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.

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 😉

well-oiled machine

For the last few days I have been trying CBD oil. Someone on a forum recommended it about a year ago when I was talking about anxiety, but at the time I thought “whatever, hippie.” There’s this mental connection between hemp and pot that is not very scientific or fair but was trained into us 80s kids, and the common semiotics don’t really help.

Over time, more articles about it came up, and I read a couple of them and thought maybe it actually might be helpful for anxiety… but I was still unsure about how legit and legal it is. But then in the past couple of weeks, two or three billboards have popped up locally advertising CBD in shops. After a few hours of researching it some more I thought… okay, why not. I have various pain and would like to lay off the ibuprofen, and anxiety is still a thing even if it’s not so oppressive as it was last January. So it’s worth a shot.

Following advice and reviews from several sources, I went with a CBDPure tincture oil (300), taken sublingually, half a dropper full twice per day. Let me tell you, the stuff tastes just plain gross. I don’t get too much of that while letting it rest under my tongue, but if I’m not lucky I do when I swallow the rest. Burping is the worst though, ewwww.

It absolutely does make me feel more at ease and unburdened. It doesn’t seem to be doing much for pain, but I have been skipping the ibuprofen since I started. (Maybe because, with a better mood I am less bothered by the pain.) It might be worth trying a stronger concentration or more quantity after a few weeks.

Once this bottle is done, if not before, I may look into capsules or gummies to avoid the nasty, nasty taste. Since I’m not having panic attacks I’m not too concerned about whether it takes effect in 10 minutes or an hour.

I’ve picked up a whole bunch of music-related reading — a couple of individual ebooks, and then a Humble Bundle on computer music. My first read among them was A Bang, A Whimper & A Beat: Industrial Music and Dystopia.

It’s a scholarly study of the genre, its meanings and inspirations and how it is viewed by fans and non-fans. There’s a whole section analyzing a selection of five songs in terms of content (with a heroic but doomed effort to transcribe them) and listeners’ impressions, which I largely skimmed. Otherwise it was pretty interesting stuff, and made me realize some things that I just sort of accepted subconsciously or didn’t especially take note of.

Industrial had its beginnings in anti-capitalist, “anti-art” art groups. Early industrial was sonically more acoustic, involved building ad-hoc instruments out of junk and making clanging, percussive noise to go along with busted guitars and such. As the cyberpunk fiction genre (which is pretty explicitly anti-capitalist) emerged, the music and fiction swerved toward each other and became entangled, and it became more of an electronic music genre.

The theme of dystopia is strong: the earth and its people exploited past the breaking point. Dehumanization for profit, oppression for profit, war for profit, religion for profit. “Rationalization” taken to irrational extremes and the downfall of society. The machine as a symbol of oppressive power, systemic lack of human empathy — and also as victim, the loss of individuality, individual worth and freedom of expression. (“We are the robots”, the Kraftwerk song says; “we are programmed just to do anything you ask us to.” The word “robot” comes from the Czech robota, meaning forced labor.)

The sound palette in industrial music fits: drums for the march of progress or the march of troops or unceasing pounding machines. Heavy bass and drones for foreboding. Distorted and processed vocals — tormented and scream-like, cold and machinelike, or calling for revolution through a megaphone. No guitar solos (and few synth “solos” as such) because virtuosity is individuality.

Like punk, an important aspect of the genre is a rejection of conformity to the mainstream (disseminated via capitalist media for the convenience of the corporate overlords) — but it does it with a martial, regimented, uniform beat. It uses the imagery of fascism and control against those things, and sometimes confuses non-fans in the process. For a while after the Columbine shooting, industrial music was scapegoated alongside video games, trenchcoats, and all sorts of irrelevant things that aren’t guns and the alienation that leads people to use them on each other.

There is a constellation of genres that are culturally associated with Industrial music — due to similar messaging and aesthetics but more because some of the musicians and many of the fans crossed over. Goth is a particularly strong association. Another is Industrial Ambient, which is now more commonly called Dark Ambient.

The musical imagery of Dark Ambient is the desolation left in the aftermath. Abandoned factories and cities, rusting vehicles, collapse and decay; salt flats and dust bowls; tolling bells and whispering ghosts. Lots of reverb! Icy tundra, outer space, tombs — a closely related subgenre some have called “Isolationism.” Disquiet in a quiet place, pensiveness, mysteries and secrets, the spirit world, the interiors of ancient or alien ruins — I have no idea what this branch is called but it’s more what I associate my own music with.

And then there’s Dark Techno (closely associated with Drone Techno), which borrows heavily from Dark Ambient as well as Industrial. It tends to be slow and heavy compared to most Techno and Industrial, with vocals a rarity; it’s more like ambient with a beat. Some of my music kind of tacks toward this subgenre without quite getting into its lane, I feel.

chill out already

I have finally finished reading The Ambient Century. The final section was about House, Techno, Trance and their ambient variations, many of which could probably accurately be called ambient. Or at least ambient-ish, ambient-inspired, and ambient-inspiring.

I’m not sure I can really tell the difference between most of the various dance genres in electronic music when push comes to shove. I could probably tell Minimal Techno from Progressive House. I have no idea what the difference between Goa Trance, Uplifting Trance, Psytrance, or 180 Faceplant Backslide Cool Ranch Istanbul Ultra Cyber Trancecore is. I’m not even sure that last one isn’t an actual genre.

The book isn’t new enough to cover things like UK Garage, Future Bass, Dubstep, Techstep, Darkstep, Chiptune, Fakebit, Electro Swing, Witch House, Synthwave, Vaporwave, Dark Techno, Deconstructed Club, and the dreaded stadium/festival EDM stuff, and the subgenres (or microgenres) brought on by the new resurgence of modular synths, and whatever else I am forgetting that is less than 20 years old. (Yeah, the 90s are almost 20 years old. That’s still weird to me. The 80s seem like a long time ago, but the 90s do not. I think it’s the divide between “I was in high school” and “the internet and cell phones were a thing.”)

Anyway: the major premise here is that Ecstasy was what brought it all together in the 90s. The author writes in a way that leaves little doubt he’s got personal experience, but the point is, there was a need for music for people to chill out to happily while coming back to Earth and still being generally sociable, and that’s where all the more ambient-but-clubby forms of music came in. Chill-out rooms, chill-out tents, chill-out music. It’s plausible I guess. My experience of 90s music was solitary: through headphones, via CDs bought in used record stores, then mail order, then the internet, and then (yes, totally legit) MP3s by indie musicians.

The music relied on a lot of sampling and merging of stuff into a cohesive but still dreamy whole, so the musicians went back to
Satie and Derbyshire and Stockhausen and Cage and Reich, the Beatles and Pink Floyd and Tomita and Tangerine Dream and King Tubby, and whatever else from each of the three previous sections of the book. So it does kind of neatly tie all that history together I suppose.

I’m not sure Future Sound of London or The Orb or the Chemical Brothers really had much influence on my music, but I did enjoy them a lot in the 90s and mostly still do.

Anyway. I’m done with the book, and while it was kind of a workout to get through, glad for some different perspective and the excuse to revisit some of the music I liked in the past. (Waaaay back in the 90s. Sigh.)

Next I’ll be reading some graphic novels and SF and fantasy for a bit.

you had to make final decisions as you went

While this interview goes a little more into recording engineer geekery
(*) than I can appreciate, there’s something to it at the end.

Part of why my process works for me so well is not treating music as something to be assembled jigsaw-like from many little recorded bits. I may not play live in front of audiences, but the recording process is still performance of a sort. I hit record, I do things with my hands that shape the course of the music. It’s usually improvisational to some degree, and it’s usually done in one take. Even when it’s not, there is no separation between what I hear and what I record. All the mixing and effects and stuff are done. Recording is commitment. In some ways it’s more primitive than all the psychedelic rock groups The Ambient Century was praising.

…of course sometimes I will edit my recording, and do things to it that extend and enhance it. But it’s still not cut-and-paste.

(*) Recording engineers are the people who know which microphone to use and exactly where to put it, how to set up the acoustic space, how loud to record on tape (or whatever), how to mix mic signals in ways that sound better instead of causing phase cancellations and such, and all of that. It’s a whole area of expertise that is only tangent to what I do. To me, the voltages in the wires, the data in the computer, and the vibrations in my eardrums are all extremely similar, and the few variables that confound that are constant and familiar. But microphones just don’t “hear” the way our ears do, nor is human attention a factor. If you’ve ever tried to record a neat birdsong, only to have the recording make you aware of traffic noises and an air conditioner and barking dogs in the background that you didn’t notice before and the movement of your hands and rustle of your clothes, that’s just a small part of the challenge. And if you’ve ever tried to record extremely loud drums in a concrete warehouse without it sounding like it’s in a concrete warehouse, while still capturing the subtleties of the sound of the stick hitting the head, that’s another five or six technical problems to solve.

rhymes with sewage

Remember New Age music? It occurs to me some readers might not, either because you’re too young (sigh) or because most of it was very forgettable.

It had a reputation for being deeply uncool, instantly forgettable, vapid. Whitebread or sometimes vaguely Asian-ish or smooth jazz that had all the jazz smoothed out. Relaxation music marketed to yuppies to listen to in hot tubs. Soft piano or acoustic guitar music with any potential for excitement removed; synth music that brought nothing new and didn’t challenge. The music had no friction.

And of course it was associated with the New Age movement, a sort of commercialized and partly whitewashed feel-good mysticism and spiritualism. That probably didn’t help its reputation any.

That movement — aside from being a way to cash in, of course — was supposed to help counter the stressful effects of an accelerating culture and hyper-competitive business world. One might expect to see it rise again, although we do have “mindfulness” and a resurgence of interest in yoga and such now so perhaps that’s it.

Anyway, the musical genre was also something of a catch-all category under which some music of more substance and style and innovation got thrown. For a while in the 80s if you wanted to hear any electronic music, anything that would now be “genre-defying,” anything ambient, you looked under the New Age category at your local chain record store in the mall. That was kind of important, because those were the days when your other option was mail-order catalogs, which you found out about from zines if you were lucky. (That was where I went for darkwave and Celtic and Finnish folk music after New Age fizzled, but before the internet made music discovery easy.) It might actually be fair to say that as a category, New Age had no worse a ratio of good to bad music as most other popular genres.

the cover design is solidly 20th century…

I’m thinking about this now because I’ve been reading The Ambient Century, sort of a history of ambient music from its early predecessors up to the near-present. It is a series of mini-biographies of composer after composer, with occasional inventor: Mahler, Satie, Debussy, Theremin, Martenot, Schoenberg, Varese, Stockhausen, the Pierres (Henry and Schaefer and Boulez), Cage, Miles Davis, Daphne Oram, Xenakis, Subotnick. Then the minimalists: Young, Riley, Glass, Eno, Reich. New Age music and Windham Hill specifically were just covered; then we head into “Ambient in the Rock Era” and “House, Techno and 21st Century Ambience.”

It is mostly very dry, with just the occasional snark or fascinating detail, occasional weird assertions where [citation needed] and some technically inaccurate bits. As with many books about music history, a lot of music of purported or definite historical note doesn’t really hold up as an enjoyable listen today. The book does say that John Cage was more of an idea generator, challenger of the old order(s), and inspirer of artists than he was someone whose work you’d actually want to listen to.

But anyway, New Age music. Vollenweider was pretty neat, I thought — unique in some ways as a composer and sound designer, and honestly the field is wide open for more electric harp music, whether in the more relaxed zone or more aggressive. Enya had authenticity and unique production techniques. Nobody would call Jean-Michel Jarre “New Age” today but that’s where I found his early work, along with Tangerine Dream. I seem to remember even finding Kraftwerk under the category once. Isao Tomita’s work in the “New Age” era probably does (sadly) deserve the label, but his 70s and early 80s renditions of classical music were absolutely brilliant and nobody has yet cracked the code for the sound he achieved with analog synths.

I don’t know if anybody misses New Age as a genre (I don’t) and I’m not sure the music world needs something like it today to gather disparate music under its wing. But that’s what we had at the time.

the road to 2.0

Things are moving. My Dark World arrived last Friday, orders for the ER-301 and 16n have been placed and both have estimated ship dates in 6 weeks. [Edit: 16n now looks more like 4 weeks.] I’ve rearranged modules to make room and put a couple more up for sale.

You know what I finished by Valentine’s Day at the start of last year? Nereus. I have four songs ready for the next one, so making that deadline should be a relative breeze. Due to the no-theme theme, I was thinking of calling the album “Wiggly Air,” but somehow that doesn’t quite fit the Starthief image.

So let’s just say it’s Untitled Album for now. Anyway, getting it done before getting potentially sidelined by learning a significant new piece of gear seems like a good idea.

Dark World is pretty great. I could wish it were stereo, had its own feedback knob (because some of its settings are glorious inside of a tight feedback loop) and had its jacks on the back instead of the sides so it could sit hip-to-hip with other pedals instead of sticking its elbows out. But the sound can’t be argued with, and it’s easy to work with.

Some of the changes for Starthief Studio 2.0 are going to be pedalboard related:

  • Geiger Counter can probably be entirely replaced by one of the units in ER-301.
  • Right now I have Tensor, Afterneath and MS-70CDR as end-of-chain FX. This is kind of unnecessary since plugins do EOC reverb and delay better. But Tensor loves to be in feedback loops with reverb/delay, EQ and a limiter — so I might keep the three patched together, set up the CDR for the EQ/limiter, and just rethink the context they get used for. Or I might sell the CDR and Afterneath and just loop Tensor through software plugins or the ER-301.
  • I might consider a cheap (or even DIY) feedback looper pedal for Dark World, rather than patching through a mixer in the modular every time, as a convenience thing.
  • Monobius, like Geiger Counter, loves to be patched into the middle of a modular patch so it needs to be separate from other pedals.
  • I’m not entirely happy with the S.B.G/Trim/Gozinta combo for interfacing pedals with modular. Either right-angle patch cables or some different pedal interface modules will be happening once I figure out available space in the next wave of module selling.