Pursuing Perfection

I grew up singing in choirs. The level of skill expected from the members of these choirs varied.

In high school, the general choir’s director focused on striking the pitch accurately and contrasting dynamics.

The All-State choirs - jazz and classical, audition-based groups that performed at one 3-day festival - paid close attention to blend, general vowel shaping, and making a piece’s big moment shine.

The All-Eastern choir - classical only, and invitational based on top scorers from All-State choirs - analyzed every single syllable. Each vowel had to be perfect for the group to blend. Each note had a set dynamic marking that built up dynamic phrases. We discussed the lyrical content, which was sometimes based in English and sometimes based in one of many foreign languages, so that each individual member of the group knew which emotion to convey at every lyric. At times, we would run a single measure repeatedly for 10 minutes, sometimes fixing a vowel, other times correcting pitch, and every now and then calling out one of the 400 members whose consistent mistakes were standing out.

In other words, no matter which level of skill each group’s members had, I grew up understanding music to be something you tried to make perfect for performance. After all, we were working with “perfect” arrangements sometimes the handiwork of truly respected musicians.

My personal vocal training was inline with this view. I worked tirelessly to come as close to perfect pitch as I could. I picked out as many flaws as I could find in my performances and fixed them. I could almost always hit the pitch as accurately as I envisioned it. My tone was transformed from boyish and nasal to deep, classical, and blend-able. I improved my breath support to last over durations through changing dynamics to a point I actually used to think was physically impossible (for me, at least). My vowel-shaping was multi-faceted and could fit any style of song I would be expected to perform. Through repetition in an eventually successful attempt to commit riffs to muscle memory, I was able to break down the components of common riffs and the way they felt in my throat; after, I could combine them without thinking into creative runs that I was proud of.

I'm explaining my results in the past tense intentionally. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I’ve been undergoing a creative mental shift since two summers ago.

The Glow

That summer, I discovered The Microphones, and The Glow Pt. 2 (13 years behind). Phil Elverum put out the album when he was 23. He recorded using broken recording equipment. There was little to no editing. It was a lo-fi mess. I played the album after seeing the cover appear on my Spotify feed. The songs were just uncomfortable to listen to. Melodic guitar lines were unevenly layered on top of each other. Nothing lined up rhythmically. There was almost always weird hissing in the background.

Phil started singing in the opener, “I Want Wind To Blow.” He had the same boyish tone I broke from years before. Consistently, he totally missed the pitch he was aiming for. All of this singing I had taught myself to hate over broken, choppy instrumentals that didn’t make sense. Then, the voice cuts off and the same two measures repeat over and over for a minute and a half. The simplest, happiest guitar riff you’ve ever heard. Over that duration, the sound became muted and compressed. The song slows to just drums. Then suddenly, loud cymbals, a loud piano line matching the guitar riff, a booming kick drum. It hurt to listen to - it felt wrong!

The song transitioned straight into the eponymous track, The Glow, Pt. 2. More confusing, loud drums and guitars that eventually broke to chord strumming, Phil’s voice, and some weird high-pitched noise in the background. Eventually, things slow to a voice over some kind of synthesizer, or organ or whatever. His lyrics here are harsh, towards himself. Still, his vocal “technique” is just as “wrong” as before. And finally, for the last minute and a half, the same four bar phrase repeated itself. A simple base line, a cool guitar riff, and a simple drum beat. This repetition is my favorite part of any musical piece I’ve ever heard.

I could go on and on about this album specifically, but that’s not what I’m writing about.

Something clicked with this album that had never clicked with any piece of music I’ve previously heard. Of course, I’d later come to find that I was just the newest fan of the most popular indie album ever released. The music meant something to others, too. It still sounded broken to me, even through my enjoyment. The lo-fi style, the far-far-FAR from perfect singing technique, messy layered instrumentals, distorted effects and confusing editing. I felt so incredibly affected by the emotions the album brought out of me. This felt like an isolated case, an exception. After all, this was the only album universally rejoiced by indieheads.

So I went back through The Microphones’ discography to their earliest releases. Then I went forward to the newest releases. (Eventually, Phil ended The Microphones and began Mount Eerie, signaling some kind of change in his intentions for the music he planned to put out). I loved it all. The production eventually cleaned up, but Phil’s intention was always there.

When I finished, I trawled random discussion boards and isolated webpages in search of what it was that made me love this music so much. I shared my favorite albums and moments from all of Phil’s music with my friends. One or two at least partially enjoyed what I shared, as they told me. Overall, I felt isolated in this music I was seriously enjoying.

I enjoyed not just Elverum’s releases, but also others way further down the indie rabbit hole.

An Abundance of Strawberries

Sam Ray is a musician from Maryland. I found his music through his first band, teen suicide, from a random playlist that had automatically queued itself to be played when my selected playlist was completed.

I can promise that the “me” a couple years ago would have denounced Sam as a depressed drug addict whose entire musical process was writing passable lyrics about depression, delivering them through something you could just barely call singing over basic and poorly-played guitar and piano, and recording them using whatever tape recorder he had lying around.

But I heard the song from the random playlist at a new, more receptive time for me. I explored their releases and found “Give Me Back To The Sky.” Again, I found something new in me that was emotionally affected by whatever product Sam had put out. His musical releases don’t end with teen suicide. Some side projects dabble in vaporwave/weird electronic music/hip-hop/ambient noises. My favorite LP of his, and my current favorite album to listen to, was released under Julia Brown and titled An Abundance of Strawberries. I still don’t know how to classify this album under a genre. That seems to be a common theme in the indie rabbit hole. You have to give the album a try to understand what I mean.

Pursuing Imperfection

This indie exploration brings out an inner conflict. When I direct the a cappella group that I am a part of, I work to bring perfection to our sound as our arrangements dictate. I teach the same lessons I was taught in high school. I try and use my ear as best as I can to clean up pitch and make a tight group sound. And, no doubt, this is all necessary for a cappella. If we sang the notes wrong, didn’t blend, or otherwise didn’t check each checkbox, we wouldn’t be very fun to listen to.

At the same time, I recognize that there is something from these indie artists that I’m falling for that allows them to, in my mind, embrace the imperfections I’ve been taught to hate. They have the something that we can’t bring to choir or a cappella. And their releases - hit or miss - somehow manage to manipulate and control my emotions in ways I didn’t realize music could.

So I direct now, knowing we need something closer to perfection on the gradient. We have satisfying results, too. I love our latest album release, and I’m so proud of what our group was able to do. We’ve made great progress with new tracks this past semester. But now, to me, I realize that no matter how tight our sound becomes, what we produce will never affect me in the way these imperfect indie albums have been able to.

My vocal training has started to mean less and less to me, in terms of creative fulfillment. More importantly, creative fulfillment has started to mean everything to me.

Below are some examples of the indie artists and albums I’m talking about. Help me answer this question: what is the secret sauce? If you give any of them a listen, let me know of your thoughts. Did they click with you, too?

The Glow Pt. 2 =400x400

The Microphones - The Glow, Pt. 2

(songs: I Want Wind To Blow, The Glow, Pt. 2, The Moon, I’ll Not Contain You)

i will be my own hell because there is a devil inside my body =400x400

teen suicide - i will be my own hell because there is a devil inside my body

(songs: give me back to the sky, cop graveyard, the same things happen to me all the time, even in my dreams, if i cleaned everything)

An Abundance of Strawberries =400x400

Julia Brown - An Abundance of Strawberries

(songs: just listen to it)

Dawn =400x400

Mount Eerie - Dawn

(songs: Moon Sequel, …)

hymns = 400x400

teen suicide - hymns

(only 4 songs on the album)