Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The final stages of the Distil process

Several times I've considered writing this blog, documenting my Distil process but each process has been so wildly different from the last that it felt like I needed to wait until I was nearly done. And I am. Nearly. 

The piece is for the wonderful Mr McFall's Chamber, plus Jenna Reid on Fiddle, Fiona Rutherford on Harp and Alistair Paterson on Piano, plus myself on Electronics and the wonderful Ben Seal on Sound. (If you've not seen Ben's alter ego Benofficial, I highly recommend checking him out on Youtube.)

So with a line up like that (self excluded) there was a certain level of pressure building, add to this the fact that the lovely people at Distil have already supported and invested in me and I want to do them proud. This piece starts to have a reputation in my head before it's even begun. This is also the first time that I've written for something 'on spec' meaning that in previous pieces, I've written them before being selected. It's a different game writing something to order once the gig has been announced. But, dealing with the demons is part of the creative game.

But, I'm sure you didn't drop in here to examine the contents of my tiny mind, so on to the music. 

Earlier in the year, I had met with poet Angus Peter Campbell to discuss the possibility of working together on a bigger project. We decided that we could trial run this collaboration by working together on the Distil piece. After having discussed several ideas, we decided to work with his poem "The Great Maiden of Corrodale" which deals with tradition, time, and tide. The poem is set in the Hebrides and links very clearly with my own themes of isolation, communication and time. 

I wanted to explore the idea of our present being a lens through which we view the past. All we can know of the past is imbued with our current perspectives and cultural assumptions. This impacts upon traditional musicians in where they choose to position themselves on the scale, from 'gatekeeper of tradition' to 'innovator'. Each of these terms being contentious of course. 

So, the piece contains a traditional tune from 'Shower and Sunshine' a traditional Devon song about love, loss and the sea. But this tune is adapted, it moves into 5/8 time and develops from a clean rendition to an awkward harmony, to a series of delays and distortions. Added to this tune is a new melody I wrote called The Maiden which references the character in the poem. She is dancing, flighty, collecting nuts and wild garlic though woodland. This melody also dances through a series of delays, sub bass and jazz chords to our contemporary ears. Both these melodies are primarily carried by Fiona on Harp. I love to write for Fiona and her deftness of touch can really portray this character, at once long gone and alive for us.

These islands of melody are linked by calm, threatening and turbulent seas of string sections, we survey islands of the past on the horizon but can never possess the boat which will take us to them, we carry them in our imaginations. 

Technically, so many processes have been used, and whether this is of interest to anyone I am not sure, so stop reading if not... The piece began as a series of improvisions on Logic, painting with sound, finding melodies, adjusting, linking and building harmonic structures underneath them. Added to this were a series of delays to create the effect I was looking for. In terms of structuring the piece, it was a fairly organic process, I knew that I wanted to move through different feelings and moods and so built some slow moving string chords with gentle piano delay as a recall phrase. 

Once the piece had been 'sound painted' in Logic I needed to score it. I use Sibelius for this process and although there is a nifty way to import scores from Logic to Sibelius, I've never found it to be quicker or easier than just inputting the whole thing from scratch! 

Once the dots are in, the fun begins, choosing dynamics, techniques and expressions which are denied to me in Logic, eyes closed, re-listening, drawing on my score then updating. Sounds, longwinded doesn't it? It is. But it's a lovely thing to do. 

Once the Sibelius score is written I can then work on electronics plotting. Back in Logic, checking the automation that I've written in and working out how this will translate for a live performer. Working out which channels can be 'statics' (i.e. the signal will be consistently processed), which channels need effects to be linked to pots or faders so that they are adjustable throughout, and which channels have several different presets and so will require splitting and then live switching from preset to preset. 

I can then bounce down my samples, and mark the trigger points onto my Sibelius score. The samples are loaded into the ESX24 sampler on a multichannel to allow for separate EQ's and compression (depending on the sample source). I can then start to map the LX cues onto my Sibelius score print out. I do this by colour coding the effects (delay is pink, sub bass is green, sample cues are blue and 'states' are yellow). I mark the cues onto the score and start to do some 'phantom fader' rehearsals, listening to logic and moving the faders as they are scored. This gives me a sense of my role in the performance and gives me the chance to troubleshoot fiddly or busy sections in advance. 

The final aspect is preparing a blank Logic Mix window waiting for the live signal feeds on Thursday. Each channel either goes to the static plug ins and on to the stereo output or is routed to a bus, and the fader for that auxiliary channel assigned to the USB controller I've been practicing on. A few more run throughs and it starts to feel possible, performable and nearly complete.

Tomorrow I will meet with Fiona and have a few hours working on the harp part together, then the print shop will make my 8 pdf parts and scores into real pieces of paper. On Thursday morning, me, Fiona, the van and the harp will be wending our way to Stirling and we get to see if this is going to work. Cross your fingers for me!