Thursday, November 21, 2013

Edward Snowden The Musical

No, I'm not really writing a musical about Edward Snowden, the former CIA cybersecurity worker who is now exiled in Russia for the year, awaiting who knows what kind of a decision about his future. One of my professors thinks the topic of the NSA and government surveillance would even make a great opera. (What kind of arias would I write for it? Or would it be more like Einstein on the Beach?) Actually, much to my own surprise, I'm working on a new short-ish chamber music composition about the NSA, and more specifically people's feelings about government surveillance and our potential loss of a feeling of privacy over our lives. I think it's going to be written for strings and electronics. I thus find it totally appropriate that the government could pick up on the words in this post and potentially raise an eyebrow to my artistic output.

One of my main challenges in wrestling with this topic is it sheer size. The size of the debate of course doesn't just begin with Snowden, but includes Julian Assange, spy scandals in Britian, and goes all the way back to the "good ole' days" where all you could do to spy is wiretap someone's phone line, take pictures of men cheating on their wives, and intercept their postmail. Thankfully the Guardian has put out a fabulous website that helps clarify a lot of the fundamental issues (from all sides) in the Edward Snowden/NSA saga. The website is mostly in normal-people language, thank goodness, but also includes a lot of the de-classified/leaked documents of which are in question.

It's not so much the facts of the matter that interest me but the emotional content. I've never been much of a political person. I hate political debates and would rather see a list of facts of what candidates support and don't support, and I'll weigh my voting options from there. I also don't like feeling conflicted about issues, but that's mostly all I do, being a 110% Libran. I just see a million sides of things. I think, well, I wouldn't want to be spied upon. I would not like companies giving away my personal information (even in its bytes and codes and metadata) without my knowing. I don't even like to talk on the phone on public transport (or maybe that's just courtesy). On the other hand, if there's a chance that crazy people could be prevented from bombing public sites, or attacking innocent bystanders, then I don't know if I'd mind giving up some information. It's not the information people have that's bad, it's what people do with information. I do feel sad that many Americans are often quick to place blame on a single individual for such large-scale complex issues. Those people become scapegoats who usually never end up as vilified as time passes. Many times I feel ashamed that more Americans wouldn't feel like this was even an issue that could affect their lives, or that they even had some small part in the matter.

I've never personally been caught in the middle of a battle over sensitive or secure information. I can hardly keep a secret about what I might be giving you for Christmas. I don't know what I would do if my life could be in jeopardy over things I know. I would feel wrought with Libran conflict! Thus, my work had its germinal idea: a lament.

I'd like the piece to feature wafting voices, transformed into bits of coded data. Maybe there are secret messages embedded in the electronics, sent out into the audience. And the strings would play this lament, likely Medieval inspired, trying to cut through the here and now to something more timeless and universal. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Music Review: Emilíana Torrini's 'Tookah'

I recently got a music review published in the Reykjavík Grapevine (the English language newspaper in Iceland), and I thought I'd share the text here for those of you who might not be able to access their weird PDF.

“Tookah”: Made for the Moment

Emilíana Torrini’s new album “Tookah” is brimming with her signature sound: quiet vocals, smooth orchestrations, subtle beats, guitar pickings, and romanticized lyrics. But it also goes in new directions that keep the album feeling current.

Fans of Emilíana will be comforted by the familiar softness of songs like “Caterpillar” and “Autumn Sun”. But that familiarity seems bland when compared to a stand out track like “When Fever Breaks”. At seven and a half minutes, it’s an epic half-structured half–improv song, slowing building pressure over time. Being at the brink of emotions, Torrini intones “desire is rage/ rage is desire” and “I want to kill you with my fire”. The track, although intense, could be pushed even further. Would this fever break in a live performance?

The most successful tracks on “Tookah” are the ones with the catchy hooks and dance beats, such as “Speed of Dark” and “Blood Red”. Torrini recently experimented with synthesizers, and it shows. “Speed” could be a club hit; a remix would easily entice partygoers to dance. Her simple and unadorned voice is a great contrast to the processed drums and synths, resulting in Kate Bush-meets-Depeche Mode.  There is a catchiness recalling Torrini’s earlier “Jungle Drum” without the twee cuteness.

In “Speed of Dark”, there is a line: “life is just a flicker in the universe”. And that, in its essence, is the album. “Tookah” is a collection of cool and sensual songs made for the moment. Enjoy them now, because in the grand scheme of the universe, these songs are a flickering star.

Nathan Hall is a composer and artist, and a Fulbright Fellow to Iceland.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Comprehensives Passed

I passed my written and oral comprehensive exams, and I am now officially a doctoral candidate, on track to graduate in May. I'm elated! This time it feels like a major relief. I waited outside the room my committee was debating in (after answering questions and talking for two hours) and they all came out and shook my hand and gave me hugs.
Now, on to THE FUTURE. Though it seems intimidating right now, I'm trying to make a plan that will break down THE FUTURE into tiny manageable chunks that turn it into THE PRESENT, which is much easier to conceptualize. I'm currently working on a couple small music projects, and looking for other work in various fields. I hope to do some commercial work at some point soon, and also up the ante on my jewelry line. Then I'll look for some teaching jobs of various sorts, and possibly some other cultural activities (residencies, perhaps?). We'll cross our fingers that it's a fun transition from the last days of my life as a student into other opportunities!

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Doctoral Comprehensive Exams

In about two week's time I'll be taking the most intense tests of my adult life, hopefully never to be repeated again. (Though I must say, I remember taking the GRE's and they weren't fun either). These are the doctoral comprehensive exams in music, which at CU Boulder happen over the course of five days (with a weekend in between for rest).

I really shouldn't complain. I got myself into this program and I think I'm going to be fine! It is also a piece of cake compared to other schools, which have different comprehensive exam rules. Sometimes, you sit in a room for hours, and your advisors grill you about basically any and every facet of music, oh, you know, from the dawn of civilization until the present. Who composed 'Viderunt Omnes' in the 12th century? Name all the instruments in the chamber music of Brahms! What does 'gesamtkunstverk' mean? What is a sawtooth wave? Provide a sample pedagogical approach to teaching augmented sixth chords! You won't know what they'll be asking you until you get there, so you basically study everything and everything. And then you feel awful about yourself at the expense of your superiors feeling really great about themselves. And then you can either pass, or fail. No grey area.

Thankfully here it is not like that. That prevents me from having a heart attack, and mostly the stress just causes some random anxiety (in which case I have a dance party in my room), or some random indigestion (in which case I go eat a TUMS and take deep breaths).

For me, I get to tailor a lot of my comprehensives to my own interests, which will hopefully help me later in my career. It's like a chance to further research topics of interest, and then write about them. I would have wanted to know about a lot of this information, so now I'm just forced to know it! Still, sometimes you don't have a choice of what your question will be. Sometimes you can get the questions in advance, and sometimes not. Sometimes it's open notes, sometimes all from memory; it's all up to your advisors.

I have five advisors, and each of them comes up with a question (or questions), and I choose one advisor's question(s) per day. I'm supposed to begin working in the library at 8am each morning, and then spew out information onto a computer for hours. I finish at 4pm (or before, if I'm out of thoughts), go home, and repeat four more times. 

Sometimes I hope that a higher power might be waiting to come to my aid and help me with technical questions to which I forget the answers. It feels a little like when I took the preliminary exams two years ago:


Some of my questions I'm researching are topics I already knew a little about: sound art, music and entrepreneurship, music and science/nature/architecture. Those topics I just need to research further, and feel confident I can make a lengthy statement about them in an intelligent way. And other questions are ones where I'm taking a little time each day to carve away at, 'cause I'm a little more clueless: music and dance forms, music in the middle ages and renaissance, oral and written traditions of music. The historical topics are the hardest for me; I'm hoping that my brain can remember timelines, names, facts, long enough to get them out on the computer and organize them into coherent thoughts.

Wish me luck. I've got a few more days to do a whole lot more note-taking. 

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Upcoming Performances

I have three different performances of my music happening in three very different places all within one week. This has certainly never happened before! Wed, Oct 2 is my extended music video premiere 'And Yet It Moves' in Boulder, CO, at at ATLAS multimedia building (7:30pm, room 100). I'm also having a repeat performance of my nykelharpa and guitar piece which just premiered, and Ben Teitlebaum and Patrick Sutton are totally going to rock it once again. 

Oct 6 is a Beatles arrangement for South Side Sharps trio in Pittsburgh, PA; I wrote a version of 'Blackbird' a number of years ago and have been dying to hear it again; Maria Mangano and her South Side Sharps trio of clarinet, euphonium and trombone are making it happen at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. 

And perhaps most globally, Oct 9th is a premiere of a harp and percussion piece by Duo Harpverk, in Reykjavík! The performance is in the KEX hostel performance space at 5pm. I am super pumped to hear a recording of this piece, as it features an electronic backing track made of manipulated harp sounds, and hopefully gives a glacial and lagoon-like atmosphere. I've been hoping that Harpverk would play a piece of mine for years and now is my chance! I wish I could be to all the performances to cheer everyone on, but I'll just have to wish everyone the best and hope to get recordings down the road. Or maybe an encore performance when I do visit these places again!

Friday, August 30, 2013

WWJD? What Would Jewel Do?

Regarding the once-ubiquitous "WWJD/What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, I've always joked that what Jesus would do is probably not wear a bracelet that said "What Would I Do". This time I'm making a Jewel-related bracelet (the second of two Jewel-related comics in fact!), which helps me get through the day by thinking about what advice the folk-country singer-songwriter might give in times of trouble. Here are some of her possible responses.
Me: Jewel, I'm applying for a teaching position, what should I do?
Jewel: Follow your heart, your intutition. It will lead you in the right direction.

Me: Jewel, which watch should I wear today?
Jewel: Your hands are small, you know. For a guy. 

Me: I just slept with my boyfriend's ex, what do I do, Jewel?
Jewel: Stop breaking my heart with these foolish games!

Me: Jewel, I just bought this WWJD bracelet at your new concert. What do you think?
Jewel: What I want to know is, who will save your soul from this incredibly clever marketing scheme? That's what I wanna know.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Beryl Crow

All Be3Al2Si6O18 wants to do is have some fun. I've got a feeling, she's not the only one. 

Thursday, August 08, 2013

A Knight Without Jewel

Don't get me wrong, I'm actually quite a fan of Jewel. I think she's pretty amazing. She's made music in a million different styles, AND written her own book of poetry. I once saw her perform at a casino, and despite the crappy interior, she was totally the boss of that show. And she can yodel.
This comic comes to you from the guy who once owned Jewel's book of poetry...on tape. Still, I would like to take Jewel's poetry and chop it up, maybe make an avant-garde electronic composition with it, and turn it into something else completely. It would probably garner a very very small audience (probably me and my boyfriend, and that's about it). I don't know if Ms. Kilcher would approve, but I hope she'd find it pretty amusing.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Evolution of Websites

For all y'all who want to see more of what I've been doing, with a few more pictures and a few less words, you should know that I have a website! I entered the world of personal composer website around 2006, when I decided it was time to get my professional act in gear, having seen other composer's sites like Nico Muhly and John Adams, so I hired a friend to custom-make me a website. I got a great discount from my friend, he gave me a one-hour tutorial, and after that I had little to no idea of what I was doing. But it had a darn good brand identity, and a snazzy color scheme, so I was proud of that! And all of my work was in one place: my blog, my compositions, my collages (at the time I was doing more works on paper and not jewelry design), and updates about performances. I thought it was so super new-fangled that you could go read about a particular composition and click a link to hear a sound sample of the piece. Nowadays it seems the norm to have audio and video embedded everywhere, a slick interface, and of course, a seamless connection to Facebook.

Things got complicated with NathanHallWebsite1.0 of course. Trying to edit HTML without skillz is just a hot mess 'o characters and numbers and %nbsp%. I'd try and change a heading and my text would fly off the page. I'd try and change one word to bold and all the red and grey backgrounds would turn purple. I ended up with a website just barely holding itself together.

Now, thanks to a few tech-savvy friends to fix the back-end server details, I have a new site run off of Wordpress which makes everything fairly straightforward again. There's bright and organized pictures, a pretty handy interface to change the design, and I can still use audio and video in the same ways. I do wish for my own web developer one day, where I can just hand things off to him or her (or robot?). But for now, I hope my efforts continue to keep me a little better connected to the bigger world out there of people who might be interested in what I do and supporting my work in so many ways. Let me know how you like the new!

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Jennifer Topaz

#1 on the Gem and Mineral/Hip-Hop Crossover charts.


I have so many projects and random part-time activities that sometimes I lose sense of the timeline of how long I've been doing them. I've been writing music for nineteen years! I've been drawing random comics for about eight. I also realized it's been nine years since I sold my first piece of jewelry, in August of 2004; a sparkly pair of pink earrings, I believe. My, how things have changed, and I have a little more business sense too. I've gone through two websites, have started an Etsy site for jewelry, have started a Bandcamp page for selling recordings, I've experimented with combining media, and hopefully every once and a while I still put up a comic on here. (I do love to have a good laugh about grammar, hot pants, and/or witless tourists).
Thanks to everyone who's bought, listened, gifted, worn, promoted, paid attention to, or just admired my works over the years, it keeps me going! For next year's ten-year jewelry anniversary and twenty-year composing anniversary, I should put something extravagant together that celebrates everything. Maybe a giant sculptural jewelry piece that plays music? An elegant piece of music about pink sparkly earrings? I've got a year to perfect that idea. In the meantime, a couple new comics are on their way!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Dublin Part Two

I've been "on residence" in Dublin for about three weeks now, in fact exactly three weeks! Just over a week to go and my time will be up here. I feel like I've been quite productive. But have also seen a lot and have tried to relax too (in my own way, which is more like being crafty or noodling around doing random tasks).

I've made a sound sculpture! I hope to document it shortly through video. It was quite the experiment as I'd done nothing like it before. I hooked up a Wii Remote to a computer running the software program Max, and embedded the remote in a giant 'crystal'-shaped sculpture that I made out of foam, fabric, and pin studs.  It has a weird leather-jacket look to it, which I quite like. Photos will come soon, once I get a nice white wall to photograph it uponz.

When you move the sculpture, different sounds of my voice, breath, and body are triggered by the position of the sculpture in space. I think it's a pretty good first attempt for something that was so out of my comfort zone. Much of the thanks though go to Rachel Quinn, the sound artist and electronic music expert in Dublin who helped me with the technological side. And a big thanks goes to an electric knife, which carved up that foam for the sculpture like turkey on Thanksgiving.

I've also read over two big books, one for teaching next year and one just for fun. I'm on to two more and think I can finish them by the end of my trip. I have a big bus ride to Galway tomorrow for a long weekend to see a friend, so I will definitely do some reading there.

There have been a lot of surprise sights along the way. One of the highlights thus far has been the Long Room of the Trinity Library. I didn't bring my camera--in fact, I wasn't expecting to be allowed to take pictures at all, as you cannot take photos in the room below the library, which houses the famous Book of Kells. The library feels like something out of Harry Potter. I was shocked to see more people just rushing through it as an afterthought from their Book of Kells trip, and not being the other way around. But then again I've very mesmerized in libraries in general- I just like looking at books on shelves, I guess. The older the better.

Another surprise has been the Botanical Gardens. It's quite beautiful this time of year, and lots of plants bloom there in the sheltered terrain that come from all over the world. A refreshing change of pace to Denver's more arid climate.

Today was Ireland's National Music Day, and there were short performances throughout the country, especially in Dublin and Cork. Though I only got to catch one fifteen-minute gig, I did get to hear the National Chamber Choir sing in the Post Office (of all places)! The singers were up on a second-story balcony and the space resonated quite nicely. I knew one of their songs from a CD I've listened to since I was a teenager; hearing it live brought me close to tears. Or maybe buying stamps is just a really emotional experience for me...either way. They've got a book of choral music that I might buy as a music souvenir, and get some friends to help me with the S, A, and T of SATB so we can all sing it together. 

Times ain't all 110% rosy, though. I'm still a foreigner and I probably look it too. I have to work sometimes to get things done- lots of favors called, a bit of pleading, a bit of waiting, asking seemingly inane questions. Sometimes things are not difficult to do or find but it's done in a different way that might not seem very obvious. A random example: I went to four grocery stores to find small white beans, which are basically in every grocery store in America. Nutrition bars are virtually nonexistent here. You can't print documents very easily without going to an internet cafe. But you can get amazing curries.

It's difficult to be beholden to people that I know here, waiting for them to help me with wayfinding or referrals and contacts.  I don't know how other proper visual artists do it. Going on a residency, you're basically plopped in a strange land, without the materials you're normally used to working with, no friends around, and you're told to make something beautiful. Sometimes there are assistants to help you, or budgets to help guide you. You make friends along the way of course. And I'm so thankful I have colleagues here who are amazing in so many ways.

One week of work and wrapping up to go, with a small 'gig' organizing a vocal performance piece at the very end. Should be exciting! 

Monday, June 03, 2013

Thoughts on a Few Days in Dublin

I've only been in Dublin for a few days now, and have recovered mostly from jet lag to write down a few things I've noticed about this lovely place. Mostly it's little unexpected things- those things that as a newcomer you think are rather novel, but once you've been here for a while it's just totally normal and unremarkable.

Sports are obviously huge here, but sportswear seems to be more popular for everyday wear than elsewhere in the world, I'm sure influenced by soccer/rugby-playing culture and role models. Wven after what I thought was the biggest surge of running suits and track pants in the '90's and 2000's, people still wear full track suits which also match their shoes. Thank goodness a lot of different fashion is happening throughout the city. Currently tie-dyed tee-shirts are big again, and cuffed pants.

Ireland has a lot of tropical plants! It must be the temperate climate and lots of moisture that makes them happy. I did not expect to see palm trees, giant calla lilies, and lots of giant hibiscus-like flower bushes here. But there they are, growing in the park or happily in people's front gardens.

Credit cards have changed here; now most foreign credit cards (without a chip and PIN) will not be accepted for transactions. This is okay if paying for cash (which is still a much more common transaction type than in the States) but a little tricky when you have to budget ATM withdraws.

Shopping malls are still kind of big here in Dublin. I've been getting used to outdoor plazas in Denver, or avoiding shopping malls entirely, but many of the better grocery stores are in a shopping mall here so they're a bit unavoidable. On the plus side, Indian food and curries are huge here, as in Britain, which they are not in Denver, so I will have my fill before I return home.

And finally, two words I've heard spoken here which I've not heard before: naff (lame or stupid), and lodgement (deposit of funds).

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Overheard on an Airplane

En route to a month in Dublin, Ireland! I received a travel fellowship to work on my music there for the month of June, and in particular I'll be focusing on a new piece for electronics. I hope to get some prep done for a large research paper as well, and study up for teaching next year (I'm assigned to teach the Intro to Music Tech course) and prepare for my doctoral comprehensive exams. So in other words, lots to do. This of course amidst also trying to have a bit of vacation, traveling around and seeing old friends.

I overheard two great things on a flight from Charlotte, NC to the Dublin Airport. One, a little girl, about three years old, singing to herself a familiar children's tune, which took an unexpected turn:

Girl: "Rockabye baby, on the treetop, where does this go, probably over to the tea party..."

And secondly, two flight attendants, talking to each other:
Flight attendant 1: "He had something bad written on his T-shirt. I think he had to turn it inside out."
Flight attendant 2: "I didn't catch what the shirt said."
Flight attendant 1, whispering: "I did, it said, stick it up the butt."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

And Yet It Moves

I thought I'd talk a little bit about my doctoral thesis project in the works (well, the main one, at least). I haven't done something quite like this before, so it's probably good I write down the working process and figure it out as I go along. The piece, titled 'And Yet It Moves' is a 15-minute-long epic music video of sorts, and it features three locations on the CU Boulder campus: the Observatory, Old Main, and Norlin Library.

I've written/conceived of music for each section, which will then be recorded and layered on top of one another. Then, the recording will be 'lip-synced' of sorts into a music video, though the videotape will be much more abstract than a traditional concert video. I'm considering it more like a sound and image "collage" like my sound pieces for Origin of the Sun and Moon rather than a tried and true music video with narrative or a concert video showing all the little details of performance.

The three sections of the work all center around the concepts of learning and discovery, and of motion. Firstly, the motion of the sun-- the Observatory piece is about the chemical composition of the Sun and all of the elements in the Sun that give us the visible spectrum.

The section in CU's first building on campus, Old Main, is about the movement of human bodies in time and tells abstractly the story of Mary Rippon, CU's first female professor. Rippon, a foreign language professor, had a secret child with one of her students, and kept the whole affair (and the baby) secret from the University. This story takes place at a time when it was illegal to be a female professor and be married, let alone be a mother. Apparently at the turn of the 20th century, people (likely men) thought that all the intellect would get drained out of a woman if she were not single and childless. I digress. Rippon ended up taking a sabbatical and had the baby in Germany, and her husband/student Will took a boat to Germany later to pick up the baby at a care center. The child was raised as Mary's 'niece' for her whole life, and didn't know that her Aunt was her MOTHER until the baby was something like 60 years old. CU didn't know about this story until the 1990's, and I thought the story was too delicious not to tell. I set Mary's and her husband Will's texts into choral works for the piece.

The third "layer" is in the main Library on campus and is a very John Cage-like piece, with only minimal instructions and very little music score to be seen; people will take books off the shelves and read them in different tempos, and they'll throw papers in the air and generally have a good time being academic. Graciously the staff and faculty from all three buildings were very encouraging about me using their spaces.

I guess it's a bit of a love story, a swan song, to my time as an academic. My (ridiculous number of) years studying in the collegiate settting are coming to an end within a year or so, or so we hope if I can finish everything on time. I think I've selected a few places which have inspired me throughout the years, in one way or another, like the areas of science, and poetry, and architecture, and there's even some electronic music in there too. I like the idea of the large-scale "solar" section in contrast with the "human" section and the "neurological" section of thoughts flying around in the library. If it all works, it should be a really fun time.

Recording everything will be done in a million tiny pieces and then stuck together like a puzzle. Videotaping will probably be the same way, so in a way it is very much like a collage. And recording sessions start soon so I best get to typesettin'!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Pendulum New Music

As if you thought I needed something else to do- maybe a new hobby, some more time spent thinking about music, or just something to keep my fingers occupied from drawing inane comics- I also write a monthly blog post over at the University of Colorado at Boulder's 'Pendulum New Music' blog. Pendulum New Music is a series put on by the composition students and faculty at CU Boulder to showcase new student works. I write a post before every concert with a sneak peek of what's to come, or shedding some light on perhaps unfamiliar topics in music, like electronic and multimedia works. Every month videos are also posted of all the performances, so you don't even have to be in Boulder to listen in. Check it out here!

Saturday, March 02, 2013

News and Clips

Too much has been happening in this composer's life. For one thing I've been taking time for myself, which is keeping me sane. Literally. For a while after Christmas I thought I was being pulled in all different directions- I had said "yes" to a lot of projects that I should have said "not right now" to, and it totally took a toll on my body! Luckily I am coming back to reality once again, and the creative juices are beginning to flow once more.

In the news, I've had a few new works performed or documented lately.
Two clips of "Tame Your Man' are up on YouTube, but you can watch them here! Each clip is about three movements' worth, enough to give you a general sense of the piece.

I had the premiere of my first electro-acoustic work on the Pendulum New Music Series concert this past week. All I had to do was push "play" but that went well. It's a work that creates an atmosphere like slowly drifting icebergs in a glacial lagoon. I learned a lot about the program Abelton Live to create the piece, and I hope to work more with that in the future- it's good for both audio effects, and should I want to become a sweet beat-droppin' DJ I could cue up jams and add beats and samples in Abelton as well.

Upcoming on March 20 is yet another premiere of a work, this time for a duo of a guitar and a nykelharpa. You might be wondering what that instrument is, and in short it's a Swedish stringed instrument that sounds like a fiddle, but it works more like a hurdy-gurdy. You can read up a little on the nykelharpa here.

In non-music-related news, my boyfriend has said two more things in his sleep: "2 4 8", and "snowin' so far". I had a dream the other night that I was being held against my will, but I got released through a cunning game of music trivia, and my winning question to my weird captives was that I could sing a melody from Verdi's opera La Traviata and they couldn't guess what opera it came from. In real life, I don't know if I could even think of a melody from La Traviata, let alone but thank goodness my subconscious self knows the way out.