Once upon a time I listened to music. And when I say “I listened to music,” I mean I really listened to music. It wasn’t relegated to playing virtual coxswain while I huffed and puffed on the rowing machine at the gym; it wasn’t employed as auditory amphetamine to combat drowsiness on a long drive, nor was it some artificial amigo that kept me company while I surfed the web or dined on a sandwich. Listening to music was a full-frontal commitment — an activity to which I would devote my complete and utmost attention. For the better part of my youth, I would mostly experience music at night. I think it was 1985 before I realized it was actually possible to play Dark Side of the Moon in the harsh light of day. Darkness added an extra (and necessary) element of sensory deprivation. I would sit motionless in a chair purchased for the very purpose of listening to music — my head in the sweet spot between two pulsating transducers and my thoughts tracing the sonic intricacies of the fractal-like patterns that would emerge from the most subtle of harmonic interplays. Like driftwood in the ocean, my mind would undulate with its ebbs and flows before hitching a ride on a reverb tail as it danced off into oblivion. Songs were hallucinogens — a means to enlightenment.
Perhaps it was the wholesale commoditization of music. Maybe it was the requisite demands that age and family place upon free time. Possibly it was the inevitable burnout of a life spent designing and developing music technology. Whatever the reason, it’s irrelevant. What mattered is that I stopped really listening to music. And when the listening stopped, so did my interest in writing and performing it. My creative passions shifted to photography, and music became just another sensory stimulant. I listened because it filled an auditory void. I performed it mostly as a sign of respect to my former self.
Honestly, I thought I was done with music — a belief amplified by the fact I didn’t even seem to miss it.
And then it all started to change.
The first change arrived a few years ago with the return of modular synthesis. Back in the day, a synthesizer was defined as a room-consuming stack of hefty boxes, each filled with numerous electronic modules sporting a myriad assortment of jacks, wires, knobs, switches, dials, lights and oscilloscopes. The purest such synthesizers were void of any familiar musical interface — no piano keyboard, no guitar fretboard, no trumpet valves. To play one, you wired a bunch of the modules together, turned some knobs, and let the whole monstrosity play itself. Not surprisingly, many modular synthesists were prone to wearing lab coats, rather than the more fashionable tie-dye and denim of the times.
As demand for these fledgling, otherworldly sounds grew, manufacturers recognized a market for a simpler sort of machine — one that didn’t require a moving van and a team of mad scientists to descend upon an artist’s recording session. They began to build smaller, rudimentary systems with only a few basic electronic components, which were soldered together behind a common front panel. It completely removed the notion of “modular” from the system, but assured that some semblance of semi-musical sound was likely to emerge when a customer turned a few knobs. They also added a piano keyboard to give traditional musicians and performers a point of entry into this brave new electronic world.
Sadly, as is always the case, “simple, easy and dumbed-down” proved to be the popular option, and by the mid-1970’s modular synthesizers were as dead as a mob informant with an Instagram addiction.
Modular synthesis, and the recordings created with it, were both at the very core of my early musical passions. Once I’d heard the sonic possibilities of herding electricity through a tangle of patch cables and complex circuitry, there could be no substitute. The sound of a modular was raw, pure, powerful, ephemeral and utterly unique. These instruments and their performers were what fuelled my youthful hunger for new sounds, new technologies and the avant-garde. They were the reason I embarked on a long career designing computer and electronic music products. Back in the 1970s, modular synthesis gleamed with all the hope and promise of the best science fiction. But like jet packs and flying cars, that future never materialized… until, over the past several years, an entirely new generation of engineers and musicians rediscovered modular’s untapped promise, ushered in its rebirth, and allowed me to fully re-engage with my most primal passions.
The second change arrived courtesy of photography. I had long realized that photography, like music, required focused immersion to reap its many benefits. The discovery of hidden patterns; the extraction of new realities and obtuse contexts — all were available to those who took the time to really look. But as it did with music, the whims and values of 21st century life demoted photography’s importance from “main coarse” to “garnish.” How could I get people to contemplate (much less look at) a collection of photos? Books were dead. Galleries were the domain of the few and privileged. The internet was the only viable means of democratic distribution, but it was also a place where photography played second fiddle to video, functioned as click bait, or served only as a background for cascading vomit rainbows.
As a means to an end, I created the idea of “vBooks,” which were essentially slideshows set to music. Unlike online galleries (which encourage viewers to pick and choose photos at random from a larger collection), vBooks took their cue from actual photo books — in which the sequencing of photos (as well as the number of photos on a page) worked to create a sort of narrative. By forcing viewers to see photos in a pre-defined order and at a calculated rate, I could use music (in place of graphic design) to provide emotional hints and pace the book. Naturally, to do this, I needed to start writing music again.
And so, for the past couple of years, I’ve been growing my modular synthesis system and creating more music for an increasing quantity of vBooks.
For awhile there was equilibrium — my musical and photographic outputs were locked in synchronization. But the balance has now tilted, and I find myself writing and producing more music than photos.
Which means I’ve reached a crossroads. I once wrote music to accompany photos. Should I now take photos to accompany music? If so, then how do I address the imbalance? If not, then how do I distribute the music? Albums are dead. iTunes sales are dying. Offering up songs to a streaming service is like whispering sweet nothings next to the roar of a jet engine. Besides, do people still listen to music? I mean really listen to music? Because the type of music I like to write is exactly the sort that’s best experienced loud, on premium speakers, in a task-specific chair, and in the absence of all daylight. Would anyone actually listen to a song that was meant for listening?
I had just finished recording Beaufort Force 2, and because I originally composed it as a free-standing piece, my first thought was to release it on the Internet as an MP3. But my only website with a measurable audience is the ULTRAsomething blog — well known for pontificating on photography, not music. Still, I wanted someone somewhere to hear it, so it needed to find a home on ULTRAsomething. This meant I needed to turn it into a vBook. But it would take me weeks to photograph, curate and edit enough images to convey the moody subtleties of the music. It seemed a particularly onerous task — particularly since I knew that darkness was probably the song’s best visual accompaniment.
So, clueless, I grabbed my Leica Monochrom and went for a stroll — hoping to stumble upon some sort of visual inspiration. But instead of finding inspiration, I found something better: a solution! It was staring at me right from the top of the camera — a big silver “M” button on its otherwise totally black top plate.
It occurred to me that in the 14 months I’d been shooting the Monochrom, I’d never once pushed this button. It is, of course, the “Movie” button — a button for recording videos, rather than still images. Video is a medium for which I had no previous inclination — but that was before I had the need to take a whole lotta photos in a very short amount of time. “Hmmm,” I thought. “If I push this M button, I’ll be able to take 24 photos in a single second. With that I’ll be able to fill 3 minutes of blank screen in no time!”
And so I did.
I still think the song works better in a dark room with big speakers and a comfortable chair — but it’s early days. And I’ve got a whole new/old passion to coerce into the 21st Century.
©2016 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE vBOOK:
The entire video was shot on a Leica M Monochrom (Type 246) during a single 30 minute walk along the north shore of False Creek in Vancouver. The opening shot used a 50mm f/1.5 Voigtlander Nokton lens. The remaining shots used a Leica 90mm f/2.8 Elmarit.
Eagle-eyed viewers will spot several things (and no, an “eagle” isn’t one of them). First, the shutter is way too fast, giving a strobe effect. If I do this again, I’m packing some neutral density filters in my bag so I can use a nice 1/125 shutter speed, rather than 1/1000s. Second, the sensor is dirty — turns out that removing dust spots from still images is simple, but removing them from video is a pain I don’t wish to endure. So, if I do this again, I’m cleaning my sensor before I leave the house. Third, resting a 90mm lens on your knee does not constitute adequate image stabilization. I knew I kept those old carbon fibre tripods for a reason…
Those with the hybrid hawk/eagle eyes will notice a fourth fact: much of this video is shown in ridiculously slow motion. You might think I did this because I was too lazy to capture enough video to fill 3 minutes of airtime. But you would be only 40% right. The main reasons I chose slow motion are 1) I wanted the lackadaisical pace of the video to match the music, and 2) I actually like the “individual frame” effect, since it sort of works like still photographs — the abbreviated movement giving you time to peruse the frame and absorb the music. Besides, if you don’t like it, you can always close your eyes (thus giving the original, intended listening effect).
One good thing I discovered after hitting the “M” button: I have no more inclination to take high fidelity video than I have for taking high fidelity stills. At least I’m consistent.
The music was, of course, 90% generated by my modular synth, with all tones, rhythms and timbres derived through intricate patching in which modules self-modulate and control voltages feed back into themselves. Conversely, the disturbingly sparse piano track was performed with actual fingers on one of those more traditional keyboard things. As always, Ableton Live served as the recording medium, and Final Cut Pro X as the video editor.
REMINDER: If you find the photos and/or music enjoyable or the articles beneficial, please consider making a DONATION to this site’s continuing evolution. As you’ve likely realized, ULTRAsomething is not an aggregator site — serious time and effort go into developing the original content contained within these virtual walls.