In which I program music

In my life I’ve tried many different art forms, and recently I’ve added a new one to the list. I’ve started making music, using programming. No music worth sharing for now, I’m just going to talk about the experience.

To create music, I use a tool called Csound. Csound has its own computer language, which I’ve been intermittently teaching myself over the past year. It’s not an easy tool to use, but it suits me because I’m comfortable with the programming and math, and because I want to full control over the creation of instruments.

This isn’t totally out of the blue, I actually have a long history with music. I played flute while I was growing up, and was in wind ensemble through most of college. Despite my investment, I found musical performance to be a frustrating experience. Wind ensemble was pretty antisocial–more social hierarchies than actually remembering anyone’s name. I increasingly felt like I could never learn the muscle memory for the music, or I wasn’t willing to invest the time to practice. Worst of all, I started to hate the music. I’ve had quite enough of wind ensemble music by now.

Later, I briefly tried to learn electric guitar. The music is better, but I guess I still don’t have the time for it. Electronic music is nice because I can make whatever music I like, and I don’t have to train this clumsy body to not make a fool of itself.

What kind of music am I trying to make? By now I’ve dropped a lot of hints: I like xen (aka microtonal) and drone, so I’m making xen drone. My thinking was, there’s not enough xen drone in the world, how hard can it be? Just play power chords for like ten minutes.

It’s not actually that simple, but simplicity is definitely part of the appeal. I’m still mad at all that wind ensemble music, which was full of shrill flute flourishes that were needlessly difficult and only really served the purpose of adding color. I feel very strongly that art does not derive its value from how technically challenging it was to create.

There are two components to music in Csound: the instruments and the score.

When I was teaching myself to program in Csound, almost all of that was learning how to create instruments by mathematically manipulating and combining waveforms. I went through Dr. Boulanger’s TOOTorial and experimented a bunch. More recently, I’ve been reading Synth Secrets for more instrument ideas. The instruments don’t need to be particularly complicated, but for drone it’s important that they are rich and textured.

The score basically tells the instruments what to play, and when. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I figure the best way to compose music is by playing around until I find something that sounds nice, but Csound doesn’t make it easy to spontaneously play around. So I feel like I need to put more forethought into it, and lean on music theory. Trouble is that music theory sucks, and utterly fails to address the kind of music I’m interested in. This is why I was trying to analyze SUNN O))) earlier, I thought I might learn something from the masters.

There’s also xenharmonic music theory, which I’ve picked up here and there. Xenharmonic theory has problems too, but they’re different problems. It’s just overly complicated and jargon-y, and I’m always thinking, but if I can’t hear the difference, what’s the point? Well, it’s at least a better starting point than traditional music theory.

So far I’ve composed just a couple tracks. I went through them fairly quickly, because I figure that later I’ll hate my first fumbling attempts regardless. For now, though, I don’t hate them, I’m happy with them.

Will I ever publish this music? Perhaps, although given the genre it obviously wouldn’t be very commercial. I’m sure some xen people would like it. For now, I’m enjoying myself, and that’s all there is to it.

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