18 October 2010

It's Not Cute Anymore

When middle-aged, middle-class, middle-brow, Middle-American people encounter a musician in their teens or twenties, they tend to look as if they've encountered a grown adult playing with blocks, or perhaps a poodle wearing a Girbaud onesie. Thanks to the physiology of the human central nervous system, the uncontrollable reflex to smile at the sight of such a thing always manifests itself a split second before the conscious mind has had a chance to register and evaluate the bigger picture. Hence, the look the young musician (or the poodle) catches out of the corner of their eye is so often precisely that moment when cognition begins to mediate reflex in quite the opposite direction. The resulting expression is an odd combination of glee and pity.

I've spent years looking forward to the day when I can give a performance without catching one of these looks before, during or after the show. That day seems to be getting farther away even as I get older. In part, this is the bed that arts advocacy's emphasis on extrinsic benefits has made for the rest of us: when our very existence as artists is justified exclusively by our art's worth to the developing brain, what use could those whose brains are finished developing possibly have for us? Music is cute, at least until it's not cute anymore. It makes kids good at math, at least until they enroll in a conservatory where they won't so much as smell a math class. It's harmless, that is until they're saddled with five-figure student debt and unable to find a job of any kind. It's good for the soul, unless, well...you know, it sounds like that gobbledygook modern stuff that no one really listens to.

We have Legos for kids to play with to help them with spatial relations and clarinets for them to blow into to make them good at math. Then, once the test scores are compiled, the measurable outcomes achieved, and the grant funding secured, the clarinets and Legos get packed away together in a polystyrene tote, whisked out of sight and mind until the first grandchild is born. At least that's how it's supposed to work. God help those of us who never learned to put our toys away.

If in your adult life a perfect stranger your age or older has ever encountered you, alone, earnestly playing with Legos and summarily shot you one of those looks before their conscious mind has had a chance to inventory all of the possible explanations for why they're seeing what they're seeing, then perhaps you've felt a small fraction of what it feels like to walk in front of an entire audience of people your parents' age and older, unpack a tuba, and do something with it to betray the fact that you've done little else for the last decade. If not, hopefully this summary of what it feels like to be on the wrong side of the smirk will help you stop the next one before it starts.

03 October 2010

C.o.S.T. Fall 2010 Season

01 October 2010

D-2 Mock-Up

Several months ago, it occurred to me to try using pitch shift effects to obtain notes that are out of my range on tuba. Here's my first concerted effort at it:

The "D" Series: D-2

(score here)

If you've been to a C.o.S.T. performance, you've heard this piece before; it was one of the first flexibly scored pieces I wrote with that group in mind, and so far we've played it at every show. On top of the many things that intrigue me about flexible scoring, there's the fact that by using pitch shift, I can record the entire piece all by myself (I did use Sibelius for the snare drum part, but could always have a percussionist friend overdub it later). Obviously, sound quality suffers more as you move the pitch further, but all in all, it's a far more human way to hear a piece than MIDI playback through a notation program.

I played as much of the music in the written octave as I could, and played many of the higher parts down a fourth or fifth rather than an octave so as to minimize the total amount of pitch shifting necessary. This means that most of the middle parts do not consistently use the same timbre, but in this format, it doesn't matter much (long live flexible scoring). The biggest challenge is that pitch shifting up magnifies tremendously even the slightest flaws in articulation, and I sometimes found myself trying out a few different transpositions before finding one where the right notes responded the right way.

After pitch shifting where necessary, I applied Audacity's "Noise Reduction" effect and "Columbia LP" equalization (performing these three steps out of order causes the appearance of pops and clicks in odd places). I also did more than a little bit of editing, which considering that Audacity doesn't have a built-in crossfade feature, often worked better than it reasonably well should have without it. The result is far superior to previous overdubbing projects I've undertaken with GarageBand (a program I've officially lost patience with), but could still be improved, I think, even using free software and a bare-bones set-up. More to come.