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.