Sunday, December 18, 2011

Five and Six

This piece is very special to me for several reasons. First, I have put a great deal of thought into it, which is unusual. Frequently in the past I have found that, if I think too much about what I'm writing, my music comes out dry, cerebral, and uninteresting. However, in this case, I felt like I was able to keep true to my original musical inspirations while still being able to identify in them some basic structures that I could exploit to build the piece in a way that felt relatively organic. As a consequence, “Five and Six” is more harmonically, rhythmically, and compositionally sophisticated than anything I've done so far. (This is not to say that it is especially sophisticated; I'm just a music school drop-out, after all.) At the same time, it still feels right and meaningful to me.

Another reason that this piece is significant to me is that its completion comes roughly a year after I first started exploring making synthetic music. This time last December, I had just discovered the Linux Multimedia Studio, an open source DAW written for Linux and Windows. After messing around with the program for a few weeks, I produced, in the early hours of Christmas Day, “In Three II.” The experience fanned the fires of a long-dormant passion and I have spent most of my spare time since educating myself on the current state of music synthesis (as well as its history), re-acquainting myself with music theory, and listening to as much electronic and/or minimalist music as I could find.

Not to be terribly profound about it, the music I find most compelling is that which is in some way emotionally evocative, while also being intellectually interesting. It does not have to be consonant or even tonal, but, for me, it does have to be “musical.” That is, it must speak to – invoke, require – that part of my psyche that distinguishes organized, communicative sound from random noise. “Five and Six” is the closest I've yet come to writing something that evokes an emotional state while also holding an intellectual interest.

Anyone who knows Steve Reich's work will recognize some his ideas here – indeed, my working title for the piece was “Reichspiel” – in particular his use of repeated phrases that cycle asymmetrically relative to each other. I was initially playing around with phasing, a Reichian technique where one part slowly modifies its beat relative to the other parts and so briefly goes out of phase, and this got me thinking about how different parts' time signatures might be structured to produce a phasing of phrases rather than of beats. In this case, three of the parts play in 5/4 time while the two other parts play in 6/4 time (hence the title), while the quarter-note beat is shared across all parts. Further, the number of repetitions of a given phrase varies across parts, for example, the string-like voice repeats its phrases three times, the reed-like part repeats five times, and the cycles for the marimba-like part are based on 18 repetitions. In this way, the music as a whole offers, at any given moment, a familiar anchor for the listener, while still changing constantly. 

In order to give some structure to what would otherwise be a free-for-all, I developed all the horizontal components within a relatively simple vertical structure. Working in g minor, I used as my guide to writing all harmony only the i7, v, v7, VI, and VI7 chords, which essentially sum to a major 11th chord based on B♭. Being a string player by training, vertical structure was never my strong point, so taking a simplistic approach like this allowed me to create a warm, consonant, yet colored sonic substrate over which the four inherently linear voices might interact. Too, it gave me some guidelines for how to write the linear parts so that they wouldn't clash. (Not that I don't like strongly chromatic, or even atonal, music; I'm just not facile enough with the rules of tonality to break them in musically meaningful ways.) 

As always, I invite your thoughts on this:  please comment and let me know what you liked or didn't like!   (Including demands that I take back my trashing of Philip Glass, given the last phrases of this piece!)

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Although I have several in the pipeline, this is the first original piece I've been sufficiently satisfied with to post in a while. 

I love odd time signatures.  Of the many ways that you can mess with the symmetry of a time signature, two are by taking away a beat or by adding one.  In the case of the former, because we tend to expect symmetrical rhythms, cutting the corner off of the square, so to speak, feels a little hurried.  A great example of this is Oregon's Waterwheel, written in 11/8, broken into 3-3-3-2 so it feels a little like 6/8 with the last beat missing from every other measure, but the musicians use the lopsidedness of the beat to pull the music and the listener forward in a deeply compelling way. 

On the other hand, you can take a symmetrical time signature and add to it.  A good example of this is the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Blue Rondo a la Turk.  Technically, this is in 9/8, but it's broken into 2-2-2-3, i.e., 4/4 with an extra half a beat.  For me, this kind of time signature has a similar feel to unexpectedly stepping off a curb:  you're walking along steadily when all of a sudden your foot takes just a fraction of a second longer to hit the ground.  In Brubeck's case, the group emphasizes the clunkiness of it, showing off their amazing ability to keep track of where they are in dynamic time while improvising melodic lines that flow with (rather than in spite of) the shifting foundations. 

For me, the musical challenge with asymmetrical rhythms is more about making an inherently awkward time into something that feels natural.  If a composer can accomplish this, it can give the music a flow that is impossible with more symmetrical time signatures.  A great (and popular) example of this is the 5/4 Mission Impossible TV show theme, which doesn't even feel asymmetrical until you start to count it (and, to my sensibilities, became instantly unremarkable when it was re-conceptualized into 4/4 for the Tom Cruise vehicles).  In Nine, which is in a 2-2-2-3 division of 9/8, I have attempted to turn the stepping-off-the-curb feel into a round that, as opposed to the urgency in the example of Waterwheel, conveys an elongation of time, a grace, like a dancer gliding over an unstable substrate.  (I leave it to the listener to determine how successful I've been with doing so, but this is the feeling I was striving for.) 

Another aspect of this piece that's worth pointing out is that this is the first work I've completed using GarageBand, a sort of a poor-man's DAW that comes native with Mac OSX and recently has been adapted for iOS devices, in this case iPad.  Although Tracktion 3, my principle DAW application, appears to be more sophisticated than GarageBand, and the version I have came with a raft of third-party plug-ins that expand its capabilities significantly, Tracktion is frustratingly unstable, crashing consistently when certain functionalities are used, effectively rendering them non-existent.  GarageBand, on the other hand, is rock-solid and has many of the functionalities that an introductory-level user such as myself needs.  Its synthesis capabilities are very restricted in comparison to Tracktion, but that is mostly due to the fact that I have not purchased any third-party synthesis plug-ins for GarageBand.  So, stability is turning out to be worth a lot to me. 

Additionally, the iOS version of GarageBand, designed to allow non-musicians to make music and/or for players of one instrument to be able to fill in their music with basic lines from instruments they don't play, offers some surprisingly useful interfaces for music-making.  In particular, the on-screen keyboard gives the user portamento effects that, using a real keyboard, are technically more difficult, both in a musical and electronic sense.  In GarageBand iOS, the player can slide fingers up and down the keyboard rather than hitting keys; it's rather like a ribbon controller, except it allows polyphony.  You will hear the results of this ease of interface in the melody line of Nine

Monday, October 17, 2011

Double Bach

It has been quite some time since I had new music to post, but not for lack of working on it.  Instead, I have had several projects going on at once and only just finished these two. There are several other pieces in the pipeline, some like these, some not.  Other priorities dictate my availability to work on music, but I hope the next post will not be as long delayed as this. 

One of the things I have been especially interested in of late is expression, how it inheres in synthetic music differently from live performance, and how to bridge the gap between being a performer of music and a constructor, as it were, while still keeping the breath in the music.  As an exercise, I began toying with simple pieces, the Bach Two-Part Inventions, for instance, and exploring how I might get the music to feel as close to live as possible.  Here is the result of my first study:

Dynamic is my primary mode of expression here, with no change in tempo until the end and very little change in length of note (legato, marcato, etc.).  This was intentional; it allowed me to focus on one aspect of synthetic expression (velocity) so as to explore its effects as thoroughly as I could.  Still, I am pleased with the result, not least because of the quality of the sample.  In this simple, two-part work, it is difficult to tell from a real piano.

The second piece is the same Invention, but now voiced synthetically.  Building on the foundation of expression I developed in the first piece, I chose voice development as the next task.  Of course, this skill is a lifetime of study, but I have done very little development from scratch and felt that this minimally-structured piece would be a good venue for some real timbral exploration.  Thus:

Crystal is a surprisingly sophisticated free softsynth (also available for iPad and iPhone), allowing each voice to be comprised of up to three separate voices or channels, all of which can be filtered and modified separately.  Initially, I built a voice comprised of a noisy, quasi-vocal sample, a relatively clean saw square, and a noise channel; I liked the edgy, forceful, almost twisted sound that resulted.  However, it bludgeoned the listener a bit to play the Invention beginning to end using only that voice, so I did two things:  first I played with the equalization of the right- and left-hand parts, emphasizing the high and low ends of their spectra respectively (also a new tool for me).  Second, I parsed out the voice channel from the saw square and noise channels.  This gave me four related but distinct voices to play with and allowed me to build the voices as the piece progressed.  The result is what you hear above.

At this stage, I feel like I am just beginning to tap into the potential of this medium.  I can't describe how delightful it is to be exploring this immense realm, something I've dreamt about since I first heard Wendy Carlos.  I have much yet to learn, but the task is a pleasurable one.  As always, I hope you enjoy the fruits of my expedition as much as I do.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

11 Sep 2001

On September 11, 2001, we were living in Edgewater, NJ, in a house just across the Hudson from New York City.  After breakfast, my wife, Diane, and I signed paperwork on the sale of our house.  I had quit my job a month before in anticipation of returning to New Mexico, where I grew up, to be near my folks and to return to school; we were ready to leave as soon as we could make a downpayment on a home in Albuquerque that we'd found and, as the sale of our current house had not gone well so far, we were anxious that this contract would finally allow us to go. 

Diane and I finished signing the papers and handed them to our Realtor, who was also a family friend and had arrived to babysit our two-year-old daughter while we headed off to a 10:00am appointment in Watchung, NJ, about an hour away to the southwest.  It was almost 9:00am, so we were quickly trotting down the front steps to our car when our neighbor across the street came running out of her house, crying and shouting “Somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center!”  I had never seen her this hysterical – she was, after all, the Fire Chief's wife and accustomed to emergencies – but we were in a hurry.  I figured some drunken idiot had probably crashed a Cessna through an office window, but we said we'd turn on the radio and listen on the way. 

The topography of where we lived is important to understand here.  Our house was about a quarter of a mile south of the George Washington Bridge and situated well up from the base of the Palisades, the cliffs that line the southern Hudson River Valley, so we had a great view of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Less than a mile south of us, though, a point jutted out from the Palisades, blocking the view below midtown:  we could see everything down to about the Empire State Building, but not beyond that.  Also, the cliffs we lived in front of were actually the east face of a ridge that ran along the Hudson down to the Upper Bay; west of this ridge was a wide valley containing the Hackensack River and, at the lower end, a marsh locally called the Meadowlands.  The fastest way south was to go north, follow I-95 through the cut in the ridge where the bridge was, and then follow the interstate around south through the Meadowlands.  Thus, for the first ten minutes or so of our drive we were behind the ridge and could not see the towers. 

We turned on the radio as we took I-95 through the cut; I don't recall what station we had on, probably WNYC, the local NPR affiliate.  The announcer's voice was tinged with panic as he reported that the second tower had just been struck by an airplane.  There was a lot of confusion and upset as he cycled through different correspondents reporting from various parts of the city; we became aware that a significant disaster was unfolding.  We also began to worry:  we had friends and family who worked in and around the towers.  Had they gone to work?  Were they in their offices?  Were they evacuating?  How stable was the structure? 

We rounded the ridge and headed south and, as we drove, the road climbed and the ridge sank so parts of the towers were revealed:  first we could see the billowing cloud, then the antenna, then the roofs of the towers, then, finally, the black hole near the top of the north tower and bits of the top of the south tower visible through the smoke being vomited from the other gash still hidden below the ridgeline. 

I was driving and Diane was watching the towers burn as we continued south on I-95; we listened intently to the radio and I would glance over at them as traffic allowed.  At the top of a bridge over the Hackensack River, the view was very clear and cars slowed dramatically; some even pulled over onto the narrow shoulders as people got out of their cars to look.  I guess the significance of the event had still not yet quite sunk in for me and I was angry at these drivers for creating a safety hazard.  Diane tried calling her sister who worked in a building across the street from the towers to make sure she was okay; she didn't get through.  She was also unable to reach the office of our friends, a company for whom we had both worked, populated by people we admired and for whom we cared deeply; their office in the lower floors of Tower 1 did not answer.  The radio discussion seemed to become a little more organized and we started to hear from experts on the structural integrity of the towers; everyone was very reassuring that the chance of any significant part of the towers breaking off was remote.  It was unclear how people above the crash zones were going to get out, but evacuating below those levels was believed to be straightforward, if time consuming and difficult.  We debated whether to continue on to our appointment, but we decided there was nothing we could do and felt that the best use of the time was to meet with our advisors as planned. 

Eventually, we turned west on I-78.  For most of the beginning of this leg, I could see the towers in my mirror, burning, building a pillar of thick, white smoke in the clear, blue-blue sky (as many others have reported elsewhere, it was a spectacularly beautiful morning).  At one point, the towers were obscured as the road went into a dip and just then the radio announcer's voice became shrill:  a tower had collapsed.  The road quickly rose again and I could see that, in place of one of the towers, an immense white monster of dust and smoke was now crawling across the Manhattan skyline.  I was suddenly overwhelmed with tears and grief; I had to pull over.  Shaking, I choked, “What if Armand and Karen and Mary and everyone were in there?  Oh my god, I cannot even imagine a world without them!”  Diane was shocked, too, and worried about her sister, but was more focused and concerned with our immediate situation:  we were on the left shoulder of a busy interstate at a time when there were probably other drivers as upset – and therefore as unreliable – as us.  We needed to get where we were going. 

We were not far from our meeting and, with Diane's encouragement, I took a couple of deep breaths, got myself under control and pulled back on the road.  The radio continued to play the shocked voices of eyewitness reporters, equally stunned experts speculating on the origins of what was now believed to be an attack, confused information about a similar attack on Washington, DC (the White House? the Pentagon?), a possibly related plane crash in Pennsylvania, and a lengthening litany of airport closings and Air Force fighter scramblings. 

When we arrived at our appointment, our advisors, a couple, appeared as rattled as we were.  We talked with Susan briefly while Bill was in another part of the building; we compared what we'd heard, trying to get a sense of what was real and what was hysterical rumor.  Then Bill came in and announced that the second tower had fallen.  I actually argued with him, saying, yes, we had been driving when it happened, but he assured me that, no, this was the other one.  Both towers were gone. 

I don't remember many details of the rest of that day.  The four of us quickly came to the conclusion that we weren't going to get much work done, so we rescheduled our appointment and Di and I headed home.  I remember watching the smoke, now in front of us, as I drove:  as it climbed into the beautiful September sky, it became a twisted parody of the magnificent, absent towers.  When we got back to our house at about 11:30am, our friend left quickly, anxious to get in touch with her loved ones.  Our next door neighbors were away – September 11 was the wife's birthday, so she and her husband had gone to the beach – and had left us in charge of feeding their cat.  We had no cable, so we went to their house to watch the news.  For the next three hours, we stared, slackjawed and in shock, as the networks relentlessly replayed footage of the second impact, each tower's collapse, and live views of the scene that lay just around the cliff's point from where we sat.  Finally, at about 2:30pm, our restless toddler insisted she was hungry and we were able to drag ourselves back to reality.  I have no other memories of that day. 

For the next two or three days, our metropolis was transformed.  The gruff, gesticulating, carbonized exterior of the average New Yorker (and New Jerseyite) seemed to have been blown away, leaving their soft, marshmallow interior exposed.  People were gentle with each other; drivers yielded with a smile and a wave; retail stores and restaurants were almost somber.  Candlelight vigils arose spontaneously, improvised missing posters plastered lower Manhattan, and tiny, poignant memorials cropped up near the attack site.  Stories of bravery and selflessness in the midst of the disaster entered our common narrative:  we all seemed to feel part of each other and were mourning the parts we had lost. 

The site itself burned for weeks, a column of smoke rising into the sky acting as an immense grave marker.  Most days, the wind was out of the south, so we in Edgewater breathed the acrid miasma of smoldering megatons of pulverized steel, concrete, office furniture, computers, ceiling tiles, bathroom stalls, printing paper, and human beings – a puree of New York worklife.  It was September, so most of the time our windows were open; days and nights our very breath reminded us of the horrors that occurred just a few miles downriver; I will never forget that smell and what it meant. 

In the end, we were fortunate.  We lost no family or friends in the attacks.  Diane's sister, working across the street, watched the first tower burn for a few minutes before she was called into a meeting that was quickly canceled after the second tower was hit; she got out and away in plenty of time.  Our friends in Tower 1 had not even gone into the building yet, as their workday started and ended later than most businesses.  Of course, we knew people who had lost both friends and family; virtually everyone living in the area at the time did.  Our lives were most deeply affected, however, by the repercussions.  The contract on our home fell through within a week and the housing market dried up instantly; we did not sell until six years later.  I was out of work for five months and only found employment through the sympathy and connections of my former boss.  I did eventually start school, albeit a year later than we planned, but we never made it to New Mexico.  Sometimes I feel guilty that I am still so affected by the events of that day – despite the hardship of the aftermath, I was not harmed personally, nor were those I know – but I also know that we don't always understand why we feel as we do, so I try to be as respectful my own feelings on September 11th as I do of others'.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Bodark Tree

“Here,” said Mark, my high school best friend. He had handed me a chisel that looked ancient except for a brand new wooden handle that was surprisingly heavy and smooth in my hand. “What is it?” I asked. “Bodark. My dad made it.” Mark's dad, Joe, collected and restored old woodworking hand tools; the wood he had selected for the chisel's handle was new to me, a tree I later learned is native to New Mexico, where Mark and I were growing up, also called Bois d'arc and Osage Orange. It felt incredibly dense and hard, like you could drive nails with it, and it had a beautiful, rich, red-brown grain that shimmered softly under the linseed oil finish. “Bodark, huh? Never heard of it.” “Yeah, Dad has some growing out on the North 40 and he likes to use it for tools 'cause it's so tough.” That memory is more than three decades old, but I can still feel the heft of the handle in my hand. I remember, too, our subsequent conversation about how difficult bodark is to work and that Joe constantly had to resharpen his blades when doing so.

Joe is a remarkable man. He is not obviously so: in appearance he has perhaps a bit more nose and less chin than might otherwise become him and a slight stoop that could come simply from being tall or may be the result of having taken a German sniper's bullet in the neck in World War II. Neither is he overtly muscular, but he has always had an air of surety, as one who harbors great strength and great love. As a boy in the throes of puberty, I found him intimidating, despite his friendliness. Whenever I see him, he often betrays a conspiratorial twinkle in his eye, like he knows something I don't, which over the course of the decades of my friendship with Mark, I have frequently found to be the case. By vocation, Joe taught high school industrial arts, wood working and drafting in one of the toughest schools in the city and, as I recall, well respected by his students and peers. By avocation, he is or has been a collector, a woodcarver, a carpenter, a proprietor, a dog breeder, a vintner, a marksman, and -- how to say it? -- the maker of the best tamales I have ever tasted.

Since Mark and I were young, I had coveted Joe's tamale recipe. Unlike Mark, I was not native to New Mexico, but I fell in love with its cuisine soon after transplanting there at age 12. The tamales at Mark's house were amazing, with smooth masa that was tender and not too thick and a filling that was just hot enough with ripe, red New Mexican chili peppers to demand your attention, but not so hot as to overpower their rich flavor. And there was something else, too, a mouthfeel, a creaminess, a rich depth to the filling that I could not place; Joe said that was from his secret ingredient. For years, I begged Mark to tell me what it was, but he didn't know either and Joe wasn't telling. Once, when we were teens, Mark asked Joe to teach him how to make the tamales and Joe said, okay, just get up early next time he made them and he'd show him everything. On tamale-making day, Mark got up at 5:00 a.m. and went into the kitchen, only to discover Joe had already finished the filling. “You got to get up early to make good tamales,” Joe said. Eventually, when Mark and I were well into our thirties, Joe gave his secret to Mark, which he then shared with me; I won't betray it here, but suffice it to say that it both shocked me and made perfect sense given the history of this peasant food. To this day, I have never found an equal to Joe's tamales.

It seems that whatever Joe sets his mind and hands to he does exceptionally well. His homemade wine is the only such wine that I have ever tasted that was worth drinking, and, more than that, very tasty. He doesn't limit himself to brewing wine from grapes, either: one year when Mark and I were in our early twenties, his family's apricot tree, a towering green orb of Bunyanic proportions, provided such a banner harvest that they couldn't eat, give away, can, or dry the fruit fast enough. So, Joe pitted the overripe orange lumps, tossed them into a barrel, and let them sit until they “got real good.” The following spring, Mark brought a precious bottle of this experiment's results over to my apartment to share. Like most wines based on sweet fruit, it was strong, but it drank with the mellow smoothness of its ripe parentage. That's Joe: subtlety in strength.

Scattered about Joe's home are various pieces of handcarved furniture, Joe's handiwork. I recall most clearly the beds: head- and footboards with radially symmetrical petal designs in a bas relief and square posts with finials. The wood is dark and solid; the beds feel as firmly planted as if the mattresses were on the floor. Apparently Joe began carving at a young age; I believe he carved the master bed as a wedding gift. And, along with his love of carving has come a passion for hand tools, of which he has literally hundreds. Mark showed me his workshop once: walls almost entirely covered with hand chisels, lathe chisels, handsaws, planes and other tools of all types and sizes, none new and all carefully cleaned, restored, and brightly sharp.

Not long after he retired from teaching, Joe was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “Doctors give him a year or two,” was Mark's news. Joe proceeded to take up a fight with his township over some land he owned and hired out to be farmed – a few acres that the family ironically calls “the North 40” – but that the town wanted to develop. After winning that battle, which took a couple of years, he tore up a knee while chopping down a bodark tree, so he got a knee replacement. He spent the next several years maintaining and upgrading properties he has scattered about the state and yard-saling every Saturday with Mark – he loves a good deal and has a sharp eye for good quality hand tools that just need a bit of dressing up.

It's now been twenty years since the doctors gave him his terminal sentence and, like the bodark he works with, his toughness has surprised pretty much everyone but those who know him well. Recently, though, his health has been dealt a series of heavy blows and it's beginning to look like his time here is winding down. Of course, Joe has exceeded people's expectations so many times, I feel like nothing is sure, but even bodark breaks down eventually, I guess. In any case, for me, Joe has always been a model for how to live your life, for what it means to be a man. He exemplifies listening to your heart and acting on your truth, loving life and those with whom you choose to share it to the best of your ability, and doing so unpretentiously. I suspect Joe would take issue with at least some of my characterizations of him and it's certainly possible, even likely, that they come in part from the awe with which a younger generation may view its elders, but regardless of whether he would accept my description of him as accurate, this is who he has been for me and represents the gifts he has given to me. I am grateful, and hopefully a better man, for knowing him. I think of him whenever I see a bodark tree.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


I've been reading a lot of webcomix of late and, in a particular series recently, a main character was wearing a t-shirt that said, "Gary F[deleted]ing Numan."  Being of a certain age (about 20 years older than the characters in the strip), my recollection of Gary Numan harkens back to the early '80s and MTV's infancy.  My brother and I would sit for hours bemoaning the young network's poor musical fare (which was nonetheless clearly not bad enough for us to do something else with our time).   We agreed, however, that Gary Numan's "Cars," the only work of his that they ever played, was pretty good.  (And, honestly, despite my classically-trained snobbishness and stunning inability at the time to appreciate much of the subtleties of better pop music, I really liked the song and didn't mind much when it sunk its massive hooks into my brain for days.)

Fast forward 30 years and I see the t-shirt in the comic and I think, "Why would a character who is a professed indy connoisseur wear a shirt emblazoned with the name of a one-hit-wonder from 1979?"  Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I quickly discovered that Mr. Numan was far from an OHW in the UK and, in fact, was a powerful influence on a range of musicians who are better-known in the USA than he is.  (I am in the happy process of delving into his oeuvre now.)  Regardless of that, however, I was also pleased to find available on YouTube the very MTV video remembered from my youth and, upon viewing it, instantly had my brain once again skewered the deep hooks of "Cars."  It didn't take long for me to think "Hey, this would be fun to cover."  And so I did.

When I hear an artist do a cover, I am most interested in what that artist brings to it.  What of her/his/their own voice is there?  How does the piece gain from its translation through the new performer?  Thus, in taking this on, I had to ask myself the same thing:  what could I bring to the piece that might be a worthwhile offering?  I have done my best to listen to what the song inspires in me and to infuse that into this arrangement.  The process has been, as have all of these recent projects, an education, not only from a technical standpoint, but in terms of learning (and relearning) my own artistic process.  I'm pretty pleased with how it came out and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

Some quick technical notes:  Every sound in this performance, except for some of the drum samples, is entirely synthetic.  This includes the voice, which was generated using the text-to-speech function native to Mac OSX.  My original idea was to auto-tune the voice to the melody, but this proved to be beyond my current technical know-how (and possibly my software) and I liked the way it turned out anyway.


I have been unhappy with the quality of the audio in the video conversion required to post to this blog, so I decided to begin using YouTube as a host site for them and embed links from here.  This has, in fact, resulted in much better audio for my recordings, so I have re-uploaded all the previous pieces and repost them here so that listeners may have the opportunity to listen to the clearer production.

Thanks for listening and, as always, please post comments here on the blog. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Acoustic Debris #1

As W. A. Mathieu so eloquently put it, we live at the bottom of an ocean of sound and the ambient acoustic world through which we drift and swim is a rich part of my waking life.  I love found-sound work, from the industrial spookiness of David Lynch to the enlightened simplicity of John Cage.  Since I got my DAW, I have fantasized about different found-sound work I might do, but believed I was limited by the fact that, at this stage, I have no decent quality recording equipment and no budget to purchase good quality samples.

Once again, the Internet comes to the rescue:  while trying to find some choir samples that I could use as a base for a good synth-choir voice, I discovered a remarkable open-copyright repository of sound samples called The Freesound Project.  They cover pretty much any sound type one might imagine, from bird and insect calls to industrial noise to biophysical sounds to, happily, choir.  Once I began perusing the archive, I was quickly sucked into their  universe of noise and found myself downloading samples with the thought to play around with building a found-sound work.  The below piece is the result; all of the sounds come from The Freesound Project.

Not having done anything like this before, this is, naturally, as much a study as a work of expression.  Some sounds seemed to want to go together and, when played concurrently, created new sounds, evoking new thoughts and images; some are related and some are very much unrelated.  It's exciting to be able to combine sounds that could not exist simultaneously in the real world and yet nonetheless feel acoustically meaningful when combined.  Sequence was interesting, too, as I discovered what sounds seemed to make sense to follow others, sometimes inexplicably.

There is no story here, despite the concreteness of the samples.  I tried to build something of an emotional arc, following a sense of tension, but this is at bottom nothing more than a mental wandering, or even skipping about, in soundspace.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


It would be an understatement to say that I'm not a huge fan of Philip Glass.  That said, there are a handful of his pieces that I like and Koyaanisqatsi, its initial theme and the work as a whole, I actually think is brilliant, even though much of its effectiveness must be credited to his visionary collaborator, Godfrey Reggio.  The job of a film soundtrack, normally, is to guide the viewer as unobtrusively as possible in how to feel about the images being presented; in the case of Koyaanisqatsi, the soundtrack carries the additional burden of serving as dialog (or monologue, in this case) and so remains very much in the foreground.  As a consequence, it is intended to be heard overtly and, therefore, can theoretically stand on its own.  Although, like any soundtrack, I cannot hear the music without seeing in my mind's eye the images it was written to accompany, I think in this work, Glass transcended himself and created a work that is both surprisingly varied and yet emotionally relentless, giving Reggio the hammer he desired to drive home the film's message.  In the opening theme, Glass provides a musical foreshadowing of both the grace and the violence that he and Reggio have in store for the audience.  Because of that, and for other reasons, this brief, transparent work remains one of my favorites from the film. 

I started this project as a quick bit of playtime before starting on my next, more challenging piece and I had an idea that I'd like to do a spoof of Glass's works; given how homogenous most of it is, a sequencer like Tracktion makes this pitifully easy.  However, as I began to work on it, a) I realized that a really good spoof would just end up sounding like another Glass piece and, really, why does the world need another piece that sounds like what we've already got too much of, and b) I recalled that there were a couple pieces of Glass' I actually liked.  As a result, I remembered Koyaanisqatsi and looked it up on YouTube, where I discovered that the entire film is actually available (although it is in relatively low resolution and, since the images are the heart of the film, if you want to see it, do so on DVD or Blu-Ray).  After listening to the opening theme, I heard again how elegant and transparent it was and thought, "I bet, just for fun, I could transcribe that in about five minutes."  And, indeed, it was even simpler than I had remembered, with just four voices alternating and building on each other.

As with most of Glass' music, this should be listened to at high volume.

A Glass devotee will notice that, in this arrangement, I doubled three voices and added two cycles (eight measures).  As the preface to the film, it appropriately does not build to where it might; however, as a standalone piece, I felt that it wanted to and could be indulged a little.  With the above additions, it rises to the cacophony that it seems to reach for when it is pruned in its role as an entree to the film, which is something I love about the piece:  that, by merely stacking a few well-defined linear motifs, Glass carries us from foreboding to damnation in just a few bars, finally leaving us hanging, drifting alone in empty space, wondering how long eternity will be.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Debussy: Reverie

Well, I've been working on this (and kvetching about not having finished it) for so long, that this may be a bit anti-climactic, but, at last, it's done -- or done enough, anyway.  This is the piece I've been working on since February that the completion of which has been variously interrupted by school demands, computer issues large and small, and operator problems.  It feels like a long time coming and a commensurate relief to post it.  Strictly speaking, it's unfinished; there are some mixing issues that I could fix and I still feel a little lost as regards how to best to implement dynamic expression, but, between the facts that this is my first big project and that I am really ready to move on to something new, I decided it was time to call it done.  All that said, I'm actually pretty happy with it overall. 

It's no accident that I chose this piece for my first big synthesizer arrangement.  When I was in my teens, my father brought home a copy of Isao Tomita's Snowflakes are Dancing, and in it Tomita did an arrangement of Reverie.  Up to that point, the only real synthetic music I had heard was Wendy (then Walter) Carlos' Switched on Bach and The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, which we used to listen to all the time.  Tomita's virtuosity on the keyboard and timbral imagination was so radically different from what Carlos had done, at first it seemed to go too far, but the more I listened to it, the more I heard his genius.  Although I don't intend to emulate him, I do aspire to Tomita's level of imagination; I still hear new things in his work every time I listen to it. 

My arrangement here is not intended as a "remake" of Tomita's performance (that would be almost as silly as remaking King Kong).  Instead, as Reverie is simply a piece I have loved for many years and, despite its relative simplicity, I hear many voices woven into it, so it seemed like a good place to start learning the basics of synthetic music production.  Only one of the voices in this arrangement is original; several are mods of stock voices, and one or two are unaltered stock.  I ran across the two voices at the beginning of the piece quite by accident, but they set the tone for the rest of the work.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I have enjoyed making it.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Crystalized Intelligence

Unsurprisingly, the need to catch up on my schoolwork following the terminal diagnosis of my long-suffering Toshiba Portege has left me with little fun time.  Additional cycles have been commandeered by the learning curve inherent in two new OSs (Mac OSX and iOS).  Of course, they are living up to their reputation for being intuitive, but I suspect they would be intuitiver if it were not for all the years I spent forcing my intuition into the mold that Microsoft engineers insisted it should fit.  Nonetheless, there have been a few moments here and there during which I have been able to futz around with my current project.

As I mentioned in my last post, one of the first things I needed to do following the port to Mac was to come up with an alternative to ZynAddSubFX, an extraordinary VST plugin that I was using for several key voices.  With some searching, I was able to find another free softsynth compatible with my DAW that, although it is qualitatively a different beast from ZynAddSubFX, it was nonetheless designed to be a fairly sophisticated sound generator:  it's called Crystal.  The good news is that it is capable of some pretty impressive noises and there is an iOS version too, so I can take it with me and play with it away from my desktop.  Unfortunately, however, all of the presets, while being very creative and interesting, are out of character for what I've been working on.  Further, its interface is not exactly intuitive (not that ZynAddSubFX is), so it's taken some time for me to get a sense of which end to blow in. 

Despite my student status, I am of an age at which learning curves present steeper slopes than they once did and between OSX, iOS, and Crystal (not to mention iWorks and a handful of other partially and completely new friends), I feel like I've done more than my share of climbing of late.  That said, I have had a few minutes here and there to mess around with the project and I feel like I'm pretty close to where I left off when the Toshiba started showing signs of byting the dust.  The semester will be over in a week or so (whether I'm ready for it to end or not) so I hope to have some real playtime in early- to mid-May and to get this long overdue project polished and posted. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

...and there was much rejoicing

After a long, impatient week, the new iMac arrived this morning.  I promised myself that I would get everything else set up on it before seeing how my DAW would run, but by 8pm I still had not finished installing and setting up everything I needed for an actual productive life (for example, EndNote and Quicken are still in the queue).  I felt my eyes crossing at all the details yet to be handled and concluded I needed to do something nice for myself, so I decided to give the DAW a whirl. 

Contrary to my earlier fears, I had run across some discussions online that indicated that Tracktion 3 should run fine on multi-core Intel processors, CPUs that were not what it was originally built for.  So I began to entertain some hope -- even some excitement -- that I might not lose all the work I'd put into this new endeavor that was enabled specifically by the ridiculously marked-down copies of Tracktion 3 made available following its discontinuance.  Replacing it with something equivalent would run several hundred dollars.  

The good news is that -- after some initial crashes and accompanying panic -- an updated version of Tracktion seems to be stable on the Mac quad-core:  yay!  The bad news is that one of my principal softsynth plug-ins, ZynAddSubFX, is currently only available for Windows and Linux (boo!).  There apparently was a MacOS port some years ago, but the link is dead (apparently long since).  As a consequence, I will need to rebuild in a new softsynth the voices now missing from my arrangements, something I am as yet unskilled in.  But, it will be a good learning experience!

Of course, after a week without a computer, I am terribly behind in my academic work:  dissertation (of course), class paper (last one ever!), a couple of presentations (not the least of which is for my daughter's school), and a menagerie of minutia.  So, my seemingly Sisyphean music project is going to roll further back down the hill, but at least it looks like it won't disappear. 

Monday, March 28, 2011


One problem with computer music is that it requires a computer.  Actually, this isn't an inherent problem, unless there is a problem inherent in the computer on which the music is supposed to be being made.  In my case, such a problem has developed:  my computer is terminally ill.  Being one who believes in allowing the dying to pass honorably, I am taking steps to relieve my old colleague of its duties before senility sets in by ordering a replacement.  However, there has been a sea change in computing technology in the time since we began working together nearly five years ago and the new young hot-shot on its way has a multi-core architecture.  Although the software with which I have been working is designed to be cross-platform (my old computer is a PC and the new one will be a Mac), it was written during the now seemingly distant single-core era and rumor has it that it does not get on well with the dual- and quad-core designs of today's machines.  Thus, it is up in the air whether or not my late-blooming but still fledgling passion for music synthesis -- and the reason for this blog -- will be curtailed before it even gets a fair start. 

This blog is turning into more of an "Excuse of the Week" than the homage to ADSR that I had hoped.  Still, to succeed, one must first fail many times.  Onward, into a brave new iWorld!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lost in Thought (-ish)

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (my favorite source for all things wordy), "reverie" has two meanings:  a daydream or the condition of being lost in thought.  Of late, I have definitely not been daydreaming.  After finishing the applications for phase II of the internship match process early this month, I then had several obligations arise simultaneously, namely doing a series of short pieces for the soundtrack of my daughter's stop-motion animation project (very fun), grading a stack of undergraduate case conceptualizations (double-plus unfun), working on a paper presentation (fun, but recently canceled), and reformulating my dissertation (more fun than it sounds).  All of these projects demanded a fair amount of time- and brain-cycles, so perhaps "lost in thought" is closer to where I've been. 

They also preempted the work I was doing on the next piece I want to post.  It's something I've been working on since January and, although it's an arrangement rather than an original composition, it has been a lot of fun, not least because it's taking a shape that is dramatically different from what I had in mind when I started it.  The pleasures has been in taking the risk of following a timbral thread that started accidentally -- and which seems to be working.  You all will be the judges of whether that is actually the case, but conducting the experiment has been interesting in the interim.  I hope to have the outcome of my reverie up here in the next few weeks.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

In Three II

Okay, so the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of this site is to serve as a public repository of some of my creative output. It's taken a while to get the software necessary to upload this working, but, at last, I seem to have figured it out (and not, of course, without some key assistance from my daughter).

This is something I more or less tossed off in a fit of experimentation last Christmas when I couldn't sleep (no, I wasn't waiting for Santa). To pass the insomnia productively, I decided to spend some time learning to use a new open-source digital audio workstation I had run across (Linux Multimedia Studio) and this was the result.  Later, when I upgraded to another DAW (Tracktion 3), I was able to rebuild the piece essentially identically because both LMMS and Tracktion 3 were compatible with the plug-in softsynth in which the voices had been built (ZynAddSubFX) and the MIDI was pretty basic.  For the record, the voices are not my creations, although I did tweak some; Tracktion 3 also allowed me to play with some other parameters and to polish it up a bit.  In the end, I was pleased with the result and so it's the first piece I'm sharing here.  Stravinsky it ain't -- nor even Roger Waters, whose idea (an old favorite from "Meddle") was the inspirational germ -- so judge it gently, but I hope you enjoy it.

I have several other pieces in the pipeline, although, with the semester end approaching, it seems likely that their completion will be slow in coming.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Treading Water

As promised, I have some music to post here, but I have been unable to do so successfully, so far.  It took me a while to figure out that you can't post .mp3 files as such, but that you have to convert them to video.  Having gotten that far, I had some difficulty getting the video capture software that I found to work.  I got that running tonight, but now the trouble is getting the video to load; Blogger isn't doing what I understand it is supposed to do.  I have a request for help posted on the appropriate help forum (for whatever that's worth).

So, my apologies.  I know it's not like there are vast crowds out there waiting to hear my stuff, but still, I was hoping this would be a simpler process.  With luck, I'll soon be able to get my first piece, called "In Three II" (which is actually in 12) posted for all the world to hear (or not...).

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why Crows? Why Circling?

First, I have always thought crows were cool.  They hold some mystery for me: I remember when I was a little kid watching seemingly endless flocks of crows around sunset flying in long clouds coming from where I couldn't see and going to where I couldn't guess.  They do this where I live now, too, and it seems just as mysterious, even though I know where their rookery is.  They also have the mystique that comes with being frequent figures in myth and legend; I especially love the mercurial trickster crow characters that populate some Native American tales of the Southwest.  In truth, crows are smart, raucous, a fascinating balance of individualistic and collectivistic, and, I think, beautiful birds.  I love their caws and the many distinctive calls they have; they are sophisticated social animals.  They are intelligent, highly adaptive tool-users and elegant and practical fliers. 

Crows are opportunistic omnivores; they hunt, forage and scavenge.  At some point in my past an image came to my mind of crows circling in the air above something on the ground.  This image was meaningful to me: if I, as a terrestrial animal, should notice a handful of crows circling in the air, I know these opportunists have found something of interest to them, even if I don't know what it is.  The crows see what I cannot, yet, by their presence, I am alerted to the existence of something which would otherwise have remained outside my awareness; they are pointers, flags, dreams, catchers-of-attention in the corner of my eye.  In this way, circling crows represent the things in my life that point me to what I might have missed: unexpected opportunities to learn, to grow, to nourish myself. 

Like any metaphor, this one is imperfect, but it is very personal, so its flaws don't really matter to me.  I am using this image here because it communicates something of who I am and where my values lay.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


This is my blog and you're welcome to it (with apologies to James Thurber).

My intention for this tiny partition of cyberspace is to have a place to post items I wish to share but which may either not be technologically compatible with other web services or don't fit therein for other reasons.  One example of this is musical projects, the first of which I hope to be posting soon.

What this site will not be is a home for anything not entirely appropriate for public consumption.  This is a public arena and I ask that all posters please respect that.  I reserve the right to remove any inappropriate posts.

That said, I hope to have some interesting and thought provoking content here and I look forward to commentary from all comers, friends, family, and friends-to-be.