Plague: liner notes

Published 10 May 2021, last modified 11 May 2021

On 1 May 2021 I released my first album of music, Plague, which is now available for download or streaming on Bandcamp and various other platforms all around the internet. It’s all electronic music, and I made it all in the modular synthesizer software VCV Rack, but it ranges in style from ambient to downtempo and even classical. I gave the album a symmetrical structure, so that the first and last tracks of the album share a common stylistic theme, as do the second and penultimate tracks, and so on.

Track 1: “A few reminders” and Track 14: “A few names”

In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic provided the impetus for me to get into making music in the first place. Because of my strong feelings about how this emergency was mishandled and exacerbated by leadership in my home country and elsewhere, I decided to lean into that theme by bookending the album with two pieces evoking life amidst the pandemic. I recorded the vocals for both on a cheap portable audiocassettes player.

For “A few reminders” I recited a script I cobbled together from stock phrases used to explain COVID-19-related guidelines in public spaces. I set this atop a cold, uncanny two-part synth vocal harmony drawn from the Waltz of the Snowflakes in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, my favorite moment of the ballet when I was a child. I hoped to document some of the pedestrian experiences of life during the pandemic, least we forget them in years to come, but also to capture the feeling of the attempt so many people made to preserve elements of “normal,” transactional public amidst the realities of mass death and displacement.

So much of the experience of living through the pandemic as it has manifested in the United States is defined by attempts to minimize either the scale of its impact or our collective capacity to mitigate it. The truth is that in less than two years, COVID-19 has killed well over 500,000 people in this country, and the success of other countries in containing the spread of the virus at an early stage tells us that, if our leaders had made certain decisions differently, they could have prevented the vast majority of those deaths. To communicate this point, I ended the album with a list the names of just a few well-known people killed by the pandemic, in roughly chronological order, accompanied by a deep, monotone bell sound to evoke mourning, but also by a static-filled instrumental interpretation of Léo Delibes’s Flower Duet to to communicate the way these deaths were largely remote and intangible to the general public.

Track 2: “Mixolydia” and Track 13: “Locria”

Both of these tracks are “generative”, by which I mean that their chord progressions and melodies were determined by random signals during recording. For both tracks I built all the tones around the Instruō harmonàig synth module, which, among other functions, can convert random input signals to seventh chords (of four notes each) constrained to a modal scale. I was able to create complex harmonies and melodies from these four notes by feeding different combinations of them to different synth voices playing various rhythms. What surprised me about making music this way was the really satisfying harmonic tensions and resolutions that occurs in both tracks. These were completely unplanned; they are happy accidents that occur from wandering through the mixolydian and locrian modes.

Track 3: “Distribution of primes” and Track 12: “Randomwalking”

I made these two tracks to further explore the mixolydian and locrian modes. The generative music I had made in these modes doesn’t stay very grounded around the root tone, C, and so the recognizable characteristics of those modes are not obvious to the listener. So for these two tracks I tried composing the chord progressions and improvising melodies myself, so I could ensure that they stayed grounded that way, even if I also included some generative voices in the music.

With “Distribution of primes” I started my composition with the percussion; different percussive elementsb play rhythms that count on different prime numbers. As a consequence of this choice the percussive rhythms rarely align the same way. I also applied a similar prime number-based rhythm to the timbral changes in the lead voice. For the general style of the lead voice I was inspired by Gary Numan’s early albums The Pleasure Principle and Telekon. This was the first and only time on the album it occurred to me to really use the pitch mod touch strip on my MIDI keyboard controller; I wobbled my finger on it anytime I landed on the root C at the end of a musical phrase to create a richer sound.

For “Randomwalking,” I improvised the lead melody in a similar style. I distinctly remember holding my sleeping baby with one arm while I played it; it was challenging and have me an excuse to play with a really sloppy rhythm, which I ended up liking. But for this track I had that lead melody come in only after a haze of radio-like noises, telegraph-like beeping, and a voice swing randomly through the locrian mode; this ensemble was inspired to an almost embarrassing degree by Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi.

Track 4: “Plague” and Track 11: “To abolish truth”

Both of these tracks are built around samples of historical speech that I felt had particular resonances with the moment in which I made the music, accompanied by very simple, repetitive musical phrases.

“Plague” builds a narrative from brief clips of public speeches relating to the spread of HIV/AIDS in the United States before the advent of effective AIDS treatments. These clips come from two sources, and though they occurred years apart in different places, I cut back and forth between them, keeping them panned to opposite sides of the stereo field, to create a sense of responsive dialog between them. The first source is a series of White House press conferences in which reporter Lester Kinsolving questioned President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes about the president’s lack of response to the emerging AIDS epidemic; Speakes habitually respond with cruise jokes implying that the epidemic is not a serious issue and that Kinsolving would only care of he were gay. On the other side I have HIV/AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer delivering an off-the-cuff tirade about the dire stakes of this problem at an ACT UP meeting during the George H. W. Bush administration; his line “We are in the middle of a fucking plague!” stuck with me as I was working on my music and lens the album its title. I felt tense and angry the whole time I was working on this track.

“To abolish truth” is a bit lighter; it samples a line from the US government’s 1947 antifascist propaganda film Don’t Be a Sucker, in which a man who fled fascist Hungary says of the Nazis “They found that truth does not die easily, and so they decided to abolish truth.” This was the first track I recorded for the album and listening to it I hear myself just learning the ropes of modular synthesis.

Track 5: “Pelog rain” and Track 10: “Minor third bird”

Both of these tracks attempt to mimick nature sounds without actually sampling them, and blend these with improvised melodies.

“Pelog rain” makes heavy use of filtered noise in various forms; it forms the various for the the thunderclaps, melodic echos, and howling wind sounds throughout the track.

“Minor third bird” behind with a medley of some classic summer sounds I’m used to hearing: a chorus of chatting insects, an obnoxious screaming cicada, and a bird (which my brother says might be a wood thrush) that seems to sing a minor third. In order to echo this interval I improvised an organ-like lead voice melody in dorian mode.

Track 6: “Le carnaval des animaux: VII. Aquarium” and Track 9: “Musette in D major, BWV Anh. 126”

Both of these are arrangements of classical compositions I enjoyed as a kid, the former a Romantic-era piece by Camille Saint-Saëns and the latter a short baroque composition for solo keyboard recorded in the musical notebooks of Anna Magdalena Bach.

“Aquarium” has some rhythmically complex passages and it’s written for an ensemble of eight total parts: a string quartet, two pianos, flute and glass harmonica. It was a little more than I could easily program into a sequencer in VCV Rack, so I turned to a MIDI file created by Ramón Pajares years ago. With the notes, timing, and velocity values provided by this file, I only had to focus on creating the exact instrument sounds I wanted for each part and arranging them in the stereo field. For the pianos I chose a very electric-sounding pair of analog waves controlled by a low-pass gate, for the strings I manually tuned the various harmonic overtones of a Chebyshev polynomial oscillator, for the flute I combined a triangle wave and band-pass-filtered noise, and for the glass harmonica I used another configuration of the Chebyshev oscillator, this time nearly a perfect sine wave.

Once I’d settled on the synth voices for “Aquarium” I set about arranging them within the stereo field and adding reverb; for this I used the VCV Sound Stage module, which allows me to arrange up to four sound sources and up to four virtual microphones in a virtual room, with physically accurate acoustics. Saint-Saëns used compositional technique to conjure the image of fish swimming independently around a dim aquarium, so I quickly hot upon the idea of making the positions of different instruments in the mix change dynamically throughout the piece. I provided smoothly changing, pseudorandom values for the sound sources positions using a “mechanical chaos source” module called Caudal. Caudal’s default mechanism is a double-pendulum simulation, but I chose to set it to “fish tank” mode instead for just the right kind of movements. I was initially surprised to find that this had a notable effect on pitch; the accurate simulation provided by Sound Stage results in extreme Doppler shifts when the distance between sound sources and microphones change rapidly; with the sound sources moving independently this sometimes creates a heavy warble almost like warped audiotape.

“Musette” is a much simpler composition, and I easily programmed it into a sequencer in VCV rack; it’s essentially just two repetitive melodic parts. The challenge with this piece was to create something bigger out of a solo keyboard piece, to compensate for the lack of a keyboardist’s expressiveness. So I started with a vibrato-laden electric-harpsichord voice, then had it read parts with a pair of other voices; a reed organ-like sound in the bass and an airy flute sound in the treble. Then all these voices would repeat their melodies together, with an added low D drone for a fuller, richer sound.

Track 7: “Monstrous moonshine” and Track 8: “Huffman forest”

These are the only two tracks on the album that revolve around complex melodies I composed myself, that aren’t improvised or generative or borrowed from classical sources. In a sense there’s not much for me to say about their composition, because it was mostly very intuitive and not especially conscious or thought-out in comparison to the rest of the album. They’re also my two favorite tracks of the bunch. “Monstrous moonshine” is purely euphoric, just about the joy of sound. “Huffman forest” is more contemplative and mysterious, but to me it’s rapturous contemplation, not brooding.

What’s next?

Unfortunately I haven’t had much time to make more music since I put this album together. It was a flurry of activity carried out in stolen moments between my day job and parenting duties, and now there’s even less of those moments to work with; if all goes well we’ll be moving into our first house soon…

In the meantime, there’s a couple small things you can do if you’d like to encourage an emerging musician. If you’ve listened to my music and have any feelings about it, I’d be encouraged by a quick note from you about it, and if you have a friend who might like this kind of music, it would help if you’d send them a link.

If you’d like to do something really big for me, you could honestly review my music somewhere online. The surprising thing about making art in these times is that the struggle isn’t so much to get a positive reaction to your art, but to get people to notice it at all. So if you’ve read this, thanks!


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