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Thursday, 31 December 2009

It's that time of year

At the very end of December people's minds turn to two things. Submissions for ICMC and New Years Resolutions!


Every year I resolve to do the same things. Play more gigs, write more music, work harder, etc. But I know a few people who have made much more extreme, massively life-style altering resolutions. I've contacted them recently to see how those went and will be reporting on it, citizen-journalist interview style, in the next few days. If you made a major resolution and want to tell people about it via my blog, please contact me.


When I was working on my MA, I actually had a much better method of workflow. When I was writing a piece, I would blog drafts of it and solicit feedback and I would make presentations of it as a work in progress at public venues. I need to start doing this again. Now, I mostly work alone, only demo-ing my stuff for my supervisor and then submit it to things that want a premiere. And I don't write about my ideas as often. This results in me having weaker pieces that take longer to write.

Unfortunately, these kind of CV boosting events, like ICMC do want premieres. I'm submitting to the piece plus paper category and I haven't quite work out what to write about what I've written. Heck, the piece doesn't even have a name yet.

Like most of the pieces I've written since my MA, it actually started out as several unrelated ideas that coalesced together. For a long time, I'd been thinking that I should record the sounds of trains, so when I was home for my uncle's funeral, I recorded CalTrains and Amtrak to go with my collections of UK and EU train sounds. Also, I had been listening to a lot of drone music, especially the music of composer David Seidel. I noticed that though his music was drony, it was not at all static, but had a lot of variation. It was also calming when I was having anxiety issues. It seemed to involve FM tones and I had just coded up some libraries to deal with Dissonance Curves and FM tones, so I wanted to do something that could tune drones on-the-fly based on randomly generated FM parameters. Finally, I analyzed some of the bell sounds I recorded with trains and used those also for tuning.

So basically, I just took a bunch of sounds that I like and put them together. I don't know if it's interesting to talk about why I like train sounds. My flat in Berkeley is a block from the tracks and I could hear train whistles blowing through the night. Some of my neighbors object tot his, but I found the whistles kind of mournful and haunting. They are a bit siren-like to me. Sometimes, when I hear the train whistle blow, I get an incredible longing, that I wish I was on the train as a passenger or a hobo, going someplace - anywhere the train is going.

One day late in 2001, or early 2002, I was sitting at a café near the tracks and a freight train started to go by, loaded with hundreds of army tanks. They were clearly going to be deployed to Afghanistan. The café fell silent as well started uneasily at the military cargo.

I focused on my California train sounds instead of European ones just because American train sounds are just much more train-y. My mom used to complain that the "new" diesels sounded dull in comparison to the old steam engines, but the diesels are more interesting than the electric ones. Also, the signals and many of the trains have bells on them. CalTrains, in particular is loud and full of very characteristic old-fashioned train noises. There's something kind of ironic about such old-timey-sounding trains serving Silicon Valley.

But there's also something kind of not-ironic. Infrastructure and transit in America has been neglected for decades. Like, trains are the future, I think. But the glass-topped observation decks of the Pacific Starlight Express, while being a good way to get to Oregon or Washington, is more of an antique than the future. The romance of train sounds comes from it's sort of time capsule quality.

I took my train recordings and put them through feedback and comb filters and plate reverb and other things to make them slightly less obviously field recordings. I used the drone tunings for tuning these effects also, which has hopefully created a bit of glue between the train sounds and the drone sounds.

Perhaps, I should also talk about Dissonance Curves. Tones are considered consonant if they are close enough together in pitch to have slow beating or if they are far enough apart to be outside of each other's critical band. ( Any sound is made up 1 or more tones, so if you want to know if two sounds are consonant, you can compare all of the tones of sound A with all of the tones of sound B. In order to create a Dissonance Curve, you compare a sound with itself at a shifted tuning, and then graph how relatively dissonant all of the possible tunings are. The minima on the curve are places where consonance is high, and thus make good tunings. (

I wrote and published some code for computing Dissonance Curves in SuperCollider, which I used in this piece. I like open source code and I like sharing, which, incidentally, I think it related to why I like trains, because they both involve collectivized solutions and building useful infrastructure.

So the underlying drone sounds are FM tones which are tuned according to their dissonance curve. On top, there are train recordings, run though filtering processes using the same tuning. Then, closer to the end, the tuning and timbre both shift to one based on some of the bell sounds. Some of the tuning is kind of fudged, though, because I detuned the left and right by 10Hz. I did this because of dubious claims that such a detuning effects brain waves and makes people feel more relaxed. I wanted ot write music that would do good things for my general anxiety levels. This makes the tuning not work in one channel, but it's only slightly off and this isn't rocket science.

I need 4 or 8 pages in proceedings. How many words go on a proceeding page?

1 comment:

Dave Seidel said...

Thanks for the mention, Les! I'm happy that you found my music helpful. I know about anxiety too, and I think I am drawn to drones not only because it's what I like to hear, but also because it's often what I need to hear.

Really looking forward to hearing your new piece.