Fun with sound manipulation and the freedom of chance.

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.


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