Monday, 10 August 2015

New Directions

In the past months time has just flown by, hence the lack of posts. I've been doing a lot of teaching (in different forms), as not only a way to earn a living, but also giving me some breathing space to look at ways in which I'm interested in composing and performing music. One of the problems with the system (where I live) is that you have to play concerts to keep your employment status. This sounds great to most artists, however, there is one drawback, to find concerts you 'mostly' have to have a public, in other words the more mainstream the product the more chances you have to get work. If you work in more obscure areas of musical composition then you can indeed find it difficult to find performance possibilities, especially on a permanent basis.

I've always been interested in sound as a form of music, in fact when as a kid the Beatles released the "Yellow Submarine" my favourite bit was the mechanical noise section - listen to the single around 1.27mins -  which I used to put on my turntable non stop. I liked many of those 'bits' in music, I guess sound was 'in' at that period thinking back to it. Another single that had something special was "You Know My Name, Look Up The Number", which was the B-side to "Let it Be". I loved the way the Beatles strung together all these different styles to make a song. The Moog Synthesiser was also becoming popular. My teachers at secondary school often played us Stockhausen, Walter (Wendy) Carlos, Electric Coconut and Tangerine Dream, to name a few. It was a good period for hearing experimental music often sold as commercial pop music(*).

I spend a lot of time working on my computer with Pure Data (see one project here) and SuperCollider. However, I recently I decided that I really like working with a hands on approach, much the same as playing an instrument. And so I invested in a bit of equipment to start trying to develop a live solution to making music which is built of samples, synths, saxophones and noise. I thought I'd post a few of the tracks as a way of getting my ideas out there. Of course one can just sit at home and work on stuff, but I like to get ideas down on my DAW, then post them on my Soundcloud page as a way of seeing what it looks (sounds) like. 

All the work is done with the idea that it can be played live (almost). I set up my material and do as much as possible in one go. This accounts for some out of tune playing (sax), or some odd changes, but that's just the way I'm working at present. I'll clean up the ideas later to try and get melodies in some areas and form also. But at present its spontaneous ideas first, I hope you like them, and of course any comments and criticisms are well appreciated.

Some (all?) of the tracks are little long, so you may wish to skip forwards at points to see where the music is going, but that's what sketches are about, I guess.

"Piano 1" is built using Supercollider. I built a file using three octaves of a piano, edited them and wrote a program to read the files randomly or in a pre determined order.
"Soprano SH 101" refers to the soprano sax (of course), and the SH101 is an old Roland synthesiser. Its a bit broken down now and needs some work done on it, unfortunately its also not midi compatible, which causes a few hiccups when working with other machines. I guess I'll probably have to look into updating to a Novation Bass Station!

"Synth 2a" is another track using the Roland SH 101. To listen to this you may need to plug in some headphones as what sounds like silence has (in fact) a synth line being played and modulated.

"Ades" refers to Thomas Ades, an amazing English composer. This track is made using samples from his work and others from Elliot Carter's works. I patched the whole thing together using an Akai MPC 1000 and my trusty soprano sax. I guess I should get in touch with Mr Ades to see if he's in agreement over my use of his work.

"Trains" (actually "Trains 2") is built from sounds which I used for another sketch mixing train track sounds. On this one I employ an Akai Remix 16 (see picture below) and an Akai MPC 1000. There's also some sounds from Integra Live that I've sampled and fed back into the Sampler.

Lastly here's "Koto". I've been using Koto samples in other pieces - using Pure Data - but this is a mixture of ideas, a bit inspired by a Four Tet recording I heard. I've mixed up samples from a recording of made in Bali and an amazing box set of Koto recordings that I love listening to. Add to that the MPC's ability to make drum patterns (made from different samples), and you get a very 'in your face' piece. It needs a lot of work on it, but I like the idea so much (just a one off take), that I kept it, warts and all. I'll have to refine it a later date.

So there's a few pieces (others can be found on my Soundcloud page). Of course its not swinging jazz, but that's not the idea. I hope that people find them stimulating and fun to listen to, although I'm sure that to some they're just noisy sounds with no direction. As for me I'm just frustrated that I probably won't be able to perform them anywhere, or not as a more long-term project. However, that's not the point, its about making music (and sounds) that I like.

Lastly I thought I'd post a picture (below) of my trusty Akai Remix 16. Many people use these like beat boxes, as they do MPCs also. But these old machines have much more potential for adding colour to performances live, check out the amazing Jan Bang for what can really be done with these. Unfortunately they only have - or mine does - 2GB of RAM memory. You can add more, but finding it is another problem as these things went out of production many years ago. In fact Akai sent me a nice email telling me that it was the old Akai that built these, not them! One of my buttons/pads is broken (#7) which leaves me with a slight handicap. So, if anyone comes across this article that has some spares PLEASE don't hesitate to contact me, I'd be most grateful.

*= All the major (and minor) rock and pop groups had synthesisers in them, experimental sounds were everywhere.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Alexandra Grimal and Giovanni Domenico: Chergui (Ayler, 2014)

One of my favourite musicians/artists of all time was saxophonist Steve Lacy. For me Lacy towers above most improvising musicians, due in part to his approach to music, sound and improvisation, which were not only individual but also spiritual. He, like musicians such as Mike Brecker, still have no real successors, possibly demonstrating how unique they were, which made them hard to imitate without becoming a carbon copy. Another facet which links Lacy's name to greatness is his famed solo performances and recordings. Lacy not only improvised on the melody but added a layer to his improvisations using his sound or/and the sound of the room, giving his performances an extra dimension. Although I'm sure that many musicians use this 'extra dimension' nowadays, it is rare to hear new saxophonists that approach this territory in the same way that Lacy did.         

Recently I sat and listened to the new record(*) of saxophonist Alexandra Grimal and pianist Giovanni di Domenico's titled Chergui. Many of the aspects that drew me to Steve Lacy's work seem to have re-emerged on this fine recording, making it one of the most inspiring albums I've heard in a long while. For all those unaware of Alexandra Grimal, head over to either Wikipedia for a biographical update, which is indeed interesting, or, for her recordings, go to the Free Jazz Blog and type 'Grimal' into the search box where you'll find several in depth reviews of her recordings. Giovanni di Domenico is a pianist, based in Brussels, who has a gift for sound exploration combined with melody. The two musicians have already worked together and on this recording they really show how music is something far beyond the notes, just as Lacy did on many occasions.

Chergui, a double album, is a collection of duets and solo pieces which are - I imagine - a combination of improvised performances and some compositions. The record opens with the extraordinary Prana, a solo piece by Alexandra Grimal, who develops an initial idea on her soprano which also makes use of the sound of the room - recorded in the Theatre du Châtelet (Paris) - to give the piece this extra dimension that Lacy also enjoyed using. Grimal makes full use of the acoustic, taking advantage of the theatre's sound to get the best out of the space between notes. It is an 8 minute track which is completely hypnotic, showing perfectly how an idea can be developed into several layers. What also strikes me on this, and the following performances, is the amazing control and clarity of sound that Grimal brings to this difficult saxophone, making the recording a pure joy to hear. The album never lets up from here over it's eighteen tracks, leading the listener through an intimate and yet searching set of works. 

Alexandra Grimal chooses soprano on most tracks, however, on The Window was Camel-less we get to hear the tenor saxophone. Grimal's approach to the tenor is slightly different and brings something quite special to the duo's sound which makes you wonder why she didn't use the instrument on some of the other pieces. The album is, one could say, a celebration of sound and space where Grimal and di Domenico use the theatre's space and acoustic to build some remarkable duet and solo works. One such work that appears in different guises dotted throughout the album, six in all, is piece titled Koan - versions numbered 6, 7, 8, 10, 11 & 19. These wonderful duets, almost short vignettes between the piano and soprano sax, seem to have planned themes (slightly different each time), which the duo come back to, using a slightly different approach each time to create new work.

As mentioned already there are two discs in this set. The main difference between the two is that the second disc places the emphasis on Giovanni di Domenico. This gives us a perfect chance to really listen to this composer/improviser/pianist, working melody and developing improvisations in a way which are at times close to modern 20th century piano works, and truly captivating also. Pieces such as Zai or Let sounds be themselves show di Domenico's way of combining contemporary techniques and melody into his own sound world, complementing Grimal's solo pieces on the CD. Nevertheless, the second album also has several duets which carry on from the first album. Tema Per Jan Svankmayer has a melody which leads the two to explore delicate spaces in the acoustics of the theatre. Ballata dei Piedi Volanti is another piece, that as the title suggests, treads carefully, only revealing the true nature of the melody at the end of the piece.

This recording is a must for all that enjoy improvisation at its highest level and I should add, that if there's one album you should have bought last year*'s this one! 

Here's a short piece which may give you some idea of the music on this fine album:
Ballata dei Piedi Volanti (CD2, tk9)

Head over to Ayler Records to get more details, and whilst your there don't forget to look over their excellent catalogue!

* = The record was released in the last half of 2014, unfortunately due the sheer quantity of recordings released this album got stuck in the 'things to listen to' pile and the review comes a little late, although in this case better late than never!  
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