So the whole Cummer thing went really well I thought. Jim and Louise seemed happy. That was my primary goal as far as the commissioned work went, pleasing those organizing or being featured that evening. Everyone else was just mingling and being effected subconsciously anyway… Kinda how background/mood music operates.
So yeah it worked! We provided background sounds and didn’t draw too much attention. It suited the pictures Mr. Draper was showing, it didn’t intrude on conversation too heavily… or didn’t sound like it did anyway from the constant low roar. Seemed good. We had to grind our skills up to that level really quick to be able to do two hours of improvisation – or really almost two hours with segments looped and intermingled with some subliminal wudun tunes – and it improved our skill set quite a bit. That was a foreseen bonus. Caught us all back up after the hiatus. A better band now and the experience was worth it. Practice today went great. SO much easier haha. I’ll start documenting that from time to time. Recording or filming when I get the habit in me.
Anyway, I wanted to take a minute to explain a bit about the process in case it helps others who do this style of composition. So read further if so interested.
It all started with the FoF (if you’ll allow me to call it that) companion PDF project. Jim told me a story about these trees in the woods near where he grew up. He painted an image for me, of he and perhaps a brother or friend (sorry foggy memory) out in the woods listening to the cicadas. They realized at some point they could put their hands on the trees and it would change the cicadas timing or tone. They used to go out there and “play the forest” so to speak. I’m rarely so seared by stories. I wanted to live the experience or at least recreate it… some faint shadow. The story though… It ignited something.
So I did the little pieces I did for the project… in the PDF there’s a whole rundown of how that happened, but I’ll reproduce it here so you can see how this set we built for the opening had it’s basis in not only Lullag’byes but also in the PDF work for the project itself.
I first began by taking natural field recordings from the springs and modifying them to create a kind of reassembled reality. All attempts in this arena yielded a very disjointed, almost “technological” feeling result. Aesthetically speaking, I felt the project as a whole was trying to move entirely in the other direction.
I began to experiment openly, looking for a sound palette. I read about Florida history and began to feel influence from the Timucuan. Their demise was brought on predominantly by Christian missionaries who dismantled their rather sophisticated folklore rituals, resulting in an absence of what were effectively the health code practices in the tribes. This and other found imagery relating to St. Augustine and the areas the tribe inhabited seemed to align with certain symbols and meanings present in the larger work.
I had developed a technique in previous projects involving playing a “base” instrument (in a composition) with an inconsistent “human” rhythm and then playing to those tracks with supporting instruments and learning the inconsistencies (Lullag’byes). I sometimes marked areas for cues with transparency sheets taped to screens. It created a kind of sloppy effect, but I enjoyed the odd results. I tried to employ a similar technique here but with nature as the rhythm section. I chose to play along to birds, cicadas, the springs themselves, frogs and alligators.
All the field recordings were collected either from springs near Jacksonville and St. Augustine or from friends in an online community who could acquire longer or higher quality versions of some of the animal sounds I needed. I also used some of the items Jim [Draper] gave me and had to import some cicadas that were not native because of their unique rhythm. I cut and aligned these to create phrases and then tried to play to these using whatever natural percussive instruments I could find: drums, shakers, tambo, etc. I also employed a handmade “hang-style” drum that I fashioned from a propane tank, a small toy flute that I played like a bird and some small amount of vocals here and there—basically the most natural or “primitive” sounding instruments I could find that perhaps the natives themselves could or would have used. Moods were assigned to the tracks based on how the initial field recordings struck me. All sound flowed from that. All design of the structure came from actions natives would take in their day to day lives. Also, some of my personal experience with the springs is reflected in the emotional content as well as native ideas of religion filtered through the Spanish Christian influence that came later.
That was the basis of the PDF content.
The live content was an extension of this idea.
The first step was to assemble a series of field recordings that stretched at least an hour. In the end I gathered enough for around an hour and a half and cut it down by about 20 minutes. The pieces were aligned in a way that allowed thematic repetition without any true sonic repetition (frogs-a, water-a, birds-b, frogs-c, water-b, birds-a, etc). There were more components than the example and it didn’t work so predictably but you get the idea. After that was established we began practicing to that “scripted sequence”. We explored until we found “grooves” that actually fit the sound and mood the creatures in the recordings themselves were creating. This was one of the more difficult parts. I can’t explain how odd it is to try and sculpt such a particular sound starting with a base you have no control over. We spent almost two weeks just saying “no”, “that sucks”, “that won’t work”, “that’s too busy, too attention grabbing”… It was frustrating and enlightening and fun and rewarding all at once. Eventually we established a “coda” for each piece of the project.
Next we found moments for transition from one loop or “groove” into another. We looked for ways we could exist in each section without sticking too close to the prearranged themes for each soundscape. Ways we could vary the themes for each different version of the base sound as they appeared. No two practices were the same and we had to stop recording them because listening to old stuff wouldn’t help anyway. It was only ever now and each practice was a mock show. The heat was always on and the performance was always happening. Seemed like the best way to prepare. Pretend the fire was really hot.
In the last week we practiced literally every day and lost some sleep and wore our health down a bit but hey, that’s how it goes sometimes when you agree to things like this.
Gotta step up and do it.
Then we drop into the actual room. First night, ponce de leon club. Bigger donors to the museum. The chatter completely threw us off initially. Had no idea what to expect or how to deal with it. Kept trying to “center” but kept drifting away… looking at the audience… not really focusing on the performance. Forgetting why we were there or what we were doing. Couldn’t really hear ourselves that well… I messed up the “monitoring” situation. It’s hard when it’s your first time in an element that has so much in common with what you normally do together in terms of everything leading up to and during and after… but with so many huge differences in terms of goal or purpose (if that’s ever a proper term to apply to music) and setting. Bit of a shock, though I don’t think anyone else noticed. It was a very… subtle mess. After the first break though (when everyone re-entered after hearing Jim speak in the gallery) we came back and played through it very well, if I do say so myself. Didn’t even get all the way through the second time but it felt fun and wonderful and was a great stress release moment for all of us. I closed my eyes and played my little heart out. Laughed and smiled at the back and forth between us.
Day two was a cakewalk aside from some small scheduling issues. The timing we were initially given got changed up and we had to fill some space with subliminal wudun tunes in future pleasure garden form until the speaking segments of the opening started… then we went back to animal improv when the people were done in the gallery and coming back in to mingle and drink. (Sorry if you got caught in limbo trying to hear a bit of it… wasn’t really for that anyway. Long form quiet stuff you know? Just for mood and the minglers.)
So there’s the general outline. Lots of spending time getting to know each soundscape and each animal tendency and trying to establish rhythms and themes based off of the environments created in the field recordings. The PDF companion pieces in long form with the help of good bros. Difficult, frustrating, sometimes frightening (see previous post), but all in all it was worth every second. I would do it again if given the chance.
And that’s all for now. More stuff in the future with pictures and sounds. Also we will record this hour long set as a document and upload it at some point.
We’ll talk soon.
Pictures from day 2 by Ashley. Didn’t have any for day one. Small room.