Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

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Just because you improvise don't mean you swing



If one is going to do great music, one must wear the right T-shirt. I was armed and dangerous on this score, as I sat in my new marstokyo "Day of the Dead" T shirt, the sort of T shirt any self-respecting maker of great music should own. This morning began the long-awaited day. Today was the day in which I began the recording of my magnum opus, "Electric Fields".

For those who have not kept up with the plot thus far, let me fill in a few critical plot details from previous episodes. For years, I have been a devotee of ambient music, in addition to a rather eclectic set of styles ranging from art rock to roots rock to folk to all sorts of modernist/classical/weird "rolling along oddly" stuff. I love the idea of "music as sound"--music which is heard not just for its conventional song and lyric and rhythm and rhymes, but which is an atmospheric thing--not so much a "what I use with incense thing"; more a "let me drift in this electronic wave" kind of thing.

I have come to believe that major record labels, while frequently releasing interesting stuff, are essentially "dead men walking", on the verge of extinction as they are currently constituted. As Exhibit "A" for this case I'm making, I offer Britney Spears and a spate of girl and boy bands. As Exhibit "B", I tender any current week of the Billboard top 50. The internet and improved inexpensive recording technology mean that music will no longer be the exclusive domain of record companies with marketing muscle. Instead, independent artists will market on their own, freed of these constraints. The idea is not new--some labels, such as Nonesuch and Ralph, have followed this credo for years. But time is showing that the whole "gotta have a record label" construct is going to be one more pipe dream, going the way of Raleigh cigarettes and the Edsel.

I began to try to live my credo by searching out independent ambient artists. I used that excellent music critic, Mr. Google.com. Through google, I found the wonderful Hypnos label,
where ambient artists release fantastic work, and the hypnos.com forum bulletin board, where Hypnos and non-Hypnos ambient folks talk making music, good novels, spinning CDs, silly jokes and the "big" questions (e.g., 'is ambient by definition spiritual?').

Ambient is an amorphous term, but my favorite "type" of ambient artist is the "light" ambient artist, who combines melody and sound texture--usually synths, tho Jeff Pierce, one of my favorites, does it all with treated guitars-- to make something pleasant and yet not saccharine or new age-y. I also listen to some "dark" space ambient, in which minor keys, discordant sounds, and spacey electronic effects are the norm. I tend away from dance music (nothing against it, have some, just not my current trend) or the most cacophonous forms of industrial. The hypnos website, by the way, has good samples if anyone wants to "hear" what I mean. Jeff Pearce is a good example of lighter stuff, while mgriffin might be considered a mildly "dark" ambient artist.

Some time ago, we met scott_m and his wife D. They are the nicest people. It turned out that both of them, Scott in particular, are music buffs. Scott is one of those people who plays a half dozen instruments while actually being some sort of technical database person. He is yet another example of talent which far exceeds his "day career", and which spills liberally over into his hobbies and elsewhere. He and D. spend a fair bit of their weekend time traveling to live music shows all through our region. Their weekend travel schedule one Saturday for a Memphis show sounded more intricate than our week-long 1998 Canadian vacation.

scott_m, it turned out, had made a recording of "roots rock", with which he kindly provided me a copy, and which graces my CD player often. Someday very soon, I hope to turn it into something I send to mail art folks and the like, or perhaps ebay a bit, because it's just too much fun to resist--imagine Jonathan Richman morphs Marshall Crenshaw and then tries to sing the lyrics imitating Bob Dylan, all over a simple roots guitar and bass ensemble, with liberal harmonica, and you've got it.

As my interest in ambient increased, I began to have my own recording fantasies. I had an idea; not a good idea, mind you, but my own idea (and in the words of the poet "that has made all the difference"). When I was a kid, I used to play electric football. This is a wonderful game. This is a moronic game. I played this game by myself night after winter night during my childhood. Electric football uses a roughly 36 inch metal field, under which has been placed a screw-adjustable little electric vibrating engine. The little adjustable engine hums, along, making the metal field vibrate. Plastic men with plastic bases are placed on the field, and the vibration makes them "glide" along the field erratically. This erratic gliding can be imagined, through great effort, to resemble a football team running plays. I imagined this gliding to be football perpetually, and my plastic Chicago Bears running back carried that felt football past the plastic St. Louis Cardinal defending team hundreds of times in younger, sportier days.

I recalled that the vibrating fields emitted a world of hums, screeches, drumming sounds and other various sounds we might today call "electronica" (or might just call "obnoxious noise"). Even before Mr. Moog had his first dreams of a new way of synthesizing music, electric football, like the theremin, was anticipating a new era in sound.

Over time, I have developed this fantasy--wouldn't it be amazing to record an album of ambient music in which the driving force of the entire affair is comprised of electric football fields?

Today fantasy became reality. Today we laid down the basic tracks for my first album, "Electric Fields".

Scott came more than prepared. In addition to the little recording studio dealie that he had lent me, he brought his baritone ukelele, his acoustic guitar and bass, his electric guitar, a world of odd little kazoo and penny whistle type instruments, and good old fashioned cheap flangers and wah wah. For my part, I had my electric autoharp, more kazoos than anyone could shake a dozen sticks at, my slide whistles, various romper room style rhythm instruments, and my diatonic glockenspiel. Of course, I had two wonderful, cheaply acquired, ebay special electric football fields (I even had a third in reserve). I read music, but really don't play. Scott plays music, but really doesn't read. We were perfectly matched.

My theory of this CD, as with my theory of most writing, mail art, and similar non-work-related things I do, is that the experience would be most rewarding if we captured a blemished and unrestrained moment. Other than for sound check type stuff, we would do no great number of takes. Mistakes and accident would be incorporated into the project, flaw-made-virtue. Aside from some experiments with the sound potential of the fields, we would do no real pre-planning. Every "piece" was to be improvised more or less on the spot. An initial track of one instrument would be followed by a recording of the second instrument on the next track, and so on. The only real "rule" would be that each track would feature some work on the electric football field.

Scott was a champion--he fell into my devices and desires with smiling abandon. If I said "what chord do you think this football field sounds like?", within moments he was improvising variations of "E" chords into the mike. When I said I was ready to do my autoharp jam, he figured out a way to hook it up to flange and wah wah simultaneously. You have not heard an electric autoharp until you have heard all those strings flanging through the wah wah pedal. I must admit, being an honest person, that when he was providing rhythm kazoo to "bolster" the bass line of my fascinating impromptu kazoo melody, his intermittent laughter into the kazoo took away a bit of what Mathew Arnold would call the "high seriousness" of the recording session. Still and all, Scott was the sort of co-conspirator that any electric football field artist would not dare to dream of being fortunate enough to have.

I wish I could report that we achieved new musical heights during today's session. Scott suggested that my kazoo composition perhaps reached the depths of that wonderful band the Shags, a group of essentially tuneless amateurs who have achieved a sort of Dr. Demento type fame for their work of music so amateur that early garage punk seems symphonic by comparison. Myself, I prefer to say that the music has a certain earnestness about it which, if not quite redemptive, perhaps moves it to a lesser circle of Hell.

Despite my long-standing willingness to torture audiences who gather near karaoke machines with my renditions of the works of Prince, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Roxy Music, I elected to keep this recording entirely instrumental. In another life, I will record my poetry accompanied by my acoustic autoharp, but that is for another day.

The result is really not ambient music. It has too many improvised song structures, which are not Eno-esque, Partch-ian, or even (thank goodness) Deodato-esque. A lot of the songs sound like, well, odd, bad songs. A few of them sound like noise, but not really "ambient" or even "industrial" noise. More like "noise noise".

Still and all, I am enormously pleased that in my art room, I now have two cassettes of material, which I will "mix down" using Scott's recorder. Using my chess clock to strictly time our songs, we managed to put thirty or forty minutes of music onto the 4 track. I just don't think that the world is ready for much more Gurdonark in this stage of its current enlightenment.

Although in theory, this is "my" CD, the hero of the piece in this recording was actually scott_m. While he tried to be the "second banana", a sort of Sam Gamgee to my Frodo, in fact, he was the real ringbearer, and I pretty much just Gollumed along the way with flaky ideas. Scott even did the cover art for my CD. It's fab, very 1965, and I'm entranced with it (my brother has even offered to press cool color labels on the CD for me). To be a bit more self-charitable, I perhaps might have been Frodo in one sense--I bore the "ring", but I did not know the way.

A person with no sense of fun, having done the foolish thing of recording music in 6 hours without any substantive skills, would suppress the results, filing it in the cabinet under "Guess What I'm Going to Do Next Saturday". But I have an immense sense of fun. I see postcardx mailings of this CD ahead. I see a nervousness.org exchange or two. I even see a "Worst CD you'll Ever Own", with an auction minimum of two dollars, in the offing. I have to think that if Scott and I, as ready as most people are to look for ways to enjoy our brilliance, see this as mildly amusing, someone else in the world might, also. Such has been the way with my chess poetry book. Such is the way of all well-intentioned silliness since the dawn of time.

I learned many things today. I learned that it is entirely possible to "make up" music on the spur of the moment. Scott amazed me with the closing bari ukelele improvised instrumental with which we closed the CD (my theory being that anyone who managed to avoid hitting the "off" button for that long deserved a "real tune"). I learned that it is very hard to do industrial ambient for a whole day, and that I have a hitherto unsuspected sad tendency to "jam", a sort of inner Deadhead I never had met. I learned that the kazoo is a fascinating instrument for impromptu composition. I learned that if you don't "mike up" an electric football field, its background ambience is that of an electric razor. I learned that if you do "mike up" an electric football field, its foreground ambience is that of an outboard motor on crystal meth. I am modestly proud, though, that no synths were sized in the making of this work.

Most of all, I learned that:
a. just because it's jumpin', don't mean it's jazz;
b. it indeed don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing; &
c. it's far easier to wish you were a musician, than it is to play a song.

I'd write more, but I want to rest up before I begin mixing.
But I will say that at the end of the day, always-impressive Dutch mail artist AB completed our nervousness.org exchange with a wonderful piece of art which incorporated the poem she wrote. Its first two lines are:

"I am the dancing elephant and the deep purple water of the spicy waterfall".

As I sit here now, that's precisely how I feel.
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