Category Archives: indulgence

one brain, iamb net

I’ve been reading Christopher Scoates’s book on Brian Eno’s work as visual artist, Brian Eno: Visual Music and, inspired by a section describing some of Eno’s process in making his ambient works, thought it might be interesting to work with a similar process in making an abstract sound collage. So I did: the result is called “Styrax.”

To construct this, I “seeded” it by using the first ten digits of pi to cull the first ten concrete nouns from the published version of Eno’s 1992 talk on perfumes (reproduced in Scoates). I chose the 3rd concrete noun, then skipped 1 and chose the next, then skipped 4 and chose the next, and so on, until I had a list of ten nouns. I then used those nouns, rather in the manner of Oblique Strategies prompts, to search for videos on YouTube that might provide usable sound samples. (The list of nouns: collection, aroma, wax, leaves, years, names, styrax, root, unrecognizability, experiments.) Then, having found videos with usable sounds and extracting the audio from them, I found the most suitable segments of each one. The sounds ranged from highly organic (field recordings and the like) to entirely electronic: with one exception, no “music” conventionally produced was used. Then I messed around with each sound: slowing it down, speeding it up, stretching it, adding reverb, etc. I then added a period of silence to the end of each sound sample as a proportion of the sample’s length, according to the source’s particular digit of pi.

To organize it into a piece of music, I again used the first ten digits of pi to determine entrance: I delayed the entrance of the second element by a multiple of 3, the second by a further multiple of 1, and so on. I then looped each sequence with no intervening space: since each segment was of different length, at any one time there would always be a new interaction among each of the ten sounds.

Then I cheated and threw all of that out. Well, not quite, but…I muted several sections of some of the segments, because they felt too familiar…or I cut out bits of the silence to avoid having several seconds of actual silence (sometimes, the silent sections of all ten parts aligned), and did a little more sound processing (mostly in terms of adjusting levels and EQ, although I altered one sound each time it occurred because its very distinctiveness meant that its return ended up feeling too familiar otherwise).

A bit more EQ and level-adjustment, and the addition of a ghost, and I was done.

Celltab “Styrax” (2014)

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sand, glue, formaldehyde

Here’s a new song.

I never know where songs are going to come from, and this is one of the odder sources. A while back, I was reminded of this image, which I’d scanned from an ad for a concert a few years ago:

DBDPossibly an error in judgment rendering “The Dead” and “Bob Dylan” in the same type and style…at the time I captioned the image “Zombie Bob!”

When I saw it again, I re-posted it, noting that I should do so before it was too apt (not that Dylan’s in particularly ill health, so far as I know)…but something clicked, and…the idea of a song called “The Dead Bob Dylan” started to take shape.

The lyrics (and the song) are short, so I’ll just put them here:

The dead Bob Dylan
sings a Geiger counter
whose slow peaks graph falling night
 
The dead Bob Dylan
hears the cypress shiver,
reads the words the keen wind writes
 
The dead Bob Dylan
knows the stones, coast to coast,
build a tower underground
 
The dead Bob Dylan
never bleeds—angel seeds
sprout from dusty cowboy sounds
 
The times are unchanging now
Answers fall as the wind dies down

 

Some nice accidents as the music came together: some parts were stepping on the lyrics, and I found they worked fine offset by a bar over a different chord…and given that the chords in the song are all a bit unsettled (lots of 9ths and 11ths and such), that seemed to work well.

I think I found myself wondering, okay, what might a dead Bob Dylan know, or want to know, or do? Well, I know I couldn’t have written something like this after ol’ Bob actually does die, so I figured I’d finish it up early.

The song itself: Monkey Typing Pool “The Dead Bob Dylan”

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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…

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Pianos

She was obsessed with pianos. Something about them fascinated her, struck her as peculiarly human, the conjunction perhaps of their cumbersome mechanics with their ability to strike beauty. A piano, she once wrote, is a harp in a box, an angelic suitcase. And, as clumsy humans, fittingly we do not play its strings directly but only through a Rube Goldberg contraption of keys, cables, hammers, and felt. 

She was curiously amused to observe, for example, that among certain musicians who normally perform with acoustic guitar, each concert includes a ritual in which the singer moves to the piano, generally for the most sensitive, inward songs. At first she thought this odd: it’s easy to imagine a troubadour traveling with little but a guitar, carrying his music and stories with him, and so in his audience’s eyes uniting instrument and performer…but what troubadour could travel with a piano? It lives in a room; it’s complex, awkward, an instrument designed by that same committee of blind men specifying an elephant. But maybe that’s it: a guitar is clearly an instrument, something the singer carries, and plays. A piano, through its very elaborateness, disappears – no singer can carry it, so its notes must be internal, the singer’s work unified with the song.

In her first installations, she placed grand pianos in unexpected public places. One day, a piano would appear in a courthouse elevator—or in the middle of a fountain in a public square. Naturally, such treatment did the pianos no good in their capacity as musical instruments…and soon she began to exploit this damage, placing pianos on precarious and snow-covered Alpine slopes, in parching deserts,  in the midst of the Amazon jungle, or in the ocean’s depths. Sometimes, she thought to record the sounds of the instrument’s demise, installing subtly hidden tiny microphones and digital recorders to track the strings’ slackening intonation, the disintegration of the hammers’ felt, and the snap of the dessicating wood in the relentless desert heat. But more often the instruments were left to their own ends, unmemorialized. 

One series of installations featured multiple pianos: a mile-long row of grands surreptitiously placed on the center line of an interstate highway in Montana, fifteen pianos carefully stacked in an empty lot in Trenton, New Jersey. Her most ambitious multi-instrument work (never realized) was called A Thousand Falling Pianos: as many pianos as possible, a hundred at least, to be dropped in carefully calibrated intervals from several airplanes, onto the desert floor of Nevada, in an area ringed by a perimeter of sensitive microphones hundreds of yards from the impact zone. The signal from these microphones would be mixed and recorded: she hoped to transform, through distance and repetition, the brutality of a single piano exploding onto the ground into a muffled percussion of oddly calming timbres, different instruments dropped to land in varying ways and making different sounds.

Ten years after creating Jungle Piano, she returned to the installation to find vines entangled around the metal framework of the harp, the strings disarrayed and carried off by animals, bits of wood covered in mossy soil, small animals nesting in the stuffing of the piano bench’s leather seat. The organic decay and repurposing suggested a new course to her: she would grow organic pianos, rather than passively chart the decay of mechanical instruments. (Perhaps the symmetry of the two processes appealed to her.) She consulted geneticists, prosthetics manufacturers, AI enthusiasts, specialists in regenerative healing…and eventually, her research culminated in her Bone Piano, living sinews stretching and growing, like strings, over a bone skeleton, encased in a chitinous, resonant exoskeleton with enormous horn membranes (derived from elephant ears) to act as resonators. More plant than animal, despite the borrowed DNA, this piano lacked any sort of awareness of its surroundings. And it was sterile. It could not reproduce.

Presumably.

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39-40 -30-

Several times during the past year, I’ve referred to or linked to my friend Rex’s 39-40 blog – a project in which Rex recorded and posted a new song every day for an entire year from his 39th birthday through his 40th. Well, today is Rex’s 40th birthday…and he’s posted a full 365 songs (with one more coming soon). As anyone who’s ever recorded anything at all will acknowledge, this is an astonishing achievement…and even though, of course, not every song worked, given the circumstances a very high proportion of them did – a credit to Rex’s ingenuity, talent, and creativity.

By the end the blog became pretty much a family website, with three generations of Broomes contributing: Rex’s father’s band, Thunderhill, was frequently represented, and Rex’s daughters made several contributions (particularly Eden, whose musical growth over the year is rather astonishing: the girl has talent, and I hope she continues to find a venue for it after the completion of this project). In fact the blog ranged more widely than that, with the full-album Foxbase Alpha cover set consisting largely of covers performed by friends of Rex (including myself).

After all that (and after Rex posted two of my own contributions to his project, and covered one of my songs), it seems only fair to pay him back a little. Two of Rex’s songs in particular have always really impressed me (both are available on his band Skates & Rays’ album You Are My Home): “Fort Ashby” is a very personal song, and thus not terribly well-suited for the cover treatment…but “Doubtful Sound” strikes me as a wonderful song also, and its sentiment and situation (however personal they might be for Rex) are pretty much universal at some levels.

So it is that I decided to cover this track and present it to Rex on his 40th birthday, as my tribute cover to his cover tribute website. I came up with the idea several months ago actually (the arrangement is in obvious homage to a mutual favorite artist of Rex’s and mine, John Cale – and in fact, I had its main concept clearly enough in mind that I asked a violist friend of mine if she’d consider playing the viola part…didn’t get it done on time, so it’s fake (and distorted) viola you hear…), but it took me until this month to actually begin recording. For me, the recording was a sort of land-speed record (less than three weeks from start to finish), and that Rex was able to complete a track every damned day astonishes me.

I could yammer on about the recording process (and will, in the comments, if anyone gives a rat’s), but instead, I’ll stop: here’s the track: my cover of Rex Broome’s “Doubtful Sound.” (edit: Out of context, the more “Cale” elements of this track don’t work as well…so I re-edited it a bit.)

Monkey Typing Pool “Doubtful Sound” [original version: see above for new edit] (2011)

Skates & Rays “Doubtful Sound” (You Are My Home, 2009)

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collage barrage

Been a busy cut-n-paste beaver lately…in addition to my “Revolution 9” homage collage (see what I did there?), I made my second contribution to my friend Rex’s faboo 39-40 project (third, if you count that he covered one of my songs earlier), this time a structural cover of Saint Etienne’s “This Is Radio Saint Etienne.” (What do I mean by a “structural cover”? Read on…)

Rex is covering the entire Foxbase Alpha album—or rather, he and friends are covering the entire album—and he asked me to contribute. At first I was reluctant for reasons of time, but he pointed out that the album has a couple of short little instrumental interludes which would make for fairly quick work…so I committed to the shortest one, the opening track of the album.

My reaction to that track is that I don’t think its specific musical materials are really to the point; the track’s purpose is primarily to establish an effect, set up an atmosphere, introducing the rest of the album. So instead of covering its actual music, I merely sought to trace over its general outlines with something sonically similar even if musically dissimilar. (If you follow the link to Rex’s site above, you can hear the original.)

So, we have an opening with some chatter and some environmental noise, followed by music that sounds taglike: music to identify a product, program, etc. That’s interrupted midway through by more voices, the music resumes, and it ends.

Among the loose bits and pieces hanging around my hard drive in the wake of the “Grasses” project was a fragment (from the invaluable ubuweb site) from a 1921 piece by Italian noise pioneer Antonio Russolo, Corale and Serenata. (Ubuweb’s 1924 recording is also the sole surviving recording to feature the intonarumori.) I didn’t use it in “Grasses Are Longer Than Hair,” but I thought that bit fit the bill of being a sort of epigrammatic fragment, the sort of thing a political program in the 1920s might use. I ran the fragment in reverse (for no better reason than to sound different from the original), and then added some new parts for a cheesy organ and a fake cello section.

At this point, the piece became a little scene from a sound-movie: there’s some sort of large outdoor gathering, a political meeting perhaps, and the whole thing’s being broadcast by radio controlled by that political party. Italian futurist politics being not all that terribly pleasant and humane, a somewhat foreboding air was in order. I babbled in a made-up, vaguely Slavic “language” at the opening, announced the radio station’s name in the break in the middle (it’s actually intended to say “This is Radio 39-40” in homage to Rex’s project), and a brief few words at the end.

I treated the two new musical parts first by filtering them as if on an old radio and then added an “old 78 record” effect (which I should have done only once…wasn’t thinking and did it for both parts…so it’s a very scratchy 78).

But it wasn’t quite complete in my mind…So I put a blunt cut at the beginning and the end (conveniently obscuring my iffy ability to keep close time with the entrance of the sound file’s orchestra…which seems to have a rather unsteady tempo to begin with), and added the initial “click” sound (it’s actually from a sound effect of a Xerox machine…) and the closing brief fanfare fragment – which was also cut off dead, since I intended it to jumpcut directly to the next track on the album.

Monkey Typing Pool “This Is Radio Etienne” (Saint Etienne “cover” – for Rex Broome’s 39-40 project)

 

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because they are, you know.

So a while back, I thought it might be fun to do a sound collage in the style of “Revolution 9.” That meant, of course, thinking about what that style was. I’ve written before about “Revolution 9” (at least once), and more astute listeners than myself have had much to say about it, which influenced my thinking here quite a bit.

Anyway: about all I’ll say is that the resulting collage, “Grasses Are Longer Than Hair,” has distinct sections, and that which sound sources were used in which section was something I thought about, and that making this sound good (to my ears) was a lot of work…and not at all dissimilar to working with more conventional musical materials, at least not to my way of thinking.

Also contains: a secret sonic alphabet, a gaggle of fourth graders chanting backwards and slowed down, a very extended chromatic scale, a recording from a camera’s microphone from the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a modified phone message from my university’s tech department, and faux-German consonantal percussion. You can listen and hear what else you find…

Celltab “Grasses Are Longer Than Hair”

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