4. Life’s Little Ironies

cropped-10-25-2016_12.jpgA track by track blog on the music from “Days of Sun and Days of Rain” – a consideration of the music and some reflections along the way

A gentle piece built on a ‘fingerstyle’ guitar chord progression. The electric guitar melodies are doubled by synthesiser parts played by Dave Scarth, who also provides the bass line. The music has a drifting, almost aimless quality. The title comes from a collection of short stories by Thomas Hardy.

Looking back, a few months after making this recording, I am reflecting on the importance of editing. More specifically, making decisions on when to alter something and when to leave well alone. Anyone working in dynamic creative arenas is faced with these problems. Few of us regard works as completely finished. There are always more daubs of paint that might be added, paragraphs and phrases to be reworked, scenes to be reinterpreted….

Life’s Little Ironies was one of those pieces where the thinking about editing took almost as much time as the initial conception and recording.

Originally, the introduction had a much heavier delay, giving it a much fuller texture as parts overlapped. Initially I found this to be quite novel and compelling, but after a number of listens started to sound quite irritating as the novelty wore off. The effect was distracting from the initial musical idea. So this was stripped back before the final edit – showing how important it is to allow plenty of time to reflect on musical ideas before making final decisions. There is often a tendency with effects to overdo the mix, when often the better decision is to allow more of the ‘dry’ sound to come through.

Then follows the finger style accompaniment part – bumbling and stumbling, where finger movements on the fretboard dictate the note choices.  As Stravinsky says, fingers are sometimes great inspirers. This part feels quite exposed and it is a relief when the bass makes its judiciously well timed entrance a few bars into this section. I suppose the guitar part feels exposed because it does have one or two glitches in the playing – the odd note fluffed, moments of rhythmic unsteadiness. The obvious thing to do would have been to re-record these few bars, which would have been easy enough. However, the more I listened to this flawed part, the more I grew to like it. It has character and personality. So I decided to leave well alone. Yes, there are days when it makes me wince, but more often than not I find I like its charm. It is interesting. Ruskin in his famous essay “The Nature of Gothic” says that “the demand for perfection is always a sign of the misunderstanding of the ends of art”. Thomas Hardy, who was well aware of Ruskin’s work picks up on this in his essays on poetry and literature. And I remember from a few years ago, a fascinating exhibition at the Ruskin Gallery in Lancaster exploring these issues,  bringing it forward to present times with a discussion on music recording. How the artificially created ‘perfect’ recordings, involving much studio skulduggery and splicing of different takes, can serve to make impossible demands for live performance realisation. Some musicians have rebelled against this practice, notably Bob Dylan and David Bowie who rarely recorded more than a couple of takes of any song. And as Leonard Cohen reminds us, it’s the cracks that let the light in…

The ‘horn’ part that comes in around 1:45 is actually played on a bass guitar synthesiser. Of course, virtual instruments can never sound quite like their acoustic cousins, but they can blend just as effectively into a mixed ensemble. A bit later we hear the same part acting as a counter to a guitar solo part.

The percussion also gets going at around 1:45 mark. Again, this is a MIDI creation – a short loop which is repeated many times. In a previous blog I raised the issue of MIDI percussion and how it can often sound mechanical and artificial. Many assume the answer to this is to go easy with the quantisation so that the part retains that ‘human’ feel of not always hitting notes squarely on the beat. This may help, but it doesn’t address the issue that any loop repeated exactly can start to sound artificial and lifeless after a time. It is also the case that good drummers are not that sloppy with their playing – many can play accurately in time. So I think we might do better to focus on the dynamics of playing, where there is often more variation in live acoustic playing. Sometimes a drummer will hit a piece of percussion with slightly more or less force, which results in subtle variations of volume and also timbre. Often this is done intentionally. For example in the standard rock drum kit patterns, there are certain beats which will need emphasising and others which need pulling back. In hand drum parts there can be more scope for dynamic variation – sometimes improvised, sometimes unintentional.

randomFortunately there is a way in Ableton to create this type of variation by adding a subtle random variation to the velocities of selected drum parts. Overdone, this can result in chaos but with judicious settings it can help to create a far more ‘natural’ sounding part. I have Brian Eno to thank for this useful tip.

So here we have a piece where naturally occurring imperfections are celebrated rather than corrected – and the reverse process where imperfection is added to an artificially created part…

Life’s Little Ironies feels like the right title for this music.

 

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Posted in Days of Sun

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