Slow Music and Other Reasons to Avoid Materialism


Bowus – Quartus
Part of “Bowus – Quartus”
Buy the complete file

bass bowus closeupWhen we’re chilled, our music often leads us to a stillness rich with magic.  Then our notes hang in a golden silence and fall like jeweled drops through twisting fields of invisible energy.  Then our music finds its structure in the silent breathing of our minds and its unity in the warm cohabitation of our souls.  Mysterious even to us, then our music flows not from counting, not from thinking clearly, not from memory, and not even from some determination to seek quiet, but rather from listening to almost silent cues and from the shared joy of feeling sounds being born from nothing.

A passage of somewhat purple prose, but if you were listening to this post’s music while you read it you will probably admit that I was merely stretching language as part of a legitimate attempt to talk about music which really can not be described by more conventional musical terms.

Indeed there’s so much weird and wonderful about this piece, that the only things that one can for sure say about it are that it does strange things to a listener’s time sense and that it is very very very slow.

So it’s downright amazing that even now when we know we’re deeply stressed, our music still seems determined to move in this direction.

However we were far from certain this would be the case when last fall, for the first time in 4 years, we again started recording.  Indeed, since we live in a time when it’s best to be suspicious of old solutions, we tried to stay open to the possibility that during this new round of recording we would record tracks that moved to a quicker pace.

But as we gradually grew more used to our new kit and came to be more comfortable with always playing amplified, it became clear that once again we were headed towards slowness, until now for this post with Bass Bowus and Boardus Quartus  we have recorded some of our slowest ever music…

boardus-quartus fingersWhich is just fine with us.  As we wrote in the jacket notes for Sweet Heresy and on the Slow, Low, and Varied page of this website, there’s more than enough music out there that jacks you up.  In this society where at the top nothing ever gets done, even as the flimsy folks who live there fill their appointment calendars with endless silly meetings and events; and where the people below them who actually do the work are bullied into working faster and faster for less and less reward, the obvious need is for music that slows you down.

Also the last thing we want to do is to buy into the stupidly materialist view that playing more notes faster makes music better and more powerful.

In this same anti-materialist spirit that more is not always better, with this piece we have also taken a step back to the comfortable simplicity of our earlier recordings.  So unlike all of the other pieces which we’ve so far posted on this blog, this one was done without overdubbing.

We came to this decision as soon as we listened to this piece’s raw unedited file and it became obvious that recording anything on top of it would be gilding a lily, and would just detract from the force and beauty of what was already there.  But to read a more abstract principle into it, we also realized that though our new equipment and editing software make overdubbing easy, it would be downright greedy to always overdub, and that to do so would be to fall into the stupidly materialistic modern attitutude that more is always better, that multiple overlapping musical lines are inherently more interesting and powerful.

Even beyond this, it’s also true that we’re always happy when we can produce beauty by behaving in an old fashioned way (in this case recording without overdubbing), that we tend to find beauty in simplicity, and that we’re always suspicious of technique.

But before letting myself get too carried away by the various exalted reasons why we decided to not overdub this piece, I should probably admit that in a very real sense we had no choice since this month we just had no time to lay down extra tracks.  So it was great good fortune that the four initial tracks we recorded were strong enough to stand on their own.

We were so busy because last month just days after this blog had reached its planned four post/four piece full strength, we suddenly were hit by our first significant translation job in 6 months, and since then we’ve been glued to our computers turning 23,000 words of Japanese e-mails and corporate reports into correct readable English prose.

As we explain on our Doing Music Differently page, for three years we’d been paying our bills with this kind of work, but then last spring, for reasons beyond our control the stream of our jobs dried up.  (The global economy tanked, language memory programs like Trados grew in popularity because even though translations done with them are so inaccurate as to be virtually useless… they’re cheap, while Madoff stole the promised inheritance of the dude who’d been giving us the bulk of our work, which along with the expense of swapping his wife for a younger chick with a daughter, turned him into a money hungry madman who when everyone else was dumping on him, got pleasure from using his position of power to dump on us.)

Since we have no secret funds, no financial assets (we’re renters driving a 23 year old car…. ), no investments,  and no supportive parents, this was not a good development.  (I’m 66 and my parents are long dead, while Mitsuko’s wealthy 80-year-old parents, acting in a spirit of misunderstood Confucian fundamentalism, are only interested in helping her brother and their grandson, their worthless male heirs.  So much so that ten years ago when we were completely broke and for the first and only time asked them for a loan, they flat refused and instead lectured us on how we should “bite the rock”.)

And so armed with the strength of desperation, for months we spun our wheels sending resumes and making phone calls to hundreds of translation agencies, but though in fact we turn out excellent Japanese > English translations for far less than the going rate, no doors opened and our only success was to make ourselves miserable and uptight.

Which meant it was a great relief when last August we finally decided to stop wasting our time worrying, and to instead spend through our credit cards while we switched our energy to creating this blog/website and recording new music.

And as this website and the music on it emerged, it became clear that this had been a smart or at least a noble move.

But what to do.  Though we love our music, we still need to eat and pay our rent.

Not to mention that it would also feel good to start paying off at least some of the $13,000 debt which we accumulated this year…

For our new recording, that is for the music which we are now posting on this blog, we’ve made yet another anti-materialistic move by backing away from our previous commitment to always seek the highest possible fidelity.  To say this a bit differently, while for our previous CDs we were actually proud of not limiting and not filtering our sound, now we understand it was both stupid and arrogant to always go for the least massaged and the so-called most “accurate” sound.

We reached this insight after realizing that most of our audience listens to our music through small speakers or minimal headphones, and that music recorded with the widest possible range the way we used to do it, rattles such inexpensive equipment and leads to unpleasantly distorted sound.

So now we listen to all of our recorded tracks not just through our quite acceptable Koss PortaPro headphones and lovely M-Audio AV-40 speakers, but also through some tiny old Sony self amplified speakers which were terrible when we bought them 20 years ago, and which got much worse after enduring years of soaking wet heat with us in India and then rotting with us in the decaying trailer where we lived in perpetually soggy Mendocino.

So now when something we’ve recorded sets the Sonys to rattling, we play with low and high pass settings, fiddle with our equalizers, and add filters, until even they put out acceptable sound.  Because now we understand that we want to record music that sounds good on any equipment and that we’re not after an exclusive “audiophile” audience.

Especially since we’ve come to feel that most “audiophiles” are really just buying into an Emperor’s Clothes kind of rap.  And that’s to put a friendly gloss on it, since when we’re in a harsher mood it feels more like they’re acting in the spirit of what Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”.

For example we’re pretty discriminating listeners and we’re quite convinced that our $130 AV-40 self-amplified speakers sound damn near as good as any expensive system which we’ve ever heard in the living room of a friend.  Not to mention that even when we listen to our limited, filtered, and compressed MP3 files, their sound quality is almost up to that of CDs we’ve heard played through high end speakers.

Of course partly this must be because our environment is so quiet (we live surrounded by alfalfa fields and the nearest paved two-lane road is a half mile away), but this only emphasizes that the noise level of the environment must be treated as an important factor.  For this reason a person living in an expensive high-rise in Manhattan, who listens to music through $1,000 speakers attached to state of the art electronics, is just wasting money.  While, in some sense the sound coming out of their system may be high quality, since it’s competing with traffic roar, sirens, ventilation  noises, and their kid’s TV, their actual listening experience is lousy.

One should also not forget that most people living in our incredibly noisy society have badly damaged hearing  (this is especially true of “audiophiles” who tend to enjoy cranking the volume of  their systems to enjoy “their full power”), and so it’s absolutely pointless for them to buy high end equipment.  For these folks, what limits their listening experience is not the quality of their speakers but the quality of their ears…

Having said all of this I still want to make clear that we have not by any means given up on our pursuit of high sound quality for our recordings.  Rather we are looking for the actual “experienced and heard” sound quality which we still feel is very important, and abandoning our search for the somewhat meaningless quality which exists only in the “specs”.

So by putting the head of a dynamic microphone in direct contact with the top of Boardus Quartus in the same way as we described in our earlier post Creative Microphone Placement (two posts before this one), and tucking a condenser microphone directly underneath the instrument, we finally managed to record a satisfactory signal from this instrument.

And even before that, we improved the sound of the actual Boardus Quartus instrument by using two pipe clamps to tighten the long wedge which holds its keys in place by tension.  Now the instrument has a much larger and more bell-like tone, and all of its annoying little buzzes have disappeared.  (When we had our bar clamps out, we also used them to tighten the wedge of our original quartertone kalimba, and though we did not use that instrument for this piece, its sound quality was similarly improved.)

Similarly we are now positioning the Bass Bowus dynamic microphone the same way that the dotara dynamic was positioned for the Creative Microphone Placement piece.

Frozen mp3 Blog
Music and Magic
Slow, Low, and Varied
The Emperor Has No Clothes