Sunday, 30 November 2014

Be An Explorer!

My blog today concerns why people make music at all. If you have read many blogs from me before you will expect two things: a stream of consciousness and that it be existentially coming from my own life and experience. You should expect the same things here.

The question I've been asking myself lately is "Why do people make music at all?" I can well understand people who are interested in making music make it because they have an irresistible urge, an itch they need to scratch. I feel that too. Perhaps they are someone who is paid to make it because they have a job as a paid musician. The reasons, I suppose, could be as great as the number of people who want to make music.

I wonder, however, if anyone makes music to challenge themselves? Now, whether it is true or not, I like to see myself as some kind of goad or irritant to better habits in those around me. I'm the person who will ask you the questions that maybe you won't ask yourself or the one who will suggest a contrary way, method or motivation to the ones you currently have. I was educated, academically I might add, in biblical studies (the exact number and type of degrees I have being lost in the mists of irrelevancy) and I'm very used to the idea of prophets - not people who foretell the future but people who are a pain in the ass of human conventions. I guess I have absorbed the historical characters a little too much.

So what do I want to criticise here? Well, I guess its musical laziness, habit, resting on your laurels. Now let me add straightaway that this will be more of a problem for the prolific than the studied and steady musicians amongst us. If it takes you 3 years to produce one song then your problems are more than that you repeat yourself. And I know that in music there is no law and people are free to do exactly as they wish. Even if its remake the same track for the rest of their lives.

The thing is, why would you want to remake the same track for the rest of your life? And its not that I see musical development as linear from bad to better to best either. In my own musical timeline there are failures and successes all along it. I've done bad, good and excellent work this year in my own mind. But at the same time I think and believe that we should be trying to develop ourselves in terms of musical education. This is in at least two senses: by broadening our experience of what is out there musically and by developing our own sound, methods and techniques. After five years of making music you should be someone who can make music that the person five years earlier couldn't have dreamed of making.

Strange things have been happening to me lately. A couple of weeks ago, via listening to, and learning about, the soundtrack to the classic sci-fi film "Forbidden Planet," and its composers Louis and Bebe Barron, I came across John Cage, the experimental American musician of the middle to late 20th century. Just last night I spent around 8 hours listening to what is termed in the English-speaking world "Krautrock" (but by Germans themselves as Kosmiche - "cosmic") - bands such as Can, Neu!, Popol Vuh, Amon Düül ii, Ash Ra Tempel, Faust and Cluster. Two more well known bands that began slap bang in the middle of the same genre are Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk. They would later become much more famous for other things.

These new auditory experiences in the last couple of weeks have radically altered my musical bearings. They have changed for me what music means and had an affect on how I understand how one type and period of music is connected to another. David Bowie now makes a lot more sense to me, how he could exist and why he sounds like that. More modern bands like Goldfrapp are suddenly contextualised for me. I feel that I have suddenly found a missing link and things that were just there before now make a lot more sense. This is all part of an on-going musical education. And, in me at least, I want that to be overt. I actively want to learn about different types and styles of music, different time periods. Its about understanding the musical terrain and understanding, to your own satisfaction at least, where you stand and where everything is in relation to you. You can only utilise the sounds and experiences you are aware of. So increasing awareness is a basic step it seems to me.

This leads into my second concern: developing your own sound, methods and techniques. I hope I don't have to argue here that people should want to develop and, to their own satisfaction at least, "get better" - however you might want to quantify that. I don't want to be prescriptive about how anybody might do that. That is for each one of us to decide. But I do think we should be doing it as creative people. And its in that context that I regard habits as bad, as traps. There is an attitude which I often see of simply being happy to make the same thing over and over again. Whilst realising that it is phenomenally easy to do this (and that some people seem very happy with it), I can't be and since this is my blog I can write here that such an attitude irritates the hell out of me. Repeating yourself over and over lazily makes you an irrelevance in my mind. If I've heard it once I might want a re-hash once but ten times is probably too much. Some people make careers out of it, of course. But not from me they don't.

In my own musical life this opening up to new musical sources leads into a thinking about my own methods and practice and to an exploration of experimentalism. This is not to say I'm doing things no one has ever done before. But it does lead to things I have never done before. And that, surely, is the point. "There is nothing new under the sun" is a saying (and a biblical one too if I remember correctly) but there can be something new for each of us as musicians - if we seek it. Hence why my last album "Dark Visions" was made using a Cagian exploration of randomness and chance - and a number key was used to make all the musical decisions for me. The results were startling. I made music I never could have made previously. I feel like I have moved to another level. It was only possible because I was not content to stay the same, doing the same things over again. But, of course, having done that I must now make a new move. For the explorer there can only be forwards motion.

And so what I myself seek to be is an exploratory musician, an experimental musician, one not content to repeat myself. I want my next album to be something you would never imagine I could make. I want you to hear things from me and think "He never did that before". I want to challenge myself to be different because this is an aid to creativity - creativity being the highest good. This is not to be novel for novelty's sake. It is to be experimental, to be a musical explorer, to not be content with what I can do with my eyes closed because I've done it so often before. Try it. You might be amazed where it takes you.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Herr Absurd - The Dark World: An Insight into the Making of "The Dark Series"

Well its November 28th 2014. I wake up and realise that in this musical year I have written music for 17 projects, 13 of which I rate highly by my own eccentric standards. Two projects stand out for me and both are multi-volume. The first was the overwhelming success that was "Elektronische Existenz", a 10 volume work (with an epilogue, EEXIII) that encompassed 283 minutes and 31 tracks. It was a musical or opera in many ways, a musical accompaniment to the mythology of "The Wanderer", a character based on myself. It was and remains my Wagnerian epic.

And then there is my most recent work which I know as The Dark Series. This is also 31 tracks long and 4 hours 36 minutes in total. Dark did not start out as a multi-volume work. Neither did Elektronische Existenz. In both cases there was an original album which took on a life of its own and led to a whole project. Perhaps, as befits a project about the dark and darkness, it is rather amorphous what The Dark Series is actually about. I hope to try and flesh that out a bit as we go along. There are, however, many very real concerns unwrapped within the making of this project. These things would maybe stay secret and hidden were I not to make them overt. And that is reason enough to write about them here.

Let's address themes first. Dark is about the things we don't want to think about, things that lurk, feelings that are disturbing to have, ideas from which we shy away. This was overt in Dark Mythologies, the first of the four volumes in the series. There my songs were related to mythical beings that live in belief or legend from crazy vampire creatures to wild dogs that roam dark moors. People are scared of the dark and so, in some ways, The Dark Series is about musically addressing fears. Through Dark Rhythms, Dark Moods and Dark Visions the themes of fear are still present but perhaps more subtly so. Some titles are suggestive but the darkness, overt in Dark Mythologies, clothes itself in the night and wanders unseen throughout most of the collection.

Perhaps here is an apt moment to mention the sound of The Dark Series. Naturally enough, if you have followed my work at all, it is an electronic series. There is a modular feel to much of it due to the heavy use of sequencers and I have deliberately tried to create that sort of sound. That's not necessarily in an overt way. Its just what comes naturally to me. I shall have more to say about this when I get to the procedures I used in making the series. Rhythm is hugely important to the sound of my music and it is always heavily emphasised. Some people define their sound by their use of melody or harmony. My signatures are more based in rhythm and fascination with sound. Here I have used drums and percussion which mix electronic sounds with real drum sounds. I have also tried to utilise larger sounds rhythmically. The most notable example here is Ragnarök, the very first track from the series, which chugs and churns its path through destruction and rebirth. Particularly in the second half of the series, in Dark Moods and Dark Visions, I have used some waves from signature synthesizers to create bass sounds. If you are familiar with them you should hear sounds from the Arp Odyssey and Korg MS-20 in there. Reflecting, I think maybe the fact that I always try to use interesting sounds means that I concentrate less (or not at all) on melody. The sounds themselves (and how they complement or contrast with each other) are the most fascinating and interesting things of all!

And so we come to HOW The Dark Series was made. To background this you need to understand that mid-series I came across the writings of that great American musical experimentalist of the 20th century, John Cage. Cage was a Zen Buddhist and tried to put the principles of that faith into practice in his music. This meant "emptying" the music of influence much as, within that faith, one seeks to empty oneself. At the start of the 1950s he began to overtly use chance and randomness to write music. He used the I Ching, something used for divination as a sort of key for making decisions. And he wrote music this way for decades thereafter because it removed much of his influence from the music he was making. Cage, of course, is primarily known in the popular consciousness for his "silent" work 4' 33", a work in which the pianist sits at the piano, as in its first performance, and plays no notes. The point Cage appears to be making here is that the piece is any and every sound that happens during the 4' 33" of the performance, a radical redefining and blurring of the lines between an authorial performance and an audience passively listening.

I had myself, during the making of The Dark Series, been thinking theoretically about the process of making music, as I often do. This is often salted and stimulated by the thoughts of fellow musicians on Twitter. When I came across Cage's work this thinking really went into overdrive. I have always been suspicious of authors. They cannot be trusted. Authors are unreliable. They lie and they are biased. What's more, they have blind spots. You will always make music like you and, in former times, that was a good thing. I hate artists and bands who set out to try and sound like their heroes and sounding like yourself, I think, is the first duty of any musical artist. But hold on. That itself is a binding limitation. If I always sound like me then I am always subject to all the flaws, bad choices and blind spots that I have. I will, in short, sound the same, forever contained within a narrow band of habits or things I like to do. And I don't like that idea. I don't like it at all. I'm a living thing. I'm capable of change. I want to grow. I want to reach out my neck, like a tree growing towards the sun.

My methods have always been open to, and embraced, both randomness and arbitrariness. Partly this was determined by my anti-authoritarian leanings. Basically, if you tell me something should be done a certain way I will do the opposite. It was also based in laziness. Doing things "right" takes time and effort. But I just want to have fucking fun! So I have always ordered my various setups over the years to promote the making of instant fun. I'm all about the instant gratification baby! But what I found, over the years, was that this could also be deeply honest, authentic and satisfying long term. I feel now that this method is like recording your actual living soul. There is, I think, no pretension, no artifice, no deliberation in this method. Or, at least, there is less. And, to me, that means its less false, less manufactured. I have issues with manufacturing things. I find them fake and unreal. To touch the living, moving, genuine, stream of consciousness is what I seek to do. And that brooks no falsity or artifice in the process. So I naturally came to the position of recording what happened in a performance and leaving it at that with no touching up, mousing or cosmetics later to make it perfect. Life isn't perfect, reality isn't perfect. And music should not be perfect. Much better that it be real. Honest.

But now in making The Dark Series I wanted to incorporate ideas which would remove my influence from the creation process. This happens most overtly in Dark Moods and especially Dark Visions. I found the process to be revelatory and I cannot recommend it enough. To hear myself making music I could never have made deliberately myself was staggering. It was like a window to a whole new layer of reality had been opened. Possibilities were now there that had never existed before. Basically, I introduced overt chance through the use of a number key. The numbers were given to me by five kind souls on Twitter. I used the numbers they gave me to give me answers to questions necessary to make the music. For example, if I came to record a piece and asked "How many beats should be in this measure?" I went to the numbers provided and saw that the first number there was 19. And so I wrote music that utilised a 19 beat (or four bars and three beats) pattern. This was not easy and many of the numbers provided were either odd numbers or, worse, prime numbers! (For those light on musical theory I should explain that the problem here is that prime numbers can't be divided by either 3 or 4, the number of beats most often used in making "standard" Western music. This would lend any music made using such a pattern a disturbing "otherness". ) But, and this is very important, that was good. It forced me to do things differently, to embrace things I never would have done by myself. It has stretched and changed my musical possibilities. It has also created music you never could have heard from me before. So what we have here is new musical territory.

And so in making The Dark Series I find myself changed as a musical being at the end. I have had, for want of a better description, a revelation. I am naturally experimental and prefer to find my own path (and, perhaps, repeat all the old mistakes) rather than do "what you are supposed to". In this I find that I have inadvertently wandered into the path that giants like Cage have trodden before me. My music, as my life, is, and should be, an adventure. The Dark Series started out as an album about some mythical creatures, just more of the same music on a new subject. It ended up being so much more.

You can hear all four albums from The Dark Series at