The Art of Pursuing Artistry: Young Musicians Staying Optimistic

A detailed look at the practices and thoughts of young musicians of all sorts

David Watkins, Student Writer

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A left hand gripped a wooden neck like a vice. The hand was well rehearsed in the muscle movements necessary for such a grasp. Each finger was meticulously placed on the nickel-plated  strings attached to the sturdy neck. With the fast, steady and small movements of the right hand, the strings sent vibrations traveling up the beautiful device. The result was a smooth yet sharp sound channeled from the influences of Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis. The tones pulsing from the instrument always demonstrated acuity if it was in the hands of Spencer Kravis.

For Kravis, playing  guitar comes as natural as breathing air, only the guitar is far more fun and expressive.

“It’s really satisfying to be able to play at the level I can,” Kravis said. “especially since I get to play all of the music I grew up listening to.”.

His rig consists of a high voltage tube amplifier from the company Orange, a Bose effects pedal and a Gibson Les Paul guitar.  The exterior of the Orange amp matches the maker’s namesake, its frame coated in a bright iteration of the color. The amp stands at stomach height and possesses the capability to vibrate the floor of any room it may find itself in. The guitar pedal from the company Bose is the size of a computer keyboard and exudes a dark gray color scheme. Covered with turning knobs and buttons, the pedal sits at the base of the amp on the floor, ready to alter the tone of the guitar with the tap of a foot. It is through this device that the guitar can possess the tones necessary to play rock, funk, jazz or any other number of guitar-oriented genres.

The third and most important piece to this  puzzle of ideal sounds is the Les Paul guitar. A smooth wooden brown finish at the center with black fading all around the edges coupled with a pickguard and a treble/bass switch, both cream-colored, visually captures the feeling of a classically trained player honing the influences of classic progressive rock bands. The Les Paul being favored among artists such Slash of Guns n’ Roses and Alex Lifeson of Rush gives Kravis historical credibility wielding one himself.

Together, these three devices help Kravis realize guitar tones most amatuer players only dream of achieving. He spends his time on the guitar playing songs and riffs well over ten minutes long, many of which feeling like comprehensive solos the whole way through. It’s only natural that Mr. Kravis put his noteworthy talent to use throughout his adolescent years, playing with multiple live bands through the Camp Jam summer camp program. In high school, he was awarded the Louis Armstrong award at the end of his tenure with the school’s jazz band. Since graduating, Kravis has been attending Depaul University in Chicago to study actuarial science. So what has Kravis been up to musically since graduating and moving on to A university? Has he joined up with their jazz ensemble?

“No.” Kravis said. “You need to be majoring in jazz study in order to join the band.”. Currently, he’s majoring in actuarial science and not anything music related. As such, Kravis’ musical pursuits are purely out of passion and of his own volition. He is not the only young musician faced with such a dilemma. According to statistical data website Statista, A little under 30,000 people are employed in the music industry in the US as of 2015. While it’s not the most niche’ of occupations, it is a mere fraction of the availability of other industries, namely the one Kravis picked to pursue instead. The productive hobby of transforming perceptions of rhythm into beautiful vibrations would have to make way for practicality.

In a past life, Kravis might have been recruited to play. There was a period in American history when the music industry was just beginning to form into the lucrative juggernaut it is today. Arts and Repertoire executives would seek out any and all talents capable of bringing their own creative flair, and in turn commercial success, to a record label.  It is through this business practice that unique and unorthodox bands like Nirvana came to find popularity. Over time, the mindset of big record companies has shifted. A near inevitable eventuality of any industry that accumulates ample wealth is a change to safer business practices. Instead of seeking out self-created talents like in the days of yesteryear, A&R executives look for individuals or groups that have potential to be molded into the artist the label wants. While Nirvana was hired for their successful independent album and their general popularity in Seattle, modern acts get picked up by labels for having good vocals or rapping skills. Artists and bands who write and produce their own work are still regularly hired, but they typically have to reach out to the labels and not the other way around.

What is the path of a creator seeking success in an industry dominated by the will of record executives? Performer and composer Chris Cozzi intends to find out.

“There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than this. I love making music more than anything else.” Cozzi said. Growing up listening to the metal genre, Cozzi has sought to incorporate the genre into almost everything he’s done. Moody, hard hitting crunch of guitars over quick, ear popping drum hits arranged into a composition that bleeds anger into beauty. Bands like SepticFlesh have given Cozzi a lens of structured brutality.

“On a personal level, a significant amount of my influence comes from the extreme metal scene as well as a large amount of contemporary classical music”. Cozzi’s lens of the uncomfortable transcribed to music extends past the meaty heaviness of metal. Composers like Alfred Schnittke have arranged compositions that leave the listener in a state of constant uneasiness. Cozzi wishes to exemplify this sense of dread into his own work, acquiring an internship with the  music composer of the Insidious films, Joseph Bishara.  The aim is scoring horror films.  

“The right music is absolutely vital to a scene and the overall story,” Cozzi said. “If you get the music wrong, then the entire scene, and possibly the entire film will have an entirely different dramatic meaning. Getting the music wrong means the story isn’t being told correctly.”. Musical creativity is just as pivotal to movies as it is to the music industry itself. A scene building suspense would benefit far more from intense orchestral arrangements designed to frighten the viewer than generic stock music slapped on top of it. Scoring takes dedication and insight.  Someone who’s been familiar with the expressions of uneasiness, anger and structure could create exceptional works in the realm of horror. Cozzi relishes his opportunity to do so. From his home studio, he utilizes a relatively new tool that has given way to unique creations as well as the same generic corporate-created music that dominates the field: Pro-tools.

Using his custom-built PC has given Cozzi the opportunity to use the industry standard in recording technology. Instead of recording entire takes of songs on tape in studios and meticulously avoiding mistakes, Pro Tools affords the user the ability to go back in the digital cut and make edits or changes. Many use this to make their music sound better than their real-life skills would allow, but a creative hand can use the software to create new sounds never heard before through digital means. Cozzi walks the line as he ventures forth into the new digital age with a particular vision in mind.  

“It can be a tough job, but at the end of the day, I love being able to make music as a living, but also composing for media. The music in movies and games that I grew up with had such a massive impact on my growth as a musician, and I want to be able to give someone else that sense of inspiration and wonder that I had and continue to experience”.

A determinant of grasping the means to succeed in the modern industry is often the understanding of its technology.  Cozzi uses Pro Tools as a means to enhance metal and composition pieces to keep pace with a modern setting. But what about genres that revolve around the instrumentation of technology? Instead of live drum sounds vibrating a room, it’s electric beats that leave a compressed, focused boom. Guitars are replaced with synthesizers providing emotive and looped harmonies. Over the digital instruments, a rhythmic poem can be heard. To the beat of the song, a rap of love, drugs and past mistakes plays. This is the genre of this generation; A platform for talents both good and bad to express themselves. For young rappers like Brennan Meyers, keeping up with the constant changes to the constantly evolving genre is a must. Meyers records regularly in the studio when he’s not working, and has released a handful of  songs for streaming thus far.

“I’d say 2010 definitely hit some sort of peak in songwriting, but throughout the last decade, it’s leaned more and more into trap, which I’ve definitely been a part of more than I would’ve guessed.” Meyers said. Trap music is an underground expression of rap, dealing in harder hitting beats and more controversial subject matters. Where punk altered the state of rock to exaggerate the edgier qualities, trap does the same to rap, promoting the lifestyle choices of Xanax pills and Lean, a beverage comprised of cough syrup and soft drinks.

“Go on and slip me two Xanax Bars – I’m ready to git fool
5th to Crown to wash it down, I’m downtown snapping rolls
Ain’t no shame up in my game – in fact I’m mentally deranged” (Lil wyte, “Oxy cotton”)

“There’s always room for improvement in trap,” Meyers said. “There’s been a huge drug trend that started in 2015 where stuff like Xans are promoted almost hyper-aggressively. A more positive message would definitely improve the genre”. Meyers intends to bring about positive and progressive thinking to a genre plagued with bad influences. He is not alone in his venture to find the beauty in trap.

Cristian Comacho is currently in the very same high school jazz band that Spencer Kravis was a part of.  His weapon of choice is the Alto Saxophone, a high pitched horn with a gold finish and a bellowing sound that can be heard on the vast majority of jazz records.  

“The genres I listen to range from jazz to hardcore trap.” Camacho said. “Jazz has root in a lot of modern day music. It can be heard in a lot of rap”. It’s in this case that trap has inspired someone to show its influence in another genre. Though Camacho is focused on adding a modern flare to jazz, he doesn’t underestimate its importance to the music of today.

“Jazz may not be at the forefront of pop music, but without it, we wouldn’t have the pop music we know and love today.” he said. Jazz can be used as a guide to comprehend most complex ideas in American music. The 20 minute tunes of a saxophone trading solos with a piano, blowing notes too quick and rhythmic in pattern to tell just how structured or improvisational it really has given countless modern musicians the drive to make their craft more unique than anything in the Billboard Top 100.  

“I work jazz into as much of my style as I can” Kravis said. “To me, it’s just as important as any rock music, if not more.”. He may not be a part of any higher education music programs at the moment, but he keeps his carefully constructed setup in his apartment, where in his free time, sends the melodic tones of his Les Paul flowing out his window and into the Chicago streets.

There is an uncertainty to playing music in the modern age. The culture has shifted from record labels employing talent for influential music to individuals having to create the music of this generation themselves. Streaming services have given unpublished artists the means to express themselves, regardless of their popularity or desirability for A&R contracts. In a sense, Spencer Kravis is fulfilling the American musical dream as much as Cozzi or Meyers. Every musician who keeps at their craft in any way whatsoever is rewarded with the sounds of their skills. Whether it be the warm vibrations of a guitar, or the electronic passion of rap, the sounds make them who they are more than anything else.

“If you expect anything out of music, you’re expecting too much” (Josh Homme, Brainyquote)