I’m extremely honoured to report that a student animation I was asked to do some voice-acting / narration for was recently selected as both the Top Animation, as well as Top Film, at this year’s Reel Stars Student Film Festival in Coqtuilam last week.
With Travis & his Reel Stars award (on the phone w/ his mom).
Directed by Travis Anderson, Exileserves as a trailer to a longer story of a scientist who has been exiled to ‘a place between time,’ and takes viewers on an engrossing and terrifying journey that I was fortunate to be invited along for as the voice of the main character. With Travis expert direction and comprehensive understanding of his own vision, we were able to record all of the voice parts in one sitting, mostly in the first ‘takes.’ As my first turn in this sort of collaboration, all the credit for the project’s success rests squarely with Travis and his exceptional abilities as an artist, director, and storyteller.
Take a few minutes and bask in the world of Exile, and join me in congratulating Travis on a job very well done!
Last week, the TALONS classes presented audio documentaries their small groups had been preparing out of individual threads of personal inquiry into the history of the Canadian Northwest (if you’re just joining us, here is a brief introduction to the project). Personal explorations became reflective and highly professional collaborative radio documentaries that were broadcast – via #ds106radio‘s younger sister station 105 the Hive – from the Math Department’s tutorial office back to the classroom, but also onto the wider web. TALONS alumni Jonathan and Andrew played hosts over the course of two days’ radio listening, providing introductions and banter between shows and asking the reporters and producers a few questions after each episode.
Introduction: a dramatization of the trial of Louis Riel is played, with Christina narrating from the present.
Act I: Justann finishes the introduction and brings us into Act I, which addresses the reasons why Riel left the United States following his exile.
Act II: Natalie then explains why Riel stayed in Canada after certain death, which features audio from an interview with Jean Teillet, Louis Riel’s great grand niece, from CBC’s Ideas.
Act III: After Louis Riel’s execution, Carlin asks whether the execution of Louis Riel would be considered a triumph or mistake and Christina follows up with explaining why Louis Riel’s death came at the right time.
17th century Canada, bold and bountiful, awaits the exploration and exploitation of those nestled inside the Manifest Destiny. Every valley, forest, and plain awaits a man with a gun in one hand and a bible in the other, ready to “civilize” his new found nation.
“To rid the world of red, and fill it with white”
Somewhere along the way, a people neither European nor Native formed: the Metis. The Metis balanced between two worlds. Like First Nations and Inuit, this nation possessed a distinct culture, with trappers and traders. Again, like First Nations and Inuit, the Metis endured years of oppression from the European settlers. But the theft of land, wealth, and family could not compare to the loss of a culture, spirit, and identity.
Our lovely host Isaac M. will bring up some small talk and a current event (The Boston Marathon Bombings: Brothers arrested) like usual, and will then steer the show into the question of the day: “With the original treaties signed (between the Natives and Canada), what do both sides think they have “honoured” and what do they think the other side has failed at?”
So much of my musical inspiration has been drawn from Josh in the last few years, in fact, that when I played one of the first songs I wrote for my sister, she exclaimed that she didn’t know Ritter had written a song about so many of the places we’d been spending our summer vacations. To boot, the afternoon I spent in the Commodore with Josh, in addition to enjoying the show that night (despite it being already the third time seeing him in concert) provided a profound shift in my thinking about writing and performing music.
I was struck not only by the reaction the show brought out in myself – jubilation, revelry, and an unending grin that followed me home and into work the rest of the week – but also the appreciation I was gaining for just what it was I saw Josh doing from the stage: breathing life into the room and connecting to people through the sheer force of his love for what he had forged with his own imagination and enthusiasm.
It was a glimpse of what I would later hear Bruce Springsteen describe as music’s ability to allow for the creation of “a transformative self.“
By sharing what he loved to do with others. Could it be that easy?
Well… not entirely. But imagine my appreciation to find Josh’s series of blog posts laying bare his path to the Commodore stage that night. Here are a series of posts from 2010 wherein he offers advice for Making a Life in Music, from buying yourself a notebook, to sharing a tour bus with Joan Baez.
To strain a metaphor to breaking, Death is the enigma and Art is the engine we build to decipher it. Each of us makes Art as a way to understand human problems (Love, War, God, Death, Sandwiches) of great complexity. While we go about our day-to-day lives we are constantly feeding information into the engines we create for ourselves, gaining insight and slowly solving the enigma. Art is one such engine.
Goals are very different birdies. Even the words sound different. Aspiration, that airy puff of breath, is such a suave word, soaring high above its stolid, plunkier cousin, goal. You can even tell, by the sound of the two words, which one gets the work done. A lot of people want, for some reason, a tour bus. They dream about it and never sit down to figure out, actually, how they are going to get that tour bus. Aspirations are good, nice things to have, don’t get me wrong, but they’re the pie in the sky, and if you want pie, you’re gonna need goals.
Open mics are fun, but treat them professionally and you will learn about how to be a professional. Make them your second job. Attend them diligently, meet people, keep your instrument in tune, and in the words of a famous open mic superstar, learn your song well before you start singing. Pay attention to what the crowd needs, always have a mailing list with you, and if you have recordings, bring them along. It may take a few years and more than a few late nights before you’re ready to progress on from open mics, but you’re starting at the bottom and these will be some of the most memorable, beautiful, challenging times that you’ll have in your entire career, and I guarantee you’ll never forget them.
[Artists] should look for someone who thinks about their art as much as they do. Someone who sends them TOO MANY emails / texts / ideas about their music. They should look for the person in their life who’s pushing them. Someone who’s a good listener but who isn’t a tool or a yes-man. There’s someone in their life who’s curious. Someone who’s a little bit competitive. Someone they can talk music with and someone who is ready to work hard.
Artists are empathetic people. They have a great capacity to feel the emotions of others. As such, they are easily able to imagine, rightly or wrongly, what it must be like to be someone else; someone more popular, more good-looking, funnier, wealthier. It is this ability to imagine that gives us the power to do create, but empathy is (again alas) threaded through with strong streaks of jealousy. A little imagination can go a long way towards envisioning what our life would be like if only such-and-such happened to us instead of to the other guy. We imagine ourselves in his place, and those grapes he is eating no doubt taste far better than these sour ones we ended up with. Well, imagining yourself in his place isn’t bad as long as you do something constructive with it.
If the open mic is where you first learn to play your songs in front of people, the opening set is where you’ll start to learn your place in the music business ecosystem. Here is where you’ll really be tested and where you’ll find out your capacity to make the best of demanding situations. The benefits of being on the bill are great, but the demands are also great, and your ability to conduct yourself professionally (and optimistically) is equal to the opportunity you’re being given.
The best stuff about living a life in music is the stuff that comes to you unexpectedly. Nothing about your life can be planned so well that the best stuff won’t find its way in and change everything. The sound system will break and you’ll be forced to play without amplification. There will be a storm and you’ll have no electricity. You’ll mess up your place in the song and a whole new way to play it will suddenly come to you. Something in your life will change and you’ll realize just how important the other parts are.
I’ve written here before about being a ‘notebook guy,’ someone who cut my creative teeth with pen and paper and has yet to find the same intimacy in digital space that I have had with notebooks and journals going back to my teen years. This isn’t to say that I don’t do some creative thinking on my computer, or my phone – recording brief demos of songs, or typing up lyrics in a Google Doc instead of writing them by hand, for instance – but much of my thinking begins in these books that I still keep with me at (nearly) all times, even if I have never truly put my finger on just what it is this brand of note-taking is facilitating.
Luckily, GNA Garcia came upon this Lifehacker article that pulls from a few different sources to put some of the necessity of notebooks into better context than I’ve been able to. The first of these sources is author Stephen Johnson, whose book Where Good Ideas Come Fromhas been showing up consistently in my Twitter feed, Pro-D sessions and casual discussions for a few years now.
Johnson’s The Spark File talks about how he uses his notebooks to ‘catch’ the hunches and inklings that may (or may not) become one of those Good Ideas:
…most good ideas (whether they’re ideas for narrative structure, a particular twist in the argument, or a broader topic) come into our minds as hunches: small fragments of a larger idea, hints and intimations. Many of these ideas sit around for months or years before they coalesce into something useful, often by colliding with another hunch.
The problem with hunches is that it’s incredibly easy to forget them, precisely because they’re not fully-baked ideas. You’re reading an article, and a little spark of an idea pops into your head, but by the time you’ve finished the article, you’re checking your email, or responding to some urgent request from your colleague, and the next thing you know, you’ve forgotten the hunch for good. And even the ones that you do manage to retain often don’t turn out to be useful to you for months or years, which gives you countless opportunities to lose track of them.
This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy – just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.
… note-taking works primarily because I have learned to separate my putative spark file from my task list. If I feel the impulse to make a note to myself about something that needs to be done, I put it somewhere else — my actual to-do list or a list of potential projects.
In Scott Belsky’s book, Making Ideas Happen (also recommended, especially if you manage people in a creative industry), he distinguishes between ideas and “action steps” — separating your notes, sketches, etc., from things that need to be done.
This may not be true of everyone, but I find that I’m the most creatively fruitful when I approach pure creative work and execution separately. If I start with the execution, I’m much more limited in how I think about what I want to accomplish. I won’t pursue a story idea further because I think it’s going to take more time than I have. I won’t explore an article topic because I don’t have all the research at hand. I don’t want potential action steps to make pursuing a new idea seem too intimidating or insurmountable. So I keep separate files for those — mostly task lists associated with specific projects and a master list for overall prioritization.
I’ve kept each of these sorts of books over the years – ideas books, and task-oriented books – but of late have been much freer in veering between the two purposes. The book I’ve been working with this school year is a mix of all of the following: calendars, lists, concept maps, essay and blog post drafts, ideas, songs, sketches and other brainstorms. All of them are necessary parts of my creative workflow, catching, sorting, and implementing the various hunches, inklings and schemes that make up anything I’ve ever thought of as a ‘good’ idea.
What about you? Where do your good ideas come from?
Something that I haven’t given as much blog attention here as I would have liked so far this semester is the vibrant community that has sprung up around our school’s Introduction to Guitar class. Having had students post their work regularly to a wiki site in past years, I wanted to incorporate some of the design lessons I learned in #Philosophy12 and create a site that could function as a hub of creation, collaboration, and community that would serve not only our school’s face-to-face guitar students, but also offer wayfinding musicians on the open web a place to play, learn, and offer their own expertise to one another.
…it is not a class that teaches guitar but one where you can learn guitar.
And while I think the course has always functioned this way as a ‘closed’ system (even though we have shared our exploits on Youtube, #ds106radio, and other places), the energy and inspiration that our open online participants have so far brought to the class has increased the creative combustibility of the group by several orders of magnitude. There are folks in Japan, Ontario, Australia, Singapore, and even Ontario-azona strumming along with #IntroGuitar lessons and assignments, sharing stories of their instruments, their struggles (and triumphs) of playing music, and making meaningful musical connections with the face-to-face students who meet daily in our school’s choir room through videos, blog comments, and listening to performances in class.
One such connection that has been working its way through the course community began as a poem shared by a student of Jabiz Raisdana, in Singapore.
Having made some trans-oceanic songs written with Jabiz over the years, I opened up a Google Document and began sanding the poems edges and syllables with some chords and a basic melody. I recorded this so that folks could follow up with what I had made out of Michelle’s orginal poem, and posted the works on Twitter and the #IntroGuitar blog.
Over the weekend, Nathan John Moes continued to work with the chords and Michelle’s lyrics and added this version of the song that has been stuck in my head since Sunday night.
Which all would have been amazing, right? A poem gets posted late at night (I might be adding that piece to the narrative…) on a student blog in Singapore, and a week later it’s spawned a song that has been amended, added to, and recorded by a few teachers in British Columbia.
Of his work putting the song and the recording together, Colin said:
...this is totally uncharted territory for me.
Totally uncharted territory, for a guy who isn’t even getting a grade or credit for the course and – beyond that – has been playing guitar for more than ten years.
And yet still, the ball bounces, and rolls. This morning Leslie joined the party all the way from Lima, Peru, Camrose, Alberta, offering the fifth (!) incarnation of the poem accompanied by her ukelele.
But this is likely not the end of this particular story, with chapters, verses and tomes yet to be discovered.
Without taking away from the stellar work that the other two groups in Philosophy 12 contributed to our Ethics’ unit endeavour to create teaching/learning materials for a younger audience (middle school on downwards), I wanted to share a recording I made of Iris, Megan, Greg, Zoe and Toren’s group’s presentation in a grade one classroom on Friday afternoon (the file is too big to post anywhere other than here on my site).
You can listen to the participatory magic the group brought to life in the way of a story, a singalong, and even some Christmas cookies if you like, by clicking the link below (sorry, I couldn’t manage to hyperlink the cookies).
Max’s Christmas Story by Megan (story), Iris (song), Greg (song), Zoe (illustrations), Toren (editing/photoshop/cookies).
Having turned the corner here in metro-Vancouver toward fall and winter, I thought I would post the video of a very warm afternoon (the last official day of summer 2012) and a writing prompt that travelled a long way to get there.
Special props are due to Liam, who rose to the occasion and supplied the harmonica solo.
I would love to see these words transformed, re-thought and remixed into some kind of art project. I know there are some amazing musicians, writers and artists amongst you; do these words inspire you to draw, sing, create? This post is like Caine’s Arcade, in that I hope it moves you in some way to create. Consider it another seed that I have planted. I will wait patiently and hope that perhaps a few trees may grow.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Hesse quote made a perfect union with some of the pictures I took while the TALONS were journaling on our three day jaunt through the British Columbian woods, where Jabiz’ own words had actually served as a meditating and writing prompt on Thursday afternoon. Before sending the group on a solo walk around the back half of Hicks Lake, I played the TALONS the first half of a song I wrote out of one of Jabiz’ poems and told them to “immerse oneself in the blossoming awareness of the moment,” and that we would meet up on the opposite shore where I would play them the second verse and we would settle ourselves to do a little writing (where I snapped the above pic).
That he would have a follow up quotation for us on Monday morning is unsurprising, of course, because this is the sort of thing I’ve come to expect from my online colleagues, these folks – some of whom, like Jabiz, I’ve never met face-to-face – who are here in our classroom from time to time whether on these blogs or in the local woods: teachers, students, learners, friends.
A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to meet a handful of local talented musicians in an afternoon session I delivered at the inaugural Port Moody Youth Arts Festival, where through the course of an afternoon we would set out to write a song. In addition to the afternoon workshop, my name was slated for half an hour as the opening act of the evening showcase, and I hoped that I wouldn’t be standing on the stage explaining a failed effort.
I prepared the sparest of materials to make the most of our time during the afternoon, and spent my energy providing the space and the canvas, along with whatever emerging know-how I’ve gained in the last year about what makes songs come together and what they require to be performed convincingly I could. Fortunately, the Port Moody teens who had signed up for the workshop were exceptionally talented writers, musicians, collaborators, and performers.
The workshop was scheduled for the top floor of City Hall, a vaulted dome ceiling befitting our quaint suburban capital with a veranda that offered a view of Inlet Park, the rec center, and public library. It seemed a dignified place to be crafting a song out of the ether, and even if this went unspoken, the group set about searching for riffs and opening hooks, imagery and themes in pairs and individual spots around the space with diligence and urgency. At fifteen minute intervals, the group met as a whole to share the pieces they had come up with, and teach them to one another.
Eventually, the collective settled on an opening verse by a marvelous budding singer-songwriter named Julia, and while she retreated to the patio to extend the verses and lyrics, the rest of the group experimented with various other instrumentation that began to bring the song to life: acoustic guitars, bass, ukelele with slide, drums, a twelve string.
As a few of the participants were called to the stage to soundcheck their own band, Julia, Mickelvin, and Patrick worked to develop a chorus with transitions and complimentary guitar licks that built a musical tension throughout the song, and it was quickly typed up and photocopied in the library downstairs. There were a few last minute run throughs in the evening light of the floor-to-ceiling windows, and at five o’clock we broke for dinner.
The evening showcase was set to begin with us at six-thirty, and the group had yet to play the song on stage. But after a handful of run-throughs after dinner, the mood was relaxed while the newly minted band hung out with the evening’s emcees and the other acts, picking at pizza and veggie platters before being called to the stage.
I introduced the group and provided a brief summary of the day’s events, and then scurried into the audience to record video as the troupe proceeded to bring the house down. In a scaled down version of the Thirty Person Rock Band Project, the workshop was a success for the way it allowed the individual talents of the participants to shine. Julia, Mickelvin, Patrick, Theo, Ian, Isaac, Jonathan and Michael came to the session open to who they might meet, and what they might be able to make together.
I arrived at Unpludg this year without a finished draft of my letter.
Either out of procrastination or by an unconscious but deliberate choice, I made the journey east resolved to not panic about not having completed my draft and to try my best to remain open to the vibrations of the moment over the course of the weekend, to soak the experience in, and use the time set aside for peer editing with my group to finish the song.
Earlier in the week, I had sat at my kitchen table looking out over Burrard Inlet strumming the familiar opening chords of G major, D, and C, singing I’m gonna write myself a letter… until I settled on the opening groove of the song. Pretty quickly I had scribbled down the opening two verses and had a chorus that scratched at a theme of a collective voice emerging from so many individual journeys out toward the Edge.
My own curiosity about this year’s event, now expanded to include international participants, centered around what a diverse selection of passionate educators (to quote Rob Fisher from last year, “People who care about education so much it hurts.”) might create in a mosaic of their voices. Last year this had seemed easier, as our focus was the ‘limited’ prospect of a Canadian identity, and I wondered what my role would be an a conversation about about a more diverse voice.
@giuliaforsythe's visual notes
It wasn’t that Unplugd this year wasn’t still a heartily Canadian affair, with Ontario and educators from across Canada, not to mention the Edge hosts and Voyageur, the Six String Nation guitar, playing a role in welcoming our friends and colleagues from the United States and Australia. Thursday night’s reception in Toronto, culminating in a presentation from Jowi Taylor about his journey to collect the artifacts composing Voyageur, a guitar made up of mythically charged Canadiana – Trudeau’s canoe paddle, the Golden Spruce, Maurice Richard’s Stanley Cup Ring – provided an opportunity for the story of the guitar to begin the weekend’s conversation about people and place.
Being asked to play a song on Voyageur was an honour that was both invigorating and daunting, as I knew in some ways the performance would serve as a sort of host’s welcome to our international friends and local guests. But I had little idea the emotional weight such a guitar could bear. And when the story of Jowi’s journey to have the Voyageur built wound to a close, I was overwhelmed at the prospect of having my voice, and my words, spoken through this mystical object, joining in the chorus of the pieces making up the guitar, as well as the thousands of people who have held it in their hands, and contemplated their own relationship to the country and one another through the songs Voyageur has helped them sing and hear.
Needing a few minutes to settle myself at the front of the room and hopefully provide some context for the song I had chosen to sing, I talked about the idea of Canadian soul homes, and that truths are woven in places where people are living, as Martha reminded us in this year’s opening circle, “at the pace of creation.” I had arrived in Toronto the day before having brought a stone I picked up in the estuary of Noon’s Creek near my house, a barnacle encrusted river rock forged a hundred million years ago in Heritage Mountain that now lolled in my neighbourhood’s high tides. Thinking about how I’d found the stone earlier in the week on a low neep tide that in the fall will be carrying streams of salmon home to spawn in the creeks where they were born, and that I was now being given the opportunity to make music by playing notes that would resonate through the sacred wood of the Golden Spruce struck me as especially moving in that moment.
As it turned out, leaving my letter unfinished was the right choice.
I think about writing songs a little like archaeology: once the hook – a riff, lyric or chorus – is discovered, the rest of the song is usually nearby, obscured just below the surface of sedimentary dust. They are like puzzles, where a songwriter creates an opening image, or symbol, builds upon that theme by creation tension (either literally or musically), and then resolves that tension for their audience.
Going into the weekend, I had written the first two verses and a chorus for my letter-song, but couldn’t have written the third verse (the resolution) before Thursday night, or the rest of Unplug’d had played out. The tension of the song was created out of my own question about the experience: what would this group come together to say? I would need to write the song, and capture it, from the middle of the experience.
On Saturday afternoon, my editing group of Donna Fry, Marci Duncan, and Gail Lovely sat on yoga mats in the upstairs studio of Points North, and I played them the opening verses of the song. We had saved the song for our last edit, and had spent the day up until that point contextualizing the meaning of each of our letters through the stories we had told one another and our emerging reflections on what the experience was teaching us. Jowi Taylor was gracious enough to let me enlist the powers of Voyageur in the composition, and he joined us for a conversation about authenticity, and truth, and the role of music, metaphors, and symbols in our collective storytelling while I sat cross-legged with the guitar in my lap.