Music and Language

This week dear friend, Terri Murphy, sent me a link to an old Radiolab podcast on Musical Language. I am a Radiolab virgin and I have been anticipating listening to a broadcast soon, so now seems a good time.

The program was chock full of interesting stuff and, of course, I LOVED the sound based format, which went very far in illuminating THIS topic. One section focused on the work of music psychologist Diana Duestch who studies the relationship between tonal languages and musical abilitites. She demonstrated an interesting phenomenon with tonality, music and language. She took a recording of her own voice talking about her work and isolated a phrase where she put a distinct tone with each syllable. When this phrase was looped, it became a song fragment. The show really emphasized the song fragment by having musicians and singers add harmonies and improvisations over and around the fragment. Then she played the recording of her talking where this phrase was used and the brain hears her burst into song at the moment of the phrase. I laughed out loud when I heard it. I am always looking for “sound jokes” and this was one. It is the shock and joy (there’s a concept) of re-cognition. She has CDs of sound illusions, which I am going to check out.

In another segment, a neuroscientist has recorded the sound of the electrical firings in the brain when we hear sound. When we hear harmonious, consonant, rhythmic sounds these firings are very steady and even. When we hear sounds that are dissonant and arrhythmic, the firings are more erratic. Now current scientific thought is that consonance and dissonance are fixed positions in the ear. Radiolab asks the question, “What if the auditory cortex is more malleable than science thinks?” Then the hosts used the premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” as an example of the possibility that people’s auditory cortex can be shaped by exposure to new musical relationships. At the Paris premiere in 1897, the audience rioted and left the theatre. A year later, the Paris audience sat enraptured. This example is fraught with cause/effect issues (a provocative ballet choreographed by Najinsky and artistic rivalries all factored into the premiere, but were not a part of the performance a year later), but the idea that the pounding, dissonant chords that drive “The Rite of Spring” contributed to the flare up is not too much of a leap for me. Especially when they talked about the neurons whose job it is to “render things pleasant” in the auditory cortex. One of the hosts even goes so far as to throw out the possibility that music/sound artists are in a tug of war with the brain. Given what we are learning about neuroplasticity, this may be the case.

There have been times when I have worked on a piece of music and cringed for a moment at some chord or passing tone that did not sound quite right to my ear. Most of the time I bring it in line with the tonal center, but, occasionally, I leave it and listen to it 5 or 6 times as I am working. If it passes this test, then I put some time between listenings. If on the next listening, it is still working in a quirky way for me, I will leave it. At these moments I feel like my auditory cortex is being redirected and reshaped to allow in some new and strange relationship. It feels expansive and I usually go for the expansiveness.

Here is a link to this very fun podcast. Enjoy !

“In C” as Midi-Trigger for Bass and Percussion

Earlier this year, I said I wanted to play around with this idea of the musical text of “In C” as a midi-trigger for percussion grooves. OMG!! I did it this morning and, to my ear, it is the most interesting, organic sounding take I have had to date. This is what I am talking about with this piece of music- there is so much to be explored outside the traditional renditions of this piece. I am finding possibilities in the electronic domain that are not readily available in a traditional acoustic “live musicians” rendition of this piece.

For example, once a voice has started playing a pattern, it must be maintained for a duration, so the live acoustic rendition will be subject to the shifting entrainment of the members of the ensemble. Humans playing music together can really shift the focus and feel of any piece of music through nuances of rhythmic and melodic expression. (Reading about this right now in a great book called GROOVE a phenomenology of rhythmic nuance by Tiger C. Roholt) The live musician must play this piece with a metronomic pulse (played throughout by another musician, so not a real metronome), sync with the pulse and not get confused by the other parts coming in, AND make decisions about when to start and stop and move on to a new phrase. All of this while paying close attention to what is happening in other parts. So, there is alot of “breathing” that goes on in a live performance of “In C”. I would imagine there would be some quite chaotic moments and the making of space would be more difficult, as well.

In Ableton, the patterns are locked into the midi-clip. They never vary and always play the same. One thing I heard in the recording below that I think would be nearly impossible for live musicians- when Pattern 35 makes a brief appearance, the melodic instruments (bass and vibes) play the phrase one pulse apart. It sounds like a stagger more than an echo, it is very interesting. People can do some amazing things, and maintaining an exact one pulse stagger on this long phrase (that includes every tone and note-length in the entire piece) would be an amazing thing to witness; in Ableton, it can happen every time. I can bring parts forward and back in the mix and discover nuances that emerge from the shifting relationships amongst the voices. A good sound engineer could do a similar thing with a live performance of the work where each voice is amplified. Over the course of this year, I have played alot with tempo- I chose to slow this piece way down and let some of the languidness and playfulness shine through. The fastest tempo was around 110 pulses per minute. I found 60 ppm to be too slow – that is what we played at Motorco. The average tempo was 80 to 100 ppm. Recordings of “In C” are usually twice that tempo or more. Speed emphasizes a frenetic quality by glossing over the long tone patterns and pattern 35. Slower tempo gives more access to harmonics, space and dynamics in the piece.

I can now confess to something that I have resisted and denied for years- I am a control freak. Ableton Live allows me to control so many nuances of sound and music that I am in bliss much of the time while I work. When I collaborate with others, I do not want to be a control freak. I want my collaborations to be a more fluid give and take. If anything, I acquiesce more frequently in collaboration due to awareness of how controlling I can be. (Is that true?) It is my intention. So one of the major distinctions in my approach to “In C” is that I am the orchestrator of what you hear. And here is how I approached orchestrating this version of “In C”. I chose the voices based on two parameters- variety of timbres and frequency ranges. The percussion instruments all have very nice areas of blend and areas of complete separation in the sonic spectrum. The Special FX voice is the one that adds most of the very industrial and metallic sounds (scraping, whirring) that hang out on the outer edges of the sounding space. One of the voices is a favorite of mine, Kit-Ethno, and has been used in other soundscapes. Some of the percussion has “sour” tones like odd plate or pipe sounds, which adds a whole other melodic dynamic. I toyed with the idea of NO melodic instruments, but there was too much material lost with that approach. So the bass and vibes provide the main melody voices. None of the voices have a long sustain, so all those long tone patterns have alot of space in them. I liked this aspect very much. Also, because there are fewer melodic instruments, the entrance of the F# is not that evident. These characteristics attest to this being a percussion driven version of “In C”.

As I pointed out last week, Ableton and “In C” were made for each other. This recording reveals that in a big way. When I played out the recording I did not carefully track the beginnings and ends of phrases for each pattern as I played. Instead, I used the Akai APC 40 control surface to be able to trigger the clips quickly and in whatever order. I set up a visual pattern on the APC 40 and then triggered the clips in time to the pulse, recreating the pattern each time just moving down through all 53 patterns in each voice. I did stay within 3 – 5 patterns throughout with a few times of all playing the same pattern, but not in unison. I was trying to create an extremely short version of “In C” with these voices, but too many really cool grooves and ideas emerged for me to rush through.(You will hear what I mean if you listen.) One of the ways I orchestrated the melodic phrases was to move back and forth between them on the bass and vibes. This is not normally done in a performance of “In C”. There are a number of consecutive pairs of patterns that create a sing-song, rocking feel and I wanted to bring those out and play with them at times. I also used the back and forth between consecutive patterns to create some extra movement in the drums.

This mix of voices creates an amazing soundscape that is together and apart and has sound all over the sonic space. In spite of my quick, short version intention, it runs about 19 minutes. Please try to hang in through the first three minutes, the piece really picks up after that point. There are definitely invitations to dance!

And, here is a pretty short version played on strings and woodwinds. Thanks to Project SAMS for the gorgeous sound of these instruments. The original version was 8 minutes and, in order to come in at the length I had to cut off longer phases – not good. Pattern 35 was not even there! Just the first 9 notes which are exactly like Pattern 36 complete. So, in essence I had two Pattern 36 and no Pattern 35. It disappeared… So, I recorded a 10 minute version, which is as short as I can make it at this time (some part of me longs to hear a “Minute ‘In C'” like the “Minute Waltz.” eh- maybe) Here is a picture of the “score” of this recording in Ableton.


I think it is fun that the trigger patterns look like compression and rarefaction – you can see where the piece opens up and breathes and where it closes in on itself. Such a beautiful energetic pattern of life- it is part of what creates the fractal.

Lessons and Carols

So the year comes to a close and I look back on many lessons learned and much mulch for the sound garden in my mind. This morning, I woke early and went to the project folder in Ableton. Looking around at dozens of unfinished pieces and parts, I felt this deep satisfaction and supreme excitement at all these ideas that Ableton allows me to capture. Most everything I want to hear in my soundscapes I can sculpt out of Ableton. Working primarily in Ableton puts a kind of mark on my sound so that some people might recognize certain instruments or synths or pads as being from Ableton. When people would say that to me, it kinda felt like this is something I should try to “fix”. Then I realized that Ableton Live is more than just software, it is the medium in which I work. So it is fine to recognize the medium in which I create sound. It would be like saying “I see you use watercolors.” or “Sounds like you are playing a guitar.” So Ableton is the arena from which I sound my world.

Throughout the year, it was hard not to notice that Ableton and “In C” are a really fabulous couple! It is like they were made for each other. Ableton’s clips and scenes perfectly accomodate the patterns of “In C” in a variety of voicings. Even if you don’t listen all the way through, I urge you to go back and just listen for 30 seconds to some of the samplings of this partnership. If nothing else came from this year, my collaboration with these two is fertile ground for future growth. I know I am not finished with “In C” as a sound text for further exploration.

Spending so much time with this piece has helped me develop compositional frameworks and identify further questions for sound exploration. “In C” forced me into a daily practice of listening deeply into it’s musical layers of sound. What an amazing experience it has been! There is so much going on in the harmonics of this piece. One of the most interesting phenomenon in musical perception is the absolute presence of the fundamental tone! If you play all the harmonics, but NOT the fundamental, the human brain will “hear” the fundamental tone. This fact of our existence makes me weep with joy. AND it takes me where I want to go as a sound sculptor – into harmonics and healing. This, coupled with an interest in the Law of Octave (an obvious force of nature to be tapped into), will be leading me as I practice in the coming year. And, don’t forget Accelerated Harmonics, my made-up concept for bumping or swelling harmonics over fundamental.

Another interesting thought from the year is that, with Ableton as my medium, most every sound created comes from… well, non-sound. Every sound is based on the creation and manipulation of sine waves, not the disturbance of a physical medium we associate with sound production. In my opinion, sine waves seem to have been born to become binary code with their elegant compression/rarefaction oscillating form. Sine waves are like the molecules of digital sound. (I always say that Ableton allows me to manipulate the molecules of music.) So sound from a non-sound source is one of the challenges of reading about audio production. The assumption is that audio production is about recording acoustic sound into digital format. A great many important considerations (types and placement of microphones, latency) are not issues for creating sound from a digital format. This is where I am stuck at rhe moment. I am not really sure if there are significant differences between these two sound sources when it comes to using effects, mixing and mastering. It seems like there should be. I think I hear a difference. The digital sounds brighter and higher in a rather full way to me. The lows seem to be squashed. I know I favor higher frequencies, and have great respect for the power of the lower frequencies. Any way, my questions are:

/how does the sound of recording an acoustic instrument through a microphone into a track in Ableton differ from the sound of a midi-instrument “recording” in a track? The way to discern the difference is through listening (headphones, monitors, stereos), through spectrum analysis both in live space and in the medium, and through further understanding of sampling and sound creation in the digital realm.
/in what ways do these differences impact the mixing and mastering process between these two sound sources?
Answers to these questions and more to be discovered in the coming year.

My year with “In C” taught me to let go of expectations and to allow ‘what is’ to happen. I am disappointed that I was not able to organize the all night version of “In C.” As the Fall approached with its tremendous heart-breakingladdening, I was not as caught up in the piece as I was at the beginning of the year. The energy to organize a community event was not there. Some day, something like this will happen. I def need the help of others to pull it off.

The music and soundpainting I create from now on will be highly influenced by what I have heard “In C”. The layering of voices, the overlapping of frequencies, the relationship between frequency, amplitude and accelerated harmonics, the power of ostinato, the power of long tones, the tidal push and pull of rhythm, the edges of the spectral field that can be tonally considered in a given “key”—all of this and so much more have been my gifts from this amazing year. Thanks to Terry Riley, Susanne Romey, Xopher Thurston, Chris Eubanks, and everyone who listened to me, asked questions, and shared this experience with me. Your loving attention means so much to me. I hope you will continue to read about my work as I move to a new WordPress blog. There will be one last post here for this year. Thanks again for witnessing!

Finishing Touches

So I am coming down to the home stretch of “My Year ‘In C'” and I want to end as I began with posting at least every week. I have no plans to play “In C” anywhere, but I will continue to play with the slices and songsets. Using the patterns of “In C” as little Lego blocks of sound and putting them together in different combinations has grown my compositional ear and my personal sound aesthetic. There are so many possibilities in the sonic world that is laid out in this piece of music. “In C” questions all the assumptions we have about being in tune and being in time when making music. When we loosen our grip on what we think things should sound like and pay attention instead to what we are hearing and what is emerging from our attempts to articulate that hearing, whole other worlds open up. Those are the worlds I want to continue exploring. I have so much appreciation for Terry Riley and “In C” for opening so many doors.

Opening and closing doors is THE metaphor for the year 2014. The Full Shanti played our last kirtan together on New Year’s Eve at the Raleigh Dances of Universal Peace. Sotar and I continued to play together until he left for Yogaville in September. So the door closes on our sweet kirtan band experience. The door opened for more soundscapes and composing through my work with Jody Cassell and ADF. Beginning with creating a dance piece for Rodger Belman’s summer ADF class to Moving Meditations and Embracing Health Through Movement to residencies in several local elementary schools, the twin vortexes of productivity and inspiration, coupled with the amazing networking skills of Jody Cassell, blew this door wide open. Two years after my official retirement I am no longer administering vocational evaluations for Person Industries. Door closed. Opportunities to perform soundscapes continued in 2014 with “Phrygia: Hera’s Saga” at The Makery for Allie Mullins photography exhibit in August and “Won Gone” performed at The Won Buddhist Temple bazaar in October. Several other artists have indicated interest in soundscapes, so this door is opening wider into that future.

Then a very large portal into the past, the year 1984 specifically, opened up. The Universe urged me to reconnect with people with whom I have shared great love and great creativity. And there are so many wonderful people, and two of them were predominant in my 2014 heart-breaking open. In the Spring, a woman I deeply love became ill and she was using Caring Bridge to communicate with her friends and family. Reading the journey she and her wife were taking through this heavy lesson opened my heart again to the memories of our time of loving, which was very powerful for me. I am so overjoyed that we have even the slightest of connection now. (Door open!) I am so grateful for the tremendous gift of love she gave me. She has come out the other side of her illness, and will be using her innate healing skills to deal with any future problems (that is my deepest desire for her.) Then a door closed in early November when my youngest brother, Paul, died. I am simply stunned and not believing that this has happened. I am looking for the lessons, questioning what it means to love, to be a family, what we come to believe about ourselves based on what we think other people feel about us. And once again I am reminded that I can help people, but I can’t save them. As much as I wanted to save him, as much as I think I should have been able to save him, I could not do so. I am paying attention to secrets and lies and how they can really damage self and others. And I am channeling grief into sound and music. This is a rough draft of a soundpainting called Keening.

I allow a stridency and hysteria that is looked down upon amongst my people. Listening brings discomfort and distance, laugh or cry wherever that discomfort takes you. The laugh means “I am not ready for this”. The cry means “i am letting this (come and) go”.

All finishings touch me.

“In C” – Long Tones Only

I was pleased to see that a group of local musicians did play “In C” at King’s in Raleigh on November 4, the actual 50th anniversary of the first performance of the piece. I did not make it out to hear it and have heard nothing further about it. The Indy Weekly was supposed to have a review, but that never materialized. I hope it was fabulous! I am disappointed that I was unable to realize the vision of playing “In C” for hours with a large community of musicians and dancers and other artists. I will continue to play around with the pieces and parts of “In C” for the remainder of the year as I think it still has much to teach me.

I am exploring the long tone patterns. The majority of the 53 patterns in the piece contain 8th note runs of varying lengths. The long tone patterns are dominated by whole and half notes, some are even dotted. A dotted whole note gets 12 pulses. Whoa! These notes take up alot of space. There is one quarter note thrown into one of the patterns, but not an 8th note in sight.

There are 8 long tone patterns total and they are parceled throughout the piece to give some breathing room and add sonic interest. Patterns 6 and 8 are the early arrivals, and Patterns 42 and 48 bring up the end. In between come two significant patterns that introduce and contextualize the shift from Ionian mode to Lydian mode with the introduction of the F# into the C tonality. (This is the sound of the tritone which was forbidden in church music due to its tense and dissonant vibration.) Two of the long tone patterns contain the F#- one is a 12 pulse sustained F# and the other is a C-B-G-F# with each note held for four pulses. Playing any of the other long tone patterns against these two patterns engenders a feeling of dread in me. The other patterns are so sweet in their “C”ness that the F# patterns sound intrusive, ominous and unwanted. The F# can create discomfort in a listener.

With this in mind then, how to arrange these long tone patterns into a satisfying interplay? The movement seems to organize itself around introducing, getting used to and then enveloping the tritone tension. (As a side note: a small group of women I met through some Coursera courses on sound and music have been chatting and sharing work on line. It was recently suggested to use the concept of tension-release as a prompt for exploration. This is feeling like an exploration of tension-release to me.) So first to establish the C modality, Patterns 6 and 8 create a simple lulling motion back and forth. For me, there is tension immediately due to the rocking back and forth on the G to F of Pattern 8. While a whole tone is pleasing as it passes, rocking back and forth on it creates some dissonance and tension. At the same time, we are hearing the C-G stabilizing fifth relationship, but even that sounds a bit off to the ear because the C is high and the G lower. Very interesting!

So the introduction of the F# will layer into and heighten an already existing tension. The manner in which the F# is introduced will dictate the quality of this next level of tension created in the piece. When the F# enters with alot of immediate presence, the startle response is triggered. I opted for an accumulation of tension by bringing the F# slowly up into the mix. At almost the same time, another layer of tension is created with the Pulse. I love the voicing of the eighth note C pulse on high strings and a quarter note pulse on the low end. It sounds very cool, and adds alot of tension due to the drive it creates. The floaty feeling of the long tones gets washed away by this incessant pulse.

Once the F# and the Pulse have fully arrived in the mix, the urge is to find some relief from this confluence of dissonance and drive. While the urge could be heightened by layering in the voices in a cacophony of pattern changes, I opted to move toward resolution pretty quickly. There are two phrases that contribute to resolving the tri-tone, the C-B-G-F# with its C root and fifth providing the beginnings of a stable path for the F#. The pattern that brings it home is Pattern 42 with its iteration of the first inversion C Major chord: E-G-C. When that Pattern makes an entrance there is just a feeling of calm and “everything will be alright” that comes into the mix. And, to be honest, even though the F# is left behind in the end, the feeling it engendered still lingers in the sonic landscape. So the tension never quite releases. Hmmmm! What do you hear?


A Podcast (of sorts)

So many projects right now and much work getting done. The last few weeks I have been up every morning between 4 am and 7 am working on new ideas for soundscapes. What I am hearing is very influenced by our study of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 22. A very fun piece that truly illustrates how a simple theme can be restructured in multiple relationships to itself to create a thing of beauty. The Divine WoW is leading to collaborations, collaborations falling apart, which leads to more collaborations. And the most beautiful thing is that I am inspired by these collaborations and not clinging to them. I get some impetus out of each and every one. And I continue to be endlessly available to myself in the studio.

As I was going through some files this week, I came across this recording I made of myself (there I am again!) playing a slice of “In C” in the Sun(Ra) Room. I loved this piece that begins with the dotted quarter swaying of Patterns 20 to 26 then travels up to and a bit beyond Pattern 35. The movement is from a holding back to pulled into a gallop, and then jump into the free flight of Pattern 35. I invite you to crank this up and let it carry you away as it does me every time I listen. It has the form of pleasure to my ear. As always I am very interested in what YOU are hearing.

I am calling this a podcast because I talk a little bit in the beginning.

Something About Waking Up

Going through the Jude’s Tunes file, I came upon a piece called “Awaken”. Hmmmmmm, I had just titled the first part of another piece that same thing. So I listened to it and heard immediately why it was called “Awaken” – this piece tells a story of waking up to the heart-opening joy that lies in the midst of chaos. The place of the true anarchist! So I renamed the piece, “Into Great Lightness”.

This piece exemplifies a sound painting to me. The theme is one of emergence and unfolding. The point of view is first person, which means that headphones give the full experience of the piece. The movement is out and through. The ending is not right- as is so often the case! I invite you to listen to it again with these ideas in mind. As with most painters, I am curious if others hear the story, or a variation on the theme. It amazes me that so much can be said with just 12 tones in shifting relation to each other.

I want to wake up and I want to sleep. Daily I feel less of the world, and yet more in the world than I have ever been. While oppression and injustice abound, none of it seems to hold a candle to the self-inflicted variety that most of us suffer from. I think the institutionalized oppression is the mirror for our own focus on suffering. One of the ways to shift the oppression is to focus on the day-to-day joys within this gift of lived experience. Most everything else is none of my business.