Music as an Escape?

The concept of music as a form of escapism, a doorway out from the mundane and tiring repetitions of modern life, is simply put, a look in the wrong direction. Of course the initial experience of musical creation and the thought of escapism is an attractive feeling. However, when we follow our music away, we create a dichotomy that accepts the daily monotony of our lives rather than invigorating and charging the interactions with our surroundings. Our art then becomes essentially useless, doing nothing to inform our waking reality.

The modern workplace is too often sterile, bound in legal and cultural etiquette, resulting in robotic conversation that is little better than watching television. This sterility acts as a sort of blinders keeping our attention firmly planted on a narrow and unfulfilling objective that serves only to tire our spirit. However, when we bring our art, our philosophy, and our passions to the table our mundane activities and interactions can be colored and invigorated by meaningful conversations and creative approaches to our work environment.

Our history in music has shown us that there is great beauty in repetition. Let us apply this to our everyday lives.




Musing About Music, Art and Entertainment


Okay, so a couple nights ago the movie “Almost Famous” came on, and while I have seen this movie several times before, and the fact that there really was nothing else on, I decided to watch it again.  It should really come as no surprise to many who have taken the to stop by here at Noise Made Me Do It, that I really like this movie; because it covers the era of Rock and Roll that I am a big fan of – the late 1960’s, early 1970’s (Classic Rock as it is known by most).  As such, the soundtrack for “Almost Famous” has a lot of classic hits on it, from the likes of Elton John, and one of my all time favorites, Led Zeppelin, as well as many others.

For those who may not be familiar with this movie, it is about a teenage boy who gets the opportunity to write an article for Rolling Stone magazine.  He chooses to cover, and interview a band called Still Water, which is struggling to gain popularity, he ends up going on tour with the band, and learns life lessons along the way.  I know my purposefully brief synopsis really doesn’t do the movie justice. but my intent isn’t really meant to give a movie review here.  Instead I got to thinking about a common theme that runs through that movie, which is the struggle between artistic integrity, and being successful.

Many of us probably have friends who are, or were fans of a certain band, or artist, and then when that band makes it “big,” then that friend writes that band or artist off as a sell-out.  I have one of those friends, who loved Smashing Pumpkins, and then “Siamese  Dream” happened, which brought Smashing Pumpkins to popular attention, and as far as my friend was concerned, Smashing Pumpkins had sold-out.  Hell, Moby was even accused by some in the music industry for being a sell-out with the release of his 1999 album “Play,” and then licensing every song on it to film, television, and advertising.

So, what is the goal of a musician?  Is it creative art; or is it fortune and fame?

I ask that question because in the movie “Almost Famous” the enigmatic guitarist of Still Water tells the young aspiring music journalist, that the music is everything.  However in the biography of The Doors, “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” there is a recount by keyboardist Ray Manzarek when he hears some of Jim Morrison’s lyrics, and says, “let’s form and band and make a million dollars.”

I think many of us have this romantic view of the late 60’s, early 70’s rock bands were all about the music, like the guitarist in “Almost Famous” says, however in the bio of The Doors, we get an actual recount, and confession from one of that era’s biggest bands, that money was a definite impetus in their endeavors…hmm.

So, which was it, and more importantly, which is it?

Let’s fast forward to the modern era.  Sure there are still bands, and musicians out there where they hold themselves and their music to a bit of a higher standard; however it strikes me that there are so many more who may be talented singers, but are lacking in, shall we say, “originality.”  That is to say they are more performers/entertainers, than they are artists.  Sure they are very talented, but much of their material is written by someone else, and given to them to perform.

Art:  the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.

Music:  an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.

Entertainment:  amusement or diversion provided especially by performers.

Take for example the whole Psy, “Gangnam Style” thing.  It is entertaining, it is certainly music, but is it art?  Probably not.  Then I saw the headline, “Is this the next Gangnam?”  You click that link, and unless you are a complete music snob, you see another catchy, and entertaining musical performance called “One Pound Fish,” but again is it art?  Again, I doubt it.  Then there is the recount by Ke$ha, where she says that she was “forced” to sing the song “Die Young.”  Okay, so here we have a VERY popular performer telling us that she is singing something that she didn’t really have anything to do with the creation of; so is she an artist, or an entertainer?  Then there is someone like Justin Bieber, who actually is a talented musician, but I am often left wondering if his popularity is a product of other’s providing him with the “hits,” rather than he creating them himself?  Kind of like, and I know this is going to torque a lot of people off, but kind of like Elvis Presley.  I am an Elvis fan by the way, so save your hate mail.  What do you call someone who has musical talents, and singing abilities, but relies on others to provide them with material?  The fact that they can play an instrument(s) certainly makes them a musician, and the fact that they can sing makes them a singer, and the fact that that people are willing to pay to see or hear them perform makes them entertainers, but are they artists?  Hmm … kind of tricky there, but to me an artist is one who does the creating of their chosen medium.

Ultimately though, beauty is in the eye, and in this case, the ear of the beholder; and life is way too short to be overly critical of every little thing, just because you might think it lacks artistic merit.  Music of all types is, after all, entertainment, which according to the above definition is meant to be amusement, or diversion.  Life would be patently awful without the occasional, and adequate diversion and entertainment.  Still, I do wonder, from time to time, is today’s music meant more to be entertainment, than it is meant to be artistic?  If so, then the smallish music snob in me sighs, and then I hear a catchy tune, that makes me smile, and tap my feet, and that smallish music snob retreats back into its little cave, allowing me that brief moment of entertainment.

The Shackle Stick

Shackle is a band. They just released The Shackle Stick, a pressed paper designer memory stick containing audio and video from Shackle’s concerts. Included in the package as an added bonus is the Shackle multiplayer music card game. This card game is based on the digital interactive improvisation system that Shackle uses in their performances.

Shackle is Anne La Berge on flute and electronics and Robert van Heumen on laptop-instrument. Their aim is to explicitly and subtly exploit shackling in both concept and material.

shackle |ˈ sh akəl|
1. used in reference to something that restrains or impedes.
2. a metal link, typically U-shaped, closed by a bolt, used to secure a chain or rope to something.
Old English of Germanic origin; related to Dutch schakel ’link, coupling’.

More info at

Roy Sablosky and The Blue Serge

I was lucky enough to have Roy’s Blue Serge in my arsenal of synths way back when. It was a fantastic machine, a brilliant collection of modules, devoid of oscillators, suggesting a rather warped view of sound construction on his part! I had plenty of oscillators on other panels, so it wasn’t an issue at all. The initial patch of what was to become “The Flight of the Atom Bee” was done on the Blue Serge. In the subsequent days and weeks I built the rest of the sounds, I used quite a number of modules, many for control voltages, others for some kind of processing. It was an alchemical, exploratory, serendipitous process …

For my own website, I asked Roy to write about the Serge panels he built as a student at CalArts and subsequent stories. Herewith Roy:

I am going to just put down my recollections in order of their emergence into my present-day consciousness (such as it is).

As the centerpiece of my Bachelor’s studies I had been working night and day in the CalArts electronic music studios, which were centered around two immense Buchla boxes (and several rock-solid, washing-machine sized, verybeautiful-sounding Ampex tape recorders). The Buchla was a blast to use: so flexible, an infinite palette of lovely patterns and textures. But one thing was not optimal: the sound! I don’t know why, but the Buchla tended to sound weak. Feeble. Tentative.

I remember that at one point some young composers visited from UC Riverside (?). One of them presented a tape composition made on a Moog. Though I disdained the Moog as a way too conventional machine the sounds on this guys’s piece were big and fat and juicy and powerful.

Again, I don’t know why this would be. But around this same time I heard that Serge Tcherepnin was making a modular machine similar in concept to Don Buchla’s but even more flexible and it had a muscular sound comparable to Bob Moog’s.

When I say “flexible” I mean that just about any output could be fed into just about any input and something reasonable would happen. For example, Buchla’s oscillators put out a signal in the 1-volt range — “line level”,like a CD player. And they used “audio” (grounded) cables, like a CD player. This put the “audio” signals in a different category from the “control voltages”. You could make an adapter to plug an oscillator into the”control” input to an envelope generator but nothing much would happen because all the “control” circuits had a 5-volt range.So this is all very technical but the point is that Serge’s machine used the same (ungrounded, 5-volt banana) connectors everywhere, so you could plug anything into anything else. For example, you could feed the output of a filter back into its input and it would resonate like a blown reed, just a beautiful tone. My Serge box didn’t even have any “oscillators.” I used filter feedback and envelope generator feedback as my signal sources.To buy my Serge machine I applied for a small ($1,200) student loan — a tiny fraud I justified to myself on the basis of the Necessity of Art.

It was great being down there with a small contingent of extra-serious avant-garde composers. You could get a discount by showing up at Serge’s factory in a really crappy part of Hollywood and soldering the thing together yourself. Serge had even prepared poorly Xeroxed how-to kits for his customers. So there we toiled away like busy bees, listening to Mort Subotnick’s very strange “Four Butterflies” for background music.

The inspiration for my blank panels with no labels came from Gary Chang, who told me he wasn’t going to bother with those decals himself. “A piano doesn’t have labels,” he said. “You just have to know which key is which.” So I just spray-painted all my panels a solid midnight blue – my favorite color. The thing looked like a musical instrument from another planet.

People would ask me how in heck I remembered what all those socket and knobs did and I said, “Well, first of all, I put the whole thing together.”

Greg Jones also bought a Serge machine and we used to perform together. How we got hooked up with the proprietors of the Savoy I’m not sure. (We were possibly inspired to try by the Philip Glass Ensemble’s adventurous and electrifying appearance at the Roxy.) Somehow we had heard that the Savoy folks were trying to put together some very eclectic and adventurous sets. I think Cabaret Voltaire had played there or something.

Greg and I showed up and they treated us with extreme skepticism because we looked so straight. But when we played them snippets from our album they said, “OK, this is pretty intense. You’re on.”

There were not a heck of a lot of people there but I was very proud and excited to be playing in a club in North Beach. Our set was not modified fora rock audience, it was mostly what we had put on the album, very abstract.

But parts of it were a serious fucking wall of noise, and at least a few audience members found it unexpectedly inspiring (at least this was an impression I collected somehow). As a seemingly random arrangement we opened for a Hispanic punk band called the Plugz. At some point in our show someone had complained about the volume; when the Plugz went on the lead guitarist(I don’t remember his name) warned the crowd, “We play really loud, so hold your assholes.”

Though it had been really fun I do not think we ever did another nightclub gig.


Roy also is an amazing illustrator: here is an image he did for my novel, Flapping.

The Serge Modular Synthesizer and the Origins of “The Flight of the Atom Bee”

Flight of the Atom Bee by Knox Bronson

It was heartbreak and the loss of a major printing account that forced me into the studio to create my first finished pieces in my newly rediscovered life as a musician. Heartbreak is always heartbreak: the loss of the income forced me to stop telling myself I just needed one more piece of gear to make that perfect track.

The first two pieces I did were “The Big Shimmer” and what was to become the title track of my first cd, “Flight of the Atom Bee.” The bassline of “The Big Shimmer” came from the Serge, as did several other sounds. On the “Flight of the Atom Bee,” the Serge was used for the generation of both the Bee and the Birdie sounds, along with the single note drone of varying timbres and textures.

Construction of the Atom Bee sound took about a week of experimentation to make. The Birdie was a lot simpler, comprised of mostly the Serge New Timbral Oscilator. There were several key control voltages that were used throughout both patches.

Unfortunately, this is not the photograph of the Bee patch itself: there were five positions across several panels where banana cables were piggy-backed five-high, routing control voltages hither, thither and yon. And, of course, many more spots where plugs were stacked two-, three-, or four-high, a symphony of brightly colored spaghetti strands.

The three blue panels on the left were built by Roy Sablosky at CalArts in the late 1970’s. None of the modules had any markings whatsoever, although ins, outs, CV, and audio were color-coded. {This was the era where a squadron of guerilla synthfreaks surreptiously comandeered part of a building on campus to create a de facto serge assembly plant. “Built by bohemians on speed for bohemians on speed,” as Sound Transform Systems mastermind Rex Probe put it in his inimicable delicate style.}

Roy, and collaborator Greg Jones, both students of Mort Subotnick, performed selections from their landmark electronic album No Imagination at the Savoy Tivoli in San Fracisco’s North Beach in the very early eighties using the blue and four-panelSerge systems. When they performed a piece of Roy’s, Forced – possibly the most acoustically violent piece of pulsed and gated white noise ever created- at top volume, the punk rockers in the audience went berserk and started screaming, pelting them with projectiles of various mass. It was not pretty. To be honest, I could empathize with the audience in this case. Forced was a brutal piece of music, an ear-shattering sonic onslaught.

The beauty of the Serge systems is the great range of sonic texture, color, and expression one can coax from the open architecture.

In the case of The Flight of the Atom Bee, the Analog Shift Register module in the center blue panel actually engendered the the whole piece. I was experimenting with it, sending bucket-brigade control voltages to an oscillator, timing pulse generated by the TR-606 drum machine (on the right of the picture) and achieved, after a time, the bee-thought cascading counterpoint which opens the song. I called Jeffrey McEachin, then known as mr808 on the Analogue Heaven mailing list, and played it for him over the phone.

His response  after a moment:
—It needs a space cricket sound to go with it.

I got off the phone and fiddled around or a while, unable to construct a cricket sound to my liking. And suddenly, the thought popped in my head: No, it needs a bee sound. I will always be grateful for mr808 putting me on the insectoid path to satori. I played electron slides-and-ladders for the next week to create the sonic Bee and other audio components for the piece.

In the picture above, we have (in the foreground) a Serge Touch Keyboard and a custom panel of oscillators and modifiers built by Rex Probe and crew at Sound Transform Systems in Oakland. I used the TKB for voltages  to micro-tune the drone and also the filter cutoff and resonance for Atom Bee.  On the panel behind the TKB I used  the New Timbral Oscillator in conjunction with a Precision VC Oscillator to create the birdy sounds – modified only by a Roland Space Echo on the recording.

The Bee was comprised of three separate sounds: the buzzing of the wings, the whoosh as the bee banks left and right, and the slightly exaggerated, distorted wing-stress sound as wingtip vortices create momentary turbulence.

The four-panel box in the back was built by Serge Tcherepnin himself in the mid-seventies. It was at one time in the experimental music department at Mills College in Oakland, Ca. They paid composer Greg Jones with as payment for writing a manual for their new Serge system. He paid me with it for designing a new logo for his company.

This box was the core of the Bee. The basic buzz came from one of the three old oscillators in the upper-left panel. A simple saw-tooth, modulated slightly to round-out the waveform with a rising and falling control voltage. There was also, the obvious rising and falling pitch generated by the Dual-Slope Generator over on the right. The DSG also triggered the Stepped-Function module to send out another voltage to raise and lower the over-all pitch of the buzzing bee, in steps, of course.

The distorted wing-stress sounds were made with the Triple-Wave Shaper and mixed in with VC Gates.

The Whoosh was filtered white-noise and the phase-shifter, which Greg Jones pulled out of a Mutron guitar pedal and kludged into the panel on the lower right. Also gated.

These three elements were mixed and sent out in a mono feed to another Roland Spaced Echo.

Timing pulses all generated by the Roland TR-606, which can be heard on the song. The only other sound on the song was the chord, which was made by a Roland JX-8P with the keys taped down and fed into the mixing board.

Timing pulses all generated by the Roland TR-606, which can be heard on the song. The only other sound on the song was the chord, which was made by a Roland JX-8P with the keys taped down and fed into the mixing board.

The whole Bee patch ran non-stop for over two months in the Love Shack studio. There were times where I thought perhaps the Bee had taken over my mind. It wasn’t a bad feeling.

I couldn’t turn the synths off because I was afraid that if any components cooled, it would affect tone, or pitch, or timbre. Finally, hearing the Fear in my voice, mr808flew down from Portland and helped me record the song. He also recorded a 26 minute mix which I will post at a later date, with his permission.

Recording of Flight of the Atom Bee was one live pass, mixed on the fly, using a noisy old Soundcraft mixer that had been used at Eli’s Mile High Club, a blues institution, in Oakland for many years. I hesitate to think how much whiskey and cigaret smoke adorned the circuitry of that board. We could only get one mono channel out in to this old Otari 8-track 1″ analog tape system, and even that was so noisy we had to do massive noise reduction when putting the cd together.

To this day, I love “Flight of the Atom Bee.” Hoping not to sound too immodest, I believe it is a classic piece of analog synthesis. There was much serendipity in the creation of the piece. Nurse Jill had broken my heart. I no longer could afford new gear or fancy dinners: my reduced circumstances blessedly forced me into the studio for many many hours of the meditation of old-school voltage-controlled synthesis and the Tuning of the Patch …

I am forever grateful to Mr808 for coming down and giving me the confidence, as well as the technical help, to put this piece on tape.

Making music with swings

21 Balançoires takes is an art installation residing in a newly open space in front of Université du Québec à Montréal’s Science Faculty. Together with Luc-Alain Giraldeau, an animal behaviour professor from the faculty, artists Mouna Andaros, Melissa Mongiat and Kelsey Snook wanted to explore the idea that together we achieve better things than separately.

What they came up with is a gigantic musical “instrument” made of 21 musical swings. Each of the swings triggers different notes, and all the swings together compose a piece, but some sounds only emerge from a cooperative effort of the interaction between the swings.

Here it is in action:

The great thing about this is that it can involve young and old alike (at the same time), to collaborate together to form music. You don’t need to know how to play anything, you just need to know how to have fun.

Here are a number of photos of the installation (click each to see larger versions).

“Music is the harmonious voice of creation: an echo of the invisible world, one note of the divine concord that the entire universe is destined one day to sound.”

— Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872)

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