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Music vs Noise 09: How I Make My Music (Nick Gill)

There’s no reason why anyone would have a clue who I am, so to give a little context - I write for, and perform with, my 7-piece instrumental group The Monroe Transfer; I play in a band called Fireworks Night; I write and produce music & sound for a theatre and live performance; and now I’m releasing some solo ambient, modern classical, noisy albums, beginning with On není jako on and Grey season. 

First up - ‘make’ is an interesting word, when we’re talking about music. One very short word covers a huge range of skills that used to have to be split across a number of people - composition, performance, engineering, production, manufacturing and distribution (and nowadays this often follows on into marketing, PR, radio plugging and all that jazz) can all be done now by one person with an off-the-shelf home computer. As a way of working, there are obvious benefits- by not being dependent on anyone else, you can be in control of everything yourself. The downside is that you have to do everything yourself.

So, in terms of making the music, I’ve done a number of those roles separately (composer, performer, producer), and sometimes all together. In terms of writing, I think of myself as a composer first and a guitarist second, though I’m not sure others would agree. Given that I’m almost entirely self-taught, I’m not sure that I should use such a grandiose word as ‘composer’, especially when there are people like Nico Muhly wandering around and doing proper composing. I suppose what I mean is that I try to make sure that each instrument’s part works in the context of the whole piece of music, and that quite often my own guitar playing doesn’t even feature.

Broadly speaking, I try not to have a fixed process when writing or producing, or dealing with the grey area between the two. I worry about that analogy of the terrible carpenter: if the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything like a nail.  Once you have a process that you apply unthinkingly to the writing process (or production, or engineering, or marketing, or…), there’s a danger that your music will come out samey.  Or, at least, that’s my fear.

Of course, there’s often a great deal of overlap between the modes of ‘composing’ and ‘production’, and the proportions of time spent of each element will be different for each project. Having said that, I’ll normally have a pretty good idea of what that proportion will be when I start. For something like Grey 8: nocturne from Grey season, written for piano and ‘cello, I knew that the mix would be just those two instruments, with only a little reverb, correcting EQ and a little compression on the master buss. Grey 6, on the other hand, is an improvised guitar part, played live through an Audiomulch loop & granulator patch that I’d made for the purpose; while I knew the kinds of sounds that would come out of it, it was a very different style of composition.

Something that had a different method of composition again was On není jako on, developed from a soundtrack written to accompany a 2011 production of the play of the same name in Prague. In this case, the music had to mirror the play itself- the actress shifted between presenting four characters, with no clear delineation between them, and the instrumentation of the score reflects this fracturing of personality, using a combination of acoustic, amplified and electronic instruments.

The music makes use of what Schoenberg termed klangfarbenmelodie (‘tone colour melody’): while traditional composition prizes melody and harmony (in essence, an ear-pleasing sequence of changes in pitch), klangfarbenmelodie instead focuses on changes in timbre and quality of the notes: on a guitar, for example, many notes can be played in different positions on the fretboard, with each note having a different quality. On neni jako on uses this principle by way of a simple, four chord structure spread across the instruments, repeating and restating the melody lines in different octaves and rhythmic patterns, using a variety of playing techniques to produce the notes, as well as numerous combinations of the instruments themselves, to create a constantly changing sound within a static harmonic structure. Just as the idea of character and meaning are buried in the dense writing, so the music is swathed in crackle and hum, along with processed recordings of the rehearsal process, whose volume swells and fades around the instruments.

There’s a lot of equipment and software that gets occasional outings on different recordings; the most indispensable equipment, though, is Cubase, Audiomulch, a well-stocked pedalboard, and a selection of bows, picks, capos to whack a guitar with.  And, depending on the project, a large number of very talented musicians to turn my crummy scores into actual music.

On neni jako on is released on 31st March, 2014, in an edition of 72 numbered CDs in hand-made slip cases. Grey Season will be released as an edition of 250 numbered LPs on heavyweight vinyl in letterpress printed sleeves with artwork by Steve Gullick in the first half of 2014. Both releases will be available digitally from iTunes and


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