Archive for the ‘introspection’ Category

Repurposing Soundcloud

So … with the release of the new EP and the schedule of future releases secured for the moment, I have decided to take down all release-ready material from the ukuphambana Soundcloud page. In its place, I have started posting oddities, outtakes, and excerpts of live jam sessions.

I haven’t listened to a lot of this stuff in years, and listening back to it now, I’m surprised how good it sounds to me. I’d accustomed myself to the idea that in between the release of Gritware Composite and Brennschluss in about 2003, and starting the ukuXXX catalog system I’ve been using for about the last ten years, there was a dead zone during which I didn’t do much. But that’s not the case at all. My output from 2003-2005 is a little slower and more scattered, but also a lot weirder — and that’s not entirely a bad thing.

So expect a lot of noise jams, granular synthesis and micro-resampling experiments, and surreal soundscapes over the next few weeks while I clear the decks a bit. Coming soon after that will be the next “proper” ukuphambana release on Bandcamp. More here as things develop!

Archive Track: VideoDrome

It’s amazing what a little ego-search can dredge up. Apparently a file sharing / streaming service called Grooveshark has a copy of an ukuphambana track that is so rare that I don’t even have it.

So, some context: this track was made as part of a live on-air performance at WJUL’s High Voltage Circumcision show. Possibly the first time I’d attempted doing anything live as ukuphambana? My personal recollection of the timing is hazy, but the performance log has two such events, in February of 1999 and 2000, so it would have been one of those. In either case, it’s been easily a decade since I last heard this track.

Technical notes: most of the track was constructed from samples of Atari 2600 games, loaded into an Akai S950 sampler. The sampler was sequenced from a TR505 drum machine’s MIDI outs. Some of the Akai’s outputs are run through various guitar pedals for effects. HR16 drum machine might be in there too, low in the mix? But I’m not sure.

It goes on long — if I had a clean copy of the original, I would edit it mercilessly — but I love that beat! And it has a rawness that I find endearing rather than embarrassing, now that some time has gotten between me and it. Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Enjoy: Ukuphambana – Videodrome

The Rhythm of Work

I wrote back in January that this was shaping up to be a very productive year. I had finished and posted four new ukuphambana tracks by early March — six if you include the noise bits I created in the process of practice jamming for the Zero Times Infinity show. Now here it is, nearly June, and … nothing. What’s going on?

One factor was the ZTI show itself: it takes time to work out what kind of setup to use for a show, quite a bit of time to develop and practice techniques for live performance, and yet a bit more time to set the studio back up again afterwards. Making it worse, I allowed myself to fall prey to the urge to reorganize the studio before putting everything back together again. This is a terribly seductive form of procrastination, because although it generally results in some long-term workflow improvements, it’s the death of productivity while it’s happening. There are rewards to performing music live, but there are also good reasons I don’t do it very often, and they all boil down to the opportunity cost in lost production time being too heavy.

Next, there’s my annual technology investment. Early spring when my tax refund comes in, I generally buy some bit of new gear, and it takes some time for me to get my head around how to use it and how it’s going to fit into the rest of my studio arsenal. This is an embarrassingly self-indulgent thing to complain about, but it does have an impact (which I conveniently forget every year when the prospect of acquiring new toys beckons.)

Then there’s the annual shift in my daily schedule. Over the cold winter months, I’m a night owl, working on music after the children are in bed, then sleeping as late as I can get away with the following morning, but in summer it’s easier for me to get up early before the rest of the family to hit the studio and turn in before sunset every night. Either one works pretty well, actually. It depends on when I find it easier to muster the energy and when I’m least likely to be disrupted by family concerns, and these things vary with the seasons. But during the transitional times between one schedule and the other, it’s hard to make time for music.

Though I find it frustrating to admit that I have slow periods, I guess it’s good that I’ve been at this long enough that I can see them coming and have at least some idea when they are likely to occur and why. It gives me at least a toehold into improving the situation, and helps me keep the whole thing in perspective.

Oh, one more reason for the delay, and this is the best bit: I’m working on one hell of a new track. It’s weird and sprawling, and it’s taking me some time to tame it. It’ll be well worth the wait once it’s finally done. At the current rate of progress, I give it another week or two. Stay tuned!

Two Interviews: VSnares and Squarepusher

Continuing the theme of shameless hero worship established in last week’s post, the past two days have seen interviews with two of the masters of electronic music. I read and thoroughly enjoyed both of these, and thought I’d share my favorite bits.

This chat with Aaron Funk (of Venetian Snares) has some great quotes about staying real and keeping in touch with what inspires you. He also talks a lot about musical technique and such, and it’s all fascinating, but these quotes are my takeaways:

I just find inspiration in myself, have never cared about genres or what is supposed to be fashionable at the moment … emotion, energies, personal experience – these things are truly far more inspiring to draw from than trying to be a part of some aesthetic, I can’t even relate to that.


…it’s fucking ridiculous to limit yourself to only creating angry or sad music or only doing silly funny music. The whole spectrum is there … I have known people that limit themselves to making only dark music. That to me is so narrow and unfulfilling. If something is bleak, it should be bleak for a real reason, not out of some aesthetic. Fucking posers.

Then in this interview, there are these these words of wisdom from Tom “Squarepusher” Jenkinson:

… any musician that’s not self indulgent, I can’t imagine that they’d be any good, to be honest. Any musician that puts himself primarily at the service of his audience is likely to quite rapidly become a self-repeating machine … There’s always this tension where you’re trying to create the creative process afresh, to give yourself the best chance of giving something to your audience that they’re really going to love, and actually show them something new. And that entails sometimes pissing them off … I would say: Yes, I am self-indulgent, but it’s a good thing.

Once in a while, I play this game where I try to analyze what the commonalities are between the people whose lives and work I’ve found really inspiring. I’d noticed that most of them are iconoclasts, but I think in that interview, Jenkinson gives it a new formulation that I like better: all my heroes are self-indulgent, in the best possible way. This means putting out into the world the best work you can possibly do, regardless of what you’ve been asked for or what’s expected. It takes courage and a certain amount of hubris, but in the end it’s the only way to go, really.

The Joyrex Tape: Reflections

The subject of today’s post? Reflections on hero-worship. Anyone who knows my musical taste knows that I’m a rabid Aphex Twin fan. I’m not a music completist in general, but I’ve bought copies of nearly everything RDJ has ever done, and have a fair collection of rarities as well. Somehow I managed to miss out on this one until just recently. The Joyrex tape.

A random assortment of unfinished tracks of dubious quality, pushing twenty years old. Unlike Melodies from Mars or Analogue Bubblebath 5, this material is not only officially unreleased, it was never intended for release, even speculatively. How does it hold up? There are definitely moments of brilliance: RDJ’s sonic originality and facility with arrangement are in evidence throughout. Although the material is obviously dated, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else having written them. Melodic innovation is scarce, but there are snatches of AFX-style tunefulness here and there. I would guess most of these tracks were written around the time of the Ventolin EP or Melodies from Mars. Several tracks seem like they would fit in with the other Ventolin “remixes,” had they been finished.

But that’s the most striking thing about them: these are very obviously not finished tracks. Back when he was at his most prolific (in the mid to late 90’s), I had the impression that Richard D. James didn’t write music so much as … sort of excrete it biologically, the way plants exhale oxygen. This was due not only to the sheer amount of material he released, but also to the effortless feel much of it had. Even though it was often brilliant, it managed somehow always to retain a bit of a raw quality, as though RDJ was so eager to move onto the next thing that he just couldn’t spend the time to sand off the rough edges.

These tracks make that impression seem a bit naive. The Joyrex tape is composed of almost nothing but rough edges and raw material, and what’s not there makes all the difference between this and a finished AFX track from the same period. The man obviously knew what he was doing and pursued his aims deliberately, even if he was having fun doing it. There was work involved, and it was significant. And that is what makes me gladdest that this recording leaked out: like a glimpse at da Vinci’s sketchbooks, getting a to hear some vintage Aphex in its raw form is both humbling and impressive, because it shows the work that went into the complete material.

The Secret Of My “Success”

Fantastic quote from Teller (of Penn & Teller): “You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest.”

The same is true of anything really worthwhile. If you love doing it, if you are committed to it, if it is something so important to you that you really can’t help doing it, then you will pour more time, money, energy, and attention into it than any reasonable person would. That is how the awesome happens.

…eventually, other people might notice. Maybe not. If you feel strongly enough about it, it won’t matter either way, not really. Having other people appreciate your work makes it easier to keep going, which is nice and all. But chances are, it won’t matter that much, because you love it so much that you’d do it anyway, easy or not.

This completely describes how I feel about the music I make. I sometimes spend two hours or more getting a thirty section sound which is barely audible in the mix just exactly right, because it matters to me. No sane person would do that. I do it anyway, because I don’t make my music for sane people, I make it for myself.

Sculpting Versus Bricklaying

Thinking back on the last few tracks I’ve written, I noticed something that I thought I’d share.

Some tracks clearly come together from the bottom-up: first the sounds, then beats, then sections, then overall structure. It’s like building a wall, one brick at a time. You start with nothing, then add elements one piece at a time until it’s done. Free As a Neutrino… and Leisured Forfeit were both done this way, for example. It may be a hasty generalization, but I think most of my more listener-friendly tracks use this technique.

Other tracks start out with broad washes of sound or noise, and the structure comes from carving away layers where they’re not needed, creating space and motion. In The Future We Shall Know Less was done this way. My noisier tracks tend to be, the ones that are a bit heavier on texture and less on structure.

Then there are some that combine the two approaches. The way these work is a bit like hand-sculpting chunks of masonry, mortaring them together, hacking away at the results and repeating the process again over and over until a shape gradually emerges. The low-level details and wide scale structure emerge together out of each other. These are without a doubt the hardest tracks to finish, because I spend a lot of time while I’m working on them lost as to exactly what I’m doing and where it’s going to wind up.

All the same, I find them the most satisfying to complete, and the most mysterious: these are the tracks I find myself coming back to years later, scratching my head and saying, “I did this, really?” Bleem is one of these. I had no idea what I was doing through most of it, and it still puzzles me how it ever got done.

I might make a conscious effort to combine these approaches more in future work, if it doesn’t slow me down too much. In any case, I think it’ll be helpful to have identified a new axis along which I can place things, another degree of freedom in deciding how I can work and what directions I can take.

Technique Beats Genre

I listen to a lot of electronic music, both in its popular and more academic forms. I’ve noticed this about my listening preferences:

I love breakbeats; but I’m bored by most jungle;
I love wobble bass; but I’m bored by most dubstep;
I love a solid kick drum; but I’m bored by most house music;
I love squelchy 303 basslines; but I’m bored by most acid;
I love old video game sounds; but I’m bored by most chiptunes;
I love sonic accidents; but I’m bored by most glitch music;
I love distortion; but I’m bored by most “noise”.

I may not always do the most original work in the world, but genre art bores me, always has. Genres, at least electronic music, tend to be defined by an impossibly narrow proscription of sounds or techniques which themselves started out fresh and interesting, back before anyone decided what the rules for using them were. But once a genre crystalizes, everyone knows what to expect: the people who self-identify as genre artists know what they’re supposed to do, the people who self-identify as genre fans know what it is they want to hear, and genre critics know what criteria to apply when deciding whether a piece is good.

There’s always a place for refinement and virtuosity, sure. But to do anything really interesting, you need to break the rules and abuse the tools and techniques you’ve come to love, or at least place them in some unfamiliar context, so that they can be seen from another angle and become fresh and new again. “Like an apple on the moon,” as Stockhausen put it.

It’s true that you can’t rewrite the definition of art with every project you undertake (and people who say they’re doing that are usually boring, too), but you must also find your own voice, and the only way to do that is by screwing up. Respect your history, learn your technique, trace the footsteps of the masters who came before you. But remember to wander from the path once in a while; you can be sure they did, when they were in your shoes.

Year-End Summary (2011)

As I write this, it is five minutes before the penultimate day of 2011. It was a busy year for ukuphambana, if not the most productive. I purged a heap of obsolete and unused hardware from my studio in preparation for next year’s move, and spent a fair amount of time learning new software tools. I also invested a good month and a half dubbing, uploading and tagging nearly my entire collection of sound recordings to Freesound, and did a fair amount of fiddling with Soundcloud. I took a swag at setting up a Bandcamp album and made some progress, though I ultimately got bogged down with graphic design issues and didn’t finish. Though I set up this blog at the end of last year, 2011 was the year I started treating it as a real thing, worthy of occasional updating.

There was also a Zero Times Infinity performance in there somewhere, with all the accompanying chaos that entails.

So the fact that I only properly completed two tracks doesn’t bother me as much as it might otherwise. This was clearly a year for organizing and staging more so than for bringing things to completion. I feel like 2012 will be the opposite. And to prepare for a new, more productive year, I’m reorganizing all my work-in-progress to make it easier to manage projects and get them done.

The result has been interesting: for the first time, I actually have a count of how many projects are in what status. It’s not comprehensive, since it only goes back to when I started using the cataloging system I have in place now — and I started that circa 2005. With that caveat in place, my project folders now contain:

25 completed projects;
9 “in progress” projects;
51 “sketches”.

Looking forward to spending a chunk of next year nudging some of those numbers toward the “completed” side. 2012, you are nearly here. I look forward to being in you soon!

When In Doubt, Tidy Up

Closing in on the last month of the year now, and I have at least three new tracks, each of which is about 80% done. I’m not certain that I’ll finish them all before the new year begins, but that’s my new goal. Will post here whatever happens, of course.

It’s always a challenge to resist the urge to spin off in new directions, and instead push current work over the finish line. On the other hand, having several projects nearly done is better than my normal rest state of having dozens of projects barely finished. Progress!

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