Your Limitations are Good for You

or The Importance of Doing What You Can with What You’ve Got

Today, after many years of technical ignorance, mishaps, and probably one or two cases of wilfully doing things wrong, I finally have a computer that is truly ready for the big time. With this machine, its solid state drive housing a 64-bit operating system, I can finally make use of more than 4 GB of RAM in my Cubase projects. What does this mean in practice? Essentially it means that where previously I could maybe load up five (at a stretch) high quality instruments for use at any given time, I can now load up ten, twenty, thirty or more such instruments and use them all at once. Compared to the total short span of my life so far, this is something I have wanted for a very long time, but when I look back on myself the best part of ten years ago, when Cazazza Dan was born and I started work on my first album, The Salad, with dreams of being a great and prolific maker of music both on and off the computer, I realise that I have been, up to this point, unready for that kind of responsibility.

Many composers who are just starting out (I should stress that I am focusing solely on people like me, who have not gone to school for music but have instead come to it on their own through self-guided study, as I do not wish to speculate on curricula about which I know next to nothing) whether they write on paper at the piano or use scorewriter software, or, like me, a DAW with piano roll functionality, are coming to music creation with certain expectations. First of all, they expect, perhaps in arrogance, perhaps in hope, to be good from the start. This is explained simply enough, at least in the west, by our culture of instant gratification. Kids have grown or are growing up with smartphones, laptops, the internet, downloads, streaming etc. and are used to getting things however, wherever, and whenever they want. This is just a fact of modern life, modern youth, and it was the same for me. My mother was by no means an early adopter of personal computers and the internet, I don’t think we had a computer until I was six years old, and it wasn’t exactly great for gaming or anything like that, even by the now primitive standards of the era. But that was twenty years ago, I’ve spent twenty years of my life with computer technology, I have embraced it, I am practically, by the standards of 1950s science fiction, a transhuman wired into a global network of information, monitors a second pair of eyes, mice and keyboards and console controllers extensions of my physical limbs into a parallel oceanic world of raw data. A touch poetic, no doubt, but this is, more or less, the situation of the modern child, the modern young adult, hell, in many cases even the modern middle aged person.

Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. The internet and the technology with which we access it have given us unprecedented access to the sum total of human knowledge, and this, ultimately, if we steer a liberal course through the grand and ever present oil spill of propaganda and ideology which seems, alarmingly, to grow exponentially by the day, we will continue to benefit from and prosper by this greatest of resources. No, it is not a bad thing, but what it does is to facilitate entitlement. Entitlement is rampant in modern western society, generally among people who do not wish to put any effort into obtaining the things to which the believe they are entitled, and this is also true for young composers. I remember, some time ago, on a forum, witnessing a young “composer” state quite boldly that he did not wish to study music. Now, this is perhaps a counter intuitive example, for, people who know me will ask, did I not do the same? Well, yes and no. There is studying in the sense of taking piano lessons, taking courses in musicology, or composition, or orchestration, or whatever, and then there is studying in the sense of listening, of seeking out and absorbing as much musical information as possible, of learning by doing, not by reading, of immersion in the physical experience of music and so forth. Neither of these, so far as I can see, is better or worse than the other, they both require a lot of dedication and discipline, their results will vary depending on the characteristics of the student. That much is obvious. My choice was the latter of the two, and despite presenting considerable difficulties to get off the ground for a number of years, it has served me well as far as my own personal approach to composition goes. In the case of the young composer who wished not to study, well, his own work was not very good, as one might expect, but crucially he could not progress beyond his not-very-goodness because any sort of effort or dedication to the craft of composition was pre-emptively shut down in his thinking. He had built a Trumpesque border wall between himself and we (dare I say) more enlightened people, and was quite literally making us pay for it with our ears.

His is perhaps an egregious example, one which, had I not witnessed it for myself, I could scarce believe was not satire. But the desire for instant gratification among young composers manifests itself more pronouncedly in the conflict between scale and scope of composition and the broadness of lack thereof of the composer’s point of view. To use myself as an example, we can return once more to The Salad. It was 2007, I was a bright faced little shit with my copy of Reason 4 and my new computer, far superior to the ailing old thing bought back around the turn of the century. I had saved up from my short-lived career as an IT technician for a new computer which I would use primarily to shoot highly detailed masses of polygons in the face in glorious 1080p, but as I worked that job, my passion for computers waned quite naturally in deference to my indefatigable love of music, and I ended up using the computer in the main for quite different purposes. It took me about six months of what I thought of as “hard work” (in reality I had no true conception of this) to create my first album, and I had decided to be very ambitious with it. First of all, I reasoned, most albums were about an hour long these days, so my album should be an hour long. Then I reasoned that the mark of greatness, the calling card of any truly great composer was the production of a long piece of music, so my album should contain a 30 minute epic. These two things I achieved, but for all the fuss I had made over them, they did not actually contribute anything vital to the album. They were in fact milestones signifying nothing; I had toiled, in a kind of ambling, confused, possibly adorably stupid way, to reach them, only to find that they were achievements of the least meaningful kind. It took me a couple of years to come to that realisation, but it was a valuable one containing lessons which I would, perhaps unfortunately, not actually learn for year another year or two.

We can see similar examples in the admitted ambitions of other beginners. They want to write Requiem Masses in D minor, and lay bare their souls upon the mysteries of life and death, to treat with the greatest solemnity the human condition, and their music shall be heard and it shall speak to the heart of man and unite humanity in brotherhood and love and all this lofty stuff which, let’s be real, they only think about because they’ve heard it way too often whenever some gasbag with a podium occasions a lecture on Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and whoever else, perhaps Mahler or Shostakovich, maybe Tchaikovsky. If this kind of rhetoric was at least tempered by passionate speech in favour of letting music stand on its own, this misguided loftiness might not be so endemic, but it is here and we must deal with it. So, these poor kids, with their copies of MuseScore and their balloon-like egos, get to work writing their big themes and plotting their big schemes and jerking it to their big dreams, and then a week, a month, three months pass and they don’t have much of anything but a ramshackle collection of fragments and no clue of how stitch them together. This is what we call overreaching one’s grasp.

There are plenty of examples of overreaching as a composer that I can give you from my own past. Here’s just one. I once sought to create a “Mass of Music,” a grand humanist equivalent of the great Christian choral works, but where they praised God I would denounce God and praise man in His place, I would set texts on the beauty of human achievement, it would be two hours long and so life affirming as to make everyone cry tears of joy upon hearing it, and I would have a humanist cathedral of sorts erected to play this piece and other pieces like it. Fortunately for me, unlike Scriabin, who sought to do something not too dissimilar with his unfinished Mysterium, I didn’t get much beyond the title. Why? Because it was just too damn big. I tooled around with the concept for a while, but eventually decided it was better to, you know, do what I could with what I had available to me. That turned out to be a burgeoning musical mind and (skipping a couple of years of my sordid musical history) a computer that could handle trios and quartets and the like. These things, limited by different factors, complemented each other at first, but ultimately the former was bound to outgrow the latter. In pieces such as Urgynes, Oat, Frozen Bob’s Estranged Wife etc., I had expanded quite massively my understanding of sequencing and of the extended possibilities of sampled instruments versus their physical counterparts. In some cases I had written music for three instruments that might require seven or more to play in live performance. This expansion of understanding, and in turn transgression and defeat of the then present limitations of my musical thinking, meant that I came to desire a broader canvas, to be able to take the “more with less” approach and apply it on a grand, or at least grander scale. However, had I jumped the gun and gotten what I wanted even a year ago, when I released my most recent composition, Problem Zero, and shortly before my old computer breathed its last, I would not have been ready.

Just now, as I prepared to conclude this essay or article or whatever it might ultimately be, I caught myself typing a paragraph which read eerily like the script for some kind of infomercial for a holistic wellness product. As so often happens with me, I am remedying that embarrassment by moving away from the actual topic and delivering a meta-conclusion in which I attempt to talk about talking about a thing and how difficult it is while simultaneously trying to avoid sounding like I’m having a whinge about being able to sit around writing bullshit for other people to read on the internet. I also start writing run-on sentences, cracking jokes at my own expense, and resorting to that kind of glib, hip, gotcha snark that writers of our time use far, far too much in general. It is a testament to my own abilities, or lack thereof, that my conclusion should consist of this. Yes, in that sense what a fine way this is to end a too-long text on the benefits of discovering and acknowledging one’s limitations.

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