In the late 80s and early 90s, public radio programs like “Music from the Hearts of Space” and “Echoes” heavily influenced me. Those programs were a acquired taste, often broadcast at ridiculous hours late at night. Whether on my little transistor radio or my cheesy black and chrome boom box, I was always amazed at the textures that artists like David Arkenstone, Kitaro, R. Carlos Nakai, Andreas Vollenweiler, Sheila Chandra, Enya, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp used. Very few places carried this type of music, except the occasional “new age” shop, like the Crystal Waterfall in Jim Thorpe (long out of business). Even then, you weren’t guaranteed a shop would have anything beyond whale sounds and soothing rainscapes. Of course, since then, ambient and “space” music have exploded into industries of their own, and everything is easily obtainable online (both good and bad).
Much of the music that I created at that time had an atmospheric quality, and usually included some sort of synthesizer parts. Anyone who heard the stuff (and there weren’t too many) usually said it sounded like something from a movie. Regardless of the musical medium, I’ve always written more music than lyrics. Many of the ideas from those early years were nothing more than fragments or arpeggios that required fleshing out. Others were short vignettes that could serve as introductions or transitions for other songs.
Performing such music was not practical. The technical aspects of getting it all to work predictably were always a hassle. Later, I became more involved with Folk and got bit by the Blues Bug and my compositions became guitar-centric. Keyboards were relegated to a support role, if they were there at all. Lyrical pieces became my primary source of material for performance and album content. It has always been infinitely easier to pick up a guitar and write something than it has been to sit down at a keyboard. Besides that, my keyboard skills are atrocious, so the only way I can really hope to make it all work is by sequencing the parts!
While recording demos for Mandala in 1994, an experience with a KORG Trinity at Lebanon Valley College showed that the technology was catching up. Not only were the sounds better, but sound manipulation was also getting easier. During that time, I also kept up with Cakewalk, and had even used MIDI sequencing to record music for a theatrical production, but exploiting the full promise the technology was still far off.
While releasing several guitar-based recordings, I have attempted to keep up to speed with the daunting array of new gadgets, programs and samples available. Sonic Foundry’s Acid program, which allows the composer to work in a loop-based environment, was a revelation. Working with loops caused me to rethink the philosophy of how I write and record, and worked especially well for constructing drum parts in a studio that had no drummer or drum kit.
The programs I’ve used have not lived up to their purpose of allowing the creator to get stuff done quickly and painlessly. I always missed the immediacy of creating my own patterns and sounds in real time. Later, Acid added MIDI support, and Cakewalk added looping support to help bridge the gaps for artists like me, but I was hard to convince. SoftSynth technology (for most) did away with the need to have large boxy synthesizers lying around by placing all of the processing and sounds in the PC. In my experience though, the latency these programs exhibited was inexcusable. In addition, my condenser mikes easily picked up the sound of the five cooling fans inside of my PC.
Another turnoff is that I work in the computer industry, so the last thing I want to do when I come home is stare at a computer screen! For me to do so, there needs to be a serious payoff. Ironically, in all other aspects I am a techno-geek. I make computers do all kinds of wild things, but programming synths has never been a focus. It is like learning an entirely new instrument. Recently I decided to make it a focus.
A recent synth upgrade time warp took me from 1987 to 2007, and despite all of my frustrations with technology, my interest has turned again to some of my older, unreleased material. Perhaps it is because I wish to explore the man/machine dynamic. I wonder what might be possible with my broader musical background, and improved production skills. Better tools help.
Though I may draw from some of those early themes, I’d like to create new works that express my current sensibility toward music and life, and break out of the comfortable world of guitar-centric writing. What will this new material sound like? All I can say at this point is that Bjork, Beck, and (to a lesser extent) Tom Waits, have inspired me to explore the boundaries of my music. So, I predict a sound that is still organic, but layered in more ways with guitar as a flavoring rather than a focus. And for whatever criticism there may be from this change in direction – and I am sure there will be some – I think I owe it to myself to see where this leads.