The Stars and Beyond: New Album About Space Pirates, Starfights and Parallel Universes Out Now

Oh boy, this is pretty exciting.

The new Songsworth album, The Stars and Beyond, was published last Friday. It’s now available on Spotify and iTunes and will soon be available on various other webstores and streaming services.

I’ve worked on the album for the last two years, on and off, and it’s taken quite a lot of thought to shape it up into its final form. This is the first Songsworth album out since 2013.

Music and stories work well together. Previous Songsworth albums have linked with science fiction stories – books, movies, TV shows – that I’ve found inspiring through the years.

This one, though is based on something else.

I’ve always dreamed about writing a novel one day – who wouldn’t? In 2017 as I travelled a lot around the world for work, I lugged this delightful device called Freewrite around with me. I’d take it out when sitting down on an airplane and write stories whenever the plane got off the ground.

I ended up with manuscript drafts for two novels. One of them is a kind of a quantum physics mystery. The other is the story about this post-human space pirate queen called Lyra, who terrorizes this Asimov’s Foundation -style galactic society through millennia, kept alive by a sort of nanotech, until she starts finding hints about her past that will change everything she thinks about herself. And then just as she’s about to realize something kind of weird, she gets thrown into a parallel universe through this weird “junction city” called Pan Caravel.

The story, called The Stars and Beyond, runs some 350 pages. It has a beginning, a middle and an end – but it’s not finished yet. The reason being that while I did work ten years as a professional musician and have published seven non-fiction books, I don’t yet have the skills to finalize a work of fiction. Both of the manuscripts I mentioned still need more editing and a deeper understanding of literary nuances I don’t yet possess. As time goes by, I’m working on developing the competences that I’d need to actually publish some of this stuff. Who knows, maybe one day.

Writing these stories feels like peeking through a portal to another universe. And while the text is not yet good enough, it worked as a source of inspiration for this music. On this album, every song somehow links to one of the novel’s characters, except the one about Pan Caravel, which is a place and Curiosity, which is the cutest little space rover if there ever was one.

The music is now out there. I’d really appreciate if you gave it a spin.

It’s instrumental 1980’s inspired synthesizer pop, so maybe not for everybody. But if you like artists like Jean-Michel Jarre or Vangelis, or listening to movie soundtracks, you might enjoy these tracks too.

I certainly had the time of my life writing them.

You can listen to the album here:

 

New Album on the Way: The Stars and Beyond

Album cover art by the wonderful Paavo Järvilehto

I have been working on new Songsworth tracks since 2017. The tracks are now finished and mastered, and the new album is on the way, due to be released later in 2019 on major streaming services.

I’m really excited to have completed this music – it’s the first Songsworth album in six years. It has taken a lot of new design challenges, handcrafting new types of sounds (especially going back to my FM roots with some really fun stuff using Native Instruments’ FM8 and playing with some stuff I made on my Yamaha SY99 all the way back in the 1990s) and learning new ways of working, most interestingly drafting tracks using NI’s Maschine Mk3, which has quickly grown to be a big part of my workflow.

Also I’ve been really excited about working in a strange kind of a crossroads in music technology. On one hand, I recreated much of what I used to run as a hardware studio in early 2000s through using services like Roland Cloud and their amazing System 8 workstation which makes analog sound design feel like a dream, as well as Arturia’s wonderful V-Collection. On the other hand, starting to work with 21st century digital-first staples, like the wonderful Fabfilter plugins, it has finally started to dawn on me how to mix with a mouse. Feels a lot like the future now.

One more thing is, there is a tremendous amount of backstory that goes into these tracks. I don’t think I’ve ever written music that has this much of (hidden) context to it, I hope some of it shines through on the recordings themselves too.

Here’s the first soundbite from the album, called Jeff the Star Traveler.

 

Voxel EP is now available on Spotify and iTunes

Voxel EP

Voxels are these square things you can use to represent three-dimensional space. They’re like pixels but in 3D.

Voxels are used in 3D games and brain imaging. Minecraft has voxel blocks you can use to build cool stuff, virtual stuff. Legos are like voxel blocks in real life.

Voxels are cool. Square, but cool.

The Voxel EP is now available on Spotify, iTunes and all major digital distributors.

Listen on Spotify.

Get a copy on iTunes.

Write a comment below.

Finders Keepers (lyrics)

You can run and you
You surely can hide

You, the fleet-footed hare,
Can run from the sky

Dive deep enough
You can crouch in the rough

The green never
Has had this mesmerizing sheen

Rolling in the hay
Diving like Scrooge

This, my friend, this is life
In livelies hues

Sun ups the pace
Speeds up in the race

You see, rules are
It’s finders keepers all the way

At this rainbow’s end
Hid in the pot

A green hanging, ticking fish
Thrones wrongly got

Looking glass games
Don’t quite work with true names

You see, rules are
It’s finders keepers all the way

Yamaha SY99

I used to run a couple of music studios over a decade ago with lots of music hardware packed in. This was back in the day when music software was just making its way out. For a long time I had mixed feelings about software synths and mixing gear; Pro Tools was, of course, great, but much of the offering in the turn of the millennium just wasn’t that good. To that end, you had to rely on hardware. At my last studio, I had more than twenty hardware synthesizers, with racks full of mixing gear.

Now I work on a laptop, and I gradually phased out all of my hardware except for one synthesizer. The fact is that you can now load a basic laptop with software that sounds exactly as good as a high end studio, perhaps barring some of the more vintage analog gear. But for basic sound design, recording and mixing, a laptop will go a long way.

That being said, hardware still makes sense for some occasions. For me, the biggest reason is character.

The only hardware synth I have left is not a street-credible Moog or a cool Arp rig. It’s a digital synthesizer from the early 1990’s: the Yamaha SY99. For me, this one piece of gear is easily the most significant piece of musical hardware I have ever owned.

To begin with, its the first synth I ever did own. I was fourteen when I got it. This means that when I was a kid, the first songs I wrote at home I did on this workstation. (I used to work at a local studio before that.)

But it’s not just nostalgia. The SY99 is in many ways quite a unique piece of work. First of all, it combines two distinct types of synthesis: Yamaha’s sample-based AWM and – what made Yamaha famous in the synth-world – an FM synthesizer upgraded from the good old DX7. But what is more, the instrument actually combines the two. That is to say, you can also use a sample-driven oscillator as an FM operator in sound design.

In addition to the choice of FM waveforms, and with the possibility to import your own samples (this in a synth from 1990!), the possibilities for sound design are endless. After all, even the most sophisticated sampling workstations of that time would let you work at best with envelopes and filters. With FM routing, the sky is the limit.

But most importantly, this instrument is a labor of love; a unique piece of work that collaborates with you to generate the sounds that you hear – and the sounds that you want to hear even when you didn’t know you did. (Check out the cool way the gradually shifting FM modulation works in the song below.) To this end it is no wonder that for the first three years of working with the synth, I practically never touched the presets.

I used to love music hardware. But in addition to the validity of modern music software, I believe in simplicity now. To that end, I don’t have that many soft synths either; rather I focus on the few that I really love and really can work with.

That being said, there is this one piece of hardware that I am doubtful I will ever part ways with.

Top 10 Science Fiction Novels

I have found it really useful to skim through the various top ten and top hundred lists of best sci-fi novels in search for new reading so I thought I’d put up one of my own here. This list appears to me to be in constant flux, but at this moment, my best of the best looks something like this.

1. Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns

I don’t know what it is about this Reynolds piece that really hit it off with me, but for some reason this is the book that has in the recent years stuck with me the most. Maybe it is the fact that it was in some sense something completely new for me, and yet without going to overt depths or difficulties with weird vocabulary or concepts.

The star struck love story of Campion and Purslane touched me to the extend that I wound up making a Lego stop motion animation about it.

2. Frank Herbert: Dune

Frank Herbert’s seminal novel tops the top charts all around the internet, and with good reason. The book is a treasure trove not only of possible futures, but also of deep and inspiring philosophical thought about identity, time, thinking and various other themes.

Being an intuition researcher in my day job, I especially connected with the division between the intuitive Bene Gesserits and the rational mentats – and the fusion of the two in the genius Paul Muad’Dib. As a side note, it is interesting that such fusion seems to have happened with practically all the great thinkers we usually call geniuses like Leonardo or Edison.

3. Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama

It was a tight call whether I would include Rama or Childhood’s End here, what with both being fantastic novels. But there is something that’s so real and gripping about Rendezvous with Rama that it won the draw.

The story about the handful of astronomers who explore the alien spacecraft that has entered our Solar System is a great look at both space travel, alien intelligence and political intrigue. And, like most of Clarke’s other works, it’s a really great read.

4. Dan Simmons: Hyperion

It is an outrageous idea: setting Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in space. And yet the hyper-literate Simmons pulls it off. The story teems with literary references; Simmons certainly wants to let us know he’s read books. But none of this matters, since it all fits like a glove.

And it’s a damn good novel to boot. The backstory, which grew out to be a series of three more independent novels is enchanting and grasping. And the stories-within-stories express a great range of various scifi tropes. Normally when somebody shows off their talent this much, the result falls somehow flat. Not so with Hyperion, one of the best scifi books I’ve ever read (twice).

5. Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space

Revelation Space was the breakthrough book by Reynolds, and with good reason. The book opens up what grew to be a long series of novels and short stories set in Reynolds’ idiosyncratic gothic scifi universe.

In this book, the scope is already reflecting what later grew to be Reynolds’ trademark. And the ending of the book with its quantum paradoxes has my brain still doing somersaults, which is actually quite fun.

6. Orson Scott Card: The Worthing Chronicle

I thought first whether I should include something from the Ender Saga here (the first one, probably), but then again, while they’re all great books (even the Shadow ones), there is something that doesn’t quite strike that last chord.

Whereas the Worthing Chronicle does. I’ve read the book set in an Asimovian universe several times, and just now started thinking I should read it again. More similar in tone to, say, Vernor Vinge or Asimov than typical Card, this is a truly enticing fantasy-meets-scifi tale. It is also supplemented with a number of great short stories wrapped up together with the novel in the book The Worthing Saga.

7. Vernor Vinge: A Fire Upon the Deep

When I first read this book as a kid, I understood maybe one third of it, and was still completely blown away. When I re-read it a couple of years ago, it felt conceptually much easier to grasp, but was still a great read.

Vinge explores themes like AI and swarm intelligence in an intriguing universe where the maximum speed for information dispersal and travel depends on the “zone” you’re located in the universe. The closer we are to the center, the dumber we are, in other words.

8. David Zindell: The Broken God

The story of the Neanderthal-cum-ace-pilot Danlo and the ice city Neverness is one of the more original pieces of scifi I have read. Even though the basic backdrop is typical space opera with space battles and political intrigue, Zindell’s epic spans vast proportions in both dramatic and conceptual scope.

It is also a part of a great trilogy plus a prequel Neverness, all definitely worth reading through. And the space travel trope is somewhat unique, what with the pilots being actually ace mathematicians solving complex equations quickly to navigate through space.

9. Iain M. Banks: The Algebraist

I was thinking that I should include one of Banks’ Culture novels in the list, because at the time I read them I was really blown away with practically every one of them. But the problem is that once I started thinking back to their impact, I could not really remember much of anything that took place in the books! It is weird: I have this meta-knowledge that they were great but no idea why.

The Algebraist is one of Banks’ rare science fiction novels that does not take place in the Culture Universe, and I think one of his best too. The story involves weird gas-giant dwelling creatures and an intricate Banksian plot. It has stayed with me for a long time.

10. Isaac Asimov: Caves of Steel

Perhaps one of the most important of Asimov’s robot novels, this introduces two of his most compelling characters, the detectives Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw. The latter is, of course, a robot, and Asimov succinctly explores the limits of what machine intelligence and robotics mean when the lines become blurred.

In the novel Asimov showed that you can use science fiction as the backdrop for another kind of genre novel, in this case the detective story.

Revelation Space

I just finished reading Turquoise Days, which marks for me the last of the stories I’ve read set in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space Universe published so far. So I thought it proper to say a few words about the journey through this universe.

And what a journey it has been.

The first novel I ever read from Reynolds was House of Suns, which is still my favorite of his work (and pretty much the no. 1 scifi novel of all time for me). But the Revelation Space Universe does certainly compare, even if it is spread out through several novels and short stories. The scope of the world, both in terms of spacetime and imagination is mind-bending. And still, the stories remain interesting and grasping also on the human level from the first page to the last.

I started reading these stories from Revelation Space, Reynolds’ first novel and his breakthrough work. It is an amazing piece in itself. The politicking and the archaeological intrigue on the planet Resurgam, as Dan Sylveste tries to uncover a millennia old mystery is original and suspenseful. The tensions between Sylveste, the space-faring Ilya Volyova and the assassin Ana Khouri are memorable. The convoluted ending of the first RS book is somehow reminiscent of thinking about Schroedinger’s superposition principle, with a twist of 2001 thrown in, although I am still not quite sure what the hell just happened.

Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap tie up the storyline for the characters of the first novel. Redemption Ark introduces us to the conjoiners in more depth. They are a hive mind sort of community that is the most technologically advanced of the human factions in the RS Universe. The obiwankenobish Neville Clavain is sympathetic, whereas the mentally challenged Felka is one of the most intriguing characters in the series. And the zealous Skade makes for an impressive bad guy (girl) here, even though all the while the human characters are fighting for the possession of outlandish scifi weapons, a more sinister enemy is approaching in the background. Absolution Gap flirts a lot with gothic horror. The story of Quaiche has some shakespearish connotations, with a lost love that drives the man insane and creates a bizarre culture from that insanity. I really love the way the trilogy ends, with the looming threat eliminated, but with the hint of a new threat in the form of the greenfly, which are delightfully powerful and definitive to the entire RS Universe and yet are never shown in full light.

Chasm City is another of my favorites, with The Prefect not trailing far behind. They are set in the Yellowstone system that is something like the the Trantor or Coruscant of Reynolds’ universe: the commercial and political hub where it seems everybody passes through eventually. Both Chasm City and The Prefect tie in nicely with the Revelation Space trilogy, the former explaining some of the motivations of an influential character and background figure in the latter two novels of the trilogy, and the latter giving us interesting insight into the fundaments of the world itself, such as the eventual fate of the unfortunate Philip Lascaille. Both Chasm City’s Tanner Mirabel and The Prefect’s Tom Dreyfus are solid and intriguing characters that drive the story forward. The Prefect and Chasm City also give a great before/after comparison of the Yellowstone world in terms of the defining event in the RS Universe: the Melding Plague. The plague is a really cool twist that renders much of the more advanced scifi stuff defunct and gives the whole universe intriguing and gritty overtones.

It’s cool that you can hint at (and actually show in The Prefect) all the cool stuff that there once was, but have the characters actually struggle with some bubble gum and rubber band to get by. It reminds me of the New Hope / Phantom Menace and the Galactica / Caprica contrasts, but unlike these two, Reynolds manages to keep also the shiny chrome and silver version of his world intact, whereas both George Lucas and Ron D. Moore somehow lost the soul of their work with the grit.

Then there’s the collection of short stories Galactic North that gives both prequel-ish glimpses to the RS Universe, as well as ties the whole thing up in the eponymous story that works as a kind of an epilogue to the whole thing, with a cool Reynolds trademark: the thousand years chase sequence. I loved this trope to pieces when I bumped into it in House of Suns. A chase scene that takes 60 000 years and yet maintains the intensity of a 1970’s police flick is quite the stunt to pull. When it was repeated in Redemption Ark, it still stood up, and the same here. Even if the third time around this became already something to expect from Reynolds, it’s still awesome.

And last, and certainly not least the two novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days. I was quite apprehensive about these two, or more particularly the first one. While I was a horror fan as a teenager, I have developed some squeamishness for the more visceral style of horror, and tend to try to avoid it whenever I can. So when I learned that Diamond Dogs draws inspiration from the scifi slasher The Cube, I almost gave this a pass. Thank goodness I didn’t, though. While the first novella is probably the bloodiest work I’ve read from Reynolds to date, for some reason the bloodshed seems warranted.

This is not gornography, but rather quite classic gothic horror, somehow reminiscent of  H.P. Lovecraft. Yes, good people find themselves in an unfixable mess, and yes, it gets nasty. But there is still something behind the story that keeps it together. Even with its weirdness to the tenth power, and the occasional gory detail, Reynolds’ work has a good heart. Not in a fluffy-happy sort of way, but rather in the way you find in Lovecraft, Shelley or Poe. There are not many happy endings. Many things are inherently skewed. But there is still some deeper notion of purpose, of depth that keeps things going.

And this brings me to Turquoise Days which I just finished. In a sense, it is a fitting end to the Revelation Space journey. While its scope is much smaller than that of many of the other stories, it has a true sense of finality and closure to it – even more so than “Galactic North”. Its bittersweet tones fit the RS Universe perfectly. The short glimpse we get to the life of Naqi manages to convey many of the themes of solitude, outsiderness and simply the weird of the world present throughout the RS books. And while the alien Pattern Jugglers are an obvious nod to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, Reynolds manages to give the strange algae beings a personal character of their own. The very ending is, I feel, a very suitable way to put the full stop to the series.

It has been an amazing journey. I don’t think Reynolds’ work has so much changed my world than given me an entire new world to live in. It is a rare imagination that spins up an entire living universe. And here Reynolds joins in my opinion the pantheon of great worldbuilders such as Isaac Asimov, Iain M. Banks or Dan Simmons.

What a journey indeed.