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A while back I did one of my ‘Room temperature’ pieces about the music I’ve been listening to while writing. It featured litmus0001, the creative name of Jonathan Ewald. I’m delighted to say that Jonathan has very kindly agreed to answer some questions about his work. It’s quite a long piece, so grab a coffee or refreshment of your choice, put your feet up, and take a journey into the experimental/ambient soundscapes of an inspirational recording artist.
Hello, Jonathan. Could you start by telling me about your background and how you became involved in making music?
I grew up in rural north-east Ohio, and learned guitar from high school into college. I was always listening to the bass and rhythm parts – lead guitar seemed difficult, unnecessary and vacant. I was far more interested in harmony than melody.
At college I came into contact with musicians and played bass. Here I was exposed to alternative college rock in the early 90s, mainly grunge, after which a huge influence was the shoegazer movement. I was in a band called Sinker, which was modelled on the shoegazer scene and was my first real experience in a real band creating music. Because of this, I was exposed to other musicians on the scene who were very influential on my aesthetic, which was centred around DIY and punk. But the music we did was deeper; we learned how to put music together – not so much songwriting as learning about hooks and harmonic progression. Alongside this I began developing my ear as far as production was concerned, translating that through my hands and instruments.
Afterwards, in Nashville, I was influenced by the jamband scene in the south-east US, bands such as Widespread Panic, Phish and Col Bruce Hampton. I fell in love with the idea of improvisation. Then I discovered people who introduced me to jazz and free improv, which blew my horizons wide open. litmus0001 started towards the end of my time in Nashville as a solo project to explore all aspects of my influences, amalgamated together.
How would you describe your music – if that’s possible.
Edgy ambient, punk-ambient, dark ambient, minimalist, post-Berlin School, improvisational/aleatoric, experimental, drone/pulse-drone, soundscape, sonic sculpture. Meditative but unsettling. Open, airy. Xenochronic. No time or rhythm, but rhythm indeed develops based on the period of a loop (or not).
It varies, but mostly I sit down at my rig and hit record and start improvising, moving from instrument to instrument and layering parts. Toying with composition, I’ll map a strategy, a plan of action … enough for a starting point, and often the rest of the plan is abandoned and the piece will dictate its own progression.
Other pieces are composed after the fact, using samples of improvised recordings generated as above. That’s followed by cutting/pasting and editing, including the integration of sound samples of spoken word from various sources, pieced together, often haphazardly.
I gather that you sample sounds using everyday objects. What sort of objects are we talking about, and what have been some of the more unusual?
I love the sound of static and radio interference. I use AM radio to capture broadcasts, static and interference from barely audible broadcasts over the airwaves at night. The voices are from far away and I’m an unintended/unanticipated listener; the broadcasts are not directed at me, so it’s sort of voyeuristic. I also incorporate samples appropriated from the web, such as religious fanatics, numbers stations, news, air traffic control communications (landing/take-off; short-wave transoceanic communications).
I also use field recordings. These have included Spanish preachers on a Sunday morning at an LA subway station; the sound of subway trains in LA and DC, and the sound of passing overground trains (the screeching of metal on metal, abrasive simple rhythms, pounding of rail-cars, the clanging of railroad crossing gates); street musicians; city sounds while walking in downtown areas and the sounds heard while walking through nature, on paths and through neighbourhoods etc.
Who or what have been your influences as an artist?
There have been many different influences and inspirations, most with little direct relationship to my music beyond an aesthetic or working strategy. Many of those influences are retrospective: I make music, so I might find old music that is very similar to what I’m doing, and I’ll pour over that artist’s work. Tangerine Dream is a good example of this.
As for direct influences and inspiration, these include Robert Fripp; Boards of Canada; Sunn O))); Miles Davis; Frank Zappa; Ozric Tentacles; Godspeed You! Black Emperor; Steve Reich; Morton Feldman; Giacinto Scelsi; and Curve.
Literary influences are writers such as Bukowski, Burroughs, Camus and Dostoyevsky. I wish I were better with words … instead, I express musically what I feel to be similar themes.
What are your plans musically? Have you ever collaborated with other musicians, or have plans to do so?
Recently, my music (specifically, tracks off of Compass Rose) was used in a theatre piece titled Personal War, produced by KnAM Theatre from Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Russia. I was contacted by Tania Frolova, the director of the company who founded the company in 1985. The company toured Europe with this piece, and Tania sent me a video recording of their performance in Lausanne, Switzerland. I was blown away. She incorporates recorded and live video into their performances to stunning visual and emotional effect. I am proud and honoured that they chose to use my music.
As for my efforts now, until my wife and I get a house to settle into, my studio is currently packed in boxes. It has been a while since I’ve released an album. The most recent was through BFW Recordings, called Living the Second Past, in 2013. I played regularly in a band through 2014, so I didn’t release any litmus0001 during that year. I think it’s the only year I’ve missed in a while.
I’m currently putting together an album with already-recorded outtakes and as-yet-unreleased material. I’m going to remaster all the pieces. The only real effort will be in editing a long-scale recording into multiple pieces; a few sections need some production work. So I’m going to get the tracks in order, do the album graphics and liner notes, then find a netlabel interested in releasing it.
I also hope to perform live, depending on whether I can develop relationships and opportunities to do so in non-hostile venues. I don’t expect my music to fly in every live music environment, so I’d like to perform in dedicated spaces for similar non-conventional music, or various other environments, depending on which opportunities I can develop.
You make your recordings available for people for free, which I find really refreshing in a world that seems to commercialise everything it can get its hands on. What was the thinking behind your decision to do this?
I was only ever interested in making music, but in the Nashville environment I avoided music as a profession (although I played in bands). I was turned off by ‘the industry’ that permeates Nashville. Now, a little older, I understand and respect that – to an extent – but still I have no interest in participating in the industry.
I wanted to make music and I wanted people to hear it. In the early 2000s I recorded three albums with only a limited CDR pressing; these were passed to friends, mostly. My first two albums (Resplendent Namesake Observed and Yakima Listening Station) did get airplay on somaFM.com’s ‘Drone Zone’, and on some public and community radio stations.
Then I found netlabels and webstreams that play music similar to mine. This was an avenue to an audience. I also found that I could release music myself through similar avenues, but releasing on other labels increases my exposure to new listeners.
As for free music, I felt that I wouldn’t be heard if I tried to sell my music, because it was an unproven, unfamiliar commodity. And then there’s the enormous expense and effort involved in commercializing music. Over 20 albums I estimate I’ve saved myself $300,000 of debt by avoiding a studio and the industry model of production and distribution; everyone takes their cut first, leaving the artist the scraps. All that said, I’ve enjoyed an unexpectedly wide and enthusiastic audience worldwide, which I don’t believe I’d have been able to achieve in a conventional pay-based model; pursuing other professional avenues allowed me to do this.
Where did the name litmus0001 originate?
Being a scientist by training, I wanted a science-y title. During my time in Nashville I was interested in psychedelic/jamband music – quite acid-y. Plus I play bass, and litmus is an acid/base indicator. 0001 was appended because I knew others might try to use litmus as a band name – and have – but no one would name their band litmus0001.
Do you have a day job/career?
I’m in transition right now. I have a PhD in molecular biology. I was involved for 20 years in cancer research professionally, working on basic, translational and clinical research projects investigating complex aspects of how cancer happens and how it can be targeted.
However, recently I was offered an opportunity to change career direction. So now I work for a hospital system in the Pacific Northwest, administrating, maintaining, monitoring and developing human research projects mostly involved in the treatment of cancer, cardiovascular and neurovascular diseases. I now live in the Portland, Oregon area.
Are you a book reader? What have you enjoyed reading recently?
I don’t ‘leisure read’ as much as I’d like, mainly because my work has and will continue to involve large amounts of technical reading and writing (interpretation, explanation, application).
That said, I’m currently reading Life by Keith Richards. After I’m done with that, I want to read A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. I also periodically read parts of On Food and Cooking.
Any remaining life ambitions that you aim to fulfil?
Managing my life from day to day is enough of a challenge…
I’m not sure I have what you would call big ambitions. I’d like to write more, and write more purposefully. I have a few other ideas, such as a subjective curation of my CD/music collection, describing experiences that are related to albums I was listening to at the time. A sort of ‘gonzo’ music and social criticism.
I would also like to do more music, more seriously. Both recording and moving towards performing live frequently.
Where can people find your work?
Various netlabels have released my music: Kikapu, Clinical Archives, BFW Recordings, Kreislauf, Just Not Normal. My own netlabel AnubisMusic. All can be found by searching ‘litmus0001’. You can also go to archive.org, where many of these netlabels also host their releases. Otherwise, get in touch with me via Facebook and I’ll send you a link.
I think I might have ‘Second Album Syndrome’. You know, where a band get the first album under their belt, then have to live up to expectations with the second, which makes for a certain pressure, which makes it harder to be creative, which makes for a certain pressure…
Publishing The Ground Will Catch You was, as I’ve said often, an intense period of my life due to my perfectionist tendencies. A lot of this stems not only from pride, but also from having been a proofreader for many years. Obviously we are human beings, not machines, so while perfection may not always be attainable, it is always the goal. It’s the reason I bristle when I spot more than one or two typos in a book – you wouldn’t be happy with a CD that jumped a few times, so why should a book be any different?
How exactly does this relate to Second Album Syndrome? Well, I’m about 10,000 words into the new book and struggling. I don’t have writer’s block, I’ve just been feeling that I’m only part way down a very, very long road, and I can’t see the end. A few signposts, yes; one or two landmarks, but not the end. And, psychologically, that’s quite a burden to carry.
But I think I may have a solution, and I’m hoping you might find it useful.
Apparently there are two types of writers: planners and ‘seat of the pantsers’. I believe I’m somewhere in between. I have a basic outline of the plot (which I’ve laid out in Scrivener, of course), I’m doing various bits of research (again, Scrivener), but every time I write 1,000 words or so of my actual text I look back and think to myself, ‘Well, it’s all very pretty, but things haven’t moved forward that much. What if I’m wasting a lot of time heading down a dead end, without realising it?’ And then I squint into the distance, down the long, long road, and that Champagne breakfast with a copy of my new book in hand is not even a speck on the horizon. And that’s demoralising.
The solution? Adjectives, people – adjectives. Take them out. Banish them. Put them in a holding pen, or send them out to graze for a few months. Whatever. Just forget about being descriptive. Forget all about the pretty bits – that can come later, with the second draft.
Everyone knows that a novel takes more than a few drafts before it’s finished – I’m not here to point out the obvious – but what I will say is that right now my main character is simply being functional. He’s going from A to B, doing X, Y and Z on the way. I’m not adding any colour. None at all. It’s all grey, like a rough charcoal sketch. And you know what? He’s getting from A to B quicker, and therefore so am I. We’re going down that road together, and as we do, new things are occurring to me, new possibilities, which I’m adding to my notes (see Scrivener, above). If I go down a dead end, it’s not as painful any more because a minimal amount of time will have been wasted.
All of this is making the writing process much more of a rush, more fun. And, most importantly, less pressurised. I’ve started to see results, secure in the knowledge that when I get to the end, it will be equally pleasurable to go back and lay some flowers among the bones.
So there you have it: my shortcut to that far-off point in the distance. Hopefully this will have been of some use to you. Either way, enjoy the journey.
Most of what I listen to while putting in the writing hours is instrumental or experimental, and therefore not particularly mainstream. It would be too distracting. I don’t want to hear lyrics that send me on a different train of thought, or massive choruses that get me singing along. It’s hard to find a way back from that.
This often makes finding information about an artist quite difficult. And ‘Fingers in the Noise’ is no exception – extensive internet searching threw up only scraps about his background, mainly via his Facebook page and Wikipedia.
In a nutshell, Fingers in the Noise is the recording name of Laurent Bisch, an ambient electronic producer from France. Formerly something of a party-goer, in 2009 he settled into a more peaceful life with his wife and children, devoting his free time to composing music. He is also a keen photographer. And he likes to cook.
As is so often the case, I discovered his work on LastFM, and after downloading a few free tracks, went on to buy the Smoothbox album/EP – proof, my writing friends, that freebies or samples can work. I believe he’s also just released a Best Of compilation, so no doubt I’ll be saying goodbye to a few more pennies. In a minute, probably.
I often return to Smoothbox when I want something that is quietly melodic, but also with percussive elements, rather than simply atmospheric/ambient. It’s uplifting, it’s catchy, and has got me out of a writing rut on more than one occasion. A bit like a classy bottle of French wine, if you’ll excuse the very obvious metaphor.
And that’s all I have. If anyone can provide more info, send it my way.
In the meantime, check out Fingers in the Noise on SoundCloud, MySpace and LastFM, or at his own website, www.fingersinthenoise.com
Recommended tracks: Noctambulatoire; Vent du Nord; Today It’s Raining Noise
I had some fantastic news a couple of weeks ago, but only had it confirmed yesterday. And as this is a blog about, among other things, the book journey, it seems only appropriate to share it.
The Ground Will Catch You is now on sale at the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, dubbed by Vanity Fair as ‘arguably the most famous independent bookstore in the world’. To say I’m chuffed doesn’t do justice to how I feel, especially when I was sent a pic of my novel sitting on the ‘new fiction’ table. The wraparound over the cover is a short review written by Melody David, one of the staff, which reads as follows:
The Ground Will Catch You by David Powning
Steve is a young, frustrated salesman, an ex-judoka living under the burden of self-loathing when he meets the carefree and beautiful ballet dancer, Emily. They are an unlikely couple but Steve is caught up. When an accident befalls Emily and a young kid from the judo club where he volunteers goes missing, he finds his loyalties, character and the path he is on called into question. Torn between his sense of duty to his mentor Jack, the silent but stoic owner of the Queen’s Road Gym and Judo Club, and his ailing girlfriend, Steve is forced to face up to who he has become and what he has done. An original story with a very surprising twist, Powning’s debut novel is a beautifully written story of frustration, longing, resentment and facing your fears. I adored this book.
Melody David, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, Paris
Shakespeare and Company has a rich history, which you can read about here. It’s a long piece, but gives a real flavour of what this whole game is about for writers – and the place that bookstores occupy in the hearts of the book-reading community.
Long may it continue.
Yesterday, I decided enough was enough. It’s time to crack on in earnest with writing the next book. I started work on the outline properly last summer, but since then I’ve had so much freelance work to do, plus Christmas, that everything fell by the wayside. I can’t say I’ve been losing sleep over it, because it still feels good to have one book under my belt, but the muse keeps a-calling, and won’t be denied. (Actually, does a muse call? Perhaps that should be a siren, in which case there might be rocks involved. Yikes.)
I’m setting myself a daily target of five hundred words, which, like last time, will be written in bed, eyelids propped open with matchsticks. I have to get up at six o’ clock to go to work most days, so the five hours a night sleep regime will return. Really looking forward to that. However, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there in similar circumstances, with bills to be paid. So we’re all heroes.
I’ve just had a couple of weeks at home, during which time I vowed to sit at the keyboard until smoke started to rise from my searing fingers. It didn’t happen. Life got in the way again – most of it pleasant things – but I also wasted a lot of time fixating over something that I swore I would never do. The ‘c’ word. Writing as a career.
What the hell was I thinking?
When I wrote The Ground Will Catch You I wanted to prove something to myself, and to a few other people. I feel like I’ve achieved that, and judging by the reviews, some other people agree with me. Money was never the motivator. When the words hit the page and I read them back, not once did I think, ‘Wow, this is great stuff, I could sell loads of this.’ I was simply thrilled to be learning my craft, even after my developmental editor pointed out some flaws and I flounced out of the (metaphorical) room, only to slink back in a few months later with a shiny red apple and admit that she was right. It was difficult reconstruction work, painful at times, but rewarding.
And yet, despite what you may hear to the contrary, good reviews do not lead to an explosion of sales, unless you are bizarrely fortunate. And congratulations if you are. So for a while now I’ve been wondering whether I should sign up to KDP Select to take advantage of interest in the new Kindle Unlimited subscription service. (For the uninitiated, signing up to KDP Select requires you to be exclusive, and not have your ebook available elsewhere.) I began to obsess, scouring the internet for evidence, worrying that every single indie author on the planet apart from me had got it right, and were bathing in pink champagne while I was left to rue missed opportunities.
But then I asked around, and confirmed what I already knew: whatever platform you’re on, being a new author is tough, and, most importantly, you have to play the long game if you want success. Most estimates seem to think that you’ll only start to make headway when you’ve got four or five books on the market.
But what is success, anyway? That’s been my dawning realisation this week, something I had momentarily lost sight of. If you publish a book you have, by definition, achieved a lot. Be proud of that. How you want to measure yourself from there is up to you. Maybe you’re going to push hard on social media, work all the marketing angles, do whatever it takes to keep your name visible. Increase your presence, as they say.
And that’s all good. It’s a saturated market, so whatever you can do in that regard would only be beneficial. Unfortunately, just like everything else, it is also hard work, and time-consuming.
If you’re anything like me, you just want to write. However, I don’t intend to pump out books simply to have more on the market, and I’m fully aware that there are many, many indie authors who possess a talent for self-promotion that I simply don’t have. The best I can do is write another book, and then, with any luck, another one, to the best of my ability.
Of course, I shall continue to tweet what I think are interesting and useful things, blog when the mood takes me, and continue to interact with readers and other people’s blogs. That too, is fun. And valuable, I hope. I also have a few offline promotional ideas up my sleeve, so we’ll see how that goes.
But for now it’s back to the grindstone, with my sense of perspective readjusted and intact once more. I have money for food, a roof over my head, and am now simply content to tear out chunks of my hair when a massive plot hole appears; hurl coffee at the walls in demented fury when a scene goes nowhere; and occasionally see things that aren’t actually there because the human brain apparently has some basic requirements when it comes to sleep.
Star rating: FIVE
David Powning’s book The Ground Will Catch You isn’t really the kind of thing I would pick up to read. If I’d seen it in a library it would have been passed over. So when I saw his request for reviewers on Goodreads I was a little hesitant in responding.
I am so glad I did though, the story line is engaging from the word go. The characters and the plot are so believable and fact perfect that I did wonder if this wasn’t biographical about the author or anyone he knows. I felt happy and excited in places, even raised the odd giggle – which is no mean feat. Other parts had me worried, scared and reaching for the tissues.
In his Goodreads request David described his book as being about a guy who did judo, but this description doesn’t come close to catching the real essence of his story.
So what IS the story…
Steve is 24, a university drop-out and working in advertising sales, which he hates. He is seen as a bit of an oddball, so finds it difficult to make friends. After work one evening, he attends a judo competition – he doesn’t fight himself but enjoys watching the sport. While there, Jack and his dog sit next to him and they start to talk about the merits of the fighters and their technique. After the match Jack invites him to his dojo and encourages him to fight again.
During this time Steve meets Emily, a dancer, and they strike up a relationship. His life seems to be looking good for him, but it’s not all that it seems…
I would recommend this book to almost anyone, the YA readers out there will like it for the currency of the story and its lessons. The older readers, like me, will just enjoy a nice engaging read.
A big thank you to Liza for her kind review. Liza’s new blog can be found here
Much of the work of ambient soundscaper Jonathan Ewald, who operates under the moniker litmus0001, is so subtle and atmospheric that I’d be hard pushed at the moment to find anything better to write to. Especially as the novel I’m currently working on could be described as dystopian, and litmus0001 is often described as ‘dark ambient’. The novel is set in a desolate place, so the gently pulsating effects of the recordings set the mood perfectly. They almost put me in the setting of the book, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.
Information on Mr Ewald is hard to come by, except that his current location appears to be Madison, Wisconsin, and he uses a wide variety of instruments, effects and loops. Hopefully it’s fair to say that he is as much a production and mastering specialist as he is a musician.
A major plus if you’re interested in checking him out is that he releases his work for free. And often we’re talking long tracks here, people. To give you a taste, the bio on his Facebook page (which also gives links to where you can download) reads as follows:
“Experimental improvisational drone Berlin school pulsedrone ambient. Trip-music for another generation. Unsettling and edgy in a relaxed chilled-out kinda way. Known to help insomniacs get to sleep. Synchronizes your beta-waves.” There isn’t much I can add to that.
Standout tracks: Quiet Blackest Night; Coordinated Universal Time; Living the Second-Past of the Future Space-Power
Yes, you read that correctly…