where the magic is

My spouse got me three books from my wishlist for my birthday. The authors wrote them, the publisher was responsible for marketing blurbs, and I chose them and am the reader. So any disappointments here were not my spouse’s fault, but I’ll give her some credit for where I find delight or enlightenment in them. πŸ™‚

Currently I am reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For the Future. It is a fictional story of an international organization tasked with saving the future from the present, mainly in terms of climate change and equitable distribution of resources. There’s a fair bit of nonfiction sprinkled throughout. It grapples with all kinds of geoengineering, carbon capture, and energy technologies, the question of how to value human and nonhuman life (present and future), and most importantly, where and how to apply the leverage necessary to do what must be done. It is excellent so far.

Sonic Possible Worlds was, unfortunately, a hard pass. When I was quickly going through lists of books about music and sound, it seemed interesting. From the introduction and the start of the first chapter though, maybe it is brilliant and esoteric in some way but to me it is just impenetrable word salad. I gave up.

Sound Objects is a set of essays that mostly center around Pierre Schaeffer’s concept of objets sonores. Schaeffer was famously the inventor of musique concrΓ¨te — a sort of musical collage assembled from snippets of audio recordings — and performed studies categorizing sounds according to their actual characteristics rather than what produced them. (I may be oversimplifying that.) Most of the essays are drily academic and philosophical arguments about what the words mean and what words would have been better, and honestly not exactly inspiring.

However, “Spectral Objects: On the Fetish Character of Music Technologies” by Jonathan Sterne grabbed my attention — it is about the relationship of musicians to instruments (and other equipment) in terms of the Marxist concept of “commodity fetishism.” That is: a sort of worship of goods as having intrinsic value, without recognizing the labor and social relations that produce that value.

"The deep feeling that an instrument brings magic or power to musicians, rather than they to it, is a residuum of this more general way of thinking.  This agential inversion of musician and instrument defines the role of commodity fetishism in sound."

The highlighted last couple of sentences in particular is what really grabbed me.

Where is the magic located — in the wizard, or in the wand? Or did it come from whoever made the wand? Or is it in the mind of the one witnessing the magic? That can be a key question in fantasy fiction or in roleplaying games, but I think this article has a good point where it comes to musicianship.

I can’t bring myself to say that in electronic music, the instruments are unimportant. I’ve often found switching gear (heh) or finding the right kind of setup to match one’s temperament helps bring inspiration, and certainly each instrument has its own character which can contribute to the music. But I do think there is something skewed about many electronic musicians’ relationship to gear, and perhaps that is more true in both modular and software-based electronic music. Like we do a lot of chasing more and different things, when we already have more that we can handle. Perhaps the related concepts of magic and agency are the right way to contemplate this.

what I did on my autumn vacation

It was nice having a week off. Not as nice as an actual road trip, and I could have done with less rain and another walk around the lake, but it was all right.

For Thanksgiving, we had jerk chicken and zucchini on the grill, sweet potato fries, coconut rice and cornbread. My spouse also made me a German chocolate cake for my birthday. We Skyped with our families, which felt pretty special and holiday-like since it was the first time for my side and almost the first for her side (and we got to see the new house and our young nephew).

I recorded three tracks for the new album project, and am confident the theme is going to work.

I wasn’t tempted by any Black Friday sales, but did get my Christmas shopping done. [UPDATE: I did get four little Puremagnetik plugins at 50% off on the Tuesday part of “Cyber Monday” though.]

I was tempted to pick up the last Mystic Circuits Portal in the special edition black panel — having decided that I don’t need another delay or reverb in my modular, nor more modulation sources. Portal is a unique distortion module that, above a threshold, wraps around to 0V instead of folding over or clipping. And it can wrap around a ridiculous number of times, feedback itself into ultrasonic ranges, generate interesting rhythmic crackles, perform “oscillator sync” with only one oscillator, and other things. This got my attention because (beyond “Black Portal” just sounding kind of badass) it’s similar in concept to an experimental plugin I wrote years ago, but takes that concept much further. There are two other derived outputs, one of which is a somewhat gentler quasi-quantized output, the other a spiky delta output. While the module can do ludicrously heavy distortion, I’m more interested in the other things it can do. So this is definitely more about curiosity than absolute confidence I will love this module, but satisfying curiosity is a valid use of remaining rack space.

I played my usual Dirt Rally 2.0, Noita, Bewejeled 3 and Guild Wars 2, all of which have been in rotation since before this pandemic struck, and Art of Rally which has been out for a couple of months. Noita has been getting significant updates even after leaving Early Access, with surprise new spells and monsters, so it’s always fresh.

I also grabbed Drag, which is neither about drag queens nor drag racing, but rather, an Early Access game of futuristic-ish off-road racing. The setting is a little strange, with sleek driverless rail buggies that have what seems like a vestigial roll cage too small for a human driver, with a long steering column ending in an odd bracket where the driver’s head would have been. Two of the courses are muddy wilderness roads that occasionally cross concrete or metal bridges or overpasses, bounded by forcefields to either side, occasional radio towers and oddly shaped concrete towers in the distance; the third is a raised bridge-like track mainly covered in a mound of mud, in an arctic setting with mysterious cranes and towers numbered in Arabic numerals but Cyrillic text. Graphically it looks good, within its sparse design. In terms of physics, it’s challenging, slippery and feels fairly realistic (although, once you’ve started to roll over it goes a little nuts, like many racing games do — and wheels are prone to pop off at the slightest provocation). Gameplay-wise there is not much to it yet, just different sections of course to do time trials on, with no sense of competition or career progression. I’m curious to see where future development takes it.

Probably where I spent most of my time was reading Rhythm of War, the fourth and longest book (at ~460,000 words) in the Stormlight Archive.

(I also read Dawnshard, a novella that takes place a little before Rhythm of War. I technically should have read it first, but at least thus far, it’s almost entirely a side story. It may very well become important to later novels, but if so, it will probably be retold.)

One thing I like about Sanderson’s novels is the “hard SF” approach to magic; there are definite rules and mechanics, the magic is highly integrated with how society works, and in most cases there’s a very scientific approach to determining the limits and applications of magic. This extends to the Cosmere as a whole — an overarching setting uniting most of Sanderson’s series, permitting some characters to cross between them and carry exotic artifacts with them.

But what I love about his books is the emotional impact of the story, both the lows and the highs. I care about the characters and want them to stop hurting and being frustrated. I celebrate with their moments of incredible triumph. I reel from the big revelations, shudder at the implications and cheer on their discoveries.

For a while I felt that the Stormlight Archive books kind of “cheat” at this; human emotions attract “spren” that can telegraph how they’re feeling even if they’d rather hide those emotions (or hide themselves!), while the Parshendi people speak and hum to rhythms that make their attitude explicit (with some conscious control when they concentrate). But this ties in nearly with the nature of this world’s role within the Cosmere, and it’s not as if his stories in other settings don’t convey emotion just as effectively.

Without even considering connections to other worlds, there are a lot of characters in this series. That is both a strength and a weakness of epic fantasy, I feel. This particular novel concentrates on three in particular, with lesser concentrations on a couple of others, and interludes, flashbacks and side trips to keep up with a few more. But the three main ones get a lot of development and growth and some of those great emotional moments that I love. The book also crams in a ton of that “scientific” discovery, and revelations about the greater universe and historical perspective on current events. Mental health is a huge theme — when you put people under continuous stress as these have been, they break. Their ability to hold it together, heal from emotional trauma, or just get some rest for once, is as important as how they face external threats. The truly important battles in this book were — for the most part — either against personal demons, or battles of wit and cunning rather than spear and sword.

I don’t think this book would make a lot of sense without reading the previous Stormlight Archive novels. It should be fine without reading any other Sanderson novels, although one would miss recognizing many tidbits scattered throughout. But then, there’s so much going on that I’m not sure even the wiki-article-writing superfans are able to catch everything. I don’t feel too bad not realizing on my own that so-and-so mentioned by a minor villain in this novel might be such-and-such character from a different series, who died, and now has a different name and completely different goals… while Sanderson’s novels are full of that sort of thing at this point, that’s not the main attraction for me.

auction action

Luftrum’s 10th annual music industry charity auction is now underway. This time the proceeds go to MusiCares COVID-19 relief.

This one’s just getting started, and it typically takes a couple of weeks to really get rocking. But last year’s auction raised $31,075 for the World Wildlife Fund to help protect rainforests in the Amazon and Indonesia. Dozens of plugin and sample library developers and some notable hardware manufacturers contributed a lot of cool stuff to the effort. If you happen to be a maker and seller of music gear, please follow the link and click on “Contact Organizer” to join in.

4 years ago, this auction is what started me in modular synthesis with Mutable Instruments Rings (and a quick purchase of Tides and Peaks to go with it). So it’s like passing a personal milestone when it comes up each year. In subsequent years I’ve seen a couple of others buying their first modules and growing into modular synth buffs.

And if some tempting modular goodies make an appearance, I’ve got 24HP of free space now with no specific plans. As it turns out, what I’ve actually used my Disting EX for in recordings has mainly been crossfading and ring modulation. Mutable Instruments Blinds, which I was already considering as a replacement/consolidation for the AI008 Matrix Mixer and one of my two Shades, can do those things. The Disting sold very quickly, since demand is still higher than production and shipping speeds can handle, and I ordered the Blinds.

I’m holding onto AI008 for now because I’m still waiting on that pinstripe tape to try color-coding it. Could be the available space will expand to 32HP though.

I also decided I don’t need two Rings anymore — the combination of Mimeophon, FX Aid, E520, Shelves, and a mixer are quite potent for resonator purposes. But I’ll always keep one Rings to rule them all. πŸ˜€ The spare one also happened to go quickly, traded for a Mystic Circuits Ana, which handles some of the other things I used Disting for occasionally plus a few other fun tricks.


And now, it’s book review time! Only in my usual style of “I read this and I liked it” because being critical is a lot of work and I read for fun.

I had this pair on my wishlist for a while, but borrowed electronically from my local library. A fun, mostly lighthearted fantasy thing that borrows more than a little from D&D monster manuals and surprisingly a lot from rock & roll. There is a wizard named Moog. In the first book, old crusty mercs “get the band back together” to save one of their daughters (and in the process, a city, and the world); the second was said daughter wrapping up her own adventuring career.

I’ve just finished the first of these, and it was brilliant. It’s kind of equal parts fantasy and horror but in a science fiction setting; the writing style and characters are hilariously snarky while the subject matter is as grim and creepy and moody as you’d expect from a story about space necromancers.

The setting is creatively different, mysterious and, well, cryptic — I kind of get a Gene Wolfe vibe from it without the pretentiousness. The characters are the best though. Some of the language is very much present-day slang (e.g. “I couldn’t have noped harder”) but it completely works to convey the kind of attitude the main characters have. These are books that I might want my own copy of, depending on whether I feel like the second one is as strong as the first.

frickin’ laser beams

Today ends my 8th week of working from home (more productively than I ever did in the office), and about 11 weeks of COVID-19 being something to worry about in the US. St. Louis County is opening some businesses on a limited, restricted basis but so far, it looks like we’re going to keep working from home. Given news about other places having spikes in cases and having to close back down again after reopening, it could still be a while.

Given events, maybe the Stormlight Archive wasn’t the best thing to read. I’m most of the way through Oathbringer now, and it’s an apocalyptic mess of magical extreme weather, war, monsters, betrayals, and all the major characters being completely traumatized, broken and lost. It is a really entertaining set of books, with bright spots of humor and insight and triumph, ridiculously epic worldbuilding, the gamut of lovable and hateable characters, etc. but there’s no doubt that it’s a tragedy (even if, 7 books from now, some remnant of humanity is probably going to survive). “Heroism” and ethics are largely a matter of perspective. There are times when the story goes shockingly dark.


Google Play Music, which I’ve been subscribed to since 2014, is also going dark in the near future. I happened to be prepared for it though — my New Year resolution to support musicians through Bandcamp, and having a phone with plenty of storage, has meant streaming much less and listening much more to my MP3 collection. I gathered a list of albums that I want to make sure I own, and cancelled my subscription.

Unfortunately not every musician is on Bandcamp, and for some of those albums I’ve had to track down CDs on eBay. I’ve got a collection of CDs that I really should at least rip some of, and when I traded Eurorack modules with Kid606 he generously sent a couple of CDs to me. I wound up buying an external DVD drive rather than continuing to bother Alisha to rip them for me and transfer via USB stick (because Windows LAN networking still sucks in 2020). Chances are, any computers we might buy in the future won’t have optical drives built in anyway.

My MP3 collection is about 25 years old and has 840 (!!) artists in it. There are some-hundred CDs in my collection that spans roughly 1990-2005. I certainly don’t plan to rip all of them, but there’ll be a bunch. So I’m thinking: I’ll set up a personal streaming server with a rating system, or else cull the collection a little so there’s an archive and a “live” collection, and stop having to copy the whole collection to three different devices.


Two modules arrived this week. The Disting EX, previously described, is a bunch of different utilities in one module. The improved display is TINY and a challenge for my poor eyesight, and I rearranged modules a bit to bring it a little closer to my eyes and hands. But still, the module is easier to navigate than previous versions, and I think a dozen or so favorite algorithms won’t require much referring to a cheat sheet or online reference. I’ve encountered a few bugs, many of which will be fixed in the next firmware release.

I’ve got i2c commands from the Teletype working with it, although it doesn’t support slew, which is going to limit the matrix mixer morphing I thought might be particularly special.

The algorithms I like most are different from the set I originally liked, with more of the basic building blocks (like comparators and sample-and-hold) and fewer oscillators and effects. There are still some “macro” items though, like a pitch and envelope tracker and a wavetable-based waveshaper, that are pretty special.

The polyphonic multisample player is cool, if kind of mind-bending in Eurorack. Not something I’ll probably want to use frequently, but like everything else on the Disting, it’s nice to have it in reserve for when I do. The Disting can also record samples, and an auto-multisample mode is coming that makes use of the MIDI breakout panel — play several notes on a synth into it, and it will sample them and format it for the multisample player — so I might have to make room for that. It could be kind of neat sampling software synths with it and then playing them back with Eurorack sequencers…


The other module is Schlappi Engineering Angle Grinder, and it’s glorious.

The left side is the “grind” section, a set of four comparators that blast the smooth edges off and add more upper harmonics. The “spin” section on the right is a nice filter/quadrature oscillator. As a filter, it sounds like it has a little bit of a resonant peak even at minimum; it can work pretty conventionally but the highpass and notch sound particularly sweet. As an oscillator it’s quite smooth. I feel like I should put in some time exploring what a quadrature LFO/oscillator can do for me, aside from synchronized push-pull on different modulation targets.

The real fun is in the combination. The Spin outputs feed Grind’s four comparators and subtract from the input, changing the shape. The output can then feed back into Spin. The bandpass/allpass output from Spin also feeds back into Grind if not interrupted by a different input. The results vary quite a lot depending on whether Spin is oscillating or filtering, and the phase-shifted and clipped feedback results in many different waveshapes and pitch shifting, under CV control.

Overall the thing can range from a conventional filter or sine oscillator, to something with a little more edge, to a weird noise generator that can produce chirps, atmospheric noise, “toy with dying battery,” self-pinging filter and other weirdness. The feedback loops make it inherently chaotic, but the knobs control the amount of that chaos. Also, it provides several excellent ways to combine other oscillators to create complex drones.

I do kind of wish it had CV control over the “Damping” (aka reverse resonance) and “Grind->Spin” controls since both can influence feedback. To some extent I could manage that with external VCA(s) and mixer though, if the block diagram in the manual is correct.

I have absolutely no regrets about trading my Filter 8 for this one. In fact, it’s so good, I’m considering one of Schlappi Engineering’s other modules, the Interstellar Radio. It converts a signal to a high-frequency “radio transmission” and then back, but with different clocks or even external ones, to generate a variety of errors, aliasing and distortion and other oddities. If I let go of my A-196 PLL — which I believe I can do without losing any functionality, because of the Sync3 and Disting’s pitch tracker, comparator and XOR algorithms — I’ll have room for it. I won’t leap too quickly though, and give myself some time to get to know the new stuff.

dark this, dark that

I thought I had mentioned Glen Cook’s Darkwar omnibus/trilogy here, but I guess that was elsewhere.

This was written in the mid 80s and had the requisite “what the hell was wrong with fantasy covers in the 80s” art:

And now it has much more stylish by current standards, but still a bit on the WTF side, 21st century cover art:

So, yeah. First off, these are a race of people who have fur everywhere, call their hands “paws” and their children “pups” and their social groups “packs,” and there’s growling and snarling and a definite sense of the canine. When they encounter humans, they comment on how funny-looking they are, too tall and with fur only on their heads.

Also, though the main character begins as a mere pup, for the majority of the story she is a witch — of a tyrannical, super intimidating, dramatic order who always wears black.

Also, the solar system in the setting is passing through a dust cloud that blocks solar radiation and they’re going through one heck of an ice age, with permafrost nearly reaching the equator — they bundle up in boots and furs, and even more so when flying. And the main character always goes armed.

Maybe the saddleship in that first image is, loosely, what the author had in mind. But the darkship, while described as having a cross or dagger shape, is way too small, there are no harnesses, it doesn’t seem to be the “voidfaring” type that they use in space despite the spaceship behind them, the glow of their shielding is way too subtle… and so on.

As for the more modern one, it’s not quite as bad except for gratuitous boobs and she kind of looks like a cat.

Okay, cover art aside. Its writing predates most of the Black Company novels, and some of the ideas in it would appear there later. Or earlier? The silth (witches) here have their flying wooden or titanium craft, and especially saddleships seem not unlike the rheitgeistiden (aka “flying posts”) of the Voroshk. The black outfits seem like a prototype of the almost-living robes the Voroshk wore, as well. There’s a major city called TelleRai; in the Black Company there’s a nearly lost language called TelleKure. The silth use not-quite-understood shadowy creatures called “they who dwell” for their magic, not too different from the “shadows”/skildirsha of the Glittering Plain. Given that one series has sixteen worlds linked by “shadowgates” and the other has faster-than-light magical space travel, it’s not completely out of the question that they have a connection somewhere.

Or it could just be, Glen Cook had certain ideas he liked and wanted to flesh out in different ways.

Anyway: I’ve tried to read other Glen Cook stuff that wasn’t The Black Company, and just didn’t get into it. Darkwar, I did and enjoyed most of it. The protagonist becomes a pretty horrible person, though sometimes she’s just “differently horrible” compared to the rest of her world. It never quite turns one away from sympathizing or wanting her to succeed. The story does get kind of back-and-forth and time-skippy in the third book. And one wishes for a few more terms in invented languages rather than darkwar, darkship, darkfaring, dark-sider, darkpretzel, darkpenguin etc. It’s a little too middle school heavy metal fan at times. But then, it was the 80s.

gradually

Overall this album has felt like pretty slow going so far. I’ve been gaming, reading, napping, and occasionally firing up the music rig. A little slower is okay; there’s still momentum. Especially when I consider that I did record two more pieces for Ambient Online during this period. Honestly, I think it feels like more time has passed than actually has.

If the momentum does stop, or I feel unhappy with the quality of my work, I’ll pull the alarm and go back to a song-a-week-or-more format until I reboot myself. Hopefully that won’t be necessary.

Anyway, a month ago I thought I had a theme for this — waveshaping and nonlinearity — but I things haven’t really solidified that way. Instead, they have picked up the less technical, more emotional and esoteric themes of incubation and hesychia from the Kingsley book. It’s a more appealing choice, but it’s honestly not too far off from where my music tends to go anyway, so it feels a bit like no theme at all.


Speaking of books, what I’m into right now is K. J. Parker’s Sharps. In a setting similar to Renaissance Europe, a small, poor kingdom decides the path to maintaining a fragile peace with a neighbor is sending a national fencing team for Olympics-style diplomacy. Everything goes wrong due to some coincidence of bureaucratic incompetence, basic human laziness, corruption, and colliding conspiracies, and it’s often hard to tell which is which. Much like the news in 2019, only a lot more fun.

The book makes me want to learn some things about fencing. What the heck is a demi-volte? What just happened in that big action scene? Why was the thing that somebody just said significant? I’m missing some of the story here I think.


I’m still on Guild Wars 2. I’ve gotten to level 80 with 4 characters:

  • A sylvari Mesmer, who went through the Path of Fire story and converted to the Mirage spec, which I’m not really certain is either more effective or more fun. (It’s not like converting back is hard now though.)
  • A human Necromancer, who I kept at the core spec because Death Shroud — which looks and feels a lot like the wraith world of the Nazgul in the LOTR movies — just seems a lot cooler than summoning sand shades. This is probably my most capable character in a solo situation.
  • A sylvari Engineer, who converted to the lightsaber-ish Holosmith spec, and who looks extremely cool. But I had serious trouble in Southsun Cove (due to “quiet” Confusion applied by some of the monsters there which causes you to injure yourself) and found the intro to the Path of Fire area much more difficult than with the Mesmer.
  • A Norn Ranger, who went for the Soulbeast spec. It’s kind of cool to take on some of the aspects of various animals, but the special effects are lackluster and the actual effectiveness is questionable.

I also started a couple of thieves and an elementalist who got a little ways in and I just found they weren’t as fun or effective to play — though that could just mean I need to adopt to a different spec and playstyle. I’m now on a sylvari Guardian, who feels fun and flashy, intending to go for the Firebrand spec.

I haven’t visited all the level 80 zones, though I think between all my characters combined, I’ve covered all the below-80 zones. I figure once I max out this Guardian, I’ll pick a character and try to get 100% map completion. After that I might chase after achievement titles, unlocking more cosmetic gear, and maybe even try WvW, which I’ve never done before, or solo Fractal Dungeons. There’s a ton of content in this game and as much of it as I’ve seen, there’s a lot more — not like when I had 70+ characters in Champions Online and had done basically everything except the premium mission content.


There’s also Stranger Things. We just watched Season 3, and then rewatched Season 1 (which I’d only sort of half-watched and missed a few key things). It’s far from a perfect show, and some of its appeal is in intentional 80s cheese (turned up to 11, so to speak, for the third season). But it’s a pretty fertile setting for more stories — who knows what else might come from the Upside-Down, whether there are other otherworlds, what else went on in that lab or elsewhere in US and Russian psychic research, whether there are any other psychics besides Eleven and Eight (maybe Will’s developing something?)

Of course in my circles, a big part of Stranger Things is the synth soundtrack. It’s kind of become the Stairway to Heaven of synth players, and Season 3 brought with it a whole new wave of covers. I like the music, but please, people, create something new. Or do a creative rather than an imitative cover of anything else. Or go ahead and do your imitation, for your own amusement and learning purposes, and then don’t post it anywhere. Ask yourself whether the world will be a better place because there is one more cover of the Stranger Things theme.

(I had thought Season 3 was a lot heavier on the licensed 80s music than previous, but Season 1 did have quite a few — including sneaking in Tangerine Dream’s “Kiew Mission”, itself an 80s all-synth track that slides right in alongside the score.)

As I have recently posted elsewhere, I like it when artists take iconic 80s style synth sounds — or at least, the “synthwave” sounds we identify as 80s sounds now, though they’re not entirely representative — and then do something fresh and new with them rather than going pure retro. I feel like SURVIVE, Makeup & Vanity Set, and some others do that pretty well.

collapse

I’ve just read John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse… while deciding not to keep reading the “Climate Collapse” thread on the Lines forum because it’s usually too depressing.

I don’t like disaster movies, or even trailers for disaster movies. It turns out the same is generally pretty true of novels by otherwise excellent sci-fi authors. Though I keep confusing Varley with Vernor Vinge for some reason and crediting them with each other’s’ work, I did enjoy the Thunder and Lightning series.

To summarize the book: a scientist develops bacteria that render crude oil unusable (presumably as revenge against Saudi Arabia for 9/11). It goes out of control, spreads around the world, destroying oil wells and stockpiles. Transportation, power (dependent on diesel trains and trucks for supplies), communication, emergency services, medicine, food, etc. and the rule of law all become scarce.

Okay… maybe an interesting premise. I could see the book being a lesson of some kind, or a story mostly about ingenuity and the triumph of the human spirit, or some such. NOPE. Somehow, it is barely even a story about the climate crisis, much less presenting an acceptable way forward.

Instead, it does the disaster movie thing of dumping one horror after another on the protagonists, and feels a bit like Final Destination. (Ugh.) LA is struck with a 9.8 earthquake, mudslides and fires and lawless violence. The main character — not the “ordinary guy” the back cover blurb says, but medium-rich in Hollywood — faces all kinds of horrors and tragedies he can’t do anything about, as well as repeated internal conflicts over whether to help strangers or defend his family’s hoard.

In a way, the book is about wealth and privilege. The protagonist’s main fear (except when facing immediate threats to self and his family) is losing his wealth. At the start of the book, he’s looking for another lucrative script that will let him maintain the lifestyle he’s accustomed to. Later on, he’s worried about his wealth (in the form of stored food, water, fuel, guns, and other supplies) being redistributed — he’s afraid both of thieves and of his neighborhood going socialist. Life in refugee camps and on the crowded aircraft carriers the Navy is using to move people out of LA, is the poverty he fears. But it’s a muddled message; that “wealth” actually has a practical value to him, in reducing his own family’s suffering. This is unlike reality where a few people sit uselessly on billions while others starve.

It wasn’t a bad book, other than the ending feeling a bit weak and a few quibbles. I just really dislike this kind of… torture story, really. There’s very little justice or hope or satisfaction in it, just a grind, just shock and grimness and deprivation. If I wanted that, I could have turned on the news.

bits

First, a link. Someone came up with a brilliant patch for Rings, feeding it clocked random noise, which makes for a very convincing cello.

I’d generally rather hear a real cellist than a perfect imitation of one — but the ability to imitate a real instrument demonstrates the ability to create sounds that are unreal and otherworldly but have the characteristics of physical, acoustic objects. That’s where the magic is.

This is making me wonder a little about the Uncanny Valley phenomenon as it applies to sound… if it does. Slightly-off human-like voices can be a little creepy, but not nearly as much as a subtly wrong human visual appearance. Slightly-off musical instrument sounds, animal noises and sounds generally categorized as foley, usually don’t bother us at all.

That thought ties in with my current reading: R. Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. It’s not quite the book I expected, but I’ll stick with it. So far it’s sort of a catalog of descriptions of the sounds and soundscapes of the world, in both poetic and scientific terms — with an emphasis on things such as noise pollution, the lowered sensitivity toward sound that people have had since the Industrial Revolution, the lost sounds of extinct species and traditions and obsolete technologies, and so on.

And before that was Peter Kingsley’s In the Dark Places of Wisdom. That one was a combination of fascinating and infuriating. While I believe the author’s style and the structure of the book were intentional, it grated on me and left me frustrated at the end.

The general thrust of the book was the story of the pre-Socratic philosopher (and mystic) Parmeneides, who was Zeno’s teacher. (That’s the Zeno’s Paradox guy — if you step halfway across a room, and then halfway again, and halfway again, etc. you will never, according to math anyway, reach the other side. Although in practice you get down to atoms and then the Planck length, and statistically merging some non-zero number of the molecules of your foot with the wall, and… yeah.) Kingsley has a non-mainstream interpretation of who Parmeneides was and what his poetic writings were referring to. That interpretation is criticized by other scholars, but came off as relatively plausible to me at least — I was mostly reading this for inspiration, thanks to a tip from someone online.

Kingsley argues for a Western tradition (with bidirectional Eastern and African influences) of mysticism and holistic thought that was basically killed off by Socrates, then ignored by modern scholars because it didn’t fit the mold they expected. Except he never really concludes that argument or explains why it’s so important for modern people. He never really gets into a sort of Stoic-sounding-but-also-something-else world view that he hints at, either. He does try to sell the next book at the abrupt end-but-not-completion of the first, though. Argh. Nonfiction books shouldn’t be cliffhangers.

Anyway, it was still interesting. All we learn in grade school history about Greece is, basically, Socrates, Athens, and Homer. We don’t really find out about Apollo’s associations with the underworld (the sun goes into a cave at night, just like in Egyptian myth), the tradition of incubation (lying still in a small enclosed space as a means of contemplation / mystical journeying), Greek hero worship (almost literal), how Pythagoras used scientific/mathematical knowledge as a lure to attract people to his mystery cult (basically), or how Athens was kind of a colonialist bully to the rest of Greece.

There was a fair bit about silence, darkness, stillness, and the mystical that mostly didn’t come off as terrible woo and resonated with my own experiences. This might have me reconsidering the theme for the next album — it’s a much richer and more evocative theme than “nonlinearity.” But perhaps I will work both a technical theme and an emotional theme simultaneously, and I might yet find inspiration that merges the two.

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… πŸ˜›

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.