Improvisation, Meditation, Music

Reconsidering Background Noise

One of my longstanding frustrations as a musician is that I don’t have access to silence. I should say, I don’t have easy, convenient access to silence – if I want it, I have to find it, I have to travel to it. I have privacy in my house, but not silence. I live in a city, next to an airport, on a harbor, so whenever I sit down to practice, there are planes rumbling overhead. There are neighbors talking on the street. There are cars driving by. There are car alarms going off. There are fog horns. There are seagulls. There are motorboats. There are doves. There are things that beep outside. There are things that beep inside. Appliances, a dishwasher, a refrigerator. I might hear the front door to my building being opened and closed by a neighbor, the sound of feet rushing this way and that. There are radios outside. Dogs barking. Soccer balls being kicked. Construction vehicles groaning. I’m living in a sea of noise. Not the calming noise of a forest, but the jarring, grating noise of an industrial city.

When I sit down to practice guitar, I’m annoyed by all this noise. I wish it weren’t there. I think of someday when I’m going to have a practice space that’s truly quiet. Someday. As for now, I’d rather block out the sound. Tune it out. Get lost in my instrument. Get lost in the music I’m making. Forget about the outside world, and focus only on the world of sound I’m creating.

And guess what? I can do that. I’ve been doing that for years. After playing for a few minutes, I stop hearing the background noise. It doesn’t bother me anymore. It only becomes a problem when I set up a microphone and try to record; otherwise it fades from my awareness. (It usually fades, unless there’s a really loud radio playing somewhere, and then I just have to give up.) 

So I’ve got an effective way of coping with unwanted noise, effective enough that it lets me survive and carry on. I’ve been coping like this for a really long time. That’s why an experiment I tried today has been such a revelation.

The idea is to sit down with my instrument and not play immediately. Sit down and not play. Instead, listen. For minutes. That means listening to background noise. It means exploring my own awareness of the soundscape, to see how many different sounds I can notice. How many details can I hear? If there’s an airplane buzzing in the sky, is it a high-pitched whir, a low rumble, something in between? What direction is it moving? Is it masking the sound of a second airplane that’s flying in a different direction?

The next step is to begin to play, but do it quietly, in a way where I can hear the sound of my instrument blending with the sounds in the background. In a way where I’m listening to both of them at once. The goal is to play quietly enough that my instrument becomes a minor, inconspicuous element that’s being mixed into the random, busy ambient noise that surrounds me.

Gradually, I can begin playing louder and more actively, all while trying to keep the background noise at the forefront of my awareness, rather than tuning it out. When I get to a level of involvement in my own playing that I’m no longer able to hear the background noise, that’s a time to pause, ease up, reduce the intensity, listen closer, and reconnect with the ambient soundscape.

Why is this experiment such a revelation? Some reasons:

  1. All of a sudden, I’m not starting my practice with a sense of annoyance and a desire to be somewhere else, somewhere quieter. I’m starting with presence. I’m starting with curiosity. I’m starting with openness.
  2. When I listen in a more omnidirectional way, giving my attention equally to all the sounds I can hear, it turns out I can hear my own instrument better. I can notice things in my playing that I’ve never noticed before. The “tuning out” of background noise has a side-effect that some details of my playing also get “tuned out,” but when I stop tuning anything out, there’s more detail I can hear all around.
  3. When I listen very closely to background noise and then I hear my instrument in that context, even one note from the instrument can sound amazingly beautiful and satisfying. The background noises are random, chaotic, uncontrolled, intentionless. To hear those noises and then to hear the sound of just one guitar string, or a few strings making a chord, is an experience of order and cohesion. Had I been tuning out the background noise, fighting against “unwanted” sounds, then my posture of struggle would cause me to expect more from my own instrument – I wouldn’t find so much beauty in a single note of my own making. That note wouldn’t be sufficient to impress me. But if I’m in a posture of openness, if I’m listening closely to the noises that I’d usually tune out, then I’ll be able to perceive the radiance, the intention, the intoxicating beauty of one single note from my instrument, without needing more to “be impressed.”
  4. I’m encouraged to play in a lighter way, with more space, less force, so I can continue to hear the ambient soundscape. It’s when I’m fighting against that unwanted soundscape that I feel the urge to loudly project in a way that drowns it out. If I’m working with the soundscape, then my focus is on blending rather than projection. Smaller gestures, quieter sounds seem to matter more.
  5. As I continue to play, I find that the background noises are not a responsive or reliable improvisational partner. I might get used to the sound of a jackhammer in the distance, for example, and I might even respond to that sound somehow in my own improvisation, but then the jackhammer will stop, all of a sudden. I might reach a critical moment in my own improvisation, a climax, a special harmony, but the background noises won’t acknowledge this event – they won’t care. They’re not “listening” to me. They might get louder and drown out my special moment, or might randomly fade away as if they had suddenly “left the party” just as I was becoming engaged, or they might keep going just as they had been all along – there’s no way to predict what they’ll do.  So the background noises give me a chance to notice my own expectations, and to practice letting those expectations go. Can I continue listening to the background noises even if they’re not listening to me and not responding in the way I’d hope? Can I live and let live? Can I still make some beautiful sounds in a context that doesn’t acknowledge them? Can I use that chaotic context to help me find meaning in the organized sounds that come from my own instrument?
Criticism, Music, Personal Development

The Critic vs. The Advocate

If we treat our opinions like prized possessions, like gems that must be protected from theft and insult, perhaps that is because we see them as expressions of our true self. In defending our opinions we are defending our identity.

But if we trace an opinion to its roots we may find those roots embedded not in the deepest core of our being, but in a more superficial place – in the assumptions of a persona we inhabit – the invisible assumptions that we aren’t aware we’re making as we play one role or another in life.

The COVID lockdown kept me from attending any live classical concerts in 2020 and 2021, so when I finally stepped back into a concert hall in early 2022 I felt I was reinhabiting a persona that had been dormant – the persona of a classical music aficionado, a particular kind of classical music aficionado.

Twenty minutes into my first live concert after so long away from the scene, I wasn’t loving it. My dissatisfaction soon blossomed into a critique – a whole story I could tell about the conductor’s choices and how I believed they misinterpreted the music. The friend sitting beside me would surely ask my opinion at the end, and now I had something to say.

I might have suffered through the rest of the concert and then given my negative “review,” but this time I understood that my reaction could not exist in a vacuum. My time away from the concert hall had helped me see, from a fresh perspective, how tightly my reactions to the music depended on the foundational assumptions of my adopted persona. I’ll call this persona “The Critic.” Here’s what makes him tick:

  1. He has heard the best of the best. He is proud of all the listening he’s done and he’s constantly measuring new performances in a competitive framework. When a performance is less than stellar, he feels he has been denied something he deserves.
  2. He believes in the value of criticism. He believes a listener should always have an opinion. Criticizing a performance is helpful – it separates the good from the mediocre, which creates more space for the good to shine.
  3. He has high expectations of his own responses to music. He remembers the heights of rapture he has experienced when listening to great performances. He is hoping for that rapture to happen again. When it doesn’t happen, he takes this as evidence that the performance lacked the power to move.

With these assumptions now flooding back into mind, I realized I could just as easily embrace their opposites, situating my perceptions atop different foundations instead. In fact, there’s a separate version of my identity as a classical music aficionado that I’ve embraced just as often as The Critic. I’ll call this alternate persona “The Advocate.” Here’s what makes him tick:

  1. As a listener, he believes his greatest skill is the ability to find something to appreciate in any performance. The more joy that can be found in music – no matter its imperfections – the better it is for him, for listeners at large, and for the cause of music itself. He believes that by expecting only “the best,” a listener makes it impossible to enjoy what a performance is actually offering, so listening should begin without expectations. 
  2. As a listener, he doesn’t feel he needs to have an opinion. He doesn’t need to know “what he thinks” about a performance. He doesn’t need say anything. All he needs to do is to listen. And to thank the musicians for doing the work.
  3. If rapture is not happening for him, that might be because his mood isn’t receptive to the music, or because he’s not the right listener for what this piece has to say. Though he trusts in the power of music to move him, he can’t conclude that the music must be lacking something if he’s not moved. There could be many other reasons.

For the rest of the concert, I decided to listen optimistically rather than pessimistically – channeling “The Advocate” rather than “The Critic,” looking for elements I could appreciate in the performance, wherever I could find them. The result was that I started to have a better time. When my mind wasn’t crowded with complaints and objections, I could hear the details better, and many of them were beautiful.

At the end, I thanked my friend for inviting me and let him know I had enjoyed it. What about my planned critique about the conducting? I saved it for… never.

As I think back to the concert a year later, I remember it as a good experience. When we choose to see things from a positive perspective – we’re not only improving our experience in the moment, we’re actually planting the seeds of better memories.  Do this enough and as you look back, more and more, it will seem as though the past is full of bright spots.

Should we ignore our authentic reactions, and silence ourselves when we believe the music isn’t being served by a performer’s choices? No, we should be honest. But honesty is more than complaining about what we don’t like. Honesty is being aware of what we’re looking for. Are we looking to be disappointed, so that we can signal our high standards, so that we can feel useful as critics, so that our superior perceptive capacity might be confirmed? Or are we looking for pleasure in music? Are we seeking joy, and if so, are we doing the hard work to find it, to embrace it? How much risk are we willing to take to create the possibility of being delighted?

Music

Baubles: The Journey of a Tune

Some tunes travel quite a long way from their inception to the popular form we know. If we follow the remarkable journey of the tune Baubles, Bangles, and Beads, we find that it begins in a classical string quartet by Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), then it experiences a rebirth in the 1953 Broadway musical Kismet, then it starts to swing in a 1953 hit by Peggy Lee, and it keeps swinging in renditions by The Kirby Stone Four, Frank Sinatra, Sara Vaughan, and too many more artists to mention here.

Here is the place in the second movement of Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No 2. where the journey begins:

Fast forward to 1953, when Robert Wright and George Forrest created the music for Kismet by adapting material from Borodin’s works. In Kismet’s Act 1 there is a scene where the beautiful Marsinah, lead female role, has been given money by her father. Now surrounded by merchants, she marvels at the “baubles, bangles, and beads” they are hawking, and imagines how these sparkling jewels could help her find a suitor. Marsinah’s role is sung here by Dorretta Morrow:

In the same year, 1953, we can hear Baubles removed from its theater context, now in a hit recording by Peggy Lee. One aspect you’ll observe about Lee’s recording is how it doesn’t swing for the first half — nothing we’ve heard yet has swung — but in a gentle, seamless transition around the 1:42 mark, we can hear Baubles acquire a groove. It’s a magical moment:

Now stopping for a visit in 1958 with the Kirby Stone Four, we hear a bright, boisterous, up-tempo rendition that is much the opposite of Peggy Lee’s intimate, slow, and beguiling version. Stone’s perky mix of jazz, pop, and instrumentally-inflected unison vocals has been known as the “Go” sound:

Continuing with the theme of brightness and vibrancy, Sinatra’s 1959 big-band performance is just as brilliant as we’d expect from Frank:

And while 1964 is not the end of this tune’s journey, not by far, it’s a good place for us to stop, with a remarkable performance by Sara Vaughan, perhaps the most spontaneous and free of anything we’ve heard yet in this tour:

Here’s the Borodin, where it all began, one more time:

Creativity, Music, Personal Development, Visual Design

An Experiment in Engagement

“Marketing is the final extension of your art.”

This quote is from Derek Sivers, in Your Music And People.

The way an artist discusses their art, distributes it, and promotes it — all of this is a continuation of the creative act.

If I take Sivers’ point seriously, what does it mean for my own efforts at sharing my music? If I really think of marketing as an expression of my creativity, rather than as a chore, what would a “creative” marketing effort for my album Meteorite look like? And what would I do if money and time were no object?

It’s taken me a year of personal change and family tragedy to come to answer. I’ll save the backstory for elsewhere and jump to the vision I’ve arrived at.

To be clear, this isn’t a vision of how I’d handle the nuts and bolts of PR, like how I’d grow my mailing list, what I’d post on social media, how I’d reach out to journalists, etc. I don’t need a vision for that, I need a schedule. What I’m presenting here is a vision for how my album, or really any album, could be more engaging, to more people… how, to some extent, it could be set up to market itself.

The vision is that the album is more than what I’ve made. My music is the inner core. Around it, there’s a whole sphere of music and art — made by other artists — that connects to it and plays off of it. That will be true if I succeed. Imagine this:

Along with a great album cover, there’s a portfolio of visual art that goes with the album. Maybe there’s enough art for a gallery exhibit, or a small book. There’s enough art that an interested viewer can spend as much time looking at the album as they can spend listening to it. Each piece of art has a story about how it connects to the music. Each track in the album has its own illustration, and there other artworks that depict musical processes, moods, common themes at play. There are many connections among the artworks and you can see some artists responding to work by others.

Along with music in the album – 35 compositions written by me and performed by my collaborator on clavichord – there’s other music surrounding the album, music that connects to it, echoes it, reinterprets it. Other musicians have taken themes and fragments from the album and created their own remixes. Maybe there’s an EDM track where you can groove to one of my tunes against a dance beat. Or maybe there’s a fantasy or a fugue that a classical composer has built from one of my canon themes.

Along with the music there’s also choreography. You can see videos of dancers moving to the music. Maybe there are animations. Photographs. Maybe there’s some poetry too.

The idea is that the album would be more than just my music, my creativity – it would be a larger constellation, including work by other artists, work that plays off of mine and engages it in a kind of counterpoint. Each piece of art or music in this larger sphere could serve as an entry point, helping a listener get interested in my own material, but it would go both ways: my material, my project could help a listener discover another artist.

To achieve this, I’d basically be taking my PR budget and not spending it on conventional PR but investing it in artists. I’d take any advertising funds and use them instead as a commission fund. I’d hire other creators to make something that expresses their own creativity while connecting in some way to my material, using a fragment or idea from my material and developing it in a new way. I might define how this should be done and provide detailed feedback along the way, or leave it all to the artist — each piece would be different. Along with commissions, some of these projects could be structured as collaborations.

This is not to say that all these artists would be a big group of friends or that they’d all even have to know about each other and be on board with the larger vision I’m presenting here. In some cases, I might simply hire someone to make a piece that I want made, without their needing to be aware of the larger context; in other cases, the artist could become a co-creator with me in this larger outreach experiment.

How would any of this help with marketing or promotion? A few ways:

  • Each artwork in the larger sphere is a chance to “reach” a new listener or viewer who might respond to its particular style
  • Listeners and viewers who encounter the project would have a whole universe of interrelated art to explore
  • Each artist involved in the project might share it with people they know, because their work is part of it
  • People might take an interest in the project because it’s an unconventional way of doing outreach and they want to know if it works

The main point is that art is powerful. That’s why I make art. But the particulars of style and format can limit the size of an audience. Not everyone responds to canons on clavichord or even knows what those things are. The question is, if you were to bring the full power of art, music, and dance to bear in translating and amplifying those canons on clavichord, would all that power be sufficient to gain a wider audience, well beyond the small group of people who already like this sort of thing? I can only believe the answer is yes.

Am I really able to do something like this? Is it pie in the sky?

Earlier I wrote: “What would I do if money and time were no object?” I believe that a good way to lead one’s life is to ask that question, write down the answer, and then find a way to do that thing anyway, even if money is an object and time is an object.

My answer is, if money and time were no object, I’d do what I just wrote about. I’d commission artists to make stuff. That’s because the only thing more exciting to me that creating new stuff is supporting, inspiring, or encouraging other people to create new stuff, especially if it’s stuff we both like and stuff that helps us both.

I didn’t quite know all this about myself until recently. I’ve been finding it out. I began learning it from another project that I started in 2022 (still ongoing) to actually buy music from independent musicians. And I’ve learned it from some mentoring that I do at my day job, totally unrelated to music.

As I write these words, I’ve commissioned three pieces of visual art for Meteorite and am starting to collaborate with a friend on the first EDM track based on material from the album. Of all the things I’ve done in my life, making my album felt pretty amazing but doing these commissions and collaborations has felt, well, equally amazing. So I’m going to figure out how to keep doing this, in whatever ways I can, with the resources that I do have available.

Commissioned art as of 2/25/2022: Meteorite Impact, Magic Mirror, The Garden and the Cosmos

Creativity, Music, Visual Design

The Garden and the Cosmos

This image by calligrapher and illustrator Svetlana Molodchenko, made with watercolor and gold paint on paper, is two things. It’s work of art made from ancient symbols. And it’s a cover for a musical album, a collection of 35 canons composed by Rudi Seitz, titled Meteorite.

“Looking at Svetlana Molodchenko’s artwork is like stepping back to a long-lost era of finery and grandeur – a Renaissance painting, a medieval cathedral or perhaps even an Ancient Greek villa. Rich in detail but with a light touch, there’s a sense of craft and luxury in everything she draws. The viewer plunges into another world, where past, present and future merge.”

Album Cover:

As a cover, the image includes many references to the contents of the album. The rosette is a reference to the sound hole of a clavichord. The double ouroboros represents the two voices of a musical canon, engaged in an infinite cycle. The birds, the comet, and the multi-colored stone stand for the three largest compositions in the album: the birds refer to Birdsong, the comet refers to Meteorite, and the multi-colored stone refers to Ammolite. Considered together, the eight gems could represent one octave of a diatonic scale; they also refer to the naming scheme used in the album, where canons get their titles from gems and minerals.

Artwork:

Independent from its purpose as an album cover, this image is a self-contained artwork. As such, it can be interpreted in whatever way the viewer finds most appropriate, but here is one interpretation:

The songbirds and botanical pattern we see in the periphery of the image, against a background of gold, represent the living world – they are things we might find in a garden, possibly the Garden of Eden. But the serpents we behold in this garden are not free-roaming symbols of sin or temptation; rather, they form an ouroboros, a symbol that traces back to ancient Egyptian iconography. These serpents are living beings, members of the garden, but the fantastical way they consume each other, and in turn give rise to each other — an eternal cycle of renewal — sets them apart from the ordinary world. Viewed by itself, an ouroboros might bring to mind the discomfort of an animal being devoured, but when an ouroboros is used as a frame around another image, it takes on the character of what lies inside. Here, the ouroboros encloses a rosette, the geometric pattern we might see in a Gothic cathedral window. As the only man-made element here, the rosette represents an expression of reverence through the pursuit of symmetry and balance. The multifaceted gems embedded on the rosette echo its geometry. These are not gems of ostentation; rather, they are bearers of color and possibility, showing the different components of the white light we see in the stars. If the “outside” of the ouroboros in this image represents the living world, the “inside” represents inanimate beauty, mathematical perfection, and the heavens. The ouroboros itself is a transition between these two worlds. In a highly symmetrical design, the eye might might seek exceptions to the perfect order. Asymmetry can be found in the arrangement of the stars, the comet tail, and the blending of colors in the top stone. Taken as a whole, the image depicts a window for gazing at the cosmos, and represents the way art — and music! — can be such a window, such a device for contemplating the infinite.

Music, Visual Design

Magic Mirror

This image of three birds hovering over a “magic mirror” was created by artist Andreea Dumuta to accompany my composition Birdsong. Listen here:

The music is a sequence of inversion or “mirror” canons based on my transcriptions of bird vocalizations. A mirror canon is where one part echoes the other in an upside-down way. In the illustration, we see how the mirror transforms the appearance of the birds, adding color, and in one case showing a reflection that the mirror could not “see” — that’s why the mirror is magic. This magic is reminiscent of how the musical process of inversion reveals new qualities in a melody while preserving enough of its essence that it is still recognizable.

This is the second illustration I’ve commissioned for my album Meteorite, following Jon Wilcox’s depiction of a meteorite impact. My goal is to curate enough art connecting to the album that anyone who’s interested could spend as much time looking as they could spend listening. The visual art and the music will engage in a counterpoint of their own — they should be mutually enhancing. Each image will feature a visual signature: the presence of at least one bird, one meteorite, and one ammolite gem or ammonite fossil. Notice the way Andreea has incorporated all three elements here, with the last one being the subtlest.

When I first got a look at Andreea’s completed piece, I was immediately drawn in. I knew it was “right” for the music. But I wondered about one detail: could the arrangement of crystals and meteorites be simplified? That’s the same question I ask about every piece of music I write — can any elements be consolidated or removed without compromising the essence of the piece? Here, we tried making the crystals smaller, omitting some of them, and moving the remaining ones away from the birds, but in every alternate version, the piece seemed to lose something. Is there a lesson from this? Yes, sometimes the appearance of complexity makes you think there’s an opportunity to distill and refine, but when you try to do it you realize that the complexity is part of the magic. We can speculate about what might happen if we make this change or that change to a work of art, but often we don’t know until we try, and we might learn that everything is right just as it is.

Music, Visual Design

Meteorite Impact

This image shows a meteorite impact sending gems and birds flying in all directions. It’s the new cover for my album Meteorite. It was created by the fantastic illustrator Jon Wilcox and we finalized it Monday, Jan. 2, 2023 after a month of development.

Here are all the things that had to come together to make this image what it is:

  • It had to show a meteorite impact in a way that seemed positive — suggesting creativity and potential — without evoking destruction or appearing like a nuclear disaster. Why a meteorite impact? That’s because the largest piece in the album is titled Meteorite and I think of the track list as a kind of explosion outward from that huge, central, and somewhat disorienting piece.
  • It had to show birds flying away from the scene. Why birds? That’s because the second large piece in the album is titled Birdsong and it’s based on my listening to lots and lots of bird calls.
  • It had to feature the rainbow-colored fossil Ammolite prominently. Why Ammolite? That’s because the third large piece in the album is titled Ammolite and I think of that piece as a kind of “rainbow” of experiences and scenes.
  • It had to include a variety of other gemstones and minerals with different shapes and textures. Why gems and minerals? That’s because I use a gem and mineral naming scheme for all my canons. Topaz, Amber, Garnet…
  • It had to depict the meteorite itself in a way that couldn’t easily be confused with other things (sun? giant meatball?) which is challenging given that we’re used to seeing meteorites as flying objects but, if you think of it, there isn’t really a common, widely accepted visual stereotype of how a meteorite is supposed to look as a rock.
  • The overall color scheme had to be reserved enough that the Ammolite colors could really stand out.
  • It had to include musical notes, suggesting that this is a musical event.
  • It had to have a strong sense of depth and expansive motion.
  • It had to have an element of surreality while still being legible.
  • It had to embody the idea of “ordered chaos” and neither be too busy nor too plain.

It took a lot of steps to get to this final product. But through Jon’s amazing work — this whimsical set of ideas and requirements for an image has become a real, living design that I just want to look at every day. It’s such an exciting feeling to now be able to share it with you, dear viewer.

Guitar, Improvisation

First Music From A New Guitar

Here’s the birth story of the new guitar you’ll see me playing on my YouTube channel where I started posting improvisations this year.

7/1/2021 I got on a waiting list for a new guitar, a hollow steel-body electric called a “Mulecaster.” It’s made by Mule Resophonic Guitars in Saginaw, Michigan and I’m a fan of their stuff.

8/29/2022 I confirmed the specs: a double cutaway, with a steel pickguard, a hipshot bender installed, and baritone strings. Different from anything I have.

9/13/2022 Received this first progress picture:

9/14/2022 Second one:

9/19/2022 Third one:

12/6/2022 Final pic:

12/10/2022 Guitar arrived:

12/21/2022 I made this music, with guitar’s help and inspiration:

Music

Album Update

I’ve been very lucky in the past five years to have had the time, the focus, the health, the overall life circumstances that were necessary for writing music. When I consider that I’ve created a sampling of the music I dreamed of creating, that I’ve given shape and substance to the music within me, I feel a sense of peace.

My goal now is to set up a context that might allow listeners — that’s you — to experience some of the same joy that I felt in writing this music. That means planning an official album release. Commissioning artwork. Making videos. Doing interviews. Planning events. Sharing the stories behind the notes.

In the meantime, I invite you to preview all the music in my new album, Meteorite.

The music is complete, but the music is only part of the album. The album itself, in the larger sense of what an album can be, is still evolving. If you leave me a comment, ask a question, tell me what moves you, what you want to know more about, you can be part of the evolution of this album. I’d love that.

Here is the music:

Music, Songwriting

Song: Drifting At Sea

Drifting at sea
No land I see
All that I see
Is sky and sea

Hull’s got a crack
Main sail is torn
Compass has lost the will to spin

Seagull above
Gliding with ease
How does it feel
To fly so free?

Someday perhaps
I’ll be reborn
I’ll be a seagull flying free

Trapped on a boat
Hope is remote
Inside a jar I’ll float my note:

Sweetheart I miss you and
Mother I love you and
Father I thank you for my life

Dolphins at play
With me, please stay
Show me the way
And I’ll obey

Seagull above
Soaring so sure
Guide me along
To my destined shore

Words & Music by Rudi Seitz, 2020