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So Long and Thanks For All The Synths

Douglas Adams

Article from Making Music, May 1987

Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has a new book, a keyboard room that defies belief, and a theory on the music at the end of the Universe. Paul Colbert is the paranoid hackoid. Alexandra Burke pulls back the shutters.

IT IS CALLED "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", and there are two pages which would make the average keyboard player weep. The hero, computer genius Richard, returns to his flat to survey the set up that constitutes his musical hobby. "Three other Macs were connected up via long tangles of cable to an untidy agglomeration of synthesisers — an Emulator II+HD sampler, a rack of TX modules, a Prophet VS, a Roland JX10, a Korg DW8000, an Octapad, a left-handed Synth-Axe MIDI guitar controller and even an old drum machine... there was also a small and rarely used cassette tape recorder: all the music was stored in sequencer files on the computers rather than on tape."

The flat, is of course, Douglas Adams', with one notable exception: "the left-handed Synth-Axe, ah, that was a joke. I'm extremely left-handed, you see". He did actually phone Synth-Axe and ask if a left-handed version were possible. Funny, they said, we did a survey and calculated that 30 per cent of players are sinistral. But unfortunately, it can't be done. "Probably just as well, because they're bloody expensive." He keeps trying to fix up to see a Stepp, but the meeting always gets cancelled somehow.

But we wander from the point. Author Douglas Adams has music in his fingers, even if he has the fantastic in his pen. The music room gets used regularly — anything from Macintosh driven transcripts of his guitar pieces, to digital Bachings.

"The music is relaxation from work, not the other way around. I've been a guitarist all my life but not a keyboard player really. I'm extremely left handed and I have a problem doing anything clever with my right hand. The great thing about the MIDI stuff, the fundamental difference is, that if you can write music — which I can — then you can write it on the computer and the computer plays it for you."

Musical training was eight years in the choir at school — "the great thing about being male is that you get to sing treble, then alto, then tenor, then bass, and that's a good lesson in harmony" — and a sneaking suspicion that he may have once accidentally jammed with Mark Knopfler in a Warwick University back room.

One of Richard's abiding compulsions throughout "Dirk Gently's" is the search for a connection between the shape of real life and the rhythm of music. He analyses the behaviour of a flock of swallows — migratory habits, aerodynamic profile, the waveform described by a single wingtip — and tries to boil the lot into a set of MIDI numbers the Apple Macintosh can understand. 'It was a short burst of the most hideous cacophony and he stopped it.' Richard never succeeds, but Douglas Adams isn't downcast by his creation's failure.

"That's what I really want to do and there's no software to allow me to do it, so whenever I meet anyone who's writing in this area I explain my idea. It struck me the first time I got Music Works (a Macintosh music program). I was going through some of the preset music and one was a Bach fugue, the C minor one, and when I brought up the graphic representation it looked exactly like the fractal landscape of a mountain. The shapes were just amazing.*

"All the shapes we see around us which seem to be verging on the random like that (pointing to a shrub in the corner) are very very recursive algorithms but the effect of a recursive algorithm is so complex it is not apparent immediately how simple the algorithm is that's being followed." Owners of DXs know all about how straightforward patterns of operators can form the most involved and seemingly unrelated noises.

"So I was just determined that there must be some point where the shapes generated by music and the shapes generated by algorithms must actually meet.

"The thing is, though, the 20th century has seen an awful lot of numerical experimentation in music where the mathematical principle may be very interesting but doesn't bear any relation to anything musical. What interests me is seeing if there is any meeting point between what we recognise as musical, why, and what are the natural shapes we're responding to... or is it purely that we are brought up to expect some things as normal." But if you did succeed in winkling the right numbers from the proper software, would it deliver new melodies, or very familiar ones, because those were the patterns we'd absorbed down the years?

"I've always known how to write music much in the same way that I can write French... slowly, painfully, with a dictionary, and it helps if you're drunk."

"I don't know, and this is what I want to find out. I'm just determined to hear what it sounds like and hear what it suggests. Though I think at the end you'd want to take whatever it has thrown up and put it through a compositional stage... unless a tree happens to sound terrifically nice, which it probably won't..."

In the moments that Adams allows himself to escape from the word processor, he may doodle around with a keyboard, but is just as likely to call up a musical stave on the Macintosh, and start jotting.

"I've always known how to write music much in the same way that I can write French... slowly, painfully, with a dictionary and it helps if you're drunk."

Musical score, he reckons, is sadly underrated. "You see a lot of argument in the music press about whether people should learn to write notation. A lot of people shy away because they think it's really difficult." Yet they're quite prepared to learn complex programming languages which make the principles of notation look like a dance step.

"If they realised how easy it is when you use a computer as part of the learning process, then I don't think there'd be any debate about it. I mean, all music for centuries has been written in it, so it can't be that bad."

Anyone who's read the Hitchhikers trilogy (and will read Dirk Gently's) recognises Adams' fascination for detail — particularly the quirky, off worldly detail that nonchalantly appears on page 30 and by chapter 10 has returned as an essential part of the plot having given the characters a completely unexpected hard time from somewhere in the margin. "I tend to wait until I've got lots of ideas and hope they'll form some sort of critical mass," he says of his literary technique. Authoring is a constant process of going backwards through your text to work in new ideas you really like, then hacking a path for them through the bramble of the next few chapters: "much easier on a word processor."

Sounds a lot like writing songs.

"I've got dozens and dozens of half completed sequences, little sketches that I'd do in the morning before I got down to write, and I'm really looking for the time to sit down and work it all up into something. I like sort of intricate things. I put everything in sequences and have hardly taped anything at all. In the end to get the book written I had to dismantle the music room and put it in a wardrobe."

There exists, he says, one essential "unparallel" between writing books and writing music. "I'm always looking for excuses not to write and excuses to write music."

As for Dirk Gently's, Adams is very happy with it, and should be. It's a billion year ramble through time, set in next week, that encompasses an electric monk, a nearclairvoyant detective, and a horse in a bathroom. "I think I work best where the very, very mundane and ordinary abuts against the absolutely ordinary, and where Hitchhiker went wrong after a while was there wasn't any ordinary left."

There was too much pressure on him to keep the Guide going when he felt it couldn't usefully be extended. He's not sad to leave the characters behind. "Life used to be a Hitchhiker book, a Hitchhiker radio series, a Hitchhiker TV series, a Hitchhiker bathtowel... now at least there's the book, some music, some wildlife expeditions (another interest)..." And of course that incredible, fantastic and totally gobsmacking theory to pursue. The existence of the left handed Synth-Axe, that is.


* A fractal is a line of infinite length, and infinite detail. A coastline is a good example — the closer you get, the more detail reveals itself, fractals are compiled (similarly to FM) via an integrator and generator — both are shapes, perhaps simple ones, like a line that turns through an angle. For each straight line on the generator, the shape of the initiator is drawn on it. The next stage is recursive where the fractal keeps redrawing itself on top of what it's just done. That's when things get complicated, but with the right equation, the most complicated of outlines should be able to be broken into the simplest initiator and generator.

More with this artist

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When The Capo Fits

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Roland GP8 multi-effects

Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - May 1987


Douglas Adams



Interview by Paul Colbert

Previous article in this issue:

> When The Capo Fits

Next article in this issue:

> Roland GP8 multi-effects

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