Trying to finish things

I went through a phase where I would spend a lot of time perfecting grand opuses or highly complex beats before sharing them with people. Or grand collections of grand opuses or rhythms. But the problem was that, during the long process, the music would start to feel outdated, or I would improve as a musician, or my interests would change, or I would get better hardware, and on and on. So I would have to change course mid-stream, and that would be a set-back. The art was a struggle because I was racing to keep up, and yet never finishing anything.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’m trying to finish things more regularly now. Part of the reason is because you just have to finish sometime! But here’s my main point: No matter how quickly you create a piece of art, you will have changed by the time it’s done. Because it’s changed you, and hopefully you have matured. At least this is what happens to me. It changes me as I work through the process, and I grow. So, art should never be good enough to the artist, if the process runs its natural course. I now accept this, and I am trying to record as much as possible. As long as I can look back in the long term, and see the trend of each recording getting better and better, then I figure I should be content. If I just look in the short term, I only see something that feels outdated.

In the software world, it’s often said “shipping should be considered a feature”. Or there’s the saying, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I think both apply here. Just keep creating and sharing, and try to keep up with yourself.

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.