Then (and after)

Louis Durra
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Music without tempo has long interested me. 17th-Century composer Louis Couperin wrote “Unmeasured Preludes” with a special notation he developed to avoid showing rhythms. Hearing and playing them, the floating sound remained and became inspiring.

During the first lockdown in 2020 the world seemed to be standing still. I was searching for a suitable space to practice and record, no easy thing to find in Berlin. After many false starts, I was thrilled when a seemingly-ideal rental appeared. With the piano moved in, I began writing, but also researching new music and video animation. I was wanting to lose parts of my aesthetic, parts of myself — and started exploring new art and music.

Ruxandra Mitache’s contemplative videos resonated and she responded favorably when I contacted her. Much of the music on this album was written for her video piece “The Flying Steering Wheel”. “Song for LB”, written earlier, was for a friend who went through a life-changing illness.

Another discovery from this time was sevenism’s wide-open music on Bandcamp. We collaborated on the ambient album “re:dbs”.

Iokokanoa contributed vocals and Barry Coates guitar. „Worum es geht“ and „Fervd“ are responses to tracks by sevenism. Iokokanoa recorded with me in Berlin, the other artists contributed from great distances. Jerry Kalaf, who has played drums on many of my recordings, mastered the album and played the little drum phrases that begin and end „Oec“.

When drum lessons started on the floor below, I had to search for another space. “Throw it Away”, “Einklang” and “Oec” were recorded a year later in the next “seemingly-ideal space” but seemed to belong on this album.

Here are links to the contributing artists, all involved in interesting projects of their own.

some of our other collaborations:

(with Jerry and Barry)
(with Iokokanoa)
(with Ruxandra)
(with sevenism)

Thanks for listening.

released January 17, 2023

Louis Durra piano, keyboards, production
Iokokanoa, vocals 1,4
Barry Coates, guitar 1,5
sevenism electroacoustics 2, 9
Abbey Lincoln, songwriter 6
Jerry Kalaf, drums 8

Jerry Kalaf, mastering
Petra Rüth, album design

“Song for LB” was written in “traditional songwriter’s” style:  improvising ideas, developing a form, writing a lead sheet, then a period of editing and adding or removing details or voicings to the chart. I sketched this theme in 2013 but wasn’t happy with the result, set it aside.  That happens fairly often.  In 2020 the piece made more sense to me and was now clearly intended for a friend who had become seriously ill.
The bar structure runs like this:
5+4, 5+4, 4+5
5+4, 5+4, 4+5
6, 6, 6, 2
4+4, 5+4, 4+5
6, 6, 6, 4
4+4, 5+4, 5+4,5+4, (rubato notes)
I sometimes like to change phrase lengths in the middle of a piece, little “resets” that one doesn’t notice consciously.  The melody has small changes throughout and was written out pretty specifically.
I remember there was a noise on the track right at the end, so I looped the last few notes and did a fadeout.

1. “Fernweh” — (a great word, instead of “longing for home” it means “longing for far”, having the desire to travel.)  I was writing music for a video, a long scroll over a landscape-made-abstract …  I began by improvising while watching the video, no click. Something came out with a slow, interesting narrative. I added long synth notes reacting to the piano, moved them around a bit. I asked Iokokanoa to sing.  She has a gift for improvising and an extreme gift for remembering what she’s sung and being able to improvise harmonies to it.  I asked Barry Coates to play guitar. He’s a nice improviser who has an understanding for this music.  That was essentially it – or so I thought.  When I started mixing I made a horrible discovery – someone had been practicing drums in the building when I cut the piano track, quite soft, but no way …  I ended up putting markers with chord symbols all over the sequence and playing along with the track for a day-and-a-half to get it right – maybe 12 takes, a horrible process. No chart, but memorizing and chord symbols added as markers in Pro Tools.

4. “Sweetly” was improvised together by Iokokanoa and I, even the couple of lyrics were things she said. Iokonoa has a talent for working like that and we have a particular chemistry together. I added pads and subtones later. As often happens, I edited just a little but it took quite a while to decide where and to get the edit to feel natural.  For editing to feel convincing one often has to join phrases in a way that would make sense to the performer – eg. a change from brushes to sticks has to sound as if the performer decided to make that change, with moments where the brushes were put down, the sticks were picked up. Singing edits have to include time for inhaling … I’m often quite finicky about editing.

I use Pro Tools as DAW in a time when many have switched to Ableton.  And there are compelling reasons to do so:  Ableton has better parameter automation and great audio time-stretching capabilities. But Pro Tools makes micro-precise edits possible – I like the precision of the interface. Considering the crazy freigeistige music, that might seem counter-intuitive, but focus on tiny details comes up pretty often in my sogenannte music production.  (“music production” — feel like putting air-quotes around those words, ’cos I often feel like an imposter, tja …)

2. “Worum Es Geht”(english: what it’s about) sevenism’s track included the bass synth and the white-noisy brushes-on-snare.  The bass synth had massive amounts of low-frequency volume variation.  Once I started working with the track there were multiple stages of volume and EQ refinements, even one-note-at-a-time EQ in some places.  I improvised piano, then wurlitzer E-piano.
After improvising I remember “making it all stranger” by changing the order of notes and rhythms on the MIDI track, adding disjunct leaps, the opposite of the usual “cleanup” role of editing. Something similar with the acoustic piano was accomplished by recording another take and cherrypicking or moving phrases.

As an improvising musician I’ve had a strange affinity for accompanying “weirdness” – reacting to tracks with shifting tempos, out-of-tune notes, conversation, forest sounds.  I’ve had many experiences working with actors, later I worked as a film sound-effects editor, so maybe those have helped me to be comfortable with “tightrope walking”.

BTW If you involve yourself in any way with sequencing, Modartt makes “Pianoteq”, a plugin with fantastic acoustic models of pianos and E-pianos.

I’ve written a lot of music the good old-fashioned way, pencil sketches then entered into to Sibelius, editing notes and rhythms… but these days the results of my “Notenmusik” aren’t holding my interest the way the improvised tracks are. Something about taking chances gets lost when I start writing things out, my notated music has often become too … academic …

6. “Throw It Away” is a song by Abbey Lincoln.  After playing it a few times with a vocalist I heard a sad, klezmer quality in the song. I think this was take 2, with no planning or arrangement. The scratchy-record sounds and filtering at the beginning … I wanted the song to start small-and-distant, then come nearer … for the video I used abstract animation from Kathy McTavish (through Creative Commons).

5. “Obalt” — while listening to “Fernweh” I tried looping phrases.  There was a nice drone with a repeating note.  I played (Modartt) E-piano and piano to it.  Listening now it’s hard to tell what was recorded first, how the piece was conceived.  Barry Coates played guitar.  I created multiple channels of feedback and “performed” a feedback treatement of some of the guitar notes.
There was also an audio problem with “Obalt” that I had to solve … For a proper studio I’d have to do an expensive buildout for soundproofing and sound-treatment. I can’t do that in a space that I’m renting. I also don’t want an hour train ride in der Pampa.  So background noises are something I have to live with.

7. “Einklang”  (consonance or agreement)
The thing that sounds like a kick sample was actually a couple of oscillators, something generated. I remember hearing (music YouTuber) Mary Spender suggest printing effects so that one commits to one’s choices.   I know I did somethings like that with the distortion on this track.  The little clicking sounds were just me tapping on my work table and then treating that.  This track was done a year or so later, and there’s a real “certainty” to all the sounds — one of those rare periods when I was feeling very sure about aesthetic choices I made.

8. “Oec” was another “properly composed” older piece, sounds like things I was writing around 2014. I can’t remember anything about this one except that there was proper notation and it was played like a ballad.  I can hear that I’m thinking a lot about which notes to sustain and which to let go.  The voicings don’t seem to fade out like a piano, so I think I used slow heavy compression that effected the tail-offs …
The drums at the beginning and end …  As the album order came together I felt like hearing something fresh wanted a new instrument somewhere and asked Jerry Kalaf to send something.  It’s sometimes nice on an album to have a “change of scenery”.

9. “Fervd”
It surprises me that I could play so gently because sevenism’s track was massive.  That “uneasy-sounding pad” which sits politely under everything sounded like the end of the world in the original version … I did three takes of piano, listening to all of them while recording.  Picked some phrases to remove, others to repeat … did some EQ’ing to get everything thin enough to live together well. It’s incredible what one can do with mixing …

Jerry Kalaf, the drummer on my trio albums did the mastering.  I was thrilled with his work, it lent an elegance to the project.