Archive for February, 2009

Why did I suddenly crave to hear once again the sounds of the band Soft Machine? I hadn’t listened to that music since the early seventies. I was able to locate the album “Soft Machine Third” authored by Ratledge (keyboards), Wyatt (drums) and Hopper (bass) and as soon as I hit the play button it took off like a Marcel Proust “madeleine” (you know…. how in Remembrance of Things Past, the writer suddenly recalls the very mood of his childhood contained in the taste of a certain kind of cookie dipped in tea). In my case, it was not a taste but a sound: the beginning of the album, a textured architecture of minimalist patterns on the synthesizer, took me right back to the days when I heard the star-spangled banner played by Jim Hendrix at the Isle of Wight Festival – and mind you, it wasn’t even that much fun as I remember suffering from the bitterly cold Atlantic summer night as well as lack of sleep as we were struggling with large sheets of brown paper as all-weather coverage. It may have been one of the most uncomfortable moments I have ever experienced, but comfort isn’t everything. Soft Machine’s trebly, melodic bass lines took me from the bold, early minimalism of the keyboard work through modal grooves and free form improvisations. Uniquely, this album blends three styles
I really enjoy: layered synch textures, modal jazz grooves and melodic songs – especially Wyatt’s very own Moon in June. Much intensity and well-ahead-of-its-time inspiration in this forgotten 1970s album, found at last.

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Getting comfortable with a piece of gear is often key to composing. As long as I can remember, some new instrument or equipment has given rise to a new body of work. An upright piano, a Sequential Circuits Pro-One analog monophonic synthesizer and a primitive studio consisting of two identical Technics cassette decks I used to create loops led to the production of my first two albums, Piano Works and Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory.

At NYU the Fairlight CMI – despite its one-inch thick operation manual and “MCL” programming language – became my all-around beast of burden, as it could do all three “S”s: Sequence, Sample and Synthesize. My work with the Fairlight lead to completion of The Death of Don Juan, my first multimedia/electronic opera.

After NYU, I bought a MacPlus running Finale and at that point, unlike many others for whom the computerization of music notation was a hurdle, I began feeling much more comfortable with traditional notation once it was made available on the computer, and started relying on it instead of jazz charts and visual scores which I had been using. Later on, the MacPlus was replaced by a Mac Performa which I hooked up to a midi keyboard (an EMU Proteus); this led to the scoring of Variations on the Orange Cycle for solo piano, a long improvisational piece which I managed to score in midi without losing the initial spontaneity – a technical challenge if ever – the score is almost too accurate, which makes it rather difficult to read but if you are a good reader as was Lois Svard who interpreted it for the Lovely Music release, you can work with it. I also had a Dat machine which was necessary but somewhat unpredictable and a Fostex 4-track which I used along with the Proteus to create the basic tracks for the CD Tronik Involutions, my first nationally released product.

Then everything changed again. I switched to PC around the millennium because with the Intel chip it actually was faster than the Mac – now both Macs and PCs use Intel. I learned the basics of web production. I discovered Reason, a real breakthrough software: you could actually mix the midi tracks and take advantage of an entire library of virtual sounds and virtual synthesizers that could even go vintage. With this set-up I composed a one-act opera, Orfreo – I wrote the score in Finale and exported the midi files into Reason then mixed. A couple of years later, Finale improved its interface: it now comes with an excellent built-in sound library from Garritan; that was a time-saving shortcut for me and I used it to program a lot of sketches for orchestral and chamber music. It was also a very helpful tool in teaching composition to my students at NYU.

Still, I wanted a “real” recorder – I mean, separate from the computer, as recording can be such a drain on computer memory that it slows down the entire machine’s performance, and if you’re going to have to get many external drives for recording, then why not get a recorder that already has the gigabytes you need – and I found the Korg D888, an affordable 8-track digital recorder and mixer with the look and feel of an analog. It was not very hard to learn; I used it to record sketches for The Two-Cents Opera. I also use a Superscope CD recorder – a “no-brainer” machine that records at the push of a button, and I cannot beging to stress how helpful that is to me, the one-button machine, when I am improvising on the synthesizer, as I find that it blocks me creatively to have to “switch heads” between the performance and the recording when I engineer my own music.

As far as synthesizers, I am currently using KORG synths because of their tuning capabilities and sound quality as well as their smooth keyboard action. For speakers I use two sets: a couple of inexpensive Fostex powered speakers and small Bose computer speakers that I absolutely love. I also have an antique German upright from the 1920s, but I have to use a mute on it because my room is so small. My entire studio is located under a loft bed – I used to sleep in it but now I use it mostly for sound padding. For a microphone I found the Rode, which has this amazing noise reduction capability – it doesn’t pick up much of the ambient noise, which makes the old-fashioned wall and window soundproofing moot. I still get a bit of a room hum but the wave editor in Nero 7 has this great “dehum” feature and the tracks come out practically clean.

I have to admit that new gear has always provided me with a welcome motivation to compose, but it is not the only motivation: hopefully, a higher calling presides of the creation of music to be shared with all, not for pride, not for money.

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