kubisms is a blog about about the work that goes on in my studio. Some entries are about recent projects, others showcase details in older works that I think may be interesting to you. I'm hoping that shedding light on how my music is made will add a new layer of insight and delight for those who enjoy listening to it. I try to make each entry enjoyable and understandable to both casual listeners and practicing musicians. "Like" the facebook page and/or follow me on Twitter if you'd like to receive alerts to new blog posts (links on the left.)
IT'S BEEN TOO LONG...
A long break in blogging, due to too many things happening - after some two decades in LA we are now Chicago-based, where I am the new director of the graduate "Music Composition for the Screen" MFA Program at Columbia College Chicago. So there was a big move across country in the summer of 2014, followed by two live performances (one for our CD release, and one with music I wrote to Angie Bray's art exhibit "Shhh" at Otis), two feature film scores (more on those sometime soon), a few other smaller projects, and lots of new adventures in this new role as program director and professor. Looking forward to sharing everything again in these pages. Happy 2016!
My upcoming album INN PARADISO is finished (well, the music is) and we're deep in the process of getting it ready for release. I have been trying to find imagery for the cover design that would reflect the album's character - dense, distorted, massive, grand(iose), blurred, intense, complex (in texture) yet simple(in form and statement.) I ended up finding this wonderful French artist on Flickr who goes by the moniker april-mo. These images just really captured the "sound" of the album for me. Check out more of april-mo's wonderful work here.
Here are the three images I licensed for INN PARADISO. This will be the cover:
This will be the back cover:
And this will be on the inside:
Also very happy that the amazing graphic designer Jessica Fleischmann of Still Room, a fellow CalArtian with a deep understanding of music, just agreed to do the album design for the CD, incorporating april-mo's images. I could not be in better hands, and am super-excited. Will keep you posted. And of course will have to tease a little bit of music as well... coming soon!
Last December I was asked by noted video artist Eileen Cowin to contribute music to her upcoming video installation about fear titled FEAR ITSELF. (Not sure how much can be divulged at this point, so I'll leave it at that.) She wanted music that describes that deep-seated type of fear - not immediate horror, but a heavy, leaden kind of dread. And she definitely was open to a more "abstract" approach (which, funny enough, ends up being more immediate than a more traditional musical approach, which would commonly be referred to as "less abstract". Go figure.)
The piece operates on a number of layers, a lot of the effect comes from the acoustic interaction between the elements. Overall the piece is definitely a process of increasing intensity.
There are two low drones, one in the left and one in the right speaker, that slowly shift, creating underlying pulses and beats as their frequencies interact. This effect is most audible on good speakers that extend low into the bass register, but it works also on your average TV speaker, creating a sort of undulating rumble bed.
The high midrange tones that are most prominent at the very end as they are left alone (but they become audible about a minute into the piece) oscillate as you shift your head in front of the two speakers, a bit like holographic images that change as you change the viewing angle. The effect is more pronounced (and works at a wider angle) on good speakers that are nicely spaced apart, but it will even work very clearly on built-in TV speakers if the person stands in front of it. (Doesn't work on headphones though, since each ear only receives one wave.) I find it creates a sense of vertigo and discomfort appropriate to the topic of fear.
Then there are various noise pulses, which remind me of the physical symptoms of fear: The heart beating in your neck, the blood rushes that become almost audible, the breathing.
There's also very high tones, like migraines, again evoking/inducing the physical symptoms of fear. And I used an acoustical illusion known as Shepard tones tucked into the piece, an MC Escher type trick that creates the illusion of a perpetually falling tone. I wanted to evoke that sinking feeling that comes from the dull internal type of fear. It's subtle but contributes immensely to the overall "unsettledness" of the piece.
Here's a one-minute excerpt of the last portion of the piece:
I'll be sure to post here on my website as soon as I know when and where the piece will be exhibited.
As I am writing a piece, when I need an element - a rhythm, a texture, even a melody - there are two ways to get it. Invent it and create it from scratch, or find it and integrate it into the already existing surroundings. I sometimes like to do the latter, especially when it comes to rhythms and timbres. Why? Well, unless I'm at the very beginning of the process, there's already a context. And since I'm a human being who's been at this for a while, there are certain ways I react to a given context. Habits. Call it 'style'. These are not just habits of convenience (although those probably come into play as well) but especially of taste and preference. There are simply things 'I like to do.' Now, there's nothing wrong with that - in fact these 'things I like to do' always remain the main driver of every step in my process, they make the music 'mine'. But that's precisely why I like to trip them up regularly during the course of my work. Gotta keep expanding what's 'mine'...
So I'll go and find something I didn't dream up myself, and stick it into the piece. Like a rhythm. For example: Let's say I need a rhythm for a section in the piece; say, for a marimba part. Let's say I want it to be repetitive, mechanical, but not too regular. I have an idea of the density I need it to be, the complexity, the underlying tempo. Now, instead of writing something that would inevitably spring from the supply of rhythms in my own brain, I may use a recording as a guide. For instance I may use a recording I made during a train ride, of the mechanical sounds of the wheels on the tracks as you hear them from within the car, that falls in the ballpark regarding the characteristics I mention.
Since I always work on the computer using what's known as a "sequencer" (a program that lets you write music and listen back to it immediately, using artificial sounds for playback) it's very easy to import that recording into the piece as it already exists. I'll then move it around, perhaps cut it up, speed it up or slow it down, to make it fit the context. In this process I'll always discover a myriad of delightful new possibilities. The rhythms in the recording I picked, while generally being in the ballpark of what I imagine for the section in question, are not under my control, but the result of the train wheels doing their thing. So they will interact with the existing musical context in many unforeseen ways - often in useless ways, sometimes in 'meh' ways, but occasionally in absolutely brilliant ways. Once I'm done messing around with the recording, I have a 'train wheel performance' that does exactly what I want it to do rhythmically in that section of my piece.
Now, while I often will use sounds like that in my work, in this particular (imaginary) example I want a rhythm to use for my Marimba part. So now I will transcribe the train wheel rhythm for the Marimba. I will still have to decide what notes the Marimba will play, but the rhythm will be copied exactly from my edited train performance.
The only reason I do any of this is that it delights me. Which means that once that rhythm is written down, it is absolutely not sacrosanct. As the piece develops, I may re-write it a little or even a lot, depending on what I feel needs to happen. Inserting found elements into a piece is not an expression of some deep philosophy for me, but merely one step in my process that allows me to expand my palette and introduce new ideas.
MUSIC THAT LIVES SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN
I just finished the music and sound design for a video installation at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. It's a beautiful piece that required a rather unusual approach, so I thought I'd write a little about it:
SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN: LOS ANGELES is the latest in a series of dual-screen videos by Brazilian-born artist Bia Gayotto. Her subject is the complex relationship between place, identity and culture, made visible through the lives of bi-cultural people and their place in their cultural surroundings. The resulting 21-minute piece is a beautifully poetic and languid visual essay on individuals relating to their environment, and environments relating to their individuals.
This of course guided my approach to the soundtrack: All musical sounds in the piece are in fact resonances or otherwise processed versions of the real sounds as they happened when they were recorded by the camera. One of the most-used processes in the piece is convolution, which can be understood as an acoustic variation on the 3D graphics technique of applying a texture to a wireframe. The texture in this case is a simple musical element - a string chord, perhaps - that then gets 'applied' to the real sound captured by the camera's microphone. The musical element thus becomes part of the natural sound itself, like a colored glow emanating from within.
These resonances and processes were then layered and mixed back in with the real sounds themselves. (This technique was inspired partly by Gabriel Orozco's canvases where he 'extracted' shapes from sports photographs and then laid them back onto the picture. Here's an example.)
Long shots, where individual people aren't readily visible or audible (i.e. a freeway with cars, or a restaurant exterior) were re-populated by inserting human sounds, reminding us of what's always right beneath the surfaces we are observing. Other "foley" or sound effects were occasionally inserted to zoom our attention into the personal space of the people in the frame. (i.e. there is a shot of a number of people crossing the street, but we only hear the footsteps of a single person among them.) Specific sounds (i.e. words) were sometimes masked or obscured in favor of a more archetypical treatment. The soundtrack thus acts as as a filter - weighing and interpreting the environment - much like our own perception does on a daily basis.
Another interesting aspect was the simultaneity of two video streams. While they are intended to play synchronized, they are in fact two independent streams, and the two soundtracks have to be able to drift apart while still making sense when they blend together as a whole in the room. So I wrote two independent mono soundtracks that play simultaneously, one for each video stream. The soundtrack becomes a "bendable" result of this loosely synchronized pair of mono audio pieces that can easily be "re-mixed live" by the viewer, by simply moving closer to one speaker or the other - and thereby also closer to its corresponding image. And of course the relationship between the two streams is loose - while the two videos were made to start at the same time and then loop in sync, circumstances may cause them to start with an offset, and the relationships between the two images and soundtracks shifts accordingly.
If all this sounds radical - well, it may or may not be, but it certainly doesn't end up sounding that way. The videos are, as mentioned, very languid, poetic, quiet and mundanely peaceful; and while the soundtrack employs these fairly radical-sounding techniques, the effect is very subtle and understated. A magic in the quotidian.
Part of me wants to guard this like a precious little secret, but of course I want Joe Berardi to become fat and rich and massively greedy so that he keeps making more and more audio processing pedals to feed his desire for even more fatness and riches, which will allow me to keep getting more and more totally original, unique, yet-to-be-invented-by-Joe's-fertile-mind audio processors, so here goes: F-Hole are some of the most unique pedals around. handmade in Los Angeles CA by one of LA's true musical originals. At first glance they may not seem that interesting if you don't do glitch/noise type stuff, but nothing could be further from the truth. Give Joe a buzz and try them out and *let the pedals tell you how they like to be played*. And if you don't and my stuff ends up sounding that much cooler than yours, well, you won't be able to say I didn't tell you about the secret sauce... well, one of the secret sauces, at least! :)
Bass guitar was not my first instrument, but it was my first true love. My elementary school music teacher, Yola Salewski, impressed the hell out of me when I heard she played bass - I was a big Suzi Quatro fan, and here I had my own Suzi Q in my class room! When I finally got the green light to start taking lessons at age twelve, she became my first teacher (using Carol Kaye's awesome bass method.)
I borrowed an Ibanez Precision copy when I started, but as soon as Yola saw I was serious she gave me her own very first bass, the Höfner in the picture below. I was stoked - it has a short scale, so my twelve-year-old hands could navigate this neck much easier than the full-size Ibanez, and more importantly, it was mine!
First I did what all twelve-year-olds do: I put stickers on it - painstakingly hand-cut letters spelling out the name of our first band. Plus, a sticker of the music store whose owner lived in our building (and who supported me immensely in the following years by granting me substantial discounts when I bought gear in his store.)
A couple or three years later I became obsessed with Jaco Pastorius and the fretless bass, so bought a G&L fretless that I also play to this day. The Höfner was put aside - and this turned out to be a major blessing, because I stopped changing the (already played-out) strings on it.
A few years later, when I first picked it up again, I realized the old strings sounded terrific, so I made it a point to continue to leave them untouched. The set from the early 80s is still on this bass, and thirty years later they sound better than ever - somewhere between Motown and Dub. Here's a solo'ed example (brief excerpt of a simple bass accompaniment from the upcoming record of a folk-ish singer-songwriter ensemble I'm currently co-producing), tracked direct and dry through my Aurora Audio GTQ2MkIII straight into the computer.
The Höfner could use a little TLC - the switches are so played out that you have to wiggle them into position until they work and then not touch them - at all, ever, again... It also has its idiosyncracies - the neck is a bit out of tune, so you tune the bass to the main notes you're about to play, not to open strings - especially anything played at the first fret will be out of tune if the open strings are in tune. But in return for all this extra care and temperament the Höfner repays you with a sound that just oozes soul and character...
A RECENT EXPERIENCE WITH TEMPING
Temping is a subject that's sore with many composers, but I just had a very positive experience with it. Read on.
Quick background: Temping is a term for the practice of temporarily cutting music that isn't intended to be the actual final score into the edit of a feature film during post production - this is often music borrowed from other film scores.
Temping is done for a variety of reasons - sometimes the film just needs music for a screening of a preliminary version before the final score is completed, i.e. a screening for producers or investors; or it may serve to give the director a better idea how an edit will play, since music drastically changes the perception of the rhythm of a given scene. A temp score can also help immensely to narrow down which overall musical style and tone will serve a movie best - now that every musical style truly is a valid choice for a film score this is an important question to answer. (Of course there are sometimes occasions where it seems the temp is only there to mask bad editing... every edit looks fluid and exciting when cut to music. But I digress.)
So there are many good reasons for filmmakers to create a temp. The temp is usually assembled by the music editor, if there is one. In independent films it's often done by the film editor or even the director. I think it's safe to say that to most filmmakers the possible pitfalls of temping seem less obvious than the benefits, but among composers and music editors they are endlessly and heatedly discussed. These pitfalls range from edits being shoehorned into an awkward unnatural rhythm by music that was written for a completely unrelated movie, to forcing composers to get uncomfortably close to plagiarism because a filmmaker loves the temp for a given scene so much they want it copied almost verbatim. Now, after this backgrounder, on with the blog post:
The reason my recent experience with a temp score was very positive is because I had to assemble it myself. Right after I got hired to score my current film it had to be screened for some very important folks, so the filmmakers needed music for the entire film in a couple of days. First we spotted the film ("spotting" is the process of determining which scenes need score, and what the score needs to accomplish in each of those scenes) and discussed the overall musical style of the score. I then assembled boatloads of music, and for two or three days did nothing but cut dozens and dozens of the pieces into the various scenes we had spotted, with constant feedback from the filmmakers throughout. I was free to use my own music if I felt I had a good fit, but I ended up using mostly other people's music - and very little of it actually from film scores, most from record releases of instrumental music.
By the time we were done, the filmmakers had a finished temp score for their screening. But far more valuable to me and to the scoring process was that I had just completed the most thorough spotting session ever - as a result of the temping process I now have already watched every scene countless times, in the most (inter)active way imaginable - cutting in various pieces of music, being able to observe how different musical gestures interact with different moments in the film, always discussing in detail with the filmmakers what works and what doesn't and why. And I got to do all this before writing a single note of my own, before even thinking about my own pitches, colors, rhythms, tempos.
Now, this process could have pitfalls of its own, since you do want to retain a "silence full of possibility" in your mind's ear to be able to "hear" the film's own sound in your head and then realize it when writing the actual score. But since I had to go through a LOT of musical material in a very short time, none of it could ever get so ingrained into my brain as to actually be an obstacle to finding the film's original musical voice. Instead, the process ended up being like a discussion in music, a true conversation about what this film needs in the actual language of music itself. Now, as I'm writing the actual score, this is making things so crystal-clear that I'm seriously considering making the creation of a thorough temp the first step of my regular scoring process.
SIMPLE MUSIC MAKES COMPLEX LAYERS
Here's a scene from the film "For Lovers Only" that uses a compositional technique I'm very fond of. The film is about two former lovers accidentally running into each other in Paris and rekindling their relationship in an impromptu journey across France. Problem is, they are both in committed relationships, and in the scene preceding this one the woman finds out that the man also has a daughter. So now the reality of the consequences of their rekindled love affair comes crashing in, especially on the woman, who realizes that there would be casualties if they continued on.
I love the way the Polish Brothers shot and edited this scene, with time and place overlapping in both dialog and visual - the woman's honest reflections in bed about the consequences of their continuing relationship, mixed with the scenes at the market, where she interprets some stranger's looks in a rather paranoid way. Dialog and picture constantly switch between these two scenes, and rarely in sync. I wanted to add to the emotional vertigo with the music, while leaving enough room for the (very softly spoken) words and the already very busy picture. Also, emotionally this is as much a melancholy moment as it is a vertigo moment, so it needs space.
After the transition with the children's dress, the scene opens with the main theme (present in every cue of the whole film) in it's minor version. First it's played by the trumpet alone (the score's main instrument, the voice of the lovers), and then piano chords are added, stated almost bell-like, over the beginning of their conversation.
Now as we enter the scene, the harmonies of these first few measures of the theme keep repeating, and the layers of the two elements (trumpet and piano) begin to float around and overlap in different ways, much like the dialog and the picture are doing.
These layers are based largely on the very simple material we just heard - the short trumpet melody and the simple piano chords - but they are constantly processed in different ways: We hear them filtered, played backwards, echoed, as well as straight forward, and in combinations of all of the above - much like a thought that we're obsessing about in our heads would get examined from all sides, turned around, moved close and far, reversed and reversed again, in an attempt to understand it.
And just like the picture vascillates between extremely intimate closeups and long shots across the bustling market, the perspective of the music also varies between a very dry, intimate, focussed closeness and a rather amorphous, unstable, washy distance.
This kind of complex layering of simple variations of very simple sonic material is something I like to do a lot (I'm sure this will not be the last blog post featuring this technique.) I find it to be an incredibly effective way to create very deep, complex perspectives and connections between the music and the story, without overwhelming either.
Unfortunately, the film clip of this scene is no longer on the web. Here's the music by itself:
TIN CAN BANJO
Most instruments I build are simple, one-off contraptions created to make a specific sound for a specific project (like the Shoebox Zither), and often they don't survive the recording session. But every once in a while I build something more elaborate, and the tin can banjo is perhaps my most elaborate creation. I built it some time ago and it continues to get a lot of use.
It's a fretless plucked string instrument with a resonator made from a cookie tin. It has six strings and I usually tune it like a standard guitar or, if I'll play it with a bottle neck, I'll sometimes use an open tuning. Sonically I like to say it lives "somewhere between China and the Deep South".
Since it is fretless, intonation is a bit of a challenge, and the cookie tin makes for some very rich, inharmonic resonances, which can be varied by placing the thumb on different spots of the 'sound board' (the bottom of the can, which serves as the front surface of the banjo.)
It can be recorded with a regular microphone or with a contact microphone, and because the resonance of the tin can is so chaotic, the sound varies greatly depending on where you fix the contact mic, or where you point the regular microphone, making the Tin Can Banjo a surprisingly versatile instrument.
Here's a brief medley of excerpts showing the range of sounds the Tin Can Banjo is capable of:
But it can operate also very much in a supporting role. Here's a brief excerpt where it fulfills the role of a traditional banjo, but its rich metallic resonance lend a slightly different character (it's the finger-picking accompaniment in the background, on the right side):
As the saying goes, "Everything worth doing is worth overdoing" - so here's a piece with perhaps a dozen or so Tin Can Banjo tracks, recorded on top of each other in both leading roles and as accompaniment. There's also some snare drum, a bass drum, and a at the end a few tracks played on chanters (bag pipes without the drones):
Last year I was hired to create the music and sound design for the TV campaign accompanying the brand relaunch of Transamerica. The premise of all four 30-second TV spots was that the iconic Transmerica Pyramid in San Francisco is home to a futuristic "tomorrow factory", where the company creates "financial tomorrows" for its customers, depicted by symbols of big (and costly) life events like college caps, wedding cakes, homes etc.floating out of the machine on parachutes.
So there were a few creative challenges I had to solve - first I had to create sound design for the machines that we see in the ad. I also had to set up a musical language that would use "Tomorrow" only in the first ad, but create a cohesive musical world for all four. I also had to do justice to the wonderful "big movie magic" feel of the visuals created by the directors of the spots, the Polish brothers.
To elicit that big movie magic feel there was of course no other solution than to create a sweeping orchestral score! To set up a musical idiom that I could carry over into the non-Annie spots I created an opening for the first ad that had nothing to do with the Annie song - this way I could use variations of the same opening for the other three ads, and then simply go to a different musical piece. (The closing arcs of all four ads are also related, but the first one does indeed use the Annie melody all the way to the end, whereas the others of course do not.)
In addition, I had the machines themselves play a simple repeat of the "Tomorrow" melody underneath the orchestra. This gave me a great starting point for the sound design, integrated it seamlessly into the whole soundtrack and added a very whimsical feel to the machines and the place in general. This was really helpful, since futuristic scenarios like the one in these ads can quickly turn ominous, so a bit of whimsy was definitely welcome. As luck would have it we didn't see closeups of most machines in the following ads - so I didn't have to worry about having set them up as playing the "Tomorrow" theme.
In general I really enjoyed doing the sound design in addition to the music. It made the job a whole lot smoother - every boom and clang could be tuned to the right key, and since I always knew in detail what each sound effect was going to sound like, I could literally compose the music around them, letting the music fill in the spaces in frequency, timbre and rhythm that the sound design did not occupy, and vice-versa. So the usual challenge in the final mix of having the music and sound design overcrowd the sonic spectrum was never an issue in this project.
Unfortunately, the ads are no longer on the web. Had links here to all of them... here's a link to just the music of the first ad.
Here's a very fun, simple instrument I built for a track on my new album. More on the album some other time, but for now suffice it to say that it's very much about incompleteness, imprecision, intuition, and a kind of 'raw purity'.
The Shoebox Zither is certainly imprecise and very raw! It's a simple shoebox (however one with an exceptionally nice resonance, which I noticed when I threw it into our pile o'boxes in the garage, and which is is what brought the whole idea of building this instrument on...) It's strung with a few regular rubber bands. The short stretch of rubber bands between the two pens act as strings, the pens act as bridges, and the long wide rubber bands strung horizontally across the short bands hold the 'strings' in place.
To tune it you stretch the 'strings' to the proper tension, while the friction of the long wide rubber bands hold the 'strings' in place so that they hold their tuning - for a while at least, then you have to tune again. With the two pens in parallel, the strings stay in a rather close range of notes, but of course I also sometimes angled them, so that the varying length of 'strings' between the two pens allowed for a wider range of notes.
It sounded nice when recorded with a microphone, but I really liked the sound when I recorded it with a pickup - that's the wooden knob-thing on the top left of the box. It's a contact mic (made by Dean Markley, for those who care about such things) that directly records the vibration of the lid, instead of recording the movement of the air like a regular mic does. I moved it into different spots on the lid and the side of the box, and they all sounded different, but the corner spot had the nicest tone for this particular piece.
I mostly plucked the strings with my fingers, but of course they can be plucked with a guitar pick, hit with a stick like a hammered dulcimer, pinched between two fingers and then let snap back, or played in a myriad of other ways. The rougher you play it, the quicker the tuning gets shot. Which isn't so bad in the context of an album that's all about a lack of precision...
Below a short clip of just two tracks of the Shoebox Zither by themselves - strummed chords in a lower tuning, with a simple melody in a higher tuning recorded on top of it. I'll post a clip of the whole piece (which also features a number of distorted trombones, handclaps and a few other goodies) some other time. Enjoy!
FAREWELL TO MY TEACHER
I wrote this brief essay about my teacher Johannes Fritsch shortly after his death in the spring of 2010. Wanted to include it here, since he had a great deal of influence on who I am as a composer. CLICK HERE to read it.