field recording Torrey pines Michael Lawrence

Field Recording at Torrey Pines

I just got back a few weeks ago from a trip to San Diego, a much-needed respite from the damp winter of the northeastern U.S. I took my handy Zoom H2 recorder with me, and while I was there I was able to get several takes of the Pacific Ocean from Torrey Pines in La Jolla.

 

My favorite part of this recording is the somewhat gurgling sound the water makes as it foams and rolls over the stones along the water’s edge. I’m not certain I’ve ever heard anything like that before.

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A semi-panoramic shot of Torrey Pines. I walked backwards to the car because I just couldn’t stand to turn my back on this site.

 

I’ve learned from experience that, just to be safe, you usually need about three times as much footage as you actually intend to use, so I was at Torrey Pines twice during this trip. The first time I got good footage down by the water, but the weather was worsening and the views weren’t all that great, except for the sea mist, visible in the SoundCloud photo above. This is the footage I ended up using. A few days later the weather was better, and since it was my last day there I asked my friend Bryan, whom I was visiting, if we could head back and record from the top of the cliffs. The views were great but the footage was lackluster–too much wind noise, in spite of the fact that I used a windscreen. I wonder if I didn’t properly secure it.

field recording Torrey pines Michael Lawrence

Field recording at Torrey Pines.

I believe it’s in the movie Shawshank Redemption that it’s said the Pacific Ocean has no memory, and it certainly is placid. As I went back over the footage and put the finishing touches on it (honestly I didn’t do a whole lot to it), I could barely stay awake it was so soothing. Listen to this and let the Pacific Ocean sing you a lullaby.

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The Construction of Fleming Pneumatics

Musicians do various things to support their music-making habits. Some work in bars. Others play in cover bands. (I would shoot myself if I played in a cover band.) I happen to work in the Wanamaker Organ Shop, where we tend to one of the largest pipe organs in the world. I also happen to be one of the assistant organists, so I get to experience two aspects of the activity there.

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Maintenance on the organ is made possible through a partnership between Macy’s and the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ, with the generous support of donors. The Friends put out a quarterly newsletter, The Stentor. A while back I wrote an article for this periodical about something that occupies much of my time at work–the construction of Fleming pneumatics, so-named after William Boone Fleming, superintendent of the L.A. Art Organbuilding Company when this instrument was built, and then the first curator when it was installed and expanded in the Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia. These pneumatics are leather pouches on a wooden body that depress when a signal is sent to play a note, allowing air into the pipe so that it speaks.

The article begins here:

How many steps are there to building a Fleming pneumatic? I actually have no idea. I’m reminded of the desk sign I read once that said, “Do the next thing.” Sometimes that’s the best approach in what can feel like an endless process, one that is bogged down in one hundred years of history and accumulated detritus. Even something as simple as pneumatic construction is not immune from the interminable debates typical of organbuilding discourse, and there may in fact be better ways of approaching this, but I will describe the procedures currently in place. Whether there are improvements in materials or efficiency, it will always be an involved process, and I thought it might be beneficial for our readership to be aware of the labor intensity involved. 

Pneumatics need to be rebuilt every few decades, usually because the leather pouch fails, but the old wooden bodies can be used again, by and large. To do this, the old pneumatics are immersed in extremely hot water so the hide glue holding them together dissolves, allowing the leather and other parts to be removed. This is a filthy job, often performed by several dedicated volunteers. Re-using these old bodies can be problematic, not least because of wide tolerances in size that can even affect valve placement. The good news is that, once finished, they should last for fifty years. Those of us who work here can hope never to rebuild the same pneumatic twice.

Once the old bodies are cleaned, they are ready for sizing and shellacking. The dry rot that affects older wood requires the inside of the pneumatic to be covered in hide glue to seal the pores, while the end grain is naturally porous, hence the shellac. If timed right, these two tasks can be alternated to save time, along with plugging the now-defunct screw adjustment hole, which dates from the time an adjustable spring was used rather than the current high and low pressure designations. The spring hole is also chamfered on the high pressure pneumatics, which keeps moving parts from binding.

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Some of the parts used to make a Fleming pneumatic.

 

A more recent addition is a wooden bridge that strengthens the structure beneath the heel block. On many pneumatics that we’ve been pulling out of the organ, bridges have not yet been installed, so we’ve been busy retrofitting them. 

Once all these steps are completed, the wooden body is sanded so there are no sharp points created by either the wood or the hide glue near the pouch, since this could cut the leather and cause the pneumatic to fail prematurely. After this, a felt bumper is added around the spring hole to cushion the pneumatic when it deflates, and then, using a test screw, the screw slots have to be rasped so the pneumatic can be installed properly in the windchest without the slots being too narrow to fit easily around the screws. Anyone who’s had trouble with this in the windchest knows how frustrating it can be. 

At this point it’s time to prepare the leather to make the pouches, using the proper templates depending on the size of the pneumatic, and using PVC glue to add the felt and leather valve on the outside and the fiber disc on the inside. These fiber discs also need to be drilled out a bit so the shoe pegs that guide the spring will fit. Then the leather is glued on to the body, first at the top and then at the sides. Various jigs are used to ensure that the valve ultimately sits at the right height. The test of this is that the valve will be higher than the heel block when the pneumatic is finished. These height jigs also help to keep the valve parallel with the body.  Excess leather is trimmed, then the springs are installed and held down under weights until the glue dries sufficiently to withstand the tension. The springs themselves can endanger a worker’s sanity. Many are misshapen and uncooperative after several reuses, and others are too small to fit properly in the pneumatic. It is also difficult to tell the difference sometimes between high and low pressure springs, and they are not always clearly labeled. 

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A leather pouch being glued on with the use of a height jig, with some leather cut away for visibility.

When all this is done, the heel blocks are added. Like the main Fleming bodies, these are re-used, being cleaned in a similar manner. Also like the Fleming bodies, they are highly inconsistent in their proportions, which sometimes makes life interesting when applying them. They are finished with a packing leather gasket that seals against the channel in the windchest that exhausts the pneumatic during operation. 

At this point, the leather is sealed with a mixture that is said to be one part RTV silicone and 10 parts naptha, although in practice it may not always be that precise proportion. This helps to preserve the leather and seal the pores in the skin so the pneumatic is more airtight—the number one goal when making them. This solution is difficult to maintain properly over time, so I often let a lot of pneumatics pile up before mixing and applying it. 

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A few finished pneumatics next to my lunchtime reading for the day, Robert Earl Hardy’s excellent bio of Townes Van Zandt.

Finally, the pneumatic is tested for leaks and labeled. This is no slam-dunk. Pneumatics can be faulty for a variety of reasons, and sometimes the source of a leak cannot be chased down at all. That’s usually when I decide to get lunch. 

The construction of these vital parts of the organ is an involved, time-consuming process, probably adding up to two or three man-hours per pneumatic from the time it’s removed until the time it’s returned to the organ—no small amount of time when you multiply by the thousands of pouches that are in this instrument, each operating only one note. In the recent choir restoration, there were a grand total of 798 #1 sized pneumatics required alone, among others. All that work to make one division play! As an organist, I’ve gained a great perspective on what it really takes to make even one note function properly. All the more reason to practice just a little more carefully. The construction process is repetitive and can seem interminable. One of my coworkers visited me at my desk one afternoon and started singing, “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” After I shushed him, he said, “Well, that’s what it’s like to make Flemings.” He’s right, but with enough time and patience, we’ll get them all done, even the ones with the mystery leaks. 

60 Minute Cities–Philadelphia Now Available on SoundCloud

Although this blog has been pretty quiet lately, my life has not been. Don’t worry, it’s all good stuff, but with the number of irons I’ve had in the fire–applying to grad school, starting a new part time job, etc.–I simply haven’t had time to write. But last night I discovered that my field recording album, 60 Minute Cities–Philadelphia, is now available for free on SoundCloud, so I figured that now is as good a time as any to hop back on here and get back in the blogging game. Here is the link to the entire album:

If you like this record, please consider buying it–there’s a tab to purchase it right on the SoundCloud page. I haven’t tested this out yet, but chances are good that the files you get with the purchase are higher quality, as sites like SoundCloud tend to compress everything. Not only that, a purchase helps to support my work and the work of Terrence Lloren at Bivouac Recording in Shanghai. It’s only five bucks.

Featured sounds include the impromptu championship celebration the night the Eagles won the NFC championship, the now-defunct mechanical Solari board at 30th St. Station, a variety of window air conditioners in South Philly, and the Founder’s Bell, which sits atop One Sound Broad here in Philly. To learn more about this project, click on the 60 Minute Cities Philly category on this blog, or search for #60minutecitiesphilly on Twitter and Instagram.

Thank you for your support. Every play and purchase means a lot to me.

WHYY Local Music Project

Here in Philly, WHYY, one of the city’s public radio stations, has a Local Music Project to feature the work of musicians in the area during voiceover announcements, irrespective of genre. Someone recently tipped me off to its existence, and the station agreed to feature my Flute Scherzo for pipe organ. I am very grateful for their interest. Please visit the link above and check out not only my profile but the other musicians as well. And tune in to WHYY and keep your ears open for the Flute Scherzo.

Favorite Music Books

I love books. If it weren’t for music I’d love books more than anything in the world. I have too many of them, and having moved twice in the past two years, I can say for sure that they comprise the bulk of my possessions. So why not talk about some of my favorite music books? I’ll just sit here in my living room and glance at the shelves and briefly describe the ones that catch my eye.

 

Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise and Listen to This

Ross mirrors my background in that he grew up listening to classical music and only moved into other genres in adulthood. In The Rest is Noise he writes on 20th century music with passion, like he really listens to this stuff to put his heart, mind, and soul back together. There is not a hint of snobbery in his approach. Maybe this is because, while getting into heady avant-garde music, he does not eschew more popular composers like Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, or because he relates the music to what was going on in history at the time. Whatever it is, Ross brings new enthusiasm to many musical styles that have been weighed down by the popular perception that they’re dry or academic or even hostile to the audience.  If anything could soften a cantankerous Romanticist’s attitude towards modern music, this book might be it.

Listen to This was a major stepping stone for me. Ross interviews a number of contemporary artists such as Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, who confesses an admiration for Olivier Messiaen–an influence that can be heard in their album Kid-A. In fact much of this book encouraged me to bridge or even transcend genres in my own work. Unfortunately a quick glance at the table of contents reveals that I don’t remember a whole lot about its specific contents, but I’ll never forget the change of mind it created in me. Among other things, I learned a new respect for pop artists and how substantive their music can be. I might have to revisit this one soon.

 

H.C. Robbins-Landon: 1791: Mozart’s Last Year

Everything you know from the movie Amadeus is wrong, such as the supposed rivalry between the protagonist and Antonio Salieri. Robbins-Landon undoes a lot of the myth-making surrounding Mozart’s death, which might make for less dramatic movies but also for more beautiful story lines, such as the fact that shortly after Mozart’s death, Salieri used many of his Masses for the various coronation services throughout the Hapsburg Empire at the accession of Emperor Franz Joseph II. Sounds to me like he was anything but a rival.

Another mind-blowing fact from this book: Shortly before Mozart got sick he was appointed to become the next Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna whenever his would-be predecessor, Leopold Hoffman, should die. This would have allowed him to make a living from something other than commissions, which then would have given him more freedom in his compositional style. Like the public of today, the aristocracy of Mozart’s time knew what they liked, and liked what they knew, so Mozart was somewhat unfulfilled in writing their ditties. He lamented in a letter to his wife Constanza (is there a more beautiful name than that?) shortly before he died that now that he finally was going to have the freedom to compose as he wished, he had to die. One of the greatest composers of Western history looked down on his own music.

 

Robert Sherlaw-Johnson: Messiaen

A lot of information about Messiaen focuses on biographical details, which surprises me because I don’t think his life was particularly interesting, save for a few episodes, like writing the Quartet for the End of Time in a prisoner of war camp. He was a deep thinker about music but not much of a reader. He owned two books: the Bible, and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. When it comes to his music, writers are often content to speak of it in almost mystical fashion, making a few mentions of the modes of limited transposition and leaving it at that. Maybe this makes the subject matter seem more profound to some people.

But Johnson doesn’t fall for it. He pulls back the veil in the temple, so to speak, and discusses Messiaen’s actual compositional approach. The direct path turns out to be far more fascinating than the mystical one.

Besides components such as his system of scales and his borrowing of Eastern rhythms, Messiaen was pretty much a finger composer–deciding on chords on a case-by-case basis by virtue of their timbre. There was no systematic theory of harmony that went along with his modes, but don’t let this “finger composing” seem too easy. It’s actually quite difficult to compose the way Messiaen did and still have the music make sense. Thoughtless randomness will not work, not even in supposedly-dissonant music.

 

Christopher Hogwood: Handel

I’m not much of a Handel fan. I don’t know if my contrarian spirit dislikes his popularity, or if I’m just more of a Bach guy–or if I’ve played too many weddings. This could be viewed a number of different ways, all of which run the risk of coming off as polemical. But I will plead that I am in good company–Brahms. He subscribed to periodicals featuring music from the Baroque era, and when something new by Bach would come in, he set aside whatever else he was looking at, Handel included, and turned to “Old Bach,” as he called him.

After reading Hogwood’s biography, though, I found new respect for Handel. His work ethic was like Mozart’s without the mania. His sense of humor was hilarious: “Welcome back!” he once said to a tenor whose errant voice wandered through several keys before arriving in the correct one. He had more business sense than most musicians then or now. There’s a lot to admire about Handel, even before you get to those gorgeous aria melodies in The Messiah that are too often beaten to death by conductors (or soloists?) who don’t know how to dance.

 

Arnold Schoenberg: Style and Idea

Reading Schoenberg, like reading Nietzsche, usually feels like getting an electrical shock. He is blunt, opinionated, and sometimes obnoxious. A little goes a long way before exhaustion sets in. But as with Nietzsche, Schoenberg is worth the effort, and there’s never any reason to wonder what he’s really thinking.

Style and Idea is a collection of Schoenberg’s essays on music, his own and that of others. Two of my favorite take-aways:

–Brahms the Progressive. Schoenberg points out the asymmetry in Brahms’s work, particularly in phrasing. He argues that there are tendencies in Brahms that point to the future, in spite of his interest in early music and his desire to emulate the best contrapuntists in the Western canon. This casts serious doubt on any rigid conception of Brahms as a Romanticist or a neo-classicist, two mostly-mistaken categorizations I’ve heard repeatedly. No good music, of course, could simply live in the past, which is why everyone knows Brahms but almost no one knows the Caecilians.

–Throughout the book, Schoenberg rails against listeners who focus on what he calls the surface-level impressions of music. They get lost in snapshots that sound harsh, rather than following closely how the themes work. They hear the “dissonance” but not how it came to be. Most people just want music that sounds nice and goes “straight to the feet.” I guess not much has changed in the past half-century.

It is important to note that Schoenberg wrote not of composing dissonant music but rather of emancipating the dissonance. In his mind, there was no dissonance, just themes worked out to their logical conclusions, regardless of any resulting harmony. Interestingly, this is similar to the approach used in Medieval and early Renaissance music, where more attention was paid to each individual line and not the “chord,” per se.

 

There’s a whole pile of books I could write about, but this is a good start. I can’t claim to remember everything about them, or even to get all the facts right–and feel free to correct me. If, however, this short list contributes a little bit of understanding, or lights a small fire of inspiration for someone, that’s good enough for me.

 

 

Somerton Beats

I recently visited Somerton, a community in the farthest northeast reaches of the City of Philadelphia. As I waited for the return train downtown, I noticed one of the public address speakers malfunctioning and emitting a remarkably rhythmic sound. So I pulled out my phone and started recording. Sometimes our environment has already composed music for us to hear, and we just have to capture it somehow.

Last night I finally sat down to mix and master this track in Cubase. I spent a lot of time with the EQ to avoid unwanted white noise and distortion, but without hollowing out the sound and making it sound unnatural. I’ll also admit that I ducked the fader during the train arrival to get extra headroom in the mix so that I could add more gain during the mastering process. I find the more I make recordings, the more aggressive I get with the EQ and the more headroom I aim for. It can make the mixing process seem interminable but then the mastering process is so much smoother.

 

Blaze, the Movie

Blaze Foley was killed in a drunken gunfight at the age of 39. His assailant, Carey January, was acquitted by reason of self-defense. The story only gets sadder from there.

Ethan Hawke, whose love of outlaw country was unknown to me until now, has teamed up with Foley’s former love, Sybil Rosen, and told the story of this Texas songwriter’s strange life in a movie now out from Sundance Select simply entitled Blaze. It takes plenty of liberties but is largely based on Rosen’s book about Foley, Living in the Woods in a Tree.

Hawke relates that the project got started when he was hanging out with Ben Dickey, a Little Rock native who once lived in Philly and whose band had recently broken up. Dickey played through a Blaze Foley song, and when he finished, Hawke suggested that he play Foley in a movie about his life, even though he had no acting experience.

From my perspective, the movie is anchored by many scenes from Blaze’s last show at the Austin Outhouse. Incidentally, this show was recorded and it’s the record of Foley’s that I constantly return to when I’m eager to hear his voice. Some commentators have said the movie jumps around mysteriously, but in my opinion it still holds together. It’s neither a puzzle like Pulp Fiction nor semi-mystical like Field of Dreams, but more closely reflects the manner in which someone might reminisce about various times in their life. A radio interview of Townes Van Zandt and Blaze’s friend Zee (a composite character of several different people) provides further context, almost like color commentary.

The romance between Blaze and Sybil is portrayed as almost idyllic in the beginning, the couple nestled in a rent-free treehouse in bucolic surroundings. But after two moves to Austin and Chicago strained their bond, Sybil painfully breaks it off, and this seems to be a downward turning point for Blaze, both musically and personally. For me this added new context to several of Blaze’s songs. “If I Could Only Fly,” one of his most beautiful works, was written for Sybil after Blaze spent a lot of time on the road and left her home alone with almost no idea of when he would return. In the context of the movie it’s almost unbearably beautiful to listen to, and Dickey gets the cadence of Foley’s delivery exactly right.

We like to say that artists are tormented. Townes Van Zandt was tormented. Charles Bukowski was tormented. But Blaze reached a whole new level. He was driven totally bananas. “He only went crazy once,” Townes famously said. “Decided to stay.”

This frequently came out in his drinking. An abusive childhood might have been in the mix as well. The music that we put into the background with our earbuds was often written at a very high price, and this could not be more true for this movie’s protagonist.

Blaze suffered in obscurity almost more than anyone else I can think of, although admittedly much of it was self-inflicted. Townes was obscure but not this obscure. Charles Bradley was a late bloomer but lived to see some success. The movie depicts Blaze burning the bridge with the one record label that gave him a chance. This, unfortunately, is not an uncommon story.

The makers of this movie admit that parts of it are fictionalized. Still, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with certain aspects of it. Townes Van Zandt’s personality strikes me as a bit off key in this performance, self-serving and oleaginous. This isn’t the Townes I’m familiar with from Heartworn Highways and Be Here to Love Me, but maybe I’m missing something. During the radio interview he takes credit for recording Live at the Austin Outhouse. Did he actually do it? Did he actually make that claim? Why did Zee walk out of the interview when he said this? This wasn’t the only grandiose statement attributed to Van Zandt in the movie. An interesting note at the end of the movie thanks the Van Zandt estate for permission to use his songs in spite of their objection to some of the portrayals of Townes in the movie. I did, however, think that Charlie Sexton did a good job of singing Townes’s songs.

In addition, the movie presents a more ponderous version of Blaze at the Austin Outhouse than is apparent from the recording, in which he is upbeat and hilarious, not withstanding the fight that he did in fact get into. His story about Officer Norris, who, as Blaze tells it, arrested him on a trumped-up traffic violation and inspired a song, demonstrates this. You can hear the twinkle in his eye as he talks. But not so much in the movie, in which he is downbeat through the entire set. Maybe both versions of Blaze are true, but we only get one of them in the movie at the Outhouse.

This is still an excellent movie, though. What I think are flaws are small, and Hawke and Rosen’s work is a powerful statement about a genius who was ignored in life and even three decades after his death is still not getting his due. One wonders at the bitterness Blaze must have fought. A telling scene occurs at the Outhouse after he finished his set in a near-empty bar. Another band comes on stage and sings an insipid song that goes, “T is for Texas, T is for Tennessee,” etc, until you feel braindead from the stupidity. By then the bar had filled up, the customers nodding their heads and tapping their feet to the music. Blaze blankly stared at the floor. This, as it turned out, would be the last performance of his life.

I agree with Ethan Hawke that it’s good for people to see a story about a musician who never really made it. Most of the stories in this business do not have a happy, made-for-TV ending, and Blaze was no different. His music wasn’t for foot-tapping or head-nodding; it tapped the heart and the soul and the spirit. That kind of approach doesn’t usually sell very well.

The poetry and the wisdom of his music, the impish sense of humor, the heartiness of his bright baritone voice all suggest the possibility that, had he lived longer, even Blaze Foley might not have been able to stand in his own way. Now, though, not only after the release of covers of his music by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, we also have this movie, and I wonder if his legend will find new life in this wider exposure. He may yet become a star, and although he won’t be around to see it, those of us who’ve admired him may discover that Blaze can, in fact, fly.