Sunday, May 16, 2010

On the Avant Guarde and Electronic Music

I have about 1 hour before I begin my final push to begin vacation and I wanted to get this blog out because from time to time in my Twitter conversations I come across a topic that is worth posting here to the blog.

When I first got interested in synthesizers (and believe me, I love synthesizers!), I wantred to know where electronic music started, where its musical roots were. So I got this book which basically gave short essays on a number of avante guarde composers. I knew enough to believe that this was a good place to look for the musical roots of electronic music. I was right. I also had another great book (I don't have it here with me and can't recall the name or author) but it gave a beief but thorough history of synthesizers and their historical influence. What I found was that the early period of electronic music which really started with what was called "music concrete" (tape splicing, ect) was very closely tied with the musical avant guarde which was a certain branch, if yo will, of 20th century classical music. You can really follow electronic from Wagner alll the way to Karlheintz Stockhausen to provide a concrete example.

Composers such as John Cage, Karlheintz Stockhausen, Max Matthews, Oscar Sala, Pierre Shaeffer and many others came from this tradition.

One of the things that happened with synthesizers is that when Bob Moog made the Minimoog, electronic music became very accessible to popular music. Certainly the Melotron as well became to herald in a new age of electronic music and synthesizers when from the universities (probably because they were the only ones at first who could afford them) to the mainstream. Artists lke Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Richard Wright of Pink Floyd (may God rest his soul) (just to name a few) made synthesizers more accessible to the public. I also should mention Walter Carlos (Switched on Bach) which has a huge influence on the popularization of electronic music.

Now don't get me wrong, this popular influence is not a bad thing. I love Pink Floyd for the music myself although I don't like the drug connection (I deeply hate drugs), it took electronic music in another direction which moved away from being more on the cutting edge to being subordinated in many ways to the needs of the record companies and there artists who saw synthesizers as a way to sell a lot of records. The early Moog modulars and the VCS3 (which did not even have a keyboard) began to trasnition into what today dominated the market with sample based workstations which would offer the musician anything from symphonic instruments to the cliched collection of hip hop rhythms and sounds that seem to be standard on every keyboard.

So, to make a very long story short, the early experimental stage of electronic music for which great names like Karlheintz Stockhausen played such a wonderful role in, became popularized and the history became forgotten. I personally would like to see a return to the avant guarde where music becomes something we experiment with pushing envelopes. I do believe that indie music and all the new tools that are out there now like the Eigenharp and the Tenori-on and so many others that I could mention might move electronic music back to it's experimental and creative roots and perhaps, musical workstations will not longer carry a cliched set of hip hop sounds (sorry, I know that is to much to hope for).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

It's all Greek to Me

The development of western scales (or for that matter the study of all scales western or eastern) is a fascinating topic. The study of tuning or temperament also is a very interesting subject. Probably the earliest scales that are known (although I don't know the exact historical facts in this regard) are the scales of the Greeks. The Greek culture had a great love for ratios be they in relation to the motion of planets or the sound of the Greek lyre. From the Greek scales or modes as they are called, the western scales developed and settled on only two modes (major and minor). Jazz music and other forms of music do make use of other modes and scales.

While there are also other scale temperaments which have a lot to do with ratios (a more complex topic than one might think), the western scale is now usually what is called equal tempered.

Here is a brief introduction to this complex topic:

The concept of equal temperament is that is not key dependent so each half tone step is equally distanced mathematically.

The concept of dividing scales equally I believe to be more of a product of a kind of scientific bias of the western mind than anything else probably derived from the quantization of all things introduced to western thought by Descartes. (sorry, my philosophical background is showing :))

Bottom line however and a question: Why do all instruments have to have equally spaced intervals? Truth is they don't and music is more about ratios than it is about the placement of notes. So when we speak about an instrument like the Eigenharp which has a flexible way of assigning notes to keys, different arrangements simply reflect different relationships. I guess in many ways I am not that tied to a western equal tempered bias or feel that all divisions have to be equal distance in terms of frequency.

Certainly, the Eigenharp has got people thinking in new ways as the Tenori-on has done for thinking about sequencing. What is clear is that the idea of a fixed way to play music is changing and as I have stated before, I think that's a good thing. Are there going to be pitfalls along the way? Sure, but those are the very stuff of good music because you never know where they will lead.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Performing, Composing and and Musical Tools

I was not sure what to title this blog but I thought I would get off a quick blog this morning to comment on a quote of Mark Mosher:

"I'm simultaneously composing and arranging for live performance with various controllers."

While I know that Mark was simply commenting on his days activities, it struck me that music technology has brought us to a new word where the old paradigms simply don't work anymore. I think back to the movie Amadeus when Salieri asks Mozart's wife for his original transpripts of his music. Upon looking at them and realizing that they were without flaw with no corrections and changes, Salieri responds that he wants the originals upon which his wife explains that those are the originals on which in shock, Salieri drops them on the floor.

For Mozart, music was something that was all inside his head. Mozart could write a work for an entire orchestra by hearing it all in his head and when he wrote it down, there was no difference between the visual representation and the music that musicians would latter perform.

I can't do what Mozart did and I suspect most who write music can't. Composing is a process full or starts and stops, edits and mistakes that in time, make for what one would hope is a composition worth listening to.

But now we live in different times and the tools that musicians/composers have at their disposal today are far different than the harpsichords, musical instrument and quill and paper that were the tools of Mozart's musical trade.

Last night, I was perusing two books I recently purchased. One was on polyrhythms and the other on rhythmic illusions. I was thinking about how I was going to use these to create music on the Tenori-on. Now I am not a drummer nor have I had any great talent in creating complex rhythms but with the Tenori, the ability to see and hear at the same time, a complex rhythmic pattern had now become accessible. Even real time modification of this in a performance environment became possible.

I also think of how much Ableton Live has become talked about more than any other DAW. Part of the reason is in the very name "Live". Live provides and environment where much like Mark Mosher's work, composing and arranging blend into live performance.

Adriene Lake has also commented in one of her tweats how she had all these snipits of music flouting around in her head but not sure who composed them. Ableton's clips allow us to categorize these clips and modify them and arrange then in new ways.

For me, see musicians/composers living in a wonderful new world of music where the lines between composing, arranging and performing are being blurred but I see that as something positive not negative. Who knows what great music that musicians/composers/arrangers can make when they cross the streams and make way for a new music.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

My New and Unorthodox Step Sequencer - The Tenori-on

I just ordered a Tenori-on. For a long while, I have been wanting to round out the one thing that I really don't have, a step sequencer. Actually, I do in a sense. There is a simple one in the Korg M3 I have and KARMA can do a lot of sequencing but the problem is, I want to think a new way about my music.

The most enjoyable times I have had playing music have also been the times that I have played the best music. For example, for me to play a really good jazz solo over chord changes I have to spend a lot of time playing scales and cementing in my mind the chord changes for a song. But those times that I have played really good solos it was all natural. Once the foundation was laid the creative part became play which is what any pure creative act is.

When I first saw Tenori I thought of it as a toy and in many ways I still do but after years of using more complicated toys in music, I am not sure that the simplistic, visual and playful approach of Tenori is not exactly what the doctor ordered for my music.

One of the reasons I have never really learned Korg's KARMA is that reading the manual for it is like reading some sort of computer science journey. Sure, if you get to the 10th level of a series of menus you can probably make KARMA get up in the morning and make you morning coffee but its not elegant and its not playful. Tenori on the other hand is both.

Simple ideas often work best. Consider Beethoven's 5th. It's a theme on three notes, three notes! Think about that. Sure, I know, there is a lot more to it than that but the basic structure is three notes.

I love music but I find when music get's tedious for me it loses its flavor. I have longed since wanted to get into poly rhythms and add some sequences to my compositions. I don't want my music to get stale and I want to move it in new directions. Tenori is a way to do that.

Now I think Tenori is in many ways stage one. I hope Yamaha does not see it as a finished product but rather, the 1st installment on a way to think about music more visually.

So when I get my Tenori I am going to plug it right into my M3 and my Voyager. I also want to send Tenori MIDI messages into my MP201 and then control Moogerfoogers from this. The potential to get to some pretty sophisticated sequences that can change over time is tremendous.

So, I await to create new sonic gateways all by playing with a toy.

The Korg M3

I wanted to find a good title for this blog but I felt it best to make it simple, the Korg M3. For a few years now I have owned a Korg M3 and I suppose like buying most keyboards or even soft synths, one eventually moves bey0nd the initial excitement of having a new set of sounds to work with and begins to realize the strengths and weaknesses of an instrument. Perhaps, this is really the best time to write a review and not during the period of initial exploration.

First, I wanted to explain why I bought a Korg M3. Very simply, I got tired of soft synths crashing on me and all the little glitches in my recording when the CPU was not up to the task. At first, I was attracted to the Roland V-Synth which I still find to this day and interesting synth. I have even considered buying one but the truth is, the V-Synth is not really a workstation.

Then I found out about the Korg OASYS and I was very intersted but of course buying one would have bankrupted me. In the end I have probably spent about that much on other equipment and synths anyway but I don't regret not getting one. Korg promoted this synth as a sort of be all and end all of synths because it was in their words "expandable". The idea was that even if this synths did not do everything that you wanted (and it does a lot), it could be expanded with new synths that were going to be coming out all the time.

For a short while after its release it looked like this might be the case but then it was clear that what you saw was what you got. I knew that the M3 was not a lesser OASYS but I also knew that it was a notable synth in it's own right and KARMA (Korg Algorithmic Real time Musical Architecture) got me interested.

Now for those who may not know, KARMA is in the words of Stephen Kay, an appegiator on steroids. It's actually much more than this but many aspects of KARMA untested me. KARMA was not a fixed arranger but something that was supposed to work in a dynamic way with the musician.

Korg also offered an internal Radius which could be placed inside the Korg and accessed through the main menus which also untested me. The Radius being an Analogue emulation.

Now the Motiff had more to offer in a way. It has a digital interface for recording. The M3 has an expansion card but it has problems, big ones. It also had a better sequencer and probably a better set of sounds. Korg tended to favor more dance oriented music and had a bit of a flare for cheesy sounds.

On the positive side the M3 offered a touch screen controller, a strip controller and what I would have to say is a very sophisticated modulation mixer.

So balancing all things together I decided on the M3 over a Motiff.

Now that I have been using it for a while now what are my impressions. First, I have to confess that outside of using presets, I have not worked much with KARMA. KARMA is very complex. Unfortunately, the KARMA presets don't really work so well for me. I would not call them cheesy per say but they are not to my liking. I overlooked this because I saw myself programming my own but as I have said, this has not really happened at least yet. Some KARMA presets do tome really useful things like emulating a strummed guitar by using the strip. This actually works pretty well and with some practice, has some real potential. My point is that KARMA can be used effectively and many of the presets can be tweaked to be useful for a variety of applications. I am not done with KARMA yet, I just have to admit that at least at first its a bit daunting.

That being said, are the sound cheesy as one review I recently read said. No. I really can't say they are. There is a nice collection of samples of instrument sounds and drum kits that would give most musicians more than enough to work with.

On the side of effects the M3 comes with a very substantial set of quality effects and a pretty sophisticated on board routing system. There is also an audio in which works well for a side chain input for the vocoder effect and also can be used to make the M3 into a very sophisticated effects processor (which you can controller using the full set of the M3s controllers). It also has not one but two axillary stereo outs (4 outs to be technical) which can be used to create complex setups with other equipment.

What I like about the M3 is how you can layer sounds and that I learned to do reasonably quickly. Some of the sounds are also very beautiful. I like many of the string and voice sounds myself so characterizing the M3 as a collection of cheesy sounds is unfair. The M3s filters are, well, not what they could be cut I find its real strength is in laying and modulation as well as realtime control.

The M3 is a master at modulation and this is where it really excels and in my option far beyond the Motiff. First, you have not a mod wheel but a joystick. The joystick can also be frozen using two utility buttons so that it remains in one position. There is a ribbon controller right below that, the XY touch pad, beyond being an easy way to program is also an XY controller. There are also a set of 8 sliders and buttons to control many things in real time. When you play something on the M3 it will record everything that you do and play it back. While the sequencer is not that powerful, you can always to this with an external DAW. The M3 is more oriented toward recording you performance.

The M3 also a sophisticated modulation mixer beyond probably anything in the market. The M3 is a powerhouse at modulation. You can modulate just about any setting and you can mix modulation sources in several ways. Sliders are great ways of setting up various performance parameters and then using them in real time in performance which the M3 will record.

That's a simple assessment of the M3 after using it for a few years and yes, while I have been fair to point out what is weak about it, I also have pointed out why its still in my mind a really powerful workstation. In my mind, any musician that can't make some great music with it is just not taking advantage of what it can do.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What Is That?

I was just looking at Ableton's new Operator which allows you to draw your own waveforms. This seems like an interesting idea but I can tell you that in my own experience with additive synths, this idea while satisfying perhaps to the geeky side of music is not necessarily an avenue to making good music.

I must admit that when I first started making music with synthesizers, the more controls I had the better and when I bought my first additive synthesizer, well, the idea of being able to actually draw partials made the geek in me get excited. Absynth also let me draw waveforms. I was in Geek heaven at least for a time.

So now, many years latter now, I have a Moog Voyager and I get much more exited about patching a control voltage than I do drawing waveforms. Why? I will get to it.

But let me also point out that the idea of drawing waveforms is nothing new. The "Synclavier" and "Fairlight" come to mind. In fact, I remember a friend of mind working with a "Synclavier" at RPI. He took me over there one day and pulled up a file called metal. You could see the waveform but the thing sounded like crap at least to me.

My point is that being able to see what you hear is not always the best way to make music. Neither waveforms or partials hold any great sway for me anymore because I can't make a real connection between what I see and what I hear. Funny thing is, I can on my plain old subtractive analogue the Voyager which is why I suspect the original Minimoog did not well and I suspect Bob Moog understood this. I have listened to his interviews which are pretty enlightening. He speaks of their needing to be a connection between musician and instruments. I guess I can't just connect to waveforms anymore, perhaps the geek is me is asleep.

Anyway, before everyone goes crazy with Operators new concept of making the old new again, perhaps they should study the past and find a way to avoid pitfalls in the future.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Crossing the Steams

I wanted to briefly explain what I mean when I speak in my blog of crossing the steams. I myself am the product of many different intellectual streams. I am in many ways, mathematician, scientist, philosopher, theologian, musician and composer. My music reflects a deep belief that in music is expressed a certain perfection, although only in shadow, of the perfection of God. Music is a highly spiritual thing to me. That might sound surprising considering that I am an electronic artist but my use of electronics and software is merely to get to places that traditional instruments can't get me.

I believe that each of us shares in the creative power of God when we create ourselves be it music or art, literature or any other creative endeavor. Creating is something sacred and good. It can be corrupted by certain things and all created works are only at various levels of perfection but they do reflect in us the desire to achieve something new which moves beyond the fray of ordinary human activities.

Music is also recreation. Music is play. As we get older, we lose some of the imagination that we once had a a child. But music can open us up again to imagination. It is to this imagination that I try to speak to in my music. I believe that our experience of music is very much influenced by our memories of things and even memories that are part of our cultural heritage or even ones that are archetypal, universal in nature. I have often said, music play us more than we play it. How music effects us can't be reduced to a scientific formula. This is one of my objections to surrealism and totally algorithmic based composition. Once the heart can speak to the heart not a computer program.

Music is also healing. Sometimes music becomes therapy, it expressed deep fears and anxieties and the release of those. It lets us express our faith, our hopes, our dreams in a way that mere words cannot. It is transformative. In creating we recreate ourselves., transform ourselves, explore ourselves. This is why I am interested in music therapy. Using music to heal people is a very good idea. Music has powerful restorative powers and can do thngs that medicine and even ordinary therapy cannot.

So that's a short expression of how I see music. Music crosses many streams because it speaks to the universal human condition. It speaks to the perfection of the music of the spheres, the ratios of pure harmony but it also speaks of our longing for God, our desire to experience beauty and yes, the many human emotions that flood or days from fear to hope and even beyond.

I guess that's all for now. I know this is different than most of my posts but from time to time I like to take a new direction and see where it leads.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Why has analogue synthesis returned

One has to wonder in an age where so much can be done with computers, why some, including myself, would be fascinated by analog circuits which not offer nearly the degree of flexibility of their digital counterparts or do they.

On of the problems, I believe, with a soft synth or a hard synth (digital) is that they fit the sonic world into a pre-concieved notion. If you want to use them for music you have to either use a limited number of presets or perhaps tweak them a bit or enter into their world. Every digital synth and soft synth is a pre-conceived world. I am not saying its a bad one but its limited because in a sense, its a sonic world that is already built and you are just adding onto it.

We call this programming but from having done programing myself, I find this a misleading word. In real programming you are building a world from the ground up. In a the world of digital and soft synths, you are just setting parameters, not really programming.

Now with modulars and DIY and other analog components, the world is more open. You are free to create from the ground up and make something totally new. It's also true that much of synthesis today is sample based subtractive synthesis. But what are we subtracting from? A sculpture takes a raw block of marble and chisels it to create art but a sound designer using digital/software based synthesis, is taking something already in raw form and simply finishing it. Samples don't lend themselves to bold sonic explorations, they are already there.

Rather than taking a finished product, a sample, I am much more untested in taking simpler components of simple waveforms and then filtering them and combining them in news ways to create something dynamic and something that no one has heard before. It seems to me that synthesis was supposed to open up new worlds but digital synthesis has closed those worlds buried under layers of programming. Perhaps analog synthesis can free the minds of musicians to explore new territory again. I hope so.