Confidence holes.

Today I went to the studio after work. And that’s about all that happened. I played through some songs on the guitar. I fooled around with a small synth. But there was no spark. No joy, just doubt, indecision and lack of direction.

I had seen the dip coming, like dark clouds on the horizon. I didn’t have a plan for my session, I hadn’t got a clue and most of all I didn’t have any confidence in my ability. I thought everything sounded bad.

This wasn’t the first time it happened, and it won’t be the last. It’s not a situation I fear, or yes, it probably is. Because it makes me feel worthless. But I also know that neither my least confident nor my most confident selves are to be trusted when judging my work.

There’s a Brian Eno quote that reads “When in doubt tidy up”. I used to think that this related to a recording session with lots of tracks and that the doubt would be in regards to what’s the next step. But I can see that it holds true for self-doubt too. Cleaning up your life of litter, stress and things you worry about will be time well spent when you feel hopelessly unproductive.

With a clean workspace, a mind free of clutter the odds for work getting done are most likely better. Does anybody have the number to Ms Kondo?

The muscle of generosity

Last week I listened to Jon Hopkins on the podcast Tape Notes, and over the weekend I listened to another episode featuring the UK techno-duo Bicep.

I listened quite a lot to Bicep’s music a few years ago and spent some time thinking about their techniques, how they had achieved certain sounds. I didn’t go as far as to reverse-engineer and recreate. But now I can to a certain degree. Because in the episode Bicep very generously shared their tricks using gates and filters on synth-pads triggered by 909-hats. Which is how they achieve their rhythmic and choppy riffs which feature in songs such as Glue, Apricots and Opal.

It’s a technique they use a lot. All their most played hits on Spotify seems to use them. And still, they didn’t keep it to themselves like some Coca-Cola recipe.

I’d like to view this as both generous and confident. They know that their talent, taste and skill is more than that particular trick. So they give it away. Not that experienced synth-producers couldn’t have figured it out their own, I more or less already did. But still, listening to the episode I got a lot more ideas on how to improve my craft and grow my skills. So, thank you Bicep! I thought it was awesome.

Here’s a short test of the techniques taught by Bicep. A four-bar loop of synthpad chords that is chopped up by a sidechained gate and later also by a sidechained filter. I vary some settings as it runs.

A symbol looking for a meaning

It’s fine to love your country. There’s just little need to turn it into a cult. History has shown us many times that patriotism and nationalism taken to the extreme can lead to catastrophic consequences.

Today, June 6, is Sweden’s national day. It’s been a national holiday all way back since … 2005. Why? Don’t ask a Swede, hardly anybody knows what we’re celebrating. Or rather, very few celebrate at all. Nobody knows why, how or what?

The simple truth is that we’re having a national day because Norway has one, and of course France and the USA. The French and the Americans celebrate the freedom and independence of the people, their respective revolutions. Norway – well, they’re celebrating that they became free of the Swedes.

We’re also celebrating a national day to shut-up the voices on the far right demanding we have one. Now we do. The most honorable thing we could do as citizens is therefore to head to each municipality’s welcoming ceremony for new citizens, refugees and immigrants that have found a new home in Sweden.

I just checked Wikipedia to see what we’re celebrating. And sure, it’s the crowning of king Gustav Vasa 1523. That’s a long time ago. Apparently they also signed some kind of government declaration in 1809, depriving the monarch of his power. It’s funny that we first celebrate the crowning of a king and the impotence of another.

So, today I didn’t go to work. I didn’t go to the welcoming ceremony because no one in the family wanted to join me. So, I went for a walk. I got bitten by a tick. Not much of a celebration and no meaning whatsoever.

Not a P.I.T.A. at all

I baked pita-bread for the first time today. I hadn’t done it before, so it was a step outside my comfort zone. Not a big step, but I had to read a recipe. Which I didn’t exactly follow. It worked out just fine, but I’m confident that next time I’ll be able to do it even better.

Baking pita-bread was a small achievement, but not an unimportant joy when I’m summing up the day. And the best thing is I think life is full of those small joys waiting. Achievements not like conquering Mount Everest, but just taking one small step outside of our comfort zone. Growing our skill and experience, and well yes, I suppose the comfort zone grows as well. I could bake pita-bread tomorrow. The threshold is super-low.

With every new experience our comfort zone and capability grows. It also means that every step we progress we diminish the distance to the next. Just imagine how much we could grow and learn if we decided to make something for the first time every week.

A freight train without tracks

Amateurs wait for inspiration. Professionals just show up and get to work. The gurus of creative self-help books are pretty much in unison on this, I think. Not that I have studied them all. But sure, in my day job I’m a pro. Provided that the job at hand is well defined – I just start writing.

There’s an Einstein quote… well there always is, isn’t it? … “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

If I reverse this thought I can see that the reason for my failure on my unproductive days is mostly due to lack of problem definition. I don’t have a plan. I show up at the studio, but … I haven’t got a clue. Where do I start? On a synth, on a drum machine.

On a day when I’m fresh, energized and awake this isn’t much of a problem. I will get some idea and run with it. On a tired day, after work, I need to have a concise list of idiot chores. Something I can do in my sleep, because that’s about the cognitive level where I’m at.

The professional attitude of just showing up and getting to work works fine when you feel like a formula 1 race car. Your acceleration goes from 0 to hyperdrive in just a few… well, minutes. On tired days I feel much more like a long heavy freight train that stretches for miles. The effort to get this monster moving is enormous, and it takes time to get it up to speed.

On those days, it’s absolutely crucial to be undisturbed. Slamming the brakes because family duties call and having to start over from zero. Well, after three or four false starts it’s hard.

Despite being tired I often keep pulling my box cars long into the night, long after the family is asleep. Because it’s not until then that I might reach hyperdrive, free myself from gravity to steal some magic dust from the stars.

The morning after, I’m not sure I’m that much of a professional at work. I’m a freight train stuck in a loop, running in circles.

Green green grass of doom

The cultural idea of having lawns seem to have sprung from our wish to show our wealth. Not from some idea of barefoot bliss. Idle land. Not used for growing, but for decoration.

As a lawn owner you’re a lawn mower, or it’s welcome to the jungle. I’ve got a basic manual cylinder mower. It’s nice, civilized, doesn’t disturb the neighbourhood. Makes you think of England. But using it is work. The grass better not be wet. And in longer periods of rain – you get the green green grass of doom, better put on your best halloween costume and grab the old sickle.

My partner is not very fond of our mower. She’d rather we bought an electric. Which isn’t unreasonable, it’s what people do, after all it’s more convenient. Less tiring and more rain-resilient.

We do a lot of things looking for convenience. It might not be in our best interest. I’ve found that wearing running clothes is a good way to change my perspective on the effort. I might actually go out to see if I can cut it one level shorter today.

Choosing compass

What if we trusted our guts more? If we allowed gut feeling and intuition to lead more of our decision making and control of our lives and our work? Would we be happier, more successful? Would it lead to more interesting art?

We probably all rely on intuition in varying degrees. But some people may do it more than others. Jon Hopkins, the electronic musician seems to be one of them. I listened to him talking about his work on an interesting episode of the podcast Tape Notes.

Where were quite a few nuggets in there. His trust in his intuition leading the process was one of them. He would work on a sound with very little idea of direction, but being confident that the next step would show itself. 

Looking at his method as a travel analogy, I imagine him going on a trip with neither map, guidebook nor any accommodation booked, certain that wherever he would end up would be his destination. 

This way of working of course lends itself well when the desired result is dreamy free form music not adhering to any specific tempo  – knowing that it would not be dance music.

Another interesting thing that ties in with intuition is his method of heavy processing of audio samples. He will send audio through long chains of effects and mangle them til they’re just right. Trusting his gut feeling and arriving at new kinds of beauty.

One way to argue against this process could be that transforming his piano playing beyond possible recognition would take away all his personal touch, arriving at something less human. It turns out the opposite might be the case. Through a series of intuitive decisions he arrives at places and sounds that are unique, and absolutely his own.

Maybe if we allow ourselves to let go of control, to get lost more and choose to rely on the compass inside, we might find the way to a truer part of ourselves.

Parallel realities

Peripheral acquaintances, friends of friends. People you recognize but don’t know. In many situations a hi! from a distance is good enough. And then there are situations where you are brought together to mingle at the mutual friend’s gathering. 

There’s a time and place for deep connections and there’s a time for a kind of friendliness that stems from the polite performance of good manners. A time when a little shallowness needs to be forgiven for the social lubricant it aims to be. 

And still it’s easy do it wrong too. Last night I cheerily asked a woman I’d only met once before, ”Is everything fine with you?” Her avoidance of really answering the question, a moment later made me remember (Oh shit, didn’t somebody say she had cancer). 

It wasn’t a total catastrophe in any way, I found a better conversation later at night and shared some laughs with her and her husband. But it’s still humbling to see your shallowness mirrored in somebody standing on the verge of the abyss.

There are so many lives lived in parallel.

Would I pass an inspection?

Tomorrow I’m taking the car for its annual health check. Not for a service but for the compulsory inspection, checking that my vehicle is no danger in traffic. The brakes, the exhaust fumes, wheel balance and the headlights not set too high. Etc.

I’m lucky to be in good health, to my knowledge, but as the years pass an annual health check probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. If I did it it would be to make sure that I’m not in danger. That I’m safe to live.

It’s interesting that it would be a violation of a person’s integrity and human rights if people were to be inspected like cars – making sure we’re not a danger on the road called life. It seems unthinkable, undemocratic, something worthy a police state, and I’m not advocating it. But that there’s such a difference is interesting. Isn’t it?

Rebooting with patience

The insight doesn’t come over night, but it grows upon you. That exciting, lightning-fast laptop you were so excited to bring home a few years ago – well, it just doesn’t seem to keep up anymore. It freezes, needs rebooting, can’t make full use of the new features in the software you use.

So, you start thinking of getting a new one. Luckily that is an option if you’ve got the means. If it wasn’t, what would we do? Maybe we would have to think our way around the problem. Reconsider if the latest upgrade is necessary. Find alternative software with fewer features and scaled back graphics that is little easier on the CPU/GPU. And maybe we would have to practice patience, cut the computer some slack and let it think in peace and quiet while we go and get a coffee.

Because when it comes to our real brains, upgrades aren’t that easily available. So we try the basics first. Get a good nights sleep, making sure we exercise, eat the vitamins and drink the coffee.

I’m thinking about this in regards to a piece of musical equipment (Vermona Retroverb Lancet). Despite being a small box, it has 25 knobs and switches that control parameters which effect each other in various ways. I’m in love with the sound of it, but it’s also intimidating because I can’t get my head around it. I sometimes fear my CPU just doesn’t cut it.

Panicking and stressing doesn’t help. Which is why I’ve realized that patiently investing the time to get my head around it is the only way forward. I need to sit down and draw charts of the electric and audio signal flow. All while forgiving my brain for not getting it instantly. Some insights and realizations simply take time. It might not even be a bad thing.