November 18th, 2005

operesque

Monkeying

"Devil Mask, Buddha Mind" is the first track completed for the new album. I say "completed"; we just have a rough mix, after the first day's work.

The first thing we recorded (me in the kitchen with the mics, Rusty in the living room at the control desk) was just two single acoustic guitar notes, plucked and then decaying to silence. So, by the time we broke for lunch at Papaya, our local Thai restaurant, we just had these two unvarnished guitar notes recorded. They were nice notes, though, pure and simple, brave and proud. They didn't need chords, they weren't secondary or subservient to anything. They sat a minute or so apart, like travellers who'd gone to different countries. To call them a "sequence" would be to assume memory feats in the listener. But the notes haven't forgotten each other; they probably call each other long distance and say "Hi!"

Rusty and I discussed making the record all at once; with twenty "canvases" (song files on Rusty's noisy laptop) on which we daub and sprinkle sound colours at first randomly (guitar note at 3.12 on this song, at 1.47 on the next, and so on). Then, by selective erasure and re-recording, we'd shape each song into a more defined entity, taking it away from randomness, towards something with its own themes and identity. I like that idea; composition by erasure! The randomness would still be crucial, though; the record would find itself, slowly, because of the accidents, even while moving away from them. Accidents would slowly gel into stories that couldn't have existed without them. It would be like the famous monkey with the typewriter trying to write Shakespeare, but with Shakespeare himself on hand to work the nonsense into sense with constant edits, interventions, and revisions. With any luck, the tug-o-war between nonsense and sense, mess and intention, would be a productive one. Because pure mess and pure intention are, in themselves, boring.

This composition-in-series thing is tricky to stick to, though. It's hard to abandon a "canvas" once you start working on it. You get involved. You want to start adding stuff, filling up the blank space, investing the composition with meaning and sense. And so I started levering in some Google-translated Japanese diary phrases, some french concrete word games, a sung interval, multi-tracked, some Harry Partch twangly chords. And so, around the middle, our piece became a song with lots of complicated vocals and chords and a melody. Almost too rapidly, really. We couldn't hold sense back long enough, defer gratification, defer composition. We got a mixdown by about 5pm, and there it was, a semi-finished piece which I could e-mail to a friend for an opinion. (No advance mp3 posts of the new stuff this time, we're keeping it under our hats.)

Reactions to the rough mix of "Devil Mask, Buddha Mind" were useful. Hisae liked the beginning, laughed at the Japanese phrasing in the sung bit, but thought the melody became too melancholy when the singing started. A friend in London said the track sounded like "Summerisle" or the Summerisle Horspiel, mixed with a podcast, and fitted the Click Opera "manifesto" well. The way the two different parts, concrete language poetry and the song, splice together gives a very Araca Azul-like impression, apparently.

My personal thoughts on the piece? I had the inevitable "song crush", falling in love with it when it seemed finished. But then, when we were all crashed out for a siesta (Rusty is still jet-lagged) I felt dissatisfied and took the file over to my iBook to tinker with it, extend the song section, mess around with tempo and stereo, cross-fade, shorten, edit. On headphones I could hear spill on the vocals; a baby crying next door, birds singing in the courtyard out back. I regretted layering in some backwards Japanese flute, which sounds too melancholy and too "musical", edging the song towards pastiche, even if it's not jokey pastiche. I began to think we'd probably only keep little bits of "Devil Mask, Buddha Mind", chopped up for salvage and spliced into something completely different. And I was plunged into doubt about the displacement of sampling and sequencing, my usual compositional tools, by microphone art. Microphones are sort of messy and organic, and I miss the sequencing grid, which gives this clean machine sheen to everything, and allows you to rock out with impressive metronomic beats if you want to go that way. This time I don't, though, because all those beats are just garrulous clutter; "sequencer chaff".

Mics and splicing and playing stuff freehand in real time (even if it's Flash sample-based instruments played clumsily with a trackpad and letter keys)... this is a nice way to work. A bit like painting. Very hand—and throat—made. You never know what'll rise out of the smeared paint. What silver dragons will emerge from the clouds today? What surprises will the monkeys—under the wary eye of Shakespeare—come up with?