Microtonal Strut

The wonderful thing about microtonal tunings is sort of a Forrest Gump deal: You never know what you’re going to get. There is literally no music theory that will explain what works harmonically and what doesn’t. It’s all down to intuition.

Here’s a new piece in 19-tone equal temperament. For reasons that you might possibly notice as you listen, it seems to be called “Now Leaving on Track 19.” The main harmonic idea is the sub-minor triad. The style is deliberately retro, except for those places where 4/4 time gets left standing on the platform.

Except for Native Instruments Battery 3 contributing a few discreet drum samples, all of the instruments are u-he Zebra 2.5. The sequencing was done in Image-Line FL Studio 10.

Something New

Last night I took a look at a graphics programming system called Processing. It’s quite groovy. I had been dimly aware of it before, but I think I sort of rolled my eyes and muttered, “Just what I need — another software toy.” But I enjoy hobbyist-level computer programming, and this week I’ve been pondering what I might want to do with it. Processing offers some intriguing possibilities.

Csound is programming, but it’s not a very good fit for my own music composition preferences. Interactive fiction is programming, but I’ve become disenchanted with both the traditional IF delivery systems and the possibilities for meaningful storytelling within an interactive framework. Javascript running in a browser is an extraordinary resource, but what on Earth would I do with it?

Dave Phillips posted a link on the Csound mailing list to a new piece that he did using a system called AVSynthesis. I liked the piece — it’s not my style, but it evokes a definite mood. But when I gazed upon the web page for AVSynthesis, it was pretty clear I would never be able to fight my way through what might loosely be called the documentation.

Processing seems to be very well documented. It’s in active development, has a large user community, and does some spiffy things. Basically, you use it by writing code in Java. The code itself is easy to write and easy to understand. You can display and animate Read more

A Second Opinion

I’m one of the West Coast’s least active science fiction/fantasy writers. Four years ago, after a very long hiatus, I did sit down and write some new stories. Three of them I sold, to the usual magazines (Asimov’s, F&SF). The others, disappointingly, didn’t sell. I went on to other things.

This week, for reasons too convoluted and not interesting enough to dwell on, I pulled out one of the unsold stories from 2008 and did a thorough rewrite. I could see immediately (as I had not seen at the time) why it didn’t sell. I have a tendency to pull my punches, emotionally. The resolution of the story was just too easy. The main characters didn’t have to work very hard to overcome their difficulties.

I think the rewrite is probably a lot better. It also grew from 7,000 to 12,000 words, which is an inconvenient length. It probably won’t sell at that length, no matter how much improvement I’ve wrought. That doesn’t concern me too greatly, because I certainly don’t plan to try to whittle it down to 5,000 words. What does concern me is that I don’t quite know how to get feedback from knowledgeable writers that would help me gauge whether the new version has succeeded.

One of my friends is an unpublished writer of what I guess you could call serious mainstream fiction. She has attended a couple of the summer writing workshops at the University of Iowa, and says she got a lot out of them. But I have also heard her voice frustration that the participants in the workshops didn’t always grasp Read more

A Little Something Extra

Here’s a rough mix of a new tune, “Distant Armies,” that may call for a little explanation. Our usual musical scale has 12 equal-tempered notes per octave. “Distant Armies” uses 13. As a result, all of the intervals are squashed together, some more than others. The result is perhaps a tiny bit disturbing, hence the title. Trying to use triads with this tuning would make very little sense, so I had to invent some entirely new chord voicings.

A friend complained that my endings are sometimes too abrupt, so I did a sort of fadeout. It’s not a real fadeout, exactly; it’s what classical musicians call morendo — dying away.

The grooves on trap kit, triangle, and djembe are courtesy of Spectrasonics Stylus RMX. Practically everything else is u-he Zebra 2.5. The recording platform was Image-Line FL Studio 10.

Enjoy, or run screaming from the room. The choice is yours.


Surprisingly often, scientific researchers make what (eventually, perhaps after decades) turn out to be bad assumptions. They simplify a vexing problem in order to investigate it with the available tools, and then assume that what they’ve learned describes what happens in the real world, forgetting that they began by making a simplifying assumption.

Right now I’m reading Microcosm, a wonderful layman’s science book about the bacterium E. coli. You may not know much about E. coli, but they know quite a lot about you, at least in a vague, utilitarian way, because billions of them are living in your intestines right now.

E. coli has been quite extensively studied in the laboratory. It’s right up there with mice and fruit flies as one of the favorite organisms used in research. But research can’t be done in your intestines. On p. 51, the author (Carl Zimmer) says this:

“Out of the 4,288 genes scientists have identified in E. coli … only 303 appear to be essential for its growth in a laboratory. That does not mean the other 3,985 genes are all useless. Many help E. coli survive in the crowded ecosystem of the human gut, where a thousand species of microbes compete for food.”

But I’m not here today to meditate on intestinal parasites (though that’s a topic worth meditating on). I’m a lot more interested in what happens inside of E. coli. The little critter is a jam-packed protein circus! Large molecules are whizzing around carrying out amazingly intricate Read more

Nothing Happening Here

John Cage, who more or less invented aleatoric music, said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is music.”

My response has always been, “You have nothing to say, so I am not going to waste any time listening to you.”

Cage’s ideas have proven fairly influential among a certain class of experimentally-minded composers, but they have hardly penetrated the mainstream of music-making, and for reasons that are not hard to discern. Most listeners hope or expect that music will say something to them.

Recently I listened to a couple of newly uploaded pieces by composers who use Csound. Both of these pieces were very nicely produced. The sounds were pleasant and engaging. But the sounds themselves formed the entire content of the pieces. Nothing was being said. There was no repetition or development of melodic or rhythmic material. Events followed one another, so in some sense there were phrases, but each phrase was a hermetically sealed entity. No perceptible musical thesis was being proposed, or subjected to scrutiny.

Composing music in a way that makes use of melodies, harmonies, meter, and counterpoint is hard work! Some people evidently have a keen desire to create music, yet lack Read more

Fun with Synthesizers

I have an embarrassing number of synthesizers on my hard drive. It’s embarrassing mainly because I never had to pay for them. Not because they’re pirated software, I hasten to add. These are legal NFR (not for resale) installations that I’ve acquired over the years by writing product reviews, mostly for Keyboard.

A few companies give reviewers time-limited licenses, so that after a few months the instrument will no longer load. Thus I can no longer use Arturia’s ARP 2600 V2, darn it all. But most companies evidently figure it’s in their best interest for me to be aware of their software, and the best way to insure that is to give me the opportunity to use it. This is a very sensible view. When Cakewalk released Z3ta 2, for instance, I was able to write a review comparing it intelligently to the original Z3ta, because I still have the original installed.

High on my go-to list are three u-he instruments (the oddly named company is owned by Urs Heckmann) — Zebra 2.5, ACE, and Diva. Diva is pretty much a CPU hog, so I don’t always reach for it first, but it’s just as good as the other two. The patching in ACE is decidedly weird, but it’s a whole lot deeper than it looks. Following on the heels of u-he is Spectrasonics, whose Omnisphere is just plain stunning. Camel Audio Alchemy is seriously amazing too, though perhaps not quite as intuitive to do sound design on.

The Native Instruments plug-ins are all stupidly good. Reaktor 5 heads the list, of course. It’s a dozen instruments and sample-triggering beatboxes all rolled into one. FM8 is extremely versatile. Massive I use less often, but it’s brilliant too. The one weakness of NI synths is Read more

Snapshot No. 2

Here’s another brief example of what can be done with microtonal equal temperaments — a quick pencil sketch, if you will, not a fully worked-out piece. The Asian vibe being unmistakable, I’m calling this “Apple Blossoms on Mt. Yu.”

The scale here is 20-note equal. Most of it is in 10ET, in fact, but there are a couple of inconspicuous chromatic passing tones. The fascinating thing about 20 (or 15, or 10, or 5) is that you have a pentatonic scale in which all five steps are equal interval ratios. The sound of this pentatonic was what inspired the piece.

I have no idea whether Mt. Yu is a real place. Doesn’t matter. If you suspect I’ve been listening to some gamelan, you’re absolutely right. And if you notice the deviations from 4/4 to 5/8 and 11/8, you win a Music Scout merit badge. (The merit badges are made of chocolate, but the scouts seem not to mind.)


A piece of music doesn’t have to be 15 minutes long, or even three minutes, to make its point. I’m exploring some new techniques, so I figured I might as well start small, to get a feel for what’s possible. Here’s a one-minute piece, working title “Greasy Strut,” in 19-tone-per-octave equal temperament (19EDO for short).

This piece uses a blues scale, which maps onto 19 tones per octave in an interesting way. The groove is also bluesy. But other than that, it’s not quite what you may be expecting. My self-imposed rules for this week are: No repeating sections, and no drums.

All of the tracks are played by instances of u-he Zebra 2.5. Most of the presets were designed by Howard Scarr, but I may have edited a couple of them a bit. The piece was created in Image-Line FL Studio 10.

There’s not much in the way of harmony theory that would help anyone build chords in 19EDO. Some notes sound clearly right to me, others sound clearly wrong, but it’s largely a matter of intuition. The basic scale used in this piece breaks out in chromatic steps as 4-4-3-4-4. Since the perfect fifth in 19EDO is 11 chromatic steps wide, this is a pentatonic scale with a perfect fourth and fifth, a low minor 3rd, and a low 7th. Adding a passing tone between the fourth and fifth, we have 4-4-1-2-4-4 with three “blue” notes. There are a couple of other pitches, and a couple of brief modulations to related keys, but basically that’s the harmonic structure.

Dead Letter Office

Apparently nobody is very serious about wanting a solid, modern presentation for interactive fiction in web browsers. My recent blog posts on the subject, which I mentioned in the IF Forum, have met with a thunderous silence. As Adlai Stevenson once remarked, “I’m underwhelmed.”

I suspect that the main reason nobody is hot to tackle this issue and wrestle it to the ground is because nobody really gives much of a crap about interactive fiction in any form. I suspect that the observation I made the other day about Quest — that it’s caught in a negative feedback spiral because nobody who truly cares about producing high-quality work would mess with it — applies to the entire field, not just to Quest.

The 2011 IF Comp was won by a game called “Taco Fiction,” whose premise is that you’re a down-and-out, seriously broke guy. You can’t pay your rent or make your car payment, so you’ve decided that the solution to your problems is to mug a passing pedestrian and then rob an all-night taco joint at gunpoint. You haven’t actually loaded your revolver; you’re not quite that much of a desperado. In fact, trying to hold up a taco joint with an unloaded revolver is sort of doubly pathetic, isn’t it? But there we are. That was the most profoundly meaningful or best developed IF story of the year.

It’s pretty easy to see why any writer who wanted to produce serious fiction (and we’ll include humor in the “serious” category) would look at Read more