Archive for the ‘Classical’ Category

For my 7th RPM Challenge album I’ve take a dystopian theme – yes, even more so than usual.

Due to various personal and domestic constraints I’ve had far less chance to prepare and work on the album this year. In fact I have had no preparation at all, so what is on there is largely a set of layered improvisations. ‘Introduction’ isn’t even layered, it’s a single take at the keyboard. For most of the tracks though, I’ve laid down an ‘idea’ track and worked with it by adding other sounds and instruments to make what, I hope, is a coherent piece of music.

The backing to ‘Restart’ was a late addition when a hard disk drive failed on me (luckily only a backup drive) making a strange a persistent rhythm I felt I just had to work with. So, despite starting this month with absolutely no plan at all I still managed to get 9 tracks totalling over 50 minutes. Oh the power of improvisation … and a 15 minutes ambient drone piece 😉

For those that care about these things here are the instruments I used on each track:

  1. Introduction: Yamaha Montage
  2. Trails of the City: Yamaha Montage, PreenFM2, builder taking my ceiling down*
  3. Cave Work: Octave electric violin with SY-300 guitar synth, Waldorf Blofeld
  4. Escape Route: MakeNoise Erbe-Verb+Mutable Systems ‘Clouds’, Electric violin, PPG softsynth
  5. Robot Dance: Emu Proteus, Yamaha Montage, PPG softsynth, spoons
  6. In my day this all was shoe shops**: Moog Sub37, DSi Tetra, Erbe-verbe, Octave Violin
  7. Restart: Failed hard disk, Yamaha Montage, Nord Lead A1,
  8. The Revolution will be short: Bastl Instruments Trinity Drum,  Nord Lead A1, Emu Proteus, Electric violins
  9. The End: Nord Lead A1, Moog Sub37, Emu Proteus

*I told you it had been a busy time.

**Track 6 was originally going to be called “In my day all this was Tescos” which is a better, and arguably funnier, title but I didn’t want corporate lawyers on my back.

As always, it’s a pay what you want download release on bandcamp.

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As regular readers will know, I always do the RPM challenge*

This year’s project was an attempt to build on the synthing and keyboard skills I’ve been learning over the past year or two so there’s very little violin on it. In fact the only track that has any violin at all, Carriageworks, was actually written for performance by Midnight Llama – though done here all my own. I like to experiment in RPM February and this year’s challenge, beyond the obvious time one, was to do a mainly keyboard-based album. Obviously not every single note of this album was played by hand – I own sequencers and arpeggiators – but quite a lot of it was, the piano lessons are starting to bear fruit.

For this project I took the themes of repair, renovation and recycling as my starting point. The title track, Carriageworks, was already written – and I mean “written”, I actually have a score for it – before starting the February recording marathon so I took that as the initial inspiration for the whole album. Karen (percussionist in Midnight Llama) had asked me to write a train piece for her drum pads and I wanted to do something a little different from the usual train journey piece. The overall theme of Carriageworks is a failing railway carriage that goes into the repair shop and emerges in rude health … for a while.

The other pieces take different ideas from that initial theme. The ideas behind Scrapyard and Bin Night should be fairly obvious from their titles, Brownfield is thoughts on a brown field site being developed sporadically (this is common in Leeds), Wide Closed Spaces is meant to evoke a large derelict building with old bits of broken industrial equipment in it and Metal Ink was inspired by tales of regeneration in Sabrina Peña Young’s novel Libertaria: Genesis, which I read after reviewing her album for Radio Free Midwich

On the album you’ll hear lots of synths, Simmons drum samples, recordings of buildings being pulled down and even me whispering into a microphone. Yes, this is the first time I have ever had my own vocals on a recording. I do not intend making a habit of this, I promise.

There quite a bit of Berlin School influence here too. This is mostly thanks to Stuart Russell, my co-synther in CSMA who got me into synths in the first place and is now educating me in the ways of sequencers, arpeggiators and drum machines.  Well, I say “drum machines” but most of the drums on this album are taken from samples in my E-MU synths. Only Bin Night uses an actual drum machine. In this case a lo-fi 8 bit device I bought in Brno, Czech Republic.

I’m really pleased with this album, it marks further movement in my musical style and capabilities and I think it sounds quite different from previous releases. It’s got drums and vocals on it for a start!



* Though I have never actually sent a CD into RPM challenge themselves

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I have released a new album called “Places and Traces“, so I thought I’d write some notes about it.

My working title for this album was ‘Outside2’ – a reference to my 2013 album Outside which was built upon field recordings with acoustic accompaniment or reactions. Places & Traces takes that as a starting point but goes much further with it and consequently sounds very different.

Firstly the similarities. P&T is still built upon field recordings, and they are the start of the inspiration for the music that follows. In Cavern, Enclosures and Time Goes More Slowly, they run continuously as they did in Outside,  though only in Cavern does the recording run at normal speed. The titles, though less literal than on Outside are still a reference to the source of the recording.

The differences are obvious at first hearing .. this is a much more electronic album than it’s predecessor. I have used my increasing collection of hardware synthesizers to soundscape it, though there is still plenty of violin. The only acoustic violin I used is on Nowhere (for preference) which (spoiler alert) was also sampled for the speeding up part.

Track by track, this is what is happening:


The cavern in question is Leeds City Station, though I’m also thinking of darker, more oppressive railways stations in England such as Birmingham New Street – at least how it was when I spent a depressing amount of time there in the 1980s. The bulk of the synth noises on this track were made from the same sounds I used on the CSMA track Trans-Pennine Express which passes through several stations including Leeds, but not Birmingham, obviously. Stations late at night are quite scary places when you’re a timid single female and I’ve channelled some of that foreboding into the sounds here. Taiko drums (from my E.mu World ROM) add to the terror.

Minster Yard

Minster Yard is the area around Beverley Minster, one of my favourite buildings. The bells of the Minster are used in the piece, the chimes slowed down in the first half, and re-timed a little in the second.

Nowhere (for preference)

This piece has no field recordings in it at all. The ‘nowhere’ is me staying at home, in my studio, recording instruments rather than places. Here, the acoustic violin opens with a variant on the ‘Refuge‘ theme I used in Helicopter Quartet. Home is the refuge.


The core if this is some field recordings I made in Northumberland on a workshop with Chris Watson & Jez Riley-French. The techniques used in this recording were both learned from those two amazing men.

Enclosures was played live at Wharf Chambers in Leeds and although I’ve labelled this version ‘(live)’ on the track list it is actually my favourite rehearsal take from when I was preparing for that gig. It features the cyborg violin controlling parameters on a Moog Minitaur from my gestures and movement – the notes were played from foot pedals. This maybe isn’t obvious from the sound I suppose but I think it makes some sort of musical sense nonetheless.


This is really just an excuse to use a rather nice recording I made of a Peacock at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire. … and then smother it in synths.

Stop Action

Samples here were recorded at Bradford Industrial museum. They demonstrate the huge complex weaving machines (filmed for the Helicopter Quartet Ghost Machine video) regularly and they make great sounds. The point of the title, which I’m not sure really works in the way I intended now, is that the machines are putting a lot of work into moving, but without actually achieving or making anything.

Time Goes More Slowly

The recording that runs through this was made in a pub near Ribblehead in North Yorkshire. They had a really nice clock in the corner that I recorded for quite a long time. I slowed it down to bring out the timbre of it, and that, of course, slowed down the pub conversation. The working title for this was ‘Time Travels More Slowly in the Country’ as we were in that pub, just having lunch, for about two and a half hours. The day itself was quite a leisurely one wandering around Batty Moss viaduct waiting for trains. The comment about ‘not buying any more kit’ was recorded in conversation with a man there while we were waiting. It’s slightly ironic, and obviously untrue, as there are two new synths and a sequencer on this album!

One of the things I didn’t do on this album, that I mentioned in my blog post on backing tracks, is to make music that is playable live. With the notable exception of Enclosures, which was written explicitly for a live performance, all of this music is effectively acousmatic and would need careful arranging should I decide to perform it on stage. I might make live performable pieces the subject of my next album  … maybe 🙂

For info: synths used on this album are (in alphabetical order):

  • Doepfer Dark Energy
  • E-MU Virtuoso with World (Planet Earth) ROM.
  • Moog Minitaur
  • Moog Sub37
  • Nord Lead A1
  • Waldorf Blofeld


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I haven’t had time to blog about RPM 2015, but I have been doing it, despite being extremely busy for work, gigging and, to cap it all, laptop hardware problems.

This year’s album consists of four narrative pieces, based on some of the short stories in Jorge Luis Borges’ book “A Universal History of Infamy”. If you have the book it’s pretty obvious which is which I suspect, but if not don’t worry about it!

The structures are necessarily very different from ‘Mechanisms’, which were mostly classical in style, as I’ve tried to follow the narrative of the stories. Some events of the piece are explicitly played out and others are implied or affected but the thread of the story was always a strong indicator of where the music should go next. The stories in the book are mostly quite anti-climactic – rogues tend not to end well – so that gives the tracks a similar feel to some extent. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not so I’ll leave it at that.

Have a laptop fail on me half way through February has made it a bit of a strain to complete this. Some tracks have had bits done on three different computers due to hardware limits of the other two systems I have access to – also one of them is a Mac and the other a Windows system – I’m just extremely grateful that most DAW software is multi-platform these days! Anyway it’s done. There are some things I’d possibly like to change now, but don’t have the time or stamina to move all the many gigabytes of audio files across hard disks yet again.

The album is free/pay what you want to download as usual, and if you do decide to download it you will also get a copy of the live solo gig I played on the 22nd February … it’s technically allowed in the RPM Challenge ‘rules’, even if it’s not really related to the main theme of the album. Enjoy!

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A couple of weekends ago I went to the di_stanze mini festival of electronic music and, on the Sunday evening, to see Steve Hackett’s ‘Genesis Revisited’ tour. Not much in common there you might think: new experimental electronic pieces in a classical concert hall, followed by a rock guitarist and his band playing music from the early 1970s. That would be a mistake. In fact the proximity in time of the concerts only served to highlight their similarities for me.

The major difference was that the music at di_stanze was all (to my knowledge) new pieces and the Genesis pieces were around 40 years old, but it’s important to note that they were in new arrangements. Steve Hackett makes no attempt to faithfully recreate the sound of the 1970s band, these pieces are truly ‘revisited’ using all the modern technology and techniques of a 21st Century rock band with considerable instrumental technique and knowledge of electronic music techniques from samplers & synthesizers to guitar pedals, guitar synthesizers and vocal effects.

One of the performers at di_stanze was the excellent Will Baldry, a hip-hop DJ who is using his turntables in new ways  to perform classically structured pieces and poetry to great effect. This shows the ‘classical’ world embracing and learning from other genres, The opposite also happens – Genesis’s 1970s material drew heavily from classical structures and ideas.

Steve Hackett’s extensive use of the Whammy pedal at the later concert brought to mind a piece by the normally brilliant Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen who once used that pedal in a rather arch and slightly strained ‘one idea’ way that many classical composers seem to when adopting a new technology. By contrast Steve, like most rock musicians, is at home with new technology and it is fully integrated into the music so much that unless you know what is going on you might not even notice. it’s this seamless integration of technology into music that is often lacking in ‘classical’ compositions even today. I am pleased that this was (mostly) not the case at di_stanze.

One of the things that many classical musicians seem not have go the hang of is synthesizers. The only synth performance at di_stanze was an unimaginative piece of live-coding into a Juno polysynth. I wish people using this sort of equipment would listen to, and learn from, performers such as Roger King (of the Steve Hackett band) who use multiple synthesizers (soft, and hardware) to make real, high quality music, and not just a collection of sounds.

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Soundspiral outsideHere it is at last – the Soundspiral video!

It’s been about 18 months since I was asked to perform in the Soundspiral. I chose ‘Ada’ partly because it was a major new (at the time) piece I was very proud of, and partly because it was always meant to be quite an immersive piece that I thought would be appropriate for the Soundspiral. Since that time I have performed half of it in 7.1 and the whole thing twice in stereo in Second Life.

The Soundspiral version is more than all of those in several ways. Of course it’s in 52 speaker surround sound, but in the meantime I’ve been tweaking the parts and samples to make them better and convey the subject matter more clearly. I hope.

Of course, I didn’t generate the full 52 channels from my laptop into the spiral speakers, that would be insane … and impractical. For a start the rig doesn’t actually have 52 inputs but mainly it’s not meant to be addressed that way. The software system that drives the spiral (written by the hugely clever Daz Disley) can drive the speakers in spaces rather than individually. This gives the sound a great coherence and ensures that when things move, they don’t just disappear from one speaker (or set of speakers) but they move smoothly and naturally. It’s immensely impressive and gives the spiral a very clear and listenable sound.

From 2dgoggles, ‘The Client’ by Sydney Padua.

I ended up giving Daz 14 channels that were effectively 7 stereo sets. Dividing the spiral into 4 quadrants lengthwise and top and bottom sets. The last stereo set was for the live violin playing which I originally thought would move with me, but in the event that turned out to be unnecessary. Most of the played back samples were positioned using this system – one send for each stereo pair. There was very little movement of sounds involved, i wanted to create a space, rather than go ‘Hey, we can spin things round, isn’t that great!’ that some surround systems seem so keen on. The spacial idea was inspired by the Sydney Padua cartoons where Ada is lost in the internal workings of the Analytical Engine (see above) and this is depicted in the last 3 minutes of part 1.

A central pillar of the piece is a piece of text where Ada effectively predicts the ability of computers to compose music (soon followed by some automatically generated music – played while I change violins!).

The performance was part of the first Sonophilia festival in Lincoln and I am pleased to report that it drew a good crowd and several people came up to me afterwards to say how much they enjoyed it. I was pleased with my performance, and below is a video of the event for your enjoyment.

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This Sunday is, I think, the first time I have played a gig without a violin! In deep history there was probably one at school where I played recorder but those hardly count … I have done gigs when I played guitar and (in one ill-advised case) clarinet but there was always the violin there too. This time there isn’t.

This is as part of CSMA, which I have blogged about before of course and we’ll be playing laptop controllers. I will be playing the Mixtrack Pro-II DJ controller which, further to that blog post, I now have written a complete Max application to drive, bypassing Ableton altogether. Stuart will be playing a Novation Launchpad and an Arturia Beatstep.


The piece is Crowd Sources and we are performing it at the closing concert of Network Music Festival in Birmingham. Crowd Sources is built from samples submitted from a call for sounds on social media sites and we have received a lot of very high quality recordings (some less good ones too, of course, but not as many as we expected which was nice) which we will mangling to produce ambient soundscapes, rhythms and noises. The result will be filmed and put onto YouTube, so I’ll blog about that when it’s available.

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Yes, it’s nearly February again and time to think about the RPM challenge. As I usually try to really challenge myself for RPM (ie not just do an album of ‘what I do’) and I’ve been thinking about how to approach it this year. For reasons I won’t go into here, I won’t have as much time this February as the last two, so fitting everything in could be hard, but I still want to have a go.

My plan therefore is to do a wholly sample-based album. Over the last year I have (as usual) been collecting recordings of things I hear and I intend use those to make up some pieces. Also I plan to do some recordings of instruments and use those as samples to build up textures.

This should save me a little time – setting up microphones and getting a good take is quite time-consuming, and also doing it ‘in the box’ this way means I can work later into the evening without disturbing the neighbours, or them disturbing me.

That’s about all the thought and preparation I’ve put into RPM so far, a bit like my first, 2012, RPM album I suspect most of it will appear during the month itself. Also, a lot of the time some of my most interesting pieces have happened when I’ve been pushed for time and had to be creative. So I hope for some good results, though it could be patchy and I might not complete the full 35 minutes or ten tracks. But it’ll be interesting trying!

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This four-movement quartet is based on photographs taken by music writer Sid Smith whom I sometimes chat to on Twitter. He posts pictures of the rain on his windows and, after gathering a substantial collection, earlier this year decided to ask if anyone would like to record them.

Obviously I did, and I also decided to record them as an actual string quartet, although that wasn’t a compulsory part of the brief. I chose String Quartet Number 1, and elected to record all four movements.

Most of the movements were recorded using electric violins – I’ve been meaning to do an electric string quartet for a while, so this was a great excuse. Note that there is no cello here, I’ve used the octave violins (the electric has a low C string) for the ‘cello’ parts, and the low four strings of a five-string violin for the ‘viola’ parts.

For the electric movements, the first violin is the melody instrument (as it were) so is stereo spread wide while the other three instruments sit close to the centre, so it sounds like the solo is happening above and separate from them. For the acoustic movement the panning is pretty much the classical standard quartet arrangement.

I’ve used a minimal number of effects on each movement, to keep some form of consistency of sound, but I’ve decided to treat each picture slightly differently, with different effects, to give some variation.

1st Movement

I decided to read this both vertically and horizontally at same time. Vertically I have used the idea of independently moving harmonic lines (the streaks of water on the window) and horizontally I have used the structure. So the 1st (high) violin depicts the black part of the picture and the other parts depict the density of the brown colour.

FX pedal used: BOSS DD-20 delay

2nd Movement

This movement was recorded all on acoustic violins, partly for a bit of variation and partly because of the different colour scheme on this photo. The structure is is a rondo, because of the recurring cream stripes in the picture, led by the second violin. The sharp-eared might notice that the viola player arrived late for this recording and left early, you can hear the sounds of an instrument case near the start and end. The first violin part was recorded on my soprano violin and the cello part on the octave.

FX used: Reverb from Ableton

3rd Movement

This is a very monochrome picture so I just used the cello and viola. The lumpiness of the cello parts reflects the lumpy streaks on the window and the viola wanders around them.

The slow ‘cello’ trems on the first draft of this movement made it sound very much like Pink Floyd’s ‘One Of These Days‘, mainly because of the intervals I chose – especially with the intermittent viola on top. So I had to rethink it after listening back, and kept the trems but changed the intervals. Who knows, I might do an actual ‘One Of These Days’ cover some time 😉

FX pedals used: BOSS DD-20 delay, EHX Qtron+ auto-wah

4th Movement

This is the ‘distortion’ movement  😉 I used a different distortion pedal for each of the cello, viola and 2nd violin parts here to get a wider variety of sounds, perhaps breaking my ‘minimal number of effects’ rule, perhaps not. I also decided not to distort the 1st violin as it just got too hard on the ears! The main part of this is the viola ostinato (green) with the cello filling in for the darker parts of the image, the 2nd violin fills in the raindrops and streaks with the gated-style distortion. The 1st violin fills in the red parts with a melody reminiscent of the 1st movement.

FX pedals used: BOSS MD-2 (cello), EHX Big Muff (Viola), Twin Earth fuzz (2nd violin), BOSS PS-5 & RE-20 (1st violin)


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I originally wanted a studio version of my piece “Market Hill” to go on the album of the same name, but for several reasons it wasn’t possible. However I’m pleased to report that I managed to get Dorothy into the studio to record a version last weekend and here is the result. For extra ambience she did two takes which are overlayed here.


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