Category Archives: CK’s Progress

The holidays — time for the “little” things

Did anybody really have a break this winter holiday? In our household there was a whole lotta working going on, though in my case most of it was at home, at least.

We’ve all heard the productivity gospel about making our work spaces comfortable. Why do we blow that off as a would-be-nice?

Karen, as a spa employee, worked Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve — but we still managed to celebrate. I worked whenever she did and played whenever she was available. We went on some great trail runs, made amazing meals, shared some old and new traditions with good friends, played a few curse-inducing matches of FIFA 2012, and overall did manage to rejuvenate.

Plus, I was fortunate enough to receive some much-appreciated gift cards from various family members. Between those and some Black Friday / Cyber Monday sales on various music software, I’ve got myself very inspired for another year of hard but totally fun work.

As mundane as it sounds, here’s one thing I’m quite excited about: A heater! Glamorous, right? The truth is, my little studio, a.k.a. the guest bedroom, is pretty cold throughout the winter. OK, it’s FREAKING GLACIAL. But not just any space heater will do. Loud fans have no place in my composing and mixing space.

I did some research and soon thought I’d found a stylish and compact solution in this hip little orange/white number from Sunpentown.

A review claimed that it was “absolutely silent.” Sadly, that’s absolute b.s. It’s cute as a button and quieter than many, but not silent by a long shot. Back it went.

In exchange, I’ve ordered a really well-reviewed oil-filled radiator heater by DeLonghi. As radiator style heaters go, it’s pretty sexy! …in a Darth Vader sort of way. So we shall see.

So, I know that this might seem like a small thing, but I realized last winter – yeah, a year ago! – that the cold was making my studio time uncomfortable, but I was too busy to do anything about it. I even caught myself avoiding working there – which meant I was out on the living room couch with headphones rather than good speakers, and with a fraction of the sound library I’d saved and saved for. Oh. And all because I didn’t want to be in there freezing my scrawny butt off. That had to end.

So I’m getting a heater, dadblammit, and I’m not settling for a cheap, noisy piece of crap, either.

Look, we’ve all heard the productivity gospel on this topic: Remove all possible obstacles. Make your work space humane, at minimum, and ideally inspiring and soulful too. Make it a joy to be there. So why do we blow that off? I’m really good at working hard… and not as good at taking time for creature comforts. But this stuff that might seem unimportant catches up to us.

What gifts will you give yourself for the New Year?

It’s my 1-year anniversary!

So here I am, already one year into my big adventure new life. OK, I took a break from the blog for the last several weeks; it’s true. I’ve been busier than… well, you know. Fill in your own favorite colorful simile here, because all of mine are a little too colorful. 🙂

How has it worked out, this first year? Not too shabby. I’ve had music used on ABC, BBC, VH1, G4, The History Channel, Animal Planet, Univision and TLC, plus the Breaking Bad webisode I mentioned in an earlier post. And those are the ones I know about; it can take six or more months to find out about placements.

My writing partner, Clementine

My writing partner, Clementine

As for my writing goals, also not bad. Just by coincidence with this anniversary, I’m two tunes short of having 100 pieces of music represented by various publishers and libraries in the film/TV arena. When I’m not teaching (summer and winter breaks), I’ve been meeting my original goal of producing a piece per day, and I’ve found that pushing for that pace has sharpened my focus and built my confidence. It’s been a fantastic first year, really.

Other updates:

  • I’ve been picked to score the independent feature film Roswell FM. I saw a rough edit last week and it’s a funny, good-hearted film that fits some of my favorite writing styles to a T.
  • I’m just finishing up teaching an online music technology course for UNM for the first time; it’s been fun and – as with any new challenge – full of learning experiences.
  • I’ll be doing my more experimental electronic stuff at the opening reception for the ISEA2012 conference, which will be very cool.
  • I’ll be teaching my same two in-person courses this fall plus a new one with a wonderful UNM colleague.
  • I’ve got a theater-scoring gig this fall too, with a great local company focused on teens who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to theater training.

I’ll be stretched a little thin, but I’ll make it work.

Clementine helping

Clementine helping. Please notice who’s in the comfie chair and who’s not.

I’m trying to think, right now, whether I feel different. Yeah… calmer, strangely. I wonder if it’s sort of like getting  married: There’s no lightning bolt that says, boom, you are forever changed; yet there’s this underlying, awesome feeling of home and fulfillment.

Yep, it’s a little like that. It’s all kinds of great.

School’s out – time for learning!

Phew! The school year is over – at least til summer school starts – and although I love teaching, I’m sooooo excited about that.

Because I want to kick back and relax? No! Because I want to devour the last several months’ issues of Electronic Musician, work through hours and hours of tutorials on a bunch of pro music software packages, and get back to my schedule of producing a piece of music per day. I’m also teaching a new online course over the summer, which will be a great experience.

Sitting on the patio, catching up on industry magazines

Learning time – on the patio, on a beautiful summer morning. Rough!

A piece per day. When school’s not in session, I’m all over it; I manage it. But once school ramps up, it’s pretty tough to pull off. So another goal I have for this summer is to better organize my teaching materials for the coming school year so that I minimize my weekly prep time once school is in session.

It’s the old “chip away at it each day instead of cramming” thing, and since I preach it to my students, I oughta practice it too.

Here’s the thing: I’ve pretty much got my act together. But I pressure myself to improve my classes each time I teach them. So I don’t just pull out the same thing from last semester; I typically review and rewrite/redesign each module to fix what didn’t work, add new findings, and so on. And that’s the right thing to do. But I could do more of it in advance, which would allow me to spread out the work hours over months instead of days. It’s the old “chip away at it a little each day instead of cramming” thing, and since I preach it to my students, I oughta practice it.

So here’s a sampling of what’s on my plate for the summer:

  • a wad of tutorials at – no matter your discipline, you can probably find valuable training there
  • the full set of MSP tutorials (I’ve used the Max side of the legendary Max/MSP suite for more than a decade but have only a little experience on the MSP side)
  • a big dive into Numerology, an amazing step-sequencer made right here in ABQ, for which I’m beta-testing a top-secret new module (eee!)
  • a similar dive into Xewton Music Studio for iPhone, for which I’m also a beta tester; I use it as a sketch pad currently and want to explore a little more with it
Xewton Music Studio Screenshot

Xewton Music Studio for iPhone does Apple’s own GarageBand several better.

  • teaching an eight-week, online music technology class during June and July, and prepping for teaching my regular classes next year
  • initial work toward a Working Classroom theater production that will go up in mid-September
  • prepping for the opening concert of the ISEA2012 Conference, which should be very, very fun…

It’s amazing how much energy you find when you love everything you’re doing.

What do you have on tap for this summer?

The Value of Retrospect

I had a boss once who’d say, “I don’t care what’s on your resume. I don’t care what you did before; I care what you can do right now.” I saw his point when it came to certain b-schoolers on staff, but for my own purposes I thought of it more like, “Hey, sweet! Every day is a new opportunity to do something amazing! No baseline needed!”

Yeah, I’m Pollyanna like that.

Well, last week, I gave a talk about my composing work to a class of composition students, several working on their masters’ degrees in composition. It turned out to be a great opportunity for retrospection: how I started, the multiple paths I’ve maintained (so like a Gemini), my graduate studies, my many and varied extra-curricular pursuits, the incredible people I’ve gotten to work with, what about my work has changed and what hasn’t.

The Spreadsheet For Section 2

Evidence that during my thesis composition process, I was clearly out of my mind. In a good way.

Given that my audience would be a bunch of students preoccupied with thesis work, I decided to spend the bulk of the talk discussing my own. When I began preparing my slides, though, I realized that I might have to turn to my not-terribly-consistent journals for details about how I constructed my thesis, because it was 10 years ago. Like a place I used to live, it’s got certain landmarks that I’ve retained and used to navigate conversations about such things over the years: It’s called Name Day and is for electronics, oboe and cello; it’s based on the prose poem of the same name by the remarkable Teresa Phillips; it deals with her diagnosis with bone cancer as a toddler and the aftermath; and it employs serial techniques – the use of external information (in this case, the poem itself and aspects of Teresa’s post-op X-rays) to drive musical decisions. That much, I can recite on command. Any deeper, though…

Because, you know, I’m not crazy about paper at this point; I try not to collect or keep it. And to my memory, I’ve only recently become disciplined about documenting how each of my pieces is put together and especially how it’s performed. I’ve had to, though, because so many of my compositions – in contrast to my thesis piece – use some new/different combination of gadgets than the last; are performed by me as structured improvs and so not typically scored; and are performed once, maybe twice, right after completion and then not again for months or even years. So by comparison, I wasn’t sure how much I would’ve documented 10 years ago about a piece that resulted in a definitive score. What more was to document? And how much of the supporting material would I have bothered to keep?

Chicken Scratch

From the trusty blue spiral manuscript notebook.

But I looked through our bookcases anyway – and was rewarded with the spoils of being supremely Type A (about some things). Each item I unearthed brought a bigger smile and a stronger rush of memories than the one before. There was the original master print, complete with front matter describing the compositional process (phew!). Behind that, photocopies of the original hand-written score. In another section of the same shelf, the abused but still-legible prints of the spreadsheets in which I painstakingly tracked certain details of the piece – one for each of the three sections of the piece, and each one a taped-together tiling of 9 or more letter-sized sheets. Sooooo OCD!

Each of those documents represents hours upon hours of teeth-gnashing and triumph, self-doubt and certitude, and above all, complete surrender to the process. I worked so incredibly hard on it. I can see the spreadsheets tacked to the wall of my bedroom studio, the blue spiral music notebook I carried everywhere for months, and the lights hitting the performers as they took the stage for the premiere. These memories, and what they say about my capacity for hard work and even healthy obsession, could reinvigorate me on the worst of days.

Page One

Page 1. Beginnings, endings, all good.

To that former boss, I’d throw a well-worn business maxim: If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. In Composing Kitchen language, I’d say that retrospection doesn’t have to be a consolation, an indulgence or a crutch; it can be a tool. Knowing what you’re capable of can propel you to do something that’s not just amazing, but even more amazing.

So go ahead: Read over your resume – be it literal or figurative – and then vow to exceed everything on it.

If you’d like more detail about Name Day and/or to hear excerpts,
leave a comment. I’ll be happy to tell you a ridiculous amount
based on my copious documentation.

TCB: Replacement Parts and Sweethearts

Saturday was Shoe-Cleaning Day in my childhood home. We’d get out Dad’s wooden shoe-shining box, which I always loved; fish out the right polish and the perfect rag; and set to work taking care of our Sunday shoes.

Dad had to have been so patient. I mean, think of it: little kids and shoe polish? Yikes! I do remember putting down newspaper to work on, to spare the carpet — another example of taking time to care for what we had, as modest as it might have been.

a typical wooden shoe-cleaning kit

Such a simple thing, yeah?

You could say that it was instilled in me early on to take care of what I had and make it last. It didn’t surprise me at all, decades later, to see Steven Covey write about “PC,” or production capability. In short, he says you have to take good care of your resources, be they things or relationships, so that they can keep taking care of you. I get that, definitely. For example, I’ve arranged my work schedule to reserve Friday and Saturday as my weekend with Karen.

But things come up, other things that need care and attention too. In the weeks leading up to that demanding theater production I was just in, I’d noticed my laptop — the one I perform with and compose on — complaining very, very loudly. The fan would regularly work itself into a fit that sounded something like an animal sacrifice on an airport runway: whirring, shrieking and imminent takeoff. It wasn’t rocket science to figure out that if the fan was suffering, eventually the rest of the machine would suffer too and that I’d better do something about it before a meltdown occurred.

But… did I really want to open up the laptop the week before a major paid gig? I decided I had no choice. I had to take care of my PC. (OK, it’s actually a MacBook, but I couldn’t resist the Covey pun.)

Bad MacBook fan. Bad, bad fan.

The gutted MacBook and the offending fan, quieted for the moment...

I found a great site called that not only sold the right replacement fan but had open-source, step-by-step instructions for performing the surgery. I did a practice run, pulling everything apart and coming up with a screw-tracking method to ensure that everything got put back in the right place. It did. So I ordered the part.

The part came — on a Friday. Not just any Friday that I should be spending with Karen instead, but the day of the show’s $100-per-ticket opening gala, and the start of a whirlwind that would keep me out of town and away from Karen for most of the next two weekends. No choice, though. I got out the scalpel and commenced the lobotomy on my beloved little MacBook. Karen looked on from her own perch at the kitchen island and kept me smiling through some tense moments.

Out, vile fan!

The bullet, pulled from the gaping wound. (Yes, the fortune-cookie strip affixed to the screen margin says, "You are working hard." True to my Presbyterian roots.)

It went great. I gave new life to a 6-year-old laptop (that’s 90-something in people years).

And when I finished sewing the patient back up, I took care of the most important resource of all: I spent the rest of the day with my sweetie. And thanks, honey, for taking such good care of me, because I too plan to be around for a while.

The gig that ate my life (but left me smiling)

The past two weekends, I’ve been in a theater/music collaboration as part of the experimental ensemble I play in. We’re called Out of Context, and we do something called conduction — a method of improvisation that’s guided by a conductor who uses a set of hand signals to indicate, very generally, what we musicians are to do. Some signals allow the conductor to build coherence and even returning motifs or musical settings into the improvisation; other signals allow him to whip us into a chaotic frenzy and then stop us instantly. It is an incredible amount of fun.

Here’s a trailer assembled from previous performances:

STORM: Theater Grottesco and the Out of Context Orchestra
from Theater Grottesco on Vimeo.

Dino (JA Deane), our conductor, collaborated with members of Theater Grottesco in Santa Fe along with a number of writers, scientists, poets, videographers and visual artists to compile a variety of text and images about our changing environment. The resulting piece, which we performed eight times over two weekends, is called STORM — and I’d have to say it presents like one: fierce, sometimes overwhelming, different every night, probably too unrelenting some nights but with a clear ebb and flow other nights. Dino conducts the ensemble as always, including the actors, but in this show also improvises the triggering and placement of multiple videos projected above and around the stage.

If you’ve ever been in a theater production, you know how consuming it can become. It’s a huge time commitment, from initial rehearsals through tech/dress rehearsals and then finally the shows. When you have a matinee and an evening show at a theater that’s an hour from home, it’s a little tough to do much of anything else.

I spent those in-between hours on my own in the warehouse/gallery/theater space, working on ideas for another gig coming up. I surrendered to the limbo. My composing schedule and goals went out the window for those two weeks, and I decided to just be OK with that.

Another trait of shows like this is the camaraderie that they just about always foster. I adore my bandmates. No two ways about it. OOC has existed as a band for 15 years, 11 of which I’ve been around for, getting together on the second Sunday of every month for years and years to make chaotic, often strangely beautiful sounds. They’re family to me.

Out of Context 2012 (L to R): JA "Dino" Deane, conductor; Milton Villarubia III, electronic and acoustic percussion; Jon Baldwin, cornet; Joseph "Joey" Sabella, vibes and electronic percussion; CK Barlow, sampler/live sampling; Paul Bossert, trombone; Jefferson Voorhees, drums; Katie Harlow, cello; Alicia Ultan, viola; Ross Hamlin, guitars; John Flax, text; Bonnie Schmader, flutes; Carlos Santistevan, upright bass.

The other day at my freelance gig, I ran into a former coworker from the job I quit last summer. We caught up a bit, and in parting she said, “You’re really living the dream, Carla.” It’s funny; I have a sticker on my laptop that says just that. It was given to me by a musician friend, Jacqueline van Bierk of the band Otto’s Daughter — it’s an ad for their EP “living the dream.” I stuck it on the laptop case so that it’s visible to others when I’m working/playing, and I did so a little bit facetiously.

But weeks like this make me stop and think… I guess I am, huh?

Inspiration, Insecurity, and Insane numbers of… goals.

I promised myself (and anyone who’s reading) that I’d get serious about posting weekly because I learn so much by looking back at what and how I’ve done in the last week. I’m a little behind with this week’s post but that’s in no small part due to a bit of soccer mania at our house. See, the CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifications have been going on for a couple of weeks now and we’ve been watching. We aren’t fanatics about much in the sports world, but soccer and the Olympics are biggies for us.

Apparently not enough people in the US care about women’s soccer for the CONCACAF tournament to be televised here. I bet if more Americans knew how tight the qualifications were — that of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Canada and the US, only two teams get to go to the Olympics — it might get televised. I won’t complain, though, because we were able to watch all of the US team’s games online.

The US and Canada were predicted to emerge from the eight-nation field with the two Olympic berths, and they did, in that order. The US outscored its opponents 38-0 in 5 games (14, 13, 4, 3 and 4 to 0, respectively). That sounds like they dominated, and for the most part they did. But in the one game that mattered most — the semifinal versus Costa Rica to determine which team would get one of the two Olympic berths — they had the most trouble. They looked nervous, and they admitted as much after the game. In the end, they pulled through, got their ticket to London, and then went on to win the whole tournament by defeating the other Olympic qualifier, Canada. You can see the highlights, which are pretty impressive, at

Our household fanaticism included lots of Twitter reading and youtube watching of related content. I was checking out tweets by some of the men’s national team players congratulating the women, and I got sucked into Landon Donovan’s stream. I hit a tweet by his amicably ex wife, Bianca Kajlich, of this quote: “One of the reasons we struggle with insecurity is because we’re comparing our ‘behind the scenes’ with everybody else’s ‘highlight reel.’” It’s attributed to Steven Furtick, a North Carolina pastor.

Doesn’t that just about sum it up? We watch the highlights and we see the best moments. But they are just moments. If we dig a little deeper, we hear Tobin Heath, for example, talk about making enemies by deciding not to play for her high school soccer team because she wanted the challenge of training with a boys’ club. We saw tweets berating Rachel Buehler following the 2011 World Cup. We hear Sydney Leroux say that by age 6, she knew that she wanted to play on the US Women’s Soccer team when she grew up, and so left Vancouver for the States (thanks to dual citizenship) at 15 to make it happen — and got booed for it each time she touched the ball tonight in Vancouver. We see video of Ali Krieger making herself keep running intervals after the rest of the team has stopped.

I love these women. And I know that the only reason they make it look so easy is because they work so, so hard.

The US Women's National Team following their win at CONCACAF

The US Women's National Team following their win at CONCACAF

If you’ve really got to compare yourself to someone else, keep it apples to apples. Everybody has highlights, and everybody has bloopers. And maybe every six months of effort you put in will yield just a few seconds of highlight reel — but they’ll be awesome.

As promised — the ad music!

A few weeks ago, I posted about a great opportunity I got here in Albuquerque to create the music for a new ad campaign by the New Mexico Lottery, celebrating their contribution of $500M to allow students statewide to attend any of our state universities tuition-free (given a minimum GPA).

A still from one of the six ads in the campaign.

I promised that once the ads were finalized, up and running, I’d post some of the music so you could hear a little of how the process worked (I got permission to do this written into my license agreements).

So here you go (192kbps mp3s): This is a collage of four of the five drafts I did, taking anywhere from 3 to 6 hours each to produce — not quite broadcast ready but offering different possible directions. The basic guidance I’d gotten was no straightforward guitar or piano, an organic/natural sound, an uncluttered arrangement (just a few instruments), and something cool and edgy.

Of the drafts in that collage, the ad agency and Lottery commission chose the last one. You might remember from that earlier post that I liked the last one best, but neither the production house nor I expected the ad agency and the client to go for it. Backward ukulele, sampled ukulele, and backward piano over a mellow but swaggering hip-hop beat. Who knew!

Over that foundation, I then created five different melodies in different voices; they chose one using kalimba (an African thumb piano). Awesome. Then I did two choices of endings for them. In short, I worked hard to provide something they’d like.

Here is the final version of the music, and here’s an example of the videos (beautifully shot/produced by halflife* digital). The excellent ad agency supervising the entire thing was Kilmer | Kilmer | Marshall | Duran.

What a great way to wrap up 2011 and begin 2012! Oh, and I got paid for a Breaking Bad webisode placement this week, too. Very cool. Not every week will be quite this much fun, but weeks like this make the hard work worth it.

Embracing the Newbie

One thing I wondered about — not really worried about, just wondered — was whether my self-esteem would take a hit when I left my corporate job. Like it or not, we Westerners tie a lot to our occupations, whether it’s the prestige of high-dollar professions or the insta-halo that comes with social-good and faith-related jobs. When you leave the job, you leave the identity and associated cachet behind too.

Compounding that, when you change careers, you’re jumping into a new role in which you might have less experience or training than your peers and competitors. Especially if you were well-established in your former profession, it can be downright humbling to be the newbie again.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

— Shunryu Suzuki

I experienced it pretty strongly this week when attending a welcome-back faculty meeting at the university where I teach a few classes in the music department. It’s easy to feel a little inferior there because I’m part-time, not even remotely tenure-track, master’s rather than doctorate, yada yada. That feeling is nothing new. And it’s possible that now, having forfeited my white-collar identity, I have less spare self-worth lying around with which to combat it.

Similarly, I have plenty of peers in the production-music business who are better instrumentalists or who have more training as audio engineers. Compared to some of them, I might never catch up.

Granted, I’m not really a newbie. I started my first band more than 30 years ago (yikes…) and haven’t stopped playing or writing since. I do have that master’s degree. I’ve got TV placements under my belt. But there are times, especially when a piece of music gets rejected, that I feel a little underdoggish.

So how do I deal? Certainly there’s the Presbyterian approach (per my upbringing): Work work work, harder harder harder. I do. I work my butt off, no question.

And there are plenty of books out there that say to play to your strengths rather than spending time chasing your deficiencies. Of course they’re talking business strategy, but it also relates to the topic at hand: it’s definitely toughest to keep your chin up when you’re playing someone else’s game. I especially like The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need by Daniel Pink and Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin.

But as I write this, something else occurs to me: Embrace the Newbie. You know, as in Beginner’s Mind. Not just lack of knowledge, but also lack of cynicism. I’m not saying it’s easy to do, to get yourself past a bout of dejection. But if you can get there, you’ll see the other side of the Underdog coin: Eagerness, energy, openness. Now that is powerful stuff.

So flip that coin!  And while you’re thinking along those lines, check out the song, called “Got My Own,” that I wrote and recorded Wednesday afternoon/night — right after that faculty meeting 😉 — and mixed Thursday morning for a noon deadline. Because, well, why not?


Every Day a Revolution

Since I posted a long’un last time – and since the world probably doesn’t need another New Year’s Resolutions post – I’m keeping this one short and sweet.

Here’s what I’ve hit upon in this season of retrospection:

  • My theme this year will be to expand my opportunities, and I will aim high.
  • Trying and failing can hurt a little, but it’s necessary. For example, I pushed myself pretty hard on a composition three weeks ago, and that experience gave me the confidence to push even harder on another opportunity the following week. The first attempt didn’t get picked up for its specific placement opportunity, but the second did.
  • This blog prompts me to think regularly about how I’m doing and what I’ve learned, and then to distill that into something other people can understand. Just doing that helps me retain and build on what I’ve learned. It’s important, and I need to treat it that way. I’ll be posting weekly from now on.
  • I’m re-engineering my life, which means I’m making resolutions every day — not just on Dec. 31. That might sound like “shiny new object” syndrome, but it’s not. My resolutions aren’t numerous because they’re contradictory or wishy-washy, but because I’m learning something every day about myself and my business. Each resolution complements the others.

Every day a revelation, a resolution, a revolution.

Ascending the Sandia Mountains on the Tram