When I started In the Hands, I also started recording little unplanned improvisations. I’d done some of this same sort of work during college in the Macalester New Music Ensemble, and some things like it at Keys Please, but it wasn’t until last year that I started putting a regular, concerted effort into playing and recording these.
They’re perhaps not as interestingly layered or as structurally satisfying as the compositions, but they have a raw energy and spirit of playfulness that I like. They’re also good calisthenics: doing them helps keep me loose and flexible for composing. Writing music, it’s easy to get bogged down in endless revision or over-conceptualized note derivation; these improvs help me maintain the balance between conception and intuition.
I originally had the idea of giving the improvs nonsense word names, like “Fleedle” and “Scrunkic", but when I recorded these three, they somehow fit perfectly the names of three little towns in Wyoming my family has always loved for their too-good-to-be true poetic names: Lusk, Lingle, and Torrington. Since then, I’ve been naming all the improvs after Wyoming towns and counties — it turns out that the state is a gold mine of wonderful words!
These three make a set of sorts: I sat down with no plan or preconception and played them back to back, just as you hear them here — in this order, in fact. My little Wyoming triptych!
This piece is my old, trusted standby. I wrote it back in college, in the winter and spring of 1998, and since then it’s been the one piece of my own that I’ve continually kept in my hands and head, always at the ready when somebody says, “Play something you wrote, Paul!” It still remains satisfying to me: the shape is simple, but interesting little puzzles keep emerging from within.
In all that time, however, only live audiences have had a chance to really experience the music — but just now, listening to the remastered version, I finally had the sense of “Yes, that’s it, that’s Three Places.” It’s not just that it finally sounds realistic; it’s the first time the music of the piece has really come through in the recording, from the three-dimensional layers of the opening, to the warmth of the whispered final low note against the cold of the final high one.
People often ask if they are three specific places. They aren’t. At the time, my mom was writing a lot about the “idea of place,” and I thought I’d call these three little pieces musical places. So I have no explanation of what the piece “means,” but I will offer this: I often like to include a little quote at the end of my pieces, not an explanation, but an evocative image or idea to open the piece to exploration. This piece’s epigraph is from the Mahabharata (William Buck’s translation):
As Lord Brahma sleeps, he hears something lost mentioned in his dream of life, and he remembers and it appears again among us as it was long ago.
Compare this to the old mastering process, or to a different recording made in a concert hall. Whoa! Here’s the score.
My mastering experiments are complete, at least for now, which means two things: First, I’m back to composing and practicing again, so new recordings are on the horizon. Second, I’m reposting all my old recordings using the new mastering process, starting today!
This is the first recording I posted to In the Hands, so it seemed fitting that it be the first to go out in its remastered form. It’s a piece Brahms wrote late in life, a lullaby. He included a motto at the top, which in English is roughly: Sleep, my child, now softly sleep / It grieves my heart to see you weep. That quote might at first suggest something depressing and morose, but no, it’s the lullaby image, the parent cradling the child, that gets at the heart of the piece: this is profoundly comforting music. Brahms is perhaps the most humane composer I know, a quality which shines through in the elegant simplicity of a piece like this one. I wrote last week about the embrace between the music and the listener; this music’s embrace is tender and compassionate, and in its arms, we are all children, all loved.
If you’re keen on comparing the old and new mastering processes, the old version of this recording is still available here. Don’t worry: the fortuitous thunderclap is still in there.
Last night in tango class, Florencia was trying to impress upon us leaders the importance of learning to follow as well, so we know what the dance feels like to the followers, and so we have a chance to feel what the really good leaders do. You can’t just learn by watching, she explains, because so much of what’s in the body’s motion isn’t apparent to the eye. “Sometimes, you’ll see somebody dancing and they look really good, but then you dance with them and ugh!” — she screws up her face — “it feels terrible!” Conversely, many of the most wonderful tangos for the people dancing them are so small and subtle that they look almost like nothing to an observer. Her moral: “Don’t worry about dancing so it looks good from the outside. Learn to dance so that it feels good from the inside.” It’s true: dancing doesn’t feel like it looks; it is a totally different experience inside that embrace.
The obvious embrace in music, one that also doesn’t feel how it looks, is between the performer and the instrument. But there’s a second embrace, much less obvious but no less important, between the listener and the music. Alone with a recording, in a musician’s living room, even in a concert hall full of people, each of us has our own private, direct experience of the music. It’s not even an embrace between the performer and the listener; it’s the listener and the sound of the music, the idea of the music. It’s not about the performer; the performer’s ego gets in the way of that connection. Ultimately, the musician has to fade into the background of the experience, and allow that embrace between the listener and the music.
A whole lot of the culture of the classical music world these days revolves around music that sounds good from the outside. I want to play music that feels good from the inside.
My recent mastering experiments have been all about reproducing … well, not the literal sound, but the musical spirit of real-life piano — but of course there’s another side to this software I’m using, and it seemed a shame not to play with it! So I went and had some fun with Niobrara. (Some fragments of another improv are also tucked away in there; a free CD to the first person to correctly identify which one.) I hope you enjoy this little musical excursion!
Niobrara (Interstellar Medium Remix)
All these sounds are acoustic piano processed in various ways. The software you’re hearing: Logic Express, Eqium, SupaPhaser, Bouncy, Scrubby, SoundHack, and Stereo Image Munger.
My mom heard a bit of this stuff when I started fooling with it in Colorado, and called it “Sybil Music” after the wonderful watercolors of Sibyl Stork. Alas, the photos on her web site don’t do the paintings justice!
Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a new mastering process.
I spent a great afternoon with Mike Olson in his wonderful studio earlier this week, and I think we finally nailed the source of a rumble in the bass that was bugging me. (Nick noticed it too.)
He also got me to completely redo the reverb, and it’s much more transparent now under his direction — the sound is smooth, you don’t hear my room, unpedaled notes don’t cut short abruptly … but it’s really hard to tell that there’s a reverb there at all. Mike wanted a wetter, more obvious reverb, but he understood the sound I was after and helped me find it. What can I say? He is a professional.
When I arrived home from that session, I suddenly found that a harshness in the attacks in loud passages I’d presumed was just part of the recording was actually isolated right around 3000Hz±100 in the right channel, and fixed that too. There really is no end to this process!
But, for me, there is at least a temporary end right now. I’m thrilled with the sound I have — it’s much better than I’d dreamed it would be when I started down the home recording path about a year ago — and I’m calling good enough good enough!
Here’s a little preview of the sound I’ve got. Once again, this is several brief passages repeated twice, first with the old process, then with the new. Let me know if anything really bugs you on your speakers. I sure wish you could all hear it at CD quality instead of as a warbly MP3 … that’s something I’m working on ….
So now I’ll be remastering all the recordings I’ve made so far, reposting them one by one. I’ll probably just start and the beginning and work chronologically, but if there’s a particular one you want to hear remastered sooner, just ask!
This is the second half of the thrilling chronicles of my attempts at mastering the piano recordings. (Here’s part one.)
Mastering Experiments, Part 2: EQ & Imaging
I’m constantly changing things — I’ve tweaked the process since my last post, and even while making the explanation, I suddenly noticed a new EQ adjustement. It never ends. These experiments are now coming up against the limits of my ears, the point where I spiral endlessly varying some parameter or other, eventually unable to tell whether the result sounds better or worse, or even any different at all. This week, I’m going to enlist the aid of some more knowledgeable friends, and of the listening public (that would be you!), then call it good and move on.
And yes, I really am interested in how it sounds to you, on your speakers and to your ears.
Once again, Logic Express is heavily involved in what you hear, as is some custom code of my own which handles the stereo image manipulation. But the real software star here is Firium. I’m generally unimpressed with the quality of audio software: it’s typically convoluted, opaque, crashy, ridiculously finicky about its environment, and an embarrassing distant last place in getting compatible with a new OS revision or new hardware. Even much-praised Logic, while it has an excellent set of capabilities, suffers from most of these complaints. It just doesn’t feel polished; it’s certainly no Adobe Illustrator.
And then there’s Elemental Audio’s products. They’re elegant. They offer powerful capabilities through a simple, carefully considered feature set, expressed in interface that explains itself clearly and makes what’s most important most obvious, yet rewards exploration and handles exceptional needs gracefully. On top of all that, to my ears, their stuff sounds fantastic.
Loyal readers of In the Hands might reasonably ask: “Paul! Where the heck are you? What have you been up to?” Well, there are many answers to that — preparing my McKnight fellowship application and visiting my parents in Colorado among them — but the piano recordings have not been neglected. I just purchased a round of new software to really try to get my mastering process right. ("Mastering,” for those of you not in on the audio tech speak, is the process of finessing the sound quality of a recording after it’s made.)
Today’s recording is first in a two-part audio explanation of what I’m doing.
Mastering Experiments, Part 1: Reverb
For those who are wondering, the software packages behind what you’ll hear are Logic Express and Ambience.
I have been busy applying for a fellowship, and also writing writing writing more music. Here is a new one in the set of dances I’ve been working on — as with the others I’ve recorded, a rough performance (there’s a section in the middle that is horrendously hobbled together), but enough to give you the idea. (The score.)
Disembodied Dance (rough version)
This is probably the weirdest, most abstract thing I’ve ever written. I love it. But be warned: those of you who found the Dance for Remembering and Forgetting a bit puzzling will be completely freaked out by this one. That is OK. It is your prerogative to be freaked out.
And yes, this is the same set of dances that includes the Cradle Waltz. I promise it will all make sense in the end.
Fascinating fun fact: I thought as I was writing this that it would turn out about three or four minutes long. As I got to the end, I though, “Well, it’s run up to five.” It wasn’t until I made this recording that I realized how long it actually is, and it took me completely by surprise. It doesn’t feel over seven minutes long to me — just as the third ballade doesn’t feel under ten. Strange how music alters our sense of the passage of time. Update: I made some substantial practices and made a re-recording, now it’s five. Was the finished length always in my mind? Moral: composition is as much a mystery to the composer as to everyone else.
This week’s recording will be late while I (1) attempt to learn to play it, and (2) wait on some new software.
In the meantime, the latest Cat and Girl pretty much sums up this blog!