The Holistic Author
Would you believe that the author of the mega-successful 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy' is a fanatical devotee of the Macintosh computer and a MIDI enthusiast to boot? Richard Elen listens as the man tells why...
An interview with Douglas Adams, by Richard Elen, which for once doesn't have a bad pun on 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy' somewhere in its title.
It doesn't seem like a decade ago that the name Douglas Adams leaked firmly into many people's consciousness through the medium of radio drama, and more specifically via The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Suddenly, somehow, virtually everybody you knew was talking about this strange new serial on BBC Radio 4 that combined science fiction and humour in a way that nobody had successfully or intentionally managed previously. There was an initial run of six episodes; then a special Christmas edition; then another series, and almost immediate re-runs. There was a ghastly TV series (currently being repeated on BBC2 TV) that looked as though it had had about as much money spent on it as was splashed out on the tape stock for one radio episode - anyone would have thought that someone really wanted it to be a disaster. There was a double album, and then a further single album, There was a book, another book, a third book in the trilogy, and then a final book. There was a remarkable computer game (Infocom, its publishers, said it was one of their simpler challenges, but it still took me months of occasional examination to find out how to give Marvin the correct tool to open the hatch!).
Today, with the possible exception of a potential radio version of the third book, Life, The Universe And Everything, Douglas Adams claims to have put THHGTTG behind him. He now lives above a shop in Islington's main street (he may have lived there for ages: I didn't ask him; and by the time you read this he'll have moved anyway) in an apartment surprising for its combination of spaciousness and location. His vast living/dining room includes what must be an author's obligatory and nearly equally vast bookshelf-to-the-ceiling taking up one wall; but it also houses one of the most impressive hi-fi systems you're likely to see, with a complete Linn set-up plus a Meridian CD player that, interconnected as they are, would probably make Ivor Tiefenbrun a bit ill. The set-up is complemented by a copious collection of both black plastic and shiny silver things containing music of all types.
This is all very well, one might say, but as Sound On Sound is neither a hi-fi magazine nor somewhere in which one might legitimately find articles about best-selling not-far-off-science-fiction authors, why should we be covering Douglas Adams in such great detail?
The answer is - at least in theory - moderately straightforward. Adams, as well as having been the conceptualiser of another Infocom computer 'adventure' recently (called 'Bureaucracy', and taking its cue from Adams' own experiences and those of his friends, it deals with the manifestations of Western society which make it impossible to successfully persuade your bank that you have changed your address. It also does not concern us here), has another book about to emerge, entitled Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Like Hitch-Hiker's, it is also a humourous science fiction epic - but there the similarity ends. More to the point, both computers and music - and the combination of the two - are somewhat central to the theme. And it is an area that interests Douglas Adams a great deal [He even subscribes to this magazine - Ed], Upstairs in Adams' apartment is his workroom, and in that room is at least one Apple Macintosh computer, MIDI'd up to a couple of fairly state-of-the-art keyboards. He's also a (left-handed) guitarist, as many people who have seen his contributions to the Performing Arts Network (PAN) Synth & MIDI Forum over the last few months as he's searched for a left-handed MIDI guitar controller will testify. He'd like to produce an album at some point, he says, and no doubt some record company or other will quickly oblige.
Adams, like the majority of Macintosh users, is well satisfied with his choice of computer. And he is a firmly committed user of Mark Of The Unicorn's highly-respected 'Performer' MIDI sequencing software, which he uses for the majority of his material. "It's somewhat less than intuitive when you first come to it," he remarks, "and it's always something you have to think about when you use it, but it's very powerful, and absolutely rock-solid. It's one of the few programs that, when it goes wrong, you can bet your bottom dollar that it's something you didn't understand, rather than something the programmer got wrong."
To understand more about how music, MIDI, and the Mac fit into the new book, it might be worth finding out how the book came about: a subject which, as with most things, Adams is pleased to be forthcoming about.
"There was never one central idea from which everything else grew", says Douglas. "You're ready to write a book when you've got a sufficient number of ideas to put together to achieve a critical mass. So, as much as anything, it's pursuing my current obsessions - and I tend to move from one obsession to another."
Sofas, for instance? A colour image of a sofa rotating in space appears on a computer screen as a recurring idea in the new book. It rotates perpetually as the hypothetical program generating it searches in vain for a means of getting its owner's 'real' sofa unstuck from a nasty bend in the stairs. "That was an old obsession," says Adams, "that came from moving into this place."
"Some of the ideas may be very old, like that one," he continues, "while others are absolutely brand-new and come just as you sit down to write. There's one little passage - a couple of paragraphs - that I remember writing in 1972. But I'm not going to identify it! I tend to jot little meaningless notes down from time to time, and every so often a notebook will appear from the bottom of a pile of rubbish and will turn out to have something useful in it - and it's suddenly time for it to happen."
One particular example springs to Adams' mind. He'd more-or-less worked out how the book was going to go - "Which is always complete illusion," he notes - and then he came across a sentence, which said: 'High on a rocky promontory sat an electric monk on a bored horse.' He could remember writing it down at some time in the past and not being able to think of a second sentence. "But this time I was able to think of a second sentence," he recalls, "and a third and a fourth... and suddenly, that day, I wrote two thousand words, splurging out from that first line. And I knew two things perfectly clearly about it: one was that it had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with this book as planned; and the other was that it was the best bit I'd written so far and therefore had to be in it!" If you read the book, it will rapidly become apparent that this realisation required some major surgery, at a very fundamental level, to get it in: it is now a major part of what the book is about. "Therefore," says Adams, returning to the tale, "a lot of the things that had to be elbowed out to make way for it will remain in notebooks until their time suddenly arrives, in the next book or the one after that. There are ideas that I've been meaning to put into a book three books running. Who knows, they might eventually get there. Nothing ever gets thrown away."
So... is music, then, one of these obsessions? "Well, music has always been a bit of an obsession," replies Adams. "The problem has been that when I was young, when I was supposed to be practicing the piano, I didn't - like many, many people. My musical education came partly - and I didn't realise how important this was at the time - from singing in the school choir: singing treble, then alto, then tenor, then bass. If you do, as we did in our choir, a lot of Bach, you can't help but learn, empirically, a great deal. Then I taught myself to play guitar: I suppose most people did, but I did do it rather thoroughly. I remember that when I finally got to grips with it, I bought 'The Paul Simon Songbook', and I spent the entire year I was supposed to be doing 'O'-levels learning it - note by note, groove by groove. Then I used to go and watch Paul Simon playing whenever I could, sitting at the front and seeing if I'd got the fingering right. I learned an awful lot from that."
"Douglas Adams, like the majority of Macintosh users, is well satisfied with his choice of computer. And he is a firmly committed user of Mark Of The Unicorn's highly-respected 'Performer' MIDI sequencing software..."
Since then, Adams has always been able to write music ("like the way you write French: slowly, painfully, and it helps if you're drunk," he says), hampered partly by being extremely left-handed, which is why he had so much trouble on the piano. Music became a fascination that, in his words, "never really quite had anywhere to go."
The first music program Adams ever came across for the Mac - primitive though it was by modern standards - was Macromind's 'MusicWorks'. "It was an absolute revelation," says Adams. "I was absolutely stunned, and got a copy. You learned a great deal simply from the feedback you got from hearing something that was displayed in notation on the screen," he goes on. "In the past, if you had a tricky rhythm to write out, you had no idea of whether it was right or not: if you wrote it down on paper you just had what you'd thought of in the first place - there was no double-checking. Write it on the computer and play it back, and in a couple of days you're up to speed."
"It's interesting when you see the debates that go on today on PAN (the Performing Arts Network, a US-based computer network for musicians - see SOS Jan-Feb '87) about whether or not people should know music notation. Most of the people who don't know it are very, very angrily vociferous that not only do you not need to know it, it's also a positive disadvantage - which I think is nonsense. I think people get very heated on that side of the argument because they can't do it, and they think that they won't be able to do it. But learning musical notation using a computer makes it much, much faster: and if you can do it, why not? It opens centuries of music to you."
"Then all the other stuff started to come out," Adams continues. "I didn't know anything about MIDI at that point, but it gradually beat a path through my cerebral cortex. I bought every piece of Mac music software that came out: at one point I must have had the most complete collection in England!"
"I had all this stuff set up, and I was supposed to be writing this book," Adams says. "So what happened? I'd sit down at nine in the morning and think: 'I'll just twiddle with my music for half an hour, then I'll get down to work.' And then suddenly I'd look at my watch and discover it was midnight!"
"So eventually what I had to do, to get the book written, was to dismantle the whole system and pack it away in the wardrobe. It was the best-equipped wardrobe in London. Since I finished the book and unpacked it, much of the set-up has had to go away again because the room is being redecorated, and then we're moving..."
"Partly because of being separated from the set-up while I was writing, that interest started to bubble up within the book," Adams continues. "I was a bit anxious that people who didn't know anything about MIDI systems would find it impenetrable, so I got people to read it, and it didn't seem to worry them. In a way, I might have fallen between two stools. I wrote those sections being concerned about how far I should go from the layman's point of view - I might have ended up writing something that's too much for the layman and not enough for the person who knows something about it: I don't know." In my view, he needn't have worried: the description of the MIDI/computer set-up used by one of the book's central characters is quite enough for someone 'in the know'. Whether or not the layman will get the gist, is hard to say.
Macintosh MIDI music systems are only one thread in Dirk Gently. Others include the aforementioned electric monk; ghosts; a Cambridge college and its inhabitants; and several other events, environments and entities which it would not so much give the game away to mention as to be tedious to read in an article when you might as well be reading the book itself.
"I didn't know anything about MIDI at that point, but it gradually beat a path through my cerebral cortex. I bought every piece of Mac I music software that came out: at one point I must have had the most complete collection in England!"
Douglas produced the whole book virtually single-handed as far as typesetting and production were concerned. Using a recent Macintosh word processing program by the name of 'MacAuthor' (and British to boot), he placed himself in the unenviable position of being responsible for both content and typography - a freedom to wreak havoc that even the most hardened veterans of so-called 'desktop publishing' are loath to offer their writers. Adams discovered the wonders of typesetting for books the hard way: by tripping over it. The British edition was output from the Mac to a Linotype electronic typesetting machine: designed to interface with the Mac via a Raster Image Processor (RIP), it is somewhat slow, but capable of high quality output. The Americans, however - who also ruined the cover of the new book - insisted on setting the work via the Apple LaserWriter: an excellent machine, but not one that's capable of quite the quality you expect from a typesetting system. It runs to a resolution of 300 dots per inch (rather than the Linotype typesetter's 1200 dpi or more); to improve matters, Douglas printed the entire book out at maximum magnification - 138% - and had the US publishers photo-reduce his masters to the final size, giving an effective resolution of about 410 dpi. The result is that you can hardly tell it was done that way unless you're used to looking for the familiar 'gritty-edged' lettering that characterises lower resolution systems.
But as well as making music, Douglas Adams enjoys listening to it - on both vinyl and CD. He still prefers the former for serious listening, although he does admit that Compact Disc sounds very good. But what he's waiting for is CD-I - Interactive Compact Disc. "I'm hoping to use all the MIDI equipment for that," he says. "There's a long-standing plan to do an interactive CD of Hitch-Hiker, which would combine the best of radio techniques, TV and the computer aspects as well."
For a 'mother' keyboard, Adams uses a Roland JX-10. He also has a Prophet VS, a Yamaha TX rack, and four TX7s. Then on the sampling side there's an Emulator II with a hard disk "Which, oddly enough, I don't use very much," he admits. "I actually tend to find I enjoy synthesized sounds rather than sampled sounds. You can never quite escape, with a sampler, the feeling that you're 'playing somebody else playing'. I can't quite rationalise it: it could even apply if I played the sound I sampled myself."
But basing synthesized sounds on samples - as you can with the VS - is another matter. "I've been waiting for the Opcode 'Patch Librarian'," he enthuses, "to keep everything together before I try much of that. It's just been released and I'm waiting for my copy to arrive. I'm told, though, that the use of samples is rather limited because the length of waveform you can use in the Prophet VS is very short."
"And I played with the new Roland D-50 the other day in a shop," Adams recalls, "which uses samples as attacks; it works really well."
But the first MIDI instrument he bought - and which he still owns - is a Korg DW8000 polysynth. He went into a shop to buy a DX7, but was advised to purchase the Korg and a TX7 instead, a decision Adams doesn't regret. Then there's a (largely redundant) Yamaha drum machine. "It's funny," Adams relates, "but drumming is something I've never really had a great feel for at all. For years, my major music playing was on the guitar. And because of the somewhat intricate finger-style I use, it has to produce its own rhythm. So now I tend to find that when I've got the track down, drums are redundant - and if they aren't redundant," he adds, "then I haven't got the track right yet!"
"I don't have much in the way of processing gear, though," he explains almost apologetically. "In fact, all I have at the moment is a MIDIVERB - and I just keep that on one setting. There's not been an aspect of sound production that's really interested me." Adams has two Seck consoles for mixing purposes - a 12-in and an 18-in, with the FM synths feeding the smaller console and that sub-mix fed into the larger system. "It's that way because of how the system developed."
Douglas Adams does tend to use his drum machine as a "louder metronome", however. But he would very much like some of the sequencer software writers to come up with a system that would enable the musician to play a passage without a click and then afterwards go back and tell the program where the beats came. "It would then build in the tempo-change data to fit," suggests Adams.
It's an idea he's presented to several major sequencer writers. He would also like to find a compromise between step-time and real-time programming. "When you want to do things that are too difficult to play," he says, "you can either play it at a slower tempo or programme it in step-time. If you do it by step entry, you tend to end up with no performance, of course: it's too rigid. It seems to me that you should be able to do 'two-step entry', in which you first of all go through and enter the sequence of pitches, and then you sit down with your keyboard or your Octopad or whatever and play in the rhythm on a second pass." It sounds rather like programming a Casio VL-Tone, or one of the modes of a Roland MicroComposer. But you can certainly see his point. "It must be terribly easy to do... but no-one's done it!" claims Adams.
"There's a long-standing plan to do an interactive CD of Hitch-Hiker, which would combine the best of radio techniques, TV and the computer aspects as well."
Another thing he'd like to see is the ability to transfer raw data from a sequencer to something more designed to handle numbers - a spreadsheet calculation program, for example. "You could do as complex mathematical manipulations as you wanted," says Adams, "and then paste the results back into the sequencer. It may have to be scaled, perhaps. But no sequencer is going to be able to manipulate data as well as a program designed specifically to manipulate figures."
This begins to head in the direction of one of the themes of the new book: the idea of interpreting numerical data - such as a company financial report! - in musical terms. I can't help but think that it would sound pretty avant-garde. But the idea is certainly intriguing, especially when Adams starts talking about turning fractal landscapes (graphics produced by fractional calculation algorithms which construct figures that look like shapes found in nature) into music. I can't help thinking, though, that one would first have to establish a correlation between what looked nice and what sounded nice. For more about fractals and music, you'll have to read the new book.
So what place does music hold in Adams' life, overall? "Apart from this interactive CD, which was the excuse I gave myself to go out and buy all this gear - you've got to have some kind of rationalisation! - I wanted to do all the sounds and effects for that," he reveals. "If you think about it, the stuff I have upstairs probably does more than all the gear in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop did ten years ago when we started to record Hitch-Hiker. Then we're planning to do Life, The Universe And Everything for radio as well, and I'd like to use some of the equipment for that."
"But," he says, warming to his theme, "I would like at one point - I don't know when I'm going to find the time to do it: maybe some time next year - to sit down and make a record album. Just purely music, not singing - I wouldn't want to inflict that on anybody! And one part of me tells me that it's absurd to do an album... but it's a great deal less absurd than the idea, a few years ago, that I could have sat down and written a novel. But that's what I'd like to do."
"So what I'm doing at the moment - as writing commitments don't allow me to spend six months doing this - is to keep the system generally up and running, and every time I have an idea I jot down a 30-second sequence and build up from that. I've got disks and disks of half-finished things... like the notebooks. Then when I've got that free six months or so, I'll dig through them all and see what suggests itself."
"Obviously, it's an extreme luxury to be able to go out and buy all these things and then ask myself what I'm going to do with them," Adams continues. "It's only because I've sold a lot of books that I can do that: a lot of musicians can't do it."
Whether Douglas Adams is a frustrated musician turned successful author, the opposite, both at once, none of the above or something else entirely different, is difficult to say. In a sense, making music is his hobby: in another sense it's as much to do with his life as writing, or using the Macintosh computer.
Perhaps, in essence, he's a new Renaissance man: a man with the ability and knowledge to be well-versed in a number of disciplines — not a 'Jack of all trades, master of none', but someone who can happily operate in a number of different, but related, worlds. Perhaps that's why his books can draw together so many strands; why Douglas Adams can weave so rich a verbal tapestry - with a broad thread of exquisite humour throughout.
I never got to hear any of Douglas Adams' music, but if it's half as good as his writing, I can't wait for the promised album!
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams, is published by William Heinemann Ltd at £9.95.