Posts Tagged ‘ethnic music’

Dictaphone cassette collage part 2

September 28, 2008

So, it’s been nearly a year since I first mentioned this technique, and since then, I’ve been in quite a few places and recorded a ton of audio snippets. Funny thing is, I’m still not even near filling up a tape, and at this point, I’m in no rush. I have however, ripped what i’ve done so far and edited it some, and i really like it. It’s strange listening back now, and not remembering what half of it even is. It’s a delightfully screwed-up ride through the past year of my life.

Once I was done, I wanted to hear it in stereo, so i chopped the track exactly in half and made a stereo file. This one is particularly enjoyable. I love the random sonic collisions that take place. Sometimes the placement of sounds is so perfect, I wonder if I some how composed it intuitively, but I know that’s just not possible.

So, now that i’ve gone and done this, I feel like I have finally gotten it out of my system, and I don’t really need to do it anymore. The funny thing is, that I can’t stop recording sounds! I may go back to the loop cassettes and start building a sound catalog, but I can’t help thinking I’ll wind up back on the same old tape, in exactly the place i left off, continuing the journey.

– Dictaphone Cassette Collage Mono

– Dictaphone Cassette Collage Stereo


Tibetan protest field recording

June 11, 2008

Tibetan protesters at the National Constitution CenterA couple of weekends ago, I got a call from my friend Al, informing me that there was some kind of Tibetan protest down at the National Constitution Center, and that they were doing some chanting he thought I might like to record. I had some time so I rolled down to see what was going on. I can’t really say I know much about the situation in Tibet, so for the purposes of this post, I’m not going to talk about the political significance of this event.

When I got down there, I heard them before I saw them. A low drone perking up from beneath the din of city traffic. When I got to the National Constitution Center, there they were, sitting one after the other in a line facing the street, holding flags and chanting a harmonic drone that I found quite pleasing. They had a PA set up and two of them were chanting (maybe intoning is a better word?) what sounded like one base repetitive chant, with an improvised chant over it, but I’m just guessing. (If anyone knows what it is that they are chanting, I’d love to know.) They also had a stringed instrument, which they never ended up playing unfortunately for me.

The group was fairly loud, but I knew I’d end up with lots of other stuff on my recording like the passing cars or idling trucks behind me. Not to mention the very high wind that day. So at some point I decided not to try to avoid any of that, but to allow it to in a way be an indeterminate instrument playing along with them.

I’ve been fascinated recently with this kind of change of perspective that alters how one perceives sound. This had a great effect on my appreciation of this recording, when I finally encoded it. Instead of being annoyed at all of the sounds encroaching upon what I wanted to hear, I now can appreciate fully, all of the wonderful and mysterious background accompaniment that appears on this recording. And in many cases, it is quite wonderful. I especially like when my mic and the mics of the performers are both being overloaded by the wind at one point.

Tibetan Protest music vs. Market St.

It’s been a while, but many interesting things are going on

May 3, 2008

Yes I’m still alive and kicking. I’ve been quite busy still, lots of things going on. Some of which will end up on this blog sooner or later. Here’s a bunch of stuff to look out for here, hopefully I’ll make enough progress soon to do some more posts.

My Sound-Lab Mini-Synth problem
Ray Wilson\'s Sound-Lab Mini-Synth front panelI got one of the PCBs for this a couple years ago. It’s still not built. In fact I put it on the shelf for a very long time and ignored it. Recently I picked it back up and dedicated myself to finishing it before I began work on any more projects. (You can see the effect it had on this blog) Well, I’m about 6 or so hours into panel wiring and I realized I’m in so far over my head that I have about a .0001% chance of ending this with a functional synth.

The root of my problem is that being ambitious as I am, I didn’t want to do the “simple” version, I wanted all the mods! So mine was patch-able, had signal inputs and all other manner of bells and whistles. Well, that’s all great, but I only have a very minor understanding of electronics, and all the info on these mods is pretty sketchy if you don’t. So I came to a resolution the other day (while working on it). I’m ripping out all the wires, and building up the simple version. The fact of the matter is, I’d need a book just to figure out how to make my pervious effort fuction, even after it was built. I’ll be starting this coming week probably… wish me luck.

Al’s 8-track recorder and new compositions
An image from Al's scoreAl has a fairly decent digital 8-track recorder that has been kicking around the practice room since we started playing. he apparently got it some time ago, made a few (very nice) recordings on it, and then didn’t touch it for years, and forgot how to use it. He recently enlisted my assistance in helping him figure it out as I’m good at gadgets.

After a half-hour or so, we got the recording and playback thing/saving down and since then we have done two very nice “blind-improvisations” (playing along without listening). One that is about 5 minutes long and involved us taking turns, basically performing for one another on a variety of instruments. The other is about 14 minutes long and involved us doing duo improvisations, and then overdubbing them with more duo improvisations. The result of this technique has always astounded me, no matter what, it always sounds like we were somehow listening even though we weren’t. I’ll see about posting these when I get a chance to transfer them.

Now that he has his trusty 8-track back in business, Al has also 

An image from Al's score

begun to think up some scores we can record on it. The first of his scores involves a time grid, and instruments, durations, etc. governed by chance operations. We are still trying to decide whether to assemble it or to attempt to perform it. An accurate performance is nearly impossible with two people, which could have interesting results, but we may do both, just so we can hear the piece realized accurately. In duo form it would most likely be a composed piece of improvised sections, as the score makes no mention of *how* to play.

My wife and I went to morocco for 11 days, a few weeks back. What a time. We saw and heard so many amazing things. The proliferation of fantastic local music there is staggering. If only we had this kind of community in America.

I of course recorded as much audio while there as I could, and I happened to catch some amazing musicians in Jamaa al-Fna square, in Marrakech. I have alot of audio to sift through though, so it may be a while before it ends up here. We also took a ton of photos some of which I may post later as well.

Experimenting with “Straw Reeds”
I have been looking for an easy way to excite vibration in objects, to be able to play them like horns. I have tried a few methods, but nothing has worked out quite well enough for me to use it often. But after we came back from Morocco, I realized the thing had been sitting right under my nose for a long time.

A “straw saxophone” is something I learned how to make in some art class ages ago. Basically you take a drinking straw, flatten one end by squeezing, and or biting it (biting works best but don’t overdo it) almost flat for about the last inch of the straw length. The take scissors and cut the flat end to a triangular point. If done right you should have to evenly pointed tips nearly touching, parallel to eachother. It may take a little experimentation, but you should be able to blow into the straw and cause it to sound due to the vibration of the end you just made.

Ok, so big deal… it makes a single toot sound. Well this is where some Moroccan ingenuity comes in. I discovered this mounting technique on an instrument I brought home. Find a pipe or something reasonably close in diameter to your straw, so that your straw can slip inside of it. Now, wrap the un-altered end of your straw with masking tape until you can fit it in the pipe securely. The instrument I had, got close with the masking tape, but finishes it up with wrapped thread, which looks much nicer and i’m sure works better, but just masking tape works great.

Now, if you blow into the mouthpiece, you will sound the pipe you are using. Play around you can make many different sounds. If you can make a slider or cut holes in your pipe, you can make different pitches as well. I have been trying this on every cylindrical object in the house recently, and finding lots of interesting sounds.

Here’s a clip of me playing it attached to a 3 foot long pipe.

So that’s some of what I have been doing. There’s still a bunch more, but I’ll have to save that for some other posts. Al and I have been getting some great LPs recently, so I should do some reviews of those at some point to. Cheers!


Short Wave Music Rocks!

September 14, 2007

As usual I’m awaiting a solid 3 or 4 hour block of time in which to do my next post, which seem to be fewer and farther between. For now however, I want to just drop a quick note for you to check out a wonderful blog I stumbled across today.

I have been looking into getting a shortwave radio as I am fascinated with radio noises to begin with and shortwave is the mountain to AM/FM/TVs mole-hill so to speak. Right now, I’m mired in radio-purchasing research land (someone just point me to a cheap one already!) and I have been purusing many sites looking for info. During a quick blog search today I discovered ShortWaveMusic a great blog by Myke Weiskopf, featuring recordings he’s made of various indigenous musics he’s captured on shortwave, complete with technical, historical, and sociopolitical commentary. So far, It has been music to my ears and a great read too.

It’s funny to find someone out there doing pretty much what I had intended do do with my shortwave explorations, and great to find someone doing it so well.

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:


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”

Shoddy field recording; Chinese New Year, NYC 02/18/07

February 23, 2007

Chinese New Year Crowd

My wife and I decided to go to New York this past weekend to attend the Chinese New Year celebration. It was kind of a whim, It has her birthday this past saturday,we wanted to do somehing special and we figured it would be a good time. I also figured it would be cool to record some of the drumming played for the Lion Dance that is traditional on that day.

Of course, I forgot my MD recorder (*o*). Somehow in the bustle to get packed and on the road at a decent hour, I overlooked this important detail. I happened to pick up an old tape recorder with a built in condenser mic on the way out, but the thought of lugging it around NY all day, was not in the least appealing.

I realized though, that while I did not have an audio recording device, I did have a video recording device in the form of a digital camera, that also recorded audio. I knew this was not optimal and would be crap quality comparatively, but anyone who reads this blog knows crap sound quality is not something that bothers me. To be more precise, I find pretty much any sound interesting. Be it midi or a cassette getting eaten by a recorder, it’s all interesting to me.

The celebration was total chaos. The really fun kind. Tons of people came out, which is really rad, and there were interesting sounds all over.

Lion Dancers in Action

When we first approached, we saw a Lion Dance taking place, but were blocked by baracade’s from reaching it. I was worried that if it was always that crowded around them with all the baracades, I would not be able to get a good recording. Luckily there were a bunch of different troupes making their rounds, so we caught up with one that happened to be heading right into the center of the action, and I filmed it all the way in to the fireworks.

The fireworks were awesome sounding! They basically just set off a million black cats. You don’t really get the full effect on the recording of how immense the sound was.

Black Cats on a Wire

What I got sounds better than I thought it would, although it is pretty tinny. I wish I could find out more about the structure of the rhythm. They are definitely playing a repetitve theme that must have some significance. It looked as if the main drummer in each troupe was most likely the head of the school, which I thought was very cool. They played the core rhythm and it looked as if the rest of the instruments were passed out in order of importance, ending with the yougest scrappiest looking guys with the smaller quieter cymbals.

I’m excited to use this audio in some sort of composition, though I’m not sure what. I have been warming up recently to the use of rhythm to psychedelic effect. Which ever way, I always like the idea of incorporating field recordings into my music.

Lion Dance