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Musing about music

· 8 min read
Yiyang Hibner

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Guest post: David Marc Siegel

I’ve always been interested in music. I took piano lessons from the ages of 5 to 13 - but stopped since I was mostly learning classical and classical wasn’t what greatly fired my imagination at that age. Somewhere in the middle there while also listening to all the pop music of the day, I got really into “Weird Al” Yankovic - this is back when he first showed up singing “Eat It.” Blew my mind.

Over the years, I got even more into novelty, comedy and more broadly off-kilter music, collecting all the Dr. Demento tapes & Firesign Theatre albums I could find. This music was a sort of initiation into a world where a song could be whatever you wanted it to be - you didn’t have to be aiming for the pop charts, but you could still be expressing yourself in a critical and legitimate (and explicitly strange & counter-to-trend) way. Explorations into Devo and the alternative explosion of music through the 90’s furthered this notion for me. As I later discovered, many of the more influential musicians through the 20th century had this strong “outsider” self-identification, perhaps culminating in bands like Nirvana and the general first wave of grunge.

I started studying guitar and became enamored of bands like REM, whose notions of expression were subtle and ran counter to the gender-typical, hairspray-heavy music of the late 80’s. I got deep into music theory and jazz, got into jam band music, saw the Grateful Dead and Phish a bunch, and played in some art punk & indie rock bands that generally fell apart in predictable (though not particularly dramatic) ways. One such band got an album in the CMJ charts top 100.

At this point in my life, my social life was largely playing music - I’d get together with friends to jam; I helped put together a monthly cabaret night in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco where we’d present various artists & musicians, some of whom have gone on to great heights - which ran for several years; and so on. As work & romantic relationships developed (and perhaps fell apart), life situations changed - and musicians are a bit of a constantly-moving lot, and so these situations, too, slowly phased out as we all entered into different phases of our respective lives & had to prioritize other considerations.

I spent a few years writing music for medium-scale theatrical productions, sketch comedy shows and even for online advertisements. I loved this work because it allowed me to get outside of myself as I wrote songs - and leverage composition in ways that focused on it being more an aspect of storytelling than just musical presentation for the sake of music. A director needed a song that solved a certain problem - gave a “beachy” vibe; sounded “inspirational” in a specific way; sounded like an opera; and so on. These were thrilling because so many of those projects were the first time I was doing that particular style or form - and so I’d study examples, understand how they worked and were arranged & orchestrated, and try my best. And people seemed pretty happy with what I delivered, on average!

In retrospect, I realized I had not been writing focused on telling a great story so much as to explore a set of musical progressions, and tell a bit of a story too perhaps. This new approach really changed my thinking in huge ways - it was very story-centric. Music fundamentally as problem-solving! Music fundamentally as storytelling - even 15 second clips could tell a story. It seems an obviously necessary component looking back on it all. I’ve always been a big fan of musical theater as well, and so this brought all my perspectives together into one exciting musical singularity. I even started working on a musical theater project with a friend - which is still a work in progress!

These days I am passionate about writing what I call “semi-classical” music. I especially love writing for strings because of the harmonic interactions between violin, viola and especially cello & other instruments. These instruments are so emotive and compelling, they almost tell a story just in and of themselves via their respective tonalities! Basic cello arpeggios alone can make up an entire really compelling song if you’re careful about how you construct it.

A couple years ago, I started publishing & releasing music again under a made up band name - on Spotify & beyond as “Dream Optimist,” an iteration of a name that originally came from my decades-long love for the music of David Byrne/the Talking Heads, & the Talking Heads’ film, “True Stories” - as well as a chance (and somewhat embarrassing - a story for a different time) encounter in the early 2000’s when I met David Byrne & Tina Weymouth (both of the Talking Heads) outside of a restaurant in San Francisco. Under this project’s auspices, I’ve been putting out songs I call indie synth pop / chamber-pop / bedroom-pop - but the goal isn’t to stick to a genre, but to have a reason to finish producing songs. That is, there’s a goal-oriented quality to making music that gets me focused and working in a more precise way - versus just sitting at a piano and fiddling around, & then walking away & not thinking about it again.

To that end, I have a few sort of 70’s synth sci-fi sounding things I’m considering putting out next, as well as a few fairly classical-sounding things that might go after that. We’ll see. A friend recently told me he thought some of it sounded like the early work of famed (& brilliant) film composer Angelo Badalamenti; I should be so lucky! But I’ll take it.

To zoom out a little, getting a little philosophical - for me, writing and producing a song is a process sort of akin to taking an unhewn block of marble and figuring out what the statue hiding in the marble is, what the marble “wants” to be. As I hear it, each song wants to be something, and I feel like I’m working to help it become what it wants to be. The process is all about flow & imagination, and though I do get a voice evaluating how a given idea will be received by an outside audience - I can pretty well silence that voice by saying something like, “What outside audience?”

Of course, I would love to have people hearing the music I’m making - but it’s very freeing to not have feedback from anyone else so every song can be an exploration in making something I think is wonderful in some way, and that’s it. I’m the audience; in many ways, I like that. There’s an improvisatory and off-the-cuff quality that I sometimes can manage that makes me feel I’m really being there in the room at that moment - which is a lot of the point of what it’s always been about for me.

In terms of ways of being, it is a particularly great counterpoint to my work in Product Management, which is often all about analysis; careful measurement & consideration; careful sculpting of storytelling as I think about how ideas will be received both by customers and by stakeholders; and any number of processes that require specifically heavy intellectual work & reflection in order to be successful. I love that work too - but it’s a great counterpoint.

I mentioned earlier that I also studied a lot of music theory. I’ve heard a lot of musicians suggest studying music theory is specifically counter to the notion of what music is, which they often describe as a purely “feeling” art. While I agree it is about feeling, that’s not the sum of it. To my mind, every practice is about gaining knowledge of that practice, gaining muscle memory (whatever that may mean for that particular practice) relating to that practice, and then… practicing. But you have to have a basis for this practice - and you can and should be always learning, or else you’re standing still.

There is a great Charlie Parker quote relevant to this thought:

“Master your instrument, master the music & then forget all that & just play.”

I think about that a lot - you have to learn and aim for mastery. That takes study. And each new piece of music requires gaining mastery. On some level you’re never really “there,” never done gaining mastery, per se - there’s always new learning; but mastery alone isn’t the goal. What does mastery even mean? In my view, if you work hard enough to get to the point of being able to express yourself in a given domain or practice, and have fun with it - and that’s pretty good. Technical skill is hardly the be all, end all. The critical thing is to not be afraid to try something new, question your own assumptions, and to understand that these varied things we do cross-pollinate and make our lives broader & more meaningful.

Addendum: You can hear my recent work on Spotify here, and older work on this and this Soundcloud if curious for more.