Chris Harris's Blog

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Current: August 2014

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20 August 14 (permalink)

BACK TO THE MUNDANE

There's no gadding about for me this week. Instead, I've just spent four hours doing the first batch of gardening I've managed all month. The lawn was in a right state and the flowerbeds need a lot of work. I hate brambles, but it seems I just can't get rid of the things. The back lawn is mainly Japanese knotweed these days, and I hate that stuff, too. The plants in the front garden had grown so much I could barely see out of the living room window. So I've been busy. Now everything looks much more neat and tidy, and I'm knackered, so I am recovering with a restorative gin and tonic.

QUITE A VIEW

The images of Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko that have been coming back from ESA's Rosetta spacecraft are absolutely stunning. Did you see APOD yesterday? If not, go and have a look right now. The fact that we can get photographs of a distant comet with that much detail boggles my mind.

CLOSING IN ON HALF WAY

I wrote and recorded two songs for Fifty/Ninety on Monday, and another two yesterday. I'll be heading back into the studio later to record another one, which will take me to 25 songs. That's half way to my target. I'm behind schedule, but catching up rapidly. I've noticed that the harder I work at writing songs, the easier it seems to get. Creativity is like a muscle - the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.

17 August 14 (permalink)

ANOTHER BUSY WEEK

August has turned into one of the most hectic, event-filled months I've had in several years. Once again I've spent most of the last week out and about, hanging out with friends, eating some very nice food and going to some fascinating events. I got back on Thursday night from London, tired and footsore but stimulated and refreshed.

Last weekend I spent in Bristol with some friends. On the Saturday we wandered around the M-Shed, which is well worth a visit...

BLOONS!

...on Sunday we shopped at Forbidden Planet and climbed Brandon Hill to get a good view of the city from the Cabot Tower...

The View from the Hill

...and for my birthday I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy at the Cinema de Lux. I really enjoyed it. There were some lovely little gags for nerdy types like me, not least when Rocket Raccoon executes a perfect Picard Maneuvre (which made me laugh out loud).

On Tuesday it was back to London, for Woodrow's page turning of She Lives at the British Library. It was great to see Woodrow and Bridge and Mel, and getting to hang out with them all for a couple of days was a delight. I was very touched when they presented me with some birthday gifts. After the British Library event concluded we caught the tube to Tower Hill to see the blood swept lands and seas of red installation by Paul Cummins at the Tower of London...

Tower, Poppies, Shard

...and had dinner with more friends at the branch of Wagamama next door. We were there until late, sitting and talking. Huge fun. On the Wednesday Mel and Peter and I started things off by sampling the cakes and coffee in the Cafe at the top of the new Foyles in Charing Cross Road (I had square crumpets with peanut butter, which were delicious), investigated the books on sale on all five floors, then had some great Korean food in St Giles's, shopped 'til we dropped in Forbidden Planet in Shaftesbury Avenue before investigating the Digital Revolution exhibition at the Barbican (which was well worth a visit)...

Pacman Takes Over

Atari 520ST

PET

Objects on display like the Atari 520ST and Commodore PET above brought memories of the late 70s and early 80s flooding back. I still have my 520 squirrelled away in the loft, and I really must dig it out and have a play with it. I also remember spending hours typing in and playing BASIC games on a Commodore PET that belonged to a friend's father. Happy days. On one memorable occasion their bearded collie ran into the room, slipped on the floor, and knocked the Commodore's plug out of the power socket, wiping the memory of the hundreds of lines of code for a Star Trek game that we'd spent the previous three hours typing in!

But the exhibition also had some objects that were unattainable for me back then, like the Linn Drum LM-2 and the Fairlight CMI...

Linn Drum LM-2

Fairlight CMI

Next to the Fairlight was a set of headphones where you could listen to work by artists who used the thing like The Art of Noise, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. It's funny looking at the Fairlight now; it looks like a quite mundane piece of technology and calling the qwerty keyboard "clunky" would be generous at best. But back then, it was the ultimate musical instrument. If you could afford one, you were very definitely in the premier league of recording artists. And the music that artists produced with it had an extraordinary effect on my musical development. Happy days, indeed.

After playing some indie games in the GameDev section of the exhibition (including one for the PS3 called The Unfinished Swan which completely drew me in - I think I'm going to have to buy my own copy) and having great fun in the interactive laser show, Mel and I wandered over to Spitalfields to meet up with Woodrow where we had burgers in Byron's (again!) before I saw Mel back to her hotel. I caught the train back to my brother's house and got in at about 11:30. I was pretty much toast by the time I arrived and I could barely make it up their stairs. I think it says a lot about how much walking about I was doing this week (usually carrying a bag full of newly purchased and very heavy books as well as my camera and a raincoat) that despite having quite a few large and delicious meals in restaurants I haven't put any weight on at all!

Thursday was a more relaxed day. I met Mel in Kings Cross and we had a late (but delicious) breakfast of eggs benedict at a little restaurant called Karpo before heading back to the British Library to spend a couple of hours in the permanent collection room. I still get goosebumps when I see W. H. Auden's diary, or the original lyric sheets for Beatles songs, particularly "Yesterday" but the collection now also has manuscripts and diaries by Angela Carter and Hanif Kureshi. We did some serious shopping in Muji in Tottenham Court Road (I got a great long-sleeved shirt in their sale - I'm wearing it right now) then ambled down to Chinatown for dinner. But then it was time to head off in our separate ways. I got back to the village at eleven and when my head hit the pillow in my own bed I went out like a light.

On Friday evening I met up with Andy, Anna and Sophie one more time. They were staying for a couple of days in Bath, and we had a fantastic meal at Clayton's Kitchen in The Porter in George Street. That was one of the best meals I've had in years and the others felt the same way. Highly recommended.

SATURDAY METAL

The pace didn't let up yesterday, either. Paul and I headed down into Bristol to The Fleece for their "Midsummer Metal" event. It took a while to get there; the M5 south and the A38 south were both gridlocked with holiday traffic, but when we arrived Phil from Brocken Spectre was outside so we wandered up and said hello. Brocken Spectre were recommended to me by fellow FAWMer Sapient, aka Peter "Abomnium" Watkinson. As soon as I heard their stuff on Reverbnation I knew I was going to enjoy the gig, and that turned out to be the case. And let's face it: any band that has a track called "Man's Benign Existence Matters Little To His Feline Overlords" is going to score pretty highly in my book...

Brocken Spectre at the Fleece

Brocken Spectre at the Fleece

The level of proficiency displayed by Phil (guitar), Jordan (drums) and Duncan (bass) was, quite frankly, intimidating, but they were extremely affable chaps and incredibly enthusiastic about music. It was a pleasure to meet them.

It was also a pleasure to discover the music of Bristolians Franklin Mint, who played later on the same bill...

Franklin Mint at the Fleece

Again, lots of technical wizardry going on from the band, coupled with very entertaining lyrics delivered by a charismatic frontman. They have a great musical fit with the guys from Brocken Spectre, and they were talking about doing more gigs together. If that happens, I'll be there and you can expect a full write-up in the blog. Sadly the later bands didn't achieve the same high standard of excellence so Paul and I had bugged out by 10 pm. But I really enjoyed the day and I got to hear some fine music. And I've already ordered some CDs from two bands who kept cropping up in the conversation over and over again: Animals as Leaders and Chimpspanner.

BACK TO THE STUDIO

But now it's time to catch up on my Fifty Ninety schedule. I'm way behind at the moment both in recording stuff and commenting on other people's work. So that's going to be the priority for the coming week. Stay tuned...

8 August 14 (permalink)

AWAY TEAM

I've been away for a few days in London hanging out with my brothers. Andy is visiting from California with his family, so we did lots of touristy things in town: we caught the clipper down the Thames to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, checked out the newly-refurbished Imperial War Museum in Kennington, and on Wednesday we spent the best part of a day in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington. There was much walking about; Cathy reckoned we were covering about ten miles a day and my legs certainly feel like it. It was an enjoyable change from sitting inside at home and I even managed to pick up a bit of a tan. Memorable moments include some truly spectacular weather...

Evening on the river

calling in at the RSPB's pop-up stand outside the Tate Modern and looking through a spotting scope at the peregrine falcon that was perched at the top of the museum's tower...

Tate Modern Resident

...and walking back to my brother's house from Chelsfield station and marvelling at the beam of Ryoji Ikeda's Spectra installation next to the Houses of Parliament that we could see quite clearly when it was switched on as part of the Lights Out event that took place across London on August 4th to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the First World War.

NARROW SQUEAK

When I got home in the early hours of Thursday morning I fired up the router and tried booting up my six-year-old main PC, only to read a bunch of error messages on the screen. It was not happy about being powered down for the best part of the week. I left it for the night, and when I got up later that morning I managed to resurrect it. This involved opening up the case and giving everything a very careful but thorough clean with the brush attachment on my vacuum cleaner - so much dust had got caught in the fan gratings that they were nearly blocked and the heat sinks for the processors were coated in a thick layer of grey gunk. After putting everything back together I crossed my fingers and hit the power switch. The system booted up without a problem. To say I'm relieved that the thing still works is putting it mildly.

ARRIVAL

It's taken the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft ten years to get there, but on Wednesday it arrived at its destination, the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. And what a spectacular sight the comet has turned out to be. An irregular-shaped lump of ice and rock that would fit in London's West End, the comet appears to consist of two main bodies connected by a narrow neck. The photographs received back so far show incredible detail. It all looks very different to the murky, dusty images that ESA's Giotto probe returned from Comet Halley back in 1986 as it flew past at high speed.

Rosetta is carrying a small lander called Philae which will attempt to land on the comet in November. Because the comet is so small, "landing" is a little more complicated than just dropping to the ground. To stop the lander bouncing or drifting away once it makes contact, Philae will fire a harpoon at the ground and tether itself to the surface. Comets are thought to consist of materials that have not chanced since the birth of the Solar System, so the lander is packed with science experiments to find out what it's made of. It's going to be very interesting finding out.

1 August 14 (permalink)

CONGRATULATIONS

Hearty congratulations to Louis and Emilie on the birth of their son Diego, a brother for Naomi. Well done all of you!

STAYING IN

I filled the car up with petrol yesterday, as I had some money off coupons from the supermarket that expired at the end of the month. It was the first time I'd gone to the pumps since the end of June, and I'd only driven 168 miles; the tank was nearly three quarters full. I'm not really missing the days when I'd drive 150 or 200 miles a week.

In fact my hermit-like tendencies have been showing over the past month. I've been staying at home, reading, and writing and recording music. It's been fun, too. After finishing my album Beyond Neptune (which is still available on Bandcamp, by the way) I've been busy creating music for 50/90. Yesterday I uploaded my 16th song, so I'm still ahead of schedule for writing fifty songs in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st.

At present I'm really enjoying the results of treating drum tracks created in Toontrack's EZDrummer 2 software with some of Ableton Live's more esoteric effects. I split the drum track up and throw the snare at something called beat repeat, the hi-hats at something called rising 3-5-6, and do a bunch of other stuff to the sound on a random basis which results in some very interesting and unpredictable rhythms. The resulting groove on the track I produced yesterday was so hypnotic I sat back after pressing record and listened to the rhythm play for fourteen minutes before realising that I was only writing a four minute track!

It's all very different from the early days when I used a four-track cassette recorder and a Movement drum machine. And no, I didn't have the fancy machine that Dave Stewart plays in the Euythmics's Sweet Dreams video, mine was something called a Sequence Memory Rhythm - roughly equivalent to the Boss DR-55 Dr Rhythm beatbox used by Thomas Dolby and many others. It's still kicking around in a box somewhere upstairs. In those heady days of the very early 80s, even the relentless, tinny "biff-smack-biff-smack" beat that such devices produced was an innovation for those of us with no access to a real drummer. Things have come an awfully long way since then.

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