Thursday, July 20, 2017

Galenean Harp

I've spent a lot of time in the three and a half months since my last post messing around with different parts of my musical/audio instrument collection:  whacking bells, banging on the toy piano, hooking up contact mics to random objects and hitting them, learning how difficult good field recording is, patching miscellaneous objects together in Max and M4L, etc.  I've produced a lot of noise, started a lot of projects, and none of it seemed really to want to go very far -- at least until the last week or so, when a couple of disparate ideas came together and formed this new piece.

It's an ambient work, so you can put it on in the background or you can sit and listen meditatively; I wrote it more with the latter in mind, but it works for the former.  As usual, I recommend good headphones and sufficient volume so you can hear all that's going on (it doesn't get much louder than where it is by the first 90 seconds or so).

This post's title is a reference* to aeolian harps, string instruments that are played by the wind; the central instrument in this piece is a kind of electronic version of that which is "played" by the field recording of waves I made recently.  It's called a resonator; I built it in M4L and gen~, based on an instrument built by a Max programmer (who had, in turn, built his instrument based on a Karplus-Strong synthesizer).  It works analogously to an aeolian harp in that it takes random energy -- in the case of the aeolian harp, wind; in the case of the resonator here, white noise in the form of surf -- and allows tiny samples (effectively grains) to loop in on themselves at specific frequencies and, well, resonate.  The frequencies are, in my version, determined by MIDI pitches, which are programmed by me in an adjacent Live track and fed into the resonator on the audio track through a side channel.  The end result is this sound like waves brushing against open strings, which I just love.

The two additional instruments here are a choir sample pack and Valhalla VintageVerb.  I wanted the choir to remain almost hidden, leading the listener to stretch her ear to hear it.  The reverb fades in very slowly, again, being something you tend to notice only after it's been there a while; I really liked the otherworldly effect it has on the familiar sound of the surf.

Last, a bit on the surf itself:  the waves were recorded among rocks on a stony/sandy beach in Westport, MA early this summer.  I placed my field recorder down as close to the waves as I could get; this yielded the wonderful sloppy, smacking, slapping sounds as the water played around the stones.  The high dynamic range was especially well-suited for use with the resonator, producing the strum-like tones; narrower dynamic ranges tend to produce more organ-like or sustained-string sounds from it.  The stones in the pic accompanying the piece were photographed on the beach as I found them.

*The piece's title is a bit of a pun, in case you hadn't already noticed:  resonances are, by definition, waves.

Monday, April 3, 2017

"Hello Polly! This is your nine o'clock alarm call!"

I've been following Marc Weidenbaum's Disquiet Junto Project for some months now.  I originally discovered it on the lines forum and have made a couple of attempts to participate; in all cases, I did not complete my effort before deadline.  This current piece is the most recent attempt and the only one to see actual (if tardy) completion.  That I finished it is in part due to my enthusiasm for the project:  I have for decades struggled to find the perfect wake-up music and decided now was the time to write some for myself.

It's a simple piece, but I'm very happy with it, for some technical as well as musical reasons.  Technically, I'm pleased that, having identified some mixing issues, I figured out how to resolve them, as well as having gotten a little better with making the granular sampling in the Tuvan voice track work smoothly.  Musically, I like that I was able to incorporate my mother's Coniff bells, as well as some native Live bell samples, and I liked how the voices and the bells worked together.  I was also pleased with how nicely the birds surprise in the end.

The challenge that I've found in choosing music to wake up by is that it must fade in ever so gently -- so as not to scare the piss out of me -- and it cannot have a strong beat; ideally, it would have no beat at all.  For many years, I relied on Pat Metheny Group's "The Bat, Part 2," but my new wife feels that Vasconcelos' berimbau at the beginning sounds creepy.  I switched to Phill Niblock's "A Cage of Stars," which works because of its fade-in and simplicity, but I never listen to the entire 28 1/2 minutes (and, anyway, doing so through an iPhone speaker would be even more criminal than doing so with "The Bat, Part 2").  Weidenbaum's Junto #273 gave the the chance to explore what I really want to wake up to and to create that for myself.

This piece was constructed in Ableton Live using native samples, the wonderful Olympus Elements choir sample pack, AAS's Chromaphone 2 and Valhalla Vintage Verb plug-ins, and two recordings from, along with my personal bell samples, mentioned above.