Making Insulation Kit
Making Insulation Kit
Early in college I recognized that I was not going to be a professional piano player, and probably not even a great amateur. I’d played the piano most of my life, but all of a sudden, I felt like I was burning out. I was no longer motivated to practice scales and fingering exercises sufficiently to improve as a player. At some point I thought, to hell with it, and after that I played only for fun. But as my skills blunted, I convinced myself that I simply had a mediocre talent. And without uncommon talent, that all-important source of legitimacy, I began to feel as if I had little of artistic value to offer the world.
I’d had several compositions featured in concerts for new music, but in each concert, the performances were disappointing. I was also mildly ashamed that my pieces stuck out as being far less cerebral than the others that were programmed. After each concert, which entailed months of buildup and logistical headache, I felt only a lukewarm sense of accomplishment, which quickly faded.
It seemed to me that I was doing something wrong. Music was supposed to be energizing. I wished to feel some buoyancy as a musician or as a composer. I imagined what it would be like to play nightly gigs in jazz clubs and have my compositions 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 or chamber 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 have never loved classical music, and 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.
It was nighttime on the first Tuesday of November, and I huddled in a half-circle of friends before the glare of an open laptop. The election results were coming in. The news was getting heavier and heavier, beginning to crush us. Life draining from the room. We couldn’t really understand it.
Reality swerved that night. And for some people, reality became a whole lot more dangerous. 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. Normalcy, 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 any urge to dance.
There were times when my introversion became so heavy that I tried at all costs to avoid people: Walk silently to the music studio. Return 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.
I’ve found that people who study music tend to be enamored with scores. The written instructions for pieces of music. It seems to me that some people view these documents as the site where all meaning and mystery can be decoded. But when I see a score, I think: this is musical notation, a language that most people can’t read. And though a score might be communicative, it’s not emotional. It doesn’t change my state of being.
With my album, I was interested in creating an object that could be understood by anyone who listens to music. I wanted to show people something multi-dimensional and potent. I wanted to make a statement, something powerful.
I wanted to shout into the competitive chaos of America: I can 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 lifeless melody to every piece of commercial music says I turn up harder, I’m more hip, or I have more sex.
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 any meaningful connection this way. We certainly don’t create many opportunities for the soft-spoken or introverted to critique the dominant order. 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 than just irony in the name Insulation Kit. In choosing a name, I wanted to explore what it meant for the music on the album not to be an end in itself. Though hardly a profound idea, 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.