The joys of lo-fi and on being a closet 12-tone composer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 10:20AM

Fantasia 1986

Recently, I was emailed about a new software synthesizer - Plogue Chipsounds - from the Plogue folks in Montreal.  This is a device which promises to emulate 8 of the most popular 8-bit game and other sound chips from the 1980s.  Although I had worked a bit with those chips, in the early 1980s I was very involved with "rolling my own" sounds, using an AIM-65 single board microcomputer.  As I remember, the AIM had a couple of outputs, where you could access the 8 bits of the numbers as individual outputs.  I took those, and put them through the Control Voltage Processor on my Serge synthesizer, creating a crude non-linear digital-to-analog converter (DAC).  I then spilled the contents of the memory out through the port, and voila!  Instant sound synthesis.  I made some interesting pieces with this, and I'll post those pieces in the next few days.  My interest in lo-fi, of course, was an extension of the work I'd done in the 1970s with Ron Nagorcka in the group Plastic Platypus.  We used cassette recorders as our main musical instruments, as well as a variety of electronic toys. 

Well, I bought the softsynth from Plogue (at $75 US it was irresistible, and the currently strong Aussie dollar helped, too), and it's a delight.  And, because it uses the ARIA engine Plogue developed, all the chipsounds are totally microtonally controllable using Scala files.  Fun for the whole family!  (If your family consists of, as mine does, two composers who both like raw electronic sounds and microtonality!)  While working with this synth, I was reminded of another piece of mine from 1986 - Fantasia.  This was a piece I wrote at Serge Tcherepnin's place in San Francisco, on a visit.  He had an early Mac, and it had a notation program which played out through the Mac's internal sound chip.  The sounds were pretty crude, and the notation program was pretty limited.  It would only play in normal 12-tone tuning, so I thought, "Why not a 12-tone piece?"  Unlike a lot of my composer colleagues, I don't fall into paroxysms of negativity when I hear the words "12-tone composition," nor do I fall into spasms of admiration for the technique either.  To me, it's just another way of making music, one that has a certain amount of fun involved in the figuring out of various melodic and harmonic combinations inherent in one's chosen material.  I quickly composed a little 1 minute piece - making the sort of "uptown electronic music" that had appealed to me as a student in the late 1960s.  I thought it was fun at the time, and in light of the whole chiptune thing that's happening now, I still think it's a fun piece.  And so I hope, do you.  Click on "Fantasia" above to hear it.  OR, if you want to download it, right click HERE.  And to hear a soundtrack I did with Chipsounds, see the blog entry a couple of entries before this for a link to "Hilbert Trace" on YouTube.

This little "Fantasia" wouldn't sit still, however, and eventually, it became the first section of a nine-section piece - "Fantasias Quartets and Nocturnes" - here's a description of the piece from my CD catalog - you can order the CD by clicking on "order CDs" in the right hand column of this page.

33. Fantasias, Quartets and Nocturnes (1986-88) ( TWO CD )

Three similar sets of pieces, in three different tunings: 12 tone, 19 tone and 31 tone equal temperament. The Fantasias are nostalgic exercises in free expressionist composition, ala Schoenberg, updated to the world of computer controlled analog synthesis; the Quartets are rigorous 1950s serialist “change-ringing pieces”, and the Nocturnes are experiments in composing on the edge of sleep. Just before bed, each night, I would improvise into my sequencer until I dropped off to sleep. The Nocturnes consist of spliced together phrases made just on the edge of sleep. The exploration of the subconscious in the Nocturnes contrasts vividly with the caffeinated consciousness of the Fantasias and Quartets.


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