The Ice Spire

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Jun 192014

My latest piece of music is a long ambient piece that was inspired by a prompt at the Naviar Haiku project. They provide a weekly prompt of a haiku, set within a suitably atmospheric photograph, to which various musicians create music. Of these, a small selection of tracks are picked to form an album-length collection of music representing a set of Haikus. The piece I created, “The Ice Spire”, has just been included on the latest release from Naviar Records (the third compilation from the project so far). Please have a listen below as you read on!

The track is a slowly evolving piece that was written with the idea of walking through a snow-bound landscape and coming across an ‘ice spire’, which I think comes across quite well in the music. I took a new approach for this, first of all recording two sets of long notes using the EBow on my bouzouki. The EBow doesn’t always affect both of the strings in the set (the bouzouki has four sets of strings, the lower two of which are octaves apart) in the same way, so the note sometimes fades in and out between octaves over time. These two tracks were then fed through the iVCS3 iPad synthesiser, which is a software recreation of the legendary ‘Putney’ synth, full of really wonderful sound-mangling facilities. Both tracks were ‘played’ through the synth, interacting with the synth’s own oscillators, travelling through a fairly complex signal path that I was able to control as the sound evolved.

With these two electronically manipulated tracks as the starting point, I then added some sparse melodic lines to the piece, still sticking to just the bouzouki. You can hear strings beyond the bridge being tapped with a small wooden mallet to provide percussive effects as well as various harmonics, some use of a metal ‘bottleneck’ and a gentle traditional melody line, played with plectrum within the normal fretboard area. Considering that every sound you can hear in this piece comes from a single acoustic instrument, albeit one that is well and truly put through the electronic grinder, it has produced a pleasingly full result.

The whole album is available as a ‘pay what you like’ basis, through the Bandcamp player above. It will appear on my next instrumental album too, but I hope you enjoy the advance listen, as well as the other pieces on this album and the other from the Naviar project.

Mar 272014

It’s SpinTunes time again and though I have not joined in as a competitor, I did offer up my services to the Boffo Yux Dudes, who have an ongoing tradition of carpet-bombing the last round of SpinTunes with ‘shadow’ songs (i.e. not official competitors, but meeting the requirements of the challenge). This time around I wanted to gain some more experience with my new bouzouki, so you’ll find its unique sound on two songs from the shadows. The first of these tracks started life as a set of lyrics from Scott Mercer (of the Dudes), brought to life on keyboard & vocals by Dave Leigh (of Dr. Lindyke) and embellished by my 8-strings (starting with a short instrumental section before accompanying the vocal).

The second track is a slick country-rock song by the Dudes, in which I sneak in a very short instrumental break about halfway through:

As I was pulling this post together, it occurred to me that that this is not the first time I’ve done this. Back in SpinTunes 5 I did something similar in the final round, that time adding improvised bass and guitar to a laid-back jazzy piece by Denise Hudson. The lyrics take the form of a spoken word recitation over the top of the music, seeming a bit out of place with the tone of the backing and yet at the same time oddly apt.

On the subject of guests, Katharina and I recently also appeared as guests on The Way of the Buffalo podcast, discussing Every Photo Tells… as well as Obscurities and other subjects. The podcast is well worth a listen and the host, Hugh J. O’Donnell has managed to pull together quite a list of interesting guests over the weeks.

A Tasty New Year

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Jan 122014

CookbooksAnyone who visits here with any sort of regularity will have noticed that I am partial to the odd challenge now and again. From the latest String Quartet to Every Photo Tells… or SpinTunes, challenges are a great way to provide a new focus to creative ideas and take you to new and often unexpected places. After setting me the 10 Weeks: 10 Sounds challenge, I returned Katharina the favour by setting her a challenge of her own.

Since she has a collection of cook books that seemed to be rarely used (as she tends to fall back on her favourites), I thought it was time she made some use of them, so for the Cookbook Challenge, I set the following:

You should create one dish from each of the following cookbooks, photograph the process and blog about each one. Let us know a bit about the book, why you chose the recipe, what (if anything) and why you had to change any ingredients or processes. What was difficult? What did you learn? How did the final result taste?

1. Haggis, Whisky & Co. (leave out a single ingredient)
2. Paul Bocuse Standardkochbuch [The Paul Bocuse Standard Cookbook] (use an ingredient you have never used)
3. Austro Tapas (use breadcrumbs)
4. Crèmes Brûlées (change an ingredient)
5. Gordon Ramway’s Great British Pub Food (pick a recipe that contains alcohol (it’s pub food, after all!))
6. Natürlich Jamie [Jamie at Home] (add something red)
7. Macarons (something that goes well with coffee)
8. Vive la France (add vanilla)
9. La Cuisine Grecque [The Greek Kitchen] (served with a feta side dish)
10. Plachutta – Meine Wiener Küche [My Viennese Kitchen] (traditional, but different)

In each case, I chose the book and set some restriction to make it a bit more interesting than just selecting a recipe at random. You’ll find my specific comments about the resulting meals under each blog post Katharina made, but suffice it to say that I ate like a king for the weeks that the challenge was running.

My favourite savoury dish was the Greek meal with meatballs and deep fried feta cheese, which offered up a fantastic combination of flavour and texture. Of the desserts, the quark dumplings with cranberry whisky sauce were probably my favourite (though it was a close call), because they were tangy, warm, fluffy and crispy. The success story of the whole thing, however, was the caramelised apple cake from Haggis, Whisky & Co.. We’ve made this again twice since the initial challenge, because it was so good!

Apple Cake

Find her whole series of blog posts here.

Jan 122014

Sid Smith String Quartet viiiThe new year brings a new musical challenge, this time in the form of a string quartet inspired by a series of rainy windows. Music writer Sid Smith has been taking photographs of the patterns rain makes on his office windows for a few years and has now set up the results as programme of graphic music scores. There are twenty ‘string quartets’ in the project, each incorporating four photographs. In total, 33 different musicians have signed up to record music based on these scores, which will be gathered together at Sid’s blog.

I will be writing and recording the four movements of ‘String Quartet viii’ from this project and have just completed the first of these. Despite the title, there is no requirement to use a classic string quartet arrangement, so my first piece (and possibly the others, too) uses a more folky set of instruments, albeit still all stringed. The piece is structured around a simple backing of electric bass and acoustic guitar, with a dark melody reflecting the lines on the photograph played on bouzouki. In the more detailed centre of the piece, additional texture comes from the mandolin.

This was a great opportunity to write for some of my newest instruments and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to grips with the bouzouki in particular. It is a Greek (rather than Irish) model, so is tuned a tone lower than the top four strings of a guitar. This makes chord patterns easy to work out, though when accompanying the guitar and bass, it means playing in what feels like a different key. In some ways this is awkward, but on the other hand it forces me out of playing what might work on guitar. The pairs of strings also result in a substantially different playing experience, not just in the sound produced, but in the action of moving around the fretboard. When it comes to playing the mandolin, the tuning is completely different, so there is no safe ground to fall back on there, either.

Here is the resulting piece:

Dec 012013

2013-Winner-Vertical-BannerThis year I once again had a go at the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing a book/50,000 words in the space of 30 days. I bent the rules somewhat this time around, using the 50k to finish off Some Other Scotland (yes, at last, I know!), write several short stories for both Every Photo Tells… and 100 Word Stories and make some progress with my latest writing project. I’m pleased to say that I broke the 50,000 word mark yesterday afternoon having made good progress with everything.

Some Other Scotland now requires some editing, as the breakneck speed of writing for NaNo resulted in a completed story, though spread out in a bit of a jumble and missing some items of research. Once I have the next few episodes complete, I will continue recording and publishing the remains of the story. It looks like it will come in at 51 or 52 episodes, which is roughly what I had expected when I first started, though the length of the episodes is longer in general than when the story started.

We’re also working on some new EPT eBooks to follow up the first one. Over the last hiatus, Katharina went back to revisit a couple of stories she had to skip the first time round. That means the next eBook will contain stories from both of us for all the photographs.

The last writing project (for the immediate future) is the novel set in the same world as my novella/album ‘Obscurities‘. Following this year’s NaNo, it now stands at just over 55k words, but this is only around half way through, though I hope to finish it next year before NaNo comes around again. It is progressing well and will also be accompanied by an album of new music, though this will be very different from Obscurities.

Nov 042013

I’ve mentioned my use of the relatively new application Scapple before, but as I work towards finishing off the epic that ‘Some Other Scotland‘ has become, this apparently simple little app has been making a growing impression on my workflow.


Using a Google map as background

Quick Recap: Scapple is in essence just a small mind-mapping application that gives you a little more freedom than most, not forcing you to have everything in a strict hierarchy, but allowing you to join ideas together and to other items. I have tried several mind-map applications over the years and none of them came close to just writing it down on paper until now. Another key thing Scapple has going for it is that it is really easy to quickly add a lot of content, so there is no need to mess around with layers of menus.

For the scenes I am currently working on, I have around five different point-of-view (POV) characters coming together for a grand showdown that forms the climax of the action. There is a lot to keep track of and I want to avoid a situation where a character is described as being in two or three different places at the same time – this thing is going to be busy enough as it is without making it difficult for my readers & listeners to follow. My conclusion was that the only way to keep on top of it all was to create some sort of interactive chart of what I wanted to happen to check that it was possible and realistic. Think of those scenes where generals move little figures around a reconstructed map: that was the kind of thing I was looking for.

The ideal solution would be some sort of war-gaming software that was customisable, but I would need to learn how to use such a thing, which I just don’t have time for (at least not for the sake of a single section of a single book). I already have a Google map of many of the key locations in the story, but to avoid spoilers I only update it after scenes have been podcast, but I considered using a new map to add pins and lines to with Google. Flexible though that system is, however, I wanted to be able to shift things around to try out different ideas and G-maps keeps editing and use of maps quite separate and that would add another layer of complexity that I didn’t need.

Scapple to the rescue!

From a paper scribble...

From a paper scribble…

One thing I had never used in Scapple was the ability to load background images. The idea (at least according to the documentation) is to allow you to have a pleasant textured background to make everything less clinical, but let’s get creative. The image you choose is not affected by scaling, which means that when you stick text, lines & boxes over a point on your background image, it stays there, so you can overlay diagrams on any background you like. I tried this out by taking a screenshot of the Google map of the area I was interested in (shift+cmd+3 on Mac, shift+prtscn on Windows), loading the image into any basic image editor and trimming off the bits I didn’t need. This image was then loaded into Scapple as a background texture – just open the Inspector and choose the ‘Document’ option to see the ‘Choose Texture’ button. It worked perfectly!
... to an interactive map!

… to an interactive map!

You might find it useful to make the image a little fainter in the editing software so that your text stands out better. Depending on the size of the image you might find you need more space, in which case you might want to double or half the image size before saving it – you’ll need to experiment (I found an image of 1600×1200 to work well for me, but it will depend on how far in you want to be able to zoom).

With this in place, I was able to easily add labels and arrows showing how certain characters will move around during this key scene and then output the whole thing as a pdf to import into Scrivener. So much faster than trying to learn a completely new package and completely compatible with everything else I’m using!

This is only the start of what I can now see as a REALLY great feature. You can load ANY image, not just maps, so if you have old mind-maps or plans you could take a photo (or scan) of them and add new annotations. Or draw a plan of a house and use Scapple to work out where the characters are when the murder takes place – like a Cluedo board!

Oct 262013

XmasCoverA new book!

Last year, Katharina and I visited all the Christmas markets in Vienna (and there are many), wandering the stalls, tasting the delicious food and discovering some quirky and unusual crafts. Armed with her then new camera, Katharina took hundreds of photographs and combined them into a series of popular posts on her blog, reviewing the best and worst of what each market has to offer.

This year, she added to the original text, selected the best of the photographs and I added my own perspective to each of the reviews, creating an eBook guide to every Christmas market in Vienna (and a few unmissable ones in the area outside the city).

Everything you need to know about the markets can be found in the book – even if you’re an old Scrooge like me:

English Version:
Amazon US / Amazon UK / Smashwords

German Version:
Amazon DE / Amazon US / Smashwords

 Posted by at 10:35 am


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Oct 082013

OdditiesI had no plan to produce two instrumental albums within the space of this year, yet only five months after the release of ‘Obscurities‘, I’m delighted to announce the release of ‘Oddities’.

This can be viewed as a direct sequel to Obscurities, comprised as it is of an eclectic range of instrumental music in numerous different styles and with all sorts of different instrumentation featured. Both were the product of challenges of different sorts. In this case, Oddities mutated out of an online photographic challenge (FMS Photo-a-day) to become a fairly intense challenge to me of writing a piece of music every day for a month. Each piece was inspired by a single prompt and accompanied with a related photograph.

For example, day one’s challenge was “‘N’ is for…” – my response was to take a photograph of my collection of fire engine Nozzles and create a musical piece using only the nozzles (resulting in some wonderful bell-like sounds). This process repeated every day for 31 days in total, with prompts that had me reaching for guitar and ukulele, bass and keyboards, zither and harmonica amongst many others. I tried my hand at writing Austrian and Scottish styled folk tunes, improvising a guitar solo in 7/8 time, turning the Vienna skyline into music and various other challenges. Every day I posted the photos to Flickr and the music to Soundcloud.

Of course, some of the pieces ended up being a little rushed, due to squeezing most of them in to working days, so once the month was over, I spent more time tidying up the ones that had loose ends, re-mixing some and adding some more suitable treatments to others. I pulled all the photographs together, along with a description of the process and some old-fashioned sleeve notes, which you can find in a 60+ page, full-colour PDF booklet (included with the download).

The result is ‘Oddities’ – 31 brand new pieces of instrumental music joined together by a common thread and a set of photographs, but each quite unique in its own way. As with ‘Obscurities’, you’ll find something to like here, even if it isn’t all to your taste. Give it time, though, let the tracks run together and you’ll find they do become a cohesive whole. I have again released this under a ‘Creative Commons’ licence, so podcasters, video bloggers, radio stations and musicians can use it in their own works, so long as they link back to this website.

So, without further fanfare, here it is. Listen to it right here as often as you like and, if you want a copy, download it for a few measly quid/dollars with the ‘Buy’ link below. Please share it with any friends you think might like it, too!

Aug 252013

Iain Banks

Iain Banks (from Wikipedia)

I’m currently coming towards the end of the month’s challenge to create short musical pieces and accompanying photographs based on prompts from FMSPhotoADay. The results so far can be found on my previous post on the subject, but I thought today’s prompt was worthy of a little more in-depth commentary.

The Culture

The given prompt was simply ‘culture’. At any other time I might have responded differently to the word, but the last time I did the Photo-A-Day, one of my favourite authors, Iain (M) Banks passed away from cancer and I dedicated the photo from that day to him. Since he has written a series of Science Fiction novels set around a Utopian society called ‘The Culture’, I could think of nothing I would rather write some music for. One of the popular characteristics of this space-faring society is that their huge ships have a wide range of peculiar and often esoteric names: ‘So Much For Subtlety’ or ‘Poke It With A Stick’, for example. Across nine different books, well over 100 different ships have been named. Wikipedia has a list of all of them, grouped by book. This would form the basis of my piece.

The Challenge


Planning the piece

I’ve been using this series of challenges to make myself try out new things musically. This time I decided to let ‘The Culture’ speak for itself. I copied all the names into a spreadsheet and used various functions to strip out the first letter of every word in the ship names. Since these covered most of the alphabet, I started by making the letter A match the note A and so on, until every letter was represented by a musical note. This left me with a long list of notes on a page, but not much else. To add some variety, I decided that every different class of ship should be represented by a different sound/instrument. Doing so meant that several lines of music would be running at once. The next stage was to arrange the notes in such a way that not everything was playing at once. To do this, I created the plan shown to the right here, with each column being an instrument / ship class. I juggled around the notes so that ships appearing in the same book generally appeared in the piece roughly together, whilst keeping the overall order of appearance the same as shown on the Wiki page.

The Music

The next stage was to convert the notes into actual music. I had planned to use a text-to-MIDI conversion for this, but I had a problem with the source data and ended up having to input the notes by hand instead. One benefit to this was that I had better control over the final music, being able to adjust levels as I went along. I had also made the decision that every ship would be allowed one bar for its full name. Thus there are some bars with a single note, but many with two, three and four notes, depending on the length of the name. Take a look at the list and you’ll also see a few names that are as long as ten words long – these proved more awkward to squeeze into a single bar and I’m not sure how well an automated system would have coped with the task, so I’m glad I took the route I did. Then came the ship known as the ‘Mistake Not…‘ – despite my better judgement, I stuck to the full official name, which is ‘Mistake Not My Current State Of Joshing Gentle Peevishness For The Awesome And Terrible Majesty Of The Towering Seas Of Ire That Are Themselves The Milquetoast Shallows Fringing My Vast Oceans Of Wrath‘ – yes, a whopping 33 words to fit into a single bar. Most music software is not too familiar with 33rd notes, so this was a bit of a delicate task.
To choose the instrumentation, I picked a string section sound for the GCU class, as this is the largest class, and worked out from there, applying woodwind sounds to those sections that fit slower notes or plucked sounds to those faster parts (i.e. the ships with the long names). You can see the whole arrangement mapped out below (click on it for a full-size view):
It took quite a while to select suitable instruments for each class in such a way that they all fitted together, but eventually with some level adjustments, I was satisfied with the result. Adding a sprinkle of reverb and spreading the instruments across the stereo spectrum was the icing on the cake. The finished piece is thus my interpretation of a piece created, at least in part, by Iain Banks’ naming of his spaceships; I guess you could call it modern classical in style, with a mix of tonal and atonal sections, so it won’t be to everybody’s taste, but it will always make me think of those massive ships with their sarcastic Minds.

Here is the final result – it’s part of the new album ‘Oddities‘, but you can listen to just the track right here:

Aug 032013

I thoroughly enjoyed June’s Photo-a-day challenge, coming up with something musically-related for each of the diverse prompts. This month I’m making it a little more complicated and challenging by attempting to accompany each photo with a short piece of music: yes, a tune-a-day for the next month. They will be added to my Soundcloud page each day and should show up on this page, just below. On day three so far, you’ll already find a gentle bell-like piece made from the brass nozzles from George the Bedford Fire Engine, a slightly detuned acoustic guitar piece and a modern classical piece based on the Vienna skyline. 28 days left to go!

And here are the photos that accompany the music: