Saturday, May 26, 2012

Questions for Dean Wilcox, Sound Bricoleur

A lifelong music fan, Dean has spent the majority of his adult life atoning for his early love of Chicago. He is currently filling the gaps in his post-punk and ambient vinyl collection.  For decades, he has worked as a lighting designer, and he noted that while considering these questions,”I had a revelation that I structure sound the way I design lights by responding to what is in front of me.”

How would you describe what you do?  

Basically I push blocks of sound around. I have always had music in my head, but the computer is such a wonderful tool for those of us less musically inclined. To be able to see sound as well as hear it is wonderful. Eventually I have to force myself just to listen.

Is this different than what other people think you do?

I don't know what other people think I do. I do share sound files with people but no one has ever really asked how the sound was produced. 

How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?

It really has to do with feeling it out. I have tons of projects I have abandoned because I didn't quite know what to do with them. Some are samples, some layered sounds with effects, some built up with real instruments. Occasionally when I come back to them I hear something in them that sparks a thought and then I can finish the track. Other times it is just best to move on.

How do you go about making choices?

I like using programs and filters that mangle sound, chop it up, create something I can't control. And then I listen. I may hear a small bit that catches my attention and so I magnify it by pulling it out of the mix or looping it. Typically one choice leads to another and another and so the track gets built up over time by adding layers, effects, and other sounds.

How do you know when you’re done?

I can usually feel it. In a way it is like structuring a narrative. The essential pieces are established in the opening moments and then they are developed. Some pieces can sustain a long slow build that can last five or ten minutes, others run their course in two or three minutes. Strangely I can usually hear that something is missing, some sound or build or chunk. I keep adding those until it doesn't need anything more.

What’s your workspace like?

It's everywhere. I have guitars and a bass in the back bedroom along with a USB mic set up to sample live sounds and drums in the basement, but I have also taken samples on my phone or from a cd player and a glitched disk - which basically means I wrote on it in sharpie, cut it, scratched it or whatever. You never know where it will catch or what sounds it will make so it is always a process of discovery. I actually would love to create a workspace where everything is always set up an accessible, but mainly I move from room to room so no one can hear what I am doing. I tend to head to a far corner of the basement when vocals are involved.

What are your essential tools?

Mac laptop and GarageBand no question. I bought a decent USB mic a few years back which works great for recording live instruments.  I occasionally use Audacity when I want to reverse a track which is hard to do with GarageBand.  I have a copy of Logic but it is so complicated I have yet to sort it out. The same is true for MAX/MSP. Basically I get an idea and I want to get it down quickly and GarageBand is great for that.

What’s the most surprising tool you use?

I guess it depends on what surprises you. Basically anything can make sound and with a combination of filters any sound can be bent or mangled or altered. I've sampled my furnace turning on, I have sampled skipping CDs, I even sampled the erratic sound of dripping water on a trip to Biltmore. 

What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from?  

It's all mistakes. I have no idea what I am doing. That is the fun part. I listen to early pieces I made and I can hear that I really had no idea how to use the tools. It's all a learning experience and every time I get a new plug-in, a new effect, a new toy that makes sound I make mistakes all over the place. But these lead to a greater understanding and some very interesting and unpredictable sounds.

An example of Dean’s work:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Shhhh I'm Getting Ideas

            Some times, when my wife asks what I did that day, I’ll reply, I was thinking and then I woke up. It’s a joke, and it’s true.  I find that dozing state, where you can move back and forth across the water line of consciousness, to be a productive area.  As I drift there, images, phrases, scenes, come into view. Bits of songs can be heard.  Strangers, long gone friends, and fictional characters start to talk.
            Most artists recognize the creative power of dreams.  Keith Richards insists the opening of “Satisfaction” came to him when he was asleep.  He awoke one morning to discover that during the night he had recorded something on the tape player next to his bed.  The tape had 30 seconds of the iconic chords and then 45 minutes of him snoring.  Similarly, Paul McCartney says that the melody for “Yesterday” came to him in a dream.  Coleridge insisted that the poem “Kubla Khan” appeared to him while dreaming (under the influence of opium), and in her diaries Dawn Powell frequently mentions her “Dream Self” has been doing a lot of work on a manuscript.
            Coleridge claimed to be interrupted by a visitor before he could get the entire poem down.  One key to dream ideas is to record them immediately.  Otherwise they float away.
            There has been plenty of research to support the value of napping and a list of the world’s great practitioners include Edison, Einstein, DaVinci, Brahams, and Benjamin Franklin.  Personally, I believe that Newton wasn’t sitting under the tree when the apple fell, but sleeping.
            I try to find a place to nap every day, no matter where I am.  If I’m not home, I lock my office door, flip my car seat back, or find a park.  I not only know where I can doze around town, someday I’ll write a guidebook “Naps Around the World.”  I’ve taken some great ones at Versailles, The Tuileries, the Royal Palace of Madrid, the Chateau d’If. Yosemite, everywhere I’ve travelled. 
            So, when I’m asked the question that almost all writers and artists get, “Where do you get your ideas?” for me, it’s simple.  I get a lot of them lying down.  If you see me somewhere and it looks like I’m asleep, I probably am.   But don’t wake me, I’m working.

Keith Richard's Satisfaction

The Value of Power Naps

Monday, May 14, 2012

Telling Two Stories

Eudora Welty said, “There is no story until there are two stories.”  Sometimes the second story becomes obvious as the narrative develops.  In The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, the story of an individual is set within a much larger political landscape.  Sometimes the other story is only suggested.  A title like “September 10, 2001” can evoke without mentioning the attack on the World Trade Center.  Greg Brown’s song “Brand New '64 Dodge” tells a seemingly simple story of a boy’s parents buying a new car.  The audience knows, however, the world is about to change with the assassination of JFK.

Money comes out of Dad's billfold.
Hankies come out of Mom's purse.
The engine hardly makes a sound
even when you put it in reverse.
It's got a push-button transmission,hardtop convertible, 4-door.
It's November of '63
and the brand new Dodge is a '64.
And we're rolling slow down Main Street -
the asphalt and gravel crunch.
Church is finally over
and we're going to have our Sunday lunch.
And then I will play football
with my buddies down in park.
Later I'll dream about my girlfriend
as I lie alone in the dark.

She's got short red hair and blue eyes
and her swimsuit's also blue
and her little brother is retarded,
but Jesus loves him, too.
And Jesus loves our president,
even though he is a Catholic.
There's a lot for a boy to think about
as he walks along the railroad tracks.

Sometimes the second story is suggested in even more subtle ways.  In the poem “Working in the Rain” by Robert Morgan, the narrator talks about his father, and, halfway through the poem (line 14 out of 27), he says, “I thought he sought the privacy of rain.”  The past tense, tucked into the middle of the poem, adds a complication, an uncertainty.  It would be a different line if it read “He sought the privacy…” or “I think he sought…”  But the past tense suggests the narrator has changed his view and come to a different understanding of his father. Thus, the poem chronicles both a past and present state of mind.  The two stories can exist in a single character as we change and age.

Greg Brown's web site

Robert Morgan's "Working in the Rain"