What better way to ring in the new year than by listening to a bunch of extremely abstract computer music? I can’t think of one.

My copy of The Csound Book is ten years old. (It was a review copy sent to Keyboard when I was still on staff.) Tonight I copied the contents of the book’s two bind-in CD-ROMs to my hard drive. It’s packed with Csound orchestra and score files, most of which I’ll be able to open and render without trouble. (Some may have been rendered using audio files that aren’t included.)

Also on the disk are .mov audio files, which I guess predate the mp3 format. I can listen to lots of extremely abstract music. Now playing: Jean Piche’s haunting “Incantation,” which features vocal synthesis and bells.

Much of the music is slow-moving, spacious, and rather thin. A cloud of tone may hang motionless for several seconds before you realize that something is slowly changing. Above all, this is not pop music! It’s not hyped up to keep your pulse pounding. It’s not compressed to jump out of the speakers. There is no beat.

I’ve checked out a few of the new mp3’s on the Csound website — music created by students in Richard Boulanger’s classes. Most of it is loosely in the dance instrumental category: 4/4 percussion and aggressive timbres, with a few exotic colors that say, “Yeah, I’m studying computer music. You got a problem with that?”

If I were Dr. Boulanger, I’d give my students one simple instruction: If your piece is in 4/4, you get an F. No exceptions. But that’s just me. I’m sure they’re great kids, and they’re doing what they care about. I’m just an old grouch. I can’t help thinking they’re missing something, though.

When I was a kid (younger than that), my father took the family on excursions to art museums. I grew up on abstract expressionist painting. So I have no trouble processing and appreciating abstract music. I do it visually.

These recordings remind me, also, of my very first experiments in electronic music. I borrowed Tom Darter’s ARP 2600 synthesizer and Vic Trigger’s TEAC 4-track tape deck, and did some pieces. I wish I still had those tapes! (Not that I have anything to play them on.) When MIDI came in, I started making music that had, you know, chords and beats and bass lines and melodies.

I think maybe I lost track of something important, somewhere along in there. Abstraction is good. It’s clean. It doesn’t impose any particular expectations on the listener. And it isn’t in a hurry. The older I get, the less interested I am in hurry. Where are you going? Why not be where you are?

Hammer, Saw, Wrench

One of my Internet friends is putting together an online tutorial on TADS 3, a programming language for interactive fiction. I approve. I’ve written games in both TADS 3 and Inform 7 (and in Inform 6, come to think of it). My experience has been that T3 looks fairly intimidating, especially if you don’t already have some experience in programming. It’s extremely powerful, but in order to learn to use the tools in the toolbox, some effort is required.

Inform 7, conversely, goes out of its way to look easy. But as you dig deeper, you’ll find that certain things in Inform are surprisingly messy or ill-defined. Inform is harder than it looks, while TADS is easier than it looks. At the end of the day, they’re probably about equal in terms of the amount of intellectual effort that’s required — and TADS gives you a greater return for your intellectual investment.

Eric Eve has written three book-length tutorials on TADS 3. They’re excellent. The program also comes with a Technical Manual, a System Manual, and a Library Reference Manual. Learning where to find things in these six information sources is a challenge in itself — but once you learn your way around, you’ll find that the documentation for T3 is more complete than the documentation for I7. (My I7 Handbook was inspired by in no small part by Eric’s Learning T3.)

Though my friend initially mentioned her project as “TADS 3 for Dummnies,” it isn’t that. Most of it (in the draft that I’ve seen, anyway) is an exploration of T3’s class library, a big chunk of code that provides a framework with which to develop your game. Eric’s TADS 3 Tour Guide is also organized in a way that proceeds through the class library, but it makes very little attempt to explore any of the classes thoroughly, as it’s also organized around the process of writing an example game. I like the idea of a TADS 3 Library Road Map. I think it’s needed.

But I also like the idea of “TADS 3 for Dummies” (though of course that’s a trademarked name). I’m toying with the idea of writing a very concise 20-page “Immigrants Naturalization Guide” for people whose only experience has been writing games (or attempting to) in Inform 7, but who are wondering whether they might actually be happier with T3, if only they could figure out where to start.

Ultimately, though, it’s not about writing code. It’s about writing a story. The code is just a means to an end. Emily Short has posted a detailed outline of a book that hasn’t yet been written, which talks about interactive fiction writing from the perspective of the fiction writer. Maybe I should be exploring that instead. Maybe people who want to write interactive fiction can find their own way into an authoring system that suits them. But I do think it’s a shame that so many of them seem to get sucked into the Inform 7 whirlpool without giving TADS a fair shake. It’s easier than it looks, folks. Honest.

The Never-Ending Story

Wrote a review for Electronic Musician last month of Ableton Live 8.1 in the Max For Live incarnation. I’m not going to rehash the review here … the editors of EM wouldn’t like that. They want you to buy the magazine! But now that I’ve upgraded to a new Windows 7 computer, there’s more to the story than I knew when I wrote the review.

Specifically, Live 8.1 doesn’t seem to like Win7 at all. When I ask Live to scan the VST plug-ins folder (which is where I keep my cool 3rd-party synthesizers), Live crashes. Consistently. As a Windows 7 music program, then, Live would appear to be firmly in the doorstop category. And you won’t find that out by reading the review in EM, because I hadn’t yet acquired this computer when I was writing the review.

I’ve posted a message on the Ableton forum. Maybe there’s a quick fix, and I’ll be feeling all jolly again in an hour. Maybe.

Sound Code

Now and then I decide to fritter away a few days poking away at Csound. I don’t know that I’ll ever complete a piece of music using it, but I get in certain moods where working with it is fun. I sit for hours in my easy chair with my laptop on my lap and a pair of headphones clamped on my head, writing code and then listening to what it sounds like.

The new front end, QuteCsound, is indeed cute. It has an integrated code editor with syntax coloring and a multi-tab interface, built-in interactive mouse widgets (sliders, X/Y surfaces, and so on), and other nice features. Even with QuteCsound, Csound is never going to be user-friendly, but it offers musical possibilities that you just can’t find anywhere else.

Plus, it’s 100% free.

Some people use Csound as a real-time instrument, complete with MIDI input. I tend to go for “classic mode,” which involves creating a score by typing lines of code, one line per note. As laborious as this is, it offers at least one enormous advantage over a conventional sequencer: You can give each note whatever parameters you need. If you want to control attack, decay, cutoff, LFO rate, LFO depth, and panning individually for each note (to say nothing of more exotic parameters), just create your instrument with those control inputs, and then enter the values in the score.

I’m interested in just intonation, so I create instruments in which each note can be tuned to any pure ratio I like. This is possible using MIDI-based software synthesizers that can load Scala tuning tables … but if you do it that way, you’re still looking at a keyboard with 12 notes per octave. You can create a tuning with 19 notes in each octave and then play it on a MIDI keyboard, but the fingering of chords will turn into a brain-twister, trust me on this.

With Csound, the tuning “space” is multi-dimensional and completely open-ended. Want to hear what an 8/7 ratio sounds like as part of that chord? (If C is 1/1, 8/7 is a slightly sharp D.) No need to launch Scala, create a new tuning table, store it on the hard drive, load it into your synthesizer, and then edit your MIDI track to match the note assignments in the new tuning table. Just type “8 7” and you’re good to go.

The other thing that’s cool about Csound is that composition files are far less likely to suffer from digital rot. If you think you might want to go back 20 years from now to a piece you’ve just written and edit it in some way, Csound is arguably a better choice than Pro Tools, Live, or any other DAW software, because it’s open-source.

Sure, we live in a fast-food, throw-away culture. Nobody is thinking long-term. But if you use a closed-source music program, you’re at the mercy of the manufacturer to maintain or upgrade it when a new computer OS comes out. The upgrade, if it exists at all, may not be free, and it may not load legacy files! On the other hand, the probability that someone will be compiling Csound for whatever computer OS is current 20 years from now is rather high. It could even be you. All you need is a compiler, a copy of the source code, and some patience. The music doesn’t have to die.

That Deaf, Dumb & Blind Boy

On my local network here at home, my OS X 10.5 Macintosh can see the Shared folder on my older Windows XP laptop. But it can’t see anything on the new Windows 7 computer. Nor can the Win7 computer see the Mac.

All I want to do is shuffle a few files back and forth. That should be easy, right?

In scouring the Web, I’ve looked at posts in several different forums that purport to address this issue. But none of them has steps that work for me. All of the instructions I’m seeing either make assumptions about what I’ll see in Windows (example: “open Control Panel and switch to classic view” … dude, I don’t have a button for that in the Win7 control panel), or dive straight into networking protocols at a deep level without explaining the intermediate steps (“use afp://192.168.5.xxx” … dude, where would I use that?).

The real problem is that Microsoft and Apple don’t like one another. (Good thing I don’t have a Linux machine. I’m sure they both hate Linux.) So each of them is going to pretend it’s the other company’s fault. A post on one of the Microsoft forums did indeed say, “You need to contact Apple about that.”

Sure, I can throw the files onto a USB flash drive and use the sneakernet. For now, that’s the only solution I have. But I can’t help thinking it’s odd that nobody at either Microsoft or Apple is willing to step up to the plate and work this out.

Novel Possibilities

I sent my new novel off to my agent several weeks ago. Today I got around to printing out a complete copy of the final draft. I print out chapters as I write them, in case of computer disaster, but in 8-pt type so as to save paper. And not all of the revisions make it into those piecemeal printouts. Having a readable copy of the whole thing is a good idea.

This is not my first attempt at a mystery. I’ve written two in years past, both unpublished … and that’s probably just as well. This time I think I came much closer to hitting the nail on the head. I’m already thinking of making a few minor changes, but the story is solid.

If my agent can sell it, I’ll turn it into a series, of course. That would be fun, and possibly even lucrative. If he can’t sell it, I doubt I’ll ever write another novel. It’s a lot of work. Also, I’ve got this idea for a screenplay. Probably a miniseries, as I can’t see shoehorning the whole sprawling story into a two-hour movie.

I’ve never written a screenplay. It’s a very different discipline! And a very difficult market, too. But if I have a good story to tell, it’s worth giving it a try.

Laptop Orchestra

Yes, a laptop really is a musical instrument, or can be if you add the right software and a couple of hardware peripherals. A laptop orchestra, though? Check it out over at Peter Kirn’s Create Digital Music site.

What concerns me about the ensemble shown in the video is not the concept of using a bunch of laptops in an ensemble. No, what concerns me is using the Wii as a musical instrument for gesture-sensing purposes. As a cellist, I expect that a musical instrument will provide accurate sensing of tiny muscle movements. That’s what playing a musical instrument is all about!

Trying to play music with a Wii strikes me as being a lot like painting a picture using a roller.

The New PC

Two weeks ago my MusicXPC laptop, which has been my main studio computer for the past year, started showing signs of instability. So for Christmas I bought myself a new Windows 7 tower machine (from Hewlett-Packard).

Migrating to a new computer, especially when the OS has only been released for a month or two, is bound to entail a certain number of headaches. You just have to keep on truckin’.

I’ve been able to get new authorizations for most of my music software, although the Native Instruments Service Center was choking a little. Cubase 4.5 won’t install in Win7, but I’ve been drifting in the direction of FL Studio for a while now. FL 9 has reached the stage where it’s fully usable for the kind of music I do. Plus, it’s more fun than Cubase!

Haven’t yet tried installing Reason; I’ll get to that this week. Sibelius 5 seems to be working, but there may be some issues lurking there.

On the hardware side, the M-Audio Fast Track Pro works in Win7, for both audio and MIDI. The M-Audio Axiom 61 keyboard doesn’t have a Win7 driver, but it works with the system driver … more or less. Every once in a while it goes dead for a few seconds, which is rather awkward, what with the stuck notes and all.

On the whole, the experience has been positive and relatively painless. More like having the dentist fill a cavity than like having your knee replaced. (Not that I’ve ever had a knee replaced.)

My software synth rack, for those who are curious, currently looks like this: u-he Zebra 2.5; Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Stylus RMX, and Trilian; Native Instruments FM8, Reaktor 5, Battery 3, and Massive; Camel Audio Alchemy; and the built-in synths in FL Studio, of which the most important are Sytrus and Slicex. Slicex works especially nicely with REX files, and I have a stupidly deep pile of them thanks to the Zero-G Total REX package.

There are still a few items I’d like to add, but mainly because I’m a total synthesizer hound. I already have enough music-making power on my hard drive to last for about 10,000 years.

There & Back Again…

I took a break from blogging for 2-1/2 months. The reason being, I was working on a novel. I just didn’t feel a need to do any more writing than that! But the novel is now in the hands of my agent (insert sounds of fingernail-chewing here).

If he’s able to sell it to a publisher, then I’ll be off to the races, writing more novels in what is planned to become a mystery series. I worked hard to make this the kind of book people will enjoy reading, and I feel cautiously optimistic about its chances. But then, I felt cautiously optimistic about Barack Obama too, and what a catastrophic mess his presidency is turning out to be!

If the novel doesn’t sell, I’ll probably tackle another nonfiction book on music technology. Details not yet ready to be announced, but certain elements are already in the planning stages.

Whatever project(s) I tackle in 2010, I plan to blog about them actively here, both during the development process and after they’re released. Anyone who is interested will be able to sort through a collection of quasi-random backstage details, and possibly also click over to the My Music page and listen to audio clips. So stay tuned!