Shirin Dances

This summer I decided to write a few pieces of music inspired by fantasy novels. If nothing else, this project gives me an excuse to read fantasy novels. I had never encountered Guy Gavriel Kay before, but I was quite impressed by his two-volume The Sarantine Mosaic. It’s set in a city and culture that is unabashedly borrowed from Medieval Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire. Technically the story is fantasy, but there’s not really much magic in it. If you like novels that are heavily laden with palace intrigue, you’ll probably like it a lot.

One of the main characters is a dancer named Shirin. She’s a celebrity, the star dancer of one of the leading chariot-racing teams. We never actually get to see her dance in the course of the novel, but from the fact that the chariot racers are high-spirited and face death in the arena on a daily basis, we can imagine that her dances would not be sedate. She might start with something slow and sultry, but before very long the men would want to see some moves. There would be baubles, bangles, and beads of sweat. Veils would flutter and probably fall to the ground, revealing … well, intricate gymnastic gyrations, at the very least.

Greek and Turkish music is often in 7/4 time, so that was obviously the place to start. 31-note equal temperament gave me some suitably exotic harmonies and melodies. The result: “Shirin Dances.” Here it is:

I don’t usually do pieces with such sweeping tempo changes, and the list of tempo changes was the very first thing I devised, before starting to create the music. How to keep the piece from falling apart at the seams was a puzzle in itself. If I’ve succeeded, possibly you can get a taste of the effect Shirin’s dancing would have had on those chariot jockeys.

Camel Ride to the Tomb

Here’s a new piece, “Camel Ride to the Tomb.” I got inspired by some of the new devices that are available for Propellerhead Reason, not least of them Rob Papen’s PredatorRE synth, from which came the growling riff that begins in bar 11 or thereabouts. That riff seemed to have some potential, so I decided to set aside my microtonal experiments and do a Reason-only piece.

Sadly, Reason instruments can’t load microtonal scales. (Ernst tells me this is not a high priority for them — not surprising, given both the nature of their user base and the design of their user interface.) Nonetheless, I used a melodic mode with an exotic flavor that could be described as vaguely Middle Eastern.

There’s a story about the title. I read the story once, a long time ago, and it lodged in my brain — always a hazard, and a welcome one if you’re a writer. Back in the 1920s or thereabouts, a British author (it could have been Chesterton, but probably it wasn’t) was visiting Egypt. In those days, English-speaking tourists were probably held in less contempt than they’re likely to be today. Be that as it may, the author reported that in a village somewhere up the Nile, he encountered an enterprising local fellow who owned a few camels and was offering a service to tourists. In the market square, this man repeatedly chanted, in what we might imagine to have been a sepulchral monotone, the only English phrase he knew: “Camel ride to the tomb. Camel ride to the tomb.”

There’s a metaphor lurking in there, and it’s not very far beneath the surface.

The Big Questions

Why is there something rather than nothing? That’s the question that Jim Holt sets out to explore in his new book Why Does the World Exist? The book is a sort of cook’s tour of what might be considered the ultimate question in philosophy and cosmology. Between friendly visits to modern thinkers at home and abroad, Holt provides nifty summaries of the views of Schopenhauer, Leibniz, Aristotle, Sartre, and other opinionated dead humans.

I’d call the book a romp, but it’s rather heavy sledding for a romp. Nonetheless, it’s a good read. The fact that the question is unanswerable — well, the journey is the important thing, not the destination. It’s amusing to watch humanity’s deepest thinkers fall on their keesters, I’ll say that.

One of the issues that Holt hasn’t yet addressed (tonight I’m only halfway through the book) is this: Why should the universe be constrained by the rules of logic? Isn’t it a bit silly to try to tackle ultimate questions using logic, when you haven’t established that logic itself is applicable to these questions?

Another tangle that he hasn’t yet picked apart is the question, what do we mean when we say “thing”? Or, for that matter, “cause”? These words have obvious relevance within the sphere of ordinary human activity; that’s why we use them. But is it possible to say, as he does at some point, that the universe consists of Read more

First the Nuts, then the Bolts

Having been slightly encouraged by an offhand comment in an email from Roger Linn, I’m thinking a bit more about how one might design a modular synthesizer in software. Not that it hasn’t been done before, but I may have a slightly different take on the concept.

Reaktor may be the ultimate software modular, in some sense. Open up the patch and it’s like a box full of wires running every which way. Creating your own instrument in Reaktor is not impossible for mere mortals — I’ve done it — but like Csound, Reaktor is basically a programming environment. It has a lot in common with Pd, and bears precious little resemblance to a hardware modular.

Reason comes closer to being something an untutored musician can deal with. It even looks like hardware. But while it’s amazingly deep and versatile, Reason embodies a few odd limitations. No support for microtonal tuning, for instance, and precious little in the way of processing for control signals. Really, Reason is a music production environment, not a single integrated instrument.

I suspect there would be a place in the world for a software synthesizer that actually looked and behaved like a hardware modular. The closest thing I’ve seen are a couple of ARP 2600 clones (from Arturia and Way Out Ware). But while I have a lingering affection for the 2600, it having provided Read more

More about Modular

Modular synthesizers seem to have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. I’m not privy to sales figures, but a number of companies are building and selling them. Forty years ago, these expensive, bulky, grotesquely inconvenient systems were state-of-the-art. Today, they’re shockingly retro. And yet they exert a strong and continuing appeal.

Though analog purists may wince, I’m going to assert that what goes on behind the front panel doesn’t matter. A well-designed digital synth is indistinguishable from its analog counterpart, sonically, and offers very significant advantages in terms of musical power. The main appeal of a modular system lies primarily in its front panel, which is studded with knobs, switches, buttons, and blinky lights.

A secondary appeal might be that you can configure your own hardware modular system to suit your musical needs (and budget). But in truth, you have total control over your instrument’s configuration with a software modular such as Csound. So really, the front panel is the whole ball of wax.

You can buy a box full of knobs with which to control a computer-based modular. Behringer makes one, and it’s quite affordable. But such a setup is far less appealing — and not just because you have to write some code in Csound, Supercollider, or Pd to intercept and interpret the MIDI messages coming from the knobs, but more significantly because Read more

Digging Up the Past

Today I’m contemplating the possibility of writing a novel set in Chicago in the 1880s. Or rather, rewriting a novel with that setting that I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s a pretty good story, but it needs more work.

I love historical research, and I’m kind of a maniac about it. I want to get everything exactly right. Fortunately, there’s a lot of extant material packed with details about that time and place. The trick is finding the bits of information you need, and then organizing ten thousand assorted facts, any of which may or may not end up being useful. I have, for example, an official history of the Chicago Police Department, published in 1885. It’s hardly objective about the police, but even so, it’s packed with wonderful glimpses of how life was in those days.

Recently written historical novels are not necessarily reliable as research sources. Fortunately, we have novels that were written at the time. Right now I’m reading Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, which opens in 1889 as Carrie, 18 years old, arrives in Chicago on a train from her home town of Columbia City, Wisconsin. It’s her first trip to the big city.

As it turns out, this novel exists in two versions. The standard version, which was published in 1900, was the result of a rather heavy editing job, which Read more