Friday, March 25, 2011

Coming Together and the End of the World

The start of my compo week again occurred at midnight on a Sunday. The 2DC theme that night dealt with being "alone in the house", and coincidentally I had company over at my place who left as the compo round began. I had expressed interest in writing guitar music for my entry; I have no skill in playing the instrument and usually avoid it when composing. Because of this, I wanted to take the opportunity to expand my palette beyond my usual keyboard-based instrumentation in the hopes of diversifying my creative output.

It was my wish to team up with a guitarist for a collaboration that night, but the ones participating in the 2DC at the moment were preoccupied with their own work: In an unusual and spectacular move, MickRip and bjkmenu joined forces to create a song, which was submitted to the compo page under the former's name. For my own entry I settled on synthesized acoustic guitar, though I eventually felt it to be weak and threw in piano to reinforce the chord pattern. mv served up an ambient entry while Obtuse went for pulsing dance, both showing how malleable the theme had been for interpretation.

Tuesday's JHC reminded me that such diverse communities have reached my own compo. People from various corners of the Internet have shown up to participate, including video game arrangers, nerdcore artists and module file enthusiasts. This particular week saw new entrants appear from the realm of mod_shrine, hot on the heels of semi-frequent JHC participant coda. The eclecticism of the artists that night was particularly arresting considering the theme I selected: "Alien Visitor". My entry was an homage to Gary Numan, featuring high synth strings and distorted organ.

The change to daylight savings time in the United States caught at least one entrant by surprise, which prompted me reopen the submission stage at SolidComposer for late entries. As it so happened, another compo had been planned at mod_shrine and started just as the JHC submission stage ended. Characteristically the mod regulars were able to generate entries very quickly and effectively, and reconvened at their IRC channel to get their own show going.

In the hours before Thursday's OHC I mulled over the status of two other, neglected compos. The People's Remixing Competition and Original Remix Competition were my old stomping grounds as far as being a regular entrant. It was therefore disappointing to see the general decline of participants in these two compos as the years passed by. I suppose I am guilty of abandoning PRC and ORC to a certain extent as well, though I do enter occasionally and make a point to mention them in relevant conversations.

What specifically caused this shrinking turnout? From my perspective, one reason may have to do with the small amount of socialization involved. Neither compo has it's own listening party, an aspect that drew me back to OHC and similar competitions. The promise of getting together with peers for a synchronized listen is an effective form of promotion and enhances the sense of community. Although all ThaSauce compos have a standard voting and feedback system in place, the real-time discussion of listening parties remains far more compelling to me.

As the OHC round began that night, I asked the gathered assemblage for keys to use in my entry. I settled on the key of F sharp minor, which fit the "meteor will hit the earth in 1 hour" theme quite well. In an effort to be emotionally stirring, I went with a minimal tune with strings and piano. To further set the mood I incorporated an actual recording of the earth's crust shifting. I had previously discovered the sound effect while working on a 2DC with a similar theme, "the end of the world". As it so happens, this previous 2DC theme was one I had suggested in the OHC thread at the ThaSauce forums. It's a small world... but hopefully not one that will get hit by a meteor any time soon.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Past Reflections, and Being Banned

My week of compos started on a Sunday, though only technically. The weekly 2-Hour Dynamic Compo takes place late on Saturday, but I submitted my entry past midnight. My track, "Dark as Pitch" originated as a supplement I wrote for someone else's composition. Ultimately I decided to treat what I wrote as a standalone piece, and disassociated my ideas from the other work. My material bounced around in my mind for a while, and finally settled into a solo piano arrangement for the 2DC. One major change in my track from the earlier version, aside from the new instrumentation, was the transposition of the B section from a major to minor key.

On Sunday afternoon I took the opportunity to revisit one of my older compo entries for a live performance. I had originally written "Bygone Times" for an OHC that had a "Time Travel Music" theme. My take on the topic that night was to compose a song concerning wistful reflection of past memories. I built the tune around a somewhat bouncy, descending chord pattern in a minor key, and I performed this live at a Best Buy. By happenstance the particular take I recorded features a bassist playing an unrelated riff off-screen in the background.

JHCompo on Tuesday featured a few new entrants. OHC regular sci made his JHC debut with his first entry, while F4T4L contributed to comradery of the chatroom. InvisibleObserver returned to JHC after a brief hiatus, bringing up the rear with a slightly late entry. The theme I chose for that week was an tribute to the classic computer game The Oregon Trail, complete with a reference to dying of dysentery.

At one point during the week I was asked to possibly start a new "1-hour remix" compo at SolidComposer. In this competition, the participants would have a short time to arrange a source tune provided by the host. I was adverse to this idea for a couple of reasons: As an organizer I didn't see it as a good idea to spread my attention across multiple compos. I believe that a key to running a successful musical get-together is the development of a community based around the compo. In that sense it's less like a competition and more like a hangout where a group of regulars meet with their peers and share their wisdom.

The specific concept of a 1-hour remix compo also raises the issue of the degree of difficulty. Making any tune in one hour can be a challenge in itself. An additional hurdle of having to remix a specific tune in that time, without being informed of what the tune is beforehand, could greatly discourage participation. The last thing I would want to do is keep people away by setting lofty requirements.

My week of compo ended on an unexpectedly reflective note. Shortly before Thursday's OHC began I was banned from ThaSauce's IRC channel, and remained so until the listening party started. The theme that night was "Majestic Waterfall", giving me an excuse to quickly put together a strings-only composition. While I was absent from some of the interaction, I could not help but ponder the importance of real-time chat in compos in general. The sense of community stems largely from this instantaneous form of feedback. The idea of gaining a self-affirming response from my peers certainly drew me back to the chatroom week after week.

Although I began particpating in compos before ever being aware of what IRC was, my curiosity led me to join #thasauce and #ocremix as a steady idler. I would go on to acquaint myself with other IRC regulars, and eventually met a few of them in person as the months and years went on. Even so, my mind set squarely on expressing thoughts related to compo whenever I conversed in the chatroom: My musical routine, my creative process and how my mood affected my work, to name a handful of such thoughts. As time went on, it became apparent that this self-centric line of discussion came off as being somewhat obnoxious. Being banned certainly gave me an opportunity for me to meditate over a few things.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Shoes on a Donkey, and My Past Week

Before going into what I've done in the past 7 days, I'd like to go into a bit of a side story related to my last blog post. Oinkness' OHC entry from that week titled "Life on the Farm" both tickled and inspired me. I had avoided using FL Studio for the week, and this abstinence coupled with the humor I found in his entry prompted me to record a cover version. I was particularly pleased with the syncopation on the repeated "OH"s as well as my 3-part vocal harmony at the end.

My week of compo proper started on Sunday, with my return to ORC after a significant hiatus. I analyzed the provided MIDI file to get my head around the source material, and as I did so I isolated the piano section. When I slowed the tempo and experimented with different accompaniments, I stumbled across a particular combination of instruments that bore a striking resemblance to Massive Attack's "Teardrop". This song may be better known as the theme music to the TV show House.

In an effort to get even more musical exercise that day, I visited my local Best Buy and performed on a digital piano on display there. By request, I played a version of the ending theme from Super Mario Bros. 2 on the ivories. Coincidentally a compo round at SolidComposer was open on Sunday, and I used that opportunity to upload a recording of my piano cover. As it later turned out, I was the only person who submitted an entry to that round.

It was quite unusual for me to work on such tracks in the morning and early afternoon. I usually compose at night, and I think I know why 8 or 9PM EST is such a good compo time for me. It's when I successfully transition from post-work exhaustion to being lucid and nimble. The ol' batteries are refreshed, and at that point my brain no longer goes into frequent sleep mode.

Just prior to writing my JHCompo entry on Tuesday, I impulsively decided to lay down an idea I had for remix of Shael Riley and the Double Ice Backfire's "How to Fire a Gun". When I first heard the original a while back, Shael's melody brought to mind a reggae pattern, and I imagined such an arrangement casually playing in my head. I had initially intended to have more dub influences for the remix with heavy delay effects on the drums and other instrumentation. However, the tempo seemed too fast for this idea and I went for a drier sound instead. Incidentally I didn't know the tempo of "How to Fire a Gun" so I randomly guessed 90 BPM at first, and I got it right.

Shael's voice within the new context seems uncannily cheerful and exuberant to me, almost as if it was recorded with a joyful attitude in mind. As it so happens, this wasn't the first time I had worked with a Shael vocal; he previously had offered up an unused a capella of his, which I incorporated into a past SolidComposer entry. Working on the "How to Fire a Gun" remix whilst submitting a JHC entry reminded me of why I love to make albums; I get great enjoyment out of producing a large amount of material in a short time. In some cases, the act of multitasking brings out ideas that I never would have thought of otherwise. Despite my love of creating albums, my focus at the moment is making one-offs and videos.

After finishing the Shael remix I
immediately set out to make an entry for the JHC round, which by then was an hour and a half past the start. I chose a handful of pizzicato strings soundfonts and threw together a tune to represent the "Secret Garden" theme that night. Incidentally my entry, "Behind the Hedge" was the only one made for the round without garden in the title. The problem from last week of being unable to extend the compo deadline was gone, and a handful of entries scrambled in within the final few minutes I added to the timer. JHC newcomer OverCoat submitted his entry the earliest, not counting Draconiator's submission that had been created prior to the round, and which Draconiator disqualified himself.

At the end of my week of compoing, I revisited a idea I had bouncing around my head for a while. The OHC theme on Thursday was "Jumping off a building" and I immediately thought back to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; more specifically a particular passage about a guide to successfully missing the ground when falling toward it. My favorite comment about my entry from the listening party was that it "feels like im playing a poker game from 1998". I guess we all fall for a reason.

Friday, March 4, 2011

My Toy Story

My week of compos got off to a bumpy start with a slightly broken JHCompo. While I had successfully created a JHC round for the week, an error within the SolidComposer site prevented me from making further edits to it. This resulted in two unfortunate setbacks: the theme displayed a barren "TBD" that was intended to be provisional; last-minute deadline extensions were also not possible, so at least two entries were not uploaded. Despite the circumstances, the round maintained a decent turnout.

The "Endless Rain" theme was the first climate-based one since the "Ice Planet Club" round several JHCs ago, and the compo regulars seemed to respond positively to this. Why are compo-ers attracted to such themes? My guess is that perhaps visual elements such as weather and terrain can more easily be associated to mood, and music is commonly tied to mood in conceptual art. In film for example, a stormy scene is usually backed my some sort of evocative soundtrack. The music sets or reinforces the tone, and we may associate that mood to the visual elements of the scene to the point where the music, tone and visuals are inextricable.

As for my entry that night, I chose to do a live recording of me playing a toy keyboard. I had discovered the Techno-Beat brand device lying on the sidewalk one day and decided to take it home. After loading it up with 4 AA batteries I was pleased to find that it still worked, and immediately set to work on composing something with it. I laid down a take I was mildly satisfied with, but the keyboard was set too low in volume and background noise dominated the recording. As a quick fix, I recorded a take of just the drum loop playing, then layered that over my first recording, thereby making the drums louder.

My attempts at resolving the keyboard issues yielded further problems when I chose to use it again in OHC later that week. Increasing the volume caused the recording to peak harshly and distort the high end of the frequency spectrum. As a quick fix, I equalized the track and put in some slight limiting to keep the peaks down. For future entries, I may have to use my usual microphone instead of the using the recording app of my iPod touch. My favorite comment regarding my entry came from mv, who said "that toy keyboard could make the requiem for a dream soundtrack sound cute".

Moving from my usual FL Studio-based production workflow to recording on a cheap toy was an exciting experiment. I'm not sure whether my future entries will utilize it, but it was quite a change. I learned a lot, and that is one of the aspects of compos I enjoy most.