Dylan Baldi is a guitarist and songwriter in the band Cloud Nothings. He currently lives and drinks lots of seltzer in western Massachusetts.
Lately I’ve been making a new record for my band Cloud Nothings. And by lately I mean for months, possibly even a year at this point. At my nearest estimate, I have made and deleted something like a hundred garbage demos. If you could recycle computer trash for money like soda cans, I would be the richest man on earth with a Macbook.
Making bad songs for an entire year is sort of disheartening. Soul-crushing at times, actually. But somehow I’m still a sucker for a good song, and have convinced myself that I’m capable of making them, so I have to keep returning to the empty computer screen and the red recording button time and time again. And somewhere right around bad song number 311, I found a solo violin record by a New York composer named Malcolm Goldstein.
Full disclosure: I’ve only heard this record in its entirety four times. But the contents of Full Circle Sounding, released this year on Graham Lambkin’s illustrious and important Kye Records label, have been consistently occupying my mind for weeks on end now. Goldstein is a composer who relies heavily on improvisation within his music, sometimes working in traditional ways but often following his violin wherever it takes him in a piece, “like a brook after rain pours through dirt, rocks, trees and grass, finding new subtle twists and turns as things moved, are moved in the flow,” to quote the man himself.
This utterly natural style of playing is beautiful to listen to, and in the improvisations on the record you can hear Goldstein surprising himself and discovering new paths and opportunities that anything other than the most open-minded explorations would leave dormant. It is amazing to hear a seventy-three-year-old man play his violin and make sounds that I definitely haven’t heard before, and reassuring that it seems like he was previously unaware the sounds were possible as well.
But beyond just the novelty of hearing a violin explored to its headiest outer limits, the philosophies behind this record have proven to be inspiring for my own work. Though extended-technique avant-garde music is about as far as you can get from what I do (no matter what I might tell myself in moments of, uh, “clarity”), making music through improvisation and an openness to all avenues of sound has had a huge effect on my own creative output.
After my last record, I kind of had an idea of what Cloud Nothings was supposed to sound like. We had a “sound” that I had worked towards for years, and now that I’d realized that sound, why would I want to do anything different? Especially considering the acclaim that this sound had brought us worldwide. Messing with the formula that I had set up for myself seemed idiotic, and like it’d be a disservice to everyone involved with the band and people who like our records.
Unfortunately though, working within this formula was producing a long string of bland shit music and nothing remotely fun to listen to or play. I used to make songs without thinking of my past efforts, but the added stress of having an audience had started to set me in my ways a little more than I realized. Listening to Full Circle Sounding and internalizing the processes that Goldstein employs set me on a path to rediscovering a more childlike sense of wonder with all the various noises I could make, rather than getting stuck in a strictly structured and formulaic manner of thinking. As soon as I forgot that I had invented a songwriting method for myself and was able to restart from scratch, trying things I wouldn’t have dared to try just six months ago, my music got better and an album started to more or less write itself.
This free way of thinking isn’t just perfect for creativity, as evidenced by Goldstein’s record and my own current rapid growth — it’s a great philosophy for life in general. Goldstein alludes to as much in his 1988 book Sounding the Full Circle: Concerning Music Improvisation and Other Related Matters, and it seems to hold true as far as I’ve applied it. No record in recent memory has affected me in such a positive way, and though I don’t listen to it very much, I’ve been excessively recommending it to friends who complain about getting stuck in a routine and feeling depressed. The record’s outré tendencies mean it’s not exactly the kind of album you put on at a party, unless you’re me and you think it’s funny to put on a dissonant solo violin album at a party, but the patterns behind the music are inspiring and are a healing force in a world increasingly leaning towards negativity. And as far as I’m concerned, there isn’t much higher praise than that for a piece of music.