music, technology & life in pasadena, california

Video Games Live!

On Wednesday, July 6 the Los Angeles Philharmonic will present their second concert of video game music, this time at the Hollywood Bowl conducted by Mark Watters. Last year’s “Final Fantasy” concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall was the first live concert of video game music in the United States and was a huge success. I played classical guitar on several cues that night and was amazed by the huge enthusiastic crowd. I’ve never been much of a gamer so I wasn’t familiar with the Final Fantasy series or its overwhelming popularity. Just before the concert began, the game designer and composer walked into the hall with a small entourage, the women dressed in traditional Japanese garb. All of a sudden the crowd erupted in a huge extended roar when they recognized their heroes. It was a reaction I wasn’t prepared for. When I found out later that tickets on Ebay had been selling for hundreds of dollars, I was totally flabbergasted.

Video games are big business, rivaling even movie box office revenues. The use of live musicians and large orchestras for game scores has taken hold and add an extra sophisticated element to digital games and their storytelling. Even the musicians union has recognized its importance by establishing a wage scale for the recording of music for games.

Whenever events like these attract young concertgoers who might otherwise never have stepped foot in an orchestral concert, it’s a really good thing. They get to hear a first-class orchestra performing music they’re familiar with and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be interested in coming back for more.

June 30, 2005 | Link to this entry

In The Studio

One of the things I like best about being a musician in Los Angeles is that every day is a new challenge. When you’re driving to work for your next call, you never know what style of music you’re going to be asked to play or what level of difficulty the music will present. You might be asked to play something that sounds like a hit song from the 70’s, play classical guitar or mandolin with a studio orchestra or even help create new electronic sounds that will blend in with a soundtrack.

If I’m working in a large traditional recording studio, a lot of my equipment and instruments are delivered ahead of time. This way, no matter what instrument or effect the composer wants to try, I can be ready. But more and more these days, composers are working in their own home studios (especially those working in television) and are more likely to call directly to talk about what they’re looking for. So I’ll throw a few instruments, an amp and some effects into my car and head off to work.

Last March, I made another visit to the studio of Emmy Award-winning (HBO’s The Rat Pack) composer Mark Adler. He was scoring a Discovery Channel documentary entitled Living With Wolves and needed a steel string acoustic guitar to accompany a score that would eventually include strings, woodwinds and percussion. He already had a fully realized synth mockup and easy to read, excellently notated parts. We were able to complete all the guitar tracks in 3 or 4 hours. Although I brought my classical guitar as well, we ended up not using it because the steel string worked so well for the film. Mark’s music reflected the spirit of the film perfectly and it was a lot of fun playing the intricate guitar parts he’d written. The show recently aired on Discovery and was also featured on NPR. Check your local listings, or program your Tivo wish list, so you don’t miss the replay of this really good nature doc.

While I was in Las Vegas this spring, I got a call from Gary Chang, a brilliant guy and a very busy composer. Gary’s responsible for the scores to HBO’s The Path To War, Stephen King’s Rose Red and Kingdom Hospital, The Island of Dr. Moreau and many others. He was going to be scoring an independent film for a first-time film maker and was exploring the possibility of writing an ambient guitar score. Gary told me that he had wanted to write a score in this style for years. Was I interested? Well, I jumped at the chance to work with him for the first time and when I got back from my trip we reconnected. In the meantime I did some research into the whole “ambient guitar” movement and style of players like Bill Frisell and David Torn. Even Pat Metheny had explored this territory lightly in earlier albums (back when they were actually called albums) and his partner, Lyle Mays, touched on it as well.

After talking to Gary and solidifying a recording date, he started to email me MP3s of his demo tracks along with PDFs of the actual score and guitar parts. Most often, studio musicians don’t get to see music ahead of time, so this was a pretty novel way of working. It was a real advantage to hear the music as Gary was composing because I was able to see exactly what his intentions were. The session ran smoothly and although I didn’t get a chance to view the movie in its entirety I could see that it was beautifully photographed and that Gary’s score had captured the somber mood of its subject. The film, ESL, which tells the story of several Mexican immigrants trying to make their way in a hostile Los Angeles, doesn’t have a release date yet but I’ll try to post more info as I hear about it.

Boy, I love this job.

June 30, 2005 | Link to this entry

The Magic of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer & Pixar, has done it again. Long known for inspiring people to give their all for whatever cause he's championing, he recently gave the commencement speech for the graduating class of Stanford University.

Whatever you may think of Jobs' ideas, attitudes or arrogance, it just doesn't get any better than this.

June 12, 2005

I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots.

I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?

It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: "We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?" They said: "Of course." My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.

And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5-cent deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.

Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

My second story is about love and loss.

I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didn't know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down — that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I retuned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple's current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.

I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle.

My third story is about death.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn't even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor's code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you'd have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.

I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and I'm fine now.

This was the closest I've been to facing death, and I hope its the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960's, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Thank you all very much.

June 23, 2005 | Link to this entry

Ojai Music Festival

Lately I’ve been practicing long hours for the Ojai Music Festival, a contemporary & new music festival held every year in this bucolic town. Ojai is a throwback to small and rural California life, a relaxing getaway an easy hour’s drive from hectic and unforgiving Los Angeles.

In the past, I’ve had the pleasure of playing there with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the LA Philharmonic New Music Group, composer John Adams, conductors Simon Rattle, Kent Nagano and the Lyon Opera Orchestra. The music is usually extremely challenging and I always look forward to the camaraderie of the great players who participate. It takes a certain kind of musician to want to submit themselves to music that is often experimental and at the edge of their playing abilities. The concentration demanded can be exhausting at times but well worth it.

This year is no different as a group of freelance players assembled for the occasion come together to perform Mauricio Kagel’s Kantrimiusik on Saturday evening, June 11. Grant Gershon, the incredibly energetic music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale will be conducting. Grant is a long-time veteran of the Los Angeles new music scene and is one of the most gifted pianists I’ve ever worked with. Pianist Gloria Cheng (another one of my favorites) and LAGQ guitarist, John Dearman are also in the small ensemble. John and I are splitting the guitar duties. He’s on 7-string classical guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass balalaika and harmonica while I’m playing steel string guitar, banjo and percussion. Yes, that’s right…percussion. Bass drum, bongos, conga, triangle, Tibetan bell and anvil. OK, I can just hear all my percussionist friends rolling on the floor with convulsive laughter…and they’d be right. If the composer were here, I’d tell him, “You get what you deserve.”

Thanks to percussionist Dan Greco for the use of his instruments and the quick lesson…

June 7, 2005 | Link to this entry

The Reading List – Spring ‘05

OK, it’s time for a wrap-up on some of the books I’ve been reading lately…you can order by clicking the links on the sidebar ->

Disney WarDisney War
Disney and Michael Eisner get the full treatment from James B. Stewart, who gave us the incredible story of insider traders Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Den of Thieves. Given unequalled access to the company and Eisner himself, Stewart shows how petty some Hollywood moguls can be when there are nothing but Yes Men surrounding them. It’s incredible that Eisner is seen in Hollywood as a genius considering how many bad moves he made for Disney. The sections on Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Ovitz are fascinating and Pixar’s break with Disney is detailed as well. A story of extreme hubris at its best/worst. You’ll be disgusted but you won’t be able to put it down.

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest reads like the amazing New Yorker articles he’s known for. This has probably been the most talked about book on the internet since its publication. A fascinating and compelling look into the psychology and makeup of split decision-making and how it affects our daily lives.

The Zen of CSS DesignThe Zen of CSS Design
My good friend and percussionist extraordinaire, Wade Culbreath, taught me how to handcode HTML many years ago and since then I’ve been intrigued with the intricacies of it. This year I decided to delve further into the subject and see what all the fuss was concerning web standards. What an eye opener! Structural XHTML markup along with presentational CSS style sheets is such a perfect combination it makes you want to cry. After your keyboard dries out, head on over to the CSS Zen Garden where Dave Shea introduces his readers’ new designs regularly, all of them based on the exact same markup and altered only via the external CSS style sheets. This beautiful book showcases many of the best designs on the site and shows how they were conceived and executed. A must-have for the inner geek!

v. Goliath - The Trials of David Boiesv. Goliath – The Trials of David Boies
I’ve always been fascinated by the legal world and David Boies is probably the most in-demand lawyer in the country right now. A list of the cases he’s been involved in is daunting. Bush vs. Gore, RIAA vs. Napster, U.S. vs. Microsoft. It seems that almost every major litigation of the last decade has included him in some way. Although at times it seems she has an axe to grind, author Karen Donovan writes a no-holds-barred profile that doesn’t sugar-coat Boies’ flaws. I haven’t read Boies’ self-penned memoirs yet but this is an excellent introduction to a brilliant legal mind. There’s much to be learned here even if you’re not in the legal profession.

Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us SmarterEverything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
I met Steven Johnson at Vroman’s Book Store in Pasadena last month. I’d been reading his blog regularly and heard about his new book, so I headed over to hear what he had to say. From the very beginning when he reminisced about playing a childhood statistical baseball game with dice & cards, I was hooked. I remembered games similar to those made by the 3M Company. They were called Bookshelf games and they were really difficult to play. I had their horse racing game as well as their stock & bond trading one. I could never get anyone to play with me since no one had the patience to learn the incredibly complex set of rules. So I sat in my room alone (just as Steven had) and played against myself. Steven explains the Flynn Effect, that IQ scores have been rising steadily and dramatically since the early nineteen hundreds. Much of the cause of the early portion of that rise can be attributed to better nutrition, better education and the general rise of standards of living during that time. But what about the last 30 to 40 years? Where we would’ve expected a flattening of the curve, it continues to rise. Johnson argues that popular culture has played an important part in this ascent. The chapters on complex video & computer games and multi-threaded TV plots are especially interesting. This is a very readable and entertaining book, and one that parents should read. Don’t let your intellectual prejudices stop you from enjoying this one. Malcolm Gladwell’s review is here.

June 6, 2005 | Link to this entry

Two Words (& More) I Can’t Stand

1. blogosphere

Several weeks ago, Arianna Huffington was on the Charlie Rose Show touting her new blog site, The Huffington Post. She made endless references to the “blogosphere”, the online community of bloggers and their sites.

I just say “online”. Isn’t that less pretentious than the b-word?

I wanted to count how many times she said it, but decided it wasn’t worth the wear on my Tivo hard drive.

2. cyberspace

See above.

3. the music industry

No musician ever says “the music industry”.

Besides, the only part of the music business that’s really industrial is the manufacturing and pressing of CDs, which will soon be as ancient as the Edison cylinder.

June 6, 2005 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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