layering reality

not necessarily friends

When Marc Weidenbaum first began the Disquiet Junto project five weeks ago, my first thought was that it seems like a good idea, but there was no way that I was going to be able to take part every week. Just due to the normal schedule of life — work, kids, partner, dog, “things to do,” friends… I couldn’t conceive of how I’d find the time every week to sit down, basically escape from weekend life and responsibilities, and make a complete track (update — I didn’t make this week’s due to the above issues).
However, a funny thing has happened. Having these projects has led to really thinking about process and workflow and goals in a way that fiddling around with gear previously never did. In my day-job I draw pictures every day, and in twenty years I’ve become a believer in deadlines. When I used to teach, I would tell students that if it weren’t for deadlines I’d never complete anything. It’s also kind of a running in-joke that a work is never “done.” Rather, one just has to find a good stopping point, and in my case the deadline is always that stopping point.
Screwing around with gear often creates interesting results, and I often post the results here on Dance Robot Dance. Quite often those results are twenty-second gems buried in eighty minutes of dreck. That signal-to-noise ratio isn’t really acceptable when one has to somehow fit it in between preparing dinner for the family, doing laundry, going to Ikea, walking the dog, and it has to be done by Monday night.
The genius of this project is that it’s an assignment. A specific goal is in mind, which has in all five cases been something I’d never have on my own attempted (field recording? me?) except for the Junto. Limitations are the key not only to the parameters of the projects, but to the workflow and process as well. I’ve written before that when staring at the sonic potential that is my studio desk, and multiplying that potential times infinite when software is considered, the very act of beginning can be daunting. The analogy I use is Photoshop. Given a piece of paper and a pencil, one can focus on the thing one wants to draw and focus on that creative end. One draws a line with a goal in mind. One can erase that line, again with the goal in mind, but chances are that there won’t be a lot of wanking with the tools. When faced with a new open file in, say, Photoshop, knowing that one can use any number of millions of colors, a smorgasbord of tools, and, even more importantly, one can erase and undo forever, never having to commit to anything. With the aforementioned time limitations imposed by ” real life,” this Disquiet Junto project just doesn’t allow for that.
So let’s review: by giving the assignment, the project takes away the lack of direction and focus inherent in sitting down and futzing with musical gear. And by requiring the piece to be done by Monday night, it takes away the possibility for indecision and mental masturbation that is inherent in never having to make anything permanent. For each project I’ve chosen a specific set of tools, sometimes at the beginning of a project and sometimes in the middle of the work, and really focused on what that tool does and how does it contributes to what I need, which in turn gets me to find certain limitations and personalities inherent and applied to my neat-o tools, which leads to better tracks and more interesting results.
The time limitation also encourages one to use what one knows rather than, again, putz around for hours trying out new things.On its face this might seem like an unacceptable limitation, given the want for creativity and breaking new ground. But what it really does is takes us back to that pencil-and-paper analogy. It’s easy to worry oneself into a corner with the idea that one isn’t “good enough” to record, or play live, or whatever. But when it comes down to just making a song and getting it out there, one uses what one has. Right? This plays a big part in this most recent Junto, which I’ll explain in a moment.

This Junto’s assignment was thus:

Plan: The fifth Junto project is about amplifying the inherent musicality of everyday life. Of all the Junto projects so far, this one may call for the lightest touch. Of course, achieving a light touch may require the most amount of work. The project will be accomplished by adding sounds (notes, riffs, tones, beats, noises, processing, drones, what have you) to a foundation track that consists of an original, unedited field recording.

Pre-Production: First, you will make an audio field recording from everyday life. This track will serve as the foundation for your piece. This recording can be made anywhere — on the bus, or while riding a bicycle, or sitting in a field, or waiting in the lobby of a building, or in the kitchen, wherever. There are only two rules regarding the field recording: (1) Do not include intelligible voices unless you are certain that recording people, wherever you are, is legal. (2) Do not edit the field recording, except to fade in and out to achieve the desired length. Chances are you’ll record quite a bit, and then select your favorite segment. You might even, after starting work on one foundation track, make decisions about what constitutes a good foundation and then go and make a new field recording.

Length: Keep the work to between two and five minutes.

Sensibility: In the end, the foundation field recording track should remain fairly discernible in the mix.

I happened to be walking out of a grocery store when I read this email, and since I knew I’d be looking for something to record as the basis that had some significance, I opened FiRe on my iPhone and hit record. I recorded the drive home, and became enamored with the tick tick of the turn signal as a rhythmical base. Once I took a listen to the recording I was bummed that it sounded awful. The internal mic of the iPhone just didn’t cut it. I don’t usually mind inherent flaws in equipment, but this had a lot of noise, was very low-level, and had a weird distortion through-out. So the next day when I had to go to the grocery store again, this time with my 13-year-old son, I carried my little M-Audio digital recorder along for the ride. I recorded the entire trip — shopping, paying and the drive home. But the drive home, again, with that tick tick of the turn signal was what I fell for and ended up using.
The music I recorded was based on a D G A progression that I’d learned that week in my guitar lesson. We’re dealing with triads, and these chords are using just the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings with the first D chord starting on the fifth fret. It’s a simple little thing but sounds nice and worked well. After recording the first set of chords at 84bpm (which by the way is the BPM of the turn signal of a 2001 Honda Civic), I just played against that in my headphones for about a half hour. Plucks, strums, rings, different settings on the amp and pedals, different patterns within the chords… just trying to get different sounds so that I could edit it all together later.
In the end, the parts I used were either straight from the guitar to the amp (a Vox Night Train) or with a Real McCoy RMC3 Teese Wahwah, set just so the filter is on a bit, which really gives this G&L ASAT a nice tone and even overdrives a little.

These are some of the guitar parts, isolated.

This first one is two overdubbed parts. I really like the overlaying.

There are two variations on the same thing here — only the first one is in the final track.

Lastly, after playing the guitar parts, I had the inspiration to drag my accordion out of its case and see it might work out. I’m happy to say that it worked out brilliantly. It’s no lie to say that in the year I’ve been taking guitar lessons I’ve learned more about my accordion then in the ten years previous. My accordion lessons ten years ago were about reading music and developing technique for playing. They were never really about understanding how music works and why it’s structured the way it is. That’s a topic for another post, I realize, because I could cover a lot of ground with that.

Here are the accordions near the end of the track, isolated. The very last bit you hear is some editing in Ableton to have the accordions jive with the beeping of the car when the door is opened.

So here’s the finished piece.

In the end, I don’t think it comes together as well as I’d like. But that’s part of the nature of this Junto project. To me, it’s like sketching. Just get it down. Yes, I could have edited the original field recording. I could have worried about the levels differently. I could have rewritten and edited parts to make it hold together. But instead it was time to make dinner for the kids and get some work done. And move on to the next project*, having learned a lot from this one.

rose's water ice

* After all this, I didn’t get the next week’s project done. I’m way under-water with my current children’s book deadline. Number seven is due tomorrow night and I suspect I’ll be able to get to it. I hope so.

2 thoughts on “layering reality”

  1. I’ve been participating in weekly beats(submit a song a week on since it began and know what you are saying.
    When you have to have it done you can always find some interesting idea to go with. Even if its not as polished or as finished as you’d hope when you have to submit it.

    Part of charm maybe? Part of the exercise totally

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