conductor

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I have 5 minutes to write about this photo. It is of Rick Underwood conducting the Greater Victoria Concert Band at Alex Goolden Hall in downtown Victoria a couple weeks ago. AGH is literally a block from where I live, and it’s a beautiful venue. It seats a fair number of people too, and it always sounds really good. The acoustics are fantastic.
Often times I think about what it is like to be a conductor. Whenever I compose music, I am mindful that the instruments that get played are following my every instruction, at all times. No practice needed from my players, just attention to detail required from me. That can be daunting, but what it really means is that to make a piece come alive, I need to sit down and pick up the instrument that I am asking to be played. Not only does this make droning or looping sections more active, it often time adds to the overall dynamic of the song. Yes, it is very easy to loop something and make a track rest of on the progression of layers, but to me I can hear the flatness of this and it feels unfinished until there is meaningful movement from non-percussion parts, either in tone, frequency cut-off (filtering), volume, or otherwise. I find that I have done a lot of work on replacing volume dynamics with filter dynamics which can make a song sound fuller or more muddy, it depends on what else is going on.
To me, static instrumentation makes a song sound dull and uninteresting. Oddly enough, I am finding that rock bands are more guilty of playing an organ and not adding any dynamic aspects to it than electronica composers, even when the rockers are actually playing it with their fingers. Even though the “anti-techno” movement from hardcore rockers is long dead for the most part, I still think from time to time about what may have inspired or help tip the anti-techno movement to become a mainstream attitude in the early 90s. Perhaps they heard bad techno, or didn’t hear it on the right medium; you need a sound system capable of reproducing all frequencies, not just midrange or treble the way some folks had their stereos set up back in the day. Listening to electronica on a cheap or misconfigured stereo is not unlike watching a movie on a projector in broad daylight. You’re probably not getting everything that you were intended to get from the movie makers — you’re missing part of the dynamic range. With electronica, a lot of the substance is in the lower frequencies.
The other thing that I wondered about was the auto-pilot approach that a bunch of rock bands had to dynamics with electronic lead sounds. It sounds like some of them just put it on, looped it, run to their other instruments and played the song. No doubt this monotony drove people away from liking it – not just that “it’s cheating” (I don’t think it is or was), but it was boring and lacked life. I know when I hear some new bands doing this, the electronic sound becomes my least favorite sound of an otherwise acceptable song. In fact I find it can get to the point where it’s obnoxiously unchanging. I can’t remember the name of the song, but the Dandy Warhols do this. Perhaps it’s the fault of their producer, or maybe it really is artistic intent, but to me it sounds like compositional neglect. Maybe they need an equivalent of a conductor to bring it all together more cohesively.
Dynamics bring energy and feeling to repetitive parts that need to be repetitive to support other elements that have tonal changes or melodic changes of their own. This is done as a matter of course in most concert bands and symphonies, stated by the composer and interpreted, reinforced and accentuated by the conductor. It is something I am appreciating more and more each time I go to a show or listen to music that has had that care and attention given to it. This is something I do in my own music as a way to make otherwise unrelated parts work together to build something bigger. I also have done this in my design work – things like textures being added on a gradient, or a more complex photo vignetting where the vignette is not light fall-off, but rather color and shadow intensity deepening into the corners. It makes the context more intriguing and adds a complimentary complexity that contributes to the overall end result. I believe it leaves the viewer or listener with a slightly different feeling.
I really enjoy making these cross-media observations and extending theory or practice from one media form to another where it makes sense. Does anyone else have any examples of transferring either theory or practice from one source into another art form? Where did you take from and what did you do with it?

2 thoughts on “conductor”

  1. I think your work as a DJ and an electronic music composer is very much like being an orchestra composer. My little brother is quite the classical music composer prodigy and even though he detests rock music, he can whip together a great sounding rock song if he tries.
    For myself, I’m not talented in any kind of music but I do find that photography and film (video) are starting to merge themselves in my mind. I find myself applying the same principles to video that I have always done with my photography.

  2. Allie: You’re right about it being like a conductor. Slightly more ability to be on autopilot, so one always needs to be aware of the detachment from performance in terms of writing parts that would get ordinary musicians (and conductors) “into the moment” so to speak. This being said, I like to turn on the midi controllers and go through each part of the song playing one instrument at a time and re-recording dynamics to bring more life to the track – I do this to a few key parts that have significant effect and I find it changes everything. Very interesting about your brother’s skill in song-writing – his ability to switch genres and write well in a structure he doesn’t care for is a testament to his skill as a composer. As for photography and video crossing over – I have no experience in video, but I can definitely see what you’d take with you from photography to video in terms of lighting, composition, focus, etc. I’d like to make that leap one day!

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