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simon lyn

Making New Music with an Orchestra of Violas

September 27, 2013 at 5:14 AM

I consider myself a ‘DIY Musician’ - somebody who writes, performs, records, produces and promotes their own music. This has become much easier than it sounds in recent years with mature music software and easy access to good social media.

I guess this particular project started about two years ago as I was gazing at some good looking violas in my local store. I was trained as a violinist and had never before tried playing a viola, but maybe now was my time...I took three into a room and bathed in their throaty, sensuous tones. And then I decided. I need to take one home. They were all available for rent, so I set up the agreement and headed on out.

Once home I set the case on my kitchen table and opened it up. Gorgeous. As it happened, next to it on the table was my laptop, a twenty first century design engulfed in its personal maelstrom of constant and accelerating change. By contrast my viola, a sixteenth century design basking and self-satisfied in its perfection, largely resistant to any and all attempts to overhaul, upgrade and disrupt its core functionality. Quite the contrast.

I also saw in this scene a metaphor for myself, with my background both in music and software. I wondered if these two worlds could ever be brought together, not as a gimmick, but as a way of creating new music that really had the power to connect with an audience. And this is how my project was born - one viola, one laptop - what kind of music could I make?

The first lesson I learned was that I ran out of arms pretty quickly. With both limbs engaged in playing the viola I had no way to interact with the computer. Cue a set of MIDI foot pedals. These are basically a box of pedals that I can access with my feet, with each pedal programmed to control a different aspect of the computer’s performance while I play. So for example I can play a motif and have the computer record as I play, and then play it back to me as I record a second layer, which can also be played back, and so on...In this way making music is a lot like making a good lasagne, you just keep adding layers until you feel happy!

After several months of experimenting I had five pieces that I felt were ready to record. I had already performed them at a number of art galleries in the area, getting some useful feedback from the public and making some practical performance adjusts.

I had used a broad mixture of techniques from traditional scoring to improvisations, unaccompanied sections incorporating dynamic arco, pizz and col legno elements, to those with over forty simultaneous viola tracks via the computer. I also used my software skills to open up some new possibilities.

There’s an image in nature which I love - huge shoals of small fish! Each fish has its own independent movements, and yet the shoal itself seems to have a life of its own, swirling, shivering and pulsating. I wanted to do this in music so I wrote a software instrument that replaces individual fish with musical notes, and then engages in the natural processes of swirling, dispersing and regrouping. You can hear this in the opening harp part of the piece Pearl I didn’t write this part, but I wrote the software that wrote this part... To my ears it sounds quite impressionistic, like a Debussy or Ravel reverie.

In the past I have recorded in small or medium sized church halls or community centers. Here in North Vancouver there are many such ‘heritage’ buildings that are clad mainly in wood. It’s a very nice acoustic that complements string instruments well. So I started it turned out a friend of mine offered me his (very) large wooden shed at the bottom of his garden. I went to take a look and was pleasantly surprised. With a bit of treatment this could be a really nice sounding space.

And so it was that I found myself driving to IKEA in search of three of their largest, thickest quilts. This was to absorb any troublesome high frequencies and early reflections around the recording position. Back at the ‘studio’ we got the step ladders out and hammered the quilts into the rafters, so that the microphone would be surrounded floor to ceiling on three sides, the fourth side being left open to introduce the sound of the room in a controlled way with some careful mic positioning.

After choosing the recording space I guess the next most important decision is the microphone itself. I have a love of old so-called ribbon microphones, they are something of an exotic breed, having largely fallen out of favor in previous decades and not easy to find (having said that they are recently enjoying something of a revival). To my ears they have a sound which is at once detailed, smooth and very sensuous, making them great partners for string instruments. So I spent three weeks contacting stores and studios all over Canada trying to track one down. At last I found a studio in Montreal who were willing to loan me one for a week, and after waiting awhile, it duly arrived...

For the next week or so I would arrive at the shed just after breakfast, spend the whole day recording, and the disappear, exhausted, back home around about dinner time. Since my student days I had forgotten how physically demanding it can be to play and concentrate for six or seven hours at a time. But the results were worth it, by far the best string recordings I’ve ever made.

Mixing was the next step, and was the biggest challenge. I tend to compose and record in a ‘cinematic’ way, where hundreds of small separate ideas and recordings are eventually put back together in a way that makes musical sense. It sounds like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and believe me it was...Not only did the many fragments need to make musical sense, but each part had to sound clear and balance with all the others. Sometimes, with over forty simultaneous parts, it was a bit like trying to balance a small orchestra of violas. After much effort and going back to the drawing board several times, nine months later I emerged with my five pieces mixed just so. And yes, I backed everything up multiple times!

The final stage in the production process is called ‘Mastering’. It is something of a dark art, but aims to take a collection of good mixes and make them sound ‘like a record’. It really is quite a specialist area, so this is one step that I deferred to a professional mastering house. We spent a couple of days getting everything right, and then it was off to the CD replication plant...

All of which brings me up to today! I’m performing the set at Seymour Gallery, Vancouver on Tuesday Oct 1st at the official CD launch, and I would love to invite all of you, though being as you are a very cosmopolitan bunch, I’m not sure the round trip would always be possible. But please do drop by the pieces themselves where you can listen to the whole set for free.

One of the cool things about performing your own work is that no-one has done it before, so the interpretive responsibility is all down to you. On the other hand one of the downsides to performing your own work is that no-one has done it before, so the interpretive responsibility is all down to you! Hmm, a topic for another post I think...(!)

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