As a composer/field recordist, Winter is a low time for gathering sound in the heart of the borders where I currently live. Aside from the practicalities of gathering sounds in the cold midwinter, the minimal light and inclement weather make it a less productive time for me than staying in a warm house with a few “winter projects”. My traditional sources of inspiration have all gone away, those that remain are silent, hibernating or rarely expending any energy unless they need to. Animals venture out in December only if they need to. Owls are silent, the usually rasping corvids are quiet, even the sheep and horses in the paddocks opposite my studio are mute: the biophony of my locale cycles down, and in the all-too-brief powder that passes for snowfall in this changing climate, the snow muffles the soundscape so sound does not travel as well as it could or in a way I am familiar with.
Plus I already have plenty of samples of cracking meltwater.
Thus winter is a good time for me getting my personal indoor projects completed and planning for the spring and summer; of course it comes as no surprise to me that “personal projects” always seem to later inform my composition practice, and while I am not actually recording or actively composing, I am making and developing tools to compose with in new and different ways; building new controllers and additionally exploring the Eurorack system of sound modules. Many are sold as kits to keep prices low and in Eurorack digital modules equal analog ones with new designs weekly. It is a fast-moving area of hobby electronics that celebrates music experimentation, updating old analog designs, marrying them with new digital hardware like Raspberry Pi and Arduino, it embraces the “maker” movement, open source hardware and software and some very, very talented people designing sound modules in their spare time that make me blink and listen closer in ways I do not get with the latest VST or Plug in for my DAW.
I like to tell people that “unusual music sometimes requires unusual instrumentation”, and Electroacoustic music has a long established history of composer-built electronic technology from the onset. Despite the wonderful simplicity of appearing at a gig with just a laptop, I am still a bit old fashioned and fee uneasy sitting behind an iPad or a Laptop: I started abstracting software into buttons, knobs and other interfaces, but that is only part of the process for me: building and crafting devices that make sound, that enable new ways of approaching the process of layering and cutting back and building up is as much a part of the fun of composing (if I were a cook, I would probably be constantly playing with my food). Thus woodworking, metalworking, circuit-making, circuit-bending (a rather chaotic abuse of toys and thrown-away gadgets) even the aesthetics of an instrument’s design and look and feel are part of my process: always considering “what do I want this to do?”.
With Eurorack my personal interests are setting up systems, rulesets that produce deeply interactive aleatoric music: hot-plugging and manually tweaking a sound in ways similar to a livecoder sitting behind a supercollider terminal window or a live patcher manually manipulating pd or max/msp patches would. Thus I am assembling modules that are unpredictable and yet can be nudged here and there. I am fascinated by our human capacity to try and make sense of what we hear and see and to draw patterns from a haze of random sound (like seeing dancers in an untuned TV set) and depending on the modules I make and how they are chained together my “instrument” takes on a new personality every time I approach it. It is, to put it mildly, a machine that does what it wants, when it wants, and how I like it.
The process of circuit making and home PCB etching is deeply meditative: assembling it is careful, but almost by numbers, testing and eventually tracking down any errors is an exercise in logic and knowing what the module’s constituent parts do to a sound and it deepens my understanding of how sound really works in the electronic domain in a way that I simply do not “get” with software (although I know many DSP-led software only composers that feel the opposite: that hardware is a cumbersome way to work with sound… but in that argument I have my feet firmly in both camps: I am (perhaps as a field recordist) something of a magpie of sound and I tend to take and use whatever works, whatever tools and whatever methodologies I employ I feel are valid if I’m clear about my desired ends. Aleatoric music for me is not just blarting out randomness, but finding method and structure in the miasma of sound; to wrestle music from machine noise is a slow process and yet when I finally reach a sound that “works”, I can look at the patches and settings and really see how the sound makes its journey from one end of the cabinet to the other. This is a vital part of learning not only what sound does, but why it does what it does so by the end of the chain you have deeper insight into the inner workings of your listening experience.
Brian Eno wrote in his diary: A Year With Swollen Appendices “Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” and the experience of building this unpredictable object for making sound art with has been complex and practice-informing. I felt my self-imposed “no synthesis” practice could possibly do with a little tyre kicking and the experience of building a modular synthesiser has been a productive way to spend some otherwise unproductive downtime.
— Clive Grace