Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pianissimo Possibile

When I'm not spending time working on design for our products and clients, I am usually still huddled over my computer exploring electronic music, either in my electro-pop project Microfilm, DJ sets, or my solo music. I recently released a new full-length solo album, Pianissimo Possibile, or ppp ("as quiet as possible"), which compiles about a year and a half of work spent in my home studio. Previously my music has been largely rhythmic if not fully compatible for a dancefloor, but these tracks mark a distinct departure. The unifying thread of this labor of love is the piano — most of the album tracks started in the form of piano improvisations.

All of Pianissimo Possibile as created with Propellerhead Reason 4, with a heavy use of Recycle to cut apart the piano recordings. Basically I started with setting up a single track in Reason, recorded improvisations, and then sliced them into triggerable .rex files with Recycle. Recycle has a limit of 92 slices per .rex file, so in many instances the slices were arbitrary. Sometimes I let the software detect slices and then deleted as many as necessary to reach the limit of 92, while at other times I manually sliced based on how I wanted to treat the piano. Often I made slice points just after the piano hammer strike, which lends a much more artificial "edited" quality to the sample. At times the piano samples are obvious and faithful to the instrument, but at others the sound is manipulated far away from the origin with a variety of edits, effects and treatments. Most of the time the final tune of each track is entirely different than the source improvisation; I experimented with juxtaposing chords and notes out of context to create entirely new compositions.

And The Sky Opened Up by Matthew Mercer

There was an industrial compilation in the early 90s called The Tyranny Of The Beat, and there's some truth in that title; I opted to remove the beat from the equation completely and work my way back to it when it seemed appropriate. The first track I composed for the album is the opener, "Slipping Through The Center Of An Hourglass," which is almost entirely piano samples with only a few other incidental supporting instruments. Ultimately, most of the sounds found on ppp are either manipulated instruments from Reason's built-in library, custom synth sounds for its various devices, or concrete sounds I recorded at home loaded in as treated samples.

So that is essentially the entire framework of ppp: piano-based electronic music that is not intended for a dancefloor. With some of the tracks I deliberately skewed cinematic; the closer "One You Me Too" was also early on in the recording process and is perhaps the most "overblown" sounding of the bunch. But something about its catharsis and big final swoon seemed appropriate for including it here, closing out the album after several more esoteric tracks. Other tracks are almost entirely atmosphere, such as "The Presence Of The Past" or "Your Sun-Faded Photograph," which others are more rhythmic and even playful, such as "Flickering Little Flame" or "My Heart Hopscotched A Beat." The entire album was engineered by Charles Fenech of AngelTheory, who gave the album an extra layer of polish in helping fine-tune the overall sound quality.

To help launch the album after several years of not having put out new solo material, I also released a free 3-track EP called Turbulence, which combines two of the same session tracks that are more aggressive with an old ambient experiment I created using only hardware. Separately, Portland director Byrd McDonald created a gorgeous video for the album track "And The Sky Opened Up." It consists entirely of footage of the Oregon coast which seemed to complement how abrupt and abrasive many of the sounds on the track are, providing a healthy contrast between the digital and the natural. The track itself is available as a free download on Soundcloud.

The entire album is streaming and available for purchase for $7 on my Bandcamp page, and the Turbulence EP is also available there for free download (donation optional). I'm excited to explore new techniques as I move onward from this material, including sketching with ReBirth for iPad as well as new features in Reason 5.

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