Thursday, June 25, 2009

From the Aether It Comes... 6/25/2009

The ancient-minded, druidic superstition in me is afraid to think it, verbalize it, and especially blog it. I don't want to jinx it, but there it is...

The new record is coming along at an unparalleled (or rarely, at least) clip. I'm plugged in. The juices are flowing. It feels very, very good. The instincts and habits are delivering, as trust and sense-of-rightness banish that small, second-guessing voice that's distracted and delayed me in the past.
My muse's stars are aligned for a change (or I'm properly receptive for a change), and the music seems to make itself. All I have to do is show up and pay attention. I am trusting the process more than ever before, as it proves itself worthy again and again. I am forced to acknowledge that I've been my own worst enemy far too often in the past (in many more areas than the musical, but that's a story for another time).

How else to explain it? A few months ago I was blank. I had put so much into the first RAO CD. It should have been released long before it was. There were many factors that slowed me down, but my first real solo birth was a difficult one, when all is said and done. The idea of starting the next one was more than a little daunting, given the complexity of feelings and the associations of a years-long creative process. I was suffering from blank page syndrome coupled with something bordering on a sort of artistic post-traumatic stress disorder. I couldn't really get my head around needing to make another RAO disc*.

My solution to the digital
tabula rasa? Bail. From the stress of creation, anyhow. Literally not deal. Or rather, to deal in the same way so many others have dealt over the years - by busting out the sketchbook. Make. Start, work an idea (bass line, lick, melody, beat, whatever), drop it or develop it. Rinse. Repeat. Just make, without burdening the process (which should be fun, no?, or what's the point?) with lots of heavy ideas and pressures about the bigger picture of my musical output (which is pretty minuscule given the number of hours I've spent making music of my own, or in concert with others).

[That last parenthetical bit is the small, derailing, destructive voice nibbling away at the periphery of even
writing about the new embryonic CD - the ego worrying about quantity/quality of output. Who fucking cares? I'm not Wagner.]

The busy mind digresses...back to the point. Some of these sketches have snowballed rather quickly into some pieces I really like the direction of. Some of it is new territory, some is familiar, but it all feels vital and exciting. Over a few months, a period filled with lots of time commitments and personal challenges, I've managed to get rather a lot done, musically. (Semi-paradoxically, mixes for clients and Outspan activity have only helped the process along, it seems).
I've gone from the blank page to having a good 1/4 to 1/3rd of the thing pretty far along in the trajectory toward done-ness (that elusive spot where the piece looks up and says "we're done now - I'm complete. Mix 39c is as far as we need to go - print it").

Don't know how I've gotten this far this fast, and indeed there may be a massive boulder around the next blind curve, but things are really flowing for now. I remember details of certain moments along the way, but it's generally a blur. I feel a bit like an Alzheimer's patient who looks in their closets and says "Those are not my shoes", and the shoes are quality. The plate was empty, I blinked, and it's now about a quarter full of good eats. It's not Beethoven's 9th, or Eno's 'Ambient 4: On Land'. But so far it seems very good, and really me. The voice, the language, is distinctly my own (a sort of personal/aesthetic DNA is the source).

It's come from The Aether, like a beloved surprise guest.
How else to explain the mystery of its appearance?

"Jah will provide". Indeed (s)he has and does and will. I've just got to keep those rabbit ears on and well-tuned.

Amidst death (Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett both passed today) there is rebirth.


*(Of course this "need" is personal, as it sure isn't commercial).

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"Get off my digital lawn!", or the Honorable Ways of Stealing

I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man.

I'm not, in fact, a grumpy old man (although I'm definitely into what we used to call, with a tone of near-condolence, "middle-aged"). Still south of 45, if barely.

Maybe I've just been at this composer/musician/recordist/mixologist game too long. It's just that when someone introduces themselves to me as a creator, I expect some, well, creativity somewhere in the equation. (But the rules of the game have changed mightily in the last 10 or 15 years, and usually not for the better - call it the growing pains or dark underbelly of the digital revolution).

I recently had such an introduction. I don't meet a lot of musicians at my day gig, so when a 30-ish Latino hip hop kid let me know that he "makes beats and produces", I was intrigued. When he mentioned that he's making most of his income these days from selling said beats, I was even more intrigued. When he further elaborated that he's got a lot of clients that need help mixing their tracks, but that proper audio engineering involved skills he had yet to master, I was downright excited. (If I was a cartoon character, I would have had dollar signs or bags of loot in my eyeballs at that moment).

I quickly imagined a scenario in which he could bring me a lot of mixing clients, or at least bring me on board as a subcontractor for certain things. The housing projects in my suburban pocket of Western MA are overflowing with 2 things, among many others: Lots and lots of blackmarket drugs/drug money, and lots and lots of kids wanting too break *out* of the ghetto and *in* to the glamorous hiphop bling bling lifestyle they spend most of their lives emulating from afar (although there's plenty of cheap plated bling to be seen and had throughout these small, blighted communities of mostly good and hardworking folks).

I also took an instant liking to the guy (call him G). He was clearly a worker bee, as his approach to our common day gig made clear, and he just seemed cool and direct. On a smoke break, I grabbed a copy of my recent CD release, eager to let him know I had the goods he needed to bring his productions to the next level.

Later, we took a break together, and sat in his car so he could pop some of his product into the CD player for show and tell. First few seconds were encouraging, until I almost instinctively recognized the track from which "his" beat was lifted. What we lacked was a precise technological language in common - what he called "making beats", I call "chopping out loops" or "rolling your own". While I have engaged in said practice many times over the years (going back to the dark old digital days of the 80's), I use other's stuff as a springboard or first step in the creation of something new and uniquely my own.

G's notion of "making beats" basically boiled down to choosing the start and end points of a loop, and pretty much ended there (ok, so he might throw a cheap mic up and add some coffee can/gravel "shaker" to said loop, but that was really about as far as he went when it came to making something new out of something old, as Webern did with Bach, as one example among many). Sadder still to me is the thought that someone else would actually pay him for such a loop/"beat", when the tools for such facile thievery are readily available to anyone with a connected computer, headphones, and a stack of CDs (pirated or no). [I will say that G has a good ear - his "beats", as primitive as they were, were well-looped and made with a musician's flare. But what of the dues-paying of the mature musician?]

It's a slippery slope: Who am I, who has lifted snippets of the work of others, to point the finger at G, for doing just that? This is where things get confusing (though some of you will decide that I'm full of shit, and perhaps rightly so). The differences to the outsider might seem subtle, but to me they are crucial. They stem chiefly from things like intention, context, and where one goes with the process after cutting that first loop out of someone else's work. There's also a financial dimension: for part-timers like me, making and releasing CDs is about losing money from the get go. If I ever actually netted any profit from my music, I would feel honor-bound to compensate those artists whose music snippets got mangled up into some of my own beatwork, however unrecognizably.

In my personal aesthetic and moral realm, G's "beatmaking" is only permissible if the snippet of someone else's product is transformed/mutated/re-processed/tempo shifted/re-combined or recontextualized to the point where the snippet's original creator would be hard-pressed to recognize it. In my view, an exception can be made if the original artist/creator has given or sold one the rights to use said snippet straight up and unadulterated (a transaction that, though discrete, happens all the time these days, though often after the fact, when the perpetrator-cum-"beatmaker" has been found out, and an out-of-court cash settlement has been reached. I personally know of a few such settlements, and I'm not exactly Johnny Insider.)

Of course, there are ways to do avoid such slippery slopes entirely. I could only use loops that I've purchased from firms that cater specifically to the needs of looping musicians/beatmakers. Such so-called loop libraries are widely available, and usually come with a sort of "umbrella license": I can use them however I want, as I've paid upfront to do so through the purchase of said loop library (often these will contain fine print requesting that the library vendor be notified if/when resulting music is ultimately used in a commercial context). Or I could stick to loops available for use under the Creative Commons License umbrella (Google it - it's a bit involved). These are available through net sources such as freesound. The trouble with sites like this is that they're notoriously lax - or simply unable - to police the submissions of their users. In other words, the loop you want may *appear* to be legal, when in fact it is pirated and has been wrongfully uploaded to the Creative Commons-based site.

Back in that car on our break, G was actually smiling as he cited things like "the 4 second rule" and other such legal loopholes for essentially stealing the work of others without acknowledgment/compensation and/or permission. He even appeared to gloat over his notion that one could work ones self through a whole song of someone elses, provided the less-than-4-second chunks were not contiguous or connectible (I may be muddling this a bit, as I grokked neither the justification nor the point in such an activity).

Armchair psychologists would likely accuse me of Projection 101 in my vilification of G and his nefarious approach to chopping out loops, and perhaps they'd be right. Or maybe it's just sour grapes, as he may really be making a few bucks on the side beyond the day job we both slave at. I maintain, however, that there is a crucial difference between our approaches and results, both musically and morally.

(An interesting side note: G claimed to have done a sort of remix or mashup of the work of a famous and deceased Latino singer, which had generated thousands and thousands of hits on MySpace. Yet he would did not post it until he had received the blessings of the singer's surviving son, who insisted on hearing the remix before he gave it the thumb's up or down. Of course, the son "loved" the resultant remix, and "everybody was after" G to get the rights to release it commercially." His reason for not a) posting the thing without son's approval and b) cashing in after the fact? " Out of respect" to the singer's memory and family. While I realize that this entire tale is 99% surely apocryphal, it still stands as a sharp demonstration of the various moral and commercial forces dissonantly working away in G's mind at the edges of his creative process.)