As of January 1, 2020, we’ve officially moved from New York City to Milwaukee. New city, new year. A break this clean calls for zeroing in and laying out some goals. Sharing them here might help keep me zeroed in. The following, randomly ordered seven-point list reflects, as of right now, the 2020 I can reasonably expect myself to live and to which I can reasonably hold myself accountable. This involves about the usual amount of ‘work’ I do in a year, but, in recent years, I’ve been spreading things too thin.
___(1) Write eight short stories. I’ve got notes, sketches, drafts. Picking a handful to finish is something I’ve been feeling unusually motivated to do in recent months. I’ve been forcing myself not to do it, in fact, because: what’s the point? No idea. We’ll see if any of them feel worth sharing.
___(2) Finish a new album. Not release, just finish. Finishing is more realistic and open ended. More details to come, but for now I’ll say that I have substantial material prepared for at least two more albums, so it shouldn’t be insurmountably difficult to squeeze out 10 to 12 ‘finished’ songs.
One hitch: I don’t have much in the way of equipment. Both of my guitars are broken and the computers I have are on their last wobbly legs (they can’t carry a full load of tracks these days). I don’t see a remedy for this anytime soon. As always, the mantra is: I’m doing the best I can with the resources available to me.
___(3) Advance my math understanding. This’ll take years. To start, I’ll focus on deepening my understanding of four foundational areas. To minimize cost (an absolute must), I’ll rely on freely available online content and on books I already have handy or can get from the library.
Jan–Mar: Multivariable Calculus. I’ll at a minimum go through these resources: Vector Calculus by Susan Jane Colley. Calculus 3 lecture series by Professor Leonard on YouTube. MIT Multivariable Calculus lecture series by Denis Auroux (with additional materials available at the course website). Paul’s notes for Calculus 3. For helping train my 3D intuitions, there’s the GeoGebra 3D Calculator.
Apr–June: Linear Algebra. The main resources I’ll use are Kuldeep Singh’s book Linear Algebra: Step by Step, Jim Hefferon’s freely available (with answers) book Linear Algebra, and the MIT Linear Algebra lecture series by W. Gilbert Strang (with additional materials available at the course website).
If I need additional guidance, I might treat myself to Jenn’s Linear Algebra series; her explanations are some of the clearest I’ve seen. But I probably should put that money towards guitar repairs (see above). Then again, $29 for a month’s access is a bargain. I could watch those videos and her Dif-Eq series in that time. Speaking of which…
Jul–Sep: Differential Equations. I have a college textbook for this one, but it’s in storage and I don’t remember the title. For lectures, I’ll use Professor Leonard’s lecture series, and possibly Haynes Miller’s MIT lecture series (with additional materials available at the course website). And Paul’s notes for Dif Eq.
Oct–Dec: Probability. Here, I have one goal: finish my favorite ‘introductory’ (don’t underestimate it!) probability textbook, Introduction to Probability (2nd edition) by by Joseph K. Blitzstein & Jessica Hwang. I’ve already worked through several chapters (of the 1st edition), but, as I got further in, I found myself increasingly reminded that I need to do more work in the above-listed topics (e.g., I yearn to understand the derivations, the proofs).
I’ll likely redo many of the earlier practice sets in order to refresh my combinatorics chops (one of the things I love about the book is how much attention is given to combinatorics and discrete mathematics in general), before heading back into continuous random variables. Blitzstein also has a lecture series (the class is Harvard Stats 110) you can follow along with while working through the book, and a dedicated website with additional materials and a free online version of the textbook!
Another book I love and will look to for additional exercises, in a different style, is Introduction to Probability (2nd edition) by Dimitri P. Bertsekas & John N. Tsitsiklis. Tsitsiklis, from MIT, also has a lecture series (most of which I’ve watched), a series of 200 tutorial videos, and additional materials at the course website.
What an unbelievably amazing time to be an autodidact.
Why the math? I see a certain horizon and want to see what’s on the other side; I hear it’s beautiful.
___(4) Guitar: Improve my alternate picking, particularly three notes per string. One way to work on this is by playing modes up and down the neck (e.g., from the third to the twentieth fret and back). For something more musical, I’ll work on Jason Becker’s “Mable’s Fatal Fable” (starting at 1:15):
Or check this guy out, slow then fast:
(Ultimate-Guitar has the tab closest to how I play it.)
I may never reach Becker’s tempo, but that’s not exactly the point.
A less intimidating but also fun bit of work that’ll help is found in the first solo of this John McLaughlin & Larry Coryell duet from Coryell’s 1970 album Spaces, called “Rene’s Theme” (by Rene Thomas):
(Sheet music available at SCRIBD.)
For those interested, here are some technical details and background info related to this goal.
The alternate technique I rely on the most involves what guitar-teacher-extraordinaire Troy Grady calls ‘swiping’:
Though swiping feels natural to me, it, and thus alternate picking, is an undeveloped part of my playing for three reasons.
First, I’d always figured swiping sloppy. Swiping is a way of switching strings by powering or pushing or gliding through the string you’re on—usually (but not always) with that string deadened—rather than jumping over it. Grady himself didn’t think of swiping as acceptable, much less desirable, until he observed it in the playing of some great pickers (Grady by then had developed a technique he calls ‘pick slanting,’ which I’ve found beneficial to experiment with, though swiping suits me better, I think).
Second, during the time in my life that I was developing my electric guitar techniques (and many of my classical guitar techniques)—a productive period of obsessive practicing in the 1980s from about ages 14 to 16—what came most readily to me was economy picking, sweep picking, tapping (including ‘8-finger’ style), hybrid picking (pick + fingers), legato playing, and arpeggiated/tremolo fingerpicking. So that’s what I focused on.
Here’s a poorly produced collage of music I recorded on a 4-track during that time, featuring all but the last of those techniques. Five recordings are excerpted here, showing influence especially from Steve Vai, Jason Becker, Marty Friedman, and Randy Rhoads. While there is some slower, lighter fare here, much of it is on the heavier side—metal-influenced, even—because that’s where these techniques were most represented in my playing (not on display here are my explorations influenced by, for example, Frank Zappa, flamenco, “classical music” (past and contemporary), many jazz/bebop/fusion players (e.g., Joe Pass, Charlie Parker, Allan Holdsworth), and what at the time was called “World Music”; also, the harmonies are overdubs and not a digital harmonizer, as a certain guitar magazine editor once assumed in a letter to me):
(If I ever again find myself with a 4-track unit, I might transfer and clean up some of my old high school recordings.)
Third, by around 17, I was barely touching the guitar. I found myself instead leaning more and more towards pen-and-paper composing. Often, I’d write stuff out (usually in class, which received a range of reactions from teachers, from annoyance to a kind of cognitive dissonance: some of them seemed to view what I was doing as more interesting than whatever they were teaching, but were obligated to at least occasionally try to convince me to pay attention), then I’d take it home and overdub the parts with guitars. I eventually stopped doing even that much, finding other ways to listen to my chamber and symphonic compositions (my biggest influence by age 18, in the months following high school graduation, was probably Dmitri Shostakovich). I also spent long periods obsessed with other things in and directly after high school (e.g., studying languages, becoming obsessed with movies).
In the years to come, I only occasionally touched a guitar until my mid-20s, when I found myself inspired to play along with albums by various Brazilian musicians (especially Caetano Veloso), which led me to further develop my nylon-string guitar playing. Over the next few years (which also included a period of obsession with Jacques Brel), I was, to my surprise (and, initially, against protest), inspired to write and record my own songs, lyrics and all. I did so with all the musical instincts and tastes intact that I’d nurtured earlier in life, which is to say that I freely, naturally dipped back into the guitar techniques I’d learned as a teenager.
Here’s a montage of electric and acoustic guitar highlights from the four albums I released from 2006 to 2010. Decades later, the 1980s essence of my teenage years—of that intense practice period—smolders on (particularly considering that, again, the above shred-montage doesn’t reflect the scope of my teenage musical tastes and forays; the below highlights don’t capture it, either, nor the extent to which it widened in later years, which now makes me wish I’d included more here or made different choices, as 12 minutes is already too long):
In short, my alternate picking never got its due attention. It will in 2020 (or that’s the idea; other things on this list are more important to me, as I suppose they always have been, which is a much shorter way of explaining why it never got its due attention; another possibility occasionally burbles to mind then fades promptly: my hands just don’t have it in ’em).
People do astonishing, ingenious things without an extensive alternate picking program—look at Stanley Jordan, Allan Holdsworth, Frank Gambale, Brian May, Jimi Hendrix, and, my favorite guitarist, Randy Rhoads. To name only a few. In fact, most members of the Guitar Gods pantheon aren’t phenomenal alternate pickers (something that has bewildered Grady: quickly ascending a scale with an attack on each note, for instance, seems a small ask of accomplished musicians).
I want to improve mine because there’s stuff (in the world and in my head) I’d like to play and can’t without it.
___(5) Learn Bach’s 13th Invention on piano. I think I first heard and was transfixed by the piece at 14, performed by the DX7-type keyboardist (and front man?) of a Christian rock band I otherwise found boring but was allowed (compelled?) to hear. I got hold of the sheet music, which I recall taking to gym class where, with intense concentration, I tried, enveloped in the funk and clamor of a bunch of weightlifting boys, to mentally generate the music, with precision and clarity, as a kind of inner-ear exercise (not to mention as an only partially successful means of self-teleportation; maybe I should have instead taken fugues).
Later, I learned a good chunk of the 13th. I’d like to learn the rest, with Glenn Gould’s famous recording as my unreachable guide (by ‘learn’ I mean: ‘play fluidly with style and gliding finesse, memorized,’ and not ‘lumber-stumble through, sight-reading’):
Also helpful, from David Magyel:
[If I had four hands, I’d have Beethoven’s “Große Fuge” as my goal here. I love the Bach, but the Beethoven is more me, for reasons too numerous and speculative to mention here. I might tackle it with an overdubbed guitar-based ensemble; if it works out, I’ll share it, though I’m skeptical that it will work (attempts I’ve heard by others are a mess). What makes, or allows, it work or not is something I want to understand.
Here it is with string quartet:
And here it is for piano four hands. It works ok on piano, maybe due to the instrument’s percussive attack, quick and vibrato-less decay, and roundly crystalline timbre, though the piece’s best medium, string quartet, is the opposite of these things. Maybe the critical feature is that Beethoven himself did the arrangement:
This reminds me. I’ve at least twice heard rogue mathematician Eric Weinstein (who, by the way, just is The Portal) say that he doesn’t believe any mathematician who says Bach isn’t their favorite composer. I’m not a mathematician, so I can’t comment on that. I’d be curious to know what Weinstein thinks of the “Große Fuge.” Even more so, I wish he’d spend time with some music that seems to me a striking candidate for piercing the mathematically fortified thorax.
I have in mind not the music of mathematically explicit post-Viennese serial composers, nor of math-reliant spectral composers. I’m thinking instead of the more intuitively, which is to say transcendently (deeply? essentially?), mathematical music of Gloria Coates, one of my favorite composers. Where the aforementioned cohorts—among whom we might as well also include aleatoric composers—use math as a compositional tool (to wonderful ends, sometimes), Coates, like Bach (while sounding nothing like Bach: there’s no competition here), just composes, and the mathematical consequences, projections, shadows, affinities, embroilments, lattice-denudement, or whatever (I’m at a loss for describing it) are not about quantities or ratios but are about shapes, symmetries: are intuitively felt rather than intellectually encoded.
In other words, it’s music first, always. All else just happens to follow from a certain purity of connection between the composer and the guts of the world.
Consider this exchange from a 2010 interview, which aligns completely with my experience of Coates’s music:
Gloria Coates: …I don’t have to [make a science of composing], because for me it’s already there in what I hear. There are different ways of approaching it, I guess, and it depends on how you hear I think.
Nolan Gasser: Right – for you, it’s coming out of your own aural experience of the music, as opposed to from a mathematical approach.
GC: Exactly – in fact, in all of my music, there is first of all a basic desire to express something. And then I ask, “What route are you going to take to get there?” I’ll usually answer this question visually – I will make a little sketch, a few lines here and there that show where I’m going to go. And then as I start composing, I already know the direction I’m going. Of course, I might take a different route, but I’ll eventually get to what I’m trying to express.
If I had 100 hands, many of which for controlling tuning wrenches, I’d have as my piano goal one of Coates’s large-scale works, maybe her Symphony #15 “Homage to Mozart” (2004/2005) or her Holographic Universe (1975), the second movements of either—”Puzzle Cannon” and “Mirror Manifolds,” respectively—I especially wish Weinstein to live in a while:
I’m restraining myself in sharing only two samples, while encouraging everyone to buy some of Coates’s music. A great start is the Naxos album Gloria Coates: Symphony No. 15; Cantara Da Requiem; Transitions.
As for these beautiful and challenging works’ mathematical thaumaturgy: You tell me, Weinstein. Are they amenable (a pun?) to a Hofstadter treatment, maybe of a more oblique or nth-order sort?
I wonder: What would be the intuitively felt musical—not sonic or music-theoretic or arbitrary-matching-of-pitches-and-numbers, but intuitively and expressively musical—equivalent of a non-orientable surface?]
___(6) Publish blog posts at an average of one per 9 days. That’s about 40 posts (double what I did in 2019). I doubt it’ll happen, but it’s a goal. The following policy, which I will try to stick to, would make the goal much easier to reach: write shorter posts. If I can stay within 1,200 and 3,500 words, with the average hovering around the middle, that’d be a big help.
[Why this goal? The short answer is that I feel compelled to think deeply about stuff, and I’ll only think deeply about a thing in writing, and I’m generally only motivated to write with conscientious care if I plan to share.
Does this mean I’ve worked out what I ‘actually think’ once the writing is finished? Sometimes yes, other times: I don’t know. I worry that what I’m often doing—what most contemplative or philosophically inclined discussants are often doing—is sculpting or piecing together or concocting a neat- or cool- or impressive- or clever- or surprising- (or etc.) sounding story I’m willing to commit to or appear to commit to or that intelligibly satisfies certain neat narrative or discursive criteria (or etc.), rather than working out what I ‘actually think.’ So my real goal is to froth up a respectable dose of confusion, one I cannot, anytime soon, imagine doing anything about clearing up; if I fail to confuse myself, then perhaps I have actually landed on what I ‘actually think,’ or at least on what I think I should think.
This metacognitive reflection applies, too, to what I’m writing right now.)
___(7) Spend more time reading than writing. I already do this, I believe. A roughly 3:2 ratio seems nice. I won’t list any specific titles, but will say that I’d like to enunciate a goal of upping my consumption of fiction, memoir, and non-academic essays.
I’ll also say that, as someone who tends to flit from writer to writer, I’m ruminating a lot lately on some advice given by Joyce Carol Oates in my favorite chapter (“To A Young Writer”) of her excellent 2003 book The Faith of a Writer:
Immerse yourself in a writer you love, and read everything he or she has written, including the very earliest work. Especially the very earliest work. Before the great writer became great, or even good, he/she was groping for a way, fumbling to acquire a voice, perhaps just like you. (p. 24, Kindle edition)
Maybe I should spend less time listening to podcasts in order to boost my reading time. I might be listening to too many podcasts.
That’s it. There’s much else I’d like to put here (brush up on languages I haven’t used in a while; add some new languages, preferably non-European ones; spend some time developing my counterpoint, orchestration, and improvisatory skills; read a long list of philosophical works I’ve yet to read; what’s up with anthropology, anyway?; listen closely to all the ‘important’ albums from the last 15 years I haven’t heard; the usual ‘get in better shape’ stuff; consume the entire Criterion Channel catalog in alphabetical order; figure out a way to reduce, rather than increase, my debt; concentrate effort on improving my writing, or at least making it less embarrassing; and on and on), some of which I’ll likely do (I’d better do), but it’s not going on the official 2020 list.
I doubt I’ll finish the seven items on the 2020 list. If I check off half of them, it’ll be a year well spent.
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