Over the past year I have been exploring and learning more about electronics and computer based sound and music. Working with vintage technologies like the Buchla, learning new programs likes Max MSP and Processing, learning how to work with Arduino and building my own controllers. It has been a really exciting and inspiring journey. I love the outcome of this work, both musically and conceptually. The next few blog entries are going to be about my discovery of new (to me) technologies.
My husband, Joseph Gray (Joe), is a new media visual artist whose work over the past decade has focused on interactive video installations. He often works tracking light, sound and movement to create ever changing and reacting visual pieces. He has been building his own tools for creating live animation since 2001, we met at his second show doing live animation oh so long ago. He often performs/projects live animation with music, but I hadn’t seen or heard any musicians using the same technology. That is until 18 months ago. I was performing near Grand Rapids, Michigan with Lingo where I met a composer named Kenneth Stewart who was working with choreographer Thomas DeFrantz (Tommy).
Lingo was sharing a bill with Kenneth and Tommy. We saw their sound check/ tech rehearsal and were totally enamored. We all hit it off immediately, thank god! We were in the middle of nowhere with no transportation, I couldn’t imagine how boring it would have been without Kenneth and Tommy’s company. Sean and I spent the first evening drinking cheap beer and playing with Kenneth’s compositional tools in their hotel room. The second night was well…I’ll just say this, if you ever have the pleasure of singing Karaoke with KT you must request Time Warp, you will not be sorry.
Kenneth is working on his PHD at Duke University studying electronic music composition, Tommy is faculty at Duke, that is how they connected. Kenneth was using a Kinect to control the sound for the piece. Push your hand forward the sound got louder, chang position of your arm and tones changed. He was using a program called Max MSP. It was all so new to me, so I did not yet understand what was being done (magic), or how Max and the Kinect were communicating, but it reminded me very much of what Joe was doing with color and light, but Joe was mostly using cameras, motion detectors and a program called Processing. I was very inspired and wanted badly to be able to understand and use the tools that Kenneth and Tommy were using. My mind felt expanded conceptually and I felt that by hearing the generative sound work I was able to understand what Joe was doing on a whole different level and what might be possible musically.
It was then that the seed was planted, I wanted to learn the programs that made this work possible. So, at the beginning of the 2012–2013 school year I enrolled in a class entitled Hybrid Music at Evergreen State College. It was a year long class exploring both vintage and new technologies. I thought I was qualified for the class because I had done a year of audio engineering school already and because I had used Reason to create my own keyboards. I emailed my way in, convincing the teacher that I had the experience and that I was qualified to forgo the first year electronic music courses. After the first class it became painfully obvious that I was way out of my league and really didn’t have the foundational knowledge to understand the material. What was I thinking forgoing a year of introductory classes. But, I convinced myself I could catch up if I just put some extra time in.
There was a whole other weird dynamic going on too, I was the only woman in the course, it was 14 guys and me. I tripped out about it alot the first few months. Why? Why was I the only woman in this class, what did it mean? Music is male dominated too, but not this extreme. When I was at Cornish it was 20% ladies. Is this the way music technology is across the boards? This was like 5% and I was the 5%. Is it about interest, is it about learning styles, is it about the way in which the information is taught and shared? I don’t know. What I do know is that this class was really hard and I had alot of catching up to do and on top of it I had to prove that girls could do it too and not embarrass or tarnish my genders reputation in anyway.
We began with the vintage stuff, that meant I had to understand how electricity worked, I still don’t totally get this, but I’m getting closer. Then I had to make music using basically mostly just electricity, or at least that is my summation for those who don’t know about the Buchla or modular Synths.
I don’t cry often, the year before I enrolled in Hybrid music I could count on one hand the amount of times I cried. I could count on one hand the times I’de ever cried about any class. Not so last year, I was in tears at least once a week out of pure frustration over this class. Are men so different with their learning process. I would be willing to bet that not a single dude shed a single tear over that class the entire year, even the ones at the same level as me. I was alone in the room with the Buchla trying to understand how electricity works and how to turn it into sound and no matter how much I thought I understood or how much I got it conceptually I could not make that thing do what I wanted. I banged my head again the wall for a 100 hours in that class the first quarter. It went like this, I tried, I tried, it wouldn’t work, I tried, I tried everything, it wouldn’t work, I broke down and cried, I walked outside for some fresh air, I felt worthless, felt like there was something wrong with me, I felt I would never progress, I calmed down, I tried again, sometimes I left, sometimes I had a break though and sometimes another, I felt ecstatic, I was getting it, I could do this, I understood, studio time up, repeat the next week, repeat, repeat, etc.
The question I couldn’t help asking, is it because I am a woman or is it because I didn’t take the intro class or a combo or none of the above? I will never know really. Yeah my emotions and pride were getting in the way of my understanding and learning. Did the guys go through the same thing, but without the tears or maybe it just lasted like a minute before they could clear their head and move on. Why did I had to have a god damn emotional breakdown during every studio session?
5 weeks in, I wanted to stay in the class, but I was really struggling, I didn’t want anyone to know how much I was struggling, because I wanted to stay in the class. So my major breakthrough, which may not sound like that big of a deal but it was kind of cathartic for me, was getting over my pride, stopping caring if I wasn’t at the same level and realizing the only way I could really get it was to ask for help, lots and lots of help and to stop caring if I didn’t look like I knew what I was doing because I didn’t really. So I let Ben Kamen the teacher know and two of my classmates, the best and the brightest, Charles Seeholzer and Duncan Marsh, both in their early 20’s and both had been programing since they middle school. These were the ones I hit it off with and these were the guys who really helped me out. They had a deep understanding of what was going on with that beast the Buchla and other so many other analog synth modules. I stopped caring if I looked like a fool or was holding people back and I asked dumb questions when I had them and asked for help when I needed it and I started to get it. I mean I wasn’t setting the curve or anything, but I was keeping up with the class and I was learning alot.
The second quarter was a welcome relief, it all evened out, we started working with Max MSP, oh joy! Now this was the reason I took the class in the first place. It turns out I’m way better with modern technology, which is great because that is what is the least expensive, most diverse and most available. After working with the modular synths where each time you had to rebuild your patch from scratch, it was so lovely to be able to save a patch and refer back to it, pick up where you left off, I can’t even tell you what a luxury it felt like. I was in heaven, I bought Max so I could work as much as a wanted to anytime I wanted to and I stayed up many a night until 4 am totally obsessed with what I was working on. This quarter was not a challenge it was a joy, I didn’t cry again until I was trying to test the Arduino at the end of the third quarter. Embarrassingly my last breakdown was at Metrix, in public, a hacker lab on Capitol Hill. Joe said it was the first time he had seen someone cry at Metix when their program wasn’t working. But that is it no more crying stories in this blog.
I spent the rest of the year mostly focusing on learning Max MSP, how to generate composition, build effects, and create my own sounds and synths. I learned how to use Max with Arduino and building my own controllers. All really fun stuff and especially cool because now Ableton is partnering with Max, so when I upgrade (any day now), I will be about to use them together more easily and there will be so many more people using Max with Ableton that the forums and getting questions answered online will get easier and easier.
I’m going to post a few thing I created and try to explain a bit about the process of creating them and share some stuff that I find inspiring…soon.