For a long time now I've been living with an inner tension caused by the struggle between two opposing tendencies. Not the kind of creative tension that solves itself in work being done, but the psychologically straining of intending something to be both black and white at the same time.
The ideas in struggle were:
1) The music I enjoy perhaps the most (not the only kind I enjoy, but the kind I always go back to) is one where technique means shit; a guy singing in a goofy way, a guitar that sounds like a door buzzer, can bring me tears of joy or rage, as long as there is feeling in that thing, as long as I hear something genuine and human taking place there. Punk bands of one single, Mr. Nobodies giving all they got, I love that stuff and look for it and dance to it and live for it and can't get enough of it.
2) The music I intend to make, for a long time, has been burdened by something that was almost a "superstition" of technique. I compose easily, but when the moment comes to make that composition real, take it to the world, for others to listen, the "technical fear" cripples in: oh, but will this compression parameters will be alright? Oh, but doesn't the voice track distorts at a couple of places that I wasn't able to fix?
I wonder how much of the music that the 70's punk gave us would we have if it had been dragged down by this kind of self doubt. But that's impossible, because punk precisely started as a rebellion against the excesses of technique and technification. Its intention was to bring back music to humans, everybody could and should make a band: say what you mean, mean what you say, give it a beat, go.
The world is in a pretty fucked up situation right now. At the same time, we have access to technological resources impossible to even dream of a few years ago. We have to hold the tool with a firm hand, make our way through the tough choices, and get stuff done, stuff that is meaningful (no matter what levels the compression uses).
So my kinda resolution is keeping things punk. It's not about being deliberately sloppy, either, but about keeping it real. I make punk, I make hardcore, with incursions in thrash, death, stoner. In these genres, things have to move quick. Overproduction, overcooking, is more for bubble gum pop, the stuff for delicate stomachs. I like the rawness of something put out there quick, for others to enjoy. That's what culture means. Making a contribution.
My recording gear and etc is demo level. I should see that as an advantage. I also think it is healthy the attitude of Washington's punk bands from the 80-90s, where punk intended to create meeting spaces for people (when people meet, stuff can happen); they were not about generating a "product" but about becoming kind of the center of a wheel, for others to be the wheel.
So, well, my resolution is difficult to specify, I'm still working on it and I'm afraid it's too soon to formulate it without making it stiff, but yeah, I guess it's that, I'm trying to keep it real, and punk, keeping stuff coming out. Not only the product is punk, but this way of making things happen is a punk statement too...
Lately I've had two realizations, which have driven me to one decision. The realizations are these:
1) Zeigarnik should have killed me by now
2) Ah, the irony!
In this post I will discuss realization #1.
I owe to Jim Benson, among so many other fruitful insights about intangible work, the acquaintance of the Zeigarnik effect. Here's the wikiquickie:
In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.
Add to that the way I work in my stuff; I once read some work diaries by the poet Giacomo Leopardi, and they were quite alike to my methods, a few centuries later. Example of an entry, the way I remember them:
"I take this flower in my hand...
(both flower and hand are going to fade away, in the same way life etc..., fragility of beauty, etc...)
The zipping of songs in my head works pretty much like that... I may have the gimmick, a few sentences, what should be the lyrics about, a riff that gives the feeling I want, a change of tempo that gives the character... All I need is putting out the hours and I'll have in the world the song that matches the one in my head. It's like pulling out of a thread, and what makes this "unzipping" process exciting is that there is always some 3-10% that you did not expect before going through the effort, and which always tells you something interesting about yourself.
This unzipping process in itself has a lot of "professional response". I've written some hundreds of songs. I belong to a certain artistic tradition, I have a certain "vocabulary" made of thousands of hours of music listened to and loved, I mix it with my experiences and present day weltanschaung, and voilá.
But how come my head has not exploded with all those open threads in my mind? I may be heating up a coffee in the microwave, I mumble something at the random of distraction, and it turns to be 2 new verses for one of those still-to-be new songs. That's a lot of inventory to manage!
That's why I need better production techniques. My goal of having all that stuff from my head properly produced and released, is like the golden grail of 100% value added work for companies. I don't think it's humanely possible to match the speed in which I record tracks, produce them, accommodate them and release them, to the lightning speed at which they are born in my head. But I have to try, it's exciting to try, and I could really use the free space in my head. I can't just ignore those songs, they keep popping out and every song not registered feels like a drowned kitten, like I said somewhere else.
My guess is that I've grown used to the Zeigarnik effect in the same way as those African women who add one ring to their neck every year, until they end up having giraffe-like necks.
Another aspect of the situation is that all those 'open threads' provide an escape, a possibility of expansion that is always there for me. No matter how ugly and full of despair the physical world gets, you always have a possibility of growth available there, you can always "water down" one of your songs a little and have it bloom some more.
Just be careful the garden does not end up suffocating you.
In my audio production works, I've found the kanban board to be an essential tool to keep focus and sanity. I wonder how could I survive so much time without using it.
The kanban board is one of the few Lean tools that have made a mainstream transition to the personal productivity world (hopefully, more of them will find their way into the masses as time goes on).
The main responsible for this transition is Jim Benson, author among others of a book called 'Personal Kanban', in which he describes the very simple (deceptively simple) tool that the Kanban board is.
A tool is good when it is transparent, when it doesn't get in the way of your work, when it doesn't require extra maintenance (=yet one more thing to do).
The kanban board, in that spirit, has only two rules:
1) Visualize your work
2) Limit your work in process
That's it. As Benson frequently mentions, this is so simple to understand that nobody does it. It seems too simple to be a good working method. But hell yeah it is.
The discipline that kanban imposes makes you continuously go to and fro to the board. Stare at the pending items for a while before you dive into doing stuff. Clusters emerge. You understand better your work, and that's the whole point of the exercise.
The Kanban board, in its purest form, is composed of only the 3 columns shown in the above picture. However, as the understanding of your work (its shape, its needs, its bottlenecks) grows, it can become functional to subdivide some of those categories. In my case, I soon discovered in the "To Do" column 2 evident groups: tasks born of watching tutorials (stuff to try out, things to configure in the DAW, maintenance), and actual work that modifies or creates sound. The original column, therefore, has been divided into "To Do NAV" (non added value - no new sound created) and "To Do AV". With that additional clarity you can start to tweak how much time goes to each.
Additionally, given the amount of items in those first columns, I tested and soon find useful to create a column called "Next", before the "Doing" one, as a "funnel mouth" limited to the 1-3 next work items coming up next.
The kanban board shines in keeping me focused while I'm producing. Before I had this tool, it was easy to become overwhelmed; I was trying to make the kick more audible, when I realized that some notes in the solo guitar were still protruding too much. Everything became a decision tree, a new bifurcation. As a lot of brain and productivity literature remarks, the problem with those occasions is that the brain thinks he has to deal with all those items AT THE SAME TIME.
The immediate solution is writing down whatever you're not doing in the moment. You go through that discipline, and your brain gasps with relief.
And if, going back to the former example, you write down "revise guitar compression", and put it on the "To Do VA" column, the disturbance of that (good) idea to your workflow is minimal.
As another option, you might decide that you want to be done right away with those spiky points in the guitar melody; then the "revise guitar compression" note would go directly into the "Doing" column. But then, as you are limiting your work in process (rule #2), you may need to take what you were doing (the note would say something like "make kick audible") back to the previous column.
We desperately need tools to make our work visible. As visible as it is for the guy who is building a chair or repairing plumbing. On this regard, Kanban is king.
As a side note, I cannot fail to mention that Mr. Benson used to be in a punk band, as he often mentions and you can tell by the irreverent style of his presentations. The guy is a joy to listen to.
Ouch, I missed last week's post. But I think the countermeasure should be easy.
The problem has to do with my adoption of the tickler file, one of the great great great elements of the GTD methodology.
You use a folder per day, and in each folder you put notes. I used to have a note saying something like "Did you write the blog post this week?", which I placed in the folder for the upcoming Sunday. That way, I was sure I had a checkpoint for my weekly post if I wasn't able to get to it before Sunday.
The problem came when I started writing down in other papers some ideas for future posts. Those papers went into the folders too, but their function was not clearly enough defined: finding them means "write this post", or just "remember that you have a blog?". In the middle of that confusion, I must have lost/decided to throw away the original checkpoint note.
So the countermeasure is: creating a new checkpoint note for Sundays, and taking the papers with post ideas out of the tickler. They are not warning signals, and I don't need to overload my mind with them reading them before I'm ready to act upon them.
I have a guitar and I'm gonna use it