sniffing and reading

Sinus congestion and its usual entourage of symptoms, plus extra back pain from sleeping poorly/in the recliner, have been keeping me down for the past few days — so I have been spending more time reading than diving into musical projects or accomplishing much else.

The Erich Fromm books I picked up were not as mind-blowing as I could have hoped. It’s partially that he was less radical than some things I’ve read in the last couple of years, partially that the subject matter only partially intersected what I was looking for, and partially that the titles and descriptions of posthumously published books might have been a little misleading.

The Art of Living is definitely more on a personal psychological level than a sociopolitical one; the idea behind it is to be “more authentically human” through self-knowledge (meditation and psychotherapy) and resistance to materialistic/consumerist modes of thought. On Disobedience is a bit of an anti-bureaucratic manifesto with equal disdain for capitalism and communism; it repeatedly decries nationalism and the nuclear arms race, praises Bertrand Russell, and provides an outline for a humanist democratic socialism.

The most important point he makes isn’t the details — he’s not an economist — but the general drive to put people first, and make the economy serve humanity instead of the other way around. Rather than abolishing property, seizing the means of production, or even an emphasis on income/wealth equality, the goal is to provide for everyone’s basic needs and education and to put businesses under partial social control of their workers and community. Work should be fulfilling and something to take pride in, rather than mind-numbing and dehumanizing. Anyone should be able to leave their job at any time to pursue further education, a career change, creative pursuits, etc.

It might be somewhat idealistic, but I prefer that to the “capitalist realism” that says that the unjust state we’re in now is the least worst possible option available.


After that, I blazed through The Apocalypse Codex and am well into The Annihilation Score. When I can’t sleep very well and need to sit up to relieve the congestion as much as possible, I get through a lot of reading. So far it seems like the Laundry Files series gets more intense with each successive book. Codex is the first to be told from the POV of someone other than Bob — in this case, Mo or “AGENT CANDID” — and I think the author scores about a 90% on making it feel like a different narrator. (In The Black Company novels, one of my favorite fantasy series, the narrative voices blur together much more and don’t feel quite as much like a real character as the people they write about.) There are two more of them on my shelf, then I’ll have to dig up The Labyrinth Index to catch up fully.


The one thing I have been doing musically is trying out the Rainmaker, which arrived yesterday afternoon (thanks to my spouse picking it up from the post office; no thanks to the lazy postal carrier who slipped a “missed delivery” notice in the mailbox instead of carrying the package to our door during one of the few times I was actually right there ready to answer it…) While I haven’t delved super deeply into it yet — and there’s a lot there to swim around in — I find it’s almost exactly what I expected from the videos I watched. Complex rather than simple and immediate, but also not difficult thanks to a well-designed interface. With a few minutes of button tapping and knob turning, I can set up neat little bouncy patterns of echoes, or warbly drunk echoes, or the sound of being at the other end of a long metal or concrete tube, or plucked strings, or all sorts of things. The pitch shifting is fairly rough granular stuff, but serviceable — and the artifacts that creates are actually useful as an effect in their own right. Overall I think this was a good choice of module for the mad sound designer in me.

The Befaco Sampling Modulator just arrived today and is sitting on my desk in a box. I’ll get to it in a bit.


As I’ve written before, the unfortunately named muffwiggler.com is something of a central hub for the synth community, especially modular synths. It went down this weekend, and one of the moderators informed people that the funds that had been donated to cover its expenses had been misappropriated for months and the owner/founder, Mike McGrath, was incommunicado.

But it had been known that Mike had been suffering from health issues, and it was already rumored that the donations were covering his medical expenses rather than the site. I… kind of can’t fault that, though I think if it were my project I’d want to be more up front that the most important creditors get paid first.

As it turns out, Mike has passed away. I didn’t know him, but those who do say he was kind, generous, and funny. I’ll take them at their word. He does deserve some credit for running a site that became such an important community and repository of information, but as I’ve also written before, the culture there was not without its problems. Specifically, toxic masculinity problems. Starting with the name of the forum (which was Mike’s own online handle, and came from a pair of Electro-Harmonix FX pedals from the 70s), which establishes a sort of locker room atmosphere, there are also several users with lewd (just short of pornographic) profile pictures, mildly transphobic or sexist jokes, and just a general sense of… stuff that doesn’t need to be on a synth forum and doesn’t make women, nonbinary, queer, or just generally tasteful people feel comfortable. And those things are all unnecessary and could be fixed with a name change and a small policy change. But of course, to a certain type of white guy, it’s just a bit of fun and no harm done and us SJWs need to not be so sensitive… 😛

Discussions of that have run headfirst into (A) the kind of people who deny that toxic masculinity exists or is a real problem, and (B) people calling for respect for the dead.

SynthCube, who sells DIY kits, covered the past due bills and got the site running again. The moderator team is deciding what to do next, but promises that the content will be preserved and they are committed to “preserving Mike’s legacy.” By that I hope they don’t mean preserving the unnecessary sexism. But any discussion of that is killed immediately by the moderators, so I don’t have a lot of hope for that.

The latest word is that Mike wanted his daughter Kira to take over running the forum, which she will do after some time to grieve. She and the rest of his family seem to be fine with the “Muff Wiggler” name at the moment, but I have some hope that she’ll take an active role in the forum and community and make at least some of the changes so many of us want.

that’s my jam

I dreamed I was playing synths in a band that was in its first stages of formation. We didn’t really know each other, nor have any particular goals, but we were going to jam for a bit and see what came of it.

The first bit came together spontaneously (probably too easily) as kind of a funky late 70s rock groove… except for me. I did some kind of awkwardly out of place noodly cool jazz electric piano thing. Everyone knew I was the loose screw in an otherwise well-oiled machine.

I was prepared to bow out and go home with as much dignity as I could muster, but a couple of them stopped me. One of them said something to the effect of: “What you were playing wasn’t you. It wasn’t you at your best. Don’t try to fit what you think we’re doing, play your own way, . Let’s go again.”

And instead of jazz noodling, I played like Starthief. I set up the sort of drone/rhythmic pulse combo thing with Natural Gate that I started with Shelter In Place, synced to the band’s beat and with a rhythm I felt worked… and it was transformative. They were still all doing their thing, but weaving in and out of the rhythm I was providing, while I reacted to what they were doing. Instead of a solid backing rhythm and a bad secondary melody, we were meshing — we were killing it. And then I woke up in mid-jam with huge grins on all our faces.

This fits so much with my recent thoughts. I’ve pretty well finalized the theme, and even chosen a working title, for the next album — despite not actually getting around to reading Fromm yet.


I’m currently reading Iain Banks’ Matter. I’m determined to finish all the Culture novels one of these days. Even if the Culture is the Mary-Sue of utopian far-future “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism” civilizations where everyone is deeply eccentric and many characters have godlike powers, I still want to live there, and the books are creative and funny when they’re not going entirely too far to the grim side with less enlightened civilizations. The Hydrogen Sonata features, as one might guess, a piece of music and a musician and a very weird, kind of awful instrument — and that makes it one of my (many) favorite SF novels. Anyway, while I’ve got more Laundry Files books in the queue along with a couple more Culture novels, I’ll read Fromm after this book, I promise.


I’ll bypass the thrilling saga of trying different patch cords, and move on to thoughts about Synth Farm 2.1. Yes, that’s my name for it now, despite the starry artwork that might suggest something else. It’s in contrast to my spouse’s “shrimp farm” (a few tanks of blue neocaridina shrimp).

It’s been on version 2.0 for less than a month, but I have a well-considered plan for amending it.

  • Rossum Panharmonium is already ordered and previously described. I expect it to be somewhere between oscillator and effect for me; sort of the mirror counterpart to Erbe-Verb which is somewhere between effect and sound source.
  • I’ve been convinced that the Intellijel Rainmaker would suit me very well. It’s “the last word in Eurorack delays” according to Mylar Melodies. It’s a 16-tap delay where each tap can have independent or coordinated level, pitch, filtering, and stereo pan, and there are various algorithms for stacking and timing the delay taps — aside from things like subtle detuning, Doppler shift, octave shimmer etc. you can sequence a whole polymetric call-and-response melody with echoes. Mind blown. That’s just half the module; the other half is a comb filter/resonator which is more raw than Rings but quite flexible. It’s the sort of thing where you can dig deep into sound design and theory to create unique effects. It’s big and relatively expensive, which means it’s gonna replace something and consume the budget surplus I was running, but I think it’ll be worth it.
  • I’ll hold onto my G8 clock divider. No wait, I have another idea.
  • I’ll let go of the Sputnik 5-Step and Selector. At the start of 2018 I was excited about the idea of a sequencer that let me address steps directly via triggers converted from MIDI notes. But my workflow has changed enough that this isn’t an exciting prospect anymore; I can get what I need through Teletype. The rarity with which I’ve used the module at all makes it hard to justify the space it takes up.
  • In their place, I may go for a compact manual trigger sequencer of some kind. A trigger sequencer can also act as a clock divider. Befaco Sampling Modulator, which I’ve had my eye on, is a trigger sequencer attached to a sample+hold, and can go fast enough to mutate or generate audio and do a lot of other stuff besides. Why have two modules that do things I’ll occasionally want, when I can have one module that does both those things and more?
  • I’ll move a couple of things around. Shades and O’Tool+ can go in the center of the case, where they can act as passive mults on those occasions where I want to patch from corner to corner — meaning I shouldn’t really need 36″ long patch cords. I’ll also break up the blob of modules with dark faceplates that blend in to one another.

No Sudden Moves

I’ve shared this recording elsewhere, so why not here?

  • Plaits in waveshaping mode (with an LFO over the level) feeds the audio input of Rings in inharmonic string mode, which feeds the ER-301.
  • In ER-301 channel 1, three Schroeder allpass filters in a feedback loop are manually controlled by a 16n Faderbank. In channel 2 there’s just a grain delay in a feedback loop with its time manually controlled. There’s a bit of cross-feedback.
  • The two channels are recorded as mid-side stereo, and some ValhallaRoom is applied.

I’m really enjoying the 16n Faderbank as a controller for all sorts of things. In another recent recording, I used it to control levels in Maschine over USB MIDI, as well as the levels and timbre of a harmonic oscillator in the ER-301. In this one, constant manual micro-adjustments of the allpass filters prevented the feedback from building up into something piercing and unpleasant, and changes in harmonic content were a combination of tweaking Plaits and Rings as well as the filters. The impression I get from this piece is light refracting off the curved surface of some mysterious alien artifact, perhaps… which might have been better title inspiration than what I chose. Ah well.


I’m reading A Study In Honor, a novel set during a near-future civil war. A post-Trump leftist government implements universal healthcare, guarantees LGBT rights, and does much for racial justice and income inequality and so on — and then radicalized right-wing idiots are so upset about it that some states start a war, and federal centrists are in the process of eroding rights and breaking the economy again to placate the crazies. Our protagonist is a wounded veteran of that war, a queer woman of color who suffers from PTSD, a poorly fitting, irritating, poorly functioning prosthetic arm that the VA won’t replace, and fresh waves of alienation. Needless to say, this has not been a happy story so far. It’s well-written and gripping, though.

So with that bouncing around in my subconscious, last night the infamous Shitgibbon-in-Chief actually appeared in my dreams. This cartoonish con man has been a mental health threat to the entire country for the last 30 months or so, but up until now he’s avoided direct appearances in my brain at night. Well… he’s officially banished.

thinking with the ears

I begin with a digression, because I must share this.

You’re welcome.

I mean. Once you have combined the concepts of “donut”, “prune” and “salad” into a single dish, why not serve it with mayonnaise?

What gets me here is the apparent random anarchy of the ingredient choices, paired with the strictly limited, generic, whitebread pool of possible ingredients that must have been drawn from. There are no spices or seasonings, nothing that would indicate a culture — except we all know it’s got to be “American, white, 1950-1975.” It’s almost mechanical, like it was created with a very crude randomization algorithm that lacks the finesse and charm of a neural network recipe.

I appreciate how this one (brown) leaves certain factors — not least, all of the actual preparation instructions — up to the cook’s improvisational judgement, so that each performance is unique. John Cage would approve.

Maybe the weirdest thing about the donut prune salad recipe is that it’s not unique. Coincidence or conspiracy?

The aesthetics of the first one, such as they are, seem a little better but I’d honestly rather 86 the mayo and use cream rather than cottage cheese. I’d also rather break my left arm than my right arm.

And in fact yes, I have added “Donut Salad” to my list of potential song titles, but under the category of “probably will never use.”


Anyway, what I was going to write about: I’m currently reading DJ Spooky’s Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture and it’s thrown some provoking thoughts my way. One of them is the idea that our primary mode of thinking is a visual/spatial one, with a coordinate grid, objects that take up space, and the spaces between them. The argument is that this spread in Western thought during the Renaissance with Descartes, the printing press, explorers and maps, etc. It’s probably not much of a stretch to say that movies, television and computers were heavily influenced by, but also strongly reinforced, this spatial paradigm.

It all seems very rational, scientific, and straightforward. Of course, it’s pretty wrong and/or useless at the quantum level, or when considering energy, or for a lot of metaphorical or magical uses, but it’s pervasive and sometimes we try to make things fit anyway. My career has been based on it — 3D graphics and modeling for games and then engineering.

I will speculate with some confidence that the previous mode of thought for most people for most of human history was a bit less spatial and more narrative. When we say “myth” now, unfortunately there’s usually a connotation of falsehood, disdain for the primitive etc. rather than the understanding that the idea of truth itself wasn’t necessarily so fixed and binary.

But steering a little more toward the inspiration from the book: the idea of an “acoustic” mode of thinking, where the measurement of space is more vague, and reality is inhabited by an infinity of interpenetrating fields of energy and motion, pressure and density, transmission and absorption and reflection. There are no distinct “objects,” just a whole where any divisions one makes are arbitrary slices of a spectrum that we know we could have sliced up differently. This ties back into what Curtis Roads was talking about when he claimed electronic music removes dependency on notes.

Of course, we still have a tendency to think of sound in terms of grid coordinate systems:

Amplitude over (a very short) time; literally the path the speaker cones will trace, sending waves of pressure through the air but also through wood, water, metal, bone, brick (not very well) etc.
Intensity over frequency, on a logarithmic scale; the strength of various frequencies of sound at a single moment (by some mathematical definition)
Intensity represented by brightness/color, with the frequency spectrum on the vertical axis and a span of time on the horizontal; we see a note or chord as a series of stripes, and notice that higher frequencies fade away faster than lower ones; there’s some intrusion of broadband noise in the middle.
Musical notes in a sequencer. Another kind of frequency scale on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal; much easier to identify pitches, rhythm, music theory type stuff but it says nothing about tempo, timbre, volume, “expression”, etc. Notes aligned on this grid will be perfectly in time with 32nd, 16th, 8th, quarter, half or whole notes…
This rhythm generator is even called Grids.
This is a Monome Grid, a button/light controller with many different software- and hardware-based friends, often used for music sequencing.
And this module is named for Descartes and is referred to as a “Cartesian sequencer” due to its ability to navigate in two or three dimensions, as opposed to linear sequencers which navigate either forward or backward but are still, conceptually, grids.

Grids are certainly a useful paradigm, in music and outside it. But it is also very much worth simultaneously thinking about all those overlapping, permeating, permeable fields of energy. Blobs rather than objects. Sounds, rather than notes. Salads, rather than donuts and prunes (sorry). Not just in terms of music and sound, but whatever else may apply. Personal relationships, memes, influences, cultures, societies? Economies, ecologies? Magic, mysticism? In a sense, I think this “acoustic” view of a universe is closer to the narrative one than the visual view is. (And there’s that word “view”, illustrating the bias… and oh we’re illustrating now, also visual…)

Using some of those grid-based tools above, I did some editing this evening of a recording I’d made earlier. There was a point where a feedback-based drone fell into a particular chord, which I thought made a much nicer ending than what happened later. So I took a bit of that ending, ran it through the granular player in the ER-301 to extend it for several seconds, resampled that and smoothly merged it back into the original audio — one continuous drone. No longer two things spliced, nor five thousand overlapping grains of sound; those metaphors stopped being useful, just like eggs stop being eggs when they’re part of a cake.

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.