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)

Composing/Scripting/Playing the Soundscape: Part 1

With all of the Universal Juiciness that is going on right now, I am drawn more deeply into this sounding world. Still highly under the influence of Caverna Magica. (Wow, I just noticed that influen-ce and influen-za have a lot of letters in common. Infected by Caverna Magica? Hmmmm…) There are four primary pieces that have my attention right now and they are:

A performance for Jim Kellough’s show Warmed Over Sue Realism will be an “opera” woven by myself, June Merlino and Jim. This soundscape is really raw right now, but forming. (March 7 – Tea Time @ The Scrap)

“New Music 4Trudie” is a present for Trudie where I attempt to capture what she loves in the song “New Music” from the musical, Ragtime. I presented her with these two themes for Valentine’s Day. (Perhaps a performance for next Valentine’s?) Here they are:

Soundscape for All Hallows Eve for Allie Mullin’s Halloween-inspired photography exhibit, where I will create a multi-facted, creepy, yet inviting sonic vibe. I am really interested in spreading the sound around The Makery via small, wired together speakers units. I have some small speaker units from recycled TVs and I think they could be wired together and run along the floor for effect. (Anyone reading who knows how to do this, please contact me. I could use the help. This is for the end of October, 2015.)

“VolleySunds” (after Caverna Magica) still has me interested in further development. I want to get together with Susanne and Eleanor Mills to work on ways of shaping it. I added a new section to it this week.

As more Ableton projects get started, left behind and returned to, I am beginning to have a “Hope Chest” of ideas to use as starters or as extenders for larger pieces I am working on. This is an example of a phenomenon of synchronicity that I have been observing lately. I call it “planting seeds for your future self.” Those moments when you commit to a project, or buy a book, or make a call for no sensible reason. You are just compelled to do it and you do. Afterward, you think “what was THAT about?” Six months, 3 years, 15 years later, you realize that THAT moment has manifested into this present one, and you, alone on your own, could NEVER have planned this out. So very important to adknowledge and appreciate the Divine WoW in action.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I want to pay closer attention to the process that is involved in creating soundscapes. As questions arise, ways to explore those questions must be created. I want to create flexible templates for composing and performing soundscapes. In order to do this, I am taking some time to look back and take note of the various methods as they are evolving.

I found notes from the very first soundscape I performed at the Durham Arts Council, Far Afield (A Response to the Art of Nancy Tuttle May). NTM sent me the images for her show and I spent time with each image while the soundscape was being created. I really love her work and was very excited by the images. They were profound and whimsical at the same time. I worked with the ideas of mystery, playfulness, whimsy and an exotic universality. At that point the process was to flesh out my responses to her art work, select voices for the piece based on those responses, and proceed from there. A concept, some voices and we’re off!

The next layer is harmonics. Modes and scales are of particular interest to me. They are like Lego blocks that you can use to create all manner of sound textures and feelings. I chose to begin Far Afield with a watery, wavering sonorous Dorian-stepped scale, repeating over and over in an urgent appeal. From there, we moved through vast, prolonged pad synth lines in counter-harmony with the original Dorian wash of tones. There was a sort of Latin tinged movement in there, ending with a Native American flute loop created by Susanne Romey. When I performed it, I added in vocals and percussion. The most recent recording of the entire piece that can be heard on Soundcloud does include the vocal and percussion parts.

I am very fond of this soundscape and enjoy listening to it myself. When I performed it at the opening reception, I invited people to listen to it as they looked deeply at NTM’s art. Very few people did this, mostly people chatted with each other, which added a dimension of sound that I had not taken into account when preparing to play it live. Certain nuances could not be heard, while other parts swept through the space, riding on the voices. Here is a 30 second video of the event that gives a feel for what I am talking about: (Thanks to Eleanor Mills for this!)

Friends in attendance that night were upset that people were not listening. While I had not planned for people to give me their rapt attention, I had hoped they would engage in the process of looking at the art with the soundscape accompaniment. Since this did not happen, I realized I had to rethink how I would go about presenting soundscapes in a public social forum. (Luckily, in this case, the soundscape played in the gallery for the run of the show, so people could go and hear it while looking at the art that inspired it.)

Since then I have had three more soundscaping experiences, and each one has reshaped my intention and process.

To be continued.