With a little success under my belt with two smaller terrariums, it was time to try something larger. I found this rather interesting Polish glass container from Home Goods, on sale for $8!
Following the guidance of my terrarium gurus, I planned this one out a bit more, and waited until I had all of the elements on hand before diving into the build. The result is one of my favorite terrariums.
The idea with this one was to create a definite scene with some height to take advantage of the unique shape of the vessel. I got the cork bark from a supplier on Amazon. All of the plants are store-bought, but the moss is locally sourced.
One of the positive outcomes of working on terrariums has been the motivation to get out to some of our local parks to see what types of moss or plants might be available. It’s been interesting to see just how many types of moss are available in our area, and the different places it grows.
With this build, I also got more brave with the number of plants and the selection of inhabitants. Aside from springtails and isopods, this one has a very active millipede and some other critters. There’s a small beetle that is very hard to capture on camera . I didn’t consciously put him there, so my guess is that he came in on some moss.
This has been a very stable terrarium with minimal maintenance required. Every day I see something interesting. I’m going to do a video on all of my terrariums eventually, so stay tuned for more.
My second terrarium experiment was a rework of a terrarium that Audra made during an education retreat a number of years back. It had completely died off, even before our recent moves, and needed a major overhaul.
This has done quite well, needing only minor maintenance. I will feature a video of this one in an upcoming post.
TouchDesigner is a node based visual programming language for real time interactive multimedia content, developed by the Toronto-based company Derivative. It’s been used by artists, programmers, creative coders, software designers, and performers to create performances, installations, and fixed media works (from Derivative web site).
After a few years working with Magic Music Visualizer (also a great video animation and processing application) I wanted something a bit more robust. The COVID lockdown, followed by the drab winter of 2020-21 left me with time to focus on learning a new skill.
Most of my learning came throughout November 2020 to February 2021 via YouTube tutorials by the very supportive Touchdesigner community. I treated this like a college course, with daily lessons, building along with the instructors (not just watching passively). I estimate that at 30 hrs/week for four months, I logged at least 480 hrs of focused education, probably more. And of course, I am still always learning and exploring.
Using Touchdesigner for live performance
One of my primary motivations to learn about Touchdesigner (TD) was for creative live audio-reactive visuals, both for my own performances and others. I soon found TD was much more than just a visualizer. I also found that I could build things that would not otherwise be possible in other tools.
So far I’ve used TD in a live context several times, feeding signals into OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) via NDI and Syphon for live broadcast.
To further explore TD, I made some videos for my wife’s 4th grade class.
To get more practice, and to take a break from my own creative work, I offered to make some videos for other artists. This also served as a helpful use case while developing my JDRenderEngine, a pet project that leverages TD to overcome some of my frustrations with traditional video editing platforms.
There’s a lot more that I’d like to share on this. I’ve created a lot of experiments – with and without music – that I think people would enjoy. Just as my music has been exploring chaos, noise, and probability, TD has allowed me to explore those concepts visually. However, the work is time consuming. With COVID lockdown lifting, and with some other higher priority projects picking up, I’ve had to step back from TD a bit. The weather is also much nicer now, so I’ve been trying to get outside more – away from screens. I still create something new weekly, so perhaps I’ll post more of that content soon.
At the moment, the big weakness in my setup here is the GPU on my mid-2015 Macbook Pro. Things run pretty hot, and some functions in TD (like Line MAT) don’t even work properly on the MacOS. I am now trying to decide how to justify the purchase of a more powerful machine to continue development and learning. For now, Touchdesigner remains a fascinating tool in my toolbox for creating things I never would have thought possible even a few years ago.
During the Spring of 2021 as COVID still raged, I wasn’t getting out much. Between significant computer screen time and evening Netflix couch time, I knew that I had to force myself off of the machines and back into something more natural.
Many years ago, during a trip to Chicago, Audra got me a very nice terrarium container made in Poland. My green thumb was focused for years on growing hot peppers outdoors. I didn’t spend as much time on indoor plants, except for my many clippings of Pothos (aka Devil’s Ivy). The terrarium container was never properly used, and found its way into storage. Thankfully, it survived several moves, waiting for the day when it would have a proper place to display.
A few Google and YouTube searches turned up plentiful resources on terrarium builds. The most helpful resource by far has been the YouTube channel SerpaDesign, run by a guy named Tanner in the Pittsburgh area. Aside from bringing an artistic sensibility to everything he does, I found Tanner’s site most helpful because he’s in a similar climate and uses the same type of resources I can access near Philly. And yes, there’s some irony here in the desire to get away from screens, only to turn to YouTube to get up to speed on a new hobby.
Later I’ll note a few other resources, but for now I want to get into showing some things I’ve done.
First up is the “Chicago Terrarium”. This actually went through two iterations so far, the first of which didn’t look very good and only lasted a couple weeks before I wanted to redo it using things I learned online.
The current iteration of the “Chicago Terrarium” uses a combination of local moss, store-bought plants, and locally sourced rocks. I decided to remove the jade buddha because he didn’t look natural in this setting. The springtails came from an Ebay vendor, and the isopods came from local parks.
Following Tanner’s advice, I made a very good false bottom with store-bought aquarium rocks from Lowe’s. I kind of have a problem buying rocks when I can get them from nature, but for this first build I wanted it to be as clean as possible.
The false bottom also uses carbon fiber screen (Lowe’s) and activated charcoal (Ebay). I’m using Serpa’s typical substrate mix of sphagnum moss, sand, orchid bark and sometimes coconut fiber. For this first build, I used some indoor potting soil I already had on hand.
If a terrarium is made correctly, it should not need a lot of maintenance. But one of the highlights of my day right now is looking in on these little worlds and seeing what’s happening with them. Not only does this get me away from the computer, it gets me outside a bit more as I search for moss or other elements to incorporate.
I suppose like anything else you enjoy, terrariums can become addictive. The “Chicago Terrarium” was successful enough that I started looking for other containers to try.
The one thing I’ve noticed about the terrarium enthusiasts is that they seem to fall into three categories. Tanner, who seems to fall in the middle, is very thoughtful about what he does and approaches things with a bit more of a plan and an eye for aesthetics.
Others – particularly some of the terrarium builders from Japan who incorporate bonsai techniques – are even more detailed and show an amazing level of artistry and complexity. The other end of the spectrum are those that just grab whatever is in their backyard, toss it in a jar, and hope for the best with little thought! All of these approaches have their charm.
In future posts, we will take a look at my other creations, and I’ll share some other things I’ve learned along the way.
Home Goods Tree Scene IKEA Cookie Jar IKEA Mason Jar Joanne’s Terrarium Scene Reconditioned snake tank!
Working with the Philly Maker Faire Podcast as host and audio editor.
Working on a custom component for Touchdesigner. TouchDesigner is a node based visual programming language for real time interactive multimedia content, developed by the Toronto-based company Derivative. It’s been used by artists, programmers, creative coders, software designers, and performers to create performances, installations, and fixed media works
Building a few… OK, many terrariums for fun.
Providing additional audio services via Fiverr.com
Diving further into the Elektron Digitakt to develop some audio to go with my Touchdesigner visuals.
Offering Open Broadcaster Software assistance. Contact me for details, or go here to buy me a coffee if I’ve already helped you.
One fateful night in the early 90s, at an open mic in Bloomsburg, PA, I met Tom Dennehy. His mix of Dr. Demento-style originals and Weird Al Yankovic covers immediately endeared him to both me and, my future wife, Audra.
Life was never the same after meeting Tom. His combination of humor, musical smarts, and global vision have been a pleasure to observe throughout our friendship. Every interaction has been an education (as well as a lot of fun).
Careers always took us in completely different physical directions. But whether Tom was writing to me from India while taking khayal singing lessons, or (more recently) chatting on Zoom, we’ve always tried to stay in touch. Our last major collaboration was in 2003-04 with tabla player Bulu Rahman in a short-lived fusion experiment called Moonlight Masala. Somewhere in WVIA’s archives is a Homegrown Music performance of that group.
For many years, Tom has lived on the West Coast, adopting the moniker Breakfast. He also plays with improv groups The Wyatt Act and Mission Delirium. He’s a thoughtful multi-lingual wordsmith, multi-instrumentalist, and also teaches music and English.
During lockdown, Tom wrote 10 new instrumentals in his living room on his laptop (in Garageband no less, though you wouldn’t know it). At the same time, I was studying Touchdesigner and various visual techniques. I was starting to build what eventually became my JDRenderEngine, and I really wanted to put it through its paces. While I also do music, I wanted to collaborate with someone else on this experiment. So we decided to join forces – his music, my visuals. The result is Yellowcake, now available on Bandcamp and YouTube.
The brilliant, complex music centered around saxophone, electronics and odd time signatures, stands on its own. The visuals add another later of strangeness that we both had fun creating. Check out the playlist below and enjoy!
Humming With The Gods is a 4-song Limited Edition EP born as a result of some different approaches I was taking to recording/writing in late 2017. I was working with some very evocative instruments, and suddenly found myself creating a lot of material in a particular universe of sound. Originally, I envisioned 10-12 songs in this universe, with a loose story line running through and lots of space references. Unconsciously, I was returning to the universe of “Children of Light” (from Chaos Rise Up in 2010) which always stood out for its electronic elements, and offered a positive outlook on the future.
Stylistically the music and lyrics have elements of what I was doing pre-2010, before joining the electro-music.com community. It’s also been informed by the experiences I’ve had performing and interacting with electronic musicians for the last 10 years.
This material has sustained me in unexpected ways during a very trying time in our lives. Friends and family know the gory details, and its not appropriate to rehash them here. Let’s just say – and I know this is cheesy – that looking to the stars and imagining other worlds really can help you deal with reality. Working on Humming With The Gods was perhaps the best expression of what I’ve been feeling over these last few years, and I think in some small way it expresses some important themes of our time (among them, moving forward after trauma, and on a larger scale, life in times of accelerating scientific discoveries amidst accelerated social concerns).
There’s yet more recorded material waiting in the wings, but before I can put that stuff out, I really felt that Humming With The Gods had to be finalized.
Yeah, my sites are looking a bit dated right now because I am just getting back on my feet after a very time consuming and logistically difficult move to Philadelphia.
The studio has closed. We’ve downsized to an apartment, so two-thirds of my studio are in storage right now while the other third is with me in a much smaller configuration. Running a studio was a good experiment (2013-2018), but I can’t say I miss it, or the drama.
I am now focusing almost completely on my electronic/experimental work, in a variety of electronic sub-genres. Since joining the electro-music.com community in 2010, I’ve come to really enjoy this sonic journey. The move to Philly – complete with much more time in transit on buses and in traffic -has forced me to focus even more on my craft, and on my passion. The city has also been inspiring, in ways I may not have expected.
A new site – with brand new audio, graphics and video – is under construction and should be finalized this summer. In fact the site itself is done, but I am carefully selecting how I want to promote the music and sonic explorations.
You may still occasionally find me at open mics in the Philly area, either solo acoustic, as a bass player, or with Fricknadorable. For now, our Americana duo is on hiatus, though Audra continues to write and we hope to one day put out an EP. Unfortunately, being a theatre person, she doesn’t enjoy recording half as much as I do. Ironically, much of my electronic stuff of late has been improvised! But I still can’t get her to go electro… perhaps one day.
For now, enjoy this peak at the Chinese Lantern Festival we recently attended…
“Haunted 2016 is a dead-on perfect tribute to the scary sound effects albums of the past.”
Back in 2016, Audra and I recorded a long-form Halloween soundscape, purely for the joy and experimentation of it all. Titled “Haunted 2016”, we released it on Bandcamp, just for kicks. The album cover is a cheesy picture of our creeper character that hugs our maple tree each Halloween season. Aside from being a labor of love, it also showed the breadth of work I was doing at Pepperhead Studios besides blues bands and singer-songwriters.
Later, I was contacted by Gravedigger’s Local 16, a haunt blog put out by a mysterious figure who goes by Six Foot Plus. “Haunted 2016” was included in their list of recommended sources for haunt soundtracks. Earlier this year, I was told that my soundscape collection would receive a full review, with an excerpt included in a podcast that Six Foot Plus also puts out.
This is a perfect example of how something you do for pure joy and with enthusiasm, can take on a life of its own, even when there is little to no expectation of recognition. While this is a small thing, and the soundscape is pretty dark – this recognition was a welcome ray of light. Given the turmoil in my life, the lives of some close friends, and the world in general, this one simple, small, even silly success brightened my day more than anything in recent memory.