The outside world is quiet. It’s nearly 10 o’clock. Alan looks out the window of his apartment to the city streets below. He sees a couple of people walk toward the video store, Movie Mayhem. Tires hum as cars pass in the distance. A TV flickers behind the closed shades on the apartment building across from his.
Despite the hour, people are still doing things. People like Alan who find comfort in staying up late, enjoying a quiet time of solitude without giving thought to the responsibilities the daytime brings.
As he grew up, Alan seems to have less time for private moments during the day. Less time to explore things he has in the back of his mind because there are a million other things which have to be taken care of first.
As a kid he had all the time in the world. Especially during the summers. He would watch TV and play videogames all day long. He would draw his favorite cartoon characters. He would play on the piano keyboard his parents got him for his birthday.
Alan is now 20 years old. The year is 1996. He turns from the window and starts slowly pacing around his small apartment. He is in the main room, with the bedroom being the only other full room besides the bathroom. On the floor pieces of hardware lie next to his computer as he recently upgraded it to support playing the latest video game hit, Duke Nukem 3D. He passes a poster on the wall for the movie Hackers, which he got to commemorate moving into his own place a year prior. He walks around a small table in front of his TV set. Next to it is a pile of VHS videos from Movie Mayhem.
Among the movies is Blade Runner, one of his favorites. He especially enjoyed the film’s soundtrack, produced by Vangelis. It was the original form of electronic music when the instruments were made into physical machines from scratch and recorded together as traditional instruments. He had managed to get all the tracks off the web since there was no official release of a soundtrack. Some were on Vangelis’s other albums, which he had, of course. Before he acquired the tracks, he would play the film in the background, just to listen to the composition. It’s what originally inspired him to make his own music.
The glow of his computer screen draws his attention. He sits down and uses his mouse to open the music track he’s working on. It has been several months since he finished the previous one. He thinks it is time to wrap up something new to post on the web. This one feels like his best yet.
As his music file loads, the screen fills with columns of letters, numbers, lines and boxes in blue, green and yellow. To Alan, they are the instruments and notes of his song, carefully arranged and programmed. The music is saved in a format called a mod, a computer file that arranges music in standalone modules. Instruments are essentially snippets of sound imported into the program and arranged into a musical composition.
Most producers like Alan who program mod music don’t have any formal training in music. They just know what sounds good and have fun doing it, learning by doing and figuring it all out as they go along. Like the way they figured how to custom-build their own computers before that, or ride a bike before that, or build things with Legos before that.
After graduating from high school, Alan realized that he preferred to learn things on his own. He decided to not go to college. He had read an article in Wired magazine about the coming Information Age taking over public schools with what the author called “hyperlearning.” The author envisioned a future where super-fast broadband internet would make all the information in the world available to everyone and how the only way to properly prepare students was to teach them ‘knowledge-based’ work, using computer software that would let students learn on their own.
Alan imagined everyone learning on the computer in the future: all information available online; education packaged in text, images and video on children’s computer screens; virtual teachers. The kids would decide for themselves when they would play or learn. They would figure out what it was they were interested in on their own and apply themselves to that area. With the internet, it isn’t hard to imagine; he is already doing it himself by figuring out how to take apart his computer. He has even made his own web page!
He presses F5 on his keyboard to play back what he has so far and sits back in his chair. He reaches over to turn on his synthesizer keyboard. His eyes come across a post-it note with “Call Mr. Conners about job offer” written on it. He stops the song and turns in his chair, facing away from the computer, looking into space, thinking.
His dad has a friend at Microsoft whom he convinced to give Alan a job. It is “the start of your career,” his parents tell him. And they are probably right; everyone is getting their own computers now, and Microsoft is quickly becoming one of the most successful companies in the world. The pay is certainly decent and he could only move up to a better position from there. And it beats the job he has now, working at Pretzel Palace in the mall. The big job is quite the opportunity for him. The problem is, it isn’t what Alan wants.
The first time he really felt like he was able to completely make his own decisions was when he got his own apartment. No matter if they were good or bad decisions, they were his own and he would learn from them. And this whole career thing isn’t something he wants to commit to. He doesn’t like the idea of doing things just because they happen to come his way. His last year of high school, he took a part-time job where his friend worked, on top of working on the school newspaper, the school yearbook, and even being on the chess team. He didn’t do particularly well with any of those things because he was barely able to keep up with all of them.
But he did learn to think about what he would decide to take on because it usually meant giving up on something else. Now, sitting alone to think things through, he has a terrible feeling that he’ll be giving up his music. The big important job will take over and make him into a more responsible adult, whatever that means.
To get the terrible thought out of his head, he grabs a Coke from the fridge and heads over to his couch to turn on his TV. He flips through channels with a look of disinterest on his face. He eventually stops on the nightly news with a reporter speaking: “Musicians rely more and more on computers to make their music for them, which begs the question: Is it really music if a computer is what generates it?”
The camera pans out to show the reporter with another man who, from the leather jacket he’s wearing, appears to be in a band. The news reporter asks, “Is electronic music destroying the craft of making music with traditional instruments?” The musician replies, “Look man, the computer is just another instrument itself, or like an infinite number of sounds as instruments. It still needs someone to tell it how to make music. What’s the difference between someone playing a piano and a synthesized keyboard that’s connected to a computer?”
Alan smiles. He turns off the TV and goes back to his computer. He takes a sip of his Coke and is ready to get to work on his track.
The electronic music Alan produces represents a part of himself. His style, his view of the world, his unique personality are written within the synthesized electronic bits. There is a certain intensity to it that reflects the way he feels about things, in the best form he can describe them.
As Steve Jobs put it in a recent interview Alan saw on PBS, “Humans are tool builders, and we build tools that can dramatically amplify our innate human abilities." To Alan, the computer is the perfect example of awesome human engineering of the best tool there is to make art.
Alan’s music application of choice is called Impulse Tracker. When Alan is programming his music, he has total focus, a sort of tunnel-vision. He exercises his analytical side and his creative side in complete harmony. Impulse Tracker makes that possible. It is an extension of him.
The impulses of sound come together the way the electrical impulses in his brain work together. They are a reflection of his life, impulses of important moments. Each time he built something with Legos as a kid, an impulse. A good video game he was playing, an impulse. A memorable moment with a friend, an impulse. Each time he completes a song, an impulse.
It is now past midnight. Alan needs a break. He opens his internet connection to surf the web. Three minutes later he is online and opens up his email program. He skims new emails as they come in and reads one with the subject line, “Details of data entry position,” sent from Joseph P. Conners, his dad’s friend from Microsoft. He clicks on it and starts reading. It ends with “I will see you Monday morning.”
That is tomorrow. Alan starts to feel nervous again. He thinks about what this job means to his parents. He thinks about his friends going to college in hopes of getting good jobs. He thinks about people on TV talking about ‘the real world’ and how tough things are for people once they get out on their own.
Alan never bought that. His mediocre job manages to pay for all the computer parts and video games he wants. His car, as old as it is, manages to get him places. He has more than 50 channels on his TV. He couldn’t ask for more. He knows that if there is something else he wants out of life, he will work toward it.
He is, however, starting to not like his job at Pretzel Palace. He’s gotten tired of the smell of burnt bread, melted cheese and jalapeños. As much as he likes pretzels, he hasn’t thought about eating one in a couple of months. He remembers that he saw an opening at Movie Mayhem the last time he went. The store has no food smell, is conveniently located and will give him an employee discount on all the videos he wants!
Suddenly, a thought comes to him. He looks at the email from Mr. Conners momentarily and hits the Delete key. He grabs his coat and slippers and hurries out the door. He comes back five minutes later with a job application from Movie Mayhem.
That is his solution. He decides on a new job, but one with less responsibility, giving him the clarity of thought to work on his music. He takes the post-it note off his desk, crumples it and tosses it in the trash bin. He’ll call Mr. Conners and his dad in the morning and let them know he decided to turn down the position.
Things will work out, he thinks. There will be other companies and job offers waiting for him when he is ready for them. But for now, he is going to enjoy the time to himself while he still can. He imagines where he’ll be five years from now: living in the same small apartment, working at the same video store. And he is perfectly happy with that because he’ll be making his music, and that’s all that matters to him. He will learn how to get better at it and maybe even make a living from it so he can continue doing it for the rest of his life.
He goes back to his computer, points his mouse cursor over the Impulse Tracker icon and clicks it. It is time for his next impulse moment.