Composer’s Counterpoint #2 – Sound Inventory

Posted: December 27, 2019 in Uncategorized

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

Now that I’ve burned the ships behind me on the Trojan beach, it’s perhaps high time to inventory what I can actually do to get started, not counting, of course, the actual process of Ass Flopped on Couch, Stare at iPad Music App Until Something Makes Me Tap Keys. Most composers should have a basic idea of what their work might sound like before starting. And arbitrary as hell, I will start with the sounds that might be everywhere just under the surface of all of our lives, environmental sounds (or noise from the perspective of the people below me).


One benefit of starting my journey as a wordsmith arrogantly porting over the voices from his muse (I facetiously assert mine as Calliope and note that she gets stereotypically PMS when I don’t work for more than 24 hours) to the currently frightening world of untapped musical possibilities, typewriters. I have four, including two manuals, because in my ongoing appeasement and propitiation of Sweet Callie as a novelist there just ain’t no excuses for not pounding keys, Baby! Not even a failure to pay the electric bill or the end of Post-Industrial Civilization as we know it.

Not all typewriters are created equal. I don’t mean this the way I might get snobby nostalgic about my harmonicas, bell kit, recorder, Chinese flute, or even the out of tune banjo atop a key bookcase (all stories for a later post). Depending on how the factory gnomes put it together hoping to assist the next Hemingway or Faulkner beat the stuffing out of the literary world; Qwerty the Office Dragon (or merely Office Ogre for those that can really type) will sound different from machine to machine.

My favorite of the quartet is my white Olympia. This manual was sold to me when I surrendered a Royal portable that had the kind of mechanical flaws that suggest put a bullet in the horse it’s the only humane thing to do. The man at the typewriter repair store said things like “built in Germany, mechanically solid and recently refurbished” and got $300 out of me. On the writing side of this equation, even not using Ollie because those newfangled ‘puters still put out a siren call, I feel reassured having her ready for either an attack of do it to prove I still know how or an actual failure of the lights. Why? Mechanically solid usually means the machine can sit patiently a decent while on a desk until you the owner figures out how to take his thumbs out of his ass.

In a musical sense, Ollie presents to her composer a deeper click-clack on those keys that most of the others in my possession. Especially, since I have tons of heavyweight (20lb and 24lb) typing paper, which also affects the sound quality for the budding composer seeking to write what he knows into a piece. I can see duets and quartets juxtaposing each machine as a slightly different voice in the story of the music with possibly my various computer keyboards throwing in their quiet by comparison tones, just because no one likes being left out of the party.

The electrics in this story also have interesting sounds to them that add something to the musical narrative (everything is story to me). The keys hit the paper with slightly different tones for which I suppose I’ll have to post some samples of all my dragons (I don’t type fast enough to demote these ladies to mere ogres) so you hear what my choices are. The cool part considering Madame Brother and her sister, Madame Selectric, is the whir between keystrokes evocative of, well, even after dethronement by the computer, the hum of the Late Industrial office to be captured in music.

And then you do the Google search to find that surprisingly not a whole lot of typewriter music immediately pops out of the ether. At the top of the page will almost always be Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter with clips of various performances. This piece neatly fits in with YouTube’s preference for short clips and sounds light and breezy…until you see the percussionist’s hands.

He’s not typing so much as playing the drums because when you don’t care about the black ink on the page you can go much faster to the typing speed close to 100WPM seen in Anderson’s work. If you actually type that fast on a manual, to my way of thinking, the monster devolves well past ogre to Russian Blue kitten seeking milk. Good to know, the composer that pokes along with two fingers thinks. A rhythmic juxtaposition for the piece to do both regular typing and high-speed percussion.

Raid the kitchen.

Since this post is all about improvised instruments that we might all have in our homes, depending on the qualities of your cookware just drop something on the tile floor and see what rings back up. I have at least one saucepan that produces a verifiably pleasing tone and have yet to drop other cookware. And – CHHHHHK! – that was my downstairs neighbors metaphorically hanging me from the nearest yardarm for any possible condo noise infractions after hours.

Bad jokes aside, it seems people have been improvising music out of their kitchen goods for a long time. Should I save money and tape two spoons together or allow myself to get rooked at the music store buying the professionally manufactured instrument that has become an occasional feature of Folk and Bluegrass music? Depends on my bank account when I decide – “Yup, needs spoons.”

So far the most interesting sound in my kitchen is my coffeemaker. Brew coffee, the same four cups nearly every day, and yank up the top to allow the pent up steam to escape. It gurgles and rattles, but never exactly the same way twice. Sometimes it’s loud. Sometimes you get ten seconds out of the throaty noise. And other times you just have to whine – “is that all there is?” I’m thinking it will go well with the typewriter…or not.

Raid the big drawer in your desk and/or tool cabinet.

Rubber bands, an even poorer man’s jaw harp? Capture the squeak of dry erase pens? We’ll see once I start having to face the silent iPad app and blank score page. And with that, we’ll resume our previously scheduled procrastinations…

Update: the electric typewriters have since been unloaded upon the Salvation Army

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