2/2/17 @ Lucky 13 Saloon (link available soon)
Solo performances will be captured live and available at ericjackson.bandcamp.com
After some disastrous issues with my audio hardware, including an interface which seemed to enjoy sending power spikes into my computer and a failed attempt to solder a new USB socket onto the board (a project I may try again pending a new soldering iron), I finally had the equipment and time necessary to finish a new piece.
Constituent is the product of new equipment, a new DAW, some more focused approaches to ambient/minimalist concepts I previously worked on, a slightly different approach to Just Intonation, and some personal experiences represented in the overall feel and title of the piece.
I could yammer on and on about the new equipment, and while it does factor into my experience of making this piece–but knowing the overall realm of “audio” it will likely spark conversation that I find rather distracting and, frankly, very annoying. That’s all I’ll say on the matter.
There is truly no end to the amount of musicians, regardless of genre, who prefer to flee from any mention of musical “theory.” Sucks to be them. Ultimately music theory is, for me, an informed and educated approach to understanding and creating music. When I began writing ambient music, I simultaneously tackled two musical theories: Ambient music theory on its own, and Just Intonation. I had the fortune of studying with Jon Catler, as well as resources such as Harry Partch’s A Genesis of a Music to work with when it came to Just Intonation. For ambient music theory, I spent a great deal of time reading interviews and other material from the likes of Brian Eno, Steve Roach and Robert Rich, to name a few. WNYC’s New Sounds program also played a critical role.
I saw ambient music, however, as a way to create a malleable sonic environment, one that I was free to create my own terms and theories for. One of the first was the concept of the “dynamic drone.” While I’m by no means the first person to do such a thing, this was my terminology and desire for a drone that would shift in some way in its environment.
Constituent utilizes a very basic “dynamic drone.” After playing around with a few different loops for a while, I settled on a single string being plucked on the lap steel. This note was then slowed own by half and reversed. The result is the deep swell that rises to a thick stop as the loop brings the note back to its origin point. This note was coated in a few different modulations and two different FX-heavy reverb patches.
This process created a new effect for me: It introduced silence. While it may seem like I’d be no stranger to silence, looking back on my previous ambient works, very little is actually used. There is a tendency to fill the aural spectrum with sound, albeit in a minimalist way. Additionally, the use of delays, reverbs and devices such as eBows tend to create a sort of never-ending field of sound. Having this reverse effect on the single note created for a moment a pause of silence before the swell would loop back around again. I thought about leaving this alone, but felt inspired to play with it a little bit further. I wanted to improvise with silence in a way that one would with chord progressions–respecting the gaps of sound as best as I could.
My approach to Just Intonation is to gather a small number of powerful notes and utilize them to the best of their harmonic capabilities. Many people often here of Harry Partch’s 43-tone scale and similar adventures into Just Intonation and come to believe that epic scales are the only suitable approach. While it is true that to create a sonic fabric that allows for many different chords and potential key change, you will in fact need a large amount of notes, the structure of most of my pieces allow me to settle on a small grouping of notes. In the past this has been as small as four to six different notes; for Constituent, I chose to work with eight notes.
While I by no means neglect the sometimes-troubled Undertone series, I tend to view Just Intonation from an Overtone perspective, as most probably do. Simply put: It’s easier. Overtones are a bit easier to conceptualize and, I’ve found, drastically easier to hear–even in the higher primes. Because of this I often resort to the Overtone series with a limit on the 13th partial in almost all my music. There are even a few pieces on the upcoming IKILLYA album that make use of a few microtones. While I specifically tuned my guitars to hit these notes exactly in the studio, I usually bend and nail these notes by ear live (I also throw them in all over the place on older IKILLYA songs as well.)
Undertones, sadly, were always something “I’d get to.” Initially I thought about writing a new Dust piece solely with Undertone pitches both as a way to continue what I started with the first installment, and also for myself to create a piece that would sort of serve as a study piece for the harmonic nature of the Undertone series. While this may indeed happen in the future, I decided to use Constituent as an opportunity to start making more use of Undertones.
Though Constituent may not have distinct movements, it does have certain sections to it. After the dynamic drone swells in a few times, I begin what I refer to as a “harmonic improvisation” over the drone. Taking the 8-tone Undertone scale, I explored the harmonic effects these pitches had on the overall piece. Over time these notes begin to bleed through the silence–the same way a jazz or blues piece would grab those “blue-notes” that don’t exactly fit the key. Toward the end of the piece I engage in what I refer to as a “melodic improvisation.” Being somewhat unhappy with a piece that just sort of improvises to no real end, I improvised a melody and stuck with it: making small shifts in volume and cadence. The piece ends on this melody that came to me in the middle of the song. It’s not very distinct, and is perhaps best understood in retrospect.
I should note that even though I strove for accuracy in representing the Undertone pitches, it is more than likely that I’m off by a few cents here and there (perhaps more). Not only is it a bit harder to trust my ear when it comes to the Undertone series, the nature of the lap steel, which was both picked and played with an eBow on Constituent, creates somewhat unstable ground. Pressure, as well as the wide surface area of the steel itself makes it difficult to be precise. Ultimately, if one wishes to play with perfect intonation, be it in Just Intonation or Equal Temperament, they’d have to utilize completely computerized instruments–something I’m not terribly interested in.
The title Constituent itself is the result of several specific dreams I’ve had over the course of my life. I envision the strange resonance these dreams have in the waking world as being very similar to the mood Constituent sets. I’m not going to elaborate on this any further.
These projects were all a part of a new musical direction I had discovered. Though it was a radical departure from the shred-based metal and rock music I had done previously, I can see hints of this form in some of my earliest music.
Complex Silence 31 came about right when I hit a few serious changes in my life—some more difficult than others. As a result, I took a break from publishing music—though I never stopped writing music. I explored some new areas of sound, wrote and recorded a few things, but never found the ability to commit to a finalized project. Toward the end of 2013 I also rejoined IKILLYA and started playing metal again, touring the United States and a few other countries.
While working on the new IKILLYA album, I realized that I owed it to myself to pick up where I left off 3 years ago: Exploring ambient soundscapes, drones, noise and music theory through just intonation.
This return comes in the form of Dust: One, a drone piece based on a single justly intonated chord, mixing both sine waves and sustained strings on lap steel guitar. Dust comes out of several writing sessions I’ve had over the past couple of months, and my decision to release this piece of music first was intentional.
If I was going back to this realm of ambience, of utilizing sound as a means of occupying space and time, it had to be a drone. Though it’s not something that everyone can relate to, drones have a powerful amount of art and philosophy inherent in their structure. It’s a form with ancient and primitive origins alongside spiritual implications.
I took a chord that I was working with for another piece, one that I found particular interesting, and used this to set the scene for Dust: One. Previous works of mine did maintain a singular focus on a chord, harmony or slight melodic movement, but with Dust I wanted to only focus on this chord—I wanted no variation in pitch from the origin. Filters and modulations I ended up using do blur the lines a bit, but they are tethered to the tones of this four-note chord.
While my work shares a lot in common with electronic music, I make very little use of electronic instruments. Previous works have used some synths, but these have never been the focus. This is due to a couple of reasons: Firstly, my native instrument, for better or for worse, is the guitar, and secondly, I’ve dedicated this area of musical life to solely using Just Intonation. Finding tunable synths can be a bit of a challenge, and it’s much easier for me to use a fretless guitar, lap steel guitar or specially fretted guitar to achieve this. Even with tunable synths, however, you are largely committed to using a traditional keyboard or piano scroll, which heavily favors equal temperament in terms of how its layout.
While I make use of Custom Scale Editor in order to generate reliable reference pitches, dealing with physical instruments, even ones specifically designed for Just Intonation, create margins of error you just have to accept. Even using an ebow on an open string can result in small discrepancies in pitch. The world of electronic music, however, has the capability to overcome this issue with mathematical precision.
For Dust, given its concept, I knew I had to have something a bit more reliable than what I used in the past. In order to do this, I generated a few sine waves tuned to the specific frequencies of the chord that makes up One. I did this twice, taking up two different octaves. I also added a bit of static to thicken everything up and give the notes something to breathe through. I added a number of filters and modulations that I felt best suited the nature of the chord, and each tone within the chord. The result is some slight variance, but one that is firmly rooted in pure tonality.
I wasn’t satisfied with a purely digital experience, however; that’s not who I am as a musician. Using my lap steel and an ebow, I recorded drones of each note, added some processing and blended this in with the sine waves and static. The droning strings actually start and end the piece with about a 15 second lead in and fade out time respectively.
In the past I chose song titles based on words and phrases I thought sounded interesting, or loosely described the process by which a piece was created.
With Dust there’s some similarity here. The title represents “what’s left over,” after you remove meter, melody, arrangement, composition, and all structural elements. As such, this piece is musical “dust.” It is what is left over, what has degraded—by natural forces. Also, during my 3-year hiatus from ambient music, I intended to start a number of experimental projects, most of which fell through for a number of reasons. Dust is an echo of these dead projects (some of which may be rebuilt). It is not a sign of defeat, or even loss: It stands as the resonance of musical passion and love.
Dust: One can be thought of as a mediation of all that could’ve been, but in an indifferent, cosmic way. It stands as a remnant.
Drone music is a versatile music. It can be listened to in the background of daily life—similar to how Brian Eno once described the purpose and function of the ambient genre—but it can also be active. Dust is what I like to refer to as a “compound drone,” as there are a number of different elements that go into its structure—though they are all oriented in the same direction. Because of this, listening to it over a period of time can create different experiences. While mixing and reviewing this piece, there are several distinct emotions and sounds that would surface. This occurs at the very point where internal consciousness meets external stimulation: How much of my experience was illusory, or the actual objective experience of these tones occupying physical space through sound waves? There’s no answer to this. It’s an endless question, but one that can only be experienced through this form of music.
_Back in the late ’90s there was a game that forever changed the definition of what a “video game” meant and what it meant to invest time and effort into exploring a world. That game was Final Fantasy VII.
Previously my experience with games had been titles like Crash Bandicoot, Wipeout, and a lovable game known as Croc. I was about 9 or 10 at the time, so that made sense. But when Final Fantasy came into my life I began to see gaming as more than just a “fun” thing to do. It was no longer about jumping on crates and collecting fruit, it was a doorway to another world–a nexus point that escorted my consciousness to a universe of limitless fantasy and imagination. And while I could write endlessly about the many aspects of Final Fantasy that made this possible, perhaps one of the most powerful of all the components that made up VII and VIII was the music.
Distant Worlds I – Music from Final Fantasy is a wonderful collection of orchestral performances of classic Final Fantasy songs from the Distant Worlds tour. Conducted by Arnie Roth and composed by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, these 13 tracks cover songs dating back to Final Fantasy I and gong up to IX (Uematsu’s last Final Fantasy game until XIV) this CD is simply breathtaking–especially if your primary experience with these songs was through the old MIDI performances in the game. Hearing real instruments and real people–especially the operatic performances–bring these pieces to life touches on every emotional level as a gamer. But aside from being the soundtrack to this powerful series of games, it’s amazing to just listen to the music as separate from its origin. The compositional prowess of Uematsu ranks him, in my opinion, as one of the greatest composers of our time. Whether its the quirky and playful nature of “Swing de Chocobo,” the passion and melodically epic sprawl of “Vamo’ alla Flamenco,” the emotional and poignant delicacy of “Aeirth’s Theme,” or the menacing and ominous march of “One-Winged Angel,” the musical palette of the Japanese composer is, I’d argue, virtually without rival in video game music and truly distinct amongst composers in general.
Though Distant Worlds is a recent recording, its music has been around for some time and has, arguably, created a standard for gaming music in general. Again I think back to Final Fantasy VII as well as VIII. Few games at that time–perhaps with the exception of Metal Gear Solid–contain such audacity. It’s from these songs that one can see the shift in gaming, as I mentioned earlier, away from stomping on things and collecting random items, to an experience that’s deeply personal and captivating.
As one of my must have albums in my collection, Distant Worlds stands as an aural connection to universes and worlds that have forever become apart of me and as a collection of amazing composition and performance.
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_About a year or two ago, when I began to embrace my greatly repressed passion for experimental music, the material I discovered slowly altered my perception of what could be done with sound and just what this term “music” had even meant. Though I was no stranger to musicians who were “off the radar,” most if not all the music I had thought was “experimental” was largely using the same basic elements of song writing and instrumentation that I had experienced before. But with the help of Soma FM’s Drone Zone station and WNYC’s fantastic New Sounds program, things began to change. Icelandic-based musician Ben Frost’s album By The Throat was one such turning point. It’s a challenging and audacious album composed of both the familiar and the strange–creating dynamic and somber if not frightening atmosphere.
For me, Texture is one of the most important aspects when it comes to music—Texture in tonality, in orchestration, in technique, and in arrangement. You can think of Texture as another way of saying “Information” and how much of it a piece of music contains. It’s not always a case of “more is better” but in how it’s being used, to what extent, why it is the way it is, and a recognition of the consequences of adding more or less that creates intriguing Textures. By The Throat is an exercise in Texture, an exploration into the ways in which sound can create mood through the use of layers upon layers of tonal variety in a way that systematically stimulates emotion directly and quite literally by the throat.
Creating those textures is a haunting and beautiful combination of musical instruments—real and electronic—field recordings, and digital noise. These different dimensions are weaved together throughout the album and compose a distinct and powerful voice. The digital noise creates a sharp contrast in either a fiery intensity or a delicate ambiance to that of the controlled and intended nature of the musical instruments. In the opposite direction, the instruments contribute a directional and familiar essence to the noise. Recordings of wolves howling then add a sense of place and location and stir an intense yet subtle sentiment of longing and distance—perhaps even isolation.
Simple and elegant melodic and rhythmic directions guide this entire textural palette. Repeated cascades of arpeggios and slow, lumbering, bass lines alongside sharp, punctuated drum machines are the landscape of tonality and cadence here in a way that’s beautiful yet in some ways terrifying. It’s an experience that requires one to sit and listen intently, without distraction.
In all of this, it was hard to come away looking at sound and music the same way again. The ways that Frost twists sound and noise into music and fuses it with minimalistic composition has made me pay closer attention to music in a very different and textural way. It’s also had the same effect when it comes to sound. The very sound of everyday objects or digital noise takes on a different light after hearing what is being done on By The Throat. From the gravitationally powerful opening of “Killshot” to the album’s sustaining and hair-raising conclusion with “Through the Mouth of Your Eye,” Ben Frost has created music that defies all by embracing everything.
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