Equal Divisions of the Blog

This morning, as I typed a very long reply with several paragraphs to someone on Reddit (a pastime I indulge in fairly often), I had an epiphany. Not a world-changing epiphany, mind you, but the sort of highly insignificant epiphany you get when you realize that today is actually Wednesday and not Tuesday like you initially thought. (Unfortunately I didn’t get the pleasure of that specific epiphany today, as I knew it was Wednesday from the start.)

My epiphany was that when I am on Reddit, which most of the time involves me refreshing the synthesizers subreddit every five seconds or browsing the latest prequel memes, I frequently type very long comments and comment replies at a very rapid pace as I did this morning. I then realized that this feverish pace could possibly be a perfect candidate for bottling up, driving to a top-secret laboratory, and carefully releasing in a treated room onto a test subject called “posting on my blog more than twice a year”.

There is a catch though: the things I type about very quickly are usually obscure things I’m interested in, usually related to music or instruments. But, based on the readership of my biannual life updates, I don’t think that’s such a stretch for this blog and I figure if at least one person gets something out of a post then it’s done it’s job. Also, it’s my blog so why wouldn’t I write about what I want to write about? It’s almost as if that’s why this blog exists in the first place!

So, allow me to explore the latest object of my fascination. It’s something I’ve been interested in for a while, but I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it with anyone but a select few who I thought would enjoy the Illuminati-level of crazy this particular subject emits. It’s a subject that speaks to my obsession with new sounds and textures.

I’ll begin by asking a question: what is something that 99.9% of music has in common?

There are many answers to that question (it uses notes and rhythms!), but the one I’m interested in is the fact that 99.9% of all music uses the same twelve notes. This is treated as a given; it is a common trope among musicians that “there are only twelve notes”, and what follows is either a) “it should be easy to find one of them that sounds good”, or b) a debate on whether or not truly original music is still possible, because how many different ways can you arrange twelve notes? (That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way – more on that later.)

Allow me to ask a follow-up question: why does 99.9% of all music use the same twelve notes?

This question, too, has many answers – answers that have been documented, theorized, and pontificated about. People have graduate degrees in answering that question and there are countless academic publications written about it. I liken it to a question of similar gravity to the business of music as the Ultimate Question (as posed in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is to the business of existence. (And the answer to this question is a bit more interesting – but less funny – than “42”.)

The basic answer as far as I can work out is that these twelve notes in equal temperament provide a decent approximation of the purest harmonic intervals with the least amount of effort, in a way that works in any key center. Certainly the aggregate sonorities of C major and F# major are much more preferable in equal temperament than they are in C major just intonation (even though the justly-tuned C major chord is far superior to the equal temperament one).

By now you’re probably thinking that there’s inevitably a “however” coming, and you’d be right.

(Okay, I’ll say it: however.)

The problem is that twelve equal divisions of the octave (shorthand 12EDO, also written 12TET or 12ET for “12-tone equal temperament”) is not a perfect system. Far from it, in fact. Its most practical use is on fixed-pitch keyboard instruments that need to be able to play in any key center equally well. Or, put another way, that need to be able to play in any center equally unwell. But for instruments with the freedom to individually adjust individual pitches, “equal temperament” doesn’t really exist. For example, it is standard practice for an orchestral brass section to tune every chord to be harmonically pure as it would be in just intonation in that key. If they didn’t, those powerful brass chords everyone loves (if you don’t, you’re wrong) would sound terrible.

Yet keyboard instruments for the most part soldier on with 12EDO, and nobody listens  to a Beethoven piano sonata and complains about its harmonic impurity. This is why 12EDO works and is the standard, but it also only works because our ears are used to it. If you play a C major chord in just intonation and then play a C major chord in equal temperament, you suddenly hear just how out of tune the equal temperament chord really is. (As an aside, there is actually a keyboard instrument that can play any chord in just intonation, called the Tonal Plexus (with up to 1688 keys!).)

Before I go further, I’d like to point out that many people have written about and made videos about this subject much better and in much more detail than I can. If you’re interested in learning more from people who really know what they’re talking about, just Google or YouTube some of this stuff and you’ll find dozens of articles and videos about everything I’m talking about. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll become a little bit obsessed like I have. To get you started, here’s a video about 12EDO from an excellent YouTube channel, “12tone”. It discusses some things I’m about to, so if you don’t want spoilers you can save this rabbit hole for later. Secondly, here’s a simple video audibly demonstrating the difference between pure intervals and their impure equal temperament equivalents.

We haven’t even reached the actual subject of this post yet, so let’s get closer with another question.

Can there be more than twelve notes?

For many musicians, this question also has an easy answer. Of course you can have more than twelve notes, you can use quarter tones (using the notes equally spaced in between each chromatic half-step). The problem is that quarter tones have a pretty bad reputation, mostly because the vast majority of compositions using them are unlistenable esoteric exercises in sounding excessively unpleasant. For those with a little more taste, they do have musical use. Jacob Collier, a paragon of modern harmony and musicianship, uses them very effectively as passing tones or even to modulate everything up by a quarter tone to give a different mood such as in this example. For Jacob Collier there are infinite notes as he uses different tunings (A=432 instead of the standard 440 for example, which is an entirely different subject (if you would like to know my personal opinion on the matter, A=442 for life)) and even slowly glissandos between them (including in the linked example). In short: he’s a beast.

Fangirling aside, even quarter tone microtonality is not really what I’m getting at here. After all, the 24EDO quarter tone scale is still based on 12EDO, just with another note in each of the spaces. It has the same tuning issues as 12EDO with the helpful (?) addition of some alien-sounding notes.

By now we’re over 1200 words into this post and you probably really want me to get on with it. Fortunately, we’ve covered everything we need to get to the main subject of my fascination and explain it well. To do this, I’ll start by asking one more question:

What if you divide the octave by something other than twelve?

That is what this blog post is really about. While the harmonic series and harmonically pure intervals and ratios are fixed as they are based on mathematics and the physics of sound, temperaments and systems of tuning are artificial creations that can be anything you want. While we’ve explained the good reasons for 12-tone equal temperament being the standard, it seems a lot more arbitrary when you look at it as just a number with EDO after it. So think about it: what if instead of 12 tones per octave, you used 13? Think about the implications of that. Suddenly everything you know gets thrown out the window. The distance between adjacent notes is completely different, the scales and modes you can use are completely different, and most importantly: the sound is completely different. Playing anything using 13EDO creates harmonies not possible with 12EDO, and vice versa. 13EDO is an entirely new world of music waiting to be written.

And the best part? That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There are hundreds of xenharmonic tunings, and everything about them challenges the standards of music. Everything from 5EDO to 313EDO and beyond, each with their own sound. You don’t even have to be restricted to using the octave (ratio 2:1, or the second partial in the harmonic series) as the dividing interval. You could instead use the tritave (ratio 3:1, or an octave and a fifth and the third partial in the harmonic series) as used in the Bohlen-Pierce scale (13 divisions of the tritave, or 13ED3), the perfect fifth (ratio 3:2) as used in the Carlos Alpha scale (9 divisions of the perfect fifth), or even the pentave (ratio 5:1, the fifth partial in the harmonic series, which is so large that there are fewer than five pentaves within the range of human hearing) as used by Stockhausen (25ED5). Furthermore, there are xenharmonic scales which are not equal divisions, scales and modes created within each temperament, and anything else you can think of. There’s an entire Xenharmonic Wiki which you can use (like I have) to really dive into the black hole of information. It has articles on every tuning and which ones have good pure intervals to use.

So what’s the point, apart from “oh that’s pretty cool”?

There is a YouTuber called Sevish who puts out electronic music that’s entirely xenharmonic, and it sounds great. Not only does it sound great, but in the midst of the unfamiliar sonorities it’s still pleasing to listen to like any good 12EDO composition would be, rather than the dissonant noise most microtonal music (and, it must be said, a lot of contemporary 12EDO music) tends to be. Microtonality (and as an aside, these scales are properly grouped together as xenharmonic rather than microtonal because some scales, like 7EDO for example, are macrotonal, as they have more space between the notes rather than less) is for the most part not very well accepted for this (valid) reason, but Sevish proves in my mind that xenharmony is a valid musical avenue to pursue. And that means something very profound.

Remember when I said at the beginning of this post that “how many different ways can you arrange twelve notes?” is not a rhetorical question? Well, the exact number for arranging twelve notes (using each only once) is 479,001,600. Add repeated notes and note lengths and harmonies and different instruments and the amount of possibilities for music using 12EDO is practically infinite. Millions of pieces have been written throughout human history using just 12EDO, but 12EDO is only one star in an entire galaxy of temperaments. In a nutshell, we haven’t even scratched the surface of what is musically possible.

There are, of course, some problems. Not only is 12EDO the established standard, not only is nearly all existing music written and performed in 12EDO, and not only are peoples’ ears used to 12EDO, but nearly every instrument that exists is built with 12EDO in mind. Instruments that can glissando like fretless string instruments, the trombone, the theremin, and the human voice can of course play/sing in any temperament possible, but the hurdle there is doing it in tune with ears unfamiliar with every note in the scale. So what we need are relatively fixed-pitch instruments that can play in xenharmonic temperaments. There are a few that do exist; people have made Bohlen-Pierce (13ED3) guitars, the woodwind maker Stephen Fox sells three sizes of Bohlen-Pierce clarinets, and with extended techniques even some traditional instruments can be played to a much higher degree of accuracy (such as the saxophone, which Phillip Gerschlauer can play with 128 notes per octave). But essentially if you want to play in a non-standard temperament you need a custom-built instrument.

Another problem is notation. All standard Western notation is specifically for 12EDO (or sometimes 24EDO) music. For every xenharmonic temperament a new notation system would need to be used, but thankfully many of them could be based on the standard system with only a few changes.

Interestingly, keyboard instruments could be the champion of xenharmonic tunings. While the least flexible regarding traditional just intonation, they are already the most flexible with xenharmonic tunings. More and more software synthesizers are being designed with xenharmonic support in mind by including alternate tunings and/or having the ability to import scale files from a software called Scala, which is a program specifically designed to create xenharmonic scales to use with MIDI instruments. This is how Sevish is able to create his xenharmonic tracks for YouTube. Using these softsynths as live (rather than sequenced) performance instruments is more difficult, because you need some way to play them and using a typical 12EDO keyboard is not very intuitive.

Then there’s the simple problem that very few people know about xenharmonic tunings at all and much fewer actually use them. For such a vast undiscovered world of sound, the amount of people exploring it is infinitesimally small. Perhaps this post can get a few more people to join the expedition, but I have solutions for the other two problems as well. Here is a page out of my sketchbook that has designs for keyboards in other tunings, with the typical 12 note per octave keyboard at the top left for reference. And here’s one with ideas for notation systems for certain xenharmonic scales. This is obviously far from complete, and many tunings will require more complicated notations than that (such as only certain note letters having accidentals), but it’s a proof of concept demonstrating that notation for tunings outside of 12EDO doesn’t have to be completely foreign.

Although it is much more difficult to attempt to compose notated music in xenharmonic tunings than it is to load up a software synthesizer that uses Scala files to play in different tunings, it is one of my goals to persevere and write a collection of concert etudes for a xenharmonic keyboard in order to create accessible xenharmonic classical repertoire. But as I am me, I have many other composition goals besides that, so we will see. In the mean time, I challenge any and all musicians to learn about and experiment with the world of xenharmonic temperaments. I’m sure there’s lots of wonderful xenharmonic music waiting to be created.

2018: The Year of Transition

Tomorrow is the last day of 2018, and in the biannual spirit of this blog it feels necessary to write a post. But it’s not just that; 2018 was a very important year for me and I’ve been wanting to collect my thoughts on it for a while now. If you read my last post a few months ago you’ll notice that I predictably didn’t end up posting frequent updates about my adventures in Los Angeles like I said I would. Turns out frequent blogging really isn’t my thing; I prefer collecting lots of thoughts into one long post rather than making more numerous short posts.

First, I owe it to those who follow my escapades to update you all on life in the City of Angels. I posted last the day after I first arrived in the city, so I hadn’t yet begun experiencing life in it. Well, I now have months under my belt as an LA resident and I think I can say that I know a few things about living here.

First of all, yes the traffic is terrible. However, I personally don’t think it’s quite as terrible as everyone says it is. Even during rush hour the massive freeway traffic is almost always moving, and drivers here are much more competent than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. I feel more relaxed driving here than in Washington, DC because here I know in general drivers are predictable and know how to operate a motor vehicle properly (neither of which I can say about drivers in the DMV area, or Indiana for that matter). That said, every town has its share of bad drivers to deal with and LA is no exception. The biggest difference between LA and other big cities regarding traffic in my opinion is that the traffic never really stops. I’ve driven home from a gig at midnight and still hit several jams. But if you plan and schedule for traffic and use a GPS to help you out, it isn’t a big deal. Finally, although LA drivers are competent, they seem to be exceptionally bad at staying in their lane. It’s drift city, and not in the fun way.

The prices are also terrible. Everything here seems to be ludicrously expensive. This (along with traffic) was another thing I was expecting, but it doesn’t make it sting any less. A medium meal at McDonald’s costs over $10 and a beer costs $8+, so I’ve lost any reason to go to McDonald’s or drink beer (not that either of those is much of a loss). Gas prices hugely vary…some gas stations are $4 or even $5/gallon, but I just don’t bother with those because some are $3.50/gallon or even less. That said, taco trucks are usually cheap and also amazing. The sheer amount of great local restaurants and food trucks is overwhelming, and I will never be able to eat at them all. As for the ones I have tried so far, suffice it to say that my stomach is very happy here.

Getting familiar with the area has been fun, and I’ve discovered firsthand just how diverse the various boroughs are. Places for the rich and famous like the Hollywood Hills are the stuff dreams are made of (unfortunately I haven’t seen any celebrities yet…), while places like Compton and east LA are exactly the opposite. Then there are places somewhere in the middle like Pasadena, Burbank, and Eagle Rock that I enjoy very much.

LAX is not as bad as its reputation suggests in my experience…the worst part of flying in or out of there has been the cost of the Lyft to get back to my house. The first time I had to fly out of the airport I got there three hours before my flight boarded just to be safe…I was through security in 10 minutes max, and this was during a busy time of day and time of year. It was the same story the next time I flew out from a different terminal/airline. Plus, the Southwest terminal (terminal 1) has a Chick-fil-A in it, which legally makes LAX a good airport.

I have to say that one of my favorite parts of living and working in LA has been just how much like its video game counterpart (“Los Santos” from GTA V) the real city is. Many areas look exactly the same, the people act much the same, and the radio stations even play the same music. It’s surreal, and for someone with many hours in Los Santos it never gets old.

Now that what I think of LA is out of the way, what have I done in LA so far?

Believe it or not, I have already managed to play quite a few gigs on quite a few instruments, including my first movie session! I am ecstatic at the progress I’ve made in the four months I’ve been here, but it must be said that I’m still very far from being able to support myself with the gigs alone. Thus, I have a day job that I landed two weeks after I arrived in LA. It takes up most of my time and energy and I intensely despise it, but I’m paying my bills and making money each month and for that I am very thankful.

The day job combined with my very cramped living situation means that my quality of life currently is not that great. Ever since I’ve started working this job I’ve sent out applications to better jobs as they became available, but the process is slow and it’s not like I have stellar qualifications for “normal” jobs with two music degrees. As much as I like it here and am on my feet regarding bills and the like, I won’t stop being stressed and frustrated until I no longer need this day job and can devote more of my time to doing what I came here for in the first place. However, there are a couple of very exciting things on the horizon (that I can’t talk about yet) that have huge potential for my current life and career. Truth be told almost everything about this LA experience (apart from the constants, like traffic and cost of living) has been different from what I expected. Connections that I thought would be a big part of my life have been all but absent, and new connections have come out of nowhere to propel me forward.

That’s what the last four months of 2018, and the entirety of my life in LA so far, have been like. The first eight months have already been covered in other posts as far as I can remember, but let’s recap before looking forward.

Before moving to LA, in 2018 I won the 2018 David N. Baker Jazz Composition award, gave my master’s recital (Ektachrome), played a plethora of memorable gigs, completed my master’s degree, got very close with some people I wasn’t close with before (you know who you are!), and a whole lot more. Most of that has already been covered, especially in the post “Another Chapter Complete“.

However, I would like to take some time to give two special shout outs that haven’t really been covered before.

The first is to my brothers in sisters in the IU Soul Revue and the IU African-American Arts Institute. For three years (2015-2018) I worked as the Horn Coach to the Soul Revue, an amazing job from day one that blossomed into an experience I will never forget. I became part of an incredible family, and felt so welcome and at peace in the walls of the Neal-Marshall that, as I’ve told many people in person, it was the first place that I truly felt like I belonged. It felt like home. And to leave that space and that position was very difficult for me. Of course, I know that I’ll be back, but I dearly miss it and everyone in it every day.

I’d also like to spend some time talking about Huckleberry Funk. This is a band that I joined very early in its life in summer 2016. At first I joined just as a trombone player, but through the best and wildest of rides I ended up playing synthesizers, all kinds of brass instruments, auxiliary percussion, and background vocals on every gig. I helped write much of the band’s repertoire and recorded an album with them. (If you didn’t know, the album (“The Teardown“) is out on all platforms – check it out!) It was an amazing experience that allowed me to experience a side of music I never would have experienced otherwise; this classically trained freelancing concert and studio musician was now playing wild synthesizer solos in front of jumping, screaming crowds. The members of this band became family, and when the band decided to stay in Bloomington, I knew that losing Huck Funk would be the hardest part of leaving. I was right.

But before I left, my brothers in Huck Funk gave me a final parting gift. It was a night I’ll never forget: August 1st at the Bluebird – my farewell show. The band made sure I got sent off properly. In secret they had custom T-shirts made that had an inside joke I had with that member of the band written on them, and wore them on stage. They made little paper Hawaiian shirts with blank backs that they asked people to write notes to me on and gave me a box full of notes after the show. They made signs for people in the audience to hold and wave around. That night, I discovered through multiple bouts of cacophonous applause and cheering that lasted for minutes on end, to my complete shock and disbelief, that the entire town of Bloomington loved me.

Every day I hope that one day the band will end up here too so that I can play with them again, and forever more. There’s a hole in me where Huck Funk was, and although I still talk and joke with them almost every day nothing can replace jamming and performing with them. To my brothers still holding the Huck Funk torch high, thank you for including me in the Huck Funk family. Thank you for everything. And I hope that one day I can hold that torch with you again.

I believe that’s all I can really write about 2018 at this point, and I’m happy to close the book on this transitional year. It was a very important one, and also a very exhausting one. Overall I think it was a good one, and I can’t deny the amount of important events and milestones it contained. But I’m also happy it’s over.

So…what do I think about 2019?

I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about a new year. 2019 is a totally blank slate. I’ve completed my move to LA and am making a living in a new city and a new scene. I can only go up from here, and that’s enormously exciting. The amount of potential 2019 holds is astounding, both personally and professionally. And in the midst of all my friends releasing albums, getting big gigs, landing forever jobs, and a whole host of other milestones (congrats to all of you by the way – you know who you are!), I think everything’s going to work out in a big way for all of us.

I can’t wait!

Chapter Five: Los Angeles

Yesterday I arrived in Los Angeles at about 1 pm after an arduous 2.5-day journey across over 1700 miles and 8 states. Everything about the journey was surreal, from leaving Bloomington for good to entering LA’s freeway system for the first time in my own car.

The first day was an endurance test, taking 19 hours to get from Bloomington to Denver through exciting states such as Kansas (I still think Ohio is worse). On the second day I departed Denver and drove through the Rocky Mountains, and was stunned by breathtaking vistas at every turn. I’ve always wanted to see the Rockies, and I got the full experience. It’s one I won’t forget, but one I hope I never have to experience from behind the wheel of a fully loaded vehicle that struggles with even the slightest of inclines again.

On day 3 I left my second overnight halt in Las Vegas and arrived in Los Angeles about 5 hours later. After good deal of sweating, my car was unpacked and I got to catch my breath and explore my new home.

The home is a nice little two-story residence right in the middle of Echo Park, which is pretty much right in the middle of the entire LA area. It’s an older house with hardwood floors that sits on a corner lot. My room is on the second floor, and it’s going to be a while before I get used to the thermostat’s current setting of 87 degrees. I’m going to have to get on my three roommates’ levels of heat tolerance quickly if I want to stop sweating constantly, but this being LA, that’s a journey that will likely be beneficial.

The home is pretty Spartan. My closet doesn’t have a door, my bathroom doesn’t have a mirror or storage of any kind, and the noise of the outside world enters as loudly as if the windows were open when they’re closed. But as far as LA goes rent is pretty reasonable, and my roommates seem chill.

Today (day 2) I walked to a taco place a block from my house. It was incredible, and I plan to go back many times in the future. The city has lots of great food to offer, and I can only imagine how many other great eateries I’ll discover.

Some furniture I ordered ships tomorrow, including a desk. I predict I’ll have to buy a lot more before my room is complete. If there’s one theme of my time in LA so far, it’s that it is absurdly expensive. But that’s not really a surprise.

In some ways I already miss Bloomington. The cheap rent, the smaller population, my friends, the quiet. But I’m confident the payoff here in LA will be more than worth it.

Another Chapter Complete

It was a little shorter than the last one, this chapter. Chapter Three took four years to complete, and Chapter Four took three. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.

If you consider that Chapter Two took six years, and Chapter One took eleven, you could postulate that as the chapters seem to be getting progressively shorter, the next one will be two years at most. All I can say is I hope that’s not the case. If all goes well, this chapter will be much longer than any previous chapter, and perhaps the last one in the book.

The book, of course, being the book of my life, as told from my perspective.

You could make an argument that Chapter Four was actually not a separate chapter, but really the second part of Chapter Three. After all, it was still in Bloomington and still involved being a student at IU. But, although it has more than a few similarities to Chapter Three, I maintain that Chapter Four brought forth massive changes in my life and warrants a separate chapter.

Chapter Four has already been fairly well covered by three articles on this blog. However, for those who don’t keep up with my annual (and sometimes bi-annual) ramblings – and I don’t blame you – here’s a summary:

On May 2015 I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, ending Chapter Three for good. The next summer doesn’t even deserve a chapter, and was really just a holding pattern in which I was subjected to retail torture until I could be offered a job working for the Soul Revue and Chapter Four could begin. That Soul Revue job was one of the best things that ever happened to me, and my love for the job directly caused me to be offered a deal I couldn’t refuse that resulted in my return to IU and completion of a master’s degree less than a month ago.

Too many amazing things to list occurred over these past three years, so instead here’s a list of all the things I did in that time that I wouldn’t believe if you had told me beforehand:

  • Met Jerry Hey, one of my heroes
  • Met and got to play for Bootsy Collins, a funk legend
  • Had lessons with Bill Reichenbach and Alex Iles
  • Played synthesizer (?!) solos in front of hundreds of screaming fans
  • Played multiple concerts with the IU Latin Jazz Ensemble, on multiple instruments, with nearly every chart being a composition, arrangement, or transcription with my name on it, all without even being a member of the ensemble
  • Received a jazz composition award given in memory of David Baker
  • Became part of a community that actually felt like a home (the African-American Arts Institute)
  • Got paid to play instruments in a funk band that absolutely do not belong in a funk band, such as alto trombone and mellophonium

To list everything great that happened over these three years would take a novel, and I graduated from IU a second time with my heart full and my head held high. If forced to do everything over, from the day I first set foot in Bloomington until now, I don’t think I would do very much different. I took advantage of every opportunity I realistically could, and I believe I have accumulated the tools I need to survive as a freelance musician in post-collegiate society. Time will tell…

It must be said that not everything during my time in Bloomington was a positive experience. To do so would be looking back on the whole thing through excessively crimson-tinted glasses. In truth, I experienced the full, unfiltered palette of human emotions as I traversed the peaks and valleys of the collegiate journey, from unforgettable highs to lows that I would really rather forget. Sometimes there was unparalleled exhilaration…other times, insatiable depression. I try to forget about the negative parts, but most people who know me never knew they ever happened.

There is one exception though – my two massive degree-ending recitals, one as my last bachelor’s recital on April 27th, 2015, and one as my master’s recital on April 8th, 2018. Everybody knew about these because they consumed my life until they were complete – and because most of my friends played on them. Everyone who keeps up with me in real life or social media probably knows all about these by now, but as I will likely not be thinking about them again for a long time, I would like to collect my thoughts on both of them.

The bachelor’s recital, titled Kodachrome: A Symphonic Portrait of a Quadrennium, had two very specific goals. First, it was my rebellion against the traditional recital format perpetuated by the Jacobs School and many other institutions around the world. After having given three myself before Kodachrome and having attended far far more, I was completely disillusioned with the entire concept of a typical recital.

For those not in the know, the formula to a typical recital is simple: the soloist presents a program of several standard (and perhaps a few less standard) solo works in their instrument’s repertoire, all of which use a pianist as the accompaniment. The soloist walks on stage and bows to applause before every piece, then bows to applause and walks back off stage after each piece is completed. I have a couple of problems with this format. First, in my opinion sitting through an hour of entirely instrumental soloist+piano gets tiresome, no matter how amazing either the soloist or pianist are. There is no variation in instrumentation whatsoever, and the ears get tired. Not to mention that the instrumentation isn’t that compelling to begin with – it is only the recital standard because it’s the easiest way (logistically and musically) to present a recital without using entirely unaccompanied pieces. Of course, I realize this opinion is probably in the minority, but then Kodachrome was my rebellion, not anyone else’s.

The second big problem I have with the typical recital format is that everyone applauds the soloist before every piece in addition to after. Before the soloist has played a single note. I understand that this is concert tradition and not limited to academic recitals, but specifically for academic recitals it has always bothered me. Why are you applauding for me if I haven’t done anything yet? But again, I realize I am most likely in the minority on this one.

Kodachrome was designed from the beginning to completely turn this recital format on its head and present something completely new to the audience. First, the recital began with me playing a solo bass trombone motive completely alone from the balcony of the hall the performance took place in. This was partially for musical reasons, and partially so that the audience wouldn’t realize the performance was starting until it had already begun, thus denying them their opportunity to applaud before it started. As a result, in this recital the only full applause occurred at the very end of the recital.

But how could you prevent applause between pieces? Simple…you make the entire recital one long piece of your own composition. So that’s what I did – Kodachrome was a single composition, about 45 minutes in length, that was scored for an orchestra of 42 musicians and soloist. It was a magical night that I will never forget, and every aspect about it broke the mold of what was done on a degree recital; from the Grand Theft Auto-inspired promotional posters to the intimidating bureaucratic hurdles that had to be surmounted to even make it happen at all, it was a rebellion from start to finish. And it worked.

So imagine my surprise when, upon returning to IU to pursue a master’s degree (which I couldn’t have predicted when writing Kodachrome), I realized I would have to one-up myself for my master’s recital. Of course I couldn’t back down from that challenge, so the result was Ektachrome: A Stereophonic Portrait of a Triennium. This sequel was bigger in every way, from the number of musicians in the ensemble (27 more than Kodachrome – Ektachrome‘s scoring was about 57% larger) to the complexity of the composition and genres represented therein.

So, did it work?

Well…sort of.

In addition to one-upping Kodachrome, I wrote Ektachrome with two additional goals in mind. First, to make my mother cry. Second, to move the audience enough that the hall was completely silent when the last note ended, with nobody daring to break out into applause.

Both of these goals were accomplished.

But…did it work?

As of this writing that is a difficult question for me to answer.

If you watch the videos of the applause, were there to witness all the gracious and wonderful things everyone had to say to me about it afterwards, and/or consider that I did accomplish both of my goals while also achieving the anti-recital format that Kodachrome pioneered, you would probably exclaim that of course it worked and wonder how this is even a question.

But from my perspective, I see things a little differently.

Preparing the first recital, Kodachrome, was a daunting task. There is a long-standing rule at Jacobs that states that you can’t have more than 13 performers on a degree recital. It’s such an obscure rule that everyone, even my professors checking every step of Kodachrome‘s preparation, completely forgot about it. It was only brought up when the recital committee alerted me to it after the recital was well along the path to approval. In short, the issue went all the way to the dean of the music school, and it was only thanks to the humbling efforts of M. Dee Stewart and Jeremy Allen that it eventually got approved. Yet that was far from the only administrative snafu that had to be rectified to make the recital happen. Then there was of course the issue of actually writing the piece, recruiting the roster, and rehearsing the piece to performance level. It was a difficult few months but the result was well worth it.

Preparing Ektachrome made all the headaches with Kodachrome look like child’s play.

First, there was the piece itself. A mammoth 55-minute score that weaved in and out of classical, jazz, Latin jazz, and even hip-hop, with 69 individual parts and approximately 80,000 notes (not an exaggeration)? Of course it was difficult and of course it took a long time (many hours over quite a few months). But it was the least of my problems.

There actually wasn’t a single bureaucratic issue with this recital. Neither jazz recitals nor composition recitals have any personnel restrictions, and Ektachrome was technically both so I was doubly in the clear. I got the best hall in the music school which didn’t require any external reservation or fees, and booking the performance and dress rehearsal through Jacobs was a piece of cake.

However.

The logistics were a complete nightmare, from recruiting musicians in the first place, to keeping them recruited, to finding rehearsal times that worked with 69 busy musicians’ schedules, to actually printing all the parts and scores out (I had to refill my enormous grad student print quota twice), to actually fitting the entire ensemble in the hall, to getting everything prepared in time for the performance’s 2 pm downbeat.

Preparing for Ektrachrome not only made me lose faith in the Jacobs School of Music and the students that attend it, but it brought my mind to the absolute breaking point. Before the recital even happened I was in a state of anger, despair, and exhaustion. I felt betrayed from every side, and as the performance date loomed ever closer the goal seemed to be slipping away from me due to reasons I was powerless to fix.

The preparation for this recital took a heavy toll on me mentally, to the point where I still haven’t fully recovered from it and (due to a combination of the recital and other issues which unraveled themselves in the post-recital decompression) I’ve begun to think that seeing a therapist might not be a bad idea.

Thus, the only way to realistically answer the question “did it work?” is to ask those who attended the performance, either on stage or in the audience. At this point I don’t think I’m able to look back at anything to do with Ektachrome with complete objectivity. I’m not even sure I’m glad I did it, but I do know that I have already started planning for a third composition in the Chrome series – one without the restrictions and headaches of performing it at IU, which will have an ensemble of over 1,000. Why? Because I’m me and I can’t help myself.

However, I can’t focus too much about that right now because I need to prepare for the biggest change to occur in my life thus far. One that’s a real leap of faith, and I’d imagine will be a grueling test. In about two months’ time as of this writing, I will have moved over 2,000 miles west from Bloomington (and over 2,600 miles west from my hometown outside the District of Columbia) to sunny Los Angeles. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and in many ways it’s what my entire musical career has been preparing me for. It’s something many professors and professionals I play with have encouraged me to do, and it seems like the most logical, attainable destination what with my skillset and the list of connections I have already begun to establish there.

Yet I’m absolutely terrified.

There’s no way I can possibly know what’s going to happen when I get there. It could take me 6 weeks or 6 years to break in and be able to make a living doing what I actually do. Having connections is good but I also need to be lucky, and to be in the right places at the right times. And of course I need to be rock solid when I do get the chance to play. There is absolutely no safety net, I’m 2,600 miles from home, and the cost of living is the opposite of cheap. There are so many variables and so many unknowns, and it paralyzes me with fear sometimes…more frequently as the countdown continues.

But I won’t back down.

I have to do this. I have to at least try to make it, because if I don’t try then I will regret it for the rest of my life. To play on film scores has always been my ultimate dream and I have the chance to chase it. It’s one powerful opportunity, but one that comes with a list of caveats as long as a CVS receipt. Whether or not I successfully navigate those caveats is something that I am just going to have to find out for myself.

In these forthcoming months good vibes, prayers, and any kind of support you can offer is more than welcome. It’s comforting to know that despite physically moving out to LA alone, I will never truly be alone with God, my family, my girlfriend, and my friends and colleagues at my back. Now I just have to hope that I’m following the right path.

If you’re still reading at this point (bless your soul), I’d like thank Bloomington and everyone in it for being a great host over these past seven years. No it wasn’t all great and frankly I’m really sick of B-town at this point, but overall it has been unforgettable and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ve met so many amazing people from every corner of the country and every walk of life, many of whom have stuck around to keep reading this book with me. Your company on this journey is cherished more than you know.

Well, this blog post is approaching 3,000 words so I should probably wrap it up (unless you want to hear about my concepts in audio synthesis in higher dimensions, not dividing the octave into 12 equal parts, or turbocharging brass instruments). I feel like this post was a little more heavy than they usually are, and for that I apologize. Sometimes you just have to get some stuff out, and writing is the best way I know how. Hopefully by the time I write another post I’m doing well enough in LA that it can be positive and light-hearted again! 😀

Until then, I’ll just be hustlin’ and maybe having a nice mental breakdown every once in a while. Business as usual.

2017: The Year of the Synth

Well, it was for me anyway.

Everyone who knows me knows that I love picking up new brass instruments. By this point I’ve played at least one gig on everything commonly used except for piccolo trumpet (thankfully), plus plenty of gigs on things not commonly used. Many paying gigs have been done without touching a low brass instrument, yet every once in a while I still get to take my beloved euphonium out of the house to play it on a recording session or something.

But in January 2017, I found myself in an interesting position: I had a gigantic 40-pound keyboard synthesizer sitting in my bedroom. Worse still, I had bought this instrument with my own money on Craigslist. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I was in love with the sound this thing made and I wanted to play it. Now, on the first day of 2018, I can say that I’m glad I allowed myself to give in to the insatiable urges of Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Eight synths (and one more that I had and then sold), a few effects pedals, and lots of other gear later (but by now it has all paid for itself!), I’ve done quite a bit with synths. I never thought I would be playing a synth solo on stage in front of a packed, screaming crowd, but thanks to a band that enables my gear addiction called Huckleberry Funk that happened many times in 2017 (but don’t worry – there were plenty of trombone and flugelhorn solos too). It has been a wild ride.

What else did I do in 2017? Well, it’s kind of hard to look back on the year and remember everything I did when sometimes I don’t remember anything I did two days ago, but I’ll try my best.

In 2017 I visited both coasts – a few times home in DC, and to Los Angeles for the first time ever over Spring Break. I got to spend a whole week there exploring, taking lessons, and making connections, and it was an incredible experience. Back in between coasts, I went to Omaha, Chicago, Nashville, and many cities in between. I got to play with some amazing groups, and met some amazing people. Of course, it wasn’t a perfect year. There was plenty of frustration, hardship, stress, loneliness, and most importantly dread at having to drive the construction-riddled Route 37 for the millionth time. Such is the case every year, but every year seems to end up being good overall and I think 2017 was no exception.

If I had to boil down 2017 to lessons I’ve learned, it would probably be these:

  1. Gigging with electronic instruments takes a stupid amount of gear. Keyboard stands, keyboard cases, MIDI cables, instrument cables, a mixer, a PA speaker or amp, power cables, power strips, effect pedals, lots of wall warts, and more. I miss when I only had to bring 5-7 horns to a gig.
  2. It’s ok to say no. I feel like I learn/unlearn this every year…we’ll see if it sticks this time.

I don’t really make new year’s resolutions, but right now the two main goals for 2018 are to a) give a great master’s recital, and b) survive and hopefully thrive once I’ve obtained my second degree. But for the time being I’ll settle for at least surviving. This is because 2018 is the Year of Change – it’s the year that I finally leave the safety net of education. Yes…I did say that three years ago and then ended up going for a master’s degree. That’s a long story, one that wasn’t even in motion yet when I wrote my end-of-2015 post. But I am done for real this time…the last thing I want to do (or can afford to do) right now is get a doctorate, so once graduation rolls around I’m gone. My plan is ambitious, but the important thing is that I have one. Suffice it to say that whatever happens, the second half of 2018 will most likely be a monumental change for me. This chapter will finally come to a close and the next chapter will begin…what does chapter five entail? Only time will tell, and I’m cautiously anxious to find out.

Before any of that happens though, I need to write a metric ton of music and have a metric ton of existential crises.

Business as usual, then.