I've been reunited with my good friend Allal Yamine, percussionist, performer, researcher and artist. We share many interests, both musically and more generally artistically but what's drawn me in this time is his profound knowledge of the musics of the Sahel. I won't reduce the richness and complexity of the Sahel's musical patchwork to something almost meaningless like 'desert blues' for example but I can say that I've reduced my research to two fields of investigation - the how and the why/where/when. How you play the music and the social contexts around it. I'm fortunate to be able to spend many hours with Allal playing and absorbing. Guitar and percussion. There's talk of a trip to the Sahel to meet and play with some of these fascinating musicians.
Because he wanted to tidy up his studio Allal offered me this Yamaha organ, which I now have in my own studio.
It's a Yamaha Electone A55N built in 1981. There are 37 keys, 13 pedals and and as you can see lots of sliders and switches to fiddle about with. These each make substantial differences to the sound and the sounds are wonderful, especially in the low midrange to bass registers. It's what we might call a complex drone generating machine, like a modular analogue synth but with a different kind of versatility. It's a bit 'wheezy' which I particularly like, especially when you load up the 12 inch speaker to the full 30 watts. The beat or drum sounds and the arpeggiator functions are not what you'd expect from say a digital keyboard - they're so idiosyncratic that they'll be excellent for film music.
Here's another picture showing the footpedals.
In case you're curious here's my guitar and amplifier. I keep promising to do some kind of 'tour of my studio' and I will once I dig everything out and think of the best way to film or photograph all the stuff I've collected.
This is 'the best guitar in the world'. For the cognoscenti it's a Yamaha RS 820CR which I bought second hand in perfect condition. I've played hundreds of guitars and this comes out as good as or better than the best I've played. Apologies to fanboys or girls of more expensive brands. I've noticed that guitarist of a certain large capitalist nation have some kind of distrust of Yamaha and Japanese guitars in general, mainly because the Japanese manage to make guitars as good as or better than Gibson for far less money. The body is perfectly styled with the simplest arrangement of hardware. The humbuckers are Yamaha's own and there are three distinct tones with the pickup selector. It's like riding a racing bike - in fact the styling is drawn from Yamaha's own bike range. Gibson don't make racing bikes in case you don't know, or grand pianos or even fiddles.
The valve amplifier is a Fender Princeton Reverb II which I bought for £50.00 many years ago. It's been modified but I still have the schematic if I want to rewire it. The reverb has been and the midtone boost reassigned to the one spidery footpedal. I had it refurbished in Edinburgh with new valves fitted and it sounds perfect. This amp has a fine vintage. I read somewhere that Duane Allman used it as his studio amp, which is good enough for me. I find it difficult to know how to come to a judgement about the sound of amplifiers. Of course it sounds good and des its job but how do you balance brightness with treble or midrange with bass? Because I have a particular sound in mind using a chain of pedals I tweaked it for a clean setting and listened to the decay of a lower string until some kind of steady sine wave emerged. That's about as clean a sound as I could produce. Then in principle the pedals should sound the way they're supposed to.
Speaking of which:-
Apart from a clean sound for what I might call a kora-inflected guitar style, ultimately best played on a nylon or steel strung acoustic guitar, I'm actually chasing after something approaching the electric guitar sound that many in the Sahel favour (probably best known in the music of Ali Ibrahim "Ali Farka" Touré), not because I'm devoid of ideas as to what I want but because the qualities of that kind of sound bring out the best in the constantly shifting pentatonic improvisations driven by the intricate rhythms of North and West African musics.
Here's a quick summary of the pedals. An old tuner which makes too much noise so it'll have to go eventually. A compressor (placebo of the pedals), perhaps not so essential for a live rig but it does make a difference. Then a freeze pedal to sustain open-string tones as pedal points. Next a Boss PS-6 Harmonist which fattens up the sound using the 'detune' setting. After that a very powerful and versatile Eventide TimeFactor delay which works best if I tweak my own patches and try not to overdo the effect. Finally a simple but effective Electro-harmonic Holy Grail reverb pedal which does the job. There's also a Boss RC-30 looper pedal there (which I can actually work). I look forward to trying out some live layering.
Finally if you want to hear what's going on with some of these Sahel players listen to the incredible tehardent and percussion of Tallawit Timbouctou. Better still, buy their album.
I wrote about sourcing sounds for composition. There's obviously more to it than simply recording sounds or events. The whole process is anthropological and therefore complex. When it comes to editing and processing these recorded sounds things are, on the face of it, much simpler.
I transfer recorded sounds from the recording device to the computer then I edit them and compose using software applications. I could equally do this on a multi-track analogue tape recorder and I know some composers who still do. First I use Steinberg's Wavelab to listen back to the sounds. This takes a long time because I'm trying all the time to listen for possibilities beyond the actual sounds before me. I trim and level up the audio files, removing any unwanted sections, then open them up in Reaper, a digital audio workstation application which has a very simple time stretch function. This is where the sounds are timestretched, lengthened more often than shortened, a procedure which reveals new morphologies and further potential. At the same time I apply equalisation or filtering, which reduces or boosts frequencies, reduction being by far the most common procedure. I use a digital equaliser called Equilibrium made by DMG Audio which was recommended by a professional sound engineer. It offers digital emulations of all the great hardware equalisers and the level of detail and control it affords is unparalleled.
Where does this leave me? Well, from there I build up layers of sound in Wavelab's montage feature, which allows me to stack layers simultaneously, modify volume levels in great detail and process them further if required. This is where a composition comes alive, or dies a slow death. If I've learned anything over the years it's that there's no point in spending four or more hours a day working intensively with audio at fairly high volume and in great detail. The ears become fatigued and musical judgement diminishes. This doesn't mean that you can't work on the piece, it's just that you spend more time thinking about the composition in the abstract, away from the actual sounds, a challenging but interesting process in itself but one which can lead to better decisions own the long run.
With this most recent composition I made two big mistakes, along with all the numerous little ones. First I began working with sounds identical to or very similar to sounds that I'd used before. This undermines an approach to music, a core of my practice, which requires a fresh investigation with each new work. Why it took me so long to realise the mistake is beyond me. Another mistake, which I identified as it happened and which led to a resolution of all the major problems, was that I began trawling through my archives looking for 'something else' or something 'more suitable'. That's when the penny dropped and from there I returned to some of the less prominent sounds in my original work. The principal sounds here were of a joiner fitting out the inside of a nearby shop (which acted as a resonant cavity) taken on the street opposite the Abbey walls which reflected and dispersed the sounds around the built environment.
Sometimes we do actually learn from our mistakes but not as fast or as well as we'd like.
Perhaps the most important and possibly the least interesting aspect of electroacoustic composition is the provenance of sound sources. They're obviously important because without them you don't have any raw material but if too much is made about them they become fetishised and the work becomes about the objects or recordings and not about the eventual abstractions, modifications and transformations that produce make the eventual music, the latter being difficult to talk or write about (unlike the sources) or to generate images and other media that people might understand. But a photograph has its own value so here are some of the sound sources that have occupied me for the last few months, day after day, week after week (did I mention slow?).
Exciting? No. Apart from the frame drums and bristly toothbrushes which make a nice photo, the welding machine and oven are somewhat mundane. One could of course contextualise the interest in machines as a concern with the ethnography of technology but in all honesty I'm not in the least concerned with that here. At the time I heard and recorded these sounds I simply found them interesting and worthy of further examination.
Played well the frame drums or duffs are fine instruments but in my work I spend most of my initial preparations trying to eke out, often unconventionally, specific sounds for further treatment in this case the sounds of the skin being activated by wire brushes. Each duff has its own unique set of inner morphologies or sound-shapes determined by size, shape, mass and materials. The wire brushes tease out the sounds I wanted very well, offering shapes that ranged from the percussive to the quasi-melodic/harmonic as some of the activations released a rising harmonic series. The sounds of welding (in this project carried out by an actual welder) is somewhat predictable but there are all manner of subtleties as the metals and rods expand and contract, punctuated by near silences and the soft hiss of gases being released as the heat builds up.
So much for the initial recordings and I'll come to the oven sounds later but my last word on this first stage is that there is no rule that I've managed to set which determines how much time I should spend on this or that sound, then on the combinations, before it becomes evident that something isn't working as well as I thought it would. I therefore work slowly. My next activity involves two processes, both carried out in the digital domain, these being timestretching and filtering (or equalising) the recordings. That phase will form the subject of my next post on composition. Thanks for visiting.