Thursday, 5 February 2009

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 6


Yeah, now we'll start some severe bouncing around. Messy is the only non-anthropomorphic character on the series that has a somewhat important role. As you must have predicted, he's a dog. He's pretty much the sort of dog you find in children's cartoons, only perhaps less clichéd. And the song, well... let's say I took a radical stance here. By associating that description with the track itself, it might even sound like I hate his guts and wanted to kill him. No, that's not the case. This time around, it was a purely musical decision, and the track came out like this to kill the sugar.

To give some background: many years ago, I started producing a musical piece to serve as a "tone poem" for a collaborative story written by a group of Simpsons fans, me included. One of the scenes was a creepy nightmare sequence, and my idea of representing that nightmare musically was to go completely haywire. The song sounded more or less like Messy does here, with high-pitched instruments clashing against each other in a complete atonal chaos. The idea is brought over here, but this time with a tinge of humour.

The instrumentation is similar to the "chimes" on Stripy, being formed mainly of glockenspiel, piano, dulcimer, celesta, harp and "tinkle bells". The most important thing when writing this track was keeping a balance, building tension steadily over its running length, and not creating much of an abrupt climax at the end. Once again, the notes are basically random, and the only care taken was not to keep the playing as non-harmonic as possible. This is a sort of joke, really: the idea behind "random" writing is that people are often bound to find patterns in things, like seeing images in TV static. And by writing completely at random, I wondered if it was possible that anyone could "analyse" the sound and find patterns and theories that I hadn't even dreamed of. And, believe me, people do that. You don't need to look too far to see people writing volumes about a piece by, say, Schoenberg, Ligeti, Varèse and so on and describe all its perfections, all its intricacies, all its complexity; and when you actually LISTEN to the piece in question, your final impression is pretty much "... ... is that IT?". To the "untrained ear", it might all just sound like random noise! And, frankly, I find it fairly silly that one would have to go through years and years of learning, training, studying and pain just to go back to that piece and go "oooooh, NOW I get it!", as in... if you should need so much time to "understand" music, then to Hell with music! The world is way too full of people who think only a selected, blessed few can truly understand music, and this puts them on the élite of the world. That's just pure garbage. Music should primarily entertain, and should be listened to with one's ears -- not with one's "education" and one's "skill". It's not a good thing that so many people "study" music in order to destroy it, to restrict it, to put barriers and limitations on what it can be.

I honestly don't think it "cheapens" the piece of music is the "common man" listens to it and finds it pleasant, or cool, or beautiful, even if he doesn't understand at all why THIS note should follow THAT note, and THIS note shouldn't be anywhere else other than HERE. Messy could have many of its notes shuffled around randomly, and it would still be the same song. People with actual musical training could produce pieces that are inherently more complex and better constructed than Messy, but I made my song so it could be enjoyed and be fun. If it reaches that goal, why should someone criticise it because THIS note is in the wrong place, or because there's no harmonic progression or no tricky modal twists and no display of vast knowledge of all the 20th century modern classical techniques? Of course, I spoiled the "joke" by spilling it all here, and however impossible it would be, I'd love seeing Messy being "studied" in that level. But nah, nobody should do that. There's music out there that deserves careful studying, due to the sheer talent and effort of people who have helped make music what it has been through all these centuries. There are people who are truly passionate about music, and if all that "knowledge" and "skill" is motivated by passion, then it's fully justified, I think, and people should keep it up.

(to be honest, though, I wonder if notable composers have ever done that kind of "joke" before me. MAN, would that be fun!)

The final piece to the "chaos" of Messy is the drum machine. It wasn't an "afterthought", but I did conceive that idea way after the outline of the song was fully formed. As obvious as it might be, those drums are pretty much an imitation/homage/parody of Autechre. There's no real "meaning" behind it; the basic deal is that it seemed pretty funny to me to counter all the "modernist" instrument noodling with a braindead, obvious house rhythm; and then, promptly subvert the joke with another joke, by making the rhythm follow the Confield route and sabotage itself along with the rest of the rhythms. The buzzing at the climax, my friends, is a "snare rush", formed by the snare sound being played at an insanely fast rate. Once again, it's sort of subverted, because snare rushes generally follow the rhythm, and are more "discernible" than that; instead, on Messy, the rush becomes simply a dull, annoying buzz. That's not a mockery or critique: I'm a massive admirer of Autechre, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and the like. In fact, Autechre's music was very mind-opening to me, and to this day I'm a follower (Quaristice RULES, d00d!).

The tail end of the song was made by manipulating the speed and playing direction of the song, and then applying an "infinite echo" to the final milliseconds or so. An "infinite echo" is merely an echo with its equaliser tweaked to increase the volume after each iteration. This is an obvious subversion of echo, since the sound is amplified to the point of saturation, instead of faded towards silence. This trick is older than me, folks, I'm not inventing anything. The echo, however, is greatly sped up. If you apply the effect, what you get is a pulsating sound that becomes louder and louder until it becomes a barely recognisable, speaker-destroying drone that loops on and on for a while. Eventually, something goes haywire on the calculations and the echo turns into white noise, and eventually into absolute silence (I've never studied what causes this -- it might be a widely known effect). I sped up the effect, making the transition into white noise happen in a about less than a second. The noise, then, was looped, muted at semi-random spots, laden with reverb, and turned into the pulsating drone that segués into Sparkies. If you notice, the break between the tracks happens at a moment when the noise becomes almost inaudible. I made that so you could have a "break" between the sides of the record at that exact spot, and yet have a smooth segué when played straight through.

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