Blog: entries tagged with "music"

Drawing blanks

Drawing A Blank coverTo summarize the summer:

We released the first full-length Flickershow CD, entitled Drawing A Blank. Ten songs; I played bass, sang harmony, did arrangements and other odds and ends. We’re quite proud of it, and the CD release party was a blast. There’s a link to buy it online from our website, and it’s also available through that music store Apple runs. Things have been a bit quiet since the CD release, since Julian’s just got married (check out their awesome first dance on the YouTube) but there will be gigging in the new year, and with luck some out-of-town gigs in the spring.

All other music ventures have been on hold, meanwhile. I’m starting to plot my return to action, but it’s been nice to take a break for a few months and mess around with other things like writing and drawing (including the cover art for our CD) and catching up on comics.


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This post is in honour of Ada Lovelace Day.

A big part of my fascination with electronic music is thanks to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which I was first exposed to as a kid via Tom Baker-era Doctor Who (I’ve written here previously about Delia Derbyshire’s arrangement of the theme) and the original Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series, which creator Douglas Adams conceived of in part as a radio play with the production values of a modern rock album. I learned later that they provided sound effects for The Goon Show and other BBC dramas.

But where did they come from? Who came up with the idea of a room tucked away in the Maida Vale Studios whose express purpose was to birth previously unimaginable sounds?

Daphne Oram (photo: BBC)The answer: Daphne Oram. As a teenager she had become a studio engineer at the BBC, entering the traditionally male domain during the height of WWII. Her duties included balancing sound levels and “shadowing” broadcasts from the Albert Hall during the Blitz, keeping a disc of the same piece synchronized to allow the music to play on even if the concert was interrupted by German bombs.

Later, when audio tape recorders came to the UK, she spent nights hauling the machines together to work on projects before returning them to their various studios in the morning. Excited by the possibilities of tape and electronics as composing tools, she lobbied for a dedicated studio for such experiments, and at last in 1958 the BBC established the Radiophonic Workshop with Daphne Oram as its first studio manager.

It was her hope that the new studio would be a centre for art music, but to her disappointment, the music department regarded the Workshop merely as a source of background music and funny noises. She resigned in 1959, though her work there would be the inspiration for those who followed in her footsteps—and for generations of viewers and listeners who grew up hearing their work.

Meanwhile, Daphne Oram went freelance, setting up a studio, which she called Tower Folly, at a farm in Kent. There, she worked on soundtracks and commercial pieces as well as concert pieces, and began work devising a sound synthesis system which she called “Oramics”. It used patterns on 35mm film to generate and shape sounds—essentially an early method of creating sound graphically. (If you have RealPlayer, the BBC’s tribute has a great audio clip from 1972 of Ms Oram demonstrating her invention.)

IMAGEShe also wrote An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics, a playful and eccentric little volume that mingles circuit diagrams, metaphysical musings, electronic music history, and design notes for the Oramics system, which she hopes is a step toward more “humanised” machine interfaces. It’s long out of print, but Dan Pope of the band Gusset has posted a scanned PDF version.

Paradigm Discs have released a two-CD set of Daphne Oram’s work called simply Oramics—the page includes a few downloadable MP3s. Her piece Four Aspects also saw release this year on the Sub Rosa compilation An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music, Vol. 2. It’s currently the only piece you’ll find on iTunes. Her commercial pieces are light and blippy, perhaps a little reminiscent of her contemporary Raymond Scott’s, while some of the longer, “serious” pieces are moody and introspective, foreshadowing the ambient music of later decades. Here’s hoping for more re-releases to come.

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Nature, cities and brains

Table and chair on Ward's Island. Photo: Sean HowardMy copy of Christopher Alexander’s The Phenomenon of Life arrived in the mail today (I’ve written here previously about his book A Pattern Language). It’s the first of his four-part opus The Nature of Order, an attempt at a grand theory of architecture and aesthetics.

You might have read Jonah Lehrer’s Boston Globe column about the impact of urban versus “natural” environments on cognition. In a University of Michigan study, participants spent an hour walking through the streets of Ann Arbor, or through U-M’s botanical gardens, before undergoing tests to gauge the effect on their memory and attention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who walked through the gardens did better.

Chalk one up for nature, then—or at least for superficial science writing. I’d like to see a lot more exploration and research, to give us a more detailed idea of the effect of different types of urban environments (bustling or empty, immaculate or run-down, a hip, bohemian neighbourhood versus a Fifth Avenue, the financial district, the suburbs) and more natural ones (a park, a formal European or Japanese style garden, a vegetable patch, a swamp, a farm, a mountain, an old-growth forest, a riverside)? How about some brain imaging?

Alexander’s research has been an attempt to build such a picture—to draw out the elements that give one place or thing more life than another. Much of his study boils down to simply presenting a subject with two objects or photos, and asking: which of these makes you feel more alive? Which makes you feel more whole? Which more closely reflects your own inner being? He concludes that there are actual, universal principles that underlie our affinity for places, things and other beings. Erich Fromm (and later E.O. Wilson) called this affinity biophilia; Alexander offers a possible structure for understanding it.

The Phenomenon of Life describes 15 essential qualities that contribute to the integrity and life of a system or structure, largely concerned with how the parts of such a system interrelate and support one another: interlock and ambiguity, strong boundaries, local symmetries—essentially extending and generalizing his work in A Pattern Language.

I’m looking forward to examining the world through this new set of lenses, and applying it to other fields (interestingly, while many architects have understandably been cool to his ideas, a number of enthusiastic computer programmers have found ways to apply them to their practice). Alexander only discusses physical objects, so relating his principles to music, for example, is going to be a fun exercise (for instance, “interlock” has strong parallels with counterpoint, and “levels of scale” applies very naturally to rhythms) and one that may finally inspire me to get back to composing.

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Pärt and process

Salon 21 is a wide-ranging series of informal talks by composers and musicians put on by new music org Soundstreams. Last night we heard an appreciation of the music of Arvo Pärt by composer, conductor and Laurier professor Glenn Buhr. Buhr’s enthusiasm made for an engaging introduction to the music, providing lots for a musicology geek like me to enjoy without getting too technical.

One particular aspect that interested me was Pärt’s use of process, following simple, deterministic procedures to generate stirring music from extremely limited material. It’s similar in some senses to Steve Reich‘s phase pieces, or Brian Eno‘s loop-based ambient works, but there are big differences.

Reich’s phase music uses short loops, whether that’s physical loops of recording tape, percussion or piano figures that are simply repeat throughout the piece. These fall in and out of phase with each other, shifting from unison to a subtle echo to cacophony to tightly interlocking patterns, and finally come back into phase again, bringing the piece back to where it began.

Eno’s ambient pieces, such as Music For Airports, were inspired by Reich’s work, but use loops of uneven length that will practically never repeat. Eno’s self-stated goal was to create pieces that were effectively infinite, something he was able to explore further once computer music technology allowed it—he coined the term “generative music” to describe it. It comes as no surprise, really, that Eno’s designing the chimes to be sounded by the 10,000-year Clock of the Long Now.

But where Reich’s pieces are cyclic and Eno’s aspire to being infinite, Arvo Pärt’s music is more fatalistic. We heard a recording of his Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, which uses as its basic material a descending A-minor scale, with violins moving fastest and lower strings progressively more slowly, but all moving toward the tonic—their ultimate destination. The whole piece is relentless in its finality, moving inexorably downward until at last the high strings linger on their notes, waiting for the basses to catch up, and the long final chords boil with a kind of dread—fitting for a meditation on death.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir close out their North American tour with a stop in Toronto tomorrow night, but sadly, I won’t be there. My consolation: we’ll be in the studio mixing the new Flickershow CD!

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Paring down

Sean and I are moving into a new place in Leslieville in less than a week, and we’re well into the exhausting task of tossing things we no longer need (the new house is rather smaller than the old) and boxing up everything else. This time around, I finally bit the bullet and got rid of all my CDs and vinyl, except for discs by friends’ bands and the occasional rarity. Since I listen to everything on my computer or iPod these days, my collection had been sitting in boxes in the basement for a couple of years already.

I’d been avoiding the issue for a long time, but today we had a truck rented to do a Goodwill run, and I made the decision to let them all go, pretty much on the spur of the moment. It was actually the first time I’ve been in a CD store in years, and aside from the occasional gift, I don’t imagine I’ll have any cause to do so again. I felt more than a little awkward walking in there with all my boxes — while I was giving them a lot of good stuff (several hundred dollars’ worth, in fact), I was essentially renouncing their services as well.

Aside: my first musical purchase, to my memory, bought at a little shopping mall music store: a cassette of 1000 Airplanes on the Roof by Philip Glass (having been mesmerized by a clip of Koyaanisqatsi on TV).

I don’t remember what the first vinyl I bought was. My mother and I used to park at Yorkdale and ride the subway down to Osgoode to shop at the book and music shops along Queen West, and I picked up lots of Eno, Tomita and Jean-Michel Jarre at Driftwood Music.

First CDs: Electric Cafe by Kraftwerk, The Shutov Assembly by Brian Eno and a 4-track sampler from Hi-Tech/No Crime, an album of YMO remixes by contemporary (ca. 1991) UK electronic acts. The last CD I bought for myself was Komeda’s Kokomemedada.

The hardest part: letting go of all the vinyl box sets of classics Sean’s late father collected and treasured, which we’d had for ages but never played. In the truck, we agreed we’ll have to download some of his dad’s favorites — he was fond of the Russians, especially Shostakovich, and loved opera too. Perhaps something to listen to as we unpack and settle in.

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The Bee and the Express

Express: back panel test mount I’m finally back to working on some electronic projects. First up, the Express, an analog-to-MIDI converter built around a Bare Bones Board, an inexpensive Arduino clone.

I’ve been making up some patches for my Evolver synth to use it as an effect on guitar or bass, and thought it’d be nice to have some sort of pedal to control it, along the lines of a wah or volume pedal. The desktop model of the Evolver lacks a pedal input, hence the Express (for “expression”, both of the musical and genetic kind - evolution, geddit?). Currently, it reads one analog pin and spits out continuous controller data. Nothing particularly spectacular there, but it did fit wonderfully into the sturdy steel case from a computer keyboard A/B switchbox. There’s room for lots more inputs, and eventually I figure it’ll sport an additional analog in and some footswitch inputs which will send things like note on/off messages.

I’m still new to making enclosures, and to working metal in particular - instead of grinding out a hole that was slightly too narrow, I used a drill, which grabbed hold of the edges and warped the heck out of the front panel. Panic set in for a moment, but I managed to bash the thing back into shape using a busted old hard drive(!) as an anvil.

Word to the wise: there are two incompatible standards for the wiring of expression pedals:

1/4” - tip to wiper / ring to +5V / sleeve to ground: Clavia, CME, Electrix, Emu, Kurzweil, Oberheim, Roland/Boss
1/4” - ring to wiper / tip to +5V / sleeve to ground: Kawai, Korg, Yamaha

The former arrangement allows you to use a standard normalling jack to connect the tip to ground by default, so the input doesn’t float if nothing’s plugged in. I’m using a Boss pedal now, but my other pedal is a Yamaha, so if I want to use it as a second input, I’ll have to wire up something to cross those connections.

Arduino (and Tarquin) Being easily distractible by possibilities - giant trackball! LED matrix! stepper motor-controlled time-lapse photography! - I’m desperately trying to focus on a couple of projects at a time. Arduino project number two at present is using it for ultra-cheap and dirty sound generation, with piezo disc speakers plugged directly into the digital outputs. A little hacked-together code, and voilà:

The Bee (MP3, 640k)

I call it the Bee, though “Mosquito” might have been more appropriate. Modulating the pulse width creates some nice motion, but there’s a lot more to do, like getting R/C filters to tame some of the harshness - it really is annoying after a while. Oh yes, and putting a switch on it to shut it up between tests. And, of course, buttons and knobs to play it with… maybe even some sort of acoustic treatment, like a resonating soundbox or a spring reverb.

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Making arrangements

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:
Part of the trumpet score for "Mute"

  • 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.

The whole trumpet score for "Mute" 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.

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A grand opening

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.

It’s all about the concept of “openness” - as in open source software, as in open models of government (check out Melbourne’s city planning wiki), as in the growing movement for open science.

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…

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Real… Unreal.

Faking It cover imageJust 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.

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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.

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