Posts Tagged ‘home made instruments’

While my ipod gently weeps

May 23, 2008

I’m travelling and don’t have time for a full post, but I recorded this a couple days ago and wanted to get it up. I rather enjoy it. I hope you do too. More on when I get back.

– Untitled


So in case you hadn’t guessed by the mp3 filename, this track was assembled in real-time, or as I implied, improvised by my ipod. I selected three sound files to use as material and chopped them up into individual sound events.  I also gave a similar treatment to about four minutes of absolute silence. I took the sounds and the silence and made a playlist on my ipod containing all of those fragments. I then set my ipod to play the playlist at random, and began recording. I did this twice, hence the stereo version above.

The sound sources were:
– The ambience and chatter preceding a musical performance I recently recorded.
– The sounds of my dogs wrestling, which i fed through noise removal software
– the sounds of an overtone sax thing i made 

I’m pretty impressed by the results, and I think I may be working in this way more in the future. I’m always intrigued when I hear sound events happening without the burden of the human perception of time. There can never be any real “groove” or “vibe” or “flow” to random sound, so you never get into a scenario of sound events being predictable, and i like this element of surprise.

I’m going to do another one of these soon, but with four tracks, each one a different instrument. I’m looking forward to hearing the outcome of that.

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!


Primer: Pitch-Bending a Walkman

January 24, 2008

Welcome to the first in a series of posts where I will highlight a specific technique I have learned and instruct you on how to to the same yourself. This first one is on pitch-bending tape recorders. There a couple ways to go about this, but i’m just going to outline my preferred method here. Firstly though, here’s a list of what you will need to do this project.

    1) A soldering iron/solder and some experience in using it. Radioshat ones are ok, but usually have a very large tip, all will be much easier if you get a nicer pencil tip iron from one of your many friendly online electronic parts dealers.2) A cheap walkman. The one pictured cost 5 bucks. Go to your thrift store. The early nineties models are great and really simple.

    3) Some hook-up wire. Either get it at Radioshat, or if you like scavenging stuff, buy and old parallel printer cable, cut off the ends, slice ‘er open and harvest the wire. It’s typically multi-colored, stranded, and thin, all good things. Plus you can get like 36 yards of it from one cable, that costs fifty cents at the thrift store. Not bad.

    4) A potentiometer, or pot for short. This is a bit more difficult. If you are not already an electronics nerd like me, you probably don’t have 100 different kinds of these just laying about, so you will need to get one. Hopefully you have something better than Radioshat near you and you can go and get a few different types for cheap, or, search for grab-bags on ebay. If you are anything like me, this will not be the last electronic project you do, so the leftovers will come in handy. The unfortunate thing about this project is that the pot you will need is entirely dependent on the walkman you have. The general range I have seen in pot values between walkmen, is anywhere from 2k to 10k. If you can’t find out, I’d go for 5k and hope for the best. Or if you happen to have an multimeter, you can measure what size you will need.

    5) Some kind of drill. A dremel would be best as they tend to have a bunch of bits, which is handy, but you could get by with a regular drill.

    6) Wire strippers/cutters. You can get by without these, but it will be easier with them.

    7) A desoldering system of some sort. I use a solder-sucker from Ratshat, but you can use whatever you like.

Ok, lets get started. Firstly, you will need to open your walkman. If you chose your subject well, removing the back panel from the walkman will expose the circuit board, solder side up, like the drawing below.

walkman with the circuit exposed

Once you have exposed the circuit board, look for a pattern resembling the three solder points (yellow dots on the image) in the highlighted area above. They will always have a hole in the center of them, as shown, and if you look through the hole you will see an object with a small slot, the size of a mini screwdriver blade in it. This is a miniature trimmer pot. Those three points are it’s three legs, which correspond to the three legs on a full-size pot.

potentiometertrimmer potentiometer

Desolder the mini-pot and remove it from the board. You will most likely need to remove the circuit board to do so, so be careful that in doing so you don’t dislodge any important components. Once you have dislodged the mini-pot, examine it closely to see if it has any indication of it’s resistance printed or stamped on it. This marking could be extremely small, so look close. If you do happen to find a marking, take note of it, and if you can, buy the same value for your new full-size pot.

Now you will have three empty solder pads on your circuit board. Cut three 5 inch or so, pieces of wire and strip an eight of an inch or so of the shielding from either end. Twist the ends some to “braid” them tight, and then coat them in solder. This will ensure a solid connection to the board. Now, insert the end of one of the bits of wire into one of the holes and solder it to the pad. Repeat this for the remainder of the wires. You should now have three bits of five inch wire sticking up from your circuit board. Take note, or mark the wire that connects to the furthest of the three solder pads from the others, this will be the middle lug of your pot.

Side note: Sometimes one of the solder pads has a resistor connected to it. If your walkman has one of these, test bypassing that resistor and soldering in front of it in the series, instead of directly to the corresponding solder pad. On walkmen that have had this feature, I have found it to greatly increase the pitch range of this mod. I’ve had some that had a speed range from nearly “fast-forward” speed to barely moving.

Now that we have established connections to the board for your pot, we need to find a good place to mount it. This can be quite tricky depending on what walkman you have. I have found that often the cheaper the walkman, the less sophisticated the circuitry, the more room under the hood. You may have to get creative with your pot placement, but be careful to check that when the pot is in place it is not inhibiting any of the other functions of the walkman. I can’t tell you how many times i have installed pots and then realized that once they are in there the case can’t be closed. Trust me, it’s a bummer.

Once you have made a place for the pot, solder the three wires to the three legs of the pot. It will help to make a solid connection, if you first coat each leg of the pot with solder. remember, that the wire coming from the furthest solder pad from the rest (the furthest right in my image) gets connected to the center leg of the pot. The others can be connected as you like, but i usually like to make it so that when i turn the pot right the motor speeds up and when left, it slows.

Now that your pot is connected and functioning, mount it in the spot you made for it, and seal the walkman up. Congratulations, you just pitch modded a walkman!

For even more fun, you can do the same mod, but instead of using a mechanical pot to replace the trimmer pot, you can use a photoelectric cell. If you have never heard of one before, they are potentiometers that look like very small solar panels and react to light. They sell these as grab bags at Radioshat. If you’d like to try this, it’s a bit easier that modding with a mechanical pot.

photoelectric cell

To use a photocell, just connect one leg of the photocell to the solder pad furthest from the others in the pic I posted and the other leg to one of the other of the three points i highlighted. Only one will work, and it depends on your walkman which it is, but there are only two options, so I’m sure you’ll figure it out. This kind of mod makes a sort of tape driven phototheremin. Record some tape loops of drones and play it by using your hand to shade the photocell.

This concludes our first Primer, I hope someone out there finds this useful. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments if something’s not clear.

Oh, and of course there has to be a sound sample! This is a few tracks of various tapes being played on the pitch-bent walkman that I layered up. Enjoy!

– Pitch-bent walkman

Season’s Holidays! Happy Greetings! A Gift for you and yours!

December 24, 2007

Holiday madness being what it is (work’s no party either) I figured I probably wouldn’t have the time to do a post pre-christmas. However, as I was thinking about it, I realized I do have something to share. Though I haven’t been posting them, Al and I have continued to record, almost weekly improvisations. I would post them all, I just like to, if I can, present them in a more “finished” state than I usually have time for. I thought I’d make an exception though, 1, because I haven’t posted anything form us in a while and 2, because I fear christmas delaying my posting even more than usual. So here we go…

This was recorded this past friday at Al’s house which has become the new recording place of choice for a number of reasons. The session is about 72 minutes long with a decent variety of sounds being made. Here’s a (probably incomplete) rundown of what is being played: four-track loops, realistic dx-440 radio, modified singing christmas ball, tape feedback circuit, brass bowl, wooden box, tongue drum, pig scraper, bells, chimes, cymbals, 4 oscillator noise box, wooden xylophone, saw-blade, vibes, organ, bell piano, harmonica, rams horn, kalimba, surfaces, various apartment furnishings, etc. The session has been loosely subdivided into six parts, though each part may encompass more than one discernible movement. Hope you guys enjoy this, it was a lot of fun to make.

latralmagog, session XVIII:

– part 1 

– part 2

– part 3

– part 4

– part 5

– part 6 

Christian Marclay’s “Ensemble” at the ICA

November 17, 2007


I recently had the pleasure of seeing and hearing the sound installation “Ensemble” curated by Christian Marclay. Here’s the rundown from the ICA:

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) is pleased to present “Ensemble,” a group exhibition of works that make sound, guest curated by artist and musician Christian Marclay. Marclay has been selected as the inaugural curator of the Katherine Stein Sachs CW’69 and Keith L. Sachs W’67 Guest Curator Program, a new initiative designed to bring outside points of view to ICA. Marclay is a leading figure in the worlds of performance, visual art and experimental music.

Likening his approach to that of a composer, Marclay has chosen a variety of sculpture and installations based on their sound quality and compatibility to sonically inhabit the same large first floor gallery. Visitors are invited to interact with some of the works, others are triggered by motion detectors, or set on timers. The installation will create an ambient sound environment, intermittently producing a wide range of sounds, from the very quiet notes of a music box to the loud ringing of a bronze bell. They have been selected so that they can share the same resonant space and interact like the various instruments of a musical ensemble. It will include iconic works by artists such as Harry Bertoia, Yoko Ono, and Michelangelo Pistoletto, as well as new works by the current generation.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect based on the description, these kinds of things can take a myriad of shapes, but what was in my mind wound up being fairly close in nature to what i experienced at the show. This is a very dynamic sound landscape. Almost unrelenting at times. During some of the denser moments it’s almost claustrophobic due to the resonance of the space. As the descritpion says, pieces range from very quiet to very loud. While this was sometimes interesting, I found the louder pieces to be almost oppressive at times and they were in general the least thought out, volume seeming to be a concept in and of itself. While there is certainly something to be said on both sides of this arguement, I felt that the quiet pieces were so much more powerful and so much more enjoyable that the loud ones, and unfortunately kept getting drowned out.

This however did not hamper my enjoyment very much at all, and there were moments when it was quiet enough to hear all of the small stuff, which for the most part was a real treat. My absolute favorite of all the exhibits, was also one of the simplest. A pool, filled with dishes and bowls that was being “stirred” constantly by a compressor.


The resultant sound is as delicate and wonderfully aimless as windchimes, but with an almost gamelan-like sound. I could have sat and listened to this for hours. In fact, part of my wants to build a replica of it for my house. Smaller of course.

Other pieces of notice were; a tongue drum table which was shaped like and acoustic guitar body and had 5 seperately tuned sets of tonuges (I want this for my dining room… in my dreams), a set of three metronomes, set to different timings (mini Steve Reich), and a system of dangling bits of china, agitated by spinning record players.


Aside from some overly loud sounds (why a siren?) and some pieces that were either broken or too hard to figure out to keep interest, it was a really wonderful show. It was great just to be in a gallery full of clamor afterall, considering most art shows sonically have the same quality as funerals. It was exciting and envigorating to be so immersed in such an experience of sound, and to just walk around and hear the “mix” of sounds shift as you went.

The show runs through december (more details on the ICA site) so if you are near philly you should certainly go. If you are not and you can’t, you are in luck, as I recorded a walkthrough of the space for you to hear. I have to appologize for the sound quality as there is some hiss in the background… I was having problems with my MD that day. For the most part all of the talking has been cut out, so it is basically a theater of sound for you to sink in to. I like the recording very much, I hope you will too.

– Ensemble

Another new toy. The cymbal ringer!

September 16, 2007

I recently Heard Oren Ambarchi’s beautiful Stacte Motors album. I understand from a review that the performances involve a fairly simple application of motors to cymbals and guitar respectively, producing a rhythmic smattering and shivering, morphing, harmonic clouds of sound. The review also said he was indebted to Keith Rowe for this technique, but that all in all it didn’t matter, the album is lovely. I saw Rowe for the first time recently, and he was absolutely captivating. I recall finding his use of small fans to drive guitar strings to be an inspiration. For some reason though, I never thought of applying the technique to anything else the way Ambarchi did (though I have no idea if it was his original idea or not).

The application of this technique to cymbals is brilliant, and the resulting sounds are magical and transportative. Being a person involved in improvised music, I am always looking for a way of doing many things at once, or ways in which to automate things. I have my cassette loops, oscillators, radios, and circuit-bent toys, but variety being as they say, I am always looking for more. And of course, being an ex-drummer, I adore cymbals, especially my small collection of them.

So I set out to make a simple device that could ring a cymbal. I grabbed an electic toothbrush I had laying around and went to work. Removing the motor from the toothbrush was the first goal, as I want to have the battery container and the motor seperate, so that the motor can bounce freely on the cymbal without the added weight. Once the motor was removed I soldered 2 foot-long wires to the motors’ terminals and created a strain relief by knotting the wires close to the solder points and pinning the knot down with a piece of heavier gauge wire. I finished it all off with a few winds of elecrical tape to cover the terminals and keep the strain relief in place.

For a battery/controls container I used an Altoids tin. I used the original battery terminal cap from the toothbrush and made some small modifications to fit it in the tin. I then made two new top terminals out of looped pieces of wire and taped the whole thing together. I now had a nice little battery-pack to power the motor.

Since I will need to mount the tin somehow to keep it stable while the motor does it’s cymbal dance, I dug in my toolbox and found an angle bracket. Just from looking at it, I could tell it was a good size to both hold the tin and mount using the same bolt used to keep the cymbal on it’s stand.

The motor needed an on/off switch, so I added one, and while I was at it I added a 100ohm pot in line with one of the battery leads. If anyone decides to build one of these, a 50ohm will do, all I had was 100. The pot allows me to control the speed of the motor, and thus the volume/frequency of the vibrations.

The first test didn’t go well, I had forgotten to add something to the motor to make it wobble enough to strike the cymbal. So I went back and hot-glue-gunned a small screw to the motors drive gear.

The second test was perfect. I ended up playing with it for about a half hour. The speed control works great, and even the position of the motor adds a few possible differences in sound quality.

– MP3 with a bit of reverb here

I have used this in improvisation a few times, and it’s been a great addition to my setup. Especially in combination with a contact mic. Of course, I always have to mess with stuff, so I have been experimenting with running it through a bunch of effects.

A couple of days ago I tried a fuzz box I had, and I was really blown away. It’s amazing how little you need to make a really beautiful racket. Shifting tonal colors just submerged by a fog of white noise.

I’m including a longform version of that at the end of this post that I might make into a little release, just because I enjoy it so much, that I want to see it in full artwork and everything. I’ll definitely re-post it here if I manage to pull it off.

The recording is 20 minutes or so of improvisation with just the cymbal ringer and a couple effects boxes. Enjoy!

– Gong Soft Heaven

Four-Track Cassette Looping Part 3.

August 26, 2007

Actually I’m not quite sure what part this is, but we will continue on from three from now on, as I’m sure I’ll continue to have posts about this subject.

Fostex Four track

While lamenting the rather wimpy volume control on one of my varisped tape recorders and wishing I had another like my Marantz Field Recorder, with it’s many controls and mic input, I remembered my Fostex X-18. I hadn’t played with the Fostex much since I figured it would not end up making a great live looping tool, but it did have some characteristics that I thought would suit my work with latralmagog.

After setting it up and getting re-acclaimated to it’s controls, I began trying to figure out exactly how fast I could switch from record to play, thinking if I could get it pretty tight it might work in a live setting. So I began, and I was getting pretty good at fast switching, and I started to feel like I was discovering something that could revolutionize my live setup, especially since it works great with contact mics. Then I discovered something so amazingly logical and useful I feel like an idiot even listing it as a discovery.

When the machine is in play mode, all you have to do is push the record button down too.


And to get out of record mode, you just hold down play and hit stop. This way only the record button pops back up.

Okay, so what have we learned here? READ YOUR FRICKIN MANUAL!!!!

Seriously though, I should have read that thing cover to cover, but hey, better late than never. So anyhow, now I have the ability to gradually build up loops without ever stopping the tape, and since four-tracks have those nice mixing capabilities, I can fine tune levels and bring parts in and out at will, something none of the expensive digital loopers will let you do. Plus it’s got that great shitty chewed up tape haze that makes everything sound like a transmission from another planet.

So of course I had to record a few loops using this method, and here they are…


– Phin Feedback, Bowing, and Plucking
– Zither Knocks, Plucks, and Feedback
– Flute, Horn, Silver Platter, and Bells

I’m not dead (I’m just moving extremely slow)

August 23, 2007

Some of you may have noticed I have not been posting with the usual frequency. I appologize and by no means have I abandoned this blog. I have however taken a big hit to my available time by re-entering the workforce. While this new development certainly limits my time for doing more interesting things, such is life and I will as I have for much of my past, attempt to work around it.

Personally, I like Keith Rowe’s perspective on the situation. The following is an excerpt from a talk he gave at the Slought Foundation in philadelphia a little while back:

“I’ve always had a job… like always. From the time I left the art school… Actually, I really enjoyed that… The idea of being an amateur… You could have a kind of obscurity. If there was kind of a slogan of the art school i went to, it was, the definition of success is to be middle-aged and obscure.”

Of course, this got quite a laugh, but I think the re-definition of success he is portraying here is pretty inspirational, and I find it aligns very well with my current attitudes toward “art” or “craft” as a thing of and for common people.

One of the non job related plusses to having a job located in the city, is the variety of interesting sounds one encounters. My first week, I has riding my bike home when i passed a truck with some huge compressor in the back making a huge sounding drone as it ran, that was just loaded with dancing overtones. I could have listened to that for quite a long time. I was kicking myself for not having a minidisc recorder with me. It would have made a great piece to post here. Suffice to say that I now have the MD with me at all times, and hopefully I will be happening upon some other sound of note soon enough.

This leads me to another unfortunate reason why I have not been posting as much of late. Latralmagog. With weekly recording sessions and a new motivation to crank out new sound making devices, it has become quite difficult to find time to post. And I certainly don’t want to turn this into a latralmablog (har!) by only ever posting our recording sessions. Of course, my increased instrument production rate has provided me with a bunch of new sounds that could be posted, but I’m so behind on documenting things I’ll never catch up. Sigh… jobs. I always wonder if there could be a way I could just do what I do and make money for whatever value I am able to provide people… maybe some time in the distant (distant) future.

That’s enough ho-hum for now, on to things exciting. AL and I this past week both played our first show, and released our first official packaged recording. The show went well all things considered, but I found that it was much more difficult to improvise in my normal mode while being watched by strangers. I felt very self conscious at first and felt an odd pressure to produce some sound that I felt would be acceptable to the perceived tastes of my audience, though I resisted the temptation. I did however fall into a sort of safe re-playing of ideas and techniques that I had previously deployed.

As the show went on however, my confidence grew and I ended up playing much more in my usual way, listening to AL and attempting to compliment what he was putting out there. I felt the set improved drastically from beginning to close and I ended quite happy and reasonably psyched. I also realized that if we are going to play out more often, I need to develop a better live set up. I ended up doing too much moving mics around and not enough playing. That being said though, I think our music is much better suited to small enclosed spaces and if we performed in such a venue, amplification would be far less a concern.

I think the CDR we did came out great. I planned the packaging so we could do all the printing ourselves. The cover ended up being drilled in such a way as to create a letterform that would serve as the focal point of the cover, but also as a stencil to decorate the (otherwise blank) discs. The stenciling helped create color washes on the cover that were then silk screened over in black ink. The type and lines were all cut by hand into freezer paper which served as a silkscreen stencil (thanks art school). We basically banged out all the printing and spraying in an evening. The music however was a nightmare. For some reason when I brought it up to peak level in Audacity it clipped when playing in iTunes?!?!? I can’t figure out why this would be and especially not when it seems to just be this session. Whatever, we got over it, albiet after two days of hell. Mental note… Learn something about mastering (yeah, right). We used the most recent session, which was really cool as it was ready for sale one week after it was recorded. How’s that for a turnaround time? We even sold a couple which is pretty cool.

Here’s the CDR design:

If anybody wants one, they are available on our myspace page: Send us a friend request while you’re at it!

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.

– Part 1
– Part 2
– Part 3
– Part 4
– Part 5
– Part 6
– Part 7

– Part 1
– Part 2
– Part 3
– Part 4
– Part 5
– Part 6

Some new noise makers from OSM laboratories

July 15, 2007

Since LATRALMAGOG took off, I have been busier than ever creating new sound making devices. Having an outlet that is consistent has really been an inspiration to take a lot of ideas I have had and put them to action. Here’s some of the newer additions:

The Well-Prepared Guitar

The Well-Prepared Guitar, or; “The Plank”
Seeing Keith Rowe a while back, was a real inspiration. I admit I’m very late to the free-improv party, but at least I showed up! Seeing Rowe play the guitar as he does brought up a bunch of questions for me though. Aside from the cleverness of using a guitar in this way, and the excitement over having to develop around this restriction, what is the point of it being six normal strings? Is it in standard tuning? If so why? Why does it have frets? Wouldn’t it be more interesting and “free-er” if it didn’t?

Now, I’m not attacking Keith Rowe here, I’m sure he has perfectly viable arguments for all of these questions, and he certainly is not being hurt by whatever restrictions his guitars provide. The point is that these very questions began to inspire me. Why should a guitar be anything but a couple of pickups and some resonating metal, if it is to be used in this form of abstract improvisation? These questions began to form in my mind a “guitar” whose only purpose was to suspend metal “string objects” and amplify them. So from my junk pile arose “The Plank”. A guitar that is “prepared” by it’s very nature.

The Well-Prepared Guitar

I built the guitar from the guts of an old fender I had laying around. I routed out some wood piece I found in my alley and put tuners and a bridge on, from what I had laying around. The strings are the interesting part. They are spaced so they can be played in a more isolated fashion and are themselves improvised in that they are experiments in string material and structure. Currently the strings are as such: 1) rigid metal wire 2) ball chain and “D” string (I think) 3) spring and “B” string. I have found that due to the odd combinations of materials, the strings vary wildly in sound due to where/how they are actuated.

The Well-Prepared Guitar

From the sample, below, I’m sure you will get a sense of how interesting it is to just “play with” the instrument. I like just hooking up a few pedals, picking up objects off my work bench and trying different ways of producing sound. I have been using this a lot lately and I think it will become a mainstay of my arsenal.

– The Well-Prepared Guitar

Modified Record Player Music Box

The Modified Music Box Record Player Toy
It’s ridiculous how hard it is to get these things these days. I was watching them on ebay for about 6 months before I finally payed about $30 for this one! Some people were selling them for $40 “buy it now” and charging $15 shipping! Anyhow, I finally got my hands on one. The reason I wanted one so bad is that they seemed so easy to modify. The “records” are soft plastic and are easily cut and broken in half and the little nubs that pluck the kalimba-like tines in the “player arm” are easy to route out, or break off (i recommend the latter). These things sound great too. They have an odd acoustic amplification system in them that projects pretty well, although i would really like to up a pickup in one.

Modified Record Player Music Box

I broke one of the discs in half and reversed one of the sides, so it would not play a recognizable melody, and then I began removing nubs and playing the disc back, over and over, until all that was left were suspended tones that seemed to emerge out of nowhere. The sound is beautiful. One of the things I love about it is you never know what note will be next, so everything you hear is a surprise, and there are far too few of those moments left.

– The Modified Music Box Record Player Toy

Ferrite Bar Pickup

The Ferrite Bar Pickup
The final new piece I have to show you, is one I myself did not think up. It’s pretty much as old as the early synthesizers, or even further back to the birth of radio. The ferrite bar. Ferrite bars are most commonly found in old radios. They come in a few shapes and sizes, but should be easy for the electronics hobbyist to recognize. They are basically a magnet wrapped in a coil of wire that is usually tapped out at a few locations. I have removed one, found it’s hottest connections (there are usually a few) and wired it to a jack. I then plasti-dipped it to seal it from the elements.

At this point, you are probably wondering why on earth I have done all this. Well, ferrite bars function in a way not unlike guitar pickups (they are basically made of the same stuff in the same fashion), so they can pickup all kinds of mechanical movements, like the movement of a motor or string. You can amplify drills, electric toothbrushes, your computer’s drives, all sorts of things. You won’t believe how cool a laptop sounds through this thing. The result is somewhat different from micing, because you are not picking up the resulting acoustic resonances from the objects you mic, so you are hearing only the purely mechanical sounds.

The recording below is of a drill, an electric toothbrush, and an electric cappuccino stirrer. The sound here is somewhat shrill, but I have gotten beautiful drones out of drills and electric toothbrushes when processed with reverb and flanger. If you decide to make one of these, try it on all kinds of things, it really does unlock a whole new world of usable sounds.

– The Ferrite Bar Pickup

I hope this list of sound-making junk was inspiring to some of you out there. All of these objects have opened up my sound-world a little more, and they continue to inspire me to dig through trash hoping to find magic. If anyone reads this and wants to know more about these objects, just ask, I’ll try my best to answer whatever questions you have. Be well.