Eyes That Can See in the Dark

a music journal

March 31, 2002 (link)

8:15 PM

If the Lord of the Rings movie drinking game is to down a shot every time there's a close-up of the ring, then the Eyes That Can See in the Dark drinking game is probably to have one every time I mention Nintendo / Super Nintendo music.

7:55 PM

Another thing about Indian classical music: if I'm not mistaken (and if I'm remembering my Emotion and Meaning in Music correctly), the fourth is a normative sonority, which is often misleading to Western ears. In other words, the harmony C - F, with C on the bottom, will often be heard by Westerners as an inversion of the fifth, F - C, which of course is the fundamental interval in Western tonal music. However, that's not correct in Indian classical -- the C really is the root in that situation, and should be heard as the tonic, so a Westerner's aural tendency to "flip it around" is something that needs to be overcome to properly appreciate the harmonic structure of the piece in question.

Atom Heart's Dots is a nice little album. If I'd been following Atom Heart's career back when his best releases (on Rather Interesting) were coming out, I would've been mystified and disappointed when some of his more recent stuff had emerged -- after putting out a great, great album like Flowerhead it's hard to understand a jump to Ondas, much less Dropshadow Disease. But since I'm coming at all of this stuff several years after the fact, I just pick and choose the good releases, and ignore the ones that don't interest me. Anyway, this disc is not on a par with Flowerhead, but it's still pleasant listening. Most of the album focuses on two or three similar sounds -- the main one is a bit like a cross between a Wurlitzer electric piano and a Casio version thereof -- which are used in a somewhat (but not really) pointillistic manner (hence the title) to paint fairly laid-back, beatless ambient grooves. It's nothing earthshaking, but I enjoy it -- it doesn't do anything I don't like, and if it doesn't have that transcendent quality that great ambient music can have, it's still a pleasing sixty-something minutes of music, slightly reminiscent of old-school Super Nintendo music (as is so much of the ambient music I like).

current music: Atom Heart - Dots

(Comments for March 31, 2002)

March 30, 2002 (link)

9:20 PM

This Ambient Systems Initialized comp is pleasing me in much the same way that Invisible Soundtracks: Macro 2 did a few months back. Especially nice are "Frame" by Shuttle 358 and "Stretch" by Dietrich Schoenemann. I could maybe do without the vocal sample on the latter, but the keyboard sound and harmonies are really nice.

I downloaded a ton of MP3s of recordings of Indian classical music, all taken from the archives of a radio station who, I'm guessing, decided to broadcast some sort of Indian classical music marathon. Whatever the case is, they're great -- well-recorded, well-played -- and are simultaneously reminding me of how much I enjoy the music, and yet how little I understand it, technically speaking. I remember, when I first started listening to jazz, how I had some difficulty getting a handle on the language -- it never sounded alien or anything like that, but I didn't have any kind of deep grasp of the vocabulary and had a hard time telling a good solo from a bad solo (for example). Here, the problem feels more structural -- I suppose because I simply don't know the talas, or rhythmic structures, being used, and they don't really seem to be the kind of thing you can "kind of" know, or that you can pick up by ear without specific effort. I've attended performances where the talas were explicitly spelled out, and generally found that I could easily follow them (albeit in terms that might not be entirely correct -- i.e. saying "this is in five" might not be as accurate as saying "this is 3 + 2 + 2 + 3", in much the same way as saying "swing is in 12/8" is a sort-of-true, but misleading statement). On the other hand, there seem to be very specific rhythmic formulae that seem to be triggered by things that happen in the improvisations; time and again I've heard a sitar player (or veena, etc.) and a tabla player suddenly hit a cadential rhythm together that I had no idea was coming, but which is nailed in a way and with a precision that makes it clear that there must have been some specific cue that indicated a particular cadential formula. It almost reminds me of Phish's codes, but obviously here it's far more organically integrated into the music -- I doubt that there are many Indian music ensembles who use Bollywood/fusion quotations to pull off unison lines, but you never know.

Speaking of cues, I think Tony Williams "dut-da-dut-da-dut" rhythm at the end of his solo on "Seven Steps to Heaven", from the Carnegie Hall live album, is maybe one of the greatest of its kind, ever. I'd love to have a group like that, where everyone was listening so well, knew each other's playing so well, and was so sharp that such a tiny, easily-missed fragment of drum hits (was it completely spontaneous, or a known cue?) could have everyone landing perfectly on the one, with no one standing around looking confused or having to spell it out (dumb it down) for safety.

current music: Funkadelic - America Eats Its Young (Why didn't anyone tell me that Funkadelic was so much better than Parliament? Though actually, I think a couple people mentioned it...)

(Comments for March 30, 2002)

March 27, 2002 (link)

11:25 PM

On to the fourth entry in my Deep Chill Network review project. Unfortunately, the tracks I reviewed in this installment are probably the weakest of the bunch; my apologies to DCN and to Dark Duck in advance for having to give them a negative review here.

  • "Stage 1 (CS2)": I found myself hard-pressed to say anything more insightful about this track than just calling it "bad ambient music". This sort of C major pandiatonicism -- hit some white keys, call it a piece -- is a big pet peeve of mine; back in college, when listening to student compositions that did this sort of thing, I often found myself tempted to say something like "So, anyone for transposition? Modulation? The wide and wonderful world of sharps and flats?" Matters are made worse here by the slightly flangy/chorusy pads, some of which have that dreaded "ethereal aah" synth choir sound to which I've referred in the past, and for which I still have a strong distaste. This track just doesn't engage me -- I wrote in my notes that it "just feels like some guy pushing white keys". The ending is abrupt, as it is with all three of the pieces I'm reviewing tonight (all three are edited excerpts, but the edit could certainly be a bit gentler).

  • "Stage 2 (CS3)": Like the previous piece, this also opens with a single E that rapidly reveals its C major/white-key intentions. The sound is similar if not identical to the one used for "Stage 1 (CS 2)". At first the harmonies seem like they're going to be more interesting, but they don't go much of anywhere, and it amounts to the same deal as the above track -- even after listening to both tracks five or six times each, if you were to pick thirty seconds at random from one of them, I would have a hard time telling you which one it came from. (Even the descriptions on the site are scarcely different -- one is "Minimal droning deep chill ambient textures" and the other is "Peaceful, minimal ambient deep chill textures".)

    I mean, I listen to this, and then I listen to Polyester Orkester's track "Aldrigpunkt" from Invisible Soundtracks (Macro 2) -- or for that matter to Deep Chill Network's own "Stage 1 (CS1)" from my previous round of reviews -- and I just don't understand where this piece, this approach, is coming from. It's a little bit of an unfair comparison, true, since this piece is at least slightly different in its aims...but still, why aim for something so limited and uninvolving when you've so recently been mining such a rich and rewarding vein? This random pandiatonicism, without melodic or timbral profile, just doesn't do anything for me. It's like hearing the component parts of an intelligible language being chopped up and reassembled into near-meaninglessness.

  • "Stage 4 (CS4)": Well, at least we're in a new key now, opening with an E-flat and a somewhat different timbre (hard to describe, though hardly unusual -- the word that comes to mind is "didjeridu", but that seems wrong). Unfortunately, matters aren't really much more involving here, despite the change of scenery. Whereas the other two above were based on the "white keys", this one is...wait for it...based on the black keys! We get a long, continuous line, mostly monophonic (i.e. one note at a time), which tends to alternate between the E-flat drone and short melodic fragments. Later in the excerpt, an unpitched "flanger" sound appears, which basically sounds like someone opening and closing a resonant low-pass filter, more or less at random. I like this track a little bit better than the previous two, but that's not saying much -- it's not especially involving nor particularly rewarding, I'm afraid, and only scores points with me for its (very) slight resemblance to a snippet of music in the game Drakkhen. I still can't make sense of the fact that this track, from Cyber Sleep 4, is in print, while the far superior (from what I've heard of it) Cyber Sleep 1 has been permanently deleted.

Well, I've now reviewed all of the tracks that were up when I originally started this project -- but since I began, they've added ten more, nearly doubling the selection! My inclination is to just keep plowing ahead, but there's a lot of other music I want to get to.

9:38 PM

"Rain in Summer" by Y. Bhekhirst: what to make of this, which has been described as "wonderfully awful" and "like a demented King Crimson loop"? I found it, and many other oddities, here. I use a Google cache for that link because the page owner has apparently switched over to streaming audio, and while the downloadable files are still on the server, they're no longer linked by the current version of the page. Other favorites on the page include Lavendar [sic] Jane's "Lesbians" and Martin Mechanic's "Fell in Love with an Older Guy". However, beware of Li'l Markie's "Diary of an Unborn Child", which is exceedingly disturbing (and I say that in all seriousness).

(Comments for March 27, 2002)

March 18, 2002 (link)

1:57 AM

Not only is the Tsunamin Audio Prism album by Seamonster1 back up for download at their site, but now they've also got their previous album, You May Unfasten Your Seatbelts, up as well! Excellent -- I've been looking forward to hearing more from them for quite a while.

(Comments for March 18, 2002)

March 11, 2002 (link)

8:45 PM

Have I written about the mono mix of Piper at the Gates of Dawn before? If you're a fan of the album you should definitely check it out at some point; unlike the stereo mix, which was done by the producers, Syd and the band did the mono mix themselves, and the differences, while sometimes subtle, are not insignificant. "Interstellar Overdrive" is perhaps the most obvious one: the back-and-forth panning at the end is gone, of course, but the mix at the beginning is also quite different, with lots of organ that isn't there on the stereo version. On the whole I find that the mono mix generally sounds more raw and powerful, while the stereo mix sounds more polished and clean -- not surprising, really, given the circumstances. A song I don't normally like, "Chapter 24", sounds noticeably more appealing on the mono mix, whereas "Bike" is more to my taste on the stereo mix and seems to lose some of its charm in the mono version. In any event, I'm not normally one for amassing alternate versions of albums (especially the endless remasters of the Pink Floyd back catalog, precious few of which ever have any unreleased material), but this one is worth picking up.

8:38 PM

Indeed you must check out this MP3 of W. L. Horning's Rockin' and Rollin', which is hosted at the MP3 page of the American Song-Poem Music Archives. Perhaps it loses its impact on repeated listening, but it still needs to be heard. "Ohhhh!"

(Comments for March 11, 2002)

March 2, 2002 (link)

5:07 PM

Here's entry number 3 in my continuing Deep Chill Network review project. (Older entries are here and here -- May and November 2001, respectively.)

  • "Frozen Pond": Lots of ominous rumblings and whooshings, some of which sound cyclical (looped). The sounds used have a somewhat interesting timbre, but I find myself wishing there were more space between them. (This actually reminds me a bit of a piece I wrote a year or two ago (and put on disc for Absintheur) with the apt-if-unwieldy title "Like Thunder in the Early Morning, Set Into This Winter Velvet". However tempting it may be, I won't get into the dangerous game of comparing the two -- dangerous, that is, to my credibility as a writer!) Once the piece gets going, and I adapt to the fact that it's going to take a shape other than that which I might have initially preferred, I can enjoy it, but am still not quite fully caught up in it. But others may disagree.

    Quick digression: whatever one chooses to call this kind of music -- ambient, "chill", "space-creating", music of scale (i.e. music that depends on a sense of scale and slow time to completely engage the listener, like Morton Feldman) -- the thing about writing about it is that, though it appears relatively simple and would seem easy to quantify, the technical vocabulary for describing how/why/whether it works is surprisingly limited. That, in turn, makes it hard to articulate those aspects of the music which can serve as touchstones or common ground for the exchange of criticism and opinions. There's a temptation here to avail oneself of endless comparisons ("oh, it sounds like the Hafler Trio/Music for Airports/etc.") in order to avoid having to confront this dearth of language -- but ultimately, comparisons can't really help one to understand what that thing in the music is to which one is drawn or not drawn, and through the identification of which one can hope to seek out other music that explores similar paths. What I'm trying to say, in part, is that tastes in ambient music can seem more impenetrably subjective and arbitrary than those in other genres which have a more evolved critical and technical vocabulary with which to talk about and analyze them. But I don't think that this means that ambient music is somehow opaque to analysis, nor that the means by which it engages the listener are any less subject to technical examination. (Perhaps the blurry line between ambient and New Age music is also implicated here, since the latter allies itself with mysticism -- ergo opacity to reason -- by definition.) I just think that our understanding of this kind of music isn't as well-developed as in other genres, in part because the ways in which it acts on a listener can be some of the most elusive and ephemeral and fragile in music.

    Anyway, the bottom line is that I like "Frozen Pond", though it's not one of my favorites. It's nothing earth-shaking, but it's an enjoyable listen.

  • "Stage 1 (CS 1)" (excerpt): This, on the other hand, is almost definitely my favorite of the Deep Chill Network tracks I've heard to date. About 50% of the time, when this comes on, within seconds of the beginning of the song I can literally feel the muscles in my body begin to relax almost involuntarily. It's really lovely. Like "Plush Ground" it consists of nothing but a long series of fifths, albeit fifths that, in this case, are better chosen (in terms of pitch-consciousness and so forth). Here, though, they're married to a gorgeous timbre -- warm, rich, resonant -- and that makes all the difference. The spaces between the notes are longer here, too -- each fifth gets plenty of time to ring out -- and the end result is that the music is far more able to produce in me that subtle slowing-down which is, for me, one of the hallmarks of listening to great ambient music. Tangentially, there's a brilliant comment here that describes what happens when that feeling goes even a step further, becoming something like the effect that Low's "Coattails" had on me when I heard it live for the first time:
    A Dutch woman wrote to Elkins about a visit to Michelangelo's Medici chapel. She cried, she said, because she had experienced what life in reality is all about, when time stands still, or does not exist. She had "a feeling of being touched, of great happiness. Being home." (Link stolen from Stevie Nixed)
    It's really quite moving to read of someone else having this feeling, and describing it in terms that are practically identical to those I've used myself.

    So, it's a crying shame that Cyber Sleep 1, the disc from which this track comes, has been deleted. I'd snap it up in an instant if I could find a copy, but alas, I've never even seen one for sale. I'd love to hear more like this, and I suspect that the rest of the album probably makes heavy use of this sound, which would be fine by me.

I'll try to review some more of these tracks soon. And if you haven't yet, do go and have a listen if you're at all partial to ambient music.

12:19 AM

I thought of another one, although this one's a bit subtler: at 10:12 or so in "The End" by the Doors, right at the end of the big instrumental climax of the song, the pitch of everything jumps up a bit. (Listen especially for the organ, which slides up about 20-25 cents.) If my ears are correct, things slide back down at about 10:32. Who knows what was behind that one: perhaps all that Oedipal mayhem caused a mild power loss, slowing the reels ever so slightly (and thus raising the pitch of the recording on the master tape) for about twenty seconds.

(Comments for March 2, 2002) (2 comments so far)

March 1, 2002 (link)

9:38 PM

In the recent past, my Discman (a Magnavox, whose model number is something like AZ 7261/17) has done two very odd and intriguing things:

  • The other day, I went to take it with me on a walk, and noticed that odd characters had seemingly taken over the LED display -- I don't remember exactly what, but something akin to "P l d3". I tried pressing a few buttons, and managed to get a few different messages on the panel, which would cycle after about four or five of them, all as cryptic as the first. One of those modes seemed to make the CD spin up, but I couldn't get it to land on specific tracks -- the disc seemed to just start playing from wherever the laser was at the time. Since the CD in the Discman was Music Has the Right to Children, I thought I'd change discs on the off chance that there was indeed some weird bit of code at the end of the disc that was designed to freak out Magnavox portable CD players. (Hey, you never know with Boards of Canada, right?)

    When I opened the Discman, the CD kept spinning, which caught me by surprise (it normally would spin down and flash "Open"). I tried stopping the disc by hand, and discovered that not only did the CD still keep trying to spin, but it also kept playing the disc -- i.e. putting out audio! The pitch would drop as I slowed the disc; depending on how far I slowed it down, there were sometimes "stuttering" errors, where there would be miniscule gaps in the audio every tenth of a second or so. If I'm not mistaken, I think I even managed to get the disc to scratch back and forth like a vinyl LP. Anyway, I have no idea what caused this -- perhaps a power surge, when I unplugged it from the wall, dropped it into some sort of factory test mode? -- but it went away as soon as I reconnected the AC adapter, which "rebooted" it.

  • I was walking home from the train station, listening to "Hand So Small" from the Bombscare EP that Low did with Spring Heel Jack. I don't know the disc very well, having only listened to it once or twice, but was enjoying the song (especially Alan's vocals, which remind me of something I can't place). As the track was coming to a close, I heard an ambulance coming up behind me and to the right, its siren going at full blast. The track ended just as the ambulance drew abreast of me, and the siren was ear-splittingly, painfully loud.

    Then a very strange thing happened: I heard a sound in my right ear that, as far as I could tell, sounded exactly as though someone had run the siren through a ring modulator and piped it through my headphones! It only lasted about a second, but I'm pretty sure it was in my headphones, not in my inner ear -- it didn't feel like the difference tones that I sometimes hear when listening to, for instance, music for multiple flutes. And besides, there was only one pitch, the siren, rather than the two or more required for a difference tone (right?). When I got home, I checked the album to make sure: nope, no ring-modulated fragments at the end of "Hand So Small".

    But then what was going on? From what I remember, a ring modulator works by taking an input signal (which can be anything) and a carrier frequency (i.e. a 20hz sine wave) and outputting the sum and difference between the two. If I really was hearing the signal in my headphones, then it must have been because the siren was so loud that it was causing one or both of the drivers to act like a microphone. Is it possible that what I was hearing was a de facto ring modulation, perhaps caused by the fact that (owing to the Doppler effect, the fact that one of them was closer to the siren than the other, and/or the fact that one of them was covered with foam and the other bare) the two drivers were receiving signals different enough to create a significant difference for "ring-modulatory purposes"? Or, perhaps the incoming microphonic signal from one driver was so strong that it was causing the Discman's bass boost filter to ring? I suspect I'm talking nonsense here, especially with that last bit. And I still don't know how the drivers in my headphones would both receive signal from the siren and send it back to me. But it was pretty strange, regardless.

Having spent a fair amount of time on trains lately, I've been listening to said Discman more than usual. On the last leg of my trip back from New York, exhausted and anxious to get home, I found myself enjoying Pink Floyd's Live at Pompeii quite a lot. What a tremendous version of "A Saucerful of Secrets" that is, with those huge chorale-like chords crashing down in the "Celestial Voices" section and, at the end, Gilmour's voice soaring over the top of it. It quite literally gave me the chills.

(While I'm on the topic of my trip to New York: at the risk of sounding like Dido or that song about changing lanes -- to the guy in Trenton who found me and gave me the tickets I inadvertently left in the NJT machine, THANK YOU. I wish I'd gotten your name, as I didn't figure out what you were on about until after you'd walked away -- I thought you were trying to sell me extra tickets or something. Odds are you'll never read this, but like Sol Rosenberg says, "you nevah, nevah know." Besides which, you not only saved my ass, but also that of the woman I was ostensibly trying to help!)

I also pulled out the July 2, 1977 Madison Square Garden concert, as immortalized on the Welcome to the Machine bootleg, which is an old favorite that I traded away long ago and only recently recovered (albeit on CDR instead of the pressed CD I used to have). Any time Pink Floyd can find an excuse to let Nick Mason do his "lazy eighths", like on the jam section in "Echoes" from Pompeii or on "Shine On You Crazy Diamond Parts VI-IX" on this disc, good things usually happen. On the other hand, Nick's drumming on the early verses of that same Pompeii "Echoes" wasn't sitting well with me at all. Somehow he just sounded like a bad rock-ballad drummer, the incongruity of which pretty much spoiled any chance for the song to have the ethereal/hymnal quality that can make it so moving when it works.

More Pink Floyd news: a rough mix/demo tape for The Final Cut has surfaced, and has been released by Free Range Pigs under the title "The Final Cutting". These are from the actual sessions for the album, so it's much closer to the final version than last year's Wall demos (which really were demos and didn't, to my knowledge, contain any recordings that were actually used on the album as released). But there are still important differences -- and, from what I've heard so far, just about everything that got changed was a change for the better. For instance, one of the things I find most effective about the The Final Cut is its abundance of places where lines are omitted, obscured, truncated, or otherwise concealed [1] -- something which gives it a bit of a feeling of "things left unsaid", like there are secrets hinted at but never quite voiced (a theme which, by the way, is explicitly brought up in the album's title track). There are a few lines to "Your Possible Pasts" in the lyric sheet, in the album's liner notes, that are simply absent from the recording, and another song, "The Hero's Return", originally had a much longer coda that was omitted from the LP. On the rough cut/demo, these sections are present, and generally, the songs are the worse for them.

Even more crucial is the change in the treatment of the line "And if I'm in/I'll tell you what's behind the wall" from the album's title track. On the released LP, the end of the line is cut off by a shotgun blast, which also cuts the meter of that bar by a beat (to 3/4) and serves nicely to add a little rhythmic variety. I didn't really realize how effective a device it was until I heard the demo version; you really miss the 3/4 bar -- without it, the song just plods -- and the line, when sung in full, falls painfully flat. It's all to Waters' credit that he managed to hear what the song needed; knowing how and when to ratchet up the tension in a piece of music is a huge part of composition and songwriting, and here at least, Roger made what I think is a rather brilliant choice. The song is one of the album's best and most moving, but I suspect I wouldn't feel the same way if these changes hadn't been made to the released version.

I was listening to BBC Radio One over the Internet today, and heard a mix that caught my ear. I didn't think that much of the melody or lyrics, but the harmonies and production seemed to have a bit of spark to them. Turns out it was "Point of View", by DB Boulevard. Can't say I know anything about them, but it was nice to hear something on the radio that both engaged me and wasn't written last millennium. (Take that, ye who would paint me with the moldy-fig brush!)

According to the graffiti in North Philadelphia, someone out there with a can of spray paint has apparently chosen the tag "Skifo". I wonder if they know that "schifo" is Italian for "disgusting"? (Actually, it's worse than that -- it basically means "crap", if I'm not mistaken.) Then again, some people apparently go through life with the name, so...

[1] (And I'm sure someone reading this is probably thinking something along the lines of "Yes, and the less we hear of Roger Waters' dour, preachy self-indulgence the better, so every little word that gets left out helps". But though his later work doesn't do much for me, I've always found that, on The Final Cut, the ingredients gel into what is, for me, a convincing and moving work. It's a long-standing joke -- but hardly far from the truth! -- to say that The Final Cut is Waters' best solo album.)

(Comments for March 1, 2002) (2 comments so far)


current reading:

Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

The Once and Future King, T.H. White

The Computer Connection, Alfred Bester

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Richard II, Shakespeare


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