Building Character

Recently, I participated in an interesting email thread that discussed how the user interfaces of current electronic instruments tend to impede one's

Recently, I participated in an interesting email thread that discussed how the user interfaces of current electronic instruments tend to impede one's workflow. I heatedly agreed with that premise. Then I had the chance to hear someone playing a piece for EM Contributing Editor Scott Wilkinson that was created in a loop-based “easy composition” program. Never before that moment had I wished for a massive electromagnetic pulse in the atmosphere to occur that was strong enough to disrupt the functioning of every electronic device.

As I rushed home for an emergency dose of Debussy's La Mer to soothe my offended musical sensibilities, I began rethinking the issue and slowly realized that flow might actually be the enemy of making good music. When doing something is too easy, no effort is required. And without effort, there is no value.

Why did it take Ricky Wagner 26 years to complete his Der Ring des Nibelungen (Ring Cycle)? Why did it take the Beatles thousands of hours to make Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? It took that long because it was hard to create those works, and in that difficulty was forged the character that such works exude, which makes them classics.

Today, a person can load a sound from a library of thousands into his or her software synthesizer, click Record, fiddle with it for about for a minute, loop it, layer a few things on top, and — voilà! — a new “tune” is born. No spirit, no soul, nothing but beat and sounds.

In the early days of synthesizers, it took hours to create a single sound that one could never replicate. Oscillators went out of tune so frequently that Wendy Carlos sometimes only recorded a few notes of “Switched on Bach” before having to stop and retune. Yet that album turned out to be a masterpiece.

I decided to put this idea to the test and create a piece using methods that were not so easy. I resolved to use only analog equipment. I pulled out an old reel-to-reel tape deck and a spring reverb. I used only modular analog synthesizers and acoustic instruments. I'd forgotten how many cables it took to hook up an analog studio, and soon used every cable at my disposal. Actually, the FireWire and USB cables went untouched.

After an entire weekend setting up and connecting the equipment, I was ready to go. I powered everything up and there was a nasty buzz, but it took only about an hour and a half to find. It turned out to be a bad shield connection in a connector, so I chopped the molded end off the cable and soldered a new one on. I had the oddest sensation of simultaneously feeling frustrated at all of the hassle, yet exuberant at how much effort was going into creating this work.

I'll skip all the stuff about calibrating and aligning the tape deck, accommodating the lack of headroom in my old analog mixer, the dead synthesizer modules, and the difficulty in properly calibrating the old Dolby noise-reduction unit I unearthed.

Eventually, however, I managed to complete the entire piece, only to be faced with the fact that I would be forced to use the computer to master and make a CD. In danger of getting soft with the ease of using a computer, I helped my cause by using a “x.0” version of my audio editor, so that I would be assured of lots of bugs with which to contend. Still, the mastering process proceeded smoothly, which worried me, as I saw all my hard-earned character evaporating.

And then inspiration struck. I knew how to make sure things didn't get too easy! I simply switched off the computer monitor. Alas, I succumbed to temptation after an hour and turned it back on. But art requires sacrifice.

I didn't even have to aim the hammer; it was as if the tool knew the way into the monitor, just as the knife homed in on the speaker cones by itself. Now I was getting somewhere! I felt like Jackson Pollock or Pete Townshend. But it was definitely the ghost of Pollock that filled me as I went through an entire case of cola, shaking each can and opening it over a piece of equipment.

Now that, dear friends, is the artistic spirit in action!

Larry the O has been called “a twisted individual” by violinist Cat Taylor, who receives special thanks for contributing to the delinquency of a writer.