Friday, November 25, 2016

Going Live

I've always been fascinated by how the atmosphere stratifies, and that it does so with such sharp boundaries.  Growing up in New Mexico, I was often treated to spectacular views of these layers, by virtue of the common 100-mile visibility and the mile-high -- and higher -- altitudes of the places where I lived.

This piece was inspired by my experiences during two trips I made this fall when I had the opportunity to observe the daytime sky a great deal, both from below on the ground and from within on the plane.  In the Land of Enchantment and southern Massachusetts, I was treated to incredibly varied and rapidly changing sky moods, and the light and the layers and the motion inspired me to express these experiences musically.

I'm very excited about this new piece for several reasons.  On a musical level, it's my first attempt at leaving behind the drone as a unifying structure and I'm very happy with the result.  Some of the people who's music I admire most, even if their work is considered drone music, can vary the structure and timbre of a piece in evolving ways that, if one compared brief samples from different moments in the work, they might not sound related, but as the work unfolds they feel like natural and intuitive developments.  I was pleased with the degree to which I was able to achieve that here.

On a technical level, it's the first piece I've written with Ableton Live, a new DAW that I recently invested in.  I had been growing increasingly frustrated with Logic Pro 9, in terms of the quality of its plugins and its lack of interface with Max.  Too, I had been seeking for some time a good MIDI controller interface, both an alternative to the standard keyboard and a good set of rotors, launch buttons, and sliders -- and, ideally, a nice, multitouch X/Y pad.  In a brief serendipitous conversation with a local musician, I was reminded that Live interfaces seamlessly with Max and decided to give the trial version a chance, taking my idea for Layers of Sky as the guinea pig.

I was thrilled to be able both to import favorite Max patches into Live -- the super-long-delay in the beginning of the piece came from the latest iteration of a patch I built when I could not find a commercial plugin that would let me go more than 10 seconds -- as well as modify native Max for Live (M4L) patches to meet my needs.  In exploring Live, I was also reminded of the Ableton Push, which I had looked at previously in my investigations into hardware interfaces for Logic but had dismissed because it was so intimately tied with Live.  It's not an inexpensive piece of gear, but, as I fell more and more in love with Live, it made increasingly more sense to make the investment.  Before my Live Trial (30 days) was up, I was sold on the whole kit and kaboodle.

A few technical notes about this piece in particular.  I used a range of native Live and third-party plugins, as well as some of my own samples.  These include several tracks running the Chromaphone 2 physical modeling synth, and Robert Henke's M4L granular synth Granulator II, which I set to chewing on a sample of one of my mother's Coniff windbells.  The strings in the final section consist of my own viola playing (which, I think, is the first time that has made it into a final version of anything), plus a solo 'cello from Ableton's sampled orchestral strings.  Finally, I used two delays, the super-long filtered delay I mentioned above and a three-channel native M4L delay I modified, and then fed it all through Sean Costello's Valhalla VintageVerb, which also features a super-long (up to 70 second) reverb.

Right now, I am as excited about the path my music is taking as I have been in years:  I feel like I have the tools I need and can integrate them in efficient, flow-supporting ways.  I have several new works in mind (and new approaches to long-shelved ideas) and have already started what's next...