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Johny Reinhard: Raven(ing) Remix

The making of Mike Thorne's remix of Johnny Reinhard's 'Raven' (after Edgar Allan Poe)
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In making any piece of music, and especially when on a large production scale, we always rely intimately on other people. Sometimes they are there in the same room, and the bass player will always enjoy the company of the drummer and each will play better for the interaction. Other sonic groupings are almost inseparable. For example, you would not expect to get a great, powerful feel from a four-piece horn section if you didn’t record them at the same time. You can record one instrument at a time, and get the notes right, but each player senses some alienation, and the compromise in sound quality when you record several instruments at once is more than made up for by the improvement in ‘feel’, that intangible understanding that several people are working closely together, and have achieved what a rhythm section would describe as ‘lock’. The key is to acknowledge the tradeoff between accuracy and that still-undefinable thing called ‘feel’, which only comes from several people in a room finding a common musical groove.

Johnny Reinhard’s Raven could not have been delivered without acknowledging the importance of feel: up to seven musicians would be stuck in a tiny room, although with no separating acoustic screens. They were in the same musical and social space. The CD Raven stands tall, and the proposal to remix and shoehorn it into another style sounds suicidal. On such attitude is fine music based. The typical club remix is so inexorably machine-based that it’s hard to imagine common ground between the two, but it seemed worth having a go..

The original recording was completely free from any external tempo reference , although defining its own underlying (and varying) pulse from the musicians and their director. The arrangement is typically exotic, scored for clarinet/tarogato, trombone, saxophone, string bass, gong, bassoon and speaker. A spoken voice declaims selected lines from Poe’s The Raven and always seems to have its own internal authority. Potentially the crassest-sounding part of my whole production was the very beginning, floating a few selected phrases from Paul Savior’s performance over an extremely basic kick drum pattern which repeated every four bars. Potentially embarrassing, but a necessary simple, accessible start.

In the olden days, working with tape as we did, we would have to plan a piece and lay it out in its entirety before starting work. Time was not elastic. Now, recording into computers releases us from rigid planning, even if sometimes with a disorganizing effect. But if you set off with a rough idea of your objective, you can have the luxury of defining every bar as it comes, working the material to its fullest. And you can get some nice surprises with this flexibility and arrive in unexpected places.

Fortune does favor the brave, and after some playing with the tempo and the point at which the spoken phrase started relative to the beat in the bar, it seemed as if a relatively slow speed, almost in the funk zone at 91 beats per minute, was the way to settle. The samples of Paul’s voice, all that he delivered in the original recording, were laid into the track and the starting (or ending point) of each line was adjusted to make it sound as if he had been speaking along with the brand-new, pounding rhythm which was being developed. Although many club mixes take just a few phrases and work them as part of a hypnotic groove, I wanted to go further and combine the power of a club sound with the gothic drama of the original piece mirroring Poe’s original poem. The demands of keeping the dance floor going and creating dramatic contours are very hard to reconcile, as you can hear in much music around you.

Johnny’s original recording, and all of his own music including his forthcoming realization of Ives’ Universe Symphony, are microtonal. This means that the notes used are not equal distances apart, the so-called twelve-equal tuning, but adjusted to give more resonant relationships between them. Many possible and often-used scales don’t even have twelve notes, and a note’s exact tuning often depends on where you are coming from harmonically. That’s a long story, and it’s difficult to explain while shouting over the sound system at the club bar…..

The supporting music, that which would be added to samples of other instruments taken from Johnny’s original, would sound pretty banal if it just went between the keys of A and E all the time. This called for an old-style synthesizer that could work in microtones, or at least could be tuned in between the cracks of the conventional scales. The Serge Modular synthesizer on the wall of the studio was ideal. Its disadvantage is that you are forever trying to tune it accurately when working with conventional music. But this became an advantage when sounds were created that had an indefinite pitch, or were designed to vary in sometimes random ways.

I don’t even know what the bass notes are on the final recording, only that I fiddled with the tuning and modulation options until they sounded right. As the subsequent layers were heaped on, this tuning would be adjusted, again just to sound right. Beats a piano. The ‘bass’ department is two sounds coming simultaneously from the Serge (the modular synth can handle up to eight complex and individually performable sounds in the configuration at the Stereo Society studio). To make them sound even more gigantic, we ran the recording through a second time, and the obligingly ornery synthesizer didn’t do the same thing twice. Beats digital.

The sound from the Serge is always gritty, much more powerful than the smooth-sounding boxes that you can buy to drive from a (MIDI) keyboard. Maybe there are similar sounds left over from the picture at the right, New York University’s construction site (background) and demolition site of Poe’s former house (foreground) on West Third Street in New York City’s West Village. For their demolition of a classic row of old houses, one of which was preserved as a Poe museum, New York University receives the honorable dedication of my remix, Ravening. The street looks a good deal different from their cute sales brochures and Web site pages designed to lure students to their business premises.

But now back to serious matters. I needed a tune with a detune, a figure that would serve as a recognizable motif, but with an unsettled sense of pitch. An ethnically metallic sample from a Planet Earth sound module was promising, but feeding it through a machine setup to twist its pitch in variable and unpredictable ways set the scene. The structure was beginning to surface, given the sequence of the lyrical fragments, and the overall length of the first draft was about six minutes.

Johnny’s original recording was in one sense a set of samples that many remixers might kill for. Where else, for example, might you find a tarogato, the Turkish double-reed instrument that was reputedly used to frighten off birds? Such sounds make Johnny’s bassoon sound positively prosaic. The wail which hits in the remix after the speaker’s ‘devil’ remark is a combination of all three wind instruments on the session going at it. Naturally, on the remix there is not just the original sound but a lower addition of the same sound, played a fourth down on the keyboard which keeps the microtonal faith but thickens the arrangement in a way which could never have been played.

Inevitably, as one new idea followed another, each demanded yet more space. You get an idea and if it stands up to inserting into the piece, you’ll suddenly find yourself adding sixteen bars or more, and particularly if it’s a musical idea that overlaps and combines well with already-existing material. In this way, Ravening grew to its final length of just over nine minutes. I hope I have realized my goal of providing a track that you can listen to, but also one that you can wave yourself around to.

– MT October 26 2001