Category Archives: Trying to figure things out

Trying to push the boundaries

If you search up images of fractals, you see what hippies are into. But you also see some cool patterns that are pleasing to the eye. It turns out DNA is really like fractal seeds–using concepts of iteration and recursion–and so all of life as we know it on Earth is much like a fractal pattern too. Pretty cool. That’s probably why fractals are so pleasing on the eye. It would suck to look around at the world around us and have it be ugly. Compare Julia sets with ferns, as a good example.

Anyway, fractals are also fascinating because you can zoom in and zoom out and yet always see the same amount of complexity. You can probably search up some animated fractal .gif files that zoom in. Try the Mandelbrot set. That’s a good one for that. You keep zooming in, and you keep seeing the same pattern getting repeated. Pretty cool. (It’s like a heat map of how quickly complex numbers approach infinity when you keep squaring them.)

But notice this: The animated gifs don’t zoom in and out on areas where there is no clear pattern. It’s just the pattern that’s the most interesting. With fractals like the Mandelbrot set, the pattern is actually just the borders between regions of space. As you zoom in on the borders, they stay interesting.

It’s the borders where the excitement happens. The boundaries. That’s what people care about. Like the boundaries between land and sea. Tide pools are brimming with life. The boundaries between earth and sky. The boundaries between the chorus, the verse, the bridge, and the solo. The beginning of the song, and the end. The boundary of a black hole, or basketball hoop, or a nation. The boundary between inside your body and outside your body. The boundary between where relativity and quantum mechanics matter more. The boundary between the performer and the audience. The boundary between control and chaos. The boundary between love and hate. The boundary between being full and being sick. The boundary between truth and fiction. The boundary between repetition and redundancy.

I think boundaries really matter. Play with them. Explore them.

Trying to be creative

When I’m behind the drumset, I’m just not that creative. It seems like moments of inspiration happen any time but when sitting behind an instrument. Mostly when a song’s been running through my head, or after having just woken from a dream.

Sitting behind the drumset is about doing what I can already do, or about practicing to get better. I can have some ideas within that framework, but creativity seems to be all about letting my mind go crazy in a way that is not constrained by my limited drumming ability at this moment. There might be some rare moments during a solo.

For consistent creative results, I’m using my imagination, free of existing assumptions and free of what I’m comfortable with. Then comes the fun part: sitting down and trying to reverse engineer what I just came up with. Usually it takes a while.

How do you push the creative boundaries of your current abilities?

Trying not to overthink

The other night I went to see Faun Fables at the Mix in Seattle. They are Dawn the Faun, and Nils from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Both have a commanding stage presence, and strong voices. Together, their music can be very hypnotic. Their voices are very different, one high and sweet, the other low and a little raspy. But together, it blends. These are musicians who have spent a lifetime on the road, and live a life of performance, and it shows in the magnitude of their personality.

What stood out to me that night, was the fact that they could enrapture the room with just two people. Whereas most bands would have at least 3 or 4 people on stage, they kept us transfixed with the two of them. Sometimes just one person on guitar. Sometimes Dawn played a bass drum. Sometimes Nils would play a flute or a bass. Each song had its own personality, but with an amazing minimal simplicity.

I had to ask myself, can I do that? As a percussionist, it’s going to be a little difficult. But what would it take? A strong voice, compelling lyrics, a heartfelt performance, and some percussion accompaniment. It’s tough, but doable. And in fact, this takes me back to the first Shakespeare on the Troll performance in Fremont. They asked me to come in and provide sound effects and entertainment between scenes. That was a huge challenge because there was no music accompaniment, and I had the keep the volume very low with just a snare, a tom, some brushes, and a variety of percussion doodads. That was a huge challenge, and just as much of a reward whenever I did have a breakthrough. I had to think more about percussion as melody, and it was enlightening.

Could your music be distilled down to the very basics like that, and have it still be compelling? I’m not saying that it should be, and I certainly play in bands that have a lot of complexity. But these are the moments where I have to ask: is it a bunch of bells and whistles? Distraction?

At the very core, I think music must be able to stand on its own. Something in the very core must inspire something deep inside the listener and stir them. I’ve never seen Dragon Force live, but I wonder if one of them could play a song with the same intensity on accoustic guitar on a street corner? Hopefully someone knows the answer, and the answer is yes. My point is that I think this is a pretty universal exercise that you could employ, the test being: try to play your song on a street corner with one or two people. Could you draw a crowd of passers-by? If not, then you’re in luck! Why? Because you just discovered something important to work on. I certainly just learned that lesson at that Faun Fables show.

Trying over and over

I have this annoying ability to do the same thing over and over. I really enjoy the process, and that makes it hard to accomplish anything. I see other people enjoy the accomplishments. But somehow I fear accomplishment–because then the process is over! So, something I do now is consider Finishing as part of the process. It’s kind of a trick, where I complete things quickly and move on to the next thing–over and over. It’s a meta-process, of repeated completion.

Anyway, so I don’t get that way with the things I don’t care about. Just with the things I’m passionate about. I’ve seen the same thing over the years with my students. If they are passionate, then they will practice on their own. So I have to figure out how to inspire them. And I have to figure out what they are already passionate about, and then teach from that frame of reference.

I used to play trumpet from 4th grade up through high school. I was in jazz band, I was first chair, I played in a ska band on the side. I thought I was passionate. But then one day I sat down behind some drums, and discovered the truth. I didn’t own drums, but I would figure out when I could go bang on my friend’s drums whenever possible. I became obsessed, and learned pretty quickly. So… I had been passionate about music all along, but never as passionate with the trumpet. Drums are my thing. I taught myself drums so that I was just as good in a few years as I was with 8 years of trumpet.

Sometimes I wonder… what if a teacher had recognized that earlier? What if they had introduced percussion to me earlier, just to see what would happen? Do passions come and go? Are you born with some? (On the other hand, I would be nowhere as good of a musician, had I not first had the perspective of playing a melody instrument.)

I had to fight external factors to learn drums, and it was an expensive proposition while also paying for college. I didn’t have to fight to play the trumpet. Was that a factor?

Anyway, at some point I think we have to take stock of what we’re doing and stop doing the things we’re not passionate about. There are a bazillion artists out there, and they are all really good. And the passionate ones are practicing, and are getting better every day. Many of them were practicing before they even knew it would pay off for them someday.

Trying not to fall behind

It seems like it’s a struggle not to fall behind. There’s always more to learn. More to observe and soak in.

I’ve played with musicians in the past that have been stuck. They had the chops. They had the core technical skills to rock. But they hadn’t kept up with what was going on in the scene around them.

Now you might be the type of musician that doesn’t care what’s going on, and that’s fine. You’re the type of person who we call “ahead of their time”. There are even savants like Henry Darger, who just sort of figured out how to do his thing all by himself and for himself. But the rest of us mortals have to care a certain amount about what’s happening now, if we’re going to have a conversation with the rest of the art community.

So, I saw that those musicians who were stuck were being left behind. They were hard to work with. It took longer for them to get the right sound that the song required. If you’re going to push the boundaries, you have to know the boundaries. And the boundaries are always changing, so I try to predict the changing boundaries and push that too. If you don’t know the boundary, then you are irrelevant at the moment.

That happened to me. I learned to play drums in the 90s. I built up a set of hardware in that context, and certain inflections in style particular to that time (for example, a tightly tuned snare). It wasn’t until maybe 15 years later that I realized I was still hanging on to a few things. I probably am still irrelevant in many ways, otherwise I’d be famous.

It’s hard to be that self aware. I really value the people I can trust who will be honest about that stuff. “Your snare sound sucks.” “Your high hat is way too brittle sounding.” Sometimes I don’t notice that stuff right away just on my own.

Yeah, so try not to fall behind like I did. But if you’re truly passionate, then you’ll figure it out.

Trying to have some personality

I think personality is more important than technical ability. A lot of times it takes a lot of technical ability to truly express your inner personality, but I just find myself more drawn to the kind of art where the personality transfixes me. Sometimes an aspect of that personality can be really sloppy, or can be something that borders on a train wreck but not quite. Tom Waits just can’t be compared to Pavarotti, but you know what? They both have a magnetic personality. Or take Madonna: she has fully admitted that she’s not the best singer. Adele has both personality and technical skill, but I think people mostly just care about her personality. I can think of some bands that just suck, but they are all technical virtuosos. I won’t name them here. :) Or take the entire hard core movement. It was about energy, it was about substance, it was about the scene. Not about hot guitar riffs.

Don’t get me wrong–I think you have to have technical skill of some kind in order to express what’s in your soul, and anyone can be technical with enough practice. So there’s some balance here. It’s a skill to be able to express yourself properly. And that is above and beyond learning to play a bunch of fast notes in a row.

I’ve played in sessions where I’ve felt my soul getting crushed because I felt like I was under the microscope, and it made me self-conscious. And I’ve seen it happen to others. They focus so much on playing notes perfectly, and then the life gets sucked out of the finished recording.

I was just listening to some rough mixes from Bucharest Drinking Team. We recorded a couple songs completely live at Vera Project. No individual tracking, and not one instrument at a time. We just went in for a few hours and recorded live whatever happened. The Drinkies are the kind of band where the live experience is so much of what they do, so I  couldn’t imagine recording any other way. There were some sour notes. I overplayed on the high hat. Whatever. The personality is shining through, and I’m completely happy about that. So I hope I’m making some progress with that, finally. It wasn’t until I went to get some drum lessons that I truly appreciated this.

So what’s important to you? Personality? Something else?

Trying to figure things out

Susan encouraged me to start blogging more, so here goes. A series of posts, where I try to figure things out. It will probably be a lot of philosophy and self help and different ways to think about learning. I’ll probably digress into math, science, and, of course, drums. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to post comments and we can start a conversation about this stuff.  Thanks,

–Kai

Learning by metaphor

I like to think in terms of metaphors. It’s a way of brainstorming, but also a way of learning. When I encounter something new, I like to brainstorm what metaphors might apply. If I’ve found a good metaphor, then I suddenly learn a lot more about the new thing, because a metaphor is a full concept that I already understand quite a bit.

Common metaphors

The pendulum

The pendulum swings back and forth between extremes. If it’s a magnet, then you have other attracting forces that can really affect the pendulum’s path as it swings in 3-D. It’s like the seasons, artistic trends, moods, something new that you’ve learned, and life and death.

The scale or balance

You’re choosing different options, you have two conflicting opinions, you are integrating something you’ve learned with everything else you know, you want to create a product with features and have a great user experience, you’re trying to control the volumes of all 4 limbs when playing drums (and trying to sing), you are prioritizing, you want to spend time and do a good job and use up few resources. With the scale, you can choose the weight of the things on the scale, but remember as you weigh toward one thing–the other things aren’t as heavy.

Equilibrium

In a system, everything coexists in harmony. When you make a change, then the rest of the system compensates in some way. Or the system starts to change and then restabilizes. Sometimes the system never levels out again. Sometimes you change the system, and everything has to change to compensate. It’s like social dynamics, or your energy level, or band politics, or the arrangement of instruments in a song, or how you spend your time each day.

Art

It’s all interrelated. Music, visual arts, dance, sculpture, film, food, your career, sports, driving. There is an art to it all, and they all have some major strategies or techniques that overlap. How you train, how you prioritize, how you make choices, how you gain perspective, how you express yourself, how you make money.

Just some thoughts I had today. Think of any other metaphors?