I spend a lot of time on the subway. Nearly everyone here does. It’s a strange fact of New York City life that so many of us are willing to endure hour long commutes everyday packed shoulder to shoulder, or butt to butt, or shoulder to butt with sweaty strangers in rickety old train cars. Then again, there are a whole bunch of strange behaviors New Yorkers engage in all the time, from paying twelve hundred dollars a month to live in a closet (guilty), to ordering Chinese delivery at 4am (just because you can doesn’t mean you should), to using a razor scooter as your main mode of transportation (I’m talking business men, wearing suits, on their way to work, riding this). Yet among all the idiosyncrasies of New York life, the most difficult one for me has been the enormous amount of time spent on the subway. As someone who likes to maximize his time, I often feel like the hours I spend every week on the subway are lost hours.
However, I’ve recently delighted in finding a simple solution: I’ll just make music on the subway. Now I know what you’re thinking, and don’t worry. I have not become a subway performer, tyrannically forcing my fellow passengers to endure my music while they’re packed shoulder to butt in a stuffy train and just trying to make it home.
Quick aside: I have nothing against people busking or performing in public— I’ve done it before, and will do it again. The street is the oldest stage in the world, and it takes guts to get out there and play for a public who have nothing invested in your art. However, there’s a huge difference between performing on the street or at a park and performing in a subway car. At a park for instance, you set up shop and let people come and enjoy your music, or art, or acrobatics if they want to; but if you’re in a subway car with your guitar and start ripping-roaring through your best version of the song Summer of ’69, well now all of a sudden you’re infringing on my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, because I really hate that song and I’m stuck on this subway for like at least another four stops… man I wish this train would take a quick turn sending you guitar first into that pole right there. Maybe I should just pull a John Belushi on this clown…
Anyway, I digress. No, I’m not a subway performer. Instead, I’ve decided to make short, sugary instrumental hip-hop tracks on my computer while I travel from point A to B. The process is simple: I hop on the train, find a seat (note: I’m thwarted in my process when traveling at rush hour), pull out my laptop, plug in my headphones, fire up Logic Pro X, and work on creating some combination of melody, harmony, and rhythm until I’m about a stop away from my destination. Then I pack up my computer an go along my merry way.
This is a delightful process for a number of reasons. Obviously it does give me something somewhat musically constructive to do during my commute. It also forces me into a rapid process of songwriting in which I allow myself to just follow my first instincts. So often when writing music, I give myself too much time to experiment and second guess my decisions, meaning that songs may never get finished. I don’t make myself finish the songs in one trip, but still, if I want to get anything done during the short subway-ride intervals, I just have to go with what pops into my head. Another fun limitation about this work is that I’m simply using the sounds that I have on my computer. This point might be more relevant to all the computer music nerds out there, but essentially there are a massive number of digital instruments one could own, and I own a pretty large amount on an external hard drive which I often use for film scoring and songwriting. Instead of using my hard drive and having access to all of these sounds (which can sometimes prove overwhelming), I’m using a much more limited sonic palette made up of the sounds that are built into my software. Finally, I’m only intending these songs to be about one minute each (although I admit I’ve gotten carried away and made some of them longer). These are meant to be teasers, mere tastes of what could be. I could expand them later if I wanted or needed to, but for now they work well as brief musical moments. I’m reminded in this project of the power of having limitations. These songs are so satisfying and relatively easy to create, because, as you see above, there is so much I’ve already decided about the song before I’ve even started.
So during the roughly three weeks since beginning this project, I’ve created four tracks and am working on a fifth. I certainly don’t see myself slowing down anytime soon— this has been fun! Ultimately I’d like to come up with a better name for this project than my working title of Commuter Chords. The phrase “commuter chords” is certainly descriptive of what the project is, but it’s also just a little bit lame in my opinion— I need something that pops, or at least something that is fun to say out loud. “Commuter chords” is not fun to say out loud. Don’t believe me? Say it out loud then. See.
So whenever I fully flesh out the persona of this project, you’ll likely see a new webpage for it with all the songs up, but in the meantime I’d like to go ahead and share with you a couple of Commuter Chords tracks. Hope you enjoy!