This sentence has five words.

Gary Provost, quoted in Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools, which I stole from RobMacDougall.org:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

It’s an excellent example of one the many parallels I see between writing prose and composing music.

Spirituality in Creativity

Over the past year and a half of working on music full time, I’ve noticed a number of interesting quirks about my creative process. I work better in the morning, after I’ve brushed my teeth but not necessarily after breakfast. Considering how generally ravenous I am, this was a revelation, and the bonus is that if I hit a creative block, eating a meal or taking a shower like a normal freaking human being usually rewards me with a new idea or solution. My brain and I get tired of living in abstract space, but a brief return to reality to tend to terrestrial needs like eating, grooming, and pooping is surprisingly revitalizing.

I also can’t be creative — writing, drawing, or music — if there is a bright lamp shining in one of my eyes and not the other. I know, that’s odd, but the brain is an odd thing, and that moment of thinking about the brain is exactly where I intend to begin this meditation on spirituality in music.

There’s a lot of beauty in the world. You know, sunsets, waterfalls, the smell of jasmine, the laughter of children, Scarlett Johansson, Wendy’s Frosties, that sort of thing. There’s big beauty (like the Milky Way) and little beauty (like ladybugs). There’s even all-encompasing beauty, like the Mandelbrot set and Beethoven’s Ninth and Guernica and the human adherence to “love” as more than an abstract concept (despite all the evidence to the contrary). But, even better than all of that, the most beautiful thing in the universe is the human brain.

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan

Compared to the lifetime of the sun, us human types may not seem like such a big deal. But compared to the lifetime of, like, a mayfly, we totally rock. If being a cool living organism was a contest, we would totally win against everything, even sea turtles (by a nose). And why? What makes our brains so special?

For the same reason this guy is special:


We can talk.

And we do it way better than dolphins. See, we have this handy little thing called metacognition that allows us to “know about knowing”. And right after talking (and a long time before writing), we were singing.

In a loose sense, writing came about even before Sumerian Cuneiform in 4000 BCE. It cropped up in both China and Mesopotamia about five centuries prior in the form of bone counters for gambling and bookkeeping. I find it highly significant that writing stuff down first came about because of commerce, not religion, because clearly the specificity of writing makes it more inaccurate when discussing such non-specific things.

The oldest bone flute we know about comes from 37,000 BCE. And I can guarantee you ancient humans had discovered the Banging Rocks Together Drum long before that. Furthermore, contrary to the bestially grunting things we see in every movie ever, evidence suggest that Neanderthals probably had gorgeous singing voices and used them frequently. And they were hanging around 35,000 to 200,000 years ago. They were also arranging bones in neat-o patterns and burying their dead. They were having dreams and telling stories around the fire. And it’s a short cry from storytelling until animals, plants, really cool rocks, the laughter of children, and probably Scarlett Johansson were given religious significance. And, though they couldn’t write about it yet, and they didn’t think of cave painting until about 32,000 BCE, they could sing about it, at least, and thanks to the bone flutes we know they did.

The older a religion is, the less hubris it is guilty of. Starting with Hinduism and ending with, oh I don’t know, Scientology, each progressive organized religion has to claim it will solve even more of your problems than the last one. They do this simply because it is a tried and true business model. And each new organized religion will do its best to build upon the old ways in a newly assimilated fashion, and you are essentially born into a regional lottery as to which you will swear to your deathbed is true. But you will do this only if you value nostalgia over accuracy.

“Sacred” used to be synonymous with “beautiful”. The western world has lost this. In fact, you might define “western thought” as the denial of this. But if you travel around the polytheistic world, you’ll see that Gautama Buddha only dug really beautiful Naturalistic things. The Big 3 have Notre Dame, the Qaaba, and the Shlomo Glick, but what do Buddhists and Shinto have? They have waterfalls and the Himalayas and really, really nice trees. They have rainbows and canyons and pack animals and the sun. And while each of the monotheistic traditions accepts that those things are beautiful, they are not sacred in and of themselves, but are vicariously hijacked to prove the glory of whichever deity whose name they were taught as children.

So, where does spiritual accuracy lie? The nice thing about rigorously searching for truth is you can apply it to anything, not just those subjects best represented by rigid double-blind experimentation. Research! Yes! How about we start with a dictionary? Okay, go!

Spirituality – Anything of or relating to the human spirit.

That right there, Mr. Oxford Dictionary, is one hell of a vague definition, so let’s keep digging.

Human spirit – The spiritual or mental part of humanity.

What the hell? How is this helping? This is like defining “quixotic” as “of or relating to Don Quixote”.

Spirit – The nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character; the soul.

A-ha!

Soul – (Wikipedia) The incorporeal essence of a person or living thing or object.
          (Oxford) The spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal. Also African-American culture or ethnic pride.


You win this round, African-American culture and ethnic pride.

Further down the etymological rabbit hole:

Incorporeal – Without the nature of a body or substance.

Immaterial – Hilariously, this means both “spiritual, rather than physical” and “unimportant under the circumstances; irrelevant”. Six thousand years later, and the the bone counters’ protests still resonate.

Speaking of resonating, you can see how these definitions would all snap back and forth at each other like rubberbads, forever. So, skipping ahead, here is a translation of the tattoo I have on my leg about the ineffability of spirituality:

“What cannot be spoken in words, but that whereby words are spoken.
What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think.” – Keno Upanishads

Sure it’s sounds all deep and crap, but I particularly like it because it’s also the world’s oldest joke. Here’s why: 3000 years ago, some holy Brahman guy had an epiphany. He was meditating or eating mushrooms or both or whatever, and suddenly it hits him:

“Holy crap!” he thinks in Sanskrit. “God is so darn ineffable that you can’t even write down how ineffable he is!”

And what’s the first thing he did when he thought of that?

He wrote it down.

It’s three millennia later, and here we are still singing the same old tune. We’re all still trying to write down how hard it is to write stuff down. Brahman guy probably even stole his idea from the Neanderthals. It’s enough to make you want to give up, and yet, for some strange reason, some of us don’t. Weird, right?

Only one major thing has changed since Holy Dude was the first to write it down. We have now split our way of not quite getting right into two distinct camps: Religion and Science (or perhaps Religion vs. Science is more accurate). We’ve got these two extremes now, and while science is clearly more correct than, say, Catholicism (partly because there’s so much less power/money/ego involved, and partly because of this inconvenient little thing called evidence), as a musician I feel it’s unfortunate that the word “spiritual” has been hijacked by a bunch of superstitious quacks trying to argue that there’s an afterlife but only for them, ha ha ha.

I hate to break it to you, but there isn’t an afterlife. At some point you’ve got to stop being wishy-washy about it and just put your foot down. Bam! No afterlife. Whew, it feels good to get that off your chest, doesn’t it? We don’t get reincarnated and we don’t go to Heaven or Valhalla or whatever. Not only is the idea really silly if you think about it, but there’s plenty of evidence to support that when you die, you might get a little biofeedback and then you just sorta black out. I know, it’s really sad. Sigh.

Except it’s not sad. It’s actually kinda cool. Because here’s everyone running around trying to eff all sorts of things that aren’t even remotely -able, and we do it for no reason at all besides this one big, overarching, neverending quest for Something Beautiful.

I mean, not everyone, to be fair. Kids can generally get at it because they have the luxury of not really having to decide anything yet, but eventually people’s personal growth plateaus and they give up. At some point you have to decide that either nothing is beautiful, or everything is so gorgeous you want to cry. You have to decide whether nothing is sacred or everything is so holy you might explode. Either it’s all magic, baby, or nothing is. Exhausting, right? So you choose to cry and explode and carry on despite the difficulty, no turning back… or you don’t. But once you choose to believe in the abstract, amorphous magic of the world, you don’t really have any other choice but to try and be a part of it. It’s simple as that.

It all boils down to this: People think there must be a power higher than humans because they aren’t giving themselves enough credit. What both Oxford and Wiki fail to mention is that the human “spirit” is not immaterial and not incorporeal, merely inexpressible in the mode of communication they’re most accustomed to, namely, casual conversation.

Humans will never get over this obsession with spoken language, because our brains are just wired that way. But, consciousness-wise, language is at the top, if you follow me. Stacked below it are things we won’t ever get quite right just by talking plainly about them. And what’s funny about that is, although these deep truths are so difficult to access, they are also universal, not just outwardly but inwardly, too.

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe.” – Neil Gaiman

What Mr. Gaiman is describing (only slightly metaphorically) and what I’m trying so feebly to get at myself is the existence of the unconscious universe, that mysterious certainty, and the sole method by which we can access it, which is via the imagination.

If the mind we can’t control is an ocean, and the language centers of the brain is the boat floating along on top of it, then our imagination is this:

And sometimes this:

And sometimes even this:

Imagination – The ability of forming mental images, sensations and concepts, in a moment when they are not perceived through sight, hearing or other senses.

There is this wonderful thread in the writings of current English greats like Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Alan Moore wherein they nudge the definition of the gods as not from the imagination, but as the two things being one and the same. It’s not such a stretch, is it? If we have the imagination to thank for God, then we have God to thank for the imagination, too. Do you see? We invented an explanation for how we invent things. And by believing in our inventions, they became real. The fabrications became truths.

“Life is only a dream and we’re the imagination of ourselves. Here’s Tom with the weather.” – Bill Hicks

Because all we are ever doing is pursuing beauty, because the beauty is in the idea, in the creation, in the defiance of all this futile mucking about, and there’s no other way to express it than to just do it, because to just say it out loud makes it a thing you can poke at and draw a chalk line around and surround with police tape and point at it to your children and say “No! Bad! No touchy! Here there be monsters!

Those English authors have found outlets by which they can orbit interestingly around deep truths by way of stories that speak to us universally. It resonates like myths through the ages, just like the bone counters. And we react to it, because we’re all just little boats floating on the same ocean, peering into the depths, waiting for the universe to know itself.

So, what’s the secret, then? Is it a painting? By accessing the brain through the eyes via color, is that the secret?
Books? By accessing memory through words denoting concepts, is that the secret?
Science? By cataloging the connections within the brain itself, is that the secret?
Religion? By studying the history of our world’s attempt at explaining the inexplainable, is that the secret?
And, is it music? The arrangement of soundwaves in time to denote the interactions of patterns at different frequencies? Is that the key that unlocks the universe?

The answer is no, not any of them, not by themseles. We are deeper than all that, but together they become the holy grail, that in which the sum of its parts is greater than the whole. They come become life in its entirety, deep life, what we always feel is there but can’t quite grasp. And each of those aspects of the mind maps out a different subset of our psyche, an endless ocean, with little bits of buried treasure here and there no matter what manner of submersible you choose to use to reach it.

We creative people don’t know where our ideas come from, but really that isn’t true. Our creations are about where our ideas come from. Every time someone asks me, “Where do you get your ideas?” I just want to say, “Look, didn’t you just listen to it?” or “Didn’t you read the story?” But you can’t say that, because it’s mean and unfair. When someone asks me that, I just smile and say “I don’t know”, but what I’m thinking is, “I guess I didn’t quite get the idea across in that one. Next time I’ll do better.”

And whether you find a name for it you like (like Bach, Handel, or Bobby McFerrin did) or whether you are comfortable with the boring reality of the biological consciousness, the truth is that it doesn’t matter. You keep going just because, and I couldn’t stop making music even if I wanted to, and at some point you stop being so self-interested and start wanting to show people about how we’re all connected and how as long as you’re breathing you’re not alone. And that means love, and that’s the sun on a stained glass window, and that’s the deep emotional well that makes us who we are, and, hell, it might even be Scarlett Johansson.

All I know is, we are here to either celebrate or destroy the human spirit, and I’m solidly with the following genius quote on this one, because it sure as hell can’t be both at the same time:

“It’s a celebration, bitches. Let’s dance.” – Rick James

Musical Parallels in the Design vs. Content Debate

If you Google the phrase “design vs content”, your search will yield a long list of web design articles insisting that content always wins in the long run. This is because the word “design” is actually half of the phrase “graphic design” already, so if someone decides to write an article about this, it’s probably because they’re going for the less obvious approach here. Also, being that articles are generally written by writers, they have everything to gain and nothing to lose from stressing this whole “content” thing.

The more inspired/experienced writers will hit upon the basic moral, which is this: Design gets people interested, but content keeps them interested. No matter how much an amazing design introduces people to your project, once there they need a reason to keep coming back or the novelty will soon wear off.

Though I have many interests, music has always been my main filter for understanding life. I both learn about the world and attempt to explain it via music. My friends are well aware that I talk this way. For example, how we spend a night out is usually defined by a genre. Are we going out to leave subversive art installations at the promenade? We’re punk rocking it. Are we going to buy the cheapest wine we can and sit around eating Trader Joe’s edamame and make fun of whatever’s on TV? We’re indie rocking it. Are we dressing up fancy and going to an overpriced bar? Eighties night.

It goes well beyond that, however. For example, my idealist friends are more likely to listen to instrumental psytrance. My corporate friends probably really dig Bruce Springsteen. And if someone prefers the Bob Dylan of All Along the Watchtower to Jimi’s, then I know that in the Design vs. Content debate they are overwhelmingly, even tragically on the side of “content”.

To define “content and design” musically is not so cut and dry as in web design, but the parallel is pretty uncanny. Content on the web comes from the writers, while in music it comes from the lyrics first, and then probably harmonic structure, and so on down the list to the drums, which is the most visceral and design-y part of any recording or performance. And, as every thoughtful musician will tell you, no matter how good a song sounds, how sick the beat is, or how wicked the wanky guitar solo, after the initial excitement it’s the lyrics that keep the audience hitting repeat on a track over and over and over again.

There is certainly, and will always be, people who hear the words first and music second. I am not this way, and to this day I sometimes have to remind myself to consciously listen to the lyrics of a song, or I’ll just hear them as a string of phonemes. I’m of the opinion that I do this as a result of listening to my mom’s Arabic music as a kid, which I couldn’t understand, but the point is that everybody’s ears are different, and there’s no way you can change that. In my experience, music has always been the most subjective form of creative expression, and exhibits the greatest dissension as to what makes “good” good. There is certainly a sort of collective consciousness that trends one way or another, and I think one of the great quantifiers of this over the years is the design/content dichotomy. In other words, you can chart massive trends in popular music over the decades by how the scale was tipped toward either design or content. I can bet you’re already doing it in your head, but let me break it down for you with some gratuitous over-generalizing:

Sixties: All Content (singer/songwriter, folk, torch songs)
Seventies: More Design, Less Content (disco, motown, prog rock)
Eighties: All Design (Hair Bands, Boy/Girl Bands, New Age)
Early/Mid-Nineties: More Content, Less Design (coffeehouse, early hip hop, grunge)
2000-2004: Mostly Content (hip pop and reality television on MTV)
2005-2010: Mostly Design (the emergence of electronica pop, peaking with Muse and LCD Soundsystem, jumping the shark with Lady Gaga)
Current: Sea change toward content (indie rock emerging as a valid pop force)

And so forth. “But wait!” I can hear you shout. “What about the Beatles? Michael Jackson? Led Zeppelin? David Bowie? [Insert current reference here]? They had/have both!”

That is exactly correct, and drives home the single idea that I harp on more than any other in this blog: The merging of dualities is the secret to being a successful human being. Anytime anyone says “this vs. that”, you should always try to think of a situation where both happen at once, and if you can’t, create one.

You see, starting in the late nineties, things really started to speed up. Our musical trends don’t move in decades anymore, and it’s frankly confusing as hell. In fact, as society gets more and more connected and the pace of entertainment speeds up, I predict a future in which people will think fondly about the Roarin’ First-Half-of-Last-Marches and so forth. But if there’s one thing that can be said, it’s that we are coming to the end of an extremely design-oriented phase and landing on a bit of content, which is a huge relief to this writer if he doesn’t mind saying so himself.

In music, at least, design trends generally come alongside a technologic breakthrough. Think of the phonograph, the electric guitar, the synthesizer, the ready availability of home tape and then digital recording, and currently Youtube. On a smaller scale, take freaking Auto-Tune. T-Pain’s music was based solely on design, because it seemed he could churn out lyrics about pretty much anything (and by that I mean generally the same thing) and as long as it had that particular sound, which was oh so novel at the time people went nuts for it. “I’m On A Boat” was the culmination of that trend, and I ascribe more cultural significance to that than to any actual T-Pain song, actually. Because at least it made us laugh, and thus made the lyrics worth going back for.

In the True Greats I mentioned a few paragraphs back, we have proof that it is indeed possible for music to possess both good content and good, zeitgeist-defining design, with folky lyrics and all the newest-fangled technology that money can buy or download or steal. And when that happens, it lasts, and probably will until the end of time as we humans reckon it. Just look at Palestrina.

But the content is the key, really. There’s no formula for that, no plugin you can download. Content is timeless, and technology is fleeting. So practice that, forever and for always. No matter how good you think that track you just produced sounds, trust me, friends, in another ten years they’ll be making stuff that sounds far better for way cheaper. So, sure, spend as much time as you want on that drop, and throw in all the latest wicky-wah bass riffs you can, and the world will dig it, for a while. But if that’s really all your music has really got going for you, then next year those highly-crafted tracks will likely just be another footnote in the annals of music The Black Keys sold better than.

The follow up question as we try to define music is Weapon vs. Opiate for the Masses, but that, friends, is another entry entirely.

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.