Smudges One: Virga

by Tim Story

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about

Welcome to the Smudges.

The given story-line, perhaps most practically, should be that we are beyond thrilled to present Tim Story’s first new solo “album” in over 17 years. Or, more so, that these new pieces represent an unexpected, tantalizing bridge across nearly 40 years, back to the initial tape experiments of the late 70s which led to Story's first album, Threads. All true, yet this would somehow be missing the point.

In actuality, those who know Story’s work are well aware that he has been quietly and brilliantly deconstructing the “musician/composer” paradigm for which he is known. Story’s efforts of the last 10 plus years, not unlike Steve Reich’s early tape-phasing experiments or the Bomb Squad’s meticulously constructed waves of concrète noise, have increasingly focused on the plastic, malleable nature of sound, listening and presentation, exploring the relationship between organic and inorganic sources. This is most clearly, and most recently, exemplified by the immersive nature of his successful The Roedelius Cells multi-channel audio installation which extends the creative process to the point of inviting the listener into the continually changing environment as a kind of “co-composer” via choice of physical proximity. Thus, the idea of memorializing Story’s work as an “album” or an otherwise fixed, finite form of presentation becomes somewhat restrictive and increasingly irrelevant given his ongoing quest for the essence of that intransitive, possibly fleeting, moment where the artist meets, and creatively engages his audience.

Which brings us to the Smudges.

Elusive, rich, organic yet ultimately artificial, Story’s Smudges are a series of harmonic tone poems, originally created simply for the composer’s own enjoyment. Built essentially by submitting other people’s music to a process that freezes and ‘smudges’ small samples of harmonically-rich, looped phrases, these pieces cycle through a constantly evolving landscape that is both enigmatically abstract and warmly familiar. A kind of graceful, slow-motion half-sister to The Roedelius Cells, Smudges finds Story fusing the Cells’ restless search for unique forms of recontextualization with his unabashed love of harmony.

Using mostly orchestral and acoustic sources for their variety, complexity and emotional resonance, Story experimented with hundreds of sounds and configurations. By trial and error he made the surprising discovery that, with careful construction, the resulting progressions could become profoundly more evocative and harmonically complex than the original source material. Never entirely shedding their organic beginnings nor their electronic evolutions, the Smudges generate an immersive illusion of orchestral sonorities, sometimes grand, sometimes ghostly and ominous.

Sharing the best of these pieces with a few friends and colleagues who responded with extraordinary enthusiasm, Story was eventually convinced to release them. Smudges One represents 16 of the artist’s favorites from this growing collection of suggestive evocations. In the subtitle of this first volume Virga—rain which evaporates before it reaches the ground—Story found an image particularly suited to these ephemeral, ambiguous cycles which progress but never quite resolve.

TIM STORY ON SMUDGES

Those who know my work have probably come to expect a couple of things from me: one, that I’m always a little restless, looking for new or interesting ways to forge compelling music from unlikely sources; and two, that I’m an absolute sucker for harmony—rich, thin, epic, odd, sometimes ambiguous combinations of all of the above. By accident, last summer, I discovered something that satisfied both these itches.

Beginning some sketches for the soundtrack of a documentary on Cuban dissident art, I was a little stuck. Unwilling to impose ‘my’ music on a film about a culture with its own amazing musical traditions, I had the bright idea of making a kind of “Cuban Cells”, weaving small samples of dozens of Cuban recordings into new compositions, much as I had done with Hans-Joachim Roedelius’ piano in The Roedelius Cells. I was having trouble, though, and spending way too much time, tracking down rights. A bigger problem that I only realized later: I was begging to use these music samples in a film that could ultimately prove politically dangerous to the very Cuban musicians I was inviting to participate. So I began experimenting with ways to process these Cuban sources, to generate something with Cuban ‘DNA’ but which would not be recognizable enough to be troublesome for me, or the artists involved.

Well, I stumbled on a way of creating what I was looking for, and in the end became so seduced that I began constructing dozens of these ‘smudges’ simply for my own pleasure. Unlike other music I’d created, made so meticulously that I’d rarely listen to it afterwards, I found myself listening to these tracks regularly. Though I’ve never considered myself a creator of ‘ambient music’, these smudges seemed to satisfy that elusive balance of being as passively or as actively listenable as I needed them to be.

In a nutshell, the audio process involves a taking a relatively small sample of audio, generally a short musical phrase from one source or another, looping it repeatedly into a longer section, and then submitting it to another process. That second system essentially takes ‘snapshots’ of the passing audio, then smudges and sustains just that moment of sound for a number of seconds, until the next snapshot is taken and smudged, and so on. None of the original unprocessed sound between the snapshots is audible, only the frozen, smudged moments. Since the two cycles (the length of the audio loops, and the length between the snapshots) are not the same, the snapshots are continually selecting moments from a different part of the audio loop, so the cycles that result evolve in ways that are unexpected (always) and beautiful (if you do it right.)

So creating the smudges was less ‘composing’ in the traditional sense, than making a snowball to push from the top of a hill. Curating the sounds and cycles that would form the snowball, I was then powerless to control it as it grew, fell apart and regrew in infinitely unpredictable ways. It made me into a listener (a role that I love), no different really from the audience that will hopefully enjoy these. Setting the process in motion, I simply sat back, listened to the results, tweaked the methods, listened again, and chose the ones that resonated most.

If this all sounds a little unpromising, dry and technical, the results, at least to me, were anything but. Grand, slow-motion apparitions of orchestral-music-that-isn’t, they grow and fall away in slippery washes of harmony and timbre. The patterns rhyme but they don’t repeat. As in all my work, much care was taken to make the technology disappear for the listener (of which I of course was one). Aside from a shadow of electronic stutter that opens and closes each piece —an artifact of the process that I considered important to preserve—the intent here was to forge a totally convincing, musical organism—the process itself clearly visible but no nuts and bolts showing.

So, more than a little smitten, through the summer and fall I continued submitting all sorts of music, predominantly orchestral and acoustic (even my brother Mike’s concert band compositions, which turned out particularly fertile results) to the process, discovering that, when selected well, the resulting sounds and patterns were vastly more intriguing to me than the original samples. This went on for months, my little secret, until I began cautiously handing out small compilations of them to friends and colleagues. Pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response, I continued adding to the collection until Russ Curry of Curious Music eventually demanded I release a group of them. Virga, the first volume of what I hope will become a series of Smudges, is a word that means rain which falls, but evaporates before it hits the ground. A fitting image I thought for these 16 cycles of sound which push forward in subtle, unpredictable waves, but which never quite ‘land’.

credits

released January 1, 2019

All tracks composed and produced June-December 2018 by Tim Story from various source material.

Mixed and mastered by Tim Story at Seventh Chance Recording, Maumee, OH USA

All compositions © 2019 Seventh Chance Music (BMI)

Cover art by Mark Packo.

Artist photo by Ingo Pertramer

© and Ⓟ 2019 Seventh Chance Recordings/Curious Music, all rights reserved.

A Curious Music/Seventh Chance production

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