Production Notes: de/Still

de/Still was not my idea.

I became aware of TJ Norris through his amazing music review site, Toneshift; researching him more, I learned about his photography. As we started to chat and became familiar with each other’s work, he approached me with a fascinating suggestion for a project: To score one of his photography series, “Urban Juxtaposition.”

It was to be like a score, but rather to a film, to his body of work, which was entirely still imagery. After some discussions, it was TJ that hit upon the title de/still.

It took some time and iteration to hit upon the approach I should take as a composer/musician. I first started down a road of one piece of music per photo…but with dozens of photos, it was a huge curatorial problem and seemed too narrow in focus. I then considered interpreting photos as a visual score…but that seemed too literal, and also focused on a small number of images.

What I settled on instead was interpreting the themes in the photos, and express them as textural motifs. To my eyes, TJ’s work reveals different time scales merged together, environments pockmarked with the patina of wear, layers of meaning stacking up over time, and those odd collisions of context that urban centers are so uniquely good at. It all started to feel like tension to me…not always bad, but always there, pulsing, pushing, moving, exhaling. (Little did I know that this album would be released during a time when urban life has been upended by a global pandemic.)

I started wanting to take a collage/nouvelle concréte approach. I wanted to make the work feel like the many-layered billboard, the infinitely-tagged wall, the scraped-up loading dock, the infinite warped reflections in office building windows. Writer Marc Weidenbaum, who wrote the essay in the liner notes, picked up on these aspects. Palimpsests, indeed.

 Then, all I had to do was, well, you know…make the thing.

Technique and Instruments

This project started off pretty poorly, to be honest. Even once I figured out my general approach, I had at least three false musical starts. I eventually settled on merging three main elements into an urban juxtaposition of my own: ten years’ worth of urban field recordings, electronic textures, and distressed acoustic elements. (This approach of “texture as motif” became the centerpiece the next album I made after de/still…more on that at the end of this essay.) These would be the textural motifs that would define the work. The overlap and interactions of these elements started to congeal and hold their own form, creating their own interesting tension, expressing very much what I’ve liked about living in urban environments. 

Like TJ’s photos, I wanted to ensure very little was clean and pristine, so post-processing was a huge part of this project. I used distortion effects, dictaphones, hand-cranked tape players and granular samplers, but still tried to maintain some connection back to the sounds’ original sources if one focused on them. Those original sounds include my own handmade instruments, kemenche (Turkish spike fiddle), upright piano, Fender Rhodes, guitar, dulcimer, found objects, and more.

Some of the acoustic instruments used on “de/still.”

Inspired by my approach on my previous album, Shades, I chose to totally dispense with a locked tempo for several of the pieces. This was an outgrowth of loving the warble and warp of unsynced events and tape loops; phrases still repeat within one voice, but not locked against anything else. There were no layout grids in TJ’s work, so I tried to dispense with them in some of mine. 

The field recordings are from cities all over the world – from rural towns in México to Dublin, Ireland – but most are from the San Francisco Bay Area. That was my own nod to the urban centers that most influenced my own creative development. Careful listeners will pick out unique sonic signatures of San Francisco, especially.

Shortwave and FM radio recording sessions for “de/still,” using the Koma Electronik FieldKit.

I also decided, since TJ’s work is all about layers blurring together, that the ideal format of the album was to be continuous, as one long work.

Recording, Mixing, and Mastering

Most of the physical instruments were recorded either with a Sennheiser MKH50 or an Audio-Technica AT4050 microphone through API and Neve pre-amps. Some were re-recorded with dictaphones (sometimes two at once) or through small three-watt practice amplifiers for space and grit. A lot of the processing was done with the Make Noise Morphagene sampler module, the Ciat Lonbarde Cocoquantus dual delay, or even just played back with a tape player while manipulating the take-up reel’s hub with my fingers.

On the electronic side, I used a combination of Eurorack synthesizer modules and the SOMA Lyra-8 synthesizer. Some of the seemingly acoustic instruments are sampler instruments, and I liked the combination of the two; especially after tape or granular manipulation, the difference seemed moot, and the textures were all that mattered. 

The SOMA Lyra-8 synthesizer is all over “de/still.”

Some of the seemingly acoustic instruments are sampler instruments, and I liked the combination of the two; especially after tape or granular manipulation, the difference seemed moot, and the textures were all that mattered. 

Noise is clearly a big texture in this work. I used so many distortion units of various types that it’s both impossible and infeasible to list them all. But I also mixed and processed shortwave radio, electronic noise generators, and field recordings to often sound like one another. Even things that might seem studio-recorded or melodic were sometimes recorded in the field, like the drunken street trumpeter that opens the album.

The mastering was handled by Stephan Mathieu at Schwebung Mastering. His own deep-drone and experimental musical practice made him feel like a perfect match. He was a complete pleasure to work with: responsive, respectful, and just added enough glue to congeal my collage-like mixes into something that felt cohesive, akin to the post processing that unifies the different layers of TJ’s photographs.

What’s Next

I teased de/still in my production notes for Shades, and once again I can tease another upcoming album. The acoustic instruments used in this album will be laid much more bare, and radically expanded, in my next release. I have been working with musical contributors for nearly a year on this project (a first for me), which – as I hope you’ve now come to expect – will result in something that is, once again, very different from my past work. After the distortion of Shades, Lazulum, and now de/still, I’m definitely taking you somewhere different with the next album. It will also be my first release on vinyl.

After that, there is a planned return to entirely electronic music in 2021, as well as more acoustic adventures. Stay tuned, and thanks as always for taking this journey with me.