To Nobuo Uematsu:

When I was growing up there wasn’t a whole lot of cultural positivity about gaming as a whole.  Regardless, I remember spending hours of my youthful days staring at a screen smaller than my laptop monitor playing Final Fantasy IV and VI.  I knew I was surely suppose to be playing piano, but I had a hard time finding any motivation to play.  I’d much rather indulge in fantasy worlds inside my games and cartoons.  My parents pushed me to learn piano from standard beginner books and a church lady (who was very sweet) that taught me to read music.  But it was like reading Greek tragedies when you are 8, that stuff had no connection to what I was interested in.

Nobuo Uematsu may very well be the man responsible for taking penchant for fantasy and directing it towards a keyboard.  I remember downloading my first pages of Final Fantasy IX’s Piano Collection off a fansite, a week later I imported the book.  I had never been excited about sheet music before, somehow connecting it to gaming was all my childhood self needed.  My piano teacher was somewhat confused, but any concern melted as I began playing pieces far above my level; the only real difference was motivation.  I unconsciously assimilated a myriad of techniques from all the Piano Collection books, both physical (IE chord voicings, left hand patterns) and compositional.  Before I knew it, I was a somewhat accomplished pianist for my age.  To this day, FFIX’s Piano Collection sits with my prized sheet music: alongside Chopin and Debussy.

Now, I find myself scoring short films and video games in my free time.  It’s something that really fulfills my meaning and purpose in life; and I think of how I almost missed it.  When the topic of music education rears its head, I always muse about how I almost let my musical abilities drift away because I was trying to learn music from something that didn’t interest me.  I realize now that games and fantasy should always have cultural significance because they are products of imagination, and help connect that imagination to our lives.

So now, when I hear a tinge of prog rock slip into my otherwise orchestral soundtrack I know where it came from.  When I approach soundtracks from the basis of simple, hummable melodies rather than the Hollywood-styled drones and bombast, I know where that came from.  When I obsess over Leitmotifs (character themes) I know where that comes from as well.

It came from a tiny screen smaller than my laptop and the man who poured so much effort into scoring for a medium that wasn’t even highly regarded yet.

Thanks for all the years of music Uematsu-san.


Tunes from the 24 hour Game Jam

I finally caught one of the 24 hour game jams that I’ve heard about.  You know, the ones where you seal a bunch of programmers and students into a room until daybreak where they hopefully emerge with something ‘playable’.  Well, I actually wrote new music for 2 of these ‘something playables’ and it was really fun!  The first track (above) was for a game where the entire point was to be a pigeon and crap on poorly drawn people (and babies).  They never told me what the game was about until I saw the final product, they just requested looping ‘Skyrim epic music’.  I actually hadn’t played Skyrim so I guessed what that would sound like after watching a youtube clip, I think I nailed it.

The other team didn’t know what they wanted, it was a game about running around a school collecting notes before class.  I went with something nostalgic, something Koji Kondo-esque.  The wife was trying to talk me out of doing the game jam at this point so I managed to buy time by having her play the piano line with me…giving it kinda an extra child-like sense of rhythm (as piano is not her forte, I love you anyways hun).

Deadlines are something amazing, we all dread them–but they sometimes really bring out the best in you.  I would have never quoted someone 24 hours to make these tracks, but somehow it only took about 4 (had to see the wife!).  So, never doubt what good a deadline can bring!

Beck’s a pretty cool guy

Got to be a part of a pretty rad project last month.  Full Sail University invited local bands around Orlando to participate in recording songs out of Beck’s new album ‘Song Reader’, they also hosted a contest for student bands to cover a beck song and get in on the gig.  Seeing as Full Sail has a 5 million dollar studio, and I love music and gear, I figured I’d enter… and I won!

I think the idea of releasing an album as sheet music is awesome.  To be honest, I hadn’t even given Beck a lot of attention before now.  In order to enter the contest I had to cover a Beck song: I didn’t have a favorite Beck song so I spent several days listening to his entire discography on Spotify.  Turns out my favorite Beck song is ‘Walls’ from ‘Modern Guilt’ easily my favorite album of his.  Here’s my cover of it:

I got to assemble a band and record our rendition of ‘Eyes that say I love you’ (see vid above), quite an awesome experience.  And since it is me arranging things, I managed to slip some 7/8 into the bridge and write a fantasy impromptu inspired Coda.  Hope you like it.

I found this blog is the best way to browse other Song Reader covers:

Gentle Giant Podcast

This is my podcast on Gentle Giant, one of my favorite bands.  Often overlooked, they are a stellar example of Progressive Rock.  I also wanted to continue the discussion on Prog Rock I started with my post on King Crimson–so in this podcast I briefly demonstrate some examples of things that make progressive rock progressive.  If you like the sounds, go listen to the band!  I’d suggest Three Friends (1972) or Free Hand (1975) as good starting points.  A lot of Gentle Giant information can be found at their fan wiki: for example these interviews.
To hear how Gentle Giant has directly influenced a musician such as myself check out this track from my own prog band, Hot Cognition:

It features the cycling meter technique I mentioned pointed out in “Glass House”, as well as the polymeter technique I demonstrated with “Just the Same”

King Crimson: The Embodiment Progressive Rock

If I am asked what has influenced me as a musician more than anything…well the answer would be Chopin. But, truthfully, I only fell in love with Chopin after I started eating and breathing everything music. When I was a kid I heard great music, even learned to play much of it on piano, but never really recognized it. I didn’t understand music yet, and I think largely because I had never written music of my own. Sure, I had played keys, trumpet, and percussion in bands and orchestras throughout life; but compositional nuance and skill was still something I took completely for granted. When I went to college the first time I had a incisive paradigm shift. I discovered philosophy and psychology; the first academic topics I could actually enjoy reading about. I self-applied those topics with vigor. Art suddenly became important, very important—meaning of life important. And during this age of epiphany some of my bandmates turned me on to something that would lead me on a journey towards musical enlightenment that I am still undertaking. It was something that connected all the (classical) music theory I had ever learned into modern music, like plugging a lamp into an outlet. The hand that plugged it in was Progressive Rock.

I decided to focus on King Crimson for this piece because no other band quite encapsulates Progressive Rock like they do. Granted, they aren’t my favorite prog band but they represent the gestalt of 70s prog like no other. The prog rock movement has its origins with a band called Procol Harum (coincidently one this year’s nominees to the rock and roll hall of fame) and their song “Whiter shade of pale”. The early spirit of progressive rock is like taking the instrumentations and drugged out attitudes of the late sixties and sending it back in time to baroque days. The excellent BBC documentary Prog Rock Brittania describes the average prog rocker more of a classical music reject (or rebel rather). Songs begin to resemble concertos, with singular movements that could eat the length of two modern pop numbers whole. In all, you see a lot of bands interested in plugging rock and roll into classical theory: you hear music that merges the complicated, nuanced hand of a romantic composer with the attitude and instrumentation of rock. Some of my favorite bands from this period include: Yes, Gentle Giant, PFM, Gryphon, Il Balleto di Bronzo, Pink Floyd, Nektar, Birth Control, Yezda Urfa, Quella Vecchia Locanda, and Happy the Man (I tried to keep it to a small sampling). But as Prog Rock Brittania as well as my personal ears suggest, the most intimidating, scary, and eclectic of all prog bands was King Crimson.

King Crimson’s debut album In the Court of the Crimson King opens with one of Prog Rock’s greatest monsters: “21st Century Schizoid Man”. Within its duration this masterpiece swings the entire gamut between barely contained atonal chaos and synchronized, syncopated musical acrobatics and back. I only wish I could have seen the crowd reaction after King Crimson used this song to open for the Rolling Stones in July of 1969. From Pete Sinfield’s recounting, there was a moment of utter shock and silence before the crowd even knew to applaud. As Bill Bruford, drummer for Yes and King Crimson, put it “nobody knew that rock musicians could play like that”. It was my personal introduction to Prog Rock as a whole, and exactly where I think anyone should be introduced to the movement (even though I probably wasn’t hooked until I heard Gentle Giant’s Three Friends album).

One of King Crimson’s founding members Pete Sinfield reflected on the band’s ethos, “if it sounded anything at all popular, it was out, so it had to be complicated, it had to have more expensive chords…if it sounded too simple we made it more complicated, we’d play it in 7/8 5/8 just to show off…”. I think this summarizes the band’s, as well as Progressive Rock as a whole’s, greatest strength and weakness. I absolutely adore the musicianship and spirit of progressive rock, but many a prog band’s blatant disregard for accessibility to anyone other than the musical elite was surely a mark of hubris. King Crimson does an amazing feat of musically reinventing what isn’t broken album after album. Islands is jazzy, Red is a hard rock milestone, Beat incorporates synth-pop, and even their new albums (they’re still going) tread into industrial and electronic territories. How were people suppose to keep up with this amorphous musical machine? Evidently they weren’t.

Progressive rock was soundly defeated by the punk generation in its homeland of Great Britain. And not just defeated, but caricatured and ostracized. Excessive and self-indulgent are often terms that come up to describe prog rock, and they perhaps aren’t too far off the mark. Still punk rock (which I find equally excessive and self-indulgent in different ways) tried to bury progressive rock in the UK and the States: and did a pretty good job of doing it. That is until the internet age.

Progressive Rock has enjoyed a mild modern-day resurgence (IE Mars Volta, Porcupine Tree), but mostly in prog influenced genres. Prog Metal (Dream Theatre, Tool), Math Rock (Battles, Don Cab), Djent (Animals as Leaders), and even some Jazz Fusion Artists (Hiromi Uehara) commonly cite groups such as King Crimson as influences. Even artists in unrelated genres have been influenced by the music of King Crimson in particular. Kurt Cobain acknowledged the album Red as a big influence, and Kanye West sampled “21st Century Schizoid Man” in his song “Power”.

I also strongly identify King Crimson with Robert Fripp, who would be the constant member in the constantly evolving line-up of musicians. His trademark guitar soundscaping technique, lovingly coined Frippertronics, was actually invented by Brian Eno. Eno and Fripp’s collective journey into guitar-scaping can be seen as foundational elements of post-rock bands like Sigur Ros.

Progressive Rock gets written off in Music History all too frequently and I’m not sure why. It had a short run, but its influence extends just as far into modern day as any other breed of Rock and Roll. While bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, and Jethro Tull managed to achieve mainstream success, many music historians handle them separately from the musical movement that bore them.  In my mind, King Crimson is the true poster boy of prog rock: alienating, intimidating, but undeniably genius. In all, I think by far the most damning insult to prog rock is that it easily construed as pretentious. And this is absolutely true, but you know what else is easily construed as pretentious? Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Chopin.

Innovations in Electronic Music: The Synthesizer

I’ve played piano for about as long as I’ve had memory. And over the years I’ve accumulated a small collection of ‘keys’ that I cherish: including a couple synths. Synthesis has always been a challenge to me; I never feel quite at home improvising on a keyboard unless it has very ‘piano-like’ characteristics (I thrive on high contrast dynamics, decay, and sustain that doesn’t translate to organs or synths). This is something bandmates rarely seem to understand. I rather dislike that synthesizers get lopped in with other keyboards so frequently because they are truly a unique beast.

I owe a huge debt to early synth pioneers such like Donald Buchla or Bob Moog: heck, modern music owes a huge debt to them. It was an incredible step towards having an orchestra at your fingertips. I remember my first MIDI sequencer (Fruity Loops) opening huge doors in my creative efforts, largely because it had tons of different instruments I could choose from to arrange. Even though synthesizers still don’t do a fantastic job at mimicking other instruments (I like my synths sounding like synths) the synthesizer far predated sampled software instruments like those I mentioned in Fruity Loops. Even MIDI technology itself was a byproduct of the synthesis revolution, as Peter Manning points out in his book Electronic and Computer Music. MIDI alone has had a tremendous impact on music creation: I dare go as far as to say that MIDI sequencers are the sheet music of the 21st century.

Synthesizers are also a huge precursor to electronic music. While electronic music can really include anything that has been processed, synthesizers expanded the spectrum of sounds possible. When you think about it, a synthesizer is essentially a system created for playing electricity as an instrument. Spacey sounds that could never have come from an acoustic instrument would be a common element of Krautrock and other precursors to modern EDM. And while pure electronic music is the most obvious application of synths, they are heard in all modern genres of music today. In fact, when I think of synth sounds, I actually visualize more jazz fusion than anything else thanks to the soaring lead sounds of greats like Chic Corea or Jan Hammer.

So, as I mentioned earlier I owe a lot to synthesizers (even if I’m not great at crafting my own sounds with them). When it comes to innovations that shaped electronic music you’d be hard pressed to find something as impactful as the synthesizer.

Kraftwerk: Autobahn (1974)

I’ll go ahead and confess, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Kraftwerk. My first exposure to them was driving a Uhaul moving from Arkansas to Florida. I had discovered a plethora of Krautrock bands that I love (IE Can, Nektar, Eloy) several years earlier and kept seeing Kraftwerk’s name come up. I thought driving between states would be the closest thing to an Autobahn I had–so I put in the album as I set off. About 15 minutes in, I thought I was slowly loosing my mind.

I don’t dislike electronic music, nor do I hate Kraftwerk. In fact, I have a real musical ‘scratchy spot’ at the intersection of pure electronic and acoustic textures. Electronic drums with a real string quartet soaked in reverb, or even Kraftwerk’s airy flute, make me drop everything I’m doing and listen. The real problem I have with most electronic music (which in its defense is typically made for dancing’s sake) is the repetition. It’s like my views on human mortality: length alone does not give anything meaning. I’ve listened to a number of Kraftwerk albums, and I frequently find sonic textures that I enjoy: I just think I’d just like them much more with some editing.

Now, for Kraftwerk, what they were doing must have been exciting and new. Their string of albums leading up to Autobahn introduced new sounds and very creative uses of synthesizers. I could see the opus of “Autobahn” having a much greater impact on someone who had never heard electronic percussion or the warm swell of ‘futuristic’ synths before. After watching “Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution” things like the “motor beat” employed in Autobahn and Trans Europe Express made much more sense. But to me, it still sounds like electronic music of the time is in puberty: awkward, somewhat bull-headed, yet not really sure what it’s doing yet.

Kraftwerk’s innovation is applying the cutting-edge technology of their day to music. Before Kraftwerk, electronic music sounds very avant-garde (see: Stockhausen) and completely distanced from the musical traditions of tonality, rhythm, and harmony. Kraftwerk takes this technology and applies it over the course of Kraftwerk 1 & 2 to more standardized musical sensibilities. The usage of electronic drum beats and other forms of synthesis had obvious influence on EDM to come. But, I think (along with other Krautrock bands like Faust and Tangerine Dream) perhaps the biggest influence of Kraftwerk is in establishing the genre of electronic music to come comes in the approach to song structure and focus.

As a pianist and composer it’s very hard for me to listen to material and not unconsciously lapse into ‘taking dictation’ of melodies and harmonies. This is probably why my first exposure to Kraftwerk was mildly maddening; I couldn’t see the forest because of the trees. Albums like Autobahn, Faust IV, and Phaedra aren’t interested in the notes or song structure. Song structure in electronic music can often be more like a soundscapes; it doesn’t require active attention or digestion of the musical content.  In fact, I find analyzing these works musically misses the point. This is a tradition that would be carried on by people like Brian Eno and into future genres like IDM.

I like listening to electronic music to hear sounds used creatively and to hear textures that can’t exist in real acoustic spaces. As both a composer and engineer, new textures are like gold to me. Kraftwerk definitely played a vital role in bringing the possibilities of electronic music technology into the mainstream.