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.