highlights

I’ve just finished reading Curtis Roads’ Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic.

Roads has some pet techniques and technologies he is fond of (having developed some of them) as well as some pet compositional concepts, and tries to shoehorn mentions of them in everywhere. Granular synthesis is a big one. “Multiscale” anything is another (along with macroscale, mesoscale and microscale). “Dictionary-based pursuit” is one I’ve never heard of before and can’t actually find much about.

Roads comes from the more academic side of electronic music, as opposed to the more “street” end of things, or the artist-hobbyist sphere where I would say I am. But he recognizes that music is very much a human, emotional, irrational, even magical endeavor and that prescriptive theory, formalism, etc. have their limits.

The book was primarily about composition — and by the author’s own admission, his own views of composition. He gives improvisation credit for validity but says it’s outside his sphere. Still, I found some of the thinking relevant to my partially composed, partially improvised style.

At times he pushes a little too much at the idea that electronic music is radically different that everything that came before. For instance, this idea that a note is an atomic, indivisible and homogenous unit, defined only by a pitch and a volume, easily captured in all its completeness in musical notation — it completely flies in the face of pretty much any vocal performance ever, as well as many other instruments. Certainly there have been a handful of composers who believed that the written composition is the real music and it need not actually be heard or performed. But while clearly not agreeing with them, he still claims that it was electronic music that freed composers from the tyranny of the note, and introduced timbre as a compositional element (somebody please show him a pipe organ, or perhaps any orchestral score).

He has something of a point, but he takes it too far. Meanwhile a lot of electronic musicians don’t take advantage of that freedom — especially in popular genres there’s still a fixation on notes and scales and chords as distinct events — that’s why we have MIDI and why it mostly works — and a tendency to treat the timbre of a part as a mostly static thing, like choosing which instrument in the orchestra gets which lines.

And I’m also being picky — it was a thoughtful and thought-provoking book overall. I awkwardly highlighted a few passages on my Kindle, though in some cases I’m not sure why:

  • “There is no such thing as an avant-garde artist. This is an idea fabricated by a lazy public and by the critics that hold them on a leash. The artist is always part of his epoch, because his mission is to create this epoch. It is the public that trails behind, forming an
    arrièregarde.(this is an Edgard Varèse quote.)
  • “Music” (well, I can’t argue with that.)
  • “We experience music in real time as a flux of energetic forces. The instantaneous experience of music leaves behind a wake of memories in the face of a fog of anticipation.”
  • “stationary processes”
  • “spatial patterns by subtraction. Algorithmic cavitation”
  • “cavitation”
  • “apophenia”
  • “Computer programs are nothing more than human decisions in coded form. Why should a decision that is coded in a program be more important than a decision that is not coded?”
  • “Most compositional decisions are loosely constrained. That is, there is no unique solution to a given problem; several outcomes are possible. For example, I have often composed several possible alternative solutions to a compositional problem and then had to choose one for the final piece. In some cases, the functional differences between the alternatives are minimal; any one would work as well as another, with only slightly different implications.

    In other circumstances, however, making the inspired choice is absolutely critical. Narrative structures like beginnings, endings, and points of transition and morphosis (on multiple timescales) are especially critical junctures. These points of inflection — the articulators of form — are precisely where algorithmic methods tend to be particularly weak.”

On that last point: form, in my music, tends to be mostly in the domains of improvisation and post-production. The melody lines, rhythmic patterns and so on might be algorithmic or generative, or I might have codified them into a sequence intentionally, or in some cases they might be improvised too. On a broad level, the sounds are designed with a mix of intention and serendipity, while individual events are often a coincidence of various interactions — to which I react while improvising. I think it’s a neat system and it’s a lot of fun to work with.

The algorithmic stuff varies. Some of it’s simply “I want this particular rhythm and I can achieve that with three lines of code”, which is hardly algorithmic at all. Sometimes it’s an interaction of multiple patterns, yielding a result I didn’t “write” in order to get a sort of intentionally inhuman groove. Sometimes it includes behavioral rules that someone else wrote (as when I use Marbles) and/or which has random or chaotic elements, or interactions of analog electronics. And usually as I’m assembling these things it’s in an improvisational, iterative way. It’s certainly not a formal process where I declare a bunch of rules and then that’s the composition I will accept.


a small gesture

All Starthief albums on Bandcamp are now set to “pay what you want.” $0 is enough to download my albums, but people can add a tip if they like (or if the maximum free download count is exceeded and Bandcamp temporarily enforces a minimum price).

Across six albums over a year, I’ve brought in $126. It’s not nothing, but it’s not significant either; a fraction of a fraction of minimum wage, if I wanted to look at it that way. I choose instead to think of it as a collection of tokens of appreciation.

I think “pay what you want” is more consistent with my values. If I made music for the money, I’d be (A) actively trying to seek a wider audience, (B) making the sort of music I think a wider audience would like, (C) playing live, making videos etc. to grow that audience, and (D) probably failing to meet my goals and stressing over it.

Half of that income came from Materials, and I know exactly why. My audience right now is almost entirely fellow electronic musicians, to whom gear demos and technical bits are mostly more enticing than yet another one of their several hundred acquaintances releasing yet another album that takes time to listen to. Conversely, I have two albums that sold $0 (aside from people who bought my whole catalog as a bundle because they liked Materials) but got positive comments.

I actually appreciate the positive comments more. With the income from my day job, validation is rarer than dollars. When fellow musicians, or anyone else, has nice things to say about my work it confirms that my aesthetic sense isn’t completely alien to everyone else’s (or more bluntly, that I’m not terrible and wrong).

I do like it when people like my art, and I recognize that I am not great at finding those people — so I may still wind up trying to get onto a label that will help with that.

stuck?

Two things about the supposedly sticky new song in The Lego Movie 2:

1. What really stuck in my head after the movie was “Everything Is Awesome.”

2. “Baby Shark” fits melodically and rhythmically over the new song just fine, and then takes over your brain completely.

3. When a thing you do goes viral, it’s really hard to follow it up with a second viral thing on purpose.

4. That’s more than two things.

on repeat

I’ll be Quite pleased when the theater on the second floor of my workplace is done with its run of Avenue Q.

They have a TV monitor facing into the atrium that continuously loops a loud 63-second long ad for the show. ” sQueaky clean (loud buzzing noise) Winner of the Tony award for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score (snippet of a chorus for about half a second) …warm and fuzzy neighbors as they face the cold hard realities of modern life…
‘It Sucks to Be Me,’ ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,’ and ‘The Internet is For Porn’ …seats are limited so do it Quickly… it’s furry fun, no strings attached!”

63 seconds. That means, on the trek from the parking garage to the elevator I get to hear more than one complete loop. When I get up to take a break, I hear it again. If I walk around the atrium to stretch my legs and get some pretend exercise, I hear it some more.

Now, I actually like… some musicals. Most of the StarKid ones, for instance. But I’m long past sick of this one and I’ve never seen it. They’ve been promoting it since approximately June of last year and it is the only thing they’ve been promoting for the past five weeks.

It’s playing through March 25, which I know because they keep shouting it at me multiple times every day. On March 26, I will celebrate.

already

The theme for Ambient Online’s third themed compilation is Uranus. Absolutely nobody went for the obvious pun I’m lying, they totally did. I recorded my two songs for it between deciding on the final track list for The Rule of Beasts and mastering it, and I’m pretty pleased with them. That compilation will be out in a month-ish.

Thingamagoop 3000, aka “the anglerfish” (its LED on a stalk bent to point toward its own eye)

One of those used two software synths through Dark World, plus a contribution from the Thingamagoop 3000 that I don’t often bring out — no modular. The software part gave me more technical trouble than anything I’ve done in quite some time. Since I was mixing software with hardware it was necessary to record in real-time, but there were lots of clicks and pops and stutters in what was supposed to be a really smooth voice. One of these days I may have to replace my …7?… year-old computer so it can run some of the heavier VST plugins I’ve got. Thankfully I fixed it by killing every other process I could, bouncing one of the voices to an audio recording as an offline process and then running that through the effect and doing the rest of the mix. There was still one glitchy bit which cleaned up okay with some effort in Sound Forge.

Speaking of struggle — after the fight I had mastering Materials, the next album only took about 4 hours to get sorted. Hours which were half-spent playing “AdVenture Communist” on my phone while YouLean did its metering thing.

Chalk it up to knowing my LUFS goal ranges throughout the whole process, and perhaps doing a bit more with EQ, dynamics and cleanup in earlier stages. The actual dynamic range varies quite a bit between individual tracks — with “Steadfast Stonehead” as solid and dense as its name and some others involving a lot of percussive bits and clicks in a quieter space — but nothing was particularly hard to tame.

So now all that remains is to slap some text on the artwork that I’ve already finished, upload it and fame and fortune shall be mine in a parallel universe where I have a million fans since President Sanders mentioned Vox Inhumana was his favorite album.

it me

I Am Not the Next Big Thing: on Creativity and Aging

For me the aging bit is more or less irrelevant to my thoughts about music, but hey, all of this:

  • “I recorded and released two solo albums containing some of the best music I’ve written (as it should be?) that has been heard by hundreds and purchased by dozens.”
  • “The post-release blues usually begin once the analytics, which were rarely a concern in the past, start rolling in and it’s apparent how many people aren’t listening.”
  • “Why am I doing this if it’s basically only for myself? (You’re not, see above). I guess this is a hobby now? (So what? It’s probably more fulfilling than collecting neon beer signs). Isn’t that pathetic? (No.)”
  • “Deep down I care more about my work than anyone else ever will, and that’ll inevitably lead to temporary disappointment when I don’t get the reaction I want, but that’s a good thing. You want to care deeply about what you create, even if it’s hard to square the response or lack thereof, regardless of what stage of your career you’re at.”

I make much weirder, more abstract music than this author, I don’t promote it, I was never in a rock band, I don’t play live and have a following — yet my stuff isn’t much less popular than this guy’s releases. Partially this is just the nature of the music… business? If that’s still the right word.

That last point though is something I’ve observed and a battle I’ve fought with myself many times, and seen painters and writers and other artists fighting with. If an artist doesn’t care more about their art than everyone else does, the art is going to suck. It’s still a slap in the face every single time, and maybe the trick for dealing with it is to keep getting slapped until it’s just another continuous background pain to be ignored?

I love making music, obviously. I like the process of releasing albums (and dinosaur that I may be, I still prefer listening to albums over singles). I like writing and talking about it. If the rest of the world can’t keep up with me, well, their loss 😉

control freak

Another weird dream: an online roleplaying game where parties of four players each try to synchronize their characters’ magic powers and/or kung fu with a 4×4 set of knobs. I was playing it with my Doepfer A-138m Matrix Mixer, and someone else on my team had a Midi Fighter Twister.

Each column of knobs corresponded to a character, and each row a different category of ability (e.g. fire/air/water/earth, or attack/evasion/deception/defense, etc.). Each player mainly had control over their own character, but the closer other players’ knobs in that same column are, the more effective the ability is. (Or in some cases, you’d want the other three players to set their knobs opposite yours — it was complicated.) For maximum effectiveness all four players had to vary their own settings to match the rhythm of the combat or puzzle, and all four players had to coordinate with each other to maintain a defense or to attack as one to exploit an opening, and so on. Trying to have all your knobs turned up all at once would tire your character, and uncoordinated movement would hinder your teammates. And of course the knob settings affected the music too.

It was fiendishly difficult, required a very well-coordinated team and lots of practice, would never catch on and I have no idea how all this could translate in real time to something less abstract in terms of movement and choice making. My subconscious mind is creative, but is not a great game designer.

back to the salt mines

Last night I did not dream of Michelle or Barack, but of my boss.

In the dream he was throwing a party in his magnificent mansion / evil lair. It was built over, and included the entirety of, a former salt mine. Wide, high-ceilinged halls lined with exotic woods, with signs pointing the way to different “galleries” and “villas” within the… let’s face it, the man owned his own underground city. Shafts wide enough to contain a normal-sized house, with staircases wide as a city street, led down to museums, art installations, and stockpiles of building materials and booze.

So much booze. Everyone at the party was given a sizable bottle of Bombay Sapphire and we were downing it like water. There was a storehouse of it below in case the pyramid of bottles in one of the ground floor rooms wasn’t going to be enough. Impressive storehouses of really good rum and whiskey were below. In the waking world I would never choose gin over rum…

He also had his own cult in residence — well, not his cult but he was their benefactor. They had a village in one of the “galleries” with a natural salt floor; they dressed a bit like Mennonites but specialized in performance art and glass blowing. I watched them putting on a play about the misinterpretation of a dying woman’s advice and instructions to her children, who were going to run the village after her passing. The main character was represented by a carefully arranged pile of clothing, which they alternately shuffled around, removed from, and poured water onto to make it sort of sink into the ground as the character let go of life.

…I’m pretty sure IRL, my boss is a teetotaler, fairly well off but not obscenely rich, and doesn’t live in a salt mine or sponsor a cult. But I don’t know him that well; who knows?

it came to other people in a dream

A few days ago my spouse mentioned a dream with Michelle Obama in it. Apparently dreams featuring the Obamas dispensing wisdom are not an uncommon thing:

had a dream obama and the guy who plays air guitar at the mall were about to fight and obama said “ violence for violence is the rule of beasts “ and i woke up because that was the rawest shit i ever heard

http://kumagawa.tumblr.com/post/149460046939/had-a-dream-obama-and-the-guy-who-plays-air-guitar

There are t-shirts and podcast episode titles and a database of Obama dreams. So, why not an album of electronic music? Yep, I’m tentatively calling the next album and the last track on it The Rule of Beasts.

The last track stands out from the others in style (but is probably not “the rawest shit you eve heard”). I was trying out the Sputnik Five-Step Voltage Source I’d just received, driven rhythmically by Teletype and modulating Plaits’ various parameters. I recorded it but figured it was destined to be dumped on SoundCloud as too different from my ambient drone style. But a couple of ideas struck me right before publishing it, and it went back into SoundForge for a few more rounds of editing. The result works, I think, but I’ll wait to confirm that in a different listening environment first.

I’ve got 70 minutes of material now, but a couple of songs need final decisions about inclusion. For comparison, January 2018’s Nereus was a couple of minutes shorter and I’d rejected about 20 minutes of other recorded material.

I’d previously thought about calling this one Super Blood Wolf Moon, but that already feels like a dated and irrelevant reference already. It’s the title of one of the other songs though, if I don’t change it. The album art also was originally one of my dad’s photos of that event, but because the resolution was too low for DistroKid’s requirements, I started processing it… and now it’s a metallic tunnel/vortex thing. My approach to photo editing software sometimes resembles my approach to music making.

Science!

That Sputnik module is a bit quirky. The pulses coming from the top row when a step changes are ridiculously short and don’t reliably trigger every module. It works fine with Tides and Teletype though, and if the ER-301 is fine with it I won’t sweat it. Otherwise I’ve been able to massage the signal a little bit with tanh[3] to keep it over common trigger thresholds long enough to work.

I made a couple of wrong assumptions about controls in the Stage Select section, so it’s slightly less like the Buchla Music Easel sequencer than I thought — but cool in a different way. The Address input is exactly as expected and is easy to control via Teletype. Overall it’s a fun, hands-on multi-channel sequencer. Between it and the faderbank for the Teletype and the SQ-1, and good old MIDI, I believe that should settle the sequencing question.

I’ve got a tentative layout worked out for the new case. I took those guiding principles I came up with in the previous post, used the bubbl.us mind mapping tool to associate modules into groups, considered the impossible ideal of having all my modulation sources equidistant from any given destination, thought about geometry and pre-modern naval tactics and put together a compromise.

There’s a logic to each module’s placement, even if the logic was something a bit weak like “it was the right size to fit in an awkward gap” or “this keeps all the black-panel modules together.” Actual usage will tell me whether I want to shift things around, but I think this is a setup I can live with; I know the modulators are generally on the right edge, VCAs/LPGs clustered together, sequencing all at the bottom and so on.