Forms of Air | Blog

Occasional Ramblings on Sound and the Creative Process

Category Archives: 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:

  1. Liftoff 5:20
  2. Polaris 1:40
  3. Encountering 3:20
  4. The Spire 2:13
  5. Undine 2:53
  6. Becoming 6:19
  7. Glimmers 3:48
  8. Cresting 4:39
  9. Slipstream 2:48
  10. Ultramarine 6:13
  11. Terra Firma 3:45

Little by little, this release is coming along.


Album Art

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.

The Latest…

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.

Faery Music Cont’d

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.

Dream Sounds, Inspiration, and Fairy Magic

I’ve been grappling with a piece in my studio for a few months now.  Back in the spring, I recorded a series of sounds in my kitchen, using glass objects and water to create clinking, gurgling, and ringing sounds.  After this highly enjoyable hour and a half of noise-making (in the ecstatic spirit of childhood pot-banging), I left my soggy kitchen and got down to the business of processing and manipulating my recordings.  I got far enough to fashion some truly eerie and tantalizingly rich sounds, but found myself boxed into a corner when it came time to begin the arrangement and collaging process.  After some contemplation, I realized that I had a bad case of cheesecake syndrome – that is, that terrible moment when a diner realizes the large and unbelievably delicious dessert before him is entirely too rich and sweet to stomach.

So, my current sound palette is too dense and rich for consumption.  This conclusion did not sit well with the original intention and thrust of the piece I envisioned.  And so the project has been simmering on my backburner.  I have chewed on my cheeks and sat thinking for over a month now, wondering if I should scrap this one and move on, all the while haunted by the memory of the rippling, fantastic, swooning coils of sound awaiting my attention on my hard drive.

Meanwhile, I have also been thinking about what seemed to be an entirely different topic, that of sound and dreams.  It is my habit to lie down in my living room with a book to read before bed.  Recently, I noticed that when I begin to nod off while reading (a common occurrence), it is often sound that welcomes me into dreamspace.  It is as if I pass suddenly – instantly – from one sound environment to another.  My resistance to the drowse (or the rap of a book against my face) will often jolt me back into wakefulness several times before I make the decision to throw in the towel and head to bed.  Each drift reveals a new set of sounds.  Sometimes, what I hear is cohesive and recognizable – people speaking in an imaginary continuation of dialog I was just reading on the page, say, or the sound of my husband’s voice or a dog barking.  These sounds are accompanied by sketchy imagery that would probably firm up into a clearer resolution were I to slip more firmly into sleep.  But then, there are also the sounds which have no direct connection to real life and to which my sleepy mind assigns only the foggiest, unrecognizable imagery.  I have drifted into drones and glitches, into the sound of an everlasting bell ringing.  I hear tones and static, sometimes even music.  There is a great deal of variety and potential in these sounds.

This morning I woke up having dreamt of a sound piece I made a few years ago.  Called “For Longing”, the piece is one of two semi-orphaned pieces I have made with a clear vocal component (I usually shy away from the voice on the principle that it will dominate the experience for most listeners).  In the dream, I was singing my part in a cavernous underground space filled with fans.  Sound surged all around me and I felt exhilarated and energized, so much so that I found myself roaring into wakefulness.  I rolled out of bed and rushed immediately to my computer, a frisson of inspiration running up my spine.  I began a search for journal articles on sound and dreams, looking for studies or neuroscience articles.  Sorting through diverse (but largely unrelated) search results, I found myself reading not an article on sound in dreams, but rather a long and detailed article by Francesca Brittan on the 19th century classical composer Mendelssohn and his pioneering fairy aesthetic1.

And, there it is.  My solution.  I may not know any more about the science of sleep and hearing, but I have found a new thread to match up to a languishing sound project.  Perhaps this new piece will be less about the tonal qualities of glass and more about creating my own fae soundscape, à la Mendelssohn.


1Brittan, F. (2011). On Microscopic Hearing: Fairy Magic, Natural Science, and the Scherzo fantastique. Journal of the American Musicological Society, 64(3), 527-600.