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Current: September 2016

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The Blackest of Dogs

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THE INCONVENIENCES OF MODERN LIVING

Last Saturday evening I finished working on my latest track for Fifty/Ninety and headed back downstairs to chill out for a while. As I walked into the living room, I thought to myself, "Why does it smell damp in here?" Then I looked up...

Uh oh...

The 26-year-old hot water tank in the airing cupboard had split. I hastily turned the water off at the mains and drained the tanks in the loft; one of my neighbours has had experience of this sort of thing, and he punched holes in the ceiling with a screwdriver to drain the water down wires, which avoided dripping (a top tip there). I spent a couple of days without hot water before Ricky from West Country Plumbing and Heating sorted me out with a new tank.

Those couple of days really emphasised how much I take the conveniences of modern living for granted. Having to heat hot water on a stove like my grandparents had to meant that luxuries like having a hot bath involved considerable effort; taking a shower wasn't an option unless you particularly like doing so with cold water, and I certainly don't.

This weekend the house has dried out, more or less. There's still a smell of damp, but it's getting fainter each day. And now, when I turn on the hot tap, I am profoundly grateful that I'm living at a time when such luxuries are commonplace.

SCOTLANDDDDDDDDDDDDDD

Ableton Live (my DAW of choice) comes with a set of plug ins that use Cycling 74's application Max For Live. My favourite is their Convolution Reverb Pro, which uses a recording (known as an impulse response) of how a loud, instantaneous noise decays in a real place to generate the same reverberation to my own recordings - effectively making my music sound as if was being performed in the same place. My favourite setting uses an impulse response recorded at the Hamilton Mausoleum in South Lanarkshire in Scotland. The Mausoleum has - or rather, had - the longest reverberation time of any man-made structure in the world, coming in at just under 30 seconds for a frequency of 31 Hz. I like super-long reverbs, and have even written songs just to show off how Ableton can synthesise ludicrously long reverb tails, up to the program's maximum setting of sixty seconds.

Given the Hamilton Mausoleum's reverb tail is half the maximum setting of Live's artificial environment, I didn't ever expect to hear a physical space that could exceed it, but Professor Trevor Cox of the University of Salford recently discovered that an abandoned oil storage tank in Inchindown, Rossshire has a decay time that makes Ableton's setting pale into insignificance. The tank's reverberation time tops out at an utterly insane 112 seconds. Even its broadband reverberation time is 75 seconds - a new world record. Hearing the result of someone playing Debussy on a saxophone in the place is extraordinary. Needless to say I've converted Professor Cox's recording into an IR and will be having a play with it in Live this afternoon.

I have just got myself a copy of Professor Cox's book, Sonic Wonderland, and I'll be starting on that later today. It looks very promising!

ENHANCE!

That word has become one of the staple cliches in detective TV shows and science fiction films, hasn't it? The protagonist normally uses it to instruct an intern with a supercomputer to change a fuzzy blob in security camera footage into a pin-sharp image of The Bad Person. The trope has been around for a long, long time; since 1948 at least, and it's pretty much the entire plot of Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blow-Up. The first version of this that I can remember seeing was the coolest by far: the Esper sequence in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. But it's such a convenient way of giving the main characters a view of an earlier plot point that they shouldn't be able to witness that it's been used over, and over, and over again.

See what I mean?

In the past I'd have quoted some of Claude Shannon's work on information theory, or shown you this cartoon to demonstrate just how ludicrous the idea of creating additional data where none exists really is.

Except that it's not ludicrous any more.

GETTING SOMEWHERE

On Friday I did a full day of work - more than twelve hours from door to door - and then worked on the garden until it went dark. As a result I was pretty tired yesterday afternoon. But I needed to work on my song count for Fifty/Ninety, so I shut myself in the studio for the rest of the day. Rather than sing I decided to do an instrumental, and came up with a chord change that sounded vaguely like my heroes, the Dixie Dregs. I decided I'd have a go at making my music sound like them, too, and this is what I came up with.

When I played back the finished track I was flabbergasted, because to my ears it sounded like somebody else playing, not me. Putting modesty aside for a moment, despite being extremely tired and below par physically, I'd somehow managed to record something that blew me away. It brought home how much my abilities have changed in the last few years. I'm sure my musical friends would agree that my performance level now is unrecognisable when compared with what it was ten years ago. I'm doing things musically these days that I never imagined I'd ever be capable of, and it's not just my playing that's improved: my production capabilities have come forwards by leaps and bounds. Even my singing has changed. Recent songs have used just a couple of vocal takes, rather than me having to stitch together the least worst bits from eight different attempts. The last song I recorded for Fifty/Ninety uses a single take; I didn't edit the vocals at all.

Why, then, have I improved as much as I have?

There are two reasons. The first is that I've been lucky enough over the last couple of years to have the spare time to put the hours in. I mentioned in the blog recently that the 10,000 hours rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers has been largely discounted, but look at the figures in that Business Insider page: deliberate practice still results in a 21% improvement in performance. I'll take those numbers.

The second reason is that word "deliberate" above. Deliberate practice is something very different from just sitting and playing an instrument. When I practise nowadays, I focus on a single, very small aspect of my playing and work on improving just that one thing. And I'll come back to it every day to build on the changes I'm making. When I read a recent blog post on Garr Reynolds's excellent site Presentation Zen and watched the embedded interview with the legendary pianist Bill Evans, I was nodding enthusiastically, because what he's talking about is exactly the same thing. That old chestnut about how you eat an elephant - one bite at a time - is something I've known for decades, but it's only recently that I've come to understand it on a deeply personal level, at least in a musical context.

I'm beginning to overcome "imposter syndrome" when I do anything musical, I think. And I'm sitting here wondering what my younger self would make of that track if I'd played it to him shortly after he bought his first electric guitar three and a half decades ago. I know what I'd tell him.

I'd tell him he should practise more.

NOT THIS TIME

Shortly after I blogged about the candidate SETI signal that was picked up by a Russian radio telescope last year, the story went viral, and that prompted comments from a number of SETI experts, most notably Seth Shostak, who is the Director of the Center for SETI Research. His initial response was clear enough: the signal was "not terribly promising."

A day or so later, a lot more investigation had been done and Seth was able to announce that the signal had been identified as coming from a Russian military satellite. So, no aliens yet.

KEEP ON DOING

Bristolian Laura Kidd, also known as She Makes War posted an excellent blog entry on her site today which I recommend reading if you're in need of a little inspiration. I loved this:

"I’m sure there’s a more eloquent quote out there for this idea, but here’s my version: "If you do stuff, stuff happens". There is no big secret to any of this, you just have to DO the stuff."

That is the creative life in a nutshell: you just have to do the stuff. I saw the director Stephen Frears interviewed at the Latitude Festival a few years ago and when someone in the audience asked him how to become a successful film maker, he said largely the same thing:

"Make films. If you make good things, people will notice."

It may seem blindingly obvious, but you're not going to become a success in your chosen creative field without doing the work. Laura has definitely put the hours in and I am sure she'll make a success of the next phase in her musical career.

And you should totally get a copy of her latest album Direction of Travel, 'cos it's really good.

SUMMER'S OVER

Last night I cut the back lawn for the first time in about three weeks. It had got rather out of hand - okay, the patch behind the garage had turned into a small jungle and I was growing an impressive crop of thistles under the back hedge - and by the time I'd finished tidying up the garden I'd completely filled my green wheely bin. Even before I'd put the mower away, my tame robin was flitting around the garden to see what tasty treats I'd revealed.

I wouldn't have got the grass cut today; it's raining steadily and the temperature outside is a good five degrees cooler than yesterday. But there are at least a dozen sparrows taking turns to attach the bird feeders right now, which is lovely to see.

Hmmm. I need to stock up on bird food, judging by how fast the level in those feeders is going down!

THIS IS NOT YOUR PARENTS' CLASSICAL MUSIC

Watch soprano Barbara Hannigan and the London Symphony Orchestra perform part of Gyorgy Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. It's an absolutely extraordinary, spellbinding performance.