Thoughts on Focus and the Experience of Composing

I’ve been thinking a lot about composing lately, specifically my working process and the importance of focus. I have been working on a larger piece for the past few months but had slowed down about a month ago, partially due to waiting to see what comes next but also just losing a sense of the piece as well as momentum. It also to some degree involves my own ability to focus while composing.

I had taken a week off from most of my other projects to focus on Distant Stars as I had a deadline approaching, something which always seems to make focusing easier. It was really an excellent experience to work on it as it was very focused and enjoyable to work. The constraints on time were worrying at first, as the past couple of pieces before I had spent a great deal of time listening to drafts as I worked, a process which I enjoy and use to make sure to myself that the work really has substance and not just initially something fresh which I liked at the moment. Working this way I have found that I enjoy the results of the work very much and continue to enjoy listening to these pieces long after finishing them.

However, sometimes when listening to drafts too much it can be too easy to lose focus. Other work and aspects of life can interrupt the focus, so a good amount of time is spent in just returning to the piece. Getting myself back to the experience of the piece is not alway easy. I have many thoughts about needing to bring the best of one’s self to the table when working on music which this relates to, and it’s not always easy to be at one’s most focused self when you happen to have time to compose. Focus and having a clear mind is just so incredibly important…

Having a limited time constraint to work on Distant Stars meant not having all too much time to review, but through the experience of composing I found that it also meant drawing upon intuition very strongly to make each compositional move and trusting the actions. This was a very rich experience and I find happens when one stops thinking about the piece and simply listens and acts.

I think it also happens as there are many different technical ideas I’ve experimented with over time that I know somewhat how they work, so that in the moment when I am working I can act intuitively from past experiences. This makes me think I should spend more time regularly sketching ideas and playing in realtime, getting these experiences, good or bad, to become deeply understood, so that I won’t have to think of them when I am working and can work more from intuition.

Also, I found that when I was slowly going through the larger piece and then switched focus to Distant Stars, it was really quite refreshing to work with differents sounds and in a different context. It makes me think back to my college days when I had a great amount of time and not so many responsibilities, that I often worked on more than one piece at a time, primarily focusing on one piece, but whenever I found myself exhausted and needing a break, would move over to another sketch or piece. Doing so often helped illuminate things going on in the first piece I was working on, and vice-versa. Already returning to listening to drafts of the larger piece was refreshing…

I find that there is a parallel to my recent composing experiences and my general programming experiences. When programming, I often find myself working on a project and when I find myself exhausted or at a stopping point I naturally move over to another programming project. I also find that with all the experience in programming I am often programming somewhat intuitively, as I have a lot of experience to draw on to simply know what to do for a large number of situations.

I had in mind to make Distant Stars a part of a larger project entitled “Explorer II”, based somewhat on ideas from my earlier “Explorer I” project. I think it will be a good thing for me to continue on with this series of smaller pieces while working on my larger piece. I have taken the past few days off after Distant Stars to take care of other non-music projects as well as some general music programming and sound exploring, and am looking forward now to returning to the larger piece. Looking at my recent experiences has been helpful to see where I am and evaluate how I’m working and I hope to take the lessons learned and apply them carrying forward.

Distant Stars

Completed: 2006.08.25
Duration: 6:02
Ensemble: Electronic (blue, Csound)

MP3: Click Here
OGG: Click Here
Project Files – Click here (.blue, .csd)

This piece was premiered on August 26, 2006 as a part of the AUX Collaborative Arts Event held at Athica in Athens, GA.

Thanks very much to Heather McIntosh for organizing this event and for programming this piece!

AUX Collaborative Arts Event

Just a note that a good friend of mine is putting on an arts event tomorrow (Saturday) in Athens, GA from 4-10pm, entitled “Aux Collaborative Arts Event”. It’ll be at a venue called Athica.

More information about the event can be found here.

I have a piece being performed at this event and will make it available Sunday after the event. If you’re in or around Athens tomorrow I’m sure it’s going to be a wonderful event and would highly recommend going. If not, hopefully you’ll enjoy the piece I am releasing Sunday. (More thoughts on the piece to accompany the release).

Thanks!
Steven
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GTD with KOrganizer/PI

I’ve recently gotten into David Allen‘s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) as well as reading many of the great productivity related blogs out there (43folders, lifehacker.com, lifehack.org, etc.). I’ve really gotten into the ideas of GTD and wanted to share the system I’ve come up with based on the wonderful KOrganizer/PI software.

Ever since college I’ve found that I like to record things down into lists of things to do. Originally I used sheets of paper which I would write down todo’s as well as new ideas as I came across them, later sorting those ideas onto new sheets of paper as I got things done. After college I purchased a Palm PDA to organize things and I primarily ended up using the Todo’s feature there, collecting things to do as I thought of them but largely into just one category. That worked out alright, but I was still using things like Post-It notes, other scraps of paper, etc. It served a purpose but I never felt it was quite right.

A few years ago I purchased a Sharp Zaurus 5600 PDA, thinking it would be fun to write some small programs for it. I originally used the PIM software that came with it, finding it about as useful as the one I used on my old Palm PDA. One day however I saw that people were really getting into KOrganizer/PI and after installing it and getting used to it, I really got to liking it.

At first though I didn’t know really what to do with it. I ended up using it much in the same way I used Palm’s Todo lists and didn’t find it initially was anything better for me. After a while though I really got into the fact that one could create hiearchical todo’s (sub-todo’s) of any level of depth, as well as allow for multiple categories for any todo item which together with the ability to define filters by categories became a very powerful tool.

I had come up with an ad-hoc method of sorts that worked pretty well, but now getting into GTD and realizing how well KOrganizer/PI would work for this, I feel like I’ve moved from having good work habits to really having a real work system. It’s still a work in progress, but so far I’ve been very happy with how it is turning out.

Below I’ll describe my setup and how I’m using KOrganizer/PI to manage my time. I will be referring to some GTD concepts so if you’re not too familiar with it you might want to take a look at the Wikipedia article here.

Note: Most of the things I’m discussing should be usable with the main KOrganizer software. I haven’t found many other organizers that have the same features as KOrganizer, although it looks like Microsoft’s Outlook 2007 is going to incorporate some tasks features that KOrganizer has (see Micorosft blog entry here for more information on that) so some of these ideas may transfer over to that program when it is released.

About KOrganizer/PI

Let me start off with describing a little bit about KOrganizer/PI and highlight some outstanding features. KO/PI has a Calendar, Todo’s, and Journal. The Calendar works like most any other calendaring software and allows for setting reoccuring calendar items, all-day events, and allows for using multiple ICS calendar files at the same time. The Journal feature is alright and I have used it in the past but do not find it easy to navigate to see entries so it currently doesn’t play a part in my workflow.

In my opinion, the really outstanding and unique feature of KOrganizer/PI (and KOrganizer) is the Todo system. Todo’s in KO/PI can be hiearchical, so if you have a project you can list it’s subprojects as sub-todo’s and break down the subprojects into actionable todo’s. The todo system is also very integrated into the calendar, so that when you mark a todo as due by a certain date, it will show up in the All-Day events section of the Calendar for its due date. I can not stress enough how great it is to have the GTD “Hard Landscape” of the calendar really integrated with the tasks and projects system of the todo’s in KOrganizer/PI. (It looks like the tasks/calendar integration is something that will be appearing in Microsoft’s Outlook 2007, but I don’t know if it can do hiearchical tasks, which is a very key feature to me.)

Across KO/PI is the ability to filter all items that are shown by categories, whether on the calendar, todo, or other views. By setting up a system of categories and filters, one can create the GTD “buckets” in which to put all of the incoming reference information and todos. KO/PI also allow for items to have multiple categories tagged to it, which can bring some interesting flexibility. (For example, although I don’t do this myself, one can implement GTD Contexts as category labels, then for each item one can mark it as a project or other type of item, as well as a context category to filter on later.)

Now that I’ve discussed a little bit about the program, I’m going to walk through how I use the system. Hopefully you’ll get a better idea of how these features really work together for me.

Incoming

All incoming information, ideas, and todo’s are categorized as Incoming. I have a filter set labelled “Incoming” that filters to include any item that has “Incoming” as a category. When the Incoming filter is enabled and I create new todo’s, the todo will automatically be tagged as part of the “Incoming Category”.

I use this as my primary input channel into the time management system. When I’m away from the computer, I will write down all ideas and notes to myself in my PDA using the incoming filter and will sync when I’m back at the computer, then proceeding to evaluate the items. While I’m at the computer, I also try to put my incoming information into the Incoming category even if I have an idea of where it should go now so that I can separate really what is currently being done and what I need to look at to do. I’m not so good about that at the moment and sometime directly add items to my Active projects list and schedule them to do now, but I realize that that just clutters up the list of things I already had going on and a lot of the things I do like that are things that can wait until later. I think it’s better to leave them in the Incoming box until I *really* do have time to evaluate it. The current todo’s stay leaner and more managable that way.

Categories and Filters

Once the information is in the incoming section, I will go through and evaluate these items and then recategorize them. The categories which I have setup are:

  • Incoming – Information and tasks which are not yet evaluated
  • Active – Projects which are currently being pursued
  • Non-Active – Projects and tasks which aren’t actively being pursued (Someday/Maybe)
  • Long-Term – Long term projects that don’t really have a finish date, such as those which are health-related or learning-related
  • Seven Habits – Weekly Compass, Values, Mission Statement (ideas from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)
  • Checklists – Reusable checklists (Pre-Work checklist, Cups of water I drank today, GTD process list, etc.)
  • Check out – things I’d like to check out (books, places to go, etc.)
  • Book Reading List – Books I own but have not read yet
  • Other – Various other lists of information

The first four categories are the ones related to tasks and getting things done, while other categories act more as information lists and reference. It’s nice for me to have these two things integrated within the same system (as well as all of this integrated with the calendar!) as I can quickly record, organize, and lookup all of the important information that helps me to get things done. I have had other categories in the past but after reorganizing to be more inline with GTD ideology, these are the ones I’m currently using.

I’ve also set up filters for each one of the main categories, each set to only show items labelled with that category. Because KO/PI comes setup with many single-button shortcuts, I can switch what filter I’m using simply by pressing any number between 1-0 (for filters 1-10) and ctrl+1-0 (for filters 11-20).

Shortcuts

The shortcuts in KO/PI are key to making this a quick and easy system to use. For example, if while I’m working I have an idea I’ll press 1 to switch to my Incoming filter, create a new todo which is automatically labelled with the Incoming category, and then press 2 to jump back to my Active tasks.

I often switch between todo view, agenda view, month view, and list view using v, x for next three days view or d for today, m, and l respectively.

Next Actions

So now that things are organized, I’m ready to approach my current work session. For KO/PI, todo’s can have a due date, and if that is set, it will show up on the agenda view as an all day event. So for the day’s work, I’ll mark my next actions as due for today and they show up on the agenda. I switch to agenda view and see on each day of the calendar what tasks I’ve set to be done that day as well as can see the “hard landscape” underneath it which shows things that have to be done at certain times (appointments, meetings, etc.).

If I’m working and find that I’ve really overbooked myself that day with actions, I can easily move that todo’s due date by simply going to agenda view, click and drag that todo to another day, and release to set it.

Working

As I work and finish actionable tasks, I mark them complete and they are removed from the all-day section of the Agenda and get entered into the calendar as a green block showing when that task was completed. As they day goes on, I’ll take breaks and look at incoming and run through the evaluation and organization cycle, and then look for next actions. Things get done, my agenda and useful information is organized, and all is well!

Useful Tip: Modifying Multiple Entries

If you need to change the category or add a category to a number of different Todo items, you can do so by opening the Search box and searching for the item, select the ones to change, and then right-click and choose “Selection->Set Categories” from the popup menu. With this you can either set all items to a new category (the Reset option) or add categories. This also works from the List view.

This above is mentioned in the “Features + Hints” section from the Help menu, but what’s not mentioned in the “Features + Hints” is that if you use “Selection->Set Categories” on a Todo that has sub-todo’s, it will ask you if you want to apply the category change to ALL subtodo’s.

This feature has been great for me when I was migrating my old calendar’s data and category system (or I should say, random labelling!) to my new one. It’s also been great for taking Non-Active projects that have lots of sub-todo’s and making the whole thing an Active project.

Conclusion

That’s the basics of my current approach to time management! I’m currently satisfied with how things are going but am sure there are many things I can do to streamline things further. I’m also still new to GTD ideas and am still in the process of learning so I’m sure that as I get more and more familiar I’ll have more modifications to my system.

Well, hope that article was useful to help illustrate some of the neat features of KOrganizer/PI as well as one system of time management using this tool. Hopefully this will inspire you to figure out the time management system and tools that will work for you.

If you have questions or suggestions please feel free to leave a comment here!

Thanks!
steven

The New and the Familiar

Lisa’s friend sent a link to an NPR “All Things Considered” episode entitled “Does Age Squash Our Spirt of Adventure?“. It was fascinating to listen to this show about how that there seems to be a correspondence between age and our willingness to try new things. The show also brought up some interesting things regarding radio stations and how they look at their audiences in regards to age and taste.

It makes me wonder about myself and how I am approaching new things. I’d like to believe that I’m rather open to new experiences and will to give something a try, whether it’s new music, food, or any experience really. I think it’s healthy to give things a try, even if there’s a chance of a bad experience or failure, and to really try to approach the new experience with an open mind.

I remember when I first started to explore the world of modern art music.  At the time I was very interested with the group of composers that were classified as Minimalists but was starting to get exposed to a lot of the modernists from the earlier to mid part of the 20th century.  When I first listened to composers like Stockhausen, Xenakis, Cage, and many others, I really didn’t know what to make of it.  I didn’t find I had any connection with the music I was listening to, nor any idea why would one create music like that.

When I came to first hear this music I told myself that I would spend time to find out more about it before dismissing it. Afterall, I was new to it and knew very little about that world of music. I wanted to know that my experience of the work wasn’t superficial and that whatever I came to would be based on the pieces merits.
I spent a month, almost every day, going to the library and checking out records and CD’s, listening to a new composer or piece every day, reading the liner notes to discover a mention of a new composer and then try listening to that composer’s work.  I also spent time finding books and interviews with the composer I was listening to, trying to understand what it was they were after in their music. Looking back, I remember many times leaving the library exhausted by what I had heard, not really excited, but still curious. I also think back to it as a very exciting time, to have such a vast musical world to explore.
After a month of doing this I found my taste changed quite a deal.  I found that the initial experiences of listening to modern music  was somewhat of a reaction to something very new to me, something novel to my previous world.  After getting past the novelty of the sounds and really getting into the essence of the music, I realized that I really did find a connection with this world of music.

I was a bit younger then.  These days I am finding myself less involved with seeing what new experiences are out there but more interested in seeing what new experiences are in what I already am familiar with.  It seems to go in cycles though, sometimes with longer periods than others, of exploring things new and then contemplating the familiar with the new familiar from the explorations.

Perhaps then later then the reasons for exploring new things diminishes is that we simply have so much to explore in what is already familiar…

Deep Breathing and LifeTimer

Just wanted to make a note that I’ve updated my software Deep Breathing and have added a new software called LifeTimer.

DeepBreathing has been redesigned and has added more options for how to play back sounds. I am planning to do some more programming on it to have it save your settings and perhaps even to save your own presets, and perhaps will incorporate new sound options as well.
LifeTimer is a new program for timing various things in life. It includes a Timer (Stopwatch), an alarm where you can create different alarm presets (i.e. Green Tea, Black Tea, Nap) and when the alarm is finished it opens up a dialog and beeps, and a Work/Break Cycle that you set how long to work and how long of a break to take and it will repeatedly do each one until you turn it off, playing a sound at the beginning of each work and break period. It’s good for setting up regular breaks to avoid RSI as well as implementing the (10 + 2) * 5 Procrastination Hack from 43folders.com.

Enjoy!

Around the City on a Holiday

Today is the Catholic holiday of the Assumption, and being in a country where church and state are not so different, I imagined it to be more of a somber affair, but I think my expectations were different than what I saw. We later found out it’s also a holiday in Warsaw to commemorate a defense of the city during WWII, which made things fall much more into place.

The day started with us going to meet Karen and friends on Chmielna. A gorgeous day, probably the prettiest I had seen since coming here: a deep blue sky, bright rays of sunlight, the colors rich and vibrant. We thought we’d ride the bus down but just a couple stops after we got on we were stuck waiting on the bus for first a parade to go by, then a procession of assorted tanks and armored vehicles. A very strange sight to see.

We eventually made it to Chmielna and had a nice lunch at Muza, then Karen, Lisa, and I made our own way afterwards towards the Palace of Fine Arts to see about a science exhibit. We arrived there but it seemed that the ticket cost also covered going to to the top, and since I didn’t have my camera with me, we opted to come back another day for those. (They also had the 48th European Team Bridge Championships there and as much as I had hoped to see Omar Shariff it wasn’t to happen. =) )

On our way out we saw that there was a free exhibit in a tent entitled “Tajne Fotografie Luftwaffe – Maj – Czerwiec 1944” (Secret Photography of the Luftwaffe – May-June 1944). We went in and saw many photos from ’44 as well as a narrated movie showing the state of Warsaw at that time: gutted buildings with the rooves destroyed, buildings missing altogether. The photos of the Ghetto were particularly disturbing as blocks and blocks of building were completely destroyed, in their place what seemed to be like dust.

It was erie and haunting to see such photos of the city as it seemed so familiar and yet altogether different. As we saw each photo we discussed all of the differences between what we were looking at and what we knew of the city today from our own experiences, noticing what buildings were no longer there, what new roads weren’t in the pictures, and so on.

Looking at the photos reminded me very much of some of the photos of Lebanon I had seen recently online comparing city photos from before and after the Israeli bombings. I thought to myself that like Warsaw it will be rebuilt, but cities are alive like human bodies and that although they heal, they’re never quite the same. I am sure that there must be similar images of destruction on the Israeli side and equally as sad to see.

We left the exhibition and decided to make our way to a coffee shop, but on the way we stopped by Prozna street which Karen told us is the last street from Jewish Ghetto still intact(Karen explained that it was in the small ghetto whose occupants were evacuated to the large ghetto which was later completely destroyed). The first building we saw there was quite beat up in terms of brickwork but all of the windows were new and seemed to have people living there. The next building was in quite worse shape, the windows old and missing glass, the building evacuated. We saw very old bullet holes in the walls outside…

A small walk across the street and we found the only Warsaw Synogogue to survive the war. It was closed but from the outside it seemed a rather beautiful building. The front exterior looked newly painted a nice yellow color that looked like it would be continued all around. Perhaps one day we’ll have a chance to look inside, but it always seemed like a strange thing to go into houses of worship like churches or synagogues to look around, so if not, I think that’d be alright.

We left the area and moved on to the park and returned to a more holiday setting. There in the park was a sort of small marching band standing in an arc and playing music with a color guard in front throwing batons. Seeing a tuba player and a sousaphone player there rekindled some urges to play the tuba. (I’m looking forward to December at my parent’s home to get to play my tuba…)

The rest of the park was setup with a sort of fair for children, though very different than any I was familiar with in my own experiences. People set up stands for people to play fooseball, pool, and even putt golf balls on those mini putting greens which I imagine executives purchasing for their offices. It seemed strange to me but at the same time the kids looked like they were enjoying themselves a good deal and I was happy to see that.

After the fair we finally made it to Antrakt, a very lovely coffee shop not too far away from where we live. A very neat space, I imagine that when it is colder that it would be a great place to read and work at.

We stayed a while and enjoyed good conversation then left and parted our own ways. It was a long, full day.

Updates – Podcast, RSS Feeds

Hi All,

Regarding the website, I’ve just done a bit of work to make WordPress split entries with multiple enclosures to generate multiple entries with single enclosures, thus making it compliant with all Podcast software and RSS2 specifications.

I’ve also changed to use Feedburner for both the general RSS feed and Podcast feeds. The URL’s for those are:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/stevenYiMusic
http://feeds.feedburner.com/stevenYiMusicPodcast

Enjoy!
steven

Chuang-Tzu

Every time I read Chuang-Tzu it is as refreshing as the very first time…

Recently I’ve been reading Chuang-Tzu again and have found within it a great deal. It seems as relevant today in my life as it has ever been. With yesterday’s attempted airplane bombings, many things within the book seem to resonate with the times regarding a world out of balance. Within my own life, I have found that contemplating Chuang-Tzu has helped me get back to focusing on things which are very important to me, especially in regards to my music.

Today it is gray outside and now it is raining with thunder in the distance. It is a quiet and thoughtful day, a day to work away in silence…

Kazimierz Dolny

This weekend we went to Kazimierz Dolny, a city to the South-East of Warsaw near the Ukrainian border. We travelled via bus with Lisa’s friend Karen, Karen’s cousin, and her cousin’s husband for a very nice weekend out in this small town.

Lisa and Karen had been before but the rest of us didn’t really know what to expect. We got to the city around lunch time and had a nice meal, then decided to explore the downtown and sites to be seen nearby before heading over to the castle (more on this later). We saw a lovely old church from the 1600’s, hiked up to see the hill of three crosses and a fantastic view of the city and all along the river, then over to a ruined castle and a tower. A long day of walking and hiking around, we ended with a long walk to the ferry, went across the river, and then another long walk and small hike up to another ruined castle.

We had made reservations prior to coming and had split the group for accomodations: Carroll and David stayed at the Zamek (castle) and Lisa, myself, and Karen stayed at the Dwor (manor hourse) right nearby. Being tired from the day full walks and hikes, we were glad to finally put our things down in our rooms and to enjoy a nice evening meal and long conversation afterwards with deliciously cold beer. While we were drinking the staff left and we ended up being the only ones left in the ruined castle! Karen, Lisa, and I eventually took our leave of the castle and made our way through the pitch black night to the Dwor, then quickly were off to sleep.

The next day we awoke, showered, collected our things and went over to the Zamek for a delicious Polish breakfast (bread, butter, tomato and cucumber slices, and a giant pot of coffee!). Afterwards we checked out and took a look at the museum part outside of the Zamek showing old-time machines that the people used for farming and making clothes as well as old boats they once used. With that we hiked down a different (and shorter!) path back to the ferry and made our way down the long walk back to the center of Kazimierz Dolny.

At this point David and Carroll decided to take a boat ride down the river, while Karen, Lisa, and I went off to hike through a gorge. The walk was gorgeous as the branches of trees arc over the path we walked and the foliage a beautiful green, a ray of sun light occasionaly breaking through the canopy. We walked to the top of the gorge where it flattened out to a hilltop, then made our way back down to the city. Altogether again, we had a lovely meal at U Fryzera (which translates to a barber shop, which was a part of their theme I guess). We got to the bus just fine and on our way back to Warsaw managed to get lost (well there was an accident and the bus driver was told by another to go on a detour that got us lost and had the driver asking people passing by how to get to Warsaw) but ended up having not lost much time.

A very nice trip, wonderful company, and completely refereshing. It was nice to take a break from the computer for a couple days and to go exploring. Now back again, I am happy to return to my work with a fresh energy and a calm mind.