How I Spent My Summer Vacation… Four Years Ago

The summer of 2008 was the best summer of my life, so far.  I lived with amazing people, we did a lot of fun stuff, I had one of the best jobs ever, and I was at my most musically creative.  I’m going to focus here on the music because I consider what I created then to be one of my greatest accomplishments and I feeling like sharing it with both of my readers.

They don’t call it Sunset Terrace for no reason

In late spring 2008, my freshman year at RPI had just ended and I moved from my dorm up the hill to my fraternity house, where I would spend the next two years.  During the summer we filled the house with people who wanted to stay for the summer for whatever reason; we had jobs on campus, spent the days working and the nights hanging out together at the house.  Except I actually didn’t have a job on campus.  Aside from a two-week full-time stint as one of the most awesome people at RPI, I had absolutely nothing to occupy my time during the summer days.  So I turned to my music, got my creative juices flowing, and went to work.

First, here’s a little bit of background from my old defunct blog (which kinda reads like apocalyptic journal entries with all of the redactions I’ve made):

[In February 2006 I downloaded...WavePad onto my computer...a likely candidate for experimentation, the song “Suspense [E1M5]” by Bobby Prince from “Doom.”...I had picked out the notes on the piano...and began the recording process...I had just learned how to [mix] it and I guess the result was less than pleasing...

Following...I [did] a piano cover of Moby’s “Porcelain.”...I [then] covered a variety of songs, ranging from a Doom track called “The Waterfront” to Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” before...I found this program called “Reason” was used for producing drum tracks for my acoustic covers...I began to experiment [as PHX]...I came up with the song “Solar Wind."......[later] another song came to light...a piano song...reminiscent of Coldplay’s “Amsterdam,”...

...In July...I came up with an amalgamation...Muse’s “In Your World”...Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates.”...A simple repeating motif...with the title “The Whirlpool”......In August...I had come up with...a bass riff that had a few chords to go with...I expanded the riff...when I discovered the potential... With a beat, my newest song was born... I titled it “Epic”......Toward the end of September...a vast, deep piece emerged. I titled it “One-Way Voyage to Oblivion,” a phrase I had read in a Buffalo News article...and decided to save for later use...

...[I wrote two pieces] at the beginning of November. The first was an experiment with strings entitled “Cellar Door”... It...never sounded quite right...The other piece written in early November was...titled... “Aerie.” [Its] drum beat would be scrapped and late November...I was inspired to write a piece that was...called 3...It was probably the most fun piece I’ve composed, with many secret references to the number three...

...December saw the last creative effort put forth...a dark...piece called Dystopia....heavily based on Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.”...the last of what I consider the first-generation PHX......Nine tracks...would be released in February of 2008...titled...“Symphaesm”...The creative process ceased that day..until early April...Three pieces were started between April and May 2008...]

My first collection of nine songs titled “Symphaesm,” a fake word made from an irrelevant anagram, can be found here.  After its release I took a few months off from writing music to focus on the end of the semester, but once summer came around I was itching to write once again.

My workstation for the summer

During the summer I spent my days in my room, picking away at my keyboard, listening to influential groups like Nine Inch Nails and Massive Attack.  Sometimes chords would come to me and I’d record them into Reason.  Other times I would work out a melody by hand on the computer and build around it.  Some ideas came to me in my sleep; others by simply looking out my window.  Between April and July 2008 I came up with 13 ideas, 11 of which I deemed fully fleshed out and good enough to include in a new collection.  This album was oddly titled Neutral Eyes, aiming for a play on the word “neutralize” but missing the mark in my opinion.  I published it to various music websites on August 8th, not-so-subtly aiming for the 888 thing (just like China!).  Each track on this album has its own story, and below you’ll find all of them in a neat little package.  Enjoy!

1: Fractal

This piece is one of the first I wrote in this collection.  The idea for a tolling bell growing louder and more distorted came to me very early, during the middle of the spring semester.  Heavily under the influence of Nine Inch Nails’ album The Fragile, I added a fuzzy bass akin to “The Day The World Went Away” and joined it with a steady beat.  I’d had the intro for “Fractal” for weeks before I did anything with it.  Eventually, adding a cool synth pad and warm bass beneath everything, the middle part started to form.  I put in a very distorted, shifting pad melody and a few bars later added bells over that.  This section was a direct attempt to emulate the track “Mechanism 8 Necros” from Unreal Tournament, one of my favorites; I considered myself rather successful at doing so, and named the track “Fractal” as a tribute to a UT map featuring that song.

The emulated bell part in Mechanism 8 begin around 2:49.

2: Celestial Fissure

One day it began to rain as I sat looking for inspiration.  As the torrent came down and grew in strength, I started playing a low circular melody on my piano, complementing the chaos out the window in front of me.  The track itself starts with nothing but low frequencies, emulating a subdued distant thunder, before being dragged up by a synth reminiscent of a howling wind.  The sound effects and piano grow more dissonant as the song progresses before ending suddenly.  I wrote the song itself in about half an hour almost entirely during the storm.  I called it “Celestial Fissure,” as if the sky itself broke open to let the rain down.  It was very slightly influenced by the Nine Inch Nails song “The Fragile.”


3: Electrical Storm

The fuzz ending Celestial Fissure begins this next track, featuring a frantic drum beat and a loose synth melody.  I don’t particularly care for the first half of this track.  The idea for it came to me in a shower during spring semester; I tried so hard to mimic the guitar riff from Nine Inch Nails’ “No You Don’t” but I don’t think it went very well.  However, the second half is one of my favorite things I’ve written.  The title “Electrical Storm” is meant to evoke a chaotic tempest, much like the one from the previous track, but halfway through it ends. What comes next is a sort of ominous calm, as if the storm could return at any moment.  It’s focused on a quiet piano motif that is gradually surrounded by noise and bass which ultimately peaks and vanishes suddenly.  This second half is very much influenced by the barely-audible bridge in Nine Inch Nails’ song “With Teeth.”  It blends seamlessly into the next track.

The bridge of “With Teeth” starts at 3:01.  Be careful not to blow your speakers up when the quiet part ends at 4:19.

4: Mare Tranquillitatis

The calm of the end of “Electrical Storm” continues here with slow piano chords and acoustic bass.  Eventually, subtle effects build into a dissonant, chaotic, synth soundscape driven by a syncopated drum beat.  This was another song built solely by hammering out chords on the piano.  The shift to minor chords was something of a revelation in this song. The progression during the chaotic part is something I’m very proud of and was, I believe, the first time I used chords with non-root bass notes. (E♭m, B♭/F, E♭m/G♭, A♭ if you’re curious).  The piano/bass to chaos transition was pretty much blatantly stolen from one of my absolute favorite songs Nine Inch Nails’ “La Mer.”  Like La Mer, which means “the sea” in French, I named this song “Mare Tranquillitatis,” Latin for “Sea of Tranquility,” also the name of a notable mare on the Moon.


5: Oblivion v2

One of my favorite tracks from my first collection was “One-Way Voyage to Oblivion,” a song I wrote in September 2007 shortly after beginning my freshman year of college.  As my style evolved and my production skills improved, I decided I wanted to re-imagine this song. The result is a quicker, heavier piece; easily one of the best of these eleven.  It was heavily influenced by the soundtrack of “Fire Fight,” an old space shooter by Epic Megagames.


6: Warning Light

“Warning Light” is easily my favorite of everything I’ve written.  It was my first attempt at making an ambient piece, and I don’t honestly know what the inspiration for it was.  The piano chords came during a recording session, and once they were set everything else fell into place.  I made white noise sound like ocean waves, added shaky dissonant synth to evoke being shrouded in fog, and high pad harmonies to act as a sort of foreboding wind.  Soon everything’s joined by the loud rumbling of thunder or bombs in the distance, whatever you want it to be.  It’s not exactly subtle, but it sure is effective.  I can put this song on anytime I want to drift away to that imaginary cliff-side lighthouse, ocean waves crashing upon the rocky shore.  There is a brief key shift in the middle and at the end; this was supposed to allow blending into the next track, but my RAM had other plans.

7: Arcadia

The melody for this track came to me in May of 2007.  After very little development, it sat in limbo for a year. Completely re-imagined, it begins with a quiet high synth slowly building into a crash of drums and piano. Instead of a fluid piano riff right off the bat, there is a minimalist soundscape of effects and bass driven by quick percussion. They build to a pseudo-climax similar to the original. However, they are cut off by a quiet interlude featuring the original piano riff which rises up to a massive conclusion.  Once I got it going, it practically wrote itself.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized where exactly that first inspiring chord progression had come from:

The part I’m referring to begins at 1:32.  Does that harp riff sound familiar?  It’s part of a track called “Recapture” by David ‘Tolwyn’ Shaw in the soundtrack for the Doom WAD Icarus: Alien Vanguard.  When I wrote my first song “Solar Wind” I subconsciously lifted the chord progression from Ben Folds Five’s song, Army.  Turns out the melody for my very next song, the first version of “Arcadia,” was just as unoriginal.

8: Low Tide

This was another track I wrote quickly.  Certain elements can be traced back to Nine Inch Nails and The Beatles, as well as earlier work I’d done.  The song features a syncopated drum beat, light bass, a sampled acoustic guitar and steady piano. I added strings along with waves crashing and sea gulls to instill a feeling of being on the ocean, appropriately titling the song “Low Tide.”  Definitely the most unique thing I’ve written.

The bass and sine wave sounds almost certainly come from this Nine Inch Nails track, “Where Is Everybody?”

9: Redemption (красная)

These next two songs were the last to be added to the album.  I wrote them at the eleventh hour and I was actually not too fond of either initially.  However this first track has grown on me significantly.  It took almost no effort to write, being another relatively ambient tune, but I think its beauty is in its simplicity.  Influenced heavily by Massive Attack’s Teardrop, aka the House theme, it’s got little more than several layers of synth pads over a steady drum beat.  Eventually a more lively drum comes in, but it doesn’t become to loud or chaotic.  I called it “Redemption” because to me it tells a subtle narrative.  For reasons I don’t quite know, the song conjures red imagery in my mind. “красная” (krasnaya) is a form of the Russian word “red,” notably used when modifying words like “армия” (armiya, army) and “площадь” (ploshchad’, square).

It’s not lupus.

10: Voltage Spike

This is the other of the late additions, and admittedly, has not grown on me as I’d liked.  Initially I began this song with the sound of a train approaching a crossing, sounds I made myself using Reason and my keyboard, however it just didn’t fit in the context of everything else.  The song itself is very experimental, featuring lots of sharp noise and a equestrian beat, as well as an ending section using polyrhythms.  The noise is reminiscent of an arcing conductor, hence the title “Voltage Spike,” inspired by a Radiohead lyric.  As far as influences go, I have no freakin’ idea.

11: The Escaping

Finally, this is the first song I wrote of these eleven.  The piano arpeggios in the beginning originated at the piano in the Rensselaer Union during the spring semester. The half step shift from Fm to E represented a new type of sound I was looking to work with and can be heard in several other tracks in this collection.  This song itself is an adventure through dark lulls and fast paced urgency, something I considered a fitting conclusion for the album.  The piano in the bridge and at the end is a somewhat obvious corruption of the piano riff from Massive Attack’s “Heat Miser,” and many of the electronic and rhythmic elements are heavily influenced by Nine Inch Nails’ “Ghosts” album, released around the time I began writing this song.  The sense of urgency and movement lead me to call it “The Escaping,” though as a working title it was affectionately called “Seven Minutes of Terror,” a reference to the period of communications blackout during a Martian rover landing, as well as to the near seven-minute running time of the track.

And that’s it.  I don’t consider these songs to be too good; a lot of them are pretty blatant rip-offs of other better songs and my drums not only sound fake but aren’t very diverse or interesting in addition to numerous other issues.  I do admit though there are some moments in here than I’m incredibly proud of, many of which I wrote about above.  There’s also the nostalgia factor: this collection is synonymous with one of the best periods of my life and will be that way forever.

In the four years since then I’ve written a few short compositions here and there, including one for a music theory class in late 2009.  I haven’t used Reason in what must be two years, but I have every intention of returning to writing music in the future and possibly finishing some of these pieces.  All I need is some free time, a lot of patience, and a muse.

One thought on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation… Four Years Ago”

  1. I don’t have a creative mind in regard to composing music so this contains good insights for me.
    I noticed some of the cuts has thousands of plays. That’s very cool.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s