27th October 2016
If you’ve caught any of my gigs in the last few years, you probably heard some stories with a soundtrack. I got fed up at the mysterious power musicians had to work the emotions and decided to use it for my own ends. I find composition a harder creative process than writing, however, and difficult to make enough time for.
So I signed up to a weekend audio jam with the action-packed Edinburgh Game Symposium. In a game jam of this type, you try to produce something rough but interesting to a theme, within a tight timeframe. They teamed me up with Sarah, an audio engineer specialising in spoken word; Maeve, an audio engineer specialising in mixing and sound design; and Aurelie, a composer and DJ. We happened to all be users of Ableton Live.
The weekend took place in the Roxy, a beautiful repurposed church where I once sat a maths exam. Friday night was supposed to be for relaxing and socialising, but we ignored that and got right into it, clustering around one half of a folding table. The theme was “time travel”. Here’s our initial list of ideas:
- Tell a story backwards.
- An audio diary of past/present/future.
- Randomised snippets of music using Follow Actions.
- A story told by an old guy to his younger self.
- Describing an incident from the past/present.
- “Fuck about with tempo.”
- Crossfade period-appropriate instruments as a journey through time.
- Story of a plugin that breaks time; the temporal ‘prime directive’.
- Madness expressed through chaos and order.
- The “Unsound” applied to time travel.
- Palindromic music with reversed instruments, perhaps in a round.
Towards the end you can totally see the influence of Star Trek: Voyager and The Black Tapes Podcast. I had been at an IGDA Scotland event about game jams where I heard wise advice to throw away your first three ideas, because they’re too obvious. I’m glad we did this. We settled on a soundscape-audio-drama-thing telling the story of a particular incident from viewpoints before and after it happened. We never actually explained what that incident was: a disruption of time caused by reckless experiments. Similar stories have been done before, but it sounded fun and just complicated enough for a jam weekend. Also, I had a labcoat left over from a Halloween zombie walk. So we went home on Friday with our project already blocked out, and that turned out to be a very good thing.
A less obvious benefit of this project was an easy division of labour. There were two characters, and each had their own theme. Maeve and I would write a character each; Aurelie and Sarah would write a theme each. It was only when I was alone in the theatre upstairs, fighting grumpy wifi to read about the Einstein-Rosen bridge, that I realised I had come to a music jam and agreed to do the bit that was the same as my day job. But hey.
So Saturday featured writing, sharing for feedback, and a nice lunch. We situated the lab in Grangemouth, for which I blame Maeve. By 4pm we were ready to go into a hot studio to lay down the vocal parts. We recruited organisers Luci and Sam to do news bulletins; Aurelie supplied some French radio chatter; and the rest of the team went to polish things up overnight while I sloped off to see John Carpenter live at the Usher Hall.
I feel like you don’t really experience a true jam/hack event unless you have a disaster and have a panicked rush to finish everything. I was still humming Assault on Precinct 13 when I got in about 10.30am on Sunday and learned all our audio from Saturday had flatlined. Which meant the producers hadn’t been able to work overnight. Uh-oh.
So we rushed back into the studio, and did it all over again, getting in the way of other groups who desperately needed to record. We had time for about twelve minutes worth of hasty rehearsal during the “Well done! This is your time to relax!” break, before we were thrown on stage to perform The Grangemouth Incident live.
And y’know what? It went fine.
I’ve collaborated with quite a few groups of people before. Some have been great and some have been rocky. I attribute the success of this weekend to a clean breakdown of effort — so nobody became a stressed-out bottleneck — and everybody leaving their ego at home.
Thanks to Luci and everybody else who made the weekend fun. Same time next year?