A Surprise Musical Encounter at the Cemetery

September 7th, 2018



I created a piece of music incorporating a chance recording of a mockingbird that happened to be perched next to the Steinway & Sons family mausoleum at historic Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.


My son and I attended an outdoor symphonic concert at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. It would have been the 100th birthday of one of the cemetery’s most famous resident, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, so the program included beautiful renditions of music from West Side Story. After the concert we strolled around to look for Bernstein’s grave which we found nearby where the concert was held.

We continued walking around for another couple hours enjoying the incredible scenery (Battle Hill is the highest natural point in Brooklyn with views of New York City harbor and the Statue of Liberty), graves of other famous residents (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Samuel F. B. Morse, Charles Ebbets, Charles Lewis Tiffany, etc.) and Revolutionary War and Civil War memorials (The Battle of Brooklyn of August 27, 1776 was the first major battle of the Revolutionary War and partially took place in what later would become Green-Wood Cemetery.)

At one point we came up on a mockingbird bird that was singing and calling away. The surroundings where so quiet and the bird was so close that I took the opportunity to record him on my iPhone. As I was there recording I noticed a huge mausoleum up the hill to our side. The name on the top of the structure read “STEINWAY”.

So turns out we had stumbled, with the help of this mockingbird, onto the Steinway piano family mausoleum built after Henry Steinway’s death in 1871. I had no idea it was in the cemetery. It’s one of the largest private mausoleums in Green-Wood containing over 200 crypts. Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later changed to Henry Steinway) moved to the U.S. in 1851 and along with his four sons began working at piano companies before founding Steinway and Sons in 1853.

I couldn’t resist the serendipity of the whole situation and created a piece of music incorporating the bird recording. I dedicate it to the Steinway family for their contributions to the music world, to Green-Wood Cemetery which is an incredible, serene, and historic place….and, of course, the mockingbird!

Unlearning Music: Teaching Eight-Year-Olds Composition

October 2nd, 2017

For the first time in my career I had the opportunity to teach songwriting to elementary school level children. The class consisted of kids in third to fifth grades, mostly whom had no music background. I was well aware that the music theory concepts that I’ve used all along in my career weren’t going to be effective as a starting point for instruction. I had to think about music creation in a wholly new way, and in doing so, I believe I ended up being the one that learned the most in the class!

In preparing for the class I had to think about those most elemental questions of composition: What is the raw material of music? How are those materials combined to make music? What is a music maker’s creative process? How do you know when you’ve arrived at a final product? Wrestling with these questions proved incredibly enlightening to me.


To begin, the class and I had to arrive at the most basic understanding of what a piece of music is and what it is doing. We couldn’t talk about “songs,” “songwriting,” or “composition.” Those words/concepts already contained too many layers of information. The understanding had to be more direct. We went into exploration mode and listened to pop music and discussed what we heard coming from the speakers: There were sounds. Some sounds came and went. Some sounds repeated more, some repeated less. Some sounds were higher, some were lower.

There seemed to be a plan for when sounds happened. Moments felt “right” for certain sounds to come and go. When sounds got “boring” new sounds appeared. When the “new” got “old,” maybe the old came back as something new. We started noticing organization and patterns in the presentation of the sounds over the course of songs. We noticed that similar patterns appeared across many different songs. We talked about the traditional verse/chorus and the modern build/drop structures, and that was as far as we got with anything close to music theory.

Then we dug deeper.

Question: What is it that the composer is doing?

Answer: Organizing sounds over a period of time. And within that period of time the composer is organizing the presentation, layering and interaction of those sounds. Organizing the new and exciting sounds versus the ones that became old and familiar thru repetition. Possibly one becoming the other and back. Layering different sounds, experimenting with high pitch sounds over low pitch sounds. Organizing the simple in relation to the busy.

Question: To what purpose?

Answer: To create an “experience”. An experience that engaged the listener until the end.

That’s all we needed to know. But the next, all important question was, How do we do it?


It used to be that composers had to make creative choices about everything that happened over the course of a piece. One had to define all of the pitches and chords along with their durations and placement. And typically it also required training and skill on a musical instrument that one would use as the composition tool and/or the sound source for recording. But modern music-making technology allows one to make music without working at that same nuts and bolts level.

Now one can create from, as I like to call it, a different “zoom level.” Using pre-made sounds and longer musical phrases such as loops, one can organize a musical experience from a more zoomed out level. This zoomed out method of music creation is something of a hybrid of arranging and composing: the music creator is planning overall organization while also making choices of some sonic details.

Unlike a similar “zooming” development that happened in the 1970s when turntables evolved to become instruments of sound manipulation and/or song section re-ordering/arranging, the current situation does not require a high level of instrument skill (in this example, the instrument being the turntables). Today, a set up such as using pre-made loops on GarageBand for iPad has obliterated the barriers of entry!

This paradigm shift is what made this class possible. Had this zoom level development and technological advance not happened, this “how” would have not been available for kids with limited musical knowledge and instrument skill.

I should also mention that the reverse is also true—one can create at a previously unavailable “zoomed in” level where one can play with the infinite possibilities of sound manipulation using modern digital tools and techniques (e.g., granular synthesis). A sound can now be molded and worked on at a much more elemental level than ever before. So a paradigm shift of “zoom” happened in both directions, simultaneously in and out from the traditional point of departure of pitches/durations and other traditional music theory concepts, allowing for more in-depth as well as more simplified music creation.


The kids’ primary creative choices for working with pre-made “zoomed out” sonic material (loops) were: 1) choosing sounds and deciding how to layer them, 2) sound placement and duration (loop repetition), and 3) overall organization of sounds over the length of the piece.

For choosing and layering sounds, we needed to define the basic qualities of a sound or loop so that we could create guidelines to help with these creative decisions. Additionally, we needed to come up with some loose rules for what makes different sounds work well together (how those sounds are layered). We considered two axes: one axis was basically pitch, “high” to “low,” and the other was “simple” to “busy,” defining how much “ear space” the sound took up. So a laid back legato flute might be thought of as “high/simple,” a slap funk bass line might be “low/complicated.”

Using these descriptors we came up with some basic guidelines for layering sounds. “High” with “low” is pretty safe. “High” with “high” or “low” with “low”—handle with care. “Simple” with “simple” is safe. “Simple” with “busy” could be okay. “Busy” on “busy”—handle with extra care!

After the kids developed good instincts on choosing and layering sounds, we moved on to the other two types of choices—taken together, figuring out how to arrange the sounds over the course of the piece to keep listeners listening, all the way to the end. This is what we spent the most time on.

We went back to listening to pop songs. Sounds repeated often, but the amount always felt right. Never too much or too little. When a sound got to be too much it either went away or changed just enough to reset the interest. We talked about how a smart and well thought out presentation of sounds can keep us interested and how a badly constructed presentation can potentially make us bored or confused. Too much of the same and the listener’s attention drifts. Too much change the listener may get lost and, similarly, tune out.

We talked about the technique of “pacing” to organize our sounds in order to hold listeners’ attention. For listeners to get in the groove of a song we knew that we needed a healthy dose of repetition. But good pacing made the repetition work and not become tedious. We arrived at the idea of “a little bit the same and a little bit different.” We talked about how when sounds repeated or came back, having the sound or layering be a little the same and a little different was useful in keeping the listener interested. We also decided that lengths or repetitions of 4, 8, and, 16 seemed to work best.

Now that we had the tools for making good creative choices, the kids were ready to go on their own. Half the class time was “lab time” in which they worked solo, or sometimes in pairs, to create pieces. At the end of each day we had a wrap-up show and tell session, where we played a few work-in-progress pieces for everyone to hear and comment on. Some kids were a little anxious to show (we never forced anybody to show), but as they saw everybody having so much fun they began sharing too. There was a lot of peer learning from all the sharing.


Through one-on-one input/revising and the show and tell sessions the kids slowly arrived at their finished pieces that were played at the final recital for family and friends. There were kids who followed the guidelines and created some great stuff. Their talent was in using the rules as helpful guides that inspired them but did not stifle them. They flourished within the lines.

But there were also some rule breakers who created great things. One particular kid ignored the “a little the same, a little different” idea and created a through-composed piece that really worked. He had an instinct for picking sounds that kept you interested but never overwhelmed. It was proof that instinct can sometimes beat set methods or rules.


Overall, the class was a great experience. The kids were inspiring and fun and taught me a lot. There were two main takeaways for me. The first was that if you teach something the same way you leaned it, you’ll just be teaching. But if you teach it differently from how you learned it, you will also be learning.

The deconstruction and re-think of familiar material can be a fresh reintroduction to a topic or a craft you’ve known (a certain way) for many years. You’ll end up knowing it deeper than ever. You’ll understand it from other points of view and see new relations and connections in it. It might breathe some new life into the thing that you’ve thought about or done so many times in a specific way that it possibly became somewhat lifeless.

The other takeaway was that the deconstruction of the composing process that I did in preparation for the class, as well as together with the class, turned out to be of great benefit to me as a composer. Tearing down the concepts and approaches that I have developed (and ingrained in myself) over the course of years opened the possibility of creating from a more open and intuitive place. Thinking “simple,” ”busy,” “high,” “low,” “familiar,” and “new,” as opposed to the more rigid concepts of scales, chords, rhythmic subdivisions, etc., can be a freeing creative experience. I think it has gotten me closer to working from a more uninhibited place with less conceptual restrictions.

An interesting observation that I’d made some years ago comes to mind. Creative individuals who are formally trained in other disciplines such as visual arts but have no music background, sometimes are able to create truly compelling music. Now I see that without the burden of received music or traditional songcraft rules these cross-disciplinary artists were able create in a more open-ended and natural way.

Of course, this is an oft-discussed dilemma for artists across many disciplines. How do we achieve technical proficiency in a craft and then “un-learn” it to strive for direct, fresh expression? Surprisingly, this teaching experience showed me a possible way.

Whatever your area of expertise might be, if you get the chance to deconstruct its concepts down to the point of being teachable to an eight-year-old, I believe you will gain incredible insights. You’ll be the one standing in the front of the room, but you’ll be very much the most rewarded (and tallest) student!

Blurring The Line Between Production Sound And Music Score

January 25th, 2017

I was a finalist in the SOUNDS OF RED BULL Composer Challenge. The video I had to score for the competition came with no production sound which gave me the idea to integrate some of the elements of the music with the visuals to blur the boundary between the engine/cars sounds and the score.


I used low distorted guitars as the engine sound from :37-:50, snare drum hits as exhaust flame backfires at :57, :59, and 1:04, and amplifier feedback as tires screeching at 2:23.

Other sections turned out less “literal” but I was able to score them in the same spirit of “musical” sound design. Wherever there was slow motion footage I used a low synth note with a high resonance low pass filter opening slowly (:45, 1:00, 1:08, 1:40). At a climax at 2:18 I used an epic multi-octave guitar dive bomb to highlight a dramatic slow motion shot of the car going around a smoking turn with the chase helicopter coming up from behind a cliff!

This was blast to work on and gave me a chance to play around with many elements I enjoy; aggressive guitars, modern synths, big drums and programming, and incorporating sound design ideas into the score in a novel way. Many thanks to the Red Bull people.

A Cuíca can be surprisingly at home in contemporary EDM/electro, and I just produced a new track to prove it ;)

December 15th, 2016

A cuíca (kuweeca) resembles a drum with the addition of a wooden or bamboo stick fixed to the middle of the drum membrane from the inside of the drum. Sounds are generated by friction from a wet cloth rubbed on the stick while placing a finger on the outside of the skin (where you’d normally strike the drum) to dampen the skin and obtain pitch variations. It generates an unique and expressive sound. To me it’s reminiscent of a bird squeak or a monkey or even a lion with its lower sounds (I have read that it in Africa it was used for lion hunting because its sound is reminiscent a female lion, thus attracting the male).

Some accounts trace the cuíca’s origins back to Angola (the pwita) and it travelled to Brazil via the slave trade in the 17th century. Other accounts claim that it came from North Africa or the Iberian peninsula (the sarronca). In either case, later on in the 1930’s the instrument became incorporated into the instrumentation of the Brazilian samba school (escolas de samba) playing the role of a pitched rhythmic ostinado (repeated pattern) along with the rest of the various drums.




Over the years the instrument has made it’s way into various non-native Brazilian music genres including jazz, pop, rock, funk, and reggae. Some of the cuíca’s most iconic non-Brazilian appearances are in Quincy Jones’ “Soul Bossa” from the Big Band Bossa Nova album of 1962 and Paul Simon’s “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard” from his self-titled album in 1972.

I find it interesting that the type of pitch glides and rhythms that are natural to the cuíca are reminiscent of lead synth parts that have come into fashion in contemporary EDM/house genres such as Dutch house, etc. So it is only natural to me that the cuíca would sound at home featured in a modern EDM production! “Cuiqueiro” blends various Brazilian rhythms, samba drums/percussion, halftime/double time feels, 808/909 percussion sounds/programming, modern digital synths, and production techniques. (A cuiqueiro is a cuíca player.)




My trip to Burning Man 2015, sonically, via Coney Island’s great Dreamland fire of 1911

October 6th, 2015

Paul Belger of Flux Foundation, an art collective based out of San Fransisco that builds large scale public art, invited me to be a part of an interesting project for Burning Man 2015. Flux was building an interactive art piece inspired by Coney Island’s historic Dreamland amusement park that tragically burned down in a colossal fire in 1911. The Flux team wanted me to create music/sound for the experience. The project had many aspects which I enjoyed: sound design, location recording, incorporating found sounds, and historical research, so I gladly accepted the offer.

Dreamland, along with Steeplechase Park and Luna Park, was one of the original iconic theme parks of Coney Island from the beginning of the 20th century. It was built in 1904 and was designed to be bigger and grander than neighboring Luna Park. It had a tall central tower, a railway that travelled thru a Swiss alpine landscape, gandolas on a Venetian canal, lion tamers, side shows and thrill rides.






In the beginning of the 1911 season while preparation work was being done late at night, there was an electrical malfunction. In the ensuing darkness, a worker who was calking a leak spilled a bucket of hot pitch which started a fire. All of the buildings were made of highly flammable material and the fire spread quickly thru the park. Unfortunately the near by high pressure water pumping station malfunctioned and by morning the park was totally destroyed.



The theme of Flux’s Dreamland is wonder, carnivals, childhood rides, and memories of the past. The installation consists of a central spire reminiscent of a spinning carnival ride along with other surrounding sculptures which have lighting, flame, and sound effects. These effects are controlled by the spinning of the central spire which onlookers are encouraged to do.






On reflecting on what kind music/sound I was going to produce I knew that traditional “music” wouldn’t be appropriate. The pacing of regular music wouldn’t have worked because the sound had to go on for hours and hours. I also wanted the sound not to be intrusive to the experience and be more of a background element. I decided an ambient soundscape that slowly revealed different evocative sounds from carnivals, the past etc., was the way to go….

I veered away from the more obvious childlike, dreamy carnival sounds and went toward something more ominous and darker, possibly foreshadowing the fire. The team at Flux agreed that it was a good creative direction. I produced five different pieces ranging from 30 to 60 minutes each with low pulsing drones, static, and vinyl crackle, along with recordings of carrousels, carnival music, barkers, rides and crowds that I captured on location at Coney Island (The historic Cyclone roller coaster included!). It was rewarding to incorporate authentic sounds from the actual location the sculpture was inspired by.

Here’s a video of Dreamland when the carousel section of my piece was playing:


Here’s a video of when a more ethereal section was playing, incorporating music box piano, roller coster sounds, crowd, and dreamy/hazy ambient sounds:


It was a great project all around and I was grateful to be a part of it, thank you Paul!

On a side note, the historic Coney Island B&B carousel, built there in 1906, has been recently refurbished and has a beautiful German-made Gebruder Bruder organ. Turned out it wasn’t working the day I went there, which I only realized after I paid for the ride, sat on a carriage, and turned on my recorder. The carousel music I was recording was coming from a CD playing thru speakers and not the organ I was looking at!

I was determined to get a real carousel organ “on tape” so I went to Brooklyn Bridge Park which houses Jane’s Carousel, a 1922 carousel made built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and originally located in Youngstown Ohio. I got some great recordings of that organ, from on and off that carousel, which ended up in my Dreamland pieces at Burning Man 2015.

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