Thursday, September 22, 2011

Writing Certain Wrongs

Eno has his detractors, but I write that off as jealousy.
No one has written better ambient music (and other styles) than the man who
invented it. Like Cage, his ideas are seminal.

Eric Tamm wrote a really good book on Brian Eno and for some reason, he is giving it away. I often come back to the section on 2/1 of Music for Airports. It's on page 117 if you download the PDF. Here's an excerpt.

The rhythm of “2/1” is serially organized. As Eno has explained, each long note was recorded onto a separate piece of tape, and each piece of tape was made into a loop of a different length. The relationships between the lengths of the loops “aren’t simple, they’re not six to four. They’re like 27 to 79, or something like that. Numbers that mean they would constantly be falling in different relationships to one another.” In fact, Eno did not measure the lengths precisely, but simply spun off what seemed like a “reasonable” amount of extra tape for each note. “And then I started all the loops running, and let them configure in the way they chose to configure. So sometimes you get dense clusters and fairly long silences, and then you get a sequence of notes that makes a kind of melody.”
Tamm explains that Eno ended up with these lengths: Approximate Duration of Pitch-Cycles in “2/1”

c’ eb’ f ab’ db’ f’ ab

21” 17” 25” 18” 31” 20” 22”

Tamm, like most rock cum classical (or vice versa) music writers, prats on a bit about serialism and Webern. It's all fine and dandy until you overthink it and try to put it into too large a frame.

The bottom line is that Eno created an incredibly beautiful piece of music with his usual flair of happenstance, creativity and his downright exquisite (and "untrained") ear.

Where doth the scribe leadeth us?

The Devil in the Details
Let these ideas roll around your head for years and then finally one day commit yourself to writing a piece using this process. The aim: write an ambient piece using Eno's 2/1 procedures.

I understand.
I did not write anything, but rather sampled a recording of John Cage's Music for Marcel Duchamp. I also sampled Raga 12 from 18 Mictrotonal Ragas. I took seven samples, to follow the Eno model, and I restricted myself to them. The original title, for lack of time to keep sane organization of the endless deluge of tracks that were sure to follow, was "John Cage Meets Brian Eno."

On July 6th, I began work, gathering the seven sounds and finally coming to a reasonable mixdown on the 19th. I would not say that I'm totally happy with the results as I am like a crack squirrel when it comes to finishing a piece and mixdowns. If I'm not careful, I can keep on mixing a piece until there are many versions of the same piece. More on this below.

Then the working title had to be changed. I choose "sound come into its own," from a John Cage quote, but then decided that title was too ponderous for this piece. I have settled on "in the fullness of time."

SIDEBAR: I find titles have the burden of meaning everything and nothing. Listeners can apply great meaning to titles and consequently look a little lost when something is intended to be ironic or tongue-in-cheek. When I was younger, I applied great sounding titles to my little half-baked ditties. The title expressed more than the music did. Now, titles are a means to an end. I would assign untitled 1, 2, 3 ad infinitum if it wouldn't be hellishly confusing.
What does it sound like?

Shit is the quick answer.

Naw, not really.

If the whole ambient thing bores the hell out of you, then this is not for you. I made my friend a CD and he said, "Charles Ives' Unanswered Question." It has an uneasy feeling about it for sure. I did not intend that feeling, it just came out that way. I wanted restful and got the opposite. Go figure.

SIDEBAR: One night, at the Slide Mountain Inn in New York - a place where sleep was often difficult and creepiness was in the air- I put on some early mixes of the piece that I had done. There was my Mac Book, glowing in the corner, playing this odd, shall we dare say, "piano piece"(?) and I had to get up and turn it off. It was like a bad acid trip coming on. Tres creep city, kids.

The link on soundcloud. A short version.

Here's what I learned from it:

1. This piece should move me.

This seems so obvious, but in the fury of embracing what seems to be a new path of composing, it is easy to think more of the process than the end result. Forest for the trees, etc.

2. Regardless of the process or procedure, you should (must?) end up with the piece you intended.

At one point, I had followed the Eno formula exactly, but it wasn't working with the sounds I had chosen. The procedure then has to be flexible and altered a bit.
3. Know when you've gone down the rabbit hole.

Oh God. This should be on every piece of electronic equipment, software or gizmo which promises to revolutionize your sound and/or your playing. That pursuit is indeed going down the rabbit hole. But, in a composing sense, I have learned by many a trip down the proverbial hole that sometimes you are just wasting time and going nowhere with the piece. Do I know this or what? I am discursive by nature and this one rule burns brightly in my mind. In fact, I said this to a colleague Tuesday night. We have both been seduced by technology, software and new ways of writing.

4. Not every "interesting" idea is worth pursuing.

Musicians who feed on finding new ways of expressing themselves often fall in love with every idea that passes through their minds; as if the wandering mind is to be totally trusted. (Diversions of this nature at rehearsals are a great example.) Some ideas greatly benefit the music, others simply waste time. Separating good from bad- there's the rub.

5. Each sound (or chord or melody) must be interesting in and of itself.

Not so easy. The samples I used were dull when subjected to repetition, so I had to go in and either find a better sample or process the sample and make it more complex or "interesting" (there's that no man's land word again).

6. Each sound should be able to bear repetition.

7. Dynamics are ok.

Wait a minute. Am I talking about being in a band here? Maybe, but dynamics are something that seem to be a lost art. Ditto tone color.

8.  Ask yourself, "What have I ended up with?"

9. Know when the piece is finished and when you are writing a new one.

The whole of revisions and mixing can lead to a rabbit hole of rewriting or writing a new piece. Have I wasted time on this before!

10. Restrictions are good.

Restraint, restraint, discipline, taste, balance. Wow, what a dinosaur am I.

No comments: