Book Review: Ready Player One

Note: This article is very long, was not written using WordPress, and reads better in a traditional layout. While I have taken some time to reformat the work to suit this page, viewing the direct (sans-serified) copy of the original ODT file on Google Docs is recommended for the most comfortable reading.

On the way home from registering with a new dentist one afternoon, I passed through Hillsborough’s shopping district and thought I would chance at some cheap books in one of the charity shops there. The one I entered was selling books for a pound apiece, which is not bad at all assuming you like genre fiction and celebrity tell-alls which were most likely written by someone other than the person on the front cover. As I was browsing through the two-a-year romance novels and massed Rankins, I happened upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of those classics I had not yet had the chance to read. It was a Wordsworth edition, from a time before they had started putting pictures of models in garish period costume on the front, one frilly elbow or a feathered tricorne poking out of the frame and into the matt black surround. A few minutes later I found Hyperion, a highly regarded science fiction novel by Dan Simmons, a sort of space opera version of the Canterbury Tales. I’d been meaning to widen my reading away from “literary” fiction out to genre stuff for a while, so that was an easy pound to spend also. Almost immediately after that, my eyes fell on what I would come to know as “the atrocity”. This was Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

Before the Spielberg blockbuster there was a book, and in that book there are words. And oh, what words! “Imagine the WORLD AT STAKE,” the back cover implores me. Given the state of the world right now, and forever, it would take more effort, and possibly be more enjoyable for me to imagine something else. But an “EPIC STRUGGLE” to complete the “GREATEST QUEST in human history” is perhaps a little bit more enticing. So, who’s struggling epically to complete the greatest of quests? Why, it’s Wade Watts! Wade Watts is a pale pasty overweight nerd and ain’t that just so gosh darned relatable? Well, let’s hope so, the book really depends on you relating to this character on pretty much that basis alone, because fuck if he has any other qualities. Oh wait, I’m sorry, he’s good at video games. And he watches a lot of TV. But I’m getting ahead of myself, first we need some history so that we can properly establish who Wade Watts is. Both of his parents are dead, so he’s kind of like Batman. Batman is a comic book character who debuted in 1937, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for Detective Comics. Is that information useful to you? Of course it is. Like Ernest Cline, when I namedrop something I have to give a brief paraphrase of the introductory paragraph of the relevant Wikipedia article so that people can know—though never as deeply as I—what I’m talking about, because I am possessed of very specialised knowledge and I can’t expect you, the average reader, to have heard of such obscure things, and I certainly don’t expect you to look them up because then I wouldn’t be able to pad this out to such a length that I might fool myself, and apparently a long list of others into believing that I have achieved something in writing it.

So, Wade Watts. He lives in a stack. A stack is a multi-level tower of scaffolding with caravan trailers on each level. These were implemented as an alternative to building high-density projects for poor people. Since his parents died he has been living with his aunt, whom he does not like, and her boyfriend, whom he likes even less. He has his escape in an inconspicuous van, within which there is a heater and a computer which he uses to connect to the OASIS, an MMO that combines Second Life style trade of virtual and real items for real money with more standard RPG mechanics in a vast virtual universe comprising thousands of planets, each of which has a particular theme or pays homage to a particular game, movie, or whatever else. In the virtual world you can attend school, access pretty much any book, TV show, film, game, music etc. that you want, and also visit planets full of dungeons and grind for levels, but the big news right now is that, in the wake of the death of James Halliday, creator of the OASIS, a contest has begun. Halliday, in a video called “Anorak’s Invitation”, reveals that he has placed three secret keys and three matching gates in the OASIS, and once these have been found and unlocked, any player to do so will have a chance to find the Easter egg. Upon finding the egg they will inherit the creator’s fortune of several hundred billion dollars, control of his company Gregarious Simulation Systems (GSS), and the OASIS itself.

The contest adds another layer to Wade’s refuge from the outside world. By day he is Wade3 at one of the generic high schools in the game. By night he is Parzival, gunter. Yes, gunter. As in “[eg]g [h]unter”. Don’t look at me, I didn’t make this shit up. The gunters are at war with the Sixers, employees of the “Oology Division” of Innovative Online Industries (IOI, which Cline helpfully informs us is pronounced “eye-oh-eye”…), a generic faceless megacorporation of evilness that uses underhanded tactics to try and solve the mystery so that they can turn the OASIS into an ad-ridden corporo-fascist hellhole that will make them a whole lot of money. Wade tells us that gunters call the Sixers “the Sux0rz. (Because they sucked.)”, and if that doesn’t blast your sides into orbit, hang on, because there’s still 340 pages to go and they just keep getting funnier and more charming. But don’t worry, I’m not going to provide a page by page running commentary, mainly because who has the time, but also because one of the things this book likes to do is repeat itself, if not literally repeating paragraphs wholesale then repeating the forms in which the action, such as it is, takes place.

Throughout the book, Wade—or, let’s be honest here, Ernest—just loves to list things, and especially he loves to list names of things. Take this passage for example:

    “When it came to my research, I never took any shortcuts. Over the past five years, I’d worked my way down the entire recommended gunter reading list. Douglas Adams. Kurt Vonnegut. Neal Stephenson. Richard K. Morgan. Stephen King. Orson Scott Card. Terry Pratchett. Terry Brooks. Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkien, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny. I read every novel by every single one of Halliday’s favourite authors.
    “And I didn’t stop there.”

He does not stop there.
Continue reading

Some Thoughts on “The Name of the Rose”

Umberto Eco’s first novel is my second Umberto Eco novel. Originally published in Italian as Il Nome della Rosa, it was Eco’s response to a request to write a short detective story for a small publisher. He had responded to the call for stories by saying that if he were to write a detective story it would be 500 pages long. His proposal was rejected on that basis, but he gradually came to work on it as an independent project. The book, which is indeed 500 pages long, mixes Eco’s love of the paranoia that leads people to believe in grand conspiracies, his deep knowledge of Mediaeval history, and his own innovation, in the form of the field of semiotics, into a rigorously researched historical fiction, which is a philosophical yet entertaining murder mystery.

The story is set in a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy in the year 1327. Pope John XXII clashes with Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV; debates rage over the poverty of Christ; mendicant monks are branded heretics; the spectre of Fra Dolcino looms over Italy; and a young Benedictine monk has just been found dead—an apparent suicide. William of Baskerville, a worldly Franciscan and former inquisitor from England, and his assistant, the Benedictine novice Adso of Melk, who also narrates the story, arrive at the monastery to take part in a debate on Christ’s poverty between the soon-to-arrive legations representing the Empire and the Church, but are soon tasked by the abbot into investigating the circumstances of the suicide.

In a nod, one of many, to Borges, one of Eco’s heroes, the book in fact begins with the discovery of Adso of Melk’s manuscript by an unnamed scholar, perhaps Eco himself. Eco was a noted bibliophile, and his collected library at the end of his life amounted to some 50,000 books, for him not a conquest or a boast, but a symbol of all the things he didn’t know. The book is written in that bibliophilic vein, and is in fact about books, specifically the quest for knowledge, and whether knowledge is to be attained or merely to be preserved. The librarian of the monastery presides over a labyrinthine library, with secret rooms and an esoteric indexing system. It is his job to retrieve books for the monks so that they may study them in the scriptorium, but more importantly, it is his job to refuse to do so. The monastery is as much in the business of keeping secrets as it is in the business of devotion to Christ, and the library labyrinth is its beating heart.

The secrecy surrounding the library and its contents is one of William of Baskerville’s most pressing obsessions during the investigation. With the coming of Matins each day at three in the morning, more monks are discovered dead, it is quickly established that all of them are linked to the library in peculiar ways. As the story progresses, it turns out that a lost work of Aristotle, the second book of the Poetics, which, since it really is lost, Eco takes some licence in imagining as a work extolling the virtues of laughter, seems to play an important part in linking the victims further. Does the Philosopher’s mythical lost work reside within the library? If it does, does it contain something so dangerous that someone might be driven to kill to keep its secrets? Is it just one of the many red herrings and side alleys, plots real or imaginary, lingering like the ghosts of dead monks in the Ossarium?

The concept of preservation vs. attainment of knowledge is perhaps the book’s central theme. Almost every episode of the story depicts this central conflict in one way or another. Jorge of Burgos believes that all necessary knowledge is contained in scripture, and that everything else is either superfluous or heretical. William is much more of the belief that books are to be read, and that knowledge can be found not just in the divine revelation of the Holy Bible, but in the writings of the Arabs, the Romans, the Greeks, and others. To that point, much is made of William’s use of reading glasses, possibly a defiant act, for did not God make it so that he would not be able to see text clearly enough with the naked eye? This is contrasted with Jorge, who has the novices read aloud to him, he is also a masterful preacher, as shown by his performance during one Compline service. For him it is enough, and perfectly so, that Christ could speak. All is oration, the spoken Word, in Jorge’s world.

Eco takes much inspiration for his characters and events from the real history of the time. Bernard Gui, who really was an inquisitor for John XXII, arrives at the monastery to investigate the murders, and in his piety drives confessions out of heretics who may not in fact have anything to do with the real crimes taking place. Meanwhile, Michael of Cesena, and Ubertino of Casale, two leaders of the Spirituals, the most strict followers of the rule of Saint Francis, take part in the debate on poverty, the Pope’s side of which Bernard Gui has also come to represent. With these examples I scratch the surface of a history I do not know, but one which Eco knew well from his academic studies, and which he researched further in preparation for writing the book itself. His grasp on the intellectual life of Mediaeval Europe is astounding, and the theological and political debates and their corollary plots form a rich backdrop against which the action takes place. There is also much made of technology of the era, William of Baskerville being a proponent of the “magic” of Roger Bacon, who was mentor to him.

Another source of inspiration is of course literature, and Eco delights as much in pulp as he does in “serious” fiction and philosophy. William and Adso bear much in common with Holmes and Watson, and Eco lays this out from the start, with Adso’s description of William’s physical features being very similar to Watson’s description of Holmes. William’s methods of deduction are also quite Holmesian, and rely on his extremely keen observational skills and logic to support what is, as he frequently admits, more or less educated guesswork. There is also something of Occam’s Razor in his approach to the investigation, and he does indeed cite William of Ockham, the originator of the concept, as a good friend. Elsewhere, Eco delights in referencing Borges. The character of Jorge of Burgos is a wise but intensely pious old monk, blind for half of his life, who takes a special interest in knowledge and is a central figure in the book’s dialectic between attainment and preservation. The library itself, and the many books found in the scriptorium, give Eco, through William, plenty of opportunities to show off his wide reading and knowledge of ancient manuscripts.

Though they are a Holmes and Watson, and though the official relationship between them is merely monastic, the young novice acting as assistant to the learned Franciscan, William and Adso also display something of a father-son bond, and often become teacher and student, mentor and protégé. Eco is often criticised for writing flat characters, and I suppose they are not the most richly defined in all of literature, but I feel that there is more to these two than a simple Doyle homage. But Doyle provides skeletons on which Eco can layer sinews and flesh. Maybe it ends up being a bit thin, but then maybe that fits the austere world of the monks and their ascetic, ritual-bound lifestyles. Entering the murders into that world and breaking up those lifestyles, shaking the certainty in which the monks have lived until then to its core, is how Eco bares that flesh.

Quite apart, however, from being a straight murder mystery, much of the book deals with debates on the nature of various things, and is as much at home discussing the writings of Aquinas or the philosophy of the Mediaeval Muslims as it is herbalism, the logic of navigating a labyrinth, and other things I don’t understand. It is as much a philosophical mystery as it is a pulpy whodunnit, as much a portrait of a time and place in history and theology as it is an excuse to indulge in a world of literature. One of the great things I have gained from this book, beyond an entertaining narrative, is an interest in learning about the history of the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic church in Europe, and a reinforcement of my so far half-heartedly followed up on commitment to get to grips with philosophy.

I had a lot of fun with The Name of the Rose. Like Foucault’s Pendulum, which I read some years before, it presents riches which are open to you if you know how to access them, but the puzzles to which you don’t have the solutions are just as tantalising. This book is less grand and all-encompassing than its follow up, but it drinks deep of the literary and cultural history of Europe, and weaves an exciting mystery through it. Perhaps best of all, it has succeeded in interesting me in reading the real histories of these times and places. But still, there is something puzzling in how it has been so adoringly received since its first publication. On the one hand, with its Holmesian double act of William and Adso, and the compelling mystery that seems to insinuate itself into every part of the life of the monastery, I can see why it was such an international success; on the other hand it seems, with its theological debates and deep symbology, like it would be something far less palatable to the general public, who would enjoy the murder mystery were it not for the impossibility of disentangling it from the philosophical questions that drive it. It is a story of books, written for people who love books, and I am one of them.


Some Kind of Update

Howdy buckaroos. As you’ll notice, new material has been a bit sparse lately. A lot of stuff, including the game journals, the essays on music, and of course new work from everyone’s favourite worst composer in the world, has had to take a back seat while I try and figure out some things in my personal life. I’ll spare you the details on what exactly those things are that I’m working out, but I thought I would post a little update here today to let anyone who reads this know what I’m working on and hope to be producing in the coming months.

On to upcoming projects. I’m doing preliminary reading and planning on a critical essay about John Cage’s philosophy of music. I don’t know when I’ll actually start writing, because it is a complicated subject that requires a lot of close reading. It will probably require me to do a lot of additional reading on music from Satie through to Cage also, since Cage talks a lot about Satie, Ives, Varèse, Schoenberg etc. in defining a certain view of modern music history. I mention it here in the hopes that it will not be another thing I start in earnest and then get totally defeated by.

The Zappa Reviews, a project I started years ago, should be coming back this year. I say “should” and not “will” because, while I am working on it, I am having a lot of difficulty picking the work back up. When I look at the mission statement, that is “constructing, through in-depth looks at lyrical content, album structure, instrumentation, and other elements, a logical array of “lenses” through which to view the body of work [of Frank Zappa]”, I don’t understand what I meant. When I come to write a new review, I don’t understand how to apply that idea. So, I’m settling for “should”.

A while back, I wrote A Foundation in Modern Music for Beginners and said that I would also be providing, in a follow-up article, extended listening lists for further exploration. The big list is under construction. I don’t always have time to work on it, because a lot of listening is involved, but it’s getting there. From the “extended” list, I’ll be compiling a bunch of smaller lists, including guided lists in the manner of the original article, which aim at offering chronological views, with commentary that will help people who find the music difficult.

I am hoping to get back into writing anime reviews, probably a bit more in depth than what is currently available on my RYM List but it isn’t a “project” as such, and will basically be crossposting, so I’m not making a big deal about it. Game journals aren’t really a “project” either, they’re just 1000-or-so word things I write if I’ve been playing a game I like or whatever. Off the cuff opinion pieces much the same. So all of those will be making appearances as and when I get the inspiration to do them.

A Personal Appreciation of Rare and Racy

Rare and Racy was a shop in the Devonshire Green area of Sheffield. It dealt in second-hand books, music, and art prints. When Sheffield City Council gave the go ahead for developers to “rejuvenate” the area, the building which housed Rare and Racy, and other independent businesses such as Syd and Mallory’s Emporium, was to be demolished. Now, as the redevelopment plans edge closer to realisation, that great Victorian red brick terrace nears the point beyond which it will be transformed into a little golgotha of red dust and glass fragments to be swept away like so much Saturday night detritus, the echoes of history and of lived human experience that have collected there will be lost forever to time’s insatiable saprophagy.

The last time I entered the shop, in late June of 2017, it had for days been in the process of trying to eviscerate itself, and I recall this was supposed to be its penultimate day of opening. Here was a closing sale in which all items but the bricks and roof shingles themselves were going for pennies apiece. Furniture—from bookshelves to record racks, tables, chairs, display cases, boxes and chests—was priced more often in the tens of pounds, but left the shop no less quickly than what remained of the once overwhelming book collection that I used to pore over in search of classics and oddities on my every visit. Allen Capes, who had been running the shop since its opening in 1969, was behind the till as usual, receiving best wishes from long time customers and many people who had probably never even set foot in there before. It seems that nothing is better for drumming up new business than a two-pronged assault of death and discounts.

I told Allen, when I had picked out a couple of lucky finds, that I would miss the place, before adding that he was probably sick of hearing that by now. He told me, with a resigned nod of the head and a wry smile, that he had been hearing the exact words non-stop the past few days. I took my items, a sale amounting because of the markdown to just one pound, and wished him the best of luck for the future as I stepped out. When the official closing date came and went, purpose unfulfilled, it was clear that he would be hearing them for at least a few more days. Determined as he was to clear the place of every saleable scrap, the shop remained open for something like two weeks after I had made my last ever exit from its eccentric urban cave atmosphere.

On the website, which at the time of writing remains up, there is a gallery of pictures showing the shop interior in full bloom (see also: Postcard Cafe’s series on Rare & Racy). It gives you an idea of what it was like, but even the most extensive array of documentary material could not communicate the real experience of being there.

In its prime, opening the door to Rare and Racy was like stepping into a nexus out of time. Out of print books and records lined the walls on shelves and dominated the floors of its rooms in stalls, stacks, boxes, and stacks of boxes. The air was always thick with jazz, electronica, psychedelic jam bands of the ’60s and ’70s, the folk musics of distant lands, the Kronos Quartet playing an homage to music of the East by American minimalism’s grand old man Terry Riley. Burning incense competed with the aroma of old books, that enticing scent born of the printed word living parasitic on the ghosts of pulped trees. Can we trace a line from a page of Dickens to a tree, from its roots to the dead in the soil from which it grew? In such a place of time and timelessness, where the lifeblood of history was so abundant, those connections were felt undeniably even if you couldn’t put a name to what lay at the centre of them all.

There are places in this world that provide cultures and their creations with refuge, no matter how fleeting, from time. One that I and so many people in Sheffield knew is now closed forever, its diasporans are scattered about the city and further afield, on their way to who knows where. Eventually, if they survive, as I can only hope they will, the places they came from and visited on their way to wherever they then find themselves will be forgotten. When we lose such places we lose a meeting point of things, of ideas and their vessels, of moments crystallised, of peoples and places recorded, and of the perspectives of which they all were born, from which they all were seen. And when the last of them falls to the love of the new we will begin finally to lose ourselves. Perhaps one day, when we have run out of guns and rockets to fire at each other, we will look to those old word piles for ammunition, and when we have run out of books to throw, we will take up the bones of the dead and begin again as naked apes.


Twin Peaks is Cinema, and Metal is the New Classical Music

The recent ballyhoo about Twin Peaks: The Return‘s inclusion in the Sight & Sound (the British Film Institute’s flagship publication) best of 2017 list has sparked much debate. Is it a film? Is it a TV series? Does it straddle a line? Definitively, the answers to those questions would appear to be “no”, “yes”, and “no”. Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief of the Roger Ebert site, which still publishes reviews despite its namesake being very much incapable of watching anything, much less writing about it (of all the categorical boundaries creative work may straddle, that between the penhands of the living and those of the dead may be, in the framework of this discussion, the most perverse), gives a thorough and well reasoned argument against the inclusion of David Lynch’s possible magnum opus in such lists on Twitter, and criticises the snobbish outlook that places the cinematic feature above the serial drama on the ladder of cultural superiority as the real reason for its lofty No. 2 spot on the S&S list. And I can’t help but agree. Television as a platform for high quality, mature, even artistic works has become normalised in our time. So many seasons of The Sopranos, of Mad Men, of Breaking Bad, and now a third of Twin Peaks, have taken what was once the idiot box and turned it into a place for serious art, allegedly. Lynch himself acknowledges this. Variations on a theme though they may be, plenty of interviews during and after The Return‘s unfolding have shown this much: the pop surrealist auteur views television as “the new art house”, and bemoans cinema’s present condition; he loves continuing stories, and he wants to do more—television, not necessarily Twin Peaks. But for all this, the point of contention: Lynch described his latest work as a movie, or rather, he described the shooting process as being akin to one long movie, but we must conflate the two and drag him too into this snob-callout-fest. (For the record: I do not accuse Mr Seitz specifically of this, he was brought up in the first place merely because his discussion is the inspiration—or impetus, if you like—for this article.) S&S editor Nick James has been forthcoming, however, in noting that the list this year, perhaps in recognition of the fact that television isn’t just episodic sitcoms and soaps anymore, allowed “any moving image work on any platform” to be voted for.

All that and what am I getting at? I don’t normally write about film or television. Actually I almost never write about film or television. And I am not breaking that habit with this article. No, I bring up the Twin Peaks snob talk for a simple reason: it mirrors so closely a discussion, or category of discussions, that I have had many many times in relation to classical music and its supposed heirs in the modern day. Film soundtracks, video game soundtracks, and metal music have their legions of fans, and if there’s any one thing to be noted as being common to any “fandom” it is the mass insecurity of its constituents. Recent Szechuan sauce inspired madness may be a particularly ugly and prominent display of such insecurity, but it manifests in smaller, slightly less vulgar forms on a frequent basis. In the case of our three subjects, it is the claim to classical ancestry, like the internet’s probably largely phony white supremacist contingent claiming their would-be Aryan purity, that lies at the root of these ladder-climbing vines, and that is what I address in these paragraphs.

Classical music’s history of exclusivity, its being for a cultural elite, is often unspoken but very much felt in the popular consciousness. Anything beyond the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, repackaged as a soundbite or—shudder—a disco remix, is art wanker country. Smart people in smart dress sipping smart drinks in smart environs, moneyed as Summer days in the extreme north are long, armed with a sizeable payload of razor-wit quips on a range of smart topics destined for timely dispensation during dinner parties—ah yes, that is classical music. While our technologies and networks thereof give us ease of access to something approaching the ever increasing sum total of human creative endeavour, inconceivable in the time of Mozart, our imaginations have yet to begin playing catch-up. Classical music, at least, is still for them, not for all. This sadly also exhibits itself among plenty of “fans” of classical music, those among us who took the “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to the problem, and now imagine themselves players in that very smart scene described above. That classical music is the jurisdiction of an elite is inarguable, that it ought to be is very much contestable and very much should be contested. But who will contest? Certainly not those who believe that it is a dead art form, the Latin of musical traditions. No, they will instead lobby for its replacement.

Thus we have our three sprightly competitors, tanned and ready to do battle for the imaginary throne. By dint of seniority it falls to the film score to first undergo the rigmarole of being found wanting. Of all three it has the strongest connection to classical music. We can trace a direct line from the Wagnerian endless melody to the classic Hollywood sound through Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold was an Austrian child prodigy, famous in Vienna before he hit puberty, and in Europe generally by his twenties, as a composer of ballet scores and for a piano sonata. While his most famous concert works today (the Violin Concerto and Symphony in particular) were composed in his later years, he is best known, or at least most profoundly osmotic in influence, by his Hollywood career, which shaped and solidified the sound we instantly associate with Old Hollywood. Melodramatic, harmonically convulsive, gushing wounds of Germanic late romanticism, divorced from the expansive but rigorously conceived forms of Mahler, which in hindsight seem the only way to contain such a turbulent language (Schoenberg very quickly realised that the adaptations necessary for the German style to survive the deeper environmental implications of Wagner’s chromatic bomb and the jet stream winds of Mahler which carried its fallout to modernity lay beyond reliance upon sanitised octatonic projections of the contours of the harmonic series), bleed out every which way in such productions as The Seahawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and pretty much every other, where unmistakably can be heard the bread if not the butter of John Williams, the current reigning grand old man of American blockbuster bombast.

So provenance is there. It doesn’t take much, however, to look beyond these links and into the music itself. Upon doing so it is clear to see that there is a fundamental difference between the two. Rather than moving in accordance with an internal clock, as one would find in a concert work, the hangers-on from the European tradition that remain in film music find themselves rhythmically magnetised to the buckling of swashes courtesy of Mr Flynn and Co. in The Adventures of Robin Hood. If external stimuli dictate, then integral structure, the fundamental guiding element which underlies material development in a piece of classical music, is necessarily anathema. Competing impetuses make for strange, possibly violent bedfellows, so the choice must be made between one and the other, and in film music it is the film itself that predominates, to accompany it is the music’s entire purpose. I can hear the “ah, but what about”s reverberating out there. What about ballet, or opera, or incidental music for a play? All these are recognised as part of the tradition, are they not? Well, yes, they are. In ballet, however, it is the choreography that is subservient to the music; Nijinsky could not so much as have pointed a toe without Stravinsky’s score. In incidental music, often what we see is music as glue. Between scenes, as sets are changed and actors perhaps change costume, musical interludes, which might sustain the previous scene’s mood and introduce that of the next, both communicated through tropes, but rarely if ever does it accompany a scene proper. Peer Gynt, Henrik Ibsen’s epic verse fantasy, which features an extensive accompanying score (some ninety minutes in total) by Norway’s master tunesmith Edvard Grieg, is perhaps the best example of incidental music for the stage in which this is not the case. Numbers in the score include parts for voices, and the overall organisation, though in effect it is quite different, is prototypical of the stage musical, a form in which spoken, sung, and danced material intermingle over several hours of performance. The musical’s great ancestor, opera, is much the same sort of hybrid. I would go so far as to call opera a separate but parallel tradition to concert music, feeding and being fed by the same stylistic trends and musical advances, but ultimately distinguishable on multiple levels. While it is, for practical reasons, a form which first calls for poetry and then for music, in practice it is the music that dictates, and music is certainly, along with the visual presentation, the primary means of interface with the audience in the form’s natural habitat. If art is about communication, to put the text above all else in an experience (as opposed to a study) of opera would be ridiculous. In opera, as in ballet, it is the music that speaks first and loudest, that drives the work in its totality as performed—its structures are the beating heart of the experience, that from which all else emanates. In film, music is only ever composed to augment something else.

In the late 1960s, Black Sabbath is usually credited with being the originator of the heavy metal sound, which would proliferate over the following decades into a vast and dense miniature tradition. For the purposes of avoiding pedantry I will use “metal” as a catch-all for this next couple of paragraphs, but it is within the insane web of metal subgenres that the subject lurks. The connection between metal and classical music seems to derive principally from Yngwie Malmsteen, the progenitor of “neoclassical metal”, which is even less an exercise in neoclassicism than Stravinsky and Schoenberg preferred to think their excursions into stylistic cribbing from prior centuries. The Swedish shredder is a devotee, we are led to believe, and not necessarily by the man himself, of both Jimi Hendrix and Johann Sebastian Bach, although maybe Paganini on an off-day is more like it. In his composition “Fugue”, an ironically—and you might say painfully—homophonic (it should be noted here that counterpoint, largely owing to the drum heavy instrumentation of metal and other popular musics, is pretty much a non-entity across the board) minor key showcase of what friends in my teenage years referred to as “widdly”, Malmsteen rattles through trite scalar melodies that always end in common practice style cadences and that are only more memorable than a typical original Reger subject because they are so gaudy. On YouTube you can find a whole catalogue and myriad addenda thereto of star-crossed interlocutors, half of whom think it “sounds like” classical music, while the other half, or maybe closer to a quarter, know that it “sounds like (sort of (a little bit (not really)))” but actually is not. Metal being a genre of popular music, that is, music most people put on rather than listen to, it is hardly surprising that advocates of Malmsteen’s work would say that it sounds like classical music, but as is so often the case with YouTube, the worst is yet to come. Dwelling on YouTube comments is the modern equivalent of whiling away the hours in an opium induced coma on the floor of a bordello, so I shall not linger. Yet let it be known that according to one commenter Mr Malmsteen’s queasy opus is “the height of complexity” and written to “the standards of music a few centuries ago”, while another, presumably with tears in their eyes, tells us that “in a world in which most people don’t know what a fugue is, this is refreshing.” What precisely is meant by this last we may never know, and that might just be for the best.

But surely metal is the most technically accomplished popular genre of our time? Well, maybe it is. There is certainly enough technical proficiency among its leading lights to support such a claim. I myself am partial to the early 1990s work of Atheist, especially Unquestionable Presence, and their contemporary Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness, both from the Floridian technical death metal scene, and I used to be a huge fan of Dream Theater as a teenager. These are bands which place a great deal of emphasis on speedily manoeuvring through arrays of difficult riffs and solos, many of which contrast rhythmically in ways that were initially very jarring to my then 4/4 attuned inner ear. However, my complaint with such proponents of technique and mastery in metal, so far as it is relevant in making my case, is that they rarely if ever seem to look beyond the affects of performance and into the depths of composition. It is all good and well playing 32nd note shred over alternating bars of compound and common meter with dropped 16ths, but have you ever stopped to think why you’re doing it? In my teenage years (a personal point of reference for guitar wank which, though I apologise for it, is necessary to constantly dip into for this section) I wanted to play my guitar fast, so I learned how to do it. At the age of seventeen I was pretty fast, and I kept getting faster till I was damned fast. Friends were impressed at my speed, and I was happy to impress them with it, because I was not impressive in any other way. At the same time I became more and more interested in modern classical music, and in avant garde variants of popular genres. It took me a while to realise it (I would not really drop mindless shred guitar until I was in my early twenties), but I had begun to develop through listening to the music of Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern, Maurice Ravel, and others, the subconscious need to organise musical materials into coherent, self-contained structures. What metal of pretty much any variety seems to lack, in my experience—and I would by no means call myself an expert, merely someone who has heard enough to get the gist of it—is the organisational element, the deep structure that binds diffuse sections into a cohesive whole through the thematic interrelation of materials. There is rarely if ever any sort of development: there is one riff, then there is another, and perhaps another, and then the sequence is repeated, and those riffs may be related by a mood, but in truth one never talks to the other, the gestural back and forth developing to a climax is not there, and what resolution does come at the end is by necessity not resolution in the classical sense.

Video game music, which may indeed contain music akin to both previous subjects, is almost so broad as to not be worth discussing. Its stylistic range runs the gamut from ambient to (don’t quote me on this) zydeco. There is nothing from which it does not crib, and indeed many game scores have been created by established artists in film music, electronic dance music, rock, pop, metal etc. and fully embrace the respective stylistic conventions thereof, but its relationship with classical music in this sense tends to be highly superficial. One of the great video game soundtracks is found in the three hours of music Nobuo Uematsu composed for Square’s massively popular Final Fantasy VI, and like all Final Fantasy soundtracks, at least up until the series made the leap to the PlayStation 2 in 2001, it features a wide range of musical styles—here done up in the inimitable and wonderfully nostalgic sounds of the SNES soundchip. Arguably Uetmatsu’s finest work, it begins with the unmistakable sound of a quartal ascension, and then notably does not resolve, instead letting a fairly heavy dissonance from the organ sit for a little while before moving through the harp interlude to the main theme which lets you know, in case you were not already fully aware, that shit is about to go down. As an integral component of one of the most memorable and atmospheric introductions to any game, it immediately makes the game stand out on a different level from previous entries in the series. These themes reappear many times throughout the soundtrack, but as anyone who is familiar with the game will know, Dancing Mad is really where the titular “omen” of the opening track is fulfilled. Often thought of as an extremely ambitious way to score the climax of the action, Dancing Mad is some sixteen minutes in duration, and moves through several diverse sections before concluding with a boss-battle-ised variation on another theme which we encounter early on in the game. Classical, right? Well, no. It certainly has the duration to match a movement from a great big symphony, but its contents are more in line with the operas of Philip Glass than with the rondo-finales of Gustav Mahler. In the final battle sequence each section of the piece corresponds to a different level of a literal tower of enemies; as the player defeats a level of what are essentially preparatory sub-bosses, they ascend to the next level and the music moves on to the next section, so each section will be heard multiple times. In the OSV (Original Sound Version, a soundtrack album featuring the music exactly as rendered by the SNES soundchip), this means that the sixteen minutes mostly consists of repeats. When at last the top of the tower is reached, that goosebump-inducing quartal ascension sounds on the organ, and we’re in for another ten minutes or so of music. But where it is exciting—and perhaps, if taking a particularly long time to beat the final boss, at least tolerable—in game, listening to it spin its wheels out of context is about as engaging as the average daytime soap opera.

While it was certainly ambitious in its conception as a piece of game music, and especially for the early ’90s, written for a soundchip that could not pretend to realism and which was all the more charming and memorable for it, Uematsu could not deny it its essential role, which was to form something bigger than itself. A large part of the reason why it, and indeed any video game soundtrack, cannot operate in the same manner as classical concert music, is that it must be designed to accompany something else. It is not in the same boat as film music, which accompanies scripted events captured on celluloid or more recently digital storage media, because video games, while they are made up of scripted events, ultimately move to the rhythms of the player, which forces their soundtracks to accommodate a broad range of potential events. In the case of Final Fantasy VI, the player’s control over events is limited to moving the party’s avatar on a grid until an encounter, either random or scripted, is triggered. Up until that point Uematsu’s job is to reinforce a sense of place by creating music which generally suits the area of the game’s world that the player is in, but when an encounter starts, he ceases to be appropriate to location and instead must be appropriate to situation. The demands of writing to location, situation, mood, character etc., and to always be servile to the player’s whims, are absolutely necessary to address materially when composing a game soundtrack, they are also totally divorced from anything encountered when composing concert music. Naturally, use of music as mood enhancer in games has only become more complicated in the time since Final Fantasy VI, and now it is commonplace to have realtime switching between multiple tracks to reflect the dynamic nature of the gameplay itself—I am most familiar with this through the Metal Gear Solid series of stealth games, which uses multiple variations of a track to indicate whether the player is in combat or being searched for by the enemy, but this is hardly the most complex example in the industry today.

As I discussed in the paragraphs on film music, concert music always moves in accordance with its internal clock, and it is complete unto itself. In the case of music where the goal is to accompany something that is being viewed, and not only that but interacted with and controlled, the music cannot be complete in itself, because if it is then it cannot augment with the other components of the hybrid that they together are intended to form. Consider that in the early days, not Pong early, but fairly early, most games featured simple loops that had no real beginning or end, they just were. This was important because you could lose at any time, and the music would have to be able to transition without jarring to a lose jingle; unlike films there was no real way to know when the action would really peak. In modern games, which are often designed with a “cinematic” approach in mind, the player is many times guided via scripted sequence to a climactic moment, and if such a sequence is designed to take a specific amount of time to complete and to hit moments A, B, and C at times X, Y, and Z, the composer may then be able to operate on film score terms, at least for a handful of circumstances. Still, for all such advances made you could say that a little bit of character is often lost, and the classics just have that je ne sais quoi that makes them hard to beat. Another Uematsu piece, the mawkish and somehow internationally famous Aerith’s Theme, from Final Fantasy VII, gives old RVW and his Lark Ascending a run for their money in the annual Classic FM poll of listeners to determine the greatest classical works of all time. Yes, that’s right, you heard right: the greatest classical works of all time.

Why? Well, there is the unspoken understanding, inculcated in equally wordless fashion through osmosis, that objectivity—though we will always at least pay lip service to the idea that “art is subjective”—necessitates a ladder, almost as wide as it is tall, upon which musics of all sorts can and must do battle to secure supremacy. Classical music, frequently considered to be at the top of this ladder, has the distinct advantage in this competition of possessing a deeply felt gravitas of the sort afforded only by longevity. Like the Western literary tradition, we can ultimately trace the classical music of our time to Ancient Greece. As recently as the 1600s, the Pythagorean “pure perfect fifth” (expressed in tuning theory by the ratio 3:2) dominated Western music, and it was not until the advent of well temperament (as in Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier) that the now standardised notion of the division of the octave into twelve equal pitches was introduced. Prior to this invention, music, especially for keyboard instruments, was limited because uneven division of the octave rendered many keys wholly dissonant and therefore unstable according to the theory and tastes of the time. History of this sort is matched only by traditional folk musics that have existed for millennia, much of which is passed down through generations by oral tradition, as opposed to the literary tradition of classical music.

Popular music has no such grand history, its rise is tied to the invention of sound recording and reproduction, and many of its recognisable forms today have histories most appropriately measured in decades rather than centuries or millennia, and this also means that time has not been able to do its work in establishing anything like a canon. The fact of contemporaneity, or near-contemporaneity, of witnessing first hand, up close, the creation and development of popular genres, makes them much more difficult to assess. Classical music, with its centuries of development as a recognisable tradition, has had time to develop a canon; that is a single line of era defining figures and works which, viewed chronologically, chart the development of an entire cultural outlook on music. But the closer we get to now, the more fragmented this supposed single line becomes. This problem is compounded in popular music by its “lay” nature and the ease with which the tools to produce it can be acquired. To put it another way: a trained composer’s Op. 1 is most likely the culmination of years upon years of rigorous study, but most people can pick up a guitar and learn to reliably play the stock selection of pop chords to a beat in a matter of months. The amount of rock, pop, metal, and especially hip hop being produced each week is staggering. Just look around on streaming services like Bandcamp and SoundCloud: hundreds if not thousands of new songs are uploaded every day, and most of this is just the work of unsigned acts, amateurs, hobbyists. You can never listen to it all, and it may be that only future generations will have the hindsight necessary to sift through the detritus and find gold, but then what of the music of their own time? Oversaturation will undoubtedly mean that, even in the fairest of all worlds, most work, good or bad, will reach only a few ears, and those ears may be closed.

Instead of a tradition, popular music has many traditions, grouped together only by their uniform adherence to verse-chorus structure. Furthermore, musical progress is rarely if ever made by any of these traditions, rather fashions and fads come and go in cycles, the only lasting changes afforded purely by technological circumstance. At best, novel approaches to pop song composition (such as Roy Orbison’s through-composed “In Dreams”) are regarded as just that, novel, and are not adopted or adapted by others. The only major changes between the 1940s and now are that the music is largely electronic, and hip-hop has become the dominant aesthetic force in popular music, just as the blues did when it was sanitised for white audiences in the 1950s. Given that hip-hop is largely based around short, simple loops acting as sonic terrain for rappers to negotiate, it seems to me that if this trend of dominance continues then popular music will become even more musically simplistic than it already is. This process of simplification, however, does not begin with hip-hop. To begin with it was largely tied to the introduction of music videos, essentially song length advertisements which enabled “the artist”, or rather the executives behind them, to distract from the reselling of old rope with flashy visuals and “the personality of the artist”. Over the decades this has taken its toll. Popular music, at its worst, has become a primarily visual form, a verbal form second, and a musical form dead last. Like general elections in the US and UK, more so than quality and substance, we are encouraged to find impressive mere image and PR groomed personality, a total dead end for the field and a cheapening of the culture. But hey, the people behind it make a whole lot of money, so who gives a fuck?

That music outside of the classical tradition cannot be classical music, that it lacks on a fundamental level the very things that make classical music what it is, that film scores, video game music, metal, chamber pop etc. are all their own things and should be viewed as such—all this should by now be clear if I have done my job adequately. What is left then is to try to explain the why of it. Insecurity of the fanbase is one thing, but greater—in the case of the genres discussed—than a need to prove the worth of what you like, is the need to prove that that worth is greater than the worth of other things. Undoubtedly, classical music attracts a lot of snobs. Recently I encountered this shining example on YouTube, in which one commenter expresses concern that many people probably do not have the patience to enjoy the symphonies of Mahler, and this is suspect enough in itself, but then along comes another fellow with the reassuring words: “No! You are among the fortunate, Jim. I feel sorry for them, truly! They waddle through the third dimension getting what little comfort they can – but this is purely a wonderful, spiritual experience.” But this, I think, is that same need to prove something about the quality of one’s taste, and it tends to manifest itself very strongly in public spaces for the non-specialist. That is, someone without a great interest in classical music finds this Mahler performance on YouTube (for we live in such wondrous times that stumbling upon classical music can be a perfectly ordinary occurrence) and, having had some kind of reaction to the music, scrolls down just a few minutes into the performance to see if others feel the same way. Well, you have to grab this person’s attention, and either admonish them for disliking it, and thus “waddling through the third dimension”, or praise them for liking it, and thus “being among the fortunate”. In specialist discussion spaces, this kind of thing, though it is not totally absent, is typically seen for the insubstantial and self-congratulatory buffoonery that it is. But even unpretentious people who know what they’re talking about can take on the appearance of snobs very quickly when they use specialist terminology, and this can make newcomers wary. So at least some of the problem can be thought of in terms of insecurity, and the question is one of whether the outsider can overcome a potential feeling of alienness to a community which has a reputation for mostly attracting highly intelligent people, thus the feeling that they may be stupid if they don’t get it. Believe me when I say most classical fans ain’t all that, and the ones that are generally aren’t going to shove it in your face.

That “popular” and “mainstream” do not mean the same thing in this discussion should be clear. A lot of the music discussed in this article is not mainstream at all, but “popular” indicates a kind of democratisation—after the Western model of pay to play democracy, in which people are at least allowed to luxuriate in the illusion of having a voice that can reach those ears above the clouds where money’s great gramophone blares eternal—that is the idea that anyone can do it. Classical music is “ivory tower” by comparison, or at least, that is what people still believe. I do not think it is too extreme to say that I hate this. Sure, you need to study to be a concert pianist, and you need to get a good teacher at an early age and later have the money to see you through years at the conservatory, so basically if you weren’t born into money you will have quite a struggle on your hands. There are, for better or worse, barriers to entry as a performer that keep the common rabble like you and me, we waddlers of the third dimension, out, but barriers to enjoyment of the music itself? A decade ago this was maybe still arguable, but today you can find pretty much anything on the beloved YouTube, or, failing that, most libraries have vast catalogues of music these days. Our imaginations have yet to catch up with the reality of our day. Everyone has access, the idea that classical music must be the preserve of an elite no longer bears scrutiny. So, too, the idea that other forms of music should compete to out-patrician each other in questing to take the place of what is wrongly assumed to be a dead art form. It is simply a question now of dealing with fandom insecurity and the need for what you like to be seen to be objectively better than what you don’t like. In other words, it is possible for Twin Peaks: The Return to be a great work of television and for that to be sufficient in itself, and all that is left is for those who are loath to admit that they enjoy television to relax.

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.


I don’t get inspired much by staring at a computer. And you’re thinking “well, great, neither do I, what’s your point?” My point is that my computer is my typewriter, my piano, my blank draft score. You know the pictures, the portrait of some 20th century American master, there’s a glass of scotch on the desk and a cigarette quietly burning away to itself in the valley of an ashtray rim, and just behind them, from our perspective, is a nice typewriter. Typewriters are so bold and robust, chunky mechanisms that don’t really sound like anything else except perhaps a machine’s approximation of marching troops, like the Swamp Thing that dreamt it was a man. Poised just inches above the keys of this nice, chunky, positively sexy typewriter, are the fingers of a man, and this man is staring on intently at the paper which we assume, foolishly, is just one of many that have risen from within the bowels of the machine that day. And he’s really typing something, too! Or how about the composer, piano and/or score paper in his immediacy, one dainty finger pressed to the keyboard, or pen clutched in a hand poised for action, a look of mischievous or serious intent (and this one really depends on when the portrait was taken; during the late 1700s folks like Haydn were forgiven for having a little gleam in the eye, but the window was pretty short, and in the times surrounding this brief period of allowance of that most rarefied of composer face ingredients (apologies, Tom) the faces are all either seriously angry about something or merely not emotionally affected either way) on the face. And you imagine them saying to themselves, regularly, say every few minutes, “ah yes,” and adding a few more squiggles to the lines. It’s like chess, you have to ponder the situation a little, then you say “ah yes,” and your opponent knows they’re in deep blue shit. Okay, so maybe that doesn’t happen in chess, at least not with me, because I just want to move the damn thing along. You’ve never seen Chessmaster’s take-back feature used so often in the space of ten minutes.

Chess aside: yes, folks, this is how writers write and composers compose, and even though I hate photographs and I’ve never had a professional want to take my portrait, I too sit around my studio (ha!) waiting for divine inspiration in a variety of poses should some intrepid photographer break into and enter my house, specially selected Zeiss lenses at the ready, with the intent of capturing me in a variety of entirely natural looking positions while I pretend to work. Pretend. Let’s not pretend that what I’m doing all the time is working. In fact, let’s be honest about this: most days, work takes up the least amount of time. Why? Because I don’t get inspired much by staring at my computer. Yeah, no piano-bound lightning bolts from God for me, just sitting, staring at a computer, thinking “I could be watching an obscure Taiwanese art film with only three lines of dialogue in the entirety of its three hour duration right now. That’s one line per hour, baby!” And coincidentally, that’s about the speed at which I write. Oh, be serious, you writer-slash-composer I’ve never heard of. You’re entirely correct, I’m not that slow, but I do have an uncanny penchant for writing at a fair pace only when I’m avoiding the subject.

I don’t get inspired much by staring at a computer. I’ve said this three times already because I enjoy belabouring my point with jokes, it’s the only way I can achieve longevity. I’m not so much a procrastinator as a rambler, I have to wander a little to get the juices going, and I always end up with a substantial word count. My secret is I don’t edit once I’ve gotten all the nonsense out of the way. That aside, the writer-slash-composer in my generic portrait is never at work, he’s static, an enduring symbol of hard work, determination, and inspiration that it’s easy to forget never existed outside of this still image. The guy who inspired the portrait, whoever he is, when he’s at work he doesn’t look half as confident, and that cigarette isn’t being left to mind its own business in its nice little glass pit type environment, and the levels in that scotch glass are changing so rapidly you’d want to take it and study it for signs of some internal landmass straining and fissuring from microtectonic shifts.

The keyboard is not an inspirational thing, it’s just a bunch of keys, and when you press one of them the mechanism or circuitry below triggers a process, and the letter appears before your very eyes. It’s like magic, a secret incantation of the inanimate that dreamt it could move, and from it you have the start of a sentence, but where do you go? It’s not like you had a plan when you sat down, you’re just stringing letters together and hoping they form an intelligible sentiment. Let’s face it: the only reason you’re here is because at some point in your life you said “I’m a writer” and you believed it, poor schmuck. Then you had a brilliant idea: get advice from other writers. Now, you’re a shy fellow, rightly aware of your nothing status in the publishing world, and why’s Don DeLillo or whatever likely literary hero going to give even half a shit (I’m not even sure that’s possible, because if you take a shit and break it in half what you’ve got is two shits, so don’t take it out on Don, okay?) about you and your situation? Well, he isn’t and they aren’t, so you try the next best thing: YouTube. You get writerly advice from not only your main man Don, but Paul Auster, and Günter Grass, and Umberto Eco, and a bunch of guys and gals you’ve never heard of but seem to know what they’re talking about, and they’re all telling you the same thing. “If you’re a writer you have to write every day, no excuses, you write and you write and you write, and that’s how a writer must be.” So here you are, sat before the keyboard, and you’ve written one sentence, and it’s the stupidest fucking thing anyone has ever written from Dispilio through to the Facebook post you were reading not ten minutes ago in order to keep informed about what clothes some girl you met once last Tuesday is wearing to a party you aren’t attending. You hate this sentence, you want to kill the person who wrote this sentence. You sit back in your chair, give a few minutes to really let the distinctive aroma of ham-fisted cliché in a redundant sauce with a garnish of platitudes embrangle the nasal passages, really taste that foetid, bland ugliness. You begin now to even feel a distaste for the hate, because it’s purple, and you remember someone on the internet, whose opinion you respect for some reason, making fun of purple prose as if it was the worst thing you could possibly commit to record.

After a while of going through this torture on a daily basis, you develop an intuition for it. There are those days when you can just feel it, you know your brain isn’t up to the task. So why, when you are like this, would you bother to write anything? What is it that makes you feel like you have to get something down, or you’re not a writer? Well, it’s probably because you were putting your stock in the advice of people from a different time, Don’s old, so’s Günter and Umberto, and Paul’s getting up there. Not that they aren’t great writers, massively intelligent guys with mountains of experience that could dwarf Olympus Mons, but they were established probably long before you were born, they were getting started then and you’re trying to make your shit happen right now. You feel inspired and intimidated by these guys and others, because there’s some inherent quality about special groups, whether it’s important writers, or composers, or artists of any kind, or multibillionaires, the very existence of these groups naturally makes you and other ordinary people feel guilty for not being within them. So you’ve taken the words of the Important Writers as gospel, you think that’s how you get there, and worse still, you think it’s vitally important that you get there. You aren’t a writer, you’re a would-be socialite who chose to aspire to a group that just happened to be made up of writers, a better class of people for you to aim for in your frantic scurry up the rungs. Fuck you and fuck your writing, and fuck whatever else it is that you do, you phony piece of shit.

That’s how it feels when you try to write every day without an idea simply because someone you think is cool said you should.

So what exactly are we to draw from this? Life sucks, you suck, why bother? No. The thing to take from all that I’m saying, and it’s something that took me a while to realise for myself, is that if you approach your work based on the perspectives of people who aren’t you, who will probably never know you, you aren’t taking inspiration, you’re doing imitation. The difference between the two is something you have to learn, and it’s no mere semantic inconsequentiality. Sure, it’s okay to seek encouragement from the words of others when you can’t find it within yourself, to listen to people who have done great things in your chosen field and for whom you believe you have a lot of respect, but if you’re waiting around for validation from them it’s going to be a very long time coming, if you’re lucky, more likely it will never come. By trying to be them you place yourself in a losing race against the shadows of giants in late afternoon, and all you are then is just another parrot voice lost to the indifference of the world. But then what do I know, I’m just a writer-slash-composer you’ve never heard of.