Having A Friend Like Michael Dawson…

I met my friend Michael, in a thing called a “record store” called “off the record” which was located on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego, California, when I was about 20 years old – I am guessing – it was a long time ago, I can tell you that!
I don’t know what year it was, I really don’t – perhaps Michael knows.  But it was a long, long time ago, and Michael is one of the very, very few people that I have known continuously during that entire timespan.  For the record then, (not, off the record lol) that’s at least 35 years, probably a bit more.
I was buying, or re-buying rather, a few records that I was hoping would have less surface noise, and fewer clicks and pops, than the copies of them that I already had at home – I was trying to get a better sounding version by re-buying LPs that I already owned – sometimes, had owned more than once already.  This was one of the problems with vinyl – it was scratchy!  Surface noise, clicks and pops and other soul-destroying sounds damaging the precious music, which should be pure and pristine – it was still a long way to the age of compact discs.
Anyway, among other newer releases, I was holding prog rock classics by Genesis and I am not sure who else – and this tall, very skinny person, with a short, tidy beard and distinctly reddish hair, who was standing nearby as I was checking out, who spoke with an unforgettable, deep voice full of character “those (he said, nodding towards the albums that I was holding) “are  three of my favourite albums of all time”.
So that started a conversation, that has been going on, off and on, on and off, ever since – and a friendship that just grew organically out of that first meeting.  I’d seen Michael in the store before, it was a favourite haunt of both of ours, but this was the first time he’d ever spoken to me, and it turned out, we did share a lot of artists in common that we both really, really loved – and he just couldn’t help himself saying so when he saw some of HIS favourite records in my sweaty grip 🙂
It started out then, first by sharing our love of music, I can remember many a trip over to Michael’s, to listen to records (and he had a LOT of records back then, I mean – a lot of records!) and he introduced me to a lot of things with which I was then unfamiliar – for example, Marillion, who I had never heard of, who were actually playing prog in the middle of the very un-prog-friendly 1980s – so that must have been in about 1985 that he played me parts of “Script For A Jester’s Tear” and “Fugazi” – which I found to be quite remarkable, and of course, I started collecting Marillion albums myself then.
The story gets a bit blurry here, but since I’d found out that Michael was a fellow musician, it only followed that we should at some point, sit down and play some music together.  Michael was (at that time) primarily a bassist, which suited me perfectly as I was, as always, a lead guitarist; but he also played a lot of other instruments, including flute and saxophone, to name but two.  I can remember inviting Michael over to my place, and also, visiting him where he lived, and we did start a band, whose name I cannot recall – it was a trio, of myself on guitar, Michael on bass, and a friend of Michael’s whose name I do not remember (I am definitely getting old lol!!), on drums.
What did we play?  I can remember a couple of the titles:
Roxy Music “Love Is The Drug”
Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”
and an original piece in 5 that I couldn’t really master (composed by Michael, I believe).
At that time, pre-Fripp, I was strictly a 4/4 kind of rock and roll wannabe prog guitarist, and playing in anything but 4 was mostly, beyond me.  It wasn’t until I started going to Guitar Craft, starting just a few years later, that I actually was able to play in the odd meters – 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 etc.
I think we also wanted to learn “Crying Wolf” by Peter Hammill, but we didn’t get far with that one.  We were trying to play music that we loved, rather than resort to playing the popular music of the day – we wanted to play GOOD music, hence the selections we made.  I don’t really know why, but this band never really amounted to anything – we rehearsed, and then I think the drummer lost interest and left, and we couldn’t replace him – so I moved on, and that was the end of our attempt at being in a band together.  We never played even one gig, which always makes me a bit sad – a lot of good rehearsals, a huge potential – and then, for whatever  the reasons – it just never comes to fruition.
But – I am proud to say, to this day, that I was in a band with Michael Dawson !  It was great fun, because it was one of the first times that I got to play music I really loved in a band, instead of the dreaded “covers” – so that was fantastic.  I can remember really enjoying playing Phil Manzanera‘s chord sequence on “Love Is The Drug” – it’s a really nice piece of guitaring.
Michael is a very good bassist, and he had a quality bass, a Rickenbacker, which I wasn’t used to – most of the bassists I had played with up till then, had played Fenders or other basses like Music Man or whatever – but he had a real Rickenbacker, and it sounded amazing. That was really a great selling point for me, having a truly prog “bass” in the band – that’s the way it should be.  There wasn’t much else “prog” about us, we didn’t have a lead singer or a keyboard player, although I seem to remember that I did sing the songs off mike just as a reference (not the first time, or the last time, I was called upon to become the de facto lead vocalist in a band – I will say that!).  But that is another story for another time…
After that band broke up, life went on – I still saw Michael down at Off The Record, and we remained friends – to this day.  Not too many years after this, Michael moved up north, to Northern California, where he got the day job that I believe, he still works at to this day.
I remained in Southern California, but, we still occasionally got together – most often, to go see live concerts together, I can remember giving him a lift to some concert in the back of my pickup truck, which was not a good experience for Michael – but at least we got to the concert.  Not sure who we were going to see – it could have been just about anyone.
One of the nicest things about Michael is his incredible kindness and his infallible generosity, of which I will speak in a moment.  He is a remarkably kind and gentle person, and I was glad to have such an intelligent and well-read friend – he had, and has, far more culture and education than I ever did!  He was also an artist, I remember he was always painting, which was something I did not even approach until I was much, much older.
He has often “turned me on” to new artists that I knew little or nothing about; one of those would be the indomitable Richard Thompson – I remember that Michael was the one who first played Richard Thompson albums for me, and got me hooked on his amazing guitar playing – to the point where, alongside collecting his many solo albums, I then went to see him play multiple times at multiple gigs, including one very, very small, intimate acoustic gig (in a restaurant, no less) and once, I managed to see him with full electric band – and that was amazing.    I became a big, big fan for quite a number of years, and I still love and respect his music to this day.
I would have done none of those things – if it weren’t for Michael P. Dawson.  I would have no Marillion, and no Richard Thompson in my musical life.   He also introduced me to Gryphon, based on our shared love of Gentle Giant – so that added yet another brilliant branch of prog to my ever-expanding experience of progressive rock music.  He also introduced me to the music of Bi Kyo Ran, remarkable King-Crimson-cover-band-turned-professional-prog-band from Japan.
So even for adding those four amazing musicians / groups to my musical repertoire and experience (and it was many, many more than just those four!), just for that, I am forever in Michael’s debt.  He always knew the kind of thing that I would like, and he was always, forever saying “listen to THIS, listen to this guitar solo, here…” and I would be hooked once again, on a new musician that up until I’d met Michael, I knew nothing about.  He was a great friend in that way, he genuinely did not want me to miss out on these incredible listening experiences that he was having, he wanted to share the music, not keep it to himself – and for that, I am very grateful indeed – indebted!
I mentioned that Michael was generous.  One day, about 20 years ago, I was sitting at my day job, when a VERY large cardboard box arrived for me – and I was not expecting anything that I had ordered, so it was completely out of the blue – and upon opening it, I discovered that is was a Washburn Bass guitar – that Michael had just SENT to me, gratis – he was going to get rid of it, and rather than sell it; he’d remembered me saying that I wished I owned a bass – so he thought of me, and he very, very generously gave me his old bass!  I could not BELIEVE that – I had never had a friend, or known anyone as generous as that – he could have made money off of it, he could have sold it for cash – but instead, he remembered his old friend Dave – and Dave not ever having a bass guitar of any kind – and he just mailed it to me one day.
I didn’t expect it, and I had no way to reciprocate, all I could do was send an astonished THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU note to Michael, and try to express what it meant to me to have a real bass to record with and play.  Many years later, when I was recording multi-track progressive rock tracks, I actually used “Michael’s Old Bass” as I call it, in the recording of several tracks – one of which is “Wettonizer” (a tribute to the late, great John Wetton) which was recorded back in about 2008 or 2009).  It’s actually, a really nice bass to play, and it’s short scale and easy to play neck really inspired me when it came to do the distorted bass solos in”Wettonizer” – and really, that song and the others that included the bass, possibly would not have been made, if it weren’t for the fact that Michael provided me with a bass to use and play. when he knew I did not have one.
That was such an incredibly surprising and generous act, which I never, ever forgot, and to this day, I have to smile when I look at that bass sitting in the corner of my studio – I do tend to use sampled basses now just for the speed and convenience, and also so I can get classic Fender or Rickenbacker tones – but if I wanted to do any real bass tracks – I would still absolutely, happily record them on “Michael’s Old Bass” – I mean, can you believe it – he just put it in a box, and sent it to me, from San Jose, California, to San Diego, where I lived back then.  And it then traveled with me, all the way to Scotland – where it lives now.
How often in your life, do you get a Bass Guitar in the mail?  If you have a friend like Michael Dawson, then the answer is, surprisingly – once.
[Meanwhile, back in the present day for a moment:]  Imagine my total surprise then, when, just a few days ago, a parcel arrived for me at home – and I recognised the handwriting on it immediately, and said to my wife – “that’s from Michael Dawson” and wondered aloud, what on earth has he sent me?? (even while, my brain was telling me “effects pedal, effects pedal…”) and in fact, what it was, indeed, was and is, an effects pedal – a lovely, mint condition, Earthquaker Devices Organizer pedal.
A week previously, on a Sunday, I had published my recent blog about watching guitar effect pedal demonstration videos.  In California, Michael read that blog of mine on a Sunday, and on the following Monday, packed up and shipped this effect pedal to me, and on the following Saturday, five days later – it arrived with the mail here in Scotland.
Now, I was utterly blown away when he gave me the Washburn bass, and no one else has ever just given me a musical instrument before.  But to receive what is basically, a brand new effects pedal (which when queried, he said he wasn’t using it, and he wanted someone to own it who would make good use of it – me) which is just the nicest thing – but it absolutely blows me away, that he would read an article about me lusting after these effects, and just to make me happy, just so I could then own an Earthquaker Devices-manufactured pedal – he pulls one out of thin air and ships it half-way around the world to me!!  That is so thoughtful, so good – I wish I were that generous and that thoughtful!
Unbelievable generosity, and an unbelievable kindness in the thought that “Dave would like this pedal – he could do something good with this” – that just blows me away, and, it’s not like we have been close of recent years, we exchange emails only occasionally, and as happens, we have led pretty separate lives – although we have always remained friends, and we have never fallen out – we’ve always been friends.  I would say, it had probably been a year or more since we had emailed, when this EQD pedal appeared again, totally out of the blue – which absolutely shocked me to the core – what a nice thing to do, what an amazing friend – what a great and kind act – to indulge my desire for endless effects pedals – wow, that is truly amazing.
But I don’t have any other friends that are that astonishingly generous, Michael is the only one who has consistently blown me away with his kindness, thoughtfulness, and his good, good heart – he’s just a good man, a nice chap, and I am proud to know him, proud to call him my friend, proud of him as a fellow musician – he’s a brilliant player – and I would also say, you should absolutely check out some of his music – he’s been sharing his own albums with me from early on, and he makes the most incredible music you have ever heard – you really must try it – it’s amazingly cool.  It’s mostly beyond my comprehension, Michael is a serious composer when compared to me, I just mess about with songs, and improvs, but Michael writes real music, serious music, and I have a huge respect for that.
A few years back, I released a live improv on the internet, which I believe featured energy bow guitar and music created with Brian Eno’s “Scape” application for the ipad. A few days after I released it, Michael released a video of himself, overdubbing a live flute solo and flute part, onto, on top of, my improv !!!
I was then able to share this with people as a collaborative effort (our first, since that attempt at a band – way, way back when) and I was and am, incredibly proud of that little improvised number – and to be honest, I absolutely prefer Michael’s version – to my own. The flute parts and solos that he plays, are just perfect for the improv, and I was so surprised and really pleased that Michael had done this.
That was yet another very kind thing, that he has done – the ultimate compliment, he must have liked the piece quite well if it inspired him to play the flute along with it, so by adding his live flute overdub, he was taking a decent piece of mine, and elevating it to a much, much higher level – I think it succeeds far better with his parts added, than it ever did by itself.  That is the power of Michael Dawson – adaptable, and very adept with a multitude of instruments – I wish I could play half as many different instruments as he does.
I would say that like so many musicians, that Michael is a “musician’s musician” – and I would encourage any of you that are musicians (or not, artists, or anyone, really!), to have a listen to any of Michael’s existing published works – he is a brilliant and intelligent composer, and he creates albums celebrating creatures and features of the natural world that have to be heard to be believed – he excels when it comes to synthesizers, which he often employs in his compositions, but he plays all manner of instruments, bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, flute, saxophone (in at least two different flavours) and a multitude of others too numerous to mention.
He is a remarkable and talented musician – and I believe, you can also hear him play live on the sort of “jam night” scene near where he lives – I believe he now sits in on saxophone or flute at these live, impromptu musical events.  I envy him that – I am currently not performing – so he is really fortunate to have that musical outlet available to him.
He is also a very creative person, I remember he played one of his new songs (and by that, I mean, what was a “new song”, thirty years ago 🙂 ) for me, and it had a most unusual sounding lead instrument, it sounded slightly Indian or eastern in some way, but I just could not place it, so I said “Michael, what is that instrument that you are playing the main melody with?” and he then revealed what it was – it was his flute – but played through extreme distortion – he’d played it through a fuzz box and it sounded truly out of this world.  So there is really no limit to the creativity that he employs when he creates his solo works, they are full of surprises and I don’t think you can find a more original, progressive, modern composer around – and if that isn’t enough, his love of the music of the late, great Frank Zappa is more than apparent when you hear many of Michael’s pieces – Zappa being the only artist that I could really comfortably compare Michael’s work too – he sounds like he listens to a lot of Zappa.
And that is probably, because he does.  I have always loved the music of Frank Zappa, but I have only ever put my toe into the water, whereas Michael jumped headfirst into the Zappa pool many, many years ago.  And that has paid off, and rubbed off, on the styles of music that he has created over the years – and you couldn’t really ask for a better influence – I’d love to be compared to, or even audibly / heavily influenced by,  Frank Zappa !
Michael turned me on to a whole world of new music, and that changed my life in a good way, and we shared a lot of musical experiences together, everything from just chilling and listening to records, or later, compact discs, to going to the occasional concert together.  His influence on me musically, over the last 35 years or so, has been immense, and I am grateful to him for enriching my musical life by sharing so openly from his vast library of recorded music.  In so very many ways, Michael is a really, really good friend to have – and good friends, they say, are hard to find, and I would imagine – even harder to keep, which is why I feel so blessed and fortunate to have a friend like Michael Dawson – he is one of a kind, a true gentleman, and I am proud to be able to say once again, “my good friend Michael Dawson” as I so often seem to find myself saying whenever I sit down to write about music.
I felt it was high time that he got the recognition he deserves, and this blog is a very public “thank you” to a true gentleman and musical scholar, Mr. Michael P. Dawson. Long may he reign over the flute solo in “Girl From Ipanema”; and any other pieces that he attempts, live or studio, on any instrument – just keep on jamming, Michael !!!
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turning a disadvantage into an advantage…and “the perception of music”

today I want specifically to talk about perception, in this case, my own perception of the music that I create, and some observations I’ve made regarding this.

first off, I’d like to suggest that I think all musicians may experience what I am about to describe, namely, that feeling, while you are playing, performing with, or recording your instrument(s), that what you are playing is possibly:

a)     not as good as it should be

b)     not “right”

c)     going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway

d)     is a “disaster in the making”, but you carry on anyway

e)     sometimes, that bad feeling is so strong, that you actually abort the take (or worse still, stop the performance!)

I don’t know about you, but all of the above has happened to me; most of them, many, many times.  blessedly, the last one, not too often 🙂

but, based on some listening and performance experiences of my own, I would like to suggest that if we are feeling this way when we play, that we are maybe doing ourselves (and therefore, our music) a huge disservice.

a case in point, is a track I recently mixed, that I had recorded live in the studio on september 30, 2012, entitled “into the unknown”.   this track, a lengthy improvised piece (an 11:48 scape and energy bow guitar duet), is the perfect example of what I am talking about here, in that, while I was recording it, I really didn’t think it was going well at all.

I had concerns about the tuning of my guitar; concerns about the ambient guitar parts I was playing; and concerns about the solos I played.  those concerns stayed in my mind, from the day I recorded it, september 30, 2012 – until february 10, 2013, when I finally sat down to mix the track!!  all that time – I held a very, very negative view of this improv in my mind – I was pretty sure it was not going to be a good experience to hear or mix it.

how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).

much to my amazement, when I mixed “into the unknown” – while it wasn’t perfect – to my everlasting astonishment – it’s actually a very, very beautiful and good track, with nothing particularly “wrong” about it !!!!

but, at least for me, as it so, so often does – my “self-criticising circuit” just kicked in automatically, every tiny imperfection I perceived as I played it, magnified a million times, until I was sure it would be a waste of time come mix time – and boy, was I ever wrong – it’s a gem, and I am now very excited about this track – I really enjoyed creating and publishing the video of it, because it’s a unique and unusual scape and guitar synthesizer duet – a very, very unusual, (and quite lovely, too), piece of music indeed.

surprise number one: when I sat down to mix the track, the first thing that struck me was how very beautiful the underlying “scape” was, and that meant immediately, that 50 percent of the track is automatically “good” and beautiful, too.

surprise number 2: the other 50%, which is what I “live looped” and played live with the guitar synth – OK, some of it required a little work, I did have to “treat” a couple of the guitar synth solos to make them sound better – but mostly, there was nothing much to do, except trim the track, add a tiny bit of reverb overall, and master and produce it.

and with fresh eyes and fresh ears, that nasty (mental) list of problems and complaints, looks slightly different using my february 9th, 2013 “ears” – I’d say that list should really have read this way:

a)     song is better than I thought – much better

b)     it’s very right – the scape is great – the guitar synth is good – the solos are acceptable

c)     it was going well, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

d)     not disastrous at all, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

e)     luckily, I did NOT abort the take, because if I had, it would have been a tragedy – a travesty, as it would have meant throwing away a really, really interesting, utterly unique, and perfectly good piece of live music!

so this is how the perception can change, and of course, now, being aware of all this, I do make a serious effort to look more positively upon music I’ve recorded, because much of it is probably (but not necessarily!) much better than I initially think it is.

what I take away from this is at least twofold:  one: I need some time, a significant amount of time, to pass, before I “pass judgement” on any of my recorded works, and two: I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

another track, “escape from the death star” (a seven minute scape and ebow loop/live duet recorded on october 20, 2012) proves the same point – for a different reason.  I had the usual mental list of “what is wrong with this track” – as above, but in this case, this track came from a truly disastrous session, where things really DID go wrong, and badly wrong, on the first fourteen of fifteen tracks recorded total (now THAT is a bad day in the studio!).

so, based solely on it’s presence within this “disaster session” (unfortunately, an accurate name for it) – I think I just assumed that this track would somehow be tainted by the failure of the other tracks, harshly judging it by the same criteria with which I rejected tracks 1 through 14 – which again, is a ridiculous assumption, and again, I was quite surprised on first playback, to find that it is a very intense, very powerful, ebow and scape loop – and, to be honest – it’s not bad at all!

once again, I placed a mentally “negative filter” over this piece, which was unfair and incorrect – needing to measure the piece based on it’s musical merit rather than it’s inclusion in a set of bad music.  time seems to be what I need, hindsight I guess…that seems to be the main catalyst for me swapping my negative view for a much more positive one.  I am hopeful though, that since I’ve written this article, and discovered these behaviours within myself, that I can be less negative at the time of recording, and shorten the time needed to achieve the correct and positive view of these improvised pieces of music.

now, I am not saying that you should automatically assume that every take you make is golden!  you do have to be critical, and even ruthless, and remove takes that are less than inspiring, have substandard solos, or are too much like one another.  I’ve never had too much trouble with that, although there have been occasions where I felt like I really had to publish many, many examples from one session, just because the quality was high overall, and the different takes reflected different aspects of the improvs that were important musically.

but that is a rarity; very few sessions produce a 50, 60, 70 percent, or higher, success ratio (for me, anyway) – most sessions end up with one or two very good takes at the most, a few decent takes, and several that are not taken further. very occasionally, 90 percent are good.  very, very rarely, all of them have merit – very rarely indeed – but it has happened.

but otherwise, it’s actually the norm for me to record a dozen or more pieces of music, and then in the end, only publish perhaps three or four of them.  sometimes, maybe just one or two…or in the case of “escape from the death star” – maybe even just one!  depending on the session, it may also be that I might publish eight or nine out of 12 tracks, or 14 out of 20, or whatever makes sense to me from a strictly musical point of view.  some days, you are fortunate, other days, not so fortunate.

as always, though, it’s about finding balance – finding the sweet spot between being fairly and justly critical, but not automatically assuming that everything you record is really, really incredible – just finding the right pieces, the ones that reflect well on you, that express your musical ideas well but not too overtly, regardless of if they are understated or “over the top”, the ones that represent “you”  as composer, musician, performer – but, at the same time, trying not to be too critical on yourself, giving yourself some slack!  give you a break… 🙂

now – I can just imagine you all scuttling back to look back at those tracks you recorded four months ago, six, seven months ago…desperately hoping that they have miraculously turned from bad to good while you were busy elsewhere – but you may be disappointed.  or, you may find a hidden gem or two…

I just know that for me, I can often be very, very overcritical at first, especially at the time of recording, just after, and probably for a few weeks afterwards – but interestingly, as I found, after a few months, when you listen (with fresh ears), you may well find that you were too critical, and you have perfectly viable music sitting there just waiting for that final mix and master.

while we are on the subject of behaviours and perception, I’d like to mention another curious behaviour that I’ve noticed in myself recently, and I wonder if any of you have ever experienced this – it’s what I now call the “I don’t want to know” syndrome.

a very current and very real example of this is my current and ongoing relationship with a peter hammill song entitled “the siren song”.  over the past several months, I’ve had several recording sessions devoted to this very, very difficult-to-play, difficult-to-sing track from “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album, by van der graaf, from 1977 – and I have struggled mightily to get a take that I am entirely happy with.

some of those sessions ended up yielding absolutely NO candidates (usually due to unrepairable and disastrous and horrific errors in my piano playing – it’s devilishly difficult to play!); others, perhaps, one or two at the most, and those with too many faults, although I will say, as the months marched on, my understanding of the song (and particularly, the piano parts) has grown immensely, and the last few sessions with it were far and away, the closest I had come to getting “a take”.

but here’s the interesting thing.  I love this song; I am absolutely determined to capture a good quality version, completely live, at the piano, and, I have done a lot of work, both in learning the piano part much better than I ever knew it before, and in recording the track over and over and over and over again, slowly getting better at it in the process.

as you know, because I record so much music, using so many different instruments or apps, that there is always a backlog of songs that need to have their audio assessed and mixed.  I did a couple of sessions for “the siren song” several months ago, that went quite well, and I was even wondering, just kind of wondering…if possibly, one of the takes in that very last session MIGHT be “the take”.  but – I couldn’t face listening to them back, to find out if a good take was present.

eventually, after months of dread and procrastination I finally went and listened – and there it was.  a good take!

however – for some reason – for a long time, I absolutely, steadfastly, and repeatedly, AVOIDED going back to listen to those last two “siren song” sessions!  because…I didn’t want to know!  I did not want to find out whether I “had a take” or not!  what a strange thing to do, but for some unknown reason, I assessed the first few “the siren song” sessions, up to a certain point in time – and then, fully intending to carry on the next time I mixed – I just STOPPED – utterly inexplicably.   I kept avoiding it, until eventually I had to face it – and much to my surprise, that good take I was looking for – was there…with very, very little wrong with it.  a minor miracle, in my experience 🙂

instead of continuing the seemingly never-ending sessions devoted to capturing THIS song, and this song alone, I could then move on to other projects, and at last, let go of the seemingly endless search for that elusive “good take” of “the siren song”.  🙂

I think as musicians, we do sometimes do strange things with regards to the music we create, we are in denial about certain things, we hope that certain takes ARE takes when we know deep down, that they are NOT, conversely, as described in this blog, we thing takes are bad when they are really OK…and so on.

I was really hoping not to solve any great problem here, but just to draw attention to some of the psychological aspects of recording modern music (as opposed to the physical challenges, such as dealing with computers, MIDI, soft synths, DAWs, digital noises, pops and clicks, and so on…), but mostly, how very important indeed it is to give yourself a break, let music sit for a while before you judge it too soon or too harshly or both – and also, I think you will find that the passage of time gives you different ears with which to listen, and when you do find the time to listen, you will see – and hear, more importantly – the work you’ve done in a whole new light.

I noticed certain behaviours during the creation and mixing of these songs and recordings, and I wondered if any of you had had similar or identical experiences, or, if there are other behaviours not noted here, that you indulge in that you may wish to share with us all – if so, please feel free to fill in the “comments” below – we’d be very glad to hear from musicians and listeners alike as to any issues they find with “the perception of music”.

as always, we encourage you to participate, and we do want to hear your views on this blog, so please feel welcome to comment on this or any of the blogs, we’re always happy to discuss / dissect / deviate from topic / whatever it takes to communicate, learn and grow.  I think this is a very real problem for many musicians, yet I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about it – so I decided that I had better say something! 🙂

being overcritical may be another symptom of OCD, which I do have a mild case of, but I don’t really believe that.  I think it’s something basic in my personal make up, I tend to focus on “what’s wrong” with each piece of music, rather than celebrating “what’s right” and being kind to myself, and letting go of “what’s wrong”.  so being aware of this – I can make changes, and start to view things more positively.  I do try now, to give myself a buffer zone of time, a week or two, preferably more – and THEN go back and listen…and invariably, things sound better once they been around for a few weeks – strange but true.

of course, I WILL go and fix what is “wrong” – even if it takes a week to fix 30 seconds of music.  [does this sound familiar to anyone ????? 🙂 :-)]

happy mixing and mastering to all!!

peace and love

dave

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?

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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