They have drive, passion, genius and a genuine desire to improve the world. Focused to the point of obsession, these socially awkward idealists will stop at nothing in their quest to advance society and turn dreams into reality. What’s not to like?
Apparently, the answer is “everything.” Because society — the very society they seek to improve — is forever casting these misunderstood visionaries in the role of villain. We call them “Mad scientists,” disdain them for a desire to “play God,” and spend hundreds of millions of dollars making horror movies about their dastardly deeds.
Funny thing is, I see them not as horrific villains, but as tragic victims — which probably explains why the “mad scientist” has always been my favorite character in film, television or literature. In almost every instance, the scientist made but a single error in judgement — an error that could so easily have been corrected by a loving spouse or a trusted friend. But no. Universally despised and thus shunned by mankind, they must toil in seclusion — save for the lucky few with an amiable hunchback on the payroll.
I’ll admit it: I feel a kinship with the mad scientist. Anyone else who possesses an INTJ Meyers-Briggs personality type will likely feel it too. Is it really so wrong to want to put the soul of a dog into the body of a chimp to create a more capable companion? And what’s so crazy about building a contraption that extracts all the nutrients from a kale, blueberry and wild salmon puree and infuses them directly into a chocolate chip cookie?
Although I don’t personally possess the skills necessary to see either of these ingenious ideas to completion, I do have a couple skills that can be fused: music and photography.
I have long allowed one passion to influence the other — often learning from a creative misstep made in one discipline so as to avoid making it in the other. In spite of this, I’ve never gone so far as to actually graft a part of one endeavour directly onto the other. But hey, I’m about as secluded as a man can be — alone in my home studio office; blinds drawn and beyond earshot of all naysayers and ninnies. So who’s stopping me?
I flipped a coin to determine which of my specialties would be the donor and which the recipient. Heads, I’d transplant the brain of a photographer into the body of a musician; Tails, I’d do the reverse. Heads it was.
I have since made two songs that are the direct result of this transplant. The first, Beneath a Velvet Manhole, employs my photographic love of foraging for photographic subjects. The second, 23 Miles East of Wistful, draws on my photographic obsession with murky, grainy, low-fidelity images.
Beneath a Velvet Manhole
For the past twenty years, I’ve been more interested in finding photographs on the streets than in manufacturing them in some photographic studio. So why is every song I write a studio creation? Could my music benefit from my photography brain? Wouldn’t it be beneficial to get out of the studio and practice a bit of “street recording?”
So that’s the impetus behind this song. I ventured smack into the middle of my usual photographic hunting grounds — downtown Vancouver. Only instead of a camera, I carried a handheld audio recorder. Returning to the studio, I proceeded to annihilate the street recording with a modular synth and a Make Noise Morphagene. I can best describe the Morphagene as a modular device that digitally replicates the various tools needed to create musique concrète — a 20th century type of experimental music in which tape is sliced up, re-spliced, played back and re-recorded on a pair of variable-speed reel-to-reel tape machines.
Pure musique concrète is the only type of music that’s as unloved and unappreciated as the typical mad scientist (who, more likely than not, is the only sort who actually enjoys listening to musique concrète). In order to coerce someone else into actually giving it a listen, I decided to accompany the recording with a laid back, improvised, one-take accompaniment — a “studio” recording to be sure, but one with a decidedly organic feel.
The result is a 3:57 little ditty called “Beneath a Velvet Manhole.”
23 Miles East of Wistful
Apparently I’m never going to outgrow my love for low-fidelity photos. If I close my eyes and think of all the photos that have most influenced me, intrigued me or captivated me, I realize that each is either poorly focused, motion blurred, badly exposed, or so grainy as to be nigh unrecognizable. It’s not just that I tolerate low fidelity photos — it’s that I admire them.
So why do I strive for sonic perfection in music when I tend to disdain that very quality in photographs?
The fact of the matter is, I really do like broken sounds. I find myself comforted by pervasive hiss, extreme equalization, wavering pitch, drunken rhythms, amplifier saturation, mechanical noises and bad connections. And yet, in spite of this, I tend to avoid using these sounds for fear of offending the ears of another. But since I don’t seem to care whose eyes I offend, it’s rather silly to concern myself with another’s ears.
And with that realization came “23 Miles East of Wistful.” It was conceived within a single sound design session during which I so thoroughly mangled the sonic characteristics of what would normally be a “pleasant” sounding piano that it became almost painful to play. At that point, I simply turned on the recorder to capture a single improvised performance of me plunking away on this thing. In spite of the disfigured piano sound, the results were still a bit too “clean” for my taste, so I further improvised some accompaniment — using acoustic instruments that I butchered to sound synthetic; and using synthesizers that I lacerated to sound like acoustic instruments. Throughout the process, I made sure to retain all the original timing slop and to do everything I could to extract as much noise and hiss from each track as possible.
So is my mad science ready to stand with such greats as Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein? Fritz Lang’s Rotwang? David Cronenberg’s Seth Brundle? Chuck Jones’ Wile E. Coyote?
Probably not. But then a high rise condo isn’t exactly the best place for tinkering with the laws of nature. Anyone have a drafty old castle for sale?
©2017 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE PHOTOS & MUSIC:
If nothing else, the accompanying photos indicate that madness can invade any discipline: taxidermy; civil engineering; and… um… OK. I’ll admit the third photo is probably more indicative of my own madness than of anything else. As for the music? I’ve made madder. Just take a listen through the recent ULTRAsomething recordings should you seek confirmation. I’ll be rectifying that shortly..
Note that each song is hosted by Bandcamp, which means it can be played up to three times before you’re politely asked to pony up a buck. Honestly, if you like a song well enough to play it a fourth time, I think it’s only fair to ask for $1 — particularly when that $1 buys you the ability to download the song in both a mobile-friendly MP3 format, and a lossless, full-fidelity version suitable for playback on the type of audio systems designed to annoy your neighbours. And yes, for those who actually want multiple songs but can’t be bothered with the whole buck-a-song arrangement, I am indeed working on a subscription model that will grant you access to ULTRAsomething’s entire current oeuvre… but that might take me awhile…
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