The Metronome Diary 

In the MIDI of a dream

San Francisco musician Jim Coursey, 30, remembers the first time he broke the news to a coworker that he was heading off to Blue Mountain to compose music for its on-line greeting cards.

"I swear, he kind of turned a little red and tensed up a little," Coursey says, laughing. "I think it pissed him off."

Jim's used to violent reactions to his work. In the year he spent working full-time for the popular on-line card site, he got hate mail from customers and disdain from fellow musicians. He also got about 200 songs written, a few of which were heard by millions of people. The songs -- composed under the pseudonym "24-hour Muzik" -- ranged from Indian tabla music to techno to sea shanties. All of them were composed using the dreaded General MIDI sound palette.

This is where the hate comes in.

General MIDI sounds are at the bottom of the composing barrel; they are the "instruments" and drum sounds that come free on every computer soundcard. General MIDI sounds are cartoonishly perky, an evolutionary strand of retro-electronic music that probably should have died out with the calculator watch. Because of General MIDI's combination of shrillness and inanity, it tends to provoke very strong negative reactions in listeners.

Internet greeting card sites still rely on General MIDI because its tiny group of sounds can be heard reliably on everyone's computer. Stray beyond General MIDI, and the timpani may turn into a tuba, the woodwinds into white noise.

But asking a musician to produce complex, emotional material in the General MIDI domain is like asking a director to film Romeo and Juliet with a couple of wiener dogs and a houseplant. Or asking a painter to capture the soft, shifting light of a Monet canvas with a box of puffy paints and a glitter pen.

"It drives me crazy," says Coursey about the challenge imposed by his restrictive medium.

To complicate matters, when he first got to Blue Mountain there was an owner who wanted to keep the tinkly soundtracks as upbeat as possible. "The guy that owned it had very particular ideas about music," Coursey says. "He would always complain, 'Oh, it's got to be happier.' Everything had to be very happy."

When Blue Mountain got bought out by Excite, though, Coursey was able to take the music in more interesting directions. He decided to try and blend the worlds of the on-line greeting card schmaltz with the more avant-garde stuff he was playing with his band Ants Climb Tree.

Against all odds, it kind of worked. Coursey plays me one of the first songs he wrote for the teen line of cards, wherein a purple pixie hovers on the screen. The music is drum-n- bass with a loungey keyboard background. The stuttered kick drum sounds familiar, but I can't quite put my finger on what it sounds like when Coursey offers it up. "It's a Squarepusher rip-off," he says, smiling.

When I admit my surprise that he'd draw from one of electronic music's more pummeling programmers for a teen greeting card, he gets excited. "That kind of stuff actually translates pretty well to greeting cards ... Squarepusher and Aphex Twin."

As Coursey takes me through some of his compositions for Blue Mountain, I see that he's right. The tripped-out beats and outer-space melodies do well when forced through General MIDI's reductive filter. As he plays more of his work -- an ambient tune called "Spherique" and an irresistible disco-funk number called "Girl, I'm Dancing" -- I start to really get into it. The music is crude, sure, but it's also honest. Electronic music boiled down to its brutal, robotic essence.

That's when I start seeing dollar signs. "Did you ever think of putting out a CD of this stuff? You could be on the cutting edge of a new musical sub-genre!"

Coursey is humble, but I can tell he's already thought this through. "To a degree, the Magnetic Fields or Momus make music that uses tinkly, low-budget sounds," he says. "There's a market for that out there. And I think if I picked the right batch of songs..."

I'm about to offer to manage his career when Coursey points out that he doesn't own the rights to anything he did at Blue Mountain, so even if he wanted to put out a CD, he couldn't. Besides, Blue Mountain is now more a part of his past than his future: The company laid him off in May, and now he works full-time doing music and sound effects for the Emeryville educational toy-maker Leapfrog.

Still, it's hard for Coursey to let go of the time he spent forging new directions in Greeting Cardtronica. "It was, in a way, a dream job for a year. It wasn't what I always seen myself doing. In fact, I had never seen myself doing it. But I had so much fun with it. I just got to sit at home all day making silly music."


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