Archive for May, 2007

Indeterminate composition techniques

May 31, 2007

In the music I make, for some reason, I am always persuaded to incorporate a certain amount of chance. In a way, I want the music as an experience to remain somewhat “new” to me when I first listen back to it, even though I made it. I also seek in some ways to make music that doesn’t sound like it is being “played”, but instead appears as though it just is. I guess in a way I am looking for a sort of lightness of hand. I think this is why in some ways I am attracted to the theories of John Cage. He believed in separating the self from music as much as possible in order to let something more subtle and natural come in to view, something unburdened by popular culture or personal intent. While I don’t take these concepts as seriously as Cage, I do firmly believe that no matter what we do, no matter how mundane, there is a piece of our personality fingerprint on all of it. No matter how far we stand back, no matter what we use to block it or smudge it, it is there, naked for anyone with the sense to look. What they see is the unconscious mind, the true self.

Unfortunately the conscious and unconscious minds are at constant war with one-another. The conscious mind has all of the emotional needs, paranoias, hang-ups, ego, etc. that we turn about in our heads daily to seek even the most basic understanding of our place in the world. It is a jungle of frauds and misperceptions that must be constantly unravelled like a ball of string that has been left in a junk drawer for too long, if we are to be of use to ourselves or anyone else for that matter. This fact makes it extremely difficult for us to do anything truly genuine. The network of opposing influences, misconceptions, misperceptions, hopes, needs, oversights, crutches, etc. etc. etc. that we must sort through to make any form of creative decision is so dense that most people will never manage to cut through it. This does not mean of course that we cannot make anything pleasing with our creative minds, but it will always be somewhat addled by the burden of consciousness.

One way to avoid the trappings of the consciousness, is to utilize chance, randomness, or generative processes to dampen it. Probably the most familiar form of this process is the cut-up, brought to some prominence by William S. Burroughs and popularized by David Bowie and later Kurt Cobain. While these techniques on the surface may seem “cold” or “scientific”, this assumption is in ignorance of an important point. As I stated above; we are never free from our unconscious mind, so that all the decisions we make in selecting and deploying our randomness techniques are governed by our innermost self and therefore, no matter how abstract, still form an image of ourselves. This image, expressly because it is so unconscious I believe, is the truest form of expression we have of who we are and in creativity, our overarching aesthetic sensibility.

In my personal musical explorations, this idea of “randomness” has taken many different shapes. the following are a few of the techniques I often employ:

Field recording and the use of physical spaces as a randomness field
I consider these to be one in the same as it applies to my music. I carry around a mini-disc recorder most of the time and at home I have a beat up, but no less sublime Marantz Field Recorder. Whenever sounds strike me as interesting or somehow meaningful, I record them and save them for later, usually with no real idea of how they will be used. When I have a need for something, I go through my recordings and select something I think will work, drop it into my composition somewhat randomly and listen to the results. At times I use it straight, at times I take pieces of it, and at times I process it somehow. Almost always this is done with some form of respect for randomness, so I try not to edit too much.

The use of spaces as a randomness field, is the idea of recording in some form of unstable environment (like a room with a window open to the street) so as to capture the juxtaposition of played and ambient sound and to inform the music with a sense of place in a direct manner.

Blind Overdubbing
This is the practice of overdubbing by recording a new track within a composition without listening to playback while doing so. This frees one from having any idea of time or composition and so the final result often contrasts with the rest of the piece in an unpredictable and interesting way.

Improvising with elastic time
This is simply allowing yourself to speed up or slowdown time in your playing at will. I often find that in doing so, more complex rhythmic structures emerge which I am not aware of at the time, but am always surprised by on playback.

Similar to Burroughs technique but with music. Parts are recorded and either cut up pseudo-randomly and placed back together, or, cut up based on some kind of rule, and reassembled by numbering and drawing.

Back to consciousness
All of these techniques can produce either wonderful or horrific results, and this is where the conscious mind comes back, but ultimately in a much more sober state, to make some kind of aesthetic sense of the mess. This is of course a fine line. With the advent of digital music editors (I use protools ironically enough) it could be very easy to edit everything into oblivion and destroy any of the piece’s subtler characteristics. Lets just say I try not to let myself get out of hand.

The ironic thing about all of this, is in order to communicate it here, I am forced to use language and descriptive techniques that inherently make this all sound very boring and intellectual. This is a shame, because in practice it is much more like playing a game. You have your strategies, but when push comes to shove, you are playing the game to have fun. Part of the fun of employing these techniques is seeing what kinds of interesting things come of them. It can be really cool to hear the result of a process for the first time, or the result of a blind overdub. And when something interesting or compelling does happen its very exciting.

The piece I am posting today was made with a few of the above techniques and I am quite pleased with it. With each new piece I apply these techniques to, they become more refined and my aesthetic for their use becomes sharper. In a way I feel like I am inventing my own form of music, even if that feeling is a complete illusion. Either way it is exciting, and a lot of fun.

– Birds, Bells, and Barnacles

A short video of John Cage

May 20, 2007

As I think I have stated before, I love John Cage. Though I don’t always agree with the totality and finality with which he presents his ideas, I always find him remarkable, challenging and ever posessive of a beautiful perspective on the world in which we live. This video is a great example of that. It takes a bit of time to get going, and it is really his final remark that is most striking, but it is certainly worth watching. This clip is part of a larger movie I can’t seem to find out much about, But I’d love to see it. Check out the other clips from it on youtube for more wonderful thought from Cage.

What I love about the last remark, is this idea of things always being new. It is our minds that tell us that an object is always the object, forever and nothing more. But, if we slow down our minds that are so quick to analize and catalog and take the time to appreciate what we see and hear in it’s ever unique enviroment, our lives will be all the richer for it. Essentially, he is saying – don’t take things for granted!

Going to art school and spending a lot of time painting helped me to to look at things this way, and I am always greatful for it. You spend so much time looking at things in detail and being mindful of light and colors, that you never again just see the object as an object. It took me longer I think, to do this with sound, but now since that has changed I am always struck with the beauty of the interactions of the simple sounds around me. Of course, here is where I differ from Cage, he realized that was all he ever wanted to hear, but I’m still a sucker for a good melody. 😀


May 20, 2007

I can’t believe it’s been so long since my last post. Trying to do this blog along with all of life’s other facets can get difficult sometimes. A million other things come up, busy-ness overtakes creativity, etc. etc. The worst is when I have time to post, but am just to psychologically drained.

Recently my work had been doing this to me. When I was there, I did next to nothing, (not that there’s anything to do) when I got home I felt like I had a labotomy. I was worried my employer was bleeding me of work so I could be fired. I was right. My department was a bit of an experiment within the greater company and due to some of the worst mismanagement I have ever seen, it failed. So they fired us all.

This fact has been bearing down on me recently. Now I am out of work and I need to find a job again, so every bit of free time I have is either me doing work to that end, or procrastinating. This has all but killed my drive to make music. I have been trying to figure out how to make space for creativity in this new landscape, but it has been difficult.

However, while i haven’t been experimenting much lately, I have been playing my makeshift phin a lot and really enjoying that. Right now it is in a tuning very similar to the tuning that was used in the sublime frequencies video that inspired it’s creation. I have been bowing it some, but also playing it with a pick. I have continued to grow in my appreciation of it on a whole. I love how simple it is, and the resonance of the tin, especially when bowing, is really nice.

Here’s a clip of a little melody I have been fooling around with:

– Phin Picking

And here’s is some random feedback noise from the tape I recorded this on. I have no idea where this come from, but it sounds really cool.

– Feedback Noise

Cigar box raga

May 3, 2007

Obviously drone has been a big part of my life recently. Drone as a side dish has been a favorite for a long while, but recently, I have been really into drone as a main course. Its something I know a lot of people don’t quite get. Even some of the most open minded listeners I know can’t take Tony Conrad for more than a few minutes, let alone listen to something like “The Tamburas of Pandit Pran Nath” by La Monte Young, even if only for a small part of it’s full hours length.

There was a point in time when I thought that if there was only one note playing, nothing was happening, but as I pursued an understanding of music and acoustics, I came to find out there was a whole world of things that could happen. Harmonics or overtones specifically are a good bit of what makes drone interesting. Humans are not robots, so as we play we never exactly play the same “way” twice. These little mistakes change the way the overtones resonate and lend subtle shifts to the stillness of a sustained tone. This is one of the things that has really attracted me to drone. While within the stillness of the tone, you are focussed, on all of these smaller changes that would be very difficult to perceive if there were more than one fundamental tone being played. In a way, it’s kind of like zooming way in on a picture and seeing a whole new level of detail.

A week or so ago, I was asked by my brother to make some drones for him to incorporate into one of his band’s songs. I had been mostly bowing my guitar at that point, but for some reason I decided to try bowing on a cigar box guitar that I had built. The sound was really great. Due to the imperfect nature of a cigar box as a resonator the overtone relationships are very different than a guitar, and for some reason it has a bit of a reedier tone.

My Cigar Box Guitar

After recording some single string drones for my brother I decided to tune the CBG to an open “D” chord and try bowing all four strings together. It sounded really great. The subtle differences in bow placement and velocity changed the sound a lot. For a drone it was very maleable. So I recorded about 12min of bowing, moving the bow from as low as I could go on the neck. all the way up to the nut, fret by fret. The result is somewhat Tambura-like. I think this has something to do with the shape of the cigar box and which overtones it reinforces, and the fact that the nut is a carved piece of soft stone.

I think the end result is very listenable. The changes in the tonal quality and timbre are pretty dramatic throughout, so instead of it seeming like you are listening to one unchanging thing, instead, you are listening to one fundamental thing that takes different forms as it progresses. I like it quite a lot.

I put it on the other day as I was just working on the computer and it struck me that it’d be a good thing to try and play slide guitar along with. Since my CBG was already in open “D” I picked it up and started fooling about. I had so much fun I made a note to record it when I could. I got around to it yesterday. I was going to do a few passes and edit together the best parts, but once I had two and listened to them playing at once, I liked it too much to edit. Instead of making it like a raga with a single main melodic voice, the two tracks play against and off eachother in interesting ways. There are some real cool moments where you could swear it was two people jamming together, but it’s all coincidental.

I find this end result really peaceful and meditative. In fact I actually had a hard time staying awake while working on it. Always a good sign. I think the world needs more music to fall asleep to anyway.

Here are the tracks, both the drone by itself and the fake raga one. I hope you enjoy them.

– Cigar Box Drone
– Cigar Box Raga