Wednesday, July 1, 2020

That Moment When You Earthquake-Proof a Bridge and It Becomes a Giant Aeolian Harp

I first learned about the Golden Gate Bridge's eerie hum from an early June blog post by Marc Weidenbaum, who included video in his post recording the sound from his backyard.  I was immediately fascinated by its shimmering drone and sought recordings of and background on it across the Internet.  Apparently, the noise was an unintended (but anticipated) consequence of wind blowing through the newly renovated walkway/bike path railings, done as part of an ongoing earthquake-proofing of the landmark prompted by the 1989 Loma Prieta tremblor.

However it got there, I loved it.  Indeed, I'm fascinated by the sounds that bridges make (and, for that matter, just by bridges in general), although my attempts to record and make use of/music with those sounds have mostly not gone very well so far (but watch this space).  In any case, I saved audio of the Golden Gate wherever I could find it and eventually began to analyze it with the intent of creating something musical from it.  This is the result:

If you listen to the recordings linked above, you'll probably quickly discern that this is not a recording of the Golden Gate, rather, it's the result of my deconstruction and reconstruction of its pitches, timbres, rhythms, etc. using digital music resources.  My aim was to recreate the song of the bridge closely, but not exactly, taking some small liberties to make it a little more musical; it doesn't need much, to my ears, being already almost the definition of ambient music.

Surprisingly, this was not terribly complicated.  My ear training being very rusty, I guessed (incorrectly) that the frequencies had some simple overtone relationship and, therefore, (correctly) started with simple sine waves, thinking additive synthesis would be a useful starting point.  It turned out that the pitches are oddly near to standard scale pitches:  G3, A3 (A440-ish), B3, A4, C5, and D5.  Although I didn't dig very deeply, I found no evidence that the bridge rail designers did this purposely, so I found it astonishing that the notes were so consistently diatonic -- right off the white keys of the piano. 

After that, most of the work was setting up randomized LFOs to create the shimmeriness of the pitches' relationships, then adding a relatively high-frequency (132ms), high feedback (86%), low saturation (35%) delay and finally a little bit of reverb (Valhalla VintageVerb tuned to huge halls but with the tail dialed way back) to knit the thing together and give it the sense of scale and distance you hear from the bridge.

The work is intended as an ambient piece, to be either listened to directly or left as atmospheric sound.  I found myself drawn to expressly meditative mindsets as I felt through the shape and direction I wanted, so it could fit in that context as well.  Of course, to the extent that I simply mimicked an existing sound, I can take only very limited credit for creativity; however, as a self-expression, it resonates (sic) deeply.

I'm as pleased with this as maybe anything I've done.  It captures/recreates a sound I am endlessly in love with:  a held tone or drone with overtones (or, as in this case, scale steps) that unpredictably jump in or fade out, creating an aural sensation equivalent to watching the light of the morning sun sparkle over rippling water.  I've struggled to produce that kind of sound acoustically (although I'm learning -- again, watch this space) as well as electronically; combine that with what I've learned about the structure of such sounds and this outcome feels especially satisfying. 

Monday, June 29, 2020

A Suburban Welcome

Yesterday was one year since my wife, my mom, my stepdaughter, and I all moved into a home together.  It was a return to my roots and one that was welcome in ways I hadn't foreseen.  As part of processing how unexpectedly fortunate I felt, I put together my first ever album, a collection of field recordings that captured some of the pleasure and aural peace I rediscovered here.  That album was originally conceived as a sonic and visual unit, but, for reasons I won't go into, I never posted the photographs that were supposed to accompany the sounds.  In celebration of our first year in our little slice of heaven, I share them here.

(Click on the images to see full size.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Days of the Virus: 100 Days

As of 4pm yesterday afternoon (June 22, 2020), my wife, mom and I have lived one hundred days in semi-quarantine, leaving the house rarely, seeing almost no one else in person, and then only at a distance.  Like other billions of humans across the planet, we have been privileged to make a nest of fear and to hide in it.

Millions -- in the United States at least -- have made a different response.  Many of us have adopted the argument that if one's own chance of surviving COVID-19 are high, that one can do as one pleases because one is only risking harm to oneself.  Of course, this assumption has been demonstrated to be patently false, but the abstractions required to apply that fact to practice seem to be lost on those blindly congregating as if in the few months of collective hibernation the virus had disappeared.

Indeed, our collective cabin fever seems to be forcing us out of doors and back to each other.  Not only do we see myopic expressions of entitled rage, but protests and uprisings by the legitimately aggrieved seem also to be accelerated by the energy held in check until recently by the pandemic.  In this time of great press, caught between the threat of an invisible carnivore devouring us from the inside and using us as living incubators for its spawn on the one hand and the struggle to respond mindfully to the darkness of centuries-suppressed violence in our culture being brought bold-face into the light on the other, it can be hard to know what to do.

My answers are not perfect, but this is what I'm doing:

First, I believe we all have a responsibility to be of service.  My family is my first concern and my promise to my father to support and protect my mother in her age keeps us sequestered.  I am only of use to her, my wife, my children, and my community if I am well enough to be so.  This applies, too, to my patients who depend on me to be available and clearheaded to support them as they navigate their own crises.  Therefore, I attend to my own mental and physical health as an expression of care and service.

Minimizing my exposure to the virus supports my ability to care for those whom I care about, but it also has the prosocial function of keeping one more human out of the loop of contagion.  For every person who contracts the virus, between one and three others are likely to get it; even if the first person has no symptoms, the fact that they can pass it on is a critical issue.  I work to keep from becoming that vector, not just for my mom, but for the community in which I live.

Too, it is important to be a voice for facts and for collective and long-view thinking:  I strive to speak and act based on what science tells us -- stay home if you can, wear a mask if you go out, wash your hands, keep away from others.  I stand for these actions and require those around me to do so as well.

In the face of the eruption of anger over and new awareness of our country's original sin of racism, I work to educate myself about my whiteness and others' blackness.  What I learn, I share with others, especially those things that others don't yet see.  I invite white family members and friends to explore what it means to be white; with white patients who are struggling to process the outcries and pain they see, I guide their questioning toward the perceptual lacunae that privilege creates; I listen to friends and people of color, to learn to hear and to understand their experience, working especially to remember that my own experience can lead me to misunderstand theirs.  I set boundaries with and push back against those in my life who fight -- knowingly or not -- to keep hold of their ignorance and to contribute to our collective amnesia.  These I believe are the most important things I can do.

There are other things, too.  I make art; I try to process the pain I witness and my own in a public and, hopefully, respectful and empowering voice.  I give money to organizations working toward the solutions that make sense to me and encourage others to do the same.

I also imagine a future.  From here, it seems to me unlikely that we'll see the far side of our current crises in another hundred days or even two.  Along with everyone else, I feel the weight of quarantine, the unique, unanswerable, dull throb of being a social animal in isolation.  Yet, if we keep our heads and, ironically, stay connected across our bubbles, I can imagine a future in which we exceed our current selves, are more willing, and safer for our better trust.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Getting Out a Bit

Like a lot of us, I've not been out of the house much (today is the 91st day of quarantine/social-distancing for my family and me).  As I've written recently, summer is my time of year, so being stuck "on the compound" (as a friend of mine recently said) is especially depleting now.  I've gone out for a few drives in the country, though, and today I had the idea to investigate a bridge I discovered on one of those sojourns.  It's in a lovely little bit of verd that follows Little Gunpowder Falls in northern Baltimore County.  It's a steel bridge, but it doesn't have the corrugated decking that makes tires hum in that marvelous way (which I love so much); instead has plates that rattle when driven over, so it makes rather a racket in the midst of the woods' symphony.

There's a small pull-off of the narrow road to the north of the river and I was delighted to see well-trafficked trails leading off along it when I arrived.  Unpacking my field recorder, I trekked up and down the first hilly quarter mile or so and back before I decided that the most interesting sounds were to be found in the middle of the river in direct line of sight of the bridge.  I may have ruined my sneakers. 

What I like about this recording is the constancy of the water's play over its stones punctuated by the almost rhythmic rumble of the bridge.  As the recording goes on, the ear begins increasingly to notice and appreciate the gaps between crossings.  Different vehicles leave, of course, different sonic trails, some more and some less subtle (and occasionally disturbing).  The birds sing nearly as steadily as the river and you can almost hear the soft greens and deep browns of the glen as shiny metal boxes hurtle across the gray structure and along its carbon ribbon feed. 

This was recorded on a Zoom H4nPro (seen in the track art).  It is unedited except for about five seconds I deleted from a long silence during which I banged my water bottle 🤦; it is otherwise unaltered.  My aim here was to get as close to the sound I wanted in the original recording so as to require little or no tweaking in the studio (the equivalent of "in camera" effects in film).  I would have liked a little more panning as vehicles crossed the soundscape, but getting that brought me closer to the rumbling steel plates and away from the river's plash, so this balance represents my best compromise.  Initial review was done in Audacity and editing and export was done in Ableton Live 10

Monday, May 25, 2020

Murderer of Summer

When I was small, my maternal grandparents lived next to the local ice cream man.  His name was Mr. Sweet (really) and I remember seeing his Good Humor truck parked in his driveway during our regular August visits.  Although I don't recall ever meeting him, he kept Gramma and Grampa's basement freezer stocked with grandchildren's treats.

On the scale of quality, especially compared to the town creamery or to modern artisanal ice cream, they weren't fabulous, but they were cold and sweet and, as a kid, that was enough.  Or nearly so:  along with Nutty Buddies, which were probably my favorite, I sought, and sometimes fought with my little brother for, Buried Treasure.  Like Nutty Buddies, they were mass-produced, paper-wrapped conical things, but they didn't have a graham or cake cone; instead, they were more like popsicles made of sherbet (I don't recall any flavor other than raspberry, although it seems like there would have been). Treasure pops, as I called them, had a plastic handle topped with a flat, bas-relief figurine, which, in manufacture, was dropped handle-first into the pointed end of the wrapper and the sherbet poured on top of that so that the figure helped hold the sherbet.  When you unwrapped it to eat, what you saw was raspberry sherbet on a stick, but as you ate your way down, you'd get to the "treasure" of the figurine.  I loved these things, not least because the sherbet was pretty tasty, and I casually collected the sticky leftover hilts.

That was the closest I got growing up to living where there was a regular Ice Cream Man in his Ice Cream Truck.  The five Air Force bases I stayed on as a child did not allow them.  The year I spent in my parents' home town and, thus, in Mr. Sweet's territory, came after he retired.  The housing development I lived in as a teen had no such thing, which, in retrospect seems possibly to have been a consequence of High Desert life (I imagine cruising over macadam in 100º+ Junes and Julys would play havoc with freezers).  In any case, all my early associations with ice cream trucks come either from the second-degree proxy of Gram and Gramp's freezer or shared cultural myths about them.

As an adult, however, my experience has been very different.

We can leave the "ice cream" itself alone.  Any adult with even the most passing exposure to real ice cream would be forgiven for not recognizing the modern multiply-refrozen mess revealed under the sickly-bright wrapping dispensed by your average ice cream truck occupant.  Too, the unnerving price of these semi-crystalized pseudo-noshes clearly reflects the challenge of keeping a small mobile business moving today, compared to when gas was 10¢ a gallon and car insurance was optional.  No, that unfortunate casualty of modern life is to be lamented and justly grieved, not berated.

For me, contemporary ice cream trucks have devolved from tragedy to atrocity because of their assault on the sonic environment.  Long gone are the quaint miniature carillons (if they ever existed) tinkling out tunes announcing the arrival of The Good Humor Man in Pleasantville.  My earliest memory of a musical ice cream truck was in my 30s, when I lived in a New Jersey suburb of New York City:  the fake electronic "bells" were broadcast over a bullhorn speaker that would render even the sound of the Choir Invisible fully infernal.

Ice cream trucks seem to be something of a fixture in Maryland, at least in most of the neighborhoods I've lived in since arriving here in '07.  And, although the PA systems over which their "music" is blasted have improved, that which erupts from them seems only to have become more heinous.  Bells, acoustic or electronic, have given way to flat-enveloped sine-wave tones even lower-fidelity than 80s video game soundtracks.  Worse, they play one, single, looping tune, ad nauseam, which pierces my brain like a neurotoxin-tipped arrow, leaving me cognitively paralyzed for the half an hour that they are typically within range of perception.  The tortures of their endless excretion of "Turkey in the Straw" are so great as to believably incite even Phillip Glass or Terry Riley to murderous violence.  Greater yet is the unforgivable, criminal, diabolical, deployment of "It's a Small World."  I assert that even the likes of Ghandi could and would recruit the enthusiastic assistance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mother Fucking Theresa in pulling the driver from his seat and pummeling him into pink goo over such an act.

In all seriousness, I would rather listen to car alarms and leaf blowers.  At the same time.

Summer's chorus is one of my greatest pleasures.  As my local ice cream man meanderingly serenades my neighborhood in hopes of enticing the many children here to entreat their parents for the price of his icy indulgences, I have to gird my cochleae against the aural assault of his efforts.  Quickly, before That Song gets tattooed onto my auditory cortex:  I reach for my phone and play something -- almost anything -- loudly enough to drown out the Mephistophelean chant.  I don't begrudge the kids their treats nor the dairy entrepreneur his living; I just resent that ice cream trucks can't more benevolently make themselves part of the delicious soundtrack of summer.

Summer Return

On the first day warm enough to really sweat,
When shadows are brief and the sun lingers,
Open windows beckon with alarm bells of
Distant raucouses of children,
Meditations of lawn mowers,
Cacophonous ensembles of horny avians,
And soft, reassuring drones of air conditioners.

I awaken from eight months of restless dreaming,
Greyness, a desaturated life,
Wrapped defensively in too many layers
And not enough air;
I stretch to find my tightness and resent
The lifetime lost to seasons that were not meant for me.

Although I am February's child, I regestate all the year
That is not Summer
And fill my lungs anew only as the sun slows its march to zenith
To bask in this fraction of the year
When I feel myself.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Dory and Viola

Here's a new piece!

Laying in bed one night recently, I had the thought to build something out of loops using the first four or five steps of a C Dorian scale (Bb and Eb, if you don't know) on each viola string.  Each string would be its own voice (so, four voices, with four loops each on the C, G, and D string and five on the A) and each loop would be of differing lengths and could include only one pitch, but each pitch could be played more than once and in more than one manner (legato, staccato, etc.).  Ableton Live 10's Session View, based as it is on clips, can extend this Enoan technique by allowing randomization of clip order, velocity, and other parameters.

I haven't played my viola since before the lockdown, mostly because I just don't have the energy these days to practice.  But this piece really wanted the viola voice, so I relied on Ableton's Orchestral Strings sample pack, which I've used many times before.  Its voila samples in have some significant shortcomings, which were especially apparent in my last piece, but the requirements of this one were such that it wasn't as much of a problem.

While I appreciate the concept, I'm mostly not gaga about algorithmic music per se, as it often feels flat to me and doesn't seem to go anywhere.  However, my intention here was to use the algorithm as a foundation and then to perform effects on it in a way that would create some sense of development and direction.  Compared to most of my other music, this approach much more like that made on a modular synthesizer in which a patch is set up, usually with one or more generative sequences, and the performer manipulates the mix of those sequences and various effects to produce a musical piece.  A key challenge in that modality is to design effects and how they relate to each other in such a way as to be musical and performable.  After much head-scratching and flow-charting, I settled on a routing structure that would allow me to manipulate sections of the work live with a feedback delay, a harmonizer, and a buffer-based sequencer and then feed the whole thing through my favorite reverb.

The harmonizer is a relatively old (I'm guessing Max 6?) Max for Live device called M4L.dl.13.Harmonizer (I couldn't find documentation for it beyond a reference in an undated tutorial index).  I like it because it has a feedback loop, so the transposition you pick stacks up:  if you choose a two-step transposition, you get whole-tone harmony; with three steps, you get diminished chords; with five steps, you get quartal harmony, etc.  Additionally, it incorporates per-channel delays, giving a kind of pseudo-arpeggio effect.  I manipulated the direction and distance of the transpositions to give the algorithm a sense of mood and movement. 

The sequencer I used randomizes pitches and limits them to whatever notes (or microtones) you want.  In this case, I continued using the dorian scale; i.e., any sound in the buffer would be repitched to any note in a dorian scale in the first octave up or down from that sound.  This has the effect of creating a new dorian "key" centered on whatever note goes into the buffer; in other words, if the note being played is D, then the sequencer plays random notes from a D dorian scale (no sharps or flats).  When you have multiple notes going into the sequencer, this can get a bit chaotic, but it somehow feels to me still tonal, if strongly chromatic, at least compared to allowing the sequencer to play in twelve tones. 

I also experimented with controlling or randomizing different parameters of the loops themselves.  For example, I had hoped to map velocity to attack, with low-velocity notes having long (1500ms or more) attacks; my experiments with this were ultimately fruitless, though, and I abandoned the goal. 

I enjoyed being able to incorporate performative components into this.  I did several takes of it, all of which came to about the same length, giving me some confidence in the naturalness of the flow.  In the absence of my viola (or at least the energy to invest in it), I expect to be looking for more ways to make my electronic music more "live."