5 min read

The Hope Valley Scramble

train carriage with an attached sign reading 'the hope valley'

I dropped off my weekly posting schedule here. This was down to a combination of my music-making time either being taken up with a project I am not allowed to talk about, or sorting out my live show. The latter I thought would be full of bits and pieces I could document here, but I ended up changing my mind every other day about what that I was doing, and so nothing seemed coherent or settled enough to be worth writing about.

Yesterday I spent a day at 65HQ doing various 65 things. This is good for many reasons, not least the train commute through the Hope Valley (in the Peak District). Not because of the valley itself, as pretty as it is, but because of the 50ish minutes of focus it somehow provides me. I feel like I have written about this before somewhere (?) Can't find it now though.

I don't want to give anybody who is reading this from outside the north of England the idea that the public transport infrastructure here is ok, because it is not, it is entirely fucked. When trains aren't cancelled they are mostly late or have half the amount of carriages they ought to. Or they're once an hour. Maybe two hours on the weekend. And this is being based in Manchester, not some small town on the outskirts. Can't wait for Keir Starmer to change some train logos, stick a few union jacks on the branding and pretend it's being nationalised for four years while nothing gets cheaper or less broken.

BUT. Since I'm lucky enough to somehow still be in a band instead of doing something more sensible with my life, it means I can skip travelling during rush hours. AND, I must be some kind of train unicorn because at one particular time of the day, a double-sized train (for Londoners, imagine a train with about 1/8th the amount of carriages your trains have) travels between Manchester to Sheffield, dividing into two trains somewhere later on. This means that not only am I usually able to get a seat, but it is sometimes even a seat at a table, and sometimes in a carriage that is barely half full. It is almost as if the entire situation is about helping people move from one place to another in a peaceful fashion. I guess the engine must be powered by the tears of weeping shareholders or something. It won't last. They'll find a way to make it worse soon I'm sure.

ANYWAY. I didn't intend for this to be a post about trains. The point is, over the years a lot of music has been written going one way or another between Sheffield and Manchester on that train line. And so yesterday in the morning was spent throwing together some Polinski MIDI clips and sorting out some audio routing, and then on the way back I finally had a run through of the set for my show this Friday. (INFO/TICKETS.)

It's full of bangers and it's gonna be fine.

I really went round the long way round in putting this together. Ambition got the better of me, as did a desperate desire to not just be yet another middle-aged guy looking seriously at a computer while nobody can really tell what I am doing. But the truth of the matter is, I am a middle-aged guy and I am very often to be found looking seriously at a computer, and rarely is it at all clear what I am doing.

The various other plans I had were some strong ideas and will perhaps make for some good posts here once I build up the energy to return to them. I made a pretty epic Max patch, and it even works properly and doesn't crash my computer, which is unusual for me. But I spent so long making the system that, if I played the show using that, all I'd really be able to do is press play and let it run by itself and even though it would be recreating my tunes in quite a complicated way under the hood, as it stands they'd just sound like pre-recorded versions of my tracks. Which kind of defeats the point. Here's what it looks like at the point I pressed pause on it:

I got pretty involved in a Wwise/Unity-based diversion where I started turning my Matte Flex video into a live framework. This, I humbly submit, remains a great idea. But it is going to take a while. And maybe is something better suited to streaming or sharing as software rather than a real-life live show. So it's getting added to the never-ending list of weird little noise projects I want to undertake someday.

What all this means is that, in the end, on Friday I'll be running my live show inside of Ableton Live. I'm not quite sure why I was so resistant to it in the first place. It is what I use for composing 99% of the time. It is what powers 65daysofstatic's live shows. I know it inside out and can use its Max for Live API to add in all kinds of non-linear/non-grid-based/generative stuff should I want to.

I think probably I just got sidetracked by the TopLap manifesto and their 'show us your screens!' ethos. Which I do very much admire. I am all for transparency and de-mystifying the various processes of making music. But I don't really want to share a screen that is just the Ableton Live UI. One thing Ableton doesn't do is look cool in the kind of hacker-warez aesthetic that most live coding set-ups do and which I am an absolute sucker for. It is also true that in Ableton it is trivial to 'press play' on some pre-written material and just pretend to be doing something when in fact, you're doing nothing at all. A long time ago I read a good paper about this by Renick Bell and Adam Parkinson: Deadmau5, Derek Bailey, and the Laptop Instrument – Improvisation, Composition, and Liveness in Live Coding. In fact, now that I think of it, I once did a talk/performance at an academic conference that cited this paper and talked about a thing called spectromorphology and the social relations at play during live shows and the eternal problem of performing 'live' electronic music. My talk was called If In Doubt, Make it Loud. Which I absolutely stand by as a fundamental principle when it comes to music-making. Spectromorphology was cool too, from what I remember. Perhaps I'll go hunting for some of this in my hard drive graveyard, see if I can dig up anything as grist for The K.N.R.U's noise-mill...

Ok. It is such a struggle to get myself to write here in thinking-as-I-type mode rather than presentation-mode, but I wanted to show some proof of life, so here it is. Now I shall go and fix all the remaining problems in my live set.

See you on Friday if you're around! If not, I'll try to record it if I have the wherewithal. And if people are interested (tell me in the comments!) I'll add some kind of deconstruction of how I built the Ableton project to my list of future posts.