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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

ScappleMap

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!

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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


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 Posted by at 10:35 am

Oddities

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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!

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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

Culture

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):
Culture_Screen
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:

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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:

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Jul 252013
 

Sly Guitar
It has been a while since I recommended any music here, but there are two musicians I have been listening to a lot recently who both have new albums out and are well worth investigating if you like instrumental music that is varied, exciting and challenging. Both make great use of digital looping to provide lush and interesting soundscapes and accompaniments to their playing – a technique that has been around since the days of tape loops, but which has become much more refined in recent years as digital audio technology has advanced and musicians have defined what is possible with live audio manipulation.

I’ve used loops on occasion in the past and there are some examples on The Lunacy Board’s album. There are several excellent solo artists out there making great use of these devices to produce a band-sized sound from a single instrument, but I’m just going to focus on two who are producing consistently new and interesting music, whilst using the internet to reach their audience in new ways. In fact, I had left this post in ‘draft’ until today, when I visited the Cité de la Musique whilst on holiday in Paris.

Sylvain Choinier

Sylvain Choinier

Along with a wonderful selection of historic, modern and world instruments (as I have blogged about here before), today the ticket price included a short concert by Sylvain Choinier. He was demonstrating the use of effects pedals, including a Roland RC50 (which was until recently their top-of-the-range looper), and ‘prepared’ guitar. Over his short set he built up loops that varied from low and subtle to rhythmic and aggressive, all played on the guitar, some using the pick-ups as microphones, others using a screwdriver jammed between the strings as a warped snare sound. The music he played over these textures varied from spiky jazz-rock to Armenian folk tunes, with a sound that reminded me in parts of Beefheart’s guitarists, Henry Kaiser and John Ellis. So, although I began writing this to point out the following two artists, I would also recommend having a listen to M. Choinier’s music too – I will certainly be looking to get hold of some music from his various projects whilst in Paris.

John Ellis is a guitarist I first came across playing with Peter Hammill (see this video for some great examples of him playing live in Hammill’s K Group) and I’ve been lucky enough to see him perform on stage with both The Stranglers and Judge Smith. He has several solo albums under his belt already, but recently has been performing solo gigs with just guitar and looper pedals and his new album,’Sly Guitar’, includes some examples of the outcome of this approach. Much of the new album can be sampled (to the right here) from Soundcloud and you can also get several free samples of his music at his website online shop.

This album is no Vai/Satriani-type shred fest, but all the better for it (at least to my taste). From the first track, a driving, percussion-led piece with choppy backing chords and synth lead being taken over by soaring EBow guitar (one of his specialities – even his Twitter handle is @KingEBow), via the twangy spanish solo in “Infanta” that decays into an almost uncomfortable hurdy-gurdy-like drone overlaid with a complex doubled melody and layers of EBow, to the insanely danceable “Farud gets Electricity” with its clean rhythm guitars and catchy lead lines, the album sparkles with Ellis’ inventive ideas and his ability to cover a range of styles whilst maintaining his own recognisable identity. Take a listen to “The Bowl Maker of Lhasa” for some really great use of the e-Bow (in tandem with a bottleneck for some crazy sliding lead playing. I love the sound of the EBow and in the hands of someone so experienced in its use, it brings new life to the instrument.

Although the guitar is to the fore in all tracks, much of the backing is electronic in nature, from samples (“Don’t be misled by your Eyes”) to lush synths (“Psycho Cooler” would not be entirely out of place on the new Ultravox album). This also helps to give the disc its own character, as it is more common to find solo guitarists backed with a more conventional rock band format. In short, it has my hearty recommendation!

The second musician I want to bring to your attention may be almost as well known for his views on the constantly changing world of modern music in the digital age as he is for his music. Steve Lawson (@solobasssteve on Twitter) is a solo bass player by name, though he spends a lot of time working collaboratively with a range of other instrumentalists. Solo bass might not seem like something that can maintain attention for a long time, but when you couple Steve’s fretboard skill with his footwork on a looper pedal, something quite magical occurs. You may hear jazz, you may hear funk, you may hear rock stripped of its trimmings and laid bare or you may just drift along with a gentle flow of strange ambient sounds. Steve also makes use of the EBow to create slow atmospheric pads, as well as slides, scrapes and harmonics that flavour the sounds to such a degree that it is easy to forget you’re only listening to one man and a bass guitar.

His latest endeavour is a massive undertaking – releasing all ten live improvised shows he recently recorded with multi-instrumentalist Daniel Berkman (he’s currently just past the 1/2 way mark). The overall project is titled “FingerPainting” and it is possible to buy some of the albums individually or the whole tour as a single package (as I have done on USB stick). As he uses Bandcamp for all his releases and is very positive about sharing his music and engaging new listeners, you can listen to the whole album before deciding on buying it. The music is a delightful mix as the two improvisors bounce ideas off each other. The first track, for example, starts as a very understated bass solo, but soon builds into a soaring lead-guitar-like solo with full percussive backing. This is followed by a slowly shifting set of drones in “Towards the Sun” that turn into a glitching backing that acts as a backdrop for the solo bass to skip through in delicate steps. “Reunion” adds a vocalist (Artemis) into the proceedings, this time adding an eastern flavour to an otherwise funky backing provided by bass and percussion. Every track on this album brings its own blend of instrumentation and ideas to you ears in a way that always just seems to fit, even when things might otherwise be expected to clash.

Please take the time to visit Steve’s website. He has some very lucid thoughts on making music work in the current environment that are often equally applicable to writers and visual artists, in addition to all his diverse musical projects. If you like your music with vocals, have a listen to his albums with Lobelia – as a couple their different styles come together and work very well – there are some cover versions you might recognise if you prefer to begin from safer waters. We even came down the aisle to Steve’s music at our wedding!

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 Posted by at 10:35 pm