As April draws to a close, I have released another in my series of "pay what you want" albums. This one, as I explained in the banner at the top of this page, is a bit different. In fact I think I'm justified in describing it as experimental.
I've been fascinated by what's known as aleatoric music for a long time. Aleatoric is a Latin word that means "Depending on the throw of dice" (if you did Latin at school you might remember Julius Caesar reputedly saying "Alea iacta est," or "The die is cast" when he crossed the river Rubicon on his way to start a civil war against Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. And yes, that is where the phrase "Crossing the Rubicon" comes from; the Romans gave us a lot of expressions that are still in use a couple of thousand years later. But that's a very different story.)
Aleatoric music uses randomness in one form or another to make creative decisions about how the composition should sound. Rolling dice is one way of generating random numbers, but things have moved on a bit since Julius Caesar's day. Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) like Ableton Live have built-in randomisation and probability tools for musicians to use, and on my latest album that's exactly what I've done. The result has the title Out Of My Hands, or Stochastic Free Jazz For The Apocalypse.
I've got a four-step process for composing music in this way:
- where I generate randomised MIDI information, usually in the form of a monophonic sequence
- where I convert a single monophonic note into a chord or arpeggiated sequence
- where I use Max For Live programs to limit the resulting notes to specific modes or scales, and finally
- where I switch individual tracks on and off, because having every randomised track playing all the time is way, way too much for most listeners, including me.
I used this approach to generate bass lines, chord sequences, synth lead lines, and even drum patterns which were then played by MIDI instruments. In addition to these random elements, I also occasionally improvised on the guitar or a synthesizer in response to what I was hearing. This also had the effect of reining things back slightly when the randomness felt like it was getting too much.
But playing along to what I was hearing was an interesting technique in itself, because when I rendered out the final mix for the album, the random number generators I was using all came up with different numbers—if they didn't, they wouldn't be random numbers, right? That meant that my improvisations sometimes don't quite fit with the rest of the track (well, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.)
The result is music that both does and doesn't sound like me. It has a strange, weird quality to it that I really like. And the first email I received from someone who bought the album (thank you, Christian) just said "This album is incredible!" so I'm going to count this particular experiment as a success.
Over the years I have spent hundreds of pounds on plugins for my home recording setup from Waves Audio Ltd. I won't be wasting any more money on their products, though. Their software management program has once again arbitrarily decided that I am not running it on the same computer I was using last month and disabled all my plugins. There was no point in me contacting their technical support people either because they only provide service to people who buy their technical support plan; if that's not a red flag to potential customers, I don't know what is.
This is extremely inconvenient, because I have a couple of projects I want to release ready for Bandcamp Friday next week. Without paying for technical support, I'm "allowed" one reset a year. Yep, you read that correctly. I can't email technical support to ask for my plugins to be reinstated. I can either throw good money after bad and buy a year's worth of technical support or be left waiting until an entire frickin' year has passed after the last time I had to do this, and that happens to be May 7th. And yes, that's the day after Bandcamp Friday (which, incidentally, is likely to be the last Bandcamp Friday ever, which also kinda sucks.) Waves are the only manufacturer I've dealt with who limit their technical support in this way, and I use a lot of plugins from a lot of different companies.
But what really made me angry was the fact that I have not changed my computer, or even any of the peripherals connected to it. Instead, what seems to have triggered the behaviour this time is that my studio PC's wifi card stopped working. I managed to resuscitate it (and removed a Firewire card that I've not been using in the process) but once I was back on the Internet, all my Waves plugins stopped working. Last time around, the cause of the problem seems to be that I had updated the computer's BIOS. Quite frankly, neither of these events is any of Waves Audio's business, in my opinion. And let's be crystal clear here: I'm not at all comfortable with software snooping around my computer to the level which Waves Audio's program is apparently doing.
The lesson is clear, folks. Waves Audio's products are unreliable. You can't depend on them working when you need them. What their software management system does is overly intrusive and much too sensitive. It does not take into account tasks that power users (the sort of people who use their computers as a recording studio, for instance) will do to their systems on a regular basis. They do not provide a list of things that will result in your licenses being disabled. And they can't be bothered to budget for supporting users on their own dime. In short, their copyright protection system is profoundly broken. I won't be buying anything from them ever again, and if you're sensible about software reliability, you shouldn't either.
You will probably be astonished to discover that the reason the blog hasn't been updated for a while is that I've been away. Yes, I have actually left the house for more than a couple of hours at a stretch. In fact, I even stayed overnight somewhere, and for more than a single night! As far as I can figure out, this is the first time that I've stayed overnight anywhere other than in my own house since way back in 2019. That's how far my horizons have shrunk these days, folks. I was visiting my brother and his family in Orpington, and as this was the first time I'd seen them since August 2020, I had two sets of Christmas presents to deliver, which went down very well. The Easter Weekend was dry and sunny and I had a nice time sitting in the garden and watching a large variety of aircraft flying overhead on their way to Biggin Hill. There was even a Spitfire flying about. My brother explained that there are several of them based at Biggin these days.
I managed to cope with sitting in the car for three hours each way there and back without too much trouble. The Lexus is a comfortable car to drive, and I had lots of episodes of the Henry and Heidi podcast to listen to on the way. Driving a hybrid vehicle pays off most when you're travelling at less than 40 mph, and as the M25 was nose to tail for long stretches, that pushed my fuel economy up, rather than down. I was rather gratified to see that the tank was still three-quarters full when I arrived at my destination, but I filled it up again, just in case. With nascent fuel shortages on the cards, I'm going to do everything I can to remove a potential source of anxiety.
On Easter Saturday I made my way to South Kensington to see Devin Townsend at the Royal Albert Hall. This was the sixth or seventh time I've seen him play live and if you've been reading this blog for long (or if you know me at all, in fact) you'll know that I'm a bit of a fan. The band that Devin was playing with this time weren't the DTP or the major-league touring behemoth that he took on the road back in 2019. In fact this time around everyone else in the band was from the UK, and they had only known each other for the four days leading up to the show. You'd never have guessed from the proficiency with which they performed some challenging material, though. They were really good. So were Vola, the support band, who hail from Copenhagen.
Dev was on top form, and clearly enjoying being back on stage after a two-year hiatus thanks to the Coronavirus. He was also happy to be back in the UK, although the price and availability of diesel fuel here at the moment seemed to be a bit of a sore point! He played a selection of his favourite songs, and many of them were my favourites too; Kingdom from Epicloud was the second number in the set and we also got More! from the same album. We got Hyperdrive, Super Crush! and Ih-Ah! from Addicted! (there seemed to be a preponderance of exclamation marks in the selections), Juular from Deconstruction, Deadhead (of course) from Accelerated Evolution, Why? from Empath and—joy of joys—a blistering rendition of the SYL classic Detox as the final encore. It was sublime.
As I was one of the first through the doors, I decided that I'd get right down to the front for the whole show, and I did. That was the right decision, although it meant that the sound was more something you felt than something you listened to; it was blisteringly loud and I was very glad I was wearing earplugs. Staying on my feet for the whole evening was a lot harder than it used to be, though. I was very pleased when I spotted my brother waiting in his car to pick me up from the station when I got back to Chelsfield at midnight.
The following day I was back in London again. This time I was attending the rescheduled Nine Lessons for Curious People event at Kings Place which was supposed to have taken place the weekend before Christmas. Sunday's show was retitled Nine Lessons for Spring. As Robin observed, the Kings Place shows had been cancelled back then because of rapidly escalating Covid-19 infection rates; those rates are just as high now, if not higher.
It was a much more genteel show than Saturday night's rowdiness; it was also a seated gig, which counts for a lot with me these days. Because I'm me, I'd been standing in the venue for less than five minutes hotly debating whether or not to take my mask off and buy a pint at the bar when I noticed a familiar figure walking towards me. It was Robin. We had a very brief chat and I was introduced to Robin's mate Jakko, who I first saw play live forty-three years ago! He was there as part of the audience rather than as a performer, and ended up sitting a couple of rows behind me. I said hello to producer Trent as he rushed around getting everyone organised and he told me that five of the people who had been booked to appear had dropped out because of Covid. How he manages to stay sane and upbeat continues to be a marvel. I bought a selection of books from the Newham Bookshop, who had a stall there (because books) and as Dr Helen Czerski was signing all the copies of her book on display, I got her to sign a copy for me. I also bought a copy of Ben Moor's latest book Who Here's Lost?, and that came with a free badge, so I pinned it to my jumper.
So I'd had a very memorable evening even before the show had started. The show itself was splendid, with a mind-bendingly wide selection of talks on subjects ranging from ayahuasca rituals in Spain to the James Webb Space Telescope, from Horseshoe Crabs to the ways cog wheels are mistreated in graphic design, and fantastic performances by Softlad, Ruarri Joseph (a.k.a. William The Conqueror) and Joanna Neary's gloriously silly Kate Bush tribute. The Cosmic Shambles Trio (Will Bartlett on piano, Julie Walkington on double bass, and Ben Handysides on drums) treated us to a fine selection of Christmas songs and played freeform jazz to accompany two of Robin's poems.
I bought that pint, too—although when I paid for it I was reminded just how stupidly expensive beers are in London (twice the price I pay in the pub here!)
After the show I had a nice chat with Matt Parker, who very graciously let me nerd out about the greatest DVD extra ever made, which he was responsible for. He explained how it took them an entire day to get it done right! Ben Moor was talking to Matt's other half Professor Lucie Green (who had given a fascinating talk about how important hand-drawn maps of Mars were to NASA) but he spotted my badge and came over to ask me if I'd like him to sign his book. How nice was that? We had a lovely chat. I explained that I'd met him very briefly once before, after he'd performed in the Literature Tent at the Latitude Festival many years ago. Back then he'd read a piece called Glove Story that I'd connected with strongly and which I love, and I told him so once again because I had discovered, to my delight, that Glove Story was one of the pieces in his latest book!
The whole weekend was a real shot in the arm for me, because it reminded me of just how marvellous life could be back in the days before we all spent two years shut away at home. Sometimes we forget that there are wonderfully smart, creative people out there working to make the quality of everyone's life better, rather than worse. It was nice not only to be able to hang out with people like that for a few hours but also to be able to let them know how much they are appreciated. Because I really do appreciate them.
One advantage of having a lot more time on my hands than I did when I was working full time is that when I remember to check whether the firmware and software on my systems are up to date, I'm in a position to do something about it far more regularly than I used to be. Today I updated my router's firmware; I'm also now running version 7.3 of the free office productivity suite Libre Office, which as its name suggests is a free alternative to Microsoft Office; and this is the first blog post I've assembled using Netbeans 13, which I have just installed. The update was released back on March 4th, so it's taken me less than two months to notice that it existed. I also downloaded a newer version of Notepad++ while I was at it, which I needed because I still had to edit Netbeans's settings in its netbeans.conf file in order to make the text on my 4K monitor large enough to read (software can check what resolution is being used by the display, so there's absolutely no excuse for this not happening automatically.) I documented what I had to do last year (and that's a blog entry which I consult every time I update Netbeans) but at least this time the SDK recognised that my previous install used the Darcula LAF plugin and was able to automatically install it (after asking me first, of course).
I was expecting a whole integer release to have some nice new cosmetic touches to it, but disappointingly Netbeans 13 looks and feels exactly the same as 12 did. It's still woefully clunky. It's still hideously ugly, too—the interface still looks like something from the 1980s. When you open the Start Page from the help menu it still appears in a tiny box with a horizontal scroll bar, rather than using the whole of the document window. I'm sure that there will be lots of new features under the hood that power users will love, but for me it's been a bit of a non-event.
But it's free software, as are all the products mentioned above. You don't have to pay Microsoft an arm and a leg to get stuff done these days, and that is something pretty darn special.
When I went to the supermarket this week, I could hear chiffchaffs calling from trees next to the car park. Spring may have sprung, but last weekend the overnight temperature dropped to -5°C and for the last couple of nights it's fallen to -3°C in the back garden. My magnolia is not happy. The blossom that looked so lovely in March is now brown and shrivelled. The leaves on the buddleia in the back garden took quite a hit, too. It's been two weeks since I gave my lawn the first cut of the year and I think I'll be able to get away with leaving it for another week before cutting it again. That suits me fine; doing the gardening is a major exercise for me these days and right now I just don't have the energy for it.
I feel knackered all the time. I'm exhausted. I keep on saying that I'm not sleeping well, but I'm getting a lot more of it than I was when I was working and nowadays the sleep-tracking app I have on my phone is assessing nights where 35% of my sleep is NREM sleep as "bad" when back in 2018 that sort of statistic would have been called "outstanding" (I used to average around 22% back then, which I suspect had more than a little to do with the state that I have found myself in these days.) There were a few nights last month where I was closing in on 50% of NREM sleep, which is about where things should be. Despite this, I remain permanently stressed, although given that we're all living through a pandemic while a war in Europe is happening, and the country is being run by a bunch of grifters who have no compassion, no scruples, and no inclination to tell the truth about anything, this really isn't going to come as much of a surprise to anyone. Stress and anxiety are the main ingredients of my life at the moment, and I'm finding it rather difficult to cope with anything involving leaving the house. That's not a good thing, and I know it's not good for me, but that's where my head is these days. I'm a mess.
The absolutely wretched state of affairs in the world at the moment has not left me in a particularly optimistic frame of mind, and I have more or less stopped watching the television news channels. Instead, I have retreated into the studio to make music. And when—as has been happening an alarming amount this month—I stare at my DAW and can't summon up sufficient enthusiasm to play a single note, I have returned to bed with my reading glasses and a stack of books.
As a result, I have been doing a lot of reading. This month I've read Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation (I finally replaced my old copy, which I accidentally dropped in the bath many years ago) followed by The Ghost in the Machine. Some of the science in them has not aged well, but they were both interesting syntheses of ideas; the jury's out on whether they have helped me to develop my own creativity or not. I'm currently about half-way through Joe Satriani's autobiography, and it's an interesting account of how one of my favourite guitar players got to where he is today (the answer, needless to say, was inordinate amounts of practice and teachers who were able to give him exactly those items of knowledge that he needed, coupled with occasional doses of outrageously timely good fortune.)
I think we could all do with some outrageously timely good fortune right now. Just sayin'.
The clocks sprang forward an hour on Saturday night and that makes it spring, I suppose; you'd never guess it from the conditions here. I was treated to a small flurry of snow here yesterday afternoon, although it didn't settle. Last night the temperature in the back garden fell to -2° C. After the warmth and sunshine of last week, it's all been a bit hard to take.
But here we are in April. The UK is now on British Summer Time (BST) and every time I post something here between now and the last weekend in October, I will need to remind myself that I must adjust the time in the blog's feed.xml file back to GMT before I upload it. It always annoys me and I have grumbled about the shortcomings of RFC822's creators in providing consideration for international use on the blog before. Quite a bit, in fact.
It's the first Friday of the month, which means that it's Bandcamp Friday once again. My music making is still on hiatus so I have nothing ready for release at the moment, but there's plenty to be going on with in my discography there if you're looking for something of mine to listen to.