Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I have a hard time relaxing.  There is always something that I think I should be doing.  I often feel guilty when I'm not doing something that could be construed as "productive" on some level.  And there is never a time when the list of potentially productive things runs out.  One friend told me that marathon runners don't train for a marathon all the time.  Balanced training involves periods of activity and periods of inactivity.  That made sense, until I started drawing lines of comparison.

Nothing in my life right now really looks like a marathon.  I don't have an event for which I am aiming, I don't have a destination, an endpoint.  I have several ongoing projects that are literally open-ended, on-my-own-schedule kind of affairs.  I am creating various things, and I am in the enviable position of having a great deal of time to indulge those creative processes.  But during the moments when I am not immersed in the creative process, I have a tendency to beat myself up a bit.  I call it laziness, but it really isn't.  I think part of me at some point in time got confused about the difference between busyness and meaningful activity.

* * * * * * * * *

I said to a close friend, "I have a feeling that I was supposed to be more important."

My friend's reply was, "I've always had the impression that you didn't care what other people think, as long as you're happy with what you're doing."

It seemed like a kind of non sequitur, but I followed his meaning.  If I don't care what other people think, then who am I expecting to be important to, aside from myself?  Well, the truth of the matter is that I do care what other people think.  I want to be connected to other people.  I want what I do to have a positive impact.  I just don't want to make decisions for my life based on what other people believe.

Over the course of a couple of days following that conversation, a few people unexpectedly sought my counsel about different issues in their lives.  So, at least in some moments, I am important to some people.  I felt flattered and honored in those moments, and yet it wasn't quite the answer part of me wanted.  Part of me was defining "important" as "broadly impactful" or something along those lines.  And I don't believe that defines my life right now.  It's an issue of identity.

I've tried making meaningful contributions as a part of other organizations, places where I could have a broader impact because of an existing framework.  Somehow, I've wound up not having the sort of impact I wanted.  A lot of times it can be chalked up to personality clashes, but I also think that there is something more.  I may be dead wrong here, but I think that many people have a difficult time visualizing what something new will be like until it's created.  Once it's created, they don't have to visualize it, because it's right there in front of them.  But a lot of energy gets spent trying to defend an idea to people who simply can't envision what it will look like.  It's hard to have a positive impact on people who are afraid of what they can't imagine.

The direct end result for me is that people often do not see what I have to offer the way I would like them to, and I am unable to rely on participation in an organization as a means of identity.  The organization does not provide a meaningful purpose for me.  Honestly, I believe that some of my ideas could have profoundly positive transformative impact, but I don't enjoy the often exhausting battle of defending myself and my ideas to people who clearly are not open to those possibilities.  It isn't worth it to me, no matter how "important" I think an idea could be.  When I think about it in those terms, I don't really want to be "important" badly enough to define my life by the process of proving myself.  But I do want a clearly-defined over-arching identity than what I've been allowing myself in the enviably nebulous existence I currently inhabit.

* * * * * * * * *

I think one of the reasons I find it so easy to flagellate myself about perceived laziness is that I don't currently have an endpoint, a goal, a clear and overarching sense of purpose behind everything that I do.  Individual projects may have goals and purposes, but they are nebulous or far into the future. What I have sought through my involvement in other organizations is something I can provide for myself.

In The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron talks about the Creator, and she encourages placing a lot of spiritual value on being both created and creator.  I don't believe in an actual Creator per se, but the poetic example of the act of creation at the very beginning of the Bible has some very valuable tidbits.  Actually, a lot of creation myths do.  They always involve effort on the part of the creator(s), and there is always a process by which that creation takes shape.

I am a creator.  It's what I do.  I create music.  I create sometimes coherent prose.  I use my imagination well.  On a certain level, I think everyone creates, but it isn't everyone's defining characteristic.  That may not make me important to a lot of people.  I'm alright with that, honestly.  What I was couching as a desire for importance was actually a desire for someone else to provide a meaningful identity, and when I am honest about what matters to me, I can do that for myself.  I have done that for myself.

So how does fully claiming my identity as a creator keep me from beating myself up in the times when I am not actively creating?  That's where the creation myths come in handy.  For example, in the biblical myth, God didn't create everything in one fell swoop.  He just did a bit at a time, and then he stood back and acknowledged his work.  And then, as many people have pointed out, he took time to rest.  There are a lot of similar lessons in creation myths from all over the world, and they amount to four basic principles I'm going to be following:

(1) Know what you're creating.  If you don't know what you're making, take a step back and figure that out first.

(2) Be wildly imaginative.  Don't restrain yourself with imaginary judgments and limitations.

(3) Acknowledge what you've created, even mid-process.  Recognize the value of your creation.

(4) Rest.  Rest is not laziness.  Rest is the time when you allow something within you to start creating the things you don't consciously know about yet. 

So, I have had a tendency to want to have an identity handed to me, and I have wrestled with the idea of being important.  I have justified or criticized my existence based on the amount of money I was making, the amount of things I had gotten accomplished, the number of ideas that actually took root somewhere, the number of performances of my music, and on and on. Even when I've realized how ludicrous some of those conclusions are, I have kept going back to them because they are easy judgments.  Now I have one more bit of truth about me, one more turn around the spiral: I am a creator.  I am defined by the fact that I create.  

I know this was a long one.  Hopefully it kept your interest.  I started this blog because I wanted what I see and learn to be able to have a positive impact on other people's lives.  On some level, I wanted to be important.  I assumed that I was not the only person in the process of learning more and creating more in my life, and I still believe that to be the case.  In spite of the value I have gotten from a weekly commitment to write down my thoughts, this will be my last entry for awhile.  I may come back to this venue at some point, in which case it will be tweeted and Facebooked and whatever else technology makes possible for me.  In the meantime, thank you for being along on this leg of the journey.  I hope you have learned as much about yourself as you have about me, and that we will all continue along that path of learning for as far as it carries us.

Farewell for now,
Randy Partain, creator

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Joys and Frustrations of Electronic Music

Even though I graduated with my doctorate in music composition a mere six years ago, the face of electronic music has changed dramatically.  It's become a complex market of software and plug-ins and virtual instruments created from high-quality samples of almost any real-world sound you can imagine.  "Kids" who are barely teenagers are composing artful remixes of popular songs, and professional orchestrators are creating virtual recordings of familiar classical pieces that are in some respects better than a live performance. 
When I compose a piece of music for acoustic performers, I accept that not every note and articulation is going to be the same in every performance.  Not only will different performers put their personality into interpreting a piece, but the same performers won't play a piece exactly the same every time.  It's one of the things that makes live music interesting, actually.  Hearing what a performer brings forth from a piece goes beyond the sterile and absolute ideal of what's on the printed page.

Purely electronic music is different.  There are plenty of pieces (both art music and popular music) that combine the sounds of electronica with aspects of live performance.  My first real exposure to it was Caution to the Winds (James Mobberly) for piano and tape, which I performed on my senior piano recital as an undergraduate.  Since then, the entire "live performer with electronics" genre has grown by leaps and bounds, and it's one of the few areas in which cross-pollination between popular music and academic music makes the boundaries almost too blurry to identify in places.  Some of these pieces incorporate the electronic aspects in such a way that a performer still has a great deal of freedom; a performance of the piece on one night might be completely different from the performance of a piece on the next.  The work that I'm doing right now aims at creating a finished product, though: music to be heard, not performed.

 James Mobberly's Caution to the Winds, as performed by Kristina Sandulova.

Like the music on a CD or one of those orchestrations of a famous symphony with "virtual" instruments, once a piece of purely electronic music is in recorded form, it becomes fixed.  You always know when a particular swell will happen in the tune, because it's recorded and it isn't going to change.  The notes and articulations will always be exactly the same from one listening to the next, although some people may claim that a recorded piece of music can still vary in the impact it has on them, based on their own emotions when they listen to it.  I won't debate that.  I'm concerned with the idea that once the piece is "finished", there is no altering it.  There is no "next performance" to tweak or adjust or "get it right."  There is the obdurate and unchanging sound of the piece, for better or worse, just as it was created.

This has a tremendously attractive side to it.  I can hear what I have created immediately.  When a piece is composed for live performers, there is really no guarantee that it will ever get performed, and in today's bizarre climate of neophilia there is very little chance that a piece will get performed twice.  A performer has to take the music, rehearse it, make some interpretive decisions, and then create something that hopefully has some approximation to the idealized piece on the printed page.  This process could take months.  An electronic piece is immediately available for listening.  I can actually physically hear the piece as I am working on it, and as soon as it's finished, I can send it to other people within minutes.  On top of that, they will hear exactly the same music everything they listen.  They may hear different things within the music, but the music itself will always be available and consistent.
As you might imagine, this changes the way I compose a piece.  When I am writing for a live musician, I actually want some of their personality to enter into the sound of a piece.  I might leave some things a little vague or explicitly improvisatory because I'm interested in giving that performer the space to create.  When I'm working with electronic sounds, I'm not creating something that another person will infuse with their personality.  I'm creating the finished product.  It's up to me to get the sound of the piece exactly how I want it to be, and if there's something I don't like, I can't chalk it up to a performer's interpretation.  In some ways, it's a bit daunting, and in other ways it's very satisfying.  Getting a rhythm just right in a printed piece of music doesn't guarantee that every performer is going to play it just right.  Getting a rhythm just right in a piece of electronica means that it will always and forever be exactly what I intended.

But it's much easier to get bogged down in minutiae.  Sometimes, I feel like I am painting a face, but I get drawn into the details of the ear.  And because of the technology, I can get very, very detailed about how the ear looks.  I can fine tune exactly where a little mole is positioned, or how a tiny sliver of shadow falls within the curvature of cartilage.  Then, I take a step back and remember that I have an entire face to paint, and what I've done to the ear has an impact on how the rest of the face appears.  Besides, what viewer is really going to notice how perfectly positioned a tiny mole or shadow is?  Does it really matter?

That last question gets tricky.  Does it really matter in the grand scheme of life itself?  Probably not.  Does it really matter in the aesthetics of the piece?  Maybe it does.  Does it really matter to me?  And there is the heart of it.  What makes the whole endeavor worthwhile is how satisfied I am at the end of it.  If getting a particular sound just right will increase my enjoyment of what I'm creating, it's worth it.  Even if no one else notices, it's worth the time and effort.  And if a detail isn't important to me--if it doesn't really enhance my enjoyment of the process or the final product--I can learn to let go of the minutiae and move on.

By the way, if you haven't already heard the first bit of electronic music I created for the Status Quo project, you can listen to it via the link below, just so you can hear where I'm setting the bar with my current efforts.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sometimes I Don't Want to Be Polite

Relationships are fertile ground for realizations about how I undermine my own efforts.  It’s easiest to learn from the close relationships with people I see all the time, but the observations apply to a much broader spectrum of connections: people to whom I’ve sent music, people with whom I want to partner on a project, people from whom I want to learn.  I don’t always know what to do differently, but noticing that I am doing something to get in my own way is definitely the first step.

Here’s the deal: I am generally a polite person, a considerate person, a “nice” person.  I am generally tolerant and accepting of people’s idiosyncrasies, and I’m not threatened by points of view that differ from mine.  All that is genuine and real as a personal baseline.  But sometimes it becomes an act. Sometimes, I don’t actually want to be considerate or tolerant.  Sometimes I want to be more direct in what I say, even what I would consider harsh and impolite.  And instead I just pretend to be tolerant and accepting and “nice.”

That only works for so long, though.  Eventually, I get fed up with pretending and decide that I’m through tolerating someone, and I let out the directness and the impoliteness and the harshness I was holding back.  Actually, this very thing has occurred a couple of times in the past couple of weeks.  Both times, I was actually rewarded for it, in a way.  The people to whom I was being direct and harsh and impolite didn’t cut off all contact, they didn’t compete with me to see who could be harshest, and they didn’t throw a guilt trip on me for being impolite.  They heard me through what I thought was a challenging degree of directness, and I got to see a more unguarded side to these people than I am usually granted access.  Not what I expected.

After a lot of thought on these situations, I have come to believe that I was rewarded with people being unguarded with me because I was being unguarded with them.  The “nice” act, when it is pretending and not sincere, is protection.  The directness and harshness is real in that moment--my genuine feelings and thoughts.  By the time I let myself go there, I am so fed up with someone’s behavior that it doesn’t seem like I have anything to lose.  I am invulnerable at that point.  Why bother being polite if I no longer care what somebody thinks or does?  Why bother being nice if I have all but written someone off?

Except that I haven’t.  It’s all an illusion, a trick my mind has played on me.  I’m just as vulnerable (or invulnerable) when I am pretending to be nice as when I am over-the-top harsh and direct.  And I never actually stop caring about what these individuals think or feel.  When I actually stop caring, it’s usually because I am utterly convinced that nothing I can say or do will have any impact whatsoever on the person in question.  I’m not harsh or direct or impolite with those people, I just literally stop trying to be anything at all to them.  When I let myself get direct and impolite and harsh, somewhere inside I still believe that there is something of value to the connection, even if I don’t admit that in the moment so I can feel safe in expressing what I really want to say.  When I’m vulnerable, I have to just pretend to be nice, but when I reach invulnerability, I can say what I really want.  Twisted.

So, it isn’t the sincere and genuine considerate and nice behavior I want to change, and it isn’t really the directness either.  I want to be unguarded enough to have high-quality connections with people, and sometimes that involves being vulnerable and saying something that might seem harsh in my head.  Being polite doesn’t always serve people.  Or me.  And letting perceived vulnerability stand in my way has other adverse effects on what I want, too.  Sometimes I avoid doing things that could build connections and create the opportunities I want for my music and my life, and I hesitate to make those phone calls or write those emails because I don’t want to bother someone.  I want to be polite.  I want to be nice.  Except that I don’t really want to be nice.  What I want in those moments is safety.  I don’t want to be vulnerable.

This isn’t the case all the time, but in those moments when I choose perceived safety over acting on my own behalf, the sacrifice is great.  I want to be a better advocate for myself, for what I see and what I want.  The evidence in front of me is that, at least in close relationships, people value what I actually have to say, even when I let myself reach a point of frustration before I say it.  There are plenty of times when genuine politeness is appropriate, but I don’t think I’m putting myself at risk of losing that quality if I stop pretending.  Maybe I can even start expressing things directly and authentically without harsh tones if I don’t wait until I am fed up with a situation.  Maybe sometimes I just won’t be polite.