Deconstructing "IMAGO: a bilateral journey of transformation", Part 2:
Updated: Jan 13, 2022
Topics in This Section Include: "Soundspots", "Ramping" and "Multiple Simultaneous Stengths"
This is the second of three sections of an in-depth discussion between the composer and co-producer of "IMAGO: a bilateral journey of transformation". If you have not yet read the first part it may be a good idea to start from the beginning.
The discussion in this section includes thoughts about instrumentation and effects, the value of "ramping", a deep dive into the multiple simultaneous strength levels, the theory of "sound spotting", an examination of the "ascent motif", and the use of choir effects.
(As before, the following typeface is yellow for George and white for Sam.)
I love how your guitar work creates such a wonderful fluttering effect in the fourth movement. This gives us a good opportunity to talk specifically about your use of instrumentation effects. There's always something interesting happening in IMAGO so that even simple passages have a rich sonic profile.
There are several recipes here, but to give an example, lots of improvisation in the fourth movement was done around the idea of using a timed echo. I set a delay time of five 16th notes and played 8th notes. This put the delay “in between” the notes that are actually played, and gives a surreal, iridescent, shimmering effect which was perfect for this creature. This also allowed me to create a “gentle wall of sound” that I thought would be perfect for incorporating the bidirectional cross-panning. I was very pleased with the results here.
Deservedly so. Let’s come back later to that fourth movement because it’s extraordinarily effective. Say more about your approach to incorporating bilateral panning as an integral part of the composition. For instance, the entire composition contains multiple simultaneous levels of bilateral strength. How’d you program that?
As I was developing IMAGO musically an obvious parallel path consideration was how utilize the bilateral panning in the most effective manner. This is where you shared many of the “best practices” you’ve discovered and developed over the years.
Well you also discovered a few on your own that will set the industry standard going forward. There was a point when I felt we were both helping each other refine strategies that we kept incorporating. What were some of the recommended bilateral practices you found most helpful?
One of your suggestions that made immediate sense was to start the entire piece at zero bilateral strength and then slowly increase it, then reverse the process near the end by gradually reducing the bilateral strength until it reaches zero before the music stops.
Yep, I feel pretty strongly about starting and ending bilateral music at zero strength. This gradually induces the intense neural activation of full bilateral engagement and then just as gently brings the listener back to a stabilizing, integrative center. It’s one of my core recommendations. What else?
As we’ve already discussed I knew that a central component of the composition was the incorporation of multiple simultaneous panning strengths. I heard this effect on all the Alternating Sounds stuff but I realized that what we were aiming for would require a much greater level of flexibility and precision to get the mixes just right.
I started by designing a crossover network that separated the entire composition into low, mid, high frequency ranges. I then applied a timed panning automation to each of these frequency ranges so that the lowest frequencies would get the least amount of panning strength and the highest frequencies would get the most.
I think this should be a foundational practice for anyone with an interest in creating bilaterally-enhanced music: insure a very narrow bls range on one track or frequency in order to stabilize the more intense activation of other tracks that are mixed with much higher strengths. It’s like the stabilizing counterweight at the bottom of a classic pendulum. Please, keep going.
As the music started coming together, it became clear to me that an even more nuanced approach was necessary if we were going to push the boundaries of the possible. This is the point where I started separating out specific parts and instruments so that they would have their own unique combinations of bilateral panning strengths.
There are so many unique bilateral combinations in IMAGO that we could probably talk for an hour on those alone.
There are so many of these unique bilateral combinations in IMAGO that we could probably talk for an hour on those alone. But let’s leave some for the listener to discover personally and just say that many of them combine to create an effect that is greater than the sum of the parts.
With that said, I do want to lean heavily into an examination of one passage in IMAGO that I consider to be a pinnacle example of how to construct nuanced bilateral phrasing to engage the brain in an extremely powerful and productive manner. I’m talking about the series of percussive 9 note ascending runs that occur throughout the "Caterpillar" and "Chrysalis" movements. This is one of the sound signatures that continues to provoke a powerful effect on me even after more than 20 listens. Let’s get granular about what’s going on here.
I call this the "ascent motif". I imagined a caterpillar climbing up tree limbs and finding a place to hang its chrysalis. I was improvising with the music as it was coming together, which is typical of my way of composing, and this scalar line landed nicely. Thankfully I was recording, so I just captured it, built upon it, and refined it. Sometimes it’s 9 notes and other times it’s 12. It lands on different places and is actually one of the most chromatic parts in the whole composition.
I consider it to perfectly designed to be both neurologically grounding and activating at the same time.
As I said earlier, musically I wanted to focus on texture, rhythm, and harmony for the majority of this piece, with only some melodic elements, to help the music feel more immersive and environmental. The introduction of a purely melodic line like this really stands out as a memorable phrase amidst so much patterned structure.
I used this "ascent motif" in the 2nd movement to represent the climbing caterpillar who is preparing its own body for the transformation. It appears again in the 3rd movement to remind the listener where they’ve been and therefore how far they’ve come. It becomes a familiar element (the memory of being a caterpillar) to contrast the slightly darker parts present within the Chrysalis.
The bilateral strength of this "ascent motif" subtly increases each time it repeats while the underlying music remains stable and moderate. It’s one of the few variances from the typical strength ratio and I consider it to perfectly designed to be both neurologically grounding and activating at the same time.
I remember you were pretty excited when this started to take shape.
I was curious whether listeners have particular “sound spots” that are especially conducive to neural pathway development, and if so, how to precisely locate them in a continually changing acoustic field.
Yes, your compositional skills and technical chops gave me an opportunity to explore something really new. It’s become well accepted that “brain spots” are specific points in a person’s visual field that provoke meaningful neurological engagement. I’ve wondered about the existence of an auditory equivalent. Since bilateral music by definition alternates across the horizontal axis, I was curious whether listeners have particular “sound spots” that are especially conducive to neural pathway development, and if so, how to precisely locate them in a continually changing acoustic field.
I seized on the precisely articulated percussive sounds of this “ascent motif” as a way to specifically locate or “plant” potential sound spots along the listener’s sonic field so that amplifying their strength and trajectory could induce specific engagement patterns to develop. I want to come back later to how the fourth movement activates these spots with sufficient potential combinations to diversify neural processing by orders of magnitude.
But I’m racing too far ahead. Let’s go back to some of the basic bilateral cycling and strength parameters in IMAGO.
Let’s do it. One aspect I really grew to appreciate was the value of experimenting with various bilateral cycling rates and strengths. As I mentioned earlier some sections cycle slowly and then double based upon the inherent propulsion of the music.
At your suggestion I kept lowering the bilateral strength levels to eliminate any of that unsettling “close to tipping over” feeling that can come from swaying too intensely.
We also kept fine-tuning the relationship between strong, medium and light strengths. As we discussed before, the lower bls of the bottom frequencies provided a “grounding” influence to stabilize much stronger mid- to high frequency bilateral activation.
Now it’s my turn to return to that “ascent motif” since it received particular treatment in terms of multi-level bilateral panning strengths. On its own the passage has a certain attention-grabbing quality that lent itself well to intensifying its bilateral strength relative to the underlying music that envelops it. Most listeners may not even notice that when the “ascent motif” is introduced for the very first time there’s not a lot of bilateral strength applied, but the musical seeds are being planted. The very next time it comes around it is surrounded by choirs and is treated with ever increasing bilateral strength.
One aspect I really grew to appreciate was the value of experimenting with various bilateral cycling rates and strengths.
I’m glad you brought up those choirs because I consider them to be perfectly expressive markers of the profundity of transformation. Whenever they emerge those choirs articulate the spiritual mystery of the metamorphosis. I still often laugh, gasp or cry when the choir returns for the last time near the end.
To further entangle this twisted topological timeline, I did have an overt religious meta-theme in mind when composing IMAGO, but I did not want to lean into that explicitly. For me these choirs are iconic in context of all the pitched world percussion. It’s special to me because it’s one of those parts that still gives me goosebumps.
(End of part 2 of 3)
(Click here to read the third and final section of this discussion.)