Seeing Sound

An introduction by way of an explanation:  One of my resolutions this year is to make me some good music.  This might not be a particularly challenging resolution were I Keith Richards but, as is, I am fundamentally not Keith Richards.  I missed the sixties, I missed the seventies, and I do not play any instruments.  Of the three, the latter -- and this is important -- does not worry me in the slightest.

Many of the best artists of the past sixty years have not been particularly musically talented, whatever that means to you.  Without debating the finer points of Milli-Vanilli-ism or singing Ashlee Simpson's praises, I'm thinking about Jonathan Richman, Brian Eno, the Clash, Autechre, Belle & Sebastian, the Cars, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Magnetic Fields, Pulp, Suicide, the Talking Heads, and the Velvet Underground amongst thousands.  At one stage in their professional careers, the eclectic above had all been (contentedly) amateurish musicians.

Blessedly, music is not about instruments.  There are some highly proficient Progressive Rockers still touring the English countryside, singing about dwarves, playing 13th chords while dressed like (creepy) children's entertainers in jumpsuits and caterpillar masks.  These people don't get me too interested, whereas the preceding 'amateurs' shone on with nothing but their intelligence, energy, taste, and patience.

Music is personal (disagree with me here) and so here's a personal manifesto.  I believe I can make music because...
  1. I believe I am moderately tasteful. 
  2. I am patient enough to wade up the learning curve, the music store jargon, the software, the hardware, the endless knob twiddlings, all in the hopes of coming up with ...
  3. Moderately tasteful sounds to stick on top or next to the last one tasteful sound.
Is this it?  Well yes.  

Onwards to seeing sounds. 

But first an apology: I try not to equivocate.  Most of my most meaningless literary theory classes revolved around deliberately reinterpreting words ("See the band playing in the background? Perhaps they're a visual symbol for the wedding-band Carrie so desperately wants and Charlotte does not.  Maybe if the friends banded together...").  

That said, I'm aware that I use the verb to 'see' in a couple different ways but I think the connection between seeing (understanding) and seeing (visualizing) is a little richer than the above example.  Forgive me. 

Seeing sounds on the instruments:   That sounds easy.  But sounds, I've discovered, is hard.  Most of the stuff I got my guitar to do when I first held it was awful (this awful).  I needed to get to a basic understanding of pretty sounds.  

I see with pictures.  Not being a synaesthete by birth, sounds are quite distinct from sight in my mind.  I need a metaphor to make sense of the millions of frequencies that even the worst musician has at his or her disposal. 

Both the guitar fretboard and the piano keyboard visual metaphors (and mechanical inputs) for sound -- preferably melodic sound -- creation.  If tuned conventionally, they limit the potential sounds to the twelve notes that make an octave (do you see how words are getting useless here?).  

The piano is the simpler of the two: one key to one sound, plop your hands up to the right and the sounds increase in pitch.  I can't think of how to explain pitch with words, but consider the fun part of Come on Eileen and know that even the matinee actor gets that he should fake his hands right when the notes get higher.  

The guitar is more confusing as numerous 'keys' play the same note.  You can move your hands down the neck or across it to raise the pitch.  The fretboard is a matrix.  I prefer the guitar's honest complexity.  Unlike the piano's black-and-white keys, it doesn't have me prejudiced against flats and sharps (they're called accidentals; if I'm playing they certainly are).  The piano is also heavier and less likely to get you a girlfriend. 
There are other instruments -- I love the violin as an accent, the horns in Higher and Higher by Jackie Wilson -- and despite unfamiliarity, I'm sure they've got both their peccadilloes and twelve notes tuned to the same frequencies as the twelve on the piano or guitar.  It's what you do with those twelve notes that makes all the difference and it's here that seeing things becomes important.  

One note is one frequency and three or more notes is a chord.  Chords tend to have some grounding in melody and melody, while mathematical as all things, is best kept sacred and ill-understood.  Learning chords is a pain in the ass because the person who first tuned the guitar and first built the piano obviously never used them.  You could avoid chords (with computers this is easier) and just stack tones of single noted instruments on top of each other like a brass band.  For fear of retribution, I won't say anything negative about brass bands (loved them in Tusk), but they're a little impractical in a vegetarian café.  

I have lumped it and am learning the chords.  One could do this with notation, but I'm doing this with little pictures that basically tell me where to put my hands (from an un-condescending book called Fretboard Logic SE).  The modern system of musical notation is mostly instrument independent and some very impressive eight-year-olds can read single notes, chords, and notes as they move forwards in time with great ease.  I am not a very impressive eight-year-old (was I ever?) and so I must make do with tablature, a guitar specific system which tells me where to press down on the guitar's neck and which looks a lot less professional.  

Generative music aside, there is some debate as to whether a music is legitimate if it can't have its sounds recorded in note form.  There is a real push for turntable transcription and there are some compelling models that tell the turntabulist (ugh) where to scratch, fade, and bring up the Phil Collins song in the bass.  This seems academic, but I'll take that as a cue to mention John Cage.  Cage is perhaps best known for his piece 4'33" -- 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence.  This must be legitimate because there is sheet music for it, because Cage went to college, and because you can download it from the iTunes Music Store(!).  Much of his other stuff is un-listen-able, but I make the pitstop because it's worth noting that Cage actually drew some beautiful images and notation for his work and stands as a good example of using bogus externalities to see something that just isn't there.  

Seeing Sound in Time: Pitfalls and learning curves addressed, I still think that seeing sound is useful if one is going to think in sound -- especially if one is interested in making songs longer than a note.  Most means of recording music -- tape, record, CD -- have the sound information laid out chronologically (there are no great musical palindromes) and it is in songs and recording that Time begins to crop up.  4'33" might even be an argument that this is the most important value in music. 

I am recording our songs with Apple's Logic Express 8.  Logic is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) apparently and the basic visual metaphor is the same as the other front runners and Apple's free program, Garageband.  

Logic is well-titled.  A little time spent in the program will let even the clueless (me) understand how songs are structured, the different components that go into making a song, and the logic or thinking behind things.  

Logic lets you record sound in two ways.  When you record real sound, perhaps with a microphone, you see your sounds scrunched up as waves.  When you record your sound with your MIDI keyboard, you aren't seeing any sound per se;  what you see are the notes played, how hard and how long they were hit, all lit up in bright colors like player piano roll on its side.  Logic's built-in synthesizers make the sounds simultaneously with the 'roll' of information.  
There are other DAWs.  One that I've had recommended to me by a drummer is Ableton Live.  Live is another way of conceiving (creating) music visually as a series of small sound loops (eg. add some bottom, baseline, then drums, lead, etc).  Here's their ad which (unfortunately) only gives an example of a narrow and annoying spectrum of musical genres.  But -- hey -- German muzicians.   

The language used to describe these things is jargony and bulky.  The visual metaphors are actually quite simple (a lot of the stuff looks like retro synthesizers) and, if they were designed by designers (Tufte!) instead of engineers, they would be simpler still.  

We've just finished our first song and now we're mastering it.  This involves spending some time at the equalizer which, this being the end of my music-making knowledge, might make a nice transition to the next section.

Seeing Sound Elsewhere:  I remember the equalizer on my father's stereo as a child and how you could see each kick of the bass drum.  A more grown-up version of the EQ -- well, teenagerish -- is the mp3 visualizer.  Click here if you can forgive the sound.  These are post hoc and the only real reason they exist (given that the truly stoned are just as entertained by lava lights, lights) is because one is listening to music on a thing with a screen that needs to be doing something.  

I do remember the Museum of Science's Pink Floyd Laser Light Show.  Perhaps that's evidence to suggest that I wasn't really there.  I do not remember Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable but I wish I could have experienced the Velvet Underground under the melting lights.  
I also remember a large neon light and sound thing at the San Francisco airport.  Here's a better take in the Detroit metro of all places.  And here, beautiful in every aspect except sound, another at the V&A Museum.  Why do these installations use ambient electronic music?  Perhaps robot music appeals to the engineer, or perhaps there's a cleaner amount of data (no fuzzy recordings, no words to detract) that can be transferred from sound program to light program.  This is also the reason why the most effective 3D movies are 3D animated -- they're already got the depth-value written -- the 3rd D.

I have yet to remember Guitar Hero as I can't get my hand on it.  This game, like its counterparts RockBand and Dance Dance Revolution, has bars of sound trickle down from the top of the screen to the bottom when you're supposed to strum your guitar.  It's not really music, but I think it has some of the fun of playing with someone else.  

A game that does make music is Elektroplankton.  The video below should give you a sense of one of the easiest to understand modes Electroplankton has for composing.  This trailer should give you a sense of more of the modes, and this song is kind of pretty.  I've not played/played the game, but I am impressed with some of the stuff I've heard and that the game has found musicians and they have found an audience.   

Some of the different modes are very similar to a step computer or drum machine.  Below is a video of a basic drum machine to show you just how easily percussion (and the kind of music you hear blasted out of Nissans by men with waxed eyebrows) is to make. 

As the internet snakes around, Electroplankton has lead me to a nearly forgotten visual/musical language called Pure Data.  Pure Data (nice name) is actually more of an instrument that can create sound and sights simultaneously.  It all seems too complex though.

In summation, Michel Gondry's video for the Chemical Brother's song Star Guitar.  This is how I would like the visual world and music to work together. 


Nick said...

Hi Geoff,

have just discovered this new blog of yours. Has been a great read as usual, missed your old green one.

Talking about visually creating music have you heard of this new instrument?
There are some great videos on you tube of the machine which demonstrate its vast possibilities.

Also a great digital music blog I like to read once in a while is this:
Think you'll appreciate it if your not doing so already!

Looking forward to your future posts,


Mansfield said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for the links. I regret not including the Tenori-On in the original post (perhaps I'll create an addendum), and will definitely be adding your second link to the list of sites I check compulsively.

I'll try to keep posting things regularly.