Part 2: The Sloth Timezone
Reflections on creative processes, the use value and production of my composition practice outside a capitalist mindset.
(listen to tracks 1-3 of ep)
The Deluge that I own is one of 10 made of the penultimate design prior to its popular release. Hand-soldered and crafted by the maker and inventor Rohan Hill.
Despite being a witness to the progress of this instrument from before it was even an embryo, I never knew where to begin. Rohan (who is a very good friend of mine) would show me different features he was programming into the firmware as the ideas struck him. In its early days Rohan had simply wanted to design a midi controller, a step up from some of the DIY guitar pedal interfaces he had designed for his guitar/laptop. It was a living creation, not just for the people making music on it, but for the inventor of the instrument itself. MIDI control is but one functional option for the Deluge. The hardware final allows internal synthesis, drum machine, sequencer and sampling options - not to mention the possibilities of hardline connection cv/midi to other instruments. To this day, firmware is constantly being updated, with additional features and surprises for users to look forward to.
My early days of creation on the deluge were very basic. The interface design of the deluge I own has a 4 by 8 grid of ‘sugar-cube’ buttons. Vertical for pitch/frequency and horizontal for rhythm/time. These are the basic building blocks for mapping melodic and rhythmic output. In the top left-hand corner, there are knobs with parameter control options adjacent: Volume/panning, FM Synthesis, Attack/release, Delay, Reverb, Sidechain. So many options for sculpting the timbre of the sound.
Even though Rohan had shown me how to use it, and it was intended to be easy for electronic music beginners/people who may not have a traditional synth or music background, I was initially completely intimidated by the musical possibilities and options of this instrument. Whenever I sat down with it, procrastination or over analysis of compositional possibilities would lead to a writer's block. The anxiety of making “good” and presentable compositions took over. It prevented me from learning how to use the instrument, or to produce anything at all to begin with. This is despite me being musically educated from the age of 4 right through to University, having completed sonic arts and instrumental classical composition qualifications - something which ironically in this case may have proved to work against me. In classical music literature, we are expected to know an instrument like an internal instinct, as if it is natural, without any of the discussion as to why it is a craftsmanship exterior to oneself, integrated into the education.
For many years as a piano player, I was completely convinced that I did not really know how to play piano. My piano playing began when I was 3-4 years old, with a kindergarten friend's parent. I do not believe it was the fault of the teacher, but rather an internalisation of how western art music (WAM) is taught in general. Focusing always on finding what is “wrong”, “Fixing” what is “wrong”, evangelical moralistic dogma of “right” and “wrong” is, and not much space for navigating creative autonomy and flow, or even discussing what is being done “Right”. The evangelized notion of a composer's manuscript, and completely omitted historical materialism of how harpsichords/pianos/any other keyboard based instruments have evolved over the years, have lead to cult like followings in the classical community of certain composers in the cannon, and there is a much needed reality check across the establishment that most composers would have gone through a trial error based approach to improve their craftsmanship. As you can see, I have a lot of baggage in terms of making sense of my classical and academic music education which I am still processing.
I had to trick myself into forgetting everything I thought I knew about music or writing it. Even as a well practiced free improviser I did not know where to start. “This looks like a gaming console”, my inner voice said, as it was battling my inner ego. I vowed that I would save everything I programmed or wrote, even if I thought it ‘sounded bad’. And then the gamification began, as I got a hold of writing basic sequencing loops, and sketching out simple rhythms on the 808 default. Some of these early pieces have a ‘retro video game arcade’ or even soviet collapse industrial goth aesthetic, while others are too avant garde or chaotic to really box into a genre.
Even though the deluge sequencing pads are 4/8, it is possible to “extend” and “Scroll” across, to increase the bars from 8 counts, or to scroll up and down for pitch/8ve variations. It is also possible to subdivide rhythm, by ‘zooming in’, so that the pads subdivide into (hemi/semi/demi)quavers or even to switch to a triplet view. The strict quantization of parts can be adjusted with a swing function.
Each “Track” on the deluge (a track could be a synthesis instrumental voice, a drum kit, or sample options) has autonomy over the length of its loop. This means I could have one loop as 8 counts, the default length and have other tracks of the same piece in variable lengths. It is also very easy to switch between ‘triplet view’ and standard 4/4 view, even within the same track. So within the track it could be easily subdivided as either quavers/etc or triplet/dotted quaver/crotchet/minim lengths. These rhythmic/bar/loop variations could be within a standardized time signature, ie I could decide all loops are going to be 8 counts or any multiple of a standard 4/4 time signature in length, or I could mathematically subdivide them to variables of any irregular X/4 or x/8 based signature. I have made pieces in 7/4, and some which have multiple time signatures or variable ‘bar lengths’ for each track in the song. For example, one track has a loop in 5/4, another in 7/4, and another in 4/4, all looping simultaneously. The possibilities of zooming in for subdivision of each count also has potential for more complex polyrhythms, depending on math skills and patience of the user.
In terms of scales or modes/pitch collections, it is easy to programme variation within the deluge. The default is the C major/Ionian mode. It is easy to change keys or modes in the middle of a track or song.
In terms of micropitch, between the diatonic chromatic options,there are ways to on-the-fly adjust pitch by introducing vibrato/portamento/pitch bending alterations with the parameter knob. I personally have not explored if it is possible to programme the fundamental tuning outside of A440Hz standard, and to introduce quarter flats/sharps or 3 quarter flats/sharps as base pitches in the base mode/keys, however plenty of my work explores loosening the pitch,and integrating pitch bending as a harmonic variable for counterpoint or harmonic rhythms.
Most electronic music genres, outside of avant garde/ambient, were an area I previously had little experience writing. Years before The Deluge, in my first year of uni I fell in love with the indie music scene of Wellington. My older sister had tricked me into co-hosting a show on the VBC, the university station, only to abandon me to DJ alone. This same community was responsible for hosting Wednesday nights at San Francisco Bathhouse of any new bands in Wellington/Aotearoa. It did not seem to matter how ‘experienced’ or what style people were performing. Every week I would go and listen. There was something reaffirming to be an 18 year old woman able to go to a gig at a bar alone, where I could make friends, and the focus was the music, and not have to worry at all about sexual harassment or any of the other problems in mainstream bars/nightclubs.
Despite doing undergraduate study in music composition at Victoria University at this same time, it always felt like these worlds were completely different. The style of contemporary WAM composition, with manuscript, the hierarchy of a ‘composer and performers’, and a polite sitting audience, was completely different to DIY collaborations, with people who did not always have traditional music literacy, but nevertheless made out-of-this-world music, ranging from indie/punk/electronic and anything else in between.
I was a very shy performer at this stage in my life. Even though I had learned piano from 4 years old, I never really felt like I could “Play” or “Perform” with dignity in front of an audience. There was a lot of internalised questioning, imposter syndrome rhetoric. Classical music pedagogy was always focused on accuracy and precision of musical presentation. There was no room for mistakes or improvisation. One of the reasons I had opted for composition was that I hated being the centre of attention on stage. I always preferred choirs or other group scenarios, where I could blend into the background and be in complete denial of my performance anxieties in peace. I could be a part of the greater sound without having my ego involved whatsoever.
Nevertheless, I was tricked into my first band, Reptilian Future Cops, an industrial metal band fronted by Matt Hunt (Cortina)in my first year. He was setting up for a gig at the Adam Art Gallery as a part of Orientation Week, and Disasteradio (Luke Rowell) who had usually played the live synth parts and assisted with the composing the backing track,was on tour with Supergroove in Australia. I was hanging out with one of my new Uni friends, when Matt said he needed someone who could play keys. He showed me the parts which I learned overnight in time for the gig, for a vintage roland keyboard from the states. It felt like an honour to play with someone so esteemed in the NZ music and art worlds. Since then, I have performed in several bands and music ensembles, having developed confidence in my improvisation and scoring abilities. However the thought of performing solo was a challenge/baggage still left unconquered.
My first deluge performance was in 2017, on the same night as the last NZ national election. I was very upset that my birthday, 23 September, was the exact same day as the election, and knew that any celebration would be hijacked into an Election Party. It seemed like I had to do something radical to reclaim my birthday. The idea of a possible National Party win for the 4th term in a row, was just too much for me, and I figured if there was a left leaning change of government, perhaps it would be cause for celebration.
23rd of September 2017 Class War on The Dance Floor (My solo deluge performance alias) was born at Moon Bar in Newtown. The election result was a cliffhanger, a hung parliament between National and Labour, and Winston Peters/New Zealand First had all the power to choose our destinies for the next term. No one knew how to feel at that moment in time. But at least we had music and art to provide salvation.
Three years on and I have made over 300 compositions on my Deluge, with almost no recordings in public. It seems the same psychological barriers that prevented me composing on it to begin with, also interfere with recording or general release. So how has my deluge sound evolved over 300 compositions in the 3 years time span? I am hoping to eventually release an anthology of these pieces. But in the meantime, my priority is to break this internalised perfectionism fanaticism, which has been strangling my sharing of my music in the fixed media format.
The thought processes and exercises to develop beyond ‘gamifying’ my deluge experience, have been an application of exercises I learnt in counterpoint, harmony and instrumentation and orchestration classes to the deluge. I have manually programmed from manuscript the first third of the first movement of Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven, and also by ear made arrangements of Madonna, Beyonce, The Eurythmics, Daft Punk, Simon and Garfunkel, and Christmas Carols.
The reasoning behind this was simple. One aspect was to maintain the rhythmic melodic aural transcription skills I had learned from university. The other was to gain perspective on how different waves function at different frequencies, and how this impacts balance in arranging melody and harmonic functions in synth-based arrangements. For example, the doubling of octaves in the original Moonlight Sonata bass octaves (written for piano) are completely unnecessary when working with rich saw or triangle waves. This can be omitted to a singular line. Similarly though, knowing which types of synth lines to choose for each line in the harmony, so that they maintain the integrity of their voice, and not dominate or cancel other lines, is equally as important to be mindful of.
This might sound strange to some people, but the standardized modern orchestra is essentially an acoustic EQed/in balance mathematical ratio of the classical instruments which it consists of. The number of First Violins, Second Violins, Flutes, Oboes, bass instruments, are all balanced within their own sub-groupings and across the timbral spectrum. The integration of classical counterpoint/harmony lessons with understanding the properties of timbre was key to my own orchestration/instrumental arrangement comprehension, and was surprisingly useful when trying to make sense of The Deluge.
In the lockdown, I lost count of how many pieces I made. I do know started at something around number 170, and 193 was the last piece I made as lockdown lifted. Almost everyday (even before and after lockdown)I fall asleep with my deluge next to me in my bed. Composing just before sleep, or setting aside an hour or two in the day while at a cafe, on long bus/train rides - all seem to be when my brain is most relaxed and open to whatever may come out. Despite my formal composition training at university being one of the initial barriers to my writers block, falling onto the craftsmanship, treating the composition process like a puzzle or game, and the transliteration of classical and orchestral instrumentation and counterpoint discourse to a newly invented electronic music instrument, have proven to be core to the development of my pieces and style.
The three lockdown compositions I chose to share in the recordings accompanying the zine - Lucid Cloud, Lucid Cosmos, and Lucid Stars, all share similar features, of co-opting exploration of modulation (in the classical meaning of changing keys/modes), counterpoint and harmonic discourse, of the romantic classical period - as well as inspiration from free jazz, chiptunes, ambient lo-fi noise and vaporwave genres. Some of these have a futuristic nostalgia to them. My favourite place to practice outside the house has always been down the road at Oriental Bay beach, after dark under the full moon. Although the pieces can be listened to in any situation the audience sees fit, before bedtime or under the sky after dark is perhaps the ideal moment. It is through the composition of these pieces I managed to maintain a spiritual balance of being connected to myself, my family and society, while being physically isolated during the lockdown period.
Healing from imposter syndrome has required me to let go of what I have learned. And to especially let go of the academic institutions, despite being somewhat of an academic myself. When I dropped out of honours in 2016, it didn't feel like a choice. I was having dissociative amnesia symptoms emerge, and the timeline of my original project idea (a long distance film score for a friend in Berlin) was not going to work with the university timeline. Being able to communicate with someone in Berlin to coordinate a deadline, as well as my supervisor, was going to be a challenge. So I reached out. I let them know I had serious health issues which I was seeking professional medical support for, only to have my supervisor immediately suggest by email I simply drop out (despite the fact I was getting professional and family support for my condition). It felt like a slap in the face that they could not even suggest meeting to talk about it over coffee, even if the intention was to take pressure off or something.
I decided to request a meeting with my supervisor in person, as I didn't like this idea of quitting and wanted to talk in person. But the whole time it felt like he had made up his mind. I had another friend who had done honours the year before who had told me he had changed his major project a couple of weeks before the deadline due to ‘creative reasons’, with full support from his supervisor (different to mine), so I didn't understand how when I had 4 weeks and another creative concept I could do on my own schedule and meet the deadline, it would have been an issue. The irony is that while they were suggesting I drop out, I got congratulated for writing an academic journal article (which I had applied for on my own accord without support from my supervisor) about gender inequity in music making. And I had also been accepted for a conference about Sound Gender and Activism - which I was also congratulated on. Both of these things I still participated in and completed despite having these amnesia issues (not to mention I got an A for my other honours paper in this time).
So I tried to pitch my new honours idea. I had just seen a Wernor Herzog film at the film festival, and my brother was in his early stages of writing his PhD research on radio telescope imaging. I was going to create a psychedelic audiobook installation, which incorporated phenomenology of space time, my holistic experiences of memory and identity narrative (with my PTSD recovery), and the human condition. This would be expressed through sentient creatures, an integration of sloths with astronomical phenomena (planets, stars etc) which communicated with telepathic radiosonar imaging. I would easily be able to create soundscapes out of improvised recordings and turn it into a collage around the free flow text.
I am still unsure when I was asked to drop out, if it was that my eccentricities were too much, or if they just really did genuinely feel I wouldn't complete the project on time. At the end of the day it felt like a waste of time to try working with someone or an institution who didn't understand me or believe in me. I felt very confused, and it's an experience I still do not quite know how to make sense of. I have not talked about it openly, as I was worried people would think I didn't respect my supervisor if I disagreed with how they approached this situation. When I reflect on it though, I can see that perhaps some of the themes of my research, gender inequity, intersectional barriers to accessing composition or sound art, including the histories and contemporary reinforcements of canon, were perhaps subconsciously making more sense to me outside the institution. And with time and distance to process, I am able to reflect on that perhaps, as a composer, beneficiary,freelance academic, who specifically has a medical condition evolving from sexual violence (rape culture being a major component of the patriarchy), I am glad I never wasted my time, energy or future student loan repayments going back to the university.
The same concept of sentient sloth planets, was accepted with funding in an international festival based in Wellington. So I upgraded, having my ideas supported and accessible by the wider artistic community and public. I don’t belong in an ivory tower, but as an intellectual grounded in the working and beneficiary classes. Neoliberalism and tokenism has failed society. But I am privileged to be in a music community in which I have been able to continue despite the lack of formal institutional support,and the further I am from The Institution, the more I have been able to heal, reclaim and build my sound and art practice, in an honest and humbling manner.
The answer to the imposter syndrome was to stop buying into the system and reclaim on my own terms.
Marika Pratley (she/they/them) is a Queer Greek/Cypriot New Zealander, composer, improviser and performance artist, born and raised in Te Whanganui a tara, Aotearoa. The online launch of It Is Time To Slothersize is timely with the 2021 NZ lockdown for the delta variant, reflecting on lived experience as a working class performance artist/beneficiary activist with mental health issues.
Marika creates both solo and collaboration works across all platforms. Themes of her work include radical relaxation, intersectional feminism/queerness, mental health activism, healing from trauma, anticapitalism and sloths.
Ongoing music projects include Moody V and The Menstrual Cycle (with Madison Van Staden), Reptilian Future Cops (with Matt Hunt), Greek Rembetika band Kali Ora and performing with sister Heleyni Pratley.
Marika's performance art works include multiple collaborations with Virginia Kennard, Mega Pash Action, and Richard Orjis including performances at Queer Pavilion for Auckland Pride Festival 2020. She has also scored installations, dance and theatre works, including Orjis cruising lazing learning for the About Walking series, and the award winning dance works Demi God Half Human (excerpt) and An Unfortunate Willingness To Agree.
Solo work includes avant-garde meditation musical A Symphony of Sloths and deluge project Class War On The Dance Floor. She has performed festivals and live events around Aotearoa and abroad.
In 2021 Marika and sister Heleyni Pratley will be the recipients of the inaugural Pyramid Club and Museums Wellington Thomas King Observatory Residency, extending on sibling collaboration with astrophysicist sibling Dr Luke Pratley. Marika is currently producing an autobiographical documentary, The Healing Power of The Sloth, and intends to release debut Class War On The Dance Floor album this summer.