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Occasional Ramblings on Sound and the Creative Process

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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.