Posted by midiguru on January 5, 2014
As part of my ongoing quest to learn more about how music is being made, or might be made, with a modular synthesizer, I’ve been having a few discussions on Facebook. This morning I found myself using the phrase “interlocking layers of organization” to describe conventional composition. I think that phrase provides a useful way of looking at the topic.
The first question that might be asked is, does experimental electronic music (or for that matter experimental acoustic music) exhibit anything comparable to the interlocking layers of organization found in conventional classical composition? If so, I’d love to have someone point out where I can find those layers, and how I can come to understand them. In the absence of any musical examples accompanied by a clear analysis, I’m going to hazard a guess that the answer is no.
The second question is, does that matter? Assuming that my answer to the first question is accurate, does the absence of this type of organization have any significance, either to listeners or to composers? I would argue that it does. Not to all listeners, certainly. There are people who love improvisatory, aleatoric, or simply bewildering music. That’s fine. If you enjoy it, I’m happy for you. In the end, I can only speak for myself. But on the off-chance that others may be interested in these questions, I’m going to try to show how it matters.
You’ll find this type of organization in almost every measure of every piece of classical music, from before Bach up through Stravinsky and beyond. It’s perceptible to the listener. And not only perceptible but satisfying. It satisfies a deep human need for order.
I happen to be familiar with a number of Bach’s keyboard pieces; they provide as good a set of examples as any of this kind of order. Let’s look at the opening movement of the Second Partita, for instance. At the highest level, this movement, a Sinfonia, falls into three very definite Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by midiguru on January 4, 2014
I can’t imagine that any of the music tech magazines I write for will want me to review Musyc Pro, so I may as well tip you off to it here. It’s for the iPad, it’s a toy, it makes pretty sound patterns, it’s clever, and it’s at least modestly addictive. Good for an evening or two of entertainment, at least, and a way to amaze your friends. It’s on the App Store.
It’s sort of a user-designable pinball machine. Little circles and squares and triangles bounce around, and when they hit something they play a note. You set up the “rails” and optionally insert a couple of other objects that the bouncing objects will interact with, such as a gravitational attractor. You can choose from a variety of soundsets, or even import your own samples (though I haven’t tried that yet — don’t know if I’ll bother).
A sequencer object can spit out new objects in a regular rhythm or a steady stream. You can attach one object to another with a spring, so that they swing around one another.
The output conforms to some diatonic scale, but you can insert a scale object and give it several different scales. The played notes will switch from one scale to another depending on where the scale object is located as it bounces around.
The output is an irregular flurry of ambient tinkling — a highly programmable iOS wind chime, if you like. There’s even a reverb effect. You can capture the output as a soundfile, or upload it to your Soundcloud account. It’s all very silly, but extremely cute.
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Posted by midiguru on January 4, 2014
When everything is surprising, nothing is surprising. That’s today’s observation with respect to experimental electronic music. When a musical style has no norms, no method of organization that gives shape and structure to the musical ideas, then we can formulate, at any given moment, no guess about what may be about to happen in the next five or ten seconds. Anything might happen, and no matter what it is, it will be equally surprising. Consequently, whatever happens, it won’t be surprising at all.
The only norm I’ve been able to detect is that the composer’s attention span is typically somewhere between 20 and 90 seconds. At some point within that span, the composer is likely to decide to change something — to do something different. But as a norm, that’s not much help for listeners. Something is likely to change, but we can’t begin to guess how it will relate to what we’re hearing now.
Or rather, since music is comprehended retrospectively, by analyzing (quickly and subconsciously) the last few events we’ve heard, when something new happens we will be unable to perceive any coherent relationship between the new thing and whatever preceded it.
In classical composition, on the other hand, stylistic norms are constantly in play. A classical piece is rather like a work of fiction: We don’t know Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by midiguru on January 3, 2014
To compose music is to dictate some type of organization to a series of sound events. This is true even of John Cage’s aleatoric compositions; he doesn’t dictate the sounds themselves, but he dictates their organization quite carefully according to some abstract schema. I find aleatoric music stupid and boring, however. I feel the listener ought to be able to perceive the organization that the composer has imposed on the sound events.
How do composers of avant-garde or experimental electronic music organize their pieces? As far as I can determine, they don’t. No formal organization lies behind the surface phenomena.
In researching this question, I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Thom Holmes called Electronic & Experimental Music. He documents the early years of experimentation and discovery in loving detail. Primitive means were employed toward equally primitive ends. Folks who enjoy modern music technology may be excited, humbled, or horrified to learn Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by midiguru on December 31, 2013
Now that I’ve spent a fairly ridiculous amount of money on a modular synthesizer, I’m challenging myself to figure out what to do with it. The challenge is this: My whole life has been spent listening to, playing, and composing music that was built out of notes. Or let’s say notes, chords, and phrases. Groups of notes are almost always organized either vertically into chords or horizontally into phrases. In fact, it’s reasonable to say that if a sound of a fixed pitch and duration is heard, but has no relationship to other sounds of fixed pitch, either vertically or horizontally, it’s not a note. The idea of “note” embodies the idea of a certain kind of organization.
It’s certainly possible to play notes, chords, and phrases with a modular synth. But it’s not the best tool for the job. If you want to play note-based electronic music, a software system (Propellerhead Reason, for instance, or Steinberg Cubase and a few good VST plug-ins) is a much better choice. Using software, you can store and recall your sounds. You can keep the same set of notes and try it with different sounds, or vice-versa — and you can come back to the stored piece a month later and try out different combinations.
With a modular synth, you can certainly record reams of audio to your computer, cut and paste useful segments, add effects, and do a mix. But once you’ve pulled apart the chord-generating patch to do a bass, percussion, or melodic patch, getting the chord patch back again the next day will be difficult and perhaps impossible. As a result, the process of assembling a note-oriented piece using a modular synth faces some serious roadblocks.
On the other side of the aisle, quite a lot of composers are using modular synths and other kinds of electronics to perform and record new kinds of music. For the most part, however, this music is not Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by midiguru on December 29, 2013
After struggling a bit earlier today (see the previous post) with intonation in my modular synth, I felt I should do a few more tests. There’s some good news to report, and some bad news.
Bad news first: The output of the Toppobrillo Quantimator simply doesn’t match the desired 1v/oct input of my analog oscillators across more than an octave or so. Nor does there appear to be a calibration trimpot on the Quantimator’s circuit board. At least, if there is, I haven’t found a document where it’s mentioned. The quantizer for the Make Noise Rene is pretty much the same. Across three octaves, it just doesn’t produce a reliable 8:1 increase in frequency.
The only oscillator in my system that produces perfect octaves is the Mutable Instruments Braids. This is a digital oscillator, and does its own quantizing of the input CV internally. No surprise that it’s perfect; digital audio is all numbers. The Intellijel Cylonix Shapeshifter, on the other hand, is also a digital oscillator — yet it suffers Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by midiguru on December 29, 2013
We will begin with a brief digression.
Yesterday a friend brought his hurdy-gurdy over to my house and let me play a bit on it. The hurdy-gurdy, for the benefit of those among my readers who don’t attend outdoor strolling Renaissance fairs, is a stringed folk instrument that sounds a bit like bagpipes, though perhaps not as pleasant.
You make sound by turning a crank, which rotates a rosined wheel. The wheel rubs across the strings. One or more of the strings produces a constant drone — a pitch that never changes. Melodies can be played on one or two other strings by pressing keys that force a little wedge up against the string, shortening it. It’s quite a sophisticated concept, if you’re living in the 17th century and don’t have enough money to buy a musical instrument, so you have to build one yourself using scraps of wood you find lying out behind the barn.
Also, it’s portable. You can wear it on a strap around your neck and play it standing on a streetcorner, at which point people will pay you to go away.
Be that as it may, there’s a very long tradition of music in which melodies are played over an unchanging drone. The Indian raga is perhaps the finest example of this. Also, many musical traditions get along perfectly well with a limited set of pitches for melodies. Pianists will cringe, but you don’t actually need 88 keys to play a complete musical idea.
I found myself wondering if I could patch up my modular synthesizer to transform it into an electronic hurdy-gurdy on steroids. This led to several discoveries Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by midiguru on December 22, 2013
Now and again I run into people who feel convinced that government regulation is a Bad Thing. They seem to believe quite firmly that freedom, and by extension a free market economy, is the most desirable state of affairs. Knowing that such people are usually quite impervious to the blandishments of reason, I nevertheless feel compelled to offer some perspective on this quite wrong-headed idea.
To begin with, I think we can all agree that personal freedom is a wonderful thing, and should be given the greatest latitude that is practical. But I think we can also agree that personal freedom can be abused. I’m sure you can think of examples of how people sometimes injure others and see no problem with having done so; there’s no need for us to dwell on this point.
At the moment, I’m more concerned with the conflict between free market ideology and the practice of government regulation. I’m going to explain to you why strict government regulation is a good thing.
This is not to say that the regulations we actually have in the United States today are necessarily a good thing. We can all think of examples of regulation that are overly burdensome, ineffective, open to corruption, a reflection of the enormous egos of powerful people, and so forth. Trotting out your favorite examples of this would serve no purpose. I’m strictly concerned to defend the principle — the idea that regulating economic activity is a good and necessary Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by midiguru on December 21, 2013
Modular synthesizer hardware is a wonderful thing. I love being able to reach out and grab a knob. I love being able to plug in a cable and hear the results instantly. And some of the newer modules in the euro-rack world are amazing! Even so, there are certain things you might want that no hardware module will do, as far as I’m aware. Other things are available in hardware, but only in relatively primitive form or at considerable expense.
On the other side of the coin, Csound is an immensely powerful music synthesis language. There just about isn’t anything it can’t do sonically. But — no knobs and no patch cords. Making music with Csound is about as spontaneous as cooking breakfast. First you get the eggs out of the refrigerator….
But what if there was a module that would run Csound code? Then you could have both the spontaneity and tactile gratification of hardware and the versatility of software. A new company called QuBit is releasing such a module. It’s called Nebulae. But while I wish them great success, Nebulae is really quite limited in some important ways. It only has one output jack, for instance.
After mulling it over for a week or two, I broke down and ordered the Expert Sleepers ES-3 and ES-6 modules. Also a PreSonus 1818VSL audio interface. Why the combination? Because the ES-3 and ES-6 connect to a computer using ADAT lightpipe cables. The 1818VSL is one of several relatively affordable interfaces that has ADAT connectors. I had to order a pair of cables too; the cost adds up. But I already have a perfectly nice 5-year-old Macbook Pro that runs Csound, and I know how to program Csound.
After a few hours of testing and troubleshooting, I seem to have a stable system. My MacBook is now, functionally, a Read the rest of this entry »
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Posted by midiguru on December 17, 2013
Back in the 1950s, when I was but a wee sprat, entertainers who had survived the days of vaudeville would show up on The Ed Sullivan Show and do their stuff for a national TV audience. Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Burns & Allen — and less well known acts. There were guys who would balance plates on the ends of sticks and then keep the plates spinning so they wouldn’t fall off.
A couple of years ago I read a piece about amateur piano playing that said, in essence, if you can keep 15 pieces in your repertoire, why not keep 25? I thought, “Okay, I’ll try that.” I’m strictly an amateur pianist. I learned as an adult, and while I’ve made great strides, my technique has never been and will never be entirely secure.
What I’m finding now is that I can’t keep that many plates spinning. Oh, I know 25 pieces. They’re memorized. But they’re not secure. When I choose one that I haven’t played for a couple of weeks and set out to play through it, strange lapses happen. Most often, it’s my fingers that trip me up. My brain knows the music perfectly well, but suddenly my hands forget which finger to use on which note. Train wreck.
Obviously, I need to let go of a bunch of pieces. Either that, or spend an hour a day practicing pieces I’ve already played a hundred times, and never learn anything new. Learning new pieces is a wonderful experience — right now I’m coming close to mastering the first variation in the Goldberg Variations, and I have a longish list of other pieces I’d like to learn. I’ve let go of many pieces in the past; when I leaf through the Well-Tempered Clavier or my Dover edition of the Partitas, Suites, and Inventions, I find movements with fingerings marked in pencil from beginning to end, but I have only a vague memory of ever having played them.
Maybe I could rent an extra brain. Or an extra three hours every day, for keeping up with all of the music that I know. Or maybe I’ll give up the piano entirely and start a talking dog act. Do you think I could get on Ed Sullivan with a talking dog act?
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