On Rediscovering Music-Making

First, open this page and play the song. Then switch back to this page.

Last spring my 2004 G5 “desktop” (more like a “floortop” given its heft and profile) finally gave up the ghost. At the time I just switched to a laptop and kept writing. But its death had some beneficial effects on my creative life (outside of scholarship, which I do find creatively rewarding).

To begin with, I could hear–and occasionally see–the impending machine death coming. This mattered because the G5 housed the software and mixes for the then-still-unfinished second lo-boy record, recorded in my Pittsburgh basement in the summer of 2004 right before I moved to Montreal. I emailed Mike, who now lives in Madison, to tell him that once the book was out I was either going to have to finish the record myself or he’d have to finally come up and join me. The urgency came from the fact that if my machine died (and Carrie’s matching G5 wasn’t too far behind), the work we’d done on those songs would be lost and we’d have to start over from scratch. That would probably kill the project altogether.

Music software isn’t quite like the stuff that academics normally use. A single song might use products of 10 or more different companies. There are endless compatibility issues to resolve, and once you get a working setup, you stick with it. So I would update my OS for work stuff, but the music setup more or less remained frozen in 2004. Needless to say, some programs or companies die off, and so when you update, you lose capabilities, settings and presets as well as gain new capabilities.

When my computer died, I didn’t have time to deal with it, but summer came, Carrie got her new laptop, and so I took parts from my dead computer and combined them with her living (but wheezing) computer to create a working FrankenMac. Mike came up at the end of August and we spent two days finishing the lo-boy record. Once we’ve made some final tweaks, we will get it mastered sometime this fall and then release it.

But after the book went out in July, I also spent about a week setting up my not-entirely-new laptop to be my main music computer for new stuff. That week sucked. I’d just turned in this book manuscript that I loved writing and to celebrate, I basically spent a week installing stuff, configuring it, calling tech support, and then buying other stuff so that I could better use the stuff I’d just set up. Carrie and I also spent a couple unpleasant days hanging acoustic panels in the office (they’d been sitting on the floor for two year, waiting to be hung). None of that was very fun and kind of a crappy to spend the little bit of time that I take off. But it turned out to be worth it.

In the world of music software, a lot of amazing things have happened in the last five years. I can now use my computer more or less like a live effects processor for my bass if I want, and the software synthesizers that you can get are astoundingly good-sounding. Software effects were already really good in 2004, but you can do even more now and there are some wonderfully designed things available that weren’t when I last looked. For instance, there are now actual good distortion plugins. Even the audio software with which I am most familiar has made leaps and bounds, and other software that I had tried and put aside, like Ableton Live, now seems much more robust and just fun to use.

So in addition to finishing the old project, I started some new ones. At first, I just did some “exercises” to try and figure out how to program drums or use software synthesis tools that were new to me. But I’ve also begun a new collaboration with a friend and am making music regularly–at least once a week, sometimes more–for the first time since I moved to Montreal.

It has been a head-slapping experience. I am as busy as I have ever been but I have just decided to carve out time and do it, which I could have done before. There is no pleasure in my life like playing or making music–it is totally immersive and totally pleasing. In a way it’s a perfect antidote to the stresses of being a bureaucrat as well as a scholar (and will be for the next 8.5 months). So I feel kind of stupid for neglecting this aspect of my life for the last 5 years (with a couple minor exceptions, like the Fetus Training recording I did with Carrie). But better late than never.

The new project has no name and no completed songs, but it’s definitely a new direction. The music is purely studio music, more electronica-y and somehow a little less serious in tone. We will see where it goes.

As a side effect of the studio being set up, I also completed my first work of real, bona-fide sound art–a sort of Alvin Lucier cover that is meant to go with my mp3 book. But that is for another post.