thoughts on music, design and literature

Monday, November 26, 2007

TED 2006: Do Schools Today Kill Creativity?

Happy Thanksgiving to all you Americans and American expatriots! I had a very productive week, and churned out the third (and pretty much final) draft of my album. It's pretty much ready to go, with only minor tweaks left to be done in the next week. And to celebrate, I'm letting myself blog again.

I was sent this YouTube video by a Facebook acquaintance, Mark Mahaffey. It's a great lecture given by Sir Ken Robinson at the TED Conference 2006, an annual invitation-only summit of the best and most innovative minds across all the disciplines. ('TED' stands for 'Technology Entertainment Design'.) It's a bit on the long side, but it's well worth setting aside the time to watch.

For those who don't have time to watch the whole thing, the most poignant moment of the video for me was when he talked about the early childhood of choreographer Gillian Lynne, who's probably best known for her work with Andrew Lloyd Webber on, among other things, Cats. Make all the snide comments you want--fact of the matter is, that choreography is something special.

An adolescent Gillian was taken in to see a counselor because she was always squirming about in class, and never seemed to sit still. The counselor listened very patiently to the parents concerns, and then asked them to step into the hallway with him. On the way out, he turned on the radio. Outside, in the hall, they peeked back in the room to see that Gillian, thinking no one was watching her, was suddenly dancing all about the room. The parents promptly enrolled her in a dance class, which eventually led her to where she is today: a choreographer who's brought beauty and joy to millions of people.

The point of the story is, though, that if that had happened today, she would have 1) been diagnosed with ADHD, and 2) been put on medication. The world would have lost a formidable talent, because our public school system devalues creativity in favor of the basic R's: that is, Reading, wRiting and aRithmatic. In fact, it is that over-emphasis on these basic principals that quite frankly squashes a lot of artistic talent in its infancy.

(A side note to those of you who had to suffer through a traditional Asian know exactly what I'm talking about. You're only allowed to be brilliant on the violin, as long as you don't think about making it your career. Fortunately, my parents were very progressive in that department, which is why I'm where I am today.)

You can't blame public schools; they have enough problems as it is. But that story took me back to my own experience at the dawn of my own life as a composer, when the administration of Palo Alto High School did a pretty fantastic job in almost crushing my nascent artistic talent.

It was senior year in high school, and as an eager theatre student who could actually hold a tune, I was disappointed to find out that they had cancelled the school musical that year. So, frustrated, I decided that I would write my own musical (how hard could it be?). Trouble is, I wasn't the only one with that idea....a fellow student (a drummer in a rock band) decided that he wanted to write one too. So that year at Palo Alto High School became an unofficial story of dueling original musicals.

The administration, rather than being pleased that their music program churned out two burgeoning composition talents, felt that they couldn't support having two such projects going on at the same time. So first they tried to make us collaborate and write one musical. And then they decided to throw all their administrative power behind one of the shows, and pretty much did everything they could to discourage the other one. For whatever reason, they chose the 'other show' to put forth--maybe it was because that show's creator lobbied better than I did. Who knows.

Point is, they wouldn't let me use their stage to put up my show. They wouldn't give me any resources. They did their bureaucratic best to ensure that my show wouldn't go up, short of actually shutting it down themselves (because that would probably make them look bad).

So my version of being a rebellious high schooler, of course, was to mount the damn thing myself. I convinced the choir teacher, Mrs. Fujikawa, to let me use her tiny classroom as a stage. I begged my physics teacher to stay late on campus, so that I could have a supervising teacher for my rehearsals. (Thanks Mr. Geller.) My production staff (pretty much one guy: Chris Karabats) and I used to break into the classrooms on weekends just so we could build my pitiful little set. I wrote the music, I wrote the script, I did the publicity, I played the guitar in the pit band, and through sheer force of will, my heroic cast of five and I managed to put up three sold out performances. (It's not hard to sell out when you've only got room for 60 people in a classroom.)

My first ever large-scale project, Such Sweet Thunder, was born. It was a bloated two and a half hours, with 17 musical numbers with ponderous dialogue-heavy scenes in between. It tackled an imaginary scenario where a jazz-singer--loosely based on Ella Fitzgerald--dies, and a young upstart tries to take her place. It tackled issues of art, entertainment, and the co-marriage of the two, and quite frankly was way too heady for a 17 year old to tackle, much less for a high school audience to appreciate.

But damn it, people were impressed. And the next day, the popular kids came up to me and said they were humming my tunes all day. (To this day, I'll occasionally have an old high school friend sing one of those songs back to me.) The show was taped and broadcast on local Cable Access TV. My friend Lisa came and saw it, and brought her dad, Steve Jobs--yes, THAT Steve Jobs. She later told me that he said it was the most brilliant thing he ever saw a 17-year old do. (I will carry that comment with me to my deathbed.)

The one person who was conspicuously absent, however, was the principal of the school. Not only had they withheld support for my massive undertaking, but they didn't even deign to attend one of the performances. Now THIS is the problem with public schools: the lack of resources is one thing, but to not even show support for a young artist is another sin altogether. Principal Sandra Pearson, if you're reading this, I ask you: what kind of message are you sending about the importance of creativity when one of your best students writes a two-act musical, and you don't even bother to show up for it?

As a young artist, it filled me with rage. Here I was, trying to create something, and here was 'the system' doing its best to prevent me from doing so. Allow me to psychoanalyze myself for a moment: it's because of this early experience that made me the independent-minded artist I am today. I have a deep-seeded mistrust for any entity or system that holds power over me; I feel much more secure taking control of my own destiny, and not relying on the handouts of others. I don't want to be constantly kissing ass and hoping someone will give me a job; I want to be focusing on writing good music and creating good art. I'm doing this album on my own, free of record labels, free of outside publishers because I CAN. I refuse to let all those Sandra Pearsons out there hold me down.


Anyway, the epilogue? A month after my show wrapped, I attended a performance of 'the other musical.' It was presented at the 2000-seat Haymarket Theatre, with lavish costumes, full on-stage pit orchestra, dancers, expensive lighting, and a press-blitz that celebrated the fact that a young high school student had written a musical ( novel). It was a 90-minute comedy about a 17th-century composer who's frustrated that his music is going nowhere, and so he invents rock and roll, and suddenly cellists trade in their bows for guitar picks, the village starts rocking, and everything becomes right with the world, Bill And Ted-style.

Excellent, dude.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Maori Haka and the New Zealand All-Blacks

The Maori people of New Zealand have an old tradition called the haka. It's a choreographed group dance that's commonly associated with a pre-battle ritual, whereby Maori warriors would shout, stomp and make threatening gestures at their opponents as a means of intimidating them. Today, the Maori aren't waging too many wars, but the tradition is alive and well, most famously with the New Zealand All Blacks, pretty much the best rugby team in the world. The All Blacks have been performing the haka for over a century now, and it's one of the great traditions in sports.

It really is just an awe-inspiring. (Except if you're the French team in this video, in which case you're probably wetting yourself at this moment.)

I'm closing my album with a Maori song, and with the help of Jerome Kavanagh, a Maori collaborator who happens to be an expert on traditional Maori instruments and music, I'm integrating parts of this tradition into the track. I figure if I can harness just a tenth of the goose-bump-inducing power of the All Blacks haka, I'll have a fine finish to the album. Yet at the same time, I have to be careful; the Maori are very proud of their heritage, and are very protective of their traditions. Whatever I do, and however I do it, I need to proceed with the utmost respect for their culture and traditions. I hope, though, that my intentions will be considered honorable; at once I want to increase awareness of their extraordinary musical and oratorical traditions, and at the same time, integrate it into the over-arching message of Calling All Dawns: that we are all one and the same, and all travel the same journey through life and death.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Takeshi Murakami Pt. 1: Louis Vuitton

I’m blogging again because it’s 3:00 AM, and I can’t sleep. Mostly album related issues, but I’ll get to that later….

In the meantime, I’m going to ramble about Takeshi Murakami, probably the most famous pop artist since Andy Warhol. The LA MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) is running a show of the Tokyo-based artists works, and it’s driving me nuts that I don’t have the time to just run downtown to go see it.

Murakami is the founder of the Superflat movement—which in essence is both a rebellion against the staid restraint of traditional Japanese art, as well as a celebration—and sometimes criticism—of contemporary Japanese pop culture. It’s a largely character-based movement—that is, much of the art deals with manga-inspired cartoon characters who require no more reason for existance than that they’re ridiculously cute.

Like Warhol, his work is a marriage of fine art and commerce—and one of the most noticeable unions of these concepts is his design of a Louis Vuitton handbag (which sells for a mere $1520). Murakami goes one step further with the partnership, however, and actually created a little animated film to promote the product:

What I love about it in particular (being a musician) is the soundtrack, a song by a great J-Pop artist called Fantastic Plastic Machine. J-Pop is a particular interest of mine, just because I find it so much more creative than American pop (which for various reasons—cough Clear Channel cough American Idol cough hip-hop culture cough—has become image driven and homogenized). Some of my favorite artists (including previously-blogged-about Cornelius) all come from the trendy Shibuya district of Tokyo, and FPM belongs to this Shibuya-kei movement.

What’s particularly ingenious about this music, though, is that it seems to be a reinvention of a concept in German avant-garde concert music of the 1910s called klangfarbenmelodie, which translated, means ‘tone color melody.’ That technique, pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern (who, along with Alban Berg, comprise the Second Viennese School) is the utilization of tone color as a new element to the progression of a melody. So for example, instead of having a melody played by just one instrument, these guys would break up the melody amongst different instruments in the orchestra, so that each note was sounded with a different tone color. Fantastic Plastic Machine has done this here as well—although the melody and chords would fit very handily with one instrument, the main riff is broken up into various combinations of acoustic guitar strums (going forwards and backwards), keyboards, pizzicato strings, filtered synths, and weird honking sounds. It’s mesmerizing, and works really well with the schizophrenic nature of Murakami’s visuals.

Oh, and guess what the name of the song is? “Different Colors.” How appropriate, both to Murakami AND klangfarbenmelodie.

And in other news, the reason I’ve got insomnia is because I spent much of today thinking over the comments that I’ve gotten from various people I played my most recent album draft for—and I’ve realized that there comes a time when an artist simply needs to stop collecting feedback, and just does what they want to do. And so even though there were some valid suggestions that came from my friends and colleagues in the past couple weeks, I’ve nevertheless reached a point where I’m comfortable with my material, and can confidently move forward with it. And truthfully, one could workshop something forever, and each time someone will have something new to say. It has to stop somewhere! More than anything else, this is telling in that I’ve finally reached a total comfort point with all my material. Next stop: Abbey Road.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Lucas Richman, Conductor

Ah, poor neglected blog.

My readers are probably wondering why the dropoff in posting. I have until the end of the month to finish my music for Abbey Road, and so I'm in full-on isolation mode. But I will share the events of my weekend with you all--I think from here until the sessions on December 18th, I'll be posting more updates about the album, and fewer musical-analysis-with-YouTube-video entries. So, for all those of you who come here for the pretty pictures and musical commentary (that is, all three of you....hi guys), will just have to put up with my little musical diary entries.

I flew out to Knoxville to spend the weekend with my conductor, Lucas Richman, and his family. I brought my scores for the 12 songs to the album with me, and spent a nice day with Lucas sitting down and going over the music (interrupted occationally by the obligatory jam session with his 9 year old son, Max, who shreds like no one's bizness on Guitar Hero, and pwned me thoroughly).

Lucas is the conductor of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and was a protégé of none other than Leonard Bernstein when he was 18 years old. He's also conducted a lot of film scores, and bridges the gap between classical conducting and session conducting better than anyone out there. AND, he was a former conducting teacher of mine! So I'm in good hands with him.

Lucas is also an accomplished composer, and I absolutely *love* sitting down with other composers and sharing music with each other. He played me his beautiful Oboe Concerto and his Palo Alto Overture--a full-orchestral piece that was written when he was 17 (which is totally unfair), in honor of my very own hometown. (It was really the most random thing--why in the world had Lucas written an orchestral overture for Palo Alto?)


Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Joel McNeely

One of the reasons why I started this blog is to talk about my influences--whether they be favorite artists, genres of music, or other composers. And without a doubt, one of the most formative experiences for me as a young composer was working with Joel McNeely.

I first heard Joel's music in The Avengers, and was blown away by it. When I first moved down to Los Angeles, I contacted Joel to ask it he'd be willing to mentor me--a year later, I started working for him on The Jungle Book 2.

One of the reasons why I was interested in working for Joel in particular (and indeed, I left an internship working for Hans Zimmer to do so) is because he writes music the way I do: the old fashioned way, bar by bar, with a pencil and a sheet of staff paper. But while this method yields the best music, you still need to be able to play a mock-up sampled version of your music for the director; that way they can approve the music before you get to the expensive step of recording on a scoring stage.

Since Joel writes everything out, he hired me to create elaborate synthesized mock-ups of his film scores. In essence, that means that I played every note of every piece of music he wrote for these films into a computer. So after working for him for six films (including Lilo And Stich 2, for which he set me up with my first writing job for Disney), you'd better believe I absorbed something from his style.

One of my favorite scores from the time that I worked for him was Pooh's Heffalump Movie. Check out the 'Heffalump Main Theme' (linked directly from Joel's site):

After working for Joel, my own orchestral style bloomed. My orchestrations started becoming lusher--high strings soaring in octaves, horn counterpoint filling up the middle, trombones doubling the low strings for added warmth.... Unfortunately many times I don't get the opportunity to write music in this 'classic-Hollywood' style, but a lot of what I absorbed from him still finds its way into songs like 'Baba Yetu'.

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Sunday, November 4, 2007


Tonight I'm having friends over for pizza and beer, and to play them my second draft of Calling All Dawns. Woohoo! All twelve songs are written, and I'm feeling good about every single one.

This is something that I've started doing on this album. It kind of brings me back to when I was a grad student, and we would have our composition workshops. We'd all sit around and listen to each other's music, and give (mostly) constructive feedback. Obviously when you're working on a film or game, you don't have time to workshop your music--and really, the director of the project fulfills that role for you. But on a personal project like this one, it's nice to call together a group of my friends for some constructive criticism (and most of them come from diverse artistic backgrounds, and are seriously, seriously analytical).