It’s safe to say that “award-winning” is not a descriptor that’s often been applied to me and my work. So I’m extra-pleased to have played a small part in Blue Chalk Media’s near-sweep of the Daveys, an annual award for the “Davids” (as opposed to the Goliaths) of the design, advertising and video worlds. As it turns out, I composed for 3 of Blue Chalk’s 4 winning entries. I’m grateful to the great people at Blue Chalk–and the many other excellent folks I get to write for–for giving me this opportunity!
Even though my work doesn’t afford me the opportunity to use antique technology–vintage microphones, preamps and processors aside–I can’t imagine I will ever lose my fascination with it. With this in mind, I especially loved watching “The Winding Stream,” a superb new documentary about the Carter and Cash families, and by extension the story of American music. The film was directed by Beth Harrington and edited by Greg Snider, who I’m fortunate enough to work with from time to time via my work as a composer.
The original Carter Family recorded from 1927 through 1941. Though there were significant advances in recording technology in that era, all of these recordings predate the use of magnetic tape, at least in the United States (more on this later). Thus, it can be difficult to place their work in the context of “modern” recordings; to my ears, all of their music sounds as though it were transmitted from a faraway, even extraterrestrial source.
The film touches a bit on the recording methods employed by roving talent scouts in the 1920s, and after the screening I chatted with Greg about the crude means of recording the Carter Family’s earliest work. In his words:
“I don’t recall where in my research I heard this story or even if it’s true, but my recollection is that when they were recording the acts for the Bristol Sessions (The Big Bang of Country Music), the electricity was not consistent enough to turn the wax recording platter at a consistent speed. So they attached a weight to a rope, cut holes in the ceilings/floors up through a couple of stories and powered the platter by dropping the weight. It took around 2 and a half minutes for the weight to drop. I’ve often wondered if that is why the 2:30 length became the norm for recorded songs for so long. Perhaps not, but it’s fun to theorize.”
I don’t have any additional insights, but I love the imagery!
Better recording methods evolved, but 20-odd years later, the playback media of the day–78rpm discs–were still noticeably lacking in fidelity. In a confluence of events seemingly designed to blow the as-yet-unborn Seth Lorinczi’s mind, GI (and classical music fan) John T. Mullin, preparing for D-Day from an English base, hears something unusual coming from Nazi Germany. He writes:
“In 1944 — like thousands of other GIs just before D Day — I was in England. Because of my background in electronics, I was assigned to the Signal Corps, troubleshooting problem the Army was having with radio receivers that were picking up severe interference from the radar installations that blanketed Britain.
I became so intrigued with what I was doing that I would work until two or three in the morning. I wanted music while I worked. The BBC broadcasts filled the bill until midnight, when they left the air. Then, fishing around the dial in search of further entertainment, I soon discovered that the German stations apparently were on the air twenty-four hours a day. They broadcast symphony concerts in the middle of the night — music that was very well played, and obviously by very large orchestras.
I had some experience with broadcast music and knew what “canned “music sounded like. The American networks wouldn’t permit the use of recordings in the early 1940s, because they claimed the quality was inferior. You could always spot the surface noise and the relatively short playing time of commercial 78-rpm discs.
Even transcriptions had some needle scratch and a limited frequency response.There was none of this in the music coming from Germany. The frequency response was comparable to that of a live broadcast, and a selection might continue for a quarter of an hour or more without interruption.
In Germany at that stage, of course, Hitler could have anything he wanted. If he wanted a full symphony orchestra to play all night long, he could get it. Still, it didn’t seem very likely that even a madman would insist on live concerts night after night. There had to be another answer, and I was curious to know what it was.”
Eventually, Mullin not only made it to Germany, but discovered the source of these mysteriously hi-fi recordings. What’s more, against strong odds, he brought two German Magnetophon tape recorders back to the United States, where they were examined by the nascent Ampex Corporation, and the rest was history. If you are anything close to as obsessive and damaged as I am, I strongly urge you to read his full story here.
As I write this, I remember with a jolt my father telling me about listening–covertly, for very real fear of arrest, or worse–to radio broadcasts on a receiver hidden in a safe house in wartime Budapest. After news of the D-Day landings was broadcast, his father turned to the family and said: “We’re going to make it.” And, incredibly, he was right: My grandfather, grandmother, and their two children–my father and aunt–survived the war, barely, and made it to the United States. I can only wonder if my father heard the same broadcasts as John Mullin, and if he too wondered what their source might be.
Just a quick pitch for my friend Alicia J. Rose and her web series “The Benefits of Gusbandry,” which is currently in production having met its funding goals through Seed and Spark. I was so pleased to be asked to score and record the score for the trailer, as well as record and mix VO. Be forewarned: Despite copious bleeps, there is PLENTY of adult content in this short teaser.
It’s been quite a few weeks around the studio. In addition to the “regular” work of writing music, a few extra-curricular projects are keeping things spicy here. One is the annual low-volume hecticity of the Quiet Music Festival, which I record live to 2-track tape (what else?) every year.
Another Festival-themed endeavor is Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival, taking place the same weekend across the country in Boston. In collaboration with the WonderWord poetry project, I was asked to modify a few vintage radios to play back site-specific poems at the MASS MoCA.
The two radios pictured above are the venerable Emerson “888” series, one of the first inexpensive transistors. This model has been “hacked’ for smartphone playback by others, and directions and schematics are readily available. While I had the units cracked open, I replaced electrolytic capacitors and sprayed out the volume control for good measure.
Next up was this lovely Philco unit from the early 50s:
The main challenge here was making this unit safe to interface with other devices. The “hot chassis” paradigm is fine, more or less, if the radio is used as a standalone device. But the design introduces the possibility–probability, really–that “ground” actually has wall potential (120VAC). And if connected to another device, as required for this project, there would be the very real potential of putting this device into the user’s phone, and therefore hand. While some of you have no problem blowing up other people’s new iPhones, I didn’t want to share this liability with the program organizers, who by and large seemed to be decent folk.
So in addition to the “normal” rebuild of replacing all electrolytic (and most film) capacitors, plus important and “toasted” resistors and other components, this job required the addition of a proper ground connection, fuse and isolation transformer to provide some buffer against wall voltage. In this case I used the Triad N-68x, which is a useful and economical unit for the job. Because modern voltages are so much higher than those the radio was designed for, I wired the transformer “backwards” to induce a slight voltage drop.
Blah blah blah. The point is, this unit–in addition to being extremely cool-looking–is now safe. For those excited by such images, here’s what the inside looked like after I was done.
I hope some of you can swing by MASS MoCA to check out the poetry project for yourselves. Let me know how the radios are working!
No silly, not the edible kind. Though I suppose I have no real issue with them, as long as they’re served with syrup and butter (not yogurt and lingonberry jam or some such aberration). BUT I DIGRESS.
In preparation for this year’s Quiet Music Festival, I took a chance and invested in a case of pancakes of Quantegy 632. (As all of you are no doubt aware, 632 is the “music grade” non-backcoated offering from Quantegy, and prior to that Ampex.)
For the uninitiated, this means: Buying a case of old, physically fragile tape and loading it onto reels, praying the entire time that the reel won’t collapse and spill valuable recording tape all over the floor. Kind of like this:
Actually, the operation was smooth for the most part; that bin of dead tape is courtesy of Larry Crane, who generously gifted a couple of cases of used tape for the express purpose of clearing out his garage (oh yeah, and furthering the art of recording live to tape, thanks Larry!). Fear not, the original Vomit Launch tapes were digitized and preserved.
Anyway, a couple of hours of nail biting came to a happy end with 5+ hours of virgin tape spooled onto new reels and ready to record the lovely, low-volume awesomeness of the QMF. It’s this coming weekend–June 26/27, 2015–at Disjecta in North Portland.
One final bonus: I managed to score a new trident for my very old Otari 2-track. What this means to the layperson is that the sound of slipping, whirring and clattering tape reels–and my muttered curses–drowning out the performances are a thing of the past.
Sounds counterintuitive, right? As composers, we’re supposed to tap into and heighten the emotional content of visual imagery. But both as an artist and as an interpreter of others’ direction and wishes, it’s vital that we identify and separate our own emotions from the mix when they’re a complicating factor, and instead use our powers of listening to hone in on what’s essential.
Sometimes–okay, often–there’s no clear path to follow. Some filmmakers are more adept than others at describing their goals for the score. It’s rare that I have a finished picture to write to; it’s much more often that an assemblage of footage–even stills at times. My hope is that this will evoke enough of the filmmaker’s vision to write convincingly to. Hopefully, I’m close enough to the mark that what I submit fits in terms of emotion–if not specifics–and even sparks a dialogue with the editor and/or director; in this best case, the edits begin to react to the music.
But reaching this point in the conversation is not always assured. My challenge at this point is to maintain a balance between the visceral reaction and flood of emotions the visuals conjure, versus the filmmaker’s intent and the score’s final role in the piece. What helps me the most at this stage are:
1. Listening, listening, listening. This applies not just to any reference tracks the filmmaker may have sent, but to everything they tell you about their vision for the project. Some people are capable of giving crystal-clear direction, while others can only describe vague feelings they have regarding the score. But emotional cues are included in everything we say, and it takes a special focus to catch these hints about a filmmaker’s intent, even then they have trouble describing it themselves. Hopefully, as musicians and composers, we already practice focused and intentional listening.
2. Refining, refining, refining. In the same vein, it’s sometimes tempting to “go big” and write complex, nuanced pieces from the get-go. (This is a particular problem when I write using virtual instruments; “Why shouldn’t I add a third string part?!?”) But I find it helpful to step back from a demo and assess whether or not it’s hitting the key emotional cues, and stripping away everything that fails to support this mission. There are times when I’m asked to write more lyrical, ambiguous and far-reaching pieces–and these are moments of pure joy for me. But remembering that the score is typically a background character, I often find myself removing the emotionally pleasing (but extraneous) nuances and shades that may distract from the core mission. It takes practice to step back form a piece of music you’ve written and assess it with clear eyes (ears!), but it’s a vital skill, both as a composer of highly focussed music and as an interpreter of others’ vision and direction.
3. Detaching, detaching, detaching. It’s natural that watching even rough footage generates an emotional response. After all, that’s why we’re composing in the first place, to detect (or elicit) a feeling that may be obvious, latent or even absent in images, and then writing music that heightens a particular emotional response. But it’s important to distinguish between the emotions you want the score to convey and your own emotional investment in a particular outcome. Even when you have a clear vision of the emotive potential of a score, it’s critical to step back and ask yourself whether you’re carrying out the direction, or you’re satisfying your own desire to write a compelling score. My training as a composer dictates that the score be a character in the project, sometimes a leading role but much more often a supporting player. I find it’s typically easier to add emotional depth and intensity than to remove it, so I err on the side of caution.
I hope these simple tips can serve as guideposts of a sort. There’s nothing particularly mysterious about them, just reminders of what should already be your Best Practices. I find that the further along this path I go and the more complex the tasks become, the more essential it is to loop back around to the simple basics of listening, refining, and detaching.
Rendered (formerly Destination DIY) asks what it means for a company at the heart of the maker movement to go public. You’ll hear from three Etsy sellers with different perspectives on the company along with a Wall Street Journal reporter who can speak to the IPO’s financial impact for Etsy and its investors. Etsy also has a voice in this episode.
Just a quick blurblet about a fun little collaboration with the good folks at Sheepscot Creative, a boutique creative agency here in Portland, OR. Sheepscot’s alter ego is Narrative Mechanics, a project that explores the ways in which we use storytelling to make meaningful connections with the people and communities around us.
Narrative Mechanics invited author Joshua Ferris for an informal Q & A in early 2015. As the bulk of the video was made up of Josh’s answers, there wasn’t much room for scoring, but I contributed a bit of piano and bass at the end of the piece.
I was looking for a suitable percussion instrument and remember that there was an antique typewriter set up in the studio for just that purpose. A cheap shot, I know, but it fit the mood of the piece. And frankly, it’s about the only instrument I can play a convincing rhythm on!
In any event, you can watch the video here; it’s an entertaining (and beautifully filmed) five minutes.
As pretty much anyone who has ever met me knows, I love trash. Much as some kind-hearted pet lovers cannot turn away a stray, I am a sucker for anything old and cool–or often, not that cool–left out on the sidewalk or in an alley. Over the years I’ve collected a good deal of audio gear from the streets; a bass guitar, an amplifier or two, keyboards, a weird homebrew EQ unit, and on and on. Perhaps most notoriously, I found a 1954 toaster on the streets on San Francisco and insisted on bringing it home, where it quickly became known as the “Chrome Toast Assassin” for its temperamental heat control. But it was beautiful, and old, and found, so I kept it for many years too many.
More recently here in Portland, a 1960s Silverstone electric reed organ appeared on a parking strip not far from my house. It gives me perverse pride that at least two unaffiliated parties saw it and made a conscious choice to withhold its location from me, either to protect my family from my rampant junk-collecting or to prevent my studio from becoming even more utterly clogged. But not even my friends’ altruistic natures could keep me from a discarded vintage musical instrument. I took it home and began disassembling it to find out what could be done with it.
As it turns out, not a great deal. This was never a great musical instrument, perhaps never even a good one. But oddly enough, it’s one I want to play and play. There’s something about the inconsistencies, general jank and wheeziness that appeals to me. Whenever I start playing it, I don’t want to stop.
My first move (and without a doubt my dumbest, aside from taking the thing home in the first place) was cutting it down to make it “portable.” I was preparing for a tour, and had the notion that I could bring this on the road with me. Just…wow. What a bad idea. Later, after I realized the gravity of my error, I remembered a hand-me-down antique pedestal in the attic, which I bolted to the bottom of the organ, thus creating what may be: The ugliest musical instrument in the world.
In any event, it happened. This also removed the volume pedal, so that the organ was full-on all the time. That’s not a problem per se, but the fact that “full-on” wasn’t very full WAS one. I disassembled the reed chambers, vacuumed out the inevitable dead bugs, dust, and alien spores, and then applied weatherstripping to the bellows boxes in order to force more air through the reeds and lower the noise floor.
Next up were the electronics, such as they are: A cheap foam-wrapped microphone functions as the “pickup” in this system; there are also volume and tremolo depth controls, and a switch marked “horns” and “strings” which functions as a steep low-pass filter. The tremolo, while not adjustable in frequency, is quite pleasing and a welcome addition.
I rebuilt the amplifier in the more-or-less usual fashion. Replacing crapped-out components helped, but the most noticeable improvement came with changing the lead dress–the layout and orientation of the wires, especially those carrying current–and properly grounding the amp chassis and electrical shielding around the bellows motor and frame. Then I added a preamp out and volume control, and a switch to defeat the speaker if so desired.
Figuring the organ couldn’t get any uglier, I relocated the amplifier chassis from inside the wooden case to the outside. Think of it as the cherry on top of a sundae that’s been left out in the rain.
And there you have it. Not an utter waste of time, but…fairly close to one. Here’s a little ditty featuring my ugly, crappy, free, but beloved reed organ:
Sorry. To be truthful, I never loved that song. No offense, Thomas. Just a quick blurb today to crow about a lengthy–but utterly rewarding–project I’m enmeshed in with my creative partner and wife Julianna Bright (here operating under her kids’ music guise Cat Doorman). We’re using the skills we’ve honed over the last several years–writing music both for kids and for commercial applications–this time for Discovery Education, a branch of Discovery Channel that creates science content for school districts. All told, our contribution will
add up to an album’s worth of songs, more or less. It’s a total blast to reach back in our collective memories and think of the impact “educational” music such as Schoolhouse Rock had on us. We should be lucky to make songs half as inspired!