By Martin Zaltz Austwick and Lily Sloane
Companion episode: Gluteal Strategies
This post is a conversation between Martin Zaltz Austwick and the first guest contributor to Neutrinowatch, Lily Sloane.
Martin Zaltz Austwick:
Gus Hommes is a character created by Jeff for Gus Hommes Has Creative Differences. I immediately got a sense of someone I wanted to know more about, and to hear more music from. I already make an episodic podcast about a musician I love – the musician is Tom Waits, and the show is called Song by Song (created with Sam Pay – the Gus by Gus thing is a silly in-joke on my existing podcast’s name).
I don’t know how I roped her in, but I asked Lily Sloane to work with me on this – partly because she’s been a guest on Song by Song and knows the format, but more because, as well as being a podcast host and producer, she’s a musician – we’ve collaborated together on albums in the past, and her own music is great.
I remember the Gus by Gus origin story differently! I was driving South on California’s coastal Highway, listening to some episodes of Song By Song where Martin and Sam were going through the “Gatmo Sessions”, a couple of heavily improvised albums that might not feel recognizable to some as what we call “music”. As Martin and Sam discussed the merits of particular moans and drones, I began to imagine a music criticism podcast where the music and the conversation don’t really match up, but the format is there. Maybe it’s taking place on another planet and what’s considered “music” and what’s considered “good music” are very different from what we might recognize on Earth.
In my memory, I brought this to Martin with just the “wouldn’t it be funny if”, barely fleshed out idea. Martin wanted to take it deeper and saw a way for this to fit within the universe of Neutrinowatch, and more specifically the universe of Gus Hommes. Well, yes that sounds amazing. But isn’t that complicated? Isn’t that hard? Don’t you have to be a magician or something?
For a 3 minute episode, Gus By Gus required a tremendous amount of writing. Lists of words for song names, seemingly endless lists of small chunks of dialog––music commentary, personal stories. Even the music stems that became the songs we discuss are like a list exercise too. How many different sounds can we generate around this set of parameters? How many different instruments?
Playing with parameters is something Martin and I have explored together in our various collaborations. While I might be happy with mad-libs style, throwing spaghetti at the wall and laughing at the absurd shapes it forms with no intervention, Martin is there pushing us to put more thought into the surrounding story, the why of it all, the conditions that will influence the results just enough. Absurd for absurdity’s sake is enjoyable, but it feels good to do more than that, to put it in a frame. So, this episode, like much of the Neutrinowatch project, is a shaping of the absurd, a dance between chance and intention.
I’m not going to talk explicitly about how we wrote in the themes that reveal themselves when you’ve listened to a few episodes, because I’d like you to listen to the episode(/s) and see how (and whether) that thread comes through for you. But it got me to think about character – who are these two podcasters? What is their relationship? How does their relationship to each other help them move through the world? When they’re saying weird hyperbolic stuff on the show, how true is it? Why are they so interested in Gus (beyond the very real possibility that, in the world of Neutrinowatch, Gus Hommes Is A Big Deal™)? To some degree, the wider fiction of the episode is about them, and not about Gus at all.
The uncovering of our characters, whether expressing their personal opinions or life stories and friendship, has been a really enjoyable and immersive aspect of this project. I love how the idea that sparks a thing so frequently doesn’t end up being the heart of it. It’s just a catalyst. Music itself is so much about the listener’s experience and memories and relationships and culture––the music isn’t owned by the artist once it’s in the hands of the audience.
Our characters are made up but also very much us, as is Gus’s music––it originates from us. But then the element of randomness allows for something that’s greater than the sum of its parts and ongoingly new and surprising to us as creators. This project, for me, does what art always does, but highlights it more acutely: we pour ourselves into it, we put it out into the world, and now it’s an entity of its own. A new lifeform, from conception to the surprising ways it diverges and evolves as an interaction with its creators, its programming, the environment and the intersubjectivity of each moment of contact with another life.
Basically what I’m saying is Gus by Gus is now sentient and probably going to try to wrest power from humanity if we aren’t careful. Sorry!
Rather than dwelling on the coming war against the machines, let’s talk about how the music is built. This gets technical so skip it if you don’t care.
It’s entirely procedural – Lily and I recorded a bunch of parts – flute, guitar, bass, synths, and so on – and Jeff recorded some Gus vocals. Each instrumental part covers the diatonic chords of C major* (and associated modes) and each chord section lasts for 32 8th notes at 120bpm.
The computer code randomly decides how many bars there are in a loop. Then it chooses the probability of chords changing each bar – that means some songs literally play the same chord the whole time, and some change once per bar. It then chooses the chords for each bar. Let’s say it chooses a 4 bar loop, and then picks the chords: C C Am G. There’s our chord progression for this song.
Then it picks a number between 3 and 32, and that’s the time signature (in 8th notes). Then, there’s some probability that the count is broken down further. For example, let’s say we generate a 9: the song is now in 9/8. You could count that as 123-123-123, or 1234-12345, or 1234-123-12, and so on. Garage musicians don’t generally write in 9/8, or 17/8, or 26/8, so it sounds really weird.
There’s some probability of a song having a low part (usually a bass), a high part (flute, ukulele..), and up to two midrange parts (guitar, accordion…). Sometimes there’s only one instrument throughout the whole track; sometimes there are four. There’s always a little bit of Gus singing just before the chatting starts. There’s some randomisation of which beat of each instrument it uses and some other random stuff to mix things up.
The final stages are stretching, pan/reverb, and normalisation/normalization. Stretching is a very crude interpolation technique that simultaneously shifts the pitch and changes the tempo of the finished song – I did it because it’s fast and easy to implement and I don’t mind that it makes things sound weird. Finally, we pan the parts around a bit, add reverb to make it sound like it was recorded in the same space (some kind of public toilet, possibly) and normalise it so it’s a consistent volume relative to the speech it will sit alongside.
Again, Martin is the man behind the machine here. I think he might have made up all that technical stuff to conceal that he just did some kind of magic spell with consequences that may not be realized for generations.
When listening to each iteration of Gus By Gus, I’m pleased that we created two characters who are friends like we are friends. Who go off the rails in conversation like we do. Who feel confused about the meaning of life and art like we are. And yet contain memories and experiences so different from our own.
Making Gus By Gus has been pure play in a time when I feel my imagination often runs dry. When I’m operating in survival mode much of the time. My hope is for the listening experience to feel uncanny, slightly askew, and ultimately tap into the listeners own sense of play and imagination.
*C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim