Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On the Sonovox

The human voice in many ways mimics a synthesizer. The voice box is the oscillator, the throat, tonque and month create the filter from which language and song is created. Modulation is also used to create vibrato effects n the voice. You might just say that from the time we are an infant we learn to play a synthesizer.

The Sonovox is a curious little device. I revised my original post here because I can't really figure out how this device works. It acts much like a vocoder. There are analogue vocoders but they require a series of filter banks which is clearly not what is going on with the Sonovox. The descriptions, which are very terse on the internet. This is my best guess as to how this device works:

A small speaker is placed up against the voice box and the singer articulates the words (accordinig to one web site as a whisper - i..e. with no vibrations coming from the voice box). My suspician is that another mic with a large diaphram picks up the articulated vibrations.

I found this on the talkinig guitar which sounds similar to the Sonovox and the Heil Talk Box:


The principle is the same. The sound of the instrument is amplified and in the case of the talk box and talking guitar sent through a tube which acts as a wave guide. The sound is then shaped by the mouth and picked up my a mic. What I can't figure out on the Sonovox is where the placement of the mic is.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

On Musical Gesture

I read the most fascinating article you can find here:


I have often commented on bulletin boards about how music has indeed been chained by the pitch bend and mod wheel. What do I mean by that? When synthesizers first came out, it was not clear that a keyboard would be the principle controller. For practical reasons musicians did not put modulars on stage save Keith Emerson and perhaps a few others. The Minimoog, the ARP 2600 and the latter Prophet and others would bring practical performance instruments to the stage. The keyboard, pitch bend and mod wheels became the standard controllers while other controllers like the ribbon controller were around.

Buchla has always favored alternative controllers since their inception. There new 200e music box (modular) offers the Buchla Thunder (or as they now call it, the kinistetic imput device). Buchla also has their lightening wands and Marimba controller, Roland has their D-Beam controller on some of their synths and Korg has their Chaos pad and the touch screen of some synths that function as controllers as well. Moog has a touch pad on the Voyager. In fact, more and more these alternatives to the keyboard, which seemed almost banished to by the dominance of the pitch bend and mod wheels have now come back in various forms.

But even before Buchla and Moog existed there was one of my personal favorites the Ondes Martenot, a very underestimated early electronic instrument for which Olivier Messiaen championed. Messiaen being a composer I have the utmost respect for and who found a way to bridge the gap between the post modern classical music, sacred music and Catholicism, a devout Catholic himself as am I (perhaps a surprise to some, I know, us musical types tend more toward the agnostic but what am I to do, deny who gave me musical gifts). In fact, my own music in many ways is at least influenced my my Catholicism if not a direct expression of it and a retelling of biblical themes in electronic form albeit in a subtle way that I hope can speak to the musical intelligentsia and to the younger crowd seeking an alternative to popular music end endless drum machines.

But as not to move beyond the topic at hand, gesture is how we experience not only music but he world. The brain expedience the world not in terms of formula, for example the cold lifeless formula of the Fourier transformed misused in the frequency domain of the FFT made concrete in additive synthesis (synthetic slight of hand and like all magic, an illusion). Life is gesture. We experience things as a whole. A tree is not defined by white noise and filters but by whoosh, the totality of the sound it makes as it falls. In the same way, a musician does not learn by complex formula of how to play a not but by the experience of how to express emotion in music and to move beyond the trapping of the notes on paper, the Cartesian universe of duration and pitch. Pitch itself being one of those trappings of scientific extensions into the world of art where it really finds no place. Real pitch is dynamic, flowing and emotive.

Both Karlheintz Stockhausen and Luigi Russo saw sound in terms not of scientific models of vibrating molecules but gesture, a gestalt whole that can't be broken up in time or especially in the illusury and murky frequency domain.

The theremin, which is what I have been getting to, is also a modern expression of this idea. Theremins are played by gesture. Notes are not fixed but gestural and dynamic which is so very musical and beautiful.

It is my hope that the musical world can free itself from cliched ways of thinking and making music and find new avenues to express the dynamic and gesture nature of music. If a tree falls in a forest, it may vibrate molecules if no one is there to hear it, it does not sing.

Friday, June 19, 2009

On light, motion, sound and dreams

I suppose it was all those tweets I have been reading on dreams lately that sent me into one of my own today. It was not so much the dream which was interrupted by angry city car horns but the beautiful collage of brilliant colors that I saw as I came up if out of the depths peaceful waters. I suppose it was the body recovering from a stint of sleep deprivation but it was a most pleasant experience. How wonderful these simple things of life. Who needs drugs when our own minds can conjure up the most beautiful dreams but also, the most disturbing nightmares.

At times, I have heard music in my dreams as well. Some say the music of our dreams is only music we have heard in the past but never heard this music. It was as if my mind simply created it. But how to unlock that creativity so that it can take flight outside the dream word and take the forms of notes and timbre and form. To weave as our wayward dreams do but to be expressed in concrete form so it can be something captured and frozen in time free to find its way to other ears and minds and dreams.

That is what the greats did. They told us their dreams with notes. And in their nightmares ours were awakened as well. Hope balanced against despair but the creative mind always reaches out to God and to one another to free us of more earthy limitations.

So as I watched those colors brilliantly play across my field of vision and across the recesses of my waking mind, I began to think, not as a dreamer thinks, but as a composer. The Thermin is one of my favorites along with the Ondes Martenot. Ancient instruments in many ways at least in the fast past world of electronic music, but in many ways, more expressive than the cliched pitch bend and mod wheel that seem to have enslaved us.

Now if the hand can break an invisible field and give way to pitch from visible circuits flowing with invisible electrons, then how much also can the same play with light. Photocells are abundant and easy to plug into synthesizer modules and yes, my favorite, moogerfoogers. I have used them and yes, they sing! Buchla knew this when he encapsulated the light of a diode and the photocell married in plastic covering, the multipurpose opto-isolator turned musical instrument. Light can be turned into plucked strings.

And so I thought, here is this Theremin. Now enter some really bright flashlights and, don't be scared now, even ones that can be controlled by MIDI. Combine with photocells and then the hand making gestures and playing a theremin. Add some accelerometers or gyros (aka alternate wii - you don't need Wii for this) or magnets or flex resistors and you have a whole word of light and motion and magetic fields all which can produce voltage and make foogers and synths sing perhaps, even the stuff of dreams.

Right now this is only the stuff of dreams. Some dreamy musings while the sleep wears off and the memory of the curtain of lights fades to nothing. But perhaps, like Robert Moog himself who dared to dreams of circuits made into instruments, there is more to the world than perhaps, we have ever dreamed. To sleep, perchance to dream and perhaps, to ask the question, will I dream and will my dreams begin to sing.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On Instruments and Methods

I often wonder how much we play music and how much music and indeed our instruments play us.

I was struck tonight by this quote from Stravinsky, honoring his birthday, from the Yale School of Music:

Stravinsky: "I have learned... through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to fonts of wisdom and knowledge."

While I certainly would not stop learning from books (and I have many on music and many scores), there is a certain element of truth to this statement.

Music is, in part, learning from the past, but music is also an encounter with the instrments and tools themselves. This is especially true in the world of electronics where the circuts, the modules, the tubes, even the capacitors and resistors, are part of an exploratory process. Electronics respond to us and we respond to them and somewhere in that mix comes art (or so we can hope).

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tara Busch's Remix of Bat for Lashes Daniel

My complements to Tara Bush for such an effective use of foogers and synthesizers in this remix. One of the mistakes I often hear in music today is the overuse of just about everything. If it's heavy metal, then we believe that unless our ears are bleeding its not good. If its dance music then there has to be a driving beat to the exclusion of just about everthing else. Suffice it to say that for my tastes, such extravagence limits and detracts from music rather than enhancing it.

Art, be it music or the visual arts, is most effective when many elements are almost below the level of the listener or observers perception. By carefully crafting sound that is not overpowering, Tara's mix is able to bring to surface a sense of atmophere and perhaps, memories of the past as Tara points out the the rain on a roof or tent.

My musical style has in many ways been influenced by R. Murray Schafer's "The Soundscape". In this book, he talks about insect sounds, birds, bells and all sort of sounds like rain that are part of our "soundscape":


Certainly, such sounds have been used effectively in music, either in a more figurative way, or a direct way, througout musical history.

Another wonderful book (so I have heard, its in by bookshelf waiting for me to read it) is Pauline Oliveros "Deep Listening":

The book:


And the insitute:


It is also true that when using a tool such as fooger, there is a tendency to overuse it. Tara does not do this in her mix which is what makes the use of them so effective. When the tool becomes the focus rather than its use as a tool to enhance the art work, then it detracts but when it is hehind the scenes then the music is enhanced.

Often we find this in samples. How much music is based on re-hashed samples. I get some musical artists upset when I say this but often the presets and samples on digital keyboards are the same old rehashed sounds. Examples are euro, techo and hip hop. These genres can almost be defined by the use of a very narrow collection of samples that are used and re-used and once again, the tool takes over rather than the tool enhancing the songs.

Does it have to be this way? No. But its the path of least resistance.

Bottom line: Kudus to "Bat for Lashes" and Tara Bush for an effective use of a great musical tool.