It’s that time of year again. The time for holiday festivities, to be sure, but also the perfect opportunity to look back on everything that happened over the past twelve months as well as forward to what may be waiting post ball drop. 2014 proved to be quite a memorable year for me, with experiences ranging from having to endure the most treacherous driving conditions I’ve ever experienced in my life on the way back from an anime convention in January to performing live for the first time with Midnight Syndicate as part of Cedar Point’s HalloWeekends in the fall. As I began reflecting on all of this, I found myself dwelling upon a particular question which caught me quite by surprise, given my attitude toward pursuing music today with anymore more than a hobbyist’s ambitions. Why hadn’t I released more of my original music to date, outside of my work with Midnight Syndicate?
Parlormuse can’t be counted as an “original” music project because even though the arrangements are my own, the songs themselves are adaptations of ones originally written during the 1800s – Victorian covers, if you will. The last time I released any non-symphonic original material was in 2010 (Subtle Inversion’s Kaleidoscope, along with two bonus vocal tracks that appeared on The Dead Matter: Cemetery Gates). Prior to that, original songs could only be heard during my live solo performances or if you happened to be a family member privy to one of my cassette-based song collections. If I felt inclined to keep writing material over the years, what had kept me from sharing it with anyone? What causes any artist to do this, for that matter? The vast majority of songs I’m referring to were written well before any of the music industry changes that I’ve spoken about here, which is to say, during a time when the traditional business model based on physical sales was still very much in place and the pathway to becoming even modestly successful as an artist (should I have desired that) seemed to be far less ambiguous.
I titled this post “Closure” because that’s what I am hoping to gain from it – the ability to leave some of the dreams, aspirations, illusions, and disappointments I once held and have since outgrown behind once and for all. But I also hope that other creative souls out there might benefit from it as well, even if that benefit is simply the comfort that can come from knowing that one is not alone in their struggles. If you’ll kindly climb aboard my virtual time machine, I will transport you back to the year when all of this began…
Experimentation and the “Why Not?” Approach to Music
I got my first keyboard (a Yamaha portable) for Christmas in 1986, and it didn’t take me long to learn how to customize the sounds and rhythms (yes, this one had that capability, despite being a home instrument). I was still very much into fantasy gaming at the time, as well as a regular listener to a New Age college radio program that ran on the weekends. Artists like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis provided early inspiration through their immersive, atmospheric compositions that frequently exceeded the five minute mark in length. As a result, my first ventures into writing original music were rather experimental (many don’t even have melodies to speak of), relying on fantasy inspired titles and dreamy, effects-laden sounds to convey the mysterious scenes that were driving my imagination.
There are three things that I remember vividly about this time. First, I knew each and every piece of equipment I was using inside and out. I had to – most of them were very limited, and getting a desired result frequently required thinking far outside the box. I remember tapping on my mixer’s chassis during the recording of one song in order to create its eerie, spring reverb-based opening and closing sound effects, for example. I didn’t have access to the kind of ultra-realistic sounds that are widely available today – they simply didn’t exist back then, even in the professional-grade keyboards. Sound choices were frequently made based on what was available (or achievable through custom programming) rather than what I may have ideally wanted, and changing sounds during a song often required some fast fingers and a good memory. I didn’t have a multitrack recorder, which required everything to be played and mixed in real-time. If I messed up, I had to decide whether or not it was bad enough to warrant going back and redoing the song, and there are plenty of examples where I felt striving for perfection simply wasn’t necessary (or wise). Many of these early songs used automatic rhythms, which were hard to disguise despite my best efforts to customize them. I essentially looked at them as being just another characteristic of a given song, rather than a cause for disappointment or creative stress. I think that was my attitude in general regarding all of these factors, though. Rather than looking at them as creative restrictions, I eagerly accepted them as challenges and felt a distinct sense of accomplishment every time I found a way to work through them.
Second, I had no agenda while writing this material. I wasn’t trying to get it on the radio, I wasn’t trying to impress my friends or family with it (actually, I don’t remember my family particularly liking or understanding a lot of it!) and I most certainly wasn’t trying to monetize it. I was writing what I wanted to write, how I wanted to write, as often as I wanted to write, and it was always a thrill to see what ended up on tape at the end of a given recording session. I suppose it felt more like a musical exploration than anything else. It was the closest I have ever been to that elusive concept of creating art for art’s sake, and looking back on it now, I miss that kind of artistic freedom dearly. I honestly didn’t care what anyone else thought – as long as I was happy with what I was creating, that was enough.
Third, I took a very laissez-faire approach to songwriting. I gave little, if any, thought to the craft of composition and simply wrote based on intuition and feel. Was a G major to D major to C minor chord progression “legal” with respect to the accepted rules of musical composition? I had no idea. If that’s what it felt like the song needed, I figured “why not?” While there is certainly something to be said for allowing oneself the kind of creative freedom to break the rules if and when that is appropriate, I’ve since come to realize that knowing what those rules are to begin with will allow you to do it intelligently and with purpose. Songs could be as long or short as I felt they needed to be, have as many (or as few) musical sections (verse, chorus, etc.) as I deemed necessary, have a melody or none at all, and could incorporate all manner of time signature, sound, and tempo changes.
By the end of 1987, I had put together two full-length collections of mostly original instrumental songs (the second collection features some traditional Irish material), and had even tried my hand at adapting popular Christmas songs.
Next time we’ll explore my most prolific year to date – a time that brought significant creative growth, shifting musical influences, and some unforeseen (and unfortunately, long-lasting) side effects…