Posts Tagged art

Hamster on a Speeding Treadmill: My Studio, v2

It’s wonderful how circumstances can push one forward. Venturing out to play live this year has been a major growing process, as one learns quickly (and sharply) what works and what doesn’t. For this fledgling, circumstance dictated a significant setup change, which was such a huge improvement that it instantly took over the studio. Adapt or die…

Here is The Keep v1 – the original setup of the computer table and keyboard/percussion stand, perfectly suitable for the studio hermit I was at the time (and the way that I thought I would play live):

The Keep v1, October 2011

The stage at the April 1 live art gig forced a change, which has the extra benefit of allowing me to see out in front (when I can spare a moment to look up), and is way more ergonomic for the way that I actually play live. This was a no-brainer to implement in The Keep, and it goes something like this:

The Keep v2, Oct. 2012

Thanks to the new djembe and clay pot drum (and their dedicated microphone), once I get to the chair and move them into place, I’m completely surrounded. It ain’t called The Keep for nothing…

So that’s The Keep v2. Never finished, just a work in progress…

Looking ahead: v3 will be the dream rig: a second mondo Loop Station (one for guitars, one for voices and percussion), both fed by a mixer, with compressor and reverb boxes in the respective signal paths, all feeding the Musical Box, along with MIDI from the keyboard controller and (dream about it) a Roland GR-55 guitar synth. There will also be a few more drums, probably at least a tar and a djun djun. Yum yum!

(When that happens, I’ll probably move the keyboard stand next to the computer table at a right angle, and turn them to make a V opening forward. My seat – at the bottom of the V – would be a drum throne, allowing me to spin around as needed. I’ll need a bigger room… John Cleese moment: That’s planning, isn’t it? Forethought!)

Another major circumstantial change has been the birth of the laptop/softsynth live experience. This was necessitated by the art show background music gig back in May, for which I didn’t want to bring the concert rig to the smallish café again. That would have distracted from the art show. On top of that, many otherwise viable art galleries and other spaces are just too small for the concert rig.

Inspiration struck: I could compose spontaneously with softsynths, on the laptop, and fit everything on a little table out of the way, in the background proper. Call it The Keep Portable

eyes cast down Laptop Rig

This approach yielded the Free Floating pieces Exquisite Divination of Patterns, Radiant Perception (hopefully to come soon) and Crystalline. The first was such a pleasant surprise that the second followed almost immediately. After Crystalline, I thought I was probably done with working in that mode. Fool!

I don’t want to be a laptop jockey, creating arrangements (I wouldn’t call them compositions) entirely from prefab/pre-recorded elements. Some folks do very well at that, but it’s not my path. My way is tabula rasa, spontaneous composition from scratch, using Ableton Live’s “pencil/piano roll” feature to write in the notes. My softsynths are Propellerhead Reason, Native Instruments Absynth and Camel Audio Cameleon 5000 (the precursor to Alchemy). I have hopes that a viable longform piece will one day emerge from this process.

Work in progress. Let’s see what happens next year…

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Stepping to the Edge … the Live Experience

Live at Healing Foundations, 2-4-12There are many possible situations for playing ambient-atmospheric music live, so I thought it might be of interest to describe a different one now and then.

This time, it was background music for a small art show. The venue was Healing Foundations, a Chicago acupuncture studio with an artistic streak. Thanks again to Rebecca and Lisa for inviting me! Given the small space, there was no question of taking my entire rig. I left the keyboard at home and took just two guitars and some percussion objects, along with the computer setup. It’s not a limitation, it’s an opportunity…

With three hours of playing time available, my set list included several places for improvising, with backdrops of atmospheric elements drawn from various recording projects.

Differences between a background performance and a concert include the importance of pacing. In a concert it’s essential; in a background, not so much. Not being the center of attention restricts the music’s dynamic range, but allows a much more easygoing approach.

It turned out as one of those nice win-win situations. Everyone enjoyed the show and the music, and customer satisfaction was complete. For my part, playing live is always a thrill of discovery, which can never get old.

This day had two musical peaks. One was Primitive and Prime, a piece from my forthcoming Memory Palace collaboration with Chris Russell. I really like that groove, and I messed with Viola (my fretless guitar) over it. This and one other Memory Palace track will probably see regular live work, especially in concert situations.

Live at Healing Foundations, 2-4-12Other originals included First Day Apart, Rebuild From Memory and Radha’s Tears, all from my forthcoming first album The Separate Ones.

Any time I play live, I’ll want to play a personal favorite by one of my musical sensei. This time I tried three pieces. By the way, I haven’t heard of anyone rendering any of them with guitars – let alone one live guitar, so these may be milestones of a sort…

One of these – the other highlight of the day for me – was Fratres by Arvo Pärt. I find its austere, yet ecstatic mood irresistible. I arranged the string quartet version for electric guitar with a synth drone, and am keen to play it live often as possible. It’s slated for a covers album which I hope to record next year.

The other covers were The Dwelling Place and The Memory, both by Steve Roach. They are two of my favorite pieces of his, and there are a few others waiting their turn.

Here is a clip of highlights. I hope you enjoy it.

Live Highlights 2-4-12 by eyes cast down

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Camille Claudel (Divinations, #1 of 5)

Back in the mid-90s, I wrote some poems to indulge my love of wordplay, which also served as helpful venting. Some of them were published in various periodicals from 1993-96. I was going to publish them as a book called Divinations, but circumstance intervened.

Maybe just as well. Out of the 25 poems, I can share five of them now with minimal embarrassment. The rest are all more personal, obsolete or just plain weird than I care to share now, though I still like to scatter quotes from some of them here and there.

So here we go, in the order they were written. First up is Camille Claudel. The 1988 film, starring Isabelle Adjani, totally blew me away, and I immediately read up on Camille and got into her work. There were no words to describe her impact on me. Then there were. Here they are:

Camille Claudel, age 19Camille Claudel

Feverish, cascading rain –
  your tears or mine?
Haunt me in every downpour I embrace
Clouded eyes bathing, kissing, reminding me

Original admiration amaze me
Marble never breathed, sighed, wept before
Open raw dangerous crazy ecstasy denied
  illumines my longing as well

Your Waltz, soaring yet grounded
Ineffable as Venus’ voice
  yet rooted in tangible body
Voluptuous presence, passion scarred invisibility
Why? what unnatural joy?
  who dares say?

You were when I was –
  a child of delight
No housemaid, no beauteous myth –
  your own reality
Solitary flame in a dull men’s world

Prayer by Camille ClaudelWoman of recorded history, your figures
  echo for acceptance, for recognition
You give her tears a face,
  her sighs a body achingly real
All in your piercing eyes –
  wistful melancholy driven defiance

I can see you wrestling
  that clay head with passion
Face smeared with wet clammy streaks
  only to dry and crack later
Shall I remember meeting you?
Was it I you clasped so feverishly!

Your poor smashed children
  lost to us all
Am I your Giganti, with no one
  to drag my chipped and pitted head
    clear of your frustration?

I rage and mourn your fate,
  my breath ragged, sobs half-finished
Thirty years caged!
Crime beyond words
  beyond rage
    beyond even revenge
Your shame an infamous shadow
  on History itself

Your impassioned conviction shape me –
        frightful Muse
Revered light sorceress of shadow

Camille Claudel!
Where is your world?
Why had so much to be unreal?
Beloved! shall I join you?


La Valse by Camille Claudel

La Valse - photo by Scott Lanphere

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The Creative Impulse, and Why I Must Obey It

A friend in the Relaxed Machinery community, for his English class paper on “Underground Musicians”, drew up a set of questions and invited answers. They are excellent questions, cutting to some fundamental issues, so it was a pleasure to participate. My friend earned an “A” for his paper, and I wound up with an artistic manifesto.

1. Why do you create music/art?

I don’t have much choice. I have a creative urge and I’m more crazy about music than any other art form, so most of that energy just goes there.

Walkway at Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton ON

2. What moods, perspectives, and/or messages are you usually trying to convey when you create music/art?

There’s never a message. There’s always a feeling that I’m trying to capture. A piece can be inspired by a life event, or an idea, or some natural phenomenon, or another artist. It can start as simply a musical or technical idea, but it needs to tap into a feeling or idea that I’m interested in. I might be aware of that feeling or idea before I start, or it might emerge during (or after) the creative process.

Three very different examples: First Day Apart came from a feeling of being separated from my daughter when she left home for a year to visit friends half a world away. The title – like the awareness of the feeling – came only after the piece was finished. Knife of Karma started with the title, nothing but this cool-sounding phrase – and grew into a meditation on the march of time, the seduction of material nature and the iron law of karma (action and reaction). Rebuild From Memory started as an exercise in loops and editing, then revealed its structure as a rumination on how our imperfect memory tends to rewrite and re-interpret the past.

First Day Apart clip by eyes cast down

3. How do you see your music in comparison to the mainstream genre?

My music is completely outside the mainstream. The mainstream is about sex, money and fame. It’s not about music; it’s not about art. It’s about the business, and the results, of selling products.

There’s no interest in authentic self-expression or any forms outside of the well-worn commercially acceptable ones. Mainstream musicians are slaves to the market. It’s all about externals. The audience are just as enslaved. They’re spoon-fed, passively receiving what the machine dishes out. Their role is to obey and buy the product. It’s a puppet show. There’s no question of active engagement at a deep level with the art. It’s all on the surface.

My music – like any authentic artistic expression – is about an internal, deep, personal connection: both within myself when creating, and within the heart of the listener. Sincerity, respect and good faith are key for both creator and listener. You won’t find those in the mainstream.

4. What is more important to you when you create? a) Getting your own point across or b) Leaving room for interpretation?

I don’t really have a “point”. I start with an idea for a feeling that I’m trying to find in the sound, and I’m satisfied when (1) I think I’ve captured that, and (2) the music sounds complete in itself. That’s my experience of the process. But every listener’s experience will be uniquely their own; I don’t have any expectation for how they “should” hear the music. It’s their experience, not mine.

That’s a major difference in approach from the mainstream, which is all about triggering specific hormonal responses in order to sell product. That music is entirely in the mode of passion; it’s basically about appealing to people’s lust. Get dancing. Get partying. Get drinking. Get laid. Buy this product. It’s not about music, it’s about business. For the sincere artist with something personal to communicate, that world is hell.

Knife of Karma clip by eyes cast down

5. Who/what moves or inspires you?

Great art in many forms: music, literature, theater, photography, film, architecture and more. Forms of beauty in nature – both material and spiritual (but the latter is more important). Personal relationships.


6. Would you consider your work to be sincere? If so, why?

Definitely. Nothing that I record leaves the studio unless it’s fully sincere and as musically complete and good-sounding as I can make it. Why? I despise insincerity.

7. What defines as being “good music/art” to you?

Sincerity, depth, focus, competence, imagination, respect for the audience.

Nice flowers!8. Would you say that musicians/artists become or are good more due to gifts & talents or practice & dedication to hone their craft?

Both. You have to practice developing and using your gifts with some dedication, or nothing will happen. Everyone’s different. If I have any musical gift at all, it’s as a drummer. Everything else, I’ve had to work hard at. It comes more easily to some people. For example, Steve Roach has enormous natural gifts, but has also worked long hours with deep focus and total commitment for many years. Both elements need to be there, and it’s a different combination for each person.


9. What do you hope to achieve from what you create?

The satisfaction of creating something that pleases myself, and hopefully connects with other people as much as possible. That’s a way of finding kindred spirits, which is always nice.

10. What effects have you seen your work have on others?

The coolest, and most unexpected, was one friend telling me that she uses a couple of my pieces for meditation.

Tower at St. George the Martyr, Toronto ON

11. Where do you think you would be in life if music/art was non-existent? Why?

How could anyone live? I think that the phenomenon, and purpose, of art (and especially music), is so fundamental that there could be no life without it.

When I wanted to be a writer, one of my ideas for a novel was to write a character who didn’t like music at all. A Life Without Music. I never pursued it, but it would be a nightmarish life, if such a thing was possible.

Rebuild From Memory clip by eyes cast down

12. It has been said many times that musicians are the most creative when they are drug addicts, or as the old saying goes, “No junk, no soul.”. In your opinion, do you think that certain drugs aid in the creative process? If so, why?

I’ve never believed it, but even if it was true, I wouldn’t care. It’s not worth it. Addiction is hell. Any non-destructive way to access other states of consciousness is far better. Meditation does it for me.

13. It used to be every band’s dream to get signed onto a record label & now it seems as though bands prefer the freedom of working independently. Why do you think that is?

I think the pimp-prostitute nature of the record label-artist relationship has finally become obvious enough to enough people. Also, the internet has broken the record companies’ stranglehold on music publishing media, which has made it possible for artists to publish their work much more easily.

14. What impact has the record industry had on music throughout the years?

It has basically shaped the entire popular music industry into forms and styles which it considers the most commercially viable at the time, excluding all others. Again, its whole approach is not about the process of creating music; it’s about the end result – the product. It’s backwards: instead of an artist honestly pursuing a creative, personal process to its end and discovering something new in the result, the performer and the process are subverted to the end of generating a saleable product. There’s no personal connection.

15. Would you consider it to be a fair statement that mainstream music is made more for the sake of acquiring money than for the genuine desire to create, and that underground musicians are the opposite?

Generally, yes.

Sanctuary at St. George the Martyr, Toronto ON

16. The internet has, without question, changed how we look at music. It makes it much easier for underground musicians to spread the word about their work. On the other hand, it also makes it possible to download music for free from torrent websites. Overall, do you think that the internet has, and will, hinder or aid underground musicians?

It will certainly help them to find their audience more easily. But if they want to get paid for their work – as I do – it’s also a major problem. The internet has enabled thieves no less than creators. The largest part of the problem is the sense of entitlement that so many consumers have. They’re completely self-centered and don’t give any thought to the artist’s situation. An artist needs to make a living too. If enough people steal his work, he’ll have to get a job, which steals his creative time. Just because you can steal something without compensating its creator, doesn’t mean you should. If you think my music is worth listening to, pay me for it so I can make more. Friends don’t steal.

17. Where do you see the music industry going from here?

The mainstream is becoming more and more degraded every year. It’s basically performing animals now. The underground will continue to grow, and the evolution of gear and software (along with the internet) means that more people can publish their own music, so there will be much more of both great music and garbage. The illegal downloading is only going to increase, so musicians can pretty much forget about album sales, unless an unbreakable encryption solution can be found. We’ll have to find other ways to earn our living.

Downed tree at Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton ON

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Intrinsic Beauty #1 – Credo

I’ve started this blog for the purpose of sharing my reviews of great music, which is fair enough – but let’s expand our focus. There’s so much more worth celebrating: creative artists of all kinds (many of them relatively unknown); natural phenomena such as fractals and the golden ratio, etc.; other blogs on worthwhile subjects – of which I will be sharing one each week.

Let’s celebrate Intrinsic Beauty in nature and culture. Or, as my wife more drily puts it, Stuff That’s Nice.

Cranberry Lake, New York

This blog has no other agenda. It is not a worldview, political, corporate or any other kind of tool. Here is my “credo” for this series:

“Intrinsic” is defined as “belonging to an entity by its nature”.

We have a deep hunger – an existential need – for beauty, in the world, and in our daily lives. That is intrinsic to human nature. That’s what attracts us to a nice sunset, to fine music or artwork. That’s what draws us out into nature. The quest for beauty is part of our quest for meaning, without which life is pointless.

Today’s culture has very little to do with beauty. Mainstream, commercial culture has nothing to do with it. We are continually bombarded, swamped, by meaningless, exploitive, degrading ugliness. If you need convincing, a random check of YouTube, any news media, or just about any television channel or movie theater should be proof enough. What passes for culture today is superficial, without substance, without depth.

Online, we can easily find video, photos, and endless, vicious commentary on such sensual delicacies as fistfights, falls resulting in injury (who enjoys watching that?), real-life couples bickering, ritual humiliation of wannabe performers, etc. We can savor a miasma of systematic, dehumanizing degradation. We can relish stupid pet tricks with other humans as the pets, performing for our twisted amusement.

In a word, that’s all poison. There’s no real enjoyment in any of that, because there’s nothing beautiful in it. Cheap laughs (at the expense of others) don’t cut it. They may give us a fleeting, sickening feeling of superiority, but that’s empty.

Flower at Stratford Festival Theatre, OntarioBeauty, on the other hand, nourishes us. Forms of harmony, order, structure, design, patterns – we don’t want to get too technical about it. We know beauty when we see it. But we’re seeing so little of it nowadays that it’s too easy to give up and lapse into cynicism. “Yeah, yeah, whatever – what’s on TV tonight?”

However, it’s not all bad out there. For every 10,000 garbage samples on YouTube there’s something wonderful on Vimeo. There are amazing photos and finely-crafted video clips of natural sights, patterns and phenomena. There’s unbelievably good music, and works in all the other arts, being made by virtual unknowns. Isn’t all that more worth sharing than another thousand painful failures?

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