Chris Harris's Blog Archive: February 2014

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This year was the sixth year that I attempted to write fourteen songs in twenty eight days, as part of the community that revolves around February Album Writing Month, a.k.a. FAWM. Once again, it was a wonderful experience. And by the end of the month I'd ended up with not fourteen but seventeen new songs. Hooray!

 

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28 February 14 (permalink)

STILL GOING

It's the last day of February and I'm still working on music for FAWM. I hit my goal of fourteen songs earlier in the week, but it's been so much fun that I kept going. At the moment there are sixteen songs on my page and I intend adding at least one more, but first I'm going to have a creative development team meeting with this danish pastry and a large mug of coffee. I'm interested in finding out what they're going to bring to the table.

This year I worked on three collaborations, which were great fun. Two were James Bond-related and the third... Well, the third is the exquisite corpse track I mentioned last week about Daleks and it turned out to be an absolute hoot. I even managed to work in a Beatles reference and a rally bad joke.

I learned a lot of new stuff this year so when FAWM finishes (the website stops allowing new submissions tomorrow at noon GMT, so I'm thinking that maybe I'll get two more songs done before then) I'll write another yearly review of my discoveries. And I'll probably spend the rest of the weekend asleep, probably.

DISTURBINGLY FUNNY

Best. Squirrel feeder. Ever.

23 February 14 (permalink)

FLOORED

As I mentioned on Friday, I've been working on a collab for FAWM with Mel. Yesterday I put together the final version of the song, which is called In Shadows. Before we go any further you have to listen to this, right this instant:

Mel restructured the song, wrote some profoundly Bond-ian lyrics, and then sang her ass off delivering them. I am absolutely blown away the results. It's getting good feedback, too - and quite rightly so.

After a Skype conversation yesterday morning where we agreed what we were going to do, I set about giving the piece a final polish. It turned out to be a bit more than just adding some compression and EQ. I had to move the individual tracks around to fit the song's revised structure. The main instrumental tracks were done as MIDI information in Ableton so with the instruments and vocals lined up, I was able to tweak individual note velocities to fit with the phrasing Mel used. Yes, I'll admit it: I'm becoming obsessive about this stuff. I spend a couple of hours just making the french horns emphasise the right notes and getting the violin tracks to crescendo properly then I added more horns, tuba, and a bit of Chapman Stick to beef up the bottom end and sent it off to Mel for approval. The extra work was so, so worth it; I am ridiculously proud of what we've done and I know Mel is too.

Now I'm heading off to record song number 13. I was wide awake at seven o'clock this morning writing lyrics - it's been that kind of month.

21 February 14 (permalink)

RUNAWAY

Today’s APOD is quite extraordinary. It’s a photograph of a small part of the sky in the southern hemisphere, showing the cloud of gas and dust left over from a supernova – and the pulsar IGR J1104-6103 that was formed in the explosion. But the pulsar isn’t sitting in the middle of the supernova’s remains, oh no. It was kicked out of position by the blast and is now hurtling through space at between 2.5 and 5 million miles an hour. Just think of the amount of energy required to accelerate the remains of a star to that sort of speed for a minute. I'll wait until you've picked yourself back up off the floor.

The suggested reason for this is that, unlike most supernovas, when IGR J1104-6103's precursor star blew up, it did so asymmetrically. Remember Newton's law that "to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction"? The result was a star-sized rocket engine, and it delivered an almighty kick. We’re lucky that the pulsar is some 23,000 light years away from us, because you certainly wouldn’t want something like it hurtling through our neighbourhood. This cosmic runaway is emitting a powerful jet of x-rays caused by the rotation of the pulsar’s intense magnetic field, and the jet is the largest ever observed in our galaxy. It’s now some 37 light years long. Stick a planet in the way of that, and it would be like putting a marshmallow in front of a flame thrower; the results would not be pretty.

MY NAME IS ONLY. HEADFIRSTONLY.

FAWM continues. Aside from getting sucked in to conversations about whisky, I've spent the last couple of days working on a collaboration with my friend and fellow science fiction nut Mel, a.k.a. Pallidust. We decided that we were going to have a go at a Bond theme together (I've done something along the same lines for the past couple of years) and yesterday I sent her a rough mix of the instrumental track. I can't wait to hear what she comes up with!

I've also taken part in my first ever exquisite corpse piece of music. This is when half a dozen or so musicians each write a minute or so of music, based on hearing the last ten seconds of the previous section. Ours has a Dalek theme, and as you'd expect I'm looking forwards to hearing the finished article. I suspect (and hope) that it is going to be extremely silly.

19 February 14 (permalink)

GET IT LIKE THAT

I took a day off from songwriting yesterday. Instead I spent the evening back at The Fleece in Bristol to see the amazing, awe-inspiring, and truly spectacular bunch of musicians who collectively go by the name of The Aristocrats...

The Aristocrats at The Fleece

From left to right, that's Guthrie Govan on guitar, Marco Minnemann on drums, pillars, squeaky toy and lighting rig, and Bryan Beller on bass and rubber chicken. They were ably supported by Godsticks, who hail from just the other side of the bridge in Cardiff.

It was an evening of outstanding musicianship from both bands, with elements of prog rock, jazz fusion, country, blues and more. I've been a fan ever since fellow muso Jerome recommended them to me a few years ago; "I think they'll be your sort of thing," he said with typical Gallic understatement. You bet they are. Their music is entirely instrumental although they do spice things up a bit with sound effects from plastic pigs, the aforementioned rubber chicken and, when they played the title track from Guthrie's solo album Erotic Cakes at the end of the show, all three band members jamming away on a music app on their smartphones.

Each member of the band writes music which they all perform, and so each member of the band got to chat a bit and explain what the piece thay had written was about. So now I know:

  • That their audience is predominantly other musicians. "Who here is a musician?" Bryan asked at one point. Most of the room put their hands up. "Same as usual, then," he said.
  • Why Guthrie wrote a track called Gaping Head Wound - yes, the reason is exactly what you think it is. He wasn't looking where he was going, walked into a door frame, and woke up on the floor covered in blood. He rapidly discovered that his head was a different shape and that he was bleeding profusely. "I thought I'd better see a doctor, but I wanted to finish the track I was working on first, so I stuck some kitchen towels on my head, put a woolly hat on to keep them in place and put the headphones on over the top. That way I was only bleeding from the eyebrows up. And I left a post-it note in the kitchen asking for someone to phone an ambulance if they found me passed out in the studio." Now that's dedication. Or stupidity. Or both, as someone in the audience suggested.
  • Why their first album bears a "parental advisory" sticker despite consisting entirely of instrumentals (Marco gave his merciless pisstake of traditional rock clichés the title "blues f***ers").
  • That one reviewer on Amazon thought that his CD was skipping, but, as Marco explained, "Actually there's just one bar in the middle of that song with a seventeenth 16th note that we play intentionally. I'll raise my right arm in the air when we play it so you can tell when we do it." And he did.
  • That the Erotic Cakes shop visited by Homer Simpson in the "Treehouse of Terror" episode "Homer 3D" (and which gave its name to Guthrie's solo album) is in Pasadena.
  • How the track "Ohhh Nooo" got its name (and how it should be pronounced - basically, you say it in the tone of voice that Guthrie adopts when Marco knocks his guitar amp over with a drum bag at a gig in San Francisco; it's a sort of whispered exasperation that is, apparently, as close to swearing as Mr Govan ever manages.)
  • That the band are fans of the Coen brothers, and it's Mr Park's catch phrase in A Serious Man that gave them the title for their latest album. We were encouraged to use the expression and associated hand gesture in moments of frustration or bewilderment as all of the band vouched for the therapeutic qualities of so doing (such moments being common on tours).
  • That there is no double entendre or higher meaning to "Sweaty Knockers". It is, as Bryan explained so deftly and succinctly, "about tits."

All three band members played at a level that left my jaw on the floor. Some of Guthrie's solos just didn't seem humanly possible even when he did them right in front of my eyes, and at the same time he kept on dropping tiny melodic jokes into what he was doing (I'm sure I heard "Smoke on the Water" at one point, and the theme from Star Trek was dropped into a perfect context later on, which had me laughing out loud). I'm quite sure Marco sprouted an extra arm for some parts of his drum solo. It wasn't just the drumming, or the dynamic range and sublime deftness of touch (it takes supreme control to flash around cymbals quietly rather than just beating hell out of everything), it was also the fact that he was twirling the drum sticks and playing things with both ends, often in the same bar. It wasn't just drumming, it was geometry. And even the gag with the plastic pigs was done entirely without irony, investigating the incredible number of sounds that a trio of squeaky dog toys could make and getting an interesting piece of music out of them as a result.

They played for well over two hours. And when they'd finished the main set and realised that, as the Fleece is a rather small venue, the palaver of traipsing off stage so the crowd could call them back for an encore was rendered moot by the fact that they'd have to stand in the audience while this was going on, they politely suggested that could we just assume that they'd gone off and then been called back on stage and they'd just get on with playing another song? Brilliant.

All in all, that was an extremely memorable gig and I'm pleased to report that rather than leaving me wondering why I would ever bother to pick up the guitar or the bass ever again, I feel suitably inspired this evening. Nice one, chaps.

16 February 14 (permalink)

THAT'S MORE LIKE IT

It was below freezing here last night. The roof of the conservatory is frosted over, although this time there are no spectacular fractal patterns in the ice, just an opaque blankness. But the wind has dropped, the sun is shining brightly and there isn't a cloud in the sky. It's a beautiful day out there. Hmmm, I must wash the car later. After two months of crap weather it's in dire need of a clean.

FIVE TO GO

We're far enough into February now that the calluses on my fingertips have returned, so I'm more or less back up to speed when playing the guitar. Stepping up from 009's to 010's has helped toughen my fingers up no end, and playing a bit of fretless bass last week helped too. Yesterday I recorded track number nine, which is called Never Mistaken. Again, the bed track was constructed in Ableton from around ten minutes of experimenting on the Korg M3, and I spent a good couple of hours tweaking things and making everything run together - but not perfectly, because the point of the song is that it's about the Dunning Kruger effect (I was going to work in a reference to Michael Gove at this point, but I decided that would be cruel.) So as the song progresses, the harmonies get stranger and more and more wrong until the stupidity klaxon sounds and balance is restored. And as I said in the liner notes, now I want a stupidity klaxon.

Next door they're hard at work finishing off their extension, so with the regular drone of power tools coming in from outside I think I'll be working exclusively with synths today.

15 February 14 (permalink)

ENOUGH WITH THE WEATHER ALREADY

The village is waking up this morning after one of the stormiest nights I can remember in the 19 years I've lived in the area. This week the UK has been battered by a succession of extremely powerful and deadly winter storms, with widespread flooding. On Wednesday the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol had to be shut because of the wind, and once you watch the video of the bridge deck moving about you'll understand why. I live in a valley that appears to have protected us from the worst of things, which is a relief. There are no uprooted trees around, and nobody in the street appears to have lost any roof tiles. There are no trampolines in trees, either. But we're not out of the woods just yet: it's darker outside now than it was when I got up, and it's started raining again.

Somerset may have been underwater for months, but it's funny how the government only takes things seriously once the Tory heartland of the stockbroker belt is affected, isn't it? Now, suddenly "money is no object" when it comes to flood relief - which rather undermines the current austerity drive. Cameron is looking more and more like someone pretending to be a Prime Minister rather than someone who actually is in charge of the country. The photographs of him striking what he no doubt believes are commanding poses this week just make him look like a confused berk.

So, job done, really.

TWO WEEKS IN...

As you've no doubt realised from the lack of blog posts, I'm still heavily engrossed in February Album Writing Month. As of right now I have eight songs written and published and my contribution to a ninth is waiting for final release. That puts me a little ahead of schedule, but I want to come up with another two songs this weekend. Over the last week I've come up with my typical mix of styles, but the one I'm most pleased with is the only instrumental, which is called Cinnamon:

These days, I have to be pretty happy with something before I post it on Soundcloud but I had no trouble at all deciding to put this one up there. I'm a sucker for massive washes of ethereal choirs drenched in reverb and this one has loads.

UPGRADE

I've been a satellite TV junkie for nearly two decades. But I don't mean Sky; I used to be a subscriber and the customer experience was so dreadful that they'll not get any money out of me ever again. No, I mean free-to-air channels from satellite clusters like Astra 19.2°E or Hotbird. I started out with a Pace receiver which was a lovely piece of kit. My German improved no end after watching Sat 1, Das Erste, Pro Sieben and BR-alpha for hours. Sadly, I had to replace the Pace box when it started to emit smoke whenever it was switched on. This was not a desirable feature of consumer electronics...

For the last decade or so I've used a Technomate 1000D receiver, which stood me in good stead but over the last 12 months it's been showing its age and had started losing channels. Technology has moved on somewhat since its day, too. HD television via satellite was pretty much a pipe dream when I bought it, and it only has SCART outputs. So this week I retired it and installed a Vu+ Duo in its place. I'm chuffed to bits with it, as the picture quality over HDMI is markedly better than the Technomate. Not only can I pick up all my favourite French and German channels again, but it also happily found a couple of dozen free-to-air HD channels for me to watch as well.

As you've probably guessed I'd done lots of research before buying the Duo. In fact I've been looking for a replacement for nearly a year. One of the Duo's major selling points is its open-source operating system (the box is, effectively, a computer running Linux). As soon as I was happy that the hardware worked correctly I replaced the OS with the latest VIX image and installed a hard disk which turns the thing into a fully-functional PVR as soon as you tell the box to mount the drive. It was ridiculously easy to do. So in the evenings this week when I haven't been recording music, I've been watching TV and brushing up on my foreign language skills. Win!

8 February 14 (permalink)

ONE WEEK IN...

It's the eighth day of FAWM and as of yesterday evening I have four tracks under my belt, so I'm pretty much on target to write fourteen songs in the month. I feel like the quality of what I'm writing is a little more consistent this year. Well, perhaps that's being hyperbolic - it would be closer to the truth to say that I can still bear to listen to all four songs after a week. As always, the least-thought-out, throwaway track that I put together in a couple of hours is the one I'm most fond of. You'll notice that this track is also the first this year that features The Bell of The Cow, as Mr Spademan dubbed it. It clearly worked its magic: the lyrics pretty much wrote themselves and the two-part guitar happened more or less by accident. It really felt like the song wanted to be written. Anyway, I was happy enough with it to upload it to Soundcloud, and here it is: Are You Metal Enough?

This week has not all been plain sailing, by any means. I spent an entire evening - and by that I mean over five hours - engrossed in Ableton Live piecing together the drum track and the piano for a song called Binary World. It's the first track where I've figured out EZDrummer sufficiently to get a convincing drum part out of it, but it took quite a while, as I'll explain in a moment. As it was after ten at night and I was setting off for the office at 6:45 the next morning I left the bass and other instruments for the following day. When I came back to it on Wednesday I just couldn't get the fretless part right at all. Perhaps it was the weather; it was a stormy day, with really heavy rain. After two and a half hours and more than half a dozen takes I had two tracks that I happy enough with to plan on stitching together into one performance. So I started noodling around with an acoustic guitar part, hit record, and all the lights went out. Silence. When the power came back on, I discovered that the Korg D3200 doesn't have an autosave feature. In fact, when I read the manual (and this is for a machine that I've been using intensively since I bought it at the beginning of 2008) I discovered that it only saves your work when you open a different song, or when you switch it off. There was a certain amount of swearing, I'll admit. By this time my fingers were sore (I hadn't played the fretless for months and my fingertips suffered badly) and as the lights continued to flicker and the rain lashed against the windows I decided I'd be better off giving up for the night so I had a beer instead. The following evening the weather was calmer and I recorded the whole bass part in one take, so perhaps it was meant to be that way.

For this track I changed my workflow in a big way. I created a click track in Ableton first and copied it to the D3200 before I'd recorded anything. This is something I've never done before. Then I played the piano parts into the D3200 along to the click track. Rather than restarting every time I made a mistake, I just kept playing until I'd got several versions of each sections, then I imported the piano track back into Ableton and chopped it into bits so I could build the structure of the song: intro, verses, choruses, bridge (yes, it even has a bridge) and playout. The piano patch was one I created myself. It's the closest sound I could get to a Yamaha CP70 electric grand run through a Roland chorus pedal, a sound that you'll be familiar with if you've listened to Peter Gabriel's first three solo albums; that's why if you look on my Korg M3 you'll see that the patch I created is called "angelic piano". Stylistically if not vocally, I wanted the track to be an homage to Peter, as he and his band have been a huge influence on my approach to music.

Now I knew what the shape of the song would be like, I could replace the click track with a proper drum part. In creating the drum track in EZDrummer, my starting point was, pretty much, "How can I make this sound like Manu Katché?" I used the Jazz expansion pack and listened to dozens and dozens of basic grooves, fills and improvisations before picking some that fitted rhythmically with what I'd created. Dialling down the velocity of the playing to make it gentler, turning up the "chamber" mic on the mixer to give the drums a more reverberant, roomy feel, reducing the level on the snare and switching to samples played with brushes rather than sticks gave me exactly the sound I was looking for. And as I'd got the song constructed, I could pick a particular flourish to add punctuation between the different sections. I was even able to add a slight crescendo in intensity in playing at the end. Several days later I'm still amazed and delighted by how good the drums sound.

I added a couple of tracks of effects processing and instrumental flourishes played on the Ableton Push. Then I rendered this basic track to a WAV file and copied this back to the D3200 over the click track I'd used previously that was no longer needed. This meant that all the subsequent tracks I recorded on the D3200 would be perfectly aligned with the music when they were imported back into Ableton with no editing required. It's a ping-pong way of doing things, but in my opinion the results totally justified the extra effort. So now I was ready to add the live instruments and the vocals. The bass went down in one take, as I mentioned above. The intonation's not perfect by any means, but I told myself "This is FAWM, leave it as it is before the power goes off again" and pressed on. I decided in the end I didn't need a guitar part so that was abandoned.

I'd been working from the song's title to try and make the song as binary as possible and use just two main chords, and I'd been thinking about how much of our world is reduced to binary decisions so by this point I had a fair few ideas for lyrics. I sat down and wrote a first draft, but wasn't happy with that, so I wrote a new set of lyrics around the best lines from the first draft. Then it was just a matter of recording four vocal tracks, including one with me singing the lowest note I've ever managed on the chorus, then copying those live tracks back into Ableton for mixing and mastering. A certain amount of editing was needed to synch the vocals as they're delivered in an intentionally stilted rhythm which was difficult to repeat four times... The end result took the most effort I've ever put into a track for FAWM, but it's got some nice feedback. And people have picked up on the Peter Gabriel style of the thing, which was very gratifying.

In other news, my FAWM t-shirt has arrived...

It's what the cool kids are wearing

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go and write song number five.

1 February 14 (permalink)

READY, STEADY, GO!

It's February the first and that means it's February Album Writing Month once again. That means I have to write fourteen songs in the next twenty eight days. Last year I managed to write twenty two songs for FAWM and had a whale of a time. Together with its companion event 50/90, FAWM is a great way to boost your musical creativity. As the famous quote by Jack London says, "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." That's the secret of FAWM's approach to creativity, just as it is for NaNoWriMo in November.

And it works. In the past year I've written nearly 90 pieces of music, and some of them are good enough that I can listen to them without cringing. After I've had my coffee and croissants this morning I'll be heading upstairs to fire up the studio gear, polish my shiny new cowbell, and set out on this year's most fun musical adventure. I have no idea at all what I'm going to come up with today, and that's all part of the fun.

So if there aren't too many blog updates this month, you'll know why.

DEAD

The place where I've been working recently is a factory, and the building has an infestation of cluster flies, Pollenia rudis. The flies are harmless, but irritating; every now and again one of them would land on me and then slowly buzz away, flying in a slow drunken manner that was noticeably different to that of the common house fly. The equipment we're testing uses touchscreen displays, and this week a fly landed on the monitor I was using, to the right of where I was touching it. The cursor immediately switched over to the fly's control, which didn't do much for my sense of self-esteem. The hurt was ameliorated slightly by the fact that at regular intervals one of the flies would drop out of the air, dead, on to the system in front of me.

ded.

There were so many flies around that this phenomenon wasn't something you could ignore, and work conversations would regularly return to the subject of flies. And so it was that one of my colleagues told me the story of how "doing the dying fly" caught on with RAF groundcrew back in the early 1980s. Pilots taxying out to the runway would look out to see all the support personnel who had just serviced their aircraft lying flat on their backs on the ground, waving their arms and legs in the air. Visitors to the mess might also find themselves confronted by a room full of engineers lying supine on the floor between the chairs.

This, my colleague explained, was all the fault of Chris Tarrant and the gang at Tiswas, a television programme that was a must-watch in the Harris household on Saturday mornings back in the late 70s and early 80s, not least because it featured (a) Sally James and (b) regular appearances by Motörhead. But the Dying Fly had its own piece of music, and it became a bit of a Thing. These days it would be a viral video to eclipse the Harlem Shake, a meme to rank alongside grumpy cat and her ilk. But back then we didn't have the Internet, so people just larked about at work to wind up their colleagues. Brilliant.

COLD OUT

It stopped raining at some point last night, and the temperature must have dropped significantly because the conservatory roof looked like this when I opened the curtains this morning.

On the roof

It's all melted in the sunshine, now - but it was a rather nice thing to see, don't you think?

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