more app magic… and there’s a last time for everything

well, I am here again to talk about ios applications, which have become such a part of my life, that I can hardly recall the fact that four years ago, I knew absolutely nothing of them.

 

one of the first and most lasting of ios applications, has been the subject of a quiet revival over the past few months for me, and that would be, the remarkable scape, by brian eno and peter chilvers.

scape was one of the first applications of any kind that I downloaded (at some point in late November 2012!!), and I proceeded to work with it, following it’s “hints”, watching my tools and palettes grow organically, and recording scape after scape after scape after scape.  every time a new tool arrived – I would record new scapes.  a new “background” arrives – and I must records scapes, including, a scape with just that background, nothing else, in it.  and – some of the most incredibly minimal and amazing scapes were created that way.

in fact, I was so incredibly excited about the app, that back in the day,  the I authored no less than three blogs in a row that were mostly about…scape; scape week one, scape week two and scape week three…followed by a fast forward to week five of scape!  during scape week two, I noted that in the short time of just two weeks, that I had created something like 146 scapes.  most of which did not see the light of day until very recently, in early to mid 2015.

in 2012, and during early 2013, though, still feeling my way through the scape processes; I would take a new tool, and mix it up with the familiar, to see what kinds of crazy combinations of instrumentation I could come up with, mixing bells with synths with basses with just plain strange sounding samples.  some times, I would work in a very, very minimal space, one or two objects, very quiet, super ambient – on other days, I would load the scapes to capacity, hmmm, let’s see, what happens if I insert 20 or 30 bass guitars into one scape?  interesting!

so this went on, for a number of months, perhaps, six months – until, one day, abruptly, I stopped.  I had made around 1100 scapes by then, and at the time, I did take the time to record the first 30 or so, so that the world could hear how beautiful this app truly is.  I published those 30, I think I added a few more later on, and there they sat – until 2015.  for some unknown reason, I got the idea into my head, sometime near the beginning of this year, that I should capture ALL 1100 scapes, record every single one of them, capture each and every scape image (and, of course, it’s that “image” that “is” the music – the shapes, generate the music)…I would record them all.

this became then, the great project in the background.  I would work on my progressive rock song – still unfinished – and then, record a few dozen more scapes.   I would spend a Saturday working on my data, or cleaning up my music data – and, the whole time, I would be capturing dozens more scapes.  I developed tools, in SONAR, a special scape “template”, or actually, two of them – one that covered the first 50 numbers of a hundred, and the second, which covered the second 50 numbers in a hundred – which then meant, you only had to choose the appropriate template, and change the prefix from 101, to 401, or whatever you were “up to”.  soon enough, my prefixes started looking like “801”, or “901” and eventually, “1001” – and I then knew the end was in sight.  a few more weeks, and finally – they were all recorded.

of course – the work doesn’t stop there.  each file, has to be lovingly trimmed, removing the header and the tail, and then normalised to -3 db to match all of the previously released scapes – all of which have been normalised to -3.  basically, it’s the simplest mastering job in the universe, because I don’t add EQ, I don’t add reverb (tempting though THAT might be!) – I leave them untouched, exactly the way they come out when the app generates them.  they sound good enough, without me tinkering with them.  however, even though that’s a simple job, I still work on them file by file, one file by one file, to make sure there are no problems (a few stray “pops” have had to be removed from one or two captures – and occasionally, I may have to go and re-capture scapes if they have significant problems – try again – although thankfully, I’ve not had to do that yet…) and that they sound as perfect and as pristine as they can.

the best part of it though, exceeding all, has been HEARING them again.  and looking at the images used to create them, and remembering my thought processes – for example, one thing I loved to do, was, create a “basic scape” – a scape with certain elements, and then, simply copy it over and over again, each time, just changing one aspect of it – which was almost always, the “effects” – the coloured icons on the right side of the GUI, which add flangers or tremelo or chorus or whatever.  originally, that was maybe four or five different “treatments” of the same scape – but towards the end, some new effects – bright orange, and a pale blue, if I recall correctly – arrived, so towards the end, if I did a full sweep, you might get seven or eight “versions” of the same scape.

and – if it was a particularly lovely scape in it’s initial incarnation – then – you ended up with eight absolutely outstanding scapes.  so it was a good technique – take something that is proven sounding good, and then “treat” it seven different ways – and then, pick your favourite of the eight, too.  often, for me, that would either be the deep pink effect, or, the dark, mysterious green – and the green effect, whatever it is, is definitely my favourite.

I could “see myself” thinking up these processes, I could “see myself”, just by looking at the icons, the paintings that I did, that powered the scapes, what I was thinking – here was a section, where everything was COMPLETELY about minimalism.  a single effect, with nothing else.  a single background, with nothing but an effect.  two backgrounds, mixed together.  a single “E” yellow “note”, playing atop a single “mountain” or pyramid.  I could see, that often, I was stuck in “minimalist mode” for days at a time, and then, I would go back to much louder, much crazier scape designs, especially those that contain far too many bass guitars, and yet, still, somehow, work, others, where I intentionally used the most dissonant “elements” possible, to try to create a more “index of metals” vibe, and in fact, I have made a note somewhere, that one of my scapes does sound a bit like “an index of metals” sans Fripp.

as I recorded them, I would occasionally note down the names (of course, I mean the “numbers” of the scapes, since none of them have names!!) of certain scapes that I particularly liked.  then, when I moved into the mastering stage, I would do the same – so I now have a document that I’ve officially started, that is my “scapes of note” document, and once I have completed the mastering (at the rate I am going right now, that will be sometime in 2017 but who knows?) I will publish that list on the music for apps: scape eternal album on the bandcamp site – because believe you me, if you sit and listen to those “chosen” scapes in one sitting, it will blow your mind – it will be like hearing a lost, super excellent super ambient eno album that you never knew about.

for me, in the real world, it’s the equivalent of getting the remastered “neroli”, so that I could get the previously unreleased second disc – a “new”, long form eno ambient piece called “new space music” – which is right up there with “neroli” and “thursday morning” and “music for airports” in terms of being supremely beautiful and supremely ambient.  hearing those chosen scapes, will be not unlike, the first time I heard “new space music” – 50 minutes of previously unheard long-form eno ambient music – it does not really get a lot better than that.

if you had a LOT of time, my recommendation would be – listen to them ALL, from the beginning.  basically, I’ve just done that….listened to over a thousand scapes, and it was the most relaxing, beautiful experience…really relaxing.  with the odd moment of dissonance.

why?  because in my innocent, quiet way, I followed their rules – I did not jump ahead like so many scape users did – and in fact, when I found out there was a hack that allows you to expose all of the instruments, sounds and treatments in one fell swoop – I deliberately didn’t take note of it, and I have never ever done that with any scape install – I would NEVER spoil the journey of discovery that eno and chilvers worked so hard to create.  that’s just me…some want to get to all the toys right away…I was happy to wait.

the advice that the app gives you, and the way you keep receiving more and more amazing sounds, all the time, and the excitement you would feel, when you realised you had just got a truly beautiful eno fretless bass line, or, an amazing floating eno synthesizer riff – every other day, every 20 or 30 scapes – you would get another “present” – it is an amazing way to grow with the application, instead of “cheating” and going to the end…OK, for some, that’s the way, I get it – but, I can tell you – if you listen to these 1100 scapes – what you will hear, is first, a limited palette of sounds.  that directly affects the sound of the resulting scapes, and for a while, it was almost impossible to create a loud or annoying scape.  as you got more voices, and you had more ability to mix voices – then the chances of cacophony or dissonance, or both, increased significantly.

in the middle period, in the 400s and 500s, you get a medium to large compliment of instruments, and, the scapes get more complex, denser – although, I still go on self-imposed minimalist streaks, using the newer tools to create new minimalist scapes even right up to the very end.  and of course, during the last few hundred, I am finally, using ALL of the instruments, and I was receiving no more new updates – I had at last, revealed all of the instruments, backgrounds, and treatments – and then, I kept going…until one day, I just…stopped.

and then, three or four years passed, and I thought – hmmm, I really, really wish I had recorded all of those scapes.  and then that other voice, the one that thinks big, says “well, why don’t you…” and that was that.

four, five months down the road from that internal conversation – and I have them all captured and recorded.

I have, as of a few days ago, mastered 187 of them (which took me up to scape 200 – the numbers don’t match because several scapes were lost, i.e. when you erase a scape, you lose it’s auto-generated “number” – so the track number no longer matches the scape number), and as time permits, I master more and more and more and more.

Until I finish.  And then, once mastered, I upload.  Actually, as I master, I try to upload, because the more I upload, the clearer the decks are for more scapes, to upload later…to date, about 118 of them have been uploaded.

So the sound of scape, and the musical DNA of brian eno and peter chilvers, has been filling the studio monitors for many, many months, weeks and days, and it’s so strange, I’ve listened to well over 1000 scapes this year, all recorded in late 2012 / early 2013.  and just hearing them – it was so mesmerising, it was so, so incredibly relaxing – I would have scapes playing all day long, all weekend long – as I captured them – and after a day or two of listening to scapes being captured, I would be so chilled, so relaxed – they really are like a tonic, I swear – there is something about them, they are ALL so incredibly reminiscent of brian eno’s music, no matter what weird things happen in the scape – it just sounds like eno…they ALL sound like eno.  even the really strange ones – eno.

normally, it’s the ambient eno, but occasionally, you get the really strange, really dissonant eno – or other eno’s – not always pleasant.  but most of the time – you get real ambient beauty – with the very occasional journey into slightly more alternative types of ambient.  it’s a trip worth taking, and if you don’t mind waiting – well, the first hundred and some are up there, free to listen to, on bandcamp – so go have a listen – those top secret never-before-heard brian eno ambient albums are just there waiting – it’s uncanny, how after you hear 20 or 30 0f these scapes, that you get the uncanny feeling that you were just privy to a top secret performance of an unreleased eno ambient masterwork – they just sound great, to me, it will always be the best of the best generative music apps, and it’s difficult to believe sometimes that it IS generative – that the songs are literally created, by creating a visual input, of shapes, colours, backgrounds and effects that are colour-based.  but – that is how it works – you paint a picture, or, you randomly throw shapes onto a canvas – either way, it works if you spend hours meticulously building something very visually appealing, or, if you very randomly add different shapes together, or even on top of each other – or whatever, no matter what the input – it ALWAYS sounds good.

often, I would spend time working on carefully composing and arranging the shapes, more often than not, there would be a plan, a purpose, a desire to make a beautiful visual piece of art…that also happens to generate really beautiful music.

Only very occasionally would I work randomly, when I did, I’d still get good results, but I always preferred creating something beautiful and intentional, trying to make a good piece of art.  scape always rewarded me with interesting, challenging ambient music no matter what the input; I do like to think that taking time to create more meticulous art resulted in better scapes, but I can’t prove it.

 

and now for something completely different.

I told you last time about my frustrations with Notion.  It seems to be working again now, and I have managed to salvage and finish my interrupted recording, but, I am still not going to publish it yet – as I want to move it from the iPad to the desktop, to see if I can get some better instrument sounds for it – I am just not happy with some of the sounds in Notion for IPad, and I am hoping that via some process, I will be able to create a new mix of the track, using BETTER sounding instruments – so the song is on hold, I won’t release it until I’ve had time to research this.  it’s complete, it’s alternative / jazz, it’s about 8:00 long, and I’m really really happy with it – working title “abstraction distraction retraction”.  though it will be delayed, I hope to have it finished one way or the other and published this year – it’s a good track.

I have started a new track in Notion, another guitar quartet, but this time, steel string guitars rather than nylon strings, as the last guitar piece I did (“fantasy no.1 in d major for four guitars”) was. it’s only a few bars long, but it’s off to a good start, it’s in 7/4 time to start, so that makes it unusual.  working title (likely to be changed) is “relentless refraction of light”.

now that I think of it, I have a number of new tracks in various stages, from embryonic to complete; besides one complete Notion track and one just started, there is also a new proggy piece in Gadget, which is coming along nicely, and a very interesting piece, featuring vocoder vocals recorded in Attack, my new favourite drum machine, I love it!

so there is a lot of music in progress, but given my commitments over the next two months, most of these tracks wont appear until November or December – but, they will all get done, and they will all come out…

and of course there is my song made with real instruments, “the complete unknown” which is probably about 85% complete, that one may need more time, because I am in the middle of real guitar overdubs, which do take time.

I’m very happy though, that one of my very best works in a long time, “abstraction distraction retraction” is done, I do want to see if I can improve the instrumentation, but if I can’t better it, then I will just do the best I can with the existing tools.

in fact, I would dearly love to re-record ALL of my non-classical Notion tracks, with better instruments – I really would.  But – we shall see, time will tell…and all that kind of stuff…

 

so setting the problem of improving the instrument sounds in Notion for a while, I want to talk about two newer apps that I’ve been playing with, that are both in their own way, quite exciting.

 

the first one is a free app (well, it was temporarily free anyway) called “YouCompose” and at first, I scoffed – when I realised what it’s premise was – this is it:

you record a melody using a keyboard to input it, and there are various templates you can use, I used a stock quartet of horns, so my solo instrument was a saxophone – so, I played a sax melody to the best of my ability – and then, I pushed the “harmonise” button – and, in just a second or two, literally – it produced three horn harmonies – and damned if they didn’t sound half bad !!

I tried again, with a longer, more complex melody – and again, the almost instant four part harmony – well, three part harmony to your input melody – came out quite well – almost palatable.  With some difficulty, you are able to edit the  parts, you can erase bad notes, change notes with the wrong durations, and so on – it’s not too bad, although it’s no Notion when it comes to editing !

today then, I had a second session with it, and I did a session with guitar harmonics, bass guitar, clean electric guitar, and distorted guitar 2.  I did the harmonics part first, and let the rest be created by the master of harmony, YouCompose.  this time, it was quite a flop – it couldn’t seem to really figure out what to do with just harmonics for input.

so – to give it a better chance – I took command of Distorted Guitar 2 – and recorded a fake “lead solo” with no accompaniment.  pushed the magic “harmonize” button again – and this time, it produced the goods – bass, guitar and harmonics, that accompanied the lead solo really quite well.

it’s fine for free, but it does leave a lot to be desired – I tried to copy my harmonics clip into the bass slot, and it refused to paste it where I placed the cursor – it would only paste it AFTER the two existing clips of harmonics – not alongside or on top of them, as I was wanting to do (I wanted to create some counterpoint, by having the bass “follow” the harmonics – but the app simply would not let me.

so until it’s a bit more flexible with editing, moving, copying, and manipulating clips, I will continue to view it as a fascinating toy – sometimes, it does an AMAZING job of harmonising, but, there is an equal or better chance, that it will produce something quite plodding, or quite inappropriate, that does NOT sound good – and I found that I tended to delete more of it’s harmonisations than I ever saved – I only saved a few, where it had worked particularly well.  And even then – I would probably go into every clip, and make changes, to make it a bit more…human?

It is, however, an amazing experience – to play a series of notes, a melody, on your own, and then, literally two or three seconds later, you have a fully notated set of complex harmonies.  The rules for this thing must have been an absolute bastard to write, and it does operate in different keys and time signatures, as well as having some basic tempo controls (I kept selecting “lethargic” – the slowest tempo – which resulted in some dire and terrible four part harmonies, going by at dirge pace – yuick!) but I do admire the sheer bravado of it – it is hit or miss, but for me, it’s just fun, it’s kinda like spinning the wheel of fortune – will it come out beautiful, plain, or awful?  will it be OK, but flawed in places?  will it, and this is very rare – will it be achingly beautiful?  maybe, once every 100th attempt.

I don’t think that ANY computer can make up harmonies as well as a human computer, but – it can sure do it FASTER.  And if you don’t like the “detail” work of having to write out harmonies for your melodies – well then, this may be the tool for you.

I do find myself gravitating towards it when I don’t feel like working on serious music – hoping, I guess, that the magic three second harmony creator button, might create something truly amazing…and very occasionally – it does.

 

now, to my final recent discovery, I ran across this last night on the old app ticker – it’s called, I kid you not, “play the golden gate bridge” – and again, at first, I thought – this must be a joke – but it’s not, it’s actually a project by the San Francisco Synthesizer Ensemble (which you can buy on CD) where they have literally, sampled the bridge (and, the app has a special page with nine of the original samples, which are simply amazing) and then there is the actual app, which allows you to play the cables of the golden gate bridge in the manner of a harp – but, using a selection of more than a dozen possible sounds, including “fog horn” (my personal favourite), “waves”. “railing”, “lamp post”, “cable thock”, “cable click”, “south tower”, and another favourite “reverse hit” – you can select any of these amazing voices, which are developed from the original samples – and that sound becomes the sound you play on the “harp” – which is of course, the golden gate bridge, set against a cloudy sunset sky – a lovely image, and it makes beautiful, beautiful sounds.

it also allows for recording, and in fact, it has a little second page where you can record up to four different parts – so it’s like having a four channel TEAC tape deck or something, right there in your app, to overdub parts with – I think that is really excellent, and I can see myself writing pieces for this odd “instrument”, and doing videos of performances with it, too, because it is an absolutely unique way of performing (the only other app I have that is anything like this, is “VOSIS”, where you “play” a marble statue) and it’s actually a lot of fun to play.

also, some of the sounds are so beautiful, really ambient, really natural, strangely – even the metallics, all of them have a wonderful, organic feeling to them – and to me, this is such a beautifully made app – you can just about feel the love that went into it’s making – and, it’s apparently a long-standing tradition with this ensemble – their CD, celebrates the 50th anniversary of playing the bridge, while the app, celebrates the 75th anniversary – so these samples are clearly, in their blood, but also as clearly – in their minds and hearts.  there is also a beautiful art film of the bridge featuring the Ensemble’s music.

this app gets my vote, beautiful, useful sounds coupled with excellent design and playability, I can see myself performing and recording with this app for many years to come – it will especially be great for live performances.

 

what a wonderful sounding app, and so much fun to play, too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

studio diary 20150501: back into the world of scape…

suddenly, I found myself there again, after a long, long pause – a two year pause – I’d acquired the “Scape” application very, very early on, worked with it over a very, very intense but quite short period of months, and just as suddenly, stopped creating scapes when I reached about 1100 in total approximately – I found myself listening to “scapes” again, every day.  In 2015.

 

back to 2012 for a moment, then – after the fairlight and scape, I moved on to learn about, and explore other ambient, generative and synth apps, from the wonderful mixtikl to the equally fabulous drone fx (huge news – drone fx for the desktop – awesome news!) and on and upwards and on to some of the truly strange apps, the VOSIS and the TC-11 (huge news – TC-11 is at V2 now – MORE awesome news!!) and so many weird and wonderful apps to learn about, attempt to master, make recordings of…

“Scape” was my second “long session” with an app, my first “long session” was with the fairlight, or what is now known as the peter vogel cmi  – but to me, it will always be “the fairlight” – “the fairlight” of peter gabriel – [this link is to a pretty interesting video of Peter and The Fairlight, and how he used it on the song “The Rhythm Of The Heat”] – and kate bush fame [and this link it to a very rough but very interesting Kate Bush and The Fairlight clip] .

but “Scape” was the first ambient app I worked with – and what a great place to start – an ambient app, where BRIAN ENO was one half of the design team, and, where he played some of the samples and worked with his app-making partner musician PETER CHILVERS to design, produce, and market scape – a device that has a wonderful simplicity to it, you have an empty palette, and you have tools – which you can drag out onto the canvas, and when you do – music begins.  each tool is a different sound, or background, or filter for the whole piece.  there are bass sounds, synth sounds, melodic sounds, dissonant sounds, buzzing sounds, just your general sound palette that you might find on many a BRIAN ENO album.

in other words, sonic heaven in an app.  the app reveals itself to you slowly, so, you start with a few instruments, a few backgrounds, a few filters.  as you make and save more scapes, the app then present new tools to you, which you can then use to create “scapes” with new sounds in them, or, use them in conjunction with the older sounds that you are already familiar with.  OK, yes, it is very, very simple, but, once you work with it for a while, at least, for me, I began to approach working with it more compositionally.  sometimes, I would draw scenes, you know, mountains and clouds and bushes just to see what a “painting” would sound like.  then, I began trying symmetry, then, asymmetry – to see what results that brought.

later on, I tried minimalism – just one background, say, and no instruments.  I also developed certain techniques of my own, my favourite of which, was to create a scape I liked with one filter, and then copy it over to the next “slot” and change just the filter, then do it again, so I would have the orange version, and the green version and the blue version – the same basic “scape” – but through completely different filters.  I would often record these one after the other, and it’s truly interesting to hear the differences between the filters (those being the tools on the right hand side of the palette, that seem to control what is done to the whole piece, so I call them “filters” – and that’s another wonderful thing about scape, there is no standard terminology, therefore, everyone calls the objects by different names! which is fantastic, I think.  awesome.

working with “scape”, for the three or four months that I did, was a remarkable time.  to have produced 1100 “scapes”, I would never have dreamed of – but, that is what I did – and I was quietly amazed, privately amazed, at how incredibly complex and wonderful some of the later creations became, when there were perhaps, double the tools that you start out with – when you have, finally, the full selection of tools, and there are, no more new tools – then, you can combine things in amazing combinations of the old and the new, the new, the middle period, and the earliest – whatever your heart desires.  want dissonance? bring in one of the “crosses” – they all sound horrible!  wonderfully horrible.  want a nice sounding scape?  use a lot of the “letter shapes” “E” “H” “I” etc., the yellow melodic shapes, and use the green or dark pink backgrounds.  green is the nicest background of all.  dark pink, a wonderful second.  some of the other backgrounds are a bit more active, including some quite “jittery” ones, so it really does make a difference which background you run your “scapes” through.

but that is all getting a bit into the history, I wanted to recount to you the events that lead up to this sudden re-surgence.

at the time I began working with scape, in late, 2012, I had a decent enough home studio.  I worked out a reasonable way to record a scape, and to this day, that is the single-most asked question that I get “Dave, how do you record the scapes”?  It  wasn’t easy to figure out.  But it wasn’t hard, either!

I later on learned, that Eno and Chilvers intentionally didn’t leave a method for scape to be recorded (which also explains why it’s one of the few apps that is NOT Audiobus-compatible) – in fact, I learned, they didn’t mean for people to even “keep” “scapes” – but of course, many of us crazy musicians, wanted to keep them anyway.  I don’t want to let Brian and Peter down here, and I always feel like I have disappointed them, by not just enjoying the “scapes”, and then throwing them away – but I will tell you know, why I can’t do that.  Because they are so incredibly beautiful.

It’s that simple.  These scapes are such unique, precious pieces of music, and to me, they are amazing in so many ways, because of the high, high quality of the samples, because of the brilliance of sample selection, because of the genius programming of the app – I could go on.  No matter what – it boils down to this – even the strangest, most dissonant of “scapes” – is a unique thing of beauty.  For a very, very intense several months, I experienced from one to several of these amazingly lovely songs almost every single day.  And I was mesmerised.  I wanted people to HEAR this beautiful music, to hear what I had heard, to be able to experience my four month trip with “Scape”, for themselves.

I set out boldly, to record and upload as many “scapes” as I could.  at the time, that turned out to be just 41.  at first, I made videos for each one.  very quickly, as I reached the 800s or something, I realised, I was not going to be able to make 850 videos.  I really enjoyed making those videos, and I used the single screen shot of the art for each scape, as the starting point of each video.  So then I worked on audio only, but I soon ran into space issues, I didn’t really have the set up or the disk space, to record unlimited numbers of “scapes”.

Until 2015, that is.

Now, with larger, faster, better hard drives, a much better client, SONAR X3, and a good, fast system – I can record scapes en masse.

I hadn’t really thought about it, but for some reason, a few weeks ago, I started to think – I would really, really like to recover, and record properly, the “rest” of the 1100 “scapes” that I had recorded all on my first decent ipad, an ipad 2.  so one evening, I set up a 24 track session, recording 24 bit 48K audio, and began recording.

It takes time; “scapes” run anywhere from 3 to 4 t0 close to 9 minutes, and what I tend to do is, the moment I get in, I set up the session, and start recording, while I am going about other business. and when I can, I stop by, stop a recording, and start the next recording.

Every few weeks, I sit down, and trim, master and produce the tracks, and then, as time permits, I upload them to the dave stafford “music for apps: scape – an eternal album” eternal album.  I recently uploaded a handful of these “newly recorded old scapes”, and I think it’s lovely to finally, be able to hear the work I was doing in 2012 / 2013, now, in 2015 – it’s about time.

Over the next several weeks and probably months, I will continue to upload as many of these as I can master, and if we are all lucky, I will actually make it to the end this time – maybe.  We shall see…

If I can stay the course, and, to be honest, I do not know at this point, if I can – then, eventually, I should think, maybe I might actually “finish” the job.  I would love that, because if I actually could finish – well, two things would come out of that:  you would get to hear a thousand plus scapes done at all different stages of app “growth”, from simple to more complex to most complex and back again, and, I would be free, after discharging my duty to myself to complete the work I began, I would be free to make NEW “scapes” in real time, in 2015, to add to the collection.

And I think that might be the most interesting thing of all – to start all over, and go through the process again, and see what happens “this time around”.

But right now, well, it’s early days yet – at this moment, I am recording “scape” 138, which is an impossible construction that has 18 bass players and 13 yellow letter melodic events – and it’s a cacophonous mess, but oh, so incredibly unique!  some of the scapes I’ve heard over the past couple weeks of recording, have blown me away – they are either so strange, so weird, so unique, so powerful, but often, just so, so intensely beautiful, usually in an ambient way, but sometimes, in a fairly active way, too.  This particular scape is ever so slightly overloaded, and I know the app has protection against this (if you reach the max number of instruments, it begins to remove the earliest instrument as you add the latest) but I actually managed to create a “bass overload” in this case, one of the few times where I beat the system – my poor JBL monitors are baffled because they have never had 18 eno or chilvers fretless bass riffs all starting within microseconds of each other, and it’s overwhelming for the poor speakers!

but it’s an utterly unique “scape”, and I can’t wait to see if I can even make a usable master with that much bass content…we shall see, that one will be a test of my skill, it truly will.  terrifying bass overload!  power, power, power – and you just don’t expect a piece like this, it’s truly out there, but – ANYTHING can, and does happen, when you are “scaping” – trust me.  I’ve been there.  what an incredibly strange piece of music, which is now receding gracefully into the land of fade out…

so for the past two weeks and a few days, I’ve been hearing “scapes” again for the first time really, since 2013, when I actually uploaded the 39 existing scapes many months after they had been recorded in late 2012 and early 2013 – the scapes came before the bandcamp pages did.  but now we are somewhat caught up, we can now return to this arena, and see what we can see, or – hear what we can hear, rather.

I’d like to talk for a moment, though, about the visual aspect of “scapes”, which isn’t something that many folk speak about, for me, when I was heavily into this process, how I constructed a “scape” visually was very much an art, I tried to use the skills I had as a musician, to “compose” my “scapes”, and I was particularly enamoured of using symmetry, or putting instruments in long, diagonal rows (as in the next “scape”, “scape” 140, that I am working on now… see below).  I just wanted to say, you can follow what is happening in the music, by looking at the image of each “scape”.  In the early days, you can see that I drew nice little scenes, trying to make art, and trying to make that art into music, and, it worked, to a degree, and then, as more object become available, you can “see” the “scapes” getting more complex, you can see my experiments with symmetry, and as you identify the various instruments, you will learn, just like I did, what causes what.  a square turned to have it’s corner pointing up, is a bass instrument of some kind – several different kinds, from normal bass guitars to fretless guitars, to some longer fretless phrases, and so on.  so you will be able to “see” in “scape” 138 and in “scape” 140, where I have lined up a whole series of basses into a long, diagonal line – and the resulting chaos that this approach brings.

I am now onto scape 140, which is apparently, another “bass overload” test, this time, with 13 bassists, two melodic events, and one descending arrow complex synth event.  the cascading bass players are just amazing, a single, slinky, throbbing, ever changing bass note, made up of 13 horribly overlapping notes, grinds across the musical landscape, while bell-like melodic tones appear and disappear randomly in the background…it’s madness once again, but a beautiful, mental landscape.

Carrying on with the discussion of the visual aspect, you would then be able to see, and hear, for example, in scape 141, that there is only ONE bass part, which plays occasionally, and the three melodic letter shape instruments carry this tune instead of the basses as in 140.

Scape 141 is fairly minimalistic, but there are others even more so, so when you run across a truly minimalistic scape, it will be obvious, again, from the “track” image I upload, which is actually, the map or the “artwork” that created the sound of that scape – you will see an empty workspace, with just a speckled background – that is literally, just a background, with no instruments, so you end up with a very, very ambient, minimal piece.  So if you look at each piece of art, that comes along with each uploaded scape, you will be able to literally “see”, the journey I took, see the paintings I made, to produce the sound you are hearing.

That means, that when I get to one of my “filter series” – where I take the same “scape”, and run it through five or six or nearer to the end, perhaps seven different “filters” – the exact same painting, except the filter is a different colour, and you will see that – first the pink, then the green, then the grey, then the orange, and so on – until I’ve run that one “scape” through every possible filter.  you will also be able to HEAR the differences, and realise, that green filter makes one sound, while pink filter, makes a different sound, while orange filter, maybe, is a delay or whatever.  you get to know them, and you get to know what they will do “to a piece”, and this is the best test of all – try the same song, through each one of the various filters, and see what happens then…

Another kind of series, involves using the same “background” on different filters, or, different backgrounds against one type of filter.  The combinations, and the possibilities, are actually, almost limitless, they really are.

So for me, the fact that a visible artefact, a “painting” that I did – that’s actually, a huge bonus, and this is why: I sometimes struggle to describe music with words, but, describing it with a piece of artwork comes pretty naturally to me, so I love the fact that if someone asks me, “hey, how did you make “scape” 844, anyway?” my answer is right there and I can say – have a look at the track art for the piece, that is the actual piece of art I made, which creates the sound of “scape” 844…that uploaded track art, IS the answer to the question “how was this track made”? – answer – “this is what I drew, in “Scape”, to get that sound that you are hearing…”.

Additionally, if you really, for example, fell in love with a beautiful, ambient “scape” that I have made (something I do regularly) there is nothing on earth stopping you from buying “Scape”, the app, looking at the track art that I used to create the beautiful, ambient scape, and then, recreating it in your “Scape”, on your own ipad – by mimicking what I did in my “painting”.  I am sure that as long as you got it close, that it would end up sounding very, very similar to my version – very similar indeed, but not identical.  Very close.

At the same time, if you like my unattractive, sonically bizarre and / or dissonant “scapes”, you can easily “see” the tools selected to get that sound – and in no time, you will be able to control what “Scape” does, in the same way that “I” control it – although “control” is a dubious word – you will be able to do similar things, if you copy the art in my track art, the uploaded artwork for my “scapes”.  Or if you like my super minimalistic “scapes” – you can easily re-create those, as they are very simple to make!

A whole lotta nothing.  But sometimes, small input means big output, in terms of beauty.  Some “scapes” are not particularly beautiful, but then, they may have other charms that appeal to other senses, so it’s not a requirement that they BE beautiful.  A constantly ringing bell might actually remind one a bit too much of that early morning alarm, and when you have several of these admittedly, more melodic alarm clocks going off at once, it can be a bit overwhelming.  But – still beautiful in it’s own way, in the way the bells land within the composition, how they fit together, and so on.  Scape 145 is a perfect example of that, it’s all bells all the time, ringing incessantly, but – there is still something about it that I really like, a freshness, a randomness, and sometimes, those bells hit some nice accidental harmonies.  then, they start to fade away…only, it’s a false alarm (get it?) and then they are back, ringing like mad again…over and over,  you think the piece is about to end, and it’s not – it’s just wonderful repetition, and scape always does whatever I don’t expect it to – it’s full of surprises.  you just never quite know what you are going to get, but, I can guarantee one thing – it will ALWAYS be interesting!  always.

I don’t know exactly how many “scapes” I have recorded over the past couple of weeks, in this new burst of scape activity for 2015, but I do know one thing, I’ve been astonished at the quality, the variety, the different moods, the different techniques, the different results, that this remarkable tool can produce, and while I’ve maybe heard something like a hundred scapes, in two weeks or so – and there has been such an intense variety of music, from the most ambient to the most incredibly overbearing to the most powerful to the most jarring to the most fantastic of melodic, beautiful, ambient composition – it’s really just an amazing success, and it proves that generative music is here to stay, it proves too, that the inventor of ambient, is also, one of the master practitioners of ambient – because, decades have passed since those groundbreaking Eno ambient records – Discreet Music, Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon, Neroli (to name but four of my favourite Eno titles) and there it was, 2012, and out comes “Scape” – which to my ears, SOUNDED like Discreet Music, Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon, and Neroli  all rolled into one beautiful set of ambient samples, and each “scape” I created, sounded like a new track from a new, unpublished Eno album – priceless, beautiful, unique.

To add gravitas to my words, I am now recording “scape 146”. which features what was then, the “new” filter, a very squelchy filter, so this scape, which is bells playing in waves, over this amazing distorted, squelchy backing – is like alien music from the future, I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and it’s a remarkable and unique composition – generated by this app, based on my instructions – but, guided, ever guided by the ambient hearts and minds of mssrs. Eno and Chilvers – what an amazing juxtaposition of sound sources, I can’t explain it in words, but when you eventually hear “scape 146” – you will know exactly what I am talking about…

I really do hope that I can make it through all thousand plus recordings, for one thing, after a two year absence, it’s really, really been interesting to “re-live” my intensive several-months long experience, but without the intensity of actually creating, hearing it at leisure, as I record it two years later – it’s a very, very nice feeling indeed, it truly is.  If you don’t own the scape application, I would heartily recommend it to you now, and I would also recommend – don’t cheat, don’t do what some people do, which is find out how to expose all of the tools at once, and begin using the maximum toolset from the beginning.  I strongly urge you instead, to do what I did, to discover the app in the same way I did, one new tool at a time, this gives you a chance to get used to each type of tool, gives you time to play with each type of tool, and then, you recall better too, what each one does, whereas if you start with the whole lot exposed – which is an option – then, you lose the fun and the excitement of being presented with new tools periodically, and you also lose the experience that Eno and Chilvers wanted for you – they felt that the full toolset was too much to start out with, that learning “Scape” in the “slow learn” mode was the best way to learn the toolsets thoroughly, and give you the best, least overwhelming user experience – so I strongly recommend doing it that way.

I can’t imagine doing it the other way, it just doesn’t feel right to me, I guess I am more patient than some, and I’d rather get new tools every few days, along with the lovely, lovely written suggestions, which are of course, modified oblique strategies – I found those suggestions to be gold, and I did indeed, try many of them out, exactly when and how they suggested that I do – and I was always very, very pleased with the results.  the tips are good, they are good ideas, and I suggest paying heed to them as you are able to – it makes for an even more enriching experience.

I personally, though, doubt you could have a “bad” experience with “Scape” – because it’s a good tool !  You can’t really go wrong.  I think it’s well designed, and if you start slow and build up your instrument library as suggested, you will learn what each tool does, what each instrument does, what each background sounds like, what each filter sounds like – and you can then, tailor your “scapes” to use all of the backgrounds, instruments and filters that you love the most!  I think that is brilliant.  It’s almost easy to forget, too, that this is a generative instrument, one of the first of it’s kind, a very different generative instrument compared to something like “Mixtikl”, which gives you perhaps, too much choice, whereas, “Scape” limits your choices somewhat, but there is so much scope for inventiveness, and the generative programming is far superior to anything previously seen – so that scape can create music so complex, so unique, that almost no other generative instrument can compete.

Many months after I finished my first go-round with “Scape”, and, after I’d had time with “Mixtikl” and “Drone FX” respectively, I wavered a bit on what generative app I love the most.  In “Mixtikl”, I created 61 quite complex utterly customised pieces of music over a several month period, which I think stacked up comparably to the much more prolific 1000 plus that I did with scape in the period previous to that one.  At the time, I slightly favoured “Mixtikl” over “Scape”, but in hindsight, I would have to say, “Mixtikl” requires some knowledge of mixing at least, and music, preferably, while “Scape” requires neither.  All “Scape” requires is that you can draw a picture with shapes, and backgrounds, and filters – and just about anyone can do that.  The other requirement is that you listen…

So for ease of use, for amazing programming, for the most amazing samples, and for the overall best generative app, after hearing just the first hundred or so of the 1000 plus “scapes” I have recorded – I absolutely would say that “Scape” is the “better” app, although, having said that, they are BOTH utterly remarkable and amazing, and on some levels, I don’t really think comparing them is truly fair – I love them both, I will hope to make more music with both as time goes on, and, once I put right the “wrong” of not releasing these scapes, then we can see where we are with ambient apps, and where we are with generative apps, and indeed, where we are with ambient, generative apps…and, really, who knows what the future may hold???

I certainly do not !

 

 

 

 

 

a mixtikl experience…

i never dreamed i would think or say this:

i believe i like mixtikl better than i like scape…for ambient (and non-ambient) generative music creation.

there – I said it. sacrilege!

don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love scape; it consistently produces truly beautiful, unique, ambient music – but for a musician, it is an odd experience – you draw a picture, and music comes out.  that’s amazing, and it sounds great, but I like to have more…control over what happens in a piece of music that I am creating.

all of the rules are hidden, and as far as how much control the operator actually has over the app – in scape? none, basically. but over in mixtikl…the operator has almost total control – maybe too much control!

I made scapes for months and months until I had over a thousand of them – and then one day, I just stopped.  I will make more at some point – but I’ve never really had time to listen to the ones I’ve made, in the main…so I will do some listening, and eventually, go back to scaping – because it’s fun, it’s a fantastic app…but.

mixtikl…gives me control.  and I have to admit, I like that.  I like the idea that I can select the sample (even create it myself, if I so desire) and that I can mix and match anything with anything…it’s the ultimate in creative flexibility.  you can do ANYTHING! literally, anything.

as I tend to do, my first creations on mixtikl were ambient, mostly.  after a few months, though, drums started creeping in, and then I found myself intentionally creating active pieces – and the results were just as satisfying, and sometimes startling, as the results were with the ambient pieces.

I recently did a new piece (not yet uploaded) comprised on mostly human voices, with a couple of synths added in – dropped it into a nice reverb, and it just sounds fantastic.  then I turned around, made a copy of this very ambient track – added bass, drums and synth – drew the reverb back – and suddenly, I had a loud dance version of the same track – that really rocks – as time goes on, I find that mixtikl can do just about anything, limited only by your imagination.

so right there, that gives mixtikl a second huge advantage over scape: scape makes mainly ambient music.  that’s what it does, and, it does it very well.  but mixtikl – makes ANY kind of music.  and that is freedom.

the first time I used a series of samples that were intended to be used together in mixtikl , I was absolutely amazed at how well it worked, the intelligence built into the samples – astonishingly clever.  a bass, a beat, a guitar, a horn, a voice – all working in tandem, in harmony, in sync.

once you get the hang of the controls, then you can really start to work with mixtikl , in particular, I love the mixer grid, because you can have both repetitive and linear activities, so I can have a bass looping but at the same time, I can have four slightly different drum beats running in a linear sequence – so the bass stays the same, while the drummer changes things up in four different scenarios – brilliant!

I also love the fact that of course, you can insert the same sample many times, and alter the pan position, the time, the effects…so for example, in one track, I had these beautiful guitar harmonics – and I wanted a LOT of them, so I just dropped six or seven of them in, left one mono, made the rest stereo, set them at different levels, etc. – and the results were fantastic.

sure, it takes a bit of work sometimes – and some days, nothing sounds right, I am importing, then deleting, sample after sample – but more times that not, I can simply import a few sounds, get them working together, drop one or two maybe, then, carefully add sounds until the piece builds up to whatever sounds good…and it really does sound good!

I still consider myself to be a beginner at mixtikl, and when I read the mixtikl operator manual, I feel immediately humbled and I realise that there is so much I don’t understand or even begin to understand – but, armed with my tiny bit of knowledge, I just forge ahead creating many, many pieces of music – right now, I have four that were just mastered and uploaded, and another four or five waiting to be mastered, so a small backlog is building up…and whenever that happens, I can tell I am falling in love with yet another brilliant application – and this time, it’s mixtikl.

I find that I like to let mixtikl pieces play out “long” when I record them, and a few of my recent pieces have been approaching, or even over, 30 minutes in length.  this is really a semi-conscious decision to “go long” as in the old days of ambient, in 1995 and 1996, when I was working in the ambient looping band “bindlestiff”, we tended towards longer loops, because for one thing, any repetition becomes quite hypnotic, so that’s one reason why I favour longer pieces, but the main reason is, the loops and samples sound so wonderful when assembled into these generative pieces, that I love to listen to them unfold over a decent period of time.   they sound good if you play them for ten minutes.  they sound GREAT if you play them for 25 minutes…

strange eddies of quiet appear – odd bits of music that you don’t expect, but that create wonderful atmosphere when they suddenly appear from nowhere…and then disappear again – back into the main loop, or whatever it is.

generative music is really good for ambient, because odd things happen in ambient, unexpected things, sure, there are repetitive events that your ear “expects” to hear each time they repeat, but sometimes, other events may intrude that temporarily disturb that flow – and it’s a complete surprise to the ear – which is wonderful – and then, you are back on track before you even know what hit you.  I tend to have a pretty busy “grid”, even on ambient tracks, strangely, sometimes, “more is less” with ambient, because you get different voices coming out of nowhere briefly, and then disappearing for a while, and then eventually returning…

sometimes, having a lot of different events is helpful, because it gives the brain variety and repetition, and I think we as humans like both of those things.  the beauty of it is, though, I just put the samples into the cell, I decide if it’s looped, linear or whatever, I might then add a compressor or eq or some track effects – and that’s about it – the tool does the rest.  mixtikl decides when it will play the sample, based on the tempo and key I’ve told it to, of course.  it does all the work.

it’s been noted before, and I find it to be true, sometimes, some of the most ambient pieces, have a lot of music playing, a lot of events, they are technically a bit “busy” – but the effect when you hear them:  totally ambient.  It’s very strange, but very true – some of the very best ambient pieces actually have a pretty high level of musical “activity” – yet somehow, that distils down to something very pure and clean, and very, very ambient – I think this fact will always be a bit of a mystery, but for me, it’s made me less afraid to add in more, because I find that even with more, the pieces still, often, come out supremely ambient – it’s brilliant.

mixtikl is fast becoming my go-to tool of choice for generative ambient music, and latterly, active music, too – it’s a blast for drum and bass-based pieces, really fun to work with – and that’s something you can’t do in scape, too – play the drums!

I promise, right now – my next blog will not be about scape or mixtikl 🙂

scape v mixtikl

when considering scape and mixtikl, the two most popular generative music applications for ios, this is the current state of play.

dave stafford, august 2013:

“neither is “best”, neither is “better”, both are amazing in their own way!”

advantages of scape:

  • visual work area is extremely easy to use
  • extremely fast creation time
  • no experience or musical ability required
  • consistent, beautiful sonic results

disadvantages of scape:

  • limited number of possible sounds (although a generous amount are included!)
  • user is very limited in how much detailed control they have over mix & effects
  • no method for export or sharing – except to record the audio during playback
  • some scapes can end up dissonant if too many sound elements are dragged into the image – the “kitchen sink” effect (although scape does have a limit on the number of objects allowed within one scape)

advantages of mixtikl:

  • very flexible interface allows for incredibly complex sound designs
  • unlimited samples and sounds available, including your own content if desired
  • advanced mixing functions, advanced effects functions – cell level and global
  • built-in visualiser for visual realisation of audio tracks

disadvantages of mixtikl:

  • more complex design can be difficult to learn
  • creation time can be considerably longer than with scape
  • experience or musical ability is very helpful; you may struggle without it
  • some mixtikl pieces can end up dissonant if too many sound elements are added into the cells – the “kitchen sink” effect

I’ve had the unusual experience over the past couple of months, of being able to compare and contrast the user experience and output of both “scape” and “mixtikl” because I’ve created, in both cases, an on-line album (on bandcamp) for music I’ve created using both applications.

(please see dave staffordmusic for apps: scape, and, dave staffordmusic for apps: mixtikl, on the bandcamp site).

first, I worked through the first 40 or so scapes of some nearly 1100 I’ve created over the past year and a half.  the consistency of the pieces produced; the undeniable and incredible beauty of the samples; the instantly recognisable sound of brian eno built into a very user-friendly application; the genius of the behind-the-scenes “rules” as envisioned by eno and chilvers, and programmed in by peter chilvers, all add up to an undeniably fantastic app, one that I would recommend to almost anyone who wants to create beautiful, generative music by drawing pretty pictures with pre-defined “shapes” – which represent instruments, sounds, riffs, effects, etc.  an absolute corker of an app, and a great music creation for anyone of any age.

then, I worked through a smaller group of mixtikl pieces I had created, just seven pieces, but all of them saved as “long form” ambient works – and in the case of mixtikl, I was again, amazed by the consistency of the pieces produced; the undeniable and incredible beauty of the samples; the fact that you can add many, many sample “packs”, which means your sonic arsenal can be increased and increased over time; and the beauty and complexity of the music, both ambient and more active, that mixtikl produces…means that this very different-to-scape application creates beautiful, generative music via a system of sounds and musical events placed into “cells”; with rules that the user controls down to the tiniest detail – an incredibly complex and very capable generative music application.  I would tend to recommend this more for musicians, but there is no reason that anyone can’t work with it – it just has a longer “learning curve” than scape does, because it’s by nature, far more complex – but that complexity, in some ways, allows you to create music that is far more under your control than the music you create with scape – so a different experience, and, the complexity and incredible attention to detail – are necessary and right.  mixtikl is a thing of beauty, and the music it creates is every bit the equal of the music scape creates – although it sounds quite, quite different.

why?

well, the samples for scape were made by just two people, brian eno and peter chilvers; one of them, a musician with a very, very recognisable palette of sounds, that are instantly recognisable as being “eno” – while mixtikl uses a huge, huge range of sounds created by many hundreds or even thousands of different musicians – a varied and remarkable universe of sounds.

mixtikl’s real advantage is the “tiklpak” – you can get packs that are mostly bells, or drones, or percussion, or beats, or techno, mostly genre-based – there is a massive list of “tiklpaks” that are included with the app – one of my favourites is “ambient 100c” (from “al collection 3” – one of three additional free packs you can download from the intermorphic site – that used to cost money) – a great selection of ambient sounds (hence the name) – but, sounding nothing like the ambient sounds in scape – which are mostly authored by eno, with a few from peter chilvers as well.

actually, mixtikl has two kinds of sound pack: the “tiklpak”, which is an audio pack, and also “paks” – which are zipped content – and can include your own samples – so actually, you can actually add any sample that you own or have access to – so your sound library in mixtikl is pretty much infinite – and therein lies the real advantage it has over scape – whose sample library, while incredibly beautiful…is finite.

intermorphic offers various paks for various platforms, including “noatikl” and “tiklbox” as well as the aforementioned “tiklpaks” and “paks” – and just having the “tiklpaks” gives you so many sounds your head will swim – adding in more “paks”, and eventually, designing your own zipped or audio content and adding it to your library – I can see a time when I might, for example, sample some ebow notes, and add those in, or sample in some of the more spectacular synth voices from my m-tron pro mellotron or other high quality synths…why not?  or maybe I will download the amazing, utterly distinctive layered backing vocals from 10cc’s “I’m not in love” – which are now available via eric stewart’s web site, and use those in mixtikl compositions – why not??

but you can go back and forth – because ease of use is also a huge issue – scape; incredibly easy and quick to create really beautiful music, mixtikl; big learning curve, and you have to work hard to make your tracks sound really good.    so it’s not really a fair comparison, it’s definitely apples and oranges, or maybe, uh, oranges and lemons, not really sure – scape; really really easy to use, mixtikl; not as easy to use – scape; small, finite batch of incredibly beautiful sounds – mixtikl; massive, unlimited selection of very beautiful sounds – plus, add in your own – so – no limits…

a recent piece I worked on in mixtikl, a 27:00 piece entitled “I always gild before”, well, this piece really surprised me– I feel that this track is one of the best pieces of ambient music I’ve ever produced, across the board, in 25 years in the field of looping and ambient – and along comes mixtikl, I sit down with the “ambient 100c” sound pack and design a new piece of music…and out comes something so beautiful, so relaxing, so soothing – so bright, positive and wonderful – that it’s just utterly remarkable – I feel so fortunate that this piece of music appeared.  I literally cannot wait to create more with mixtikl – and with scape, although I have a healthy backlog of scapes at the moment, thanks very much!

my preference though, is absolutely…both.  I can’t imagine life without these two premier generative music applications – at this point in time, to me, these two are clearly the market leaders, and I think any other manufacturer considering moving into this market will find it incredibly challenging to design something to compete with these two world-class music making applications.

generative music is just about fully mature now (although who knows what the future may hold!), we are way beyond the koans of this world, and with both scape and mixtikl running on my tablet device, I can create generative music to my heart’s content, using two amazing tools that are two of the most powerful reasons why making music on an ipad is the only choice, and also, two of the most innovative, yet very different, designs I’ve ever seen – but both achieving virtually the same thing – generative compositions of very consistent quality and beauty – and that’s the true test of any music making device – does it make beautiful music?

in the case of scape and mixtikl – the answer is simple.

yes.

scape – three unusual controls

a reader in nova scotia, who is also a fellow scape user, has commented on one of my earliest blogs regarding “scape”, the generative ambient music creation tool designed and realised by brian eno and peter chilvers, and in his comment, he asked me a question, which was simply, could I tell him anything more about what the three “sliders” in scape, the ones that control “density”, “complexity”, and “mystery” – about what those controls actually “do”.

I have always made sure that whenever a reader sends in a question, that I will do my level best to answer it – but in this case, I was struggling a bit, because while I’ve used these three controls, I did not feel like I could speak authoritatively about what each one does!

so I wanted to first of all, throw this question out to the scape user community at large – can any other scape users throw any light on what, exactly, the “density”,  “complexity” or “mystery” controls do?

I have a standard process when answering any question, if I happen to know a substantial amount about the topic, then I just answer from my own experience, however, if I know less about it than I would like to, I would seek out information on the internet, so I could learn as much as possible, so I could speak from an informed and enlightened position…before framing any anwer or framing an appropriate reply to the question.

however…even this “look it up on line” approach was thwarted; when I typed in the question into google; I got a number of hits back, but only the first two were actually about the three controls, the rest, were “off topic” – and I am afraid, that the first hit pointed to the original dave stafford blog post that our nova scotian reader was commenting on; and the second hit pointed to another blog post about scape that I had written – so the ONLY two references to these three mysterious controls, anywhere on the internet is…two blog posts that I myself had written!

at that point I then realised I would not be learning anything more about the controls from any internet search, even so, I’d still like to attempt answering the question from a sheer logical standpoint.  but before I attempt that, I need to explain one of the peculiarities of “scape”: when you save a “scape”, the app saves the visual instructions that you created, and of course, you can “play back” the scape at any time.  however…

the duration (or length) of a scape playback is set to “random”.  so even though I created a scape that ran 7 minutes 32 seconds the first time I play it back; the second time I play it back, it might run 5 minutes 21 seconds.  the third time, maybe 8 minutes 3 seconds.  the fourth time, 2 minutes 35 seconds, and so on, ad infinitum – it’s never the same length, and, because of that, it’s never the same “tune” – it “starts” in a random spot, and it plays random sections, so there is just no repeatability whatsoever.

the reason I am mentioning this is that the only “scientific method” to determine what, say, the “mystery” control “does”, would be to record a scape with “mystery” set to 0 or off, and then play it back and listen to the results; and then, change the “mystery” control to 100 or full on, and play the scape again, and try to determine what the “difference” is – i.e. what is now happening in the second playback, that did NOT occur in the first playback – describe that, and you have described what the “mystery” control does. 

but this whole theory falls apart – because you can’t play it back a second time and have it be the same entity it was the first time you played it back – so there is no way to gauge the difference with the “mystery” control set either off or on – it’s just not possible, because of the random duration of scape play back.

so this leaves us with pure, logical conjecture as our only remaining possible way to answer this question (barring the unlikely event of eno or chilvers reading this and offering to explain to us what each of the controls does!) – so here is what I believe, based solely on my internal logic, my understanding of the three terms used, and my experience with ambient and other rules-based music:

1)     since we do not have eno or chilvers to explain what these three controls do and

2)     since we cannot test the controls scientifically, since scapes never play back the same way twice – we cannot gauge the “difference” between a track with zero “mystery” and “full” “mystery” – as we might with other devices – we cannot compare an “effected” scape with a “non-effected” scape which would have allowed us to understand what the controls actually “do”

3)     logic, based entirely on the name of each control, might dictate the following (your opinion may differ):

“density” – I would suggest that density, like the other two controls, does exactly what it says on the tin – it controls how dense the scape is – and density must relate to the sheer count of musical events in the piece.  I suggest that a “not very dense” scape might have, say, 10,000 musical events or “notes” in it, but a “very dense scape” might have, say, 50,000 musical events or “notes” in it.  of course, on a more basic level, “density” is controlled by how many “objects” the user places into the screen (and there is a limit on that, if you place too many objects, scape removes older objects to compensate), but I suggest that this control will ADD more density, it will create extra musical events that wouldn’t normally be there, making the piece more musically “dense”.

“complexity” – I would suggest that this is similar to “density”, but will have more to do with the complexity (or difficulty) of the musical events – so when “complexity” is set to zero, the piece will be “baseline” complex – as complex as the normal scape rules allow for, no more; but, when you increase the “complexity” towards “full”, the rules are altered to create more complex melodies, more intricate harmonies, more convoluted bass lines, etc – the music becomes “trickier” – like taking a normal rock piece, and transforming it into prog rock by adding complex passages, odd time changes, etc. – in a scape, simply making the melodies, harmonies, bass lines, drum parts, etc. more complex than they normally would be.  it might introduce time changes, or extra / difficult melodic, harmonic, or percussive information, that we don’t normally get in a normal scape – more complex forms than usually occur in an “un-effected” scape.

“mystery” – I would suggest that “mystery” is all about randomness; possibly involving random musical events occurring that normally wouldn’t, so with “mystery” set to zero, there are no surprises, the scape operates “normally”, and nothing unusual happens.  when you turn “mystery” up to “full”, then unusual things begin to happen, odd events that normally would not occur, occur and occur frequently, and again, it’s just what it says on the tin, mysterious events occur, increasing the scape’s “mystery” – of course, this assumes that we actually know what to expect when we build a scape, which isn’t necessarily the case anyway!!  “mystery” is my personal favourite, I just love the idea of a control that controls “mystery” – I think that is genius!

so, these are my “guesses” at what these three enigmatic slider “controls” do – and with no owner’s manual, no information regarding these controls forthcoming from eno or chilvers – there isn’t really any choice but to guess.

I’d say, based on how very difficult that question was / is to answer, that this was a very, very good question from this particular reader (thanks, Evan!).

I’ve done my best, but my guesses are just that – guesses, so we’d love to hear from you – what do you think the “density”, “complexity” and “mystery” controls do?

____________________________________________________

original question submitted by “evan” from nova scotia, whose scapes are posted here:

http://soundcloud.com/portable-galaxy

my own scapes are now beginning to be collected into a large album, which is located here in high quality audio formats:

http://davestafford.bandcamp.com/album/music-for-apps-scape-an-eternal-album

a partial collection of specially made dave stafford scape videos, using scape screen shots as video material, is here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/purescapes17

and for you soundclouders, another small collection of audio scapes is here:

https://soundcloud.com/purescapes

the “eternal album” – and, sequencing with the fairlight pro app

with the recent release of my first “eternal album”, “music for apps: fairlight pro” I’m now moving much more publicly into the realms of app-based music, so far, I’ve kept most of my application-based music just in the world of you tube videos, with musical activities such as the purescapes channel, which is a you tube channel dedicated to music I’ve created with “scape” – the generative ambient music application designed by brian eno and peter chilvers… I’ve also done the odd live improv involving applications on some of my other you tube channels such as “applicationHD” and “synthesizerHD” but this is my first actual full “album” of application-based music.

I should take a moment and explain the “eternal album” concept; this is an idea I’ve been working on for about one year, I’ve mapped out a series of these albums to be made using existing and future music recorded with applications – and application-based music is like science fiction to me; I still can’t really believe that it exists, and that for the last year and a half, I’ve been able to create music (and, a lot of music at that) on a tablet; using a myriad of music-making applications – to create music of  incredibly varied styles, from super ambient (scape, mixtikl, bloom) to frenetic, heavy, synth music (nanostudio, imini, animoog, addictive synth, thor, nave, n log pro, magellan, sunrizer, and so on…) to almost anything in between (launchkey, loopyHD, cantor, mugician, sound prism pro, beatwave, and so on…) – five years ago, I would not have thought this possible.  however, a practical problem has emerged, that the “eternal album” solves – how to present a large number of finished compositions (far too many to assemble into ordinary “albums”) in a way that makes sense for both artist and listener.  the “eternal album” solves this new world, application-based problem.

so, after 41 years of making “normal” albums – i.e., for release first on cassette, then on compact disc, and eventually, online (a mixture of downloads and compact discs), but this…this is a new “kind” of album, one that recognises that the album concept has become slightly outmoded.  of course,  I will still continue to make normal “albums”, where I collect songs together (such as “gone native”, my recent collection of active music, or ambient albums such as “sky full of stars” and “the haunting” – and many others, too) – this will continue, and it will revolve mostly around music made with electric guitar, or guitar synthesizer – I still feel in particular that for ambient music, the normal “album” full of songs is the best presentation method.  there are many reasons for that, the foremost of which is that by selecting a group of songs, and ordering them in a particular way, the artist can control the “mood” of the ambient album experience – so I think a defined set of tracks, carefully sequenced, is very often a good idea, and in ambient music, it’s particularly effective.

but…not so for music made with applications.  since to me, with my old-fashioned brain, this is futuristic music, science fiction music, music that I never dreamed could be made, mixed and published on a tablet device, in vast quantities (example – in just about one year of creating “scapes” using eno and chilvers remarkable application, I’ve created in excess of 1000 scapes) – and, the majority of them are of a quality I would absolutely publish – so – I feel that this music, in these quantities and at this level of quality (there is really no such thing, for example, as a “bad scape”) – this music deserves a new kind of album – the “eternal album”.

the concept is simple:

1) there is no finite number of tracks – tracks are added as they become available.  we begin with existing, completed tracks, and add new tracks as they are created and completed

2) there is no ending to the album itself – it’s end is dictated either by the disappearance of bandcamp, or by the disappearance of myself from the planet (both will happen eventually – this is inevitable)

3) customers can download any number of tracks and construct their own “versions” of the album, from a single track to hundreds of tracks if available, or anywhere in between

4) customers can either use the suggested running order or create their own, four seconds of silence has been added to the end of each track for this specific purpose

5) there is no album price, as the “album” is whatever the customers want it to be, from one track to hundreds of tracks (if available) in any order they please

6) a word about track pricing, because of the nature of the “eternal album”, we have set the track prices at a special low level to compensate for the higher track count

so what this means for me as an artist, is what I need to do to present the work for a particular application, is to create a normal bandcamp album, in this first case, the album is called “music for apps: fairlight pro” (in fact, all of these albums will have similar titles, such as “music for apps: scape” and “music for apps: nanostudio” and so on) and I then upload the existing, finished master tracks that I’ve created with that application.  that might be just a handful of tracks, it might be many, but once uploaded, I would then add to the album at any point in time over the next 30 or 40 years,  many, many more completed tracks – as they become available.

this might mean that if I have a very prolific period of composition next year, that I might add 20 or 30 new tracks during 2014, to the existing fairlight pro tracks that are already part of the album.  or, if I do not have the urge (or more likely, the time, due to other commitments) to work with the fairlight, it might be that no tracks are added until 2017, when I finally find the time to record new fairlight sequences…the input is totally flexible.  note: if customers indicate a demand for more tracks of a certain type, i.e. they ask for more fairlight sequences, or more scapes, I will do everything within my power (and my schedule) to provide same.

so any “eternal album” can have any number of tracks at any time, more tracks can be added at any time, or, they might remain static for many months or years depending on what apps I am currently recording with.  it’s the ultimate in flexibility for me, the artist, but it’s also the ultimate in flexibility for the customer for these reasons:

1) the customer can listen to all of the available tracks before making any purchase, and decide if they like none, one, a few, many, or all of the tracks

2) the customer can download only the tracks they like, ignoring those tracks that do not appeal to their “ear”

3) for completists, they can own every available track and get the full musical impact of perhaps a decade or two decades’ worth of the artist’s work in that particular format – perhaps, a hundred or more songs recorded over ten or twenty years – something that most artists do not necessarily make available to their listening public (but I wish to as much as is humanly possible)

4) having many “eternal albums” to listen to and choose between, gives the customer a very good idea indeed “which” of the applications that he or she likes the sound of, so some folk, for example, who are more used to my ambient work, will favour the scape and mixtikl “eternal albums” while others who perhaps like the louder, more active side of dave stafford, will opt for the “eternal albums” created with the fairlight, nanostudio, or other active/synth tools.  it provides a much greater range of choice, which appeals to me.

it’s really all about choice, and to me, having a range of albums, sorted by application, with a comprehensive catalogue of tracks created within each application available to listen to at no charge and no risk, gives customers the chance to listen, compare, and decide which applications they feel drawn to or that resonate with them, and, which applications do not appeal to them at all.  it might be that one customer only likes the sound of scape and mixtikl, and does not enjoy the fairlight pro or nanostudio albums.  or, the complete opposite, or any mix of styles/apps – but the beauty is, as with all albums presented in bandcamp, you can listen, compare and contrast before making any purchase decision.

since I have just been through a complete review of every single track I’ve ever produced using the fairlight pro (peter vogel cmi) sequencer, I wanted to take some time to talk about the joys and frustrations, the highs and lows of creating music with the fairlight pro app in particular, since it’s the subject of the first dave stafford “eternal album” and is our featured application today.

whether you call it by it’s current official name, “peter vogel cmi”, or if you are a bit lazy like me, and you call it “the fairlight” or “fairlight pro” – this is one of the most unique applications that appeared in the early days of the ipad tablet revolution.  despite it’s high ticket price, it was one of the very first applications I purchased, because I wanted that sample library – the one that kate bush and peter gabriel used in the early eighties, I wanted those sounds!

I had a bit of a learning curve, I am first a guitarist, second, a pianist, and lastly, a synthesist – and despite playing both guitar and keyboards, sequencing was a skill that I had really never got the hang of…until the fairlight pro application appeared in the itunes store.  it took me a few weeks to really understand and take advantage of what the app can do, but once I got the hang of it, my skill set just skyrocketed, and within a few months, I found that I was creating pieces of music that really surprised me in their complexity for one thing, but at the same time, it was the sound of the pieces…and that takes us right back to those incredible samples.

in uploading the tracks to the album, I’ve taken the unusual step of defining in full, in the attendant metadata, a detailed description of each piece, it’s duration, tempo and the instruments used in the creation of each track, so for each track that is part of the album, there is a list of the eight instruments used to create it.  the reason I’ve included this is because it’s so, so difficult, when listening to a completed, mixed, stereo sequence, to tell what the component parts are.

but even knowing what “went into” the piece is sometimes not enough, sometimes it’s more about unusual choices made with note durations, or adjusting the tempo to make a certain melody sound a certain way, a lot of the fairlight “magic” is in the combination of instruments used – and sometimes, strange things happened, and instruments that sound one way juxtaposed with three other instruments, suddenly change their sonic character when paired with say, two other different samples.

there is something about the fairlight that you can’t explain in words, and at that point, you can only listen.  the samples are just classic, and I love the quantity and diversity on offer, but even more important, the insanely strange combinations of instruments you can achieve by mixing and matching across categories, and if you think about it, each fairlight “instrument” consists of (a maximum of) eight instruments, so just how many combinations of eight can be made from the many hundreds of samples there are??

what amazes me, too, is that I can create a new instrument, and it always, always sounds completely different from any other instrument I’ve ever created!  no matter how many I create, each instrument seems to create an utterly unique sound, which you can’t replicate easily using other applications.

yes, you could physically collect those eight instruments (although it might be difficult, for example, to get ahold of “jetpasso1” – mosts musicians do not have a jet in their studio) and record with them, but it would be utterly impractical in a lot of cases, again, I don’t have a digeridoo in my studio, but with the fairlight – well, I do.

listening back to the sequences I created beginning in february 2012, and then moving up to the present moment, it’s a journey of pure discovery, a joyful, joyful journey, with a few moments of frustration, a few paths that I shouldn’t have gone down, but mostly, it’s just one of the most unique, interesting and entertaining bodies of work I’ve ever had the pleasure of creating and being the composer of.  I’ve created silly sequences, sequences composed of bird song, classical music, pop music, heavy synth music, rock music, progressive rock (quite a bit of prog in there), it’s unbelievable the variation of tracks I’ve created over the last year and a half – I even have one sequence that accidentally sounds a bit like an obscure XTC b-side…

I think that this unassuming little app, with it’s amazing set of classic 1980s samples, has a remarkable power – it allows you to play eight very diverse instruments together, in an impromptu “band” that you then arrange measure by measure…creating completely unique pieces of music with these one of a kind “instruments”.  I love spending time creating with it, and I hope that you’ll enjoy some of the fruits of this labour, it’s always an amazing feeling when you push “play” for the first time, and a remarkable and very unique piece of music plays back…which was built literally, note by note.

so – I think it’s appropriate that the music made with the fairlight pro application is the subject of  my first “eternal album”, it seems right, it’s both a classic synth from the 80s but also, one of the first high quality sequencer/samplers to be made available for the ipad and iphone, so therefore, it’s part of our past and our present and our future.  I love working with this tool, and I recommend it highly to anyone who plays keyboards, that wants to learn how to sequence – it’s how I got started 🙂   note by beautiful note !

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 🙂

the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂

the future of generative music – beyond bloom, scape and mixtikl…

as one of our readers recently pointed out, the ios is a fantastic place for generative music to blossom and grow.  already, we have a surprisingly high number of generative music applications available, and I am sure that list will grow over the next couple of years.

I’ve expressed before that I am a late arriver onto the generative music scene, but as with every new music that I discover, I tend to jump in head first, and continue to dive in as time goes on.  my purescapes channel on youtube is one example of this ambition – to eventually, over a number of years, to publish all 1100 scapes (and counting) so that the world can hear what an amazing, ever-changing, ever-surprising generative application brian eno and peter chilvers‘ “scape” is.  I could sit here and wax profound for paragraph after paragraph, trying to describe what a beautiful, generative, ambient sound “scape” has, but I realised early on, that the ONLY way to describe “scape“, would be to simply capture and publish every scape I’ve ever created.

and across those 1100 plus scapes, there is such a huge variance in sound, composition, approach, ambience, melody, dissonance, mood, atmosphere – and I allowed scape to “grow” organically, so I started out with the minimum tools, and allowed the app to “reveal” new sounds as I went along, so for many, many months, every few days, I would “get” another new element, which I would then experiment with, on it’s own, in multiples, with existing elements, through different “mood filters” – until the next new sound arrived.

so the scapes in the 300 range, will have double or more the elements of the first 30, and those in the 700 range, more elements still, until now, in the 1000s, where I have all of the elements and backgrounds exposed and at my disposal.  I had deliberately set scape aside for a few weeks, until last night, when I picked it up, and within 10 minutes, another 30 scapes are added to the ever-growing catalogue, and – the sound of a completed scape, with carefully chosen backgrounds and elements, based on my now many-months of experience – still does not fail to UTTERLY delight me – the sound of scape is mesmerising, I can and do listen to scapes for hours; creating them is a joy, and my only regret is that I cannot produce the next 1090 videos fast enough – I would give anything to be able to push a button and upload all 1100 scapes to youtube, just so the whole world can HEAR this music – it’s like I’ve made 60 new eno albums over the past several months – which in an odd sense, I have, since I am merely assembling, re-assembling, breaking down and building up, a lot of sounds either found or created by eno, and chilvers – so of course, that does make most scapes sound a LOT like…the music of brian eno.

and that, my friends, is a good thing.  I would go out on a limb and say that in some regards, out of some hundred or so music apps I now have (that in itself is gobsmackingly astonishing!), some of them absolutely incredible – that scape is possibly, my single favourite music application, and the one I probably get the most enjoyment out of.  but – I tell you what REALLY excites me – the idea that within a few years, I will have uploaded hopefully at least the first few hundred scapes, so that you can hear this amazing music – I feel like I have this secret cache of eno music, that I really want everyone to hear – so – hence, the purescapes video page – slow going I am afraid, but in time, I hope it will become a point of reference for anyone interested in acquiring and using scape – which I unreservedly encourage and recommend most highly.  if you are even thinking about downloading scape – I urge you – do not hesitate, just do it – you will have hours of fun, and, you will create your own library of “new” eno compositions – to enjoy now and for always.

and scape, of course, led me to it’s predecessor, mixtikl – an application that I am just now becoming familiar with.  and what an application it is!  massive sound libraries of the most astonishing weird and wonderful sounds; create your own sounds (I am dreaming of recording many, many samples of long, long ebow guitar notes, and then assembling them into strange mixtikl creations…) – and then load them either by design, or by using the random generator, into wonderful pieces of generative music.

mixtikl, despite sharing a founding  father figure in mr. brian eno, is the polar opposite of scape in terms of elements being exposed and available.  scape is entirely hidden, the rules are hidden, control of volume, eq, effects is primitive or non-existent, but in mixtikl – well, you have almost TOO much control of what is going on.  every cell, every sound, every effect, can be adjusted, tweaked, and modified to your heart’s content.  while scape creates it’s pieces using a very tightly limited set of elements, mixtikl allows any sound imaginable – and yet, both apps, create wonderful, ambient, generative music.

it’s true, that in mixtikl, you can easily create very noisy, very active pieces, but I am not particularly attracted to that – although I have used it to create a great quasi-ambient drum-driven backing track for ebow guitar – I tend to steer mixtikl down the ambient path, because, to my mind, that is what it does the best.  I am sure active music creators might disagree, and I am sure it’s extremely capable of creating great active music – but that’s just not my interest.  but what mixtikl can achieve in the ambient realm – well, I am just getting started, and so far, the pieces I’ve created do not disappoint – you do have to tweak things quite a bit to get it to sound truly ambient, but it’s worth the effort.

in scape, it’s almost too easy to make a good sounding piece – the samples, and the rules, just automatically add up to a great sounding, eno-sounding, eno-soundalike – almost every time.  very rarely, I produce a scape that is not quite eno-like, but – that is rare indeed.  in mixtikl, it takes much, much longer to assemble and tweak a piece of ambient generative music, but it’s always worthwhile, because once you do get things sounding good (usually, by removing elements and turning elements volume DOWN…) – it sounds REALLY good.

I feel as if I’ve been short-changing bloom this entire time, but for some reason, I always felt like bloom was a prototype for scape (which in many ways, it was), and while bloom can make some really lovely sounds, it just doesn’t seem like an instrument to me – it plays back some really beautiful eno-esque sounds, but when scape came along, with it’s infinitely more varied sound palette, plus the ability to capture scapes very, very quickly as finished pieces of generative music…it kinda knocked poor old bloom off the charts.  which is a shame, because bloom is a really lovely app, well worth spending time with.

I tended to just create a track in bloom, and listen to it, rather than capture it – so even though I’ve created many, many bloom tracks – I’ve never recorded one – which is a real shame, as some of them were downright beautiful.  I think though that eno went back to the drawing board, and came up with scape – which is a million times more capable – I just like the sound of scape a little bit more than I like the sound of bloom.

even though I am singularly unqualified to say, since I really have only had experience with a few of the many, many generative music creation tools that have come along over the past decade or so, I really believe that the next few years may be a real game-changer for generative music.  if I just take the toolsets of  the two generative music applications that I am personally most familiar with, scape and mixtikl, and I think about the power and choice on offer to create beautiful, or dissonant, generative music, it’s difficult to imagine where things might go next.

the change from bloom to scape was like a quantam leap, and the strange, secret complexity of scape’s hidden “rules” is most impressive.  since it’s been expressed out loud that folk would like a version of scape where they are able to, a) load in their own samples and b) create their own not-hidden “rules”…to which chilvers basically replied that it was very unlikely that eno and chilvers would produce such a thing, simply down to the way the programming had to be done, it’s not readily adaptable to either the use of user-created samples OR users being permitted to set and manipulate “the rules”…so knowing that eno and chilvers won’t do it, it’s my hope that some other enterprising application writer will.

the future: imagine then, if you will, a sort of open-source app that is like scape in design, but with one staggeringly different difference – the samples are created entirely by the user; the rules are written and set by the user, the coloured filters/effects are set by the users – like scape with a mixtikl-like level of control.  that would really be something, and I would imagine too, that the visualisation, regardless if it mirrored the scape “screen” or the mixtikl “visualisation” screen – probably this new super-generative app would allow for either approach – and all the VISUAL content would be user-generated.

this would mean, for example, instead of assembling a scape using the “shapes” the eno and chilvers created and related to a musical event, that multi-media artist/musicians could create entirely unique, and utterly personal, multi-media artworks, where each musical background, and each musical element, relates to a user-created music sample, and all aspects, from the visual design of the artwork, to the relating of the artworks’ elements to sound events, to the final EQ, mixing and filtering – the application of effects – all completely controlled by the user.

sort of an amalgam of mixtikl, bloom and scape, but with complete user control.  maybe no one will build it, but, because somebody asked chilvers the question, and he said no, scape isn’t going that way – then maybe, just maybe someone will pick up the fallen standard and carry it forward to a brave new world of generative music that right now, I can barely imagine, but then, three years ago, I would never have dreamed I would have 100 amazing sound creation applications on a tiny tablet from which I can produce world-class music of not just ambient, but of any time, that I would be able to play my guitar through virtual amps, cabinets and effects in an application such as ampkit+, and that audiobus would revolutionise recording of synths and other sound sources in the ios.

so the whole thing is impossible, so a future with super-generative applications that are far, far, beyond koan, mixtikl (and all it’s “-tikl” brethren, too many to mention!), bloom and scape – is totally and entirely possible – and I will actually be surprised if it DOESN’T happen.

I am continually astonished by what happens in the ios – someone conceives and then invents audiobus – and suddenly, every music app creator worth it’s salt, immediately adds audiobus capability to their apps (the latest entrant, addictive synth – that make me so, so happy, because that is one of my top three favourite ipad synthesizers of all time!) meaning that a huge number of sound producing apps can now be used together under audiobus – which, if you have something like auria or cubasis installed, makes professional multi-track recording a reality, not just for synths and MIDI devices, but also for guitar apps – that is astonishing.  I would never have dreamed, a year ago, that something as clever as audiobus would free us to make recording on the iPad very simple indeed.

a few weeks ago, there were at most, a dozen apps on the input side of audiobus.  today – there are 25, and more being added every day. some music apps have taken audiobus support so seriously, that they have configured their sound-generating app to work in all three audiobus positions – input, effects, output.  that’s dedication!

so when I see growth like that, I can readily imagine that generative music apps might go through similar startling adaptations, and great leaps forward, audiobus-style, which might eventually make the very, very complex and capable mixtikl and scape, seem simple by comparison.  I do not know – I could be wrong – but the ipad’s ios is clearly the place where developers come up with startling, innovative concepts like audiobus, not to mention several miraculously life-like and sound-perfect recreations of classic hardware synthesizers, or incredibly high quality amplifier, speaker, microphone, and effects modelling in a product like ampkit+ or stomp box (my absolute two favourite ipad guitar apps – hands down).

to me, all of that is magic, magic of a high order – and what it’s done for me, since I never had the money to invest in a lot of music hardware, I never could afford a moog of any kind, or a korg, and I absolutely would never have had the money to buy a hardware fairlight! – yet now, I “own” all of those instruments in the incredibly low cost application version – and more importantly, I can now have the experience of creating music with those tools that were always beyond my reach – because I can afford to pay twenty quid for a fairlight, but twenty grand – no 🙂

I think that music making on the ios has already exceeded our collective expectations, but I shiver to think what the future might hold, not just for amazing, super-generative music apps, but for all music-making, not wanting to particularly paraphrase the carpenters here, but I have no choice: we’ve clearly, only just begun.

I can’t wait, I am so, so looking forward to the next five, ten years of music development on the ios.  the sky is the limit!

🙂

…fast forward to week 5 of ‘scaping’…

I am in week 5 of scaping now, and I have just completed scape 785 in my latest session (much to my amazement – I mean, come on, how many other tools would let you capture 785 unique generative ambient compositions in under six weeks?).  it’s one of six variants, saved in six different moods, of a really interesting scape – no background, and, a set of randomly thrown out “E” shaped yellow note elements – this is a note that bends very strangely, and with about 30 of them in the mix, you get this wonderful, very fripp like dissonant cloud of bendy notes all blended together, arriving in dense, frippy-clusters of sound, and it’s so beautiful I could just listen to it forever.

fantastic notes…so bendy (up, down, sideways, every which way), so quizzical, so odd – so questioning.  never really resolving, just wandering in and out of the musical landscape in beautifully random clusters…

this is the single strangest scape I’ve ever made, it’s so dissonant, so random, the pitch is all over the place, yet, it’s so incredibly beautiful, too – I can’t quite come to terms with scape 785 !  at times, it fades out as the note clusters continue to collide and wander…fading almost to silence, then suddenly waking back up again, coming up to full volume one more time.

listening to this scape is kind of like drifting in and out of consciousness, it comes and goes, like a beautiful but strange dream that you are dreaming, which then goes away; – comes back – almost disappears; then re-appears, meanwhile, the note clusters get really strange, appearing at the oddest intervals, landing on top of each other, large spaces in between….it’s just one of the most unusual, and oddest, experiences I’ve ever had – and it took about five seconds to create.

I literally open the yellow note element area, grabbed the “E” shaped note, and dragged about 30 of them out into the workspace; randomly, onto the screen, totally at random – creating a jumble of notes filling most of the screen. no sense of order whatsoever, just randomly dispersed notes – but the overall effect, the sound of the resulting piece – is just wonderful.  sigh.

I am extremely pleased with this piece, although because of my backlog, and because this tool is so incredibly prolific, it may be a while before you hear this piece…I hope not too long.

lately, scapes have tended to be much more complex – although, sometimes I will still really strip things back and create some very sparse, minimalist scapes, because I now have so many tools, so many new backgrounds, new elements, I am always wanting to add in my favourites – a new descending arrowhead, the “quiet sun” bell, the buzzing two sided triangle/mountain, the new orange/blue mood – so quite a few of the last couple hundred or so have been very, very active pieces indeed.

I really wish there was a way I could instantly publish all 785 of my scapes onto the internet – I really do, because, having so far managed to put up just six of them, I feel very frustrated that you can’t hear the work I am doing right now – and, I am frustrated too that you can’t hear all the new sounds and sound combinations that I am coming up with, too.  all in good time as they say…

I began by publishing my first few scapes onto soundcloud, but of course with their two hour time limit, I am only maybe going to get 20 or so up there…so I decided, rather than add endless channels on soundcloud, to switch to youtube (leaving the soundcloud scapes up, of course!!!) – so for a while, there will be a parallel process – scapes will go up as audio to soundcloud, and as audio with some kind of “video” to you tube at the same time – but eventually, soundcloud will fill up, where as you tube will continue.

at this moment in time, scapes 1 through 7 are up on soundcloud; number 8 should go up tonight – while on youtube, since I started that project a bit later, just the first three are up; number four is ready to go up later today – and, I am working on the next three already as well, so I hope to get “caught up” soon….and I do just plan to continue as time permits – I will make very simple videos for the pieces (nothing fancy) and I will just keep uploading them to the purescapes channel on you tube – although other projects may mean that I have to take breaks from uploading scapes – but if I am able, I will always persist with this – this is one of the most remarkable collections of music I have ever recorded, but it’s also very frustrating, in less than five weeks, I have almost 800 pieces of music!!! it arrives so, so quickly, and so much of it is so, so lovely – but the quantity is staggering, and almost unmanageable in terms of recording and/or uploading the tracks – how long will it take me to make 785 scape videos, and then upload them?

and by the time I do – I will then have another 800 scapes recorded…and the cycle will never end!!!  I don’t think I’ve ever had an instrument that could create beautifully complete pieces of music, finished songs, at this incredible rate – it takes far longer to record them then it does to actually create them!

another thing that intrigues me about the app, something about scape that I am…unsure of…is the effect of visual symmetry on the sound output.  it does seem, that if I take a lot of time, and line up my objects into really beautiful symmetrical patterns, that the resulting sound of the scape is…more organised, more musical – than if I randomly disperse various elements without ANY sense of order or symmetry.  maybe.

but then something like scape 785 comes along, and knocks this theory on it’s head – a completely at-random, very hastily-assembled set of elements – with a beautiful output, as beautiful or more beautiful than the output of scapes that I spent far more time on, with lots of symmetry…so I just can’t tell – both very tidy, very carefully created scapes, and almost randomly created scapes – sound good!

so that theory is obviously no good, although I might say, that if you order your elements with precision symmetry, that this may make your scape sound particularly orderly and beautiful – possibly!   that’s about all I can say so far…

the other thing that really fascinates me about scape are the hidden, secret, internal “rules” – which for the life of me, I can’t really figure out any of!!!  events are triggered by events, actions taken based on how you set things up – but we really don’t understand much of it.

I’ve learned that you can create a scape that you like, and then save copies of it in “each” of the available moods. So for example, scape 785 is in the new orange/blue mood, however, I also saved it in several other moods, and, my ear can somewhat discern what those other moods “do” to the piece.

if I then shift to the “green” mood version of the same piece, scape 783, there is a different reverb, there is a short delay with several repeats, and the pitch of the notes is a few steps at least, lower.  so the same piece sounds quite “different” in green mood, but also it’s still recognisably the same piece.

if I then shift to the “pink/violet” mood version of the piece, scape 784, there is a much larger room reverb and a different short delay with a longer repeat – and the pitch is somewhere in between the pitch of the “orange/blue” and “green” moods.

but as far as the other “rules”, how instruments interact, what happens when you add a second bass note in, what happens when you “chain together” eight bells – I just don’t know.  and in a way, it doesn’t matter – because it works !! – they sound like pieces of music, as if composed by a human – but, they are in fact, generative – so only guided by a human.  I am, however, happy to be one of those human, to herd eno and chilvers’ samples into ever more sophisticated musical forms, in a seemingly endless variety of beautiful sound working with beautiful sound…

I can’t believe the intelligence and sophistication built into this instrument, it’s only the second generative tool I’ve tried over the years (I did work briefly with an early version of koan, but it was very, very primitive compared to scape), but I don’t know that I would want any other – until they come out with the frippertronics version, that is.  in the meantime…

happy scaping….

scape – week three – a new spoken language emerges…

another week with scape, the application…and somehow, not quite sure how, in such a short time, but I find to my astonishment that I now have no less than 502 scapes.

I hasten to add, though, that in a number of cases, if I ended up with a scape that I really, really like,,,that I might well save it multiple times – usually, selecting some or all of the different mood filters, so I can hear it in 7 or 8 different “ambiences” – or sometimes, I might leave the mood the same, and save it with different backgrounds or even combinations of backgrounds.

even so – even with these extra versions…there are still an astonishing number of unique, one of a kind scapes. what a remarkable instrument this is!!!

events this week, well, the usual musical ‘gifts’ have arrived – a new background, some new elements, and so on…and I find I look forward to their arrival with an almost childish delight…

two new elements have arrived in the “spiky blue elements” category, and these two are remarkable – one looks like the top of a music stand, the other, like an asterisk – but all of the blue spiky family of elements are especially cool – because they MOVE when they play back – they are animated!

these two in particular I am really liking, because I wasn’t sure about the first three in this series – they are a bit harsh, a bit more disturbing than any other elements to date. I really struggled to use those first three ‘spiky blues’ – I could and did manage to create interesting enough scapes with them, but – they are a bit…musically uncomfortable (??) compared to most. so it was with a bit of trepidation that I received spiky blue elements four and five – but I need not have been apprehensive.

In fact, unlike the first three, I think they are now becoming some of my very favourite elements of all – and I am living much more comfortably with the whole blue family of elements now as well. my initial discomfort is dispelled and I ‘get it’ now…

another really, really remarkable yellow note element also arrived, this one with the most amazing echo/delay pattern, vaguely something like a really clever delay set up by the edge, only using an eno synth sound instead of a guitar. it has a beautiful, pure tone, and if, for example, if you set just three of these into an empty mood – you get a really lovely cascading, echoing, delayed set of notes that I can just sit and listen to forever…

in fact, that element, and the last few elements (including the whole spiky blue element family!) have had really intricate, amazing delays – and used together, for example, a scape built with this new ‘the edge’ yellow note element and say, some spiky blue elements 4 and 5, yields a wonderful, cascading scape of great beauty,

then, the latest new element, an incredibly quiet, ambient and amazingly beautiful bass guitar sample – that again, on it’s own, just sound astonishing…this is a light grey coloured triangle with two vertical black lines in it – one of the most ambient of samples, has arrived right in the midst of all the dissonance and disturbance of the blue spiky family…fantastic!

last night, another new element made an appearance in the “bells” section, shaped and coloured uncannily like the sun in the painting which is the cover of phil manzanera’s band ‘quiet sun’, the album entitled ‘mainstream’…a really gorgeous delayed bell that I am now thinking of as ‘the quiet sun bell’…

which brings me to comment on eno’s strategy with this tool – everything is hidden. you can’t name your scapes, they are just automatically numbered, and the backgrounds, palettes, and elements don’t have names – so I find, as a user, that I have developed my own language to describe these musical objects. so where normally I might say ‘it’s a sort of basic sine wave synth sound with a lush and complex echo and delay’…

…instead, I find myself now saying “it’s one of the yellow note element family, a u-shape turned upside down, with a clear sine sound with a complex echo and delay…” so since there are no instrument or voice names, just elements represented by coloured shapes – the whole descriptive vocabulary of music changes – and it’s all about colour and shape, sound becomes almost secondary except as a point of reference – the bell sounds are all rounded, and all pinkish-red, where as the note sounds are all yellow, the bass sounds, all black, grey or white triangles – and so on.

when I write about scape, I find myself talking naturally in this strange new language, a scape language, and then I realise, probably, only another scape user will have any idea what I am going on and on about, when I talk about “spiky blue elements” – but if you are a user, you know exactly what I mean 😉

so – it’s been another brilliant week of scaping, a little uncomfortable during the early spiky blue element era, but it’s rounded out beautifully with all the amazing new tools that have arrived since then – and still, so much more to come – I cannot wait to see what will arrive next week…

keep on scaping…502 and counting 🙂

scape – week two – eno and chilvers’ masterpiece

well, I’ve now been working with scape for a couple of weeks, and I have to say, it’s been an absolutely remarkable experience.

I’ve never had a tool that “grows” as you use it, but scape not only grows but the new backgrounds, palettes, and elements that appear, just get better and better.

scape seems to be getting a very good reception, with some very positive press, such as this item from the guardian.

yesterday’s session was an absolutely mind-blowing one, with a new “spearhead” shaped tool appearing, that makes an incredibly complex synthesizer sound, and with the addition of this new tool, even though I am pretty sure there is quite a bit more to come – now, the scapes I can create, are just astonishing in their complexity.

and speaking of complexity – that’s one of three new “controls” that have recently appeared – “density” – “complexity” – and my personal favourite “mystery”.

I’ve always wanted a slider to control “mystery” – and now I have one.

 

new tools in the bass register are also a huge hit with me, and I can’t wait, each day, to press the “create new scapes” button and see what the next set of amazing tools will be.

this was already the most innovative ambient music creation tool I’ve ever used even in it’s basic, starting configuration.  I could have happily created many, many unique and beautiful scapes, ambient, sinister, active, strange, bizarre – with just the simple controls, backgrounds and sounds that I had during week one.  but each time you press the “create a scape” button – the app delivers more, new, and exciting, tools to you to use.

but now, now that I’ve been amazed over and over again at the new sounds and backgrounds that appear, I begin to realise just what a complex and clever creation scape is. this is fast becoming not just my favourite music application to create ambient music with, but in some ways, my favourite music application of ALL time.

using my own imagination, coupled with creating scapes based on eno and chilvers’ suggestions, I have, in two weeks time, created 146 individual scapes and several playlists, that, if recorded and played back in their entirety, represent many, many hours of music, and compositionally, for me, represent in some cases, what would equate to several complete albums of music – and all created in just two weeks of work, 30 to 60 minutes a day maximum.

 

and when I listen to scapes I’ve created, most of them work very, very well indeed, there are very few that I feel are “substandard”.  the scapes made in the last couple of days in particular, are so incredibly rich, complex and beautiful – and it’s not me, it’s the tool, of course – I am just putting the elements together, and then marvelling at the sound that comes out.

also – I find, I am starting to work visually.  creating landscapes, and not worrying about the sound until I am done, letting the vision of the elements drive what the sound is – and that’s a new experience for me.  I was always in control, I played THAT bass part or that synth or that guitar – with scape, you can just “paint” – just make pictures with mountains and the sun and notes hovering in the air…

I find myself creating scapes that are very…symmetrical, and those are often the most beautiful of all, but, even the most random visual effect can also translate into a piece of incredible beauty.  at one point, I created an empty backdrop, and then placed random sound objects in an ugly circle in the “air” – and it sounded really good.  so you can spend a long time, creating a beautiful painting, and get good results – or, work very quickly/randomly, and also get…good results.

I will say, I think the more I work on the visual aspect; the “better” the scape, but, even the most randomly created scapes still sound good.   sigh…

at this point in time, I am half of a mind to simply record each of my 146 scapes (note: now, over 200 scapes as of blog press time), and start loading them up to sound cloud, because I will never have the time, money or resource to bundle these amazing compositions into traditional albums.  and that would now be something like…20 albums.

I want people to hear scape, not so much for my compositions, but just to hear what it is capable of.

I do believe, that the scapes I’ve been creating, are working very, very well for a number of reasons.  the first and foremost, is the amazing, intuitive tool itself, and, the fact that you can “draw” a picture, and that then triggers an amazing piece of music…visually created music.  secondly, and important in my case – I’ve been creating ambient music myself since about 1989, and I really feel an affinity with this instrument, and it’s strange method of composition – as unique in it’s own way as “looping” was back in 1989.  I feel that my experience, makes me the right person to be using a tool like this, and I have worked very hard on my first 146 scapes, building them to the suggestions from the instruments’ creator; building scapes of my own design, but just flying, too, as I did in the looping days – you just push “record” and you go, and you start looping – and sometimes it works amazingly well, other times, you have to try again.

scape is no different, you start out with a blank palette, and you add elements.  usually, it works very, very well – occasionally, you have to scrap a scape and start over.  very occasionally.

so…in a way…scape is the looper of the “naughties”.  or is it the “tens”, now.

 

if you had asked me 18 months ago if I thought I was a likely candidate to be championing the use of ipad apps to make music with, I might well have laughed.  I am not laughing now – scape takes application music-making to a whole new level, and brian eno and peter chilvers, and opal, have done an AMAZING job with this “organically-growing-as-you-work” application.

just the idea that the app gives you oblique strategy-like “instructions”, the idea that, when you go to “create” – you are immediately rewarded with new, raw materials with which to create, that you did not have available the day before – that’s intelligent design, that’s startling – because suddenly, one day, you get, two or three new tools, and that…changes everything.

constantly evolving, constantly becoming more and more capable, and right now, I think I have the world class, the best of breed, the most remarkable, the most creative, the most flexible ambient music creation tool that there ever was – right here in my hands.

I’ve already done some experiments using scape as a “live backing” for live recording with guitar or guitar synth, and I can see a huge future opening up where I can play live…as scapes evolve organically, live, while I am improvising along. it’s really the ability to have “those” sounds, those amazing brian eno borne sounds, that makes scape so addictive and so wonderful to work with.

but – I can also see, in the recording studio, hybrid scape- and traditional- instruments blending really well together, using scape for entire ambient sections of music, overdubbing scapes with looped ebows – unlimited potential for both live performance and studio integration.

I can take looping, which I’ve been doing for so, so long, and blend it with this brand new ambient music creation tool – and I think the amount of flexibility that will give me, is going to be a game-changer.  I can imagine the kinds of hybrid music that will be available to me now, with tools like this…the mind reels at the nearly endless possibilities…

 

for me, one of the most exciting exercises was when I was given the instruction to “create a scape that works with another application”.  this was way back during scape week 1, when I barely knew what I was doing, but of course, I chose “itabla” – my other favourite music application, and I was quickly able to “tune” “itabla” down to c natural so it would work with scape, and I created a “tabla/tanpura” piece first, and then a scape to go with it.

when I play them back together…it’s bliss, pure, ambient, tabla, raga, ambient, bliss.  like no music I have ever heard.  this is a piece that I will be recording and presenting somewhere, because it’s just an astonishing piece of music – and, created by following the instructions/suggestions made by eno and chilvers.  I continue to use the instructions, even if they repeat, and as time goes on, my efforts to “create a storm” or “create confusion” or “work with colour” or “create contrasting textures” or “use only one type of element” – get better and better as the days go on.

some of the playlists I’ve developed, I’ve let play on repeat for many hours, and they sound like (funnily enough)…eno albums.  which is not surprising, given that the music within scape is mostly played by eno.  but – by intent or not – he has given us the actual DNA of his style of ambient music.

 

If I had designed a “dave stafford” version of scape, it would be all about ebows, ebows, and more ebows – you folk could construct “dave stafford”-sounding scapes out of recorded pieces of – energy bow guitar.  in fact, I’d love to do that, and I’d love it if you could get different “versions” of scape with different sample libraries – like the robert fripp version, which would have two modes: “frippertronics” and “soundscapes” – and you could “build your own” fripp soundalike pieces.  or the “ravi shankar” version, where you can create your own ragas, using real pieces of music from the master himself…

sometimes, I wish I were a developer – because I keep imagining these apps, but I can’t build them…

I don’t mean to, in any way, downplay this one, because the samples in this one are beautiful, really, really beautiful – but just imagine, a whole range of creation tools featuring sound bytes from all of the master musicians of the day – you could even do one based on jimi hendrix, so rock guitarists, who are not usually that much into ambient, could have a version to work with.  luckily, I happen to embrace both disciplines, being a rock guitarist turned ambient guitarist turned back to a rock guitarist – so I would be equally happy with the eno version and/or the hendrix version.

“scape” is like having a selection of the best sounds from “music for airports”, “thursday afternoon”, “neroli”, and any other classic eno ambient record you care to name, available for you to reconfigure into your own eno-like yet *not* eno-like pieces.

in fact, despite the fact that the samples are all played by eno or chilvers, it’s very easy to add in your own influence, by creating artistic, visual designs that they didn’t think of (or didn’t happen upon, is maybe a better way to put it) – and I’ve done some very, very strange visuals which created some very, very unique scapes – that I feel, in some cases, say more about my personality (I hope), rather than all sounding just like eno-soundalikes.  if you work at it, you can inject your own personality into the resulting sonic compositions.

I guess what I am saying is, if you just throw a few shapes onto the page, and push play – you will get eno and chilvers; chilvers and eno; eno and chilvers.  but if you take time to learn what each element does, and how the backgrounds and filters affect each scape, you can manipulate events, usually visually, to impart your own personality into the pieces.

by trusting in their suggestions, I’ve found that those suggestions often reward me greatly – they would know – and some of the best scapes are scapes based on the inbuilt suggestions. equally though, I find I can manipulate the visual palette to realise my own musical ideas – because I know, or at least I am learning – what to expect from the backgrounds, elements, and filters, so I can forge a “dave stafford” sound using “brian eno” elements – and further to that, if I then play live improvs along with a “dave stafford-ised” scape, or use same in studio works – I think the sky is the limit.

 

of course, I can, and have, and always will, build my own ambient pieces using the normal methods – synths, ebows, for me, mellotrons (reference: sky full of stars, an ambient album made entirely with the m-tron pro mellotron) – that goes without saying really.  however, having this sort of…purpose-built ambient music making machine, that can create lush, beautiful, enoesque tracks very, very quickly indeed, on the fly, live, or studio – well, that just is the icing on the cake, it gives me an amazing new vocabulary of ambient sounds to incorporate into my music, live or studio…OK, the method of creating the sound is visual, which is a change – but I learned to make music without keys or strings when I got my first kaoss pad – now, I can make music by creating visual works of art in the scape creation window – so that’s just the latest way to create music – I just add it to all the rest – nothing surprises me now, in fact, this visual method of creation, I think, is fabulous, and kudos to eno and chilvers for making it work so very, very well.

did I mention that I ***love***this application? scape is “the” ambient music application, and maybe, just maybe, my very favourite music application of all…we shall see.

I can’t believe how quickly you can conceive, execute, and complete new pieces, I can’t believe I’ve created 146 long form, ambient masterpieces in two weeks flat, the speed at which one can work with scape is incredible, and the results, sonically, are equally astonishing – words don’t do it justice, you have to hear it, see it, use it – and especially, use it – to experience the “growth”.

it looks great, it **sounds** great, and the way it “grows” as you work with it is undeniably an addictive and fantastic feature – wow.  each day – you get new tools with which to make ever-better, evolving, music.  because of this evolution – the pieces I made yesterday, are light-years, musically, beyond the pieces I made ten days ago.

 

and then… there was today’s session, the most productive of all, taking my total number of “scapes created” to over 200 – so about 50 created just today – and again, some, made to suggestions, some, made completely randomly, or based on newly-appearing elements – but, 200 + amazing pieces of ambient music, probably something like 20 full ambient albums made in just two weeks – that’s astonishing.

I love it.

scape – new ambient music application from Opal

today’s session, my second, with scape, the latest ambient music creation tool for the iPad,  was a real learning experience.  I have to say, brian eno and peter chilvers have done a great job on this – it’s miles beyond the very, very excellent “bloom” – eno’s previous application (which I also love!).

as I went to create new scapes, after I completed and saved each one, the app…began to give me advice, in writing !

here are a few of the instructions, or strategies for scape creation, that I noted as I worked…just a sample:

“make space”

“use only the extremes”

“find contrasting textures”

“use colour”

“create a storm”

“create a scape and watch from a distance”

“create a vast empty landscape”

“focus on the background”

“read a book. provide a background”

“as little movement as possible”

“clear skies above a troubled world”

”create three similar scapes and make a playlist”

“highs and lows”

so, I earnestly tried to do exactly what each one said – and I found that I could do what they suggested, in every case !  and the result, in each case, was a unique, vivid, living, breathing ambient atmosphere – a scape.

of course, this brings to mind, instantly, brian eno’s friend and colleague, peter schmidt, and the famous “oblique strategies” cards – and these are of course the kinds of “instructions” that we automatically associate with brian eno – and here they are, updated, but still totally relevant, in a 2012 app for an iPad – and for me, as a novice at creating scapes – I personally find them really helpful and useful, they actually help me to understand what shapes, configurations and VISUAL ideas, will create what sounds – which is invaluable.

and for me – it’s a reward system – I create the scape that the instruction suggests, it works, I listen to it – I save it – and my reward is…the next instruction.  that in turn, challenges me to create very many different types of unique scapes, each in a completely different musical atmosphere – thanks to the remarkable instructions.

and the process repeats – endlessly it would seem.  and I find I am really enjoying trying to do what the instructions suggest – although in most cases, I find it easy to do – you just use your imagination, and visually build what the instructions suggest you build – it’s easy, and fun, too !

if truth be told, maybe because I’ve been playing ambient music for a long time, I don’t know, and, often, I have if not a written set, at least a mental set of instructions for most ambient pieces that I create – if truth be told, for a few of the instructions, such as, ”create three similar scapes and make a playlist” – I had already done that yesterday, on scape day 1 🙂

so I “get” it – but I am excited, I can’t wait to see what other interesting developments there will be, apparently, more and more of the app’s  functionality is revealed as time goes on – which I think is fantastic in itself, I love a nice progression – and “scapes” startsout incredibly beautiful and take you…on a very unique and seemingly never-ending journey that I, for one, am utterly willing to go on – what a sound

I should also mention, the app features a complete album from eno and chilvers, which is a great introduction to “what can be done with scapes” – and, it’s a nice bonus to get a new eno-related album for free in an application!

 

I am looking forward to a time, when I have time to get back into the studio to make music (life, and “gone native”, have so far prevented me from doing so for many weeks, unfortunately) when I can set up “scape” as the live backing, and then loop ebow guitar, or guitar, or guitar synth over it – I think this will be the best combination of an app and guitar possible – better than animoog v guitar synth, better than kaossilator v guitar synth, even better than synth raga – iTabla via various app synths – I think “scape v dave stafford guitar/looping” is going to be so, so much fun – and hopefully, will result in some REALLY interesting, evolving pieces of live, accompanied-by-scape music.

 

looking forward…

 

 

…and I am currently drowning in lush, beautiful, peaceful, tormented, wonderful, ambient, disturbing “scapes” of all descriptions.

🙂

dave stafford solo album, “gone native”, released, download only, worldwide on august 1, 2012

hello,

this is just to let everyone know that “gone native” is now live on both the pureambient store and on bandcamp, which means you have a broad choice of download formats, from the standard mp3 320 on up through FLAC and even WAV if you so desire.

a proper physical CD release is being prepared as we speak, which will be available later on in the year, but I really felt that these songs deserve to be out there where they can be enjoyed.

I’m very happy, too, that the tracks have been added to bandcamp, which is a great resource, and the bonus there is, you can listen to the album before you buy – always a big plus in my book.

I hope you will take a little time, and go and listen to some of these tracks – this is my dream album, by my dream band – and to make sure the parts were played right, I just played them all myself – another lifelong dream, to follow in the footsteps of todd rundgren and other musicians who “do it all” themselves…it was a joy to play, to be the drummer, to be the bassist, to play the mellotron – and then when the tracks were ready, to sit down and play the guitars.  ALL of them! including lots of energy bow guitar, lots of lead guitar, lots of rhythm guitar, lots of guitar synth – which meant, of course, playing oboes and flutes, as well as many very eclectic, strange and wonderful synthetic voices courtesy of the roland gr-55 guitar synth.

this record was an ABSOLUTE BLAST to make, hard work at times, painstaking effort went into the tracks, working out a precision ending for “open to anything” involving the most precise bass part I could conceive of, in fact, I spent a lot of time trying to achieve really excellent endings on several other tracks as well, it became a bit of an obsession – the lead guitar figure at the end of “force of nature” – even the title track, which features a sped up, super tempo bass, drum, guitar and mellotron finale – fun! (but not easy!).

I am very proud of this record, because it very nearly never happened – I was content, in 2008, to continue working on ambient, looping, ebow – but then I got the idea for “gone native” – starting with a remarkable “take one” live guitar part, which was “thanks, frank” – and from there, it was a real rediscovery of the joy of just playing the guitar!  I played that solo, and it seemed so complete, so right – that I really got inspired to do even better on the rest of the record. slowly but defiantly, I collected these tracks together, testing many mixes, making improvements – until I ended up with the 19 tracks that are on the final album today.

when I was a teenager, I played the music of my time – hendrix, clapton, cream, camel, zz top, zappa, nektar, king crimson, todd rundgren, etc. – all of that, and even though that was really just for about six or seven years of time, that music stayed with me, and I still played lead guitar, even if all my albums did go down either a crafty or an ambient path – that “lead guitar guy” was still there inside me. wanting to rock, wanting to play a little prog, wanting to just let go and have fun playing guitar – and, that is exactly what I did!

In 2009, then, inspired by the one take “thanks, frank”, I kitted myself out for rock guitar, and began to record – learning first sonar 4, then, sonar 8.5 in the process, and really coming to terms with digital recording and mixing – let’s face it, before that, I didn’t need to know how to mix, because I never worked multitrack – it was always “two live tracks – stereo” – I was playing live, loops, ebow, whatever, so there really was no “mix” per se.

but that all changed with “gone native” – and learn to mix I did.  “wettonizer” went through about 10 different major mix session over many weeks, until I was satisfied that it is at it’s very, very best – and it is.  tracks such as “sinuous thread” had very carefully orchestrated, layered mixes, and I really enjoyed both the process and the results.  I really feel now that sonar is the absolute equal of pro tools, and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise! 🙂  it’s a great toolbox with a huge range of tools available for building, mixing and producing really high quality music. some of the plug ins are absolutely outstanding, and those tools really made a difference to the tracks with really dense mixes – I could mix a LOT of tracks together, but still have clarity for all of the instruments – brilliant!

I am so glad that I decided to have one more go at being a “lead guitarist” and writing “songs” (albeit all “instrumental” songs, but, songs nonetheless – as opposed to live, improvised loops) – it was very strange and surreal, to be building multi-track rock music, instead of just hitting record and doing a loop.  but I got used to it, and over 2009, built up the first half dozen or so tracks that eventually became the album.

in the meantime, I had acquired the guitar synth (in march, 2011) and I immediately began to incorporate it’s huge arsenal of amazing sounds into both the songs in progress, and into a number of new compositions made entirely with guitar synth, which, for the record, are: “caladan”, “sun willow quartet”, “junction”, “salusa secundus”, “desert power I – drone mix”, and “cinematique I” – although “caladan” and “sun willow quartet” also feature sonar’s “session drummer 3” on drums 🙂

I also incorporated some guitar synth into a couple of the earlier compositions, notably, the title track, as well as many guitar synth/atmospheric overdubs on the reverse-engineered 2009 guitar solo that is “this is a test”.  so the guitar synth really expanded my guitar vocabulary, and it was quite remarkable to be playing a flute part, or an oboe solo, or the dual “nylon string guitars” on a track like “caladan” – really an extraordinary experience.

and last but not least, I managed too, to incorporate two other more recent innovations into the project:  on “zencourage”, the korg kaossilator – hand-held x-y pad synthesizer, is the only instrument heard – it’s many kaoss pad loops all worked together into a larger composition; and then also, ipad applications – I used a guitar application called “ampkit+” to record one of the tracks, which is an active energy bow solo, entitled “wide open spaces”.

so this really is a remarkable batch of 12 songs and 7 sonic experiments, and if you want to hear an unusual rock album, with a definite ambient influence, then please visit the bandcamp site and have a listen…start at the beginning, and just let all the tracks play – it is my sincere hope that you will really enjoy this work.

three and a half years in the making, but really, 41 years playing experience went into the making, and here is it at last (well, the download version, for the moment! – the CD version is on it’s way…):  “gone native” by dave stafford.

happy listening!

dave

the music of the moment – recalling the piano and vocal repertoire

since february 2012, I’ve been working,  in earnest, on “re-learning” some of the piano and vocal repertoire that I used to play when I was…younger, and it’s been both challenging and rewarding – as well as sometimes, surprising.  this repertoire is mostly of progressive rock, with some pop thrown in for good measure, but it was mostly repertoire learned between roughly, 1971 and 1981, which I then played for the next ten years or so.

an example of a surprise would be: the fact that I could take one of my own songs, which was originally written on guitar, and quickly adapt it to become…a piano song.  that surprised me, and my song about the death of john lennon, “john” is a case in point; during one of my test piano and vocal sessions, I just gave it a go – and was so totally surprised that not only could I play it and sing it at the piano, but it actually works well arranged that way, for solo piano and voice – brilliant.

an example of a challenge would be…well, mostly, the challenges are twofold – a) getting my fingers to play what I do know in my brain, and then, b) if I succeed at that (questionable) getting my 54-year old vocal chords to reach those notes that seemed so easy to reach when I used to sing these songs…

getting both to happen during one performance – very difficult!

an example of a reward would be: when it all works, when I get a really quite good take of a really quite difficult song…such as “flying blind” by peter hammill.  it took a few tries, but in the end, I did get one – a good take!

I persist, that is what I do – I persist.  the “easier” songs – well, those come back quickly, and I find them easy enough to play – maybe something like “vision” by peter hammill: it’s in an easy key, the vocal is not demanding – this, I can manage. few of the songs I know fall into this category, and even some of the lighter pop music I know, is actually quite complex – for example, early todd rundgren – it sounds simple, but actually, it’s full of complex chords with odd interval bass parts (which is part of what makes those early songs so sonically appealing). so something like “a dream goes on forever” from the “todd” album (1974) sounds pretty easy, but the intro is actually very, very difficult to play well.  I am getting it – it’s coming back to me, but, it’s more difficult than you might imagine.

but playing that song isn’t the problem – it’s singing it.  most of the verses, I can sing fine, but, there is one section that has a very high vocal part – and I just can’t hit those notes anymore…which is heartbreaking, it means I will perhaps have to satisfy myself with whatever historical recordings I have of me playing that song when I was a young man – but those will have their own issues, poor sound quality and so on.

now, I have devised a method whereby I drop the vocal to the low octave for that one verse – but in practice, a) it’s very difficult to “switch octaves” during a live take and b) it sounds a bit strange, to suddenly go for these very low notes, just so I can hit the few high ones – and then switch back up an octave again a few seconds later – it’s not really working.  so I may have to scratch “a dream goes on forever” from the list of possible songs for “a black box”…

speaking of todd, there are a number of pieces that I used to play by todd: “believe in me”, “be nice to me”, “sweeter memories”, “real man”, “black maria”, “couldn’t I just tell you”, “lucky guy” and many, many more, so over the coming weeks, I will begin looking at these pieces to see what is involved in relearning them. of course, a couple of those are guitar songs, and there are some todd guitar songs that I would REALLY like to learn – for example, I know huge chunks of “number one lowest common denominator” on guitar, but I’ve never learned it properly…so maybe I can invent a giant todd guitar medley – black maria/no. 1 lcd/couldn’t I just tell you…something like that.  if only I had time…

so I did learn and play a lot of todd and utopia songs – including the big utopian anthems, both “just one victory” and “sons of 1984” – todd was a big influence for a long time, and I can remember spending weeks trying to perfect my version of “lucky guy” – I even recorded a version of it with borrowed grand piano, and then overdubbed my vocals – as well as a painstaking re-creation of todd’s dual ebow solo in the middle – I really love that song, and I may have to have a go at it again now – it’s the highlight from “hermit of mink hollow” (1978) and it was a real joy to learn, sing and play that – a great piece of beautiful pop music.

if todd was my biggest pop influence, then peter hammill was my biggest prog / dark side / influence – and I am not sure I can even list all the peter hammill songs – of both van der graaf generator and “solo” variety – that I have learned, forgotten, relearned and re-forgotten…so, so many, from “man-erg” to “still life” to bits of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” to “vision” to “the birds” to “my room (waiting for wonderland)” to “the undercover man” to “the siren song” to “w” to ever more obscure items from the hammill canon “forsaken gardens”, “out of my book” (that’s a guitar song right enough, not a piano song) or “mirror images”…so again, as with the todd catalogue, there are so many songs that I used to sing and play, and I think while I can often quickly re-learn how to play the songs, it’s going to be the vocals that challenge me – every time.

I do hope that with some rehearsal (and I am never big on rehearsing, I just expect that I can sit down and play these songs, and that’s expecting too much!) – I hope that with a few weeks of recording and rehearsal, that my voice will loosen up, and maybe I can recover enough extra range to at least once, capture the odd good take of one of these songs.

over the past four months, my facility to sing and play these songs has slowly, painfully slowly, improved – where previously, two months ago, I could not even “get through” a full take of a complex song like “still life” (the title track of the album of the same name) or “the siren song” – now, at least, I can get through, although so far, with too many errors to make any of the takes “good” – but, I can at least, now PLAY the songs.  the good take – well, it’s always the elusive thing, I did version after version of “flying blind”, I even went so far as to master one version, make a video of it – then decide it was just not good enough, and, by re-recording it again on june 1st, got a far, far superior version – so my intuition was correct, it wasn’t good enough, while the june 1 version, is.  so I need to learn to be more patient – I am impatient, I wish I could just sit down and reel out perfect versions of each and every song I’ve named here – and a host of others – I used to play so many different songs on the piano, everything from roxy music “a song for europe” or “pyjamarama”  to steely dan’s “charlie freak” or “doctor wu” – “charlie freak” being the first piano piece I ever learned by actually reading the notation – note by note, because I couldn’t figure it out by ear.

most of these songs, I learned completely by ear, by playing along to the album – and I mean the vinyl album (or if not, a cassette of the vinyl album) – this was the way I learned.  so something like hammill’s “man-erg” – it would start with me recognising one or two chords, realising there was a progression with a descending bass line, playing that bit, then working out the whole verse – but it would take deeper study of the album to learn the strange “middle part” or the long and complex chord progression at the end.  I would play along with the record, and write down the chords, and eventually, after days and days or even weeks of work, I could play the whole song.  but “charlie freak” had no chords, it was entirely composed of notes, so I had to use my limited sight-reading skills, and work it out from the sheet music.  I can’t play it now – I’ve completely forgotten how it goes I am afraid.

king crimson – yes, a few, not many, because songs by this band – they are not easy, but certainly “islands” in an abbreviated piano version (although I cannot touch keith tippett’s original arrangement – a fantastic pianist!), “exiles” in an all-piano arrangement – on guitar, a few others: “lady of the dancing water” (on nylon acoustic), “red” (on electric, obviously), “one more red nightmare”, “larks’ tongues in aspic part II”; fragments of “easy money”, “21st century schizoid man” and even entire fripp solos like the infamous lead solo from “easy money” live on the USA album – I learned that note for note on guitar, because I love that solo so much.

there are others from the golden era of prog – genesis – I learned several, the only ones that I learned well were “the carpet crawlers” and “anyway” – both from “the lamb lies down on broadway” – and then there was gentle giant, the only piece I ever learned (and this was actually more recently, NOT back in the day) is the very, very beautiful “aspirations” from “the power and the glory”.

where available, I would and do use song books to get the basic structure, although when I was younger, I just learned them without the song book – and of course, for things like van der graaf generator and peter hammill – there IS no song book! (maybe I should publish one – 10 easy peter hammill songs for piano!) so you are forced to learn them totally, totally by ear. it seems crazy to me, now, to spend that much time learning a song, but I’m glad I did – because the chords and notes I took then, actually enable me to remember the tunes, using my 35 to 45 year old documentation – all neatly typed up on a manual typewriter !

so I have help – I have the chords, I have the lyrics, but as far as actually playing the pieces, I actually “make up” the bass parts and the melodies, I just “pick them out” as I work on the song.  so for example, hammill’s “still life” has a section at the end, where the voice follows a piano note, so I had to learn every single note in that sequence by heart, so I could sing that climactic section with conviction, yet follow along on the piano, note by note, to the heartbreaking end.  “still life” is one I am determined to get on tape, because I never, ever captured it on tape back in the day – so if I don’t manage to record myself playing and singing this song, there will be no dave stafford version of it left behind – and it was such an important part of my hammill repertoire.

over time, sometimes, with additional “listens” to the originals, these “made up” bass parts and melodies and chord inversions actually start to very closely resemble what peter hammill or hugh banton played – it just takes time, and practice, and persistence – and being able to listen really well, and “hear” every note…sometimes, if a piece is too complex, I cannot “get it” by ear – most classical music falls into this category – it’s too complex to learn by ear – but popular music, even prog rock, is not – because it’s mostly just chords, lots of chords, with sometimes, melodies or bass lines – much easier to learn than classical music.

it’s great when there is written sheet music, because that gives me a great head start, I can sight read, very slowly, very painfully, so if I have to, I will resort to the sheet music, but it’s tough when it comes to a king crimson or a peter hammill song.

growing up in the 70s, when progressive rock was at it’s height, peaking in 1975-1976 and ramping very quickly downhill from 1977-78 onward, I was so, so lucky because I basically learned every song I could learn, not really realising at the time just how difficult, just how complex this music was – but to me, it wasn’t “prog” it was just – music, the music I listened to, the music I loved, the music I wanted to play.

as you then grow up and become adult, there is less and less time available for things like practicing your piano repertoire – I eventually got rid of my upright piano and hammond organ, so the piano repertoire fell by the wayside for quite a few years.

now, in 2012, well, albeit slowly – it is coming back.  I’ve had such an amazing time these pasts weeks and months, playing pieces like “my room” and “the siren song” – what a remarkable experience, it is actually amazing that I can remember them at all, but – they are on their way back, if only I can be patient, can keep practicing, if I am very, very fortunate – one or two of them might end up on a rolling tape.  I hope…

“dreams, hopes and promises…fragments out of time…”

what we’re listening to – the innocence mission (a guilty pleasure)

in the 1990s, since joni mitchell was already in semi if not full retirement, there was only one female singer that filled that gap (for my money, anyway) – big shoes to fill – and that was the innocence mission’s karen peris.

I discovered this band in a really strange way, I used to videotape mtv’s 120 minutes, which ran from midnight to two am, I would go off to bed and watch the tape the next day, on the off chance that an interesting or good video would be shown (and usually, I was disappointed) but on one of the tapes one night, there was this strange video for an even stranger song called “black sheep wall”, by a group I had never heard of – the innocence mission.

the singer was a shy looking girl with long brown hair, with a lovely soprano voice, but what got to me was the song itself – it was strangely compelling, and I liked the arrangement, which has some sort of reverse reverb backing vocals, and I really liked the instrumentation and the guitarist.

I did something completely uncharacteristic – the next day, I went out, and bought the album on the strength of that one song.  and this was an accident, I never did that – but for some reason, I did.  and I loved the album – it’s an absolute classic, and “black sheep wall” is just one of many great songs on that debut record.

I didn’t know it then, but this was the start of a long love affair with this band, this singer…these SONGS – delicate, fragile, beautiful, sensitive (all the things that most music of the 90s was not) and I was lucky enough to see the band live a couple of times as well, usually in a very small club in san diego. on one of those occasions, I even got to speak to don and karen, and they were just absolutely welcoming and wonderful people – I had a really nice chat with don, told him I liked the way he would go out on a limb with his guitar playing – which he did all the time, his riffs, bordering on the strange, his use of the whammy bar, very peculiar indeed…but wonderful, refreshing – unusual.

a huge component of my admiration for this band IS the guitar playing of don peris – he pretty much never uses distortion, always plays it clean, plays it straight, uses a lot of bright, chorus-y sounds…but can also play so, so powerfully when the need arises.

of course, it wasn’t just don’s guitar, karen’s ability as a vocalist, pianist and synthesist cannot be overstated, of course, really, this is in some ways, “her” band – mainly because it’s her songs – her piano. again, this always impresses me – I am not normally fond of singers who cannot play an instrument – but karen sings lead, sings harmony, play piano, plays synthesizer, plays acoustic guitar – whatever is needed, and she is a musician first and a singer first, as well – now, for a lot of people, it might be difficult to deal with her voice, because it’s one of those really powerful sopranos that some people don’t like, but if you listen to the words, the stories she tells – and then her vocal arrangements – for example, the arrangement on “black sheep wall” is absolutely stunning – as if joni mitchell and kate bush had a magic love child, and her name was karen peris.

as one of the few husband and wife teams out there in the world of popular music, the peris’ had a long and fruitful, albeit low-key, career – and it’s interesting, if you look at the series of recordings they made at the time, starting with their debut “the innocence mission”, moving on through “umbrella” and onto the phenomenal “glow”…but what was interesting was that at first, it was a real band, with bass, drums, guitar and piano – with karen at the centre of it all, those amazing songs, and don supporting her with his world class super clean, melodic, chiming guitars – those guitars!

but, as time went on, first the drums disappeared, and then eventually even the bass, leaving karen and don right back where they started – full circle, so that the last couple of “innocence mission” albums were really just karen and don – and therefore, a lot more acoustic than the earlier records – but the songs never suffered, and in fact the more minimal approach on the later albums actually works very, very well indeed.

early songs such as “clear to you” and “black sheep wall” – are just so, so beautiful, and even now, so many years later, the distinctive sound of karen’s voice, and those beautiful band arrangements, just resonate so beautifully – nothing has changed, even though…everything’s different now.

 

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I will be around…

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I won’t let you down…”

 

I really admire the amazing talent of these four people, of course, it’s all about karen’s songs, karen’s amazing voice, those kate bush/threatening background vocals, and don’s amazing, concise, careful, clean and sometimes daring guitar playing – and the songs are good, they are solid, the writing is good, the lyrics are intense and meaningful and joyful, the melodies are beautiful – and the band supports karen in an amazing, yet delicate way.

when I spoke to karen and don, I was struck by just what…almost withdrawn, quiet people they were, totally introspective, and when karen spoke, it was in an absolute, barely discernable whisper, almost as if she were afraid to speak aloud (she was probably just saving her voice for the next gig) – and some of her songs are like that too, fragile, you can’t believe something that fragile can exist, something that beautiful – but they do!

so these are definitely not your normal “rock stars” – there was no posturing, no nonsense, just come out, sing and play the songs (and don has a great harmony voice, you could tell that he and karen have been singing together for many, many years) and I was amazed that they then came out to speak to us after the show instead of “off to the hotel” – that was a really nice thing to do, and I haven’t forgotten that conversation even after all these years – I was wanting don to let me overdub one of their songs with layers of ebows – but that idea never came to anything (at least, not yet!) – there is something fairly hypnotic about a lot of the songs, and I had done some experiments where I looped live as the album played – so I could hear it in my head anyway…

 

I really think it’s such a shame that this band was not well known, here, we have real talent, real song writing ability, a great pianist and singer, a fantastic, accurate, clean, quality guitarist – and of course, they were largely ignored in favour of musical atrocities such as…shudder…tori amos.  tori amos was compared to kate bush, but the real talent, the woman who really should have been compared to the vaunted kate b., is our own karen peris – if you ask me, there is a holy trinity of female singers: mitchell, bush, peris – NOT amos, never amos.

 

even new female artists like joanna newsome…OK, I get it, but for me, no one has yet to touch the beautiful, fragile, yet strangely powerful songs of karen peris – they are tops, and it will take someone really, really amazing to replace her place in my heart – I love this music, I’m forever going over black sheep wall and karen peris is taking me there…

sometimes, the band builds up to an amazing frenzy of layered, chiming, beautiful guitars, with multiple karen peris overdubbed vocals lending themselves to this musical frenzy – there is a part in “that was another country” from the “glow” album that never, ever fails to give me goose bumps, as karen’s voices vie with don’s guitars for “most beautiful” or “most chilling” – a really musical, really creative build up of layers, and “that was another country” is a masterpiece, albeit an unknown one – if I had to take just one innocence mission song to my desert island, that might be it…

as I mentioned before, they start out very much “band” and end up very much “acoustic duo” which is a strange career, almost like a career in reverse, the most number of fully arranged, upbeat songs being on the debut, and then, fewer and fewer tracks with band as time goes on.  I love both, and there are also a few tracks that are mostly about karen’s piano and voice, and it’s then that comparisons to both mitchell and bush are totally unavoidable…obviously, she is influenced by both (in fact, mitchell was an actual mentor on the first album, which was produced by mitchell’s then husband, larry klein – as was the second album, “umbrella”, as well) but totally has her own identity, and I love that she is such a strong songwriter, and that the boys in the band – originally, mike bitts on bass and steve brown on drums, along with don and karen peris – they all contributed to the material, but peris is, and always will be, the principal songwriter and is the quiet, gentle, shy driving force behind this band and it’s incredible music.

there is no other like it. an early single, “wonder of birds” has a driving drum beat and a glorious orchestral arrangement that support karen’s massed vocals – and then don starts to layer in his “chorus guitars” – and the whole thing is away, flying, literally flying away – and what kind of band writes about how wonderful birds are – in fact, one of their later albums is actually called “birds of my neighbourhood” – so twitchers (birdwatchers/ornithologists) everywhere, including myself, can rejoice, karen peris and co. are still singing the praises of our avian friends…and that was even a minor hit, with a successful MTV video – can you imagine, a song about birdwatching, an MTV hit??? it doesn’t get more unlikely…

their second album, 1991’s umbrella, starts with an incredibly beautiful, upbeat song called “and hiding away” – with the most glorious guitars, picked chords flying, trying to keep up with karen’s voice, which is soaring so high, so far – and then it’s all don, amazing guitar break, I really cannot express in words what a good guitarist don peris is, you just have to listen – none of it is gratuitous, there is nothing excessive, nothing unnecessary; there is just what the song needs, no more, no less – pop masterpiece minimalism, and “and hiding away” is a perfect example of a great, great pop song – I love it!

I prize the cloudy, tearing sky
for the thoughts that flap and fly.
for staying in and reading by.
for sitting under.

I read a book of madeline
and her friends in two straight lines,
in paris, in a house with vines
over its old face.
far, far is paris…
and the sky is dark with mystery.

try, catch the thoughts that flap and fly
in the cloudy, tearing sky,
that touch and stir and won’t be tied-
and try to speak them.

I think of my old flower sky.
of us, when we thought we were spies.
of bobbing eggs in easter dyes.
of walks in london.
try, try to hold my love for you,
it knows no measure.

this is a day for hearing bagpipes
somewhere playing.
this is a day for hearing sarabands
and hiding away.

sky, I hold my tears if you do.
starling thoughts, go over me

 

and then, from pure, unadulterated joy, the album moves to unspeakable sorrow, with the dirgelike, slowly evolving “ sorry and glad together” with it’s perfect four-note george harrison style slide guitar break – the world’s shortest, best slide solo – so beautiful, a very moody song, that moves from sorrow to joy and back again, and even if this album only had these two songs on it, it would be a masterpiece, “umbrella” is a really, really lovely record.

I love the first three records perhaps a bit inordinately much, and for some reason, I am also very fond of the third album, “glow” – I don’t know why, there are so many good songs, great songs even, across the now-substantial canon of this great, unknown band – and whenever I hear them, I am taken back to the time when these songs were brand new, and I had a secret, I was into one of the best kept secrets ever, the beautiful experience that was being a fan of, and seeing play, a totally real, totally honest songwriter, who would sit down to an absolutely hushed audience, sit at the piano, and pour her heart out without opening her eyes, as don and the band quietly supported her – I will never forget that as long as I live – the venue was a tiny club, and you could hear a pin drop as karen sang…

I feel very, very fortunate that I stumbled across this band by total, total accident; that I took a chance and bought their first CD, that I kept buying their albums (and was rewarded time and time and time again with an even better record than the last one), that I went to see them play and supported them – so many bands are just hype and nonsense, all bluster and no talent, but this incredibly honest couple, with their beautiful, truthful songs, really touched me in a strange way, the songs get into your head and your heart, and you find yourself singing them days and days after hearing them…

“I can see you
I can feel you

I can see…see

you”

normally, I would never buy a CD based on the strength of hearing just one song that I liked – but in this case, I am so, so glad I did, because there after followed 23 years of enjoyment, and I class this band in a very unique category, a rare category, where the quality of the songs and the delivery of the music is such a pure, undamaged thing – even the record companies, the record industry, could not spoil this, and this band always did work on their own terms – they had it their way, even when that way was probably commercial suicide, and for that determination, they have my undying admiration and love.

 

“(I’ve got) clouds in the upstairs, clouds in the memory…

clouds in the upstairs…I still remember…I remember me…”

“clouds in the memory…”

 

 

karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !

 

 

addendum:

 

early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks

if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…

 

 

black sheep wall

clear to me

you chase the light

wonder of birds

and hiding away

sorry and glad together

now in this hush

someday coming

keeping awake

bright as yellow

that was another country

happy, the end

go

everything’s different now

where does the time go?

snow

moon river

 

 

 

beautiful pop heaven playlist…

 

bliss.

the music of the moment – a new kind of dave stafford music ? – “synthraga orchestra”

well, by complete accident, I think I have created a new kind of music for myself, a kind of music that I’d really like to do a lot more of, work out this new process really well, so that I can play pieces that are truly beautiful and inspiring. the good thing is, technology is making it possible for me to play this music live, so that is even more exciting – live performance, with tanpura drone and tabla drums – and it’s wonderful fun to do!

in my head, I am thinking of this new kind of music as a “synthraga” – and that’s because on may 19, 2012, I set up a scenario where I could have an application, itabla pro, providing both tanpura drone and tabla percussion, and then I also set up between one and three apps, synthesizers, that I could use separately, or ganged together, to play melodies on top of this beautiful rhythmic “bed” of indian sound.

when I was playing the pieces – six of them, all of substantial length, I wasn’t convinced that it was really “working” – I had my doubts if a synthesizer was a valid melodic device to play over an indian rhythm.  however, when it came time to listen back to the tracks, my opinion changed completely – it works really, really well indeed, which surprised me greatly – I would have thought that synth + tanpura + tabla might have been a disaster, but really, all six takes succeed, one or two of them need a little bit of attention, and a few of them are just exquisite right out of the box – thanks mainly to the genius app that is itabla pro.

the first take, “felled trees float rapidly down river” starts with a ghostly, lone synth melody, that plays for about a minute, then the tanpura enter, then the tabla – the piece continues – then I bring in a second synth, and play a lot of very strange melodies, including violent up and down sweeps of the pitch bend wheel…and then, I switch back to synth one, the ghostly one, and continue with the pitch bend antics but in a more subdued way.  for me though, it’s the tabla that make the piece – constant, beautifully recorded – they are just lovely.  the tabla stops; but the drone continues, the ghostly soloist returns, then suddenly, the tanpura and melody just fade away – and a new kind of dave stafford piece is borne.

take two could not be more different; two synths are operating at once, one a stuttering, chattering beast, the other a slow, long, wah sound, the two play together for several seconds, with lovely oscillations and delays – then, the tanpura enter – which just sounds amazing on top of these two wildly moving synth voices, and it begins to set a mood, the soloing on the dual synth voice is just wonderful, the drone of the tanpura really enhancing it – then, suddenly – the tablas enter, and we are away. “branches splaying flying outward – powerful gusts of wind” – once the tablas start going, the chattering synth melody begins to move up and down the keyboard, following it’s own melody line, up and down the scales, then ending up in the high registers – the tablas stop, some amazing synth sounds happen thereafter – then, it’s just tanpura – and we are gone.  another remarkable piece of music from nowhere, I had no plan, I just set up the instruments and just…played.

the third piece starts with a strange, half-strangled square-wavish sound, as usual by now, the drones enter first, always, to set the mood, while the synth melody plays alone, the drones envelop it and make a lot of beautiful noise.  a heavy bass note emerges, then repeats – the tablas enter – and then the strangest thing ever happens, a sort of extreme, in your face wah based synth plays a short sequence – surprisingly – then disappears – then – reappears thirty seconds later, just the most unlikely synth voice you could imagine, it’s arpeggiator based, but it’s the sudden starts and stops – while the original voice continues to play melodies, in fact, it now goes solo, including several interesting pitch wheel motions – then, back to the extreme arpeggiated voice, which if at first was almost irritating, you now can’t help but really like it, and it’s the unusual justaposition of this weird solo voice with the lovely drone/tabla backing, it’s SO unlikely – that it actually works, really, really well. “rustling of leaves turns to rattling, then back to rustling, then, to silence” is a very strange, but very wonderful piece of music, unlike anything I have ever created.

our fourth piece here, “hailstones rattle down the hillside, into the empty riverbed” starts with a mysterious, minor key solo synthesizer that is more fender rhodes than synth, but it sounds wonderful with the tanpura drone and tabla, and most of this piece is taken up with this subtle instrument, it gently plays a lovely melody atop the perfect rhythm kept by the tablas, courtesy of course of the remarkable itabla pro application (which just underwent a fantastic update) – then suddenly, a technological disaster, by accident, the volume increases dramatically, some strange musical events occur, then it goes back to normal – and then, the middle section synth solo comes in (and, the “loud” section can be normalised in post-production, so it’s not a problem) – with again, a most unlikely voice, a very squelchy modified sine wav with a lot of glide, a lot of delay, and a lot of insane pitch wheel bending from the synthesist – that’s me!.  again, a sound I would never pick to go with an indian backing – it shouldn’t work at all – but, it works really well !!! – then returning to the rhodes-like sound and quickly dissolves into nothingness….

track number five (“thousands of leaves fly into the air, borne upwards on rising thermals”) again has a lovely, rhodes-like beginning, very mellow, really nice melodic playing as first the tanpura drone, then the tablas enter, just waiting for that completely out of control, mad, glide and delay, brash synth solo – in fact, this track uses exactly the same set up as track four, so it’s a second attempt to control this mad scenario of controlling multiple synth apps from one keyboard – it works, but the solo section is quite insane, but still, a lot of fun, with amazing pitch bending going on – and it’s wonderful to hear the crazy, brash voice AND the beautiful rhodes voice jam through the long, improvised mid-section – in the end, resolving down to just the rhodes-like sound…and through that lovely outro, tabla stop, continuing rhodes-like melody, and eventual drone fade and ending…beautiful stuff!

a third and final attempt using the same set up, track six, the final take of the session – entitled “the moon lights the heavens reflecting on the forest canopy below” – each time, the sound balance a little better, the transition from the rhodes-like beginning and end sections from/to the louder, brash/crazy middle section is more balanced – the piece begins to really, really  work, although the beginning of the middle section is STILL a shock, in terms of increased volume; the strangeness of the voice, etc. – although lots of great X-Y pad action makes that voice very, very interesting – a long, descending riff works beautifully – and the arpeggiation is just fantastic!  I love this solo I think best out of the three, it’s sudden, like the other two, but it’s very fluid, and it has a very crazy atonal section with lots of VERY warped pitch bend and X-Y manipulation – beautiful.

the inevitable return to just the rhodes-like voice is welcome after the extensive solo, but I believe that I can find a way to balance this out – I think that the right reverb may smooth this somewhat awkward transition between middle solo and the beginning and ending sections.  a beautiful, calm, rhodes-like solo finishes the piece, and the series…of course, fading to just solo and tanpura, and then fading away completely…

as I mentioned, when I was actually doing these, I was not sure if any of them was “working” – there are certainly some strange combinations of odd-synth-voice-choice to backing, but the way I played the parts, as if it were “supposed” to be that way – really makes the pieces just work somehow.  I would say off hand, that all six are imminently release-able – which is amazing, really – OK, maybe I should only release the first three plus which ever out of takes 4, 5 or 6 is “best” – so, four great takes, two very good takes – but it’s the concept here, the idea of playing synthesizer as the melodic instrument on top of tanpura and tabla – it sounds weird on paper, wonderful on tape. (or on digital, actually!).

I wanted specifically to recount this session, because I believe that I will be trying several more along these same lines, although I may incorporate the guitar synth rather than the keyboard synth – although to be fair, both is probably the best idea.  I could certainly command a larger “orchestra” to play over my indian backing tracks…I can forsee playing live on both keyboard synth(s) and guitar synth, using itabla pro as the rhythmic and drone backing – I believe that, over time, I can expand and perfect the “synthraga orchestra” concept, technology, and set-up – maybe even eventually do live streaming performances of synthraga pieces – why not?.

 

all I know is, I am loving this new sound, kinda found it by accident, but that is what I would call a very, very happy accident, because it’s given me yet another unique kind of dave stafford music to play, along with my ebow loop set up, or my various guitar synth string orchestra set ups, I now can add “synthraga” to the menu – and the best thing of all, they are all LIVE performance set ups – no other way to go if you ask me!