inside and out. It was mucho fun. (Photos of the results)

I attended this party and painted to my heart’s content. We were reminiscing at work when in walks Alexa, who asks us to explain the story. She was perplexed.

“But why would you paint a house that was going to be torn down?” she asked.

Craig answered, “Impermanence.”

“But you spent all that time on it!” she cried.

“But it was fun!” Craig laughed.

Thing is, they’re both right. I miss the artwork that was torn down, and I believe that creating art that you know will soon no longer exist is a freeing experience for an artist. They’re also both wrong, because they fail to realize each other’s rightness. There’s no need to argue here, because their arguments are not mutually exclusive. Alexa was confused because she failed to the see the personal value in a work of art that–outside of a small house for a very limited amount of time–has zero impact on absolutely anything, anywhere. This perhaps is indicative of a failure to see personal value at all, hence the vicarious definition of self through the creative works of others. Craig relishes this scenario because, to him, his mind is the entire world, and thus anything that affects it in a positive way accrues value.

My answer––which to me seems obvious––is that the only true option is to make art whenever possible, at all times, without disgression. Craig’s impermanent (safe) art helps him grow as a person and as a creator. This is the unspoken maxim of any desert dance tribe, which is that when the music plays and the dancing and hugging begins, the world out there is gone. And drugs and music and sex all contribute to that wonderful apartness. This only lasts as long as it can, this denial, and then a return to the real world, in which many of these beautiful people know not how to function.

Therein lies Alexa’s arguement. “We have not got the time for this, man.” I’m not saying Alexa doesn’t know how to have fun, but she needs validation in the form of concrete evidence that she is having it, so to speak. If she is watching a concert, she wants applause. If she reads a comic, she wants to be in a big room full of thousands of other people who will agree that, yes, this comic is amazing! It’s the economics of counter-cultural appreciation, the popular texts exemplified by the brilliance of Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Enis, and so on.

So what does this mean for me, the musician? I am stuck in the middle. On my right, Craig encourages me to go deep within myself to find the truth. On my left, Alexa matter-of-factly states that she won’t even remotely be interested in my output until more people whose opinion she respects have been tangibly affected by it. As I read once somewhere, “Americans love success.”

Craig says back to me, “Dude, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. Just follow your heart.”

Alexa says to me, “Have fun never buying another piece of gear ever again and starving and no one will hear your music ever and you’ll probably die cold and alone.”

Mike Patton, the voice behind Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, and Tomahawk, who is also a resident genius of Earth, says, “If it comes from inside you, it is automatically valid–it just may or may not be good.” (How We Eat Our Young, from Arcana) This to me is the answer to the dilemma of the beauty of impermanence vs. the Economics of These Trouble Times. All art created in truth is valid and helpful to its creators. Art becomes good on a meaningful, quantifiable level when many thinking creatures agree that it is so.

This, I know, sounds quite a bit like selling out. But as Henry Rollins tells us, “Selling out is when you make the record you’re told to make, instead of the one you want to make.” (VIDEO) There is a very big difference between a lot of people liking your output and “selling out.” There is a definite backlash to popularity, and I can’t for the life of me justify such thinking except possibly a combination of bitterness and jealousy. It is exactly counter to its own assumption, in which one overcompensates for a fear of being a part of the masses by making a decision based on said masses.

I frequent a social linking site called Reddit in which people submit links to whatever they like and others vote on them. The links move up and down in visibility based on an algorithm relating to the frequency of votes of approval or disapproval, respectively. Alexa would probably love this site. It assigns a numeric value in a controlled situation to anything possibly represented in an online format.

I took the 25 topmost links in the history of Reddit and averaged the percentage of their scores based on up- vs. downvotes. The top scoring link, someone’s test post, was upvoted over 10,000 times, net, because it became a game. That is hilarious. And still it only had an 89% approval rating, by far the highest in the bunch. The next highest was 87%, all the way down to 66%. The average percentage in the top 25 sampling is an 80.16% approval rating.

This proves one thing: It is impossible to satisfy everyone. Impossible. In the oft-repeated words of Bill Cosby, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” But what it also proves is that there is a verifiable metric to how many people you want to like your music. About eighty percent. If you can show your music to ten thousand people, and eight thousand of them like it, you will be huge. Huge. Like, Michael Jackson huge. Test post huge. But, even if you “only” get a sixty-six percent approval rating, you are still going to reside comfortably in the top twenty-five. Boom.

So both Craig and Alexa lose, because they can’t even cite a percentage. Craig didn’t show his art to anybody, and Alexa hasn’t made anything at all. Hence the solution: make art whenever possible. Then show it to everybody. And if only a small percentage of people like it, refine and repeat. Then show it to even more people. Then you are creating. Then you are valid. And you will, eventually, be good. Believe it.

Of course, in the end, even Craig and his friends took pictures, and now I’m writing about it. Impermanence is harder to come by than you think.

How We Eat Our Young

By Mike Patton

If music is dying, musicians are killing it. Composers are the ones decomposing it. We are as responsible as anyone–although we’d love not to admit it. We lash out at “The Industry”, blaming things like corporate structure for our shitty music–but we are the ones making it. We open the box they’ve given us and jump in, wrap ourselves up, and even lick the stamp. Why? Insecurity–the need for acceptance–maybe even money. We’re not thinking about our music, just how it looks. One would rather have the warm tongue of a critic licking his asshole than the tongue of his spouse. It gives him a sense of validity and power. He seems to defy gravity.

Maybe it is because he doesn’t know what the hell else to do. He sees it coming–but freezes with panic like a deer in the headlights. Don’t laugh–I’ve done it and you probably have too. And it has undoubtedly effected out music. (But have we learned anything form it?) We know that we are mostly a lot of slobbering babies who need constant stroking. We realize also in the moral order of society, we occupy positions similar to the thief, pimp, or peeping tom. We know that even if one has the pride of a bull, it is hard enough just to remain focused in this world. It gives us milliona upon millions of images–distractions–all saying the same thing at the same time: DO NOT THINK. If your fantasy and desire give you migraines, how easy it is to forget them when there is so much to look at.

Our creations die quickly when abandoned like this. Do we realize that we are eating our young? It seems the passion that moves us is accompanied by an incredible urge to squash it. It is as quick as a fucking reflex–a conditioned response. It it a sexual problem? A puritanical one? The most intense and convincing music achieves a sexual level of expression, but what we normally feel is frigidity and limpness. It is just too easy for an artist to ‘socialize’ his desires when life tells him cardboard is OK. You should be ashamed of yourself! What is your fucking problem? If you don’t come out, sooner or later you will die in there. Use chunks of yourself. Bodily fluids. Look left and right. Sift through others’ belongings. Borrow. Steal. And try to achieve some sort of pleasure while doing it.

This excitement should increase and intensify when you visualize it being shared by a number of people. Think about it. If it comes from inside you, it is automatically valid–it just may or may not be good. Because if it is not communicating in some way, its pleasure is as short-lived as a quick fuck in the back room. It doesn’t mean shit. The labor of many composers is to construct elaborate walls of sound–but we often forget to leave a window or door to crawl out of. How can we survive in these clever little rooms? We must eat our creation or we will starve. At this point, we have heard what we wanted to hear–our ears have shut down. We’ve resigned as slaves to our own gluttony.

But if we have boarded up our learning environment, our only way out is to teach what we know. Will they listen? Why should they? Because they need you as much as you need them. You can save them from being swallowed up by the world–they can save you from being swallowed up by the world. Young and old players should be seeking each other out and using each other. They should develope a healthy exchange of smut–and learn to wear each other’s masks. In this kind of environment, incredible things can happen. Music can emerge that is athletic and personal. Music that is riddled with contradictions–impossibilities. And that is the shit that can defy gravity.

Om’s 1st Birthday, CDs are in

Just hit up Om at Zanzibar, hosted by Aaron Byrd. Amazing music, followed by a 2-hour set by Garth Trinidad in honor of the event’s one year mark. Second Wednesday of every month, excellent vibe, well worth checking out!

The CDs are finally in, and they look great. IndyPendy definitely did an amazing job on a very affordable price tag, and were very cordial as well. Good way to run a business. Ordering info for you all will be coming along shawtly.