A few weeks ago I started working on a collaboration. With myself…from about ten years ago. This guy, I tell you: he’s reckless, he’s sloppy. He’s got way more time than he realizes, and far too little discipline about using it well. But I like him anyway. He’s got a lot of enthusiasm, and some good ideas. It’s working out okay, and we’re both learning something.

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back.

Starting sometime in 2005, I started numbering all my musical projects. This was mainly to save me the trouble of coming up with meaningful titles for unfinished work. Coming up with a title for a track is normally the last thing I do, and having to do it before I have a good sense where the track is going cramps my style. I complete far fewer tracks than I start, so I’ve now got nearly a hundred of these numbered projects. Some of them combine bits and pieces from multiple music apps, so pulling them together into a single folder would help. It’s all getting a bit confusing.

So early in July, after finishing up the last of my FreeSound uploads, I was puttering around in the studio, deciding what to work on next. It seemed like a good time to review all my past work and start a proper catalog, so I’d know where I stand with everything. (When in doubt, tidy up.) I got a list together of all the numbered projects, gave each a quick listen, noted which have been worked into complete tracks, and generally fitted the pieces together. So far, so good. Then I started digging into…the mess.

Oh, the mess! Apart from the numbered projects, there’s my accumulated work from roughly 2000 through 2004. None of this is in any sort of order, and like my current work, it’s overwhelmingly unfinished material. Quite a lot of it was missing for a long span of time after the computer I was using at the time died on me, taking the hard drive with it. Backups?! Ha! I did not back things up then. I recovered the garbaged hard drive a few years ago, but I hadn’t listened back through all the material yet.

What is all this stuff? Most of the projects are no more than moderately catchy four- or eight-bar loops that I wrote and then abandoned as soon as they stopped being fun. Did I mention the lack of discipline? I had a premature sense of preciousness back then, too: I failed to finish musical ideas, because they sounded good in their nascent form, and I lacked the confidence to believe that I could expand on them without disrupting whatever fragile balance made them worth keeping. It was a bit like admiring a blank canvas because it contains no mistakes. Philosophically satisfying at the time, but a great way to get nothing done.

Among the countless goofy throwaways, there are a few real gems. So, cataloguing idea sidetracked for the time being, I decided to grab a promising start and finish it off. Problematically, many of these early works were originally written in Impulse Tracker, which I haven’t used in years. Luckily, we live in the era of the Internet, and as Kevin Kelly famously posited, technology never really dies. Enter Schism Tracker: a complete open-source, multi-platform reimplementation of music program written in assembler, designed to run strictly under MS-DOS, and last updated nearly 12 years ago.

So, I can load and play all my Impulse Tracker projects. But early tracker programs were never known for user-friendliness. How long would it take to rebuild the muscle memory required to competently use such an obscure, weirdly designed program? Two to three hours, it appears. Like riding a bike, without the skinned knees. I reckon I’m more productive with Schism Tracker now than I ever was with Impulse Tracker back when I was jamming with it on a garage-sale Pentium 100 system.

Having dispensed with the technical issues, what other challenges arise while completing a musical idea from nearly ten years ago? Well, there’s the fact that I knew nothing about music theory then: not a single scale, not a single chord. Everything was arranged by ear, leading to some inconvenient consequences. For example, none of the samples are tuned to a common base key. Instead, different musical parts are simply written in different, incompatible, scales, so that the samples — out of tune relative to each other — wind up harmonizing. If I could reach back in time and slap myself for having done this, I would.

Not everything about my former self’s naivety is negative, though. For one thing, I had this tendency to overlay bits of melody on each other, unsynchronized, to create harmonies, rather than writing chords in themselves. It’s a strange compositional technique, but the result is a nicely untethered, floating quality that I quite like, even now. Another thing I noted with some amusement is that most of the “high hats” in my older rhythm patterns are just some sample or other tuned up four or five octaves above normal. In general, I did a lot with transforming the sounds of samples just by playing them back at the wrong speed. I still do this a bit, but not nearly as much as I did back then.

Finally, I’ve noticed that most of my tracks were faster in 2001: most are somewhere in the 130 to 150BPM range, whereas the material I’ve worked on in the past few years has been closer to 100-120BPM. Maybe I’m slowing down as I age? Whatever the case, I may take a few leaves out of my younger self’s book for the next few tracks I finish, and speed things up a bit. I may also decide to release some of the unfinished loops as they are, bowing to the reality that someone else is far more likely to finish them off than I am.

So, that’s the story of how, despite investing several hundred dollars in advanced plug in technology this past spring, I’ve spent the last several weeks collaborating with my 27 year old self using 12 year old MS-DOS based technology. I am a perverse son of a bitch in any time frame.