My albums are often "about" something, but this one, despite much effort and lots of recurring themes, steadfastly resisted attempts to assign some kind of meaning to it. So, it is just "33", because it's my 33rd solo album. The number 33 has lots of interesting associations, none of which inspired either the title or the music.
There were some attempts to create a story and cover art for the music to somewhat "refer to". One had to do with abandoned buildings and equally abandoned, homeless people; the other was about a very nasty plague, and people trying to escape it. But the music was not a perfect fit for either of these, and so was left to just be itself. Still, the influence and mood of these ideas can be felt strongly in many places.
How do you name music that doesn't actually refer to anything? Classical music uses terms relating to form or structure. I couldn't see myself doing that here, giving the music a title like "suite" or "concerto", with lots of Italian words describing the tempos and style of each section. Despite the fact that much of the music is obviously classically inspired, I'm not a classically trained musician. For me, it would be silly.
Even so, with "33", I wanted to do something where the whole album was like a modern classical piece. I think I've been able to get close to this in previous work, the closest probably being the title track of "Moving". "Simple and Not" and "The Watermelon Seed" lean towards this as well. But they don't sound "classical" in the sense of instrumentation. Truthfully, "33" is only partially there too.
If you read histories of 20th century electronic music, at every new instrument or advance in technology, the orthodoxy- if supportive and not disdainful- would say something like "Imagine the sounds available to the composer in the future!" This is still being said, and maybe the mix of sounds is happening more now than it did earlier. But while a few adventurous composers always were there to take advantage of these new sounds and technologies, their use was rare, especially when mixed with acoustic instruments or orchestra. But there are actually more examples of that than there are of combining the musics that sprung up around these new technologies with older methods, except in the most popular, watered down ways.
One of the things I tried to do with "33" was to create something that embraced a few different styles in a way that hopefully hadn't been heard much before. Things that interested me for this purpose were: electronic music before it became little besides metronomic dance rhythms; odd homemade acoustic instruments along the lines of Harry Partch (but with nowhere near his accuracy or purpose- strictly for the richness of sound); classical instruments and concepts; sound design as music; instruments used mostly in rock or jazz, but outside those roles, for example, a fuzz bass used in a duet with a clarinet. It seems to me these things are now easily available for the creation of new hybrid music, and I'm excited to see what I can make.
There are synthesizers, musique concrete, bizarre percussion and strings. In that, I don't think it's too much different than something like Varese might be doing today (not saying I'm in his league, just in that direction). It's got a lot of leanings towards early Tangerine Dream too.
Edgar Froese referred to the group's music in the early days as "musical surrealism", trying to do with music what Dali did with painting. It's a great way of thinking, a cross-pollination of art forms. Keith Rowe said he put the guitar down and played it with different objects because he was influenced by Jackson Pollack, and they way he had taken painting from vertical to horizontal. I like, and use, both of these ideas, which are here credited with much gratitude back to their sources. One I found straight out of the art book was Ivan Albright. His methods give inspiration and guidance to my way of recording and composing.
Albright is best known for his "after" portrait of "Dorian Gray" in the 1945 movie version. (His brother, also a fine painter, did the "before" and gradually worsening portraits.) But Albright had a long career of painting in his unusual style. His choices of lighting for his subjects frequently leaned towards those that revealed the harshest details, highlighting features that would commonly be considered "ugly". He felt that showing those things were more interesting. Similarly, John Cage felt that conventional music, specifically classical, had "not enough noise". I have sympathy with both these views. Such things don't always need to be present, but they certainly ought not to be excluded. I lean towards the rough edges fairly often.
Albright would most often work on random sections of a painting. His canvases were framed with bendable lead, so that he could bend and distort them before painting a section. In this way, the perspective and focus in his pictures are completely fractured, coming from everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.This made the end result full of both realism and distortion. I can relate! Again, I like these ideas, so I attempt to use them with sound.
With "33", as with a lot of my other work, I came up with sections; I recorded a lot of improvising; and I sliced and diced as necessary to come up with a basic framework. I then elaborated on that wherever it seemed something was missing, building the whole into something much more than the skeleton, replacing or deleting sections as necessary to come up with a satisfactory end result. The method is more of an organic formation than strict composition. Brian Eno once made an analogy about ways of creating music, based on the difference between a modern building, which has a blueprint, and a hut, which couldn't have one, because it's based on unique materials and situations. I have a tendency towards hut building. Even my blueprinted structures have hut-like tendencies. If there's no element of chance or surprise or improvisation in what I do, I don't feel like I've done what I ought to have. I think this is the opposite of how most people work, which perhaps is why I feel it's important to keep doing it. It's a way of working worth keeping alive.
Facebook posts and notebook excerpts relating to the creation of "33" (all are FB unless otherwise noted)
September 7, 2017:
Tonight's dishwashing music will be the first master of an as-yet-unnamed new solo album that was recorded before, during and after "invisible ground of sympathy". It's unusual for me in that it's "pure music"- a term I hate- in other words it was created without a story or meaning behind it. I doubt it will stay that way, unless I can find, and remain satisfied with, some way of naming its sections in a non descriptive way. It seems not only difficult to steer clear of, but wrong, like not naming your kids, or making a plotless film. I understand this is music and it's not required. But since I've always worked that way, it feels weird. We'll see what develops.
September 9, 2017:
Working on trying to create a cover around the concept that this new solo album has inspired. It's drawn from dreams (what else is new), and the thread that runs through them is getting caught in a city that's been hit with a very weird and scary plague, and trying to make your way out to somewhere safe. Sort of like the zombie apocalypse except these people are hit with an airborn toxic bloodworm infection. Highly contagious and fast-acting. The sign that the infection has taken over entirely is that the eyes become overrun with the red bloodworms. The brain is already trashed, making the victims violent. The real danger is not as much the violence as the extreme danger of catching the infection. Nonetheless people are being killed in violent attacks by infection victims as well.
So much for sticking to the idea of keeping this "pure" (no story or specific purpose) music, the way it happened to be written. I knew what I was doing worked musically and followed that, but look- there was also no question in my mind that the thing was full of these scary and ominous moments. Unlike some modern composers, I can't take something that sounds like a horror movie and call it a love theme. I just can't do it.
The "plot" predates the composition(s), and the sound of the compositions suggested them as a soundtrack for this idea. I won't pretend it worked the other way around. But I'm also not going to spell it all out, section by section. At the moment it has a premise and music and that's enough.
But the cover has been seriously tough. My ideas first come from the dream imagery- pretty much impossible to recreate. Then I go for the next best thing; I spent the day looking for public domain pics of abandoned cities and such. The best ones I found were the freshest- pics of Fukushima shortly after everyone was evacuated. It's not yet overgrown. Pictures from a place like that maybe a week to three weeks after it was evacuated would be perfect. But that's pretty specific. I spent as much spare time as I had today (which wasn't really much) looking for images and coming up with very little to nothing.
I also thought I had a title, and as I've wrestled with the idea of whether or not to use this concept, I've had to try to figure out how specific or obtuse to be in the title. I have a few choices lined up but am not sure which I'll choose.
Dishwashing music tonight will be master 2, which contains a couple of track patches- beefed up one choir part, a brass part, and a thudding, shrieking crescendo part (all different sections). Short fixes in each case, but effective enough and they made the necessary differences, so I'm happy with them.
While it's always good to step outside your comfort zone to do something, occasionally you will have to view what you've done from back in the comfort zone to have a well rounded and stable grasp on what you've done.
With that wordy preface in mind, here's an update on my last post. After a couple of spins whilst dishwashing, I realized the new album:
Did not fit the horror story I had thought about assigning to it. Some of it, yes, but not enough;
Has structural deficiencies which need addressing.
It's funny how assigning a meaning to the music- my comfort zone, as a way of working- made me much more aware and critical of the music's structure than I had been when working on the "pure music" level. I think it's probably the opposite for many people. But without examining it within a framework of meaning, I was more content to let it "mean what it means", and let the audience take responsibility for interpreting structural elements which I should have been concerned with, and taken responsibility for. They're still going to make what they can of it, that won't change. But I have to listen more carefully to decide if it's what I want to present. If that sounds conservative, or overly safe and cautious, maybe it is. But I feel it's necessary to try to be satisfied with it before presenting it, both for myself, and to stay honest with my listeners. To do otherwise runs a strong risk of being cynical and disrespectful toward the audience, and I don't like that.
Solo piece began as accompaniment for Walter Whitney's "clicky drums" piece. (Note: keeping the tracks together as a unit, I simply pulled them all away, still linked in time together, from Walter's electric drums piece. It just didn't fit, and a whole new approach was formulated and used for his track. That left this chunk, which then got built into a new direction.) Known first as "Offspring", then as "Quasi-classical", now as "Derelict"......I'm sort of obsessed with a cover design at the moment. Tried a few, no luck....
....I think of what's commonly called "experimental" music more as "abstract" music, like abstract art. I think of song form, or music which has readily identifiable structure, as "conventional". I don't feel correct calling it "realistic" music (or, more horrible, "honest").
Something of a goal with me, or a common activity, is the combining of a few approaches at once to create hybrid forms. I have to reject anything that says you can't at least try that. It may fail, but there's no reason not to try any kind of hybrid. The toolbox should be large enough to contain anything that might work. Who says what works? The artist and the listener. If they agree, that's great! If not- better luck next time, and who knows, the next listener may like it.
When the kids went to bed, I was going to listen to master 5. When they woke up, I needed to get a 2nd listen to master 7.
Even in its finished state, my instrumental music might sound like musical gibberish to a lot of people. But I do know what it's supposed to sound like. It's just very dense and complicated stuff, and rather than working with pen and music paper, I use actual sounds, performances, and editing. It's time consuming but it does work. Eventually.
October 18th: "33" is released.
I get sick of a couple of things I want to change about the album, and do so, despite that being very unusual. There's a different piano solo on track 2, and on track 6, there's a new middle section featuring a homemade xylophone, and expanded orchestration throughout the middle and end.
about the cover:
The front represents a sort of disaster environment, from the view of a place you might want to hide if you were trying not to be spotted and either infected or killed. Or, less specifically, there's a sense that something is definitely off. It's the orange sky seen out the window that contributes greatly to that. The view out the window was taken in 1975 by an old school friend, Ricci D'amico. That's a section of an otherwise undoctored photo, that's actually what it looked like outside. November '75 had a lot forest fires all around the San Fernando Valley. It went on for a while, maybe a week, but one morning we woke up and it looked like this. The sky was orange, the sun was red, and everything had a purple-blue highlights, like it was black-lit. I did re-tint the window frame so it, too, would have those highlights. One of the covers I tried had a version which showed more of the room. I liked it, but with a 5x5 cover, it just wasn't strong enough. I might have done it with a 12x12.
As for the typeface on front, which reappears elswhere, it's an art nouveau design, and I always felt there was something both beautiful and dark about it, much like that entire time period. (Europe was building towards the madness that would erupt into world war I. At the same time, there were beautiful things happening in the arts, in exploration, in science.) The type on the front cover also has the light ultra-violet glow, tying it in with the picture.
The back cover was originally a color picture, which I took of an old factory being demolished in the neighborhood my wife and I used to live in. Mostly because of the color, it lacked the mood I was looking for. I liked the content though, so first I turned it black and white...no. Then I tried a dark sepia tint, and got it. It made it looked like a photo from that same time period suggested by the front. Why I would choose to like what would likely be a future time period with an old one? The sense of an organized and newly modernized world, falling apart; of roughness that came of something once beautiful and high, having fallen into a state of decay, on its way to dust. A sense of the drama and emergency of being in the middle of that. More simply, my gut and my subconscious leading me to it, and telling me when I got there. That's what I make of it, anyway.
The inside left panel has a picture of a back yard at dusk, with strange, muted colors, green and pink. These colors, and a few others, are often the colors of exteriors in my dreams, including many of the ones that inspired the music. The original black and white picture had the desired mood anyway, but I figured I'd try to tint it and see if I could get an approximation of those dream colors. I've been trying for years and not quite nailed it. This is the closest I've ever managed.
The notes on the inside right, which are also at the top of the album page here, are in the same typeface as the one used for "In Search of the Fantastic". That album also refers to a lot of things from the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, especially to fiction and Forteana from that period. So there's an intentional continuity there.
The most important thing about the cover was that it needed to have a mood which matched the music. Since that will be different for everyone, there's no way of 100% success. But for me it matches up, and of course that's the best I can do.
The plague idea initially involved two things:
1. Blood worms that only showed the infection when it reached its peak by a mass of them exploding through the eyes;
2. the worm infection originated from worms thawed out of melting permafrost, where'd they'd been trapped since the ice age.
1. The "worm in the eyes" thing had apparently been done a few years back in cable TV series by Guillermo Del Toro, only the infected eventually turned into vampires. Technically it leaves the worm possibility only if there were no vampires, but the similarity still makes me uncomfortable. The imagery has been coming to me in dreams for probably 20 years, but just try proving that! So the worms are out.
2. Recently, worms from before the ice age revived after being thawed from the permafrost. So at least that part of the story is plausible.
1. Don't use worms. All sorts of nasty microbes might be thawed back to life eventually. Hopefully not, but at the moment, it's plausible enough for fiction. I have a replacement in mind that should be workable with very minimal change to the story its basic visual ideas. So no worries there, hopefully nobody beats me to it.
released October 18, 2017
All sounds made and organized by Greg Segal. Recorded May 2017 to February 2018. Cover by GS, with one photo element by Ricci D'Amico.