Concatenatin’ Keys

Thanks to software-based synthesis, composing and recording microtonal music is easier today than it has ever been. Ever. Like, in the history of the human race. Playing microtonal music remains a great deal more difficult.

The tricky bit is, you need a keyboard to send MIDI notes to the computer. I mean, unless you’re planning to type notes into a Csound score, which is even more laborious. The moment you stray outside of the standard 12-note-per-octave keyboard, your options become almost insanely restricted. A few tiny companies build alternative keyboards, but they’re both expensive and, in most cases, designed in odd ways, because they’re being built not by people who hope to make money but by people who have a Grand Vision of the Future of Music. And their grand vision is not, in general, widely shared.

Up to now, I’ve been struggling along with a standard keyboard (an M-Audio Axiom 61, not that that matters). I have pretty much taught my brain to find chord and scale shapes on this keyboard, in tunings with 17 or 19 or 22 or 31 equal-tempered notes per octave. It’s a brain-twister, but not impossible.

This week I hit the wall. I noticed that a piece I’m working on in 31ET had too many melodic phrases that meandered up and down in single scale steps. I more or less improvise these melodies while the sequencer plays, and I can glue my fingers to about six scale steps (three with each hand) and play a line that’s at least modestly interesting. Figuring out which key to play in order to do a larger melodic leap Read more

Emotional Infrastructure

I have a wonderful idea. There’s a major creative project that I would love to undertake. It would be expensive (but I can afford it). It would be time-consuming (but I have plenty of time). It would require great technical skill (but I have the skill set). It would mean months — no, make that years — of hard work (but I enjoy hard work). This project would allow hundreds or thousands of people to experience music in a new way. Though it’s not for me to say, I would hope and expect that many of them would find the music stimulating and satisfying.

Sounds great, right? What could possibly get in the way?

The difficulty is this: In order to follow through on the huge amount of work that’s involved, I will need to have a fairly consistent, reliable source of emotional support and encouragement. Someone who listens to the music as I’m developing it and tells me it’s good, or notices things that aren’t quite working and suggests improvements. Someone to talk to when I get discouraged (which is often). Someone who Read more

The Anthropoid’s Dilemma

What makes life meaningful?

Broadly speaking, I think there are two answers to that question: The things we do, and other people.

Because we’re anthropoid apes, we’re social creatures. We evolved in small social groups, so we’re keenly attuned to the attitudes, needs, and affections of those around us. Not only as infants, which is where those bonds develop, but throughout our lives.

Some of us find great meaning in solitary pursuits — trekking alone across the Alaskan wilderness, or writing poems and tucking them away in a shoebox. I’ve never understood people like that. For me, trekking alone across my back yard is kind of pointless.

I love creating things, mostly music and writing, but I was spoiled at an early age. In my early 20s I was playing a lot of gigs in a band. Not high-profile glamor gigs, to be sure — clubs and weddings and even frat parties. Nonetheless, I was playing music for other people, and they showed their appreciation by paying me. Later I spent 25 years Read more

Nasty Fairies

The music I’ve been composing lately is … a little strange. It occurred to me that I might find great sources of inspiration in fantasy novels. There are some wonderful books out there! But I’ll save my summer reading list for another time.

After playing around a bit with the 13-note-per-octave microtonal scale, I went hunting for fantasy novels with the number 13 in the title — and by golly, I struck pay dirt. Recently published: 13 Treasures, 13 Secrets, and 13 Curses, a fantasy trilogy by Michelle Harrison. Coolness! These are YA (“young adult,” meaning the intended reader is probably 11 to 16 years old) stories. As such, they’re not necessarily books I would have sought out if I didn’t have an agenda. But 13 Treasures turns out to be charming and well-written.

Tanya has been bundled off to spend the summer with her grandmother in a large, isolated, and creepy mansion. There are no ghosts per se, so we can’t call it a haunted house. But all is not well. The house is lousy with fairies. No one but Tanya can see them. And these are not nice fairies. Some of them are merely mischievous, but others are actively malevolent.

I had read only a few pages when I decided to write some music about nasty fairies. The result: “The Lodgers in the Clock.”┬áThere’s a grandfather clock in the hall, you see, and fairies are living in it. They make sarcastic remarks when Tanya walks past the clock. Sometimes they come out and steal things.

There’s a lot more to the story than that; if you’re curious, you can pick up a copy for $6 on Amazon by downloading it to your Kindle (or to the free Kindle software reader in your laptop). Harrison’s vocabulary may be a bit expansive for 12-year-old readers … but she lives in England. Maybe young readers are better educated there than here.

What’s next? Who knows? Right now I’m reading Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’m also wondering what kind of music Daleks would listen to. I mean, they must have headphones and iPods in there, right?

Black, with Cream and Sugar

Non-stationary art got a big boost in 1930, When Alexander Calder invented the mobile. Now that the computer is ubiquitous, the possibilities for non-stationary art — interactive or simply involving unpredictable and non-repeating motion — are staggering. Okay, computer screens can’t do real 3D, and a mobile is real 3D. But even so, the sky’s the limit.

I’ve noted before that if interactive fiction has any hope of being taken seriously as an art form, it’s going to have to present a modern, attractive user interface. To be both attractive and deliverable to users, it will need to run in a standard Web browser. And that means that IF authors who don’t wish to be ghettoized or marginalized are going to have to come to grips, in some way, with Javascript.

The same could be said about almost any digital art form, not just IF. Sure, you can upload your photos to Flickr or your music tracks to Soundcloud, but at that point your audience will encounter that user interface, which may well detract from the experience you would like to convey. You’ll have no control over the presentation. And presentation matters.

The same can be said of conventional interactive fiction played in a browser-based interpreter. Yes, it can be played over the internet, but as an author you still have damned little control over the presentation. If you want that control, you will have to roll your own interface in Javascript (or spend a lot of money hiring somebody who can do it for you).

What I’m discovering today about Javascript is still rather preliminary — these are my impressions, and should not be taken as gospel. I may be wrong. But I’m learning some stuff. I can list seven different reasons why Javascript is problematical, if not Read more

D Is for Dribble

I read a lot of mystery novels. Like most mystery fans, I have authors whom I follow faithfully. When I give up on an author, it’s usually because their books have too much soap opera about the detective, and not enough actual crime story.

I gave up on Sue Grafton after N Is for Noose. I felt it should have been titled N Is for Nancy Drew. The big action-packed crisis moment in the book occurs when detective Kinsey Millhone is staying an a motel room and a man is lurking around outside. He breaks in and attacks Kinsey in the dark, but then he runs off, for no apparent reason. In the scuffle she breaks her finger. And that’s it for the action — an entirely ineffectual, wimpy assailant and a broken finger.

Today at the used book sale I spotted a pristine hardback copy of R Is for Ricochet. For 50 cents, I figured I’d give it a try.

The fact that this woman can get her novels published — in hardback, and from Putnam, no less — is explicable only on the theory that she’s sleeping with someone in the publisher’s office. These days you can say that about male authors too, if you see a need, so it’s no longer a sexist insult, it’s just an insult.

In the first 31 pages (three short chapters), about three pages are devoted to the crime story. The other 90% is filler. I’m not even sure it qualifies as soap opera, because there’s not much in the way of suds. The crime story, what there is of it, starts off not with a bang but with a whimper. A woman is being paroled from prison after serving 22 months for embezzlement, and Kinsey is hired to Read more


Open-source hardware? You bet. Create Digital Music, though primarily a blog, is a partner in the MeeBlip project. The most recent article on CDM features some demo videos showing what people are doing with MeeBlip.

This little box seems (I haven’t yet had my hands on one) to offer three flavors of coolness: It’s ridiculously cheap, the OS is hackable by the user, and it has real knobs. It appears to be a monophonic analog synth, well suited to bass lines, blippy filter sweeps, and such.

After suffering brief pangs of gear lust, however, I’m reminding myself that I have Csound, Pd, and Processing on my computer. These apps are beyond ridiculously cheap — they’re free. They’re insanely user-hackable. They will never suffer failure due to breakage. And they will do a whole boatload of stuff that MeeBlip won’t do.

What MeeBlip has that none of these systems can match are actual physical knobs.

For certain kinds of music, knobs are more than useful. With knobs, you can shape a line while you’re playing it (or while your computer’s MIDI sequencer is playing it). Playing a physical instrument involves you in a way that generating music in a computer just doesn’t. With knobs, you can be Read more