August 14, 2014

The morning began with a flurry activity of the non-hectic kind in preparation for a two-day trip to London and a cultural binge with my wife. Low, smokey grey clouds of vapour and a curtain of rain erased the mountain tops between Borth and Machynlleth:

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We took a somewhat circuitous journey on a long and rather unstable train via Wolverhampton and Stafford on this occasion. It got us to the capitol half-an-hour earlier than usual. En route, I pushed on with the Art/Sound lecture, stopping only for my mandatory, over priced, but otherwise acceptable cardboard cup of tea from the trolley:

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After arriving at Old Street tube station, we walked the first section of City Road, lost the route, and shuffled around several blocks in the pouring rain before discovering the Premier Inn. It’s reassuringly like every other hotel under that banner, with cheery and helpful staff (no irony is intended), and a room that always looks like the last one you occupied, and as though no one has ever before slept in it:

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There was, too, the same vacuous print hung over the desk, in an entirely arbitrary diptych formation, which, once seen, you never notice again for the remainder of your stay. It’s a fascinating phenomenon: peripheral art:

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After a brief respite, we travelled to Oxford Circus before making a pilgrimage to Denmark Street (England’s Tin-Pan Alley in the halcyon 1960s) to eye forlornly shop after shop of contemporary and vintage electric guitars. One day … :

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It poured with rain again as we emerged onto Charing Cross Road; so my wife and I headed for the family’s habitual Chinese eatery on Gerrard Street. Afterwards, we took in a film, Lilting, at the Curzon, Shaftesbury Avenue:

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It’s a necessarily slow-burning narrative that deals with a variety of interrelated portraits about acceptance and reconciliation, loss and grief, and estrangement and isolation:

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August 13, 2014

8.45 am, and a visit to the chemists to process prescriptions. A grey, dank day brings out the worst in the town. The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther believed that demons occupied the ‘thick black clouds … and poisonous air’. Towards the end of his life, John Ruskin associated the dark skies and torporous climate in the north of England with an evil malaise. Perhaps we project upon the weather our state of mind:

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I mixed down the files for Matt. 20.10 and uploaded the track for public access. Only another 16 to go:

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Onward with the present Art/Sound lecture. I must complete 4,000 words of text by the end of the week, and a further 4,000 words every week until the beginning of term.

We had a lovely lunch (made from locally produced tortilla and cut meats) with our friends Alan and Pat Davey and an honoured guest, Mrs Eluned Thomas — one of the most gracious and wise women that I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I’d not seen her in many years. Had she lived in biblical times, Mrs ‘T.’ would probably have been considered a prophetess in the mould of Anna (Luke 2.36-8). During the 1980s, she ran a house in Cardiff for single female students. Understandably, Auntie Eluned (as she was called by her girls) drew to her door a succession of male callers on a regular basis … myself included:

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Back to the Art/Sound lecture and a search for examples of Musique Concrète, beginning with Walter Ruttman’s seminal and engagingly silly Wochende (1930).

In the evening I returned to the search, and tutored my younger son as he set off on his first foray into the world of analogue/digital recording and multi-tracking. It can be a rather steep learning at first. Fatherly advice: record as loudly as possible, without clipping; deploy the metronome; accept the prospect that days may pass before you lay down a track that is even barely adequate; and always make one more attempt beyond what you consider to be your best effort:

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August 12, 2014

A morning of fine art and art history tutorials interspersed with an appointment with the doctor. Lessons to myself: 1. Confrontation is not always avoidable; sometimes it’s the necessary and best remedy. Whenever possible, it must to be engaged with grace and in good faith on both sides, and end with positive reconciliation and an agreed course of action for the future. 2. What to the tutor is a perfectly reasonable and productive idea may not appear so within the student’s sphere of thought. There is always a degree of miscomprehension on both sides. My doctor’s surgery feels like the departure lounge of a small, under-used American airport. Today, takeoff was delayed by over half an hour:

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After lunch, I returned to the Art/Sound lecture while processing sound files for Matthew 20.10 in the background. There are several ancillary questions arising from my study that cannot be explored in the context of a fifty-minute lecture. Nevertheless, they’re worth addressing and may form the basis of essay questions for the module:

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The death of the actor/comedian Robin Williams today recalls the truism: just because your funny, doesn’t mean your happy. Meanwhile thousands of anonymous civilians fleeing genocide are trapped in Northern Iraq without life-saving assistance. This is the greater tragedy. I continued with the lecture in the evening. Having written about magnetic tape recorders, I’m now pining for one … a Revox A77 Mk III — the king of the reels and a design classic, technically, sonically, and visually. Oh! The organic warmth of analogue:

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It’s rather unnerving to be discussing the paintings of Claude Lorrain in one sentence and vintage condenser microphones in the next. But it makes sense:

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I completed processing Matthew 10.20 sound files in readiness for the mix down tomorrow morning.

August 11, 2014

I bought this book from Amazon last year for about £40. Obviously, it has proved to be a worthy investment. I’ll hang onto it for a more few years, then sell it, and buy another house on the proceedings. It’s a very good book, but not that good:

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For the first hour of the morning, I established my timetable of appointments for the week, my agenda for the day, and dispatched emails. On, then, with the Art/Sound module lectures (with JS Bach’s Art of the Fugue and Keith Jarrett’s Hymns and Spheres playing in the background). This week I’m focusing on the development of Musique Concrète in relation to Synthetic Cubism. I’ve not dealt with the latter, other than in passing, since I wrote my undergraduate art history dissertation in 1981. (Few things we do are so self-contained as to exert no influence on other things we do later.) That dissertation remains the most painful and effortful piece of research I’ve ever undertaken. But it’s also among my most rewarding endeavours — developing my skills as a writer, passion for art history, and mental agility:

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In tandem with lecture writing, I began processing files for Matthew 20.10 of The Floating Bible: Miracle of the Risen Word (Recto) sound piece:

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During my lunch hour, I prepared photographs of pedals and other devices, now surplus to requirement, for sale on ebay:

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I returned to the Art/Sound lecture in the afternoon, fielding emails and processing sound files along the way. Every topic I touch upon yields more directions and connections than I can possibly accommodate within a lecture. This is a rich vein. But I can’t afford to spend too long on any one thing. Perhaps I shall revisit these ideas in the context of an authored book in the near future:

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An evening ebaying. It’s the only occasion on which I countenance plagiarism. I’m more than happy to lift the copywrite that companies flaunt to sell their little boxes with knobs on. Which is not to say that their text doesn’t require a little copy editing in order to make it grammatical, syntactical, and clear.

At last, we have a door and frame to our new bathroom:

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August 9, 2014

First thing, I released This [Orchestra] Practise This – a track based upon a sonic phenomenon recognised and recorded by my younger son while on a school trip to Osaka this year. It’s a genuinely collaborative piece. The sample was too complete in itself to require any further development beyond a sonic scrub and a broadening of the stereo field. The father of Musique Concrète, Pierre Schaeffer, believed that one should preserve the character of the found sound as far as possible. After all, that is what drew one to it in the first place:

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The holiday over, I return to my inbox and worked my way through: requests for references, tutorials, and meetings; exchanges between my colleagues about e-submission of course work; notifications about chapters, dissertations, and PhD proposals submitted for me to read and comment upon.  As a matter of principle, I always deal with the most urgent and irksome correspondence first.

After lunch, I returned to the Art/Sound: Practice, Theory & History 1800-2010 module, inserting slide markers into the lecture’s text:

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The module’s lectures are written in full. This has been my practice every since I began teaching. It enables me to keep to time, and to think through and articulate complex ideas in advance of their delivery. I’m not bound to the script and usually extemporize around the text.

I fitted the new reverb effector to Handboard 1 and tested the system:

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An evening with the family.

 

August 8, 2014

I checked the pedalboard’s operations one last time. This, now, will be Pedalboard 4. Like Pedalboard 3, it’s temporary and mutable – able to adapt to the requirements of a particular sound project. Pedalboards 1 and 2 are, in contrast, fixed for the foreseeable future:

Pedalboard 1 (2013): Distortion

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Pedalboard 2 (2014): Modulation

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Pedalboard 3 (2014)

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It’s incumbent upon the sound artist to have knowledge of and authority over not only the aesthetic, theory, conceptualization, and craft of their practice but also the technology. As far as possible, one must learn to be one’s own technician.

The main task of the day was to draw up a plan for a more structured self-education in music theory and practice. In principle, it needs to be realistic, challenging, varied, comprehensive, and fulfilling for head, hands, and heart (together). Ideally, it should also be, in part, something which I can carry around in the mind throughout the day:

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By the end of the afternoon, I had in place an intelligent and progressive regime for practising that can be incorporated into the background of my professional life. I also committed myself to the following sensible and enabling maxims:

  • Remember: the practise is the practice
  • Avoid mindless repetition and unfocussed noodling
  • Attend first to what you cannot do
  • Cultivate attentive listening
  • Study on a daily basis
  • Test yourself
  • Discern underlying principles
  • Practice and theory are like your hands on the guitar; they must operate together, always
  • Be aware of your posture
  • Be suspicious of your strengths
  • Know your ignorance
  • Love the task.

In the evening, I returned to the sound sample of the Japanese high-school orchestra that my younger son had procured for me, finalised the mix down, and composed the cover and artwork notes in readiness for tomorrow’s launch:

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August 7, 2014

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom (Ecclesiastes 9.10). Cognizance of the ultimate deadline sharpens concentration and spurs endeavour.

I continue to work through the agenda of tasks outlined in my studio notebook:

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I eased myself into the day by modifying the text of the John Harvey: Blog site. Afterwards, I returned to my Keeley compressor, which I’d left hissing rebelliously on my pedal board last night. I’d thought the problem was caused by the effector’s proximity to the AC and DC power supplies. However, the remedy lay in the pedal’s situation within the overall array. Once it was placed at the start of the system, the noise vanished (or whatever is the corresponding metaphor in the realm of sound). Now, alas, I can’t compress the output of any pedal placed before it. It’s one of life’s truisms: every solution creates its own problem. But with the compressor feeding a signal into the distortion effectors, a considerable and gritty sustain can be attained. Sometimes a problem yields a potential and, therefore, should not be solved.

I relocated my relatively cheap but entirely adequate Joyo Power Supply 2 under the pedal board, a Wampler buffer at the rear (the final effector in the chain), and set my hands to some proper work: soldering – a hard-, and sometimes painfully-, won skill:

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Thereafter, the call was to arrange the effectors in such a way as to maximize their effectiveness individually and collectively – the ideal of any well-organised community:

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In the evening I reviewed the completed tracks that contribute to The Floating Bible: Miracle of the Risen Word (Recto) suite of sound works. A further 17 tracks are required to fulfil this half of the project:

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I estimate that, in all, four months will have been expended on this two-part piece. The entirety will consist of 52 separate elements, all the same length, and each having taken two or more days to render. Once all the tracks are overlaid, the completed work will last only 7 minutes and 22 seconds. It will have been a great expense of time and effort on my part for a comparatively small outcome. But sometimes it’s not what we require of the art so much as what the art requires of us.

To close the day, I looped a fascinating sound sample of a school orchestra in rehearsal, which my younger son captured on his recent trip to Japan.

August 6, 2014

I finalised the schematic for Handboard 1 and await the arrival of a reverb effector to complete the array:

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Today, the aim has been to test the relevant merits of booster and compression pedals in relation to fuzz and overdrive effectors and volume pedals, and to modify their configuration, where desirable. The pedals are fed into a Fender 100 watt Twin Reverb amplifier. I began with my Lehle Julian parametric controller and Keeley Compressor – one of the very best on the market:

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The ‘attack’ on the latter required a minor tweak.

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In this exercise, I’m exploring every permutation of their order, beginning with:

tuner > booster > compressor > fuzz > overdrive

After lunch, I attended to my raft of social media, blog, and web sites, updating and filling out information and establishing further interconnections between them. Such are the necessities of getting oneself ‘out there’:

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The wallpaper on a corridor in my house has been stripped, revealing the names of previous decorators going back to 1957. It’s the practice, still, for painter-decorators and their apprentices to sign the plaster walls and then obscure their identity with their workmanship. There is a lesson in that:

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August 5, 2014

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I returned to Handboard 1, with schematics and instructions for the effectors at my elbow. After adjusting the patch chords connecting the MoogFooger filters, I fed a compressed electric guitar signal through the system beginning at the Lehle Sunday Driver (which boosts and buffers the output from the pickups up to line level) and ending at the Sherman/Rodec Restyler filter:

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This effector squishes, gurgles, chirps and chops the sound, and regulates its attack and decay, EQ, and frequency dynamics. The device was originally designed with the needs of DJs in my mind, so the controls are very visual, tactile, and intuitive. A joy to twiddle.

Then, onto the OTO Biscuit — a beautiful and intelligently designed bit crusher that can create the sonic equivalent of sandpaper from anything passed through it:

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I added the Sherman FilterBank 2 to the equipment to the board’s ensemble. The filter is, by any definition of the word, a synthesizer sans oscillators:

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The manufacturer claims that it has more electronic components than a Minimoog. I can well believe it. For the best part of the afternoon I fed a square wave generated by a Skychord Sleepdrone 6 through the FilterBank 2 and explored its control parameters, one by one:

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Allied to a reverb and a delay unit, the device is capable of evoking a rather chilling fabric of noise reminiscent of Bebe and Louis Barron’s soundtrack for The Forbidden Planet (1956) .

In the evening, I disassembled Pedalboard 4 in readiness for a rebuild over the next few days. What do I not need on the floor? In the realm of the effector, economy = efficiency:

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August 4, 2014

This week (while on my holiday) I’m investigating some specific technical aspects related to my sound rig and guitar practice:

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I began by establishing a correct posture for guitar and pedal board playing, adapting the Alexander Technique (which I studied several years ago). It’s my custom to play while seated, so that I can have both feet free for ‘pedalling’. A solution presents itself only when all functions of the player’s activities are taken into consideration together, and simultaneously operational:

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The first step was to place the problem in an extreme position: I positioned the guitar very high on my torso. But the Les Paul (shown on the left) cut under my right breast due to the sharp angle joining the side and back profiles of its body. In principle, the guitar’s body and the player’s body should touch snuggly. So, I stepped back from the extreme and extended the guitar strap from 90 to 101 cm in length. The guitar was then sufficiently elevated upon my chest but not so low as to obstruct movement in my upper thighs. Furthermore, its neck was fully and comfortably accessible, and I was able to manoeuvre both hands without exceeding an obtuse angle at the wrists.

The height of my seat was set at 62 cm from the floor, enabling me to remain poised, counter the weight of the guitar pulling me forward, and have full articulation of the feet and lower legs on and above the pedal board. I can now counter the discomfiture that I’ve been experiencing in public performance:

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In the evening, I reconfigured and explored the effectors on Handboard 1, which I constructed in July. The board’s potential for guitar filtering and the production of intrinsic sounds is enormous. And therein is the problem: How does one map and preserve the settings in such a way as to make them reproducible, time and time again? For therein is the art. My strategy is to experiment with each effector in isolation, beginning with the ElecroHarmonix Flanger Hoax. The device is capable of much more than the manufacturer intended.