Devices and Desires

Sometimes I write, and sometimes I play music. The older I get, the less I feel the need to prove anything to anybody. It’s enough just to have fun. If something isn’t fun, why do it?

Writing novels is, let’s admit, often frustrating. The fun part … remind me again: What’s the fun part?

This year I’ve pretty much given up playing the cello. The cello is not an instrument that’s much fun to play by yourself. The fun part is playing in a group with other people — and when you’re playing in a group with other amateurs, that’s not guaranteed to be much fun either. No offense to my friends; let’s just say that when a string quartet is sight-reading and none of the participants is a Juilliard graduate, the intonation sometimes leaves something to be desired.

I love playing the piano, but I learn new pieces so slowly, and my moment-to-moment finger precision is so uncertain owing to advancing age, that that’s not much fun either. I just cycle through the same 20 memorized pieces over and over. Sometimes they sound pretty good, but not always.

Making music in my computer is still fun. I have two main apps that I use for this — Reason and VCV Rack. In some ways they’re similar, but in other ways they’re quite different. This week I’m exploring which one is more fun, and trying to discern why that is.

Oh, and by the way, the content of the Oblong Blob may be in the process of broadening. I have a separate blog for my music-making, but I may decide to fold its content into this space. It’s all one thing: It’s what I do. Why live in a split-level home when everything could be wheelchair-accessible?

Here’s a tiny sound experiment I did this morning:

So anyway, about Reason and VCV. Reason can be used for wild-eyed sonic explorations, but its basic orientation is toward producing music that’s organized in a conventional way — with sections, transitions, intros, endings, all that sort of thing. Convincing VCV to do a piece with a conventional form is possible, but it’s rather like building a ship in a bottle, or like juggling toothpicks. VCV supplies a vast set of tools that can be patched together however you like. Some of those tools are utterly brilliant and their interactions with one another can be exciting, but controlling when there will be, for instance, a drum fill is very awkward indeed.

I love musical experiments, but at heart I’m an old-fashioned composer. I like writing pieces that have intros and endings. Oh, wait — here’s one I did last weekend. You might recognize the tune:

One of the things VCV does very well is what we call step sequencing. A step sequencer is a device that iterates through a series of steps (possibly with some variations) over and over and over. Essentially, a step sequencer creates a pattern. My VCV installation has more than 200 different step sequencers, and of course that’s both a redundant collection and an embarrassment of riches. Twenty good ones would be enough to keep a musician happy for a lifetime.

Well, Reason has pattern generators too. My Reason installation includes at least 20 of them. Each of them has a slightly or radically different set of features, and several are at least modestly visionary. Reason’s add-on devices are typically more expensive than VCV’s, and I’ve spent a fair amount of money acquiring these things, but that’s a trivial detail. The point is, I need to devote more time to learning how Reason can make patterns. Because that’s pretty much all that VCV can do, at least the way I use it. (It does have live MIDI input; you could play it onstage from a standard keyboard.) When I think of VCV as being about step sequencing and Reason as being about song construction, I may be missing an important facet of the question.

That’s really the point of today’s ramble, I suppose, if you’re looking for a point. When exploring possible alternatives for your life, have you really taken the time to work through what’s possible or likely with any of them? Or have you fallen into what one of my ’70s new age psychology books described as “premature closure”?

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