One of my favorite memories of listening to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew is reading the stream-of-consciousness liner notes by Ralph J. Gleason. They’re very much of the era, with their run-on sentences, digs at the man, and confidence in the incipient unfolding of some glorious electric new age, but to me the first paragraph still stands as a timeless description of what I love in a lot of music.
… so much flashes through my mind when i hear the tapes of this album that if i could i would write a novel about it full of life and scenes and people and blood and sweat and love.
Ecology and narrative: those are the qualities in Bitches Brew that left me awestruck. The sensation that you’ve been sucked into a wormhole and deposited into an alien place with half-familiar beings who move about their lives–that impressed me and seemed so much grander than just expressing emotions. Why sing about your last breakup when you could render whole sonic worlds that abstractly allude to fantastical peoples and landscapes? Money, for one thing, and the patience of your friends for another, but Gleason’s imaginary novel remains a sort of lodestar for me.
This jaunt down memory lane serves as a long-winded way of saying I have some long tracks on the EP. Meteor Shower clocks in around thirteen and a half minutes and 8 Bit Mission ambles across the finish line at nine. Meteor Shower goes for that dramatic narrative arc in a big space–let’s call it the full Gleason–more than any other and is the only track to indulge in synthesizer improvisation. 8 Bit Mission does a head fake toward brofisting electro house before settling into what my friend who does make brofisting electro house derisively calls “African jazz.” 8 Bit Mission would be the first track to make African jazz with looped, distorted, transposed, vocoded vocals, but he’s not entirely wrong.
Squelch doesn’t do a head fake toward fist-pumping idiocy; it embraces obnoxious synths, bass drops, and beat repeats in all of their sublime stupidity. “The stupid sublime” would be my dissertation topic if I were kidnapped and forced into a cultural studies PhD program. The transcendent stupification of AC/DC guitar riffs, Skrillex wobbles, and Southern rap lyrics would be exhibits A through B in my argument that musical idiocy can bring us as close to the precipice of the infinite as earthquakes and mountain tops. It would at least be an interesting dissertation defense.
Quick Minute is a fast, all robo-percussion sprint through trap and footwork styles. My studio is located down the hall from a number of trap producers, and their crazy hi hats, big basses, and taste for ultra syncopation have seeped through the walls into my practice sessions. Quick Minute grew out of playing along with the noise bleed.
Erik Satie in a Djembe Drum drops the temperature for a few minutes of diaphanous chords cribbed from Erik Satie’s famous Gymnopedia No. 1. The Satie piece doesn’t appear directly; you hear its harmonies speak when hits from the djembe drum jostle a bank of resonant filters tuned to the frequencies in the piano piece. I carry the main melody with a distorted, flute-like preset in the vocal processor.
And now, the tech specs. The main controller I used in the production and performance of “The Human Element” is a custom MIDI controller that I call the Meganome. It was inspired by the monome and MPC controllers and consists of 84 square, illuminated arcade buttons, an XY joystick, two ebony pressure sensors, and a proximity sensor, all housed in a case of purpleheart and curly maple. An Arduino Mega is the brains of the controller, which connects to a laptop via USB. The buttons have ultra light springs, which make for fast action and playability. In synth control mode, scales are laid out across the Meganome’s rows with octaves along the columns, allowing for some unusual chord voicings and melodic leaps that would be difficult on the keyboard.
Most of the album uses radical vocal transformations, which are performed with a voice processor I created originally for my own use in Jazari and continued developing as it was incorporated into Vio, an iPhone app I’ve collaborated on with Audiofile Engineering. Sometimes the transformations are so radical that the results don’t sound like a human voice. The first sound in 8 Bit Mission, for example, is my voice run through what became Vio’s audio engine. The vocoding and spectral processing add a cyborg cast to the human voice and not, I hope, in a dull, lifeless way, but one that acknowledges that technology mediates everything we do and we may as well revel in it. That idea, I think, is the honesty behind the artifice of making yourself sound like a quartet of alien synthesizers.
The whole system is tied together by a big MAX patch running Java code in MXJ externals. The synths and effects are handled by MSP, and MIDI commands sent out from the patch are received by Arduinos in each of the machines. The arduinos trigger solenoids that hit drums that are individually miked, and the mikes send audio back to MAX/MSP for processing like frequency shifting, pitch shifting, or phasing. This system of processing drum sounds owes a lot to academic computer music, where it’s common to apply radical, drawn-out processing to acoustic instruments.
It’s taken four years of building, coding, practicing, and writing to create an album that I think stands on its own as music, and I’m glad to be able to share it with you. Thank you for reading, watching, and listening.