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Do It Live

13 Jan

DoItLiveLast night, I had the privilege of performing a reading as part of the venerable Writers with Drinks spoken word/variety show. The event is put on by fellow Gawker-er Charlie Jane Anders (io9), and takes place monthly at the Makeout Room in the Mission. WWD has been going on for more than a decade, and I, because I am a huge loser, have never been. After last night, I’ll probably never miss another one as long as live in San Francisco. It was a BLAST.

The setup is more or less this: Each month, four or five writers go up to the mic and read their stuff for about 10-15 minutes each. It can be a chapter from a book, or a few poems, or some spoken word thing, or a comedy routine, or an essay or article. When Charlie Jane asked me to participate early last week, my first thought was, “Okay!” My second thought was, “What the fuck am I going to read?”

For a while I considered throwing together some new thing, something about teaching, or music, or life in the city… the hidden message behind those ideas being, Christ, anything but video games. Then, my daily schedule being what it is, it became clear that I wasn’t going to have time to write 10 or 15 minutes’ worth of new material by Saturday in addition to writing for work. So, video games it was.

I wound up adapting a couple of older things I’d written: First was an essay about Pac-Man, lines, the Japanese visual art suibokuga, and jazz called “Onward, Pac-Man!” I also did a rendition of “Fisher-Fest 2010″, which is a breakdown of the ridiculous dialogue in Splinter Cell: Conviction. I asked my friend Dan to come up to read the dialogue from Fisher-Fest with me, to shake things up. How would this go? Would we tank? Would anyone care? God only knew.

Okay, so: I get to the Makeout Room and it’s packed. There are like 80 people there, and they’re all Here To Listen To People Read Things. Um. So I’m going to get in front of this huge group of people and read an essay about Pac-Man. Right. Then, it turns out that the person who was supposed to kick us off hasn’t shown up, so I’m going to go FIRST. Good lord.

wwdfallingI’ve actually performed at the Makeout Room before, but every time I’ve done it, it’s been with my band. I’ve had a guitar or a saxophone to hide behind, and a whole band to back me up. There’s something so naked about getting up on stage with a sheaf of papers and just sort of… reading.

So I go up there to read, and about thirty seconds in it becomes clear–praise be–that this crowd totally gets it. They are on board. They want to hear about Pac-Man and jazz. They’re laughing at Fisher-Fest. (Money line from Dan: “You’ll die on your knees, like a SCIENTIST!”) And the whole time I’m on stage, vaguely thinking, “Here I am, reading an essay about Pac-Man and making jokes about Splinter Cell, and this audience is super into it? What the fuck planet am I on?”

Anyway, it was grand. I now fully understand why readings are A Thing. Other readers included Jan Richman doing a chapter from her book Thrill-Bent, Ramez Naam sharing a hilarious sci-fi sexual misadventure from his book Nexus, Wired‘s Erin Biba reading this article about the history and future of prenatal genetic testing, and another writer (who wasn’t on the bill and so whose name I’m tracking down) who filled in for an empty slot with a riveting story of a woman traveling on a bus to an extramarital tryst, only to have one of the passengers go missing.

During all of the readings, particularly that last one, I was struck by how the very vulnerability I was so nervous about going in–No instruments! No band! Just words and a mic!–actually became a strength. Because there wasn’t any loud music playing, people were quiet. Because there was only one thing to pay attention to, the audience was focused. We hung on every word, laughed at every joke. It was remarkable.

I was also surprised at how helpful it was for me to rework my writing into something that’d work for a live audience. It’s always useful to read your work out loud, but I’d never really taken an article or essay of mine and asked of it, “Could I read this out loud to a bar full of people? Would they get it? Would it work?”

The changes I made to both essays helped them flow, and removed assumed knowledge and jargon without in any way changing their gist or substance. The Pac-Man essay still articulates a concept I remain enamored of even a couple of years after I wrote the piece, but my actual writing in it feels clunky and effortful now. It’s overly purple, like I was trying to impress everyone. (Guess what: I was.) I say too little with too many words, and in the lede I assume that readers know both Splinter Cell and Minecraft. In making the article work for last night’s performance, I didn’t just make it more accessible, I also made it better.

So, there’s a cool exercise in there. Next time you’re writing something, ask of it: “Could I read this out loud? To a club full of ordinary people? Would they get it?” Granted, the approach won’t do much for, say, a review of a new graphics card, but if you’re going for broad appeal with whatever you’re writing, it’s a helpful measuring stick.

Anyway. Writers With Drinks was a lot of fun. If you live in SF, you should come out to the next one. I’ll be there!

A Year Of The Melodic

27 Dec

SaxThere’s this thing about working at a high-output job like Kotaku where at the end of the year, you scroll back through the RSS of everything you posted and kind of just gape at it.

“Oh yeah, that article! I forgot I wrote or even conceptualized that.”

It’s certainly one of the challenges of the gig, but the high rate-of-fire is also a way to amass a bulky body of work in a short period of time. 2012 was the year we began to do separate “Channels” at Kotaku, the idea being to let our writers each highlight their expertise in various areas on the site. I got to run “Kotaku Melodic,” ostensibly dedicated to the intersection of games and music. I of course treated it more as my own personal fiefdom to write about Miles Davis, Kimbra, Amanda Palmer, and whatever the hell else I wanted. It was great.

I went back over the year and put together this post rounding up the best of the year at Kotaku Melodic. I’m immensely proud of the work we did this year. Give it a read, won’t you?

The Year In Music At Kotaku

He’s Still Out There

8 Dec

original

Watching, waiting. For the inevitable showdown.

“Of All Places!”

10 Jun

Discussion of the whole “growing the jazz audience” idea continues! Because hey, this is not something that gets conceptualized and then put to bed in a couple of weeks.

In the interest of keeping the discussion going, NPR’s “A Blog Supreme” has gathered a few responses to Kurt Ellenberger’s original piece, among them the one I wrote for Kotaku.

I’m happy to see my work discussed at an NPR blog, particularly given the fact that I get to blindside jazz folks by posting such an article on a video game website. (In the NPR article, author Patrick Jarenwattananon refers to Kotaku as “of all places” two times. Ha!)

I have to say I wish I got the sense that there were more people engaging with this discussion with the same vigor as Kurt did. I’ve seen jazz musicians on Facebook and in comments sections using this discussion as an excuse to bring up bones they’ve been picking for a while–the academization of jazz, the way that largely white college professors have ruined things, the effect of Berklee in the 80′s, the unfair misconceptions under which jazz has labored for decades now.

But I’ve seen a dispiriting lack of further, deeper discussion, of people looking to honestly engage in these bigger questions: Whose responsibility is it to keep an artistic movement alive? What role does artistic evolution play in that? How might we better teach music to young people? Is a holistic approach to musical education perhaps more engaging and successful than a strict adherence to jazz dogma? How far can you go before you lose fundamentals?

These questions are asked routinely at conventions like the IAJE (now defunct) and JEN, of course. But questions as vital as those shouldn’t be relegated to educators’ journals and conventions. They should be online, and everyone who wants to hear them should be able to.

I’m thankful to Kurt for bringing this conversation out into the light, and I’m glad to see that it’s continuing. I hope to see some more responses published in the future. I get the sense that this conversation is only beginning, and that it’s a worthwhile one to be having.

Your Comments About Building Jazz Audiences And Musicians With Day Jobs [NPR]—

Growing The Audience

26 May

There’s this running question in the jazz world about “growing the audience,” finding a way to get people to want to listen to jazz again. It’s kind of a bummer topic, since the whole thing is predicated on acknowledging that jazz isn’t really all that popular anymore.

But it’s also a really interesting thing to talk about, since it requires us to take stock of jazz’s musical legacy, and why it is that we teach the music in the first place. Jazz was the jumping-off point for me to get into so many other kinds of music, and at this point, I’ve begun to think of music a bit more holistically both in terms of education and performance.

Anyway! I wrote a big article for my music section at Kotaku about the idea of “growing the jazz audience,” and why A) that’s probably impossible, at least by the narrower definition of “jazz” and B) that’s totally okay. Which really, is only a depressing conclusion if you’re so hung up on the idea of traditional jazz that you simply can’t look beyond it.

Today’s jazz musicians (and jazz-program graduates) are versed in so many different types of music, from straight-ahead bebop to electronic trance to pop to heavy metal, that labeling them “jazz musicians” feels like a misnomer. Jazz may be the root of most modern musical training—it’s where rock, hip-hop and funk all came from, after all—but to pretend that musicians who can play all of that music must or should make a living playing jazz feels like a narrow viewpoint.

Go read the whole article:

Growing The Jazz Audience ‘Cant’ Be Done.’ Maybe That’s Okay?

Music, Lyrics and Song Design

18 Feb

This week over at Kotaku, I wrote a piece called “Gameplay and Story are Exactly Like Music and Lyrics”. It’s my take on the whole “gameplay vs. story” debate, and I believe it’s a useful one.

I’ve been chewing on the idea for a good long time now, and I was happy to finally get it down. It kind of works in tandem with my first Kotaku column from 2011 about “The Rhythm of Play”.  Two entries in my ongoing quest to demonstrate that video games are really just music.

(I’m kidding. Sort of.)

I’ve been happy with the response the piece has gotten–the analogy sure put the entire situation into perspective for me, and I’m glad to hear that it has felt useful for others as well.

I’ve been on the sidelines of the debate for a while now, reading recent pieces like Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a Game Mechanic” and Mattie Brice’s response, “Narrative is a Game Mechanic”, watching Clint Hocking’s killer 2011 GDC talk on dynamics and “how games mean”, and earlier last year, brokering an enlightening letters debate between Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari over at Paste.

But I’ve never felt like I had that much to add to the discussion. I understand the finer points of the definitions and analyses that are being thrown around, but most of those distinctions haven’t felt that vital to me. (That’s to me, I should stress. They’re entirely relevant to the discussion itself.) Anyway, this parallel did feel vital, and like something that was easy to understand and articulate.

After the article ran, friendly rabble-rouser Mattie Brice took issue with what she took to be my conflation of (or at least, lack of distinction between) “story” and “narrative.” I’ll point out that in my piece, I really only referred to story, though I did call these types of games “narrative games.” Perhaps I should have just gone with “story-based games.”

While I actually do find the distinction between story and narrative interesting (to think about more than to write about), I don’t believe that distinction was all that useful for the broader analogy I was making. Just as I wasn’t going to spend a paragraph making distinctions about atonal music, and how to find melody and rhythm in the work of, say, Merzbow, I wasn’t going to dedicate space to making distinctions between narrative and story.

I don’t meant to wholly disregard the importance of that distinction, however. As boring as semantics can feel at times, language is important. I just don’t think it’s all that important for the point I was making. But if you do want to make the distinction, I think that the musical analogy has a place for narrative as well as story.

The question is where we want to place narrative on the spectrum. If narrative and story are in fact interchangeable, then it’s a moot point. But I like Brice’s illustration of what narrative is, how while Tetris may not have a story, it certainly has a narrative:

Games are constantly communicating experiences to the player, as when the height of all your pieces in Tetris is juxtaposed against the increasing speed of the falling blocks to create tension and provoke anxiety.

So let’s say narrative is like musical form. The way that a piece is arranged and built; not the music specifically, but its structure. “Gameplay and Story and Narrative are like Music and Lyrics and Song-Form” is a bit of a mouthful, but it feels like an accurate headline.

At any rate. In my years as a composer and songwriter, I’ve come to understand my creative process as a kind of design. The term “song designer” sounds ridiculous, but that’s very much what writing a song is like.

Most of the songs I write start with a melody. I’m strumming guitar, or sitting at the piano, and I sing the melody to myself. It sticks, so I sing it over and over. I play through a chord progression, I figure out a bit of the form, I conceptualize the tune, but it’s all built around this one wordless melody. That melody is the core of my creative idea, the peg upon which I’ll hang the rest of the song.

Sometimes the lyrics I attach to my melodies don’t make sense right away, and I’ll wind up with a completed song with no lyrics. But other times, I know exactly what a song’s lyrics will be–I have a specific story I want to tell, and I build the song’s structure around that story.

No two songs come into existence the same way. It’s an endless puzzle, and an endless design challenge. It’ll never get boring.

I’m excited that I’ll have an opportunity to write more about music and games at Kotaku–I’ve got a regular weekly posting-block every Thursday evening called “Kotaku Melodic”, where I’ll get to write about whatever I want, from terrible menu music to Avishai Cohen. It’s gonna be a blast.

And hey, while I’m at it, maybe I’ll finally find some time to finish designing some of these songs I’ve been working on.

The Stage Lights Are Beckoning

11 Feb

Last weekend at the Brava Theater I did another episode of “915 Cayuga,” the live radio/theatrical/musical show that I started last year with my creative partner, the fabulous actor/writer Khamara Pettus. Khamara produces, writes, acts, and directs the show while I serve as musical director, sing and play a bunch of instruments, and write some of the skits.

I’m joined onstage by my friends and longtime bandmates Lindsay Garfield, Dan Apczynski and Dan Nervo. A bunch of other wonderful people contribute as well; it’s really becoming quite a production.

Below are some cool pictures from last week; they were taken by Carrina Maree. (You can view the full Flickr set here.) We’ll have a full recording online soon, and I’ll be sure to holler when it’s up.

The next performance will be at the Brava somewhere around the end of March, and you should come.

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