2020 was, for me and many other musicians, a year of transition and new beginnings. In the past, I’d focused on contemporary classical composing, but in 2019 I started making electroacoustic music (in the sense of having both electronic and acoustic elements, not the specific genre) with another composer/producer and discovered that I really enjoyed collaborating. As a result, and because my initial plan to write a concert piece for performance in July got sidelined with the onset of the pandemic, I chose to focus on music production and recording.
In order to expand my home studio, I picked up a pair of studio monitors as well as a dedicated audio interface, pencil mics to record my piano, and a large-diaphragm condenser for vocals. I did a lot more work in DAWs, eschewing manuscript paper in favor of playing or singing ideas and recording them on my computer or phone. I read somewhere that Chopin could spend weeks agonizing over a composition, trying to recreate what he had improvised in a stroke of genius at the piano. Imagine how much more diverse the videos of his Études running rampant on Instagram would be right now if he’d had access to a simple tape recorder.
For a while my collaborator and I were still meeting in person, but when cases spiked in the fall we agreed to hold sessions over Zoom. While these were clunky at first, once we got the hang of it, we started making some great music and found that having both our computers at our fingertips enabled us to work in ways that we would not or could not have done in person, some of which were more efficient. For example, we could each open our DAW and generate ideas while the other person did something else. In our last session, we muted ourselves in order to record some vocals off-camera, then reconvened and combined our takes. For moments when the other person just isn’t getting what you’ve envisioned quite right, Zoom provides the option to take remote control of their screen (with their permission, of course.)
The pandemic also fed my Radiohead obsession as, in lieu of cancelled 2020 shows, the band released a treasure trove of past concert footage on YouTube. Although the studio recordings are immaculately sculpted, their live performances contain a raw vitality, a “flying by the seat of your pants” quality, as guitarist Ed put it in an interview on That Pedal Show, that the records simply can’t replicate. Don’t get me wrong; I love both. But the line they tread between recreating a rehearsed piece and improvising live (Thom varies the notes in his melodies, Johnny samples his vocals on the fly, for example) makes seeking out each variation of beloved favorites addicting.
The visuals add another layer of meaning to the songs, whether it’s Thom’s shimmying around the stage during “The Gloaming;” the closeup of his eye during “You And Whose Army?” which makes it look like he’s peering through a keyhole; making faces while singing “I’m a weirdo” during the chorus of “Creep;” or my favorite moment, when the band establishes a looping synth sequence at the end of “How to Disappear Completely” and walks off the stage, fulfilling the song’s didactic promise while leaving the machines blindly marching on, oblivious of their masters’ departure.
In addition to binging their live shows, I transcribed Yorke’s new song, Plasticine Figures, which he premiered via webcam on The Tonight Show: At Home Edition, and analyzed polyrhythms in the RH songs Ful Stop and Weird Fishes. The fruit of this labor was a short electronic track I made called Looking Up, which uses a dotted eighth note polyrhythm and a repeating 5-instead-of-4-note sequence as key components.
Around this time, I also began to try my hand at songwriting. I’ve loved vocal music and singing since I was a child, but hadn’t written any songs for myself to sing in the singer-songwriter sense, having always thought of myself more as a composer writing for other people. However, the results pleased me so much that I spent the rest of the year writing songs and recording my voice, and am now piecing together an EP that I plan to release later this year.
I hope everyone is coping well, and with vaccines on the horizon, looking forward to the time when performances will resume in force and we can enjoy the wonder of live music again. Best wishes for a productive 2021.