Playing Live at Sonic Vigil 6

Yesterday, Saturday 22nd of October, was the first public performance of the Cork City Gamelan. It was also my first live gig after overcoming my belief that I couldn’t do it because of my disability… and it went just fine. I was happy with it, and so was the small audience and the organizing team, it seems. I might even be asked to perform again, and I’d probably do something a little more adventurous then…

I chose to “play it save”: I had prepared some MIDI controlled software instruments loaded with CCG sounds, making it possible to create and mix MIDI loops on the fly with just a few occasional mouse clicks, building up a rhythmic texture of increasing complexity and density. Along with this texture, I created some soundscapes via granular synthesis from a series of stretched CCG beats, which I could leave to evolve on their own for much of the time, leaving me free to improvise a few gestures on my Waterphone along with everything else. Towards the end of my set, I deconstructed the MIDI texture, reduced the soundscape, and crossfaded without a break into A Prophet Looking For A Wall To Write On, live on my Waterphone with a prerecorded backing track.

I found it quite easy to do, really. Why on Earth did I keep myself “out of circulation” for such a long time… ah, well, everybody does silly things every once in a while.

I hadn’t planned to hang around after I was finished, but I stayed for most of the show. I saw 11 of the 13 sets and enjoyed all of it immensely. Thank You to everybody involved for making it happen.

I also bought a sweet little souvenir: A live recording of last year’s Sonic Vigil on a USB stick, dressed up to look like a Walkman (R.I.P.) tape – several hours of really cool music of a kind one never gets to hear on the radio…

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A Prophet Looking For A Wall To Write On (Part 3)

Update, October 4th: I made small changes to the timing of the music. The Prophet now interrupts the background babble (rather than waiting for it to finish), and there is a short moment of hesitation ahead of each response. Here is the slightly revised second finished piece of Cork City Gamelan music:

A Prophet Looking For A Wall To Write On (6:16 of music in the iPod / iTunes MPEG 4 format, 5.5 MB to download, opens in a new window). It is meant to be descriptive of a prophet issuing urgent warnings and asking questions, only to be met by indifference, nonchalance, utter lack of care and concern…

I have written a score for performing or recording your own version of the piece (PDF, 29k to download).

Work like this often begs the question: “But… is it music?” I wrote an article about this issue… Anyway, you can call it “Sound Art”, if you wish  😉

The cliff hanger I left you with at the end of Part 2, the idea which might not work, was adding voices talking about irrelevant things (I chose recordings of old newscasts), sped up without altering the pitch until they became just about unintelligible – using the same Audacity command as I showed you for slowing down the beats to make drones. All the instruments (apart from the Old News and the Waterphone) are part of my Cork City Gamelan sonic arsenal: Litter Bin, Stainless Steel Gate, Cast Iron Gate, and Rainwater Pipe.

Excuse me for dwelling on this point, but it is important to me: The Cork City Gamelan supports and promotes Music Making for People With Disabilities. This piece could have been made entirely by somebody who can barely walk and who does not have the coordination necessary to play conventional instruments. I know it, because I fit this description, and I did it all on my own! And I’ll be performing it live for Sonic Vigil VI at Triskel Christ Church on October 22nd… and I know I can do that, too, because I actually improvised the Waterphone part live. I must admit to editing the pacing, though, in order to maximize the impact of this “studio recording”.

I am publishing it as a tribute to Dame Evelyn Glennie. I haven’t heard her play music as “wacky” as this, and she my not even like it, but that’s beside the point. Here is the story:

My WaterphoneMy 60th birthday was coming up, and I was going to buy myself a piece of art – something linking me back to the 60s and 70s, when I acquired my taste for the kind of art and music which has been with me throughout my life. A Waterphone seemed to be nice and just about affordable. It is both, a sculpture, as well as a musical instrument. Even if I could not manage to use it for playing music, I reckoned, I’d still own a Thing of Beauty which connects me straight back to then, when… and I could perhaps sample it and compose music with the sounds on my computer.

On Richard Waters’ web site, I learned that Evelyn Glennie, one of my favourite percussionists and drummers, actually plays one during her solo recitals. I looked around on the Web for audio or video clips of her playing it, and while I was searching, I discovered something unbelievable about her: that she is profoundly deaf!

Eventually, I came across a documentary about her called Touch The Sound – among other things about how her deafness does not stop her from making great music, how it has even helped her to get physically closer to the sound by listening with her whole body. This movie has been an outright epiphany for me. I was not going to allow my disability to stop me making live music any longer. Computers and DAW Software are great, thanks be to Goodness for them… but I really need to play live in order to feel like a whole person. The Waterphone looked like it could be “the ticket”, and I went ahead and asked Richard Waters to make one for me.

While  was waiting, I made plans as to how I might also use my computer as an instrument for performance in the simplest most basic possible way – after all, I wouldn’t know whether I could handle the Waterphone as an instrument until I was actually holding it in my hands… and that’s how the Cork City Gamelan came into being – that’s why I am posting this piece as a tribute to Evelyn Glennie, the “Patron Saint of The Cork City Gamelan”. Usually, I absolutely do not justify or explain why I do things – why is a sort of a dirty word in my World – but this is different: I want people who believe that  they cannot make music to read my story and to be motivated to go out there and do it.

After this and Reichtum, there is one more tribute piece of Cork City Gamelan music I feel I must compose – can anybody guess who the recipient might be?

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A Prophet Looking For A Wall To Write On (Part 2)

In the first installment of this series of DIY articles, I showed you how I stretch recorded sounds to make drones, how I change pitches, and how I mix several tracks together to create an interesting musical gesture. Since then, I composed another such drones gesture, listened to the two over and over again, played my Waterphone along with them… and came to the conclusion that the drone bits sound too dramatic. I am looking for a “deaf ears – no response – don’t care” effect. What I have sounds pretty cool, but it seems to suggest “suspense”.

Back to the drawing board… I created a drone, about a minute long, from a single beat on a rainwater pipe (in the iPod .m4a format, plays in a new window).



I then loaded the drone into the free Audacity Software to shorten it by just a small amount – I chose 2% – using the Change Tempo command under the Effects Menu.






Next, I loaded the original and the shortened version into two separate tracks in Audacity. In the picture, you can see how I panned them to opposite sides of the stereo image.





I then chose Mix and Render from the Tracks menu, creating a stereo file. Because the drone itself is a complex shifting and shimmering sound, the left and right never sound quite the same at any one moment.The resulting stereo drone has acquired an interesting dimension of added depth – a sort of “shimmering” quality. (in the iPod .m4a format, plays in a new window)

This technique does not work with a uniform tone… unless you add an effect which changes the sound over time (such as tremolo or vibrato), before you do the shortening.

Here are another two drones I am using to compose this piece – all of them at a range of different pitches, and all of them with added depth: Paul Street Gate Drone and English Market Gate Drone. I am also going to find out what it may sound like if I use different pitches for the left and right channel of the stereo image… or maybe somebody else will find out before I do? Feel free to download these Cork City Gamelan sounds and experiment with them. The terms and conditions are in the Disclaimer page.

The next post in this series will be a version of the finished piece and a score for performance… or so I hope… anyway, here is a test of what it can perhaps sound like. Notice that I also slowed down the pulse to half speed.

I have another idea for something which may be cool – or sound awful, so I won’t say anything about it yet.

Posted in Articles With Music For Downloading, Articles With Samples For Downloading, Music Making for People With Disabilities, Technology Reviews and Do-It-Yourself Tips | Comments Off on A Prophet Looking For A Wall To Write On (Part 2)

Playing Live at The Day Of The Endless Drone!

myself posing as a Waterphone playerYesterday, at about 10:00 in the morning, I dropped into the “Day Of The Endless Drone” 24-hour improvisation session in the old FAS building/Tax Office (now largely taken over by the College of Art and Design) on Sullivan’s Quay. I liked what was going on. The notion fascinated me: the composition for the Cork City Gamelan I am currently working on (A Prophet Looking For A Wall To Write On) is a drones piece.

There were people invigilating. I asked whether it was o.k. to contribute a drone or two… went away and returned with my Waterphone early in the afternoon… droned along for about an hour and enjoyed myself immensely.

I walked out with a great sense of success and achievement. It was the fist time this century (a few years more, actually) that I had played music in public – only an informal improvisation, but I did it. After all those years, I am playing live music again. Virtuoso instrumental acrobatics are not possible for me since I got chronic MS, but there are other ways…

Tomorrow, I am getting a new laptop computer delivered. I am setting it up as a musical instrument for live performance. I shall be able to play my Cork City Gamelan live – that’s something I had not planned when I started the project.
On October 22nd, I am playing my first recital since I became too ill to play conventional instruments. It is only a 20-minute slot at Sonic Vigil VI at Triskel Arts Centre’s Christ Church, but for me, it’s going to be a Big Thing. See the picture above – I had it taken especially for the occasion (thanks, Eoghan). I am planning to play A Prophet Looking For A Wall To Write On on my Waterphone, along with a prerecorded Cork City Gamelan backing track, and some impromptu sonic experiments, both on the Waterphone and the computer.

Posted in Music Making for People With Disabilities, Playing The Waterphone | 1 Comment

A Prophet Looking For A Wall To Write On (Part 1)

It’s the title of a composition I am working on at the moment. Prophets sometimes are said to write warnings and questions on walls. This prophet has many questions to ask and warnings to issue, but nobody wants to listen –  and they have hidden the walls.

The Cork City Gamelan promotes music making for people with disabilities. Rather than just posting the music after I have finished composing the piece, I am going to show you how I am doing it. I want you to see how easy it is, and how everybody with an interest in doing this kind of work can do it. I have a disability. I can barely walk – but I can do this. I am even going to perform it live, just because I can, at a Music and Sound Art event yet to be announced. It will be my first live performance in over 15 years. This is the beginning of my campaign to encourage and promote music making for people with disabilities, inspired by watching the movie “Touch The Sound” about Evelyn Glennie, one of the World’s top percussionists, who is profoundly deaf! More information in this article… I would like you to see this music as a tribute to her.

It is a piece for prerecorded Cork City Gamelan sounds and one or more improvising musicians. The prerecorded sounds consist of a slow pulse throughout, and a series of sonic gestures made of drones. They represent the void and the silence facing the prophet. There are spaces between the drone gestures for the improvising performer(s) to “ask the questions”. I am going to perform it on my Waterphone.

Listen to the first gesture (1:05 of music, 1MB to download) – and to the sounds I made it from (1:20 of samples, about 650KB to download), all in the iPod / iTunes MPEG 4 (.m4a/AAC) format. This may surprise you: I made all the samples from the first beat – a hit on a litter bin (see this post). You can try for yourself how it works: If you don’t have it already, download Audacity – a free audio editing program. Open the first one of these samples in Audacity. The interface looks like this:

This is a representation of the wave shape of the beat. Note that the duration is 0.50 seconds. I actually removed some of the metallic overtones first, using Metasynth, my (Apple Macintosh Only) “Electroacoustic Microscope and Vivisection Kit”, and I also changed the pitch in Metasynth… so, the results will sound different.

To change the pitch in Audacity, you need the “Change Pitch…” dialogue Under the “Effect” menu:

I raised the pitch by 12 semitones, that’s up an octave. It says “without changing tempo”. In the days of tape, raising the pitch by an octave would have meant doubling the tape speed and ending up with a sound half as long. Actually, the duration has changed, but only by an insignificant amount. The next dialogue, “Change Tempo…”, will tell us exactly how small the change was.

So, I lost 8 milliseconds – ah, well, I am stretching the sound to 4.2 seconds, anyway… but the accuracy of Audacity with single notes and beats is not great. The stretched sound is only a little over 3.2 seconds long. I could explain it in depth, but I’d rather get on with making music.

I repeat the stretch operation and end up with about 31.25 seconds of sound. The level has dropped a bit – I fix it using the “Normalize…” command under the “Effect”menu… and here is the result: Stretched Beat (opens in a new window). It still is a single beat, albeit a very long one. To make a drone, I open it in Audacity, select the first 12 seconds of the sound, and run the “Fade In” command under the “Effect” menu. The level is now very low – running “Normalize” fixes it. After normalizing, the end sounds chopped off – the “Fade Out” command, with the final 8 seconds selected, repairs the problem nicely, and here is the result (opens in a new window).

To compose the gesture, I used Logic Studio. Any Digital Audio Workstation software can be used. It can even be done (a little less quickly) in Audacity (for free!):

You are looking at a representation of five tracks of sound which are being mixed down, or bounced, to stereo. Time runs from left to right: 32 Bars, each of them is 2 seconds long.

The green box represents the looped pulse – that’s the second sound in the samples file. It starts in the first bar and goes right through to the end. The blue boxes represent audio files. The bass drone (the third sound in the samples file) starts in bar 3 on track 2 from the top, followed by the “highchatter” drone (the fourth sound in the samples file) in tracks 1 and 3. The version in track 3 is slightly shortened (using Audacity), and the two are panned to opposite sides in the stereo sound field to create some interesting sonic shifts. The low drone in track 2 is followed by a version shifted up an octave (Audacity, again), and in track 4, there is yet another version of the same drone, shifted up by 5 semitones.

I added some effects: Chorus on tracks 1 and 2, Phasing on tracks 3 and 4, and a long Reverb on everything except the pulse – using such effects is standard music production practice – it adds a bit of interest and live to the overall sound.

That’s all: a minute of musical ambience created from a single bang on a bin… does not require any virtuoso abilities – just the desire to do it, and an idea… and can be done at absolutely no cost if you already own a computer. Actually: if you own a Mac, it came with Garageband – a simple but fully featured Audio Workstation program which frequently takes users into the Top Ten of the charts.

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SOUNDCAST 4X4 (+1) by Anthony Kelly, Danny McCarthy, Mick O’Shea, and David Stalling

Anthony Kelly (left), Danny McCarthy (right), Mick O’Shea (middle bottom), and David Stalling (middle top) at a Strange Attractor performance in the Crawford Gallery

SOUNDCAST 4X4 (+1) has become one of the records I listen to often towards the end of the day. It is an edit (a little over an hour) of a four hour continuous electroacoustic improvisation in the Sculpture Room of the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery in Cork. The performers themselves call it Sound Art, but if you are a lover of experimental music and free improvisation, please don’t let this scare you or put you off. Underneath the “marketing label”, you will find some of the finest free improvised music.

The CD comes in an unusual fold-up package designed by Doreen Kennedy with photos by Irene Murphy and texts by Peter Murray (Director and Curator of the Crawford Gallery) and Francis Halsall (Teacher at the National College of Art and Design).

Between them, they use an almost unbelievable variety of Instruments and NotInstruments. The packaging does not reveal who plays what, and listening  to the music, it is really quite unimportant. I have seen several of their performances, and even experiencing them live, it absolutely does not matter which one of them makes any particular sounds. The music seems to create its own space beyond personalities and conventions.

Improvised music is mainly rooted in two different traditions: Jazz and Sonic Sculpture. Soundcast has most definitely nothing to do with Jazz. The inspiration behind the sound is clearly visual. Complex textures evolve and shift, and listening at different times, different figures become visible audible against this backdrop. It’s the perception of Figure and Ground, interpreted as music. Hearing which of the performers contributes which of the elements of the overall picture sound at any one time is quite impossible, and it helps to “just listen” and not get side tracked into critical analysis of irrelevant matters such as stage presence and lighting.

Soundcast is a very quiet record with a meditational quality, strangely haunting, drifting in and out of focus… with the odd “surprise” here and there, but nothing truly startling or breaking the flow.

The feeling conveyed is not unlike what came out of the Free Music scene of the 1970s, but the details of delivery and presentation are very different. However, there is no cover information – Irene Murphy’s photos are the only clue to what is happening: Anthony Kelly, Mick O’Shea, and David Stalling perform while they are seated at long tables. This has become a standard practice in live performance of electroacoustic music. The tables are loaded with electronic devices and home made or customized instruments, and all sorts of small percussion. Danny McCarthy is different. He performs squatting on the floor, with  his instruments spread out on a cloth in front of him – giving the visual impression of a street trader selling trinkets off a blanket. His sonic arsenal is dominated by musical toys and toy instruments.

I highly recommend this CD if you like experimental music of the quiet kind and free improvisation. It is available at the PLUGD shop in the Triskel Arts Centre and in the Crawford Gallery shop, or directly from Farpoint Recordings.

Posted in My Sticky Opinions, Other Soundworks In Cork | 3 Comments

New Instruments: Beer Kegs And Iron Gate

I have been out again, harvesting sounds. First, an old iron gate off Paul Street, to the right of the shopping centre: 4:16, in the iPod/iTunes MPEG 4 format, 3.5 MB to download, opens in a new window

The file starts off with a series of various beats and scrapes, followed by stretched and pitch shifted versions of some of these sounds. Stretching and pitch shifting resulted in some wonderful drones of industrial ambience.

And here is one of the most common musical instruments which can be found sitting on footpaths in Irish towns most mornings before the shops and the pubs open:

Beer KegsBeats on a Beer Keg – 0:22, in the iPod/iTunes MPEG 4 format, 217 KB to download, opens in a new window

There are 12 individual bangs on the barrel. I took the 10th of them into my sound surgery and made up a series of stretched and pitch shifted versions… and I am really looking forward to making music with some of those drones and long beats (5:28, 4.7MB).

The sounds have short gaps between them to facilitate cutting them apart and using them in a sampler. Feel free to use them under the terms in the Disclaimer page… and show me what you came up with.

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The First “Release Ready” Cork City Gamelan Music

I just finished the first “release ready” piece of Cork City Gamelan music.

I call it Reichtum, which is German for Wealth. It is a tribute to Steve Reich – to say “thank you” for the wealth of knowledge he imparted on wannabe composers like me when he spent some time in Cork recently. Attending his seminar at the UCC School of Music and being able to watch the master at work (directing) during concerts was a major learning experience.


The file is in the iPod / iTunes MPEG 4 (.m4a/AAC) format, 4.6 MB to download, about 4:45 of music. It is “100% pure Cork City Gamelan”, without any additional instruments. I used sounds harvested from a litter bin, a sheet metal door, a stainless steel gate, and a rainwater pipe.

Feel free to make cutups and remixes. The tempo is 140 bpm. The license terms are in the Disclaimer document.


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The Reich Effect… and My Waterphone!

The Cork City Gamelan had to take a back seat for a week. Important other things were happening.

First of all: The Reich Effect – a five day festival celebrating the 75th Birthday of Steve Reich, possibly the most influential music composer alive. Reich himself was in town, directing performances and hosting a composition seminar, which I attended.

Reich and Yours Truly

Yours truly speaking to The Master – photograph taken at the seminar by John Hough, Tehnical Administrator at the UCC School of Music

I also went to see performances every night, among others the Kronos Quartet, Crash Ensemble and London Sinfonietta. I learned a lot during those five days, and I would have hardly been able to take in much more.

Another Big Thing happened: As I arrived back at my studio after the seminar on Wednesday, my Waterphone, made for me by Richard Waters (the artist who invented it) himself, had arrived at the customs office. I cleared the import formalities, and on Friday Morning, I finally held the Thing Of Beauty in my hands.

My Waterphone

It’s a monolithic piece of sculpture and an atonal musical instrument. When I commissioned Richard Waters to make one for me, I had some doubts as to whether I would be physically able to play music on it (I have chronic MS), but I wanted it, anyway. It is a kind of an icon of the late 60s/early 70s to me – when I first became seriously interested in music and art. It seems that I can do it, and yesterday I had a free improvisation session with my friends and collaborators Eoghan McCarthy on Guitar, Niall Whitney on Bass (and Vocals, talking to Kala), and Kala on Dog Collar. Here is an excerpt from the recordings:

Kala’s Moment of Fame (3:45, 4.1 MB, in the iPod/iTunes MPEG4 format). By the way: I am not using the bow on this short section. Bowing the instrument really brings the harmonics and the sympathetic resonances to life.

Kala is Niall’s giant Rottweiler puppy, probably a teenager in dog’s terms. She behaves like a typical spoiled and moody teenager, anyway. She insisted on being featured on the recording. The rhythm at the beginning is the noise of her collar while she scratches herself.

The Waterphone is probably going to feature prominently as an additional instrument in some of the music I compose for the Cork City Gamelan. It is also going to get me back into performing live after many years of being “off the road” due to my disability. My first composition for the Waterphone, though, is going to be a tribute to Reich. I have already sketched out a possible basic concept.

Feel free to use this music (and remix it) under the license terms outlined in the Disclaimers page.

Posted in Articles With Music For Downloading, Other Soundworks In Cork, Playing The Waterphone | 1 Comment

FLAT TIME/sounding by David Toop at CIT School Of Music

I like improvised music – both, performing and listening. The highlight for me this year, so far, has been a performance of FLAT TIME/sounding by David Toop at CIT School Of Music in Cork on April 15th as part of the “just listen” series of events. For this performance, David Toop was joined by John Godfrey, Mick O’Shea and Danny McCarthy.

Mick O'Shea (left) and David Toop (right)left: Mick O’Shea – right: David Toop

Danny McCarthy (on the floor) and John Godfrey (on the stool)Danny McCarthy (on the floor) and John Godfrey (on the stool)

David Toop has worked most notably in improvisation, sound installations, field recordings, pop music production, and sound track/incidental music. Many of us “older people” remember him as a member of the Flying Lizards. He lectures as Visiting Professor at the University of the Arts in London.

John Godfrey lectures at University College Cork. His compositions are focused on minimal/experimental music, often with live and interactive electronics. He is also the artistic director of The Quiet Music Ensemble.

Mick O’Shea and Danny McCarthy together make up The Quiet Club. Their CD “Tesla” is available from Farpoint Recordings. They are well known locally and have successfully toured Poland and Shanghai, China.

FLAT TIME/sounding is a composition for improvising musicians, based on the concept of Flat Time by the very controversial (in the 1960s, I seem to remember) African born British artist John Latham. If I understand it correctly, it expands on a concept in theoretical physics/general relativity, where everything that exists, has existed and will exist in the Universe is an event with a duration – but, which Latham felt, fails to describe and locate immaterial events, such as art, music, spirituality and emotions. For an in-depth explanation of the concept (and perhaps to judge whether I understand it correctly), you might like to check out the John Latham Foundation and Archive.

The score is derived from Latham’s Time Base Roller – a canvas fed off a roll, with the image surface facing away from the viewer, so that only one horizontal slice of the image, the slice just about to be unrolled, is visible at any one moment. Each horizontal slice represents the “time base” for an event, a kind of a logarithmic scale spectrum from left to right, from the most minimal event time to all time available in the Universe (or Multiverse?). The vertical axis represents “count time”. Events are not simply ordered according to count time, but also according to time base within an “omnipresent score”, like a two-dimensional coordinates system – hence “flat time” as opposed to linear time, I guess. Somebody correct me, please, if I got it wrong…

There are no explicit instructions to the players, who respond to aphorisms provided by the composer and to recorded markers from previous performances. In this manner, each new performance of the piece draws from the memory of all previous versions – which I see as a process of iteration and evolution. This also seems to be true for each moment of the performance, where each moment contains a memory of the accumulated conditions of everything that has passed, and where each moment is a slice of a continuum, rather than a “point in time”. Since this process of accumulative iteration was also true for previous performances, the notion of a “Sonic Fractal” comes to my mind – a Fractal which exists in time as well as in space.

The concept is complex, and if I could understand half of it, I’d probably be doing quite well. The music, though, has the capability to transport me to the outer limits of my personal mind space. The emerging sonic landscapes seem to form layers of forever increasing intricacy, each one blending with what is already  there, with nothing getting erased or discarded. If this is what Latham means by “omnipresent score”, then David Toop has succeeded, for me, anyway, in translating this concept into an actual musical performance.

If you like improvised music, live electronics, or sound art, then I highly recommend you try and catch a performance of any of these four musicians, in any combination, when the opportunity arises.
my trademark

Posted in Other Soundworks In Cork | 6 Comments