Discovering the writings of Corwainer Smith in the early 1970’s was a life-changing revelation. At that time, neither his one novel, Norstrilia,nor any comprehensive compilation of his incredible short stories were in print.
For years, I would scour used bookstores in search of his stories, finding one of his stories in this or that compilation, in print, not in print, whatever. Needless to say, his writing had a profound effect on me and I have striven to create worlds, in music and art and words, as strange, as haunting, and, I hope, as full of love as his works, amidst the weirdness. Not that I come close in that regard: but one must aim high. Smith’s stories do not grow old. Interestingly, although he was almost unknown 40 years ago, he is regularly deemed the most influential science fiction writer of all time now. I recommend his books, Norstrilia and The Rediscovery of Man without hesitation.
From 1950 to 1966, stories appeared in mainstream science fiction magazines by an author named “Cordwainer Smith“. From the first to the last, these stories were acclaimed as among the most inventive and striking ever written, and that in a field specializing in the inventive and the striking.
Their author was a very private man who did not want his real name to be known because he did not want to be pursued by SF fans. It was only after his death in 1966 that more than a handful of people knew that
“Cordwainer Smith” was in real life Paul M. L. Linebarger.
Here is an article I found many many years ago and saved. I cannot find it anywhere else anymore, so I am taking the liberty of publishing it here. I make absolutely no claim to ownership or copyright. I am just publishing as a public service.
Christianity And The Science Fiction Of Cordwainer Smith
by James B. Jordan
Copyright © 1991 Originally published in Contra Mundum No. 2 Winter 1992
Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger
Paul Linebarger was born in 1913, the grandson of a clergyman. His
father, an eccentric man, had served as a Federal District Judge in the
Philippines, but had left this post to work full time for the cause of
the Chinese republican reformer Sun Yat Sen, who became Paul’s
godfather. Paul Linebarger grew up in the retinue of Sun Yat Sen, for
his father stayed with Sen during his exile in Japan and throughout his
career in China.
Linebarger spent his formative years in Japan, China, France, and
Germany. By the time he grew up, he knew six languages and had become
intimate with several cultures, both Oriental and Occidental.
He was only twenty-three when he earned his Ph.D. in political science
at Johns Hopkins University, where he was later Professor of Asiatic
politics for many years. Shortly thereafter, he graduated from editing
his father’s books to publishing his own highly regarded works on Far
Eastern affairs. 
After graduating from Johns Hopkins, Linebarger taught at Duke
University from 1937 to 1946, but he also served actively in the Army
during World War II as a second lieutenant. Pierce writes that “As a
Far East specialist he was involved in the formation of the Office of
War Information and of the Operation Planning and Intelligence Board.
He also helped organize the Army’s first psychological warfare
section.”  He was sent to China and put in charge of psychological
warfare and of coordinating Anglo- American and Chinese military
activities. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of major. Read more
World’s Night is the third to the last song on the album, Flight of the Atom Bee, following The Blue Man Wept and preceding When We Were Machines.
World’s Night began, that is to say, the initial inspiration came from the drums, specifically the kick drum pattern that opens the song. I was using the Emu SP-1200 drum machine and programming it from my Mac using that great old program StudioVision from Opcode (and may the dweebs of my generation at the Gibson Guitar Company be forced to listen to an eternity of Vanilla Ice songs for buying Opcode for the hardware and letting its excellent software die).
I started building on that, adding the second kick and then the bass organ part, the flute and Moog synth lines. (I later discovered a similar flute/bass arrangement on a Massive Attack song, Karmacoma from Protection, but maybe I should just put it in the “great minds swimming same currents” category. I love what they did there.)
The bass organ came from the workhorse Roland JX-8P. The flute and the faux Moog lead line came from a Roland D-110. Somehow the Moog patch got deleted and when I went to re-record the song due to the line noise in this version, I was unable to recreate the patch, so I was stuck with this noisy version. Hence the addition of vinyl surface crackle and pops to mask the noise in the intro and outro. It also gave the song a vintage sound to evoke the recording technology of that era.
I had read, a couple years earlier, a wonderful book entitled Witness To The Fire: Creativity and the Veil of Addiction, by Linda Schierse Leonard, where she had quoted the theologian/philosopher Martin Heidegger quite extensively. Heidegger talked much of the World’s Night in his work. The quote I remember from the book, which I do not have at hand, having given away many copies over the years, was about how God could not return until we made a place for Him. It had stuck with me.
The gods who “were once there,” “return” only at the “right time”—that is, when there has been a turn among men in the right place, in the right way. For this reason Holderlin, in the unfinished hymn “Mnemosyne,” written soon after the elegy “Bread and Wine,” writes (IV, 225):
“. . . The heavenly powers
Cannot do all things. It is the mortals
Who reach sooner into the abyss. So the turn is
With these. Long is
The time, but the true comes into
As I was working on this song, early on, I knew the title would be World’s Night and the title shaped the song. His perception of the dimming of the Light of the World, I’m sure, came from the two world wars of the twentieth century, Stalin’s holocaust, and other atrocities.
The image I had the whole time as the song emerged was that of a battleship knifing through the darkened grey-green and white-capped currents of the North Atlantic ocean.
Obviously, the song was rather stark in its conception, and very simple, really, built on simple parts, driven by the rhythm section.
In the middle part where almost everything drops out, save the bass and Moog line, it was my hope to evoke a burst of light, however small, into the darkness, followed by the cascading flute figures in the final bars of the song. The beginning of the end of the World’s Night, the turning.
Heidegger’s writings predated the assassination of John Kennedy, of which the fiftieth anniversary is today as I finish writing this piece.
The rest of this article is all from Martin Heidegger himself:
The world’s night is spreading its darkness. The era is defined by the god’s failure to arrive, by the ‘default of God,’ … [which means that] no god any longer gathers men and things unto himself, visibly and unequivocally, and by such gathering disposes the world’s history and man’s sojourn in it. …
Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods’ tracks, and so trace for their kindred mortals the way toward the turning … To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy. This is why, in Holderlin’s language, the world’s night is the holy night. [Emphasis mine]
The closer the world’s night draws toward midnight, the more exclusively does the destitute prevail, in such a way that it withdraws its very nature and presence. Not only is the holy lost as the track toward the godhead; even the traces leading to that lost track are well-nigh obliterated. The more obscure the traces become the less can a single mortal, reaching into the abyss, attend there to intimations and signs. It is then all the more strictly true that each man gets farthest if he goes only as far as he can go along the way allotted to him. The third stanza of the same elegy that raises the question—”What are poets for in a destitute time?”
We have a way out of this wasteland. While “song still lingers over their desolate land,” there is still the possibility of hearing and heeding this call.
The singer’s word still keeps to the trace of the holy. The song in Holderlin’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Part I, 19) says it:
Though swiftly the world converts,
like cloud-shapes’ upheaval,
everything perfect reverts
to the primeval.
Over the change abounding
farther and freer
your preluding song keeps sounding
God with the lyre.
Suffering is not discerned,
neither has love been learned,
and what removes us in death,
Only the song’s high breath
hallows and hails.
The Blue Man Wept was one of the last songs I did for Flight of the Atom Bee, but I had written it many years earlier, as a solo classical guitar piece. In fact, beyond the huge Orbital influence on the piece in terms of tonal texture and coloration, the thing that makes this piece unique, from my end, anyway, was that I recorded the main parts via midi using an early midi guitar.
The Blue Man Wept was indeed one of the last pieces of instrumental music I actually wrote on a guitar, a nylon string classical guitar, of course. In terms of structure, I suppose it was, and remains, a mess. As with most pieces I wrote on the guitar, I would just start with something that sounded good and then find somewhere to take it, trial and error, my imagination limited by my guitar technique, which has always been sketchy at best.
I had an early midi guitar which was quite cumbersome in the sense that there was absolutely no give in the fingering: you had to hit every note just right, or the thing would start misfiring in the worst ways. That said, I used to string two or three synths off the guitar and play them all simultaneously, creating a glorious din. As with many of my early electronic music experiments and explorations, I truly regret not committing these sessions to tape or disk.
Once I had recorded the main part from the guitar as a midi file, I assigned an overblown flute and later plucked harp sound to the part and I had to quantize the notes by hand. As I recall, this took a while. I’ve always been a little loose with time. But the effect is very nice: it still sounds played by hand, not machine.
Then I began building out parts: drums, synth pads, secondary melodic parts and effects. The whole point was to expand the extra-dimensional world from which the song came, moody, mysterious, of muted blues and greys and greens, purples and taupe in the twilight, a tone poem of melancholy from which an occasional burst of hope glimmers.
The instrumentation was built on three synths: the plucked sound was a sample from the Emulator II, the thick organ pad was the Roland JX-8P, and everything else, I am fairly certain, including the drums, came from a Roland D-110 rackmount synth I was using a lot at the time. As always, I did all my arranging and mixing in real time, recording all parts in one pass to digital audio tape. Not the best way to go, but I was always pushing the limits of my musical knowledge as well as my understanding of how a studio was supposed to work.
I like to think this method gave my music a unique feel, but the elementary process certainly had its limitations and created challenges at times.
I had thought about adding a vocal at one point, as Pink Floyd might, after ten minutes. These lyrics floated in my head as I arranged the song:
Across the sky, the bozo flew
The blue man wept
And so did you
Controlled the tides
But nothing much more ever came to me in terms of lyrics, no matter how much I thought about it, and I couldn’t force it, so I forwent the idea of a vocal segment. Nonetheless the imagery in the words informed the arrangement as I worked away, of that I am certain.
A friend, upon hearing Flight of the Atom Bee the first time, summarily dismissed the album as a “bunch of ambient noodling.” I am certain The Blue Man Wept was the piece that cemented this estimation firmly in his mind.
I find The Blue Man Wept to be every bit as lovely as when I first finished it. It takes me right back into the Blue Man’s realm. I wouldn’t change a thing now, many years later.
In 1988, The KLF, a British Duo, released a single named “Doctorin’ The Tardis,” an homage to the Dr. Who TV series (for a detailed history of the song, click here).
According to the Wikipedia:
“Doctorin’ the Tardis” is a 1988 electronic novelty pop single by The Timelords (“Time Boy” and “Lord Rock”, aliases of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, better known as The KLF). The song is predominantly a mash-up of the Doctor Who theme music, Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part Two)” with sections from “Blockbuster!” by Sweet and “Let’s Get Together Tonite” by Steve Walsh. The single was panned by critics but became a commercial success, reaching number 1 in the UK Singles Chart and in New Zealand, and charting in the Top 10 in Australia and Norway.
After achieving the pop pinnacle of a number one hit, Drummond and Cauty, a very interesting pair in my book, decided to write the definitive guide on how to get a number one hit. It is the most hilarious and insightful takedown of the music business I have ever read.
Download the pdf of the book here. And here is a tiny scattering of excerpts. I highly recommend you read the whole book. I couldn’t put it down, ten years ago or today.
So how do you go about achieving a U.K. Number One? Follow this simple step by step guide:
Firstly, you must be skint and on the dole. Anybody with a proper job or tied up with full time education will not have the time to devote to see it through. Also, being on the dole gives you a clearer perspective on how much of society is run. If you are already a musician stop playing your instrument.
The myth of a band being gang of lads out “against” the world (read as “to change”, “to shag” or “to save the world”) is pure wishful thinking to keep us all buying the records and reading the journals. Mind you, it’s a myth that many band members want to believe themselves. So if in a band, quit. Get out. Now.
The best place to find the groove that 7” single buyers will want to be tapping their toes to in three months time is to get down to the hippest club in your part of the country that is playing import American black dance records. The unknown track the DJ plays that gets both the biggest response on the floor and has you joining the throng will have the groove you are looking for.
As we have already mentioned, the Golden Rule for a classic Number One single is intro, verse one, chorus one, verse two, chorus two, breakdown section, double chorus, outro.
Singers – good or bad – are invariably a problem. They not only make incredibly bad time keepers which can lead to disasterous consequences when you are facing a jam-packed schedule during the period when your record has entered the Top 30 but not yet made Number One, they also tend to confuse their role as singer of songs with that of would-be world leaders.
Videos are the disease of our time; adverts pretending to be art, made by arseholes pretending to be artists. Of course, the lovers of kitch in the next century will adore them, social historians dissect them. Shoot the lot we say.
Sunday evening. Five minutes to seven. You are now at Number One. This is forever. It is now totally out of your hands. Your body still looks the same but everything inside it is a million miles apart. Sunday evening. Twenty past seven. Rockman opens another bottle of Champagne. King Boy watches lapwings fly past the setting Sun.
You do what you need to do. There was nothing behind the green door but an old piano. So why? What have you learnt? If you can have a Number One, anything is possible. Don’t forget to sign on.*
*Sign on: for dole benefits.
March of the Molecule Men was one of the last songs I wrote for Flight of the Atom Bee. I had decided that the whole album skewed to the experimental and artsy and what I really needed was a straight up easy-listening four-on-the-floor piece of ambient techno.
The problem with four-on-the-floor (a kick drum hitting each beat in the measure 1-2-3-4) is that it’s boring, so I very quickly and quite unintentionally veered off the straight and narrow with this piece.
I created the squishy bassline on my mac with an application called ReBirth that emulated the unique sound the classic Roland TB-303 Bassline synthsizer. It was a very simple pattern, four or five notes, two measures long, in D major, and it drops in and out for the course of the song. I put a slight delay on it.
I was using an Emu SP-1200 drum machine at this time. I believe I talked about it a little bit in my piece on Wild Pink Yonder. I wrote every note of the drum part – no loops were involved. In fact, I have never used drum loops or audio loops for bass lines in any piece I’ve ever written: these parts are way too important to the song and if one uses clip-art audio, one gets a clip-art song. Many of the little percussive sounds in this piece were created by hitting everyday household objects together, sampling them, editing if necessary, loading into the SP-1200 and using for percussion.
Normally, when I arrange pieces, I block out sections and usually try to hew to an approximation of a 32-bar pop song for structure: intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight (or breakdown)-verse-chorus-outro. But that leaves one with a lot of room for play and exploration. Sometime I would have an event of some kind in mind and the challenge would be how to get to it in a musical and emotionally evocative manner.
My particular challenge in this piece was to build the piece rhythmically, leading up to the explosive cartoon bursts at the end.
Early on, as I worked on the piece, the cartoons of Sally Cruikshank popped in my head. I had seen a few of them at an animation festival in Berkeley in the mid-seventies and the visuals had stayed in my head for decades. So March of the Molecule Men became a soundtrack for an imaginary Sally Cruikshank cartoon. Below is one her amazing works. What an amazing and original talent. I highly recommend you buy her DVD (you can find a link to it on YouTube).
As I mentioned, I veered off the four-on-the-floor aesthetic almost immediately with this piece. Rhythmically, I was quite influenced by late Captain Beefheart here. Around the four-minute, you will hear a series of drum rolls, the first one slightly stuttered, the next a little more steady, and the last smooth and steady. This really bothered a friend of mine. I had to explain that it was the drum machine learning how to do a drum roll, that it took a couple of tries to get it right.
Now, to something very important. My good friend, Gustavo, founder of Nude Photo Music, had, around this time, informed me that a good house/techno track had handclaps on the two and the four beats. This seemed very important, so I set about creating an awesome hand clap sound. I wanted it to be BIG. I’m a little vague on what I actually did to the sound, but I know I ran it through a high-end reverb and also put some slap-back echo on it. There were probably a couple other things I did to the sound, but I cannot recall them through the mists of time.
When I published my novel, Flapping, I included a variation of the Flight of the Atom Bee cd, with some added songs, attempting to make it more commercial. In the notes on the cd at the end of the book, I said this about the clap sound:
The clap sound evolved through many steps. One could make the argument that it is the “definitive” clap sound, as well as being a perfect deconstruction of a clap, as well as being a satire of said clap, with self-referential reverb and slap-back echo.
The clap sound to this day bugs Gustavo. It is dedicated to him.
The swirling arpeggio you hear intermittently and at the very end of the piece was done with the Korg DW-8000. It’s great for such things.
All of the other sounds in the song, all the electronic noise, fragments, melodic bits, sweeps, plinks, and spurts, came from a Roland Jupiter 6, an amazing machine.
I either taped down a number of keys, or just created an arpeggio, synced via beat clock from my mac to lock to the song, and set the Jupiter 6 to hold it. I then manipulated the sound in real time, playing with attack, decay, filter settings, using sliders and knobs on the Jupiter 6 to get all sorts of strange and brightly colored—this piece is a rainbow—fragments of melody and noise. I recorded everything to digital audio tape and then transferred digitally to my mac and began the long and thoroughly enjoyable process of slicing the audio file into usable bits and moving them around, arranging and creating the flow of the piece.
I forget how many days it took to finish the song, but once I started the arranging part, I could easily work for sixteen hours, breaking for meals and coffee once in a while.
I also experimented with time-stretching sounds on this piece: you can hear the results near the climax of the composition—as is often the case, March of the the Molecule Men is about sex, the title a reference to the passage through and the eruption of bodily fluid from one body into another, to be truthful—I particularly like how certain harmonics emerge in the sounds.
So, that is how the easy-listening, almost four-on-the-four composition, March of the the Molecule Men, came to be.
Every week, I am publishing an article about a composition of mine, the gear, the inspiration, what was involved, and so on. I hope you enjoy them! I am enjoying writing them. —Knox
I have mentioned the Roland JX-8P Synthesizer in the pieces about Flight of the Atom Bee and The Big Shimmer. I used it to create the chordal pads that dominate both pieces. I do not recall using it on Wild Pink Yonder, for whatever reason.
There is an old maxim in the electronic music community,”New piece of gear = new track.” In other words, when you get a new piece of gear, its sounds inspire a new composition. At the time I wrote Wild Pink Yonder, I was in the end of a gear acquisition binge and that is perhaps why I didn’t use the JX-8P on that song.
The reality is that, over time, the JX-8P, even more so that the Serge Modular, became my secret weapon. I used it for pads, but even more importantly, bass sounds.
The JX-8P is one of the great under-appreciated syths, I believe largely due to its bland preset sounds and the relative difficulty in programming new sounds. It had two digitally controlled multi-waveform oscillators, a great analog filter. Programming was done with either setting one pararmeter for a sound via slider at a time, which made intuitive sound design almost impossible, or with the PG-800 Programmer.
The Pg-800 made the exploration of sound design on the JX-8P quite intuitive, but since I knew nothing in the beginning, really, about what any of the parameters did to sound, I was just blindly experimenting. The thing was, I didn’t mind spending two days tweaking a sound to get it right. All the pad sounds on The Big Shimmer and Flight of the Atom Bee were the results of such exploration. It was a form of meditation for me.
As time rolled on, I got a lot more proficient at making unique usable sounds. It has always seemed to me that the depth of the JX-8P itself worked against its popularity, but it was and is an awesome machine for those willing to spend the time building sounds from scratch. I will be talking about the JX-8P in future articles in this series: in retrospect, its sound was clearly at the core of my music composition and arranging process.
I haven’t had a JX-8P in over ten years, as of this writing in 2013, but looking at the above pictures, I find myself thinking about how nice it would be to have one again. There is now an iPad version of the PG-800, which makes the prospect quite possible.
I would have to say that the genesis of [Hydraulic] Serenity Applicator was the bass sound itself. I’m not sure what I was doing, but somehow I stumbled on this very percussive compressed bass sound which possessed very little harmonic information: it harkened back, for me, to the bass sound of Captain Beefheart’s song, Little Golden Birdies, from Clear Spot. I fell in love with it immediately and set out to write a bass line using it. You hear it in the first measure of the song.
I stretched the bass line out for a couple measures and set about writing the basic drum part, which remains pretty much the same throughout the song. I was using an Emu SP-12 drum machine at the time, a wonderful machine much love by rappers and hip-hop artist for its rhythmic feel.
It was my intention to use the same short bass part for the whole song which was beginning to take shape in my head. My thought was that, since there was so little harmonic content in the bass sound, I could just play different chords over same short repeating sequence. It almost worked, but, ultimately, I had to surrender to the musical needs of the song and modulated the bass part along with the chord changes, just like a real bass player would do.
After spending a few days building out the song, drums, bass, and the chord sequence (I still love how the first chord boldly announces itself at the third bar), it was time to add some melodic elements.
Using a system involving some archaic gear which I can’t remember, I was able to get beat-clock out of my computer into the Serge and sync a master pulse on the Serge to the song. This master pulse could be used to trigger envelopes, voltage changes, i.e., a step-generator, and so on.
I built some patch on the Serge: I honestly can’t remember which modules I used now. I started up the song and began twiddling knobs. I imagine I recorded to digital audio tape. After I got enough bits to use, I transferred them into the song file in StudioVision, editing, trimming, discarding bad parts, and began moving them around and placing them where they needed to be.
I wish I could say it was I who made the decisions, but it rarely was me at the helm when working on these songs. If I moved a piece of sound to the right spot, it would just lock into place, as if on its own. Much later, my friend Greg Jones pointed out that the song, with the walking bass line and the syncopated synth swirls, was straight-up ragtime in parts, but this was in no way a conscious decision on my part, as much as I wish I could claim it so.
In the middle dreamy part, I wanted the the Serge parts to convey an emotional arc over the melancholy chord changes. I believe I succeeded. I was always attempting to anthropomorphize my synthesizers, inserting my “hand” so to speak to evoke emotion.
Coming out of the middle part and back into the upbeat final two minutes, I had an inspiration to add a weather forecast and that is where “A few high clouds” comes from.
Somewhere in this period, I managed to overwrite the bass sound on the JX-8P and this was a real problem. I had recorded one final mix of the instrumental parts (excluding Serge parts and the weather report samples) and I was not happy with the pad sounds, which came from a Roland D-110 rackmount synth as I recall, and possibly a Korg DW-8000. I thought they were thin and lacked warmth and motion.
I spent many hours trying to find that bass sound again, using the manual programmer. Nothing else would do for this song. Alas, I could not achieve it. I could get very close, but close fundamentally altered the feel of the song, so I was stuck. All I could do was layer in a few more synth pads to thicken the mix. I wanted some shimmer, which I got from the Roland JX-8P in an overdub.
I finally got something that worked well, beautifully even, but I believed I could have made the song a little better if I could have rerecorded with a proper mix of pads. In retrospect many years later, it doesn’t matter. This is the song and it has stood the test of time.
When we were mastering this cd some years ago at Thomas Dimuzio’s studio in San Francisco, we were listening to the playback and, right around the part where the weather report comes in, I looked over and saw my friend and associate Gustavo Lanzas looking at me and shaking his head. I said,”What?”
He said,”You think this is pop music.”
I said,”Man, it’s as commercial as anything Dr. Dre puts out!”
And he said,”Yeah, right … when music goes from your ear to your brain, it passes through another dimension.”
I’m not sure if that is a compliment or not.
Lastly, I’ll break down the name of the song for you.
Hydraulic: denoting, relating to, or operated by a liquid moving in a confined space under pressure : hydraulic fluid | hydraulic lifting gear.
Serenity: the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.
Applicator: a device used for inserting something or for applying a substance.
Hydraulic Serenity Applicator.
I’m sure it makes perfect sense now.
This box was the core of the Bee. The basic buzz came from one of the three old oscillators in the upper-left panel. A simple saw-tooth, modulated slightly to round-out the waveform with a rising and falling control voltage. There was also, the obvious rising and falling pitch generated by the Dual-Slope Generator over on the right. The DSG also triggered the Stepped-Function module to send out another voltage to raise and lower the over-all pitch of the buzzing bee, in steps, of course.
The distorted wing-stress sounds were made with the Triple-Wave Shaper and mixed in with VC Gates.
The Whoosh was filtered white-noise and the phase-shifter, which Greg Jones pulled out of a Mutron guitar pedal and kludged into the panel on the lower right. Also gated.
These three elements were mixed and sent out in a mono feed to another Roland Spaced Echo. sergeghost
Timing pulses all generated by the Roland TR-606, which can be heard on the song. The only other sound on the song was the chord, which was made by a Roland JX-8P with the keys taped down and fed into the mixing board.
I wrote/arranged/produced/created both The Big Shimmer & Flight of the Atom Bee almost concurrently … this took place over a period of months, mostly due to my having to learn so much about digital recording and arranging. I’ve written plenty about the title track, Flight of the Atom Bee, elsewhere.
I learned a tremendous amount with those two pieces. It was a time of non-stop experimentation and gear exploration and I was rapidly learning how to arrange and control sythesizers from my Macintosh, using StudioVision. I was also doing a lot of audio processing using other applications like Sound Design to modify, enhance, and make weird noises.
My next piece was to become Wild Pink Yonder, which was to take the number two spot between the two compositions.
By now I had a room full of synthesizers all being run off my Mac. I had also gotten a new mixer: the old Soundcraft I had been using for my first two songs was horrifically noisy on almost every channel. The venerable old blues establishment, Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, had been home to it for many many years and it seemed as if every part of the circuitry and signal chain, the faders and pots were encrusted with nicotine and spilled whiskey: they did not improve the sound.
I had a lot of effects boxes and processors: I tended to use them on specific synths in-line, which means I didn’t send the sound from the mixer and bring it back into the mix.
This was the first song where I programmed every note. I used an Alesis S4 rackmount synth for the bass line: it was an interesting synth, but I was too new to programming to explore its sound design possibilities in any real way (if it had had an outboard module like the JX-8P’s programmer, with sliders and knobs and switches, that would have been a different story), but it had some great sounds pre-programmed, including this round bass sound. The bassline itself was based on a simple blues I-IV-V chord progression, with a major seventh thrown in.
I began programming my first drum patterns on the Mac as well. Again this was another case where I had no idea what I was doing. I remembered reading an interview with James Brown where he said, “To make it funky, you have to hit the one!” Meaning the first beat of the measure. So I thought I better hit the one with a snare: I didn’t realize that, normally, you hit the the one with the kick drum and used the snare on the two and four: the back beat. You will notice that several songs on this album do not have a back beat. Well, live and learn, I say.
So I began building out the song, starting with the bassline and a rudimentary drum pattern.
I had an Emulator II, a very early sampler, which came with some very interesting samples—you can hear a lot of them on my first two instrumental cds. I started with a choir, trying different things until I got a nice dreamy flow going. I then added in the second melody line using a Roland D-110 “moog” patch.
The sound began to take shape and I found it reminded me of the furniture polish ads I saw on TV as a child, where the woman experienced near orgasmic ecstacy as she blissfully polished her dark oak table with lemon-scented aerosol wax. And once that happened, it was simply a matter of following each musical thread/line where it would take me.
I arranged in real time, meaning, I would work on a few measures at the same time, listening to everything together and tweaking each until each part locked into place. It was a very intuitive process, wherein I discarded a lot of ideas. Of course, there was always a certain amount of serendipity as well: I had the passion to follow accidental ideas where they took me and sometimes they paid off greatly.
There are a few bars at the very end of the piece, after the breakdown, that took me four days to work out. I didn’t mind at all.
Once I had all the parts in place, I realized it needed one more thing and I got my friend Lynn to come down and record the words “You naughty boy,” which I layered in the intro and a couple other spots in the song.
As I did for all of my instrumental work in those days, once the mix was set and exactly where I wanted it, I recorded the whole thing to digital audio tape and that was the final mix.
I still love this song many years later. I listen to it and wonder where some of it came from. It was during the comosing and arranging of this piece that I began to realize that we are really channeling the music: it is flowing through us to the degree our craft, discipline, and a certain je ne sais quois allow it to happen.
But that place, down below where the music is, is where I have found refuge and weathered many storms up here o the surface.
The Big Shimmer was the opening for my first album, Flight of the Atom Bee, which you can read about here.
In the early days of my re-submerging into music making, around 1994, as I recall, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had barely played guitar for almost twenty years. I had spent a couple of years in the late mid-eighties learning the ins and outs of creating semi-musical sound with a Serge Modular Synthesizer, which was a complex, finicky, almost impossible-to-play noise-making device. But I was still drinking and nothing came of my nightly analog meanderings. I would occasionally come up with amazing patches in my stupor, but one half-twist of one tiny non-descript knob somewhere on the largely un-labeled boards would destabilize the whole patch and I would never be able to get it back to where it had been, much less remember how I got there in the first place.
When, later, after a few years of sobriety, the light went on over my head and I remembered that I had at one time practiced guitar for up to eight hours a day, I got the Serge and some other gear out of storage and went on a synthesizer and music studio gear buying binge which lasted a couple of years.
So before too long, I had a studio that looked like this:
That didn’t mean I knew what to do with it. It was baby steps at first. I think I have mentioned before that I had no clue about how midi worked, how to write a drum part, or a bass line, or how to score strings, and so on, so The Big Shimmer was comprised of small simple units of my own making.
The Big Shimmer started with the bass sound and then the bass line itself, which I put together on the Serge, using the Serge Touch Keyboard as a control-voltage sequencer, sync’ed to a little Roland TR-606 drum machine to generate beat clock, as well as the simple drum pattern you hear throughout the song. Later, I had to use a very early Roland midi interface to send beat-clock to the TR-606 drum machine to get the hi-hat patterns you hear in the song, which were processed through a Mutron Bi-Phase phase-shifter, a classic piece of analogue sound processing gear.
The chord in the song was played on a Roland JX-8P, a beautiful digital synth with analogue filters on which I would spend days tweaking one sound – it was a wonderful form of meditation. There were three primary patches used for The Big Shimmer: the main pad, one to allow a I-V chord progression, and the big wide shimmering tone you hear layered here and there, and in the last three or four minutes of the piece.. The chord itself was just a series of fifths up the keyboard C-G-D-A-E-B with the keys taped down and all the chords were recorded in one pass in real time. I did whatever layering and editing was necessary later.
I ran the JX-8P through a real spring reverb, so much of the motion you hear in the sound is the result of kinetic energy building standing waves within the spring itself. A beautiful sound.
By this time I was recording into my computer using the great StudioVision application.
I recorded the bass line, the chord and its variations via different patches on the keyboard, the drum parts, including the phase-shifted hi-hats, and the incidental serge noises separately.
I then began to take them apart and put them back together again in StudioVision, cutting and pasting snippets of sound and learning how to build and arrange a song.
It was an incredibly exciting time for me – I had no idea what I was doing. Everything was serendipitous, but I was fearless and would happily follow ideas wherever the sound would take me. There was a tremendous amount of uncovering, discovering, and then disposing.
I have no idea how long I worked on the piece once it was on my computer, but I do remember when I got the mix almost done, as you hear it now and I made a cassette of it and played it for my artist friend, the beautiful and talented and sexy Lynn Klein. We were driving to a restaurant and I parked as the song was about half-way through.
We sat until the piece was finished.
She looked at me and said,”Knox, that is just sex!”
I knew that I had succeeded.