Making Insulation Kit
Making Insulation Kit
WHEN MY PIANO PLAYING SLOWED TO A TRICKLE a few years into college, I began to feel that I had little of musical value to offer the world. I’d had several of my compositions featured in concerts for New Music, but in the end I was disappointed by the performances. I was also mildly ashamed that my pieces stuck out as being far less cerebral than the others that were typically programmed. After each concert, which entailed months of buildup and logistical headache, I only felt a vague, lukewarm sense of accomplishment, which quickly faded.
It seemed to me that I was doing something wrong. I wanted music to be energizing. I wanted to feel some buoyancy in my compositional practice. I imagined the driving pulse of playing nightly gigs in jazz clubs and having my pieces premiered by professional musicians. Instead, I found myself playing piano in airless practice rooms, alone, and listening repeatedly to virtual mock-ups of my own pieces, wishing I could believe they were real.
It began to worry me quite a bit that I didn’t have a deep urge to compose orchestral music, and that if I continued to compose “jazz” pieces without the ability or confidence to perform them in jazz shows myself, these pieces were destined to be lifeless. But the reality was that I felt more comfortable as a composer than as a pianist. Unsure of what to do, in the spring of my junior year of college I stopped taking composition classes.
A few months later, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is an electronic music wiz, and we arrived at the idea that we would make an album together. I dredged up a few old audio files of pieces played on virtual instruments, asking my friend if he could do a makeover on the MIDI data to transform them into pieces of electronic music in a more typical sense of the genre. I wasn’t really sure if it was a good idea to recycle old material. I had a feeling things would get stale quickly.
We exchanged some demos and made a few snippets of music together, but it wasn’t the right time for a collaboration to happen, and things for us as a duo never really went anywhere. But this marked the first time I had ever composed directly into a Digital Audio Workstation, and I emerged from those few weeks with demos of two pieces that I liked.
Soon after, in October 2016, I decided to take on the task of making over an old eight-minute piece of music myself. Before I knew it, I was fixated on the project, often at the expense of doing assignments for my classes. I easily spent over one hundred hours in the studio adapting this piece of acoustic music for synthesizers and sampled instruments. I listened to the piece a lot during that time. While walking between classes, while lying on my bed in my dorm, while trying to do homework. I got so sick of listening to my own music. I ached to hear what it might sound like to someone hearing it for the first time. Still, I had to finish it, and I kept diving back in, listening again and again. I wondered if anyone else would find the piece as immersive as I did.
I SAT BEFORE THE GLARE OF A LAPTOP in a half-circle of friends. It was the first day of November, and I could feel the life draining from the room and a darkness settling overhead as, state by state, our country went red. Within 24 hours of Trump’s election to office, the number of hate crimes committed in the United States spiked.
People came together to show love and resistance. Everywhere around me, people took a fierce and dignified stand for what they believed in. Others pressed on with composure and grace. I am grateful for these people.
Obama was still in office, and normality, at least in some ways, persisted. There were times when people had normal conversations and went to normal college parties. As usual, I hated the music at parties—I found it so sickening it utterly crushed in me the human urge to move and dance. There were times when my introversion became so heavy that I tried at all costs to avoid talking to people. Walk silently to the studio. Walk to my room. Lie on the bed. I was irritated with myself for reading the descriptions of all the petitions I came across on Facebook but not signing. It upset me that I couldn't bring myself to delete my Facebook account. I felt unable to tap into the methods people used to connect and cope in the wake of the election.
January 2017, the month of the inauguration, was when I decided to begin making an album in earnest. I thought long and hard about sequencing the tracks, about transitions, about developmental arc. I thought about what I would write. I thought about what the album would look like. I had long conversations with my friend, a dancer. While I was making the album, we began planning a production. I invited another friend, a filmmaker, to join our planning discussions. Planning the production had a reciprocal influence on the music. I was fully absorbed in making the album. I thought about nothing else when I was making music. It was an act of pure devotion, certainly. I don't think it was an act of resistance.
CLASSICAL MUSICIANS ARE FREQUENTLY ENAMORED with the score for a piece of music. But that is a language few people can read. With my album, I was interested in creating an artifact that would be more fully formed and universally understood. I wanted to show people something physical and potent. I wanted to make a statement.
I wanted to shout into the competitive chaos of America that I could say it better.
I am conscious of the disastrous implications of this mentality. Even if I had known what it was I had to say, at best, I could say it differently. But I am surrounded by people who project the attitude that they can say and do everything better. Raising my voice almost feels necessary when everyone behaves that way. When every Venmo transaction reads I'm having more fun than you, and the melody to every piece of commercial music is I'm more hip, I have more sex, or I turn up harder. In the age of streaming, pop musicians are more concerned than ever with their ability to massage everyone by delivering perfectly generic music. The construction of songs is simplified and the message intensified to the point of emptiness. We don't foster connection this way, and we certainly don’t open any gateways to the soft-spoken or introverted. It seems like all we do is reproduce what we see and hear around us, padding the rough spots in our existence with media and other products.
But there is more to the name Insulation Kit than just irony. I wanted to probe the idea of the music not being an end in itself. While this is not necessarily a profound statement, in the tradition of Western music it's not always a given. In fact, it goes against the grain of much of classical music making—both historically, beginning with the Romantic composers, and today—which is conducted as if music has inherent purpose, existing for music's sake alone. I didn't start making the album with a specific end in mind, and for a long time, I couldn't really articulate what the album was about. But it was important to me to figure that out. And at some point, many months after I had begun working, I finally had a thought that felt meaningful. Something I could organize the album around. Something that could become the seed for a mentality of resilience and resistance.
MY REALIZATION was that, beyond my disapproval of commercial music, I had a conflicted attitude toward my own habit of intense, immersive music listening.
For a long time, I've valued this type of listening as an important part of my emotional and artistic life. But dedicating time simply to listening to an album with no distractions is, for a lot of people, an uncommon practice. Those who do spend a good deal of time listening to music this way probably recognize that our situation now is especially peculiar. For all its ostensible contribution to social connectivity, technology has made listening much more individualized today than it was a few decades ago. Streaming services like Pandora and Spotify disseminate music directly to us, bypassing the public spaces of record stores. Artists are recommended to us by algorithms that can approximate our music tastes based on our listening histories, meaning we are less likely to seek recommendations from our friends. Earbuds provide us with an inconspicuous way to wrap ourselves in the music of our choice as we walk down the street. And our cultural conversations about music are dominated by mainstream pop consumers and a small number of validated hipster tastemakers, sidelining conversations about a variety of music that many listeners find more personal or authentic. These factors all contribute to making dedicated listening an extremely private experience.
It seems that, as a society, we’ve largely accepted this. Maybe we lack the aesthetic language or the willingness to venture beyond our comfort zones in forging conversations about abstract musical content. Maybe we simply lack the energy to engage in this step when it’s just so easy to pop on headphones and lose ourselves in our favorite LPs. But as pleasurable as deep, private listening can be, that alone is not enough. Listening is an incredible act of imagination, and we should be connecting our individual listening experiences back to our shared reality in ways that empower us to reshape the world. Unless we do this, we are using music as a drug.
As the name suggests, Insulation Kit is as much a product of the individualized listening phenomenon as it is a call to work against it. But the album presses the meaning in its name a step further. Insulation can do more than buffer us from the outside world—it can also keep what’s inside in. In the wake of this devastating political moment, as we shape ourselves into a force for change, we can find comfort in knowing that listening helps us retain the energy and emotional fortitude to keep going during difficult times. It protects and conditions our empathetic response. And it prevents our warmth and compassion from freezing over. Listening can insulate our spirits while opening our minds.