100 States of Mind through Music

The 100 Day Project, music, rituals, and habits.

Music has played a more intimate role in my life than my 4 years of piano lessons let on. Music was medicine. Music was therapy. Music was advisory, and prophetic. It was, and is a deeply personal and essential ritual in my everyday sense of wellbeing. I practiced music in 15-minute bursts on my brother’s loop station, my best friend’s drum kit, and my cousin’s midi-keyboard.

Music gave me control of my immediate psychological climate and let me transform my frame of mind when I was locked into uncontrollable bouts of depression. It overthrew, even if temporarily, whatever tonal dictatorship my feeling of doom imposed and then worked to replace it. Each new song became an avatar that I could invoke to help me combat whatever mental challenges I was dealing with at the time.

Day 20: Enormous Earth

It helps me engage with my thoughts through different tonal mindsets, and I have long been looking for a dedicated way to pay respect to a medium that is, to me, personally more important than design (which I have dedicated my vocational efforts to). When my close friend and chief collaborator Janice asked me to do the 100-day project, writing musical vignettes I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. She outlines our overall process nicely in her reflection. To summarize, we select an adjective and noun randomly from a word bank we generated. Then, she creates wonderful illustrations and I write tunes to the words. We each put in a brief description and publish them on our SoundCloud, which you can find here!


process
 
The software looks technical, but the process of writing music is a lot less step-driven. After reading the word combination of the day, I try to think of a feeling that is evoked. The feeling is often established by conventions in music. For example, the word combination of “Frank Agriculture” has pastoral implications that made me think of folk music.

Day 11: Frank Agriculture

After committing to a feeling that the words evoke, I start thinking about the types of instrumentation that make this feeling possible. What sound quality is pastoral? The word combinations often lead me to other word associations that translate more naturally to different audio ideas. The word ‘pastoral’ to me better communicates a sound texture, while the word ‘frank’ communicates a melody.

Then comes the actual writing of music. I set a tempo, start humming, and begin hammering on the keyboard until I come to a melody that communicates the idea.

From then on is the crescendo–I add layer after layer of instrumentation until the feeling of the words is fully or accurately conveyed. That’s the climax or high-point of the musical narrative. ‘Fleeting Shelter’ very audibly shows this process.

Day 12: Fleeting Shelter

The next step is more subtractive. I remove layers and pieces from it. Some pieces are essential to communicating the idea, while others are enhancers of existing sounds. Each time you remove a layer, you create more musical negative space which itself establishes a new feeling.

This process sounds alchemical and it partly is. What it looks like technically is a looping bar of music. Eventually, I start to hear this bar of music in my dreams (and my nightmares!).

After 1 to 2 hours of looping, adding, subtracting, and feeling, I arrive at something that communicates the word combination (or doesn’t) and I let it go. We both then juxtapose our projects and partake in a viewing and listening party on opposite sides of the United States.


lessons learned
 
I wanted to undertake this project as a way to give space to an important part of my development, but I’ve learned and felt a lot of things while sitting in the glow of my laptop screen in front of the flashing modules of my midi-keyboard.

  1. In the same way that any type of creator will find themselves immediately drawn to obvious choices, I found myself drawn to things that are conventionally acceptable or “appropriate” within music. I have a musical comfort zone, and writing music en masse and listening to it in sequence has made me critically aware of my own tendencies.
  2. The way music conveys meaning is heavily tied to our biases about certain music genres. For example, Frank Agriculture works because people (myself included) associate the countryside with acoustic instrumentation.
  3. The first approach to an idea rarely is the most effective. I usually have two or three versions of each track. The one I make latest is most frequently the one that I decide on publishing.
  4. The more technically heavy a program is, the more path dependent your process becomes and the harder it is to make macro changes on your project.
  5. Working in other media like doodling or writing can inspire and inform work in your own media. Some times, I’d create a visual doodle of the word choice to give myself a better sense of an idea.
  6. Not everything that you produce should be refined, especially if the objective is self-growth.
  7. Doing vocals forces you to be more comfortable with your own voice.

–– moving forward

A huge part of this growth has been from self-reflection. One of our concerns was the disconnect between our projects–both of us have been working independently on each piece. Moving forward, our overarching objective is to create a more intimately collaborative process. In the coming set, we’ll discuss our interpretation of word combinations ahead of time to make our collaborations more cohesive.

Every day of this project raises more questions. Here are a few of them.

  1. What are forms of media that give equal weight and importance to audio and illustration, and pair the two together?
  2. How can I subvert my own understanding of musical conventions while still communicating a socially understood interpretation of an idea?
  3. How can I bring other people into our collaborations?

shoutouts

Some of my closest pals, Rachel Huang, Jason Lin, Lillian Liu, Madeleine Salem, and Jackie Su are participating in #The100DayProject as well. They are a constant source of inspiration to us–check ’em out!