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Friday, 11 March 2011

My life lately (is tl;dr)

Tuesday and Wednesday Last Week

A week ago Tuesday, I taught my module in Cambridge. The next morning, I got on a train to Birmingham for BiLE practice. I'm a co-founder of BiLE, the Birmingham Laptop Ensemble. We formed in February and we have a gig next week. The technical hurdles to getting a laptop ensemble going are not minor, so there has been a lot of energy going into this from everybody. We have got group messaging going, thanks to OSCGroups and I wrote some SuperCollider infrastructure based on the API quark and a small chat GUI and a stopwatch sort of timer, which is controlled with OSC, so there's been a lot of that sort of tool writing. And much less successful coding of sound-making items, which will eventually be joystick controllable if I ever get them to work. All my code is written for mono samples and all of the shared samples people are using are in stereo, so I spent a lot of time trying to stereo-ise my code before finally mixing the samples down to mono.

I'm a big believer in mono, actually, in shared playing environments. If I am playing with other people, I'm playing my computer as an instrument and instruments have set sound-radiation patterns. I could go with a PLOrk-style 6-speaker hemisphere, if I wanted to spend a boatload of money on a single-use speaker to get an instrumental radiation pattern form my laptop, so I could just use a single Genelec 1029 that I already own.

Anyway, after the BiLE rehearsal, a couple students gave a group presentation on Reaper, which is a shareware, cheap, powerful DAW. I'm quite impressed and am pondering switching. My main hesitation is that I expect my next computer will be linux, so I don't know if I want to get heavily involved with a program that won't run on that OS. On the other hand, I don't actually like Ardour very much, truth be told. I haven't liked any of them since I walked away from ProTools.

After that we went out for socialising and instead of catching a train home, I went to stay on the floor of Julien's studio. He lives way out in the country, up a lane (British for a single-track country road). It's quite lovely. I would not be a fan of that commute, but I might do it for that cottage.


The next morning, Juju and I set back to campus quite early so he could meet his supervisor. I ran a couple of errands and got a uni-branded hoodie. I haven't worn such a garment for years, because fabric clinging to my chest in the bad old days was not a good thing. But now I can wear snug woven fabrics, like T-shirts, hoodies and jumpers! It's amazing! Also, I remember the major student protests about university branded clothing made by child labour, but this was actually fairtrade, according to the label, which is fairly impressive.

Then all the postgrads met in the basement of the Barber Institute to start loading speakers into a truck for a gig. We were moving a relatively small system, only 70 speakers, but that's still a fair amount of gear to muscle around. Then we went to the Midlands Arts Centre to move all the gear into the venue and set it up. The gear is all in heavy flight cases, which needed to be pushed up and down ramps and down hallways and then the speakers inside needed to be carried to where they would be set up, as did the stands to which they would be attached and the cables that connect them. It's a lot of gear. We worked until 6 or 7 pm and then went back to the studios at uni to get a 2 hour long presentation from Hans Tutchku about how he does music stuff. I tried desperately to stay awake because it was interesting and I wanted to hear what he was saying, but I did not entirely succeed in my quest.


Then, Juju and I went back to his place, 45 minutes away and then came back to the MAC early the next morning to finish rigging the system. We put up the remainder of the system and then people who were playing in that evening's concert began to rehearse. I hung around for the afternoon, trying to get my BiLE code working. Kees Tazelaar, who played the next evening came along to see how things were going and recognised me from Sonology and greeted me by my old name. I like Kees quite a lot, but it was a very awkward moment for me and I wasn't sure what to do, so I spoke to him only briefly and then mostly avoided him later. This was not the best way to handle it.

There were two concerts in the evening. The second of them was organised by Sound Kitchen and was a continuous hour with no break between pieces. The people diffusing the stereo audio to the 70 speakers took turns, but changed places without interrupting the sound flow. It was extremely successful, I thought. The hour was made up of the work of many different composers, each of whom had contributed only 5 minutes, but somehow this was arranged into a much larger whole that held together quite well, partly because many of the different composers had used similar sound material. A lot of them used bird sounds, for example, so that was a repeating motif throughout the concert.


After that, we hung around the bar for a bit afterwards. The next morning was not so early, thank goodness, when we went back to the MAC and then back to the uni for the BiLE hack day. The idea was that we would do a long group coding session, where people could write code around each other and ask for clarification or feedback or help or whatever from band mates. However, it started really late and everybody was really tired, so it was not entirely successful in it's goals.

Then we went back to the MAC for the concerts. I was sitting in the hallway, trying to figure out why my BiLE code had failed so completely when I got drafted into being in charge of the comp tickets. It turns out that this is actually somewhat stressful, because it requires knowing who is supposed to get comped in, getting tickets for them and then distributing them. Which means approaching Francis Dhomont and speaking to him.

The first concert was curated by Kees Tazelaar and started with a reconstruction of the sounds played in the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels Worlds Fair in 1958. He found the source tapes and remixed them. Concrete PH sounded much more raw and rougher than other mixes I've heard. It had a gritty quality that seemed much more grounded in a physical process. I was surprised by how different it sounded. Then he played Poem électronique and a his own work called Voyage dans l'espace. I hope he plays these again on large multi-channel systems, because it was pretty cool.

I was feeling fairly overwhelmed by the lack of sleep, my lack of success with BiLE and getting stuck with all the comp tickets, so I was not happy between concerts. The next one was all pieces by Anette Vande Gorne, a Belgian woman who runs the Espace du son festival in Brussels and who has very definite theories about how to diffuse sounds in space. Some of them are quite sensible, however, she thinks that sound can start at the front of the hall and be panned towards the back of the hall, but sound cannot originate at the back of the hall and travel to the front. Hearing about this had prejudiced me against her, as it seems rather silly.

She always diffuses standing up, so they had raised the faders for her, with one bank slightly higher than the other, like organ manuals. She started to play her pieces... and it was amazing. It was like being transported to another place. All of my stress was lifted from my shoulders. It was just awe inspiring. The second piece was even better. I was sitting in the back half, so I could see her standing at the mixers, her hands flying across the faders dramatically, like an organist, full of intensity as her music dramatically swelled and travelled around the room. It was awe-inspiring. Then I understood why people listened to her, even when some of her theories sound silly. She might not be right about everything, but there's quite a lot she is right about. This was one of the best concerts that I've ever been to.

The last concert was a surprise booking, so it wasn't well publicised. It was Jonty Harrison, Francis Dhomont and Hans Tutchku. It was also quite good, but I wouldn't want to play after Vande Gorne. Tutchku's piece had several pauses in it that went on just a few moments too long. It's major climax came quite early. It worked as a piece, but seemed like it could be experienced in another order as easily as the way it was actually constructed. I talked to him at the party afterwards and he said that the pauses were climaxes for him and ways of building tension and that he had carried them out for too long in order to build suspense. I'm not entirely positive they functioned in this way, but the idea is quite ineresting and I may look into it. He also asked me what I thought of his presentation for two days earlier, so I was hoping he hadn't noticed me dozing off, but I think he did.

After the final concert, there was a large party at Jonty's house. I got a lift from Jonty, so I was squeezed in the back of a car with Anette Vande Gorne on one side of me and Hans Tutchku on the other side with Francis Dhomont in the front. They all spoke French the whole way. I've been filling out job applications and one them wants to know about my foreign language skills and now I can say with certainty that if I'm stuck in a car with several famous composers speaking French, I can follow their conversation fairly well, but would be way too starstruck to contribute anything.

Apparently, the party went on until 4:30 in the morning, but I didn't stay so late. I talked a lot to Jean-François Denis, the director of empreintes DIGITALes, a Canadian record label. He flew from Canada just for the weekend and showed up without anyone expecting him. He is extraordinarily charming.


The next morning, we went back again to the MAC and then there was a long concert with an intermission in the early afternoon. Amazingly, none of the concerts over the entire weekend featured overhead water drops. There were barely any dripping sounds at all.

After the concert, we de-rigged the system and packed all the gear back into cases and loaded it onto the two rented trucks. Then we went for curry in Mosely, which we seem to do after every gig. Shelly was talking about how it was her last BEAST gig and I wasn't paying much attention until I realised this meant it was my last gig too. I really should have signed up to play something. I thought there was another gig coming later in the year, but it was cancelled. I'm seriously going to graduate from Brum having only played a piece at a BEAST gig one time and never having diffused a stereo piece. That is extremely lame on my part.


Juju was completely exhausted, so we left the curry early, so he could go home and catch up on sleep. The next morning, we all went back to the Barber Institute to unload the trucks and put everything away. Then we, as usual, went to the senior common room to have cups of terrible coffee. Their tea is alright, so that's what I had, but most people go for the coffee, which could double as diesel fuel. I guess this was my last time of that also.

Normally, I would then gather my things and go home, but I did not. I worked on code and faffed and worried about my lecture the next day and then in the evening, we had another seminar. Howard Skempton came and talked for two hours about Cardew and Morton Feldman and his own music. It was quite good. We all went to the pub afterwards, but that dissipated quickly as people left to sleep it off.


I got the train home, finally and got in after midnight. There's a large stack of mail inside my door. I woke up early the next morning to assemble my presentation for my module. As luck would have it, the topic was acousmatic music, so I talked about BEAST and played them some of the music from the weekend. I also pointed them at some tools. I was supposed to have them start their task during the class time, but a surprising number of them wanted to show their works in progress, so that didn't happen.

As I was on the train back to London from Cambridge, I wondered whether I should go out to a bar that night to socialise when I fell completely asleep on the train. Drooling on my backpack asleep. I completely crashed. I woke myself up enough to get the tube home and then thought I would sort out my BiLE code instead of going out, but I couldn't concentrate, so I just faffed around on the internet instead of sleeping or going out. Meh to me.


Then, the next day, which was Wednesday, a week and a day after all of this started, I got on the train for Birmingham to go to a BiLE rehearsal and to go to a seminar. I got my code working on the train and was feeling somewhat happy about that, but when I got to the rehearsal, it just gave up completely. I managed to make sounds twice during the entire rehearsal, one of which was during a grand pause. When I tried repeating the sound later, it wouldn't play. Also, Shelly found a crash bug in my chat application, when Juju typed a french character. On the bright side, however, all of the MAX users got all the way through one of the pieces we're playing next Thursday, which is quite encouraging. Antonio, our graphics guy got the projector sort of working, so I was able to glance at what he was doing a couple of times and it looked good.

We took a break and a bunch of the postgrads were dissing live coding, so I guess that might not be a good goal for the ensemble. They thought projected code was self-indulgent and only programmers would care. I need to link them to the toplap mainfesto. Actually, they were more dissing the idea of live coding, having barely witnessed any themselves. Non-programmers do seem to care and, while it is a movement that does require some thoughtful understanding to fully appreciate it, the same could certainly be said of acousmatic music. I like the danger of live coding, something that I think a laptop ensemble ought to appreciate. It's a bit like a high wire act.

The presentations at the seminar were interesting and then we went to the pub. I was so tired biking home from the train station that I got confused about which side of the street I'm supposed to be on.


I slept until 2 this afternoon and I was supposed to sort out my BiLE code and fix up my CV and write my research portfolio, but all I did was send out email about Monday's supercollider meetup and fix the crashbug in the chat thing. SuperCollider strings are in 7 bit ascii and fuck up if you give them unicode, which is really quire shocking and not documented anywhere.

Then I went to Sam's to get Xena back and I wired up part of the 5.1 system she got for her daughter and sorted out her daughter's macmini so that she could connect to it with VNC and so it was wired to the sound system and the projector and quit asking for the keychain password every 5 seconds. Then I came home and spent ages typing this up. Tomorrow, I will do my CV stuff for real, because I have to get it done and then work on my BiLE code. Saturday I'm going back to Brum again for a 5 hour rehearsal in wich we sort out the rest of our music for the gig. Sunday, I need to finish and job application related stuff and write my presentation for Tuesday. Monday is the job application deadline and a SuperCollider meetup. Tuesday, I teach. Wednesday, I need to get Xena back to Sam's and then go to Brum again for a rehearsal and will be there overnight to practice the next day and then play the gig and then get stonkingly drunk. Friday, I go home. And then start sorting out the tech stuff for the next two pieces, which at least are by me and count towards my portfolio. And I need to sort out my stretched piece which is a disorganised mess and start writing a 20 minut piece, which I haven't done at all and needs to be done very soon because I need to graduate and I have not spent all this busy time working on my own music, although the tools I've written should be kind of valuable. All I can think about now, going over and over in my head is all the stuff I have to do. And snogging. That thing about men thinking about sex every 7 seconds has never been true for me before, but it is now. And it's actually quite annoying except that as the alternative is thinking about everything that I have to do, I actually prefer it.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Re: Reaper, I was talking with some artists the other day about the difficulty of sticking to an all-FLOSS diet. We wondered if the best approach is to insist on open formats for distribution--LAMP, WebM, HTML5--and use any tools we like on the production side?

(Not that FLOSS production tools aren't very important too, especially to students. It took me a while to realize that mine are surprisingly piracy-averse, consistently preferring a free tool over its commercial equivalent--GIMP over Photoshop, Processing over Flash, etc.)