Copal 2 (improv) by leahkardos
Copal 3 is a sentimental little piano piece that I played shortly after learning that a childhood pet had finally died. Claudia was my little Burmese cat, such a delicate soft little thing. She would sit on top of my piano while I practiced as a youngster... so a little bit of simple child-like piano music seems appropriate in the moment. Aww rest in peace sweet kitty cat.
Copal 3 (improv/Claudia's Song) by leahkardos
Right. That's enough improv for now, I think. There's a lot of proper writing I need to be getting on with.
This is an improvisation I came up with earlier this evening, based on a simple 5 note right hand oscillating figure in G minor, stretching out and making use of the warm ambient tones of the piano.
Copal 1 (improv) by leahkardos
The Feather Hammer is an ambient piano record I have just finished writing and am about to commence production on. The artwork to the left will be the cover, a wonderful piece by Kristian Purcell called "Unelma 1".
The record will comprise of piano sounds - played music and ambient sounds recorded "around" the music (a longer more detailed blog on this aspect will probably come soon) - and location recordings taken from around Bedford, mostly the college campus where I work.
Strongly inspired by Bjork's Vespertine, with its percussion tracks utilising soft intimate non-musical sounds (shuffling cards, clinking cutlery, footsteps through snow), and Amon Tobin's Foley Room where textures of found sounds are built up to create heavy, thick ambiences. Other influences come from the Harold Budd/Eno collaborations and Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works. The focus will be on combining and manipulating recorded audio, avoiding synthesis and most digital effects.
At the centre of the production is a collection of 9 solo piano compositions that have been traditionally scored and performed by me. I am quite excited about this project as it is the first where I really get to try out all my fancy PhD process ideas and experiment with production concepts gleaned from psychoacoustic research. It's an extra treat that I get to perform on my favourite instrument. Due to me not being able to say no to anyone or anything, it's been on the back burner for a while... but this is where my heart is at the moment, it's all I want to work on. I don't want to say I'll have it done in early 2011, since I have a pile of commitments bearing down on me over the holiday season. As progress is made I will update the blog with news, ideas and demos but for now... isn't the cover just lovely?
It's not that I want people to tell me I'm great all the time, don't get me wrong. It's just that working in a vacuum can breed some serious insecurity. I was speaking to a colleague about this earlier today and he told me the story of his friend who was such a perfectionist that he would never show his creative work to anyone - so wary of people's judgements made on his unfinished work - and he never finished anything. I can relate to that logic a little bit, but in my context those ideas throw a slightly more existential curve: just like the tree falling in the forest when no-one's around, am I still a composer if no-one ever hears the stuff I write?
It's all a bit sad to admit, really. The romantic ideal composer version of me would not be bothered so much. She would be sure of the quality of her own ideas and sod the rest. Everything she wrote would be formed with a clarity of purpose; it would say exactly what she intended it to say and it wouldn't matter so much what people think because she would have prioritised her own artistic satisfaction above all else. If only I was that confident; if only I was so convinced what I was doing wasn't rubbish... but the subjectivity of my experience leads me to question myself all too often. A few times I have been caught up in a project that at the time I thought had potential to be great, but with a bit of hindsight could clearly see was flawed and weak. A horrible feeling.
But despite appearances, I am not writing this to moan or complain. I'm writing this to help myself get a grip and stop being such a wuss. Dealing with feedback and handling criticism is obviously a big part of the job description and I should use this opportunity to get my priorities straight. Am I writing music to make people like me? Is it just about the money and commercial projects? Am I doing it solely to please and impress a client or commissioner?... or do I actually want to say something that reflects my own feelings and perspectives on shit? Honestly, I want it to be the latter more than anything else.
It may not look like it, judging by the action on this blog/site, but for the last 4 to 5 months I have been working my little bum off: a feature length film score that, when delivered, felt like 40 lbs of my own flesh (I enjoyed it immensely don't get me wrong, but maaan that was a lot of music). In addition, and after almost a year of faffing about, I finished and delivered demos and scores of the string quartet to the players. I also drafted a suite of 3 lyric pieces for saxophone trio, scored and sent. So far I've not heard anything from anyone about any of it - for various understandable and good reasons (people moving house, people becoming seriously ill, assorted technical dramas, etc), but still... nothing.
And I'm doing ok, I think. Im learning to trust my own good taste. It's a work in progress.
Sometimes, when someone tells me they make art, I might expect the stuff they make will be "Ok...". Maybe it's just me and my pessimistic outlook on life, but I often have low expectations when it comes to these things (it's a good way to be, since most of the time I'm pleasantly surprised, which is a nice reaction, right?). These arty people show you their latest thing and you're all "Oh wow, that's great!" but in your head you're not really thinking it's truly great art, only that its great that they are pursuing creative endeavours in general. I've been in bands and struggling to have my music heard for years - some of it not very good at all - so I know what it feels like to be humoured by your mates. And of course you're grateful for it, that's what your mates are there for. We all need encouragement.
But then there are people that come into your life who are so good that they knock you on your arse, and you can't believe they are working day-jobs in Bedford and not being shown at the Tate. A person who forces you to recalibrate your scale of superlatives (that handmade coffee cup you liked on Facebook is suddenly not so literally "awesome", for example). Kristian Purcell is such a person. A proper artist. I also have the honour of calling him my friend.
I met Kristian rather unglamourously, as a result of trolling Myspace for potential musical collaborators. This was back in 2007 when Myspace was still sort of happening, but also sort of starting to shrivel and die. He lived in Bedford, he liked Bowie, he could sing and play guitar. That was enough for us (well, enough for me - I'm sure Matt would prefer the Bowie connection didn't exist, since he has had to endure both of us drunkenly screeching our way through "Teenage Wildlife" at least a dozen times to date. I don't think he finds it amusing, which is a shame since I'll probably be inclined to do this as often as I'm drunk on red wine for the rest of my life). He joined the band, we gigged a little bit, wrote some music together and made a record in the spare room of my house. He worked various day jobs, teaching contracts and working at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery & Bedford Museum; he wasn't famous or critically lauded or making any money from his wonderful art and it didn't seem right.
I remember when he transformed the Wellington Street house he was living in at the time into a makeshift gallery and invited the town to see (and possibly buy) his work. It was a genius bit of initiative, and Matt and I both felt like arseholes for trying to haggle down the prices of the two small pieces we ended up buying that night. Mates rates? C'mon we're all struggling artists here... I also remember sitting with Kristian in the Gordon Arms a few days after Xmas 2008, having a deep discussion about music and art and what the hell we were doing with our lives. We're both the same age, and we share the same frustrations that stem from being unknown, from dealing with universal apathy on a daily basis, the fears that we might have missed our opportunity to be successful. During the course of that conversation we discussed studying our disciplines again and maybe I should take the plunge with the PhD. Within months that wishful drunken chatter had become a reality for me, a decision that (I feel) has put me on the right track with my career.
Kristian deserves success because his art is great. And it's getting better. If you're reading this and you're not familiar with his work, you need to check it out immediately. If you have the means to, invest in one of his pieces now - they're bound to be worth stupid amounts of money one day (chat to him, he might be able to do "mate's rates"). Comment on his blog, because god knows we all need a bit of encouragement.
And the musical collaboration continues, sort of. There are wishy-washy plans to record new material with the band in the new year, but a far more concrete prospect is a gig we'll be playing together at Bedford Esquires on the 20th of November (this Saturday night). It's more a Kristian Purcell solo gig with me accompanying on piano. I think we're even doing a couple of Helzuki songs from that record we made in my spare room in 2008. Should be fun to bust out the furry red stage piano once again, it's been too long.
UPDATE: GIg has been and gone, and here's a review
Ok, maybe that's a tad unfair - after all, we can't help but be influenced by the world around us, and we live a postmodern life - there is no escaping it. I grew up listening to a lot of The Beatles, around the same age I was playing a lot of Bach and becoming aware for the first time in my life of the power of film scores. Have these things imprinted on my music in any practically audible way? Probably not, but it's all in there... all bits floating around in the big soup in my head.
A good working definition of postmodernism that everyone can agree on is difficult to nail down - I'm not sure what I think of Kramer's itemised list of 'postmodern musical characteristics' ("multiple temporalities"?). Georgina Born puts it simply: a synthesis of modernist processes and mechanisms in popular-culture forms (where modernism is defined as music written to challenge and educate, popular music written to sell or promote). K. Robert Schwarz echoes this idea when, in discussing the creative approach of John Adams, he describes a blending of process-based creation and intuitive response as an "eclectic postmodern" ideology. Certainly all of my favourite composers and artists do this — from Fitkin to Eno, Warhol, Bjork, Bowie, Reich, Bryars, Duchamp and Roy Lichtenstein. Mixing up approaches, consciously blending styles, "pick & mix"ing influences, using impersonal processes but treating or developing the results in an artistically intuitive way.
This postmodern ideology favours a communicative approach. The goal is not to educate or challenge, nor is it to sell or promote. The goal is to connect with a listener; to tell a story or influence a feeling using whatever tools are available. Film composers do this all the time - crossing stylistic barriers, working within cliches, anything it takes to create this connection. If the moment calls for the use of jazz elements, and he or she is not a traditional jazz composer, does this diminish the value of the music? Is it unauthentic? Pretentious? Can composers create music in different styles and traditions and still be taken seriously? Can Jonny Greenwood be a writer of pop songs and at the same time make experimental music, atmospheric soundtracks and then be a credible contemporary classical composer?
Of course he can - because he's a bloody marvellous composer. Music is a language, we use it to say things... and we can say whatever we like. It helps if there is someone listening to what you are saying though, if it can connect with people — at that point where music meets life, in those things that relate to the human existence: patterns, rhythms, melody, the tone of a voice, consonances and dissonances, memory and emotion. All the sounds and ideas that have gone before are now part of the vocabulary.
There is no real incentive for me to compose music that is deliberately challenging and impenetrable - if I were to try, it would be sad and pretentious and I'd probably fail hideously. Admitting alignment with the postmodern ideal is not pretentious, it's the truth about my own context. It's that soup in my brain that's been brewing since I first perceived music as a child, it's my preference to prioritise communication through music, using whatever means. Like Stewie here:
I left Matt over there for an additional 2 weeks and I rushed back slightly more burnt out than when I left, back home to a massive pile of projects that have been scheduled for, or put off until, the summer. Which is now. I love it, already I've reverted to vampire hours; I sit in my studio all night long growing paler and in the daytime I sleep while the sane people go out and enjoy sunshine, cavort in parklands, eat BBQ or whatever it is that they do. Take away my 9 to 5 responsibilities and this is what happens every time.
One of these summer projects is a mix and master for a band... something that on the surface seems a bit technical and prescribed, a diversion from all the PhD stuff I should be doing. But I'm finding it very useful as an opportunity to really look closely at timbre and texture in the context of a multitrack stereo mix.
So far the process feels a lot more like traditional music 'arrangement' - choosing colours, combinations of colours, manipulating the dynamics between them. Obviously there are limitations, chief of which is the genre of music and the expected commercial standards that are implied there. Another big one is obviously whatever the client wants. But even within the most rigid brief, there are still opportunities for creativity, I think. There is such an art to the 'act of combining things', after all the depth of a stereo field is just an auditory illusion - the mix engineer/producer is the magician who is conjuring it for the listener.
Moreover, I suspect the mix engineer can affect the listener on a different level to that which the composer (who is working with notes, harmonies and rhythms) can. Once again, these ideas throw back to (what Andrew Brown calls) the "modes of compositional engagement" - the director, the observer, the performer, the selector - basically the composer adopting various roles to facilitate the creativity in various contexts. It's an interesting idea. I certainly don't want to claim that all producers ARE composers (if we define a composer as the writer or AUTHOR of music, then that can't be true). But producers have influence over sound, there are creative choices to be made... in some cases these choices can affect the listener's experience profoundly.
I know that not everyone's ears and brain is like mine. There's even a few good reviews out there for this record where people praise the production. Are there any records out there where the SOUND of the mix affects you? If anyone reading this has the time to test the above record out on their own ears, I would love to know if you have a similar experience. In either case email me!
"My first recycling experiment" or "how I hacked up Rob Davidson's String Quartet beyond recognition"
(What I'm talking about is the subject of that last blog of mine - this whole idea of a composition evolving, the recorded artefact becoming the starting point for a new creation.)
So I decided to experiment, to find out how easy it is to chop and manipulate an existing recording in order to create something completely different. My string quartet is not finished, so I stole Rob Davidson's String Quartet - a live recording that had some really interesting room ambience in the mix, and some fun audience sounds (coughing, sneezing, etc).
Here's an excerpt from Rob's recording (the opening):
String Quartet - Rob Davdison (Opening/Example) by LeahExperiments
The following experiments/hack jobs were made purely by recycling bits of the above recording, with bits mostly taken from the first movement. In Logic, I used EQ, scissor, time-stretch, reverse, reverb & flex tools to completely mess it up.
Experiment 1 (recycling String Quartet by Rob Davidson) by LeahExperiments
Experiment 2 (recycling String Quartet by Rob Davidson) by LeahExperiments
I'm not sure if the results are good enough to play at the seminar, but I think they are interesting all the same. There are some peculiar dissonances that I wasn't expecting, which resulted from combining notes and chords taken from different places where tunings had slightly shifted in the performance. In some places this is pleasing, in others it definitely grates! When I took a short sample and stretched it a long way it produced a rustling guitar-like effect, which I thought was a happy accident. The limitations in my examples are clear with regard to melody/harmony/tonality - this was partly due to the fact that I chose to focus on a short section of the recording to plunder for samples, but mostly due to me being lazy and opting for drone-based harmony layers and glitchy rhythms.
I’ve been working on this thing on and off for many months now - and I take heart in knowing that Maurice Ravel, whose Quartet in F major is an aspirational model for me with this project, himself took a long time too. Ariella commissioned it back in January 2009, I suspect they think I’ve forgotten about it completely.
The music is pretty much there, the hold up has been in the details - the attention to voice leading, the dynamics, the interior lines. After a spell of being all “Rah, time to get this bitch DONE and DUSTED”, throwing all my notes at the score with a 'that’ll do’ attitude, I’m now actually really enjoying giving it some careful attention. I think it deserves some, and I’m learning so much from the process. An hour spent inside the first movement getting a couple of cadences right, its fun .... not unlike sudoku.
Another aspect that I have been in two minds about has been the final format of the piece. Not wanting to shoehorn technology into it in a desperate bid to make the piece ‘modern’ or to fit in with my PhD research, but at the same time wanting to use the material for experimentation in some way without diminishing the musicality and appeal of the finished work. Then I hit on the solution - recycling! The score that becomes a performance that becomes a recording, and then a recording that becomes fodder for manipulation and restructuring (chopping, splicing, juxtaposing, sampling) that then becomes something completely new.
Then there’s my beloved Aphex Twin and his 26 remixes for cash in which, along with many weird and wonderful things, he gives us a re-imagining of Gavin Bryars’ ‘Sinking of the Titanic’ (he calls it “Raising the Titanic” ) and an eerie mash-up of Philip Glass’ Heroes symphony with the original David Bowie acapella vocal take from 1977. I have always regarded this guy to be a serious composer of new music - I defy anyone who’s actually listened to “drukQs” and his “Selected Ambient Works” to tell me I’m wrong.
I was talking to Rob (my PhD supervisor) recently about the chamber ensemble “Alarm Will Sound’, a group that somehow has the audacious bollocks to attempt to play Aphex Twin’s music live with real instruments. Something people thought was impossible, but they did it! With kettle drums and bassoons! What strikes you when you hear their renditions is how rare the music sounds - no-one would ever compose this stuff from a score, putting notes on a page. It’s a completely different way of composition - made possible by technology - where timbre and texture are king.
In Daniel Levetin’s awesome book “Your Brain on Music”, he reminds us that distinguishing timbre is one of the most sophisticated and important parts of our hearing:
... it is the most important and ecologically relevant feature of auditory events. The timbre of a sound is the principal feature that distinguishes the growl of a lion from the purr of a cat, the crack of thunder from the crash of ocean waves, the voice of a friend from that of a bill collector one is trying to dodge. Timbral discrimination is so acute in humans that most of us can recognize hundreds of different voices. We can even tell whether someone close to us - our mother, our spouse - is happy or sad, healthy or coming down with a cold. ... I believe timbre is at the centre of our appreciation of music”
Traditionally, this aspect was a bit of an unknown to composers who wrote scores. Even though most of us expect violins to have certain timbral qualities, the small differences in sound brought about by various instrument builds, performance idiosyncrasies, effects of spaces on ambience & standing waves, tunings etc are impossible to know. When material is recorded however, then these aspects are known from the outset and very much in the composers control.
I think people are really tuned in to the qualities of sound these days - there’s much talk about the timbral qualities of valve/analogue equipment, the superior listening experience provided by phonograph records or digital audio (depending which side of the fence you sit on) or whatever bit compression your mp3 happens to be to what dithering algorithm you bounce your masters with. Even people who aren’t musicians will comment on a “fat” bass line, a ‘dirty’ synth, a ‘heavy’ guitar part. Beethoven sounds better when played on a Bösendorfer than through a General MIDI module. I’m told that Haydn sounds perfect in the Esterhazy hall.
But back to the quartet... this is where I’m at with it right now - finishing the score, giving my attention to perfecting form, harmony, melodic themes, and all the other details. Once that is done, I eagerly anticipate hearing how Ariella play it, and recording the performance. Then to take that recorded performance apart and build something new with it.
Is it wrong that Sibleius' 'REPRISE' music font on my music gives me the horn? (click --->1 score (08-05-10))
Over the easter break I've been working on some theme ideas for the soundtrack to Lee Hutcheon's new fllm 'My Brother's Keeper'. Suffice to say, this John character is a bit of a messed up dude.
"My Brother's Keeper" - Home theme 1 by leahkardos
'My Brother's Keeper' - John Action cue by leahkardos
'My Brother's Keeper' - John's Theme cue 2 by leahkardos
"My Brother's Keeper" - short orchestra cue by leahkardos
"My Brother's Keeper" - Home [piano version] by leahkardos
Oh Logic Pro, you know I love you.
You make the task of composing and arranging so easy and pleasurable, using your many key commands is like instant gratification for me, making short work of things that would usually take a few seconds longer. I remember days not long ago I would write music by clicking in each single note into Sibelius, you really have changed my life! You’re so smart, its like you know what I’m thinking, understand what I’m composing! Could you be ’the one’? For a while I thought Abelton would steal away my heart, but I should have always known I could never leave you alone. However, we need to sort something out.
Your MIDI beat mapping function sucks so hard .... & my eyes, after 4 hours of this thankless task, they bleed. There has to be a better way!? Your previous version was a little easier - move from left to right, place a marker, marker stayed put. In version 9, it’s all whack. Have you tried to get all clever and contextual or something? Why is it when I place my next marker, all the preceding MIDI info shifts about?
If only there was a way I could tap in a new tempo against the old one to replace the old one (in the case of improvisations that were performed to no click). Work it out for Logic 10, & I’ll gladly keep giving you my money.
So I was bleating on about this in the office the other day and a colleague and all-round apple-logic--genius-man Mike Watkinson found me a great work around! My vexations are over! Here's how you do it:
- To stop the pesky MIDI notes from jumping about as you beatmap individual notes, you have to lock the SMPTE first. Makes sense.
- To create a new tempo against the old grid, create a new track and tap/play in the new tempo as new MIDI recording. SMPTE lock the original captured performance. Use the 'beats from regions' option in the beatmapping global track to analyse your new tempo track... and... voila! Easy peasy. Can't believe I used to spend whole evenings doing this the hard way. What a mug!
...John Stuart Mill once wrote: "I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations. The octave consists only of five tones and two semitones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seems to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers to strike out, as they have done, entirely new surpassing rich veins of musical beauty. This sort of anxiety, may, perhaps, be thought to resemble that of the philosophers of Laputa, who feared lest the sun be burnt out"...
...There are 479,001,600 possible combinations of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale. With rhythmic variety added to the unbounded universe of melodic patterns, there is no likelihood that new music will die of internal starvation in the next 1000 years.
- Nicols Slonimsky (from the preface to his amazing and insanely exhaustive tome “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns” from 1947)
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine anything existing beyond the world we know. But I’m going to embrace the things that I am uncomfortable with, and with Rob’s help, try to get inside the music I don’t understand. Its a similar problem to not understanding a set of words you hear someone using - rather than reject the message as meaningless, I should make an effort to understand and expand my vocabulary. Any other action is really just ignorance, right?
The songs took a while to record, and even longer to mix. The recording process was veerrrry casual - maybe one or two wine-fuelled evenings a month at best we would get together to spend on it. And we wanted so many layers, despite being only a three-piece band - the attraction of the newly built studio in our house made us want to experiment and see how much we could get away with. Then came the mixing...
At first we struggled with the mix, partly because of the number of layers we had put down, but mostly because we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. Then we stopped mixing because I got a new bit of kit in the studio and I was convinced that we had to start again - I think it was when the Liquid Mix arrived. Then, when Matt had mixed the first three tracks, I decided that I was ‘sick and tired’ of the songs and left it in his hands (his slow, methodical but admittedly consistent hands)... I was all “I don’t wanna know about it, don’t wanna hear those songs again!”. I think I was just frustrated with the slow pace of things.
Then, I started my PhD studies and suddenly all my spare time was gone. Matt was sort of mixing this project on and off, just to get it done and out of the way... and around this time we somehow decided that our old studio monitors were too coloured (which they were...) and we replaced them. Hence the need to start mixing again. Then, shortly after that I bought some sweet mastering plugins, and at this point I was just like “oh hell, give me those mixes, I’ll bang them out in an hour”. Which, after all the previous drama, is exactly what I did in the end!
All said and done, I think I am proud of these songs. They represent a fun time of experimentation and sharing of ideas, and a super steep learning curve in many respects - I learned so much about multitrack recording, and even more about my own creativity and how I can work with others.
The E.P. is available for free from www.helzuki.co.uk, and will be on iTunes and Amazon and everywhere else in a few days. Hoorah!
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