Modular synthesizing in Ableton Live

Even though I have worked intimately with Ableton Live DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) for over eight years, I KNOW I have only scratched the surface of its capabilities. In the last few years, I have come to think of Ableton Live as my “instrument”, my medium, what I create with. What an incredibly rich and mysterious instrument it is! Now I am enamored of modular synthesis, striving to be come engaged with modular synthesis, particularly Eurorack modules. I love the knobs and sliders, and the patch cables just put me over the top. Modular synthesis is like sonic legos, a form of prayer, and a particular patterning of vibrations that matter. I want to plaaayyyy!!

This is the 2019 plan: spend time researching, listening to and playing modular units. I am learning about how modulars work by playing with the Ripplemaker ios app on iPad. Ripplemaker is a semi modular synthesizer which means that some of the signal routing is already patched together. Ripplemaker contains five modules, an LFO and amplifier/mixer, so it is a good basic learning tool. In addition I am studying the book Patch and Tweak which just came out a few months ago. It is a comprehensive survey of modular synthesis from the basics, to the gear, to the practitioners. I bought the book because it contains an interview with a performer whose work I admire tremendously, Caterina Barbieri. The book is a treasure trove of information that I am studying every day. The write ups about all the major brands and models of Eurorack synth modules is amazing. While Patch and Tweak could pass as a coffee table book, it is a bible to me. While doing all of this, I will save the money to buy my first modular synth unit. This could happen at Moogfest, or sooner depending on the progress of research and saving.

As for now, I have invested alot of time and money in Ableton Live and my computer set up, which is essentially a soft synth – I just need to configure it as such. Up to this point, I have treated Ableton as a composition tool/recording studio for the most part. I have been performing with Ableton and learning how to use the control surfaces (Novation LaumchPro and AKAI Key 25) to create soundscapes in real time. Now I want to configure and play Ableton more like a synth. This new approach will mean I have to deeply learn all the audio effects in Ableton, and other external plugins. I can configure the control surfaces to function as synth controls by mapping the parameters I want to sculpt with to the knobs and sliders of the control surfaces. The rest is signal routing.

Ableton Live is so robust and complex that the signal routing possibilities are numerous. Audio effects can be placed on tracks, within tracks routed together through a group submix, within a clip, within send/return tracks, on the Master track. Then within the larger set, tracks can be routed to and through each other using the in/out sub menu embedded in each track. So, with this in mind, how can I create control voltages, oscillators, slopes, envelopes, LFOs, Noise, and other modulators and configure them and play with them within Abelton Live?

The journey begins…

*photo of basic Auto Filter from Ableton Live Manual

Minding the Oscillations

Reading deeply into sound, physics, chemistry, and nuerobiology, it becomes clear that lived experience is comprised of waveforms modulating each other. These waveforms weave around and through us. The waves are different frequencies and different amplitudes, they have different shapes and resonances AND they interact with each other, all of which creates various densities of matter. As extreme examples, there is a diamond and a thought. These extremes define the boundaries of material experience – the hatd shell of the matrix we exist within. There is more beyond these boundaries, and the more seems to be the field of conciousness.*

With this as a basic understanding, it is my intention to mind the oscillations, particularly those that eminate from my human being/my earth suit/the event horizon of my world. The waveforms I conjur come into phase relationships with themselves and with the waveforms of other human beings as we event our common reality/the hard-shell matrix. This is an amazing realization! This realization sheds light on a major question I have danced with in my life:

How can I be more loving? So much of my living is spent seeking love from “the world”. That was my quest for the first half of my living experience. While it does hurt so good, I finally realized the question is framed in an unhelpful way. So I am moving from how can I get more love, to how can I be more loving?

My most important practice for exploring this question is awareness and presence in the moment. We have been listening to Eckhart Tolle go on and on about this. He works very hard to articulate awareness/presence in all the ways that might possibly bounce around (or cut through) the mind. Listening to ET, I am aware of the trinity of self, egoic mind and conciousness all walking into a bar. (It is a good practice for them to stick together, although the bar was probably egoic mind’s idea.) These three are waveforms of their own, and their interactions eminate into manifest world! These two thought-fields (waveforms of matter and awareness through being) intersect at my heart.

One definition of oscillation (from physics) is

regular variation in magnitude or position around a central point

This aptly describes the interplay of these two planes intersecting through me at heart center. I feel this most intensely when I am sounding harmonics through a space. Especially using modular synthesis – with all the operators, envelopes, slopes, attenuations, triggers, gates and frequencies- to create actual sonic forms in space. At present I play with Ripplemaker ios app from Bram Bos. It is great to learn on. Ableton can function as a synthesizer. This is my focus at present- to configure Ableton into a synthesizer. (I am deeply desiring a modular system, but must go slowly due to funds. So work with what you have!)

This first week of 2019 – a new year (marking earth’s intersecting oscillations with the sun, moon and stars) brings some interesting mantras –

Listen more deeply, mind the oscillations, propagate harmonic vibrations, learn to play with forms, depersonalize the whole thing! The WoW

Alrighty then!!…on with the emanations!

*These books have informed my thinking about all this:

Long, Manya J. The Psyche as Interaction (Electromagnetic Patterns of Conscious Energy)

Lanza, Dr. Robert Biocentrism and Beyond Biocentrism

Sleep Deprivation

Our granddaughter, Jahniya, recently told us she is having trouble sleeping. Her mind races and she feels tired, but can’t sleep, so she listens to music or podcasts. I told her that she probably shouldn’t listen to anything before sleep as that could be keeping her awake. We talked about breathing deeply, running energy, and meditating as ways to relax and fall to sleep.  After we spoke, I remembered the power of “yes, do” over “no, don’t”, and decided to create a soundscape for Jahniya to listen to before sleep.

I am familiar with some of the popular music that she likes, so I listened to a few songs and zeroed in on a Bb major scale as the tonal color for her dreamscape. Using the piano keyboard as a template, the Bb major scale uses all of the black keys and the B and F. The tonality of the song she likes is in the piece, but it is cropped and stretched and layered with no words except “Good Night, Jahniya. We love you” spoken by Gigi at the very end. I hummed softly over one short section near the end of the scape.

Several weeks later and the soundscape is recorded. I had to experiment with the voicings to get the blend and definition I wanted. Then once recorded, I shape the dynamics, movement and placement of melodic statements through automation in Ableton Live. Since Jahniya will listen to this through earbuds, I mixed primarily through headphones, although I did listen through the QSC for perspective. Trudie listened to it and gave me some feedback, which I used to make the final soundscape mix in Audacity.

I ended up cutting the sound file in two parts and moving the end to the beginning. There is a part of the scape that is more energized and excited, as our brains are when we are teens (and hopefully beyond). That part happened closer to the end. I wanted to meet the brain where it is at and then accompany it to calm and sleep. Moving that section to the beginning made more sense.

The soundscape comes with instructions:

Listen to this soundscape as you fall asleep or anytime you want to relax. Listen to the scape as if it were a painting rather than a song. Notice the harmonic layering of the voices. Feel how it envelopes you like an ocean of sound. Notice how the voices move in and out and around in what seems to be your head. Let the swells reverberate through you bringing calm and peace. Let the soundscape gentle you to sleep.

With love, Juju and Gigi

Follow-up:

Jahniya was able to improve her sleep and successfully finish her first year of high school. Plus she used her experience to create a school project about sleep deprivation among teenagers with suggested solutions!

She is the future!

Messages from the WoW

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The latest signs from the Wave of Wonder (the WoW) are pointing me toward hangups. Attending to my hangup of the moment is easily avoided – except for those little reminders: the tug as my shirt gets caught on a knob, my jacket snagged in the closed car door, jerked back by the garden hose wrapped round a tree root.  Everytime I get one of these reminders from the WoW, I stop and ask myself : “What am I resisting?”

Often I am resisting THE MOMENT. I engage in distracted thinking about someone I love who is ignoring me or some activity I would rather be doing than the one at hand. I engage in stories of disapproval from others, resentment over perceived slights,  and general feelings of not mattering and not being important.

When I entertain these thoughts – and their good buddy, painful feelings – I am lured out of this moment of being by my mind and my story. The actual physical manifestation of the hangup jerks me back into the moment. 

I appreciate the very pointed choreography, and will continue to ride my awareness toward presence in the Now.

Thanks, WoW!

Carried Wisdom

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I have a friend whom I have not seen in many decades. We now communicate on Facebook. We shared a connection in high school, then I moved away sophomore year. I am not good at maintaining long distance relationships – being a right here, right now kinda girl! The present moment is very full, but I want to expand my awareness to include those I love who are not in my immediate proximity.

My friend had a difficult and painful 2016. She surrendered much, participated in great healing and is moving through the experience with much love and gratitude. She is in my thoughts alot these days. We have shared jokes and love memes on Facebook. She has listened to some of my soundscapes and is open to the vibrations. I wanted to create a soundscape for her journey.

I have not heard from her in a while and I am sending waves of loving vibrations her way via the soundscape entitled Carried Wisdom.

Moogfest 2016

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Moogfest 2016, which took place May 19 – 22 in Durham, was a mind-blowing and inspirational experience for me. Last Fall, while selling my old instructional drumming CDs to the now-defunct Nice Price Books, I was talking to the owner about my new love: electronic music. He said, “You must be super excited about Moogfest coming here!” “Oh, yeah”, I responded, knowing I should be excited but just not feeling it yet. A few years earlier I wanted to go to the festival in Asheville, NC when Brian Eno was featured. But then I read how you spend all this money on a ticket and might not be able to get in to see what you came to see. So I knew about how the tickets worked, and that it was a celebration of Bob Moog, a synthesizer pioneer. The Moog Factory is still a fixture in Asheville, but Moogfest was coming right to my front door.

I was still feeling ambivalent in April and Moogfest was 6 weeks away. One thing I had decided – I wanted to be involved musically – so I started planning a Post-Moogfest event for the final day after everything “official” was over. (See post: http://wp.me/p5yJTY-ci) Then a volunteer application came my way, I filled it out and attended my first volunteer meeting. I met Wilson, Hugh, Robin, Ilsa and several other sweet, friendly folks who were psyched for the event. Bianca Banks, the volunteer coordinator, gave us postcards and Moogfest stickers (everybody LOVES stickers) and a welcomed us to the Moogfest family. Sweet!

The only acts I knew in the line-up were Laurie Anderson and Sun Ra Arkestra. By this time, Sun Ra Arkestra had cancelled, so I started YouTubing the artists to get a taste of what they had to offer. I started with the women artists: Julianna Barwick, Grimes, Suzanne Ciani, Grouper, Julia Holter, Laurel Halo, Olivia Block, Paula Temple. I did not get very far in this exploration before Moogfest was upon me and I just had wing it.

The first day, I worked guest check-in with Michael Jones (or Jones Michael, his producer moniker: check out his Soundcloud – https://soundcloud.com/jonesmichael), Nico and several other young musicians who told me about groups they were excited to hear. Volunteering took 18.5 hours of the weekend, and got me free admission into the festival – way worth it. I learned that hospitality is not my skill set (My partner, Trudie said, “I could have told you that.”) I learned that there are lots of folks, young and old, poor and rich, out there creating vibrations in the form of music and sound. I learned that people who come to Moogfest are – for the most part – friendly, open and excited about the prospects of technology and music making.

Luckily, Jim Kellough recommended several performances to me on the first night that were fantastic. His first recommendation was Silver Apples, a staple of the NYC scene since the sixties. Silver Apples was an early electronic duo who played the soundtrack for the moonlanding as it was broadcast on a big screen in Central Park in 1969. Now Silver Apples is just Simeon (his drummer died in 2005) and he really rocks the synthesizers. Here is a picture of Simeon with The Soundman AKA Christopher Thurston at Motorco the night of his performance:

Christopher and Silver Apples, Motorco, May 19, 2016

Christopher and Silver Apples, Motorco, May 19, 2016

After this show, I headed over to see the best music of the whole weekend. Arthur Russell’s Instrumentals was inspired by the nature photography of Yuko Nonomora, and was only performed five times in Russell’s short life. The group, playing under the direction of Peter Gordon, was comprised of Russell’s collaborators and cohorts, including Peter Zummo, Rhys Chatham and Ernie Brooks. The piece was jazzy, funky and took the listeners on a fabulous journey. My favorite part was Peter Zummo dancing around the stage and gently clapping his hands whenever the trombone had a musical hiatus. Their performance left me curious to check out more of Russell’s work.

Moogfest is all about synthesized sound. So on Saturday, I headed down to The Carrack to hear Antenes, who crafts old phone operator switchboards into sequencers and synthesizers. She performed on her DIY synths for a half an hour and then did a presentation on how she came to create these particular instruments. I loved the deep sweeps and blips and bloops she carved out of various oscillating waveforms. Next stop was the Pop-Up Moog Factory, where employees were building actual Moog Synthesizers right before our eyes. The employees worked at four stations performing assemblies and passing them on to the next table. By midday Saturday, they had assembled 14 Minimoog Model Ds. The factory was full of a variety of synths hooked up to headphones so people could play and experiment to the ear brain’s delight. I had a fantastic several hours there, and left feeling like I really need a synth to add to my setup.

Then I checked out Critter and Guitari, who were in a geodesic dome tent outside the DPAC. These Booklyn-based musician entreprenuers have created adorable little synthesizers that are just my style. I enjoyed playing with the Moogs, but they are expensive and heavy. (Dang, I do not need anymore weight in my setup with a 12″ QSC K Speaker to haul around.) I enjoyed jamming with the guys , the other peeps, and the train that passed by. Their Organelle allows you to dial up a variety of sounds, play them polyphonically on a little wooden button keyboard, and tweak the sounds as you go. Neat! In my fantasy, they offer to give me one to play as a sponsor of ibod when we go on our sound sculpture tour. Wouldn’t it be nice…

I was anxious to get a good seat for Laurie Anderson’s Saturday afternoon performance, so got there waaaay early only to discover a long line snaking around The Carolina Theatre. I got in it only to discover the line was for a talk by Jaron Lanier, whose name I did not know. The guy in front of me did not know him either, but he figured “He is the keynote speaker, he must be good!” As it turned out- he was right! Jaron is a musician, virtual reality geek, author and incredible human being. He started his talk by playing the khene, a Laotian mouth organ, that he said is a “digital”  instrument thousands of years old that could have inspired the invention of computers. Here is a YouTube video, where he plays this instrument in his own amazing way:

His message was wonderful and optimistic. He said we need to “will away” our obsesssion with war, combat and all things military. He advocates a movement toward kindness and beauty as guiding values in technological development. He asked VR game makers to use the technology to engender empathy. What I heard was – let us play games that engage our emerging polyvagal brain rather than continuuing to stir up our shriveling reptillian brain. Jaron Lanier is one gorgeous genius, and I was uplifted and inspired listening to him.

Next up was Laurie Anderson, who grabbed her electric violin, slung it over her shoulder and and filled Fletcher Hall with deep sweeping harmonics that made my heart pound. She moved toward the audience as she continued playing, looking right at us. This connecting more openly with the audience is a shift in her performance aesthetic from times I have seen her over the past twenty years. The next day, she talked about “seeing the audience” during her presentation/interview. While I enjoyed her performance, I was mesmerized by the retrospective talk about her work on Sunday. I love hearing and reading about artistic process. It is extremely intimate discourse, which is why many creatives are reluctant to share it. Laurie gave us a glimpse into her process over the years, and for that I will be forever grateful.

She spent a good bit of time talking about a recent work Habeas Corpus and how the piece evolved into an illumination of and a step toward healing the horrors and injustices of Guantanamo Bay. The work was presented in 2015 in NYC and is based on the experience of  Mohammed el Gharani, the youngest detainee at Guantanamo Bay. He was sold to the US at the age of fourteen, kept in solitary, subjected to torture, and finally released by a US District Court judge for lack of evidence. He was held for seven years. The performance installation included a plaster cast chair the size of the Lincoln Memorial. Mohammed’s full body image was projected via a live video feed from Chad, where he now resides. He sat in the chair and told his story. The audio was one way only to protect Mohammed from hearing any personal attacks from the American public – there was concern that those Americans still blinded by their own fear and ignorance might attend the installation to berate him. He had suffered enough at American hands already. The video feed was two way, so Mohammed could see the audience. The most moving thing Laurie shared with us was that many of the attendees came forward and mouthed “I am sorry” to Mohammed’s projected image. For more on Mohammed el Gharani and Habeas Corpus see this link:

http://laurieanderson.com/microsites/HC/index.html

Laurie Anderson echoed Jaron Lanier’s thought on the necessity for kindness, empathy and beauty as hallmarks of our creative relationship with technology. Both pointed toward the potential for technology to help us connect, see, listen to and understand each other even if we do not agree.

Laurie and Lou Reed, her husband who died of cancer in 2013, came up with three rules to live by which she shared with us: 1. Do not be afraid of anyone. 2. Have a good bullshit detector, and learn how to use it. 3. Be tender with life. Afterwards, I could only remember 1 and 2. That is because I have issues with tenderness. Tender feelings make me feel vulnerable. Gotta work on that.

There is lots more to write about, so many encounters and experiences packed into 4 days, 40 venues and nearly 300 speakers/performers/presenters. Moogfest was so much more than I ever expected –  my world expanded several times over. And the best way to top it all off was to play with my cohorts before an exclusive and appreciative audience. Here is an excerpt from Adrift in a Sea of Bells, one of the pieces we performed in the soundgarden following Moogfest:

More…much more to come!

Jazz Bird in the Neighborhood

So today I got to mow the lawn! (Trying on the Timothy Leary “Life is an opportunity” approach to this chore.) I got to be outside in our BIG backyard. I got to walk, bend, push, lift and carry – all great functional exercise. I got to observe butterflies and birds gracefully fluttering around me. It was cool and overcast, so all in all an enjoyable experience.

AND —- I got a huge gift for doing this. As I was mowing the front yard, I kept hearing this bird call that sounded like the first four notes of a jazz standard that I like. Over and over, this bird sang this little intro and my brain voice would fill in the rest. I thought, “I need to go get my digital recorder and catch this sample. Ohhhh, but as soon as I do that, the bird will be gone.” So I continued mowing.

Later, while I was taking a hydration break in the house, I heard the bird again. I thought, “Dang, now is my opportunity.” I ran in my studio, grabbed the Zoom, went outside on the porch and captured this:

Isn’t that cool? I love that the bird is singing the beginning of…what is the song? I can’t identify it. It has a similar tonality to “My Blue Heaven”, but the melody pattern is not right for the beginning of that song. Here it is lined up the way it goes in the song. It repeats and then changes slightly the third phrase (of course, the bird did not change, so you are hearing just the first two iterations):

So I need your help. Can anyone tell me what song this bird is singing? Can anyone identify the bird? I never got a sighting on him either. Thanks for your input.