· 18 min read
Monthly & Weekly Projects, Or the Importance of Routine
Written by Max Alper
I began the Monthly Project composition assignment series for the La Meme Young virtual classroom community in March 2021 as a means of practicing what I preached when it came to the importance of musical rituals. Being a practicing musician is to be an athlete. Our instrumental and compositional chops depend on our ability to keep our muscles fresh. Our brains, ears, and limbs need to be musically engaged on some sort of routine schedule. I am by no means advocating for an overexertion of said muscles, as I don’t advocate for musical bodybuilding. Your ears get tired like any other part of your body, and you need to let them rest, lest you risk focusing solely on your “glamor muscles”.
What would the musical equivalent of anabolic steroid abuse be? Genuinely curious. Maybe we should strive to be musical powerlifters instead? Tri-athletes?
Rather, this collection of both monthly and weekly compositional prompts acts as a necessary series of fundamental exercises to tighten our sonic core. Taking much inspiration from Pauline Oliveros’ text scores and the Deep Listening Composers Sound Practice handbook, I created a series of assignments that are accessible to musicians and sonic artists of all aesthetic backgrounds and levels of expertise. At its core, this series of text scores ask its participants to return to a simpler view of sound and musicality, one that surrounds us throughout our daily lives.
There is music inside your home. On a walk with your dog. In the thick of your evening commute. I hope that if one feels overwhelmed in their artistic practices with an endless library of options to choose from, they can use these exercises as a way to step back. If we strip ourselves of most of our gear, effects, and software, what are we left hearing?
Although this collection of text scores is designated both for monthly and weekly practices, it’s ultimately up to you to set a routine you are comfortable with and can actually commit to. Some text scores have been adapted for publication outside of their original classroom use.
Feel free to peruse the text scores at your own pace and in whichever order you may choose, although some require others as prerequisite. Feel free to repeat each prompt as many times as you see fit, and to send me your work when it's finished, I'm always honored to hear what people come up with. If you'd like to hear what members of the LMY online classroom came up with, I highly recommend checking out their massive interactive sound installation over at New Art City. It feels nice returning to these prompts almost three years later and still feel some sort of pedagogical sonic affinity towards them. These puppies got legs to 'em.
LMY Monthly Project #1: Acoustic Ecology Reports, March 2021.
I had originally come up with this assignment for my college kids in our Audio Production 101 intro course that I run in Puerto Rico, but through the process of designing it, it got me thinking about how even we as "seasoned" musicians" are often too distracted by our hyper brains to take in the sounds that surround us every day. This first Monthly Project is as simple as it is personal: I want everyone to take time to listen, analyze, and reflect on their personal acoustic ecologies, whether it be in your apartment, your backyard, your driveway, etc. Find a place you visit at least once a day, listen carefully, we can find musicality in the oddest of places.
Step 1: Using a portable field recorder, phone, or tablet, record at least 1 minute of your surrounding acoustic ecology, whether it be a "natural" or a manmade soundscape is up to you. This could be a recording right outside your house, in your backyard, out your window, in your kitchen, in your car, etc. Do NOT mix your audio, this is an exercise in objectivity which also includes the objective documentation through your device of choice, so set your levels beforehand.
Step 2: While listening back to your recordings, write down your observations of what you hear. Be as descriptive as possible, think of yourself as acoustic ecologists writing field notes based on your findings like the OGs R. Murray Schafer and Bernie Krause. While we are always to be led by our creative inclinations, I want you to be as objective, almost scientific, as possible in describing your findings. You must write at least 1+ page response describing the sounds of your immediate surrounding acoustic ecology, try to format them in a presentable way that can be shared with others, so not just note scribblings.
LMY Monthly Project #2: Communicate With Yourself, April 2021.
Collaborative improvisation is a linguistic art first and foremost, meaning it is centered around spontaneous communication and interaction amongst players. Even in the most “free” improvisation settings, we as collaborators are following each other’s cues, listening and reacting in real-time to our partner’s every move. There are unwritten rules that we as listeners and reactors must abide by. If you’re going to collaboratively improvise with someone and ignore everything they’re doing, you’re not collaborating. You’re doing nothing more than talking at someone, or worse, talking over someone, rather than talking with someone, the result is just dueling monologues rather than a single dialogue. We know this in theory, and it’s obviously easier said than done when we’re just trying to live in the moment and make some noise together, but we should always strive to be listeners first at all times, even when we’re on stage or tracking in the studio.
So how do we go about being listeners first as improvisers when we are working solo in the studio? This exercise is intended to force the at-home studio improviser to communicate with themselves through a 3 part recorded improvisation exercise. For this exercise, you will need to pick a single instrument or sound-making device and a stopwatch, there are no aesthetic requirements for this exercise. If you want to improvise a pop melody, go for it, if you want to improvise a massive Cthulu fart, go for it. Set your stopwatch for 3 minutes, and record 3 stems as overdubs, one after the other. The only “rules” for each stem are to follow this structure:
Take 1 - Minimal response to silence
Take 2 - Intermedial response to Take 1
Take 3 - Maximal response to Take 1 & 2
The final product should be a reflection of itself, with each stem being a response to the previous and the first being a response to silence. The use of FX is encouraged, but only during the tracking process, do not add any FX in post-production beyond a basic mixing and mastering for presentation purposes. This should be as “live” as possible, and that includes what FX you choose for the tracking process that you will respond to directly in the moment.
The aim here is to find structure at the finish line where there was none at the start, what “structure” means is entirely dependent on what you decide to “talk” to yourself about. Remember, you only have 3 minutes to communicate your minimal, intermedial, and maximal ideas. The challenge we face often as improvisers is keeping track of time while communicating, it’s rude to look at your watch while in conversation with someone, isn’t it?
LMY Monthly Project #3: Vocal Sound Source, June 2021.
As far as acoustic sound sources go, few are as expressive, rich, and sonically diverse as the human voice. Everyone (hopefully) has one, and while we often don’t tune in to the subtle nuances each of our vocal timbres may carry, it’s safe to assume that we are all capable of creating an eclectic variety of sounds with our voices, whether they be traditionally musical sounds or not.
This month’s project is meant to tune in to your particular voice recordings as the exclusive sample source for an electronic music composition. Not only can you only use your voice as the source material, but you may only use a single recording of your voice as well. This means you can’t have different takes utilized throughout the piece, all sounds must stem from this one vocal recording file.
The single voice recording can be done by any means of capturing your voice; a voice memo on your phone to a nice studio take on a fancy condenser is worthwhile for this project. The source material can be literally whatever you want it to be so long as it follows the single take vocal recording requirements. It can be a musical phrase, a series of sentences, or a variety of spitty mouth gurgle noises if you’d like.
What you do with this recording as tape or sampling material is entirely up to you so as long as you don’t leave it untouched, you’re encouraged to chop and screw to your heart's content. The final result must be a new electronic composition that is between 1 to 3 minutes in length. Anything from abstract tape collages of vocal chops, to creating drum and other instrument samples out of your beatbox noises is on the table. The genre or style of composition you create is entirely up to you, as well as the amount of effects processing and channels you choose to implement. Get cracking.
LMY Monthly Project #4: Creative Field Recording Sample Packs, July 2021.
Similar to our first monthly project, July will focus on the acoustic ecologies surrounding us. Rather than simply standing in the field and documenting the sonic surroundings, however, this month we will be implementing our limbs and whatever we can grab, touch, and play with while out in the field. We will not be approaching field recording as acoustic ecologists or documentarians, but rather as sample hunters and improvisers in search of the perfect sound objects to record and perform with.
Pick a space that is familiar to you based not only on the sonic content generated without any physical interaction but also on the objects available to strike, strum, drag across a surface, pluck, etc. As with any sample pack, we should seek to record sounds that cover a variety of musical and sonic elements, from percussive attack to timbrel texture. While you are encouraged to find a plethora of sonic content, you must record sounds with conscious intent in mind. There should be a cohesive theme to your collection of recordings, whether it be a conceptual or literal musical theme is up to you.
Your end goal should be a sample pack folder of at least 10 individual files that fall under the theme of your choice. While a channel strip mixdown, such as noise gate, EQ, compressor, etc., is required for each sample, try to focus on the sounds that don’t need much additional digital processing to convey your intent. If you’re seeking to create long reverberated samples, perhaps you should find a naturally reflective space to explore. All participants are encouraged to download each other’s packs when uploaded to be used in future monthly projects.
LMY Monthly Project #5: Sample Buddy, August 2021.
(to be completed in a pair or group only after completing Project #4)
I hope you all enjoyed the sample pack project from last month because now you’re being called to action in hopes of finding the gems that fit your sonic aesthetic amongst the work of your peers! Find a friend who also completed Project #4 and commit to working strictly with the samples and found sounds of their sample pack, you are not allowed to pick your own sample pack. You must decide which of these sounds speak to you on a musical level, find melody where you hear it, and find percussion and repetitive patterns amongst the fields of your peers.
Using only the sample pack you chose, create an original sonic composition from scratch that is at least 2 minutes in duration. What you do with these samples as far as the music you make is entirely up to you, whether it be a pop melody, hip hop beat, or collage of noises is your call. You are not allowed to add your own original recordings to this composition, whether they be recognizable or not. The challenge is to create what you seek to create using a set of raw materials that you had nothing to do with assembling. Happy sampling!
LMY Monthly Project #6: WE’LL DO IT LIVE! September 2021.
(to be completed in a pair or group of participants)
This month is the sixth month anniversary of the monthly project series and to celebrate we are going to do this a bit differently this month. This time, everything is going to be done *live* over the internet. You will be asked to perform a 5-minute improvisation, live over the internet for the rest of your group of participants. What and how you choose to improvise is completely up to you. This is a concert happening in your home studio, you'll notice it most definitely will feel weird when the stakes are slightly lowered but an audience is still watching.
If you are utilizing acoustic objects or instrumentation and do not need any electronic, amplified, or internal playback, whether it be hardware or software, you must use a standard USB or vocal condenser microphone plugged directly into your Zoom app.
If you are utilizing any sort of electronic signal for your improvisation, whether it be hardware or software, you must run your setup through your DAW on your computer, which will allow you to run as many instruments or inputs as you want so as long as your CPU can handle that happening in a live zoom video chat.
You have all month to prepare, I’d practice making sure you got a clean signal coming into your Zoom from your chosen setup well in advance so we go off without a hitch, there won’t be much time to soundcheck live. While we treat these sessions as a class seminar, this in a way will be a spontaneous recital of 5-minute improvisations. This is a show from home, with all its potential hiccups and insecurities. This feeling of vulnerability is something the performer has to work with and not resist, it’s just you and your weapons of choice on a blank canvass of sound for 5 minutes, do your worst!
LMY Monthly Project #7: Sound Maps, October 2021
This month we will be returning to our roots of the first project, one that combines both the art of field recording with the art of sound studies prose. This month we will be using our mobile recording devices to cover a length of space in a predetermined amount of time. The practice of field recording in motion, whether it be a single take or mixed in layers in post-production, is referred to as Sound Mapping. Many may be familiar with this term through the work of Annea Lockwood, best known for sonic actions such as Piano Burning, as well as her many sound maps of various bodies of water, including the Hudson, Housatonic, and Danube Rivers.
This month we will use our bodies and recording devices to become conduits for the sounds around us. Everyone is to pick a particular outdoor space that is familiar and sonically pleasing to them. You are to record in various parts of this space, whether it be through a single take in motion from various points, or a collage post-production mix of various points in the space. The final result of these recording sessions should be a 5-minute sound map of your chosen space, please keep it limited to this duration. Some basic mixing should be done to your sounds in post but nothing more than just enhancing the sonic realities around us, so that means not adding new voicings or reverberations/time-based FX to the mix, stick to making sure your channel strips are clean and loud.
While recording, make sure you note on your own Map where you are in the space, use your phone’s GPS and take screenshots of your route and the various points of interest being recorded. Once the final draft of your recording is complete, use it as the foundation for creating a visual topographic component. This can be a hand-drawn map, a digital rendering of a satellite image of the space, or a series of screenshots from your GPS app. Using both audio and topographic documentation, take some time to write in words what exactly we’re hearing in these spaces, and why they’re important or sonically appealing to you.
LMY Monthly Project #8: Acoustic field performance, November 2021.
It’s November everyone, the leaves in the trees have turned golden and red as they begin to fall, and it’s probably a bit colder wherever you're in the world. This is always the time of year that I’d go on walks growing up outside Boston. New England in the Autumn is particularly stunning. I’d find myself in high school and returning home from college taking my harmonium out in the backyard or at a park nearby and just playing drone chords to sing over in the afternoon sun. I still enjoy the occasional “field performance”, whether just performing on a synth app on my phone or taking the time to sit down and practice singing, unplugged and vulnerable et al.
I think it’s time we deliberately tap into this vulnerability, specifically combining it with our acoustic ecology and field recording practices from the past months. Pick an acoustic instrument or sonic object, one that you truly feel a particular connection with, and take it outside with your field recorder to a place you feel a particular connection with. Your instrument or object of choice can be literally anything that makes an acoustic sound, your voice included. Please choose only one sound-making tool to focus your performance on, your mindset should be that you’re now in duet with your field recorder and the variety of details it picks up. For this reason, it is preferred for you to use an in-ear monitor while recording so that you hear both your own amplified sound source as well as your sonic surroundings.
Once you have determined your tools, field, and technical arrangements, improvise with your surroundings for five minutes. I suggest you spend some time “practicing” before pressing record, spend time beforehand just listening through your field recorder. Is it windy? Are there birds or traffic nearby? Try to imagine your immediate soundscape in your mental DAW, where do the louder “channels” lie on the frequency spectrum? Your performance should be in response to your sonic observations, find a way to compliment your environment through your solo acoustic improvisation. Do you need to make a lot of noise to compete with your soundscape? Do you need to pick a performance tool that stands in its own frequency range outside of your chosen soundscape? These are some questions to consider when making arrangements.
Once you have your 5-minute recording, feel free to do a basic stereo channel mixdown and clean-up of your take, keep it strictly channel strip FX, with no delays, reverbs, modulations, or anything that would deter from the source.
LMY Monthly Project #9: Embody the External, December 2021
I’ve given this assignment in some form or another to a couple of my private students recently, so I’m hoping this exercise can be of benefit to everyone who wishes to partake. Oftentimes we run into writer's block as composers, this isn’t news to anyone and it’s pretty much the basis for founding this community, to begin with.
When I’ve found myself in these types of ruts in the past, I’ve observed that sometimes it’s worth taking on a new type of challenge that leads you into sonic territories you might not have dived into before. Have you ever consciously tried to just make a “type beat”, whether it be a literal beat or some completely outlandish compositional style you’ve never actually attempted to create yourself?
The challenge this month is to compose an original piece of sonic art by deliberately removing your own aesthetic biases from the compositional process and embody the aesthetic tastes and sounds of an artist of your choosing. This can be any artist of any time period, region, or sonic styling, so as long as it is a human. Birds don’t have a conscious aesthetic the way humans do, so don’t embody a bird.
It’s recommended to really surround yourself with this person’s discography for a fully immersive familiarity with their compositional thought process, or rather, how you interpret this process through your ears and brains. It is recommended for the sake of project efficiency that you focus primarily on the compositional style of your artist choice rather than instrumentation. You can embody the orchestration of a classical composer without an orchestra, a rock quartet as a solo artist, a pop star as an acapella vocalist, etc.
Your composition should not exceed 5 minutes in duration.
LMY Monthly Project #10: SING IT OUT BABY, SING! January 2022
It’s time for everyone to step out back, take a walk, and dip their head out of the window. What long tones do you hear? Is there a long gust of wind noisily scraping your ears? Is there a hum of nearby traffic or heavy machinery enveloping your soundscape in a man-made drone? What about short tones? Are there any birds or other animals chirping nearby? Are there the sounds of people talking amongst themselves? Does the nearby traffic vary in texture, with beeps and squeals front and center and the roaring of several engines hugging the background? Are there industrial machines hammering away, reverberating into the air?
This project, directly inspired by the Oliveros Deep Listening philosophy origins, will be another “field performance” of sorts, similar to previous projects. What makes this project unique, however, is that it will require all of us to use our voices as the primary performance mechanism.
Using a field recording device that allows for live monitoring in headphones, place the microphone in the direction of a sound in an outdoor space that appeals to you. Once you find your sound, whether it be geophony (earth), biophony (wildlife), or anthropophony (man), record yourself for 2 minutes singing in duet with this found sound. You can sing to harmonize with the birds, you can try your best to match the drone pitch of the traffic nearby, and you can imitate the gusts of wind by making whooshing and screeching sounds with your mouth. But you can only use your voice, and you can’t apply any FX beyond the basic mixdown to the final recording.
Use this as an excuse to tune in with amplified ears to the very tonal and musical soundscapes we all experience day to day. Use the field recorder’s gain staging as a way to amplify the sounds you may not hear otherwise. Don’t worry about sounding “correct” as a traditional singer, focus your energy on finding timbres in your environments that you can imitate and harmonize with the instrument we all have access to.
Weekly Projects: Winter 2021-2022
To be completed in any order of your choosing after completing all ten monthly projects. Repeat the process from the beginning when you feel it's time.
"In 60 seconds or less, convey the sound of filth." - December 7th, 2021
“In 3 minutes or less, create a childlike work of audio using your usual setup. Meaning, what would a child do if they had access to _____ sound sources?” - December 13th, 2021
“This week we will be channeling our inner Giacinto Scelsi. Using an acoustic instrument or sound object of choice, repeat a single sound over and over again, with the goal being to have as little difference as possible between one sound and the next.
Sounds easy until you look back at your waveforms for each of the sounds and realize they not only sound different but *look* different as well. Record yourself performing this exercise for as long as it takes for you to find your perfect repetitive sonority.” - January 3rd, 2022
“Using your phone or tablet that has the ability to screen record, “perform” your Instagram feed by finding unique patterns between the Reels section and scrolling back and forth, fast and slow, between the videos you choose to scroll. Record your findings for at least a minute.” - January 17th, 2022
“Inspired by Potvorrah's performance two weeks ago using only his phone and my found sound collections on IG stories, we are going to perform using solely Instagram as our soundsource as we send it through a live FX rig of our choice. You can use my Found Sound folders on IG as described above, continue last week's practice by live mixing IG reels as you scroll live, or simply just use the app and allow the sounds to appear as you go about your business. Your phone must be plugged in directly to an FX chain,
This can be either hardware or software FX, including using an internal sound routing app to send IG audio to another app (think AUM audio mixer for iPhone), but it must be a live, single-take performance, no post-production use of FX allowed. Record your performances for at least 3 minutes” - January 24th, 2022
“Using only found sounds downloaded off of freesound.org, create a virtual ambient soundscape to be paired with an image of a space of your choice found on google images or anywhere else online. Use at least 5 channels of found sounds gathered off Freesound, and use the DAW to create a seamless mix as if it was a live field recording made in a single space in one take.
Reminder, you may not use any original recordings, only found sounds downloaded from freesound.org.” - February 21st, 2022
“Consider the ancient Japanese aesthetic of "Ma", or negative space, in relation to "silence" in a chosen environment. Since there isn't such thing as true silence beyond the anechoic chamber, tune in to the negative space of an environment of your choosing and record at least one minute of room tone in that space.
What shade of silence do you listen to in your daily life? THEN, flip the script, and find a "positive" space saturated with noise by default. Record at least one minute of room tone in this positive space. What shade of noise do you listen to in your daily life?” - March 22nd, 2022
“Make your favorite sound, every day, for the rest of your life. Happy birthday.” - March 28th, 2022
Max Alper aka @la_meme_young is a composer, educator, writer, and cultural worker. He is the co-founder of Klang Magazine and performs music under the moniker Peretsky. He currently teaches music technology and sound studies at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College and at New York Film Academy.