Commuter Chords

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!

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Play Your Part


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So a couple of months ago I was waiting on the C train listening to an old man play what sounded to me like Bach on his electric piano. Despite his lowly stage and modest pay, he was playing beautifully and so I looked around to see if any of the other awaiting subway riders were noticing his performance. To my delight I looked up and saw one young woman listening with rapt attention. After dropping a couple of dollars in his keyboard case, I boarded the train and ended up standing right next to that woman. So I did what few New Yorkers ever do, and I struck up a conversation with a stranger on the train. I asked her if she was a musician, and she said no but that music was a big part of her life and that she was actually involved in film (acting, writing, directing, producing, etc…). We chatted about a short film she was producing and eventually I told her that if she ever needed anyone to score her films, that she should call me. I gave her my card, bid her adieu, and got off at my stop, satisfied with the exchange, but not exactly expecting anything to come from it.

Well, I must have made a good impression (either that or she couldn’t resist the low, low price I promised her), because a few weeks later, she called me about scoring the short film that she was producing. Sidenote: kids, it turns out you should definitely talk to strangers, because they’ll end up hiring you to score their films. So for her privacy and my own entertainment I’m going use a completely made up name and call this producer Lilliandra (I estimate there’s an 85 percent chance Lilliandra is going to read this blog, so I hope you enjoy your made up name, Lilliandra). Lilliandra was working alongside the writer/director/star of the film— let’s call her Nira— to put the finishing touches on the work. The film is a comedy with a surprising dramatic turn set at a low-key house party in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Both Nira and Lilliandra admitted that there are some editing issues, and some suspect acting on the part of one of Nira’s costars, yet overall I found the film charming, funny, and heartfelt, and Nira shines as a magnetic personality onscreen (off-screen as well in fact). I was happy to be a part of the project, and after some direction from Nira and Lilliandra, I began writing and recording the music for the film. After a week of hard work I had something I was excited to show them, so we set up a meeting at Nira’s Greenpoint apartment.

Yet after showing them my work, I could already see the unfortunate truth on their faces: the music was not right. In a nutshell, the music stepped on the humorous parts and over-dramatized the dramatic parts. Despite the fact that Nira and Lilliandra let me know this very delicately, I’m ashamed to admit that internally I felt very defensive. I thought “didn’t they know how much work I had done… and this music is really good…and I’m giving them a low, low price so they should be happy with what I gave them… etc.” Yet all of this was simply the ego-trip of a rookie film composer faced for the first time with some real life critique of his work. If I am going to continue in this business (which I certainly hope to), I need to grow thicker skin and be perpetually open to direction, critique, and even outright rejection. Lilliandra and Nira were right after all— I had stepped on the jokes, and over-dramatized the drama.

Ultimately, however, I was guilty of something more egregious than simply writing bad music. I had essentially used this film as a forum to show off my abilities as a composer, rather than simply trying to help tell the story. The music was in fact “good” in the sense that it was well crafted and sounded nice, but it was the wrong music for this film. Nira and Lilliandra were going for something more nuanced than what I had presented. My music was outshining the film at the expense of the story.

Likely most of us at one point or other have been guilty of bolstering ourselves at the expense of the larger community or project that we are a part of. In the least we’ve all seen it in the losing basketball team with a selfish “all-star” taking all the shots (I’m looking at you 2015 Kobe Bryant), or the band with lazy songwriting that simply serves as a forum for the lead guitarist to shred painfully long solos (I’m looking at you jam-band scene). Yet the best and longest lasting actors, musicians, athletes or workers in any field are not those who do everything to make themselves look better, but those who realize that they are a part of a bigger picture and simply play their part very well (I’m looking at and applauding you Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Rodman, Steven Drozd, and everyone of their ilk).

Last night I met again with Lilliandra and Nira. I had made many adjustments according to the direction they gave me, and as a result the film’s story and personality was much more clear than it had been in the previous incarnation. We had a pleasant and productive session of simply fine-tuning the musical elements, rather than having to completely re-work them. The night was fun and fruitful because we were all on the same page, telling the same story, and each playing our part.

Blazing Eye Contact— First Week in NYC

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Well, I live in New York now. So far I’ve spent most of my time lazing in Central Park, exploring the NYU campus in Greenwich Village, or piecing together my tiny bedroom in my Upper West Side apartment (pictured above). All summer I’ve been excited about this move and proud of myself for taking this leap, but I confess I didn’t (and still don’t) know what I was getting myself into. I suppose a naive part of me expected that I would arrive and immediately begin walking down a clearly paved road to musical success. In reality, I’ve just been trying to figure out how to properly feed, clothe, shelter, and transport myself in this enormous city. I’ve been here for just over a week, and every day I oscillate between being a giddy tourist and a homesick child. I walk around stupefied by the iconic streets full of hip beautiful people, I constantly screw up on the subway, and I miss my family and friends to the point of tears.

And still, I’m so happy to be here. I know that eventually I am going to figure out the subway, I’ll learn where/when to go to the grocery store, I’ll make great new friends, and I’ll start to feel like my tiny closet of a bedroom is a cozy home. Many of my now effortful actions will change into natural routines. What will not change is the fact that I am living in one of the most exciting cities in the world, surrounded by rich culture and a talented, driven, diverse population. I have every resource I could hope for to help me fulfill my dream of musical success: world renowned instructors, innumerable venues, plenty of talented collaborators, and a potentially vast audience of music fans. I have a sense that if I am not successful here, it will be my own fault. This city is full opportunities for me and I believe that I’m going to be rewarded if I only work hard and consistently choose to step out of my comfort zone. Frankly, my dream is to write, record, and perform music all over the world, and I think I’m in the best possible place to make that dream a reality.

This is where you come in precious reader. I’m going to document my musical life and thoughts once a week in this blog, and I need you and everyone else to read it. Sure I could try to hold myself accountable to my goals on my own, but I’d likely end up frequently binge watching any of the brilliant shows available in this golden age of television instead. I wish I were entirely self-motivated, but the fact is, if I know I have an audience, I’m going to try a lot harder. In exchange for your readership, I’ll offer you delightfully useless observations (e.g. New Yorkers won’t make eye contact with you until they are slowly rolling out of your life forever on a subway car— and then it’s nothing but blazing eye contact), as well as priceless nuggets of wisdom (sometimes). You’ll also have a candid look at my life as I rise from Lucas Murray levels of obscurity to Kanye West levels of international superstardom and egotistical delusion.

Finally, I’m going to cap off each weekly blog post with a playlist. I’ve adopted the city-wide habit of walking around with my headphones in— I put all of my music on shuffle, and am consistently delighted by the synchronicity of the random song I’m listening to and my outside environment. Thus, the songs that I’ll include in each playlist are the songs that were most significant or enjoyable to me that week as I roamed the city. And like New York itself, this playlist is going to be diverse, including both old and new songs from a variety of styles. You can find each playlist at the bottom of my blog posts, or follow me on Spotify and find the weekly playlists there if you’re interested in hearing the songs but don’t want to read the blog (you lazy so and so), or if you you like, I can even burn it on to a CD and mail it to you because I’m cool like that (just shoot me an email).

So if you believe in me like I believe in me, please follow this blog, share it with your friends, family, and rich patrons, and don’t be afraid to contact me with any questions, comments, or words of encouragement. Also, if you don’t believe in me or just plain dislike me, please follow this blog, diss me often in the comments section, and judge me as I shamelessly try to pursue my foolish dream of musical success. Whether friend or foe, WordPress user or not, if you would, please go push that follow button at the top right of this post, drop me your email, and then tune in each week for a new post. Thank you!

And here is this week’s playlist: