Archive for April, 2007

Phin in a haystack

April 25, 2007

Yes, It’s been a while since my last post, I know. But good things are in the works, I have just been waiting to meet a benchmark good enough to post. I don’t really know if I have, but I decided that since this blog isn’t really about the idea of “finished” music, but about experimenting and learning, I’d go ahead and post my most recent project.

I’ve never been a huge fan of VICE magazine, for reasons immaterial to this post, but I recently found their new video site and decided to give it a look anyhow, as I am really interested in the possibilities inherent in internet video. While a good portion of it is typically boring, I was pretty much overjoyed to see the inclusion of a Sublime Frequencies channel. I have admired the fine fellows who put together the always lovely SF compilations and even more so the dynamic individuals they document, so the chance to see these individuals playing this wonderful music is truly singular.

I checked back the other day to see if any new videos had been added and discovered the focus of my new obsession. In the video “Thai Ghost Festival, Part 1” The focal point of much of the video is an amazing electric “guitar” player improvising a molam-meets-hendrix jam over a group drumming and bamboo xylophone (Pong-Lang) backbone. The whole image, vibe and content of this video is truly awesome. The sound of the “guitar” was just eastern enough and just snarly enough to form a totally new sound. I wanted it. I had been thinking about another instrument building project, especially a microtonal one, and for me, this was it.

You may be wondering to yourself, why I keep putting the word “guitar” in parentheses… Well, in Thailand it seems they use the word “guitar” to reference any instrument that resembles and plays in the same range as a western guitar. However, the instrument being played was very un-guitar-like. It had only three strings (on each of it’s two necks! Rock!), and a fret placement so odd, it almost looked random.

Image capture of the phin player from the Sublime Frequencies video

After a some googling, I was able to find out that the instrument is question is called a “phin” (piin, pin). It seems from what I can gather that the phin is the main guitar-like instrument of modern Thai culture, although the western guitar has also become very popular.

Earlier in the week I had, out of the desire to build something, begun working on a 2 stringed instrument, built out of a mop handle and an old cookie tin. Initially this was going to be fretted in dulcimer tuning, even though the idea bored me some. I wanted to explore other tunings, but I didn’t know how. Whenever I searched I got a ton of sites using a language I knew was based on english, but that I didn’t understand, and a bevy of math, with which I am inherently completely worthless. Upon seeing the phin tho, the idea changed. “What if I had an instrument I could put in any tuning?”, I thought. The idea came to me, to attach movable frets to this new instrument, so I could tune it to any interesting method that I found.

As soon as I got a chance I banged my instrument together. It came together pretty quickly which was good, and I was really pleased with the overall banjo-like sound. This version is a sort of prototype, so there are things i’d like to change, but all of that can be done fairly easily in the future. I pretty much just wanted to get this thing playable to see whether or not it was worth my time.

The next problem was of course, tuning it, and this is where the story gets a little complicated. I knew i could figure out phin tuning if I could just find a proper image. Which I did, but what I realized soon after is that unlike instruments in the west, the tunings of instruments in many other cultures is widely open ot interpretation. So, while I had my image, there was no guarantee it was going to come out sounding at all like what I had heard in the video. But I went for it anyway.

In order to get the fretting in the image I found on to my instrument, I made use of some of the tools of my actual trade, graphic design. I brought the image in to Adobe Illusrator and mapped the frets, nut and bridge with lines made with Illustrators “pen” tool. You can see the lines in the image below. This made scalable markings that would not distort upon stretching to the scale of my instrument. I measured my instrument from face of bridge to face of nut, and entered that measurement into Illustrator and stretched my newly copied scale to match. I then printed out my newly drawn fret position template, laid it across the neck of the instrument and began positioning frets.

fret mapping in illustrator
fret mapping in illustrator (close up)

I had looked into a couple classic methods of making movable frets, but found all of them too complicated for now or lacking in some way. I decided to experiment instead with small “zip-ties”. The ones I had laying around were about 2mm thick, and a nice green to match my tin (total coincedence I swear). They work GREAT! I put them on pretty tight and they just stretched out enough after a day to be easily movable, but stay put when you need them to. The only down side is the cut ends are sharp (though they could be filed down) and the ties are 1mm thick all the way around which makes playing a little difficult, but I think with practice and a shoulder strap, I could play around those obstacles. My future plan though, is to build a proper 3 string phin, but I think I still want to have movable frets. In that case, I think I will try the sitar method, which uses a bar for a fret, that is notched towards the ends so that it can be tied on. I think this would look nicer and also make for a nicer tone.

The initial tuning was a total success. Aside from a couple minor issues, it played wonderfully, and the tuning sounded great. The only problem is, it did not sound like the tuning in the video. This is where things get kind of tricky. Due to the fact that these instruments are not built to a certain set specifications, but instead to the builders own ear, the chance that the phin I used to build the scale, is tuned the same as the phin in the video, is more than slim. Now you may be asking yourself why I care, since I can’t play this instrument in combination with any of the others I own anyway. Well, for one, I love to figure things like this out so the search is an end in itself. Secondly, I just LOVE the way the phin in the video sounds and I want to give what Ive got to try and get it.

Since I started this, I have tried about 5 or so different tunings, all from different images I have found. I still can’t find one that sounds like the one in the video. I may actually attempt to pull a fret chart from the video, but this is complicated for a number of reasons. I love the “The Tihn”, as I have jokingly called it and I’m sure it won’t be staying in any one tuning for very long. I feel a weird sense of accomplishment having built it, even though it was the simplest thing. Maybe it’s just the excitement of having such a flexible instrument at my disposal.

Thoughts for the future (before I wrap this thing up):
– a pickup
– a small soundhole?
– strap
– black paint for the neck?

If I happen to find this elusive tuning, I will post it here, but for now, check out these samples of my initial tuning:

All frets played on the high string, going from lowest to highest
A little jam

BONUS: A rip of the sound from the Sublime Frequencies video
BONUS: Another nice little phin piece I found

By the by, if anyone can read thai and wants to translate this page for me, I’d love you forever.

Here’s a bunch more cool phin images:


Ideas on location specific sound exploration

April 9, 2007

Edit: My original title sucked, so I made it (if only slightly) better 🙂

Recently I have been downloading a lot of obscure out of print records from various record collector blogs. This of course has become a sort of obsession for me. It’s as if a dam has burst and all of what I at one point had hoped I’d find, has come rushing in at me. What I love about these blogs is that they constantly introduce me to new music. I could download 20 records a day and not be able to keep up. Of course now finding the time to listen to it all is the problem. I try to give everything an open mind, but since downloads are usually restricted in some way, I tend to be sort of picky about what I get.

Every so often something shows up and I just have to jump on it. It either sounds so good or just so weird I have to hear it. One such record is “Ligeliahorn” by Metgumbnerbone. In the notes that I read on the record it was mentioned that the band recorded exclusively on location is various abandoned buildings, or other such odd places, citing that the influence of the space informed the music and made the whole experience more fulfilling. There is a definite ritual quality about this record that allows it to trancend the realm of pretense. It is as if true exploration is taking place. Almost in the way one would explore a cave. Going in slowly, being very aware of your surroundings, making sure you can back out if you need to, but at no time letting all of that dampen the excitement of your quest.

The location concept really stuck with me for the next couple of days. I kept thinking about the idea of this dual exploration. On one hand you are exploring the space as a space, but in another way you are exploring it’s musicality. Of course these two things are really one, and that is what I think makes this so interesting to me. Especially since from the time I can remember, I have always loved to explore. I spent a decent portion of my youth in abandonned buildings and following train tracks to various other bombed out locations. For me, as a city boy, it was a welcome escape from the stress of the fast paced, on edge day to day life, to a place where I created (or rather was free to interpret) my environment.

In thinking all of this over I began to imagine the concept of a group of individuals exploring a space both experiencially and sonically, by bringing nothing in terms of instruments into the space, but instead using only what the space provided as a means to excite sound. An alternative to this means which I think also has decent potential, would be to allow only tools which could be used to excite the necessary vibrations from the objects contained within the space, but only if they could not serve as instruments within themselves. Objects in this category would merely be extensions of the players. Items such as bows, drum sticks, mallets, or even clamps, could serve well in this purpose.

While I could certainly wax intellectual about the significance or potential of an activity such as this, I think it would only serve to diminish what I think could be it’s primary focus and strength… IT WOULD BE FUN!!!! Think of it… a bunch of friends, some beers, some tools, a recording device and hearing a decaying old building come alive with sound! Seems like a good way to spend an afternoon to me. I may enlist some cohorts to try this out sometime. If nothing else, it is just a good opportunity to spend some time together doing something that most people would never even consider. I especially feel that for all time, these kinds of activities that break our normal modes and bring us into communion with things primordial, are vital. Not to mention that interacting with sound outside of strictly “musical” contexts is something I always find rewarding.

Take a listen Metgumbnerbone and next time you find yourself in an acoustically interesting space, bang on something, yell something, take a moment to interact with that space and most of all HAVE FUN!

side note: If anyone knows of any group that has done what I have outlined above, let me know, I’d love to hear/read about them. And if you go out and do it yourself, record it and send it to me, i’d love to hear it.

More drone to be done.

April 1, 2007


Edit: This drone was recorded as a playalong for Ignacio Gonzalez’ “IgBlog”, a blog for guitar players featuring lessons, playalongs and other inspirations. Ignacio was very kind to ask me to contibute and I hope his audience has fun playing along to my drone. Stop over and check out his blog sometime. Thanks Ignacio!

(Original post below:)

I decided to make another drone piece this weekend, based around this one chord that I love. I don’t actually know what the chord is, as I’m not really well versed in music theory. I like it because it has one droning string that just adds this fullness in the fundamental tone.

Originally I was planning on just playing it like one would normally play a chord, but I decided it would be more interesting to play each note separately and then mix them together. I went back and forth as to whether to make it rhythmic or not, and in the end i chose to record each note in whatever rhythm felt natural. This way, I wouldn’t be encombered by the idea of performing, and the outcome would be more amorphose which I tend to like.

The first note i played was the lowest one, and I chose to play this with a bow I have really been having fun with recently. I got it with a cheapo Rabab my inlaws bought me in Egypt. it’s basically just a bent stick with some thin monofilament line wrapped a bunch of times between each end. It pretty much just screeched on it’s own no matter what you applied it to, until I bought some bow rosin. Now I can sort of choose to make it screech or not if I want. It sounds great on the acoustic guitar. I have found that depending on where you bow, you can choose to excite a few different overtones, which is really nice sounding, if you sort of “walk” between them as you play. It basically produces a phasing effect.

The other notes were played in various ways. Some plucked with the fingers, others I plucked with the pick while moving up and down the neck. This also produces a similar phasing effect to the bow. The last bit I did was actually holding the chord, but just sort of improvising with the way I struck it. Sometimes hitting, or plucking, sometimes just brushing it with my fingers. That track was then cut up semi-randomly and reversed. I like that technique, because you have no real idea what the end result will sound like, but you have controlled it to the extent that you know it will be something useful. I love listening back and hearing all of these really nice simple phrases that just happen by accident.

That’s actually sort of how the whole piece works. Because I didn’t bother with keeping time in any way, notes and phrases just come and go it a real natural way. I find music with this kind of randomness really soothing, and quite condusive to either sleeping of staring off into the distance and losing time. This is something I’d like to work more with. I have this dream of making an hour long piece of music out of subtly shifting parts that weave in and out. I’d like to make it so it has disticnt tracks or themes in a way, but that shift from one to the next in a way you don’t even really notice. I don’t think I’m ready for it yet, I’m still learning how to put things together in a way the pleases me. However if I do get something going, You’ll be the first to know…

A machine that slows time