#rpm12 Reflections, part one: Wherefore the challenge?

Now that I’m “done” (probably) making music for the 2012 RPM Challenge, it’s time for a few posts reflecting on the experience. First up, the prime question: why do I do this? Or, in a more Shakespearean tone, wherefore the challenge?

Last night on Tumblr, my Internet friend and a musician I greatly admire (and whom I met through my first RPM in 2008), Joshua Wentz, posted:

In Februarys past I took part in the RPM Challenge, but it isn’t for me any longer. I outgrew it, which is a shame, because there was a tipping point for that project where it could easily have become the biggest thing in music. Alas, it is not to be.

The idea that he had “outgrown” RPM stuck with me after reading that. On one hand, it stung just a bit, because here I am participating in RPM while he and several other musicians I met through RPM that year have all seemingly moved on. But on the other hand, it was a sentiment I completely understood, and have felt myself since 2010, the first time I (effectively) skipped RPM. I was so inspired and motivated by my intended album concept that year that I went ahead and recorded it in January (in two weeks), thus disqualifying it for RPM. (Then I did end up submitting an album for RPM, but it was entirely improvised and recorded in one afternoon, on February 22.)

The RPM Challenge has never really been a challenge for me; I typically complete my album in two weeks or less. Finishing in a week this year is exceptional even by my standards, but I never come down to the wire. It’s just not how I operate.

Granted, a big factor in how quickly I produce music is my style, and my approach. My music is almost entirely instrumental and fairly improvisatory, and I use MIDI a lot. I think a huge time-suck for most musicians is lyric writing and carefully crafting a perfect song structure, as well as tweaking mic setups. I have none of that in my process. Plus, it’s just me. If there were more people involved, we’d also have to negotiate schedules and the inevitable conflicts. (I am not without internal conflict, of course.)

Let’s refine the question: Why do I still participate in RPM? I don’t need the external pressure of the challenge to get an album done; I am, if anything, excessively motivated when I start making music. And each year I am less and less involved in the “community” surrounding the challenge, so the timing becomes almost irrelevant.

I guess you could say I’ve outgrown RPM too, but that’s not quite an accurate, or at least complete, description of the situation. It’s also that RPM has failed to grow with me. The challenge got a lot of publicity in late 2007, which is when I learned about it. It was featured on several prominent websites and even on NPR. But its organizers haven’t done anything with it. I guess they’re satisfied to keep it where it is. Unfortunately, “where it is” is a horribly designed Joomla! (yes there’s an exclamation point in the name *shudder*) website with a terrible interface, one that has only had minor surface updates in the 5 years I’ve been looking at it.

But an ugly, unusable website only scratches the surface of what’s disheartening to a serial RPM participant like myself. It’s that apparent lack of desire by its founders to let RPM itself grow that makes it feel so easily outgrown, which is ironic since the entire purpose of the challenge is to spur its participants into growth as musicians by successfully completing an album project.

So, if it’s not the community and the collective experience that compels me, why do I do it? Looking back on my past few RPM albums, I’ve started to notice a pattern: RPM becomes the catalyst to get me to try something new and crank out a bunch of music, which then ends up informing the musical work I do for the rest of the year. I can already feel that coming with this particular challenge.

Pocket Symphonies, built around the idea of using an iPhone as the sole instrument, has been a success, but it’s been an experiment. The music that resulted is like something out of an R&D lab. It’s a prototype. I’ve learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work when trying to make music on an iPhone (which will be the topic of a follow-up post in a few days), and I probably only would have done that with these arbitrary parameters, partly set up by the RPM Challenge and partly by my own vision for what I wanted to do.

I’ve been playing around with iPhone music apps for years, but it was only when I committed to recording an entire album using them that I forced myself to really see what they could do, and even now I feel like I’ve merely scratched the surface. But now I feel like I know how I can integrate the iPhone (and iPad) into my “regular” music-making activities in creative ways.

Beyond production techniques, this album was a chance for me to explore some musical styles I’ve been interested in working with. In particular, I’ve become increasingly interested in the chillwave style of electronic music, especially since falling in love with the theme music from Portlandia, which I have since leared is a song called “Feel It All Around” by Washed Out. I recorded a couple of tracks that I think put my own typically idiosyncratic spin on this style, and I am looking forward to pursuing more of that in the coming year.

Reflecting on all of this, I guess the RPM Challenge is, like life, what you make of it. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that the organization behind the “official” challenge is ever going to develop it into the kind of thing I once wanted it to become, but that doesn’t really matter. And whether or not I only record during the month of February, whether or not I even bother to submit the CD to RPM HQ on March 1, also doesn’t really matter. What matters is finding that source of inspiration that allows a person to channel their creative energies into something tangible. And RPM, whatever it is, still does that for me.

#rpm12 day 4: Where the line between instrument and composition is blurred

A quandary: What do you do when you’re not sure if you’re really creating music yourself, or just manipulating an interactive composition by someone else?

In the past, the only place this situation would likely have occurred is at an art installation in a museum, but what happens when that art installation is in your pocket?

I suppose in some ways the situation is akin to sampling. Or is it?

The key question all of the above leads to is this: What exactly is Bloom, the iPhone app by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers? Besides an app, I mean.

Is it an instrument? Is it an interactive composition? Is it a piece of art?

And, after you’ve found a passable answer to each of these questions, another: If you record the output of an app like Bloom, who is the composer? Can you release it on an album? Do Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers receive composer credits?

The questions have both philosophical and practical implications. On one hand, you fall down the rabbit hole of the eternal, unanswerable question: What is art? On the other, more mundane, tangible concerns: If I put this on my album, is it copyright infringement? Or, at least, is it dishonest to take credit for the composition?

I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but I’m pondering them a lot this morning, because a portion of my music-making activities last night was devoted to the creation of a piece of music using Bloom.

To further complicate matters, consider this: Bloom consists of a simple touch interface that controls a set of predefined algorithms within the app: tones, scales, repetition and delay. Those four parameters (and probably more; I’m just going by what I perceive happening within the app as I use it) were defined by Eno and Chilvers, with some options being configurable by the user.

The user “plays” this “instrument” by tapping in different places on the screen at different times. But the app also generates tones on its own. There’s a background wash of sound that the user does not directly control, and if the app is left alone long enough, it will randomly begin “playing” notes itself.

It seems clear to me that if you just start up the app and let it go without touching the screen, you’re not really composing anything. (Or are you, John Cage?) If you start tapping the screen, you are now “playing” the “instrument.” But since so much of how the app works was defined (with plenty of built-in randomness) by the developers of the app, how much of the sound produced is really your composition, and how much is theirs?

The more you add, the more I think you are the composer. What if you overlay multiple tracks of Bloom within your DAW? That’s what I did: I ended up recording three separate passes of Bloom: one panned hard left, one panned hard right, and the other in the center. (In an interesting twist on the question at the beginning of the previous paragraph, on the center channel I didn’t actually tap the screen at all until about 20 seconds before the end of the piece.) What if you take it one step further and make Bloom merely one track in a multi-track recording featuring other instruments?

With a musical tool like Bloom, there’s no clear line to be drawn between instrument and composition, between app developer and composer and performer. And maybe that’s a good thing, philosophically. But I’m always nagged by those practical concerns: Can I really call the recording of my Bloom performance my own? It seems to me that if there’s a line anywhere, it can most clearly be drawn at the idea of layering multiple tracks of Bloom, or of using Bloom along with other instruments, because it is at that point where the resulting sound is not something that could have been created by Bloom itself.

Let’s take this all one step further: Reflecting on all of the concerns I have above, the only aspect of the discussion that troubles, rather than inspires, is legal. Am I infringing copyright if I record myself playing Bloom and put it on my album? Why is that even a question? Copyright is broken. The fact is, there are very few original ideas, especially in music. Everything is borrowed. The cognitive dissonance that arises when we try to suppress that free exchange of ideas, which is an inherent part of human expression, can be paralyzing.

Or, you can just not worry about it. I’m trying.

#rpm12 day 2: Does the world really need more music?

One of my tentative song titles for this year’s RPM album poses a question, in humorous song title parenthetical form:

(Does the World Really Need) More Music (?)

I wondered that again as I awoke this morning with Death Cab for Cutie’s “Codes and Keys” in my head. It’s the title track from an album they released last year. It’s a pretty good album. Every time I listen to it I think, “This is pretty good. I should listen to it more often.” But then I rarely do, because there’s just so much really good music being produced these days.

Do I really need to toss my little CD onto the already massive mountain of music (not the most poetic alliteration ever) being produced every year?

Well, that’s not really why we make music, is it?

I want my music to be heard. I want it to be enjoyed by others. But mostly I want it for myself. I have an urge to create that comes from a place I don’t completely understand. But yet I do it. I must do it. Because that’s what I do.

My music isn’t the expression of a troubled soul. I’m not bearing my heart with the music I create. I just have sounds in my head and I need to get them out.

But the creative drive goes deeper. It’s not the most satisfying realization, but I’ve come to learn that on some level, I just need there to be things in the world that I’ve made. In the words of Steve Jobs, I want to make a “dent in the universe.” Existence is so incomprehensibly vast, and we are such an infinitesimal part of it. But, for a few dozen of the Earth’s trips around the sun, we’re a part of it. And, what’s more, we know it.

I guess that drive to simply leave a mark before I’m a pile of dust is the driving force behind a lot of the creative impulse, at least for me.

I used to think that this creative impulse was at least partly tied to an instinct for procreation, that bringing new life into the world was what I really felt compelled to do, for simple biological reasons. But I have kids now, and while they’re great in many ways, it hasn’t lessened that urge to create art.

So, I continue to make music. I explore. I refine. I grow. And I keep trying to get it all out of my head and into the world.

This is not at all where I had intended to go with this post. I was going to just talk about the song I worked on last night, which ended up sounding a little bit like a Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross soundtrack… if all of their soundtrack tunes were 12 minutes long and ended with an extended, unaccompanied theremin solo. But that’s probably not as interesting as probing metaphysical reflection.

The short version of the daily progress report is, last night was another productive session, and I extensively employed two new apps I just discovered last night through the App Store’s often questionable “Genius” tool: Alchemy and SoundPrism. The latter gets an endorsement from Jordan Rudess, which is good enough for me.

Parental guidance is suggested

I don’t write a lot here about the fact that I’m a parent. I certainly don’t try to hide it. I regularly tweet my 5-year-old daughter’s witticisms, and I post pictures of her and her 8-year-old brother on Instagram all the time. But I don’t blog about it because, well, I don’t really feel like I have that much of value to say on the matter.

I’m not a great parent. I’m not a bad parent, but I’m not one of those super-engaged, every-day-is-inspired-genius, my-children-are-the-center-of-my-universe Parents. I’m just a dude who’s married and has a couple of kids. We make sure they’re fed, bathed regularly, do their homework, brush their teeth, all of that stuff. On the weekends we try to take them out and do things that are fun, intellectually stimulating, or (ideally) both.

So, I get a passing grade in the parenting department. But whatever you do, don’t come looking to me for parenting advice.

We’re not exactly (tie-)dyed-in-the-wool hippies, but like Steven and Elyse Keaton, one of our biggest fears is probably that our son will grow up to want to wear suits to school and believe in trickle-down economics. Politically, we’re pretty far to the left (at least by U.S. standards). We value and respect a diversity of perspectives, and if we teach our kids anything in life we want it to be to respect other people, and ways of being that may be different from their own. We also want them to be independent thinkers and to question authority.

The problem then arises that we may be too reluctant to teach them our own perspectives and values and beliefs. I sometimes wonder where the line is between filling kids’ heads with (the wrong) ideas, and not filling their heads with anything at all. Where does a careful effort not to impose ways of thinking and being cross over into not encouraging them to think, period?

Our kids are smart. They’re excelling in school. Yet sometimes they seem to lack “common sense.” That idea of common sense can be a tricky one, and is something we are especially trying to avoid. Because while just about anyone can say it’s “common sense” not to put your hand on a hot stove, where does common sense stop being “common”; when does it stop making “sense”? There was a time when slavery was “common sense.” It’s still “common sense” to some people that women should make less money than men for doing the same work. We’re currently in the middle of a national struggle to overcome the idea that it’s “common sense” that gay couples shouldn’t enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples. Common sense, in other words, is often shorthand for assumed prejudices, because it’s hard to argue with “common sense.”

Just yesterday, as our family walked home from the LRT station, we were discussing the fact that even though our kids are so “smart,” we still don’t trust them to do “common sense” things like cross the street by themselves. I mentioned how, from first grade on, I walked six blocks to school by myself (well, with a neighbor who also went to my school and was two years older). My parents knew that I could find my way safely to and from a location a half mile away, five days a week.

A couple of days ago, I overheard our kids in the living room, discussing whether or not they believed in ghosts, and I was dismayed when they agreed that, yes, they both believed in ghosts. What?! As a science-minded agnostic (leaning atheist, but absence of evidence does not constitute proof against), I was upset to hear this. But as a let-them-decide-for-themselves liberal parent, I said nothing. I was hoping that the fact that they even felt the need to question whether or not ghosts were real was a good enough start for now.

I grew up Lutheran. Went to church most Sundays, went to Sunday school through high school. Beyond religion, my parents imparted most of their beliefs about the world and how to live in it directly to me, without all of this namby-pamby moral relativism I’m using to hold back my subjective opinions on certain topics with my own kids. (Fortunately, they were — and are — die-hard Democrats.) I avoided burning my hands on the stove, or running out into the street in front of a moving car, not through my own independent discovery, but because my parents told me not to.

I do think we live in a time when parents are expected to allow their children to discover for themselves, and to treat them as precious snowflakes, rather than to teach them stern lessons about the cruel realities of the world. (And we’re seeing the results of that approach as a generation grows up and never leaves home.) At the same time, I wonder if perhaps we, specifically, are taking certain aspects of that philosophy too far, even as we intend to counteract it. Children do need guidance to learn how the world works. And trying too hard to avoid accidentally imparting your own unconscious prejudices on them might sometimes lead to not even teaching them those things that truly are “common sense,” but still need to be taught.

There is no John Galt

Who is John Galt? The rhetorical question, posed frequently throughout the early sections of Ayn Rand’s epic tome Atlas Shrugged, continues to crop up here and there to this day, usually as a bumper sticker on the back of a BMW: the economic libertarian’s counterpart to the Deadhead dancing bears. It’s a codeword, the inverse of 420. If you know the answer to the question, you’re in the club of laissez-faire capitalists and would-be prime movers.

If you’ve never read Ayn Rand — and if you’re older than 20, you probably shouldn’t bother — you may still wonder just who John Galt is. Quick summary: he’s the bold visionary savior of capitalism, the person who would let the old world die so he and his disciples can shape a new one in the image of the dollar sign. If that still doesn’t answer the question for you, well, take some solace in the fact that the question probably isn’t really worth answering in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about John Galt more lately than I have in about 18 years, since the second and last time I read Atlas Shrugged cover-to-cover. I’ll admit, it can be a page turner for most of its (excessive) length, at least until the portion near then end where John Galt himself takes over the world’s airwaves and launches into a dry, rambling 80-page soliloquy laying bare Ayn Rand’s philosophy. But people don’t read Ayn Rand because her writing is so great. It’s not. They read Ayn Rand because her ideas are radical and liberating to ambitious minds that feel trapped in a society of conformist mediocrity.

In other words, her ideas are just what 15-year-old, Rush-and-D&D-obsessed nerds need to feel better about themselves in a world that rejects them for being different. At least, that’s what I thought her ideas were until I got really obsessed with them in college, moving beyond her novels to her collected non-fiction essays, along with those written by her “egoist” acolytes, including Alan Greenspan.

Yes, that Alan Greenspan.

I was pretty surprised to learn that the (at the time) Fed chairman was an Ayn Rand devotee, and it convinced me (at the time) that some day soon we’d see Ayn Rand’s philosophy rise up and vanquish the mediocrity of our soul-sucking society.

But then I grew up. I realized that her writing fell firmly in the realm of fantasy. And it wasn’t just that the “second-handers” of society that she described did not correspond in any recognizable way to anyone in the real world. It was that the leaders in her world — not just the godlike John Galt but the creators, the captains of industry, like Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden — didn’t have any real-world counterparts either. People, in most cases, do not rise to power and wealth purely through their noble industriousness and hard work, just as people do not struggle with poverty because they’re lazy. The world Ayn Rand creates has a tantalizingly simple internal logic. Unfortunately, her world is a miserably inadequate model of the complex, messy external reality she believed her “objectivism” so clearly observed.

Still, all of this would be an academic exercise for me to ponder in my parents’ basement were it not for the likes of Alan Greenspan, and so many who have come after him: Ron and Rand (Rand!) Paul, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, the Tea Party and anyone whose ability to follow a thought through to logical conclusion is so broken that they somehow manage to espouse both Ayn Rand’s (aggressively atheist) philosophy and fundamentalist Christianity simultaneously. Check your premises, etc. etc.

What frightens me is that in the two decades or so since I outgrew Ayn Rand myself, and especially since the 2010 midterm elections, we’ve come to a point where we have people who embrace Ayn Rand’s philosophy, however contradictory their overall views may be, in positions of government power in the United States. People who apparently know (and, for that matter, care) so little about the way our government actually functions, yet who believe so fully — so faithfully — in the economic principles described in books like The Fountainhead and, especially, Atlas Shrugged, that they would run the metaphorical ship aground on these shaky premises, believing that allowing the United States to default on its debts, allowing the economy to crumble, would actually be a good thing, and would give them the opportunity to remake our government, our economy, our society, in a way more in line with Ayn Rand’s ideas.

But Ayn Rand wasn’t even a good science fiction writer, much less a good economist, and far less an astute, objective observer of the fragile complexities of human character and American society. If we allow our economy to collapse, if we make it collapse because we think we can start over from scratch with a (non-existent) team of all-star CEOs drawing up the blueprints, we will quickly learn the answer to the question. There is no John Galt.

Update (November 16, 2011): John Galt is getting some more attention lately, as apparently Lululemon loves him.