Living as we are in the possible post-singularity well into digital frontier, I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of digital audio with regards to music creation. Taking the assumption that the two greatest factors at play in the development of contemporary music are the spread of personal digital technology and the somewhat-related slow death of the pop music industry as we know it, this is an unprecedented time for musical creation. Optimistically, this should lead to a death of criticism, established rules of musical tradition and commercial-led developments on music. Realistically, we don’t seem to have achieved the anarcho-digital utopia hinted at by Stockhausen et al, but in this first part of an ongoing series of the state of digital music, I’m just going to look at how this inspires me personally.
Production as Performance
I recently discovered an interview with now-regaled producer/songwriter Dan Snaith (of Caribou) that he gave back when his first record was released in 2007. He talks quite refreshingly about taking a slapdash, iconoclastic approach to production that throws the established rules out the window that’s particularly representative of the current state of digital music.
In particular, I highly agree with his views on compression – “Some people say that when compression is used right, the listener shouldn’t be able to discern it. I beg to differ. […] I just don’t know much about recording in the traditional sense, and any gear I’ve had I’ve always just messed around with.”
As a side note, it’s this specific point of being able to hear the traditionally-hidden production techniques that seem to be such a hallmark of contemporary digital music. As the world becomes dominated by bedroom musicians hooked up with pirated DAWs, this push towards creative naïveté has become more prominent. Consider recent bedroom-DJ-turned-blubcore supremo James Blake. Probably the best track on his album, The Wilhelm Scream, is a fierce slow build of strange reverberated tones and compression artefacts that gradually overpower the vocal hook; blurring the line between auxiliary sound-effect and musical instrument. This right here is the excitement of the brave new digital world; that (without reducing to vagaries) any object, device or technique can influence any other object device or technique. We live in a world of endless possibility, and we’re only just beginning to realise the ways in which this can influence our art.
This is nothing particularly new. In the world of pop, all the recording/production greats have had their own distinctive sounds that add the the sum total of the song – consider the video below, the Joe Meek-produced I Hear A New World, in which each melodic section is repeated twice, first with added reverb and secondly pitch shifted up (presumably a very laborious process that required creating a version at half the tempo and then playing it at twice the speed). It hardly needs pointing out that this call-and-response of production techniques neatly echoes the lyrical theme in an otherwise simple song.
But how does this influence the music I write? I’ve been drawn to digital lo-fi for quite some time now. Rather than using the term as a defence against a lack of hi-end recording facilities/technical know-how, I find it to be a creative driving force in quite a bit of the music I write.
Bits and Bites
I’m going to re-look at three or four pieces I’ve done at various points to illustrate this example. Bear with me, it won’t be too painful.
Firstly, there was this short piece (initially called Screams of the Past but later at some point retitled to simply Screams) I made late one night after I came in from (I seem to recall) the pub. Rather pissed and feeling creative, I decided to multitrack my voice 16 times with the crappy Dell microphone I had at the time. Fairly free improvisation led to me whistling, humming, shouting and eventually attempting to swallow the microphone.
I like the piece, because it is entirely apparent that the thing was recorded with a crappy tiny-diaphragm thing going right into the audio jack. There’s absolutely no pretence at fidelity, or any semblance of actual meaning. The sound spectrum is fairly limited, but the density of tracks (and subsequent processing) creates quite a rewarding “full” texture. Obviously it could be bassier, and there’s room for more dynamic variation, but I was 18 at the time. It’s precisely this – being able to hear the recording and creative process – that I feel pleased with. Lo-fi traditionally means an adherence to the warmth of tapes and analogue infidelity, but I think it can be turned into something quite dangerous.
Coming up far closer to the present day is a song I wrote over the summer, Aftermath, for my largely aborted 60 Second Songs project. Using a chromatic harmonica and a randomly-sampling Max/MSP patch, I recorded a single live performance of the song (the lyrics to which I cannot for the life of me remember) and did a little moderate mixing afterwards.
The patch itself simply randomly records very short snippets of audio into one of 8 channels, and plays them back accordingly. It’s entirely unpredictable, but an interesting effect of using it on my laptop’s built-in sound setup is that is feeds back slowly, creating a dense sonic texture that is slightly intuitively manipulatable. In short, I would play a phrase on the harmonica, find portions of it looped back at me, play off these and sing the verses as they fitted into the overall structure. Thus, the sound moves slowly between being recognisably a harmonica, recognisably my voice, and an unrecognisable wash of noisy feedback; a trio for one performer.
It’s a technique I initially employed for a live performance – which I slightly facetiously entitled Playing – I gave while at Goldsmiths. Enjoy the ukulele.
Again, I’m drawn to the ability to hear the edges of the digital audio – the clips and pops of aleatoric sampling and the roughness of low-fidelity equipment. To what extent is the sampling an enabling technical process, and to what extent is it a musical instrument in its own right?
Lastly, a piece I created more recently, entitled Call of the Ouroboros. By manually writing into four audio buffers in Max/MSP that modulated themselves at various changing factors (creating a waveform that defined both the spectral timbre and rhythm of a sound) I was able create a shifting mass of digital noise that obeys a strict sense of inaudible internal structure. The spur of this piece was a realisation that buffers of audio data are simply a set of mechanical instructions given to a loudspeaker, and thus one can affect the physical movement of a loudspeaker cone with a mere flick of the mouse. Going back to my initial point, this is a direct response to the personal revelation I had that anything and everything can be connected musically.
Of course, all this is very well and good. But what about the wider world of today’s digitalism? I’ll address that (and hopefully more!) next time. Until then, I’ve got some music to listen to.
Another project I’ve got on the backburner over the last few weeks or so has been a piece for a local community choir I was asked to write.
Now, this presents its own challenges. The choir is made up of 40 or so people, depending on who turns up to each rehearsal. As with most amateur choirs EVERYWHERE EVER, it’s largely full of female voices, and what few men turn up find it hard to sing in a classical tenor. There is an emphasis on learning music by ear rather than reading a score, so as to aid participation, and it’s not really the environment for anything particularly… well, you know. Anything a bit “new music”.
So what does this mean for me? A cerebral-type musician with a reverence for the score-as-artefact and an inability to write proper tunes? It means it’s time to go back to square one.
Of course, the first thing to decide is what the text should be. And while I’m not averse to writing words for things in certain capacities, I’ve never considered intersecting my own music and my own words. Strikes me as bit too egotistical to be honest. And always me of the following sketch.
So anyway, for this I consulted the the nearest occasional wordsmith I could find. My dad. Given the themes of the choir (and also, I think, our proximity to the river Wandle), he came up with the following:
Our roads run straight and parallel
Our homes and gardens we surround
Beneath the ground
An ancient source
Awakened by the rhythm of
The footsteps that we take along
The paths that brought us to this place.
When rivers run together they make
Unfamiliar current and leave
Ripples on the surface hiding
Overpowering movement and when
Music makes us bouyant we can
Open up the floodgates float our
Hopes and our ambitions on a
Rising tide of rhythm as we
Sing we swell
SO, with that in mind. How to put it to music? I’ve been thinking a lot about Shape Notes – and specifically, the Sacred Harp tradition with which they’re most associated. Not that this is a sacred piece, of course, but the choir practice is held in a church. Anyway. My understanding of that tradition of music (with which I have little to no connection) it that it’s split into usual SATB sections, but pitch is relative and everything’s sung a capella. Listening to youtube videos of performance (which, as a side note, are generally incredible), there’s little sense of the strong topline melody against the lower voices singing harmonies as is traditionally the case in sacred (and secular) choral music. Instead, the tune seems to pass through the parts, and the blend of (largely untrained) voices singing close harmony and similar melodies creates a more unified sound. It’s nice! I like it!
But how can I use this as inspiration? And how can I address the issues I set out earlier?
The Uneven Gender Balance
This is probably the greatest obstacle to creating a cohesive choral sound. The bottom end is weak because they just don’t have the numbers, and it’s a sad truth that a lot of men are less comfortable with singing than women. Frankly, that’s why I joined the choir in the first place – to provide some male support (fnarr).
So why bother splitting up based on voice type? If I’m going for a more unified sound, it’d be best to divide on something else. How about three parts made up of an equal mix of voice types, singing at a register that is comfortable for all voices (with the allowance of singing an octave above/below)? That sounds nice. We can divide by relative skill, if need be. But I’d rather not have a hierarchical approach to parts. The theme of the text is that of unification, not division.
Coming up next! The business of settling down to actually write the music…
“Don’t give him that, you’ll just depress him” said my dad this morning, as my mother passed me the saturday Guardian opened to one specific article. Intrigued, I delved in. Ah, something about contemporary music! This is Relevant To My Interests.
So, it’s the Last Night Of The Proms tonight. As of time of writing, it kicks off in about 3 hours. Clearly I’m not going to get a ticket. But anyway, I’m not going to rant about my opinions on the event itself because I’d be here all day. Though, rest assured, I am of the opinion that the Last Night Of The Proms is quite lame.
But back to the potentially-depression-inducing article. The first piece in tonight’s is a short orchestral fanfar written by former BBC Young Musician Of The Year Mark Simpson. In an article written for the Guardian, the ubiquitous Tom Service writes enthusiastically about the 23-year-old. With a 1st from Oxford and a Master’s from the Guildhall, Simpson is the archetypal clean-cut Young British Composer, pictured casually among the music stands, dressed in a black shirt (top button undone) and salmon chinos. Clearly this is the new hand-holding-the-face when it comes to composer portraiture.
I’m going to try and avoid sour grapes. Obviously, it’s an incredible commission and I’d chew at least one of my fingers off to have that kind of exposure. But the article is emblematic of the Romantic notion of music-writing (which extends to the use of the word composer) that I have such a problem with. Referring to Simpson as a “prodigiously fast learner”, Tom Service’s usual emphatic style (as chosen Radio 3 Arbiter Of Modern Music) tends into the hagiography. Forgive me for extrapolating too much, but the language of his article (‘sparks’, ‘orchestral firecracker’, ‘ablaze’) conjures up the tired Beethovenian image of the composer-genius, furiously sketching out string passages at his desk; rapidly tearing up pieces of manuscript to fit all his Big Musical Ideas onto the page before they are lost forever.
[Personally I find the compositional process to be slow and arduous. Musical material fits together when you jam it in hard enough, in a process of trial and error that requires many cups of tea. But maybe that’s where I’m going wrong.]
Much is made of the music’s supposed difficulty. “There are a lot of notes and a lot of detail”, say Simpson, clutching his academic prowess like a shield aimed at populist criticism. But despite the acclaimed complexity, the piece, entitled sparks, is short. A fanfare to herald the opening of the last night. I can imagine the instructions from the appropriate BBC Executive now: “We’ll have just a few minutes of new music before we get to stuff people have paid to see. They’ll just have to buckle up and see it through, it’s good for you. Or something.” Although there’s little chance of it recreating the supposed riot and ensuing media storm that came out of Birtwistle’s commission at 1995’s Last Night.
Sad, really. Although is that good thing or bad? If it truly is Complex Music (so different from ordinary, Simple music), is indifference (because let’s face it, Complex music is unlikely to get standing ovations, even in 2012) better than disgust? I’ll leave that for others to decide.
And as for the title itself. That enforced no-caps thing, seemingly so common in contemporary music (I’m guilty of myself). Where does it come from? Modesty? Minimalism? In Simpson’s own words: “I’m really bad at titles, and a friend gave me this one and said it looked better all lower case”. Going out on a limb, I’d wonder whether or not it’s a reaction to digital press – enforcing a break in traditional style guide requires it to be written in italics. What that says about contemporary musicians, I don’t know.
Maybe I am just jealous. On the surface, we seem fairly similar. White, male, middle-class clarinet players who write music for some reason. But he’s got a Proms commission and I’m sat here on the internet writing about it. Still, I await it greatly, and it’ll be a damn sight more interesting than Pomp and Fucking Circumstance.