Techno with a twist – The making of “Appleblossom Blink”

Track 5 on “Painting Music” – How it was made

The melody for Appleblossom Blink started as experiments on “Plink” and “Paint with Music – Paper”, both web audio sound generation platforms. While the “Paper” version of the sounds on “Paint with Musics” are pleasant, the range is quite limited. I therefore created another few bars on the “Plink” platform. The particular types of sounds generated on these platforms, as well as the scales of the notes, led to the composition having prominent parts for instruments that are less common in European and North American music, namely the Japanese shakuhachi flute (Japanese: 尺八), the Chinese yueqin (Chinese: 月琴) – also called moon guitar or lute – and the Japanese koto zither.

Plinking along

Plink” is a multiplayer, interactive, music-making game by DinahMoe Labs, represented by Paul Kinlan.  “Plink” was one of the very first creative Web Audio applications, and it was featured on Chrome Experiments (#313). It was an important project for DinahMoe that led to several larger music-related projects, such as “JAM” with Chrome, and “This Exquisite Forest”. As Kinlan puts it: 

“The music created, well, it might not be anything to release on an album, but it is hypnotic, meditative, combine-with-some-drug-and-you’ll-never-leave kind of experience.”

Paul Kinlan, DinahMoe Labs

I did not use “Plink” by playing the game with others – I played to make music.  I’m sure that using these platforms to produce actual songs was not exactly what the developers had intended. But I’m sure others have done what I did. It’s just too tempting to ignore.

“Plink” produces an electronic 4/4 beat at a steady 120 bpm, and you can choose from eight fairly pleasant-sounding instruments. The sound is represented by a line of reverberating bubbles. The old-time-sounding synth, for instance, is represented by orange bubbles. The green bubbles represent percussion, and so on.

The main limitations imposed by the use of “Plink” were the loud beat, which could not be avoided, and the very fast, repeated bubbling notes. 

(Above) Recording of what it sounds and looks like when you “draw” and generate sounds on the “Plink” platform – note the loud beat and the rapidly repeating notes.

shakuhachi and koto sounds on “Paper”

The notes of the “Paper” canvas are in the Japanese Hirajōshi scale, which was created by Yatsuhashi Kengyō (1614-1685). The scale was adapted from shamisen music and originally used for tuning the koto instrument.

The two most distinctive instruments on the “Paper” canvas of “Paint with Music” are a Japanese shakuhachi flute and a Japanese koto zither.

Musician Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos playing the shakuhachi flute. Photo courtesy of Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos (From: Behind the art of Shakuhachi, by Vinh Nguyen, The LA Source, Volume 17, Issue 07, April 4–25, 2017, retrieved Oct. 27, 2022)

The shakuhachi flute, which dates from the 16th century, fascinates me. I do not know any Japanese, other than some phrases like thank you, yes, no and goodbye – but I have always been intrigued by Japanese art, literature and music so I was happy to learn what this instrument can and cannot do.

The flute of “Paper” sounds like the shakuhachi, and the digital equivalent of the shakuhachi flute in Logic Pro sounds breathy, melancholic, and wild. When composing, you can give a distinct pitch bend to certain notes at high velocities, to emphasize the sadness of the sound.

The other instrument, the Japanese koto (箏), developed from the Chinese guzheng which was first introduced to Japan from China in the 7th and 8th century. It is a plucked, half-tube-shaped zither instrument, and it is the national instrument of Japan. On the “Paint” canvas, the koto is shown as a stamp with a kanji like this: 音 – it just translates to “oto”, meaning sound, note or noise in English. (Thanks, Google Translate.)

The term “koto” is used for all stringed instruments, so there are many kinds of koto with specific names such as kin no kotosō no kotoyamato-goto, etc. Which one is specifically used in Logic Pro, I don’t know. In the end, to accommodate the range of the melody that I had written in Logic Pro, I added the Chinese yueqin (Chinese: 月琴) also called the moon guitar or moon lute, which is one of the instruments in Logic Pro. It’s also a stringed, plucked instrument, as ancient as the koto.

However, that’s much of a muchness as they say. The point was to develop the composition by combining the Japanese flute and zither sounds with Western-style keyboard, piano and beats.

Screenshot of the “Paper” canvas showing the shakuhachi flute – the long black brush stroke – and koto zither – the single stamp marks (the kanji) – being produced. The keys of the notes that can be played on the Hirajōshi scale are shown on the far left: G4, E♭4, D4 and C4.
A depiction, dated 1878, by Settei Hasegawa, “Lady Playing Koto”. (Painting in the United States Library of Congress collection.) Ladies playing the koto is a familiar subject in Ukiyo-e art.

What iT sounds like

Below is a recording of some koto and shakuhachi notes being played – and replayed – on the “Paper” canvas, with no design or practice. In order to produce a useable musical phrase, you have to first figure it out on your DAW – or your piano or whatever – then practice making the painting brushstrokes on the virtual canvas in order to reproduce something similar. It takes quite a long time to get it right and then capture the correct version. You have to at least know which notes to hit, and the intervals between the notes. The same applies to the sounds generated on “Plink”.

Recording of the “Paper” canvas showing the shakuhachi flute – the long black brush stroke – and koto zither – the single stamp marks – being produced.

How to get from A to Z

It’s quite a long road to get from a few snippets of these unusual, distinctive sounds, to a pleasant-sounding, properly orchestrated and arranged piece of Melodic Techno music. In Appleblossom Blink, the melodic theme is still performed on the piano, but the bridge is dominated by the melody played on the shakuhachi, using the Hirajōshi scale. 

The repetitive “plink” note, like a series of bubbles of diminishing size, had to be balanced or sublimated with something more flowing and sustained, which is the piano score overall and particularly the bridge in the middle of the piece.

The word “apple blossom” in the title (styled “appleblossom”) refers to this central, core bridge section with its distinctive Japanese sound, and also to the peach and apple blossoms that are common themes in classic Japanese ukiyo-e art, for instance in the work of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. (Another tie-in: the “Paper” canvas has cherry blossoms as a background image.)

“Blink” in the title refers to the remainder (non-Japanese-sounding) parts of the song; both to the “Plink” platform, and the fact that, in order to get some variation, I gave the song a trip-hop/off-beat rhythm, starting with the house beat vox sample that sounds like “blink”. This ended up being the trickiest aspect of the project.

So this is really Techno with a twist – it’s not typical or standard. As a whole, this song consists of contrasts: in the beats, the scales, the instruments, the melodies, and this is depicted in the lyrical video of the song.

Next post: The song itself – “Appleblossom blink”

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