Yearly Archives: 2016

The Complex Beauty Of Accessible Tech.

Drake Music, the charity that put me on this journey through music with accessible technology.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with music and how it’s been changed by the necessity of disability. It’s a complex journey from a traditional acoustic instrument to a largely electronic landscape, but it’s by no means a tragedy.

I’ve always been intrigued by the emotional relationship between disability and technology. There’s a complex, emotive quality to the augmentation of human activity through technology by the necessity that disability can bring. An obvious example of this would be Stephen Hawking’s voice; there’s something that affects me emotionally about these huge, beautiful, human ideas being relayed through digital technology that is inherently devoid of emotion itself. This collision of human warmth and cold technology is incredibly powerful to me. It’s difficult to articulate how it makes me feel. There’s certainly a melancholic aspect to it for me, but it’s not tragic. It’s very beautiful, this kind of facsimile; a human spirit viewed through the digital glass. It has a distance to it that draws me in.

That’s why I love to use the gloves with technology like Native Instruments’ Kontakt instruments. These tools aim to give the composer all the tools to create realistic sounds such as orchestral instruments, but of course it isn’t ‘real’ – it’s a collection of expertly crafted digital tools, designed as a necessary second best to the ‘real’ thing. For me it’s anything but second best. That is the joy for me; I don’t use Kontakt strings because I can’t afford a real orchestra; I want to use digital technology. I’m not trying to trick the listener into assuming they’re hearing human orchestral players. I want to create that not-quite facsimile, the is it/isn’t ‘real’ – it’s a kind of allegory of what accessible technology means to me emotionally.

Of course, with the gloves this is literally accessible technology – that’s why I have the gloves! But it’s more than a crutch, it’s more than a compromise; this represents a part of the emotional nuances that come with disability. Playing strings like this moves me in a way a real string quartet wouldn’t; there’s a quirky melancholy, a subtle detachment that brings with I kind of pathos of human spirit relying on technology to survive. Not that I think this is better than the ‘real’ thing – but that it deserves to be seen as more than a compromise.

I had to be here to survive as a musician, but it’s a place I want to be. A place filled with complex beauty, and one that reminds of the true fragility of the things that make us human.

The Perils Of The One-Man Band.

Yes, it’s billed as Kris Halpin + Friends, but at the core this is still a one-man band most days. Lee contributes a lot when he’s around of course, but I have to keep the ship sailing between those sessions. Recorded output is still the weak link; an enormous source of frustration to me. In short, there’s just not enough of it. Reading back through this blog during a routine clean-up, I was saddened by all my frustrated attempts to get recordings finished. I feel like the process needs to be reinvigorated and reinvented to deliver a respectable amount of recording work each year.

Live, the one-man band thing has become the very reason to perform. Seeing one person do all that with the gloves, that’s the appeal, I know. I write something towards new material almost every day, and I’m not exactly short on material. So why is the thing I was once most excited about lagging so far behind?

One thing I’ve observed is a wide dearth of discussion about the one-person band process, despite the prevalence of successful solo multi-instrumentalist artists. That’s one reason why I want to open up about my working process. It would be easy to keep quiet, and not reveal the fragility of my inner working process, but that just isn’t helpful. This is such a common thing now; loads of people make music alone in their bedroom studios. I have way more time and resources than most musicians I know, so where’s the hold-up?

Some obvious stumbling blocks:

  • Arranging & Tracking. In a one-person band, the emphasis for me is on  ‘band’. I’ve always created complex, multilayered arrangements; I’d never want to hold back on that. Over the years many people have suggested I should ‘strip it back’, making simpler guitar and vocal performances, to [*groans*] ‘let the songs speak for themselves’. I don’t wanna knock anyone else, but the one-man-and-his-guitar thing is a non starter. The current trend for white middle class guys armed with acoustic guitars does nothing for me. The arrangements tell part of the story, these complex arrangements are as much a part of the song as the lyrics. That takes a long time to conceive and record. 
  • Production. Most of my favourite OPBs have a production partner to work with. I have that in Lee of course, but when I’m working on my own, I really am on my own. It’s another layer of stuff that needs to be done, to keep a handle on the engineering process, the DAW, the mixing. All my own choosing of course, but that stuff can take up a lot of the day. 
  • Disability. There’s been lots of talk about my hand mobility impairments and the effect they have on my musicianship. That’s not an emotive narrative point to gain column inches. This is really happening. I naturally expect to hear guitars in my music, I’ve played the instrument since I was a small child after all. It’s the most difficult instrument to play now, and the one that has the least freedom to correct in post. I don’t own a real piano, I rely on Native Instruments various pianos, controlled by a decent, fully weighted MIDI controller. That means the end result is MIDI; duff notes can be edited, timing can manipulated without affecting sound. Guitar parts are audio, and despite the claims made by DAW manufacturers, timing fixes don’t sound very convincing to my ears. I’m still exploring this issue, but recording guitar parts is hard, and there isn’t an obvious way to make that more accessible. I’ve of course given a lot of thought to working ‘guitarless’ but I haven’t fully explored that possibility yet. This is a can of worms that warrants it’s own blog post soon…
  • Procrastination. Of course. Who doesn’t? All the best musicians I know are experts at procrastinating, but that doesn’t help speed things up. The problem is, it’s very difficult to just dial in inspiration. Just because you have studio time, doesn’t mean you always have something meaningful to bring. 

I’m hopeful that opening up this discussion on here might help me develop some tools to help get over these hurdles and deliver on recorded output at a better rate. Rereading the points above, I feel I need to cut myself some slack first. It’s a really hard thing to do well, but that kinda doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how difficult it is; there’s either an end result, or there isn’t. If the records don’t exist, no amount of sympathy towards the difficulty of the task matters. You can’t start a song with a voiceover explaining where you ran out of time, why something doesn’t sound right. 

I’ve set my own bar incredibly high, but now I’m bored and frustrated with how rarely I get to clear it. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far, there just isn’t enough of it.

Do you make music on your own? How does it work for you? Does any of this ring true? I’d love to know.

Out With The New.

TR-09

This stuff is all the rage at the moment innit? These hardware recreations of classic kit like 909s, 303s and 808s; retaining a retro feel in something that’s inevitably more reliable (not to mention cheaper). I kinda get why people crave something physical to play with; I’m all for tangible, tactile control, but Push and LaunchPad satisfy that need for me. I went through a phase of wanting this stuff; I have an old Roland Groovebox that covers all the classic sounds, but it kinda becomes a pain to work with at times. They’re fiddly to program, and will never get close to Ableton Live + Push for the degree of editing and sonic manipulation possibilities. Having said that, some constraint is useful; it’s not always that inspiring to have all the toys out all the time. Also, it feels very much like a fashion ‘moment’ – is all this ’boutique’ revival hardware a bit overly kitsch? What do you think?

That You’ll Never Know – MiMu Gloves Performance

The first song from The Gloves Are On shows, and possibly the most complex… gets all my best tricks in there; the invisible guitar, air strings, big drums… Enjoy!

Flesh & Dust. The New Album.

You may know the story behind this one. In 2014 I posted video diaries about the making of this record, then an acoustic guitar led record. Steeped in Nick Drake’s influence, it was my most ambitious acoustic guitar work to date.

It wasn’t working, of course. As the videos progressed, they became a document not of the record, but my access barriers. My hands were letting me down, and the sessions became incredibly difficult. Soon enough, my condition won, and the project was put on hold. At this point, I met Imogen Heap and the mi.mu team, and the gloves adventure began.

It was after an incredible year, topped by an incredible UK tour, that I gave this record some thought again. I love these songs, I wanted them finished. I was in a different place musically by necessity; the gloves make electronic music by default. This was however the place that I battled my access barriers from; I wanted to try and bring these songs into the world I found myself in now.

Earlier this year I started sifting through what I had. I was pleasantly surprised; the guitar work was better than I remembered. It wasn’t enough though, there were still lots of gaps, both conceptually and literally.

What I immediately found exciting was juxtaposing these new, electronic sounds with the simplicity of the original acoustic guitar songs. I focused on capturing the original essence of the songs, the feel, the spark, with electronic sounds. Using the gloves in this context was a really exciting challenge; I was determined to keep that unmistakable style of songwriting that acoustic guitar picking work brings, but reimagined in this new way.

The collision of ideas was immediately inspiring. Just as the technology had bridged my access gaps, it was dong so for the songs. I loved the stark contrast. The electronica colliding with the acoustic; technology colliding with a gentle, human frailty in this case. It audibly represented that complex relationship that I have with the technology that helps me; the frailty of my original reframed in digital technology. The sound itself was an allegory for life lived with and through accessible technology.

Working hard, it became clear that this was no quick project. I was immediately frustrated by this; the songs have been with me long enough. The idea of disappearing into the studio for several months before emerging with a long player had no appeal. Of course, there’s no reason that means it has to be the old way…

So here it is. Work in progress, an organic, growing work. New songs will appear here as they are completed. They may be revised, the order will no doubt change, but I want you to hear this. I want you to be part of the process, which is why I want to open this process out. I also love the idea of this being a subscriber exclusive, that was obviously the way to go. I want you, the subscriber, to get closer to what I’m doing.

I’m looking forward to this, it’s our little thing… 😉

Not a subscriber? Join now to download my entire back catalogue immediately, as well as the first track from this album, and everything else that comes out in the next 12 months.

/Archives.

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