Just found this under a pile of old scores in my writing room. This mind map is from before the start of Machines, and it's interesting (for me, at least) to see this now after the thing is finished and out, comparing the intentions against the reality. Also shows my penchant for brightly coloured felt tip pens.
If you're interested in that sort of thing, CLICK HERE to see the lyric sheets in full, as sung on the album "Machines", with the original spam messages alongside.
My next record for Bigo & Twigetti, which is still yet untitled but currently being referred to as "Machines", is a song cycle based on themes of technology, loneliness and the human condition. All of the texts have been taken from various spam emails that I have been collecting over the past few years, using the cut-up technique to find new combinations, meanings and narratives - an idea nicked from Burroughs via Bowie. I'm not wanting to give the world the impression that I spend all of my spare time pouring over every unsolicited email (bear with me), but over time a few messages that I've seen have caught my eye, seemed poignant; the random texts generated in a few created nice images and juxtapositions in my mind. Overall I was arrested by the notion of humans trying/wanting/needing to reach each other for whatever reason, and the kinds of things they will say in order to seduce, ensnare, or foster feelings of trust. What lengths we go to to be noticed.
These kinds of things:
From here, and the resulting cut-ups, the cycle began to take shape; songs about intimacy and insecurity, greed, automation and screaming into the void. I could yap on about it all, but I think I'll leave that stuff for another time. For now, there's a little snippet from "Incantation" (still a work in progress, featuring the gorgeous voice of Laura Wolk-Lewanowicz) on the Bigo & Twigetti soundcloud:
More to come very soon, I promise. x
If you're interested to hear how it might have been, knock yourself out!
[Feather Hammer] demo 1 Apology (with subway) by leahkardos
Approaching this piece the primary aim is creating interesting textures and playing with the proximity of those sounds. A secondary aim is to recall the feeling of early piano lessons and repetitive practice routines, pattern based technical exercises, the warmth of harmonies built from 3rds. After recording the various patterns using a variety of mic types and positions, I used Logic's space designer, delay designer, some FabFilters, in addition to scissors, stretch and flex-time to manipulate the material. Each "part" to the arrangement is a unique pattern that repeats, so my starting point was this thick texture of all of the looped up cycles working at the same time. The arrangement you hear in the demo below is the result of "carving" into that cyclic material, editing, erasing and eliminating certain bits to create some sense of form. This way of working reminds me of a method my artist friend Kristian Purcell often describes to me, of applying thick layers of media and then carefully stripping it away to reveal the piece.
Here's where I got the sample from:
Big thanks to PianoforteMaestro for letting me use it.-----
In other news I have my next PhD milestone due around the end of August. Cue overly dramatic flailing about, anguish, gnashing of teeth, etc. This time it is the first few chapters of my exogesis, which mostly means lots of writing about myself. Can't be too hard, right? I'll keep telling myself that and hopefully one day I'll wake up one morning and have a PhD.
Something I'm a little more excited to mention is the "art/music" collaborative project I have started with my friend (and amazing visual artist) Kristian Purcell. For a while I have been preoccupied with exploring the connections between sound and vision, in particular looking at my own language and how I perceive things, the way ideas and inspiration cross over between the two senses. Everyone's perception is different, so I'm not about establishing knowledge for anyone but myself here. That said, there are certainly ideas and vocabulary that cross over easily - line, form, structure, repetition, chance, colour, shape, dissonance, juxtaposition etc etc etc. I've been keeping an art blog for a few months now (http://thisticklesleah.tumblr.com) where I have been posting/reblogging anything that has tickled my fancy and made me think of music, and tagging each posting up with the terms and musical ideas that speak to me in that moment. This process has been surprisingly useful to my creative practice and it led me to ask Kristian if he wanted to participate in a little creative back and forth, responding to each other's art with quick, intuitive working.
We're only a few weeks in, and already the material being generated is really interesting. Maybe when it's done we'll publish it online, and I am hoping that when it is viewed as a larger body of work the threads of inspiration that run throughout can be seen and heard. For now I'm just enjoying the freedom to explore musical thoughts without being tied to a brief/job/commission/context or any "this should be serious you're a PhD student" bullshit ideals.
Then I took out the core element, the improvised piano solo, and just left the "around" sounds. It's an interesting result, the empty space left by the missing piano part is almost like a silhouette.
[edit: I've since taken these demos down, since they became The Waiting, both versions appear finished on the Feather Hammer album]
I'm reminded that I've done this kind thing before - back when Helzuki were writing in the studio, many of the arrangements started with piano parts that I had written. As band members added their layers to the arrangement, we all found the song worked better if we took the original part out, leaving all the stuff that had been constructed around it to hold the thing up.
Imma try out this method some more. It suits me, since my improvs sometimes come out sounding a bit basic and obvious. This could be a cool way to use that material in a backwards kinda way.
In other news, the My Lithium & Me project is being noticed and listened by the best people: sweetoblivion blogged about it, Boy George downloaded and listened to it, and it was featured on David Bowie's very own site as a news item. Fair to say I'm absolutely chuffed at the reaction it's getting. In little over a week since releasing it I've had over 5700 plays and nearly 2300 downloads via soundcloud, which is just awesome! Thanks everyone!
Update - here's a video demo by Matthew Greasley to go with the non-piano version of the track:
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
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.
"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))
I’m so pleased to finally have them for real in my sticky little mitts and not just via an online applet, I’ve been thumbing through each card in turn, grinning to myself and imagining the crazy situations I could apply the directions to. Let’s draw one right now... it simply says “water”. Yes.
I attended the LCO New “Inspired by Architecture” study day on Monday in London. We assembled on the 9th floor of City Hall, listening to talks from the likes of Diana Burrel, Simon Bainbridge, Richard Scott, Cany Ash, David Gordon, framed by a spectacular view of Tower Bridge, Thames and the City beyond. Then we hopped on a bus and had a look at some modern functional architecture in the East End/Hackney. The idea is to compose a piece for orchestral ensemble inspired by the buildings we saw, the best few to be performed, recorded and published by the LCO early next year.
I love these sorts of things - the light a fire under you to get writing, but without the stress that comes with a real commission. And you get to meet other young composers, get a feel for what they’re trying to say. The issue I have with this work is one of ‘obviousness’... i.e., architecture and music share many concepts and vocabulary (line, form, structure, texture, repetition/pattern, juxtaposition, brightness/darkness/lightness, space/ambience, perspective/depth... the list goes on! The challenge will be to have the music refer to the buildings in an unobvious way, to avoid the whole “that line is this line, that colour is this colour” correlation that always turns out so trite and contrived. The music should maybe latch on to one detail and lose sight of the whole, or tap into the sense of movement and atmosphere, or the air that is divided and trapped within a structure. Or not... we’ll see how it turns out.
I have had some great responses to my wanted ad, and as a result some exciting commissions and collaborations in the pipeline! It’s been a while since I’ve written new music for individual players to perform, and feels strange after doing so much media stuff - the creative freedom is such a welcome change and takes a little getting used to. All this thinking of new work has given me the mojo to finish up my String Quartet for Ariella (finally). Progress!
... I’ve decided to take myself through a series of lessons in the larger forms in music. I have this fantastic old book by Percy Goetschius (written 1915) that full of lovely composition exercises and I figured while I’m at it I might sharpen up my orchestration (and finally learn how to drive that VSL library properly). I’ve even busted out my old score-pads, something I haven’t used since I was at uni... and found some disturbingly rubbish music scrawled on a few of the pages (I recognized the desperation in the pencil markings, I must have had a portfolio due).
What brings this on? I’ve been writing a lot of miniatures of late - and by that I mean small instrumental works of about 3 - 5 mins in length (think little atmospheric pseudo-classical pop songs in binary form). I think I’ve been slightly frightened to write anything on a larger scale, some formal structures are a bit intimidating when you’re rusty on the rules... but by avoiding them I have been creating music that generally runs out of steam after themes A and B have run their course. In many ways it’s easier when you write for a film or other context, the music there supports a larger narrative or purpose and the composer is almost let off the hook. You just write some themes, agree on the instrumentation and then the rest kinda drives itself.
In the introduction there’s this fab quote from the book:
“The classic designs are not lightly to be overthrown, for they are the cumulative product of a gradually dawning recognition of nature’s musical laws, steadily progressing and crystallizing through the gathering and eliminating experiences of master-minds during many past centuries. It seems reasonable, therefore, to assume that true structural progress cannot be achieved by abandoning these, but rather by building upon them”.
Right on, Percy.
Otherwise I’ve been keeping busy lately working on an arrangement of “forty six & two” (by Tool) for piano solo and string quartet, and working on the soundtrack for a new horror short for David Keith. I’ve also been composing a new batch of examples for my showreel and others that I hope to sell on to music libraries (remember those miniatures I was talking about earlier?). I love Summer holidays, you can get so much done when you don’t have to drag your arse to pesky ‘work’ all the time!
This is the title of my research proposal for admission on the PhD programme at the University of Queensland.
I am ever so excited to be finally starting this thing up! To finally begin seriously discussing and actively creating the music I’d love to hear. Music I’d love to produce. And I’m glad I’ve waited this long, everything about this feels just right - from the possibility of working with Dr Robert Davidson (who starts at UQ in July) to the fact that the college have let me scale back my hours a bit and that I’m finally set up with a great studio to work in after years of moving around and not being settled anywhere. It’s as if the stars have aligned and the universe is letting me know that it’s a good time for me to become a student once again.
“Composers working as freelancers in the world today are increasingly being called upon to understand current technology, to then realise, record and produce their own works in a studio environment. This extra work could be viewed as a chore or ‘necessary evil’, but I prefer to think of it as a wonderful creative opportunity to explore.
New distribution methods continue to proliferate and it is through recordings, rather than concert performances, that composers have a presence in these channels.
The rise and evolution of music technology over the last 50 years has dramatically changed the way music sounds and is experienced by its audience. Recording techniques and the synthesized, sampled, affected, manipulated sounds made possible by new and diverse means have altered the sonic palette - radio, film/TV, music download sites and interactive games have created new contexts for music to be experienced and consumed.
The vast arsenal of music technology tools available today allows experimentation and the exploitation of new sounds, textures and colours. These advancements facilitate the realisation and recording of original music with more ease and less expense, allowing the composer to manipulate recorded performances further by means of digital effects, spatial mixing, looping and sampling.
Hardware such as effects pedals, digital effect sends and MIDI triggers can be implemented into live performances through the close placement of microphones, live mixing and speaker positioning. Sophisticated sample libraries can now effectively imitate the sounds, textures and articulations of a symphony orchestra. New software applications are becoming increasingly abundant, allowing the composer-producer to manipulate sounds in ways previously thought impossible.
As well as being a composer, I am also a music technologist and have access to a project studio containing a collection of useful hardware and industry-standard software applications. I intend to explore the creative possibilities of Logic Pro 8 (sequencing software) for sound creation and 5.1 mixing, the KAOSS pad for live filter effects in recording and performance, Melodyne (pitch and rhythm manipulation) and Pro-Tools (digital audio workstation) for beat-detection, mixing and mastering.
An important question in my research is “what production strategies are effective in communicating new musical ideas to a wide audience”. In addition to compositional work, I will address this question through several modes of engagement with current knowledge in studio production. Firstly I will conduct a literature review of trade and scholarly journals dealing with compositional approaches to studio production. Secondly, I will conduct qualitative research in the form of interviews with practitioners including engineers, composer-producers, electro-acoustic performers and producers.
The expected outcomes of this work will be a folio of compositions comprising:
· String Quartet
· Collection of Experimental Etudes
· An instrumental “concept album” that can be scored for ensemble performance
· Feature length film score
· Symphonic work
In addition to the folio, I will complete an investigation into the challenges and unique opportunities for creativity that affect composers in the 21st century.”
I hope they like my ideas... I will keep you all posted on how I go.
What does the modern ear wish to listen to? Should that even matter or influence anything? Does the music have to be “smart” and “new” and “codified” to be worth anyone’s time? It’s kinda funny that I’m reading this collection of essays now, when next on my pile of books to read is Schoenberg’s own “Style & Idea” collection. For now I will remain as confused as ever over postmodernism, and what the hell that word actually means.
In the meantime, I love this quote by Roger Scruton:
“ ...the elements of musical order still retain their appeal. Even in the accelerated conditions of modern life-- and especially in those conditions-- people understand repetition, they understand the rhythmical figure; they respond to the pure intervals of fifth and fourth; their attention can be captured by strophic melodies and dance rhythms. To use these as your raw materials is not to cheapen music, but to begin from the point where music makes contact with life.”
3 days and five pages of dire note-against-note counterpoint for a cantus firmas in every mode later ... I feel like dying. I continually remind myself: Beethoven found this useful and referred to it constantly. Was this the reason he was such a cranky man?
I guess I will continue with it for a while, since the better I remember all the rules, the better I will be able to break them. I don’t want to begin writing The Quartet until I have a clear idea about theme and structure. At the moment my head is swimming with a million ideas with nothing really pinned down. On Thursday night I got into a cab and found myself overwhelmingly inspired by the Punjabi folk music playing on the car radio. Doesn’t help that the commission is supposed to be in neo-classic style.
*sigh* Hopefully the concept and design with hit me in the face sometime soon or else a Neoclassic/Punjabi mashup may happen, and surely only bring discomfort and misery to the world!