Thursday, March 30, 2006

Listening: Solyaris

With a break from composing and recording comes more time to listen.
Among the more fascinating packages to come my way of late is one from Italy
containing CD-Rs by composer-recordist Giorgio Robino, who releases his work under the name Solyaris (a tribute to great visionary film maker Andrei Tarkovsky.)
I've been listening for a few days now to MELLOW STASIS (REDUCED EDITION) and CELLAR DOOR. On these recordings, Robino uses the ringing, crystalline tones of lap steel and standard guitars as the starting point for long, emotionally evocative electronically-processed compositions (in particular, Robino utilizes long echos, delays, and looping) that manifest a highly-developed sense of tonality and resonant spaciousness. The music of Solyaris is engaging and engulfing, with a slow-motion drift; its subtle underlying structure might suggest the majesty of massive wind-swept sands or the infinite shimmer of stars at night.
On the surface of these works one might at first detect an undeniable sonic debt to ambient pioneers like Robert Rich and Steve Roach. But to my ears, Robino's work sounds wilder; more free and open to surprise than that of his musical forebears. I've really enjoyed falling into these adventurous and panoramic fields of sound.
For more about Solyaris, check out Robino's website here:

Between Waters

Alternating with days of work on my song collection have been days of work on abstract sound- art pieces about the shores and waters of Lake Champlain. That project has a new name now, too: BETWEEN WATERS, from the translation of the Abenaki name for the lake, Bitawbagw-- and, though the project is far from finished, I've reached a new perception of exactly what my efforts have arrived it.
Days of what I've come to call audio painting and sound-smearing have produced sounds that reflect back to me my true intent in this project. Yes, I want to express the allure and beauty of this powerful place; but I'm also haunted by the history of war and violence, of storm and shipwreck, that hides beneath the lake's now-placid surface. And this music, rather than seeking a transcendence of those things, is my way of going deeper, beneath layers and layers of rock and water and time, to find some kind of truth and resonance; actually a sense of healing.
This was made abundantly clear to me last week, when, after days of work on dark, rumbling pieces, I set up my cheap-o Artisan lap steel guitar-- in classic C6th tuning, of all things--with a set of delays, and recorded, in one take, a bittersweet improvisation that felt like an arrival at understanding. I named the piece "Searching for Ferris Rock (September Fog)" in honor of a glim-hazed day last summer, when I first spotted the buoy that, along with a line of dark cormorants, marked that massive, sub-aqueous slab of maritime hazard.
So now, feeling this sense of arrival, I'll take a break from this project. Spring weather has, at least temporarily, arrived. The band --Rusty Romance-- is starting to get busy again, so I'll be playing out again, away from the insular world of my home studio.
But I have ideas and sketches for more pieces in the BETWEEN WATERS project ; I want to give them some time to flow and percolate. They will arrive on my shoreline eventually.

An Ending, A Beginning

For the past two weeks I've been so deeply involved in my recording projects that I've not stopped to post my notes on the process here. But now, on the cusp of April, I've reached a state of completion and arrival, so I'll step back for a bit and try to describe what I' ve been up to.
First of all, my Americana song project is finished. And it's been renamed HORIZON IS A SONG-- from a line in my song "Ridin' Ahead of the Storm."
I had a surge of activity during March. It started with recording a short voice and Dobro version of the old gospel tune "Farther Along." I wanted to capture the sense of a gospel radio broadcast coming from far away in distance, and maybe even time. So I EQd and treated the recording for an old radio sound. I also dipped into a stash of radio static and dial-turning sounds I recorded a while ago, and placed them in the mix. The result is a sort of aural bridge between songs and feelings on the record.
Next up, the same day, was a simple voice and guitar version of a song I wrote when I was in my twenties. "Passport Photo" is, again, a late-night/early morning song, this time from a sort of jazz-bossa perspective. (It's actually a tribute to Lester Young, who was my absolute musical hero for a long time, a long time ago.) I did it in two takes, sitting in a carpeted hallway for that soft, intimate, close-up, dead-room sound.
I added a second voice and sparse second guitar, with bleed from the monitors in the other--much harder-surfaced-- room adding a cool sense of space with a strange, tight reverb. A couple of quick mixes, a touch of EQ and compression and voila: A jazzbo hipster vignette from my distant past!!!
A few days later came the piece that made the record finished. I'd been fooling around for a couple of days with my daughter's mandolin when, one morning, a song formed. I set up mics and tracked it in 3 takes. I spent the rest of the day adding more vocals, bass, and steel, then made a few mixes.
Later, a comment from Robin about the lead vocal sounding odd inspired me to again pull out that magic Radio Shack dynamic mic. With the mic handheld, I triple-tracked the lead vocal part. Panned together, those voices made for an instant, subtle Simon and Garfunkel sheen. Cool!
Eight hours spent on less than two minutes of music. But the next day I realized that this song-- called "That Sound"-- captured the theme of the album. One line in particular: "And I wonder if she'll hear it in the darkness when they broadcast this song.." nailed the essence of what the whole project was reaching for.
So now, the last song written would be the first on the album.

After a week or so of tweaking, remixing-- and fades, edits, etc.-- I realized that the album was finished. It had gone from hope and desire to actual entity.
Next time out, I'll get back to THE LAKE EFFECT, which, by the way, seems to have acquired a new name too....

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Lake Effect, Part 3: Thrust Fault

There is something about Lone Rock Point seen from the water that captures my imagination. Lone Rock Point, on Lake Champlain, is an example of what geologists call a thrust fault: a site where one can actually see an older stratum of rock that has, through the shifting of layers, ridden up above the newer, younger stratum. It's an ancient cataclysm frozen in time. Paddling close to this point in a kayak, I've been struck with awe-- even as I turned to look the other way across Burlington Bay to Shelburne point, where the Abenaki creator deity Odzihozo sits as a huge, silent rock on the water.
There's no doubt in my mind that this place is sacred. The Abenaki called Lake Champlain BITABAGW, which the great linguist of the Western Abenaki, Gordon M. Day, translated as : "between waters; alternating land and water."
That sense of threshold and layering between land and water is part of what calls to me to meditate on this place, to try and capture it in sound, in liminal music.
And then there's that dimension of ancient stone-- of frozen time; of history, memory, and topography in layers. Recently, I came across an entry in Thomas Merton's journals that caused in me a flash of recognition:

Time is valuable only for the moments that cut across and through it vertically...

This is exactly the energy that drives my passion to make art-- sound, words-- about the PLACES I find sacred.

So turning toward a piece to be called "Thrust Fault/Lone Rock Point", I begin with the music I've created to capture the energy and essence of crossing water. Now I slow it down, reharmonize it with the audio program ACID. I change EQ settings, treating timbre as both shape and color, as shadow and texture. Over the course of two day's work, I arrive at a piece with a slow rumbling energy, a dark sub-aqueous mystery.
But something is missing: something to cut through to a human scale of time-- something like Merton's moment.
A day later I find the missing sound. It's the harsh rattle of a kingfisher, that bird that strikes through surface tension to fish, then rises again into the air, with its goal, its quarry, held in beak. I treat and shape the recorded bird sound, layer it into the piece-- to represent the ancient eternal moment, frozen for our senses to apprehend and honor.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Chas Smith CD Review

I wrote a while back that I'd post a link to my review of composer/steel guitarist/instrument builder Chas Smith's new CD, DESCENT. Here it is:

And for readers who would like to read more about Chas Smith (and about two other pedal steel composer-experimenters, Susan Alcorn and Bruce Kaphan) here's an interview piece I did for DUSTED a while back:
All three are fascinating and original artists whose music is well worth exploring.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Lake Effect, Part 2

For the past few days I've been deep into work on my sound-art/liminal /ambient project inspired by my explorations of-- and meditations about-- Lake Champlain. So now might be a good time to share some of the original impetus behind these pieces, in the form of a few entries from my tiny blue travel notebook-- from days last summer spent on the lake.
(The poet Charles Olson has been a huge influence on my work, both in music and writing. In his essay on projective verse he writes about poetry as being "energy transferred from where the poet got it." That simple and eloquent idea has been crucial to almost all of my creative efforts at capturing the moods and textures of my relationship with place and history; with landscape, shorelines, mountains... )
Here then, are some raw thoughts transferred from my lake journal:

9:10 am

Approaching the water, bands of soft green, dark blue ( warm and cold , deep and shoal juxtaposed visibly). The ferry - EVANS WADHAM WOLCOTT- pulls out silently, with barely perceptible motion, out past sparkling boats inside the stone breakwater. August sun is low and mellow. Across the green Mountains a line of clouds, like smoking volcanos beneath clear blue sky.

Sipping a brash Speeder and Earl's coffee, I feel something run from soul to synapse-- An idea that's been brewing long inside me rises, whole.
It's about the deep need, to feel and learn and KNOW the wholeness of a place; the levels of truth and story and history and geology and war and peace and land-form and bird migrations that, once sensed and held in the heart, bring that deep and profound wholeness.. .
So by way of all this ---like shapes of mountains and forests, a structure for a narrative begins to be revealed, in sections (core?) (skeleton?) ( island and Bay?).
Find the deep balm that heals the death and violence of blood and battles on these waters (1776, 1814, earlier)... The truth --of form, of shape, of feel-- that land and waters reveal, endlessly, again and again.

Then something happens: a shape and structure forms. Sitting in the sun on the pulsing deck of the moving ferry, I write:

describe birds, the seaplane landing on surface tension's glitter, boats...sense of iron ore beaches on NY side I run on

Formation, settlement, abandonment...
Odzihozo ( The Abenaki Maker deity)

1776,1813, Indian battles before written history,
the skeletons dug up this year in old North End--(soldiers of 1812 war)

Lone Rock Point...force of Geology, time, and yearning.

CROSSING II (Return across same waters...)

Now, in late winter, I begin to hear the sounds; capture them, shape them, using the words from my journal as guideposts to memory, to form: Each section heading will be the central idea for a composition.
I begin with the piece described here in a previous entry. I work it further, until it captures for me the essence of crossing waters... not just the sights, sounds, smells of the lake, but the deeper waters flowing inside me; waters that flow in a mysterious sympathy with the waters I remember from my journey. This takes a few hours of working, listening, mixing, changing. When I find the resonance, I make myself stop.
The next day I set out to capture in sound the strange, eerie beauty of Lone Rock Point, and the thrust fault that reveals visibly, in frozen rock, a seemingly stilled event in the massive transformational processes of Geological time...