the cmrc blog
Off your bike
We seem to be an accident prone lot here at York. A few months ago the composer David Lancaster fell off his bike resulting in a broken shoulder, cracked collarbone and two broken fingers in the winter ice.
I nodded sagely when he told me of his injuries, a fellow biker, almost succumbing to the winter ice a couple of times myself. I offered sympathy and understood the resulting injuries would leave him home bound with no way to get around. Luckily as David announces elsewhere on his post it turned out to be a fruitful time of rest resulting in new approaches to his own music.
Two months later I topped David’s accident by hitting a tree on my mountain bike and losing the distal phalynx of my right middle finger (the bit with your finger nail on). As I took my glove off in the beautiful sun dappled wood deep in Wales, I saw my musical career slip away from me, my guitar playing days are over I thought. These thoughts were combined with lots of very loud visceral swearing.
Two months later and I am injecting musical notation data from my computer into a hand-made MIDI controlled pump organ borrowed from Jonathan Eato (thank you kindly Jon). My keyboard skills have never been great really. I love the guitar and its instantaneous access to noise and melody and the ubiquitous finger picking. Thankfully I can still play with a plectrum and soon with the aid of a prosthetic I will fingerpick again. I am relatively proficient on six and four strings, yet the keyboard has always felt distant – something that I wasn’t directly involved in. A binary instrument (with some velocity sensitivity and perhaps on better models, aftertouch) with the key press triggering note on (the timing of which measures velocity in the world of MIDI). After the note on state the note is played for however long it is held down before then the release state and the note is off. Keyboards offer control of velocity and sustain but little control of pitch deviation, unlike the bends and slides of a guitar or violin. Some more advanced controllers, those with ribbons perhaps or the fluid pianos of Geoff Smith and the Sea Board MIDI controller offer ways of controlling pitch whilst a note is held. Yet none of these solutions can match the simplicity and pure expression of lengthening or shortening a string with a finger to induce pitch change.
After my accident I sat for a long time with one good hand and I saw how everything is fragile, our own music making abilities, our tools that we take for granted can be taken away in the blink of an eye. I was relatively lucky; for some mountain bikers losing an arm is not unheard of. The computer is the obvious tool for music making in these circumstances and I took to making the usual experimental techno and pop that I make to keep myself ‘in the game’ so to speak. My recovery was slow and some music came out. None of it was particularly interesting.
However the music I am making with the organ, based upon a pseudo algorithmical approach, is created with my own interactions with Max patches through MIDI controllers. The music could not be played by myself and many organists would struggle with most of it for that matter. With no keyboard and no input other than my patches, faders and sliders I easily slipped into thinking of an organ as something beyond the keyboard, something it has always traditionally been attached to. With the keyboard removed suddenly the instrument breathes new life with the huffing and puffing of the organ becoming music itself. The sound of the air trying to make the notes in time is alive. Air is being passed through pipes to create the sounds yet there is something alien and unheard of as the organ wheezes and splutters. Some of the sounds and clusters I have found in it are pretty and (I am told) reminiscent of the player piano work of Ligeti. Others could perhaps be played on a traditional organ (if notated) however many become blurs of notes and clouds of noise sounding as if they are already processed by digital means, perhaps by the use of spectral processing. Yet at the core all the sound is generated from air passing through tubes.
Change is perhaps the only certainty in our lives and composition is a way of marking that time from one change to the next. We remember work we have done in the past, what was going on in our lives at that particular time and sometimes, as has been discussed here, we revisit work, moulding it into new forms and working with sounds we have become familiar with, like old friends. Sometimes it is only when we are jolted by something severe that we stop to appreciate what we have around us, easily within our grasp, and take stock of what we have left. It is then possible to see the world and our creative lives in a new light.