Currently, I’m dog-sitting my mom’s two little dogs — Annie, a senior dachshund mix, and Ludi (Ludwig van Beethoven), a 9-month-old dachshund puppy. Combine them with my two little mutts and you’ve got a pile o’ dogs. Ludi is still very much a puppy, which makes it a bit difficult to spend time in the studio, where there’s no way I’ll be able to pay attention to what he’s doing. I fear for all the things (cords! guitars! subwoofer! bins of cables!). In fact, during the writing of this post, his behavior caused me need to search “stimming for dogs,” which should tell you something.

Four small dogs on beds and blankets in front of a wood stove
It’s a dog’s world, and I’m just living in it.

So today will be for writing in various forms: blog post(s), and working on a minimum viable score for my upcoming show in Chicago with my lovely friend Henna Chou. Here’s the blurb about what we’re doing:

Alison Wilder (electronics) + Henna Chou (cello), reuniting after 20 years of long-distance musical friendship, will premiere “On Sand,” a 3-movement improvisational electroacoustic work that asks questions like “what if we rejected language after it hurt us the first time?” and “how can we remember and tell stories without bodies?”

For my part, I’ve been working on crafting a setup that will allow for about 40 minutes of improvisational music that Henna and I can create in real time together. Although we’ve been long distance friends for 15 or 20 years, to the best of either of our memories, we’ve never played music together before. (Well, short of a hedonistic moving drum circle that spontaneously occurred very late at night after a transcendent show where both of our bands opened for a really great Swedish band. If I’m recalling correctly, which I absolutely may not be.)

Because I am who I am, and putting together sound worlds is kind of my thang, I’ve been working to create a series of sound worlds that we can live in for those 40 minutes. Difficulty level: I want to actually perform music instead of button-pushing. Challenging! Although it would be easiest to throw some droney pads and weird samplers into Ableton and call it a day, I’m attempting a more songwriterly/composerly approach to the piece. That means that, instead of just showing up and jamming, I’m putting in some serious effort.

Last time I played a full-on improvisational/noise/experimental show was…we’ll just say “awhile back.” And “showing up and jamming” is a pretty apt description of the approach I took to these sorts of shows back then! 🙂

The date on the photos says 2009, which…maaaybe is correct? I performed John Zorn’s Cobra with a big, fun group led by Dan Blacksberg at the Rotunda, a delightful community arts space in West Philly. In those days, I wouldn’t have dreamed of using a computer to do a show like this. That said, this was a minimal setup for me — a Nord Electro and a couple of pedals.

This Cobra show is coming up for me at the moment because, in my memory, it’s emblematic of modern experimental improvisational music: it was an absolute blast to perform, sometimes even felt transcendent, but I don’t think it could stand the re-listening test. Meaning, when you listen back to a recording, that transcendence is gone, and the music is either boring, or muddled, or pure chaos, or has fleeting moments of music surrounded by not-really-music. (To be fair, I don’t have a recording of this performance and am relying my memory. Maybe it really was music, all the way through.)

So, as you may have guessed by now, I have complicated feelings about modern improvisational music. On the one hand, conceptually, I find it to be extremely compelling, for all the reasons improvising is GREAT. On the other hand, it almost always falls short for me, musically. Please note that this is 100% personal and not a reflection on the (stupid and useless) question of “What Is Objectively Good Music?”

Pierre Schaeffer, my favorite musique concrète composer, wrote that he never felt like he reached his goal of making actual music with found sound. His statement is complicated by his historical position in the world of 20th-century European art music, but given that my training took place in that world too, I understand what he meant. Music can provide a unique and glorious sense of mental play. But making that happen generally isn’t easy, even using tools that are meant to do it (tools like organs and…shudder…saxophones). Trying to make it happen with bits of environmental sound is almost impossible.

Of course, the piece I’m working on to perform with Henna has the advantage of modern computing. Take that, Pierre! I’m using Ableton with a Push controller and creating a project that allows me to treat the session like one big instrument…no pre-recorded sequences allowed. I’m using some bits of pre-recorded music, but I’m using them more like found sound to be woven with, not as a complete tapestry unto themselves. (Sorry for the gooey poetic language, I can’t think of less pretentious-sounding way to say it at the moment.)

I’m also using a couple of soft synths and/or Max patches, possibly sometimes controlled by an EWI, depending on whether I have time to work it in. I’m wishing for my hardware synths every time I work on the piece, but I’m definitely not taking any synths on the plane this time.

I’m super grateful that Henna asked me to do this show, because preparing for it has forced my hand in terms of figuring out a way to perform live in a way that satisfies my current musical inclinations. While I’m probably not mostly going to perform in the experimental/improvisational music setting (although who knows!), the tools and methods I’m coming up with for this show are almost completely transferable to the sorts of music I make as Blix Byrd, and with Doctor Body.

So once this Chicago show is wrapped, I’ve decided that, instead of taking all the material I’ve started for the next Blix Byrd release directly into the studio, I’m going to work it up as a live show first. This is a direction I’ve wanted to go in for awhile, and I’ve worked hard to make my studio/life ready for this sort of approach, so I’m thrilled to see a path to do it

So if you’re reading this and want a Blix Byrd and/or Doctor Body show in, say, six months, hit me up. Hopefully I won’t have to take any mother fucking synths on any mother fucking planes.

After focusing on the Blix Byrd show that happened last weekend at Nova Arts, I’m now able to turn my attention to future music-making. Because that show featured tracks from the last Blix Byrd album, which was very much a super-crafted studio creation, it was tough to put it together in a way that made sense. I’ll post some video soon so you can judge for yourself how it worked. (Thanks a bajillion to Greg Wilder for making it way better with his mad scientist brain and insane keyboard skillz!!)

But the experience made me re-evaluate how I want to make music — and after 12 years of not performing/rehearsing, I was reminded how important real-time music creation is. Without it, you miss some of the best parts of making music. And I realized that I want performing to be part of the process from top to bottom. To that end, I’ve got my studio all re-set for my next round of projects.

DAW-less, bay-beeee!

The impetus for this re-vamp, which involves just a couple of new pieces of gear, was to cut out the computer from the process until everything is sounding great, and audio is ready to be recorded in very large chunks. So, it’s a bit of a back-to-the-past approach, when the DAW was used as a tape machine instead of a composition tool. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Sitting at the computer and moving things around is sooo tedious, and like most millennials, it’s what I do for work, so I like to stay away from it for large stretches of time.
  2. My brain seems to operate differently when interacting with a computer vs. a musical instrument — it’s not necessarily worse or better, but the two types of tools live in a very different mental space for me. This means that my brain is switching modes constantly, which puts up a barrier to the necessary flow state that’s required for good music-making.
  3. Working in a DAW provides too much opportunity to get in the weeds, which is something I’m absolutely wont to do.
  4. I love knobs, keys, faders, and buttons. Which is probably obvious if you look at the pictures.

So I give you my DAW-less setup! Er, DAW-less ’til the very end, when I use the DAW to record audio, mix and master. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.

Current In-Studio Instrument List

  • Prophet Rev-2
  • Yamaha Reface CP (cause I can’t live without the EPs)
  • Waldorf Iridium
  • Waldorf STVC
  • Moog Grandmother
  • Moog DFAM
  • Moog Subharmonicon
  • Moog Mavis
  • Erica Synths Bassline DB-01
  • DSI Tempest
  • Roland SP-404 mk II
  • AKAI EWI 3020m (incredible electronic wind instrument + analog synth from the 70s. Now much more accessible to me!)
  • Eagle electric guitar (early 80s Fujigen guitar…UNBELIEVABLE weirdo one-off guitar that someone put a ton of love into)
  • Gibson Les Paul Studio
  • Not pictured: a pedalboard full of goodies
  • A rack full o’ sound-juicing goodies

How It All Fits Together

  • All instruments/effects are running through two patchbays in my rack so that they’re available to go anywhere. Almost all synths are normalled to ADAT channels. Because I have a Cranborne Audio interface that doesn’t have its own software, I do have to have a DAW open to monitor the synths, unless I’m patching them to the 500-series gear in the Cranborne, which is available through its on-board monitoring system.
  • All MIDI-capable instruments are running into the Retrokits RK-006, which is a 10-port MIDI/USB/Gate hub. I’m running it in standalone mode, although if I decide to use MIDI via the DAW at any point, it will handle that as well, so I don’t have to re-cable. I do have some outstanding questions about how it handles USB MIDI, but it’s such an obviously great idea/form factor, and the implementation is absolutely workable.
  • The RK-006 is hooked up to the Retrokits RK-008, an absolutely brilliant piece of kit brought to my attention by @Jyoti on Mastodon. It’s a multi-track MIDI recorder/sequencer that emulates the famous Alesis MMT8, which I’ve never used but many, many people swear by. (They’re dead now, though.) I’ve put in 2-3 hours with it so far, and I’ve already got the hang of it and am making better music with it than I ever did with my (now sold!) Akai Force. It’s so simple, it clocks brilliantly, and it’s darned fun to use. I could see myself buying a more feature-rich sequencer (like a Squarp Hapax) at some point, assuming this way of making music is as fun as I think it will be, but this one does the basics VERY well, without a lot of fuss!

Outstanding Questions

  • When exactly will I move from MIDI sequences to audio-land? I haven’t worked much with “Parts” in the RK-008 yet, which are its way of tackling form. Assuming it’s as intuitive as everything else, I may try to create an entire, perform-able version of a song in MIDI/live audio before hitting the DAW.
  • How much will I use the SP-404 for finished audio? I’m really enjoying using it to trigger samples, although I’m not in love with its pattern sequencer. (But RK-008 to the rescue, amirite?!). That said, I don’t think I want “real” vocals and guitars to be recorded there. So there will certainly be some tape machine-style audio takes happening. My current thought — if I’m singing/playing something loop-y, I’ll use the sampler and/or looping pedal. If I’m going to through-perform a part, I’ll just record it straight to the DAW, of course.
  • When will I use my outboard gear for its sonic magic? Will I patch things through it while sequencing, or use it mostly as a mixing tool? (I suspect both will happen.) I also have a Softube Console 1 + Fader that gives me 10 channels of faders and a really nice console emulation. (I like their Neve clone and used it on everything on IX.) I think I may set that up on the input channels in my DAW, where I’ll be monitoring most things, so that when I record everything, it already has some scultping/sonic magic going on. Then I’ll use my outboard compressors/EQs/etc. during mixing.

I really couldn’t be more excited about this setup! The few hours I spent making music as I tested everything were an absolute blast, and once I get used to the workflow, I think it will be insanely fun. Here’s to live music-making!!

In The Century of the Self, a trailblazing documentary series for the BBC in 2002, Adam Curtis explores how psychoanalysis begat the advertising/marketing techniques that transformed Western society into a consumerist hellscape (my words) from the mid- to late-20th century. If you haven’t seen it, go ye forth.

Greg and I have been watching Adam Curtis films for many years, and while we can always find something to bitch about, his ideas are powerful and, in my world, mostly correct. As such, they’ve melded with my thinking and writing. (Très dangereux!)

We recently released the first Doctor Body EP. Now, Doctor Body is a project with vocals, but it’s not a project about vocals. It’s improvisatory, it’s weird, it’s experimental, and it’s NOT about singing a song. You can check it out if you want to see what I mean:

Naming projects where the music revolves around the vocals is generally a pretty easy task: some bit from some song stands out, and that becomes the name. Or there’s some overarching theme that just calls out to be the name. But a Doctor Body release has nothing like that. It needs a name that comes from the id, just like its music. Which brings me back to psychoanalysis and the Century of the Self.

While I won’t make Adam Curtis’s full argument here, the general gist of the series is that Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, began to realize in the 1920s that psychology and psychoanalysis could be used not just to manipulate the individual, but to manipulate the masses as well, thus laying the groundwork for the teeming evil that is corporate marketing today. Once the ball start rolling in this direction, it didn’t stop.

A powerful figure in this history is called Wilhelm Reich, a disciple of Freud’s in the 1920s who split off from Freud when he challenged his view of psychoanalysis. For both Freud and Reich, human beings were driven by primitive animal instincts. They differed, however, on what to do with these instincts. Freud thought our unconscious minds were a seething pit of violence, and they should be repressed.

For Reich, these unconscious forces were the best part of people, and it was their repression by society that made people dangerous and unpredictable. Not only that, the driving force at the center of humans was the libido, a wildly powerful energy. If humans were able to release this energy in its pure form, they would be happy and powerful. Not to get too racy, but people should be having insane orgasms all the time to be mentally and emotionally healthy.

This was a problem for the Freud clan. By the 30s, the Freudian branch of psychoanalysis was dominant, and led by Anna Freud, who was a virgin and against sexuality. So Wilhelm Reich was cast out of the psychoanalysis community. As many European societal cast-offs were wont to do at the time, he ended up moving to the USA.

Wilhelm Reich helps a young lady in need with his orgone accumulator.
Wilhelm Reich helps a young lady in need with his orgone accumulator.

Shortly after, he became convinced that he had discovered the source of libidinal energy, which he called “orgone energy.” He could capture orgone energy*, he thought, by building Farraday cages and other machines that could pull the energy from the environment and concentrate it. He called these machines “orgone accumulators.”

He was eventually arrested by federal authorities because he claimed to be curing cancer with his orgone accumulators. He died in prison, completely cast out by the psychological establishment.

But although his orgone accumulators couldn’t cure cancer, ironically his ideas would experience a resurgence that would lead to a cancer of their own — libidinally-charged, hyper-individual advertising techniques, and the death of the counter-culture movement in favor of a radical individualism that became a radical consumerism. Or, so says Adam Curtis.

But what does this have to do with Doctor Body, you ask?

Doctor Body is the musical outlet where both Greg and I get to put our conscious minds away, and let our unconscious and subconscious minds drive the bus. We try to throw away our song-writing and compositional techniques and let the powerful forces have free rein.

Music is, in itself, a powerful and primal force. So in our ideal world, we, the musicians of Doctor Body, would be channeling this powerful force in its raw form. To do this, we could really use a machine to help. An orgone accumulator.

So yeah, there you go. The connections may be under the surface and not so obvious, but they’re strong, and you can find them if you look. Really, there couldn’t be a more perfect Doctor Body title!

* Also interesting and fun — orgone as a concept went on to be co-opted by many insane and/or dishonest people, including Sherry Shriner, the head of a reptilian alien conspiracy cult. Orgone wielded by her followers saved people from countless alien attacks, including an entire Super Bowl! If this sounds fun to you, check out the Sherry Shriner season of The Opportunist podcast.