I believe that so often the tools of imagination, pluck, and perseverance fail to receive their just due. Lately I feel that I don't need much more in the way of tangible "stuff", but instead I need to use more imagination in getting the most out of the tools I have. I'm not a luddite--I love new idas and new technology. I just love imagination most of all.
I should state that first point differently--I like last year's technology, because it inevitably does nearly as much as this year's, often at half or less of the asking price for the newest technology. I think that one of the oddest aspects of our technological consumerist advances is that there is always another 2 megapixels of image or gigabites of memory available to the cognoscenti.It's as if our lives are incomplete if we are a pixel short.
As I work on making music, I learn more about how to do it as the years go on. It's been 7 1/2 years since a July Saturday when a friend of mine and I sat down at his 4-track cassette studio and made down a simple set of odd sounds we called "Vibrating Electric Fields". We could mix the album, a bit, and try to keep the sound levels (EQ) in check. We could not do much else to effect changes in what we recorded, other than the wah-wah pedal we used.
Now I use a "value" digital audio workstation computer program from a German company called Magix. I can record and edit in 16 tracks without much effort, and bounce in dozens more tracks if I have a burning desire to so burden my computer. I can apply dozens upon dozens of effects and changes, add synthesizers, and change the sounds of everything.
I can do in hours what I could not do in days with an analog recording machine. My current rig-up has more features than I use, and a few features I do not understand how to use. My two principal music-making devices are Sawcutter and Tunafish. Sawcutter is a dinosaur from roughly 2002,
designed before so-called VST "plug-in synths" changed the business of making music with software. The other, Tunafish, is a stripped down "host" to software synthesizers, which lets me click in notation with a computer mouse on a piano roll, and then "sequence" the resulting patterns tunes, rather like a player piano, on a virtual "sequencer". Sawcutter and Tunafish are each about 30 dollars, and do things that might have cost double or triple that price to do once upon a time. I use a variety of freeware synths and effects, including those from IXI Software, which are non-pareil.
I was writing a song today using a little wave file sample from my can-jo, the one-stringed dulcimer with a soda can for a resonator. I had hoped to generate a folky sounding melody by sequencing out the can-jo notes, but my result was not as folkie as I had hoped. As tends to happen lately, I felt bogged down by my limited palette of ideas.
Ideas are like meteor showers. They hover up there, unexpectedly hidden. If you unconcernedly focus on the night sky, you get them in droves. I thought back on my earliest uses of software to make music. I remembered some songs I wrote some years ago using a liberating set of tools to render the music unpredictible and fun.
I determined to re-create the method of making my song "Texas Roadrunner". For that song, I wrote a melody in a piece of piano roll software (Anvil Studio). Then I used Ian Shatwell's "Wave Goodbye" freeware, which will convert a .wav file (i.e., a recording of the sound in CD quality) and turn it into a MIDI (i.e., machine instructions to the computer as to how to play the song on a synthesizer--something like the sheet music
for a computer song). I ran the MIDI back through Anvil Studio, and assigned new instruments to play the song (a piano and a bass, if I recall). Then I put the resulting new .wave file in Slicer, a device which
slices up melodies and makes them morph into different shapes.
I did the same with my can-jo melody. I exported it to Wave Goodbye, and then I hitched synthesizers to Tunafish to play the melody. I ran the result through Slicer.
I got a set of drones a bit outside the customary rules of tonality--perhaps more "microtonal" than "atonal".
I named the song "Transparent Cyprinidont", after a fish I read about. I don't know if I will do anything with the song. The experience was sufficiently liberating that I could write a new song based upon a sample from a slide whistle. I hitched that song up to a spoken word track by my friend essesq, named it all "Saturday 4 a.m." and posted it on ccmixter. It's slow, filled with delay, gazes a bit shoeward, and backs a set of spoken word lyrics I edited to make particularly bleak.
The experience helped me remember that for me making music is in part a process rather than a result. I also remember now that it's important to "commit to the page". The meteors just keep falling. You have to watch them. They flare upon entry to the atmosphere. You can't control them. You can't even understand them. You can just participate in seeing them shoot through the sky. You can shoot with them, and at them, and beyond them, but you never quite capture them.
Lately things seem to be aligning for me to explore new ways to share my music. I plan to stand, binoculars in hand, watching these particular shooting stars fly.