Posts Tagged ‘sound experiments’

Indeterminate Improvisation

December 9, 2008

One of the issues with improvisation that i have been (and doubtless will be) grappling with, is the issue of non-intention, and indeterminacy. As a bit of a Cage devotee, I of course, find these things to be very important in the kind of music I make, but there is always the question of how and why they are utilized. Initially I think my instinct in music making was toward picking up instruments with which I had no relationship, and exploring the sounds they made as a total novice. While this approach can certainly be effective, even very effective at times, I found that it never ended up growing a real relationship with the instrument that continued past the initial novelty. At some point, the stumbling about as indeterminacy, wears thin, as you become more familiar and therefore more determinate in your playing. You either have to resist this, or become more focussed in your approach, and there are plenty of arguments for both sides (but that’s not what I want to get into here).

I suppose then, that this may be a good explanation, for why I appreciate accidental sound sequences so much. They get to be so fresh and sometimes so beguiling, with no effort to remain true to any praxis, and no overanalyzation. The sounds don’t worry about themselves.

This interest has lead me to experimenting with various strategies for incedental sound making and recording. One device i have been using a bit of late, is the utilization of contact microphones to pick up the sounds of othwise mundane activity. An example of this technique could be contact micing your dinner table, while you and a friend have dinner, thus transforming all of the incedental movements you make into a sequence of pseudo-random sound. Sometimes these techniques work surprisingly well on their own, but often times they really work well, when combined with other sound sequences, so that the sounds “collaborate” in interesting ways.

Here are a couple of examples I think work particularly well, and that I have found very enjoyable to listen to:

Accidentals 1 (4:34)
Stereo contact mic recording of myself working on the computer/Stereo contact mic recording of myself unloading dishes from the dishwasher.

This piece is full of interesting moments. The space between sounds becomes very charged at times, and may be intereupted by forceful and precise bursts of sound. I find this piece to have a delightfully in-human sense of space and timing. It upsets my expectations still after multiple listens, something I have been appreciating a lot recently. I also like how small each “instrument’s” pallette is. There is a relatively small variety of sounds, and yet somehow this restriction works as more an asset than a drawback.

Accidentals 2 (6:08)
Edited stereo field recording/Shortwave radio scan

While the first piece is thick with charged silence, this piece has none. The shortwave scanning is constant, and was not initially intended to be an improvisation. It was recorded up at a friend’s cabin in the Poconos, as I searched for interesting signals. The field recording is assembled from incedental sounds resulting from the disassembly of an oil tank and the silences that surround them. Sometimes the sounds are gentle, sometimes not. The radio here forms a range of sounds from soft pads of detailed texture, to blasts of unruly static, distant voices, and contaminated music. While the field recording plays agitator with unpredictable pin pricks of sounds and occasional sheet-metal roars.



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

Everyday field recording with baby monitors

August 2, 2008


I have been working a lot with field recordings lately, especially the idea of sampling the space in which one is playing and using it in performance. A couple weeks ago, it occured to me that I could use a baby monitor, strategically placed, to pull in at will, sounds happening outside the performance space. I almost immediately went on ebay and purchased a Sony BabyCall monitor.

I selected this model because I’ve had good luck with being able to mod Sony’s products in the past, and because this model was supposedly battery opperated, and thus, I figured, I could plant the transmitter anywhere I wanted without having to worry about power. But the listing was misleading and it ended up having a battery opperated receiver, and an AC opperated transmitter. A bit of a bummer, yes, but I think I might be able to mod it eventually.

The other night I got the idea to plant it in by back yard over night, and record the output on my computer upstairs. I quickly mounted an output with a switch inside the receiver and got to setting it up before bed. I put the transmitter outside and connected the receiver to my laptop. I set up Sound Studio to auto record when the input went above background noise level and went to bed.

The sounds that awaited me in the morning were great fun. Planes, busses, and car horns, dominated the soundscape, but the monitor warps everything in such a way that even these fairly plain sounds sounded magical to me.

I decided to set it up again, this time while i was at work, to capture the sounds in my backyard during the day. The sounds were much more of the same, cars, airplanes, trolleys, the occasional dog bark, some frequency disturbance of some kind, etc, but more frequent and louder i think. There was even some random talking that appeared (probably my neighbor). The one other thing that wound up on the recording, was my wife throwing some bottles and stuff in the recycling bin. This part was particularly interesting to me for it’s haphazard percussive effect. 

So far, this has been great fun. I think my next step is either to successfully mod my monitor so that it can be placed further from my house, or build one of these. 

I am anxious to try these techniques in performance. I’m hoping when i do, it will be a nice source of random sounds, and i really like the idea that I’m interjecting something both real-time and random into the set. Enjoy the samples.

– Domesticity

– This is a back yard

Field recording: Oil tank dismemberment

July 14, 2008

Recently, a friend of mine invited a group of people (myself included) down to his family’s shore house in the Chesapeake bay, for a weekend of grounds upkeep and some general merriment. One of the tasks that he sought to accomplish in that weekend was the dismantling of a five by twenty foot oil tank, that had washed ashore some twenty-five odd years earlier, and which had been eating up prime shore space for (obviously) far too long.

The plan was that everyone who owned one, would bring a Sawzall, and we would spend the better part of saturday, cutting it into movable pieces. Of course, me, being who I am, brought a mini-disk recorder to capture all the noise. We worked for nearly three hours straight on it, and i’d say we were able to remove about a quarter of it. Sawzalls, as awesome as they are, are just not made to cut through 3/4 inch steel ribs.

I began recording as soon as we started, and as soon as I could, moved the mic to the inside of the tank. I recorded a full discs worth of sound from various locations in the tank. The overall effect is what you might imagine, a grandiose cacophony, but there is something about the pacing and the incidental sounds made by the removal of a panel, or the constant drone of the waves, that is kind of magical.

The only thing that bothered me when listening to it, was the sounds of us. Talking, trying to figure stuff out, making dumb cheers when we got a big chunk. It was too distracting from the overall sound. So what I’ve done for the purposes of my own listening pleasure, and this blog, is cut out all of the human sound (or as much as I could). I have also cut the length down considerably of course, choosing to focus on some of the more interesting chunks. I have made an effort however to keep as much of the silence in tact as possible, so that the pace still feels natural and organic.

– Oil tank dismemberment

I also, as I listened to this may times, fell in love with all of the incidental, “non-cutting” sounds. They are just so random, robust, and wonderful sounding. So I did an edit, where I removed everything but them and the spaces around them. In doing this, the sound of the waves became very un-natural sounding, so I experimented with removing them using a noise gate. I really liked the effect. It’s kind of unnerving at times, and totally unnatural, but I like it nonetheless.

– Oil tank incidentals 


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.

ATTACK! (for 5 skilled or unskilled performers)

May 7, 2008

Performers should select acoustic instruments or objects that can be struck, plucked, or otherwise sounded in such a way as to not produce a constant tone, but a clear attack and decay.

Instructions for performers:
– play one sound at a time and let it die out completely before making another one
– don’t play if anyone else is playing
– play as often as possible
– if two or more start at the same time, all but one must stifle their sound
– you may observe, but do not communiacte with the other performers
– play either for a predetermined amount of time, or until it is time to stop

Music for four performers and four laptops

May 4, 2008

All performers should be male, and should be selected because they have completed Mario Brothers previously. The four performers should perform in a rectangular (preferably square) room, with each performer positioned in each corner, facing inward.

Performers are to be outfitted with laptops (make and model up to what is available). Laptops are to be equipped with an emulator running “Mario Brothers”. A contact mic is to be placed on each laptop so as to pick up keystrokes as loudly as possible, and connected to an amplifier, pointing toward the center of the room. (sounds from the game itself are not to be included, performers may only use the computer keyboard for gameplay) 

Performers are to be to be instructed to race to successfully complete the game first. The piece is over when someone does, and their prize is whatever the take from the door is.

Possible visuals: images of the four player’s screens, projected on top of one another.

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!


Improvisation for speakers, vessels and contact microphones

March 22, 2008

Well, I have to say it’s almost a little embarrassing to be back after such a long, unannounced hiatus. I think that the time has come again to shift gears slightly to keep this blog going and relevant, as my experimentation is becoming a bit less frequent due to an overall increase in the complexity of the work. More on that in a future post.

In the past months as I have mentioned I have been increasingly interested in the possibilities of kind of free improvisation. As I have been reading and thinking and opening my ears this past year, I have come to a nearly complete acceptance of all sounds. I am finding music everywhere now. Just being alive and walking around has become a new and exciting experience, as now I’m always looking for interesting sounds. Of course, now I’m tempted to carry a recording device constantly to try to capture these things, but I’m wary of the obsession that could become, and the possibly frustrating results.

In thinking recently about what makes sounds acceptable to myself and others, I have been fascinated by people’s approach to feedback. Well deployed feedback during the swell to crescendo in a rock show, can make people ecstatic, whilst the unintentional feedback of a microphone on a stage at a seminar, can make people recoil – and even think the speaker a hack for somehow not being able to control the main tool of his trade!

I think what makes most people adverse to, or even afraid of feedback, is what excites me about it – it’s unpredictable behavior. In a way, working with feedback is like sculpting. There’s a real physical component to it that can be shaped and manipulated if one is careful… but there is always the danger of it collapsing in on itself into uncontrollable high-pitched squeal. But is the squeal so bad really? Or are we just convinced to think that it’s bad by the behavior of those around us in response to it.

I decided last saturday, that I was going to set up a stereo-feedback system and record myself basically wrestling with it. Sometimes trying to control it, but other times letting it loose and then dealing with the results. I set up two amps about four feet apart, facing eachother. I connected two contact mics one to a thin brass bowl, one to a cup made of tin-foil, and plugged them into a couple overdrive pedals and to my mixer. I ran lines out of the mixer, left and right, one to each amp, and another set, out to my recording device. I hit record and started grappling. Through the course of the improvisation, I tested various movements, treatments, etc. Due to the system being stereo, I had the option of panning feedback between the two amplifiers. With the fuzz boxes, I had various levels of overdrive to experiment with. So I played, and tested, and pushed, and pulled, and waved my arms around, feeling the sounds actually bouncing off my hands, shaping them by redirecting sounds with other vessels or body parts.

Most importantly for me, I faced the squeal head on. Sometimes I would sit there and let it burn my ears for a minute, like hot sauce on the tongue, looking inside it for some kind of aspect I had missed before. Looking for what was bad about it, and what was good.

The improvisation lasted around 25 minutes, which was a surprise to me, as I would have guessed more like 10 minutes if you’d asked. The results range from droney, to gurgling, to ear-cleaningly shrill, but there’s something else. I don’t know if it’s my continued intrigue with this substance, but I can’t stop listening to this recording. In fact, I think I may actually release it in some form. I have been thinking about starting some kind of net-label, and this may be a good first release.

Anyway, for now, you get it for free (and probably for the foreseeable future, as I’m not at all into the idea of depriving people of experience). Play this loud and on a stereo if you can, at least for the first go. There are some pretty beautiful timbres and sonorities in here if you are willing to look. The sound is physical, so walk about in the room while you listen, It enhances your interaction with the piece. Please enjoy!

– A spear through the purple indefinite 

So Do You Think the Future of Music is Dead?

January 6, 2008

Hahaha, made you groan! Ok, so this is kind of ridiculous, but I had to do it for the sake of… well, ridiculousness! A friend of mine turned me on to the above video the other day (1st part of like a 5 or so part series). It’s an interview with Mike Patton from like ’92 or something. It is HYSTERICAL! It goes something like this… Interviewer asks dumb question, Patton gives dumb answer in between bites of a really gross looking sandwich. It’s brilliant! At one point (after Patton says a series of really disparaging things about the state of music today) the interviewer asks if Patton thinks the future of music is dead. 

I’m just going to let you stew in the brilliance of the question for a moment…  

aaaaand we’re back. So Patton then gives one of the best answers to that question I think possible. Anyway, I was laughing my head off. So for some reason this exchange inspired me to make the following rip off of “It’s Gonna Rain” with the question and response. If you can actually listen to this whole track you deserve an award. I have to say though, if you do… at about the 3 minute mark your brain will start doing really weird things with you perception of time, it’s quite strange. Anyway, here it is… 

The worst thing about music…