Whirr2009-01-22
Learning New Skills (music composition)

All week long I've really wanted to go to my studio and make music, but I'm not ready to do that yet. First I need to spend a long time in my studio not making music. What do I mean by that? Well...

I just installed xUbuntu on my new computer, and I know very little about it. I need to set up a bunch of programs (a drum machine, synth, sequencer, audio recording software), and then check and re-check a thousand cables and chords (both real and virtual), trying to debug my the setup; trying to figure out why I was able to record my electric guitar just a second ago, but when I got the midi controller working it all went away. That sort of thing. I'll be lucky if I can record and play back sound at all.

And when that's over with, I'll be laboriously setting up beats in Hydrogen, only to realize that I'm doing it all wrong and it won't work out. Or I'll be writing a melody, only to realize that I don't know what key it should be in*. At this stage I'll be lucky if I spend four hours and get a piece of a track that sounds kind of neat to me. (To me now--no guarantees about how well I'll like listening to it a month or two from now. Some of my early websites were pretty horrendous, I'm sure my composition will be equally bad).

And when that's done, I'll spend hours writing beats, experimenting with a thousand different midi patches and setups, trying to figure out how to create a backbone for a song. The next step is to tour Japan.

Of course, I'm not very satisfied with my voice, my guitar playing, or my violin skills. So in addition to the above, I also need to spend hours and hours practicing.

At this point it may well sound like I'm discouraged, but I'm really not. I wish I were a rock star right now, certainly. And I wish I had a mentor or three, and a few more collaborators. But I've taught myself this sort of thing before, and I expect I'll do it again. I remember making website after website after website in college; teaching myself Photoshop, HTML, various FTP UIs, javascript, all that. And then, later, PHP AJAX and mySQL. I'd learn some new technique (like the "render light source" filter in Photoshop, or the image src attribute in javascript--aah, rollovers!) and I'd spend hours building a site to highlight it. That took a long time, and was mostly "wasted", from the point of view of output--the end result wasn't something I was proud of a month or two later, and the new technique was merely "one more thing I knew how to do". But still, that was another thing I knew how to do.

I've now had thirteen years of practice designing for the web. Although I certainly still have my weaknesses (mainly graphic design, I'd say, which is a really unfortunate weakness) at least I feel comfortable with Photoshop*, HTML, and the whole bit. I can see things in my head and I can put them on my monitor, more or less.

Still, I feel uncomfortable telling people that I want to spend the evening composing music, because that implies that I'm at a much further stage of the process than I am. I guess I should tell people that I want to practice composing music.

And also I just don't have the time I'd like--I listen to Peter Fox on the way home from work, or I read my book on Björk's music and I get so excited that I want to fire up my computer a do something. But I'm busy all evening on Monday, and on Tuesday, and most of Wednesday. I thought I'd be busy today, as well, but it looks like I'll have time.

If I thought that I'd spend the evening composing, and then emerge with an awesome track then I might just cancel whatever plans I have, but the gap between what's in my head and what I want to make is still too great. It's more than a little frustrating to know how many hours of things-not-working I have in front of me, but I remember reaching myself Visual Basic using Random Forum Posts as my only textbook. Musical composition has got to be better than that!.

I guess the other troubling thing about composition it that it is, at heart, a qualitative (Dionysian, to use my word) discipline. When I was learning html I got instant feedback--it either worked, or it didn't. It was either wrong or it was right. But composition never really doesn't work, and you can play a poorly written song just as easily as a well written one. I'm uncomfortable and embarrassed sharing my work unless I have reason to believe that it's good, and it's often hard to know that (especially if one distrusts one's own judgment). I suppose that's something I need to get over, really. Insert Useful Wil Wheaton Quote here.







* I had a Music Theory class at Northwestern, and now I'm teaching myself more--I've had enough to get started, but there's a long way to go. It's an intuitive art, but it takes a lot of time to build up and understand those intuitions.

* Especially now that I use the damn pen tool--kids, when professionals say to use the pen tool, listen up. They aren't kidding! I learned this last week for goodness sake. It's been there as long as I've used the program.

Comments
Libby2009-01-23
*headdesk*

now, again.....why did you have to start something I can help you with RIGHT BEFORE I FUCKING MOVE 4000 MILES AWAY?!?!?


and, since I obviously can't help much...try asking Woodrow. He's got much wisdom on this topic. Also, he understands the computer end much better than I do, anyway. Most (virtually all) of my music is intended to be acoustic.
Jerome2009-01-23
Dude, get into punk. I have absolutely zero skills in music, computers, or anything. Just a willingness to hurl myself into walls and a complete disdain for what others think of me. Try it; it feels good!
Whirr2009-01-23
Libby--Technically I started this process about seven years ago, when I picked up the violin. I didn't have the studio, the computer, the software, the soundcard or the midi controller back then--this is jsut the first time I've had a dedicated system for this sort of thing.

Jerome--OI! OI! OI OI OI!
Jerome2009-01-23
That's the spirit! Let's go pogo dancing.
Libby2009-01-23
Woodrow is still a great resource. And now that he doesn't think he's gonna run into ME at your house, you might be able to get him to come out.