When my jazz playing slowed to a trickle a few years ago, I began to feel that my music was worth very little. I’d had several pieces featured in concerts for new classical music, but in the end I was let down and even alarmed by the idea that maybe I was hoping for too much from isolated performances of my pieces. After the concerts, hardly anything seemed to change. I wanted music to be a thick, enveloping substance, but I was missing the driving pulse of some parallel universe where I play nightly gigs in jazz clubs. Instead, I found myself playing piano alone and listening repeatedly to fake digital mockups of my own pieces played on virtual instruments, wishing I could believe they were real.
It began to worry me quite a bit that I didn’t have a deep urge to compose orchestral music, and that if I continued to compose “jazz” pieces without the ability to perform them in jazz shows myself, these pieces were destined to be lifeless. But the reality was that I felt more comfortable as a composer than as a pianist. Unsure of what to do, in the spring of my junior year of college I stopped taking composition classes.
A few months later, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is an electronic music wiz, and we arrived at the idea that we would make an album together. I dredged up a few old audio files of pieces played on virtual instruments, asking my friend if he could do a makeover on the MIDI data to transform them into pieces of electronic music in a more typical sense of the genre. I wasn’t really sure if it was a good idea to recycle old material. I had a feeling things would get stale quickly.
We exchanged some demos and made a few snippets of music together, but it wasn’t the right time for a collaboration to happen, and things never really went anywhere. But this was the first time I had ever composed directly into a Digital Audio Workstation, and I emerged from those few weeks with demos of two pieces that I really liked. That was in early September.
In October, I decided to take on the work of making over an old eight-minute piece of music myself. Before I knew it, I was fixated on the task, often at the expense of doing assignments for my classes. I easily spent over 100 hours in the studio adapting this piece of music for synthesizers and sampled instruments. I listened to the piece a lot during that time. I listened to it while walking between classes, while lying on my bed in my dorm, while trying to do homework. I got so sick of listening to my own music. I wanted to hear what it sounded like to someone hearing it for the first time. Still, I kept diving back in, listening again and again. I wondered if anyone else would find the piece as immersive as I did.
In November, Trump was elected. Within 24 hours, the number of hate crimes committed in this country spiked.
People came together to show love and resistance. I watched many people around me take a fierce and dignified stand for what they believed in. Other people pressed on with composure and grace.
Obama was still in office, and normalness, at least in some ways, persisted. There were times when people had normal conversations and went to normal parties. As usual, I couldn't bear sitting through classes. I hated the music at parties. There were times when I felt little desire to talk to people. I was irritated with myself for reading the descriptions of all the petitions I came across on Facebook but not signing. It upset me that I couldn't bring myself to delete my Facebook account. I felt unable to tap into the methods people used to connect and cope in the wake of the election.
January, the month of the inauguration, was when I decided to begin making an album in earnest. I thought long and hard about sequencing the tracks, about transitions, about developmental arc. I thought about what I would write. I thought about what the album would look like. I had long conversations with my friend, a dancer. While I was making the album, we began planning a production. I invited another friend, a filmmaker, to join our planning discussions. Planning the production had a reciprocal influence on the music. I was fully absorbed in making the album. I thought about nothing else when I was making music. It was an act of devotion, certainly. I don't think it was an act of resistance.
Classical musicians are frequently enamored with the score for a piece of music. But that is a language few people can read. With my album, I was interested in creating an artifact that would be more fully formed and universally understood. I wanted to show people something physical and potent. I wanted to make a statement.
I wanted to shout into the competitive chaos of America that I could say it better.
I am conscious of the disastrous implications of this mentality. Even if I had known what it was I had to say, at best, I could say it differently. But I am surrounded by people who project the attitude that they can say and do everything better. Raising my voice almost feels necessary when everyone behaves that way. When every Venmo transaction reads "I'm having more fun than you," and the melody to every piece of commercial music is "I'm more current" or "I turn up harder." Pop musicians are more concerned than ever with their ability to massage everyone by delivering perfectly generic music. The construction of songs is simplified and the message intensified to the point of emptiness. We don't foster connection this way. It seems like all we do is reproduce what we see and hear around us, padding the rough spots in our existence with media and other products.
There is more than irony in the album's title. I wanted to probe the idea of the music not being an end in itself. While this would clearly be an unnecessary statement to make with regard to literature or many other forms of art, with music, it's not always a given. In fact, it goes against the grain of much of classical music-making—both historically, beginning with the Romantic composers, and today—which is conducted as if music has inherent purpose, existing for music's sake alone. I didn't start making the album with a specific end in mind, and for a long time, I couldn't really articulate what the album was about. But it was important to me to figure that out. At some point, many months after I had begun working, I finally had a thought that felt meaningful. Something I could organize the album around. Something that could become the seed for a mentality of resilience and resistance.
My realization was that, beyond my disapproval of commercial music, I had a conflicted attitude toward my own habit of intense, immersive music listening.
For a long time, I've valued this type of listening as an important part of my emotional and artistic life. But dedicating time simply to listening to an album with no distractions is, for a lot of people, an uncommon practice. Those who do spend a good deal of time listening to music this way probably recognize that our situation now is especially peculiar. For all its ostensible contribution to social connectivity, technology has made listening much more individualized today than it was a few decades ago. Streaming services like Pandora and Spotify disseminate music directly to us, bypassing the public spaces of record stores. Artists are recommended to us by algorithms that can approximate our music tastes based on our listening histories, meaning we are less likely to seek recommendations from our friends. Earbuds provide us with an inconspicuous way to wrap ourselves in the music of our choice as we walk down the street. And our cultural conversations about music are dominated by mainstream pop consumers and a small number of validated hipster tastemakers, sidelining conversations about a variety of music that many listeners find more personal or authentic. These factors all contribute to making dedicated listening an extremely private experience.
It seems that, as a society, we’ve largely accepted this. Maybe we lack the aesthetic language or the willingness to venture beyond our comfort zones in forging conversations about abstract musical content. Maybe we simply lack the energy to engage in this step when it’s just so easy to pop on headphones and lose ourselves in our favorite LPs. As pleasurable as deep, private listening can be, that alone is not enough. Listening is an incredible act of imagination, and we should be connecting our individual listening experiences back to our shared reality in ways that empower us to reshape the world. Unless we do this, we are using music as a drug.
As the name suggests, Insulation Kit is as much a product of the individualized listening phenomenon as it is a call to work against it. But the album presses the meaning in its name a step further. Insulation can do more than buffer us from the outside world—it can also keep what’s inside, in. As we shape ourselves into a force for change, we can find comfort in knowing that listening helps us retain the energy and emotional fortitude to keep going during difficult times. It protects and conditions our empathetic response. And it prevents our warmth and compassion from freezing over. Listening can insulate our spirits while opening our minds.