Notes from Knitting Lessons

‘If you make a mistake, do it twice. Then people think you did it on purpose. They won’t be any the wiser if you don’t tell them!’

Photo credit: Ben Hosking

This was my Nana’s advice when she was teaching me how to knit, one of the most awkward things I have ever learned. Combined with my penchant for following the gist of the instructions rather than actually following them, Nana and I had many mirth-filled knitting sessions turning mistakes into ‘design features’. Her words came back to me when I was recording a sketch of an open score for a friend and colleague. They apply beautifully to making creative music with amateurs.

Whether it’s knitting or making music, I prefer clear global direction to excruciating detail. Because of this, I write open scores that allow for a lot of wiggle room. This is a bonus when playing with loopers, because every loop comes out a little (or a lot) differently. When I sat down to record a sketch for my colleague, I had a plan – sections with pitch choices and processes for each.

And… recording!

Sketch for Knitting Lessons, for clarinet and loop station

Everything is going swimmingly until:

ME TO MYSELF: Bah. I made a mistake. (listens to 1:55 for a few loops and remembers Nana’s knitting advice)

Hmmm, actually that’s not bad, kind of foreshadows what I’m gonna do later.(continues process for section, building new loop)

Now to work in that mistake… (plays footsie with loopers 2:35-2:50)

… yeah, cool, that works…

Whoops! I didn’t mean that. (listens to new ‘mistake’ at 2:50)

Actually that’s pretty cool. I wonder if I can use that… (follows process to end)

If there is anything looping has taught me, it’s that unintended events are just as interesting, and sometimes more interesting, than intentional events. The two ‘mistakes’ in this recording were unintentional, but they became ‘design features’ to the point that they are now part of the final score. If I had stopped when I made the first mistake, I would never have found out where it would lead me.

That’s how Nana’s knitting advice applies to creative music making with amateurs. The greatest block to creativity and flow is right-wrong thinking. Sometimes mistakes are mistakes, in which case it is important to address the causes (just found where that pesky distortion sizzle came from…). More importantly, what strategies can be used to set up a creative music activity where right-wrong thinking doesn’t apply and mistakes are viewed as potential? More thoughts on that in the next blog posts. Welcome back to the new season and school year, everyone!

Music at your fingertips, part two

The previous blog post detailed a process for making creative music using cellphones for recording and playback. What happens when we experiment with pitch material and incorporate acoustic instruments into the mix?

The process: full class

  1. Ask students to make recordings of 3-5 long tones on concert Bb separated by silences. Playback using as many phones as possible, resulting in a concert Bb drone. So this:

    Becomes something like this:

    Example: Cellphone cue from Waxworks by Trina Davies, directed by Glenda Stirling, sound design by Louise Campbell (CUE production, 2017)

  2. Ask a few students to improvise using a concert Bb scale. Keep it simple – sometimes just walking up a few notes of the scale can be quite beautiful.
  3. Record 3-5 long tones on concerts A and Bb. Playback results in a shifting semi-tone drone.
  4. Ask few brave souls to improvise using concert Bb scale. How does it sound different against a semi-tone compared to unison?
  5. Ask students to choose 3-4 pitches to record, such as A-C-E-G or D-F#-Bb. Playback.
  6. Improvise using the same notes as the recordings, and then add one note to fill in the intervals until students come up with a scale that works with the recorded pitch choices.

Break out groups:

  1. Divide students into groups of 6-8 with the task of choosing their own pitches, recording, playback and improvising. How does a smaller group change the texture of playback and improvisation compared to larger group?

 

Music at your fingertips, part one

What happens when you make music with the tech-y tool many people carry around in their pockets? You guessed it – this blog post is about making creative music using cellphones.

I first used cellphones as a sound source to create the illusion of a forest filled with birds – many thanks to choreographer Louisa Rachedi and the dancers at the Banff Creative Gesture Lab 2017 for humouring that whim! I wanted birdcalls to come from many places and move as they would in nature, so I asked the dancers to play a pre-recorded track of birdcalls from their phones that they kept on them while they danced. I had some trouble-shooting to do (pressing play on a phone is not exactly a great dance move) but the effect was magical – the space came alive with sound with a dimensionality I usually only experience when camping.

To recreate this experiment, cue up the following track on 6-8 cellphones, launching each phone at different times over the course of 45 seconds:

Songbird@Banff, by Louise Campbell Banff Centre Creative Gesture Lab Open House 2017.

Now for using phones in a creative music process with high school students:

  1. Set all phones to airplane mode to eliminate unwanted interruptions during recording and playback.
  2. Using the phone’s built in microphone and recording app, ask students to record 3-5 long tones separated by long silences. Mic sensitivity varies greatly from one phone to another, so give students time to do several takes with the phone 1 foot, 2 feet and 3 feet away to determine what sounds best.

Example: Cellphone cue from sound design by Louise Campbell for Waxworks by Trina Davies, directed by Glenda Stirling (CUE production, 2017)

  1. Set the track to repeat and/or turn off the advance to next track function. If neither of these options is possible, record a ten second silence after the last long tone to give the student an opportunity to stop the sound file before it advances to the next song on their playlist.
  2. Ask the students to play the recordings starting at different times.

Example: Four cellphones playing the previous example track. I was going for an eerie, disembodied atmosphere to accompany a fairly disturbing scene from the play Waxworks.

  1. Repeat #4, asking students to spread out around the room in different configurations. How does it sound when students are bunched together compared to spread far apart? How does it sound when 6 phones are playing compared to 26? How does it sound when the recordings are started close to the same time, compared to started at different times over the course of 1-2 minutes? What other ways can you imagine playing this tracks?

 

 

Playing plugged in

It’s no secret – I have a bias towards making music unplugged, especially when making music with amateurs. I prefer the tools people have easy access to, like voice, found objects and instruments. So imagine my shock when I realized I was playing more plugged in than unplugged, and that the tech-y tools had made their way into my work with untrained musicians…

How did this happen? Dancin’. I’ve played for dance for a long time, and have a fabulous time doing so as an acoustic musician. But there’s a particular issue for me as a solo clarinetist: clarinet is a melody instrument, and at a certain point in a one-hour show I need more a single melody. I’ve addressed this by extending the instrument, using found objects, asking dancers to be the ‘chorus’ of the show – but really, at a certain point I need a wider palette of sound than one melody instrument can make. I need to double myself.

Enter guitar gear. Loop pedals are magic – record one tune and the looper repeats it happily until you tell it to stop. Overdub another tune… and a melody instrument can play harmony and counterpoint. You don’t just double yourself – you turn yourself into an entire orchestra. It’s magic. And addictive, as my growing collection of pedals demonstrates.

I definitely can’t introduce myself as an unplugged musician anymore. I use loopers and effects processers, giving me access to harmony, counterpoint and processing in real time and live and pre-recorded sound samples. I juggle these elements on the fly to respond to the changing durations inherent to forms frequently used in dance. I still use my unplugged acoustic possibilities – now with a wider array of options, choosing the most appropriate solution for the situation.

The history of music is full of resourceful people looking for creative solutions to a challenge. My challenge was to create long-form scores for dance as a solo clarinetist. What’s your challenge? Where are your solutions going to lead you? Mine have led me from being a mostly acoustic musician to being surprisingly (to me) plugged in. The next blog posts will look at simple, accessible technologies to make music with amateurs.