2014: Year in Review

I conduct an annual review every December 27, and this year is no different. This year's annual report can be seen at

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New Piece: Reverie of Solitude

I spent a week in Montana this summer, and while I was there I took several field recordings of rivers and rain and cows and all sorts of fun stuff (most of which are over on AudioAtlas). I was hoping to use several of those recordings on a piece called “Introspection”, but as I worked with the material a slightly different narrative emerged. This piece (audio and notes below) is exciting for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's the first “real” piece of acousmatic music I've written since 2012's Blueprints of Eternity (amazing how much other music you don't get written when you're writing a dissertation). Secondly, it's the first piece of mine to have a program note written by Walter Jordan. Walter and Steven and I had a creativity pact for the month of November, where Walter would write a novel, Steven would complete an album, and I would finish writing this acousmatic piece. So here's my music and Walter's words

Reverie of Solitude

Utilizing recordings from Montana and Central Oklahoma, the piece serves as both an exploration of and an invitation to reverie; providing a space wherein the listener is asked to reconsider their idea of what it means to daydream. Immediately, the listener is isolated amid an every-day crowd hum—pervasive and vexingly indistinct. Lost among the multitude, it is easy to believe that this daydream is not an expression of solitude, but rather a longing for solitude.

From this foundation, the piece conducts its consideration through alternating themes of action and inaction, order and disorder. The buzz of the crowd—unmetered, churning—gives way to the steady pulse of a passing train: the mind swiftly carried away. The movement of a mind imagining is suggested by a motif of water in each transition. Having raced away, the focus of the piece coils about a scene of Sunday-lawn tranquility with the stagnant and predictable arc of a sprinkler. It dissolves into the free rhythm of a rainstorm on a tin roof, evoking a true sense of solitude. The chaotic throb of the rain shower becomes the pulse of a frothing river as the mind races on again, an echo of the train beneath. As the piece nears its conclusion, the listener is introduced to the most complete soundscape yet: birdsong and footsteps as counterpoint to the steady but untamed lapping of water against the hull of a boat.

Each vignette is a self-contained narrative offering a unique opportunity to consider solitude in a natural context. As each image fades, replaced by another commensurate in theme though separated in space, the listener is invited to reflect on the purpose of a daydream: whether to occupy a static moment, to escape a blunt reality, or to enrich the experience of a perfect moment. The subtle transitions between the natural recordings are woven throughout by digitally manipulated tones, calling the listener’s attention to how they themselves have been lulled to daydreaming amid the sonic backdrop. Attention is inevitably returned to the churning crowd, bookending the piece to demonstrate the facility of such reveries in establishing a personal solitude for each listener, undiminished by having shared the experience with an audience.

Program Note by Walter Jordan
Please credit Walter Jordan when using this program note

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Thoughts on Productivity, Part III

Alright, here’s the concluding installment of “I should be writing music but I’m not.”

7. A general rule: No Brute Forcing

There is a prevailing idea, (perhaps due in part to Malcom Gladwell's pointing out the 10,000 hour rule) that the way to get something done is to just try to do it/beat your head against it until it sticks. Which, following rule 1, maybe that does work for you. Am I saying that there’s no need for hard work? That’s not what I’m saying at all. Directed hard work is important for the development of any art or craft. Brute force is hard work that has its heart in the right place, but its plan for how to achieve the final goal is misdirected, and possibly harmful.

Music students are often told that they should practice X hours a day. Maybe this works, and maybe it doesn't (though daily practice is expected, should it be for a specific number of hours?). We're not building Model T's here. We're not putting in 8-hour workdays assembling widgets (Fun fact, the 8-hour work day in America was popularized by Henry Ford, who found that shortening the 9-hour work day (and raising salaries) actually INCREASED production from the 45-hour work week). Sometimes, things don't work and it’s better to move on.

This raises a question: Is bad productivity (a stretch of time that you scheduled to do something, and then accomplished nothing) better or worse than no productivity (a span of time you didn't schedule to do something, and then didn't)? Or, possibly more accurately, is bad productivity (a stretch of time that you scheduled to do something, and then accomplished nothing) better or worse than alternate productivity/structured procrastination (doing what your brain wants to work on during a stretch of time you scheduled for something else)? By applying a brute-force method to creating art, are we working toward producing good art? An example: For my last piece, I was working on a number of motives and melodies, with a halfway-decent idea (a work titled Sibling Rivalry). After fighting with the material for a few days, I came home one night, started a new Sibelius document, and started fresh from the beginning using the same materials. The piece was completed several days later. Sometimes success is knowing when to give up and start over.

8. Systematize Processes

There is a part of making art that doesn't involve making art. I suppose it's a sort of Arts Administration, though not exactly in the same sense that people who work in Arts Administration use it. As a composer, and a self-published one at that, there's a few things I have to do. Here's a short list:

Write music
Register music with ASCAP
Get music print-ready
Submit music to distributers
Write program notes
Publicize music
Get performances
Get good recordings
Submit to calls for scores and festivals
Submit performance programs for royalty collection

And that's all composery things, it doesn't take into consideration my university duties, or the design, programming, and engraving work that my publishing company does.

Now, what if we could systematize some of these things? You can't really systematize “write music” (OK, yeah you can, I just refuse to). But things like getting the program notes on the website? Totally systemizable. One of my best examples is dealing with calls for scores. There are hundreds of organizations and ensembles looking for new music every year. They send out public announcements to several different places. Years ago, my approach was to find one I liked, get everything ready, and then realize after the deadline that I should have sent it in. It didn't take many of those screwups to change how I did things. I ended up building a system where I could enter information for calls for scores including which pieces to submit, and the system would remind me a month before it was due and would even go so far as to generate the mailing labels (with QR code capabilities) My yearly submissions went from 3 to 50 in the first year. AND I spent less time on them. One of my recent projects has been a rehearsal scheduler, that takes the schedule from a number of participants and outputs the time that everyone can meet. Which streamlines rehearsal scheduling (and, as it turns out, email) substantially. If you can master the flow of information, everything else is easy (-er).

9. A lot of custom software (and other things).

Building on the themes from “be a generalist” and “systematize processes”, a lot of what I do involves building custom software for my purposes. The “calls for scores” system I set up? Basically a highly specialized to-do list with custom fields for composing. This blog you're reading? Runs on the same system. My to-do list and daily calendar? You betcha.

It also organizes my travel funding (for reimbursement purposes), and I already mentioned the home product inventory system. Learning to program was probably one of the best things I ever did.

But it doesn't necessarily end with software. When I was writing my master's thesis, I ran into the problem that my desk wasn't big enough for the ledger-size sheet music I was orchestrating with. For several months my dining room table (the square one that I didn't buy from the OU surplus store, as opposed to the round one that I did, that lives in my office right now) moved into my office and became a second desk. Since I usually eat in the office, it kind of made sense. Within a year, I had designed and built a desk for composing (with plenty of help from dad). A couple years later, when I should have been studying for my general exams for my doctorate, Cassie and I built a couple of bookcases of my own design that doubled as speaker stands. Since I don't have any significant power tools in Norman, and because the entire project took place in my living room, they were not built as well as they could have been. Not even close. They have a few rough edges around them. But man, it sure does feel good to make things. It feels really good to make things that help you make things. It also instills a great deal of respect for people who make things and make them well.

Try writing a fugue without realizing the genius of Bach. Try building a calendar program without having an immense amount of awe for the team that does it at Google (Time zones are an ABSOLUTE PAIN.) Building furniture and building music aren't all that different, when you think about them.

10. Do what you love.

“Do what you love, and you'll never have to work a day in your life” is totally cheesy (and according to the internet, first said by Confucius) but it's also totally true. I’ve been told over the past n years that I need to relax more. That I need to take time for me, and that I need to slow down and enjoy life. What perplexes me is that, I already do. Life is AWESOME, and I (more or less) get to do exactly what I want. I get to make cool things. How do you relax when you know that there's so many more cool things that you can do!? That said, there's an inordinate amount of code that runs Liszt that was written while watching Law and Order: SVU on Netflix. Sure, down time is important, but if you're doing a job that requires a lot of down time and recharging, are you in the right field? Maybe the answer to the “relax” equation isn't to take more time to relax. Maybe it's to do things in such a way where you don't need to relax. Things don't have to be hard. And at long last we find ourselves at the end of my productivity adventures, which in itself was an exercise in structured procrastination. I hope that at least some of this has been helpful, and if it hasn’t been helpful then hopefully it has been thought-provoking, and if it hasn’t been that hopefully it has been entertaining. I’m off to do some work.

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Thoughts on Productivity, Part II

I meant to post this several days ago, but I was hanging out with a whole bunch of fun people at the national CMS conference in St. Louis. Here's part II of “it's easier to write things about productivity than to be productive.”

4. Be a generalist.

The world is becoming so specialized that the generalist is starting to become a novelty. In higher education this seems especially true. Working in IT I often came across professors who were amazing at their craft, but had no idea how to do anything more than the absolute basic on the computer (the phrase “I'm not good at computers” came up a lot, a later rant will be “when did 'I'm not good at X' become an acceptable excuse for not knowing things?”).

Put simply, things inform other things.

Within the field of music we try to exercise that idea, requiring composers to perform and requiring performers to attend classes in theory and history. But outside the field of music there isn't much required past undergrad. What about the impact of visual art on music? Or the impact of music on literature? More practically, what about the effects of marketing on music? What's the best way to brand an ensemble? What's the best height to build speaker stands? How can one apply the idea of Lean production to practicing music? (Is this even possible?) If you don't look for the answers, you won't know. (Preachy bit) What appears to be happening in the arts, especially in the US with a decline in funding, is that being a great musician soon won't be enough if organizations that hire great musicians keep closing. In Aaron Sorkin's commencement speech at Syracuse he said that “to get where you’re going, you have to be good, and to be good where you’re going, you have to be damned good.” “Damned Good” will soon mean not only acuity of craft but also innovation in application of craft.

Emerson once said that “The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss.”

American universities have become quite good (damned good?) at producing Why-knowers, but less so at producing How-knowers. I wonder if perhaps Emerson is about to be proven wrong.

(I thought this was supposed to be a blog post about productivity)

5. Free your schedule.

This idea comes from Marc Andreessen, who got it from Eric Abrahamson (from his book A Perfect Mess), who took it from Arnold Schwarzenegger. And it basically states that, if possible, you should forgo the schedule and just spend each day doing what you want.

It sounds totally crazy. If I need to spend all day working on writing music, I do. If I need to write a paper, I'll write it. If I need to lesson plan, I'll plan lessons.

The brain is an amazing thing, if we let it work. Because what I've found in my schedule-freeing-ness is that while I'm working on whatever I want to (like refinishing a coffee table. Or some dining room chairs. Or building a desk) my brain will work out the tough problems on what I need to do (like that tricky passage in the sax quartet, or create a melody for the piano trio).

There's a lot of background thought that goes on if you let the brain do its thing. And most of the time it self-regulates too, so if something NEEDS to get done, it'll get done before the deadline.

I'll stop there, because others have written on the subject with much better clarity than I could. But the schedule thing is amazing.

6. Inbox Zero

I have this idea that the more stuff you have in your inbox, the more stressed you are when you look at it. I haven't had my inbox number in the thousands for at least the last five years, and probably longer. Email takes a lot of time.

Several years ago I ran across Merlin Mann's Inbox Zero. It sounded like an interesting idea, so I tried it. Wow. I use my inbox as a list of things I need to take care of. Either I need to keep them in mind (like whenever I order something from Amazon, the correspondence stays in my inbox until it's delivered) or I need to take action (meeting requests and the like). Sometimes these things go into one of my to-do lists (I have two personally, a normal 'daily' to-do list and a long-term to-eventually-do list), sometimes I read them and delete them. The grand total of my inbox at this moment: 19. Eight of those are for the CMS national conference I'm attending this week. Three are calls-for-scores that I need to look at and enter into Liszt.

I still get a fair chunk of email a day (all my accounts filter into one main account), but a lot of it gets skimmed and deleted quickly. It also takes less time to sync my email. Some other thoughts on email: Five Sentences and Matt Might's article about How to Send and Reply to Email.

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Thoughts on Productivity, Part I

Steven and I have been discussing productivity lately (which is always a fun pastime, it's easier to discuss productivity than to actually BE productive). I'm supposedly a productive person (at least that's what I keep being told, especially from my musician-or-otherwise-creative friends), and so I asked myself: Why? What makes me different than my (much more artistically gifted) colleagues? And so I came up with a list, which kept growing as I pondered artistic productivity. I started out with five ideas, I ended up with five more. What started out as a short project took much longer and eventually became a 3000+ word monstrosity, which I'm posting here in sections for everyone's sanity. Here we go!

1. Know thyself.

It's been around since the ancient Greeks (γνῶθι σεαυτόν), it's one of the Delphic Maxims, it was a minor plot point in the Matrix movies, and it's inordinately powerful. Jon Acuff, in his book Start, referred to this as “be a student of you”. For example, I learned near the beginning of my graduate career that I wrote music best if I have large, unbroken slabs of time. Like, 10 hours. If I know I have something scheduled later in the day, or worse, if I have something scheduled in the middle of the day, I'm lost. Two five-hour chunks don't add up to the same amount of (producing) time as one 10-hour chunk. Some of my colleagues work better if they're in the studio for three hours a day, every day. I would drive myself nuts that way.

Another idea that I've tossed around involves a question I've asked several friends, and that question is “do you think in words?” Or perhaps “When you think 'I need to remember to take that book with me tomorrow' do you actually think the words 'I need to remember to take that book with me tomorrow'?” There are two possible answers to this question: “Yes, of course, what else would I think in?” and “What?” People who think in words (about half, it seems) immediately know they think in words, and can articulate that thought, because it's never occurred to them that people DON'T think in words. People who don't think in words (like yours truly) have to translate that question into whatever they do think in, which takes a second.

For example, I think in concepts rather than in words. Gestalts, maybe. Cassie thinks in actions (and has to mentally envision herself doing things in order to process them). Walter thinks in terms of emotional states. (oh no I'm starting to ramble, let's wrap this up.)

What does that mean for each of us non-words people? Well, for Walter it means that he excels at his field (linguistics) when he knows the proper emotional context for certain words in certain languages (for example, using we vs. wij in Dutch, which depends on subject or verb emphasis). Cassie's action-based processes means that she benefits greatly from mental practice on the clarinet. I'm better at things than with words, which may explain my programming and furniture-building obsessions.

All of that to say this: figuring out how you think and how you work is tremendously useful. It's also the reason why the massive amount of productivity tips and tricks and schemes may or may not work for you.

2. The best way to have a lot of good ideas is to have a lot of ideas.

I come up with some really stupid things. Some of my questionable music ideas were a lot of fun. Like “Nocturne for Prepared Piano (and unprepared pianist)”, which only works if the audience believes that the pianist doesn't know the piano is prepared. Or maybe “Some Assembly Required” which is a work for orchestra that has twice as many parts as needed, so the performers, conductor, or audience can pick what parts they want to play/hear.

I keep an Idea Book. It's a book listing all the random ideas I have. Some are brilliant and have come to fruition (No. 221: AudioAtlas, No: 181: ScoreShare). Some are terrible (No. 12: Toast loaf (it's like a loaf of bread, but it's toast!). No. 144: Ceiling computer. No. 156: Build dental software. No. 177: Use gum flavors to encode memories for studying for general exams). I don't try all of these bad ideas. (I'll say it again. Toast Loaf). But often, looking through this book gives me other ideas to write down.

Fun fact: My current questionable idea is a home product inventory system, powered by Liszt, that runs an interface on an Android tablet mounted to the wall in the hallway. Theoretically, it'll act as our shopping list, cutting down the time to actually write the list. Is it a stupid idea? Very maybe. It depends on whether or not Walter will stop adding multiple copies of things to our grocery list (like 47 paper towels) or entire new products (DEATH LASER, Generic).

3. Use platforms wisely

Steven is all-Apple right now. He has an iPhone, iMac, MacBook, and AppleTV, and before we were roommates he ran an Apple AirPort Router as well. His systems work very well together, since they're all from the same manufacturer. On the other hand, I'm a Windows guy, with a laptop and Surface running 8.1, a desktop running 10, and a phone running 7. There's another 3 windows laptops around the apartment (one a server, one for parts, and one for extra MaxMSP projects), an HP touchpad running Android for the home product inventory system, a Polaroid android tablet, a MacBook, and two PogoPlugs running Arch Linux ARM for backup purposes. (I clearly have a problem). My computing runs on my three core windows machines, together with my Windows Phone, my Microsoft Office setup (As a professor I use PowerPoint A LOT, as someone looking for an academic job, I use Word a lot, this blog post was written in OneNote, which I've been using for class notes since 2008), and my account. While not quite as slick as the Apple “everything just works” thing, Windows is catching up, to the point that my Win8 and Win10 settings sync across devices. (And if OneDrive would work half as well as Dropbox, I'd be happy).

All of that to say that everything is easier when everything works together. While I do have a fair selection of non-Windowsy things (mostly for testing code on multiple platforms), my focus is on my core computers. I've met people who have a Windows laptop, an iMac, an android phone, and a Kindle Fire as a tablet (you know who you are). It just seems that moving from one thing to another, and making sure that everything is up to date and everything keeps talking to each other would be a huge pain. I spend most of the time that I would have spent keeping everything in sync marveling at the fact that my start menu syncs between computers. Of course, sometimes different platforms are better at different things. For example, if I need to program on the go, my HP laptop works far better than my MacBook (Mostly because of Notepad++), but if I'm audio editing while moving, Pro Tools works better (generally) on the Mac than on the HP. Of course, email and Dropbox make device-switching an incredibly easy process. My scores and session files live in Dropbox, so every computer has an up-to-date copy.

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Liszt upgrade to 2.4.7

FINALLY, after ten full months, Liszt has received a major upgrade which improves the interface and calendar components, re-introduces the Liszt Rehearsal Scheduler, and allows for better single-sign-on for Liszt/AudioAtlas/ScoreShare apps.

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Ridiculous Titles

I have a lot of weird conversations with people. The conversations aren't universally weird (though a lot of them are), but as the dialog progresses, someone will put together a beautifully absurd string of words.

I write a lot of them down as future piece titles. Some of my favorites:
Fulfill your Existential Paradigm
A Seizure in Reverse
Retroactive Favoritism
Transcendence into Condensation

And of course, The Juice of Lesser Berries

About a year ago, I blurted out one such ludicrous title that I've been thinking about ever since, inspired by Joseph Schwantner's preposition-titles (like…and the Mountains Rising Nowhere and From a Dark Millenium and In Evening's Stillness…) and steeped in the juice of lesser berries its own pretension. It is

and the Leaves of Falling Darkness

…and so of course I had to use that on a title for something. And the something happens to be a work for Clarinet-Violin-Piano trio. It's a departure from the happy melody-driven things I always usually write. Here's how Sibelius plays it back:

If you're interested in hearing it live (and seeing part of the compositional process), I'll be hosting an open rehearsal on Saturday, October 11 at 2:30 PM in the Pitman Recital Hall at OU (sorry non-Normanites).

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Composition and Tech Updates

I've been fairly quiet lately while I've been transitioning to a new position and updating some code. So here's what's going on in the Vanderverse!

AudioAtlas has been updated with geolocation (finding where you are), geocoding (finding where you want), and new map tiles (yay Bing!). There's a bit of stuff to fix on the backend, but otherwise it's ready for release.

ScoreShare is chugging along with no issues.

I've coded a wiki into Hammer, and this will contain information about all sorts of interesting things, once I fill it up.

One of my big projects this week has been coding an API for Hammer, since it's probable that most of the websites using Hammer won't be on the same server, so direct DB access isn't ideal. An early version is running, which will be up on Cassie's new site whenever I publish that.

On the music side of things, I've been working on a work for the International Clarinet Association's composition contest, with varying degrees of success. That's the biggest thing on my plate at the moment, but it's coming along.


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Back from Montana!

Cassie and I spent a week and a half in Montana, and it was pretty awesome. I recorded a great deal of sound (which I'll post on AudioAtlas when I finish building it), but meanwhile, here's some pictures!

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Revised edition of Pipe Dreams

Pipe Dreams has always been one of my favorite pieces, but I've always felt like my idea was better than I could write it. It started out as a piano work before Carlyle suggested that it could be a percussion ensemble. So it became a percussion ensemble, when my percussion chops weren't quite what they are today. When I started my master's degree, I worked on it with Marvin and it tripled in length. A few years later I decided that it should become a wind ensemble piece, and thanks to Roland, it did. But the percussion writing was still…not quite right, mostly due to its size. For a four minute piece, it used six percussionists (and timpani). The Symphony uses six percussionists too, but it's nine times longer and the percussionists play actual percussion parts instead of just one instrument.

So over the past week, I consolidated the percussion into three parts (plus timp.), and so here's the (new) final rendering:

In the process of consolidating the percussion parts, the non-pitched percussion was mapped onto a piano stave, which created this delightful dissonance, which I quickly exported and renamed “Pipe Nightmare”.

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Kyle Vanderburg