Archive for March, 2007

The musical life of hard drives

March 26, 2007

This is a segment of an image my computer spat out one time after it had crashed. The original image was about 15 feet long!

My hard drive makes noise constantly. Sometimes it’s barely audible, and sometime it sounds like it is puting up a terrible fight. I have the tendency to record directly into my laptop mic to capture quick thoughts or try out sketches of ideas (a lot of which make it here). I also am almost always recording in the vicinity of my computer. This means that in some form there is always hard drive noise on everything I record. I have made my peace with this. After thinking extensively about it, I came to the conclusion that either I was going to record “poorly”, or less frequently. I opted for “poorly”. I also thought about what a recording was and why we try to make it so hermetic and I realized that the some of the recordings I like best sound natural, like they have been field recorded, noise and all. I like the idea of the acceptance of noise as a fact of life, or even more simply, just life.

I had been planning on recording some of my hard drive’s noise for a while, but I didn’t attempt it until this past week. I was expecting a certain kind of noise and for some reason, I expected it to be alone, like it’s own “thing” coming from a central source. Thinking back on it, that’s pretty naive really. What I found, was a whole variety of noises, coming from a bunch of different centers on the keyboard (my computer is a laptop). They don’t seem to change much in themselves and they sit in fixed positions almost in direct relation to the keyboard layout. I could see it even being possible to “play” the noises by mapping the “noise centers” on the keyboard.

Some of the noises are louder, or more dense than the others. They all have sort of rhythmic structures, but they are not all the same. I was really excited by the sounds. There was something exhilarating about them, or maybe overwhelming is more the word. Either way I felt an excitement when playing them that I had not expected.

Another thing which I did not expect was that if I tried to record over the trackpad, it would crash my computer! I’m really fascinated by this. I’m guessing it has to do with either magnetism, or some kind of feedback loop. It’s scary none-the-less. Be very careful if you attempt to do this, because I cannot be certain it is not harmful.

I recorded for about 15 minutes straight. The result is two tracks; one of trying to record all the different colors of noise, and the other is just improvising with them and getting a feel for how they could be played. Overall, I am pleased with the sounds I got. I think they could definitely be used compositionally, and I may use them in the near future. The only thing that bothered me a little, was that the latency in my recording setup made the noises sound so much richer than what you hear on playback. This could be added with the inclusion of about a half second delay, but i’d be cooler if it was natural.

Different Colors

Great quote by way of John Cage

March 17, 2007

I love how he collects them. I must have read 100 of them in the book about him I just finished. This one came to me by way of youtube tho.

“There are two things that don’t have to mean anything; one is music, the other is laughter”
– Immanuel Kant

Too true.

Surprise! Strikingly beautiful sounds in “Vernon Florida”

March 15, 2007

One of Vernons Characters

I love finding beautiful sounds in unlikely places. Sometimes when you least expect it, you find something that knocks your socks off and adds to your musical map in a way you could never predict. It sometimes amazes me, how the original capturers of these sounds underestimated them and therefore gave them less than their due, or included them only as spice. Like that scene in Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Look Back” when he is playing an almost ambient deconstruction of american blues music on the piano, that I don’t think ever got developed (at least not in this manner). In the movie it lasts all of a minute and is just in there for color. Where is the rest of that scene? Why is it unimportant? Is anyone but me dying to hear the rest of that?

I had a moment like that again last night watching “Vernon Florida”. The intro to the movie shows a bunch of shots of Vernon… pretty standard. However, the music that was playing in the background was stunning. It sounds as if a man is humming and playing harmonica the same time, complete with beautiful, rural background noise. The combination of this strange technique and what he’s playing – a slow, mournful, soulful take on some old spiritual – is breathtaking. I’m not sure which one of the “characters” from the movie is playing/ from the credits it looks like it may be Claude Register. Either way I can only imagine that he is playing in a little known regional technique that he is probably one of the last to have mastered.

While I am thrilled to have found this even very short sample, I’d love to hear more. And I wonder… is anyone documenting this stuff seriously? Sublime Frequencies? Folkways? I sure hope someone is at it, otherwise this amazing sound could very well die away completely.

If anyone happens to know of any labels, individuals, ect. documenting this kind of thing, I’d love to know. I’m sure it’s being done, but probably too little and fearfully too late.

Claude Register(?) – Intro to “Vernon Florida”

Grappling with song

March 14, 2007

No matter how deep i get into sound and my appreciation for obscure and experimental kinds of “music” or “sound-art”, I never lose my love for all of the more accessible genres like rock, folk, psych, metal, etc. All these things are related of course, in that they are all sound. The differences are matters of intent, organization (or lack thereof), content, and probably a bunch of other things I can’t think of right now. One of the problems I consistently have with people into far flung forms of music, is when they abanodon the more accessible or “normal” forms of music as if they have moved on to higher ground. Of course here we get into ideology and value systems which I don’t really want to get into in depth. At least partially because I’m not sure I really have a solidified position on the subject, or if I should. What I do know is that I enjoy a CCR tune just as much as a piece by Steve Reich (albiet in slightly different ways).

There is always part of me, no matter how out my tastes get that wants to write songs and record them and make a record to give to friends or whatever. So I’m often sitting around playing little half written songs on the guitar and sort of slowly developing them over time. I don’t generally record these things beacuse I know that if I get pulled in to recording them, they will eat me alive. I’ll inevitably want to put my whole crappy instrument orchestra on there and obsess over the mix, arrangement and lyrics until I’m finally sick of the song and it goes on the scrap heap with all the others. Occasionally though I’m able to settle down and just bang something out without putting too much pressure on it, just to be able to hear it with some added parts playing along.

This brings us to todays piece. I play little riffs like this all the time. they sort of get stuck in my head and I have to sit down and play them or they will drive me mad. I decided to keep this dead simple, short and sweet with couple of little changes. Of course after I played it back and heard all of the overtones more clearly, I decided I had to try and play some of the melodies (in the overtones) I was hearing on chord organ and then that lead me, once finished, to add another guitar part and tamborine to round it out. I probably would have played bass on it too if I had a working one, but I don’t.

When I was done I played it for my wife, who really liked it (always a good sign) but asked if I was going to do lyrics. My answer was “probably not”. Lyrics make it a song and making it a song would mean I would get all crazy and probably run out of steam in the manner I stated above. I’d like to get to that point one day, but I never want to write all of the crappy lyrics that I know I have to write before I write good ones and orchestration is something I just get too obsessed with. This made me feel go though, so maybe I’ll give it another try soon enough. For now however, I hope you enjoy this simple non-song. 🙂

Take it easy like a river

Fun with sound manipulation and the freedom of chance.

March 11, 2007

Mary Did you Know?

My wife and I have a sort of tradition of going to her parent’s house on christmas for a big christmas meal and time with the extended family.

My wife’s extended family is really two families, one from Staten Island and the other Chicago, that have had a couple of marriages between them. One of which is my sister in law from Staten Island who now lives in Chicago with her husband.

It is not every year that the Chicago family can make it, so when they can the occasion is even more joyous to the family and there is generally a bit more to-do and a good bit of chaos.

One thing that always comes with my sister in law and her husband is singing. They love to sing… they even love to sing badly! They don’t care what it sounds like as long as singing is going on.

This year we sang the twelve days of chistmas as is tradition when they are in town, and made the last minute addition of a solo rendition of the CCM gem, “Mary did you know?” to be performed by my brother in law.

I cannot stand this song. It is both sonically offensive and lyrically banal. It is one of those songs certain christian people love because it makes you all warm and fuzzy inside, but it has no real meaning, lesson or message to get in the way.

Of course I do love my in laws, so i kept my loathing contained. I did however plan to video record it so that once I was back home I could mangle the sound somehow into something either redeeming or horrible.

I’m not exactly sure why that makes me feel better, but It does. It might just be the challenge of it. I’m not sure.

Mary Did You Know (Warning, not for the faint of heart)

The chance transformation

When I was back home and had the time, I didn’t really know what I was going to do with this audio I had collected. It was as bad as any random person singing a song they love at the top of their lungs. I had no idea how I was going to make that interesting, even to me. However, eventually, a thought came… what if I re-organize it using chance?

Recently I have been reading a book about the life, work, and writings of John Cage called “John Cage [Documentary Monographs in modern art]” by Richard Kostelanetz.

I have grown to be fascinated by Cage in the past year or so after having on a whim, listened to his conversations with Morton Feldman, on ubuweb.

The concept of the use of chance opperations in the “composition” of music is one particular prong of that fascination.

I have always liked the occurance of a moment where in chance two sounds or flavors or what-have-you meet in accidental harmony. I always get a little leap of excitement. Often more so than when things are very predictably composed.

However, where Cage sees the role of the “A-rtist” being thankfully deminished down to commoness, I see the possibility for the inclusion of acts of nature, and alternate methods of decison making.

I have not, as Cage may argue, separated myself from my intent by choosing randomness. I have CHOSEN randomness and it IS my intent.

Where in the past I may have – at a loss, as I was here – manually and “randomly” cut apart the track and lopped it back together. Hoping, of course, to hear something magical upon playback. This time I decided to, like Cage did, set up a real system that I would have to adhere strictly to, in order to acheive randomness, or at least the appearance of it.

I decided to take what I figured would be the most musical parts of the song, the vowel parts, and separate them into individual pieces.

Then, I numbered them all (1-217) and created a corresponding sheet of written numbers, which was cut up, put in a bowl and drawn from.

sound numbers

The order of the numbers coming out of the bowl, was the order in which they were placed in the track.

sound numbers scrambled

This process satisfied me initially, but I found myself wanting to take a step further. So, I next selected each bit of newly re-ordered sound and flipped a coin. If the coin landed heads, it stayed as it was. if it landed tales it was reversed.

When I was finally finished (the entire process took nearly 3 hours) I listened.

While the immediate resultant sequence of sounds was not entirely earth shattering, it was very inspiring. While what came out, sounded an awful lot like what went in, there were a few moments of brilliance. It was really cool to hear melodies emerge that did not exist anywhere in the original.

I was also pleasantly surprised at some of what was made of the ambient sounds in the room, as they were drug through the process. Some very interesting textures and events made it into the cut-up version.

What is far more interesting though, is that through all that, a discernable instance or the words “Mary Did You Know” actually made it into the cut-up!

Mary Did You Know (Cut up)

Cut-up, now what?

Though the new cut-up version was certainly more interesting than the original version, it was nothing I would ever really choose to listen to more than once or twice for novelty. I realized that what I really wanted was to make it a (somewhat) listenable piece of music.

The process that insued took hours. stretching, compressing, cutting away, adding back, piling on effects, etc. There was no system here, I merely worked the sound like clay… pressing and molding away, with no particular adgenda, other than to be pleased with the result. I am pleased. It is a very strange piece, very dark, but i have found myself listening to it over and over and that to me is a very good sign.

Mary Did You Know (You’re Dead)?

I did realize, through all of this, another very way to use chance. At a few points in ordering my “composition”, I found myself at a place where I had to make a choice that was somewhat important, but also kind of subjective and as such arbitrary. It occurred to me, at that these places, chance could be used to solve the problem.

What is great about that is that it throws a wrench into our human tendancy to build habbit. You come to a similar crossroads a couple times and you find tyourself always picking the same road until, before you know it, it becomes subconcious. This technique helps to avoid that.

I could see this technique being employed in such a way as would keep an artist or maker on their toes. Chance might give them a difficult task, one THEY would never choose. But they will solve it in THEIR way and therefore grow in experience instead of building well defined boundaries. I even thought of possibly numbering all of my instruments and when I came up with an idea, drawing numbers to see what instrument or group thereof would be responsible for working it out.

Maybe next time.

Harmonic Drone Study; Overtones as Generative Music

March 1, 2007

Dancing Moon

I have been a fan of drones for a long time. There is something about the fixedness of certain aspects of the drone that allow your mind to focus on other parts that shift subtly in the background.

In a way some drones (perhaps this one) could be called generative music. This is because while the part of the music that you play can be quite fixed, it is in itself a simple system that produces an output that is beyond your control. I am talking now about overtones.

When you play one chord or a grouping of notes repeatedly in a space or with an acoustic instrument, you are in effect setting up a system upon which chance plays a part in creating music. This is the thing that always excites me about drones. Especially acoustic drones.

I stumbled upon a great group of notes for a drone on my acoustic guitar, while playing with the capo. I was messing with how i could differently tune the guitar, just by capoing only certain strings. After playing the drone to myself for a while I recorded a playing of it, lasting as long as felt nice.

Capo Placement and fretting:

The recording was then processed in protools with the addition of reverb, delay, and EQ. Basically all effects were leveraged to get the most oft of the overtones and I feel worked quite nicely.

Of course now part of me wants to bury this in a bevy of other sounds, but for now I will refrain and present just the drone to you as a completed study.

Dizzying Lights (Harmonic Drone No. 1)

To illustrate my point even further I am including an excerpt of a performance by Jack Rose form 2005. Here he employs this method to wonderous effect. (and does one of the punkest things i’ve seen someone do with an acousting guitar in recent years) the cascading melodies that spill from his guitar into the auditorium leave one searching for another player in the room, but alas there was just one.

Jack Rose scraping melodies

Rose employed a technique or scraping his guitar strings at the anti-node location with what sounds like a piece of metal. What starts as quite a faint sound — over the course of nearly 18 minutes and a few pitches — becomes quite loud and the resulting overtones interact beautifuly.

Jack Rose: Untitled – First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, 12/16/05