Adventures in Electronics

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).

Schroed­in­bug Descend­ing a Stair­case from Joseph Gray on Vimeo.

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.

Here is a link to a lit­tle arti­cle about Ken­neth and Tommy’s work together.

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.

Modular SynthWe 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.

Buchla 1I 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.

Buchla 2The 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.