cat enumeration is more difficult than you might think

It’s hard to tell what will spur me on to actually put some music together. In this case, it was an off-hand mention in a year-end music critics’ poll from a friend of mine, tongue-in-cheek describing “the worst song” ever in the form of a set of lines his four-year-old son had put together.

I read them, decided they looked instead like (predictably) something Mark E. Smith might write after way too many lagers in an alley behind a pet store, and set off to (again) cobble together pre-existing noises into a vaguely Fall-like musical backing.

That was the plan. It didn’t turn out that way. I decided to stick to only one album for the samples…and used primarily solo’d instruments (mostly at the very beginning of songs). Lots of altering of speed, pitch, tempo; cutting and pasting the order of things, sound processing…and as I was putting the guitar parts on, the sound of one of them sent me off in another direction entirely.

Which, as it turned out, I like way better than the Fall homage I started with. (I’m sure there are still some Fallish elements remaining…but that cat…that cat…that cat’s from Mars!

Monkey Typing Pool “Cats in the Creeper Universe”

PS: Long, geeky description of the composition process in the comments…

1 Comment

Filed under indulgence, noise

One response to “cat enumeration is more difficult than you might think

  1. 2fs

    As I’ve done a few times in the past, I’ll use this space for geeking out in more detail than a hypothetical general audience would find interesting.

    I began with drums. There were a few nice, isolated drum parts on the album (which, giving it away, is Gang of Four’s _Entertainment_). I used three of them: one, chopped up and re-edited, is the main kick drum pattern; the second, filtered to mostly treble, is the rest of the main drum part. I used the kick drum in its original, just-plain-four-on-the-floor form in the bridge. And there’s one fancy fill (which, really, I probably could have left out: it’s in the bridge, too).

    Because I haven’t used Logic Express for a while, I’d become so unfamiliar with it that I realized my goal of putting this together very quickly would run up against my need to read a lot of the manual just to recall how to do things. So I instead used Audacity. What this meant was that since Audacity lacks the means to tie sounds to a specific tempo, to simplify the task of editing parts to specific points in the musical time flow, I set the song’s tempo at 120 bpm…that way, everything would align at simple divisions of a second: one quarter note = .5 second, etc.

    As I went along, for most of the process I was thinking that after doing all the instrumental parts, I’d probably speed everything up maybe 10, 15 percent: I was envisioning a somewhat hectic tempo. Part of the reason the song took the form it eventually did is that I started to think of it at its existing tempo…rather than imagining the hypothetical sped-up version.

    Anyway: next, I did the bass parts. The main bass riff actually comes from three different sampled parts: the first three low notes, the second two notes, and the third set of three quick notes. I began with no particular harmonic plan, and the first thing I did was simply slow down the first bass sample until it was at 120 bpm. I took the next sample and changed it, also, to 120 bpm: I don’t recall now whether it was in pitch with the first sample, or whether I then used Audacity to alter its pitch (but not its tempo) slightly to bring it more closely in tune with the first note (a low E-flat, roughly, and a C a sixth above it). I know that when I was coming up with the third part of the bass riff (the ending, quick three-note phrase on every other iteration), I definitely altered the pitch: the somewhat odd choice of sounding the major seventh (relative to the root E-flat) came to me at this time.

    So I had this slightly odd harmonic thing which both implied a chord or key but avoided spelling out anything but its root. I think subconsciously the play of absence in those notes led me to my next decision: which was placing the rhythm of the part such that it left a slightly reggae-like “hole” on the downbeat.

    Now I had a rhythmic structure, between the drums and the bass. The guitar part was trickier: first, there weren’t that many isolated guitar parts on the record; second, the ones that were there often didn’t quite have the tone I was looking for (at this point, still thinking in terms of the Fall, I was looking for a sort of thin, scratchy, 1983 Fall sound…). Eventually I took the guitar from the opening of “Natural’s Not In It,” rearranged the order and the rhythm (and the pitch and tempo, although not together…) – and it was sorta tricky figuring out what sort of harmony to use. For whatever reason I wanted to preserve some memory of the original part, whose two notes are a whole step apart…I finally decided on G-D (implying a major seventh chord to go along with the bassline) and F-C (in the E-flat scale, and very vaguely implying a Dm7 given their placement atop the D bass note). I put some rhythmic echo on the part (a la early U2), and I had a nice sort of propulsive but lurching rhythm.

    That’s the verse. For the bridge, I reverted to the original straight-fours kick drum, a more rigid rhythm on the “treble” drum kit, and the aforementioned fill. I used a big bass open-fifth (quite recognizably from “Ether”) to open that phrase, then chose a note one step below. I don’t quite remember where I got the pitch for that one: I just arbitrarily decided that that F#-C# made a nice contrast with the E-flat tonality of the verse (it’s a minor third up – fairly distant tonal relation, but I wanted the bridge to feel *different*). For the guitar, I used a completely different tone: the loud, feedback-laden guitar from “Anthrax”…altered, reversed, and with reverb added in both directions.

    Early on, I’d thought of using the feedback opening to “Anthrax” as a sort of noise bed for the track…in fact, that’s exactly what I did: first, I slowed it down so it was (uh, mostly, close enough) in key with the verse (emphasizing that B-flat) and, I think, adding some echo or some such to make it a little less obviously “oh it’s that Gang of Four song.”

    So now I had a whole structure, really: verse, bridge, back to the verse. But only about a minute and a half of song. I probably would have just stopped there…but realizing I had only a minute or so of lyrics, and really nothing to go over a second verse, I decided that verse would be pretty much instrumental. So I took that “Anthrax” riff, transposed it so it sat against the Eb-flat verse tonality…and then, I decided I’d elaborate on that loud, ‘verby guitar by using the very cool Paulstretch app – which (hooray!) I discovered had been incorporated into more recent versions of Audacity than I’d downloaded. So I updated that app, and applied it to, basically, the last two notes of the riff.

    Suddenly, I had this long floaty lunar note a la Zoot Horn Rollo…and the song went to a place I did not anticipate: spacey psychedelia. From here, I just layered different parts of that guitar part, stretched out…and did the same thing to different parts of the “Anthrax” noise bed. I gradually added phasing to the “treble” drums, and eventually faded them out, followed later by the bass being faded out…more effects on the floating guitar sounds, and…eventually, out.

    Oh yeah, the words. As I noted, when I read Brian’s comments about his kid’s song, I thought of something Mark E. Smith might have done…so I immediately used the Voice Memo app on my iPhone to record myself speaking those words. I sent the audio file to myself, and broke it up into the individual phrases. (Note that I did all this *before* recording a note of music or settling on a tempo…) Once all the music was done, I just placed the phrases atop the music in ways that seemed to fit rhythmically, after having applied a bit of slapback echo to them. I had to rearrange the order of the words a little bit, but I was aware that I might have to deal with an outraged four-year-old, a demographic which tends to be even more vehemently offended at editorial alterations than your average writer, say. But I think I did okay. It turned out very nicely that certain effective moments in the “Anthrax” noise bed just happened to coincide with my interstitial two-bar breaks between sections, when I dropped out most everything but the drums…and the closing line of the lyrics.

    So, this was lots of fun: I really enjoy discovering the way music can emerge from semi-arbitrary decisions. I doubt I would have consciously thought of many of this song’s features, in advance – they arose naturally as a result of the processes of manipulation by which I put the song together.

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