Thursday, February 23, 2006

Interlude: Reading and Listening

I've just finished reading a fine book called THE PRODUCER AS COMPOSER by Virgil Moorefield (MIT Press). It's a scholarly treatise on the idea that the recording process itself has become inseparable from the act of composition, that a recording is not a "record" of the composition, but is actually the composition itself. Of course, it's not a new idea. But Moorefield is detailed in his observations and analysis; best of all, as a producer/composer himself, he brings plenty of inside knowledge and understanding, which makes the book refreshingly solid and useful.
I've also been delving back into a book called TEMPLES OF SOUND: INSIDE THE GREAT RECORDING STUDIOS(Chronicle Books) by William Clark and Jim Cogan. This one is pure pleasure; not a technical work, but one rich in first-hand stories and insights.( A few nights ago, wired from band rehearsal, I stayed up late and re-read the chapter on Stax-Volt in Memphis. What could be more inspiring and moving than Steve Cropper talking about mixing "Dock of The Bay" right after Otis Redding's death ?)
I've also been reading--mostly in the mornings--Carl O. Sauer's 16th CENTURY NORTH AMERICA. (Univ. Cal. Press ) Sauer writes here with succint focus and elegant, energetic prose about the the European discovery and mapping of the New World. Reading about the finding of new worlds inspires and energizes me.

As for listening, obviously I've been lost in my own music lately. But I have been relaxing with BOOT HEEL DRAG: THE MGM YEARS by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. This is late 40s and early 50s stuff, with plenty of swing and old-style Texas fiddling, but also infusions of the country boogie, jump, and rhythm and blues that were in the air during that era. Best of all, it's loaded with great old-style western swing steel guitar. Guys like Herb Remington, Billy Bowman, and Bobby Koeffer packed a lot of energy and musical action into their single -chorus breaks on these tunes. And that lovely sound: a Fender amp breaking up just right as that warm-toned non-pedal steel cuts through with enough edge on the high-end to pack a punch.
I've also been enjoying M. Ward's TRANSISTOR RADIO (Merge Records). His quirky --but very melodic and poetic-- take on Americana and 60s-70s pop is quite engaging. I Get the sense that I might share some musical obsessions with this guy.
Recently I got a package of great stuff to review for DUSTED MAGAZINE. Especially exciting to me is the new one by Chas Smith, DESCENT (Cold Blue Records). Chas is a truly unique and inventive artist who uses steel guitars and an array of astonishing self-built instruments to
realize his singular sonic vision. This record has already grabbed me. I'll post a link to the review when I get it done.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Lake Effect, Part 1

With a good start to the song collection BOOK OF JOURNEYS II, I leave the ingredients to simmer for a while. Now I feel the urge to begin the projected sound art exploration of my relationship with New England's inland sea, Lake Champlain.
Composing music about place--"land and life," to echo once again the brilliant and original
20th Century geographer Carl Ortwin Sauer-- has been important to me for years. It has been the impetus for my SOUND MAP and LIMINAL MUSIC projects. In recent years I've been exploring the shores and waters of Lake Champlain-- on foot, in boats, and in library research.
I've written about these explorations and investigations in novels and magazine articles. But now I want to go deeper, and music runs deep for me.
Something about my recently recorded steel guitar improvisation,"Hazy Blue View", has struck a resonant place inside me. Maybe it's the proportions, the twists and turns of cadence; I hear in it a shape I've been trying to express for a long time.
I begin by slowing it down; like tape, but in the computer. Slowing recordings down changes timbre and texture and length, yet the proportions are maintained. Next, I copy the slowed-down piece a few times and work with panning and EQ changes in each copy. I move the copies in space via the panning. I also move them in time by staggering them in the multitrack recorder. I work this way until the musical view opens up, sounding less like song and more like an abstract shadow of land and water forms. This is like painting: I move the shapes, colors, and relationships until they sound and feel right to me. After a few days of working on this, I'm satisfied that I have a good start to my project. For now I give the project a working title: THE LAKE EFFECT.
One afternoon, sitting with my face to the February sun, I suddenly perceive something I've been trying to grasp for years. The perception is this: slowing down music can give a new view of its topographical shape, in much the same way that climbing a mountain offers a new perspective of the land below. And staggering layers of the same material with slight changes in time, tone, and timbre might be analogue to the elevation contours and depth readings in, respectively, terrestrial maps and navigation charts. There dances before my mind's eye-- just out of my true reach and apprehension-- an elegant algebraic formula by which sound, space, time, and tone might be expressed as true, scientific, maps in sound. For now though, I'll continue to approach this quest with the hazy, indeterminate methods and tools of art.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Changing Sky

February 12 : It's a gray Vermont Sunday. My plan is to get up and out for a morning run ahead of the looming nor'easter on the horizon. But after morning reading --and probably a little too much coffee (amazing Peet's JR Reserve blend that Robin brought back from a trip to San Francisco)-- I'm wired up and ready to work on BOOK OF JOURNEYS II. So I postpone the running, and start recording.
I begin with the piece that I've chosen as the first in the sequence. It's an instrumental piece that I recorded back in the fall, an odd, yearning little duet-- for a table organ I got for free at the end of a Bethany Church yard sale and an old Silvertone acoustic guitar that my friend John Goss converted into an electric lap steel and gave to me. I'd recorded the instruments with distant mics and with my windows open: the Silvertone was plugged into an amp, but the mic picked up as much acoustic sound as electric; there's the sound of trucks rumbling outside, and the motor of the little organ on the track, too. This morning I add deep, resonant chords played on tremoloed electric baritone guitar. Upon playback I find that the bari fits in the mix perfectly. But there's too much of it. I keep editing the part until it's only a few chords at the end of the piece. Just right: a duet resolves into a trio.
More coffee(!!!) and next up is the country ballad "Ghosts In This Dancehall." Though I'd been leaning toward adding a Dobro part to the almost-finished mix, I make a last minute decision to go with lap steel. I dial in a bright and glassy Bakersfield sort of sound, and track a pedal-steely part with lots of bends, bar slants, and a few behind-the-bar suspended 4th pulls. It fits the song just right.
But somehow, in the second half of the song, I lose the flow. Maybe I'm trying too hard. Maybe the coffee is reaching critical mass. Whatever it is, I've lost the feel. And then the computer locks up.
Like that impending nor'easter, clouds have formed inside me. A rush of negativity , previously hidden, rushes to the surface. Why do I waste my time with this stuff? Will anybody even ever really want to hear it? I could be reading a book, running, taking a nap...
Here's where it helps to have a partner in life who is a healer. I find Robin, who is reading peacefully, and I begin to vent. She puts down her book and brings out one of the many techniques she's trained in to help get people back in balance.
After a few minutes of this-- EFT is the particular method she uses today-- I'm clear and energized. I get back to work-- luckily, the program I record with-- Cool Edit Pro-- is almost always flawless in recovering from crashes and lock-ups-- and finish the steel guitar track. My playing is definitely wilder and more passionate on the second half of the track.
After making a couple of mixes, I take a break, just in time to catch a strange golden flash of light on the windows of the Vermont College twin towers across the river, on the skyline to the northeast. The sky behind the towers is dark slate gray, but the clouds to west must be broken, letting that illumination take place. And near dusk, when at last I get out for a run, the clouds in the northwestern sky are limned in filtered purples, violets, and reds. I run, watch the changing sky, and listen on my discperson to the day's work. The nor'easter never arrives.
Later I realize just what it is that today has shown me. When the flow is blocked and frustration knocks creativity aside, It's not the circumstances or the world outside that are to blame. No, it's more likely just me, getting in my own way.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Sweeping the Floor for Songs and Ghosts

In Zen there is a saying:
If you would seek enlightenment, begin by sweeping the floor. Or something like that. In my own--probably un-Zen-like-- way, I've long interpreted it to mean: clean out the cobwebs; make space for possibility.
So, with the ideas and inspirations for a CD project to be called BOOK OFJOURNEYS II in place, I do just that. The technique is simple, involving writing in my hard-copy journal. I list the pieces-- unfinished demos and musical sketches-- and let myself imagine what elements-- mixing, eq, added instruments, etc.-- might bring them to their full realization. This proves to be not very difficult, as my subconscious has, it seems, been at work on this for a while. Now these pieces are a step closer to existing as entities outside myself; the busy cutting-room floor of my brain has been swept clean.
Now it's a matter of actually doing.
For example, there's a ghostly country story-song I wrote and recorded back in December called "Ghosts In the Dance Hall." The basic tracks are twangy Telecaster guitars, drum machine, and three vocal parts. Each part is a different character in the song; I intended the demo for the singers in Rusty Romance, with myself as narrator, Rusty (in full slap-back echoed glory) as the ghostly truckdriver from the past, Michelle as the dance hall goddess with whom he dallied on a fateful night. (On the demo I sang all three parts, which was really, really fun, using the great, funky, vibey Radio Shack mic. that Robin bought me for our first Christmas together, way back in the 80s.)
So over the course of a few days I try the steps outlined in my journal. I spend a long time adding snare-drum accents to the cheesy drum machine beats, adding some air and room and human error. I'm not the world's best drummer, but eventually I get it right. I make a number of mixes, with panning and EQ changes, a touch of compression. After a while it starts to take on the 1969 AM radio sound I'm hearing in my head. It still needs something: some Dobro or steel guitar or mandolin. But I'm not ready to jump into that quite yet.
It's a few days later that it comes to my conscious mind where I got the original inspiration for the song. Strangely enough, it's from the journals of monk and writer Thomas Merton. In a mid-sixties journal, he describes the experience of coming upon the decayed remains of an old dance hall in a Kentucky hollow. He feels the presence of the people who had once been there.
It's a feeling I know well: the sense of land and life (I take that phrase from the geographer Carl O. Sauer, who will very likely come up again in this journal .) Anyway, to find in the writings of a Christian mystic solitary the inspiration for a slightly corny country ghost story... well, it just makes very clear to me how strange and mysterious the creative process can be.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Scatterings and Gatherings

Early in February the idea arrives, like so many others have, while I'm running. The soft spring-like light on the snowy Worcester Mountains and the grounded feeling that running brings me work together to help me see that the scatter of recorded songs and musical sketches I have sitting on my hard drive now are ready to come together. (The songs are demos I've made to bring to my band, Rusty Romance. Two of them, in fact, are on our album in band versions. But there are qualities to the original versions that make them worthwhile; a sense of immediacy and intimacy. )
To my mind, this project will fulfill my longtime obsession with exploring my roots in American country music, and my fascination with the sounds and feelings of late night AM Radio as a soundtrack to outer geography and inner journey.
Back from my run, I wash up and dress, then move immediately to my bedroom studio. Quickly, I set up a Fender tube amp and place a condenser microphone --close to the speaker, but far enough away to pick up some room sound. With my trusty Melobar lap steel guitar in a bright C major tuning, and lots of reverb dialed in on the amp, I press the record button and begin an improv. I slide through chords and cadences and slices of melody, just letting the music bloom. After a while I crank up the gain and let things rip: I explore the same cadences, but this time with a darker, more powerful energy. I finish with howling distortion, feedback, and crashes of the steel bar against the strings.
A few hours later-- after house-cleaning, cooking, and puttering: regular domestic life- I listen to what I've recorded. At the computer, I begin to cut and re-arrange: removing dull or repetitive sections; making the distorted ending the beginning, making the sweeter, more yearning beginning into the end. After a while the piece seems to say what I intended it to.
Next, I burn a CD with the scattered songs and pieces-- including the new one, which is entitled, for now "Hazy Blue View", in various running orders. I listen as I make dinner, feed the cat, etc., until the right order of songs becomes clear to me.
What was scattered has begun now to gather.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Welcome to Liminal Words and Music

Welcome to my ongoing journal of creative process. For the time at hand, I plan to document the creation , recording, and mixing of two musical projects: the first is a collection of Americana- rooted songs and textures with the working title of BOOK OF JOURNEYS II.
The second is a projected--and as of yet untitled-- ambient/liminal/abstract collection of sound art pieces that documents my relationship with the geography and history of Lake Champlain-- a musical morphology, perhaps.
Along the way, I expect that this journal will touch on memory, spirit, sense of place , the art of recording, and a plethora of influences and inspirations.
I hope you'll share the journey.