Music is about the direct application of creativity. And, since one of the main subjects of this blog is creativity, I will write for a bit about where it comes from, and then write about one of my favorite subjects: music.
Now, I have several areas of specialization, and I think most of you do as well. This capacity is what allows us to observe things better: more areas of expertise give us a better perspective on the world, a different perspective. But there is more to it than just observation. The more areas you know, the more you can apply what you know to other areas as well. The cross-application of modeling, technique, and problem-solving is crucial to creativity.
Music is also about expression: when you have something to say, it just comes out. When you don't, then it's hard to write a note. Emotional experiences can be grist for the mill.
Listening, Memorizing, Dreaming
So, when I talk about music, it is because it is one of my areas of expertise. My mother first introduced me to music when I was very young. We would practice singing songs when I was seven or so and this went on for quite a while. By the time I was 9 or so, I had built an intuitive notion of harmony. And I could use my voice, so that was my first instrument, I guess.
My sister Sue decided she was going to learn piano, and so my parents bought an upright piano. It was painted puke green, I remember. Also, it was tuned a semitone flat because its strings were too old and tight to be properly tuned. This wasn't a good sign, but it did work. Sue gave up her lessons because she simply didn't have the patience and stick-to-itiveness to continue for long. And the upright piano sat unused.
We had a neighbor across the street nicknamed Muffy that was a bit of a bohemian, and whose parents never seemed to be around. She was an acquaintance of my brother Jim. I remember crossing the street to Muffy's house to listen to her new Beatles albums when they came out. Particularly Rubber Soul and Revolver. I liked the Beatles and I knew every song by heart. One of my brothers got Rubber Soul for Christmas one year.
When I was 15 or so, my very liberal parents took me to see Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Once I saw that movie, I fell in love with the sound of Switched-On Bach, and later Walter Carlos' purely electronic arrangements of Bach, Scarlatti, Purcell, and especially Beethoven. Once I heard the ninth symphony, my life was changed forever.
I became a Bach and Beethoven freak, while still listening to and appreciating the pop music of the day. Particularly, along with the Beatles, I often listened to the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Beach Boys, and later, of course, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Joe Cocker. After Woodstock, there was plenty to listen to.
But I also absorbed almost all of Beethoven and Bach I could find. I started picking up and photocopying scores of Beethoven symphonies and Bach concerti. When I was 16, I went to UC Berkeley on a National Science Foundation math seminar for young adults, I located a real sheet music store on Durant and I got scores for both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Brandenburg Concertos.
When I walked home from my friend's house at night, I got into the rhythm of the walking and began to hear music in my head. I found this endlessly fascinating. In 1972, I began being able to hear entire pieces of music in my head, usually just before I went to sleep. I knew Beethoven's 9th symphony so well that I could play it back in my head.
So, when my parents took the rest of the family to Las Cruces in the summer of 1973, I was alone in the house with some musical scores and a working piano. And I had a stereo. So I cued up Brandenburg 5 on my record player and set the pocket score (the first page of the pocket score is shown to the right) on the piano and worked out what the notes were. By ear. Which wasn't easy because the piano was tuned flat by a semitone. But I still was able to work it out.
Yes, I taught myself piano that summer.
It took some time to figure out common music notation. Particularly the rules about accidentals, key signatures, time signatures, and rests. I copied the Berlioz Treatise on Orchestration so I had a good reference work to look at. It helped me to understand what instruments had what range and how an instrument such as a Cor Anglais might be used in practice.
I copied most of my scores from the San Jose Municipal Library, and from the San Jose State libraries. I often rode my bike from my home in Sunnyvale to those libraries. My mom had long-since grown tired of being a shuttle service.
It was only a matter of time before I began to write music as well. I had a notion to write a string quartet and that was fun for a while.
Early on, most of my time on the piano was spent improvising. And playing the piano part from Beethoven's Choral Fantasy Op. 80 (again and again), which drove my parents totally crazy.
I had heard that Beethoven was a superb improvisation-master.
To really write the music I wanted, I reasoned that I could just play it on the piano, record it, and then take it down. I could certainly figure out where the notes went, but that rhythm thing was a bit harder. I took down two of my improvisations, struggling through at first. Then I got better. It turned out I had quite an ear for it. Then I turned to the Beatles.
So, I transcribed Strawberry Fields Forever, note for note. The time I spent transcribing things and consequently attuning my ears to intervals and rhythm turned out to be quite useful to me.
Here are scans of my transcription, at least the first two staves of it. As I transcribed it, I was surprised at the number of times John Lennon would change time signatures. He probably thought of them as short measures.
At Caltech for a year in 1974-1975, I became familiar with the Grateful Dead (via the Wake of the Flood and Mars Hotel albums) and also Pink Floyd. I also introduced some Page House members to Beethoven's 9th Symphony. But I remember quite well I wasn't allowed to play Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. A crew of 5 seniors would pick you up and throw you in the showers for that! Apparently there was some history concerning that piece at Caltech.
Also at Caltech, I audited some sessions with a dedicated music interpreter, James Boyk. He worked at Caltech for 30 years. I was lucky enough to catch up with him in his first year there and go through Chopin's Fantasie in F note by note. It's still one of my favorite pieces. I also took a course on music appreciation, in which we learned a few things about music that I already knew.
Later, after a year at Caltech, when I got into UC Berkeley for my college work, I had found that the school quota for Computer Science majors was full. So, determined to get in, I declared a music major and took the entrance exams. The first test was to take down a four-part chorale that a professor played twice. There were at least twenty students taking the test, in a classroom with a piano at the front. I found that I was able to transcribe it before anyone else because of my extensive practice listening and re-listening to a cassette tape, with my pen to paper. And I got accepted as a music major. The first year was hard for me, with second year harmony and first year musicianship. Music 27 was second year harmony, and I had to write several short compositions. One is shown to the right. It shows that I had a grasp of Chopin-like chromatic harmony even in 1975. The hardest thing we had to do was to harmonize a melody that the professor had composed. I always got an A at harmony.
The musicianship course was where I learned to play the piano and sing at the same time. Some days I spent 8 hours practicing and improvising on the Durant house piano. For my final, I had to sing and play Ich Grolle Nicht, from Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe. You can hear plenty of renditions of this song on YouTube.
Then I redeclared my major to Computer Science and the rest is history. But I never gave up playing the piano and singing. It's how I compose songs to this day.
My first amateurish compositions were done in 1973, before college. They were little fantasy pieces and preludes for the piano. In 1975, when I was taking a quarter off in between my Freshman year at Caltech and my Sophomore year at Berkeley, I took a course in orchestration at DeAnza college, from a cool professor, conductor, and cellist named Nelson Tandoc. He introduced me to the music of Sibelius. And part of my assignment was to write a piece to be performed, and so I wrote the Fantasia in D minor (the first page of the score is shown to right). Really it was more of a Toccata. I had it performed that year by an expert pianist, a woman whose name I can no longer remember.
Eventually I got off my classical composing bent. And moved on to more pop-oriented stuff: songs.
There were years when I couldn't spend a lot of time composing. I usually kept myself busy doing improvisation or by playing Beatles and Grateful Dead songs. My housemate, Jeff Bulf, was a devout Grateful Dead fan, and I went along to several Dead shows in Oakland, the Fillmore, and other venues. Of course, I had my own musical tastes at the time. I was into Pink Floyd, Yes, and eventually, Genesis.
Composing sticks with me to this day. I still write songs and play them for enjoyment. Or to express myself.
I have always been interested in recording as long as I can remember. When I got my first cassette recorder, I used it to record my piano work.
But I wanted more than anything to multi-track so I could record my voice. I knew I was good at harmony and all I needed was a multi-track recorder to prove it. In the late 70s I actually got a TEAC 4-track reel-to-reel recorder and did my first work. But it was hard to do, and wouldn't sync properly.
I gave up on recording for a decade. Later, I picked up an Alesis ADAT and started making 8-track recordings. And I produced my first song, with 4 vocal harmony tracks and a piano backing, which I laid down first. I finally realized just how hard it was to sing on key when I listened to my first recordings. I also realized the value of the diaphragm in creating sound.
There is nothing quite as humbling as hearing yourself on tape.
But I kept at it. Pretty soon, when I got enough money to afford a nice house in Aptos (after ImageStudio became successful) I started buying synthesizers and recording equipment. Eventually I put together a very good ProTools system with several signal processing boards. That system was capable of recording dozens of simultaneous tracks.
And I set about producing song after song for my own pleasure. Each one seemed better than the last. And this all happened as Painter was on the rise. Sometimes I would work with John Derry on a song or two. He was quite the guitarist.
Fractal Design had a band, with Bob Olander, Mary Mathis-Meltzer (now Mary Zimmer), Laurel Hemnes, John Derry, Tim Thomas, myself, and others that neither Mary nor I can recollect at the moment. I'm sure John Derry will send me a note, and I can add the others. I can remember banging out Lady Madonna, Midnight Hour, Mustang Sally, and I Want To Hold Your Hand on my road-tested Roland RD-500 mil-spec 88-key weighted digital piano. We played for the company at a summer event, and those were halcyon days indeed.
Here is one of my songs, Not Enough Time.
Not Enough Time by mystery train
When I finally sold off Painter to Corel and finished my consulting with them, it became a time to move into a smaller house and by that time I had three kids and less time, space, and silence to devote to recording. I'm sure I'll get back to it someday.
Music and Computers
There were periods when I spent time working on a crossover between mathematics and music. My first efforts in this area started at UC Berkeley in 1976, where a professor in Etcheverry Hall challenged me to write a program that could generate 4-part harmony. This was the first time I analyzed the 12-tone scale, created code (in Fortran, sadly) that handled accidentals and could represent chords and their inversions. I built a small expert system and an AI that could modulate from key to key and assign voices according to predefined preferences.
My next sojourn into computers and music began when I got my first Mac in 1984. Having met Owen Densmore, the printing person on the original Mac programming team, Tom Hedges and I managed to get ahold of an assembler, and a debugger. We started turning the Macintosh into a development platform. My interest in music surfaced once again and I made my first effort a music composition program. I could use the mouse to place notes and I could play back my composition. Of course, a much more interesting and lucrative pursuit was found by Tom Hedges when he designed an audio digitizer. I wrote the software, called SoundCap. And here again I brought my expertise in sound to play.
SoundCap got lots of users, including Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson, and Steve Capps from the original Macintosh team. But one of our customers was Bogas Productions. Now, Ed Bogas well-known as the composer of Linus and Lucy. And in those days he had some programmers, notably Ty Roberts and Neil Cormea working for him. As time went on, Tom and I consulted for them and worked on the digitization of piano tones. We bought a Mac-based music sequencer and Tom entered the entire Rhapsody in Blue into it (his father had been quite the piano player, it appeared, and Tom had the score in his possession). Whatever format it generated, we were able to read in and produce a real piano sound playing it, using our samples. This capability never really turned into a program we sold, however.
Tom was quite interested in scanning the sheet music and writing a program to recognize sheet music and convert it to some standard common music notation format. But, as it turned out, there was no such format at the time.
In 1988, as ImageStudio became quite a moneymaker for us, I started a little project on the side (I had a habit of doing this), called MIDI '88. This was a program that was a recording studio for MIDI music. This program was updated in when I renamed it MIDI '90. It had multi-track recording and playback of MIDI data. It could display what you played as a piano roll, unrolled sideways, so time moved left to right.
I remember demonstrating it to journeyman musician Todd Rundgren, and his first comment was "why doesn't it run top to bottom like the scroll in a player-piano?". Hmm.
With this software, I could play an improvisation, fix finger-faults in it, adjust the timeline so it fit a nice beat, and try it out on a host of different patches and synths. It was using this software that I taught myself proper drum-lines and bass-lines.
You see, when I listen to music, I deconstruct it in my head, listening to each part separately. If some piece has a great bass-line, then I can tell immediately. When it modulates to another key for the bridge, I can tell you what kind of modulation just occurred.
I still have lots of MIDI files sitting around: nearly all of my old improvisation since 1988. And my MIDI program is now called MIDI 2008, has migrated onto Mac OS X, and sports a UI that makes it quite useful in constructing song organizations out of chord sequences. A small screen-shot is shown at right.
Practice Makes Perfect
So I learned every Beatles song I could, and practiced them on the piano. Many of them I can play and sing on sight. The rest I can just play.
And I turned to The Dark Side of the Moon, by Pink Floyd. I have practiced and played all of them as well. Most songs I hear on the radio, if I hear them often enough, I can play.
A couple of years ago, I learned to play and sing Daniel Powter's song Bad Day. Not a bad tune, that.
In the last two years I have been writing again, maybe ten songs. There is always something to sing about now, good or bad.
I have learned the craft of songwriting. I can write a mean intro and a catchy outro. I know my way around verse, bridge, and refrain. I can multi-track the harmonies when I want a particular sound. It has served me well over the years.
PostScript: I want to post some of my songs, but it seems to be quite difficult to do so with the blogging tools I have at hand. Still working on it!