Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Five or So Questions with Matt Weber on Gemstones and More

I interviewed Matt Weber on his work for his new project, Gemstones, and about his thoughts on gaming and music. 

As well as being a gamer and all-around cool guy, turns out you're also musically talented! Tell me about your current musical projects. What's up next?

I have two current composition projects.

I was hired last year by the talented writer, comedian, and ventriloquist April Brucker to turn her hilarious autobiography into a musical. We're about a half-dozen songs in, with roughly as many to go. This project is an opportunity for me to flex my jazz and pop muscles. We're not aiming to score for a full orchestra, for a variety of practical as well as artistic reasons; rather, we are using a small jazz ensemble of piano, bass (either electric or upright depending on the song), drums, and a multi-instrumentalist wind player who can rotate between flute, clarinet, and all four types of saxophone. One of the actors will also play acoustic and electric guitar, since that character, the main love interest in the story, is a budding rockstar. I've been working the guitar into the ensemble for the songs that are "in fiction."

I'm also working on a piece for Version Excursion Dance ensemble in Seattle. The director and choreographer of that ensemble, Erin Boyt, contacted me about an upcoming project of hers and asked me to write a new piece for it. This one is genre fiction related, as it is a dance adaptation of the famous early science fiction film Voyage Dans La Lune. The music I am writing alternates between a pounding, movie-soundtrack style and slower, more meditative and chromatic sections. One of the most exciting aspects of this work for me is that I am learning how to write for an instrument that is new to me, the accordion. (The full ensemble is piano, accordion, trumpet, and classical percussion.) Also, because it is so very different than the musical, it doesn't really occupy the same brain space and so I can switch between them with little difficulty—the one functions as a break from the other.

Over the past ten years, I've become increasingly frustrated by my compositional ability outstripping my performing skills. I do sing and play the piano, but not nearly as well as I compose. To remedy this gap I've just begun taking piano lessons again, for the first time in far too long. I found a great teacher who can help me with all genres of music and who is willing to work thoughtfully to accommodate my small hands. I'm still getting in the swing of a regular practice schedule again, but it feels really great to be doing it. In about six months to a year I'd like to begin performing my pop and musical songs in front of live audiences.

Finally, I have a live performance of one of my pieces coming up. The work that is premiering was actually finished in 2012 but I haven't had a chance to get it performed until now. It's called Gemstones. It's for string quartet (a very traditional ensemble consisting of two violins, a viola, and a cello) and you can hear a pretty good MIDI simulation of it here. Stylistically it's a fusion of Chopin (mid-19th century, very traditional Romantic), Ravel (early 20th-century, on the border between traditional tonality and modernity), and my own metric twists. It's going to premiere on April 22nd at 8 PM as part of a concert of the New York Composers Circle. (St. Peter's Church, 54th St. and Lexington Ave.) I hope to have a studio recording available soon after.

What was it like to work with a dance ensemble and with a new instrument, both at the same time?

I'm fortunate to have some great support with the "Voyage 2014" project. Erin, of course, will be doing all the choreographing, and she has been extremely clear and professional in terms of what she wants from me. We mapped out the scenes, I sent her some early sound-sketches and proposals for how I would expand those ideas as the plot unfolds, and now, with her blessing, I am working on fleshing out those plans. In a few weeks I'll send her a MIDI version of the full score, so she can begin working on the choreography, with the proviso that the rhythms won't be completely the same as what human players will do. She may also ask for any necessary revisions. In the meantime she'll begin gathering players to make a studio recording.

I've consulted with various online sources to figure out the scoring of the accordion, as well as talking to a friend of a friend who plays. One huge advantage of being a composer today is the vast number of free scores and guides available on the Internet. It turns out accordion is pretty similar to the piano in a lot of ways, so figuring out the interplay between those two instruments is one of the major challenges of this piece. Having them "double" (play the same material in parallel) is possible for some of the time, but not something you want to over-use. I'm definitely going to check in with the guy who actually plays again before I send the score to Erin. I also may need to make some revisions once we find our actual player, since accordions can be somewhat idiosyncratic in terms of their exact highest and lowest notes.

What is your favorite method of enjoying music as a consumer?

Great question. Ideally, it's going to concerts. Especially for jazz, I find the energy of the live ensemble to be unrivaled. Lately I haven't really had the time or money to go. (I used to write reviews, an awesome site for new music founded by my former classmate Thomas Deneuville. That work got me free tickets and CDs, but I haven't had the time for awhile to really do the kind of quality writing that site deserves.) I've made some changes in my life recently as far as how I handle work and finances, and once that stabilizes a bit more I'm hoping to be able to go back to hearing concerts at least once or twice a month on weekends.

In the meantime, I use Pandora frequently. I curate my stations pretty aggressively. I have one for rock, one for softer folk rock (that's actually my favorite), jazz, modern classical, soundtracks, Broadway, and a few others. I'm listening to my rock station as I'm typing this. :-)

There's another thing I'm hoping to carve out more time for as my life continues re-stabilizing after recent upheavals, and that is score study. That's when you really delve into a piece, listening to it multiple times while looking at the printed score. It's a great way to get into the nitty-gritty of how to orchestrate certain sounds and take a piece apart, but it's pretty time intensive. Also, despite the wealth of material available online, I prefer to have printed scores so I can mark them up. They're expensive but I have a backlog of ones I still need to work on sitting on the shelf (much like with other types of books!).

What do you think are good examples of commonalities and relationships between gaming and music that you are familiar with?
I'm pretty much obsessed with the idea of emotional clarity in narrative, as explained brilliantly by Film Critic Hulk.

I look at the rise of folk, rock, and pop in the 1950's as a response to the increasing rarefication and inaccessibility of classical music at that time, as exemplified by composers like Stockhausen and Schoenberg. To some extent jazz was experiencing a similar audience disconnect, with the rise of the bebop style throughout the 40's. Bebop can get very dense and complex to the point of being off-putting, despite the virtuosity of the players. (The 50's is when the famous and influential "Kind of Blue" jazz album was written, with its very simple, modal harmonies, so within the jazz community, as well, there was a dialogue surrounding this problem.) Pop musicians plugged into what was going on at that cultural moment—the rise of youth culture, the civil rights movement, later on Vietnam—and helped people both to understand and to feel understood. Whether or not that's a good thing is beside the point, it's just how art works.

When I craft a piece, I always aim to make the emotional arc as clear as possible to the listener. With songs, this can be somewhat easier, since you have actual words to fall back on to get your point across, but it's no less important in instrumental pieces. An instrumental piece is absolutely an emotional journey just like a love song, a novel, a movie, or, yes, a roleplaying game (I'm getting there, I swear!). There are tons of examples but one that I find absolutely stunning is *Brahms' First Symphony. He was living with the pressure of insanely high expectations, including frequent comparisons to the antecedent genius of Beethoven, and it actually took him fourteen years to complete the symphony. It is full of doubt and tension but then, finally, after endless struggle and backsliding, ultimate triumph. It thus represents its own compositional process, the emotional journey of the composer, which in turn becomes that of the audience. Amusingly, Brahms' hard work paid off so well that the First Symphony is nicknamed "Beethoven's Tenth."

By the way, tonality definitely isn't necessary for a work to have emotional resonance. I've both heard and written some post-tonal pieces that I thought were very moving, but in that case the composer has to find some way of connecting with the audience other than through a traditional chord progression. (Good examples include Short Ride In a Fast MachineDifferent Trains,Concerto For OrchestraLigeti's Requiem, and Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima. Also, most people seem to like my Sequence No. 1.) Tonality is simply a very easy way of connecting with listeners' emotions because it has such a long history and there is so much ingrained, completely unconscious ritualization of our reactions to tonal music. But a lot of contemporary instrumental music doesn't give listeners much of anything to latch on to. Highly educated audience members may appreciate certain technical nuances of the playing, but they are no substitute for a melody, a rhythmic pattern, or even a recurring tone "color" that can give us some reason, any reason, to just care about the piece.

Now, at long last, let's talk about gaming. What is the bare minimum requirement for a roleplaying experience to be enjoyable? For me, and I suspect for most players, it boils down to a reasonable frequency of chances to make impactful decisions within the narrative. The exact definitions of "impact" and "narrative" can be enormously varied! For instance in jeepform games there may not be many opportunities to actually influence the outcome of the "plot," such as it is, but players have many chances to show how the unfolding events impact the characters' emotions. Whereas in an old-school dungeon-crawl the characters' emotions may be less important, but players have unimpeded freedom to approach the challenges of the dungeon in whatever crazy ways they can dream up. But every successful game I've either played in or run has one thing in common: the players are all on board with a single, central premise.

A recent example: at Dreamation I co-ran a Mouse Guard LongCon campaign with Mark Diaz Truman, Marissa Kelly, and Brendan Conway. Even though there were three to four tables of mouse PCs at any one time, with quite a few individual issues to deal with, part of the reason the game worked so well is because we started from a very basic premise: Pebblebrook, the westernmost mouse town, has suffered from an earthquake. Literally every single problem the guardmice faced, from labor disputes to possible weasel invasion, either stemmed from that initial situation or were a complication to it. So, throughout the campaign, everyone in all their diverse quests kept focused on the big question of the ultimate fate of Pebblebrook and the rest of the mouse territories. That unity not only helped everyone to invest emotionally, but also made it relatively easy for PCs to move between tables and quickly figure out ways to help each other. The PCs' actions felt weighty because they fully understood the stakes.

To talk more broadly for a moment, a great deal of the development in RPG design in the new millennium can be seen as a backlash against increasing convolution throughout the 90's. So many games from that era, such as Vampire: The Masquerade or Earthdawn, not to mention much of the material for 2nd Ed. D&D, had incredibly interesting premises, but didn't give gamers clear, concrete instructions about how to actually turn those broad ideas into specific campaign frames. Often the mechanics contradicted the intended themes of play. The worst game texts actually encouraged deliberate obfuscation, not just of specific NPC actions, but of entire plotlines! It's very hard as a player to buy into a game where it's clear there are many Important Things afoot but you have no access to or understanding of those Things.

Contrast those games, with their huge worlds and endless possibilities, with indie classics like Dogs in the Vineyard or Don't Rest Your Head. Both of those RPGs, and many others besides, are strong precisely because they are very limited. Some people may be turned off by the very idea of, for example, Mormon paladin gunslingers, and that's fine, but for those who do try it out, the game delivers exactly what it promises. Once again the value of simplicity is clear. Games of Dogs can get very complicated, of course, but those complications arise organically from a straightforward (albeit nuanced) premise that you have to buy into to even get started playing.

So that's how gaming and music are tied together, for me. It's not about writing songs from my character's point of view, or instrumental music to represent some piece of gaming fiction, though I've done both of those things and hope to do more in the future. It's about the importance of simplicity, and the inherent need for all successful narratives to have an emotional center.

What's up next for you, beyond Gemstones?

Well, Gemstones is essentially done, though I need to make arrangements to have a studio recording made. But once I'm done with that and the musical and the dance project, I'd like to put out an album of piano music. I'm looking at Kickstarter or a similar crowdfunding site for it. (I have ethical concerns about KS because of its links to Amazon.) I want to start with a relatively small, manageable project, which is why I'm aiming to make an album of music for just piano. The most important thing is for it to be very professional, in terms of the video, the look of the project site, and so on—all things that I'd really need to outsource to do them justice. So I'm going to take it slow, and aim to be the tortoise rather than the hare.

I've seen some pretty convincing arguments that crowdfunding is actually not such a great way to grow your audience; rather, it's a way of getting money from people who already know you. In all honesty, even if that's true I'm not sure if I care that much. I am working on other ways of expanding my name recognition, but in the meantime, my true goal as a musician is simply to be able to hear my own music as I intended for it to sound. If all I manage to do is get recording expenses covered, that's fine. Of course, some larger-scale (i.e. orchestral) projects require more formal, institutionalized support, but I figure that sort of thing will come in due course if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

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