Sometimes I wish I weren't a musician.
Two years ago my father, who was doing the Kol Nidrei service of Yom Kippur, asked me if we could do a duet of Kol Achai
's "Rachamana". I doubt there was ever a question in my mind of whether to do it or not- I probably said yes automatically. Any chance to do music. So we imitated the way they sing it as best as we could, given that we were working with only two voices rather than three and didn't have musical instruments accompanying us. It went very well.
One year ago my father suggested that I compose a new duet for us to sing. Again, I jumped at the opportunity. The chance to compose something and have an entire congregation hear it? The reason things like that are called "no-brainers" is because the ear automatically activates a nodding motion in the head, without bothering to go through the brain on the way. I composed a tune for "El Melech", which repeats four times but doesn't really have a tune associated with it. I remember that for a while that tune was all that was on my mind. I came up with a tune as soon as I read the words, and you'd think that that would be close to the end but I'm a perfectionist, so, no. Wherever I went, whatever I did, it was always in the back of my head demanding to be improved. It needed to reflect the meaning of the words. It needed to present the words clearly, with all the accents in the right places and all the ups and downs and rhythms of the music reflected the way you'd actually speak the words if you understood what you were saying. And it needed to be musically interesting because otherwise, what's the point? It took me a while to come up with a version I was happy with, and then I sang it for my father and he couldn't follow it. I explained that it would be easier to understand all the sudden changes of key if the harmony were there, but he just couldn't learn the melody. So I had to simplify it as much as I could possibly simplify it without feeling like I'd lost all interest. And then he learned it, and we practiced, and I sang the harmony, and it went great.
This year, my father told me he'd like me to compose something new. There are still plenty of parts of the service that don't have any good tunes for them. This time I actually wanted to get out of the job, because it seemed terribly unclear. He didn't have any idea of which
poem I should do, and so I wouldn't have felt comfortable composing for any of them. I don't understand how it all flows together, I don't understand what he's got good tunes for already, I don't know what the congregation expects. It felt more like a passing whim of his than a real opportunity. So I half-heartedly said that he should get back to me with whichever poem he wanted me to compose music for. He was out of the country shortly after that, so he never got back to me and I got out of the request.
(Obviously that's not the end of the story, or else I wouldn't be writing a blog post about this.)
A week ago, my father informed me out of the blue that a member of the congregation had requested a certain tune for "El Melech". Apparently, some time too long ago for me to remember, there was someone (who now doesn't live here) who organized a proper four-part chorus for a little piece of "El Melech". Not the whole thing, just a few words starting from "mochel avonot amo". So this request came from a member of the congregation who'd been in that choir and was feeling nostalgic for the tune. It's a typical kind of tune, in that it has absolutely no connection to the words except that those words happen to have been dropped in. The accents are all in the wrong places, and the words are repeated over and over again until you're not hearing the words anymore, you're just hearing random sounds attached to music. What it does have going for it is it's catchy, and people can sing along to it because it repeats itself over and over. Anyway, when I heard this request I really ought to have just said no, and I knew
at the time that I ought to say no, but then my father played a video of the music from YouTube
and at that point I had no conscious choice in the matter. I'd already figured out exactly what I needed to do, so there wasn't even a question anymore that I'd be doing it.
Like I said, it's just a few words from the middle. So what I needed to do was start in my tune, then shift into the traditional tune, do that similarly to how it was done in the video (though with only two voices of limited range to work with), and then go back. I ran to the piano, confirmed that this could in fact be done, and ran back upstairs to inform my father that I'd be putting this in. And then I started working in the composition program Finale, because there was absolutely nothing else I cared to do at that moment. I'm not going to detail the entire process I went through to arrange the thing, because I'm sure it would bore you all to tears, but suffice it to say I worked all that night and then I went to sleep and woke up early (10:00 AM or so) and got back to work and kept working until around 1:30 PM at which point it was finished. I spent the rest of the day waiting for my father to come home, but he didn't come home until shortly before I left for Games Night.
That was Tuesday. The guilt started setting in on Thursday, after I'd already practiced a few times with my father. Thursday is when it occurred to me that just because someone had had the idle thought that he'd enjoy having a certain tune in the davening
, my entire existence now revolved around this piece of music. (Up to that point, I was acting too much on instinct to recognize what I was doing.) Since Tuesday it hadn't even occurred
to me to work on The March of Bulk
! And even as I was entertaining myself, it was always with the understanding that the only reason I was bothering was because there wasn't anything to do about the music at that moment. I was just passing the time until I'd get to work on the music again. I was reading Spider-Man comics, and on every single page I was humming "Mochel Avonot" to myself. That's where I started to get disturbed by my own behavior. For the entire day, that tune didn't leave my head. I kept flipping it around, sticking different rhythms on it, playing with variations. And this is after
I'd already printed out the sheet music and had nothing more to do with it except get my father to perfect his part. Now you have to understand, I didn't feel guilty because I had lost control. I felt guilty because I was losing control over entirely the wrong thing. Can you imagine how quickly I would have finished The March of Bulk
if I worked on it like that? That's the kind of devotion that you need
to get anywhere, and I have
it! But I have it for the wrong thing! Why am I a natural musician, rather than a natural gamist!
I decided that thinking this way was only going to hinder me. I don't know, maybe it's just that I was in a pre-Yom Kippur kind of mood (self-improvement and all that), but I suddenly had the idea that rather than complaining to myself about this I ought to change it. If I want to be an obsessive gamist, then I need to be an obsessive gamist. Nature be damned. I need to convince myself that I love working on games more than anything else in the world. I love working on games. Working on games is fulfilling. When I'm not working on games I feel in the back of my mind like I'd rather be working on games. So I set a time for Access Boss to log me off, and then I thought, why not now? I was really excited to be working on my game. I couldn't wait to solve the next problem I came across. How could I do anything else when my game was waiting? So I just stopped what I was reading in mid-sentence, logged off my user, went into the work user, and started working. I worked for a good hour and a half, and I daresay it was the most fulfilling hour and a half of programming I've ever done. I made real progress. And I said to myself, I'm not so bad. I'm not a musician, I'm going to be a gamist.
I'm going to be a gamist.
The end of the story is barely relevant, but I'll mention it anyway. On Sunday night, right after the fast started, my father and I walked to shul. And he said that he really should have taken anxiety medicine. In retrospect, he was absolutely right. He was so nervous when we got to El Melech that his hand was literally shaking. He was trying to point his finger at the notes, and it was shaking all over the place. He gave me the note he was going to start on, so that I could do the harmony on key, and as I started singing at the top of my lungs he started singing in a totally different key than the one he'd just told me. And then he proceeded to make lots of new
mistakes that he'd never
done in practice. I don't blame him- I've been there. But my god, was that frustrating. El Melech repeats four times. The first two were my tune, straight. And it was a total disaster. The third was the more complicated, tune-within-a-tune music. That was a disaster too, though in different ways. On the fourth time, I got up and said to my father, "Calm down.". And he said to me, "I can't.
" But apparently he did, because that time we pulled it off. And Rachamana went well, as always. When I left the shul I went out the back way, walking very quickly with my head facing the ground so I wouldn't have to look at anyone. And I tried to walk to the sides of the path, so that I could avoid any people who happened to be walking.
But that's beside the point.
The point is, I'm not sure my games are ever going to be good. I'm afraid that my powers of self-deception and self-improvement are insufficient to overcome my basic nature: I am a musician. I don't want to be a musician, but I was born a musician and that's what I'll always be. And I'm not going to blow anyone away with my music, because I don't want
to blow anyone away with my music. If I were to become a good
musician, well, that would be the most natural thing in the world for me. If I started putting out CDs, and really challenged myself to live up to the responsibility. I'd put so much effort in, just because that's who I am, that everyone would be impressed. But I don't want
to be a good musician. I don't want that to be my life. I want to make games. I want to be a gamist. But that's not something I'm naturally good at. It's something I'm going to need to work at. I really want to get right on that. I really do. I really do. Maybe tomorrow