the ongoing work of music

well, there is a lot going on in the world of making music – I’ve been speaking with john orsi again about the new album, and we are in agreement that we are going to approach this project without any preconceptions whatsoever, so basically, wherever the music leads us – we will go. I am very excited about this project, and one of the reasons I wanted to “clear the decks” and do the equipment re-route/re-build is that I wanted to make available the best sounds, the most beautiful sounds, the most intense sounds – so that when we begin recording, I have the fullest and best palette possible with which to “paint”.

of course, the one problem we both have right now is time – it’s so difficult to find time to work on the many, many projects that we each have committed to individually, so we, and you, are going to have to be patient – this album will get made – it just might take some considerable time. to me though, that’s possibly better, I would rather we take our time and produce a work of real quality, wait for the best and most wonderful music to appear, than to try to rush things in anyway.  so – preparations continue, ideas are shared – and, in time, music will arrive.  I am really looking forward to this project!

bryan helm and I are still assessing the rough mixes of the new album, I am not quite sure when I am going to find the time to sit down and mix the album, but I am very, very excited about the prospect of doing so.  I think this album has taken us both somewhat by surprise, because it’s so absolutely not like any record we’ve ever made before, it is, however, supremely ambient, but with a couple of pieces that are very, very dark, and would be quite dissonant nominally – except for some reason, when you hear them in the context of the other pieces, the entire work feels very, very ambient indeed.

so bryan is listening to his cd of the rough mixes, and I am listening to my MP3s of the rough mixes, and I am thinking “how on earth am I going to mix this delicate, fragile, powerful, smooth, dark, ambient piece of music”? – but, I know it will be worthwhile, because this music pretty much recorded itself, always a good sign when things go that well in the recording stage, so I hope that will make the mixes straightforward.

the unusual thing about the helm/stafford project, is that once I start listening to the rough mix, I just…lose track, I forget the music is on, I forget what track it’s at, it’s just one, dark, long, ambient piece of loveliness.  I find my mind wandering, and if you ask me, that’s exactly what you want ambient music to do – make you “switch off”, make you dream, make you lose track of time, not be conscious of what you are hearing – letting the music become “of the atmosphere”…ambient.  this album does this in a way that very, very few albums I’ve heard can do – so I am indeed anxious and excited to get on with the mixes and hear it in it’s final state.

and finally, back to the solo work – since I now have a proper “piano”, I took some time a few days ago to sit down and play – and sing – on a few different occasions.  in one instance, I wrote a fragment of a normal “song” – four lines of lyric, with music – and recorded it, including a vocal harmony.  so that is a…chorus without verses, a standalone chorus that has no related song.  I don’t know what possessed me, but I just wanted to see if I could write a song fragment I guess…and a fragment is what I have!

I have no idea if it’s just an idea for a song, or if I can use it later, or if it’s just a one-off experiment.  I can tell you though, after not having done so for so, so long, laying down vocal harmony is a very enjoyable process.  I think I missed that!  it was a lot of fun, tweaking the harmony to fit this off-the-cuff vocal – but, my standalone chorus sounds ok.  someday, maybe, I can build a song around it.

that was one session, in another, longer session, I sat down to see if I could play a piano piece that I used to play all the time, it’s a track from the tenth peter hammill album entitled “flying blind” – which is kind of appropriate, I am just easing back into the idea of sitting down, playing the piano, and singing live – it’s a very odd sensation.  your piano playing has to go onto “autopilot” if your vocal is to succeed.  and I found that sometimes, I could successfully set it to “autopilot” and get away with it.  other times, I would become conscious or even ultraconcious of what I was playing on the piano, which would cause me to falter.

but I did work through many, many takes, really, just to practice the piece – it’s a song that I hold very dear, I’m very comfortable with it because it is well within my vocal range, so I can sing it with a fair degree of confidence, I think I am more concerned with the piano part – while I have the piece memories, long-ago memorised, there are still moments in it where I feel I could play much, much better, or where I could dare a quick arpeggio and so on – I play it slightly differently each time.

I am really looking forward to going back to these takes, I am not quite sure how many there are – 8, or perhaps, 10 at the most – but I think that some of them may have merit.  I could be wrong, but I seem to remember one or two of the first few seeming “ok” to me, so, we shall see.

what I can say prior to hearing the playback is just how much I enjoyed the unfamiliar yet utterly unfamiliar act of sitting down in front of an 88-key grand piano (including a “choir” voice captured on a separate track, so I can mix grand piano and choir at will in the finished tracks), and playing and singing the music that I grew up with, the music that I love and respect and enjoy, and now that I have this set up again, I am fully intending to see just how much of my previous repertoire I can recover.

not forgetting, of course, that many years have passed, so my vocal range will have dropped nearly an octave during that time, so some songs, I will not be able to sing – or will require compromise in their vocal arrangement – which may or may not be suitable for performance.  but since I have embarked on a live performance series with the guitar synth on the pureambientHD, I am thinking that I can also embark on a live performance series of piano / vocal covers and perhaps even some of my own “songs” – an area that I’ve barely touched on these past…30 years or so 🙂

so it was with great joy that I sat down, counted down, and began…”I always forget, how crazy things are…so sometimes it catches me off my guard – when they make sense”.

…and it did make sense! I worked so, so hard learning this repertoire of piano and vocal works: peter hammill, van der graaf generator (most especially those two), todd rundgren / utopia, steely dan, daryl hall, george harrison, roxy music, split enz, king crimson – a lot of prog, but don’t forget, prog is really just a way to arrange a song, and many of the very best prog songs actually are centred around a piece of piano (or organ) music with a vocal – the other instruments just support this core “song”.

that was often true, for example, of genesis songs, tony’s part was the central piece to which peter had put a vocal melody, and the others added in their bits to support that piano part, it was very, very often the case with van der graaf generator songs – each one starting out life (probably) as a peter hammill piano and voice, with the band again, adding in their parts to support the original piano driven piece…of course, in other bands, where there was no pianist, the songs were written instead on guitar, king crimson being one example of that – however, some crimson songs – for example, “islands” or “exiles”, actually lend themselves very, very well to being performed as solo piano and voice pieces – despite the band itself being guitar-driven.

in all of these cases, it’s the song that matters, it’s all about that core song – so I always took delight in seeing if I could “extract” that original piano and voice song from more complex prog arrangements.  I spent hours learning pieces like “islands” on the piano (and emulating keith tippett is bloody difficult, I can tell you that much for free!) and I’d love to see if I can re-learn a piece like that well enough to perform it. I am hopeful, but it will take time and hard work to re-learn some of these pieces, which were not easy then, and will be even more challenging given the ravages of time to my hands and voice.

so, another “piano and voice” practice session earlier today: this time, four different peter hammill songs, two solo pieces and two from the van der graaf generator; the solo tracks, “flying blind” and “vision”, went passably well although no amazing takes were captured – just reference takes really, to see where I stand with the pieces.  the two van der graaf pieces fared less well, while I can actually play both of them through, I was unable to capture a full take of either piece – “still life” and “man-erg” – two tracks that I used to play a lot in about…1978, 1979, 1980, and not particularly simple to play even then – so I am struggling a bit with those two.  but, this is why they call it “practice”…it needs to be done, to see if I can play these pieces well enough to record them.  in the case of the first two – the answer coming back is “absolutely yes”  in the case of the van der graaf pieces, the answer is less sure – the vocals are much more difficult, the piano pieces are much more difficult, but, I’d love to get a decent recording made of either.  I shall persevere…

so why now, over 30 years later, do I want to play and sing these songs?  well…I worked very, very hard back then, in the 70s and the 80s, to pick out, mostly by ear – particularly with the peter hammill and van der graaf songs, because no one I knew had bothered to learn their material – and then learn these songs, so it would be a shame to let that effort go to waste since in the main, they were never recorded, or recorded with very poor equipment.  I still have all my old song sheets, handwritten, typed up, and even later, on computer, so there is really nothing stopping me – save, the availability of time – from sitting down and re-learning any of the many, many pieces I used to play, and, learning “new” ones.  for me – it’s pure pleasure, playing and singing the music I love – and, I’ve not had much chance to do that, and to celebrate the beauty and joy within these songs, so I feel that now that I actually can, that…now is the time!

besides these “practice” sessions though I have had a real success in another area: applications-based music; where I have completed a backing track (although it could easily stand along as a finished composition) – this is a piece intended to have an e-bow solo flown in on top of it, but otherwise, it’s complete, it entitled “alien – or sutin” and it features sequenced drums; stereo bass synthesizers, two ambient synthesizer parts, one melodic “lead” synthesizer, and a rhythmic/melodic middle section created with a really beautiful arpeggiated voice.  I did a rough mix of it on the ipad, and then exported both the individual wav files as well as each mixer track, so I can reassemble it in sonar in seconds – add in the live guitars, and I will be done.

I could have overdubbed the ebow on the ipad using my irig, but I’m not really convinced yet that this is the way to record guitars (although I have!) – they sound OK, but not as good as doing them in sonar – and plus, moving to the sonar environment gives me a lot of effects, the breeze reverb, and other tools I will need for the final mix.

this actually then means that I have two app-based songs near completion that need just an ebow or two, or some other overdub to finalise them – this just-completed track plus an earlier piece done a few weeks ago.  both have had their component parts exported to my laptop using the absolutely brilliant nanosync app – none of this “itunes transfer” nonsense with nanostudio! – and I am ready to overdub…

meanwhile, I’ve begun working with an absolutely beautiful app called “itabla pro” that I am enjoying far more than should  be allowed by law, the designer of this has done a brilliant job on this app – it does so, so much more than just a “tabla player” – it’s a complete education in indian rhythm.  the sound quality is superb, you get tabla, two drones (tanpura), and two other percussive instruments (swar mandel and manjira) – all highly configurable, not to mention a massive, well-documented library of preset beats (and their correct, attendent drones and percussion!), including all the taal names and explanations of each rhythm.  this is the kind of tool I wish had existed back in the 70s when I first started listening to indian music, but, better late than never – and now,  to my delight, I can use it learn, understand and count out odd rhythms like 5 and a half, or ten, and so on for the first time in my life, because I can hear, see and truly understand these amazing 3000 year old oral tradition designed rhythmic patterns. astonishing!

so I am hoping, once I get a handle of what the best way to record and use it is, to incorporate this tool in some of my pieces, since I’ve always wished I could work with a tabla player – well, now I have one, on call, that can play any beat, in any rhythm – and including controls for “variations” of some of the beats, so you can play them back in two or three different playing styles (a different selection of styles for each taal) – amazing!  I am absolutely in love with this app, I got it for my birthday, and I can’t  stop playing with it.  sometimes i just turn it on so I can listen to the tanpuras – the drones – which have a high degree of flexibility, you can have one or two running, you can select the base note of each, but you can also select special notes or even micro tune the notes for effect – another remarkable programming feature.

the only fault I find with it is no built in recorder, although you can get audio out of either the headphone jack (not recommended) or via the camera connection kit (best) – but the designer assures me that eventually, he will add in recording capability.

so many, many tools for making music…so little time 🙂

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