Posts Tagged studio

2016 in Review: The Year of Other People’s Music

2016 was largely the Year of Other People’s Music, as almost everything I worked on was either a cover piece or collaborative project.

The year’s centerpiece was the July release of my fourth album, Souls Adrift, in Disrepair, most of which was recorded in 2015. You can read the album story here.

The only solo piece I worked on in ‘16 – on New Year’s Day – was a take on an idea that has since been composed for a collaborative album. This improvised fretless/EBow whirlwind, The Four Directions Seemed Aflame, will be on the upcoming guitar improv album, The White Island, which is nearly finished and should be the next release.

In 2016, I also wrote guitar parts for two pieces, intended for a duo album with one my favorite musicians, and recorded one of them. That project is still in its infancy.

During the late summer 2015 studio frenzy, I recorded a 20-minute piece for a singer with whom I have long dreamed of working. So, one of my greatest joys of 2016 was receiving the recording of her stellar performance. She utterly nailed it. Pieces such as Like a Riven Cloud and Fading Angel will give you an idea of emotional power in this one. It’s going to close out…. probably Album 8, for which nothing else has been done yet. So that is probably two years away. It will wring out your heart, I can promise.

At my 2015 Sulzer Library concert, I played a 12-string solo version of the Enya piece Sumiregusa. I sent the recording to a musician friend and fellow Enya fan, who loved it. Toward the end of ‘16, I was delighted to receive her invitation to arrange and record 12-string parts for two pieces from her new album. Each is a rich synth/voice drone, around 15 minutes long. I’ve done my parts for one of them, and expect to the other to be done soon.

This will be the second album on which I’ve played a guest role, and I have another invitation to record some drumming for a friend’s album. This material may be used more-or-less as is, or mangled beyond recognition, or both. That recording is expected to happen in January – a good way to start the year.

While I’m not optimistic about the Enya piece ever being released, I have much higher hopes for my arrangement of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, which is a recording priority for 2017. I first arranged this in 2010, working from the composer’s string quartet version, but this was impossible to arrange properly for one guitar. Luckily, I discovered that the original strings-and-percussion score works easily.

My arrangement for electric guitar and sampled percussion is straight off the score, but I play it much more slowly, and it occupies a huge space. I can’t wait to play this one live…

Thanks for reading, and all the best for 2017!


New Toys for The Keep, Nov. ’16

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2015 in Review: Many Seeds Got Planted

This year’s composition and recording trajectory might best be described as an ellipse. The two focal points were (1) my two live shows in June and July, and (2) an 8-day recording blitz in August. Everything gravitated around those two periods.

I usually take advantage of the statutory holidays from January to May to spend time in The Keep, and that’s when much of a year’s composition work gets done. Somehow, that didn’t happen this year – but I’ll do my best to rectify that in ’16.

This year, it took the two summer performances to get my composition mojo going, with some surprising results. I started each show with a trio of solo guitar pieces, beginning with First Day Apart, and concluding with Fading Angel (which opens the next album, and which was born as a post-First Day Apart live improv), with a new improvisation in between.

Imagine my delight when the two performances, and two rehearsals, yielded three releasable versions of this new improv piece! It was clear at once that an album of solo guitar improvisations should be compiled, which is already nearly half-done. I’ll try one on the 12-string, and one on the fretless, and one on the mandolin…

My wife Dasi, whose photography graces the Divinations and Memory Palace albums, took a bunch of great photos of an early-November sky over Lake Michigan, with the color schemes changing constantly. So, artwork for the improv album is already in hand.

Another releasable artifact from these shows is a riotous version of Rebuild From Memory, which has cemented my resolve to put together a live album someday.

Dasi went camping with friends for two weeks in August. Thus freed from any obligation to keep our apartment fit for civilized habitation, I hunkered down in The Keep and recorded four pieces (about 65 minutes’ worth of music) in eight days. Three of them are for Album 4: Souls Adrift, in Disrepair.

The fourth piece is for a singer friend of mine, and I’ll put the finishing touches on that after she sends it back. That is simply going to be amazing. She’s a terrific singer whom I’ve wanted to work with since I discovered her ten years ago.

Another piece for the Souls Adrift album was written and mostly recorded a few weeks later, so only one piece remains to finish that album. It’s written and just needs to be recorded.

So… what’s the plan for 2016? The answer was somewhat simplified when, in the past few months, I made a critical decision that was a long time coming: after the albums in progress, all new solo work will be written in Just Intonation. A liner note on a Robert Rich album opened that door for me some years back, and I’m finally stepping through.

That has really tightened my focus, which is always a good thing. Some contemplated projects have necessarily fallen away. The Concerto for Ambient Orchestra, in which nearly a dozen of my peers had expressed interest in participating, will now be a solo project – hopefully before 2040…

Another project simply ran out of gas: the covers album I had planned since 2010. Hope remains for three of those pieces, though: one is Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, though I’m still struggling with trying to arrange it for one guitar. Some of those chord changes are simply crazy. The other – and more likely – one is… big secret. It’s going to be a riot, and probably a standalone release. Luckily for me, the original music is in the public domain now. The third one is another work in progress, which I hope will make it onto the live album.

All my dreams of classical prestige have bitten the dust, although if some ambitious string quartet or choir should take a shine to me…

Of course, collaborations will be exempt from the JI Directive. Chris Russell and I knew long ago that we wanted to make a second album. It won’t be Memory Palace II. That’s just a matter of finding one more burner on the stove. Another duo with a new collaborator is still at the hopeful stage.

So, 2016 will be mostly about finishing work in progress. Barring something unforeseen, Album 5 will be the Guitar Improv album, and Album 6 will be an initiation/journey story project, inspired by a workshop I played three years ago, which could grow to a double-CD. I entertain grandiose hopes of recording at least some of that in a large church (and using their pipe organ). Album 7 includes the collaboration with the singer, and maybe another guest artist or two. Those albums, hopefully culminating in a live release, will mark the end of a phase – my solo Equal-Temperament composition phase and, hopefully, my recording apprenticeship.

Hopefully before 2040… because the JI World is beckoning, and it promises to be even more exciting than everything that’s happened so far.

2015 was also a stellar year for hearing some of my musical heroes play live, and meeting them for the first time. That would be Steve Roach (twice), Robert Rich (whom I finally met properly at my third concert of his), and long-time Americana idols Eric Tingstad & Nancy Rumbel. Much gratitude for their endless inspiration.

I also got to hear prog-rock demigod Steve Hackett for the first time, a few weeks ago, and hope to do so again. I don’t listen to much rock anymore, but he’s always been one of the cats…

Happy 2016 to all!

GM in Keep, Dec 27-15

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Guest Blog by Chris Russell: Our Journey to the Memory Palace

Guest blogger alert:

It’s a pleasure to turn the page over to my collaborator Chris Russell, for his perspective on making the Memory Palace album:

Chris RussellThe journey to this palace has been a long, rewarding and sometimes frustrating journey. But so worth it in the end. Greg contacted me late 2010 to work on an album and we were off running. This was to be our first release using drums and odd time rhythms in our music. I have played with loops in the past, but never really applied acoustic or tribal drums to my music until work on this album came up. This immediately took me out of my comfort zone and at times became a challenge that led me to re-do my parts, two, sometimes three, times before I could hand the piece off to Greg.

Life events for both of us would slow production down on this album and it became clear to not rush the music and let this album slowly develop over time. That probably is what helped the most for me, living with the music for brief periods of time and then after a hiatus coming back to the project with fresh ears.

Fast forward to 2014 and Greg and I are at the end of our journey to the Memory Palace, but this is only the beginning of our adventure.

I look forward to the next chapter.


Thanks, Chris!

As might be deduced from the above, Chris and I knew, even before Memory Palace was finished, that another project was in our future, and the general direction it would take. Stay tuned!

A shout-out here to (1) the Relaxed Machinery artistic community, where we connected shortly after its inception, early in 2010; and (2) the rM label, which has released most of Chris’ albums to date. There’s a long list of excellent releases which I highly recommend!

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Falling Leaves, and Saplings

A yurt in the woods, at TMBCC

It was time for another long weekend in the woods, so in mid-October we returned to the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, IN, which we had gratefully discovered six months ago.

Autumn is my favorite season, so this was the perfect time to be out here. Time to reflect on changes and new possibilities. Falling leaves, and saplings.

Forest outside Bloomingon IN

We went for a nice long hike in the woods, and took lots of photos. I read Macbeth (talk about falling leaves!), practiced my (still rudimentary) ocarina playing, and picked up some more good sticks for making claves. I also got a nice field recording of the wind blowing through the trees and the leaves falling, which I’m thinking of using in an ambient percussion track for a friend.

There are a couple of cool shops in Bloomington’s town square. One of them is Athena, where (choosing from among many temptations) I picked up a mini-djembe and thunder tube for the studio. They both sound great.

Mini Djembe and Thunder Tube

I’ve also determined to add some more earthy elements to the toy box, such as sticks, stones and leaves, as well as a couple of good ocarinas. The percussion shelf is getting crowded; some rearrangement will be in order.

As all this attests, the studio setup continues to evolve, moving toward The Dream Rig. This all coincides with a growing understanding, as it is slowly revealed, of what eyes cast down actually sounds like.

Starting out on any creative path, most of us understandably want to emulate our heroes (in my case, mainly Steve Roach). We want to try everything they do. As we move forward, elements that aren’t right for us drop away, so the true ones have room to emerge and grow. So a tribal element begins to crack the shell.

Also on my mind lately has been the dilemma of how to distribute albums, and I’ve finally settled on that – much to my relief. But that’s a separate blog entry.

Back to the town square, an awesome new discovery was The Owlery veggie restaurant. They opened there a week after our last visit. The food is amazing. If you’re ever in the area, it’s well worth a visit (or several).

Same goes for the cultural center itself. We look forward to returning there by spring – possibly also in midwinter. The stillness of this place, blanketed with snow, would be compelling.

Yurt and prayer flags in the woods at TMBCC

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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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No Hero in Your Tragedy: the Making of “Like a Riven Cloud”

Two years ago, a friend of mine committed suicide at the age of 43. When I found out, I knew at once that I would have to deal with the shock by shaping it into music.

Shock was far from being my only response to this disaster. Grief – of course, for this was a friend, someone who was a lot of fun to hang out with. He had turned away from his spiritual path to drugs, without seeking help from any of us friends.

Then there was the deed itself; this is where the anger comes in. He did it in his home – a bloody mess. He was married with two young children. Guess who found the body.

There was a savage irony, too. He saved me from drowning years ago, at the cost of nearly going down himself.

Someone set a bad example
Made surrender seem all right
The act of a noble warrior
Who lost the will to fight

from Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, FranceHow did all of this translate into music? It was obvious that the piece would be a requiem, in feeling at least. Unusually, I had the title in advance, a phrase from Bhagavad-gita, which provided a focus and suggested the windscape which underlies the entire piece. I recorded that on the back stairs one dark, blustery afternoon in early September.

The piece coalesced into a graveside vigil, with instrumental flashbacks in moods ranging from grief to denial to anger to wistful melancholy to anguished hope.

Now you’re trembling on a rocky ledge
Staring down into a heartless sea
Can’t face life on a razor’s edge
Nothing’s what you thought it would be

Suicide is always viewed as a solution to their misery by those contemplating it. This idea couldn’t be more wrong. It springs from the notion that the person is the physical body and that when the body dies, life is all over. This is madness – ignorance of the true nature of the eternal spirit soul, the person who is temporarily inhabiting the body. Life never dies, it just relocates.

Like a Riven Cloud is utterly unlike any other music I’ve recorded. For one thing, it was all improvised. It stubbornly resisted composition. About three-fourths of the music I recorded for it (including layers of singing bowls, and 12-string guitar harmonics) ended up being discarded, as its stark, minimal nature asserted itself. In the end, it was assembled from a few spontaneous elements. Like a shattered life being pieced back together.

I started working in summer 2010, recording clips of solo piano, and of strings, a few of which made the cut. Then, in one live session, I recorded the booming bells bed track, all based on one struck singing bowl sample mapped across my MIDI keyboard.

My wife Dasi had to be alone in the studio while she recorded her part: two lines from an ancient Sanskrit prayer, which recur between the instrumental episodes. Listen and you’ll know why. She sang, intoned, spoke, whispered – and nailed the range of intense moods the piece required. Again, I had the luxury of choosing the best of many takes.

No hero in your tragedy
No daring in your escape
No salutes for your surrender
Nothing noble in your fate
Christ, what have you done?

Dead tree in High Park, TorontoTo those who appreciate how rare and irreplaceable the human form of life is, throwing it away is unthinkable, because no matter what one must endure, the consequences of suicide are much worse. Suicide is not just killing the body – it’s severely damaging spiritually. Rejecting the human body means you don’t get another one for a long time.

The piece was almost done, but still needed a crescendo, a point of critical mass, where the feelings just boil over. Enter Ezra Azmon, an outstanding classical violinist whom we found busking on the street in Toronto.

Ezra played for 12 minutes – way more than was needed. So I used the best part (the last five minutes) for his solo, then stacked and melted down the other three sections to create the ghostly choir-like ambiance which pervades the piece thereafter. (That’s a small preview of our duo album-in-progress.)

Like a Riven Cloud was finished in early October 2010, clocking in at over 21 minutes. Many thanks to Har, host of Nightscaping on StillStream, who premiered the piece the following night! Har had also been the first to play Knife of Karma in full, another piece from my forthcoming album The Separate Ones.

The album is nearly finished and I expect to release it this year. You’ll hear about it here as well as on my website. Stay tuned!

Church and Moon
All of us get lost in the darkness
Dreamers learn to steer by the stars
All of us do time in the gutter
Dreamers turn to look at the cars
Turn around and turn around and turn around
Turn around and walk the razor’s edge
Don’t turn your back
And slam the door on me


(I’ve long admired Neil Peart of Rush as one of the best lyricists around. Quotes are from The Pass, a gut-wrenching song from the album Presto.)

P.S. the album was released in February 2013. All is revealed here.

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