#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 7: Done? Maybe

Once I “feel” that an album is done, I sometimes tend to rush through the mastering phase because I’m ready to just have it over with and move on with my life. I was in the middle of struggling through a new recording tonight that was coming out like crap, and suddenly I felt it. The album was done.

I had met my criteria, after all. I had 14 tracks ready. 15, once I split the first one in two as I had been planning. In total, everything clocked in at 47 minutes. Well beyond the minimal requirements to pass muster as an RPM album.

And so, with that, I decided to move into the next phase of the process: mastering. I was done with all of that in less than an hour. Yes, I work fast. It may not be the final master, but I want to have tracks with the proper compression and normalization applied when I’m listening to decide if it’s really done or not.

Then I had to figure out what to call all of these tracks. Up until now I had just been numbering them based on the order in which I started them. Fortunately I had made note of some possible song titles, and I ended up being able to give each a tentative title and work out the track order.

So, I’ve got cover art, mastered tracks, titles and a sequence. Kind of looks like I’m done. And I also did one more thing I’ve never bothered with before: I made a spreadsheet of all of the tracks and which iPhone apps I used on each, just so I could keep everything straight. Here it is:

Track Working Title Final Title Apps Used
1 12 Also Sprach Moog Animoog (x3)
2 4 (Does the World Really Need) More Music (?) Xenon
3 9 In But Not Of Air (x5)
4 13.2 Pocket Symphony (Mvt. 2) Beatwave
5 7 Epoch Elliptic Beatwave
6 1 Emphatic Saturation Animoog (x7), FunkBox
7 13.3 Pocket Symphony (Mvt. 3) Beatwave
8 8 Textires Trope (x2)
9 10 The Last Day on Earth Xenon, Argon (x2), Alchemy (x2), FunkBox, SoundPrism
10 14 (Already) Too Much Music (Already) TNR-i (x2)
11 11 Successive Failure GarageBand (x5), FunkBox, Alchemy, Animoog
12 13.1 Pocket Symphony (Mvt. 1) Beatwave
13 3 December 22, 2012 Alchemy (x2), SoundPrism (x2), FunkBox (x3), BeatMaker (x2), Argon (x6), Bebot, GarageBand (x2)
14 5 A Certain Sameness Bloom (x3)
15 13.4 Pocket Symphony (Mvt. 4) Beatwave

Yes, there’s a vaguely apocalyptic theme to the titles and, to a lesser extent, the music itself. I don’t believe the world is going to end this year, nor do I believe the Mayans believed that, but it makes for good thematic material.

#rpm12 day 6: A quick one

I have a busy work day ahead, so no time for a lengthy reflection today. Just a quick stock-taking of where I am at this point in the challenge:

5 days in
9 finished tracks (not yet mastered)

With every sound produced by my iPhone. Far out.

I even have the cover art, featuring a photo I took yesterday at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen. I never managed to find out what that crazy looking pink flower is called. If you know, illuminate me in the comments!

#rpm12 day 5: Pocket Symphonies

Progress on the RPM album continues. Five days in, I have seven tracks finished, two more in progress, and I’m hovering around 35 minutes (one of the two minimum requirements of the challenge). And there’s a lot more to come.

The most notable achievement of the day, however, is that I have settled on a final title for the album. I had been tentatively calling it i, owing to the fact that its central conceit is that all sounds on the album are being produced on an iPhone. But I was never totally happy with that title.

Then this morning, it hit me: Pocket Symphonies. The term was coined by Brian Wilson (or, if Wikipedia is to be believed, his publicist Derek Taylor) in 1966, used to describe what might be considered his crowning achievement as a composer and producer: the brilliantly crafted hit single “Good Vibrations”.

It is not my intention in the least to claim that what I’m producing this month is even from the same planet of artistic achievement as the greatest pop single ever recorded. But I think the idea of a “pocket symphony” is intriguing, and while Wilson simply meant that his song packed the compositional structure of a symphony into a 4-minute package, I am taking it in an entirely different direction.

I’ve been asked if I had considered also using my iPad in recording this album. No, is my answer. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to try it; many of the apps I’m using have fuller-featured iPad versions, and there are other great music apps that exist only for the iPad. But the thing that I find most compelling for this project is that every sound on it is coming from a device that I carry around in my pocket.

I suspect that Brian Wilson could not have imagined in 1966 that, in his lifetime, millions of people would be carrying around portable music studios in their pockets, masquerading as phones. And while only a small fraction of us iPhone owners are using them as musical instruments, the potential is there, for everyone. A “pocket symphony” means something in 2012 that was beyond the farthest realm of possibility in the mid-’60s. (Come on, Star Trek had only just premiered a month before “Good Vibrations” was released.)

And so, Pocket Symphonies it is. It’s exciting to watch this nebulous concept begin to take shape as the month wears on.