The Gas Of The Week: Jewish Poker (Week 13/3)

I am starting a new creative fun feature on the CCG site: The Gas Of The Week … but (like my Drone Of The Week) not every week. Expect to hear all kinds of lighthearted pieces here: sarcastic comments, daft jokes, and anything in between. I am kicking this off with Jewish Poker (opens in a new window, 3 3/4 minutes of music in the iTunes format. about 4 MB).

Please, before anybody accuses me of a cultural slur: Note that Jewish Poker was invented by the Israeli writer Ephraim Kishon as an attempt to bring the reader closer to understanding the Jewish soul. The basic rules are simple: Each player thinks of a number – the player with the highest number wins. But it is not always as straight forward as one might expect. You may like to read Kishon’s original story (opens in a new window)

All the sounds you hear in this piece, with the exception of the beat, are made from numbers and sometimes the corresponding units (percent, Euro, etc.) which I had I cut out of a news broadcast -.


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Entrainment And Resolution (Duet for Cork City and Modular Synthesizer)

I just finished setting up my integrated hardware and software system for performing and for recording the performance on up to 32 tracks. I tested and tried everything thoroughly, and feel confident that I can easily do an afternoon of live sound design.

I recorded a little solo improvisation and Midwinter meditation, using everything I perform with which does not need a microphone: My “Cork City Gamelan” percussion samples and drones made from them in the introduction, and mainly my new modular Synthesizer together with some granular synthesis throughout the rest of the piece. The source for the granulation is one of the stretched sample drones.

Entrainment And Resolution is a self-imposed directive for improvisation and it is part of my live repertoire. This take is a little under 12 minutes long. There are three short movements with no breaks: Introduction, Entrainment and Resolution. I published it on my Soundcloud page. Enjoy, and have a Cool Yule!

The D.I.Y. Geek Info:

The Hub of my Performance set-up is an AudioMulch patch on my computer. It is an alternative to using a DAW for working in a more free form way, more suitable for improvisation. The BPM clock in AudioMulch becomes the system-wide MIDI clock. Like in a DAW, effects can synchronize to the BPM clock.

A Max/MSP patch reads the MIDI clock and sends beats and algorithmically composed musical gestures to a synthesizer module which converts them to voltages for feeding into a patch on my synthesizer.

For performance, I interact with the synthesizer directly. I play the samples and granular synthesis effects in AudioMulch via small MIDI controllers. I use delay and quantize effects in AudioMulch… and because the BPM clock is also the MIDI clock… to which the synth beats are synchronized… increasing the speed of the effects in AudioMulch speeds up the synthesizer beats in perfect synchronization.

For making live noises along with it all, I have two microphones attached to my Audio Interface. I am trying to make a habit of always recording EVERYTHING I play in AudioMulch.

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The Probability Switch (live improvisation along with self generating synthesizer patch)

Composing Uncommon Practice Music often involves making “patches” of sorts. I consider this a rather beautiful way of working. Much of my music explores structures, and I can connect musical structures directly to patch structures … which can relate easily to real World structures around me, or to accompanying visuals. This is very useful for improvisation, building installations and composing sound tracks.

There are actually two patches involved in this music: a probability algorithm, patched in my MAX Software, creates MIDI … which gets changed into control voltages and triggers … which I route into a patch on my synthesizer to create the “bass” and the “melody” lines and the very low wind effect in the background. Once set up, this can run forever, leaving me free to improvise along with it on my drum pad controller with some of the samples I collected in Cork City.

Recorded live on 11 tracks: 3 x Modular Synthesizer, 4 x my Cork City Gamelan Percussion samples (bins, gates and doors), and 4 x warped drones, which I derived from my percussion samples by stretching them extremely … and all of that mixed down to stereo.

The MAX Software can serve many purposes right across almost all the performing and many of the “fine” arts. I use it to control hardware and other software via my own custom MIDI code.  It looks like I won’t ever need (expensive!) step sequencers for my Modular Synthesizer development.

MAX patches are visual representations of actual programming code. This patch explores ways of weighting and shifting probabilities.

I posted the music to Soundcloud:

Oh, and before I forget: this is an excerpt. The original improvisation was over 20 minutes long.

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Drone Of The Week #46, 2012, Made On My New Modular Synthesizer

This week’s Drone Of The Week is the first music I made on my new  Modular Synthesizer – thank you, Bellows, for assembling this Thing Of Beauty for me, and thank you, Konny, for help with raising the funds.

I recorded it live on four tracks, which I mixed to stereo using my DAW software. Careful, please, mind your ears and loudspeakers. It has a huge dynamic range, and there are some very high energy deep bass notes.

Drone Of The Week 46, 2012
(about 5 MB, in the iTunes MPEG 4 format, opens in a new window), Previous Drones Of The Week can be retrieved from the archive.

The synthesizer can be called “finished” now. I can use it to compose music, to design new sounds, and to play live… but… are modular synthesizers really ever finished? I look at it as an open-ended development project. Right now, there are still four modules of the initial configuration missing – they are in the post … and next spring, I plan to add some new functionality to it.

I have already integrated it into the interface of my Cork City Gamelan sample player, and I can perform on both simultaneously and record the performance on multiple tracks. From December onwards, it (and myself) will be available for soundtracking, installations, performance, custom sound design and also seminars and demonstrations.

As a long term goal, I must develop a range of ways and techniques to interact with it which are suitable for people with physical disabilities.

(photographs in this page by Eoin O’Brien)

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My Modular Synthesizer Has Arrived

My Modular Synthesizer has arrived. I just took it out of the box. Now, how do I switch it on? Where does my keyboard plug in? Where is the volume control?

where is the volume control knob?

Playing a Modular Synthesizer is usually an open ended development project. Institutions and established composers or producers sometimes buy turnkey systems. The rest of us get a few modules at a time, explore, add more modules, make their own modules, continue to explore…

A Modular Synthesizer is a collection of mainly analogue electronic circuits, which are built into modules. To create music, I interconnect modules using patch leads, and I feed control signals into this network of circuits. This is called a patch. Each module in the patch contributes “something” to the music. Control signal changes translate into changes to the music: texture, pattern, pitch, timbre, tempo, etc. Slow changes often result in complex and evolving soundscapes.

Generally, Modular Synthesizers are not for playing melodies, and they often don’t have keyboards. Special monophonic analogue synthesizer keyboards are available for playing tunes. Adapting a MIDI keyboard to work with a Modular Synthesizer, polyphonic lines and chords can be played, but each individual voice requires a complete “sub-synthesizer” to play just this one note.

The behavior of complex performance patches is chaotic. Small changes to the values of settings can result in a radical changes to the output… and there is no way to save settings. It is not possible to play a complex patch twice the same way. Modular Synthesizer players live and play for the moment.

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A Modular Synthesizer Is Coming To My Studio!

This is big news for me: I was able to raise independent funds for putting together a Modular Synthesizer (Thank YOU, Konny!!).

I chose the Eurorack standard, which is supported by many manufacturers, and I just ordered 26 modules of the Doepfer A-100 system. That’s just a few more than the system in this picture. Some of them are much larger, though, so it looks like there is a lot more. I am getting it all built into a flat and low desk. It will arrive as individual components, which my occasional musical collaborator Bellows is going to assemble for me.

Modular synthesizers are open-ended projects – they just keep growing bigger and demanding the injection of increasing amounts of funds all the time. I have been lucky with this so far, though. I had a budget – which I overshot by 260.11 Euro. Ah, well, I can live with that

Modular synthesizers are not really for playing tunes. This one will do a lot of processing of prerecorded sounds, but its main job will be making patterns and textures and exploring entirely new sounds.

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Improvisation: Evelyn Glennie’s Approach (Part 1)

Denis gave me an indefinite loan of his old electric guitar to experiment with.

the cheapest guitar money can buyHe says it is the cheapest electric guitar money can buy.

Whether or not I was ever able to play the guitar can be disputed. I would assess myself as “slightly above Three Chord Trickster level”. I certainly cannot play the guitar any more since I became disabled, though.

Let me re-phrase the last statement. How about: Since I became disabled, I cannot play the guitar in a way an audience would expect a professional guitarist to perform.

Regardless of any disabilities, everybody also has at least some abilities, even though it can be a challenge to discover them and then “just go and do it”.  I have been calling this attitude Just Play, in response to the Sound Art motto Just Listen.

Last December (2011) after her concert in Dublin, I spoke with Evelyn Glennie about improvising and “just playing”, especially in the context of the need to work around disabilities. I am passing on her ideas and views over the coming weeks and months… together with some of my own, as I continue exploring this guitar.

By saying just play I meant to encourage people to let go of inhibitions and to just do it. Dame Evelyn points out that to use the word play sometimes may be quite frightening for people who have not played an instrument before. In order to motivate and encourage people, she prefers to simply ask people to create a sound. Making sounds, in her experience, is more approachable for most people than being asked to play something.

On this “just create sounds” basis, she asks people to introduce themselves though the instrument. This helps her to easily find out more about the personality of students she works with: degrees of extroversion, shyness, and so forth… and suddenly they realize they are actually playing the instrument, but they haven’t been concentrating on it because they were concentrating on introducing themselves.

I got the clear impression that to Dame Evelyn making music is primarily about creating sounds by any accessible means. I mentioned Sound Art, and how I see it, in many cases, as a marketing label for music which doesn’t really fit into any commercial genre or category. She spoke about looking at Foley Artists as musicians – a Foley Artist’s instrument might be a sofa, and a range of different sounds might be required for a sound track… and she treated me to a little private impromptu Foley performance on the sofa in the backstage reception area at the NCH.

I shall pass on more insights and words of encouragement by Dame Evelyn as I write more about my exploration of this electric guitar and about improvising. For my first piece, I am trying to introduce myself. It doesn’t quite work like the scenario Evelyn Glennie spoke about: I have been making music all my life. I don’t need to overcome inhibitions, and I have already moved beyond the “I cannot play any more” block. Instead, I am finding new ways to play instruments which I am not able to play the common practice way. Listening back to it now, it seems to me that I very much introduced my current style of composing and improvising through creating sounds with this guitar: The piece I came up with clearly fits in with what I have been experimenting with during the last few months – the main difference is the source of the sounds I have used: a real musical instrument, rather than recordings of me beating doors, gates and bins around the City.

no guitars were harmed while doing thisThe Way I Like To Do Things, 4 MB in the iTunes format, 3:50 of music – feel free to deconstruct or remix it – the terms and conditions are in the disclaimer page.

I improvised four overdubbed tracks, bowing and plucking the guitar, and inserting objets between the strings to make twangs and rattles. I edited the resulting 6 minutes down to under 4 minutes… perhaps this makes the music more radio friendly?

My friend Metalizer, a really good guitarist with whom I have been jamming for decades, didn’t cringe when I played this for him. Amazing….

By the way: I used no effects, apart from some reverberation. It is all just plain electric guitar.

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Solstice Blessings And A Happy World Music Day To All

Update June 24th: I felt that the drone sounded too “industrial”, and I filtered it drastically to sound more like “nature” to me. Here is the final most recent mix: Sunrise In The Glade – New Mix

Today, the 21st of June, is World Music Day. Most often it falls on Midsummer Day, but Summer Solstice came early this year: less than an hour before midnight… and that is enough to make it so that  yesterday was Midsummer Day.

1985 was special for me. It had been designated European Year Of Music, and I was privileged to represent Cork City with an event. I have made a point of doing little musical meditations every year for both Solstices since then.

This year I composed some music using only my Cork City sounds and those brass chimes which seem to insert themselves into almost everything I do.

Sunrise In The Glade – about 4 1/2 minutes long, 4.3 MB in the iTunes / iPod AAC / .m4a format, opens in a new window. I re-used the drone build-up from Fluid Mechanics and added two more layers. It now has 12 layers of solid sound by the time it reaches the climax.

Enjoy, and feel free to remix it, cut it up, mangle it, as long as you do it within the rules laid out in the Disclaimer page.

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Dark Time – Abstract Art Music In A Light Hearted Mood

I am calling this very abstract piece of music “Dark Time” – a reflection on the concepts of dark energy and dark matter. Dark Time, as defined by myself, passes just like ordinary time… however, for some reason science still cannot quite understand, it is not available for doing work. As a matter of fact, we don’t even notice it passing. We only know that Dark Time has passed – or that we have passed through it, depending on your preferred frame of reference – when we see that the clock has moved on… and nothing got done.

Dark Time – a fairly quiet abstract soundscape, a little over 14 minutes long, 12.6 MB to download, in the iTunes AAC/.m4a format.

Almost all of the sounds are processed hits and scrapes on various gates and doors around Cork City. A plastic wheel bin and some empty beer kegs left out in Market Lane also feature prominently in the mix. For a bit of extra sparkle, my brass chimes on a string make an appearance as a “Special Guest”.

I am close to finishing the development of the first version of my Cork City Gamelan dedicated sample player. I use the patcher software Audio Mulch for building it.

As I go along, I play and record little pieces of music to test all the different features I would like to include. The music I am sharing today verifies the multitrack recording capabilities. I performed six simultaneous instrument parts live and recorded them in a single take in six separate stereo files, making it possible to tweak the final mix using my DAW software (Logic Pro).

All the examples I have recorded so far are slowly evolving soundscapes. This will change next week: I plan to get hardware controllers with knobs, sliders and buttons. Right now, I must play everything using only my mouse and the typing keyboard.

Enjoy, and feel free to share and remix it. The rules are in the Disclaimer page.

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A New Departure And A New Piece Of Music

In order to use my Cork City Gamelan sounds for live performance and improvisation, I started using Patcher software. This is an entirely new departure for me, and here is my first Cork City Gamelan piece I recorded on the “Maiden Voyage”:

Étude No. 3 (13:00 minutes of music in the iPod/iTunes MPEG4/AAC format, 14 MB, opens in a new window, may take a few moments to start playing)

Patchers are software for making music. When working with a patcher, the music maker starts by actually designing and building software instruments to realize a specific idea, a set of ideas, a sound effect… or a complete epic composition or a movie soundtrack.

This is the exceptionally simple patch for my Cork City Gamelan live performance instrument under development. Each of the nodes has its own set of on-screen controls, which can be operated via MIDI controllers. It will probably be under development forever, and grow to become a lot more complex.

I am slow at the moment, having to get used to “what is where”  – so, right now, my live improvisations are slowly evolving lengthy pieces – but hey,  that’s very much my favourite mood of music for listening to… and very emphatically calling myself an “enthusiastic amateur” music composer means: first and foremost, the music I make must please myself.

Some patchers are free open source programs: cSound, PD (for Pure Data), and Supercollider. They are used a lot by researchers and students at colleges. There is also Max/MSP, a top-of-the-range commercial application (at a top-of-the-range cost), which is widely used by experimental New Music composers and recording artists, and which comes with extensions for working with video. They allow complete control over interface design, and, important for many artists, they can be used to exploit any kind of data sets from any field of study or research for using them within music projects – say, to create structures, textures or melodies based on population statistics or weather charts… at a cost: they are very “low level” – which means using them requires some experience at Software Engineering.

I decided Audio Mulch would probably suit me best. The interface is almost identical to building shader trees in Computer Graphics – something I am thoroughly familiar with. I cannot design my own interface elements, but I am quite happy with the interface supplied by the programmer… and the ability to handle external non-music data is irrelevant to me.

This program suits me down to the ground. Unlike most of them, it isn’t free to use, but it costs a lot less than Max/MSP… and most importantly: the piece of music I am posting here… I made that after only three days of exploring the software! There is absolutely no way I could have achieved anything like it with any other patcher.

Thank you, Ross Bencina: I haven’t paid you for it yet, but I certainly will. Your software is instrumental for me, to get back into performing life after my long hiatus.

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