Composing/Scripting/Performing the Soundscape – Part 3

In my first two forays into composing and performing soundscapes, the creative process of composing the soundscape was very satisfying, while the playing live was less satisfying. However, each time I played live helped clarify my intentions and, after the 250 Degrees show, it was clear that I needed to spend more time “scripting” the performance. What I mean by scripting is determining the basic shape of the soundscape, where and when to use effects, building space into the piece for improvisations. Really learning the mix so that I can transition through and between scenes as I desire in the moment.

Learning the mix involves paying attention to how the frequencies are dancing, appearing and dissappearing, swelling and subsiding, within the Ableton framework. This process begins with starting the composing process on headphones which allows me to play with these concepts in the marvelous hall of brainmind. (Forgive me, I love it in here!) As I was working, I paid attention to what I am basing my choices upon. The following frameworks became clear:

*layers of frequencies with breathing space between them (I was listening to Imogene Heap’s latest creation SPARKS yesterday on average car speakers and admiring how much she packs into the sonic space with such clarity.)

*adjusting the parameters of the instruments to get the sounds that I want (Everybody does this, but it is somewhat new to me. I feel like this is a sign that I am listening and hearing more deeply.)

* finding the scale for the tune and working with that scale in creating layered parts in multiple voices and rhythms (This is where I start thinking about is this a tune or a soundscape? Some things evolve more clearly in short, looped tunes with a clear narrative structure i.e. beginning, middle, end, while other things evolve toward a longer form which is the soundscape. And sometimes, they go back and forth. And sometimes, they exist in both forms.)

Interestingly, even these frameworks are in layers – I started at the broadest level – frequencies and ended on the more specific framework of tones, voices and rhythms. In the moment of composing/scripting, I am working on all these levels at once.

Once the tune has been composed, then scripting starts to happen. Now I am paying attention to melodic movement and the interplay of voices and frequencies. This is the part I love, and it is the most challenging part. I am listening to the song more deeply and asking it to reveal itself. So for example, swells can be built into horns or strings by adjusting and shaping the velocity of notes in a phrase. One voice carries the lead at one point and then, the same loop can be a background voice in the next moment. Simply adjusting the amplitude relationships between two voices can create a new texture or shift the sense of the tonic. A spectrum analyzer is useful to get a clearer sense of the dominant harmonics and the changes that occur as part of the performance script. I confess that I mostly rely on my ear and the ears of those who are willing to drop the filters of expectation and preference in order to listen more deeply and hear what is happening in the soundscape.

My most recent soundscape was Phrygia: Hera’s Saga composed for Allie Mullin’s exhibit of yoga photos at The Makery. The Makery is a small co-op of diverse younger artists who are creating a smorgasbord of interesting and affordable arts. The space is compact and the crowd at the opening was steady but the room did not fill with voices as in the two previous soundscaping experiences. So the soundscape was a signifigant presence in the room all evening. There are five sections to the soundscape and each successive section was at a faster tempo. Then I reversed back through the sections, slowing down to a moderate tempo by the end, which was the beginning. On the return, each section repeated at a faster tempo than on the first hearing. The overall effect was a slow raising and lowering of the energy in the room. This was done primarily through syncopated and varied percussion grooves and accelerated tempos. I played this piece for nearly three hours, which is the longest soundscape I have done so far. Each section was maleable in terms of length, so I was able ro really slow down and move things along at a languid pace. I used more percussion and syncopated grooves with lots of changing voices. I enjoyed playing this soundscape as it fit so well with the photo exhibit, the space and the ambience of the evening. Some visitors even took me up on the offer of rhythm instruments to play along with the soundscape.

Here is a link to the soundscape on Bandcamp. This is my new site where people can download my work for pocket change. As always, I appreciate your support!

So, where do we go from here? In recent months, the idea of “nested” soundscapes has come into consciousness. This will involve space, cohorts, multiple recordings, acoustics, mixing, and even deeper listening. I am up for the adventure!

Composing/Scripting/Performing the Soundscape: Part 2

My approach to composing is by ear with cursory attention to the interesting structures proposed by standard music theory. Theory can provide prompts that can be useful in creating soundscapes. When composing, I use my ears to discern THIS-> (from my Artist’s Statement).

When I play and create sound art, my intention is to listen for the song that is being played in eternal sonic space-that space where The Big Om resides. All kinds of songs bounce around and make and remake themselves in that space. Sometimes I capture snatches of these melodies or rhythms and can use them in a work. In performing soundscapes, my intention is to wake up the ears of those who can deeply listen, massage the sonic environment, and be a loving sound presence.
I combine the “song in the moment” with “archetypal” sound riffs and rhythms that may be recognizable and evoke feelings and memories. We each have our own bag of tunes that we love. And what we love is often times some particular part of these songs such as intervalic tone relationships or harmonic interplay or a syncopated rhythm. Many of my favorite songs begin with a major fifth interval. The very first interval of a tune establishes a path of expectation that the next step can either reinforce or break-and you are on your way. Just a few notes in and a certain rhythmic relation begins to stimulate people physically and emotionally. It is so amazing. So I say that I “steal” riffs-I may use the first 3 to 5 notes of a phrase from a particular song (sometimes I am concious of the song and sometimes not) When I hear that part of the work, the whole of the song is there for me-not the notes, but the feeling it evokes. My access to this approach is my own bag of earworms, and so I use them and hope that other people can hear something that resonates with their own bag.

Far Afield (A Response to the Art Of Nancy Tuttle May) was the first attempt at executing these ideas. From this I learned that the composition becomes a new thing when diffused into an environment of talking people. I had moments during that performance when I was competing with the voices by pushing the volume to the max. This was a mistake that moved my attention to discovering ways that the composition can mix in with the voices rather than compete with them. This is an area that I explored in the next soundscape at The Carrack Gallery of Modern Art.

Libby Lynn, a tornadic force in the Durham art community, has been working in encaustic art for a number of years now. Encaustic media is beeswax, pigment and heat. It dates back to Ancient Egypt, where it was used to create life-like death portraits of Egyptian personages, mostly upper class. Libby uses it to envision cells, hearts, painted ladies and much more. In November of 2013, Libby had a showing of her work at The Carrack. The show was called 250 Degrees which is the ideal temperature for wax used in encaustic expression. I created a soundscape that was performed at the opening, and diffused into the gallery for the run of the show. I came into this situation knowing I needed better sound diffusion and less volume, that subtle nuances were to be used sparingly as space creators, that lower and higher frequencies can be used to carve out space in the middle for the voices in the room. and that I wanted a live collaborator to play with the soundscape.

Luckily for me, Libby was more accessible as a person and I was able to use sounds from the encaustic process as well as some thrashy guitars in tribute to her love of Nordic Heavy Metal. The soundscape for this event was shaped by those sounds as well as the sound of bees buzzing in a hive. Bees were featured in this exhibit with a live hive installation by Matthew Yearout and Inside the Beehive, a sound installation that you could listen to while looking at the hive. Pushing the high/low frequency envelope in honor of all these sounds – I went for the buzz (I just heard someone laugh! Oh….it was me.) This soundscape was laced with buzzing frequencies or “pink noise.” The soundscape begins with the sounds of the encaustic process; scrapping, chopping wax, lighted torches sealing the layers of wax. Then into some clanging bells, thrashy guitars and a moody section called ShadowDoubt that I have pulled out of the larger soundscape as a piece in itself. Finally, Bee Synthony, which used the beehive recordings plugged into a synth in Ableton. I had fun here as I had the bees sing tunes like “What’s the Buzz” and “The Flight of the Bumblebee” interspersed with some mournful droning.

I created a 30 minute soundscape in three movements. The “hard copy” recording played in the gallery for the run of the show. People had a nice comfy chair to sit and listen to the piece.


The night of the opening, I performed the soundscape with the help of Steve Cowles, my favorite sax player. Since the soundscape itself was very buzzy and on high and low frequencies, the sax filled out the voice frequencies and added alot of splash to the whole piece. Each section of the soundscape was developed more fully. I rented two QSC speakers set up in opposite corners and spanning the entire room. People in attendance described hearing chanting, howls and whispers through the room interwoven with Steve’s solo sax and flute statements.

The Carrack is a nice room for sound in that it is nearly square with reflective windows and absorbent brick walls and wood floors. So it has life but is not too reverberent. Then with all the people in the room, everything was on a fairly level playing field. Steve was mic’ed through the QSCs along with the sound piece, the interplay of all of the layers (soundscape, voices, sax and flute) was not as maleable as I would have liked. This performance was much more successful in that the soundscape was a friendly, if, at times, overwhelming presence but not an overbearing one. The interplay of the voices in the room and the layers of the soundscape were better enmeshed. The overtones were featured (hence, the chanting, howls and whispers), which was a delightful new facet in this performance. This was when I started thinking about the performed soundscape as another manifestation of the electronic one.

Here is a hard copy recording of the HotWax/ShadowDoubt/BeeSynthony soundscape that played in the room. Unfortunately, Steve’s contributions are not in the recording. However, this is the base he played over. (35 minutes run time)

Where is Love? – Healing the Third Chakra

The idea of, the sense of, the smell, taste and feel of…love has pre-occupied me from birth. Seriously! I came into being with an up- tight third chakra, a vunerability point for my clan. Grandfather Barnes comforted me through colic-y nights saying, “There, there, I understand.” for he too had a heaviness/tightness in the third chakra. I was eight when he died, but I remember something about pain, clots and his death coming from this part of the body. I see him in Child’s Pose in bed, doubled over this pain in his mid-section.

This chakra is called the Solar Plexus chakra, and is located in the gut. This is the chakra of will and manifestation, and it is deeply affected by shame, guilt and self-consciousness. My experience with the third chakra is as the home for grief, dread, anxiety, and feelings of deep unworthiness and shame. Who does not remember that beautiful song “Where is Love?” from the musical Oliver. Simply singing that first line can create a cavernous hole in that third chakra. It is the chakra of longing for love. At the same time, it is the home to joy, excitement, exuberance and feelings of community and connection – love in action. The difference is that the first set of feelings sinks down into the stomach, becoming a ball-like black hole that sucks everything down into it. It hurts! The other set of feelings releases, relaxes, rises up creating openness, spaciousness, and the feeling of relief. Also notice that in the first instance, there is longing for love. In the second, love just is. Important distinctions to pay attention to.

There is a symbiotic, energetic relationship between the solar plexus and the heart chakra. The heart emanates the loving vibration that the solar plexus delivers into the world. And if that third chakra gives/receives the love through filters of self-conciousness, defensiveness, need or over-sensitivity, then loving action can be inhibited or overblown or twisted in some way. Thus we see so many people acting in ways that do not seem loving, that often seem to be the opposite of love. And while the heart does not need to ask, the solar plexus does! And what exactly are the questions the solar plexus should ask?

One very important question to ask anytime you experience a powerful reaction in your gut – Is this true? Can I absolutely know what I am feeling/thinking is true? This usually pulls the rug out from under any shame, guilt, feeling of unworthiness. (These questions are effective because there is no absolute truth, we are all making it up as we go. The best bumpersticker advice I ever got was “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.) This is the first step in waking up from the stories we tell ourselves. Those two questions (and more) are part of The Work of Byron Katie, a psycho-spiritual process that really helps ro reduce suffering and increase joy. The more I ask these questions, the more the world opens up. It gets bigger rather than smaller, and if there is one thing contemporary science has taught us it is that there is A LOT of S P A C E everywhere. When your thoughts are on your side, you build trust with and feel more comfortable in that spaciousness.

Another technique I have used to strengthen the third chakra is Emotional Freedom Technique. You often see it referred to as “the tapping solution”. I like this technique because the emotion is expressed and released in the moment of feeling it. This is very powerful and can be used with both deeply seated emotions and ones that move through quickly. There is a series of accupressure points on the head and torso that are tapped as you speak the emotion, giving it nuance and emphasis, describing it in detail. As I tap and talk, the emotion shifts – it is important to articulate those shifts as well. I am using EFT on several long term stories I tell myself that are NOT true. It has effect on any discomfort or disease.

Crying is a great relief to the heart and solar plexus chakras. Everybody has a different relationship to tears. They often overwhelm me, choke me up, and, in the past, racked me with sobs. I remember my Mother telling me she wished she could cry- this during the time when my Father’s memory was going and her Mother’s home had burned, and she was trying to get her settled in a new living situation. Why couldn’t she cry? I don’t know. She seemed to fear being out of control. There was a lot she wouldn’t talk about. I don’t know and I wish I did. What I do know is that tears well up from a heavy, cramped feeling in the center of my chest. While I have swallowed them at times, I now let them come as they will. EFT with the tears helps them move. A wise friend once told me that you can gauge your healing from old pains by noticing how quickly the tears work their way out. I have one root pain that I once cried for 24 straight hours over; and, now, all I get is two eyefuls of tears, and its gone. So if you can cry, do so. If not, don’t sweat it. Deep breathing into the chakra can be just as effective.

Meditation provides time for centering self and has a positive impact on the third chakra. Taking time each day to follow the breath in and out, in and out, until there is no more in and out. If only for a moment, to feel the tremendous expansive space inside. This space is bigger even then the cosmic heavens we can see so deeply into now. After many days and months of meditating (and not meditating), you realize that this state that you formally visit each day through your breath is actually with you all the time. We tend to get so caught up in our stories that we lose our sense of this constant companion who comes in with us, walks with us through our entire lived experience (no one else can do this) and pulls us over when it is time to leave. This realization, this knowing and hearing the guidance within, is the Balm in Gilead for the wounded third chakra.

This companion, who we let in when we are still and quiet, is the ultimate healer for depression, anxiety, worry and fear, and always comes to us on the breath. Notice how, when you are all bound up in worry and fear, a deep breath or three will cut through those bonds and make space. All the things that I fret, plan, defend, try to figure out and hope for, I turn over to that larger part of me that brought me here and is guiding me. That is where faith comes in, in that moment of turning over, of letting go. Then the most amazing thing happens – you feel lighter, more energized, and you expend that energy on appreciating something in this moment, which gives energy back to you, and the cycle of life is renewed. And that simple cycle of presence, attention and appreciation is the movement of love incarnate. Which is why you were brought here in the first place.

The companion has a very distinct voice. The voice is sure and reassuring; it is, after all, the voice of love. Any voices that create feelings of hate, fear, worry, dread, suspicion, anxiety are the ones that need to be questioned first. When those voices quiet down, the voice of love and joy that brought you here will speak loud and clear.

God is love! All the rest is human contrivance.

Addendum: And some human contrivance is useful. Here is a link to some yogic approaches to healing the third chakra. I don’t find all of these useful at the moment; they are good to know. We need a variety of maleable tools for discerning how things are with us and how they are changing. We are never done. What a relief!