Performance day

Set up in the Playhouse

Set up in the Playhouse

Wow, what a buzz! Despite some last minute preparations and a rush to the finish line, the Music by Degrees group as a whole brought everything together beautifully – a very smooth operation from beginning to end, and some truly inspired performances. All groups went well beyond what was required of them to bring about a final production that was eminently worthy – we can all be quite proud of what we have achieved.

Last minute preparations

Last minute preparations

To our credit, our soundscape group pulled off the performance magnificently – the weeks of preparation for this performance certainly paid off. Alex and Ben did some sublime work with their audio samples up front of stage, Blaise held down some tasty grooves and licks, and Tom and myself had some great interplay between parts, synchronising beautifully for the key change into A minor and then back to C#. It was very, very good, I couldn’t fault the performance at all – the acoustics of the Performance Space at UWS probably had a great deal to do with the openness and subtlety of the performance.

Blaise getting ready

Blaise getting ready

The entire show was recorded for the UWS broadcast unit TVS, and will be used in promotion of the Bachelor of Music for the university, so I’m keen to see how everything panned out – being backstage for almost all of the production, I hardly saw any of it, but it certainly sounded great!

This will be my last post for this category, but I look forward to posting more news on my university studies, and sound and video experiments in the future… stay tuned.

The Music by Degrees team

The Music by Degrees team

Recording the soundscape

A quick entry, only because I have so much work to complete this week: as well as the final preparations for this project, to be performed on Thursday(!), I also need to submit a ‘Statement of Intent’ for honours next year, which is proving more difficult than I thought – try to distil your entire reason for playing music for the last thirty years and how you intend to incorporate this into an intense final year of study in 1000 words, and you’ll see what I mean!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe group as a whole decided we would need for our final portfolio presentation a recording, as a document of our process this far. I booked the small studio at UWS for Thursday, and though several of us arrived early, we were beset by technical issues for most of the morning; by the time we were actually ready to record, it was about 11.30am and as there was another group following us, we had to get the soundscape right first take. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFortunately, I believe we largely pulled it off – apart from the occasional suspect gesture (keeping in mind this is a soundscape, so there are no ‘bum’ notes as such) it hung together fairly well. Again, I believe we’ve pulled better versions in rehearsal, but we’ve had to make do with what we have. I mixed the recording the following night, taking care to  clean up the studio sound (there was much spill through the piano and percussion microphones) and I think the soundscape came up fairly well – although there’s an elements of hit and miss, there are certainly sublime sections which I find are not dissimilar to some of Eno‘s early ambient work and some references to Pink Floyd, no doubt from the slide techniques I’ve been using. You can listen to it here:


The guys in the band  - from L-R, Blaise Parnell, myself, Tom Hodson, Ben Turner, Alex Salazar.

The guys in the band – from L-R, Blaise Parnell, myself, Tom Hodson, Ben Turner, Alex Salazar.

It’s been an interesting ride, but I’m exhausted: I’m also designing the program for Music by Degrees, which has taken up much of today to put together and design. It looks great, but I need to get on with other assignments, and especially need to finish this Statement of Intent which is due in on Tuesday. At least we now have an interesting document of this entire experience, rambling and chaotic though it’s been at times, and I’m quietly proud of our little group – not a bad bunch of fellas either. 😉

Presentation day

At last the day arrives – a relief to have the presentation finally out of the way, and thankfully well documented, though the proof will be in our final performance on October 17, barely two weeks away: time is flying before our eyes…

The 'final' score - for now.

The ‘final’ score – for now.

After a couple of run throughs in a final rehearsal this morning, the soundscape appears have taken form, and in referring to a ‘final’ version of the score (updated by Alex to reflect last minute changes, see above), we were ready to go. There was some discussion following run throughs between Tom, Alex and myself over some details of structure, which was followed by an impromptu improvisation, purely for enjoyments sake – I believe we were getting such a kick out of the sounds we were generating that we just needed to keep going!

The performance in itself was perhaps a slight letdown, as I believe we had performed better versions in rehearsal: nonetheless, it was still entirely capable and well received. I made a minor blunder in forgetting to locate my guitar slide beforehand, ensuing in a unsuccessful rummage through my backpack mid-performance (not a good look) but in any case, no-one appeared to notice and I carried on the performance regardless, albeit in a somewhat modified fashion.

We will reconvene next week and decide what aspects need tightening up, and in the meantime I’ve devised some graphics for the overall project, which I’ve run past the larger group as a whole – rehearsals for the entire project begin next week, so we need to get things happening pretty fast. Music By Degrees is underway… to some degree at least!

A demo of todays recording below:

Putting it all together

A grand turn out of only three today in the UWS small studio (Alex was working, Tom… well, slept in) but Ben, Blaise and myself worked fairly intensely on the structure of the sound-scape and consolidated our respective processes, insofar as formalising the order of events and working out dynamically how the final piece will come together.

The basic plan, or ‘score’ of sorts, now looks something like this:
I decided to neaten up the layout of our ‘score’ in the last couple of days, as a handwritten A4 sheet was obviously insufficient if we were all to view it at the same time. This has been laid out in A3 (or two A4s stuck together anyway) and provides a clearer indication of sections, dynamics, and what each performer is doing. Although we obviously modified this as we went along, the basic plan will probably stay along these lines. I’ll update the sheet in time for next weeks performance, and hopefully after a brief run through on Thursday morning, we’ll be all set to go (fingers crossed).

A recording of today’s efforts below:

Consolidation and a plan

Only a brief meetup for our group yesterday, but long enough to devise a plan, or a score of sorts for our soundscape (see photo). For the sake of simplicity, given the timeframe we have available to perform (approximately 10 mins), we’ve split the ‘piece’ into three sections:

• a quiet introduction in C# dorian mode, carrying over the E drone from the previous group into the minor third degree of the mode. Ban and Alex will establish the soundscape, using atmospheres from the uni environment, while I will provide short, fingered bursts on guitar. Blaise comes in shortly thereafter, followed by Tom, using evocative, hanging chords based on the C# mode, and the piano motif in the odd metre (5/8). This will build slightly, with Tom introducing an Am motif (still maintaining the E) to introduce the new section.

• a build in dynamics ensues once Tom brings the key back to C#, with Blaise introducing a hammer-on riff on his acoustic guitar, and I introduce delay sweeps with an analogue delay, varying the speed and pitch, with Ben and Alex contributing denser samples. This builds to a fff climax, Tom emphasising this with toms and cymbals, with an abrupt drop into almost silence

• from here, I make gentle volume swells, with Tom introducing bowing techniques on a vibraphone and cymbals – I echo this with a bowing technique employing a guitar slide high up the neck of the guitar, which gives an eerie effect. The sound builds and dies gradually, with Alex bringing a piano motif the Tom devised a couple of weeks back, with some evocative chords and the odd-metred motif, which has become and integral part of the soundscape, leaving Tom free to employ the violin bow to full effect. Image
This is a template for the time being, which I’m sure will change over the coming sessions, but at least we have something to work from now. We have another run through next Thursday, and then it’s presentation the following week – it should be interesting, at the very least!

Getting very interesting…

Finally, after a few false starts, our weekly together yesterday resulted in what I believe we’ve all been striving for – some moments of sublime interaction, where all the disparate elements finally coming together in something we could feasibly call an actual ‘piece’.

Alex and Ben, our tech gurus

Alex and Ben, our tech gurus

Although still loose in a structural sense, our soundscape aesthetic is beginning to take shape and our respective roles have become more defined: Alex and Ben have taken on the mantle of being the ‘tech’ manipulators, with Ben’s role managing more of the sounds from the UWS environment, manipulated through Ableton, while Alex has taken on more of the musical elements, also employing Ableton but using samples taken from last weeks run through, looping the main piano motif that Tom devised, along with some evocative piano chords based on the C# dorian mode we seem to be working from, plus an assortment of cymbal crescendos, splashes and other audio manipulations.

Tom getting into bowing everything within reach!

Tom getting into bowing everything within reach!

Tom meanwhile has really come into his own; released in the environment of the percussion room at UWS and freed from the role of ‘pianist’, he has come to using a violin bow on cymbals and vibraphone to great effect, as well as augmenting this with tom rolls and accents, and occasional piano flourishes. Blaise has chosen to stay with his acoustic guitar, using an open tuning in C# and playing repetitive motifs and using the body of the instrument for percussive effects. Meanwhile I, instead of confining myself to percussion duties, have started to use an electric guitar, using techniques I initially employed in Expanded Practice: volume swells, bowed techniques using a bottleneck slide, using excessive analogue delay to create atmosphere and sweepable echo feedback loops.

It's basic, but does the trick - Boss blues driver through an Ibanez analog delay

It’s basic, but does the trick – Boss blues driver through an Ibanez analog delay

The overall effect is inspired and on occasion sublime – after plugging in, we freely improvised for about 20mins on the spot and achieved a gorgeous layering of sound, incorporating natural sounds from the university environment and manipulating them by way of pitch, repetition, reverberation and other effects. Tom’s piano motif was particularly effective as an element that would surface here and there as an identifier – we also discussed the idea of each of us having a signature ‘sound’ for each performer that was ours alone. We also discussed visuals for the project, and although the idea of using a projection screen with video footage was floated, we’ve decided instead that using an audio visualiser that reacts to our soundscape would be almost as effective – to that end I have purchased a visualiser called White Cap, that can run from a laptop and be projected onto a back screen.

If this is an indication of what we can achieve by pure improvisation, I’m quietly confident of the success of this subgroup. We still have 3 weeks until we present our part of the project, and at our present performing level we could easily present now. A very productive session indeed.

A process in evolution

Alex, Ben and Blaise getting a groove on...

Alex, Ben and Blaise getting a groove on…

Although only a brief get together today, it was first at which we were ALL in attendance,  and we managed to get some musical work done. Part of my mild frustration with this exercise was up until now, there had been no process per se: this is now beginning to change as certain individuals are putting their ideas in. As the token percussionist in this particular ensemble, my role in directing the tonal areas of our ‘piece’ so far has been limited – fortunately today Tom took the reigns a little and starting directing a few ideas in shaping the overall direction of our soundscape, with Alex and Blaise putting in as well.

Tom sketches out the shape of things to come

Tom sketches out the shape of things to come

Ben has been keen to get into the sound manipulation of our experiments so far, and brought in a portable Zoom digital recorder to capture some of our sounds – to my knowledge he’ll be manipulating these for use next week. Alex also has the intention of bring in an interface so we can use Ableton through a p.a. system and make use of its live potential. This side of thing I have little idea about – I posted a quick audio experiment last night from my own sound manipulation in Pro Tools, of which no-one seemed to take a great deal of notice, and young Alex derided some of my audio manipulations as ‘old school’, so this older guy thinks perhaps let the young guys have their head and I’ll just stick to what I know…

The plan thus far

The plan thus far

At the very least, we now have a rough plan of how the piece will evolve and have some notions of tonal centres to explore (see photo), so we’re not entirely in the dark as to how this will eventually unfold. I am quietly confident at this juncture that the whole thing could turn out, well, rather good actually…

A rough demo of today’s efforts:

Ideas emerging…

Blaise and Alex in the control room

Blaise, Alex and Tom in the control room

Our second official meeting today, with the added intent of actually figuring out some music instead of just talking about it. Alex, Blaise, Tom and myself (Ben was ill) booked a studio and put our heads together to see what we could come up with musically. Based initially on some experiments that Ben had put together from audio samples I had provided, Alex set up a ProTools session that would loop this content so we could jam along in time and also record the proceedings. I chose to take on a percussion role, as Tom (piano) and Blaise (acoustic guitar) already had the melodic and harmonic side of things covered, and Tom had some musical ideas he wanted to try out.

Alex in the control room

Alex in the control room

The headphone send from the studio didn’t appear to be working unfortunately, so we abandoned the idea of playing along with a loop and purely improvised; as this was our first official session of playing together, it was more to get a feel for each others musical sensibilities. Tom had an interesting idea of superimposing a 6/4 motif in his left hand against a 5/4 in his right hand, which sounded great when it worked, though it took a while to settle in – Blaise attempted some hammer on techniques on guitar, while I attempted some syncopations and atmospherics on congas and cymbal. Sometimes this worked well, sometimes it almost fell apart, but as this is still early days I feel we’re only tentatively begin to feel each other out musically, so will withold any judgements for the moment!

The studio set up

The studio set up

Although not a total waste of effort, as there were good ideas that emerged in the recording, we probably spent unnecessary time setting up microphones and recording the proceedings – at this early stage, I feel we should concentrate more on idea generation in a musical sense and not so much on audio fidelity. I suggested upon hearing the playback of the session, that we each come up with a short musical phrase that we could extrapolate upon in the next session. I again reiterated that if this group is to be truly representative of the ‘soundscape’ aspect of the unit, we need to not only use parts of the university soundscape to manipulate, but we need to show the progression from that soundscape into the manipulated sounds, whether they be musical or otherwise – I believe this is key and fundamental to the project.

Tom putting an idea to Alex

Tom putting an idea to Alex

Tom has some musical ideas that I believe are quite valid, using repetitive motifs reminiscent of Terry Riley and Mike Oldfield, in C# dorian (relating back to the E major drone of the previous subgroup), which gives a nice, floating quality. I will attempt to come up with something similar this week in a related key and hopefully will be able to slot it into what we’re doing. Four weeks until presentation and counting…

A rough demo recording of todays session:

Subgroup 6 – beginnings

Our first ‘official’ meeting took place today, and proved far more productive than I could have imagined – we have a bunch of go-getters here! Blaise is quite pro-active in getting everything organised, and  Alex I sense is itching to get the soundscape off the ground as soon as possible – both he and Ben are well versed in Ableton Live and are prepared to take on more of the ‘tech’ duties. Despite my audio background in using ProTools, it’s probably to my advantage to take part in the live performance itself for once, and to be perfectly honest, I’d like to leave the technical details to someone else and concentrate on how to pull off the best live performance.

At this early stage, we’re still thrashing around ideas of the best way to tackle this part of the project – I ventured that using short audio sample as a way to build up rhythm tracks for performance would be useful, which seemed to be taken up. Another idea ventured by Ben for using industrial material that already has inherent tones, to use as pitched material was also useful. We auditioned  tracks in a small audio studio in O Block I had no idea existed (so much for three years of a degree!) and decided for practical reasons to get a group DropBox underway to swap audio files.

This is an auspicious start, and if we can keep the momentum going, I believe we could have some valuable material to contribute to the final project.