Occasional Ramblings on Sound and the Creative Process
Today, I’ve been working on tracking out As Above, So Below. It’s a long, moody piece of over 40 minutes – I spent nearly 3 hours finding the right transition point between each sonic thought in the piece and coming up with track titles. It’s a bit of a laborious task at times, but this is the third album I have tracked and I think it’s become an essential part of the process of wrapping my head around a piece.
When I originally began making sound art, I tended to produce short-form pieces under 10 minutes. My first album, Locality_14802, contains a handful of these shorter tracks. Each tells a very different story – so that first album was drawn together more by the materials than by a particular subject matter (all the sounds were recorded in and around Alfred, NY). As my process continued to evolve, I started moving toward long-form pieces, a natural outgrowth of my interest in long drones. At nearly 50 minutes, Cloud Chases Cloud was where things started to get so long as to be unwieldy. I remember thinking there were certain sections of that piece that I wanted to revisit more than others, so I sat down and started dividing it up into tracks.
That experience really changed how I looked at my work. I realized that tracking an album out and playing with titles allowed me to get a better grasp on the “aboutness” of a piece. While the impetus for my sound art is a desire to interact with interesting noises I hear and record, the final pieces each unfold to display their own unique character, mood, and story. Tracking helps me to make sense of that individual character and sort out what each piece means to me – my track titles and album art hint at my own interpretation of the narrative and what I experience while listening. This gives me a helpful starting point for interacting with my audience and describing the overall quality of the piece to others.
In the case of As Above, So Below, titling my tracks was a bit more challenging than usual. Listening to the piece, I was struck by this dual sensation of plunging into oceanic waves and surfing among clouds in the sky. I felt mist on my face and drifted in the quiet depths of the ocean. The sensations were often simultaneous. Am I swimming or flying? Am I sinking weightlessly into the deep abyss or drifting out into the dark recesses of the night sky? This confusion of imagery led me to think of the boundary between water and sky and of the strong resemblance between outer space and the deep fathoms of the ocean. I was hoping to find track titles that would mirror the duality found in my piece, but strangely enough there are very few words that readily evoked both environments. Still, I think my track titles work pretty well to convey the dreamy oceanic/atmospheric journey I envision when I listen to the piece. Without further ado, here are the tracks:
Little by little, this release is coming along.
Thanks to the Media Arts Technical Assistance Fund, a regrant program of NYSCA Electronic Media and Film, administered by free103point9, I am currently in New York City, attending the Megapolis audio festival! Per the festival’s website, “The MEGAPOLIS Audio Festival is a weekend-long event dedicated to the art of sound. Artists including documentarians, technologists, musicians, educators, urban planners, scientists, radio producers, and fans interact to share secrets on producing and presenting challenging audio works online, on-air, and on the stage.” After my first day at Megapolis, I can definitely say that there is a very interesting mix of different types of media-makers here – it is very refreshing to be working with people from so many different backgrounds!
Currently, I am nursing sore feet and a completely blown mind at my hotel – so many great ideas/sounds to play with/share! For example, check out this neat online sound tool – http://www.jazzdrummachine.com (use Google Chrome browser for best results, per the programmer Ben Lacker). You can use the sample jazz drummer tracks to create interesting sounds by dragging the sliders up and down, or head over to someplace like archive.org and grab an mp3 file to load into the program to create something even more unusual-sounding. The tool will first sort through the file, isolating eight different groups of sounds according to their timbre (each slider corresponds to one grouping of sounds with a similar timbre, for a total of eight groups). Once the processing is complete, you can hit the play button to begin playing a loop – use the sliders to add or subtract sounds in real time from the loop. The higher the slider, the more clips of that timbre will be included in the loop (this baby gets LOUD). I will definitely be playing with this tool more in the future – I am curious what it would do with voice or piano. It definitely does very cool things with drums.
The other session I attended today was “The Way Things Travel” with John Roach and Aaron Moore. In this noise-making extravaganza, we created several instruments using various odds and ends. Check out two of my instruments below:
The stringed instrument in the front can be hooked up to a simple piezo pickup and – voila – you have a very interesting-sounding electronic instrument made with rubber hands and a resonator made of an old DVD security case. Also in this picture is a “bow” made of soft plastic tubing with a piece of wire stuck through it and a “saxophone” made with a straw and an old spool. I am amazed at the varied and interesting sounds these instruments produce. I also took notes on how to make another really neat instrument out of a cigar box and some wire – I will most certainly be recreating something like this at home! I will need to figure out how to create a piezo pickup – the ones we used today were very low tech, something like what is described in this article. Looks like a trip to Radio Shack for a couple of buzzers/cables and some tutoring in soldering technique from my husband is in my future! In the meantime, tomorrow the group of us from the first “The Way Things Travel” session will perform for an hour on our new instruments. Fun times!
Note: This essay was written for a class (Information Policy) I am currently taking as a graduate Library and Information Studies student at Florida State University. I got to the end of writing it and thought it would make a good blog entry, since I approach the problem from a personal perspective. Looking forward to reading comments about this one!
As an artist and musician, I tend to think about copyright on a fairly regular basis – likely more often than the average person. My interest in the subject comes down to two questions – what constitutes fair use of others’ works and creations and how can I protect my own works from infringement, ensuring I have an opportunity to profit from my labor?
The first question arises out of my practice as an artist. Like many painters, I sometimes make use of reference images to help me work out visual problems or create new works. I also make collages from magazine clippings. Finally, to promote and sell my music, I produce album art, which usually consists of digital collages and graphics produced by combining various photographs on the computer. In each of these cases, I always wonder about fair use. I aim to respect the copyright of others and create wholly original works, but to a certain extent, my process does involve remixing and reusing the works of others.
I usually ponder over my second question when it comes to my music/sound art, rather than my visual art – I wonder about how to protect my ability to profit from what I have created. Where my visual art usually results in a single, unique, manifestly physical object (valuable precisely because of its originality – a print would not have the same value as the original painting), my sound art is created, produced, and sold digitally. It is readily copy-able and sharable. Like many musicians, I wonder if it would be possible to profit from my work, were it to land on a torrent site. Would anyone buy what they can get for free?
Although I have researched copyright, established a working model of fair use, and even studied the concept in classes, copyright remains a hazy issue for me. Copyright law is complex and easy to misinterpret. Enforcement of the laws are spotty and inconsistent. In a more perfect world, the laws would be simple, easy to understand, and enforced.
Copyright and Changing Social Values
If, like me, the idea of the enforcement of copyright law makes you wince, then you are likely aware of the current state of affairs. Only a serious overhaul of the system would make consistent enforcement acceptable to the average person. These days, many new works are now “born digital” or converted to digital formats, making them readily accessible and easy to copy. Although those who have most profited from the idea of copyright continue to cling to the convention, lobby the government to protect their interests, and occasionally bring litigation against those who infringe on it, the everyday person has taken to the internet and is awash in media they have (or could have) obtained for free. Social mores are changing rapidly in the face of the embarrassment of riches available with a click of a mouse or the tap of a touchscreen. Copyright simply has not kept up with this trend.
Still, copyright remains a good idea in principle – the notion that individuals should be able to hold the rights to their own works and thereby profit from them (and control them) is sensible. After all, converting an idea to a completed work is often quite time-consuming and difficult. Copyright assures that the creator will have the opportunity to be compensated for his or her work for a certain length of time, before the work becomes part of the public domain. Copyright is thus intended to ensure creative works get made, for the benefit of both the individual and for culture on a whole.
Still, ask the average artist (this one included) why he or she toils away in their studio, and they are more likely to say “Because I love making things” than “Because I want to get paid”. Most of the musicians and artists I know create for the sheer pleasure of it, to expand their knowledge/understanding, or for the rush of satisfaction that accompanies defeating a technical challenge. Creating artistic works is often a labor of love. There is intrinsic value in the process of creating something – and there is also cultural value assigned to works which may very well be independent of any price tag also attached. I can appreciate the value of a work of art at a gallery – I can be moved and changed by a piece, I can be inspired to a valuable dialog with others – and yet still not purchase it.
Given what I have discussed, what is one to make of the future of copyright? How could the law be improved? Should it be done away with altogether? If it is done away with, what will the impact be on creative production?
Despite my own desire to profit from my artworks and the seemingly clear-cut path copyright provides to that end, I would argue that copyright as it currently stands should go the way of the dinosaur – and in fact, I suspect that the necessary change is already afoot.
Quite simply, in the face of this bombardment of media, creation is moving from the hands of a select few to the hands of all. Everyday people are not just consuming, but making media. Given the rapid onset and evolution of the digital age, where more and more sophisticated tools of production are appearing – often for free – on more and more devices and computers, experiencing the pleasure and benefit of making and sharing things is becoming an everyday activity for a huge array of people. Our hands were freed from the till by the industrial age – now we have an array of production tools of another sort with which to fill our time.
If everyone is a maker (or has the opportunity to be a maker) in our technology-infused, post-industrial world, then the risk of creative production disappearing is nil. Thus, copyright is no longer necessary to assure the creation of works.
However, if we do away with copyright entirely at this juncture, we still have the problem of money and control. Even in a culture of creators, there still will be the cream that rises to the top, the artists, musicians, dancers, actors, and more who will produce the most inspiring, relevant, and rich works. Supporting the “special” creative productions of these people is vital to maintaining a meaningful conversation that pushes our culture forward. How do we provide the necessary support to these artists without copyright as we know it today?
There is a three part structure that I would propose – two parts of which are already unfolding. This first part is crowdsourcing. Most would agree that creative production is beneficial to our culture. What if we funded that production, instead of the product itself? Crowdsourcing is being used to fund albums and films – artists submit a proposal to the public and in donations of a few bucks here and there, fans support the venture. En masse, their contributions become a viable support. If crowdsourcing becomes the norm, artists will still have the opportunity to make money, but their products will be freely available. Ideally, those artists with the most merit (or the most clever marketing strategy) would rise to the top and receive the most funding.
The second part of my proposal has to do with performance. Musicians have already discovered that they can still make money from live performance in the digital age. Similarly, even though they could easily download a pirated copy, many people will pay money to see movies at the theater because the experience is heightened compared to watching on a small screen at home. Performance and providing a “premium experience” remains profitable. Thus, the most successful cultural producers in a future, copyright-free (or copyright-different) world will use their products as marketing tools and will profit from performing their works, speaking about their works, telling stories, and variously gracing others with their presence and talent.
The above two points describe how the monetary aspects of copyright might be addressed, were it to be changed or eliminated. However, there is a final aspect to contend with, and that is control. While copying is the best form of flattery by some yardsticks – and while derivative works can often drive sales or appreciation of the original work – there is still a moral obligation to allow artists to control their creations and have a say in who uses them and how, if they so desire. After all – our culture places a premium on the value of the individual and on originality. Therefore, I would suggest that copyright be moved to an opt-in, registration-based system. Artists who wish to copyright their works could do so, for a certain term, but with no extensions. Given how much content would naturally fall into the public domain and be freely available in this new paradigm, copyright could once again be enforced.
This system would by no means present a perfect solution – however I do think that it would be a significant advancement from the current confusing and outdated system. Public debate, innovation, and law-making could certainly work out many of the kinks in such a system – unlike current copyright, where the system is essentially stalled out and stuck with little hope of redemption.
I began this essay by outlining my own stake in the issue. As an artist, I want to be able to profit from my work – but I also would like to be able to use the plethora of resources out there as references or materials to create new original works as well. The way copyright currently works, my ability to do either is by no means assured. My work may be placed up for download on the internet despite my copyright, or I may inadvertently step past fair use when making new works. Thus, it seems that a new paradigm is needed to deal with the issues at the heart of copyright. I look forward to seeing where this all goes in the future!
Although I was trained as a visual artist, creating album art is often a challenge! One of the things I enjoy most about sharing my work are the sensations or visuals people share in response to hearing a piece. “I saw outer space and a huge asteroid field!” My album covers are where I leave a clue about what I see when I listen to the piece. I try to strike a balance between creating something visually striking that hints at my vision, while leaving things ambiguous enough that the listener can have their own take on the imagery or story of the piece.
Creating album art is the stage I am in with my latest piece – and like everything about the creative process behind As Above, So Below, it’s taking me even longer than usual! I’ve made several different versions of the cover so far, but that perfect fit remains elusive! I’m so looking forward to finishing this one, but I think I’m just going to have to make peace with the languid pace. It’s gonna get done… eventually.
Good news if you enjoy reading about sound/art – my favorite sound art journal has 10 free articles posted – no database access required! Check out (and download) a bunch of great articles from Organised Sound for free until March 31st, 2013 here.
Sometimes, projects just don’t work out the way you expect them to! Been gnawing on the faery music idea for months, but when I finally got into the studio, something entirely different unfolded. The result is just another reminder that being led astray by a sneaky Muse is usually more productive than expected! Here’s a sneak peak at the work in progress:
So far, the whole 45+ minute piece consists of wave-like sounds accompanied by various high and low pitched drones. Most of the sounds were created in my kitchen with glasses, bottles, and Tibetan singing bowls. My refrigerator makes a few appearances, as does some radio static I recorded a couple years ago and some pink noise I generated in my editing software. The “waves” are made of a hiss sound I pulled out of another recording last year and manipulated with a pitch bender effect.
Although I enjoy all the noise and glitches I capture in my field recordings, significant time spent editing out noise in search of pure tones for this piece has me thinking it might be time to look into creating a soundproofed space somewhere in my house for recording singing bowls, voice, and instruments. Ever since I used wind chimes to warm up the sound of Cloud Chases Cloud, I have been growing increasingly interested in mixing field recordings with more melodic, instrumental sounds. This piece pushes forward in that vein and I’m really enjoying the effect.
Anyway, stay tuned in the coming weeks for more updates, including release details for the currently untitled album! I still have to decide what parts of the whole piece to edit, cut, or keep, but I know for sure that this piece needs to be surround mixed to really shine, so it might take a while to get to album art and the like.
I have spent a rather lovely hour or so watching Gotye (and Gotye inspired) videos on Youtube. If like me, you live under a rock, Gotye is a popular and inventive musician from Australia. I had no idea I was listening to Top 40 hits whilst jamming to tracks off “Making Mirrors” and completing librarian homework, but so it goes.
Anyway, in lieu of any progress updates on my work (none to report, see the bit about librarian homework above), here are some videos I found inspiring as someone who dabbles in sound.
Gotye brilliantly remixes Youtube covers of his song “Somebody I used to Know”:
The original sound, for comparison:
Gotye breaks down the creation of “Eyes Wide Open” including a visit to a giant “sound fence” in Australia and insight into the surprising number of bits and pieces in the song (are you feeling inspired yet?):
Another “making of” video, featuring all sorts of sonic goodies, as well as background information on the song “State of the Art”:
And finally, the totally surreal video for “State of the Art”, which makes a little bit more sense after watching the above documentary:
Fellow sound artists, rejoice! I just got word of this sound art exhibition opportunity in Toronto, Canada:
New Adventures in Sound Art 2012 Call For Submissions
SONIC GEOGRAPHY: exploring Space & Sound
Deadline for applications is November 15th, 2012. There are several different formats of works being considered, including multichannel sound art and radio art.
Pssst, pass it on.
I have to admit it: I’m stuck. I’ve got some great sounds for my Faery Project, but have been spending too much time thinking and not enough time working! I need to get out and make some field recordings of natural sounds to use as the ground for my high-pitched, super-dense glass sounds. I’m thinking fire cracking, leaves crunching (it is afterall Autumn here in upstate New York), bees buzzing in their hive (I have access to an apiary, lucky me!), geese honking, and a water moving. I need wind sounds too and something to evoke flight and fast movement.
Meanwhile, this one snippet of my glass-sounds has been bopping around my head for months now. It’s a rhythmic high pitched loop, perfect for a faery processional.
I can’t seem to forget about this loop; I am drawn away into my imagination by even the memory of it, drifting through my head at odd moments. Which is of course perfect, because I remember all these stories of faeries luring children off into the wilds… I suppose that the reason I am interested in these mythic creatures is because I want to exert the same kind of strange force, luring the listener into some vivid, trance-like space. I want to lure and be lured into magical spaces.
The problem is, this project is proceeding a little bit ass-backward – that is to say I’m putting concept ahead of the bulk of the creative process. So it is taking me forever to get anywhere! At the outset of a typical piece, I normally traipse out with my field recorder in hand. The drive behind making the piece is really just that dialog between me and the sounds and my tools. It is only after the piece is finished that I find what it is about – or at least how it speaks to me. Still, listening to the way 19th century composer’s tried to pin down the sound of the faery is providing a good model for my thinking.
Here, for example is Mendelssohn’s interpretation of a Faery processional (From the Midsummer Night’s Dream suite):
In art school, I learned technique and honed my skills, but struggled to grasp on to the ability to make work about something. I certainly have things to say, and there is a powerful undercurrent in all my work (no matter how diverse in apparent subject matter) that could be deemed my “concept” – that is, the sense of the magical in every day life and a need to find peace and healing through ritual and aesthetic experience. But I’ve finally realized I can’t really make work about these things – these are just the context my work sits inside. This is why I make art, but not what I make it about. Listening to Mendelssohn though, I can sense how he used sounds very specifically in order to evoke a sensation of movement and flightiness. His overarching aim may have been to transport the listener, but more specifically, he and other early composers working in this conceptual vein used technique to flesh out ideas about minute worlds, inaccessible to ordinary human awareness1. They were thinking about romantic notions and science as they were composing, creating music that reflected popular ideas about the fae during that era and nodding back to mythological stories. Now I endeavor to do the same, except that I am focusing on a more personal conception of the fae and experience of “faery magic”. You can see why I have been a bit lost in thought when it comes to this project! So many dreams and childhood memories to sort through, so many fascinating readings within the modern new age oeuvre.
I think though, I have only to get back to the sound and I will find my way. After all, it is a set of sounds that got me started on all of this. Time to put a field recording day on my calendar!
1Brittan, F. (2011). On Microscopic Hearing: Fairy Magic, Natural Science, and the Scherzo fantastique. Journal of the American Musicological Society, 64(3), 527-600.