Das Studium

I’ve bid Boston adieu for the time being and started studying at the University of Münster Musikhochschule in northwest Germany.  Everything’s in German, so that’s been a bit of a trip, but it’s pretty wonderful.  Without getting too deep into it, because that’s not the original point of this post, I’m one of just five drumset students here, which is just worlds away from part of what I didn’t like about Berklee.  I already know everyone in my class and many from the others (in my part of the school, which is pop music performance / music education).  It’s also incredibly cheap.  The scholarship money Berklee gave me was very small in comparison to what my tuition every semester cost, and yet, thanks to German university tuition laws, my per-semester scholarship there was over 8x more than what I have to pay outright per semester to study here.  Less convoluted:  I’m paying less than $300 per semester towards my bachelor’s degree.  Unglaublich.

Anyway, I was just browsing last night and came across this video posted on Reddit in which Bertrand Russell discusses the importance of philosophy.  There was a comment thread discussing the video, and buried therein was the following post regarding searching for knowledge vs. information, or following a quest to understand the “how” and “why” rather than just the what.  You can distill it down to simply being about learning, but I liked the account of the rewards he found, and that it’s an anecdote from a discipline I know little about.

It resonates with me right now as I’m struggling to keep up with my music theory classes, a fight that’s compounded by a little voice in the back of my mind that says, “You don’t really need this stuff, anyway.”  It’s tough sometimes to shake that feeling that you’re just learning something because someone else says you should, but I find this account of finding the drive, and seeing retroactively the worth of pursuing knowledge when it’s later applied, inspirational.  Too often in my study of music, whether under a teacher or on my own, have I sought to simply reach the next level of performance, or, in other words, results, rather than given myself over to really being a student and digging deep into the “how” and “why” as a more comprehensive means to the same end.

And as I trudge through a difficult subject in a difficult, foreign language, I’ll take the inspiration, wherever it may come from.

Anyway, here’s the post.  I’ll just post it unedited as it was originally written.  The last bits are in response to someone having recommended him some places to begin studying philosophy.

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“Once you commit to studying philosophy, accompanied by a genuine thirst for knowledge — I must warn you — you are opening up Pandora’s box in the best imaginable way.”

About 3ish years ago I was playing minecraft with some friends, and we decided to try to make a trap to get monster loot. I remember making a trap that ran of a little redstone logic circuit I made. I was surprised when It worked so well, and that my friends didn’t understand it. I thought I wasn’t smart enough to do something like that. This set off a chain reaction. I started to wonder what else I could do.

So I decided to learn programming, scrap by scrap. I was smart, I didn’t have to understand how it worked, I didn’t need knowledge. This is just confusing because somebody else’s fault. People who have knowledge aren’t smart, they only have that knowledge because they couldn’t just figure it out themselves, right?

Then I meet another programmer who started about the same time I did. He could code circles around me. He did so much that I would have never imagined possible. One day I asked him how he got so good. He shrugged and said “I just want to know how it all works.” I thought that that was a silly reason to do anything, I didn’t really take it to heart.

Then one day, I decided to emulate that mindset, to chase ‘knowing how it all works’ for a while, to see what useful things I could learn. So I read. Not a lot mind you, just enough to understand how the language worked. Then when I tried to program again, it was suddenly different. It was like sailor first finds the wind, when a musican first hears the music they’re reading. I was in resonance with both knowledge and cleverness. This was the potential teachers had always said that I wasn’t taking. Code was no longer a chore, It was no longer a thing to be cleaned on occasion and forgotten, It was expression of self, It was the flow of raw and ruthless ideas without a care in the world.

I always thought climbing the mountain of knowledge was a fools errand, until I was high enough upon it to see the view. I had always starving, but I had never realized what had hungered. The little I had read fead my curiosity, but only enough to raise its appetite.

Later on I wrote a little multiplayer game. It was slow and terrible, unplayable even, but my programmer friends were amazed, even the one who could code circles around me.

Then I dove down the rabbit hole. I began to read everything I could about computers. I wrote useless tools that I knew I’d never use. The knowledge I was gaining made everything so clear.

During this time I also played strategy games. Dota and the such. The bits and pieces of math that I had picked up with code began to show the value of themselves with strategy. I had started to see the numbers, the way it fit together. That was the moment I began to understand what math truly was. It wasn’t some group of equations to be memorized, it was patterns. It was the art of thought. Music has sound, Sculpting has shape, math has thought and pattern. The other subjects too, history, literature, art, they were all connected in ways that I had just begun to see.

I began to study math. I struggled, just as I did when I started with code. I studied physics along the way as well.

It started to change everything. I had begun to see. To see. It cannot be fully described until you have experienced it. I no longer drifted along like a numb rag-doll, deaf to all but impulse. The patterns of everything started to appear. Everything began to show its own sort of intense beauty. This was how it felt to be rapt in awe.

Curiosity, which was once just a faint whisper on the tongues of others, has quickly started to become a huge force in my life. It grows and grows the more it knows. Three years ago I had begun to crack open Pandora’s box of curiosity, and now that its open, I can’t imagine closing it, I can only feel excitement in what next I’ll find.

I started to learn math still not to long ago. The idea of it is definitely something that I want to pursue now that I understand what It actually is.However, It still is quite confusing to me. It reminds me much of how I felt when I first tried to learn to code. The part from the video that struck me the most was when he talked about people trying to shape knowledge, rather then allow knowledge to shape them, I realized that that was exactly what I was doing with mathematics. I was cherry-picking the parts with obvious value, and only thinking of them. I had never cared for the foundation because I tried to quickly to reach the bits which I had already found interesting. The entire guiding force behind my curiosity was the off statement of another mind. I didn’t recognize that till I watched the video. I need to learn how to give others the reign of thought and see where they take me. Doing it before has given me so much, and only doing it again now has let me recognize it.

ANYWAYS, thanks for the suggestions.

A Couple New Songs

I’ve posted a couple more songs in the Media page.  They are unfinished Baby Made Rebel tracks, recorded in 2013 and not quite completed before we went on hiatus.  “The Standing” is much further along than “Untitled Single,” as may be apparent from the titles.

“The Standing” started with a drum loop I recorded as part of my Loops Project.  Lance heard it and wrote a tune around it.  We performed it at a few gigs in Boston in 2013, and I wish the recording had been completed and released, but I guess everything ground to a halt when I left for Germany.

“Untitled Single” was recorded right before I left, so naturally that one got a lot less love.  But I love the direction it was headed in and vibe it had going for it, even in so incomplete a form.

Finally, Clinton Degan has been working on mixing the songs we recorded together in late Summer 2013 and emailing us demos, and the songs are sounding incredible.  One of them is a tune an old band of his had turned down, saying it was “impossible” to turn into a full-band song.  For a group of musicians as talented as they were, it should say something about the complexity of the composition that it was denied on that ground.  I’m incredibly proud listening to it, knowing we as a group of musicians achieved something not only impressive, but I think also beautiful, and also proud of Degan for not taking “no” as an answer and guiding the song, along with its companion seven others on this record, to a really impressive product.  I can’t wait to be able to post some.

“The other side of ‘it’s possible'”

I threw this up on Facebook a few weeks back and thought I would just post it up here, for posterity and future pep-talk usage.  It got a little more far-reaching than I intended, but so it goes.  I’ll just leave it as-posted.

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I was entirely self taught on drums from when I got a crash-ride and snare for Christmas at… what, 13 years old or so?… until spring, 2007. in that time I undoubtedly developed lots of bad technique habits. when I was accepted to Berklee in 2007, I started seeing a local drum teacher to prepare for Berklee. one thing I could never get down was the double stroke roll, which drummers will know is a highly foundational rudiment to one’s playing. my left hand just always wanted to turn over, tighten up, and very deliberately “push” every hit, rather than “dropping” or “throwing.” and I couldn’t even ask it to try controlling a bounce. snowball’s chance in hell.

I didn’t assimilate much at Berklee because I never felt like it was the right place for me. also, I was still playing a lot of my own music while I was there, so I couldn’t (ok, didn’t) take the time out to reshape my technique. but I vividly remember confiding in my first private instructor at Berklee that I just could never get my left hand to play nice re: stick control, and expressed my fear that I had just been doing the wrong thing for too long and would never get past this major handicap. he said very flatly, “that’s possible.” this was a private instructor who was well-respected and -liked, and a totally formidable player in his own right, as one could rightly expect a private Berklee instructor to be. I won’t lie; his reaction crushed me a fair bit.

over the last month or so, though, I’ve finally really buckled down, and for the first time in my life really focused deliberately on just a couple simple exercises: a rotating double stroke roll Bertram Lehmann taught me at Berklee (that I could expand upon if anyone was curious), as well as accenting the upstrokes as he suggested; and, primarily, an introductory stamina exercise by Gary Chaffee that Alex Major turned me on to. and for the first time in my life, I’m started to feel like it’s “clicking,” like my left hand is “getting it.” it’s taken almost shutting off everything else, drums-wise; the last few weeks have been 90% spent on the practice pad. (but that’s coming from a total ADD case when behind the kit.)

and I’m finally beginning to believe my deep-gut reaction that my first instructor’s flatly crushing “it’s possible” was horse shit. his words rang in my mind for a good 6-7 years, and while I chipped away occasionally at my problem by sitting down for 10 minutes here and there to work on double stroke rolls, I always had those defeating words overhead like a gathering dark cloud. but I knew if I just forced myself to focus, I could do it. I just hadn’t taken the practice seriously until now. and it’s amazing what a difference even just a few weeks of focus can make.

so, you know. “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” and all that pocket-sized jazz.

now I reassess things as I consider my future as a drummer, and catch myself every now and then worrying that I’ve just started to focus on that facet of my instrument too late; hell, there are guys who are 10 years younger than me who blow me away at that game. but I remember the words “it’s possible,” and remember that it’s probably horse shit. as long as you’re bettering yourself, “too late” or “never” couldn’t be more irrelevant.

Like Hossein Might Say

I’ve been spending time trying to finish an old screenplay, and in so doing I’ve read through a book by Brian Murphy called The Root of Wild Madder.  It chronicles the journalist’s dive into the world of Persian carpets, his passion leading him into a world in which he soon feels out of his depth, and his search for a “lodestone,” a kind of North Star by which to navigate his passion for learning more about this mysterious art.  It’s a fascinating read and really has a lot to say about a lot of things, and a lot of what it says about the fine art of Persian carpet weaving works well as broad observation of art at large.

There’s a lot of talk in the book about contradictions, unsolvable mysteries, nebulous mystique – things the author tries repeatedly to pin down and distill into simple, digestible terms, and which his Persian hosts and guides remark are beautiful just for their inherent mystery, and need not be nailed down in more approachable epithets.  In fact, many can’t – take, for example, that the majority of carpets have no signatures or known origins, differentiating them from most or all other art styles, and origins can only be guessed at based on the style of the piece.  The author asks a member of a large carpet trading family, “Doesn’t that frustrate you?” to which the man replies, “Why do you keep coming back to this idea?  No.  On the contrary, it’s the thing that makes carpets fascinating.”

Anyway, this has all been to introduce a quote I really liked about remaining with open heart and mind and being receptive to all possibilities around you.  The quote comes from a carpet vendor featured in the book named Hossein, who owns a large shop in Isfahan and is the source of many amazing insights.  Hossein and the author had been discussing how traditions had been dying and globalization and the internet were sweeping the world.  Was modernization always a bad thing?  Of course not.  “Sitting in the dark because you don’t have electricity isn’t so good.”  But he goes on to say:

“What I’m afraid of is that we lose the sense that the world is a big, mysterious place where all kinds of things are possible.  Being modern is one thing.  But I hope this doesn’t mean losing wonder and awe and a sense that God is watching us.  If that happens, my friend, these kinds of carpets will be no more.  They come from that type of imagination.  What I’m trying to say is that good carpets – or any art, I think – come from people who ask questions about life and try to see things that aren’t there.  People who think they know all the answers and just create things to sell are making nothing but junk.”

Master Class with Mariss Jansons

I just learned of this amazing Dutch TV film called “Master Class with Mariss Jansons.”

The Latvian maestro takes three young, promising conductors and puts them in front of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra to rehearse Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.  Jansons then watches over them as they conduct run-throughs of the pieces, and jumps in on subsequent runs to provide feedback.  Some of the musicians in the orchestra, all masters in their own rights, also sit with the young conductors and describe their performances from their points of view.

The program came up in a conversation with my brother in law when we both decided we didn’t know enough about the world of classical conductors or their art.  “Master Class” in turn provides a really fascinating look into the craft.  As a should-be owner of Classical Music for Dummys, I really had no grasp of what the role of the conductor was aside from providing the tempo, keeping track of meter, and giving simple ques for instrumentalists.

One of the young conductors, a Chinese guy named Yu Lu, said his friends were worried about him going to the Netherlands for the show because he spoke no Dutch and not much English.  He said to them that he was not a bit concerned, for music is an international language.  I recount this because there really was so much more communication between the conductor and the orchestra than I imagined, even having assumed my preconceptions were surely woeful underestimations.  And it was fascinating to see not only verbal tips and suggestions from the conductor between runs, but also the extent to which the conductor physically interpreted the music, contorting his face, wiggling his fingers, snapping his wrists.  Yu Lu was particularly interesting to watch, his physical manifestations of the score being as nuanced and genuine as subtle arching of his eyebrows.  It was even described by Jansons at one point as being an actor – one must, to conduct, not only read the music, hear it and feel it internally, and communicate this verbally with the orchestra, but physically provide not only temporal and rhythmic cues, but also the “emotional sculpture” of the piece, as it were – convey the peaks and the valleys, the tension and the ecstasy.  Everything from sharpness of movements to amount of hunch in the back – it was impressed upon each aspiring leader that everything he did with his body was a message to the orchestra and of total import in achieving what he meant to achieve.

So, although I have nothing to do with classical music, I found there to be universal truth in this, not only in how we communicate music to an audience but how we communicate ideas to each other, musicians or not.  Plus, it’s just super entertaining to see something so abstract and subjective get dissected.

What was also interesting to me, though, and which I won’t harp on too much, was the interaction between the 19 year old Alexander Prior and the orchestra.  He was admonished a few times for being too controlling, too forthright with his opinions, and having too strong a penchant for micromanagement.  Despite his talent and clear vision, it was suggested to him that he was being overbearing and risked souring the relationship with his orchestra.  Classical orchestras are of course a different context than, to give a predictable example, rock bands.  We in conversation at home even likened the former to a religion in ways – you have your composer, who is usually dead and gone, leaving the conductor to be the “priest,” the interpreter and vassal in which the real meaning, the core truth of the message must reside.  In a rock band, things are often more democratic – but not always.  Whatever the format of the band, though, I thought this urged-diplomacy was another universal aspect to music.  The conductor depends on his orchestra just as they do him, and perhaps that’s even more true in an established band that often has less of a hierarchical construct and more of a creative co-dependence.  What we say and how we say it matters; it can be said that even within a system like an orchestra where there is to be one leader among many voices, tone is important.  I’ve thought this obvious, but I’ve had enough interactions to know the message has not made its way into some skulls.  For many it should be a reminder and an interesting parallel.  For some, I must say sadly – but suggest hopefully! – that it may be a lesson in leadership and expression.

Anyway.  I meant to go back and re-watch it to glean what else I meant to talk about, but the internet at home is apparently trying to match the speed of the fresh grass growing outside.  So I recommend it to any and all, musician or not, as a really fascinating and potentially instructive watch.  Find it below in two parts.  And by the way, the beginning contains much Dutch, but English soon takes over.

Song Maps

I found an old song map notebook stuffed into my suitcase that I used early/middle last year for some projects.  The notes are for songs by Shoney Lamar & the Equal RightsMr. KowalskySchool for Robots, and the as-yet untitled Clinton Degan project, scrawled roughly either while writing or learning them with the bands.  They include the usual guides such as “Verse,” “Chorus,” “Intro” and so forth, as well as such made-sense-at-the-time bits as “ratatats,” “Octopussy tag,” “glory section,” “funny kick,” “quietish,” and more.  And apparently I only know how to spell “ritard.”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/wullz/sets/72157640321997954/

I know I’ve got some notes from older and other projects kicking around somewhere.  I’ll try to find those and add to the photo set because I think it’s a pretty funny thing to look back on and scratch the ol’ noggin over.

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One from the Archives

Grant of Electric Laser People just sent us all this old clip, and I thought I’d share it.  I hadn’t even put it on my media page.  The Cambridge scene cornerstone, All Asia, has since been leveled for new MIT facilities, so here’s to the fond memories.

http://vimeo.com/3481705

I’m currently in Germany but some things I recorded before I left are still cooking back home.  I’ve recently added a few links in the Discography and Media section and will continue to do so as projects continue to wrap.  Happy 2014.

New Media

A couple things have come out in the time that I’ve been busy slacking on my blogging.

I got to venture back into The Den in North Reading, home of the certified most laid-back recording sessions possible, and lair of Doug Batchelder, engineer and guitarist extraordinaire.  We cut a red-in-the-middle-rock arrangement of Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Runs the Game” that Bill had put together a couple weeks prior.  Bill played rhythm guitar while he sang, and Doug handled all the other strings.

A band I was in for about two years called 28 Degrees Taurus is about to release a full length album, and has put out a little single in advance.  My drums are on all three songs, but apparently only “Vast Majestic” will be on the full-length.  I cut these drums about a year ago so I’m happy to know they’re finally seeing the light of day.

Bill Dwyer Band at Harvard U’s Queen’s Head Pub, Highlights

The first collection of highlights from Bill Dwyer Band‘s first 3-hour night at Queen’s Head Pub has been posted on YouTube.

The night was a blast, and there were too many highlights to choose from for one “reel,” so I’ll be putting together another selection for viewing at the end of the weekend or early next week.

Always an ineffable pleasure to rock with these guys, both for their energy and their talent, and we were fortunate to have such an enthusiastic audience to enjoy the night with us.

BDB will be returning to Queen’s Head Pub on May 6th.

Building a Standing Desk

I have some old shelving from my last apartment sitting around, and decided the other day to put some of it to work.

Today, I cut one of the shelves up and screwed it back together in a different shape with exactly 0 planning, and now I can use my computer standing!

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I point out the “0 planning” bit because what follows is an account of building the desk, replete with some really ridiculous conundrums that could have easily been approached better or avoided entirely with a little foresight.  But I just wanted to build something; to hell with logistics.

It was pretty simple to put together and I made a real hack job of it (big surprise), so it only took a few hours including lunch.  And, it was free! – it only took 1 unused shelf, a couple old little wooden garden stakes, and some screws.  (Here’s a timelapse video of the process.)

I wanted the legs of the table about 13.5″ high so the finished desk would be about 14″ in height.  (Note the frequent use of the word “about.”)  So I stood the shelf on end and measured 13.5″ and 27″ from its edge, drawing guide lines using a level.  (I realized later that the garage floor itself isn’t level, so my lines were in fact somewhat slanted… but not enough to make a big difference in the end.)  I used an old hand saw to cut along the lines, creating two 13.5″ tall legs.  I flipped each of these and cut it in half along its length, making four legs.  The shelf was about 11″ deep; I did a pretty slop job of cutting the shelves in half, so two of the legs are around 5″ wide, and the other two are around 6″ wide.

I tested the legs for straightness by standing them on the floor on either end to see which end was the least wobbly on each leg.  Only two of them had no wobble at all, but for the other two I devised a little trick:  by sawing a shallow little arch or long notch in the middle of the edge (so shallow you can’t really even see it), leaving about an inch to half an inch of straight edge on either side of it, you can ensure it won’t wobble by giving it two smaller contact faces rather than one long one, which makes it less susceptible / impermeable to wobble.

I figured about 30″ was a good width for the desk.  I didn’t really measure this against my actual desk; I just decided my desk surely must be wide enough to accommodate a 30″ upper-level easily and hoped for the best.  (Worked out fine, as is evidenced by above photo, just so there is no mystery.)  I lined and cut 30″ and 60″ from the edge of the shelf, which left just a little of the shelf left.

I picked the less-ugly face of each 30″ board, and laid them down side by side, pretty-ish faces down.  The two boards had to stay together because there wasn’t going to be a leg between both, so I took the little shelf left-over chunk, cut it in half, and straddled the boards with them.  But then I realized I couldn’t figure out how to screw these braces to the bottom of the desk.

Ultimately, I put down the brace-boards first, then laid one desktop board over them, face up, screwed that to both braces, then did the same with the other.  I decided it was done and went to set it aside, but the desktop wouldn’t move.  I had actually ended up screwing the desktop straight onto my work table because the screws were a fair bit too long.  Duh.  You can see them poking out in the below picture.

2013-03-06 15.11.38I sawed a thin garden stake in half, and then half again, backed out the desktop brace screws a little bit, scootched the desktop over so it was hanging over the edge of my work table, held the garden stakes in place under the holes where the screws had popped out of the bottom of the desktop, and pushed the screws down through the garden stakes.  I probably looked ridiculous, trying to accomplish holding the desktop in place and up against gravity, setting a screw, using a power drill, and holding the bits to be screwed to the underside, all at once and with just my two arms.  Anyway, I went through the trouble just so I wouldn’t stab myself later and curse; great success visible below.

2013-03-06 18.12.34I decided to attach the legs in the shape pictured below for stability.  If I make another, the back legs will not be at quite such an angle; there isn’t any wobble or backwards flex as it stands (heh heh), but I think it’d probably be a little less likely to fall backwards and break if the back legs were a little straighter, pointed more back-to-front than side-to-side.  Note: I recognize my sitting desk is a mess.

2013-03-06 18.28.492013-03-06 18.28.31Attaching the legs to the desk was the part that could have most used some planning, though.  I had no vice, no assistant, and no experience.  In fact, I don’t even know if a vice would have helped.

So, naturally, I took the most straight-forward and ridiculous approach possible of balancing the desktop on the legs while they stood precariously upright on the ground, and eyeballed my screw angles.  It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.  Without one misfire.  What wonders never cease.

One snafu: one of the legs, somehow, ended up about .5″ shorter than the others.  I took the tried-and-true tack:  garden stake to the rescue!

2013-03-06 15.42.03 2013-03-06 15.42.15The final desk does not wobble, and actually feels surprisingly sturdy.  Given that I did put a few hours into it, though, I might screw in some little metal braces underneath to keep the legs from buckling.  But this will presumably not happen, if luck’s got anything to do with it, until I have at least two glasses of liquid and a bowl of something stain-prone on it, so maybe avoiding such a scenario is a good enough defense.

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