Tuesday 8 July 2008
Over the past couple of weeks J and I have spent another few days in the studio, without playing a note. Yes, it’s session-player time. In particular, we’ve now got:
- electric guitar (a Dano 12-string jangle on “Invincible” and some sweet swell-pedal action on “Still Life”) courtesy of Dominic;
- more drums and percussion by our engineer/producer Don
- violin on “To The Nines” by Andrea and more on the way for “Aphrodite”;
- crazy undersea bowed-string noises and vocalizing on “Siren” from Rami
- organ, piano and harpsichord, courtesy of Richie; and
- a suitably over-the-top trumpet section on “Mute” all played by Stefan.
Who knew just sitting and listening could be so much work? We’ve learned a lot about listening, and coming up with musical ideas on the fly, not to mention guiding other people into realizing those ideas. It’s a fun challenge, communicating musical concepts to other people through words, singing, vocal noises, and occasionally, actually writing things down.
Julian had always had a trumpet melody in mind for the bridge on “Mute”, and wanted big, bold chords for the ending. I added a harmony to the bridge, and started fleshing out the “chords” idea with a swingy rhythmic motif… and then realized I was going to have to write the thing out. I’d composed the part in Logic, and couldn’t get the program’s “Score” view to output anything that made any sense. So I summoned up every last bit of music theory I’d ever taken, and wrote the whole thing out. Took a couple of late nights, and I worried that it was illegible, but our players approved.
Here’s the bridge from the demo version, with lovely synthesized trumpets: Mute (trumpet demo, 880k)
Not everything we did could be scored, of course, but regardless, we found it really, really helps at least to have a clear idea of what you’re after before you start. When Rami came by to play, bringing with her an Iner Souster creation called “Fat Bob”, we didn’t have parts written out - Bob, having one string and no fingerboard, isn’t particularly suited to playing melodies, anyway - but I think we had a strong idea of the texture and atmosphere we were after. J quickly joined in, offering images of a ship breaking apart at sea, the creaking of the rigging, the cracking of the timbers and the crashing of the waves. I’m really looking forward to sifting through the resulting noises and building them up into a soundscape.
Lots more to go: more drums, keyboards, backing vocals, violin and percussion - not to mention mixing and mastering. But it’s all starting to come together nicely.
Thursday 5 June 2008
Lots of good conversations at Open Everything today. The Toronto event took place today at the Centre for Social Innovation, a community space and incubator for social entrepreneurs, and further events around the world are scheduled for the rest of this year.
Among other things:
- Dr Sara Scharf spoke about modern nomenclature in biology (you know - kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species) and how it came about through a process akin to open source today. I want to find out more about these parallel, failed attempts that tried to create unique names by encoding all distinguishing features of a species in the name itself, but I haven’t found anything online yet.
- Marsha Cummings is working on a documentary about Station 20 West, a community health and social services centre in Saskatoon, which includes a co-op grocery store in a neighbourhood where the last commercial grocery stores have pulled out.
- Jane Farrow spoke about Jane’s Walk, a day of self-organized neighbourhood walking tours in honour of the late Jane Jacobs. Held in May, the event has spread to other cities across Canada, and is starting to spread to the US as well.
- Mark Kuznicki told us about Metronauts, a unique experiment in civic engagement being carried out by Metrolinx, our fledgeling regional transit authority.
- Dan, one of the denizens of the Centre for Social Innovation, introduced us to the Open Salad Club. We’ve got a lunch club at my office, where several people take turns making lunch, but somehow the idea of preparing a big dish, even if it’s only every couple of weeks, seems a bit intimidating to me. But bringing in two ingredients for salad? Easy.
Perhaps most interesting of all was hearing from David Patrick about how he, a filmmaker by trade, happened to found the Linuxcaffe - to my knowledge, the world’s first “open source” coffee shop. Everything’s open - from the recipes to the software that runs the till. And naturally, there are open stage nights, not to mention DJ nights featuring Creative Commons-licensed music. But, I thought, what about a really open stage?
Some hastily scribbled notes: Collaborations of all sorts would be encouraged. Performers could share words and music, free for others to jam on, revise and rework. Recordings would be available online to listen to and remix, and on-line contributions could feed back into the open stage. There would be show and tell time for homemade musical instruments and other gear (not coincidentally, Richard Bishop has installed one of his wonderful basses in a lamppost just outside the Caffe). I’m not sure yet what structure, or how much structure, would be needed to get such an event to work well and flow. Just something to experiment with. Stay tuned…
Friday 30 May 2008
Just finished reading Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music by Yuval Taylor and Hugh Barker. It’s an examination of the history of ideas about musical and personal authenticity, from the dawn of blues and country to the rise of disco, punk and sampling. I’m finding the topic completely fascinating - which is perhaps amusing given the name of this site…
I first heard about the book via an interview with Taylor on a public radio show from the States called The Sound of Young America. Since the book came out Taylor and Barker have continued to explore the topic on their blog, also called Faking It.
Some questions that occur to me: how has the idea of authenticity played out in other cultures? Only one chapter really gets beyond North America and the British Isles, and it restricts itself to the intersection of Western music with world music (Buena Vista Social Club, Graceland).
How universal, for example, is the celebration of primitivism - as in punk and other “back to basics” movements in rock - as more “authentic”? I’m thinking especially of an early chapter in Caetano Veloso’s Tropical Truth where he writes:
[B]ossa nova’s revival of samba evolved from a refinement of musical tastes that was influenced by high-quality American songs of the thirties and by the cool jazz of the fifties; by contrast, rock in its essence was a rejection of all sophistication, and continually proves to be so whenever it seeks its own reaffirmation… While rock was simplistic, repudiating the elegance and elaboration of a Porter or a Gershwin, with their symphonic orchestrations, Miles Davis, or Bill Evans, in João Gilberto one was witnessing an almost antithetical impulse, a continuation, rather than a suppression, of musical history… [p. 23]
On the other hand, this sort of elevation of the primitive, the artless, the naïve, is present from at least the Romantics onward - you can see it in the Fauvist painters, and in Picasso’s fascination with African tribal art. All of them yearned for a connection with something primal and natural, and saw evidence of it in art from less “sophisticated” cultures.
There’s also a parallel in the development of Zen aesthetics (I’ve also been reading Andrew Juniper’s book Wabi Sabi recently - see the Wikipedia entry for Wabi sabi for a quick intro to the topic). In a similar reaction to the ultra-refined craft that accompanied the spread of Buddhism from China, Japanese monks strove to cut away all the fussy, meaningless trappings and strike directly to the essence. The arts they cultivated, from calligraphy to pottery to the tea ceremony, were pared down to their essence, and aspired to the artlessness of nature.
Where these parallel lines diverge, perhaps, is in the realm of personality and ego. Where most authenticity-seeking artists in the West seem to strive foremost for self-expression, the Zen practitioners would seek to abandon the self, to focus on nothing but the creation.
In their discussion of Kurt Cobain, Taylor and Barker suggest that the inevitable gap between ideals and real life was what killed him in the end. They don’t offer any way out of this trap, but if there is one, it’s probably close to the Zen approach of abandoning self, ego, and all expectations - both your own and those of the audience.
Lots more thoughts to organize on this topic, but that’s enough for now. I’m off to play Rock Band with my housemates.
Friday 16 May 2008
A quick summary of an eventful season:
I’m settled into my new position as web maintainer for Evergreen, an organization focused on environmental education and community-based greening initiatives. It’s a fine bunch of people, and the work feels much more worthwhile than almost anything I did working on the “agency side”.
We’ve been dropping into Don Kerr’s studio every few weekends to record the new Flickershow album - we have ten songs in progress, with vocals, guitar, bass and drums complete on almost all of them and keyboards on about half. I’m currently working on the trumpet arrangement for a recent song called “Mute”. We’ve also played a whole pile of gigs, most notably busking in front of Pages Books on Queen St, and a swell gig for Earth Hour which included an hour-long, completely acoustic songwriters’ circle.
Sean and I spent a few days in San Francisco last month - he was there to attend a couple of different conferences, and we got to visit his sister, her partner and their two black cats (it seems to run in the family). I spent several days walking all over the downtown area, and up to Fort Mason, where I visited the Long Now Foundation’s museum and shop. Spent many hours checking out every sound-related exhibit at the Exploratorium. I came home with far too many books, and a new pair of shoes - my old pair having disintegrated completely after several dozen hills too many.
Much more to come - more musical experiences; several books to discuss; and my obsession with ruins continues.
Sunday 3 February 2008
As cities go, Detroit is pretty much the ultimate American example of what can go wrong. From its height during the heyday of the auto industry, the Motor City fell hard, strangled by freeways, unbalanced by “white flight”, and battered by the decline of US automakers. Attempts at jump-starting the ailing downtown were mostly miserable failures, in particular the fortress-like Renaissance Center.
It took until the 1990s to see any serious signs of recovery, including major investment in renovation and new construction. Today, downtown Detroit is still full of abandoned buildings - shacks and mansions, skyscrapers and factories. (Visit DetroitYES and Forgotten Detroit for a photo tour of some of the most remarkable of these. And perhaps most poignant of all, see the photos from Sweet Juniper of the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, still full of rotting books and educational materials - “a warehouse full of abandoned hope.”)
Naturally, all this has made the city a magnet for urban explorers in search of “lost” places to discover, and others drawn by the peculiar romance of urban decay. Writing in Metropolis magazine, Camilo José Vergara put forth a fanciful but entirely serious notion:
“I propose that as a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis. We could transform the nearly 100 troubled buildings into a grand national historic park of play and wonder, an urban Monument Valley.”
Not surprisingly, preservationists and downtown boosters were aghast. “If you allow nature to win back man-made objects you are being anti-urban,” one argued. “It’s an insult to America, to what America stands for,” another told the New York Times.
Personally, I love the idea (though I can understand why Detroiters, ever-sensitive about their city’s reputation, would be especially touchy about it). Ruins serve as a sort of memento mori on a grand scale, reminding us of our mortality. They’re not tidy or comfortable. They nudge us toward thinking about time and life, on a scale that’s bigger than our own lives.
And when ruins become overrun by the wild again, they can also be reminders of the endless abundance of nature, that power of rebirth I wrote about a while back. And, as Vergara argues, “Such buildings need to be preserved as symbols of the aspirations they represented when built.”
Thinking along the same lines, artist John McKinnon headed a project here in Toronto to preserve the concrete pillars from the eastern leg of the Gardiner Expressway. The kilometer-long elevated spur, a vestige of a plan to extend the expressway all the way through Scarborough, was torn down in 2001, but the pillars remain as a peculiar tribute to the spirit of “Big Daddy” Gardiner’s Toronto (I’m sure he would have been livid). Stripped of the dangling bits of rusted rebar, tidied up and refinished (how very Toronto), the pillars are slowly being overgrown with ivy.
Another “deliberate ruin” here in town is the Cloud Garden Parkette near Bay and Adelaide (pictured above). Architects Baird and Sampson, together with artist Margaret Priest, took inspiration from Giovanni Piranesi, whose etchings of Roman ruins had captured the imagination of 18th-century Europe. They set out to design and construct a Modernist ruin, with beams and rough bits of wall peeking through here and there. It’s a bit contrived, but the park itself is delightful, somehow creating all kinds of intimate, contemplative spaces all packed onto a relatively tiny lot - dense without feeling crowded. All that and a greenhouse with a little rainforest conservatory too. But I digress.
The parkette was built as a concession by the developers of the Bay-Adelaide Centre. However, before the office tower was completed, the 1980s office-building boom in Toronto staggered to a halt, and for years a vast concrete stump loomed over the Cloud Garden - a real ruin next to a fake one. (The story is told in more detail in Robert Fulford’s book Accidental City.)
Now, at last, a tower is being built on the site. It fills in a significant gap, but I’ll miss the Bay-Adelaide Stump. Okay, as a memento, it was more a reminder of financial folly than of impending doom, but it was like our own tiny, tidy version of Vergara’s historic ruins park.
Even ruins aren’t forever.
Sunday 13 January 2008
The dust’s settled on 2007 at last, and does it ever feel like a new year now. Here’s a few highlights, including some stuff I didn’t write about the first time round:
January: Spinglobe moves into a brand new office in a neat building in the east end. One of the first projects is a music video for the Mahones. It’s a takeoff on that Fellini scene where la Saraghina dances the rhumba on a Mediterranean beach - except it’s January, on Ashbridge’s Bay, and the warm spell of the previous week is most definitely over. We should have called the production Minus 8½. We freeze our collective asses off, but the video ends up looking pretty darn fine.
February: Played in the band for a musical revue put on as a fundraiser by some friends - my first time playing Broadway style is a fun challenge; I stress way about it more than I have to. Reconceived long-running audio drama idea as a podcast; later in the year would reconceive it again as a comic. Expect it to morph into a novel, a musical extravaganza and finally a series of haiku in 2008.
March: In the studio with Ellen Carol to record bass tracks for her new CD, produced by Don Kerr. Restarted work on Flickershow CD; we get some solid demos done and some cool results on a trip-hoppy new song called “Hold Up Donny”. It doesn’t last, however; I end up firing myself as producer later in the year. If all goes well we’ll be recording with Don in 2008.
May: Played with Flickershow at the Sammy Sugar Day Festival, the kickoff for Ellen’s fundraising bike tour of Eastern Canada. Finally launched a site for Presonance, a collaboration with Rezo Largul.
June: Attended OpenCities, an “unconference” about the convergence of civic engagement and the open source movement. Among the topics are the waterfront revitalization, public space, DIY electronics and public art, dancing in the streets. Coincidentally, the next day, Flickershow played at Pedestrian Sundays, a monthly car-free event in Kensington Market (other events occur in Mirvish Village and on Baldwin Street); our first outing with keyboard player Rich.
Later in the month, Sean’s mom comes up from Pennsylvania for a visit. Tuesday we’re at work while she takes it easy; she’s out having a smoke on the front porch when lightning strikes a tree two doors down, and a gale-force gust of wind tears off branches for several blocks. We return home to find our street a maze of police tape, tree limbs and downed power lines. Neighbouring streets are almost unaffected. “I didn’t do it,” she pleads.
July: Played Newmarket and Brampton - our only out-of-town gig prior to this was our TVO appearance taped in Parry Sound. First steps toward developing an analog-to-MIDI interface using that splendid new toy, the Arduino.
October: A week from hell. Two or three clients go through reorganizations, and a number of key projects go on indefinite hold. Contractors removing a cellular tower break a sprinkler pipe and flood part of our office. None of this registers, however, because our co-worker’s 21-year-old brother has just died in his sleep. Things are very quiet for several days.
November: Two good friends of ours invited us to play a song at their crazy cabaret-style lesbian wedding. The only question was what to wear. (As MC for the evening, Sean had no such dilemma, since they’d put him in a rather lovely kilt and feather boa.)
At the end of the month, a beautiful, awe-inspiring, mad trip to Marrakech with Sean, his mom and stepdad, and a new friend, the irrepressible and energizing Katie. We stayed in the heart of the medina, a maze of winding alleyways full of people, tiny shops, mopeds and stray cats. A handful of local kids kept asking for money; Sean juggled for them instead (years ago he did it for a living in Dallas) and became an instant hit. Later, we drove through the Atlas Mountains to ride camels into the desert and sleep in a tent. Beautiful country, lots of wonderful people. And occasional strange family moments.
December: The partners make the tough decision to sell the company to a bigger firm. Some of us move over, the video business splits off (taking on the name Robotnik Films), and I start looking for work. I’ll miss the place, and I’ll miss working with the Spinglobe crew. But it’s a huge opportunity, both to find work in a field that’s important to me and to have some actual free time again. Here’s to the new year!
Friday 11 January 2008
(It’s been a whole month since I last posted, and what a month. Lots of things are up in the air, but in general it’s been going well. There are promising job leads, I’ve had time to reorganize the studio at last, and resume work on some projects, both musical and electronic - more about those soon. Meanwhile…)
The other day, while Sean and I were out for a bite to eat, we noticed a store sign across the street proudly announcing “Claremont Confectionery - Smoke and Gifts - Complete Line of Guns & Fishing Tackle” in handsome hand-painted lettering… might have been forty or fifty years old, by the look of it. The building is now a restaurant, but the owners had apparently liked the sign enough to keep it around. It’s not the only such “historic” sign on Queen Street, either.
I like this sort of nod to the past. I’ve heard it criticized as pretentious and empty - like “façadism” in architecture, where the front of a historic building is kept, and attached to a brand new, usually much larger building. You’re appropriating a cultural artifact that has its own layered history, the argument goes, presumably hoping that some of its essence carries over into your new enterprise.
But nah… it’s pretty neat that elements like this are being kept, however superficial they might be. If it’s done with a bit of reverence and respect, they can help connect us with our surroundings, and remind us that we’re all part of this vast stretch of history.
I once designed a logo for a friend, which was eventually made into a sign that hung over her storefront on Queen West. I’d designed logos before, and web sites and business cards, but this felt different - the first time seeing something I’d created become such a visible part of her shop’s public face, physical and permanent.
Well, not that permanent, of course. It’s been gone for years now. Dozens of signs appear on and vanish from that block alone every year, only slightly more permanent than the cards, posters and other ephemera that flutter through it. It’s cool that every once in a while one survives.
(Next: decay, ruins, and aesthetics.)
Tuesday 4 December 2007
I just spent a week in Morocco. Not somewhere I would have gone of my own accord, but for my partner it was something akin to a spiritual mission. And what an incredible, overwhelming, intense, emotional week it was - Sean likened it to gestalt therapy. (Some day I may even write about what we actually saw and did there!)
We’d planned the trip for quite a while, and as it turned out, it came at a moment of big change for us. About a week previously, Sean had made the decision to fold the little company where we’ve been working for the past few years. It’s been a tough time, getting everything in order, helping one another find new work, and finishing up a few last projects.
The biggest question: what next? For me, at least, the journey provided some time to think, and opportunity to contemplate our place in the grand scheme of things, from our vantage point on the edge of the Sahara.
The desert is a powerful symbol for me: it represents Death; the end of all things. It’s what happens to ecosystems when they go belly-up, when the soil dries up and blows away. And as we consume more, as the climate shifts, as more water is drawn up from the water table for irrigation, for the cities, as less snow falls every year on the Atlas Mountains to melt and feed the valleys below - our deserts grow.
It didn’t help matters that we’d flown across the Atlantic to get there, leaving high-altitude jet exhaust in our wake. I hate thinking about these things, but I can’t turn away. The coming decades are going to be hard ones for humanity. What we’ve got ahead of us is nothing short of a war effort - a war against chaos and collapse. I would rather not live to see half the species on the planet disappear. I would rather not live to see modern civilisation break down. I would rather not see haves and have-nots pitted against one another in a struggle over dwindling resources. But these are the possibilities we face, and I’d rather be doing something constructive than sitting in a hole pretending everything’s fine.
Far too much of our way of life has come at the cost of misery for other people and other creatures, and the destruction of ecosystems around the world. But at the same time, we’ve accomplished a lot that is great and meaningful, and I don’t believe the solution is to roll back the clock. I don’t believe that life in the past was better - merely less precarious on a grand scale. We have to move forward, not back. We have to innovate like mad - not just mere technical innovations but ways to connect with each other and with the world around us, to find our place, to recognize the part we are playing, to find opportunities to make the world better.
What can you do? You can do what you can do. Can you type? Type something. Can you walk and talk? Walk around and talk to people. Can you use your Ph.D. in environmental science to test for and uncover the alarming release of polyvinyl chlorides from shoreline industry into the Great Lakes, then publish a report, coordinate a media campaign and pursue legal action based on your findings? Then by all means please do that, too. Ride a bike, write a letter, save a plant. We are not powerless against the They we’re up against.
It echoed perfectly what I’d been feeling (if in slightly more combative terms). I’ve decided, now that it’s transition time, that I want my next job to be in the sustainability sector, something involving permaculture, or appropriate technology. I need to be working with people who are thinking along the same lines.
I’m also hoping to have a lot more time to write and devote to creative projects, and to post more here. There’s already a section on this site called The Big Here which I intend to write for much more in the coming months. Ecology, both human and non-; architecture and design; how people relate to each other and how they adapt to different situations… it’s all part of a greater whole.
I feel like I’ve just awakened from a long sleep. I’ve got a lot of tangled underbrush to get through now, finishing up the last few projects before we close up shop, not to mention two gigs coming up. But already my head feels clearer.
Tuesday 13 November 2007
From the What I Been Listening To department:
For unfathomable reasons, I’ve been hooked on a show called Blue Jam. Aired in the late ‘90s, it was the brainchild of Radio 1 enfant terrible Chris Morris, whose earlier pranks had included a discussion of ludicrous methods to obtain a legal high, and most famously, the “non-announcement” of the death of a still-living cabinet minister. After the latter incident, BBC censors clamped down hard; why they ever let him back through their doors is a mystery.
Blue Jam is a deeply disturbing show, but utterly hilarious. Sketches and monologues drift in and out amid music of all sorts, starting with an always-different introduction delivered by Morris in a sinister monotone (“When thrapping door-knock brings not chums with cakes, but friends of Sweaty Fred, full madding because you failed to sell… welcome in Blue Jam…”) and quickly descending into a nightmarish world of misfits and psychopaths.
Almost every character we meet is unhinged: the doctor who amuses himself by humiliating his patients and prescribing useless treatments; the parents who belong to a baby-fighting ring; the avant-garde artists who disembowel a man and put him in a display case (much in the fashion of the art-murders on David Bowie’s album Outside). Some favorites: Maria, the four-year-old hardened criminal, Rothko the doberman, and the inexplicable club-scene and style roundups from Michael Alexander St John.
Some of the best sketches were spun into a six-episode series on Channel 4 called simply Jam, and lots - probably most - are up on YouTube. I’m almost afraid to link to any, but here’s a typical opening, and a sketch about a television repairman. Browse the Related Videos at your own peril. Expect mayhem, blasphemy, dead babies, dead dogs, sexual deviance and bad language.
Wednesday 24 October 2007
I’ve been listening to a podcast from last year featuring Will Wright and Brian Eno, talking about generative art, and it gave me an interesting idea.
There have been a lot of attempts at so-called “fractal music” (here’s a bunch of links to several such projects), but all the ones I’ve heard just take a chunk of data from, say, the Mandelbrot set, and map it to one musical scale or another. It’s hard to really hear any self-similarity happening.
Which seems a lost opportunity. Think about it: sound waveforms themselves have fractal properties, because phenomena like vibration, resonance and oscillation happen on all physical scales. Speed up a thumping rhythm far enough and eventually it turns into a tone. And any waveform can theoretically be expressed as a mix of sine waves of different pitches. Fractal generation software lets you zoom in and out to see different fractals in near-infinite detail. What if we could do the same by speeding up or slowing down a piece of audio?
A big challenge, of course, would the problem of resolution. Whether you’re working with analog or digital audio, as you slow it down you’ll eventually start to lose detail in the high frequencies, until it all goes muddy. It’s akin to blowing up a photograph, until all you can see is the grain, or a bunch of great big pixels - or conversely, shrinking it until you run out of photograph. You could always pack in more data to describe a chunk of sound, but you’d end up with a gigantic file, and you’d always hit a wall somewhere. For best results the sound from our hypothetical audio-fractal would have to be computed on the fly.
Not a new idea, but as far as I know no one’s done it yet. There’s an entry for something called “All-Music-Set Player” at Halfbakery (a “communal database of original, fictitious inventions”) which is pretty close to the mark. I’m not interested in generating all music, just creating interesting sounds to explore.
Controls: speed, perhaps other parameters like density or default shape. It’d be interesting to work in some sort of “scrub” control too.
Issues: what language to write such a thing in? How do you describe the waveform? (some sort of generative grammar that sums wavelets?) How do you set up such a generator so that you can calculate a value for a sample at an arbitrary point on the time axis? Is it even possible? The fact that I can’t find any examples of fractal audio generators makes me wonder if the obstacle is simply one of processing power…