Synth Improv

Wednesday night I headed into the studio and sat down to improvise on the synthesizer. I always let the tape roll on nights like this, since you never know when the magic is gonna happen. Sometimes it’s at the unlikeliest of times. Last night, for instance, I was running out of steam and played something out of frustration that seemed like sheer babble at first, but gradually it turned into something. I don’t know yet if it’s any good, but if it is, I’ve got it in the can. That’s why the tape is always rolling. There are other segments that are likely monuments to my own stupidity, but I can delete those before anyone else hears them–assuming I can properly identify them.

I got nine improvs down Wednesday night, maybe not quite an hour’s worth of material. Here’s a little more than a minute of it. I hope you like it.


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Trolley Drone

Since I got back from California, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to record, but this is why I keep a stash of old footage–it is actually a folder labeled “stash”–that I can consult when the well runs dry. Last week I found a drone sound that I recorded on the Trolley in Philly.

While this is technically a field recording, it almost seems like a noise composition, since the sound goes through a number of changes throughout the take. But I didn’t compose it, I just captured it.

New Video from 60 Minute Cities–Philly

I’ve added a video of still shots to go along with the soundtrack of 30th St. Station and its now-defunct Solari board from 60 Minute Cities–Philadelphia, an album of field recordings of iconic places in the City of Brotherly Love. You can watch it here:


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Do you find music “relaxing”?

Do you find music “relaxing”? I suspect a lot of people do.

I don’t.

A few years ago I played a few selections from Townes Van Zandt’s Live at the Old Quarter, my favorite record of his and one that got me through a particularly rough time in my life, for a friend of mine.

“Oh, that’s soooooo relaxing,” he said.

It wasn’t the reaction I expected to a record that rearranged my head every time I listened to it.

Another time, I played a recording of the Monks of Heiligenkreuz in Austria singing Gregorian chant. These monks have a bright timbre that’s invigorating to listen to. One of the people listening with me fell asleep, and when he awoke from his cat nap mentioned to the other how relaxing the music was. I was dumbfounded because listening to Gregorian chant always makes me feel weightless, like I could fly to the moon–slowly, of course.

These reactions are well-meaning, and not unusual, and many record companies have capitalized on them, using album titles that invite the listener to fall asleep, meditate, turn into a puddle on the floor, or whatever, while listening to these records.

If you ask me, this is vandalism, and a tumor of consumerism. Most of these composers wrote music because their very lives (lives, not livelihood) depended upon it. Or, as Guy Clark said once, so that he wouldn’t blow his own brains out. And how do we thank these artists? By anesthetizing ourselves with their work.

How would Shakespeare or Hemingway have felt if someone had told them they like to fall asleep to their writing? Is that a compliment?

All authors are at the mercy of their readers, and the same is true for musicians. In fact I think music gets treated worse than possibly any other art: if we’re not falling asleep to it, it’s merely in the background while we shop or have a dinner party–mostly, it seems, to keep the scary existential thoughts at bay.

This makes me wonder if most people even like music. Why do we keep it at a safe distance the way we do, treating it as sleep medication? Can we not stand the beauty? Is it too much of a rebuke to the dreariness of daily life? Are we afraid to feel the pain that might come from paying too much attention to the lyrics or that one bent, sour note that captures a wistful feeling far better than any words could?

I don’t think a song that’s soothing on the surface has to make us comatose: a sad song, for example, can be cathartic and pleasurable–even invigorating. I listen to music because it sets my guts on fire, because it makes me glad to be alive, because it makes every cell in my body vibrate a thousand times a second. For me this is just as true with Gregorian chant and Townes Van Zandt as it is with AC/DC and Stravinsky. I would never cheat music of its power by calling it relaxing.

If I want to sleep, I take a melatonin pill.

Another Field Recording from San Diego

You might be so used to them that they’re almost white noise by this point. It’s easy to take audible pedestrian signals for granted, but if you listen, there’s rhythm and music even in these, um, pedestrian things. I recorded a lot of them in San Diego. They’re very similar to the ones in Kansas City. Unfortunately only a little of my footage from San Diego was usable, the rest having been compromised by wind noise, and there wasn’t a satisfactory way to remove the unwanted sound without giving up other important elements of the recording. Here’s what worked after going through the footage last night in the studio:

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.


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.

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.


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.


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. 


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. 


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.