Saturday, May 28, 2016

Overcoming Success

The team has basically finished Elveteka. At the moment, we're doing last minute touches before publishing to platform. While I imagine there's still a decent amount of work for the team as a whole, the bulk of my work as a composer and sound designer has been completed. Vox moved me over to Penguin Pete and Art of Sword, so this is a good time to reflect.
Completing a project is actually one of the most dangerous times for me as a creative person. For whatever reason, when I feel good about myself creatively I tend to become careless and complacent. I imagine it has something to do with my motivations around music, so I'm hoping working it out in writing helps me make sense of it.
As with all my work I detect flaws in each track I did for Elveteka, but my goal for the project was to work at 80-90% of my quality at 10x the speed. To this degree I succeeded wildly: 7 tracks in 7 weeks, plus about 20 sound effects. Right now I feel REALLY GOOD.
And now bad habits are setting in. One of the songs I composed, the Victory Music, is almost excellent, and I feel very proud of how well I managed to wrap up the themes I developed over the course of the soundtrack.  (That's a blog post for another day.) You definitely get the feeling of a hero completing a journey. The problem is, now I'm listening to it all the time. I'm getting high in my own supply.
I listened to the recording of my college senior recital a lot during the summer after I graduated. It became almost part of my identity; I associated myself with the music too strongly. Criticism didn't bother me too much; I always know there's further to go. The problem was that I felt satisfied. I didn't feel the need to grow.
It would be fine to be satisfied if my career was where I wanted it to be, I suppose, but it's not. So the conundrum is, how do I feel content with the results enough to feel it was worth the effort, but not so much that I rest on my laurels.
I've been reading John Wright's blog lately and he seems like the kind of man who knows exactly what he intends to accomplish with his body of work. Perhaps it's time to touch base with my creative vision. I'm neither as talented nor as clear a thinker as Mr. Wright, but it's a helpful exercise. Simply saying "I want to be paid to write music" doesn't do justice to my deeper motivations, but I'm also leery of writing a manifesto if I don't really know what I'm talking about. Mr. Wright has has the depth of knowledge to contextualize his oeuvre in the Western Cannon. I do not.  So I'll just make a list. This is a visualization exercise.
-It would be cool to go further with passing melodies around the difference voices more. I did some of that and it felt good. I'd like to do more.
-As a more contrapuntal based composer, I have a lot of respect for ambient music. I wrote one ambient track for Elveteka. It would be fun to do more.
-Earlier this year on an unrelated project I produced a mix with a lot of automated panning. The motion of the parts made the mix feel larger and more vibrant. I'd like to pick up where I left off.
-As a fairly well educated composer its easier for me to write highly directional music that builds towards a specific point. In some ways it's kind of harder for me to convincingly write music that just kind of meanders along. I suspect Penguin Pete will be a good vehicle for that challenge, being more light-hearted than heroic.
-I think it would be fun to start the sound effects earlier and develop a sense of how they contribute to the mood of the game. I did a lot of this with my first game, the electric air hockey iPad game Shock Jocks, and I'd like to continue that inquiry.
That's a good start. Those are some interesting challenges to motivate me. While we're discussing "overcoming success" I'd like to hit a second point as well.
Shortly after I finished the first track Vox informed us that the deadline was accelerated and we were in crunch time. To save time the first thing I gave up was exercise, and the last two weeks were a low energy drag as my body refused to cooperate with me. I'll say this may have been a mistake, and I need to maintain better health under pressure. I've taken this week off from composing and a lot of that had to do with reestablishing good habits.
The other thing I gave up was keeping track of my weekly list of goals, so in the course of finishing up Elveteka, I dropped the ball on some side projects (which is OK) and some basic life things (which was not.) I don't think it would kill me to consult my weekly to-do list, even if I slack a little on the weekly "reflection" I do to analyze my efforts for the week. Its fine to put your head down for a while, but you still have to take a look at the bigger picture once in a while, even if you don't think very much about it.
As far as looking at the bigger picture, I like to check out Mike Cernovich's blog and he got me interested in reading Scott Adam's "How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big." I started reading it this week. One thing that caught my attention was Adam's focus on energy. I decided to focus on energy earlier this year, so reading about it in Adams book was validating. That said, Adams is far more systematic than I am, so I'm thinking more about energy.
One thing that Adams mentioned is evaluating a course of action based in how much energy it gives you. All things being equal, the plan that energizes you is better. (Actually, its better than all things being equal.) I'll admit that when I get stumped writing music my energy completely disappears, and as soon as things are flowing, my energy soars. One of the things that helped me get through the Elveteka crunch was only writing things that I knew would work. It served me well until the 5th Level music, where I had many false starts and nearly lost all my motivation. It was only by radically simplifying my opening compositional move that I was able to gain traction. In this case, I reduced the melodic material to the bare minimum motives, and picked a sexy first sonority to ground my harmonic thinking.
So that's another thing to think about as well. Maybe I can choose compositional moves based on how energizing they are.
Well, those are my thoughts on overcoming success. What are yours? And does anyone out there have exercise tips? Here's my criteria: I only care about energy, I hate keeping track of numbers, and I prefer to do the same thing every day.


  1. The soundtrack is really good. I'm looking forward to what you do for Penguin Pete.

    In terms of energy, focus on lifting free weights 3x per week and running or biking 1-2x per week.

    The other thing I've learned is not to push it too hard. I can only write two hours per day. It doesn't matter if I'm busy or not, that's all I will write effectively. So, I don't try to spend more time on it than that.

    1. Normally I can compose up to 6 hours a day, but I find that a calm and focused 45 minutes is better than a distracted 4 hours. The upshot is spending 4 hours a week exercising saves me about 8-16 hours a week.

      I like the elliptical - it puts me in a good mood just thinking about doing it. I'll see if I can find a free weight routine that doesn't require keeping track of too much. I hate counting while lifting.

    2. If you hate counting, you can always do the Chaos and Pain routine, which is 1 rep at 80-90% of your one rep max. Wait 30 seconds, then do another rep. Repeat until you feel like stopping. You can even get around counting the seconds if you use a repeating timer.

      It makes for a rather intense workout, though. Some people like it and some people don't.

    3. That appeals to me quite a bit - sounds like Nick Taleb's routine - as long as I have good form. I'm still looking for a simple free weight routine that covers all the muscle groups, but it seems like 99% of the stuff online is (1) arguing (2) selling supplements (3)long ramble with the actual routine behind a paywall.

      Where's the fitness website for fat composers who want to finish projects on time?

  2. This interview,
    ,might provide some things for you to think about in regards to writing music.

    It's an hour long interview of Jack White by Conan O'Brien. It's Conan's Youtube show, Serious Jibber Jabber. I found Jack's writing process fascinating. He goes into a lot of detail. As a musician you'll likely connect to even more of it than I did.

  3. Thank you! Listening to it tonight.

    Wow... he hits on the reasons emotional coddling is strangling art. "Society's missing out on something right now to think that anger or hostility or things that are in the violent realm of emotions that they're all completely 100% bad and should be avoided at all costs. I don't think that's true at all."

    You know, next time I'm angry or frustrated I'll remember that it's really a gift.

    Also... it's a good reminder to consume things that aren't politics. There's a lot of positive stuff out there. I don't always have to keep my guard up.