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Singletrack: Instrumentalist Joel Styzens

Joel Styzens. Photo: Paul Elledge
Soundtracking "Bicycle Notes," an animated digital short

“A curious and jaunty penny-farthing sets out across a rolling planet on a musical outer-space adventure. This fantasy story is the result of an experimentation between art and music, pursuing an approximation of symbols that aims to show the power of music on people's feelings through a surrealistic story with a positive idea.”
Fernanda Torres, animator

I. The Soundtrack
Animator and architect Fernanda Torres of Bogota, Colombia, approached me about composing a soundtrack for her digital short after hearing my instrumental guitar-and-cello album, “Relax Your Ears.” We collaborated back and forth via the Internet for about one year. After seeing Fernanda’s drawings, I had an idea of the mood I wanted to capture—the main focus being the personality of the bicycle. Her animation was going have a darker, warmer, “sepia” tone, so I decided to write and record only with actual, acoustic instruments instead of electronic samples. I started with the hammered dulcimer; with it I knew I could create a light, percussive playfulness that seemed fitting.

All of a sudden, the melody just popped out. I knew instantly: that's it!

I like to start out with improvisation and thinking about textures as opposed to sitting down with staff paper and music theory. For Bicycle Notes I set the computer monitor in front of my dulcimer and stared at the bicycle animation, trying out notes by ear. All of a sudden, the melody just popped out. I knew instantly: that's it! Thinking I could capture even more playfulness from the bicycle, I layered a glockenspiel over the dulcimer melody.

I wanted another section of music to get away from the train-like rhythm of the dulcimer and percussion—something that had more space, more breath. A 3/4-time waltz feel offered the contrast and sway I needed. I introduced longer, more flowing textures—piano, sweeping brushes on a snare drum, ambient guitar swells.

As Fernanda worked on parts of the actual animation, she sent me animatics—videos of the raw polygon designs, basic movements and shapes of the environments. From these I knew I needed something that could offer a more ambient wash of tone and sustain to capture the outer-space environment. The bowed harmonics and low drones of a cello offered just the thing.

II. The Sound Effects

I tried to mimic the talking of people inside the houses with a cuíca, a Brazilian/African friction drum.

My first priority was to map out all the sounds I needed to create: the blinking “eyelash,” a bike seat, the bike bell and the snoring sounds of the city-planet. After several “performances,” an old pair of scissors on my desk had just the right squeak for eye-blinking. The bike seat was more difficult. After many failed attempts, I went to the storage room and recorded a bunch of samples, imported them into Pro Tools. The final sound effect? Just me shaking a real bike!

The most difficult sound effect to create was the snoring of the city-planet. Eventually I took a similar approach to the bike seat: I watched the animation, mimicked the city-planet’s mouth movement with my own, and snarled away. With a little added distortion, it worked great. The sounds of the city itself are represented by clanging glass bottles from my liquor cabinet. I tried to mimic the talking of people inside the houses with a cuíca, a Brazilian/African friction drum. My brilliant cellist friend, Sophie Webber, added another layer to the speech mimicry.

The process of collaboration between Fernanda and me was very interesting, a back-and-forth exchange where each of us would create little parts and send them via email or Skype. With each exchange, we’d inspire each other for the next little part. Looking back it's hard to know exactly who inspired what. It was an organic and natural way of collaborating—certain musical choices I made inspired Fernanda’s animation, and certain things she animated inspired me to make new choices with the music.
 

Bicycle Notes Sonic Walk-Through

  • 0:10 – low cello drones
  • 0:14 – hammered dulcimer
  • 0:15 – glockenspiel melody
  • 0:41 – recording of a record needle
  • 0:42 – enter B-theme: 3/4-feel with piano, electric guitar swells using an e-bow, brush sweeps on a snare drum
  • 1:15-1:45 – snoring and snarling mouth sounds, dissonant cello drones, reversed glockenspiel sounds
  • 1:46 – rusty scissors (bicycle eye-lash blinks), frightened/sad cymbal squeaks
  • 1:57 – triangle (bike bell), cymbal squeaks, shaken bicycle (bike seat), hi-hat hat cymbal with a mallet (street lamp)
  • 2:11 – lightly clanging bottles played with brushes (city sounds), cello (people talking), and a cuíca, a Brazilian/African friction drum
  • 2:24 – cello (distant talking)
  • 2:39 – The return of A-theme: hammered dulcimer and bells with some added layers to pick up the energy
  • 2:55 – bowed cello harmonics (city planet's yawn)
  • 2:59 – whistling sound created on a cello
  • 3:10 – cello (bicycle saying goodbye through a final, distant melodic phrase)
  • 3:23 – credits: percussion on a metal oven rack, metal shower organizer, old cymbals, ambient electric guitar swells

 

  

Joel Styzens is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer and hearing conservation advocate specializing in drums, percussion, guitar, piano and hammered dulcimer. His award-winning album, “Relax Your Ears,” featured Chicago Symphony cellist Katinka Kleijn. Belarus music critic Serge Kozlovsky calls Styzens “a master of sound,” and the National Examiner defines Styzens’s ability to create texturally unique compositions as “music that you feel down in your soul.”

Styzens has been featured on National Public Radio and in such publications as Time Out, the Hearing Times, and the Chicago Tribune. He continues to compose music for a wide range of projects, including film, animation, television and his own ensemble. He is a full-time faculty member at Chicago’s renowned Old Town School of Folk Music and runs the Chicago Tinnitus Support Group as well as his label, A-Sharp Records.

You can hear more of his work at www.relax-your-ears.com.

Fernanda Torres was born in Bogota, Colombia. At the age of 23 she discovered her passion for architecture and music, two expressions of art that she continues to pursue along with her animation. In 2007 she moved to England and fell in love with 3-D animation. She connected animation to architecture and design, creating new directions for her work.

Working from London the idea for Bicycle Notes, her first short film, was born. Torres collaborated via Skype with Joel Styzens on the soundtrack. After months of hard work Fernanda moved to New York and then Chicago to finish the music with Styzens.

Torres continues her work as an architect incorporating elements of animation into her projects and continues to work with Styzens on sound design.

On this track:
Joel Styzens, instrumentalist, composer
Fernanda Torres, design architect, 3-D artist
Sophie Webber, cello

 

"Singletrack" is CAR's Artist Story for Chicago performers in which songwriters, bands, playwrights, actors and writers discuss the creation of a recorded work alongside audio or video clips of the performance. To submit your song for consideration, please email our researchers.

Photos: 

Paul Elledge

Submitted by CAR_Editor on Tue, 02/25/2014 - 11:24am