Scoring Scripts vs. Annotating Music

At the beginning of each composition, there's a brief down point in which I wonder "Do I know how to do this anymore? What if my last piece was really my last?"

In the creation of my musical-poems, my question is always this: Which should come first -- the music or the text? All week, I have been jotting down ideas, collecting notes, basically being a data collector. I have themes, musical motifs, photos, annotated receipts, 3 hours of field recordings, and pages of journal notes about all the things that make me think of "home." 

Since I am writing a concept album, the question of whether text or music comes first seems more pressing than usual. I want the pieces to flow together, so I do have to be mindful of beginnings and endings, as well as the overall sonic and textural arc. At the same time...this also applies to the text. It seems almost as if this album will end up as one continuous story, should the listener choose to regard the work in this way. I do want each piece to stand alone as an entity independent of the others, but I can't ignore the fact that when put together, there will be a verbal/textual narrative. 

Balancing tones and weights is a delicate act. 

By tones and weights I mean the heaviness and emotional charge of not only topics but also renderings of such. For example, one piece on this Homecoming album will likely center around addiction and mental health struggles/shackles while another will be about cats. When I wrote my MFA poetry manuscript a few years ago, I dealt with this range by splitting my book up into 3 distinct sections, but it made more sense, since I was dealing with a significantly higher volume of words.

I guess all of this is my procrastinatory way of saying that I feel stuck and confused today. These are the approaches I've considered taking: 

  1. Writing out all the text first, in track order, as if it were a screenplay. Then "scoring" the text afterward.
  2. Opposite of the first one, that is, writing the music first and fitting the text in afterward.
  3. A hybrid approach in which I focus on one piece at a time, or switch off between tasks.

My favorite interpretation of the meaning "experimental music" is that which acknowledges the scientific, literally experimental process in which the music can manifest. 

My brain tends towards the analytical, so as much as I'd like to throw caution to the wind, I almost must think about the above things while producing my work. I know many of you reading this are probably thinking it doesn't matter; just start and see what happens. In the end, you are right. 

I hypothesize that approaches 1 or 3 would be best. After assessing my mental and physical resources and restrictions (a big one being that a large portion of my best workday period must be dedicated to quiet siesta time), it seems that I should go for #3. That way, I can use the mandated siesta time (2:30-5:30) to write text and the other hours to record my violin.

Crossing my fingers. Let the experiment begin (or continue).

This post originally appeared on the Syros Sound/Word Residency blog.

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Note: For the next 10 days, I will be at the Sound/Word composer residency in Syros, Greece. This was originally posted on the communal residency blog, where my colleagues and I will be posting updates throughout our time here. 

I feel like I'm always searching for home, in almost every sense of the word.

I've been on the road a lot in the past few years. Lived out of a suitcase while on tour for most of 2015. Moved my place of residence several times. Packed up, sold things, stored things, started over, bought, packed, sold, started over again.

Like most biracial, 2nd generation American kids with immigrant parents, I'm never sure how to answer the question "where are you from?" Should I say the west side of Los Angeles, where I live? Long Beach and Orange County, where I grew up? Maybe Hawaii, where I was born. Or Cambodia, where my dad was born. Greece, where my mom was born?

Now that I am finally in Greece, I am too embarrassed to speak Greek, for fear that my accent is too American, that I can't remember the right words, or that my grammar is unintelligible. I overhear people talking about me, staring at me, whispering to one another about my hair and assuming I cannot understand. I also experience comforting familiarity. It is a complicated homecoming.

The search for home also takes place within my body. I have a history of dissociating as a coping mechanism. Evicting parts of myself from "me" in order to function smoother on the surface, resulting in sometimes-homeless brain, homeless body.

So what, where, who is home? I am artistically, intellectually, emotionally, and physically invested in these answers.


Incipient Project Proposal

During my residency in Syros, I plan to continue a series of musical poetry pieces investigating home.

Here is an example: 

As in the above piece, I will be weaving spoken word with layers of music and field recordings, culminating in a continuous or semi-continuous concept album that uses only the instruments and tools I have here: violin, H4N Zoom field recorder, Apogee portable mic, Oxygen 25-keyboard controller, Akai mini controller, and anything sourced from the island or my fellow composer participants. I foresee mainly using the first three items on that list. I will be writing all the spoken text/poetry myself, though I haven't decided if I will stick to my own recorded voice or include others, particularly when it comes to Greek-speaking portions. I think it is too early to make an assertion either way, as the content and development of the project will likely reveal a clearer direction.

I have many more thoughts and ideas but will save them for later.

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Debating Free-Feeding My Cat

Scared kitty at the vet.

Last night, I tweeted my intent to experiment with free-feeding Anakin. I was met with unanimous objection from my well-meaning followers, who relayed horror stories, photos of their own obese cats, and reason upon reason why free-feeding a cat is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea. 

Anakin is my first cat, so I'm really not sure what I'm doing half the time. Since day 1 (okay, day 5), she has been on a strictly portioned, calorie-controlled diet, as per my vet's orders. "Even though she looks small, she has the perfect amount of fat for her body right now," Dr. M said. "Don't let her gain any weight, or it'll lead to health complications and pain." I was told that it was especially important to be diligent since she is indoors-only and doesn't get much exercise.

Like many adopted animals, Anakin has a troubled past.

All I know for sure is that she was confiscated from a hoarder's house. She along with 60 other cats. Yes, 60 cats under one roof, all sent to the LA County Shelter in one fell swoop. When I found scared little Ani in her cage on May the 4th, 2013, the shelter employees were pretty desperate to get rid of her. I'm not sure what Anakin went through at that hoarder's house, but when I got her, she was very skittish, startled, and scared, even moreso than most cats. She'd bite and scratch at me frequently. I had no control over her, even having to cancel a vet visit once because I couldn't get her in the kennel. When I had to give her ear drops at one point (after already having had her for two years), I tried desperately to hold her down in a blanket burrito, but she squirmed out of it and slipped away every time (I tried twice a day for 7 days).

After a couple years and a bunch of research, I realized that she is probably still experiencing the effects of PTSD and trauma. (Thank you, Jackson Galaxy.)

Since then, I've been trying to figure out what could make her comfortable or even "happy." She meows, cries, and squawks all the time, and I never know what to do.

Actually, that's a lie: I've always known that I could feed her. Food was the one and only thing that could consistently calm her down, get her off my back, make the scratching and biting stop. Thus, I got in the habit of spreading her half cup's daily allowance over multiple small snacks per day; that way, I'd have something in my arsenal to distract her with whenever she bit, scratched, or meowed at me. It got to the point where I was feeding her six times a day, in tiny portions. Each time I filled her bowl, she inhaled the entirety of the portion within seconds. She was perpetually ravenous. Addicted? 

(Perhaps it was I who was addicted to soothing her in that way, using it as my own coping mechanism for not knowing how else to deal with her.)

When I first talked to my therapist about Anakin's "bad behavior" and my inability to control her, the first thing she asked about was food. Without passing judgment on my situation, she simply mentioned that she free-feeds her own cat. The idea shocked me at the time, and I shuddered at the thought of Anakin -- innocent, unbridled, food-obsessed Anakin -- inhaling 3 cups of kibble at a time and vomiting all over the place. After all, I'd given her a slightly bigger portion once, and she threw it up as soon as she finished eating.

I hate the idea of exerting control over another being, even a cat. I hate enforcing restriction. I've always had violently strong reactions to any sort of control or restriction from others in my own life, so this hits close to home.

I feel like a perpetrator in my cat's psychological struggle. I feel responsible for not helping her develop alternate ways of feeling soothed, for becoming addicted myself to this routine of feeding her to shut her up. 

As someone who has struggled with addiction (and yes, food addiction) and restriction in the past, it has never felt right to do this to my cat.

I've been depriving her of honoring her basic instincts, mistrusting her ability to self-regulate. In reality, these are all things I mistrust in myself, and if Ani were a human, the blatant projection would be easy to see. But because she's a cat, I get away with saying "it's for her own good," much like a controlling parent might claim that restricting their child was merely for her own protection (sometimes this is true, but it is also a slippery, debatable slope).

So I'm slowly weaning away from my old methods of feeding Anakin. I am nervous, especially with so many terrible warnings of free-feeding, but I feel that I must try this. I just found out that two of my best friends (siblings) free-feed their (formerly abused) cats too, and they've given me lots of wise, helpful cat tips this month. In the past couple days, I have given much larger portions than usual and been pleasantly surprised at the amount leftover in the bowl. When she meows, I try to pet her or play with her, and I've noticed that she uses her scratch pads more often (hallelujah to my couch and skin). Her biting, scratching, and begging for food is less frequent so far -- for the past two days, it's only been in the morning (at 5am, no less). I can't say with certainty that this will continue to be a success, or that she won't gain initial weight, or that my vet won't chide me, but I will try my best to keep tabs on the situation and be responsible about it. Perhaps I will weigh her this week and then check the status again in a month. 

Ani & me two days ago, the chillest I've ever seen her.

On a final note, I sometimes wonder what her life was like when she lived with the cat hoarder. With so many other cats competing for attention and resources, it wouldn't be a stretch to consider that she didn't always know when or where her meals were coming. Fearing basic survival sure does a number on humans, so why not cats?

Wish me (and my jedi cat) luck. This is a very nascent experiment-in-progress, so I am by no means claiming victory or wisdom at this point. And though I do feel committed to trying this for a little bit, I am open to suggestions and insight nonetheless. 


"Sleep With Me"

After keeping mum for ages, I finally have to declare my peculiar yet persistent love for the Sleep With Me podcast. Does anyone else listen to this show? Despite being a listener for months, to this day I have no idea what it's about.

Seriously, it is such an effective sleep aid that I cannot vouch for the actual content. 

I'm inclined to say that Sleep With Me is actually a fine specimen of performance art. Again, I have no idea what the stories are really about, but damn, I feel like it's brilliant all the same. The podcast, written (by Drew Ackerman) and performed (by Dearest Scooter), features a narrator who tells stories in a dreamlike, semi-conscious state -- he'll start one topic, trail off, slur his speech, takes random turns into streams of consciousness, morph into other topics, change his addressee, break out into an imaginary conversation, and does it all in an even-paced monotone that sounds like someone on the verge of, well, sleep. It's like an audio representation of how my own brain wanders and loses focus when my consciousness is slipping. Just...go check it out for yourself.

This podcast has caused me to really think: What makes people relax or fall asleep in the first place? It seems that sleep invades us when we least welcome it (in class, during meetings, while driving, while trying to focus on a book or meditation) but eludes us when we really desire it. What does it mean that this podcast is not only entertaining (supposedly) but also functional? Is it art or a tonic? Both? Can art be functional, or created with the primary purpose of functionality?

As someone who frequently writes lullabies (and considers them primarily a form of entertainment and enjoyment), I think of these questions often. I used to be slightly offended when people told me they used my music to help them fall asleep, because I assumed that meant my music was boring. However, I have since embraced that feedback as a new kind of gift. Doing something that helps people fall asleep is by no means a bad thing, and I love to imagine that things like music and stories can be enjoyed at specific times to help transport a listener into another magical realm.

I've digressed, but I'm sure I'll be sharing more thoughts on sleep in future posts.

What do you think of this podcast? Have you listened to it before? Curious to try? What else helps you fall asleep? Seriously, let me know.

PS: Like so many artists and creators today (myself included!), Sleep With Me has a Patreon page, so if you love their show, do consider contributing to their page for as little as a dollar a month.

PPS: I'm at jury duty today, so I will not be listening to the Sleep With Me podcast...

Chrysanthe's independent work is supported by her contributors on Patreon. For exclusive content, mp3s, sheet music, live streams, and more, please consider supporting her at $1/month!

How Shame, Secrets, and Hang-Ups Affect Our Art - Join the Chat this Sunday!

Hi everyone,

I'm really excited (and nervous) to be hosting my first Twitter chat this Sunday, May 8th, at 6pm PDT! I will be leading a discussion about shame, secrets, and hang-ups -- or more specifically, how these things affect our music and art-making practice. The chat will be hosted on Twitter under the hashtag #musochat, so yes, you do need a Twitter account to participate. If you've never heard of these, Musochats are weekly, informal discussions on topics of "classical and new music." Always at 6pm (AKA 9pm EST) on Sundays. Always on Twitter. If you don't use Twitter but would like to add your two cents to this discussion, feel free to make a comment here, and I'll put forth your thoughts to the forum (either crediting you or anonymous, if you prefer). After the conversation, I'll post a recap and a link to the Storify summary. 

Here's the official description:

Even the most confident and accomplished musician has hangups and experiences shame from time to time. These things can sometimes hinder our work. Perhaps when utilized a certain way, they can also help our work? I’d love to create a judgment-free space for us to share and bear witness to one another’s thoughts and feelings. Perhaps we have more in common than we think. Either way, I find that honest communication and expression often carve a path to more genuine art-making.

Photo by Elizabeth Lies, courtesy of Unsplash

I'm stoked to engage in this important discussion. See you there, or see you on the other side! 


From the Trenches

Dear everyone reading this: 

I am currently writing this post from the trenches. That is, I am deep in the middle of a composition that I’m having a really hard time with. 

I don’t communicate from the trenches very often. Sure, I have gotten better about sharing my struggles, but I tend to write about them in retrospect. After I have already finished the piece or “overcome” the hard thing. When I’ve supposedly reached a wise and better place from which to tell a neat story. You'll hear that I was once vulnerable but do not hear when I am still actively vulnerable. 

Today, I feel scattered. I am overwhelmed. I have notes spread out in more places than I can count, and not enough time to collect, assess, notate, and curate them all in an organizationally rigorous fashion. I have digital notes (typed in Evernote), handwritten notes (in my Moleskin journal), audio snippets (on my Zoom recorder), more audio snippets (in Garage Band), handwritten music (on staff paper), a drawing of caterpillars climbing a tower (also in my journal), and one hellish-looking Sibelius project containing a multitude of independent ideas separated by empty measures. Furthermore, instead of reviewing, refining, and committing to my ideas, I feel a desperate urge to come up with just one more, for certainly my last idea will be the idea to end all ideas, and it will be so beautiful and perfect that I can scrap all of the previous nuggets and finally focus on this clear path, right? 

For someone who thrives on structure, regularity, organization, knowing where everything exists and how to access it, this point in any given composition is a nightmare. 

I don’t normally speak from the trenches, because whenever I am here, I am not sure how I will escape, if it will be graceful, even if my current ideas will survive the inevitable developments. I extol the virtues of “sharing one’s work” and “process over product” (hell, the name of my blog is Process Report), but these things are easier to contemplate than do. 

But today, I will share this. The piece I’m writing is a duo for cello and violin, and it is inspired by an illustrated book called Hope for the Flowers, by Trina Paulus. It is allegorical tale about two caterpillars that set forth on a journey to the top of a caterpillar pillar, unsure of what lies at the top. Thousands of other caterpillars concurrently pursue this journey, not a single one certain of the destination. Suffice to say, the tale has always been meaningful to me. But as I type these words at this very moment, I wonder if Hope for the Flowers will even make it to the final iteration of my composition. If it doesn't, will I look back on this naive blog entry and judge myself for changing my mind, feeling silly for having introduced the story so lovingly to you in the first place? 

In the past, the answer certainly would have been yes, but with practice, I hope in the present and future, it will be no.

My Birthday Is Tomorrow and I Promise I Don't Need a Party

Photo by Kayte Deioma, a million years ago

A funny thing always happens my birthday week: Incredible people reach out to me and ask if I’m going to have a party. Some even offer to help put one together, suggest cool restaurants, take me out for dinner or drinks, or buy me a present. I’m really lucky to have people who care about me enough to want to do these things. 

To be honest, I don’t particularly enjoy any of the above activities. I deal with pretty bad social anxiety, and things that shake up my routine tend to cause more stress than cheer. I don’t want a social event to commemorate my birthday, I don’t need surprises or extravagance, I don’t want to add dinner or drinks to my schedule, and I truly don’t need physical gifts. I promise I’m not saying these things to test my friends' true loyalty, insinuate self-pity, play games with you, or appear fashionably nonchalant.

I’m not nonchalant, and I’m absolutely thrilled to spend my relaxing birthday off the grid tomorrow! But it recently came to my attention that some of my loved ones are at a loss for how to show they care on my birthday. If you’ve heard of the Five Love Languages, you know that different people give and receive love in different ways, and that these differences are okay. The key to adapting to these differences is understanding what yours and another's needs are in the first place. It's always better to make your needs known rather than hope others read your mind. At the end of the day, each of us simply want to be acknowledged for who we really are, to be truly seen. Thus, I thought it would be fun and helpful to use this space to articulate my own desires and offer a list of alternative ways I would love to be celebrated on my birthday! These are all things you could do that make me feel seen.

These are the ways you could support me on my birthday that would truly be the most meaningfully received by me.

  1. Become my patron on Patreon. If you had to choose just one thing from this list, I’d have to say that becoming my patron is by far the best thing you could do to show continual support for me as an artist. I am my art, so to support my artistic life is to directly support me in the biggest way possible. I currently have 33 patrons on Patreon, and I love them a lot! But I have almost 3000 personal Facebook friends, another 2000 public Facebook followers, 5600 Twitter followers, and nearly 13K Instagram followers. Thus, if only 5-10% of my friends and fans became my patron at $1/month, it would actually revolutionize my life and open up so many possibilities for me to expand my art further
  2. Buy an album! I sell both physical CDs and high-quality digital downloads (including PDF liner notes) in my online store. My Stories album is also on iTunes, Amazon, and all major online stores. Already own my album? Perhaps it could make a nice gift for someone else! Here is a video I made that showing how easy it is to send an iTunes album as a gift. Or if you want to order autographed CDs, you can do that through my store and specify a different address for me to mail it to.
  3. Purchase some sheet music!!! Ok, I’m super excited about this, because I just released it today. It took forever to put together, and I’m really stoked about it. It was a huge labor of love to put together, because I didn’t read from real sheet music when I recorded my album. The few handwritten manuscripts I used were lost along with my whole composition binder a couple years ago. I owe a lot of thanks to Sean Hayward for assisting me in preparing these official parts for you. (Sidenote: If you’re a composer looking to outsource some score prep or get some parts arranged, Sean’s your guy!) 
  4. Share any of the above things with a friend. Not everyone has the ability to make monetary contributions, and even though I hope to be compensated for my work as an artist, I totally respect and understand this. I am very aware of the real things that prevent people from contributing with money. Thus, I want to underscore the importance of sharing my work. Word of mouth can be just as helpful as buying my work yourself, because personal, passionate recommendation is the best way an independent artist reaches more eyes, ears, and hearts. If you like my work but can't afford to buy an album or support my Patreon, please don’t be shy, feel bad, or apologize to me; simply keep listening, keep streaming, and think of a friend or two that may actually like what I’m doing too! You may not have bought my album personally, but because you streamed it in the car so much, your cousin did, and then when she needed a recommendation for a new easy piano piece to play, she ended up buying the sheet music to “Paper Flowers.” All of this is to say, I value you, whether you have money to give or not.
  5. The gift of time. If you've never heard my music, of course you wouldn’t feel compelled to jump right into Patreon or buying an album! And if you're not a listener of my music, I of course wouldn't expect you to feel comfortable with sharing it, because how would you vouch for it? So…If you’re someone that wanted to take me out for birthday dinner or were already willing to give up a couple hours to attend a birthday party, I have an alternative idea for how you can give me the gift of your quality time: Listen to some of my music. You can stream my Stories album on Spotify, check out things I’ve posted on my Patreon page, or spend some time on the “Composer” section of my website. If you can’t listen to my music, or you don’t like it, you can check out my Xanthe Briefly podcast, my blog, or my vegan cooking videos on YouTube (I try to caption my videos, if that helps). As an introvert, I rarely open up to people in person. I pour everything into my art and work, so taking the time to tune in for even 20 minutes would bring us much closer, I guarantee it.
  6. Miscellaneous Fun Ideas: Stream Stories on repeat on Spotify for a day. Even if you turn the volume off but leave it playing, I’ll receive some royalties from that. Request my music at your local/college radio station. Add my music to public playlists (like the ones on Spotify). Use a piece from my album for your dance routine. Learn how to play one of my songs on your instrument or in your chamber ensemble (I’d love video of this)! Paint a picture or write a story inspired by my music. Use a song of mine as background for your next school project, student film, or YouTube video (please make sure to select “Monetize” in the settings!). Leave a review of my album on iTunes. If you do any of the above, please let me know so I can smile and shower you with gratitude. Seriously, if you ever perform my music yourself, or use my music in anything, I would be happy to share your project/video. If there are enough things, I may even make a gallery on my website.
  7. If you don’t feel like engaging in anything artsy but still want to do something that supports and affirms who I am, here are the non-profit organizations I donate to most regularly. Perhaps you could consider putting a few dollars toward the important social justice work they do. FIERCE NYC, Food Empowerment Project, Audre Lorde Project, and Trans Lifeline.

Now that you’ve read this far, I’m going to announce the birthday sheet music specials! They start right now and go through my birthday weekend (until Sunday night).

  • All my new patrons will receive their choice of 1 free sheet music or 1 free digital download of my Stories album! You can peruse all the options here. You receive details on how to redeem that when you sign up for my Patreon.

  • Sheet music deals! 10% off your purchase of $30 (use discount code “birthday10”). 25% off your purchase of $50 (use discount code “252525”)


Thank you for reading this. Thank you for celebrating my birthday, my music, my art, me. Thank you thank you thank you. And now I'm off to go cook a sweet potato...

10 Reasons I Exercise (that have nothing to do with fitness)

I am not a physical person. I am intensely cerebral, so lost in my thoughts and work that I forget to stand up, go outside, and take bathroom breaks. Because of my sedentary disposition and underdeveloped mind-body connection, I find it important to dedicate a block of time each day to moving my body.

Exercise is a cornerstone of my life. If you’re looking to read about the physical benefits of exercise, however, you’re in the wrong place. I can’t speak with authority on those matters, nor do I currently seek specific physical results. What I can vouch for is the tremendous impact exercise has had on my mental health and artistic practice.

When I talk about “exercise” and “working out,” I'm referring to an uninterrupted spurt of moderate-intensity (or higher) activity typically lasting an hour. Exercise may mean something completely different for you, so please contextualize as you see fit.

This is why I love exercise:

  1. It starts my morning off right. I love to work out in the morning, before my hazy optimism has a chance to fade. Working out wakes me up and prepares me for the day. If I’m sleep-deprived and have to be somewhere really early, it’s even more crucial for me to squeeze in my workout, otherwise, I’ll be doubly groggy. Maybe if I'd exercised before school, I wouldn't have fallen asleep in every high school class and earned the nickname “zombie.”
  2. It prepares me to interface with people. Being around other people is a huge energy suck for me, so I need to muster up my own reserves first. I know this sounds dramatic, but it’s just the way it is. Exercise is my time, and as an extreme introvert, I need my time before I can proceed with my day and make room for others. Seeing me pre-workout is like seeing other people pre-morning coffee.
  3. Learning! Listening! Reading! Watching! I constantly consume a ridiculous amount of information in various mediums: podcasts, paperbacks, Kindle books, magazines, newspapers, chapbooks, blogs, newsletters, webinars, tv episodes, Spotify Discover playlists, and more. I do the vast majority of my reading and listening at the gym. This allows me to learn and enjoy many things I wouldn’t otherwise carve out time for, plus it encourages me to keep better focus during the day, since I know I can always save an article for later. My friends call me Encyclopedia Tan, largely due to the vast amount of knowledge I soak up at the gym. It really is my secret weapon (along with listening to podcasts in the car).
  4. Work catchup. Work inevitably does spill over to my precious gym time, but something about sweating on the elliptical while marking up a score or studying required text makes the tasks easier. The change of setting does something to my brain that makes me access and interpret information in a fresher way. I even printed out this blog and proofread it at the gym before posting.
  5. Social catchup. Similar to the above point, checking emails and getting pesky administrative tasks out of the way is easier when I’m at the gym. Toward the end of my workout (once I’ve waken up to myself), I sometimes begin to text friends back from the night before. I also check my Instagram feed during my 5 minute cool down, which forces me to scroll quickly and be selective about who I follow in the first place. I know a lot of people consider social media a huge waste of time, but I’m a staunch defender of it, for reasons I’ll likely explain in a future blog or podcast.
  6. Creative ideas. I call the gym my “idea incubator.” Showers and workouts (of all kinds) are magical havens for creative problem solving, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Countless concepts and conundrums have been birthed and solved while sweating.
  7. It can provide a nice break in the day. When I don’t exercise first thing in the morning, working out in the afternoon or early evening serves as a nice recess time. It’s a perfect break if I’m switching gears between two projects. It also dramatically increases my mood, as I tend to devolve into frustration and fizzled focus when I work for too many hours.
  8. It makes my body feel things. Not only am I naturally sedentary, but I also resist almost anything that reminds me of possessing a physical body (other than frighteningly intense deep tissue massages). I avoid cold, hate the act of putting on lotion, don’t like running my hands under water or wearing clothes that rub my skin, showering, or even paying attention to my breath. Thus, exercising and sweating and being dirty then showering afterward and being exposed to the elements is important for me. It’s one of the few times I inhabit my body. Otherwise, I feel like a floating brain in space.
  9. Exploring a new city. I’ve talked about the gym quite a bit, but of course I can’t always work out at the gym, especially if I’m traveling. If I can’t go to a gym, I go running. It’s a great way to cover a lot of ground quickly. I don’t always have a ton of time to explore a new place I’m in, and jogging allows me to see far more things than I would otherwise, plus it’s nice to stumble upon the unexpected — I’ve seen all kinds of hidden beautiful treasures.
  10. The comfort of routine and maintained health. I’m a creature of habit who falls apart if I don’t have certain routines or rituals or schedules. As an independent artist, many aspects of my schedule, work, and finances are unpredictable. The more things I can hold onto, cherish, and count on, the better off I am. 


What’s your relationship to exercise? How does it fit into your life (or not)? What other things inspire and stabilize you? 

I’m genuinely curious, so please comment, tweet, or email me!


Unexpected view on a sunrise run in Spain.

Process Report: Monolith

I've decided to start blogging more about my artistic process, for anyone interested (okay, mainly for me). Without further ado...

While I was finishing up the Honeymoon Tour with Ariana Grande, I started working on several exciting new projects.

The first is a piece called “Monolith,” which will be part of the score for Mono, an experimental film created by UK filmmaker/artist Sangam Sharma. The film, which explores monolithic architecture, drone music, Old Norse/Celtic mythology, and the circular perception of time, has several contributing composers onboard; I have been asked to compose for the final three sections before the Epilogue. It features gorgeous but nearly-static long shots, thus it’s pretty easy to miss the subtle shifts of things like clouds moving and light changing unless you pay close attention. Sangam intentionally lingers on her images past the average person’s comfort zone, as she believes in letting an object reveal its own story. As the composer, I’ve also had to practice letting each rock formation, smoke stack, and lake reveal itself to me at its own pace, then create music that complements not only the images but the goal of the film itself.

I’m not finished yet, but this is what my process has been like so far:

1) Receive script and picture. Watch the film excerpt, following along with the script. Take preliminary timing and idea notes. Where are the blackouts and transitions? When do the new titles show up on the screen? When do the voiceovers cut out? Are there any interesting phrases or verbal articulations I’d like to highlight or give more space to? This is mostly straightforward busy work; a good task to do while hanging out in the dressing room before my show.

2) List initial musical ideas. I want this score to consist entirely of string sounds, including several extended techniques and gradual microtonal shifts. The filmmaker and I have talked about revolving around a single drone throughout the piece. I love this idea: mono, monoliths, circular time, lingering shots...this is what the film is about, after all. 

3) I spend a few days recording and building up a library of violin sounds that I can draw upon and piece into the score later. For example: a bunch of long notes in various registers and dynamics, marcato single-tone pulses in eighth notes and quarter notes, harmonics on various strings and tones, drones played with slow and wide quarter-tone vibrato (with variations for both quarter-tone above and quarter-tone below the established drone note, Eb). 

4) Label and re-label my new violin loop library a million times, because I can’t stop obsessing over which way of labeling is the best-looking and clearest to understand. 

5) Drag a few of the simple drones into the Logic session I’ve started. Watch the film a couple more times while improvising off the drone with my violin. This is completely off the record; I just want to experiment with various combinations and potentialities. 

6) Get annoyed at a few lingering inconsistencies in my labeling. Re-label and re-index the loops yet again. Organizational stuff seriously fucks with me, and I sometimes I can’t move on until things (that don’t really matter) are perfect. Just being honest here.

7) Now that I've finally calmed down enough to move on, I go ahead and experiment with various combinations of my pre-recorded sounds. I always go back to the drone. Sangam envisions the Eb drone as a steadfast fixture throughout the three sections of my piece, but I want to also make sure each chapter is completely distinct, as her static shot drastically changes from section to section. There’s not a whole lot of harmonic variation I can introduce, because we want to keep this very minimal; excessive, fancy modulations or departures from Eb would take away from the film and other contributing music. I brainstorm other ways the images are speaking to me and hypothesize ways to evoke that. For example, the middle section features a shot of concrete smokestacks puffing out smoke. In my mind, the smoke symbolizes decay; each white puff starts out as a full cloud but gradually disperses into the sky, losing its form. In homage to the glassy, kinetic, decaying smoke, I write in my notebook to feature harmonics and descending glissandi here in juxtaposition with the fixed concrete smokestack (which in my mind is the relentless Eb drone). By the way, I’ve also made the decision to replace the continuous Eb drone with accented Eb quarter note marteles in this middle section; everything still very much screams E-FLAT E-FLAT E-FLAT, but the persistent re-articulations of the same note sound more dogged and ruthless. This is more in line with what I want from the shot, which essentially depicts a factory. I haven’t told Sangam this yet, but hopefully she likes the result!

8) We have a day off (from tour), so I have a quiet day to record. I tackle the recording tasks I’ve planned in advance, then accidentally come up with a new idea. I record a rough version of this idea and love where it’s going. I leave it in the session to ponder and refine later.

9) Another show day, which means another “editing/create silently in my head/make a detailed list of recording tasks for later” day. This method of batch recording and batch editing has been a good way to work on tour, since show days have a lot of backstage activity and aren’t the most conducive to recording or heavy violin/composition work. Plus, arenas are often cold, and I can’t create, play violin, or even move my body in a good mood when I’m cold. May not seem like a big deal, but physical warmth is a crucial factor in my mood and functionality. By the way, I end up reviewing the new spontaneous idea and decide that it is indeed awesome. Fortissimo string power chords, you have made the cut. I tweak a few details, decide to add viola to the score for more body, and come up with my next plan of action.

10) Recording day. My tourmate, Kiara, is lending me her viola, but I have to give it back that day so she can practice. This works nicely for me, as it motivates me to be efficient with my time. I record viola and more violin things for a couple hours, which of course sparks new ideas and changes once again. It’s our last day off on tour, in our very last city (El Paso), and I’m glad that I find time that day to not only work on my score but also walk to the mall with my best tour friends (AKA the Honeymoon Strings). The three of us have fun trying on silly Halloween accessories, helping Kiara with her boyfriend’s extensive birthday gift, watching Adrienne buy out the Dollar Tree (she swears she really needed that 10-pack of glow in the dark fangs), and assembling a little gift to give Ari before the last show. Side note: I also buy birthday cake flavored gum, which is so accurate it’s awful.

11) On the last show day and then my first day back home, I spend a few hours reviewing and refining the score. It’s far from over, but I can feel it coming together. The bad news is that I’m going to have to re-record a lot of the parts for greater clarity and confidence. Now that I know how long I want certain drones and held notes to last, I want to re-record them in full takes rather than looping shorter segments together and doing a ton of automation magic. I’ll also have to refine a lot of things that currently have improvisation as a placeholder. Editing is not my strong suit, so when I have to record myself, it’s more efficient and natural-sounding for me to do long takes rather than studio heroics at this point. I also need to re-do rhythmic sections, because I know I can do better. Perfectionism is a slippery slope, though, so I have to be mindful of when enough is enough.

Onto more work now! 

I promise my next post will be shorter. 


PS: If you're interested in hearing more about works like this, you may consider checking out and supporting my music on Patreon!