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Maybe it’s old-fashioned but I’ve always loved the idea that being an artist is all about observing what’s happening in the society around you and responding in some meaningful way. I get the feeling this notion went out of style in the tumult of the 20th century and art became a kind of anything goes proposition, but I just can’t seem to let go of it. I have the privilege of traveling a good bit, seeing some interesting parts of the world and meeting lots of people. I’m not sure if I have any special perspective, but I always look for themes and patterns around me and those ideas motivate me in the creative process.
From what I can see, life in the early part of this still new century is increasingly technological and globally inter-connected, complex and full of both possibilities and problems. It continues to be a time of dramatic new conceptions in physics, information and philosophy of mind with remarkable implications for epistemology and society. I find these ideas recur in my thoughts and compositions as I try to make sense of the world around me, and they are reflected in this set of music.
There are many different types of experiences people are having in the current world, but I suppose if there’s one thing we can say about life in the 21st-century it’s that it’s busy. I know it is for me! I spend my life traveling around the world playing with many different musicians as well as by myself, teaching, doing many different kinds of recording for a wide variety of artists and raising a family as best I can. Every week there’s new music to learn, gigs to promote, equipment to take care of, travel plans to be made, social media to stay on top of and a host of other odds and ends that need my attention. It’s a good life but it doesn’t leave much time for my greatest musical passion — composing. I’m a slow composer and I love taking a musical idea, working with it, developing it, listening to it, experimenting with it in all its permutations and trying to decide how it can best be realized.
This busy life is especially difficult for writing solo bass music because that's best served by long stretches of uninterrupted time alone with the instrument. With all that’s been going on in recent years I’ve had to learn to relegate my composing to the little bits of time I can steal at the ends of busy days, in airports or train stations, on airplanes, trains or in cars, walking from place to place, while picking up my kids from soccer, etc. The music for this project came about through this process, in bits and pieces in various parts of the world whenever there were a few moments of downtime. It was a slow process but a labor of love, and in these small moments I have found some sense of fulfillment. For me, each piece here has a story to tell and I would like to try to share them with you.
Zon Michael Manring Hyperbass: I've had this bass since 1990 and it has been a dream come true. For many years I had wanted to experiment with bass design in some specific ways, but it was difficult to find a luthier willing to undertake some of the bizarre concepts I had in mind. I had the great fortune to meet Joe Zon in the late 80's and he and I have been collaborating ever since. For the Hyperbass we decided to try out a whole set of unusual ideas on one instrument and see what happened.
It has several unusual features. First, it has a very long fingerboard -- just shy of 3 octaves. We did this because we couldn't see a reason not to. With a fretless instrument it seemed to make sense to extend the fingerboard as far as possible, in this case to the sole pickup.
We also included an unusual electronics arrangement in the Hyperbass. Underneath the standard pickup cover there are actually four separate elements, one for each string. This allows me to output the sound of each string separately and if you listen carefully to the pieces "Tetrahedron" and "23 Oktober" you will hear each string has its own place in the stereo field. If you're really paying attention, you can hear separate audio processing for each string on these pieces as well. In addition to the four magnetic pickups, there are four ceramic pickups built into the body of this bass. One is in the top of the body, one in each horn and one in the headstock.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we designed the Hyperbass for dynamic tuning. I've always been fascinated with the capability of the bass guitar for various tunings and have come to believe it may have more capacity for altered tuning than any other instrument. As I got into unusual tunings I realized a really exciting direction to go would be to be able to move through tunings while playing -- what I refer to as "dynamic tuning." The Hyperbass has levers at both ends of the instrument to allow for this. The ones at the headstock give me the opportunity to change the tuning of each string separately; those at the bridge allow me to change tuning on groups of strings with a single lever move.
Zon Legacy 10-String Prototype: One day Joe brought a prototype 10-string bass to my house. He had been experimenting with special hardware for 5 x 2 string configurations and wanted me to check it out. The bass was strung with the string pairs in octaves, which is the standard, but I swapped them out with other gauges that allowed me to tune the pairs in many different ways. I was engrossed with this setup and have been having a wonderful time experimenting with this bass ever since.
Zon Sonus Elite Special: This is my main bass -- the one I use for almost every session and gig I do. It's a 4-string fretless with the extended cutaway and dynamic tuning keys as on the Hyperbass. It's simply the finest instrument of any kind I've ever played. I'm astonished at Joe's skill in building instruments that are almost like living things with soul and passion. In fact, I sometimes feel my job is to simply get of of the way and just let these instruments sing!
Roland VB-99: This is possibly the most complex effects processor ever marketed for bass. It's set up with two independent lines of variable processing each handling standard effects such as delay, EQ, distortion and chorus, as well as some more unusual ones. Chief among the latter is a process Roland debuted in 1995 named "Composite Object Sound Modeling" or COSM. For this kind of processing a special pickup is required that captures the sound of each string separately, and which I temporarily added to my basses as needed for recording these tracks. The sounds can then be manipulated in flexible and interesting ways, and the COSM and standard processing can be mixed and combined internally.
Keith McMillen SoftStep: Although it doesn't produce or process sound, the Softstep is a revolutionary piece of gear. It's a lightweight and durable foot pedal designed to offer complex, real-time control of all kinds of audio equipment via USB or MIDI. It has ten four-way main controllers as well as an additional single, larger controller. These can be programmed to send virtually any MIDI information possible in virtually any way. It's challenging to program because the possibilities are so vast, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it.
The combination of the VB-99 and the SoftStep is so powerful that I now think of them as part of the instrument, not unlike the foot pedals of a piano. As with piano pedals, I think the processing can be overused, so I'm always trying to find a good balance and many of the pieces here were recorded without it.
Boss GT-3: This is an older guitar processor made by Roland's sister company, Boss. In spite of the fact that it's a simpler unit, it has some effects that are not available on the VB-99, including the very trippy "Autoriff," around which I based the piece, "Dance of the Pessimists."
EBow: The EBow is a handheld device that allows for control of the volume envelope of the sound. Normally, with a plucked string instrument like bass, the notes have relatively the same ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) shape, or “envelope”—a sharp attack followed by a decay, which can be long or short depending on how you mute the string. The EBow is an oscillating electromagnet strong enough to cause the strings to vibrate on their own. You can use it for the initial string attack, which offers a much gentler sound than you can get with your fingers. You can also use it to sustain the sound as long as you like and I often hold it in the back of my right hand so I can combine Ebow and pizzicato playing. Although it was designed for guitar, I find it works just as well on bass. It's a game-changing invention and over the more than thirty years I've been using it, I've come to think of it also as an indispensable part of the bass, just as a violin bow is for a violin.
Glider Capo: A capo is a device you attach temporarily across the strings of guitar instruments that acts almost like having an extra hand, stopping the open strings at a higher point than usual. Unlike most capos, the Glider is designed so you can move it up and down the neck while playing for instant transpositions of the open strings, and is another invention I’ve found I can’t live without.
One January many years ago, I was playing at the NAMM convention in Anaheim, CA, and as I finished one of my little sets, a fellow handed me a Glider capo, and said, “I think you’ll have fun with this,” and walked away. NAMM is about as chaotic an environment as you’ll find anywhere, so I didn’t get his name or even a chance for a proper thank you, but I have, indeed, had a lot of fun with the Glider. So much so, it now lives more or less permanently at the top of my fretted bass.
These are solo bass pieces, recorded live with no overdubs and minimal editing. Although I use electronics to expand and extend the sound of the instrument, almost all this processing was done on the fly during the performances. These pieces were written to be played live using only the equipment the airlines will allow me to take with me when I travel!
The basses were recorded direct using Markbass DI boxes plugged into the preamp of an old Soundcraft board, then sent to a MOTU 828 converter into Logic. In some cases, the VB-99 was plugged directly into the laptop using its on-board USB converter for the recording.
In addition to the direct sound, for many of the pieces I used two Rode microphones very close to the instrument. I do this to pickup the acoustic, transient sound of the bass in my recording space as well as the sound of the Markbass amp I use for monitoring. I find this helps create a sense of acoustic ambience that otherwise can be missing in recording direct alone.
1) The World Is Everything That Is the Case
Zon Hyperbass, with Roland VB99 effects, Ebow
This is a little improvisation I’ve been playing in my solo shows for the last several years. I suppose the sole drawback to the Ebow is it’s really only designed to play one note at a time. If you’re playing with others this isn’t a big deal, but it is a little tricky to come up with interesting single line, monophonic solo music, so I’ve had fun over the years devising methods for creating more complete music with it. One of my favorite ways to do this is by using harmonizers. A harmonizer is an electronic effect that does just what it says - it generates a harmony to whatever you play. If you just switch it on and play, the effect is interesting, but can get a bit tiresome eventually. One of my passions, like dynamic tunings, is dynamic effects — using the power that new technology gives us in ways that are changeable and expressive. Thanks to the Roland VB-99 and the Keith McMillen SoftStep I’m able to work with the technology in ways I find inspiring and do it all live in realtime. In the case of this piece, I set up four harmonies to the note I’m playing. I programmed a patch so I can fade the harmonies in and out, change them, and sustain them as I wish. This is a sound environment I love to explore and I thought it would be a nice way to introduce this set of music.
Those of you who are philosophy nerds (I’m a wannabe!) may recognize the title as the first words in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was one of the most important philosophical thinkers of the Twentieth Century and certainly among the boldest. In the Tractatus he sought to organize and describe the nature of the world in a unique, precise, almost mathematical framework. The result is somewhat mystifying, but I can’t help but be moved by his audacity, intellectual depth and creative courage. Even though the Tractatus was a groundbreaking work that started a whole new movement in philosophy, Wittgenstein later rejected it and, incredibly, went on to form another remarkable perspective, which also became highly influential.
I think about Wittgenstein and his amazing achievements a lot and wonder if all grand undertakings to unify everything under a single system are doomed to fail as perhaps was suggested by the work of mathematician Kurt Gödel. Maybe there is a beauty in attempting them, anyway.
For this piece, I plugged my Hyperbass into the VB-99 and the recording was made directly from its outputs with almost no additional processing.
Tunings: CEbBbEb, DbFBbEb, AbEbBbEb, DbFBbF, CEbBbF, AbEbBbF, DbFAbEb, CEbAbEb, AbEbAbEb, DbFAbF, CEbAbF, CFBbF, BbFBbF, BbFBbEb. BbF#BbEb*, BbEbBbEb, BbEbBbF, BbFBbF#*
*temporary tunings by created pulling the key
I never get tired of searching for new ideas to explore on my Hyperbass. Its dynamic tuning capability is especially inspiring and I love being able to make tuning changes part of the compositional process. The tuning keys are made by a company called Hipshot and a lever on the side allows me to move between two notes on each string. However, a few years ago Hipshot came up with a design with an intermediate position allowing for three notes per string. Of course, I had to have them! They’ve been quite a mental adjustment, as with two positions on four strings there are 16 possible tuning configurations, but with the three position keys that number goes up to 81. I love the challenge though, and I’m pretty sure this piece has more tuning changes than anything else I’ve ever written.
This was one of the first pieces to come together for this recording and, since it requires a different configuration of the tuning hardware from what I normally use in my live shows, I have to set up my bass a little differently. This doesn’t take long, but since I always have to keep my instruments “battle ready” I had to wait until a few quiet periods to work this one out.
A tetrahedron is a pyramid with a triangular base and this shape represents to me the tuning capabilities of the Hyperbass. The four faces are analogous to the four strings with the triangles corresponding to the three possible tuning positions of the Hipshots. I think of the bridge tuning mechanism as changing the size of the tetrahedron. I don't have synesthesia, but when I play this piece I sometimes like to picture a moving and changing tetrahedron dancing in space; I feel this image helps me to better visualize the various tuning possibilities of the Hyperbass.
I feel I owe a debt to my great literary hero, Jorge Luis Borges’ wonderful story “Death and the Compass” for this piece. In it he describes the "Tetragrammaton," a concept in Judaism that has deep significance in the mystical tradition of Kabbalah. The idea is that the name of God is a word of four letters that has special power and must not be spoken aloud. The word comes from the Greek "consisting of four letters." As someone who spends his life searching for something meaningful and beautiful on four strings, I found this idea had a deep resonance with me.
I used the multiple output configuration of the Hyperbass to record each string separately for this piece, and I used microphones on the instrument. as well. However, I wasn't able to use the internal body pickups because, with all the retuning action going on, the tuning mechanisms created too much mechanical noise.
3) By Fives
10-string Zon Legacy
Tuning: CC GC GC DC CG
This piece also involves numbers, but even more directly. In recent years I’ve been interested in exploring various rhythmic juxtaposition ideas, especially inspired by concepts used in South Indian music. I wrote this tune as a way of working with patterns of five within the standard 4/4 or 2/2 time signature rhythmic context. I thought it would be kind of a fun inside joke to explore these ideas on my 10-string bass, since the strings are arranged in five sets of two. The title had to be reflective of these numbers in the letter count, too, of course!
Much of this piece I wrote away from the instrument, just thinking about the rhythmic patterns I wanted to work with while I was traveling, walking from place to place or doing errands. A few long plane flights allowed me to flesh out some of them in detail. I’m not able to bring my 10-string bass on the road with me, so the rhythmical-numerical structure came first, then the music. A rare period of a few weeks at home allowed me the time to work it all out on the instrument and record it.
We usually think of a piece of music as primarily focusing on melody and accompanying harmony, so it’s fun to work the other way where the rhythm provides a kind of underlying code the music is based on. Everything in this piece fits in a standard count of four, so if you like, you can count along!
I recorded the bass direct with the addition of the microphones picking up the acoustic sound of the instrument as well as the sound of the Markbass amp I use in the room.
4) Dance of the Pessimists
Zon Sonus Special with Boss GT3 effects
Tunings: EADG, BADG
One of the thrilling things about playing bass guitar is that it’s natively an electro-acoustic instrument. The sound is produced acoustically but converted to an electric signal right away, so its tone is a combination of wood, metal and electronics in a kind of sonic marriage. This represents to me, very much what our culture is like. We’re still the same human form that evolved tens of thousands of years ago for life in the wild, but we’ve enhanced ourselves with all kinds of electronic devices without which modern life would be impossible. Our contemporary tools and conveniences are a great blessing, of course, but they do offer challenges to us at times. I love that music allows us to work with ideas like this in semi-metaphorical methods that help make sense of the curious predicaments of life in the world as it is today. I know many people are wary of electronics, especially in music, but I’ve decided to stay hopeful that technology can enhance opportunities for expression while retaining our essential humanity.
On this piece I use the Boss GT3 to take advantage of the strange “Autoriff” effect mentioned earlier. It outputs a series of notes for any particular note you play, similar to a harmonizer, but in sequence. I’m not sure how they do this, but it’s quite dynamic, so the sound of the sequence of notes is very dependent on how you play the trigger note. The set of notes is completely user definable, so I could create unique sequences from each note. I made a sequence for the notes C, G, A and Bb so when I played one of those and sent the signal to the effect, the machine generated its corresponding motif to which I added echo for a little bit more psychedelic, swirling feeling. I then improvised on top of this trippy bed of sound, but I had to be careful to trigger the sequences with a good tone and at the right time. This sound of this piece was inspired by one of my musical heroes, Terry Riley.
I worked on ideas for this tune any time I had an free moment with my effect unit — at sound checks or rehearsals, waiting for an engineer to work on someone else’s sound in the studio, etc.. It was a little tricky to set it up so just particular notes triggered the sequences but not others, and I had to practice quite a lot to make sure the trigger notes I played had exactly the right articulation. I remember trying it out once at a soundcheck for a little gig we used to do in Alameda, CA and my friend Barry Cleveland said he liked it. That inspired me to keep working on it. Eventually I had a set of sequences I thought I could work with and I put it together in a way that seemed to make sense but could still be played live with nothing but the one effect unit.
For this tune I took the signal from the outputs of the GT3 as well as an additional DI from the bass. I added a little bit of additional effect processing in the mix.
5) Night is Darkness Enough
Zon VB4 with Roland VB99 effects and modeling
Tuning: DBbDA with Glider capo at the ninth fret (BGBF#), the seventh fret (AFAE) and tenth fret (CAbCG)
I began this piece in Germany after a particularly grueling travel day. I had been robbed during the trip, but fortunately, nothing of much value had been taken. It was a relief when I finally arrived at my destination and since I didn't have a gig that evening, I worked on ideas for this music late into the night, meditating on the nature of people and suffering. I finished the composition on a family trip to Cape Cod and recorded it shortly thereafter at home.
I’m often struck with the sense that suffering is a central aspect of human experience. This is a Buddhist concept of course, but in the Buddhist notion the Sanskrit word usually translated as suffering, “dukkha,” is believed by many experts to have a much more broad meaning than the English word. One of my favorite Buddhist scholars, Stephen Batchelor says that a better translation is “unsatisfactoriness.” It's an idea I find myself thinking about a lot.
I used the COSM effect on the VB-99 for this piece to create a digital model of a bass sound that plays along in unison with my original sound. The modeled sound can be processed in interesting ways and for this piece at several points I used it to sustain the sound, almost like using the sustain pedal of a piano. I recorded a direct signal from the bass, the VB-99 and my usual two mics on the instrument.
6) There Is Nothing the Wind Cannot Blow Away
Zon Hyperbass with Roland VB99 effects, EBow
When I had the initial ideas for this piece, I wasn’t quite sure what it was all about. One day I was goofing with it during a break in a rehearsal in Italy with a band that included two amazing musicians from the African country Burkina Faso. They were very interested in the sound and started playing and singing along. Their participation was so inspiring, I’ve heard this piece as if they were accompanying me ever since and their enthusiasm gave me the impetus to finish the composition.
I’ve been quite lucky to have played with several wonderful musicians from Burkina Faso in my travels. There is a rich musical culture there and it’s been a thrill to get to understand a little bit about it. I’m often impressed at how central a role music plays in the lives of people around the world — especially in countries where the social conditions are less than ideal. You would think people who live in difficult places would have enough to worry about, but in so many of those places people use music as a way of giving life hope, purpose and meaning. Burkina Faso has had its share of challenges, but people there seem to take great solace in the depth and beauty of their music.
This is another piece that uses harmonizers. This time I created an algorithm with echo, so that if I play one note, two other notes are generated in sequence. I love composing like this as these little melodic cells offer interesting thematic material from which to generate melodic ideas and formal structures. My piece “Bad Hair Day” from Thonk came about this way. My VB99 and Softstep give me plenty of dynamic options for moving things around, cycling certain patterns, changing harmonies and so on, so this piece came about little by little as I got more ideas for what I could do.
The title comes from a story called “The Hare and the Village Chief” in the lovely book “Folktales from the Moose of Burkina Faso” by Alain Joseph Sissao.
This one was recorded from the outputs of the VB-99 with almost no additional processing.
Zon Sonus Special
Sometimes musical ideas seemingly appear from nowhere and form peculiar puzzles. This was one of these. One night at home I spontaneously played the introduction to this piece and recorded it. I listened to the recording occasionally because there was something I liked about it, but I couldn’t figure out what do do with it or where it was going. Finally, after several years, it dawned on me that the idea was in the unusual meter of 13/8. That offered a perspective from which to work and I began to collect ideas. On a trip to Columbus, Ohio I had a day off and that gave me the time I needed to work through my ideas in the 13/8 context and everything finally came together.
The title needed to reflect the meaning of the piece and you may have noticed it's a 13-letter word implying that ideas sometimes circle around us for years before we can fully process them.
I recorded my main fretless direct for this one, with the two mics to pick up the acoustic sound of the instrument, my Markbass amplifier and a bit of room sound.
8) The Blue Moment
Zon Hyperbass with Roland VB99 effects and modeling
This is the last piece I composed for this project and it came to me somewhat quickly right around the time I made a trip to Finland. One lovely evening while I was there, my good friend, Jan-Olof told me about the Finnish phrase "sininen hetki" used to describe dusk. It translates into “the blue moment” and I found myself reflecting on its poetry while listening to my initial recordings of this piece on the long flight home. I like that it reflects the drawing to the close of my composing for this project.
For this tune I used the “COSM” modeling effect on the Roland VB99 on my Hyperbass. One of the wonderful things about the modeled sounds is that they can be tuned to anything you like, and the Softstep allows me to change the COSM tunings as I'm playing. Since there are two models available for each patch I have three dynamic tunings to work with -- the acoustic sound and the two models. Needless to say, this is right up my alley!
This recording was made with a combination of a direct mono signal from the Hyperbass and the stereo outputs of the VB-99.
9) Sardonic Grin
Tuning: DADA with the Glider capo at the seventh fret (AEAE), eighth fret (BbFBbF), fifth fret (GDGD) and third fret (FCFC)
This was the most difficult piece of this collection to compose and perform and it took me a long time to complete it. I knew just what I wanted to do, but sometimes that doesn’t make things any easier! I wanted to begin with a simple, almost cliched motif, but move from there in a direction that wasn’t necessarily suggested by the initial idea. I worked through aspects of the piece at available moments in various parts of the world and the last key pieces to the puzzle finally occurred to me while standing on a beach on the beautiful island of Sardinia, where I had been invited to play at a jazz festival. I was relieved to have finally figured it out and I wanted the title to reflect my visit to this amazing place. Apparently, the word ’sardonic” comes from the same root as “Sardinia” and is associated with some rather brutal practices that may have occurred there in ancient times. At first I was put off by the violent implication of the concept, but when I started thinking about how difficult it was to put this piece together I thought the ironic reflection might be just the trick! I also like how it reflected the compositional technique of setting up one mood and slyly undermining it.
For this one I recorded my VB4 direct with the addition of the stereo mics on the instrument with a bit of my Markbass amplifier coming through.
10) 23 Oktober
Tuning: G#G#A#B, A#G#A#B
The ideas for this piece first started to appear when I was at home goofing around with the Hyperbass, but as usual life was so busy I didn’t have time to figure out where it wanted to go. A few months later, on a trip to Hungary with my friend, the wonderful guitarist Sandor Szabo, we had a day off on October 23. That’s a historic day in Hungary because it was the beginning of the uprising of 1956 when the Hungarian people began to resist Soviet control. We had hoped to visit Budapest for the holiday, but unfortunately there were demonstrations which were expected to turn violent. So instead, we holed up in a little bed and breakfast in the countryside and I had a whole day to dedicate to working on this piece. I went into a kind of compositional trance and when it was done I realized that I had inadvertently composed the piece in a rhythmic meter that's typical of that part of the world — 5/8.
For this piece I used the multiple outputs of the Hyperbass to record each string separately and I used the two microphones on the instrument as well. If you listen carefully you can hear the panning of each string in the stereo field.
11) Open the Box
Zon VB4 with Roland VB99 effects and modeling
This piece uses the COSM effect again, this time on my fretted VB4 bass. I’ve always wanted to have retuning hardware on this bass like on my Hyperbass, but its unusual stringing configuration doesn’t allow for the use of Hipshot tuning keys or other devices, so I’ve had to content myself with one tuning at a time with this instrument. However, with the VB99 I’m able to use the modeling process to vary the tuning of the two virtual basses and control this in real time with the SoftStep. Combining this with the pure sound of my bass is like a dream come true!
This piece came about somewhat quickly. I had a few initial ideas while goofing with the VB-99 and recorded them. I listened to those ideas often in my journeys and worked out the compositional strategy in my head, waiting patiently for a time when I could try it out. Little by little, usually late at night, I had the chance to solidify the structure and the technology to put it all together.
I love how a new concept or technology can open whole new musical vistas, so the title became an admonition to myself. I’m sometimes accused of “thinking outside the box,” but I guess I like to think what I’m doing is simply opening the box and looking inside!
This was recorded with a direct output from the bass along with the stereo outputs of the VB-99.
12) We Must Pass Over in Silence
Zon Hyperbass with Roland VB99 effects
I couldn’t resist the symmetry of ending this collection as it began, with this little improvisation that I suppose will never really have a definite structure. This time I titled it with the last words in Wittgenstein’s "Tractatus." I've always thought it was such a beautiful way to end a book, it would be nice to borrow it here.
This is the same setup with the Hyperbass and was recorded in the same session as "The World Is Everything that Is the Case" -- the last recording session for the album.