islands join hands…

may 20, 2013

a bright, sunny and almost too hot day, clear blue skies, greet us at our first island destination, the greek island of corfu.

I’ve long wanted to visit corfu, every since reading gerald durrell’s “my family and other animals” (the first and most famous of his three books about his childhood in corfu) as a young man, and I can tell you right away, I was in no way disappointed – in fact, I would say I am astonished at what a wonderful and diverse place corfu is.

I am not normally one to book a proper tour, but given that we only had one day on the island, and we wanted to cover as much ground as possible, we relented and I picked the longest possible tour, which goes right round the entire island stopping at various scenic and/or historic sites along the way – a six and a half hour tour.  not much time, but as much as we could manage, and I was so, so pleased with that decision – because it was possibly the most enjoyable tour, and the most enjoyable day, I can remember in a long time.

where to begin? we were met by our tour guide, a pleasant middle-aged greek woman, who had an enormous wealth of knowledge about corfu; it’s history, it’s inhabitants, it’s customs, it’s quirks, and listening to her commentary throughout the day really opened my eyes about the place that corfu has in both greek and world history.  this stood us in good stead throughout the day, and by the end of it, I felt educated, entertained and thoroughly pleased.  we set off on the tour, and after perhaps 20 or 30 minutes, we began to climb and climb, up and up, on the tightest switchbacks, on a tiny road, and it was difficult to see how on earth that large of a bus could actually stay on a road that narrow and winding – but it did, and we eventually reached what seemed like quite literally, the top of the world.

our first destination was very possibly chosen for the incredibly dramatic effect that it had on the tour’s passengers, a monastery – the monastery of the virgin at paleoakstritska, corfu –  placed high, high on a hill overlooking the most incredibly coloured and beautiful sea I have ever, ever seen.  an old greek orthodox church stands on the site, guarded by vine-climbing cats and beautiful gardens both decorative and practical – vegetables growing alongside palm trees with grape vines overhead, cool shady gardens surrounding the all white buildings.

but the view – was literally breathtaking.  in the bright sun, the colour of the water, seen from on high, is so extraordinary that the only way I can describe it is to say “you had to see it for yourself”.  yes, I took photos, lots and lots of photos, and videos, and while you can see the colours well in the photos, it’s still not the same as standing against a smooth, white wall and gazing down at the beautiful, rocky inlets – and depending on the depth of the water, many different coloured areas blend together into a stunning seascape the likes of which I’ve never seen – set in an equally impressive landscape.  we took the obligatory photos and videos and panoramas, of course, and then reluctantly got back onto the bus to carry on around the island…

the next stop was another high point, after another feat of large-bus-on-tiny-climbing-road-miracle-driving, which included a drive through a greek village with streets so incredibly narrow that there is literally millimetres of clearance on either side of the road, and in actual fact, residents cannot open their shutters without risking them being knocked off by passing tour buses – absolutely remarkable – eventually, we arrive at what was actually just a rest stop (called “the golden fox”), but again, once we disembarked from the bus, we were treated to an amazing overlook of palaiokastritsa (or paleoakstritska whichever you prefer), which is another incredibly beautiful and unique corfu seascape / landscape…and we realised later, that we were actually now looking down on the monastery of the virgin where we had just been…looking down at the beautiful seascapes!  it’s strange to think we were in such an amazing, high spot while at the monastery…and then, that we would climb even higher, ending up looking down on the high spot that wasn’t so high after all…that’s strange!

as the day was getting hotter, not unpleasantly so, but we could not have asked for better weather really…(especially given that our three days in venice previously had shown us the worst of mediterranean weather, downpour, rough seas, rain, winds, etc.) we felt that ice cream was in order, so we sat there eating delicious greek ice cream, looking out over this incredible scene, with the endlessly fascinating / coloured sea, and already at this point, I could totally understand naturalist-turned-author-turned-zoo-owner gerald durrell’s love for the place (and indeed, the whole durrell family, which includes another very respected author, lawrence durrell) – I got it, immediately.

I don’t at this point want to give the impression that corfu is only amazing views or overlooks of the sea, while that is certainly one aspect of it’s many charms, it’s only one aspect, and as we drove on through the countryside, continuing towards mount pantokrator , we were treated to a series of unique and beautiful landscapes, climbing through scrub covered hills that might have been in southern california; on through farmlands, towns, villages, treeless areas and many different and often beautiful environments.  corfu is full of surprises, around every corner, and our next destination, the seaside town of kassiopia, was simply one of the most idyllic places that we’ve ever been to.

the tour bus could only go so far into the town, but a short walk down the main street for my companion, and a short car ride for myself, delivered us to a really nice outdoor restaurant just a few hundred yards from the seafront, with huge quantities of white wine, and a lovely vegetarian meal following our greek salads…a really fantastic lunch, outdoors, in the shade, watching the world go by.  afterwards, we walked the short distance to the seaside, and sat on a bench a few inches from the water, and watched the boats, both those that were moored and any that were under sail, too.  it was midday, but the bright, bright sun was not in any way too hot, it was just perfect.

we agreed that we could have sat there, looking at the rippling, clear mediterranean water, lapping gently against the shore, forever.  but we couldn’t – so we went back up to the meeting point, and sat in a very pleasant town square, in the sun, until the bus returned to retrieve us.

more travel…more environments, me snapping many, many photos through the bus windows; driving along the northeast coastline via the village of nissaki and the coastal resorts of barbati, ipsos, dassia, gouvia and kontokali, as we made our way back to our starting point, corfu town.  driving through the one substantial urban centre on the island that we did visit, the architecture and the faded buildings lent an air of neglected grace. but as interesting as corfu town assuredly is (and time constraints meant we couldn’t stop in corfu town, only drive through it – so we did have a whirlwind view of it), it’s the countryside that sticks in my mind…the rural areas of corfu, the tiny villages, the churches, the amazing, amazing sea surrounding the island and the awe-inspiring views of the sea and the coastline – that’s the charm and the beauty of corfu.

corfu town does have a charm of it’s own, and some very grand buildings, a large fortress and many historical landmarks which flew past the bus windows faster than we could really register them, and before we knew it, we were headed back out to our ship on the tender, preparing for the next day, the next island adventure…

may 21, 2013

today, after steaming all night from corfu, we arrive to an incredibly bright, sunny and extremely hot day, to find ourselves at santorini, our next island destination, and santorini, for me, was incredibly beautiful to look at, almost unreal, but a very physical challenge, because the main city, thera (or fira, depending) is precariously perched at the top of a cliff, and, since we refuse to ride the poor donkeys, the only way up besides walking, which is also out – was a very small and fairly terrifying funicular.  it had to be something like 90 degrees fahrenheit (at least 90!!) at the base of that cliff, and of course, there was a long queue, standing in the sun…I was seeking shade, shade, any shade while my partner braved the queue for the funicular.  eventually, she got the tickets, and we climbed up to queue again – and there it was, six tiny cars, four passengers to a car – not a particularly efficient way to travel.

a few rocking and terrifying, but with an amazing view, minutes later, we were at the top, in thera itself.  but we were so hot, and so tired, from that experience, that all we wanted was to sit down in a restaurant and get a cool drink – so that is what we did.  we discussed our original plan to get a bus to visit nearby oia, a town some distance away, and decided with the heat, and the physical difficulties, that it was out of the question, so we settled instead for a look around thera.

it’s a remarkable city, since all of the houses are painted white, with the occasional famous blue dome (photos of santorini are all over the internet, and you can see this all white with blue domes construction all across the island) – the white houses simply because that’s reflects the most heat, so it’s for a sensible reason.  but it also looks amazing, all of these bright, bright white buildings perched on this cliff top – remarkable.

santorini itself has a unique history, it’s one of a few islands that are the remnant of a massive volcanic (bronze age) eruption, there is a “ring” of islands that surround a very volcanic looking “island”, called “volcano” on the local maps, in the centre of the circle, and you can take a boat out to visit this central volcanic island, which contains the unique black volcanic rock common to the region.  that rock is used now to make statues and other artefacts, and it’s a beautiful, porous, deep black material – lovely.

so standing, or sitting, up on the cliff, overlooking the sea, seeing the cruise ships anchored below, and the volcano island out in the middle of the circle, is an amazing sight, what an incredible, incredible view!

we walked around thera for a short while, finding two museums, both closed (not very useful, but there you are) and looking through some of the local shops, before returning to the cliff edge, finding another restaurant – and having a couple more cold drinks – this time, we were still SO thirsty, and SO hot, that we each had a large fresh orange juice, and a strawberry sorbet – and that was just fantastic, in fact, we would often order fresh orange juice and despite it being quite expensive, no matter where we bought it, it was always absolutely fantastic tasting, cold but as if it had just come out of the orange – absolutely wonderful.

time was pressing, so once again, my partner queued for the downhill funicular ride, while I sat in the shade, and eventually, we found ourselves back down at the water’s edge, we boarded the tender and returned to the ship for the next part of the adventure, which will be in the next blog – hopefully very soon.

I would say that out of the four islands we visited, that I really, really loved corfu the best – it had such a range of beautiful environments, and dramatic scenery, amazing, impossibly beautiful views, but also, a homey, sleepy, quiet, dreamy atmosphere, a place where you could just rest in a sort of endless siesta…sleep, wake, sleep some more…while santorini has the dramatic cliff and beautiful white city, it did not have the same kind of feeling that corfu did.

this was an amazing memory for myself and for my partner, a trip we will never, ever forget, and I am so glad we decided to do it, despite the physical challenges it presented – it was so, so worth it, I would have done it just for the six and a half hours on corfu – it would have been worth it just for that part alone, so the rest is just a bonus, really!

there is so much more that I could say about both corfu and santorini, but words fail me, and all I see, if I close my eyes, are the images of the dramatic views from both islands, which are unforgettable, and while I did preserve those views in pictures, taking many, many photos at each of the four islands we visited, it’s the views in my memory that I cherish the most, and I can close my eyes and go to corfu any time I want to, which is the most amazing feeling – I love it!

next time: mykonos and katakolon (olympia)

see you there. 🙂


the sound of the sea

written somewhere in the ionian sea, may 19, 2013: 

well, it doesn’t happen very often, but once in a blue moon, even pureambient gets “away from it all” as every family must try to do now and then. and I would be the very first to admit, being somewhere new, somewhere unfamiliar, puts a whole new perspective on the familiar.

just to set the scene then, we are sitting on our balcony aboard the cruise ship norwegian jade, steaming from venice to our first greek island destination, corfu – where we arrive tomorrow morning. sitting here typing this, on our own private balcony, with the sound and the sight of the sea – is absolutely blissful.

corfu is a place I’ve long wanted to visit, ever since reading ‘my family and other animals’ by naturalist gerald durrell.  I must have been about twelve years old when I read that book, and the colourful, indeed vivid picture durrell paints of this sleepy greek island, with it’s quaint and kind inhabitants, has stuck in my mind all this time. part of me still can’t quite believe that tomorrow morning, I will actually set foot on corfu after wanting to for more than forty years…that is amazing!!

for myself, this getaway is actually a return, when I was a young person, I went on a short cruise of the mediterranean, and ever since then, I have wanted to go again.  for the last five years, the work has pretty much taken up all of our time; we did manage to get away for a few days in london back in 2011, but beyond that, this ten-day trip is the first real ‘vacation’ we’ve managed within that five year period.  five years, two holidays – I think we need to get away more often!

so it feels pretty damn good to just stop, and have no responsibilities or cares in the world, and just enjoy your surroundings. I would also be the very first to acknowledge that I am not very good at relaxing, I am a bit…driven, and I always feel like I have to be working, creating, mixing, recording, filming…


this is the curse of the artist, of the musician, of the sculptor, of the creator of any kind of art, the relentless, unstoppable desire to create…so it’s very nice to stop, and to spend time not creating, but instead, just enjoying the little things in life.  with the regular schedule, that’s pretty hard to do, but outwith that schedule, I am finding it’s very, very easy to do.  so now, my priority is not getting an album done, or a video made…but, deciding if I want another amazing italian cappuccino, or maybe something like a rum runner tropical cocktail…or two – this is a much easier choice to make – the answer is, both, please 🙂

back to the very beginning of our cruise, which was prefaced by time spent in venice, italy:

the first thing I would say is, if you are disabled, or if you are in a wheelchair, that venice is NOT the most wheelchair-friendly place on earth.  our trip started with three days in venice (although really just two days, because of the travelling) and while we managed to get around, this was very difficult for myself, but even more difficult for my partner, who spent a good deal of her time lifting the wheelchair up and down many unavoidable sets of stairs – mostly in museums! museum staff were mostly not helpful, and it was hard work for both of us.

we stayed in nearby mestre, and travelled into venice both days, with most of our activities centred around the famous san marco square.  the first day was very nearly an unmitigated disaster:  a horrific storm descending on venice, alternately soaking us with rain or lashing us with rain-filled wind – it was some of the worst weather imaginable.  somehow, with wheelchair and gear, we managed to get onto the bus, to the bus station, picked up our tickets, got to the vaporetto (water taxis) and began our travels into venice. we were both soaked through, before the day even began…not an auspicious start.

day one had the worst weather, and our first stop was the gallerie dell’ accademia, which, after struggling with the torrential downpour and water taxis, we very nearly did not get into…and once the staff relented and deigned to allow us entry, well, I have to be honest, we were very disappointed – both with the gallery itself (containing almost exclusively, paintings, and, almost exclusively, paintings depicting the more horrific side of christianity) – not a pleasant place, but a dark, gloomy place full of stairs and nothing but religious objects.

so, back out into the rain, we boarded the vaporetto again, and made our way to the giardini reali stop at san marcos square (I loved the small garden area by the water) and then we made our way over to the square.  by this time, we were even wetter, our paperwork was soaked, we were just unbelievably wet, cold and miserable.  my partner parked me, in the wheelchair, into a sheltered spot, and went in search of sustenance.  this day was utterly unforgettable if only for the worst imaginable weather, very similar to a pretty bad day at home in scotland !! two lovely small cheese pizzas later, we were ready to re-commence our battle with the elements…

at this point, we were really just trying to get to 2:30 p.m. because we had booked a tour of murano, torcello, and burano – of course, a tour on the water, when the weather is at it’s very worst – how lucky were we?  but, we were determined, so, after some window shopping, photography and general hanging  about, we set off to the pick up point, and boarded yet another sort of water taxi for the special tour of the islands.

it’s really such a shame that the weather was so, so horrific this day, because under normal circumstances, this would have been a really lovely tour.  murano was the first stop, with it’s world-famous glass blowing and glass artisans, and it really was truly remarkable, but first, we had to deal with the task of getting off the boat, which was not made easy by the heaving seas and lashing winds.  this feat accomplished, we visited one of the glass factories, where we witnessed an age-old family tradition – using furnaces and manual glass-blowing techniques, and two different artists created two different objects in front of our eyes, including a delicate, rearing-on-it’s-hind-legs glass horse – really beautiful work.

the shop on the island was full of amazing glass objects, absolutely astonishing  glass artefacts of every possible description.  in fact, all over venice you could find murano glass, including in the buildings and museums – often, the chandeliers would be murano, and it is ever-present in this region – and its world-famous for a reason, it’s simply a thing of real beauty, manufactured basically by hand, which is something you do not see much of in this world any more.

I admire the skill that it takes to create something like this, because it’s really a similar process to one person making music using the tools that they have, the only difference being that glass-blowing is the manufacture of a tangible physical object, while the musician creates something slightly more abstract…but no less “real”.

we saw little else of murano, the weather was so awful, that we unanimously wanted to get back onto the boat and move on to our next stop, torcello. now, torcello is completely different, much less sparsely populated than many other italian islands, it’s much greener, and we had a lovely walk along a canal towards the centre of the island.  we stopped off for coffee and tea, and “cake”, which in this instance was simply the most incredible, massive portion of tiramisu I’ve ever seen or eaten…which was absolutely delicious.

strangely, despite the fact that we didn’t actually “do” or “see” anything on torcello, it was perhaps my favourite part of the islands tour, I just liked the island and we really enjoyed the walk along the canal, with it’s curved bridges (such as the ponte del diavolo)  and lovely greenery – a really nice, relaxing island spot.

the weather at this point was still pretty bad, although it had relented a little bit during our time on torcello, it was still working hard to make us all miserable.

our final stop, burano, was another yet-again different environment, a much larger village square with a church / steeple (whose bells rung obligingly while we were there – a lovely sound) – we both spent time happily snapping photos, including panoramic views of the square, and shopping in the local shops…

and then it was time for the long return journey to venice, 45 minutes of backtracking, the way we had just come; which was a bit dreary given that the weather was still horrible and the seas were still stormy and the wind was still blasting – the wind so strong that it was pushing lots of water underneath the glass doors of the boat’s main cabin – there was simply water *everywhere* !!!

but, as I said, if the weather had been nice – this would have been an absolutely fantastic tour, and I do recommend it highly – the tour guides were really polite and helpful, and the amount of history and culture to be absorbed is extremely high, a really good experience, and a great way to spend an afternoon in venice.  beware – the murano, torcello and burano tour is four and a half hours long, but, totally worth it given what you get to see and experience.

at this point, we then had to disembark from the island tour boat, and return to the vaporetto water taxi; make our way back to the bus station; find the right bus back to mestre…the whole outbound journey, wheelchair still in tow, in reverse.

back to the hotel, we then went to check out a restaurant that we had read about, called “hostaria”, which was literally two streets away from the hotel, but as we could see what seemed to be a massive queue, we decided that there would be too long of a wait, so we decided to give it a miss.  little did we realise – we found out the next night, that it wasn’t a queue – it was simply the overspill from the bar!!  and you had 20 or 30 people out on the sidewalk, drinking and smoking and laughing – which from a distance, appeared to be a queue. but what a relaxed and happy atmosphere as the patrons spilled out into the streets with their drinks…

in any case, we found a small restaurant also quite close by, where we had a lovely meal, followed by a couple of cappuccinos to go, which we took back to our hotel.

day two: the storm starts to recede.  still not completely gone, the weather nonetheless begins to improve on our second day in venice.  starting out again from our hotel in mestre, we by now had mastered the bus and vaporetto systems, so getting around, even with the wheelchair, was considerably easier (although still not easy!) on the second day – we had it all worked out now.

we returned again via bus, then vaporetto, to the lovely gardens at the square of san marco, this time to explore the museums in and around the square itself, beginning with the palazzo ducale. I would say that once again, as with the gallerie dell’ accademia, we were underwhelmed both by what was on offer, which was once again, almost solely devoted to painting, and once again, almost solely devoted to the darker side of christianity, and by the “ease” with which we could get around. another impossible venture…

while there was a lift, we spent a long, long time finding it, having to wait for various people with various sets of keys to open various doors to find this tiny, backstage service lift, and even then, once up on the museum floor, we still ended up being confronted again and again by stairs, stairs and more stairs.

I would say that this is possibly the most un-wheelchair friendly museum we have ever visited anywhere, in one of the most un-wheelchair friendly cities in the world.  it’s a shame to have to say that, but it’s true.  we even got temporarily trapped in an endless series of unending hallways, with, of course, stairs, stairs and more stairs, until we eventually escaped. a more physically exhausting and emotionally draining than culturally profitable experience, I don’t recommend a visit to the palazzo ducale unless you are ready for a very physically challenging experience!

our second day was now half over, and it took some detective work, but we finally worked out that the archaeological museum that we had planned to visit, had been absorbed and moved inside of another museum, the “museo correr” which is actually first, the private collection of one teodoro correr, and two, the archaeological museum, and three, a library – all  merged into one museum.

this, out of all of the museum visits, was by far and away the best.  instead of endless dreary paintings of strictly religious subjects – we went into the real world, with real objects from history ranging from whole libraries of ancient books, to statues, to weapons, to day to day objects, everything – and it was an absolutely fascinating journey.

from the very beginning of the museum, you could tell it was going to be something special: massive ancient globes of the world, some depicting what was recognisably our modern world, others with fanciful drawings of animals with the sort of “lions be here” motif – but what globes they were, some of them perhaps six feet in diameter!

rooms full of the most remarkable coin collections, coins dating back to hundreds of years before christ, made from every imaginable material; the tools and tooling used to stamp out the coins…

each room contained a different treasure, and one set of the rooms tried to capture all of the most important art of the time (correr was an obsessive collector) in a sort of themed way, so some rooms contained a fantastic array of truly beautiful and unique items that I cannot describe with mere words.

a gentleman named “grimani” donated his collection of over 150 statues to the collection, and some of these statues were impressive indeed, and most of the rooms boasted a few or many “grimani”-donated statues.

this just adds still more to this amazing collection of art objects, and beyond all other museums in the square, I recommend the museo correr – what a fantastic place.  it was also the most wheelchair-friendly of the museums, although we still had to go through the arcane tiny-service-elevator behind locked doors scene to get us onto the museum floor.  but, compared to our experience at the palazzo ducale, the staff at museo correr did a spectacular job taking care of us – which also made a pleasant change to the indifference or even downright rudeness of some of the other staff at some of the other museums.

we were both so, so glad that we had made the extra effort to determine where this particular museum was, and the very positive experience we had there helped to erase some of the frustration and disappointment we’d felt with our first three museum visits in venice – it was so good, that it almost “made up” for the more negative experiences in the other museums. almost…but not quite.

so – when in venice – visit the museo correr, without fail – it’s very, very much worth it, and, it’s more wheelchair/disabled friendly than most.

day three – well, that brings us up to the moment – may 19th, 2013, on the balcony at the palazzo dell’ pureambient aboard the norwegian jade, steaming towards corfu – the first of four greek islands we will be visiting over the next four days…

sitting here with only the sound of the waves to accompany my typing (via bluetooth keyboard, the height of luxury!) – you want to talk about ambient music?  I could listen to this sound, the sound of the sea (and nothing else) for the whole week, and feel incredibly happy.  it’s both a joyous sound and a soothing sound, a restless, questing sound and a peaceful, sleepy sound.  it’s the best ambient music there is, it’s why the sound of the waves have appeared on every cheesy, crappy “new age” album ever made – because it is such a great sound, it really is.  and while it’s often been used badly, I still think there is hope for it’s use in ambient music. it’s possible, that someone could make really beautiful ambient music using the sound of the sea as it’s basis.

but it depends, like all sounds, on what you do with it.  if you blend it, windham hill style, with quiet, jazz-based with mellow-synth-pad, obvious “new age” music – then it’s going to sound pretty bad.  my thought would be that if I was going to use the sound of waves (which I have done in short form, back in 1994 – with my unreleased CD “the sea, the sea”), that I would need to do it in a very different way, to avoid the cliche that unfortunately, like another area of sonic new age crime, bird song used badly in new age music, that ocean sounds used in new age music, have become.

like the very real experience I am having of this sound right now, hours on end of unbroken sound of ocean waves, I would think it best that art imitate life, and any composition I might try would and should involve long, long stretches of ocean sound with no added music, with short sections of very ambient, ethereal music added – in real moderation – and, with not a single electric piano or muted windham hill trumpet or smooth synth pad in sight.  mostly just the sea, with very lightly mixed in music that very closely merges with the natural sound.  I think it can be done…and maybe one day, I will give it a try.

I am sure it can be done tastefully, and it really should be, because it’s one of the most amazing ambient sounds that I’ve ever heard – because its directly from nature, not man-made in any way – and I heartily recommend it – get yourself out onto the ocean, and plug into endless hours of the most beautiful “ambient record” there is (better than anything eno ever did!!) – the pure sound of the pure waves of the pure ocean, filling your ears and your consciousness with their never-ending sound of pulsing waves – it’s pure bliss.

it’s all around us, and it permeates everything – the sound of the sea.

in search of…a few good sounds

today’s modern electric guitarists have the opposite problem to that faced by the pioneering rock guitarists of the 1960s.

in the 1960s, guitarists had a very, very limited palette of guitar effects.  I was just reading a list of the equipment that jimi hendrix used at the very famous 1969 woodstock performance – and when you look at it:

fender stratocaster guitar

wah-wah pedal

arbiter fuzz face

uni-vibe  (simulated rotating “leslie” organ speaker)

marshall amplifier

4 speaker cabinets

that was literally ALL that hendrix had, with which to create songs from across his catalogue…from purple haze to the star-spangled banner – not much in the way of sonic choices, although in that case, hendrix made the most of the pickup selectors and whammy bar on his beautiful white stratocaster, too (and his manual dexterity, and the amazing things that he did with his hands, on guitar body, strings, bridge, neck, and head stock – remain unrivalled as the most unique technique ever invented – often copied, never equalled) – coupled with his skill on the wah-wah pedal, that whammy/feedback/wah combination was the screaming metal fire music of it’s day.

hendrix and other guitarists performed miracles with just a wah-wah and a fuzz, one of my other favourite live records from 1969 is the recently-released “the move live at the fillmore 1969” which features roy wood playing both six string and twelve string electric guitars through wah or distortion, and coaxing a lot of great guitar tone out of his set up (whatever that was!) – this article suggests that it might be a fender guitar through a vox amp with a binson echo

while much amazing music WAS made with these simple tools, over time, even 60s guitar legends like frank zappa, todd rundgren, robert fripp and so on, began to use and become used to using, and having available, an ever-growing, ever more bewildering selection of effects pedals – at first, better distortion pedals, then, chorus pedals, then flangers,  phase shiftersreverbs, delays, and starting in the early 70s, an absolutely astonishing array of truly bizarre sounding effects – envelope filters and followers, micro synthesizers, loopers, as well as devices such as the gizmo and the ebow

today’s guitarists – have too many options.  too many effects.  too many choices…

I started playing guitar in the 60s, too, but not seriously until I was a little older, and it was not until the 1970s that I got really serious about being a lead guitarist, and like all my 1960s guitar heros, I had the same kit: fuzz face fuzz box (because that’s what jimi hendrix used) wah-wah pedal (because that’s what hendrix used) and later, for a while, I had an echoplex – the tape kind – an amazing piece of kit.

for  a long time, that was really all I had, although when boss started making good sounding chorus, flanger, reverb, delay, etc pedals I collected a lot of those – sold some of them, re-bought them a few generations later, and so on – nice little stomp boxes, small, and reasonably good sounding.

then came the era of the rack mount.  stomp boxes fell by the wayside, in their place, shiny new rack-mountable devices, in my case, I favoured digitech so I had a nice 24 bit reverb, the tsr-24s; I had a digitech 8 second delay (the longest delay/looper I could afford at the time); and later, I bought robert fripp’s old roland GP-16 to use as my first rack multi-effects unit, and later still, I got the oberheim echoplex pro (the digital version, this time).

fast forward another 20 years, and the list of pedals and rack devices and miracle hybrid stomp boxes, and multi-effects devices just grows and grows, until you have so much choice that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what combinations of what devices, coupled with what input device – guitar, or guitar synth, or keyboard, or kaossilator, or ipad…to use to achieve what sound.  and then – for recording – record with effects, or add them later…or some of both?

the choices…the sheer number of choices, is staggering.  let’s say I have 17 devices in my arsenal of effects.  that means…they can be set up in a nearly infinite number of ways, pre- or -post, used as you play, or “re-amped” through them later – we are truly spoiled for choice.

the natural tendency, if you come from the wah/fuzz/echo background that I do, was at first, to try and get as many sounds as possible, by having every pedal that made a different sound added to your pedal board. I spent years and years designing and building ever more grand pedal boards, sometimes I used two pedal boards – whatever it took –  but then, technology progressed yet again – we started to have “multi-effects” devices, and modelled guitar amps (like the sans amp), and so on – which made the choices even more confusing…

and then – do you just set up each song free-form, by reaching down and making changes, or do you control everything – or just PART of your system -with a MIDI controller?  all of these questions, have to be worked out…answered, solved, tested, tried…

I’ve been playing electric guitar for 41 years now, and in that time, while I do now have a lot of really beautiful sounds and instrument sources to choose from, and it’s still very tempting to set up these multiple-choice, multiple-path set-ups that allow you to change effortlessly between a number of different instruments, chains of effects, or rack devices…and yes, that’s fantastic technology;  and with it, you can do so, so much…

but lately, I’ve decided that I am going to attempt to apply what I call “the eno principle” to this massive array of rack, stomp and other effects devices (including, soft synths, ipad synths, software effects, and everything else in my current set up)…”the eno principle” being simply: find a few REALLY GOOD SOUNDS and use those, and…ignore the rest.  in other words, life is too short to use a crappy sounding patch!

eno originally gave this advice about synthesizers…when the first truly beautiful synths, like the yamaha dx7, came along, eno commented on the fact that they all had a very few REALLY BEAUTIFUL or really interesting sounds…and most of the rest of the sounds, were not all that good – and the secret was just to use those  good sounds, and ignore the rest.

well, here it is, 2013, and I am now applying this same principle to my current guitar system.  I have lots of sound generating devices: guitar, guitar synth, keyboard, kaossilator, and ipad (which in itself, contains many, many unique synths, as well as guitar processing gear) – and lots of fabulous effects devices that 41 years ago, if you had told me I would have in the future, I would have just laughed at you – but, now I do have them, and they are incredible…but my thought now is, I need to examine each device; figure out what it’s best 10 or 15 sounds are (as eno did with his yamaha dx7), and stick with those, and not waste time with any sound that is less than incredibly beautiful, or incredibly interesting, or incredibly powerful.  this seems to me now, after 41 years, like a sensible approach.  a more sensible approach, than having more possible sounds than I can possibly remember, much less actually use…

so I am thinking in “patches” again, but patches that are not complete patches – they are patches of “post” effects only…so – harmony, delay, reverb.  the input, instrument, and basic sound – clean, distorted, etc. I will still select manually each time – with the processing, or treatments, handled by patches.  via a MIDI controller of some sort – an as yet undetermined controller.

the input can still be anything – and with the roland gr-55 guitar synth, that is so true – it might be a flute, or a clarinet, or a xylophone, or a strange hybrid synth voice of some odd description – or just an ordinary electric guitar sound.  but that input – will be processed, in the near future, with very, very carefully chosen “presets” of harmoniser, delay, and reverb.

so I am hopeful that with a few months work, I can document and “work out” what the best sounds are on each device, then (and this is the tricky part) try to marry up the perfect harmony with the perfect reverb, and know what delay works with that perfect harmony / reverb combination…

for me – music is just as much about the treatments, about what you do to the sound, as it is generating the sound.  they are of equal importance.

but now, I want to concentrate on what the very best of those “treatments” are, selecting and blending only the very best sounds, so that my oboe sounds unlike any one else’s oboe: partially, because of the way I play it, but also, because of the way I process, or treat, the sound as I perform.  that is the goal – to sound unique, unusual, but beautiful 🙂

over the next several months, I will be working on these high quality, hybrid, “best of”, “eno principle” sounds, and once I have a decent selection of them completed, I can begin to use them on recordings and live video performances.

so I am hoping to have a smaller selection, fewer sonic choices, using fewer sounds, but – sounding better than having too, too many choices, which perhaps dilutes things too much – too many wildly varying effects, instead of going for what is the most interesting, the most beautiful, the best – and, with ambient music, and even in rock music – sometimes – less is more.

since this will be an ongoing process, I will return to the topic in future blogs over the next couple of years, to see what progress I am making – it will take time, but I feel that it’s well worth the effort – even if I only come up with 20 or 30 basic sounds or “patches”…if they are superior, and they bring new sonic qualities to my playing – then I will consider that a success…hell, I’d be happy with 17 really fantastic sounds 🙂

I don’t really “need” a lot more, if they sound truly amazing.

so, it follows then, that they need to sound truly amazing 🙂