Dedicated to Jerome M. Cohen, AKA Pop Pop (1925-2011)
My grandfather was born on this day 86 years ago. He wasn't a musician, but he loved music (especially jazz music). He is the reason my dad became a musician, who in turn is the reason I became a musician. If he were still alive, Pop Pop wouldn't necessarily have liked or understood this music, but he would have been proud all the same - proud and confused...
"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."
~ many different clever people in different ways at different times
That said, I couldn't stop myself from writing a rambling series of thoughts and observations connected to the work on this album. Some of it is designed to explain. Some of it is designed to educate. Some of it is designed to stimulate. All of it, like the music, is designed to entertain. I hope to give the reader/listener some insight into my creative process as well as some food for thought while listening to and digesting this music.
1. Lucid Dream Spell
Prologue: Do Nintendos Dream of 8-Bit Sheep?
This is the only "vocal" track on an otherwise instrumental album. I included this track because I liked the idea of establishing the contents of 8-Bit Town as the dream of a Nintendo. It's like when you beat Mario 2 and realize the whole game was Mario's dream. Unlike in Mario 2, I'm letting you in on the secret at the beginning. So, as you listen, you're in a dream, but you know it's a dream - kind of like in a lucid dream ;-) (I promise that's the only emoticon... I couldn't resist.)
I wrote these lyrics in the hopes that if I could get this song stuck in my head during my waking hours, it would enter my subconscious and somehow become an activation mechanism in my dreams to make me self-aware (causing lucid dreams). It didn't. Still, I liked the tune and the idea.
I recorded the speech with a program called AnalogX SayIt that allows you to enter the text and frequency (among other settings) of what you'd like it to say. I recorded each syllable separately and then combined the sounds afterwards.
The program had trouble making certain speech sounds, so I had to find ways of getting around its shortcomings. For instance, it couldn't properly pronounce "ong" as in "song" or "belong". "Song" came out sounding like "soyn" or some such bastardization. Through trial and error, I arrived pretty close to an accurate pronunciation of "song" with the spelling "sawnng" (for Ford knows what reason).
2. Steveo Lee.E.O.
Level 1: Get a Name, Get a Job
This was written as a theme song for my brother Steve to pump him up for job interviews while he was engaged in the thrilling task of seeking work in the world of business during a rough economy.
Steve's middle name is Lee, which our mother revealed at a holiday dinner conversation was a very popular name in her family. Like good Catholics*, her family adopted the name Leo while Pope Leo XIII was in power. Both my mom's paternal and maternal grandfathers were named Leo. Marching on to the next generation, her paternal grandfather immortalized himself by naming one of his sons Leo Jr. (my mom's Uncle Leo.). My mom's maternal grandfather more femininely immortalized himself by naming one of his daughters (my mom's mother) Sarah Lee. (Nobody does it like Sarah Lee.) Now steeped in Lees and Leos, my mother's parents named her Phyllis Lee, who then bequeathed the Lee onto my brother Steve.
My brother and I were much less interested in the history of it all and much more interested in the observation that he could have - and should have - been named Steveo Leo instead of Steven Lee. We also decided that when he finally received his due comeuppance career-wise, he would become a Lee.E.O and not a C.E.O.
*good Catholics, with secret Jewish ancestry on one side that was obscured for some reason during their stay in ever so enlightened and tolerant 19th century Missouri (tsar-chasm)
Level 2: Playing the Clown
(Warning: Philosophical tangents ahead!)
This is one of those songs that gets created in the quiet hours of the night when the world is sleeping. This is when you can hop on a train of manic energy and head non-stop towards hysterics. In these hazy hours, any hint of intentionality or reason in the moment later dissolves and becomes inexplicable later.
I think of this piece as a jolly circus-like theme with something sinister lurking underneath that is never fully revealed... But don't let that stop of you from thinking of it as whatever other wrong idea you might have. I kid, I kid.
If I were writing about this piece at a university or in a grant proposal, I might switch over to the "Academic BS" dialect of English and say:
"The additive and subtractive layered voices that constitute the thematic material for this composition make for an experiment in interplay and density. The rhythmic and tonic simplicity of each individual theme juxtaposes the rhythmic and harmonic dissonance that arise and resolve from their interactions. This piece is at the same time minimalist and maximalist in conception."
Hey, wait a minute! Why the hell didn't I write a grant proposal for this album?! I've been toiling away at all hours of the day and night to assemble this work for nothing – not a cent. You people aren't going to give me any money for it, are you?! Why should you? You can hear it for free, and even if you couldn't, there's enough music in the world already. You don't need to waste your time and money on my petite-bourgeoisie experiments.
So why do I bother? I bother for the same narcissistic reason that you post something on your Facebook wall waiting for your so-called "friends" to "like" it - not that I will pretend I'm above that level of thinking at all. I want people to "like" my posts as much as the next person. Ultimately, we’re all just abandoned babies in grown-up bodies perpetually seeking love and affirmation from society.
The above trivializes my creative process to a point. The desire to be loved only explains my motivation to share my work with the world, not to create it in the first place. I created this music before I had any intention or plans for releasing it. I created it because playing with notes and sounds (and words and ideas) amuses me. It make me feel "productive" and gives me a sense of "purpose". As an added bonus, composition is better for the brain than TV or alcohol.
...words on the notion of purpose/meaning
Humans have the added luxury/burden over other animals in life of creating meaning in their existence. When we fail to create meaning we tend towards depression or suicide and lose the will to live. In our ability to create meaning, we have in our thoughts the creative potential of the universe. We have the added benefit of creating the "impossible" in our thoughts. Humanity's collective underestimation of our creative power of thought holds us back from reaching a greater potential in two significant ways:
1) It leads to defeat and resignation that what is must be. (ignorance of our active power to create in what could be)
2) It keeps us ignorant of the plethora of ways in which we constantly and already have chosen and created the sometimes arbitrary meanings that influence our daily existence. (ignorance of our passive power to create in what has been)
Despite our critical need to find and create meaning in our existence, it is my contention/belief that none exists outside of the one(s) asking the question. Existence is simultaneously the question and the answer. Existence begs the question of how and why. "Why and how is all that exists possible?" It is possible because it exists. I don't see this as depressing, either. I see it as liberating. It is our luxury to ask why and forever re-create the answer that makes us happiest. It is the tragedy of humanity that collectively - and many times individually - we forever re-create the answers that make us unhappy out of an inability escape the vicious psychological cycle of self-punishment that initially developed out of self-preservation.
Human consciousness (and maybe all consciousness) allows the fabric of the Universe to examine itself. Out of this self-reference, paradox is born along with all of the other angels and demons of the human psyche.
"What one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true in one's mind, within limits to be determined experimentally and experientially. These limits [themselves] are beliefs to be transcended. "
~ John C. Lily
4. Space Dance
Level 3: Warp Drive
This song was written for a purpose. This song was written to be played by a band. This song was written to be played by a band I play with called mamarazzi. While improvising alone at my keyboard, I came up with the two contrapuntal lines that open the song. From there, the song evolved in stages where I would work on it at my keyboard/computer, present what I had to the band, and then rework it. mamarazzi will release a decidedly less video-gamey version of this song on our forthcoming album later this year.
This song is part of my everlasting mission to make "complicated" rhythms intuitive enough to listeners that they can dance to the music without thinking about it or knowing what they're doing. If you know how to count beats in music, the first part of the song is "in 5". The second part of the song involves a variation on that same theme in a different rhythmic scheme (11/16) that you might find a less funky version of in the Balkan region of Europe. Thanks go to my Hungarian friend Gergely Kiss for turning me onto that wonderful music.
I love all of the music on this album, but I think I've listened to this track the most.
5. Ken Ken 5x5
Level 4: Math Homework
(Warning: Nerdy discussion to follow. May not be suitable for children under the age of 35)
I created this composition by a process derived from one of my favorite methods of killing time on the subway - Ken Ken. It also happens to be a great educational tool for teaching math, problem solving, and logical thinking. Japanese math teacher Tetsuya Miyamoto invented Ken Ken in 2004. This Sudoku-like puzzle involves filling a square grid with digits 1 through however many rows and columns are in the puzzle (3x3, 4x4, 5x5 ... , 9x9). By using arithmetic facts and logical thinking, each puzzle has a unique arrangement of digits in the grid.
The composition process:
I picked a 5x5 puzzle at random to solve.
= 5 beats in each measure represent the 5 rows in the puzzle
= 5 pulses for each beat represent the 5 columns
= 5 notes of a pentatonic scale represent the digits 1-5 to be placed over each of the 25 pulses
= measures of 5 beats (25 pulses) represent the state of my progress in solving the puzzle for each subsequent logical step
The first measure represents the blank puzzle at the start. The second measure represents all of the digits I could place in one logical step. The third measure represents the digits I could place based on the deductions I could make following the first logical step. The process continues until the penultimate measure, which represents the completed puzzle with a digit in every square. The final measure is the sustained tonic note, signaling victory.
At one point in the piece you'll hear are two simultaneous notes on two adjacent pulses, which represents that I had narrowed down the choice for two boxes to one of two digits, but I wasn't sure of their order. This "chord" finally resolves to single notes (digits) towards the end of the piece.
Challenge to Ken Ken masters:
Assemble a 5x5 Ken Ken puzzle that would correspond with this piece in both the final placement of the digits 1-5 AND in the logical order of steps I took to fill it out.
6. Chameleon Dance
Level 5: Camouflage
This slick little piece came into existence while I was improvising over a bass line and toying with the idea of constantly changing the rhythm by adding and subtracting beats. I tried to create an environment where constantly playing with meter would seem natural and playful rather than contrived and pretentious. You be the judge... I'll leave it as an exercise for the willing musicians out there to figure out all of the different rhythmic schemes.
I started the composition process by sequencing the bass line and pinning down the different rhythmic schemes. Then I fit a drum/percussion part to root it. From there, I added the harmonic and melodic parts, which led to the eventual form of the song.
The pseudo record-skipping type rut towards the end was an after-thought of the divine intervention variety. It provided the song both a bridge and an ending. Many an artist reaches the "Where the f--- do I go from here?" moment at one point or other in their work (I highly doubt if any creative individual never reached that moment). I find these moments to be blessings as well as curses. It's fairly obvious how reaching creative dead-ends can be a curse. I see them as blessings, however, because they make me more receptive to experimentation, accident, and the abundance of input that my ego might otherwise filter out.
7. Morphing Images
Level 6: Montage
Much like President Obama's campaign in 2008, this song title promises change but largely fails to deliver. Sorry, I forgot, no politics at the dinner table... (separation of steak and state).
The "morphing" suggested by the title comes from slight changes in the bass accompaniment to a constant, yet lopsided, chordal figure. The changing bass line builds in intensity and then quickly recedes as the song fades out.
With this piece, I sought to establish a constant somber mood. I associate this song with gazing out through the window of a car or train passing through a rural landscape.
Level 7: Back-stories
The first minute and a half of this piece is a reworking of material composed as the score to a one-act, one-line play with the title line: "Quickly, to the dirigible." The playwright (and friend), David Haan, wanted the theme to be minimalist yet build to a climax in a very short amount of time. It was only a matter of time before I revisited these 30 seconds of music to twist them into something else.
Like nearly all of the music on this album, this piece involves rhythmic structures you're not likely to hear on the radio, at church, at the bank, at the grocery store, or even at the dentist's office. After the opening section, the rhythm settles into a 7 beat form. It travels from an ever-changing landscape of genre, stopping for some salsa-infused madness on the way.
The title is supposed to evoke the visual metaphor of one theme forever unfolding into the next. As you may have noticed, many of my titles lack subtlety.
9. Short shAnd hSimple
Level 8: Bonus Round
Does this song have anything to do with my being a piano teacher? hmmm....
What computer music album would be complete without "mistakes"? Nearly all of them but this one, I suppose. If one facet of computer music turns people off the most, it tends to be the notion of the imperfection of "perfection." A computer does exactly what you tell it to do (except for the countless times when they don't!).
When a composer devises a piece of music to be played by people, he or she necessarily settles on some combination of explicit instructions to the performer. However detailed these instructions, the performer has infinitely more nuanced decisions to make. Additionally, however skilled the performers may be, there will be infinite variation in their execution of even the most "deliberate" maneuvers. In other words, the composer instructs, and the performer interprets both wittingly and unwittingly.
A computer executes exact instructions. A sophisticated electronic composer may choose to program in a degree of randomness to limit the "perfection"/predictability of the computer's performance; though some will crucify the work nonetheless for lacking emotion or some other intangible quality that they can so readily detect. An unsophisticated electronic composer (like me) may choose to record something complete with idiosyncrasies and mistakes and simply make the computer parrot it back. Emotion be damned!
It may not come as a surprise to you that this song required by far the least amount of time and effort in conception and execution - maybe an hour or two tops, compared with the scores of hours involved in creating/recording some of the other more intricate compositions on this album. The idea that there is no limit to the amount of preparation that can go into the creation of a single event or moment in time has intrigued me for years. Very closely tied to this is my fascination with the related idea that the amount of time and preparation has next to no correlation with the quality, success, or grandeur of that event/moment. Improvised decisions, epiphanies, and accidents comprise much more of the fabric of existence than any amount of "planning".
"The best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry."
~ Robert Burns
Thank you for making it so easy to feel correct and knowledgeable. Unfortunately, feeling correct gets humanity into most of its trouble. All the same, I love you.
Rob E. Cohen
10. Pop Cultures
Level 9: Underworld
This is a freaky song. It's unsettling, dissonant, and chaotic. When a weirdo like me sits down to "write a pop song" this is the kind of freakish accident that can result. Despite my best intentions to the contrary, this piece quickly developed a personality and logic of its own that I obediently navigated to its completion.
Not for Resale:
The title involves a play on words, where (in addition to the obvious interpretation) I imagined pop culture as a bacteria examined under a microscope.
11. Hot Johnson
Level 10: Lava and Fire Balls
The title of this piece predates the music by about 10 years. The funk/fusion/jazz-rock band of my middle school days dubbed one of our one-key fun jams "Hot Johnson", and the title more so than the generic, forgettable music (which at the time seemed like the hottest shit ever) is what stuck with me over the years.
Back in 2006 during my senior year of college, I began writing the actual music that developed into this crazy little piece. The initial idea was a demented funk song in the odd time of 13/16. The time signature came from one of the riffs I was playing around with at my keyboard, not as a deliberate choice beforehand. The very fast and odd rhythm made it a real challenge for me to keep up the momentum of the piece beyond a series of short disconnected ideas.
The desire to include the song on this album is what gave me the desire and inspiration to finally finish this song. In fact, a lot of the music on this album comes from bringing previous works out of their comas.
12. Lamenting Unrelentingly Relentless
13. Foreman Hits, 33's Egg Ends Strike
Level 11: Labor Strike Dada
The title of this song puns on the sound of the title to John Cage's infamous "silent" piece, 4:33 (spoken as "four minutes, thirty-three seconds"), which by no coincidence is the length of this song. This piece has nothing to do with Cage's revolutionary statement or his music, however. It was more of a strange whim. Once the idea to use the title occurred to me, I made sure that the track fit exactly into 4:33.
The title serves the piece as more than just a strange pun. The factory worker imagery suggested by the title seemed to me to fit the mood of the piece rather well.
As you can see, sometimes my creative process follows dadaist principals. Frank Zappa, one of my musical heroes, made his motto: "Anything Anytime Anyplace For No Reason At All" (AAAFNRAA).
What is the relationship between this text and the text for the previous track?
14. Mana Mowaua
Level 12: Our Princess Is In Another Castle
The gibberish title comes from Man(a) Woman(a), where the letters of "woman" are reflected upside down. AAAFNRAA
The song is a short and sweet waltz. Its incessant rhythm part (reminiscent of the theme in Morphing Images) follows a twisting, turning chord progression.
Is anybody still reading these?!
15. Polymorphism 1.02
Level 13: Final Boss
This is the second song in a series of compositions I've written with the same name. In them, I obsessively explore and develop different polyrhythms (different subdivisions of the beat superimposed on top of each other) to generate the motion of the piece. I wrote a detailed technical discussion (and published the score) of this piece, which I originally conceived as a solo piano work. Although I have made some changes to the piece for its incarnation on this album, it more or less follows the same path as in the score being discussed.
Fear not, this composition is easily consumable with no understanding of the technical masturbation behind its inception.
The score and rhythmic discussion are only for musically literate nerds and not for the faint of heart. Proceed with caution. I'd love to hear from any pianists who manage to defeat the boss.
= Epilogue: Wreck It Rob =
The creative process necessarily involves a combination of deliberate and arbitrary decisions - some of these decided consciously and others decided unwittingly (and still others, happy accidents that may be rationalized and explained afterwards). The primary decision that unites this album is the pallet of sounds employed. With the exception of the first track, all of the sounds on this album consist of simple waveforms and percussive blasts of "white noise". These are the sounds producible by primitive computer chips that many associate with the bygone Nintendo Entertainment System.
In recent years, a music community has risen up around the harsh limitations imposed by this technology. While I have appreciated some of that work, I approach this community largely as an outsider. I have broken many of the rules (such as my use of more than 4 voices at a time). All the same, this album has a place somewhere within that community.
The choice of lo-fi "8-bit" sounds served me in a few ways. Long before the concept for this album had occurred to me, I had already composed or begun to compose much of this material. The choice of sounds, in and of itself, served to unite otherwise unrelated compositions.
Prior to my reimagining it with 8-bit sounds, the musical material on this album existed mainly as MIDI sequences or music scores on my computer. Most of it was written to be played by myself with some imagined group of people in the future.
Aside: the problem with original music
(Assembling groups of musicians to play original music is an incredibly time-consuming and emotionally exhaustive process. It doesn't help matters that a lot of this music would be at least slightly difficult and counter-intuitive to most musicians. We're talking about scheduling hours upon hours of rehearsals between several people full of different commitments. When all of that hard work stands to offer no money and limited performance opportunities, the proposition becomes all the more unattractive. That said, an enormous number of musicians still participate in these kinds of ventures... Musicians are strange creatures. It's too bad the 21st century hardly lets us work anymore.)
Anyway... having sunk a lot of time and energy into music that was sitting dormant on my hard drive began to eat at me. At the same time, I had made these sequences more as blueprints for people to play rather than as finished instructions for a computer to play. They sounded very harsh, nonmusical, and unfinished. Translating these sequences into 8-bit sounds all of a sudden produced something that at least to my ear was fulfilling as an end-product (if a little silly and quirky).
Aside from liberating a bunch of sketches or blueprints for eventual songs into foreseeable finished products, the choice of 8-bit sounds reinvigorated all of the compositions (or composition ideas) with a new purpose. Reimagining my compositions as at least somewhat connected to video game music allowed me to lighten up a bit and take them less seriously. It gave me a fresh and playful approach to the material.
I see this album as an introduction to my work over the past few years as a composer. Ultimately, my interests still lie more in composing music for people rather than for computers to play, but this process gave me the reassurance that if need be I can still showcase my work independently of the unreliable machines called humans.
~ RoCo signing off!