Number 81: Inquest

This month Native Instruments is featuring a sale on Kontakt instruments from Soniccouture. Several interested me (the one created in conjunction with Imogen Heap sounds and looks wonderful). I bought Geosonics, the one I’d been looking at for at least a year, in part because it’s the instrument/sound library that most reflects my own experiments (in some ways I’d be happier with the initial field recordings—because I lack the tools, opportunities, and time to capture the sounds myself—then mangle them myself…the results would not be as pretty).

On Friday (July 15, 2016) I stayed home to deal with a wobbly car—that is, bringing it to a garage and waiting by the phone to hear how expensive it was going to be. That’s when I had the time to get online and begin the process of downloading and installing Geosonics (I intend to do a separate post going into more detail about the product and experience). And on Saturday I began perusing the sounds in the wire folder, finding eight that I thought might work together.

Saying that I found instruments in a folder called “wire” might not make much sense. The starting point is a collection of field recordings: wind, wire, water and ice, and swamp. The recordings have then been manipulated into mostly complex, sprawling drones (pads), though there are some that work for melodic or rhythmic performances. It’s the sort of thing I’ve been doing with my own sounds but much more involved and much, much prettier. Geosonics is a very lush, sensual, addicting sound set; the sounds are an event in their own right, which could be a problem if you want your own personality to be boldly stamped on the composition (in which case you’re probably more interested in making such an instrument/library from scratch).

Inquest, draft 1, July 17, 2016:

 

As you can hear, I went for the drones.

Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening I captured rather random performances for each instrument. Most were first takes. The composition was set to 85 BPM but I have no idea what the actual tempo is, since the metronome was off. Except for one “bass” track there’s nothing rhythmic going on: just that arbitrary bass pulse that fades in and out. The first track was definitely a drone. It might have a greater variety of notes than the rest of the tracks, as I began to focus on just five keys (B, C, C#, D, and D#) after that. There’s still plenty of dust on the other keys of my MIDI keyboard.

All of this would have been done earlier (say, before dinner) but Sonar froze up a couple of times (a lot of programs have been doing that with Windows 10—”Not responding”—coincidence?). As I said, they were almost all first takes. A very quick and thoughtless construction process. If I truly didn’t like something I’d do another take rather than tweaking the MIDI notes.

As I was laying down the drones and squalls I jotted some words, which were sort of the first line. After that I kicked back and free associated the rest. Then edited the text with another layer of free association. I’d just finished a short book on the geology of the National Parks in Utah (all part of the Colorado Plateau) and had then moved onto Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, with its biomes. As for why there would be a “soft spoken inquest,” make something up. That can be your contribution to the creative process.

The soft spoken inquest, as you know, has begun.
It was not my idea.
I assume you know that.
There are things we want to know.
Why is always the best place to start:
It leads nowhere.
Montana. Or farther north.
I can hear it in your bones.
Let’s go over everything again.
So many. So few.
That was halfway up the mesa.
I’m going to keep asking.
It’s the only thing I’m here for.
This couldn’t have happened in Cleveland.
I assume you know that.
I can hear your dry eyes scratch across their lids.
You ignore them when you shouldn’t.
It wasn’t in Kansas. It never is
So much here is dry. That’s the purpose of questions.
A lone pine and two crows.
It always comes down to crows.
I’m not yelling. That’s the whole point.
Except for why.
I’ll ask you again.
You should know.
Again.
Why: that’s still the best place to start.
I’ll say it again.
You should know that.
You’re so dry you can’t lick life.
Again. I’m not yelling.
You should know that.
There were two crows. This is significant.
They were not dry.
Let’s get back to the central question.
It was not my idea.
We should always start with why.

It would be fair to describe “Inquest” as both verbal and musical gibberish. You might have a more complimentary way of saying that. To me, gibberish seems a fair assessment rather than an insult.

It had been my intention to use some sort of distortion on my voice, perhaps a virtual guitar amp or pedal. After tweaking the recording with EQ and compression (especially compression) all the little mouth sounds, like the clicking and popping of saliva bubbles, were so severely exaggerated, made even more abrasive by the distortion, that I couldn’t stand it.In a sense my vocal is as dry as the textual imagery. Perhaps if the “music” were a little thinner, lighter, less dominating I could have carried through with some sort of distortion, despite the mouth sounds, but, as it was, all the effects I tried failed to mesh. A distorted vocal just added to the already heavy-handed sense of sonic assault without making the whole in any way more interesting.

I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to this one to tweak the mix, perhaps to thin out the sounds to add a temporal dynamic that I find lacking.

 

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Number 80: Sleep Now

Sleep Now, draft 1, January 10, 2016:

 

This coming March marks twenty years that I’ve been poetry with sound and I was keen to have something new to add to the collection of tracks I’m putting together to celebrate. (I’d also like to finalize the track list so I can finish the booklet.) It’s been about 2 1/2 years since I last put together a new audio composition. I haven’t even been tweaking my old ones. In September I played around with Sonar a couple times to learn the quirks of the program. And in November I dove in again, this time to see if the Arturia softsynths I’d purchased integrated with Sonar. Other than that I really haven’t touched anything audio.

So, when I opened Sonar yesterday (January 9, 2016) I didn’t have particularly high hopes of producing a finished recording. I just wanted to play around and, I hoped, start something that wouldn’t leave me numb.

Screenshot of my original samples folder. Sometimes the titles indicate the source of the sound. The older collections, from my Roland MS-1, often refer to an early name for the project, since it could only hold 16 samples totally 28 seconds or less.
Screenshot of my original samples folder. Sometimes the titles indicate the source of the sound. The older collections, from my Roland MS-1, often refer to an early name for the project, since it could only hold 16 samples totally 28 seconds or less they were project specific.

As I often do, I started by browsing my own samples (on occasion I will record something as I play with it, striking or rubbing an object usually, after which the recording is cut up into smaller pieces, sometimes looped, often stretched and warped in Sound Forge to make these samples). Too many of my compositions have sounds from the beginning of the alphabet—especially “aluminum bar” and “bending tube”—so this time I started with “wooden frog” (I skipped “world without prayer” which is specific to that composition). It’s a small guiro I had, once upon a time, received as a gift from my partner or one of our children. Of the numerous samples I’d auditioned from that folder, I deleted most of them, settling for only one that has a small part every eighth bar.

A frog-shaped guiro.
A frog-shaped guiro.

Then I tried “wok brush” and found my 4/4 rhythm with a heavy beat at the start of the measure. I did nothing with it (no processing, no volume envelope), just ran the loop start to finish for either a hypnotic or tedious beat. I like drums played with brushes. In general, I like a dirtier sound for rhythms rather than the precise thump or ting of conventional percussion instruments.

Wok brush.
Wok brush.

After that I opened up an old favorite, “wire basket”. Even after compression the sound is hard to hear, just a mechanical rocking sound every eight bars, alternating with the frog. It’s an object I insisted we keep even if it doesn’t stay in our newly remodeled kitchen. It’s both visually and sonically pleasing.

Wire basket, top view.
Wire basket, top view.

I thought I was going to get a steady bass drum beat from an empty water jug. Instead I found a sample with the initial transient removed (the attack, the bang of the stick hitting the jug), that becomes a repetitive swell not always easy to hear. You’ll see it in the screen shot in groups of four.

5-gallon water jug.
5-gallon water jug.

For the hell of it I opened a folder of recordings made a long time ago, on a consumer cassette deck with a $35 Radio Shack microphone, of our older child, recorded in June of 1992 when the kid was 15-months old. The original yawp was looped into a rather mechanical sound. Some rather severe EQ boosts and cuts brought out the inhuman quality of it. You can hear this growing in crescendo from middle to end of the composition.

The final sample provides another mechanical drone though the whole thing. It’s from some sort of flywheel device that I found on a job site and call “turbo bell”. Depending on how it’s used it can give a bell-like chime. Most of my samples involve spinning it on a table.

A cast aluminum wheel, perhaps a flywheel.
A cast aluminum wheel, perhaps a flywheel.

When cobbling this stuff together, as I select samples I start arranging them into patterns. To some extent I did this right from the beginning in 1996, especially once I had a sequencer, but the sonic results were always something of a surprise. It’s both more visual and more intuitive to do this on a computer; I might have a nonmusical reason for placing the sounds but have immediate feedback to judge whether or not to keep something,  move it, or delete it. Early on the patterns were entirely logical (however strangely so), I had a tendency to propose really odd time signatures without a clue as to how it would sound (21/8 for “Music, the Beginning” actually made sense but why “Sex Is Something (You’ll Never Forget)” is in 13/8 is beyond me to justify). This process gives me an immediate feel for the thing, very much like smearing paint on a canvas. I audition sample after sample from a folder. If one feels like it might fit my mood, and subsequently the other samples already selected, I’ll move it around the timeline until it fits.

Sleep Now, draft 1, Sonar screenshot.
Sleep Now, draft 1, Sonar screenshot. The first six tracks are samples. The next three are MIDI tracks for virtual instruments (soft synths). The last track, in expanded view, is my voice.

You can see the patterns in the Sonar screenshot.

As I was compiling the sounds I kept glancing at a Post-It note on my desk, a few lines of nonsense that were threatening to keep me awake sometime last summer or fall. Once I turned on a light long enough to write them down I either got to sleep or back to sleep, I forget which. Here, the words guided my choice of samples and how they needed to be shaped.

“Enlightenment threatened us.
We returned to dream.
Spontaneous blur.
Transparent hypothesis.”

Likewise, they dictated my choice of synth patches and how I would play them (just drones, with a semi-melodic drop for two of them). This was my chance to try out some of the virtual instruments I’d purchased from Arturia in November: Oberheim SEM, ARP 2600, and Jupiter 8. All of them have beautiful arpeggios but I couldn’t imagine something like that fitting into this composition. The pulsing part for the Oberheim is basically a drone but it does drop through the notes B, A flat, and E flat (more likely G sharp and D sharp in common musical reckoning, but I tend to think flat rather than sharp). The ARP is, literally, just a drone of one note. But what a magnificent drone it is. The Jupiter 8 has such luxurious pads, rich with filter sweeps; I chose one and played my descending three-note scale in what is essentially a third drone.

Even though I was dead tired I set up a microphone to record those few words while my voice was still relatively clear (it would require hours of waiting the next day as my sinuses drained). Even so, it was doubtful I could control my voice long enough to get a good take. It took about six takes to get a reading I liked. On the screen shot you can see that last take, cut up to better fit the measures. I tried to get my reading to pace with the other sounds but either I’m out of practice or I was focusing on my sinuses and throat to the extent that I lost track of the beat. (The Heil Sound Pro-40 worked beautifully with my voice. I did very little to it: opened the file in Sound Forge to do a very small touch of noise reduction; added a small tweak of compression to make it easier to understand by making the whole word more audible; and a small hint of reverb.)

In recent years this is more or less how most of my compositions come together, rather quickly and without much fuss. I still don’t know the tools of the trade all that well, barely scratching the surface of what all this software can do. What has changed over the years is my sense of what works together. I’m quicker to throw things out and more decisive about what needs to be tweaked and what can be left alone. Perhaps it could be said that I’ve mastered the art without mastering the craft.

(The first four lines of text were what kept me awake. The sleep refrain was added just before recording.)

Sleep Now

Enlightenment threatened us.
We returned to dream.
Spontaneous blur.
Transparent hypothesis.
Sleep now.
Sleep now.
Sleep.

 

Number 79: November

I quote my notes to the recording:

A couple of repeating phrases were keeping me awake one night:
Thousands of irregular splinters of sky
Each framed by a twig a branch a limb a trunk
Recording started 10/13/2013. To which I added:
November
All this changes in five months
What comes next
A held breath or a stilled breath

There’s really nothing to “November” except those words. I use my voice, looped, in place of instruments. And even with this I do little to process my voice: noise reduction, panning and volume, maybe a little compression. I don’t think I added any reverb because it would have muddied the sound.

November, draft 1, October 13, 2013:

 

November, draft 1, ACID Pro screen shot.
November, draft 1, ACID Pro screen shot.

Number 78: Final Words

Spring/summer 2013 I was bogged down reading a 3000 page space opera by Peter F. Hamilton. Space travel was on my mind. The idea of sending a ship out to a possibly habitable planet and then having things go wrong, the last message of the last survivor…

“Final Words” had been on my mind for several months, the basic situation, yet the recording was almost entirely ad lib and in one take. As with a genuine statement essential details and facts are forgotten and left out. The telling is clumsy and somewhat stammered. Yet it’s also a performance. It’s cheap theater.

I started with my voice and the narrative. I used the Boss VT-1 to deepen my voice just a little. It also added artifacts to the sibilance which I decided to leave—in part because I was aiming for spontaneity and in part because it made the recording sound less professional, perhaps more genuinely confessional. I probably cleaned up some of the circuit noise and evened out the dynamics with compression and then normalized the file, to make my words audible, but otherwise left it as it was. To this I added some rather quiet loops from my own samples, to give a mechanical background like the hum of machines and, I hope, both the sense of being isolated and haunted.

Final Words, draft 1, September 15, 2013:

 

Final Words, draft 1, ACID Pro screen shot.
Final Words, draft 1, ACID Pro screen shot.

Number 77: Dream House

Dream House

My ideal house is a dream house. You know the one…when you walk into the room it’s small and simple, maybe leading into another room, also small and simple, perhaps a few doorways leading off to yet more rooms, but when you turn around to leave there is a hallway you didn’t see as you came in. Just a simple hallway not much wider than the wall that was there as you entered. But the hall has door after door and each door opens to a room perhaps as large as the original room. Possibly each of these rooms leading off the hallway lead to other entrances, other rooms, stairways to attics and basements, another door or window opening onto country or city vistas not surrounding the original room, which might have been in a tenement, skyscraper, or out in the woods. These other rooms also have doorways that could open to other times and places. You never know.

And you never know if any of these other rooms will be safe or comfortable, so you usually hesitate to cross the threshold and turn back to the original room, which was perfect. But can you ever get back? Any hall you enter, any threshold you cross is probably one way. Only by going forward do you have any hope of returning.

Each room has a character of its own but somehow ties in with all the others, designed by a subtle mind. The décor could be sumptuous fabrics or spider webs or a forest or machinery, yet they all belong to the same house. Maybe the room is occupied by a forgotten family member or a prospective lover or a strange animal. You never know.

And each door you open could lead to another story or a continuation of the one you were already living. It could open to sleep, vitality, death, or boredom. You never know.

If you stay long enough you will cross mighty landscapes but also, maybe, you will find a small place that accepts just your body, a crevice or nook that could hold you forever. You never know.

Even when frightening things are chasing you through this house, room after room, and you’re not sure if any of these rooms will be safe, a refuge from anything and everything, you still manage to find comfort in the fact that it’s your house and not someone else’s. In a very desperate way, it will always be home.

Dream House, draft 1, January 19, 2013:

 

The piecing together of sounds began in the summer of 2012 but was then forgotten. On January 19th I opened the folder, deleted many of the tracks, settling down to three of my own loops (hinge, CD spindle, and Bestine can), then decided something I’d recently written would be perfect, a venture into the recurrent stream of buildings that have enclosed my dream adventures as far back as I can remember. After recording my voice I added a small loop of electric piano I made with Native Instruments’ Kontakt. The rest of the tracks are loops from David Torn’s disc Splattercell. For me almost minimalistic.

Dream House, draft 1, ACID Pro screen shot.
Dream House, draft 1, ACID Pro screen shot.

 

To be honest, I hardly know what’s here. After finishing it and posting it on SoundCloud I’ve hardly given the recording a listen. I actually do listen to my own stuff—not very often—in the hope it will give me pleasure. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it makes me cringe. Usually the same compositions (or drawings or poems) get the same response, at least as long as I don’t listen very often. To me ear my shit gets old fast.

Number 76: Many Things Unfold

I had forgotten that I’d created a second instrument in iZotope’s Iris, which was a pleasant surprise one cold December Saturday. I liked it and began playing with it in ACID Pro. First a drone track, then a tweet track.

I added a couple of “rhythm” tracks with my own samples. The primary, running through the whole composition, is a Bestine can squeezed and released (a recording I’d made years earlier). The closing of the piece has a three-beat loop made on a metal filter (perhaps for a furnace or ventilation system) that I often use (actually, I recorded three different sets on two or three different filters). There’s one more track, a 3-month-old baby recorded in 1991 (our first born).

The text was written while I worked on the sounds, more or less stream of consciousness. I was having trouble monitoring the playback and/or vocal recording in ACID so I ended up capturing the reading the way I used to, unaccompanied, in Sound Forge. This allowed me to concentrate on the reading.

Many Things Unfold, draft 1, December 9, 2012:

 

Many Things Unfold

Many things unfold
like precious commodities
self-perpetuating
bursting open in your hands
a radiant microcosmos
roots in spring wrapping grains of sand
frost in winter crawling up your abdomen
This what you’ll find
if you die on Saturday

A sweetness dripping
like the rational discourse of plastics
phantasms creeping through your blood
life is forgotten
but consciousness is in bloom
I digress polyethylene
I digress PVC
I’m melting
I’m melting
This what you’ll find
if you digest Sunday

Internal hemorrhages
internal hemorrhages
the process is leaking into the atmosphere
(eat your muffins, dear)
childhood is clinging
and pulling down the flesh
is it new or used
is it old or young
is it green and happy
the atmosphere is bleeding into space
We have entered Central Standard Time
the minutes are flattening into hours

Many Things Unfold, draft 1, ACID Pro screen shot.
Many Things Unfold, draft 1, ACID Pro screen shot.

Number 75: The Wish

Hank Tilbury, who I met on SoundCloud, had expressed some interest in collaborating. I took it upon myself to grab one of his compositions and break out a section to align it with the grid in ACID Pro so I could add some of my own samples. It was his performance of “Ghosts of the Kaskaskia” (I had assumed it was a traditional song but when searching online I now believe it to be a Tilbury original).

I created wind sounds. One is a recording of a tube with a coupling, used somewhat like a bullroarer (not sure exactly what object this is). I also used a fragment of a recording I’d made with a Remo Thunder Tube. The third windy sound was just me blowing hot air. There’s also a track of the vibrating aluminum bar that I so often use.

The Wish, draft 1, August 4, 2012:

 

At Hank’s suggestion I remixed the thing. He thought there should be a stronger bottom so there’s less shock to the ear when my voice comes in.

The Wish, draft 1.1, August 5, 2012:

 

The poem itself is an old one, something I wrote circa 1982 (which really means anywhere between 1980 and 1984, though I lean toward an earlier date).

The Wish

Folding double,
cranberry lips pucker
to touch the wind
exuberantly.
Someone
not here
breathes quietly
in expectation.
Someone
lying near
asks what was said,
wanting explanation.

The Wish, draft 1. ACID Pro screen shot.
The Wish, draft 1. ACID Pro screen shot.