Sunday, November 22, 2009

Irish Whistle Update

A New Way to Play

I'm awful at memorizing piano music.  I don't like doing it, and it takes me forever.  I'm also pretty bad at memorizing lyrics, but vocal melodies (or pitches, in the case of singing harmonies in a choral work) are fairly easy - I learn them, and pretty soon, they're just embedded in my subconscious.  With the whistle, I'm starting to experience this deeply-learned phenomenon on an instrument for the first time. 

At O'Flaherty, it was made quite clear that the primary way tunes are learned is by ear, so I've made some effort to learn them that way.  I've used written music to assist in learning most of the tunes I know so far, but I've endeavored to learn by ear as much as possible.  Now, I'm having the novel experience of finding it easier to play some tunes purely from memory, with the music actually distracting me when I'm looking at.  Though I sometimes don't know where my fingers should be headed next, I can "hear" the melody in my memory, and the fingers just make that melody happen.  I'm sure, at some level, this is what happens when I play something on the piano repeatedly and feel like I "know" it, but the progress is so swift in this case (perhaps because harmonies aren't there to complicate the issue) that it feels like a completely different phenomenon.

The Austin Celtic Festival - Joanie Madden Workshop

I'm writing this nearly two weeks after the event, so the details are already hazy, but better late than never.  There were in the range of ten to fifteen people at the workshop, so it was fairly personal.  Joanie has an enormous personality, and a bit of a Brooklyn accent (which seems a bit incongrous for an All-Ireland champion).  From the moment she entered the tent, all attention was unequivically on her, and not due to star power - Joanie just exudes charisma and competence.  She rolled out her nigh-legendary collection and told a couple of short stories, including how she first met Pat O'Riordan (who's early playing failed to impress Joanie, but whose whistle-making was a different matter), and how she drove over her previous whistle collection.  She also indulged us with a couple of tunes at the beginning and end of the workshop.  Most of the session was spent learning an Air and a Reel, replete with Joanie's ornamentation.  What I personally took away was a better understanding of how to execute slides (push the finger "toward" the whistle and up) and vibrato*.  I asked Joanie whether you had to vary the way you executed ornaments on a low whistle, referring to "piper's grip" in the question, and she didn't know that term - there's still a lot of regional culture to this, I guess.  I walked away with an autographed CD booklet and a photo - an hour and a half VERY well spent.

* Varies from note to note, but usually by trilling a half-hole, two holes down from the bottom hole you're currently fingering - for high D, you trill the entire top hole, and for E, you trill the bottom hole, on a quarter-hole or less)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

O'Flaherty in Review

I spent the last weekend, Friday through Sunday, at the O'Flaherty Irish Music Retreat, a bit south of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  I expected a relaxing vacation flavored with some musical insights and a few tunes, but I ended up with gruelling, 16 to 18-hour, action-packed days (well, musically-packed, at least).  I could have opted out of some activities to have a bit of rest, but I was having far too much fun, and I couldn't let the opportunities pass me by.


When physical music stores were the only source of music (i.e., pre-internet), I spent a fair amount of time exploring the New Age sections at the local Borders and Barnes & Noble.  Space constraints tend to force music sellers to consolidate myriad actual genres into a few over-arching descriptors, and Celtic music tended to get lumped into the New Age section.  Compounded by the fact that there actually are a number of artists that fuse Celtic and New Age styles, including Enya (probably the best-known New Age artist around, whether she likes the genre label or not), I've tended to mentally tie Celtic and New Age together throughout my adult life.

One of the older albums in my CD collection, among those I found in the New Age section, is "Song of the Irish Whistle" by Joanie Madden.  Since I first heard that album, I've loved the sound of a slow tune on the whistle, and sometime around six or seven years ago I picked up a whistle of my own.  Since then, I've acquired a few more whistles, which I've noodled around on and used in a few Longing for Orpheus songs.  I've never put much effort into learning to play them in a proper way, by any definition of "proper."  During rehearsals for the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Iolanthe over this past summer, one of my cast-mates mentioned driving up to an Irish music retreat for a weekend later in the year; I thought it might be fun, and provide an opportunity to get a new perspective on music.  So, I signed up for the beginner's Irish Whistle course...

Irish Traditional Music Culture

At some level I knew there was a community and culture based on Celtic music, but I didn't appreciate how large or serious this community was - nor did I realize that Irish Traditional Music (ITM) is a very specific thing, and not synonymous with Celtic music (are there communities dedicated to Scottish, Welsh, and other regions of music, I wonder?).  I now think of the ITM community as a comporable entity to the Classical or Jazz communities.  In some ways, the ITM culture is far more limited - tunes are almost universally diatonic, and in a handful of keys (those with one to three sharps, both major and minor).   There are perhaps ten types of tunes, representing a few basic rhythms (jigs are 6/8, slides 6/8 with a particular syncopated feel, slipjigs 9/8, reels 4/4 or cut time, etc.), and no one really ventures into odd-time territory (no 5/4 or 7/8 experiments).  These limitations place the musicians' and listeners' focus on other aspects of the music, perhaps most intensely on performance style.

ITM also has one serious leg up on the Jazz and Classical worlds, and that's the tune session.  Sessions make Irish music something many people can actively participate in, rather than than just observe, and I think that's  incredibly cool, and probably central to the explosion of the music's popularity over the past few decades.  Still being a newbie, I could be mischaracterizing a "typical" session, but its basically a gathering of players who sits in a big circle and just play tunes.  If you don't know the current tune, you typically sit it out, but it seems you can generally get away with a bit of quiet stumbling as you try to pick up on the tune yourself.  The nature of these sessions puts a lot of emphasis on remembering a huge repertoire of tunes, and on learning by ear, which is a skill I desperately need to develop.  At the retreat, in any case, there were a lot of beginners, or at least beginners on a particular instrument, and so there were sessions geared specifically toward us.  It seems to be an axiom in this culture that you really have to listen and imitate to play this music properly, but the ability to jump-start the session experience by reading made my sessions far more enjoyable.  I overheard some talk about starting a teaching and/or slow session here in Austin, and that really excites me.

Ornamentation is Everything

Okay, it's not really everything, but hyperbole is so effective... I went into this retreat already familiar with the Whistle's fingerings and breath support, but I had no idea how deeply integral style, and ornamentation in particular, are to playing Irish music.  Nor did I have any idea how to play any of the ornaments correctly.  Fortunately, my beginner-level class (taught be Janice Deane, in the photo there) didn't have any true beginners - everyone could read music or play an instrument already, so we were able to spend a good portion of our time focusing on whistle ornamentation, which is apparently based on Uillean Pipe ornamentation; the Pipes are among the oldest Irish instruments, and as new instruments have been integrated into the Irish music tradition, their players have typically emulated the style of the established instruments.  Pipes and whistles share similar fingering, so I'm now entertaining the long-term goal of taking up the pipes someday.  But, I'm not going to let myself think about that too much until I've learned a lot more about the whistle.  In any case, if I learned any generally applicable musical principle during the retreat, it's the importance of paying proper attention to every little bit of a musical line - a simple melody can be just a simple, boring melody, or it can be a canvas for musical expression, depending on the performer's competence, and how much they put into it.

Mickey Dunne

I was surprised to hear that many of the instrument instructors would be doing lecture-type presentations on the history of Irish Traditional Music, both in general and as it pertained to particular instruments and regions.  I said to the friend that told me about the retreat that I "didn't think of musicians and historians overlapping much," and she replied that I was dead wrong when it came to Irish Traditional musicians.  I learned a tremendous amount about the background of Irish music from some of these players, but was most moved by Mickey Dunne.

It's easy to get used to phenomenal musicianship when you're surrounded by it, but I absolutely maintained my sense of awe at Mickey's piping throughout the retreat.  He was among the guests presenting an enrichment lecture, and his traced the tradition of Uillean piping back as far as the written word will allow, which is unfortunately only to the mid-1800s.  The pipes certainly predate that period, perhaps by centuries and possibly by millenia, but that's when the first written documentation of individual pipers starts.  Mickey is passionate about preserving the knowledge and techniques of the pipers who came before him, and his passion is infectious.

But, some of Mickey's passing comments are what are really sticking with me, and those relate to the early years of his life, when his family were "travelers."  That's the word he typically uses, but to clarify, he mentioned, "...or gypsies, tinkers, or whatnot" (paraphrased, not a direct quote).  Shortly after, he mentioned something about the travellers' reputation as thieves and trouble-makers being unjustified, since there were some bad seeds among them, but there were some bad seeds among "settled folk" too.  I think its fascinating to get a glimpse into the intricacies and tensions of another culture (it gives one a new perspective), even one that's relatively genetically homogenous - Mickey said that the travellers of Ireland really emerged from the famine of 1847, when a large portion of the population just started moving around in search of ways to survive, and maintained the lifestyle after the crisis was over.  The travellers have the same set of common names as the settled population, and I'm less clear on this point, but I get the impression there's still a non-trivial subset of the Irish population that leads a nomadic lifestyle.  In the 50s or so, the Irish government apparently made an effort to settle the travelling musicians, so Mickey moved into a house when he was about seven.  On the one hand, it seems a little strange to me that he puts such emphasis on a lifestyle he only experienced as a young child - he implied that the experience was integral to his playing and the musical tradition as a whole - but he speaks with such passion and conviction about it, and emphasizes the connection between the traveling busker and the musical tradition, so that I absolutely cannot dismiss the idea.  After all, for the first two thirds of the known history of piping (~1850-1950), the travelling life was the life most pipers led.
Wrapping It Up...

I could go on and on, but at this point, my time is probably better spent learning some tunes.  The retreat is over, but my enthusiasm has remained, and I just got a ticket to participate in a Whistle workshop with Joannie Madden at the Austin Celtic Festival in a couple of weeks...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Compress Classical Music

It is constantly lamented in the Classical Music community that there aren't enough new fans, particularly young ones.  I think the Classical recording and publishing industry could do a lot to change this by abandoning one old but deeply rooted convention.  

A few relevant ideas:
  • An almost universal technique in Popular* music is to compress the dynamic range of finished songs.  Tools called "compressors" and "limiters" are used to achieve this, and they basically make the quiet parts of a song louder.  Many members of the audio engineering community feel that these tools are grossly overused by the modern music industry (including many of those engineers who are compelled to overuse them in order to keep their job), but that's a completely different rant.  
  • There's a tremendous divide in the approach sound engineers take to making a Classical recording versus a Popular recording.  There's variation within each community, based on genre and sub-genre, performer, engineer, etc., but the Classical Music world typically attempts to capture and reproduce an original performance as accurately as possible, while the Popular Music world uses the studio as an instrument, and all sorts of heavy processing are acceptable and commonplace. 
  • A whole lot of people listen to music in noisy environments.  College campuses and mass transit are full of music fans listening to mp3 players with earbuds.  I personally listen to over an hour of music accompanied by significant road noise each workday.  In these settings, music with a relatively small dynamic range is great - the listener sets the volume at one comfortable level, and the music never gets too quiet to hear or too loud to bear. 
Most classical music is just impossible to enjoy in a noisy environment.  I've felt a bit guilty throughout my life that I don't care more about Classical music than I do, but every time I make an effort to listen to a Beethoven Symphony, I end up constantly twiddling the volume knob, or forget it's even playing during a quiet part, only to get startled when something loud happens.  For Classical music to have a fighting chance on my car stereo, and likely the earbuds of millions, it needs to become acceptable in the Classical audio community to seriously compress the dynamic range of recordings.

In an ideal listening setting, a large dynamic range is fantastic, and I don't think the old standards should be abandoned, but in the modern world of downloadable music (i.e., where there's very little cost associated with the actual transfer of audio data), it should be easy to provide both compressed and uncompressed versions of a recordings to listeners. 

*For this discussion, I'm making a tremendous generalization and dividing EVERYTHING into either Classical or Popular - frankly, though, I have no idea how Jazz fits into this discussion.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On Picking an Instrument

I mentioned before that I didn't really think my time playing the saxophone in 6th-9th was worth it.  I've thought further, and have come to some conclusions about what set of instruments a well-rounded musician should study at minimum as they come up through school.

If you want to understand western music, you've got to understand harmony, which is a much easier thing to do when you play a polyphonic instrument (i.e., one that can play multiple notes simultaneously).  Nothing beats a keyboard for clearly laying out the relationships of pitches to one another, or the black/white key configuration for illustrating the main scales in our sonic vocabulary.  Other traits that recommend the piano are a good dynamic range, plus a very transferable skill set; if you can play a piano keyboard, you can pretty much a play any synthesizer or organ, as well as more obscure instruments like harpsichords and harmoniums

The guitar is another solid contender to fill the harmonic role, but I think that the variety of tunings and the fretboard structure provide a more convoluted model of the relationships between pitches and scales.  Like the piano, the ability to play the guitar is transferable to a myriad of stringed instruments, from the bouzouki to the oud, not to mention the rock mainstays of electric guitar and bass.

Plucked and hammered strings can be very moving, but there is no more expressive instrument than the human voice.  Even if you have no aspirations of singing long-term, taking formal voice lessons will likely teach you more about subtle expressiveness in a melodic line than any instrument.  To get the most out of studying voice, though, you must learn to sight-sing.  With an instrument, it's possible (and in my experience, common) to learn to read music by converting written notes directly into physical actions (keys pressed, breath exhaled), without really learning what specific intervals and chords really sound like.  That is, you can sort of inadvertently bypass the hearing part of the process.  Every college music student is expected to be at least minimaly competent at transcribing and playing back what they hear.  At my school, there was a class called "aural learning"; practically every singer in the class breezed through with an A, while many instrumentalists struggled to pass.

Finally, any decent musician is going to be expected to perform as a member of a group, whether it's a drum line, symphony orchestra, or power trio.  There are any number of ways you could go here, but I really think violin is the best choice (and, by extension, a school or community orchestra) - it's useful in orchestras, country music, and the occasional rock group.  There also seem to be more paying gigs out there for violin than any instrument save piano (and most of those are accompaniment jobs).

Friday, September 11, 2009

Structure in Art

In my old blog, I pointed to game designer Mark Rosewater as an unlikely source of artistic wisdom.  Though I haven't kept up with his writing over the past few years, the main point I originally took from him is still as relevant - structure helps creativity.  This seems counter-intuitive, but I've found it to be true. Tom Shear of Assemblage 23 recently mentioned in his blog that having fewer options makes him more productive, in that he has fewer opportunities to get distracted.

Not to get too terribly meta, but I think my previous post is a perfect example of structure aiding creativity. Ordinarily, a games-centric convention wouldn't be relevant to an arts blog.  Further, it would have been very time-consuming for me to filter out interesting bits of the con into a general-purpose post, and it probably wouldn't have been particularly cohesive to read.  The stated purpose of this blog forced me to focus on a few aspects of my convention experience, and I was able to quickly (relatively) write up a pertinent post.  In fact, this is the primary reason I started this new blog, rather than reviving the old one.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Thoughts from PAX

I spent the past weekend in rainy Seattle (a beautiful contrast to the record heat that central Texas has been experiencing), attending the gaming convention PAX.  While much of my convention experience is wholly unrelated to the subject of this blog, I attended a panel on the Rock Band Network, a program that's going to allow independent artists to get their music into the Rock Band store, and the keynote speaker spent some time addressing a big question that's been floating around the gaming regions of the blogosphere for a while now...

Are Video Games Art?

The keynote speaker was Ron Gilbert, designer and programmer of a number of successful games over the past quarter century.  As an industry player, I would assume that Gilbert's answer is biased (its "Yes," of course), and while he was a very entertaining speaker, the reasoning he presented in favor of games as art was a little shaky.  He cited attacks on gaming as demonstration that games are powerfully emotional and thought-provoking, which equates them to other art forms that have been censored through history due to their ability to challenge the status quo.

Jack Thompson is probably the most notorious detractor of video games, but his actions have been so over-the-top that he's been disbarred, and consequently I doubt that anyone takes him seriously anymore.  A quick Google search list is topped by Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence, who equate gaming guilds with street gangs in their introductory paragraph.  Anyone tech-savvy enough to be reading this blog probably knows a few World of Warcraft players - please, suggest this premise to them, and see how hard they laugh.  The Chinese government has imposed restrictions on the length of time gamers are allowed to play, but they're primarily focused on students, and appear to be more of an attempt to make them spend time studying than to prevent them from becoming reprobates or criminals.  I suspect that only a small "lunatic fringe" truly views video games as a serious threat - then again, perhaps the art censorship of the past was enforced by a small lunatic fringe that just happened to gain power. 

In any case, I happen to agree with Mr. Gilbert, but for different reasons.  One thing that has really stuck with me since college is the concept of gesamtkunstwerk - Richard Wagner (he who wrote the operas with the viking "fat lady") was a proponent of this philosophy of opera as an art form comprised of other art forms - he insisted that the music should not overshadow the acting, nor the stage design the plot, etc.  By the same token, it seems clear to me that since video games contain various combinations of visual art, music, storytelling, voice acting, etc., they too are an art form.  Perhaps the simplest of games, like tic-tac-toe, are not art, but even video games produced by one-person studios like Spyeart contain most of these elements.  While many games don't have much artistic value, the same can be said for many examples of any art form.  Relative to other arts, video games are a medium in their infancy, and I have no doubt that many classics are yet to come.

Rock Band Network

Harmonix (the games' developers) and Microsoft have refined and expanded the tools that Harmonix currently uses to incorporate songs into Rock Band, and are making them available to the music-making public.  A lot of potential users already have the right equipment (a PC and an XBox 360), so the cost of entry is only a $99/year subscription to the Microsoft's "XNA Creators Club."  The rest of the tools are freeware or inexpensive (~$60) software.  Songs authored via the Rock Band Network will be available through the same online store the current Rock Band selection, and creators will be able to set the price of their downloads within a certain range.  The current default is $1.99, and I'd expect prices to stay in that vicinity.  As of this weekend, 30% of sales is to be passed on to creators, meaning you'd have to roughly 170 downloads a year to break even.

The panel itself consisted primarily of a demonstration of the development tools, used to implement a song by internet nerd-hero Jonathan Coulton.  Sadly, we missed his big concert on Saturday night, but the front-row seats we had for this were pretty cool.  The rest of the post is going to be technical details, so if you don't spend any of your time in an audio sequencer, you'll probably want to bail out now.

A plugin for Reaper is the centerpiece of the software tools. Specific MIDI pitches are mapped to the various instrument's pads and keys.  For example, the easy drums (with 4 drum pad and a kick pedal) might occupy C2, C#2, D2, D#2, and E2, the medium drums C3-E3, etc., and solid notes in the C5-E5 denotes a drum fill (these particular note ranges are just examples I'm making up).  There are macros to chop align lyrics with MIDI notes, but I suspect a little manual tweaking will still be required.  It will also possible to specify lighting changes and camera angles.  I'm unclear on a number of details (i.e., how hammer-ons are going to be programmed), but the panelists assured us that the documentation will be very thorough.  All of this must be programmed in sync with audio stems of the original song in Reaper. 

After all the MIDI and audio stems are correct in Reaper, you use a custom tool called Magma ("because that's where rock comes from!") to compile everything into a file that can be uploaded to Microsoft's XNA network.  You can then download the song to your XBox to test out, and submit it for peer review.  I'm still curious about what all the peer review is aimed to weed out, and what will be allowed.  For example, can we put songs on Rock Band that don't use all the instruments, like instrumentals without vocals or ambient tracks with no drums?  Pearl Jam's "Master/Servant" is currently in the game with no vocal track, but did they make that exception soley for the sake of a classic album?  Will it be up the sole discretion of a fickle peer review community?  The beta test should be starting soon, so we shouldn't have to wait too much longer to find out.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Rock Band as Educational Software

Soon, I hope for my Synthpop band, Ice Queen Alias, to start performing live.  I intend to play drums, and I'm using Rock Band to learn how.  


I don't have many regrets, but one that I do have is choosing to play the saxaphone, rather than the drums, when I joined the school band in 6th grade.  Now, don't get me wrong, there's a lot of value in learning to play a monophonic instrument like the sax, which I may bring up in a different post - but I love the drums, and I really wish I had spent some more of my formative years strengthening my sense of rhythm, and dexterity with a pair of sticks. 

A couple of years ago, Rock Band came out, giving me a relatively cheap opportunity to bang on things in a rhythmic fashion.  It turns out, I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would.  So much, in fact, that I decided earlier this year that I wanted to play drums when Ice Queen Alias finally starts performing live.  I set a goal for myself - if I could score 5 out of 5 stars on 20 songs in Expert mode, I'd make a real commitment and buy some real (electronic) drums.  After three or four weeks of work, I reached my goal, and purchased a Roland TD-4 set.  I play a bit on the Rolands (and will focus more and more on them as Ice Queen Alias approaches live performances), but I still play a whole lot of Rock Band - an average of about 45 minutes a day - and I really feel that this is the most productive thing I could be doing.

Practice Isn't Fun - Games Are

I started taking piano lessons when I was in 3rd grade, and while I truly appreciate all my various music teachers have taught me over the years, I have hated practicing, and by extension music lessons, for as long as I can remember.  Past experience shows that if I had started taking drum lessons instead of playing Rock Band, I probably would have put in four or five half-hour practice sessions for the first month or two, which would have eventually fallen off to about one a week.  With the small, incremental goals and variety of songs and difficulty levels offered by Rock Band (plus the ever-expanding catalogue of downloadable songs), I've been playing the drums nearly daily for the better part of a year.

If I had the drive and focus to truly "practice", I would probably be advancing faster, and certainly be picking up complicated rudiments more quickly (I do occasionally work on these with a practice pad for a few minutes at a time - but it's unstructured and spontaneous, so I enjoy it).  But, since my goal is to play live on songs that I write, and not to become a marketable, well-rounded percussionist, this limitation on my advancement is really no big deal.

What I've Learned

There are some distinct limitations inherent to Rock Band, in comparison to a real drum kit.  Rock Band has a kick pedal, but no Hi-Hat pedal; the pads don't have much "bounce"; the pads are too close together, etc.  I've aquired some tools, and adopted some techniques to wring all the training potential I can get out the game.

Lefty Mode

In Rock Band's default (right-handed) configuration, the left hand is typically assigned to the snare drum, while the right hand plays the hi-hats and the lion's share of the toms, crashes, and rides in fills.  I frequently sit down for a session, and immediately switch to lefty mode in the options menu.  This promotes limb independence, and helps to limbre up my left hand, which is still far behind my right in dexterity and stamina.  A strong and independent left hand is particularly important to me, as I intend to play "open-handed" when I play with the band, playing hats with my left hand and snare with my right.  This is a non-traditional style, but prevents all the arm-crossing nonsense inherent in more traditional drumming, and feels more comfortable and natural.

To compensate for the lack of a hi-hat pedal, I occasionally move my kick pedal to the left foot.  This certainly doesn't address the more subtle techniques of hi-hattery (half-closed position and all that), but it's a far cry better than no practice at all, and it has illustrated to me just how woefully behind the curve my left foot is.

The Kick Box

The kick pedal that came with the original Rock Band was just awful, and the one accompanying Rock Band 2 is only a slight improvement.  Fortunately, there's a way to use a real kick pedal - unfortunately, it'll cost you around $250.  I already owned a Roland kick trigger, the most expensive element, so it was absolutely worth it.  The key element is the Kick Box ($65), a third-party device that converts signals from pro electronic drum kick pedeals to signals a set of Rock Band drums can understand.  It's made by a tiny little one-man operation, but it's a good product, and when mine got fried by a lightning strike, he reparied it for free, so I have no hesitation in recommending his business. 

The tall thing with the circle on top is a Roland kick trigger (model KD-8, $135), and the pedal is a "cheap" Pearl model($60). 


When I first started playing more intensely, and for longer periods, I developed pains in two places - a numb twinge in my wrists while playing, and a dull pain in my left elbow for a day or two after playing.  In part, this was caused by tension - I focused on relaxing my grip (as well as researching different grips online), and striking more lightly, and this pretty much took care of the numbness.  However, I didn't really overcome the elbow problem until I picked up a pair of ridiculously light sticks:

If you can't read the photo clearly, they're Regal Tip brand, size 7A.  I suspect that the Rock Band pads just don't have the bounce of real drums (electronic or acoustic), which is probably compounded by some poor-quality engineering in my own arm.  If I play too hard or long, I still get a little of this pain, but it seems to be fading as I build up stamina over time.  In any case, I highly recommend light sticks for long Rock Band sessions.

You Still Have to Use Your Ears

As strongly as I endorse Rock Band for improving your rhythm skills, it's still a game, and the feedback system is designed as such.  Consequently, it's possible to get a great score in Rock Band with some pretty inaccurate playing - you can get a little behind or ahead of the beat, or play with generally poor precision, but if you're "close enough", the game counts it as a hit.  So, if you really want to improve while playing, you still have to listen, and force yourself to concentrate on your weak points.  Going through the calibration process in the options menu is an absolute must.  Additionally, the game doesn't care how hard you hit the pads, but dynamics are critical in actual performances, so you have to pay attention to this on your own. 

Once again, into the breach

As in my myriad artistic endeavours, I am once again overreaching.  I've maintained a blog before, but it had no stated focus.  I also have facebook and twitter accounts, plus 5 myspace accounts (4 belong to my various projects).  It is, of course, a fool's errand to add yet another project to my life, but here we are.

My intent with this blog is to share whatever insights I gain into learning new skills, and ideally, synthesize knowledge between seemingly disparate disciplines.  To that end, let me introduce my projects...

Longing for Orpheus: My furthest advanced electronic musical project, in a New Age/Ambient vein.  So far, I've released two self-published albums, doing everything up through the mixing stage myself, then hiring a mastering engineer and relying primarily on CD Baby for distribution.  I also did basic promotion work (radio and internet radio) for both albums.

Ice Queen Alias: A dark synthpop band that includes myself, my fiancee, and a friend of ours.  We're still in the writing-only phase, and have few songs up on MySpace.  I'm putting a lot of work into this project at the moment, and hope to start performing in local dark scene venues within the next six months (that's been a stated goal for well over a year, though...)

Artificial Emotion: My third and final music project, this is more along the lines of what people usually think of (in my experience) when you say "electronic music."  My concept of what fits here is ill-defined - it's kind of a catch-all for experiments and things that don't fit stylistically within the other two projects.  The one unifying concept is a sci-fi theme; I originally created the project with the purpose of writing a "Trance Opera" concept album, with a robotic protagnist (lots of vocoder!), and still hope to get around to it someday. 

After Enigma - A Guide to Nu Ambient Music: Like its title implies, this is a web site dedicated to defining and exploring "Nu Ambient" music, mostly via album reviews and artist profiles.  It is, sadly, the most neglected of my projects. 

Live Theater:  I consider myself a regular performer with three production companies in my area - The Wimberley Players, The Way Off Broadway Community Players, and The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Austin.  For the past few years, I been performing in about four shows or so a year.  Multiple times, on recieving a role in a well-known show, I've trawled the internet for the thoughts of other actors who played that role, and have never found any relevant hits.  One aim of this blog is to rectify that.

Vexel art:  I just discovered the word "vexel" the other day, and it amuses me tremendously.  I have used the freeware GIMP tool a few times in the past, and it turns out it's a vexel tool - you can create persistent vector-based "paths", but in the end, you render them out to a big map of pixels, and that's your end product.  I've used GIMP for simple image manipulation in webpage design (for the pages linked above), and to design a couple of t-shirts before, but I've just recently (in the past few months) begun freehand drawing concepts, then using GIMP to create more "polished" versions.  I'll probably create a DeviantArt page soon, and post the link here.