A Little Lost: Perfectionism and creative stunting

In October, Yep Roc released a compilation of covers of songs by the deceased avant-garde musician Arthur Russell called Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell. This mix honors Russell’s wildly diverse handiwork with an innovative rework of Russell’s honeymoon anthem A Little Lost by Sufjan Stevens, and a cover of the quirky underground disco hit Go Bang by the apostles of quirk themselves, Hot Chip. Russell, who died in 1992, has only begun to receive nationwide attention for his work in the last decade or so. For those unfamiliar with him, here’s a quick review.

In Wild Combination by filmmaker Matt Wolf, Russell’s long-suffering parents in Iowa are only able to recall childhood memories of their son, Russell having run away at age 16. After changing his name from his father’s and getting caught with weed, he left for San Francisco and joined an urban commune. This is where beat poet Allen Ginsberg found Russell, practicing cello and a dubious version of Buddhism. (Dubious even to Ginsberg, who followed his own unorthodox path according to The Dharma Bums, but we won’t get into that now.) Ginsberg took a liking to Russell and before long the two began collaborating, the poet reading his works over the echoey drone of Russell’s cello. Soon after, Russell found bassist Ernie Brooks of The Modern Lovers at one of the band’s last shows in ’74, and asked Brooks to listen to his music.

“He came up to Cambridge, where I was still living I think, with his guitar and started just playing these songs he had,” said Brooks. “He was funny because he was very awkward in a certain way and very shy, but at the same time he was very insistent. He thought that I had some rock secrets or something that he didn’t have. I mean Arthur was like that. He really would go find what he thought he needed to complete his music.”

This articulation of Russell’s way is repeated by so many others in the film. Russell was shy, but driven by a relentless desire to improve. He left the commune to find a home in his work at The Kitchen, a collaboration space for dance, video and music. At this creative breeding ground, Russell recruited members for a collective according to their personality as well as their ability. In this violent sea of talent, where experimental composers like Phillip Glass and John Cage found kinship and beat artists abused the lines between music, poetry and noise, Russell’s was musical director. He became a goofy Moses — longhaired, leading his squawking and gyrating people into new lands of strange but genuine quality.

The documentarian portrays this period as a high point in the musician’s life. Around this time, Russell moves to New York, where he meets his only stable partner, Tom Lee. In a recent interview with The Fader, Lee said Russell would attend shows only to take notes.

“Whenever Arthur went out, he wasn’t up front watching the band, he was kind of off to the side jotting things down on a piece of paper that had to do with music,” said Lee. “He wasn’t mesmerized by too much music that was out there.”

This habit of perfection soon began to burden Russell. He became unable to release singles without growing suspicious of his producer for tampering with the song’s perfection, working on songs for years at a time, recording and reworking endlessly. Brooks estimates Russell spent 5 years writing That’s Us/Wild Combination (above). Russell struggled to work with other artists when he wasn’t at the helm. When Brooks invited the cellist to join The Necessaries, a short-lived power pop group, Russell was ecstatic, but began to manipulate the band upon joining. Brooks remembers a time when Russell refused to attend shows while on tour, citing a dissatisfaction with the band’s “direction.”

He was diagnosed HIV-positive shortly after the release of his first and only full-length album, World of Echo. Even after the diagnosis, Russell remained productive, writing music constantly and performing, even while undergoing chemotherapy for the throat cancer the disease caused.

More than a decade after his death in 1992, Russell’s vault of nearly complete songs was cracked open for 2004’s Calling Out of Context and the Soul Jazz compilation The World of Arthur Russell, to spill onto an audience puzzled and intrigued by Russell’s wandering cello and vocals. Russell’s music is diverse and doesn’t sound unfinished, but unadorned and personal, full of clever wordplay and shy admissions.

Russell’s dogged pursuit of perfection will sound familiar to many creatives. In my own writing, I struggle terrifically with feeling dissatisfied with my work. I revise so thoroughly and often, I have blurred the drafting process into one lengthy session of self-doubt. I feel almost dirty when I write without erasing. To write a paragraph without stopping is almost unbearable. The healthy, well-adjusted writer nails down a draft with minimal corrections, then holds a pen to his mouth, says “hmm” and changes things as he sees fit, but I am not that writer, and I may never be.

If those of us who struggle with finishing creative works have something to learn from Russell, I think it is to not fall in love with the editing process. It is self-deception to believe that our work will ever appear perfect in our eyes. If after much editing we remain unsatisfied, we should hand it over to the scrutiny of a friend whose opinion we trust.

Interview with Brian Eno 1983

Brian Eno is super creative and wonderfully inspirational. Watch this great little interview with Eno as he talks about his thoughts on synthesizers, ambient music and even a chose your own adventure book.

Also be sure to give this a listen (one of the albums featured in the interview):

Brian Eno Ambient 1: Music for Airports




The Mighty Monotron Trio

original monotronToday for “Pocket Music Monday” we’re going to talk about the Korg Monotron trio. I considered making an individual post about each monotron, but decided it was best to talk about all three since they share so many similar characteristics.

When Korg released the original Monotron, some might say it sparked, or at least was at the forefront of the current resurgence of affordable analog synth gear. This cheap little box features the now legendary MS-20 filter with its great character and really fun extreme resonance. The epitome of portable analog fun, the original monotron features just the very basics of synthesis, with only an LFO to accompany the filter section. The LFO can modify the pitch or cutoff, giving you a surprising amount of sounds, even with the difficult to play ribbon controller. Not only can you produce some great analog sound effects and noises, but Korg allowed for external audio to be processed by the filter which makes the Monotron infinitely more valuable and usable. Just about anything you run through this thing gains a ton of character and the lo-fi output is great (at least to me, though I suppose to other people it is a gripe.)

Monotron Duo and Monotron Delay

Monotron Duo and Monotron Delay

After the original Monotron’s success, Korg released two other Monotron iterations, which include the Monotron Duo and the Monotron Delay. Both have the same MS-20 filter, but add other cool things like a radical-squealing feedback-filled delay and a crazy cross-modulating oscillator section. Each of these has great merits and are a ton of fun to play with. What I enjoy the most about the Monotron Trio is that they are not only infinitely twiddly, but also can be used in conjunction with other gear to creative a wide variety of audio creations. Below are a few things I’ve done with my Monotrons. Check out Youtube for a lot of interesting things other people have done with these awesome boxes.

Here is a little droney lo-fi experimental piece I put together that uses only Monotrons and a little sequence put together using Pixitracker 1Bit for iOS:

Here is a song from my latest EP (more on that soon) with a Monotron intro that gives way to some Omnichord:

And here is another song from my EP that features a lo-fi Casio line (near the end) run through the Monotron Delay to add not only delay but also some crunchy distortion, ending in a feedback-y Karma Police inspired ending:

I’ve had a lot of fun with my Monotrons. The icing on this analog cake is that you can get each one for $50 or less, which is a steal for the amount of creative and noisy output they produce. You can read individual reviews of each Monotron that I’ve done on my other website here:
Original Monotron
Monotron Delay
Monotron Duo


My dad likes music more than I do.

From time to time, while driving to the post office at night or sitting at the table drinking wine after a rich meal of properly prepared red meat, he’ll make a pithy remark about the state of music. Electronic music is dear to him, (some of my earliest memories are of Thomas Dolby and William Orbit deep cuts) so many of these observations have to do with the present state of electronic music.

His comments are varied, but they always return to the same refrain: that the future of electronic music is wretched. He says no one’s making new music. Everything’s been done, abandoned and recycled for the ignorant younger generation, who smugly retro-rejoice in its irritatingly morbid and flippant overproduction.

As a member of that generation, who never saw musique concrète become ‘experimental electronic’ and is not sure how to distinguish drum and bass from any other genre that features those two instruments, I am gratefully unable to sympathize. Everything still sounds new to me. So I periodically try new bands out on him, hoping I can find something he likes and prove him wrong.


But there is one kind of electronic music he’s seen come into fashion recently that he prefers. It has to do with the fifth item in this post on intel/VICE’s The Creator’s Blog that briefly touched on five techniques electronic musicians use to take the sound of production out of their songs.

The five ways are
1. Making humans do the work of sequencers
2. Digital recordings of old music formats (vinyl, tape, 8-track, sheet music, cave echoes)
3. Acoustic instruments (this shouldn’t be news)
4. Sampling ambient sounds (also not news)
and 5. Imitating real sounds

1, 3, and 4 are elements of traditional music re-inserted into electronic music. Two is traditional music thrown back in wholesale. Electronic music never really abandoned these elements of music, but they have been periodically sacrificed as the genre has gone through the process of figuring out what it wants to be.
I’d like to look at the last one, which pertains to the kind of music that’s interested my dad.

The Creators give this song as an example of real sound counterfeit:

This is good; using vinyl crackles to imitate soda fizz. I think Mount Kimbie does this in a few of their songs (see Sketch On Glass).

Similarly, Kuedo uses a helicopter-like whir to sharpen his Scissors.

The bands that transcend this reproduction are the ones that have caught my dad’s attention.
Kiln, from East Lansing, Mich. has the uncanny ability to impart warmth with their music:

This, according to my dad, is the hazy far-off lighthouse of ingenuity we half-imagine as our ship crumbles in the shallow eddys of synthpop and glitch revivals.
This is electronic music that has stopped trying to filter the reality from samples and abandoned the pretension that each new patch on synthesizer makes it a completely new instrument.
This is electronic music that tries to sound organic and does so, I think, by combining all of the methods Creators mentions.

It’s glitchy, but it doesn’t sound like an android in a trash compactor. It sounds like a cricket or boots on dry grass.

There’s a few other artists that do things like this (see Ochre, Helios) but none have the enveloping touch of Kiln, to me at least.

The more I talk about this, the more I ruin its magic, so I’ll just leave with the request for more music like this, if you’ve heard something similar.

A Flute for Your Pocket: The Ocarina


Allegro Ocarina by Songbird

This Pocket Music Monday we are going to divert a little from our past two weeks of battery powered electronic styled pocket instruments. Instead we will talk about the wonderful and versatile little ocarina. The ocarina is a small flute that can vary quite a bit in size, shape and design, but usually has a larger more open body cavity as opposed to the more common flute with its slender and tubular design. Ocarinas have traditionally been made out of clay, and often have between 4 and 12 holes. These can be arranged in many different ways, allowing for different tones, key registers, and playstyles.

The Ocarina has been around for quite some time, but saw quite a bit of jump in interest after the Nintendo 64 game, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in 1998. Here, docjazz4 plays the main Zelda theme on a Zelda themed ocarina:

Since Ocarina of Time, the ocarina has gained quite a bit in popularity, though is still relatively unknown to most. It is a shame because these little flutes are a lot of fun to play. It doesn’t take much to learn a little melody, and it is great fun to have with you wherever you go, whether in your pocket or strapped around your neck. Like most instruments, learning to master the ocarina will take time and practice, but the accessibility of this little instrument is quite wonderful.


my ocarinas

Here are the two ocarinas that I own. On the left is a small soprano ocarina by Songbird Ocarinas made of clay with 5 holes. On the right is a polycarbonate ocarina in G from Mountain Ocarinas. Both are a lot of fun to play, but the Mountain Ocarina is definitely a bit easier. If you’re interested at all in ocarinas, definitely check out Songbird Ocarinas and Mountain Ocarinas, as they both have great info and audio/video of their products. And definitely check out docjazz4’s youtube channel. He owns a huge variety of ocarinas, reviews them and plays them excellently.

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Meditation in your pocket – Buddha Machine (II)

mybuddhamachineFor today’s “Pocket Music Monday” we are going to talk about the Buddha Machine by FM3. First off, what is the Buddha Machine?

Taken from http://www.fm3buddhamachine.com/:

The Buddha Machine is a small plastic box that plays meditative music composed by Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian.

Doesn’t sound like much does it? Well I assure you, this little guy is very cool indeed. I have the 2nd model out of three made by FM3, not including some special editions over the years. This particular Buddha Machine, the II, has 9 looping short tracks, a small volume knob, a built in speaker, and a speed control to alter the music’s pitch and speed. It also had a headphone jack, but I think using it reduces the charm of the device. Perhaps it it useful when if recording or sampling your Buddha Machine.


So what is so neat about this little gadget? I again refer to my gravitation to lo-fi sounds, as this cheaply made little plastic box just screams lo-fi charm. The tinny speaker seems to crackle and spit at you, whether by nature of the recording or the hardware I don’t know. The music pieces themselves are nicely varied, interesting, and decidedly meditative. They range from somber drones to stringed twangs and melancholy piano strikes. All in all, you can easily become lost in each piece, though repetitious, as either an active or passive listener. I have used my little Buddha Machine II for ambient background, as a lullaby, for concentration, and for meditation.


The music is so captivating that there are many artists who have done entire remix albums of the pieces. The tones and textures when manipulated can lead to some impressive soundscapes. Others have taken the simple device to the soldering table, circuit bending and altering it in wildly imaginative ways to create strange sounds and drones.

This track was made by “reducing” or cutting up the sounds of a Buddha Machine II’s loops, and adding some crisp delay and stereo effects:

All in all, this little box is mystifying. I think some of this is due to the music itself, but a lot has to do with the portability and simple form factor. Something about the actual hardware makes it special, despite (and maybe because of) the cheapness of quality. You can certainly find the audio tracks online or listen to them looped from a “Buddha Machine iPhone App.” But don’t. There is a huge difference in this day and age of audio fidelity and computers and smartphones and the days not too long ago when a crackling radio was groundbreaking. Sometimes going back a little bit proves to be a more rewarding and engaging journey than we’d imagine.

If you have a chance to play with a Buddha Machine, do it. If you have one, take it with you.

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Album Review: The Antlers – Burst Apart

the-antlers-burst-apart-2011-coverIt’s rare that I want to sit down and write about an album. Most of the time the music speaks for itself in my eyes. But after unintentionally having this album on repeat for so many weeks, well I just knew something special was going on. And so don’t be alarmed when this suddenly dips into a mix of fiction, fantasy, and album review. It just emerged and I ran with it.

I feel that this music sounds like it was recorded in the most wonderful cave. That the band just happened to go spelunking, with their guitars mind you, and then get lost. The recording engineer at the mouth of the cave has done us the great honor of saving their last utterances to magnetic tape. The echos have actually canceled themselves out due to the nature of the music and its own demands. There is a deep yearning in the wrinkles of the music for something greater than the sum of its parts. Its fingertips just barely graze the surface of some mystery. A vast mystery that the lyrics hint at. Some dark gem of a melody that casts sunlight that has bounced through so many tunnels that we are left with abstractions from the dreams of nature itself.

The album cover is a drawing found when searching for the spelunking band members. It is believed to be a drawing from memory of the mouth of the cave, viewed from the inside. The last view of trees and bright white light from the sun that gives us its sweet breathe. It is a sober thought, knowing this was the last things these brave men ever saw. But what became of them is yet to be known, perhaps they weren’t lost at all but instead venturing deep into the earth. And there they stay making music for the rocks to this day in eternal harmony with the roots of time.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsFVH8vBH9A]

A song to dwell and remember is ‘No Widows’. It can’t be known for sure, but this seems to be the band members contemplating turning back and heading home to their loved ones. They know the string that they have unspooled will still lead them to the clunky world of bits and wires. So they sing to the dark and the rocks, sensing something listening. Perhaps its the bats. Or the blind spiders, senseless fish, sleeping undisturbed waters of vast eons. It was surely the water singing that they believed to be a siren in the distinct distant tunnels. This song was their response both to the world above and the sweet callings below. Oh that water has affected my judgement.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWbdsa3H_h8]

As they ventured deeper into the depths where not even trolls had dared to dig, they reached a place of no return. ‘Hounds’ was the expression of where they dwindled, dawdled, dewed their faces in those sweet waters. To what taste it can be compared to is like comparing the darkness of the sky to the sun. Surely all of this affected them in a most permanent way. To feel the heat of the earths core, the strange hidden rooms, the little towns of similar people living in complete blackness. No one has ever seen these people and we only have the hints of these songs. There is rumor that this is the song of their people.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUf3ixWXIyQ]

This was where I dared to venture no further and follow their ever confusing tracks. I am left with ‘Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out’ as a parting remark. While their music is left to stand as a testament to the power of earth and its potential, there are still cavernous mysteries of why it affected the men in this strange and desperate act. What secrets they found are cryptically embedded in this music of the caves. To be driven into the ground in a one-way trip, well we will all make that trip someday, but to willfully dive into the creative unknown and come out the other side unscathed, that is courage or just raw love of life.


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Pocket Music Monday – The Stylophone

the original stylophoneI’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for little music gadgets and toys. Each time I see one I have to seriously fight the dreaded “gear acquisition syndrome” (GAS). Then usually it is just a matter of time until I break down and find some excuse to buy the item. Needless to say I have quite a lot of musical toys now. Most of these are small and somewhat portable for some music/noise making on the go, which is quite fun. So to share some of these musical toys, this will be the first in a series of posts on musical items that are small enough to fit in your pocket. Enjoy.

The (in)famous Stylophone is probably one of my first, if not THE first of my music gadget acquisitions. It is a little on the big side of “pocketable,” but I couldn’t not include it. It was most recently made famous online by Brett Domino. (Be warned that the video below is entirely tongue in cheek.)

It was first released in 1968 and was sold mostly as a children’s toy. The Stylophone did end up seeing some use by some notable acts like David Bowie and Kraftwerk, but remained largely obscure, with production stopping in 1975. It was rereleased in 2007 featuring a volume control and two extra sounds.

The stylophone is played by using a metal stylus that is moved up and down a metal keybed to close a circuit and give different pitches to a VCO (voltage controlled oscillator.) The stylophone has a very unique and some would argue, harsh sound. It is a whole lot of fun to play, and you can slide around to various pitches quite quickly with the stylus for a very recognizable style. It has a built in speaker and headphone output, as well as an input jack so you can play along with some other sound source from the Stylphone’s speaker. The speaker itself is terrible, but that appeals to the lo-fi junkie in me, and makes for a great portable instrument.

What I like the most about an instrument like the Stylophone is that it really becomes whatever you make it. It’s limitations become your chance to use some creativity. You can use it as is with its tinny sound, or double it up, sample it, make it into a bassline, and a lot more. See my Stylophone in the Vine video below. Click the icon in upper left for sound.

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Alvin Band – Rainbow Road

rainbowroadOne of my favorite bands officially released his second album called Rainbow Road. Rick Shaier (of Miniature Tigers) the creator and sole member of Alvin Band released his first album Mantis Preying in 2009. The first 9 songs are incredibly complex compositions using only Rick’s voice. The last 6 tracks on the album are from an EP called Lady Portrait which uses more traditional instruments.

In his most recent release Rainbow Road Shaier moves away from using his voice as the only source of sound but does not hold back on complex composition in the least.

As you might be able to tell by the name of the album Rainbow Road (a race track from Super Mario Kart) Shaier doesn’t hide the source of his inspiration for this album. You can also tell by the amazing track names such as, “Bowser’s Castle”, “Dry Bones”, “King Boo”, and there is even a track for the great “Stanley Kubrick”.

A quote from Alvin Band website about Raindbow Road:

Rainbow Road is meant to give the listener the multi-sensational experience of actually living vicariously through the [super mario game universe]. The album experience is meant to push the boundaries of imagination and sensory stimulation. In this concept, fantasy meets reality in the audio-visually intense imagery within the colorful music of Rainbow Road.

But it’s more than a soundtrack to Super Mario. It’s a soundtrack to a generation that has grown up entrenched in gaming and technology.

You can listen to the entire album right here on Alvin Band’s website.

Check out the music video for “Transcendental Meditative Mutant Ninja Turtles” from his recent release of Rainbow Road

And check out the music video from the opening track on Mantis Preying called “Temple Pressure”:

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Good to Hear demos Fingerlab’s DM1


For the past few years I’ve relied heavily on my mobile devices in my musical excursions. In fact, both my ipad and iphone are vital members in my current one man band. The reason I love mobile devices is because I have access to a huge selection of sounds even on just one device and I’m able to create wherever I go. (Not to mention, apps are significantly cheaper than their hardware counterparts… well, most of the time).

One of my most used apps is a drum machine called DM1 which was created by Fingerlab. This particular drum machine is host to many digital drum kit sounds; many of which are vintage classics such as Roland’s TR-808 and CR-78. There are also some great acoustic sets as well as some sets made specifically for the app. Check out the youtube video below for some hands on with DM1.

As you can see in the video, DM1 is very diverse in it’s sounds and customizations. You can compose entire songs inside the DM1 app making use of all the pattern slots or you can create just a simple beat.

If you are looking to fill the rhythmless void in your life or just want to play around with a bunch of great sounding kits give DM1 a try.

DM1 for iPhone 1.99
DM1 for iPad 4.99 (The iPad version has a few more features than the iPhone version. Check out Fingerlab’s website to see the differences between versions)

Sorry andriod users, no support for DM1…. yet.

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