Posts Tagged ‘folk 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

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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.

More prepared guitar

January 20, 2008

For some reason the idea of using a bicycle spoke as a guitar preparation entered my head yesterday, so i decided to sit down and record some improvisation. i was going to just stereo mic the guitar, but as i was watching the spoke vibrate like crazy whenever i hit a low note, i thought… why don’t i mic that? So I dug out two of my contact mics and put one on the body of the guitar and one on the spoke. This was a lot of fun, within a couple minutes I had found a few different ways of getting the spoke vibration to “accompany” my guitar playing, and as I continued to record, I found it quite easy and fun to utilize the spoke in various ways.

Recently, as I’m sure is evidenced by the way this blog has been of late, I have really been enjoying improvisation. I always sort of improvised. I could never really play anything in the classical sense and there’s very little that i’d want to play, that I actually could. So at some point, I sort of decided that if I were to continue to play the guitar, I had to come up with an approach and stick with it. I have always liked the idea of slow playing. Like Harold Budd but with a guitar and not as “pretty” or Derek Bailey, but painfully slow, and later as I would find out… Loren Connors at his least “traditional”. But I didn’t really want to play like any of those people really. I would just sit leaned back with the guitar and randomly pluck strings, bending them into tune and pulling rattley drones off with my thumb. Putting the guitar in odd tunings, just by ear, and almost never tuning it proper.

Of course, for the most part this was all a bit of fooling around. Some nice self amusement when I was bored. There was a point though when I began to really like that, and I was afraid to tell people, that I LIKED that. That I would record it and listen back to it myself for pleasure. I sort of made excuses for it… hid it. My mind was still sort of locked in this idea that “music” was supposed to be a certain way, and it was for other people to say that it was good and worth-while and nobody was going say that about what I did. But since I’ve started this blog and joined forces with Al, I’ve sort of gotten over that, and since then I have really been falling for Improvisation. I find it as difficult as learning to play “right”, but in a different way, and every time I play that way, I feel like I learn something. It’s also very freeing and fun… almost a serious form of fooling around. Anyhow, enough babbling…

This was recorded with two contact mics, direct to protools. No edits were made. reverb was added; 400ms at 25%. Enjoy!

– Woke up In a Strange Place

Random Ritual. Prepared Guitar and Voices.

January 5, 2008

I got bored of having my guitars in standard tuning a while back, and started to get interested in learning to finger-pick. Mostly because I finally turned an ear to John Fahey after ignoring him for a long time (for no reason at all, except maybe hearing his name too much) and got my head ripped clean off by the sheer perfection of the musical world this man was able to create. Not that I wanted to go out and be another Jack Rose or Ben Chasny (though, they are great) I just thought if most of my guitar playing is going to be done alone, mostly amusing myself, I might as well learn how to play so it sounds like it’s 3 people.

Anyhow, so that never really happened as it take some more of what I have not, (no, not talent) time. Though I still fully intend to learn to at least get by playing finger-style (and about a million other things). So what I ended up with was a guitar tuned to one of Fahey’s standards, that was slowly but surely slipping out of tune. For some reason though, it seemed to slip IN tune… just a different sound or something. One day a picked it up and sort of tuned it into tolerability, and it had a sort of koto-like sound. The for some reason of other, I thought it’d kind of sound more like a koto if the strings were muted some. So I crammed some paper between the strings near the nut like so:

prepared guitar

As soon as I began to play it, i felt like i was on to something. It has an interesting way of making what ever strings are open sound like an accompanying instrument and whatever is being fretted, some kind of lead. So I’ve been playing it like this for months now, whenever my computer is loading a big file (ha ha) and I’ve really grown to love it. I have no idea what the tuning is b/c it’s so far from normal tuning, even with a tuner I’m going to just get a bunch of pitches it will be nearly impossible to replicate again. (Maybe someone who has a good ear could tell me more) SO I’m basically keeping it like this at least for now.

I’ve been wanting to post about this tuning for a while, but I wanted you all to be able to hear it. Problem was, I just wasn’t getting around to recording it. So today I figured I’d do it quick and dirty. This is recorded through my computer mic (that’s what that hard drive crunch is in the background). It’s a track of guitar, improvised and unedited and a track of vocals done the same, but then delayed and reversed to make the third track. It’s pretty crunchy sounding, but I kind of like the ambience the noise seems to create. Enjoy!

 – Random Ritual

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.

LATRALMAGOG Sessions IV & V and some philosophical rambling.

July 28, 2007

I think about music a lot as you can (i’m sure) imagine. While thinking about my recent activities as half of latralmagog, I have realised that in a lot of ways, it is an answer to some philosophical problems I have been tossing about in my head for some time. I supposed that makes perfect sense, and I imagine this progression from thought to action is normal for most people if at most times completely unconscious. However for me, it seems to have taken place on opposite ends of the same track where now there is a meeting at the center in latralmagog. On one end is my (seemingly inate) desire to make “difficult” music, and on the other are my philosophies about the personal/social politics of music and the making of music. When I started, both the making of music and the thinking about music were still very young, and so distant were they, that I did not really see them as connected, or as an answer to one-another yet. Here are two of the questions, and the thoughts (not to be seen as “answers” in an absolute sense) behind them.

First a quick caveat… I’m thinking outloud here. I don’t really know how to write, and I modify my position all the time, as I grow and change. This is here to encourage thought, not to get you to agree with me. Hopefully you will think, and come to your own conclusions. In the meantime, I hope you at least find my rambling entertaining. 🙂 Oh, and I also didn’t feel like editing this, so you know…

What is music?
Way to start with an easy one huh? Well, from what I have been able to mete out in a combination of my own thoughts and the illuminations of others, it is whatever you think it is. Which is almost an alarmingly simple answer, but it’s almost a stupid question when you think about it, that it’s amazing how it has dogged so many BIG thinkers. When it comes down to it, “Music” is just a word… and like all words that define or deliniate space, its boundaries are only solid in inverse proportion to how much they are being attacked. Thanks to John Cage, the most formidable (in my experience) of the attackers, the word “music” is all but meaningless. In order for it to have any meaning at all, each individual must put their own restrictions on it, but don’t be fool enough to think that anyone will agree with you.

In my personal point of view I differ from Cage. He sought to prove that every sound can be music if you are willing to view it as an aesthetic occurance. He often referenced Rauchenberg’s ready-mades as a parallel in the visual art world, stating that the art he liked best directed you to the beauty that exists outside the artwork itself. So that in Cage’s world, all sound is music, all matter is art, and all experience is theater (and all these naturally overlap, a fact in which he took great pleasure). But this point of view maintains that art is everything you can appreciate aesthetically, and this is where I depart from Cage. I still maintain that art needs the artist. Not the Artist (with a capital A) that Cage deplored, but the finger pointing to the stars. The curator of the aesthetic. Why? Because people are as beautiful, curious and interesting as nature and while you can call their likes, dislikes, preduduces, etc., weaknesses, they are weaknesses which I feel are too tied to our human experience to sever. They like us together is a kind of maladjusted mutual sympathy that I think is ipmortant, even though it can lead to various ills that I have not time to get into now.

Now here’s where Cage’s idea and mine only really differ semantically (oh how useless language really is!). He says everything is art, I say art is whatever you think it is, but everything is beautiful. See Cage views the aesthetic appreciation of an object as a declaration of it’s existence as art, whereas I don’t link aesthetics and art at all. Art is what you say it is, but everything is beautiful. I guess this is beacuse I view art as a construct not a continuum. Art is the domain of the artist, and you can take it or leave it really, because beauty is everywhere if you choose to accept it.

In music this idea means that 1) I can still be a curator of sound if I want to because human experience is important 2) Music is whatever I say it is 3) Not everything I present for aesthetic consideration within the confines of a recording has to be “music” or considered by me as such. This philosophy produces nearly the same effect as Cage’s, but where Cage says the artist must be elliminated so that there is no artist/non artist dichotomy, I say, everyone is an artist if they think they are. (Which is funny because I refuse to call myself one, I guess that is because my philosophy exists in the utopia of my mind (like Cage’s) wheras, I live in a sad state of reality-by-commitee) Like I’ve said many times before, the only difference between me and anyone else is that I have the balls to say that what I do is “art”.

What is the relationship between the medium, availability and value of music?
Why is music pressed on records and why do we buy it? Why do we collect it, own it, etc.? Why do we have record labels? Do they serve a purpose other than fronting money for the production of “art” in order to (hopefully) make an ROI? Does the medium in which a work of “art” is presented affect the way in which it is perceived and how does that relationship function with “musical” “art”? Has our construction of a marketplace for art served us for the better and how?

Edit: Now that I’ve gotten flack for some of these statements, let me be more clear. I believe the art marketplace can be a good thing. If it wasn’t for some very giving souls who decided to use their money to bring the art they valued to light, we may all be bereft of some works we value highly. However, as I’m sure anyone can protest, this situation of money for art is extremely dangerous and that danger is not confined to the “mainstream” world.

I’m not going to answer all of those questions, but I do find myself asking them and stewing about them frequently. Especially in our current climate where we are basically innundated with high quality free music, most often in digital form. There are countless out of print record blogs where one could easily obtain for free, (a digital copy of the audio content of) a record that previously commanded prices of $5,000 on ebay! The value of music is changing, but exactly how remains to be seen. Personally I see the value going down, but I’m not sure we can be so black and white about that.

Is a piece of music put on record because it is valueable, or is it valuable because it was put on record? I’d say a little bit of both. I think it’s put on record because someone valued it and somehow because of the value they placed upon it, it then becomes valuable to others because they value it as well or value the person who deemed it valuable in the first place. But does it have any intrinsic value over and above everything else? Maybe not, I’m not sure I can say, it would depend upon how you define value. I have to say though that after hearing large qualities of amazing records by unknowns that easily rival records by our societal golden calves, it is hard to look at the art market as anything other than a spotlight. Am I alone in having heard steaming piles of crap on reputable lables, that become gems as they are accepted by the easily lead? Is the value of what I do directly linked to who else thinks it’s valuable? Well? Yes, but only if that is what I believe.

(Note: I’m omitting the questions about specific media that were here, because I don’t want to take the time to mede it out and it only distracts from the poit anyhow.)

Or we could ask a similar but different question. What’s more valuable to witness; The Velvet Underground live in the 70’s, or the music made in ones own family? (don’t answer too quickly now 🙂 ) I think a lot of these questions are taking on the dichotomy existing in the world now, of the “art star” and “art star” infrastructure, versus the personal and communal. And why does this exist? Because we buy it. These people, concepts and objects are only more important than others because we have agreed that it is so. So where is value in all of this? It’s wherever you think it is. In this stage in the game relying on any definition of value other than your own pleasure in “art” is just asking to be lead off a cliff.

Now if these things are only of at their hieght in valuable because we buy them, what happens if we stop? What happens if we have so much fantastic music that we can’t even keep track of it and it is all free. We have so much that every record only gets one listen. What happens when even what was previously considered to be “the best” is so common we don’t need it any more? How does it effect how we place value on “art”, or how we approach our own? I would say it evens the playing field somewhat don’t you think? I think it has the potential to take us out of the fog of commercialism and offers us the chance to see, choose and make for ourselves. (Not that all music that is sold is commercial, but that ugly culture does exist.)

Edit: (The paragraph here previously was an ill thought-out rant that actually did more to confuse my point than make it. It is being replaced with something I think is more the point. I can’t stand by any of those previous statements.)

These ideas have definitely shaped latralmagog. These questions in part affirm my decision to improvise. For me, improvisation confronts fleeting value by being instant, commercialism and style by being amorphous, and the question of the definition of “music” by being an exploration.

In a way I feel like there was a time I was tying to cram what I really wanted to do into a box that I thought would be more easily palateable to others, and resisting the real impulse I had toward something less defined. I felt as if I was trying to train myself to make what was essentially other people’s music. Why? Because I guess in a way I thought it would be more “credible”. When I finally thought about it, I realized that I had been improvising for some time, but I had been casting it off because it didn’t fit with what I for some reason thought I ought to do. Once I opened up however, I realized how fun and fulfilling it was to give myself over to all of the ideas and feelings I had pushed aside for so long.

I realize after some of the comments below, that a lot of what I say above can be very easily misconstrued. I wish I were better at expressing my thoughts. I think the bottom line though is that everyone should feel free to do and think as they like about art, theirs or anyone else’s, no matter what the established art world thinks, or what trend it is worshiping today. There is no intrinsic value in anything, we bestow value, so feel free to cast yours wherever you like.

I also want to make it clear that I am NOT saying improvised music is better or cooler than any other kind of music, only that is better suits a certain set of ideas that are occupying me presently than anything else.

LATRALMAGOG, Session IV
– Part 1
– Part 2
– Part 3
– Part 4
– Part 5
– Part 6
– Part 7

LATRALMAGOG, Session V
– Part 1
– Part 2
– Part 3
– Part 4
– Part 5
– Part 6

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.

Cut-ups
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

Chchchchchanges…

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
Closeup

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

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:

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