Postcards from Slow Places

A huge THANK YOU goes out to Mark Durham and JasonW22 from LCRP, along with all the other musicians and composers from LINES, for writing and sending their collective “Postcards from Slow Places.”

The result is a monolithic thirty-four hour ambient album.

My contribution – “For Wallace Stevens (submersion mix)” – is based on water imagery found in the lines of Wallace Stevens’ poetry. The first and final quarters of the track originated as an acoustic guitar loop which was paulstretched before being processed with VST filters and reverbs. The resulting drone was played backwards for the intro and forwards for the outro. The central thirty minute passage of the composition was my first experiment in having various low pass filters and high pass filters change gradually over the course of thirty minutes. The overall tone of the composition represents oceanic immersion and emersion.

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FAWM 2019

2019.03.07 UPDATE The House of Asterion soundtrack was finished just before the end of February and is now available on Bandcamp.

I managed to follow my plans for the most part. Recently, however, my guitar playing has gravitated towards being angular, noisy, and unsettled, and didn’t sit well with the overall feel of the soundtrack. So some of the intended guitar tracks were worked out with different instruments, while other tracks inherited background guitar drones and swells. Finishing the soundtrack – and especially assembling the accompanying videos – helped me begin to realise the tragedy inherent in Borges’ vision.


 

In January I signed up to participate in FAWM. Knowing that the challenge was to write fourteen tracks in just 28 days, I needed some kind of structure to help organize my time and song writing system.

Fourteen songs. Fourteen. During December, I finished work on an E.P. based on Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel” . I knew that the number fourteen was mysteriously connected to the concept of infinity in another of Borges’ fine works, “The House of Asterion.” This philosophical meditation recasts the myth of Ariadne and Theseus from the point of view of the Minotaur. The text returns again and again to the number fourteen. Fourteen. Fourteen songs.

And so I decided to write a soundtrack for “The House of Asterion.”

I spent January reading and rereading the story, passing many hours thinking about different ways to structure my soundtrack. I wanted a single theme that could form an intro and outro for the album. That left twelve other songs to write. After reading around for inspiration on the internet, I decided to compose three groups of four songs:

GROUP I: four tracks drawing loosely from, and freely reworking, short passages from ancient Greek music (these songs would represent four different characters from the story, employing sections from MIDI files very kindly made available to me by Professor Stefan Hagel);

GROUP II: four tracks, written initially on MIDI keyboard, which would employ rhythmic patterns based on the number fourteen – e.g. 5+5+4 or 3+3+3+3+2 or 2+3+4+5 (these songs would represent four different locations or things from the story); and

GROUP III: four tracks or ambient soundscapes involving guitar (these songs would represent four different quotes spoken by, or spoken about, the Minotaur.)

I then went through Borges’ “The House of Asterion” again, writing down the phrases or images that I wanted to use as song titles, and trying to organize them in such a way that the different styles of song writing would be spread evenly across the soundtrack while still allowing me to follow the narrative thread of Borges’ story. By mid-January, this is what I had settled on:

#01 – Theme (Intro) [ANCIENT GREEK MUSIC]
#02 – And the Queen Gave Birth to a Child [GUITAR]
#03 – Mother [ANCIENT GREEK MUSIC]
#04 – The House of Asterion [MIDI KEYBOARD]
#05 – Any Place is Another Place [GUITAR]
#06 – Asterion [ANCIENT GREEK MUSIC]
#07 – Beneath the Sea [MIDI KEYBOARD]
#08 – Above, the Intricate Sun [MIDI KEYBOARD]
#09 – The Other Asterion [ANCIENT GREEK MUSIC]
#10 – Some Day My Redeemer Will Come [GUITAR]
#11 – Take Me to a Place with Fewer Doors [MIDI KEYBOARD]
#12 – Theseus [ANCIENT GREEK MUSIC]
#13 – I Scarcely Defended Myself [GUITAR]
#14 – Theme (Outro) [ANCIENT GREEK MUSIC]

I was relieved when I drew up this track list. It meant that when February arrived I would have, for every track, both a focused theme (the title) and an assigned means for expressing it (be it a fragment of ancient Greek music, a specific instrument, or a rhythmic pattern).

My aim to is to upload tracks to YouTube as they are finished. The tracks will not be written in strict narrative order, although they will be put into a playlist which sequences them according to Borges’ myth. If all goes well, I hope to have the completed soundtrack on Bandcamp on or before February 28th.

Ithaca

Who was Odysseus?

Odysseus – the consummate trickster – simply was who he said he was: he forged his own identity and promoted it to whoever happened to be nearby. We do know that Odysseus longed to carve an epic arc through the world: he wanted to see the Cyclopes, he wanted to enter and escape the underworld, he wanted to hear the sirens … but did he really want to return home, to Ithaca?

Following a line of thought already present in Homer (The Odyssey), running through Dante (Inferno) and Tennyson (“Ulysses”) into the modern era with Zachary Mason (The Lost Books of The Odyssey), here are three meditations on Odysseus’ liberating fears: the tragedy of departure, the slippage between memory and imagination, and the painful realization that “the return” is a myth – in leaving a place we destroy both it and ourselves, and any attempted voyage back merely accelerates the mutual disintegration.

Perhaps Odysseus knew this all along: “My name is Nobody,” he once confessed in the dark.


“Ithaca Lost” uses part of the field recording “Waves on Pebble Beach 1” (by Benboncan) which is available at https://freesound.org/people/Benboncan/sounds/88578/

“Ithaca Regained” uses part of the field recording “rbh thunder storm” (by RHumphries) which is available at https://freesound.org/people/RHumphries/sounds/2523/


Video for “Ithaca Regained” (using footage from http://www.beachfrontbroll.com) is now available at YouTube.

 

The Library of Babel

This E.P. explores the world of Borges’ incredible short story “The Library of Babel.” Based on the hexagonal structure of the library cells, each track emerges in some loose way out the number six, be it track length (6m66s), six instruments playing simultaneously, six note arpeggios, six note (diminished) scales, chords containing six notes, 6/8 rhythms, and so forth.

Some of the music finished up becoming darker than originally envisaged as the more disorienting aspects of Borges’ world took hold. There was, however, still opportunity to be playful in the midst of the library.

All tracks programmed by how the night came.

The themes for tracks 2 and 4 were originally composed on classical guitar by s h.

The Indian harmonium featured in the second half of track 6 was composed and played by Daniel Diaz. For more information, please visit:

http://www.dedeland.com/danieldiaz.htm

https://www.soundcloud.com/daniel-diaz

The album cover uses imagery of Borges’ Library originally produced in Sketchup by Jamie Zawinski. For more information, please visit:

https://www.jwz.org/blog/2016/10/the-library-of-babel/

https://www.jwz.org/blog/2016/10/the-library-of-babel-again/

LCRP: Musica Ignotum

I want to thank the wonderful community over at LINES – especially dnealelo and jasonw22 – for posting and organising the challenge to compose “music for perhaps a terrestrial life form but one which we don’t normally associate with music”:

https://llllllll.co/t/musica-ignotum-lcrp-solstice-2-2018/16555


Recently, I have been reading and rereading Borges’ “The House of Asterion” which retells the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur from the point of view of ‘the monster’. Many things about the story stand out for me, but two in particular helped shape this project:

  • the association between the number fourteen and infinity, and
  • the line translated as “One of them, I believe, hid himself beneath the sea.”

So: I wanted to use sound to represent Borges’ Minotaur imagining the oceanic submersion of an imaginary person – and to do this while somehow employing the number fourteen. (Confession: I knew in advance that anything I produced would sound too human, but I was happy to have a get-out clause – the Minotaur was half man, after all!!)

DSC_0133

I set an old iPhone to record audio then wrapped it in a towel and placed it in a sealed plastic container. I submerged the container in water and then banged it, dropped it, swirled it, poured water on it, and so on. From the ten minute iPhone recording I selected 3 fourteen second clips and used “Change Tempo” (not Paulstretch) in Audacity to push them to fourteen times their original length. I uploaded the 196 second clips into Ableton but wasn’t happy with the result – the audio was too formless and hissy for such a sensitive thinker as Borges’ Minotaur. So, I applied a small number of plugins to generate drones (in A and E, which – along with D – were the tuning used on the Cretan Lyra), gentle pulses, and a quiet shimmering percussive sound. When I had something I was happier with, the final challenge was to get the tracks balanced in a way that suggested music while retaining a sense of oceanic submersion. Repulsors, panning, volume adjustments, and filters helped here.

I hope that “Minotaur Immersion Techniques, Transmission XIV” sounds musical enough for a Minotaur, deep enough for submersion, and dark enough to express the loneliness of the House of Asterion – that maze of infinite, unlocked doors …

The full LCRP album – Musica Ignotum – is now available on Bandcamp.

Tome to the Weather Machine

Screenshot_20181008-105333-01.jpeg

Many thanks to Tome To The Weather Machine for featuring the opening track from Acid Music on their beautiful blog:

how the night came creates uneasy and unsettling drones from Japan written using a chordal sequence following the chemical formula for acid. Influenced by everything from House of Low Culture to the Silent Hill II soundtrack, this floating piece of astral fog is a wisp more than an island enveloping mass. It curls and snakes around changing tonal frequencies, heavy chord changes and an omnipresent heaviness that settles over “I:HNO3” like low ground cover condensation.

Tome To The Weather Machine also kindly linked to the review in a Facebook post.

Acid Music

I wanted to produce some ambient music in Ableton that, at least in part, helped to compose itself. I struck upon the idea of using chemical formulae to provide some basic structure, and began by selecting four simple acids:

  • Nitric acid (HNO3)
  • Sulphuric acid (H2SO4)
  • Phosphoric acid (H3PO4)
  • Citric acid (C6H8O7)

These acids – ordered from the lowest number of constituent atoms (5) to the highest number of constituent atoms (21) – contain between them six different elements, so my next move was to assign a different instrument to each element:

  • Hydrogen = Sadness Pad
  • Nitrogen = June O Pad
  • Sulphur = Space Pad
  • Phosphor = Seashore Pad
  • Carbon = Light and Shadow
  • Oxygen = Celestial Pad

Since hydrogen and oxygen appear in all four acids, I decided to make them the basic drone instruments in each track, and followed the general written structure of the printed chemical formulae by panning the hydrogen instrument (Sadness Pad) to the left channel and the oxygen instrument (Celestial Pad) to the right channel.

For variation, I assigned two notes to hydrogen and two notes to oxygen for each track. To keep things flexible for later in the project, I worked in fifths. This is what I ended up with:

  • Nitric acid (HNO3): hydrogen (C0-G0-C1) + oxygen (G0-G1-C2)
  • Sulphuric acid (H2SO4): hydrogen (G0-D1-G1) + oxygen (D0-D1-G2)
  • Phosphoric acid (H3PO4): hydrogen (D0-A0-D1) + oxygen (A0-A1-D2)
  • Citric acid (C6H8O7): hydrogen (A0-E1-A1) + oxygen (E0-E1-A1)

Then, to add subtle rhythmic variation across the tracks, I decided to use the number of hydrogen and oxygen atoms in each formula to determine the rate at which their respective notes played over the length of 24 bars. So, for example, phosphoric acid (H3PO4) has the hydrogen notes repeat three times over 24 bars (i.e. once every eight bars) while the oxygen notes repeats four times over the same 24 bars (i.e. once every six bars).

To impose a different rhythmic layer, I totaled the number of atoms in each acid and used that number to determine how many equally spaced chimes would ring out over the central 36 bars of each track. Using the Tinefull Ambient instrument with some delay, I added the following:

  • Nitric acid (HNO3): 5 total atoms = one chime every 7.2 bars
  • Sulphuric acid (H2SO4): 7 total atoms = one chime every 5.1 bars
  • Phosphoric acid (H3PO4): 8 total atoms = one chime every 4.5 bars
  • Citric acid (C6H8O7): 21 total atoms = one chime every 1.7 bars

I also correlated the total number of atoms of each acid with the tempo of it’s respective track, arbitrarily starting at 80 bpm and progressing in increments of 10 bpm:

  • Nitric acid (HNO3): 80 bpm
  • Sulphuric acid (H2SO4): 90 bpm
  • Phosphoric acid (H3PO4): 100 bpm
  • Citric acid (C6H8O7): 110 bpm

I finally allowed myself some freedom when composing the music for the remaining four elements: nitrogen, carbon, sulphur and phosphor. I explored minors, majors and ninths.

After adding various delay, reverb, oscillator, pitch glide, and pulse plugins, I balanced each instrument’s volume and timbre, applied gentle compression, then exported the audio files.

acid music screenshot

Using chemical formulae to ground the basic structure for a set of related ambient tracks was an interesting way to impose parameters within which to compose ambient music.

There are two accompanying videos for I: HNO3 and IV: C6H8O7:

 

 

 

Both videos are based on the public domain film Have I Told You Lately That I Love You? (University of Southern California, 1958).

Biblioteka Records Interview

Over the past year, Biblioteka Records have interviewed The Wonderlust, 3Hands4Milo, HF5, and Tenebris. Recently, it was my turn
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If you were a piece of furniture, what would you be?
I really like this question, and I tested the waters by asking my son, “If you were a piece of furniture, what would you be?” He instantly replied, “I’d be a piece of furniture … is that it?!” Setting aside his deadpan answer, I’d be a bookshelf. I love books, and over the last few years I’ve read Homer, Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Melville, and Proust. I’m currently rereading Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. There’s always a tension though. When I’m gripped by a book, I become fully absorbed in it and I don’t leave enough time in my life for music. Conversely, when I’m fully immersed in music, I don’t reserve enough free time for reading. I’m hoping that someday I’ll find a way to balance the two. (The solution may have something to do with not having such an obsessive personality!!)
What’s the overarching theme of your music?
I always think of my music as suggesting a narrative. I never have a clear story in mind — no definite plot, no specific episodes, no sharply defined characters — but I try to create moods or atmospheres or soundscapes that could set the tone during a storytelling session. Occasionally, when I’m at the cinema or watching a movie at home, I find myself taken in by the audio more than the visuals. At those rare moments, I just close my eyes and enter the world of sound. Perhaps that is the overarching theme of my music — a possible soundtrack for an imaginary movie.
What is your favourite instrument or piece of gear that you own?
My guitar pedal board. Does that count as one piece of gear or many? It’s many, right?! Well, if I had to choose just one pedal, it would be the Red Witch Pentavocal Tremolo, which I managed to pick up used on the outskirts of Tokyo last year. As soon as I play through it, I’m transported to a world of outlaws riding black horses through red deserts under a punishing sun. Which is odd, because I don’t like violence (too frightening), I don’t trust sand (too small and invasive), and I hate summer (too hot). I guess that says something about music and escapism …
How does making music make you feel?
My feelings while making music go through four phases: time-consciousness, emptiness, recognition, familiarity. Initially, while playing or composing music, time seems to slow down: I’m often shocked when I glance up at the clock and realize how much time has ‘really’ passed. Then, at the end of the session, I feel quite calm and empty: there was an idea or image or mood inside me that has slowly emerged — through music — and become a thing externalized, now existing independently of me, thrown ‘out there’. Later, when I listen back to the recorded track, I get a growing sense of recognizing myself in the music: it contains a voice I’ve heard before, although that voice is nestled in amongst other, more alien, sounds. Finally, after hearing the song a few times, the music ceases to sound like an open-ended dialogue and becomes more like a familiar monologue: it feels like I’m talking back to myself. By this stage, a desire to do something different has emerged again.
What’s next for how the night came?
I’ve started work on a project entitled “(5×5)”. This will be a series of five EPs, each containing five songs. Each EP will be based on a colour and will explore a distinct musical style: RED (electronic), YELLOW (piano), GREEN (ambient), BLUE (solo guitar), and BLACK (noise). Several tracks are already close to being finished, and I have demos and ideas for a few others. I’m hoping that the (5×5) project will help me get clearer about my own musical direction, and open up new paths for me.
I would also like to do something with Jose Louis Borges’ stunning short story, The Library of Babel. Borges clearly plots the mathematical properties of the library, it’s books, and their script, and his math is ripe for musical exploration. For example, each gallery in the library is hexagonal, so one possibility would be to generate overlapping rhythms that plot out, play with, and undercut, the number six. These overlaid and looping structures would be part of an attempt to get at that creeping sense of vertigo, that spiraling promise of the infinite, that haunts Borges’ fantastic creation. Don’t forget your library card!!