Tag Archives: Music

Surreality – Arvo Part

Music has always been an integral part of my writing process, whether it’s selecting music to listen to while working, or choosing pieces to specifically reference in the book. Surreality actually depicts several musical pieces including a Massive Attack song for one of Ms. Klein’s performances, but my personal favorite is the choral piece that Keenan hears at the Palace Theater, Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen.

ArvoPart_KanonPokajanen

The Kanon is a modern classical masterpiece, but its origins lie in centuries old tradition. The text is taken from the Eastern Orthodox Canon which consists of nine odes centered around repentance (thanks Wikipedia). The second ode, Moses’ rebuke of the Israelites, is often omitted from recitations and is not present in Pärt’s composition (a fact my characters discuss in context with the events of the book).

My first encounter with the work was accidental. I didn’t even learn to pronounce Pärt’s name correctly for many years. It’s ‘Pear+t’ like the fruit plus a ‘T’, not ‘part’ like the widget, or ‘par’ which incorrectly assumes that the ‘T’ is silent. A two-disc copy of the CD was in the library book sale when I worked there my senior year of high-school. I had no idea what the CD was, and it smelled heavily of cigarettes, but for a dollar I sated my curiosity. The first nine seconds of the disc are silent, and I remembering wondering if there was something wrong with it. I probably turned my boom-box (yes I was still using one of those in the early 2000’s) to its maximum setting, only to met with the full blast of an SATB chorus a few moments later.

Pärt’s style is very spare, borrowing a lot from Gregorian chant, and mixing one or two of the parts together in different combinations. Large sections are sung in recitative fashion (meaning one part sings and another repeats). It’s ethereal and reflective. The piece gets your attention, retreats to the heavens, builds to an midway climax, then lets you go gently.

Pärt uses silence to set tone. The initial silence emphasizes the contrast of the entrance, and further silences throughout allow the notes to fill the cathedral space in which it was recorded. I’ve sung in old churches only a few times, the most memorable being a trip to San Francisco in 2004. Notes can carry on for seconds, long after the people have stopped singing. It’s a particular treat to study how harmonies blend and produce all the overtones and magical things that can happen when voices come together perfectly. It’s spiritual, not just to listen to, but to experience when singing.

My character’s not as fascinated by choral music as I am, but I hope that the moment is a nice space to reflect on what’s happened in the book so far, and what’s coming next. It’s still one of my favorite scenes to read, and has been present in the book in one form or another since the first draft (though Pärt’s specific selection came later I think).

My latest book, Surreality, is available on Amazon and Smashwords or wherever eBooks are sold.

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Bad Work Day

I was having a hard time getting any work done this morning. Part of it was simple distraction. I wanted to install the new GOG Galaxy beta onto my laptop and wasn’t quite sure why it wasn’t detecting all of my games. But even after I’d managed to pull myself away from my home laptop I still found myself having a hard time concentrating.

Sometimes the drive into work can be a good way to focus my thoughts. Though this particular morning I had fog on a dark winding road that required more than my by the numbers attention. So I was twenty minutes late, and had no ability to reflect on what I actually wanted to write that morning, even though it was a scene I’d been playing back in my head for the last week.

But I still had a good hour in which to work. I had caffeine at the ready, and a good cozy environment (after I turned the main office overheads off). But for whatever reason I couldn’t get more than about 600 words done, and after about 45 minutes of fighting my inner censor’s need to delete the whole thing, I packed it in and hoped for a better session in the evening.

The funny thing is, it only occurred to me later what the real problem was. I hadn’t turned on any music.

Music actually has a profound ability in helping me to focus and find a certain mood. I’m not someone who works well in complete silence, as there is never a environment that is truly silent anyway. I’m used to my office in the early mornings, but it still isn’t the most comfortable place, and admittedly I’m more used to the ambient noise of people around me. Sitting in the dark even in my own little cubicle can be a little uncozy.

But music would have fixed that.

There are things we do that help us focus, that put us in the right headspace to work. For some it’s a tidy workspace, and for some it’s the exact opposite. Even though I try to be the kind of writer who can work just about anywhere, the truth is in order to do that I have to do some of the same things every time. Call them rituals, or habits, or comfort security blankets, what have you, but they make work easier, even on days where it’s hard to get anything going.

See this evening I’m not listening to my music, but outside there is rain and there is a soundtrack playing in the Starbucks. My laptop is laying comfortably over my crossed legs as I sit in a comfy chair. The place is nearly as empty as my office (finals must be over for OSU, usually this Starbucks is full of students).

When we’re feeling stressed, when things don’t feel like they’re working, sometimes it’s because we’ve forgotten to do the little things for ourselves that put us in the right frame of mind. You stretch before you exercise, you take a shower after you wake up or before you go to bed, you do vocal exercises before you sing. Whatever activity we need to stretch and we need to feel comfortable before we can really get good work done. Otherwise we are fighting our bodies. Now sometimes we can be really good at “powering through”, but that takes a toll in the long run. Better to take those few minutes to breathe, than to be fighting for air the entire time.

What are your rituals that help put you in the writing frame of mind?

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Reviews: Outer Limits Edition

Ghosts, heroes, the end of the world. Comics let us explore all of these ideas with just a few pen-strokes. In today’s post we have a hero born in death, a world on the brink of being engulfed by the sun, and a kid just trying to heal the hole in his heart.

The Bigger Bang

Writer – D. J. Kirkbride, Artist – Vassilis Gogtzilas

TheBiggerBangCosmos is a man feared as “the universe killer”. His birth destroyed Earth and countless other worlds. Though he could not control the circumstances of his birth, Cosmos lives to try to save as many lives as he can, even though everywhere he is feared and has no one to talk to. A fighter commander who is sent to kill him instead is falling in love with him, but can she be trusted? And can they both stop a king intent on destroying everything in his path?

I like the concept, and little details like how small Cosmos’ voice is when he first speaks, a calm voice in a being so powerful. There are some spectacular feats accomplished, including absorbing the energy of a sun going nova and re-directing the energy of a volcano.

Gogtzilas’ style is rough and scratchy. It lends the page a more sketchbook like quality than a finished product. Toothy grins extend long beyond the borders of their faces, and everything is drably colored. Despite the cosmic and other-worldly tale, there seems to be a gray haze over everything. Some of the character designs are quite imaginative, and evoke more of a space fable or pulp adventure than a serious story.

Your typical all powerful being has to have some kind of flaw, or they’re not very interesting (re: Superman). Cosmos’ weakness is guilt, and an inability to connect with people due to the massive scale of his power, and the fear of his reputation. This is explored well at first, in the places he finds solitude and in the worlds he tries to save, but in the end comes down to a fight between one big bad, and the good guy. Redemption through force against an opponent he doesn’t have to hold back against isn’t much of a revelation.

Overall, this isn’t bad, but the art style will probably be a turn off to some of you.

(3 stars | Good as a limited series, and could have gone longer if it took some different directions)

Low – Volume 1

Writer – Rick Remender, Artist – Greg Tocchini

LowThe human race is at an end, the Earth about to be swallowed up by the sun, making the surface a toxic airless wasteland. We have never gone to the stars, our closest step sending a few probes we’ve long forgotten about. All the human race can do is sit at the bottom of the ocean and wait for time to run out. And do a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex while we wait.

A mother loses her husband and her two daughters to pirates, the daughters stolen and the husband slain for a battle suit and a legacy of hatred. Years pass and there is a faint hope that a probe has found a habitable planet, but the probe and its data are trapped on the barren and lifeless surface, and the only help the mother can find to get it, is a son who has succumbed to the same fatalism as the rest of the human race.

Right off the bat, this book is NSFW. There’s swearing of course, including overuse of the c-word (though maybe that’s just a trigger for me). And if you thought Saga could be a little shocking and depraved … well … it is, but this title could give Saga a run for its money with some of its clear parallels to the fall of the Roman Empire and the accompanying orgies

Remender’s good at pulpy action, and like Black Science you can never count on exactly who is going to survive. Tocchini’s visuals can be a treat, vast underwater cities and wildlife. But this is definitely a “mature” title. I think the idea that the human race will remain stuck on Earth even millions or billions of years later seems a bit of a stretch. In addition to overuse of the c-word, Remender likes to work his title into the plot in every chapter, talking about how low people have fallen, or how low a certain action is. It’s a little corny.

The final two issues are quite good and set up the next arc well. While not as good as Black Science, this is still worth a look if you can get past some of the content.

(4 stars | Seriously, read this at home)

Doomboy

Writer and Artist – Tony Sandoval

DoomboyD is a depressed teen coping with the recent death of his girlfriend Annie by playing lonely sessions on the beach, and by beating people up with his guitar. His grief has caused a literal hole in his chest, which he tries to cope with by playing his feelings into the sky, and also on an obscure radio frequency that makes him a local unknown legend, even among the people who hate him.

It’s a tightly focused piece, taking place largely over the course of a summer and the Doomboy sessions. Most characters either have very tiny eyes and big foreheads, or there eyes are completely covered by their hair. The mouths are large when open and small when closed.

I found the asides and remembrances a little distracting, but I loved the sequences that visualized the music as giant squids or clouds climbing across the sky. There are some little details, like the purchasing of a star or Annie drawing eyes on D’s guitar that add to the fantasy and mystery elements, while at the same time staying grounded in understandable pain and loss. The final sequence is a bit confused but overall it’s a nice tale of using musing to cope with grief and connect with people, and how we can be inspired by even the bad things that happen in our lives.

There are some sketches at the back for the original short inspiration for the story which provide some interesting background. Not quite up to the prestige price it is being offered at, but good to pick up or maybe check out from your library.

(3 stars | An imperfect piece, but worth a read)

Wayward Volume 1

Writer – Jim Zub, Artist – Steve Cummings

WaywardA girl, Rori, daughter of a Japanese seamstress and an Irish engineer comes to Japan after a falling out with her father to live with her mother. Her mother’s job keeps her out weird hours, and so Rori is given plenty of time to explore Japan, including some dark corners where she’s attacked by turtle men, and saved by a girl who seems to have some special relationship to cats. Soon she begins to see her own powers to see the strings of the world around her, and other people with power are drawn to her, for good and evil.

As much as this is a fantasy story set in Japan, it also seems very rooted in the real Japan, and not the land of oriental mystery that’s in a lot of these stories. The difficulty of being a girl with red hair in a Japanese school, the urban life of the working class in Japan are just a couple of examples of this authenticity at work.

Zub draws on a lot of legends and creatures known as Yokai, while creating his own legends. At the back he explains all of the various creatures and their origins in Japanese mysticism. There’s a lot of humor and the tone is a little lighter than the rest of the pieces in this post. Cummings art is very grounded in real architecture, while still allowing for the presence of evil creatures and magical girls. Like a lot of first volumes, this will leave you hungry for more, and in some way the story is just getting started, but I trust Zub to take us the rest of the way.

I was looking forward to this for a while and was not disappointed when I found it on NetGalley.

(5 stars | Good balance of fun, action and fantasy)

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With XMplay who needs iTunes?

XMPlayPortable_128I’m a simple guy when it comes to music. I want a music player that stays out of my way, doesn’t try to sell me something and doesn’t take up a lot of my desktop. I want it to be able to play any music format I come across whether it’s MP3’s, FLAC’s, APE’s or game music files and convert them into something more useful. And I want this music player to be portable, able to be stored on a flash drive or even a floppy disk, never ask me for updates and be easy to install and customize.

XMplay is all this and then some.

Windows Media Player, iTunes and even the Amazon Music Player want to make a music library for you. They want to scan your hard drive, find all your music files, and report that information back to the mother-ship. They want to sell you new tracks, download tons of background files, and be constantly running in the background even when you don’t need them. They take up 100’s of megabytes of hard-disk space and infiltrate deep into your registry. They are difficult to customize, extend, or get rid of when you don’t want them anymore.

Music playback should be simple and ubiquitous, while still being powerful.

XMplay is easy to install, just download the ZIP file and extract it on your hard drive. The default installation with base plug-ins is 433 KB. For those of you who haven’t seen the kilobyte size in a while that’s about an eighth the size of your average photo from a halfway decent camera. Or about one two-hundredth the size of iTunes. The base installation plays MP3, OGG, WAV, CD-Audio and about a dozen more audio formats.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the default skin, but that’s okay because I can change that:

XMPlayPortable

Before XMplay I used Winamp, and the skinning community on the XMplay site has skins that emulate the appearance of the common Winamp versions.

wamodern

All you have to do is download the skin, and extract it in the same folder as XMplay. When you start up XMplay right-click on the player and select the ‘Skin’ menu to change the appearance of the player to any of the installed skins. There are dozens to choose from and you can even download tools to create your own. Some skins have compact modes which can be toggled by double-clicking on the player.

CompactPlayer

With the playlist hidden you can control playback with just the bottom bar.

Additional audio formats like MIDI (common to composer programs like MuseScore and Finale SongWriter), FLAC (a lossless high quality audio format), APE (the music format for monkeys) and Shorten (SHN, used for old concert files can be added) can be added with plugins. In addition to its own set of audio plugins, XMplay supports many plugins for Winamp like SHN. Again installation is as simple as downloading the plugin from the XMplay site and extracting it in the XMplay folder.

My recommended list of additional plugins:

  • MIDI – Oldy but a goody and be used to convert some older game sound files to music you can burn.
  • FLAC – A lot of game bundles offer both MP3 and FLAC downloads. FLAC is high quality compressed but lossless audio and for real audio aficionados offers a better sound than MP3.
  • RealAudio – Again some older files, but I bet you have some hiding on one of your old computers, and now you can play it again without having to dig up the old RealPlayer software.
  • Apple Lossless – A lot of common Apple formats covered here.
  • AAC Plugin – AAC/MP4 playing audio from common video formats.

You can see which audio file formats the player can play back by right-clicking, selecting ‘Options and stuff’ and selecting ‘Integration’ from the selections on the left:

Integration

With all of this installed, and maybe a couple of skins and additional plugins, we’re still clocking in at under 2MB. And the best part is if you get a configuration you like you can take that folder, copy it to a flash drive, and take it to any computer you connect to. Throw a compilation of your favorite music on the drive as well and you are set for life.

Here’s all I’m saying. We all are used to the name brand software, just like with a lot of other things. We don’t investigate and make other choices because this is just what everyone does. How else do you explain how Internet Explorer has been one of the dominant browsers (at least until Chrome) for all these years? But with minimal effort you can get something that is actually better, and will stay out of your way so you can listen to music rather than manage it.

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Why you should spend more time on the Internet’s library

Internet_Archive_logo_and_wordmarkI’ve used the Internet Archive for years. It’s where I discovered Over The Rhine, John Holowach and Tryad, Two Zombies Later and a ridiculous amount of concerts and community artists.

It’s a great resource for old books too, be it public domain works from Project Gutenberg or LibriVox recordings of The Lost World.

It’s also where I discovered a lot of great machinima including an old Star Wars classic “A Great and Majestic Empire”. Do yourself a favor and at least watch episodes 14 and 15 (though sadly this series doesn’t have much of a proper end, but it’s still amusing to have British, Irish and Scottish accents in storm troopers).

And if you’ve never played, or even seen, LucasArt’s classic Grim Fandango, there’s a full playthrough here.

The point is there’s a lot of cool stuff*, for geeks of all sorts.

And it just got even better.

If you’ve been a long time reader of the blog, you probably know one of my hobbies is getting old games to work on modern systems with the help of tools like DosBox and ScummVM. Till now if you heard about a cool old game you’d like to try you either had to download a copy of a game from an abandonware site, or buy a copy from GOG or a used store. But the Internet Archive has struck again, releasing several thousand old DOS games that you can play right in your browser. Remember Doom or Commander Keen? Well now you can indulge your nostalgia. For the moment you can’t save your game, but you can at least get a feel for how we gamed in the 80’s and 90’s (and how some of us still do). You can browse the whole library here, but here are a couple of titles you should check out now.

Note: What’s in the collection may fluctuate. I saw Sierra’s Quest games in the collection earlier this week, but they now appear to have been removed. Probably some of this is going to be subject to copyright.

Lost Interplay Titles, particularly Wasteland (the predecessor to Fallout) and Star Trek 25th Anniversary. Also a video game version of William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

screenshot_00

The aforementioned Commander Keen, particularly episode 5.

A whole treasure trove of Carmen Sandiego games (got you singing the theme right?). I played the deluxe Where in the World on my first computer.

Some old Lucasarts favorites Zac McKracken and Maniac Mansion.

And thousands more.

As it turns out the Internet Archive has been awesome in this department for a while. In my searching for games in the Archive I stumbled upon another collection of IBM PC CD-ROM’s from the 90’s. Not a particularly huge collection but it does include my favorite Star Trek Adventure Game, the third chapter of the Monkey Island series and something that may Shock you.

Note: All of these materials are provided for academic and scholarly purposes, so if you’re going to play System Shock, write a paper (or a book) about it 🙂 I don’t have to write one since I have an original sitting in my personal archive but I might for some of this other stuff 😉

Oh and there’s one other thing you can find on the Internet Archive, me. Turns out they’re a great place to host eBook content that I want to give away for free, but retain some Creative Commons licensing and have the site not cost me anything. Starting this time next week, new chapters of the serial novella will appear on the archive. In the meantime, I put up an old story from the first year of this blog in eBook formats for your enjoyment.

If you haven’t checked out the archive at all, just spend a half an hour browsing. I’m sure you’ll find something you’ll like and would never have heard of otherwise.

*Oooh ooh and I almost forgot to mention old Computer Chronicles videos. Want to know what the 80’s and 90’s thought the future of computing was going to be? Check it out here.

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Hey, It’s Friday!

Or is Thursday, since that’s when I’m writing this post?

Philosophical arguments aside I thought I’d share with you a couple of quick things that are making me happy.

First up, Pomplamoose:

This is from one of the many other bundles available on Bundle Dragon, and has been stuck in my head for the last week along with these:

Quirky huh?

If you at all like what you’re hearing you can check them out at: http://contemusic.bundledragon.com/cintro.

And if you missed it check out this great interview from M. S. Fowle. I promise I’ll work on my car taste at some point.

On Monday a certain Brian D. Buckley is conducting his own interrogation of yours truly. Trust me, no one else could ask me some of the questions this man has come up with. I got chills, serious chills.

Regular programming will resume on Tuesday. Have a great weekend!

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Music to Work By

I am always looking for the perfect album.

Yes, that’s right I said album. Even in this day and age of individual song downloads, I am still looking for the perfect 70 minutes to spend with an artist. I buy a lot of music, though a lot of it comes attached to video games. In fact the soundtrack is the justifying factor in buying more than a few games. “I may not have time to play this right now, but I always have time to listen to new music.”

Music permeates my every creative activity throughout the day, as well as more mundane moments like my drive home. Some people use music to help them keep a pace while running, and I feel like I use it in much the same way. Music can help me focus by cutting out other distractions, and can help me to establish a tone or rhythm to my writing. It can even affect the pace of my typing, either forcing me to pause and reflect for a moment, or tap the keys with a mad flourish like a concert pianist (speaking as one with no piano playing ability).

Sometimes I construct playlists but this is not always effective in establishing a consistent rhythm. Too many shifts in style, even subtle ones, can take me out of the work and force me to pull my focus back in. Obviously lyrics when writing can be distracting, even for songs I know very well, though for a while I was using Adele’s Skyfall to tell me it was time to pack up the laptop. Ambient music is okay, but if it’s little more than shifting waves it can put me to sleep, at a time I’m naturally inclined to do so. I kinda need a beat to keep me going.

I think I’ve commented on my theory that techno music is the perfect music to program by, and it serves me in my writing often as well. Many good video game soundtracks fit into this category as well, especially the less “symphonic” scores. I like albums not only because I don’t have to spend time putting a playlist together, but also because a good album retains a thematic consistency while keeping enough variety to keep my brain stimulated. And 70 minutes is my optimal writing session, both because it’s about how much time I have before work to write at Starbucks, but also because it gives me enough time to gear up and get going, and to pause and think without feeling rushed, while not cutting too much into my day or sleep.

During the writing of the fractal book one of my soundtrack staples was Indie Game: The Movie. It clocks in right at the 70 minute mark and since the score is to a movie that follows the creative process, it can throw my brain into that mode within minutes. Another more recent discovery is Bastion. I particularly appreciate how individual themes are sung, and then blended in the final tracks.

What about you? What music do you listen to while you work? Or do you work in silence? What is that like?

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