When I worked in radio, I was always searching for sounds to tell stories. The clatter of dishes and rain of voices to set the scene in a crowded restaurant; the deep brass of a foghorn to welcome a cruise ship to the harbour; the crunch of feet on gravel moving the story forward. I used sounds like these every day to add texture and life to the stories I broadcast. I also listened to a lot of voices, the primary instrument of talk radio. We were always looking for a “good talker” – articulate, animated, someone whose voice delivered a combination of style and substance without straying too far toward the verbose.
I mainly worked in the newsroom, where the challenge was to tell a story quickly and using sound. That was the order of importance: deadline first, then story, then sound. Audio often felt like the medium of circumstance rather than design. This certainly isn’t true of all radio. A show like Radiolab pushes its medium and uses sound in evocative and creative ways in the service of storytelling.
You might say: is this simply a story being told through sound, or are the sounds helping tell the story?
We’ve all heard the adage about the number of words a picture is worth. But what about a sound? A sound can also tell a story in a thousand ways – by immersing the listener, evoking associations, triggering emotions. Great radio is more than just words; it is a canvas across which can be spread a broad spectrum of sounds to sketch ideas, build atmosphere, imply connections, evoke emotion.
Here’s an example of an attempt to use sound not merely as an incidental medium, but as an integral part of the story itself.
I created this documentary as a journey guided by sounds and voices. It’s a journey I actually took. About seven years ago, I traveled to northern Quebec to find out how the massive hydroelectric dams built in the 1970s changed the landscape and the way of life for the Cree people who live there. The story is about natural rhythms and cycles, movement, change, and power – both physical and political.
The sounds are integral to this story – they convey the themes much more viscerally than any explanation could. There is the steady pacing of walking the land and paddling the river – rhythms that echo across generations. There are the contrasting voices of the northern villagers and the white southerners – centuries of power and struggle contained in a few frustrated, angry words, or in a confident, entitled tone. And of course there is the roar of the river – the sound of nature’s unstoppable force, the blood pulsing across the land, and the aggressive ingenuity it took to tame it.
In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks tells of a man who experiences a kind of musical awakening after being struck by lightning. The man suddenly hears classical music in his head and takes up the piano to try to harness and give voice to the sounds he hears. He starts feeling intensely emotional when he hears music, in contrast to being quite indifferent prior to the trauma. The electric bolt that comes down from the heavens quite literally strikes musical inspiration into this man.
I too have felt the strike of musical inspiration, although not quite so dramatically. But I do see the aptness of the metaphor: musical ideas seem to appear in one’s mind unaided and unannounced, as if being thrust there by some great external force.
These moments of inspiration can sometimes be relatively mundane. On one brutally cold afternoon this winter — one of those afternoons where you can almost see the crystalline cold, like the opposite of a summer haze — I was walking through a park on the way to pick up my kids when a melody just popped into my head. I pulled out my phone and pressed record:
Where did these notes come from? One moment they are nowhere, and the next moment they have spontaneously formed into a musical phrase in my brain. Although to be sure, it’s not exactly magic. The notes follow all kinds of musical rules and conventions, and are influenced by years of study and practice, as well as by my tastes and listening habits. So perhaps this spontaneous act of creation is simply my brain firing back an echo of the structures and groupings it has previously absorbed, like a dream building strange new worlds out of memories of real people and places. Whatever the mechanism, there is something mysterious about musical inspiration.
The day after my walk through the park, I sat down with my guitar and built a simple structure around the new melody. Three chords: G, C, D. Your basic blues. The root of a million pop and folk songs. And yet, this instance was different. Because of the particular melody, because of the way I was playing. A thousand tiny decisions to make something standard sound unique.
I recorded the chords with a synthesizer that sounded like an echoey guitar, and then tried humming the melody and layering my vocals like a one-man choir. Something fell flat, so I scrapped the initial vocals and built a synthetic vocal instead, a kind of cheesy electronic answer to doo-wop. I forget exactly what came next, but I kept improvising new parts and layering them, and before long a song started taking shape. It would become the opening track of my new album:
Rarely has a song come to me in anything resembling a fully-formed state. Instead, I build the songs piece by piece, grasping material from what feels like a steady trickle of musical ideas. Sometimes melodies spontaneously appear in my head, other times I craft them by improvising and editing. It feels more like the work of a carpenter constructing a giant puzzle than an artist channeling divine inspiration.
This creative process also reminds me of something the novelist Tom Wolfe said about his own writing process:
I always have a clock in front of me. Sometimes, if things are going badly, I will force myself to write a page in a half an hour. I find that can be done. I find that what I write when I force myself is generally just as good as what I write when I’m feeling inspired. It’s mainly a matter of forcing yourself to write. There’s a marvelous essay that Sinclair Lewis wrote on how to write. He said most writers don’t understand that the process begins by actually sitting down.
- Tom Wolfe
I wrote most of the album by actually sitting down. Sometimes I was walking, often I would stand up and then sit down again. A process, a routine, ideas to the page. Always ideas to the page.
Inspiration has subtler meanings beyond the creative strike. We talk of inspired performances, inspiring words, and more general musical inspirations or influences.
When I started my recording project, four specific albums inspired my writing and production: Remain in Light by Talking Heads for its energy, compositional style and all-around brilliance, Hounds of Love by Kate Bush for its ethereal mood and reverberant rhythms, 808s and Heartbreak by Kanye West for its tenderly aggressive mixture of acoustic and synthetic sounds and Pure Heroine by Lorde for its sparseness and the deceptive simplicity of its melodic hooks.
I wouldn’t say that my music sounds like any of these artists, and yet if you listen, I think it’s clear that it was inspired by them in some way. This kind of inspiration reminds me of the concept of family resemblance from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. His idea is that a group of things can all be related by various overlapping traits or characteristics in a kind of network without there being any one thing common to all. He uses the example of games: everyone knows what a game is, and yet defining them is almost impossible — there is no essential set of characteristics that makes a game a game.
The world of musical influences is one of family resemblance – a similarity here or there, not always obvious or even explicitly identifiable. But there is a relationship, a sharing of borders and tastes, a kind of vibration that can strike if you listen and let it.
My new album of original music, Into The Modern, is now online and ready for human consumption. You can play it directly from the image on the righthand side of this page, or head over to tudiver.com to download it. You can pay as much or as little as you like for it (including $0) — I won’t judge. I just want to get the music out to as many people as possible. So take a listen and if you like it, please share it!
Thanks for reading and listening. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to do some posts exploring some of the stories and inspirations behind the tracks on the album.
This is my amp. Like you and me, it’s a piece of hardware. Sure, we’re made of different stuff, the amp and me–one of us is built of muscle, tissue and organs; the other, circuits, plywood and vacuum tubes. But we are both collections of relatively uninspiring building blocks strung together into something that moves and breathes and sings. The amp may not think and talk like I do, but it definitely has soul.
The amp in question is a Sears Silvertone Twin Twelve, model 1484. It was built in the early 60s and sold by Sears in their famous catalogue–the Craftsman for the musically inclined. This was the heyday of guitar amplification, and for purists very little has changed technologically in the last half century. The best amps are still just like this old beast–big, heavy, and loud, brought to life with early 20th century circuitry. The sparkly sound this amp produces is widely sought-after to this day. Beck uses one, as does Jack White.
The sound of this amp, like other vintage electronic instruments, pulses with the vibrancy and heat of electric currents. The sound is often described in terms of warmth, in contrast to the relative coldness of transistor amplifiers or digital sounds.
Some of the sounds on my album come from acoustic instruments and analog synthesizers, but I’ve also embraced modern computer synthesis. The technology is pretty amazing, with some programs emulating old analog synths right down to their distorted quirks and detuned warbles. Here’s a little taste of my computer recreating the Yamaha CS-80, a behemoth of a synth from the late 70s:
I don’t have the cash or muscle power to cart that kind of synth around (the CS-80 weighs about 200 pounds and sells for upwards of $7,000), so software emulation is sometimes the way to go. But despite some lovely sounds, virtual synths can be a bit lacking in sonic warmth. That’s where the amp comes in. Here’s a little podcast-style example:
The way to make the amp really sing, though, is to plug in a guitar, turn up the volume and move in as close as you dare:
What you’re hearing there, in a sense, is the sound of the amplifier playing itself. It starts with a note on the guitar but quickly spirals out of control as it feeds back through the amp in an endless loop. There’s an element of danger to it, of teetering on the edge of an earsplitting black hole, relinquishing control to the circuitry. I remember playing around with an old video camera in high school in a similar way–my friend Daniel and I played the camera live through a TV, and then filmed the TV screen itself. What you see is an infinite hall of mirrors, a feedback loop that looks into some unknown depth and, if you think about it too hard, starts to seem like its cutting a hole in the fabric of reality.
Thinking about the musicality of feedback reminded me of another analogy from the world of math and philosophy, what Douglas Hofstadter calls “strange loops” in his 1979 book Godel, Escher, Bach. The loops that interest him are mathematical statements that refer to themselves and in so doing actually become meaningful. Kurt Godel used these self-referential statements in the 1930s to show that truths exist in mathematical systems that can’t be proven. This was a major discovery in the fields of math and logic, with potential consequences for other fields that rely on mathematical systems.
Hofstadter seizes a kernel of this discovery–the idea that some kind of creation happens through feedback loops–and builds an elaborate argument that human consciousness comes about in the same kind of way, an incredibly complex system recognizing itself through endless feedback. One implication of this idea is that consciousness is not some magic or sorcery, but may just be a product of an orderly system. The difference between the human mind and some simpler feedback unit, then, is one of degree rather than kind.
So what happens in my brain that lets me speak and sing and see the world may not be so different from what happens in my amp when it sings its feedback. We are both rudimentary machines trying to cast off our earthly shackles through the loopy sounds of music.
If, like me, you love music in a slightly fanatical way, you probably know the experience of obsessive and rigorous listening: savouring the rounded pluck of a bass string, getting lost in cascades of piano keys or drawn out reverberations, feeling a flutter in your heart when you recognize a smile in a recorded vocal. To listen attentively is to study the mechanics of beauty: how pounding a note in a certain way or turning the right knob at the right time can create something beyond mere technical skill, something deeply emotional.
You don’t have to be a musician or technical junkie to listen this way. Studying the lore and aura of an album is the same kind of thing — poring over the liner notes for cryptic clues and hints, studying every line and shadow in a photograph. I especially love photos of studios and recording spaces. You can almost see the ineffable hidden in plain sight: the magic of creation that occurred between those walls, like a ghost captured in an old family portrait.
This is one of the first photos of a musical space I remember studying in intricate detail. I didn’t even like that band that much, but I loved the suspended animation of the setup: drums and amplifiers poised with possibility while the band just lounges in the back corner. The space felt so real and alive — a mess of cables snaking across the floor, an amp sitting on a chair, empty bottles lined up near the ceiling, and the lonely microphone on its stand near the edge of the carpet, just waiting.
As far as home studios go, Peter Gabriel had a pretty sweet setup in the early 80s. At the time, he lived in an old hunting lodge near Bath in England and had converted the barn on the property into a recording studio. In this photo, he’s using some amazing early synthesizers (including the Fairlight CMI, one of the first samplers) on his seminal album So. But for the all the technology and history captured in this image, it’s really all about the expression on Gabriel’s face — the furrowed brow and pursed lips of a man channeling spirits.
When I set up my home studio, I didn’t need as much space as Peter Gabriel so I didn’t bother converting my barn. Instead, I used the spare bedroom at the back of my house, which is nice and bright but does suffer from some of the technical limitations that go along with making sounds in small spaces. If you’ve ever yelled “echo!” in a tunnel and heard your voice come bouncing back then you can appreciate how integral a space can be to the sound produced within it. A smooth surface will reflect sounds; in tight spaces those reflections flutter back and join up with the source to actually change the timbre of the original sound. So in the wrong kind of space, vocals can sound too hollow or bassy depending on how the sound waves bounce around. My studio is small and has smooth walls, so I made some temporary modifications to dampen reflections and give my vocals a more natural sound.
Tracking vocals in my studio, with blankets to reduce sound reflections. Blankets can also be used to provide warmth and comfort.
The funny thing about cutting down reflections is that a lot of the time you end up adding artificial reflections back in later to create the illusion of space. Adding effects like delays and reverbs helps balance out the mix of instruments and vocals in a song, and gives each element its own room to breathe. So what you end up creating is a kind of imaginary space that only exists for that particular recording. But this is the real space that matters: the space inside the listener’s head, the place to which you are transported when you put on good headphones and just listen.
I’m not a drowning man
And I’m not a burning building! I’m a tumbler
Drowning cannot hurt a man
Fire cannot hurt a man, not the government man
- David Byrne, Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
I was a government man. I joined up almost six years ago, fresh out of grad school and bouncing with optimism and possibility. I had studied environmental management at Yale with inspiring colleagues, and I felt as though my generation was on the cusp of leading an environmental revolution. With the right combination of careful research, fearless innovation and sound policy, I thought my friends and I might just save our planet from peril.
Then I joined the government. A friend once described moving from grad school to government as a bullet hitting molasses. It took about two years for the sticky machinery to start slowing down my momentum. I worked on projects that involved the so-called “central agencies,” the organizations that hold the purse strings and vet the policies for the entire government. I stared into the bureaucratic abyss, and it was full to the brim with thick molasses.
David Byrne’s government man looks incredulously at his hands as if he can’t believe what he has become. My government hands were never as sinister or complicit as his, but they were getting frustrated and restless. So I decided to leave the bureaucracy for a while to reconnect with the musical creativity that had been taking a back seat in my life for far too long. I took a leap: I left my job, set up a recording studio in a spare bedroom and started making music.
The Athlone Avenue Studio in Ottawa. Where the magic happens.
I may not have embarked on this adventure were it not for the Talking Heads. I came to their music somewhat after the fact — their seminal album Remain in Light was released a month after my birth, and as a child I was steeped more in sweet Beatles harmonies and troubadour folk singers than the kind of grit and attitude that infused punk, new wave and funk, and vibrates through a band like the Talking Heads.
There is so much to hear and feel in this music. There is definitely attitude and raw energy in Byrne’s wild vocalizations. But there is also precision in the arrangement and interplay of sounds. Each instrument and each phrase has it’s own particular place. I think of it like pointillism in art: if you look up close, there is an orderly substructure of tiny pieces placed side by side. As you move back and see more of the work, something of a much higher order emerges, something whose sublime beauty is both visceral and intellectual. It is the wonder of experiencing stunning complexity arise as if by magic from the simplest of components. It’s like the miracle of conscious life blooming forth out of inanimate matter.
Robert Delaunay’s Portrait de Metzinger, 1906.
The main inspiration I took from the Talking Heads was structural: building songs out of small dabs, repeated splashes of colour, but always with an ear for the broad strokes, the organizing principle, the driving objective. Point, counterpoint. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
I also learned to trust my musical instincts. In David Byrne’s great book How Music Works, he describes how he wrote the melodies and lyrics for Remain in Light as a combination of the intellectual and the instinctual. Once the instrumental parts of the song were recorded, he would improvise vocals overtop, recording melodic ideas through nonsensical words and sounds. He would then transcribe those nonsense noises and build lyrics out of whatever word-like sounds he could find in the gibberish.
I wrote a few songs using this method, but what I love about it is the trust he has in his initial reactions to the music. We are taught that practice makes perfect, that you should think before you speak. But sometimes spontaneity can bring something truer and more emotive.
Two notes of clarification:
If you, dear reader, happen to be a government man or woman yourself, I mean no offence to you. I respect what you do. It is important work, often thankless, often frustrating. I’m not sure it’s for me, but I’m grateful it’s for someone.
There is in fact a 20th century classical compositional style sometimes referred to pointillism (or punctualism) which is not what I describe above. It is entirely focused on the substructure of the composition; that is, each note or small group of notes is composed in isolation from the work as a whole, giving it a much more abstract aesthetic. What I like about pointillism is the magic of something coherent emerging from all those seemingly random dots and smudges.
When I was about seven, I used to perform the song La Bamba for my parents by lip synching into a floor lamp and playing guitar riffs on my dad’s raquetball raquet.
The inward expression of the serious musician. The impeccable finger placement. The rock star outfit. Clearly the music moved me.
When I started playing the guitar for real, one of the first things I did was plug it into our stereo and record to cassette. Then I played that tape through another machine and recorded my guitar again, playing along with my other disembodied self. As you may have guessed, I was an only child.
In high school I started playing in bands with other real live people. This had its advantages: new ideas would sprout simply by playing and responding to what the other musicians were doing. Also, to hear everything above the drums you had to turn the guitar amps way up, and being loud was totally cool.
We played gigs, which was scary and exhilarating. And I found that there was something about connecting with another person through music that deepened a friendship.
Here I am on the drums with my friends Bryan and Dave as the Imperial Public Library circa 1999 during the recording sessions for our first album as a band:
Despite all the advantages of living, breathing collaborators, the magic of two Simons playing together in a parallel universe created through the miracle of tape had me in its thrall. As the machine rolled, I was touching something beyond our world — stopping and replaying time, performing some kind of witchcraft in the service of musical perfection.
I was probably 15 or 16 when I upgraded my recording gear from the double stereo setup to a proper four-track tape recorder. I filled tape after tape with teenage angst and brooding harmonies. I still have most of those tapes — and I’ll be honest and tell you their contents do not stand the test of time. But I was young and I was learning. And sometimes you just have to be bad at something before you can be good.
Once in a while, though, I’ll come across something kind of cool amidst all that flailing. For reasons unbeknownst to my present-day self, I titled this track “Process Cheese:”
As I recall, it was heavily influenced by some of the Beastie Boys’ chilled-out instrumental tracks. It’s a bit sloppy and amateurish but to me these early recordings have ceased to be about technical accuracy or beauty. They’re more like diary entries or home movies — evocative windows into other places and times.
In the years since those early recordings, my tastes, skills and gear have evolved. Recording has become so central to my musical expression that to me it is largely synonymous with songwriting. To write a song I start by recording short ideas, phrases and chords and then layering them, moving them around, processing and tweaking them until they fit. Vocal melodies usually come after. And then often a process of subtraction — stripping the arrangement down to its essential components.
This process is largely shaped by the design of the tools I use — namely, the layout and flexibility of modern recording software, which makes it easy to move bits of music around like pieces in a puzzle. Here’s what one of the songs I’m finishing up for my new album looks like:
Each horizontal track is a different instrument or vocal line. Time moves from left to right across the screen. Magic ensues.
I used to write songs with a guitar on my thigh and a pad of paper on the seat next to me. Now I sit in front of a computer surrounded by keyboards and guitars and microphones doing a dance between creativity and technology, trying to coax musical ideas onto the screen.
These modern advances in recording technology have birthed countless home studios and helped artists working on their own compete with big studios. But the vastly bigger revolution in audio recording came 140 years ago when Thomas Edison first etched sounds on a phonograph. That was technology that literally stopped time. And even let you play it back again. So despite my own technical and artistic evolution from the analog to the digital world, I’m still just an awestruck human marvelling at the otherworldly beauty of these ethereal disembodied sounds.
I’m launching this blog as a prelude to releasing my latest music, a full album of new songs I have written and produced in my home studio. The blog will meander with me as I experiment with instruments and gear, ponder the mysteries of sound, art, philosophy and politics, and finish recording and mastering the album.