How to make your street organ twitch and stammer like a well-tuned poxy cove

With an example, sampled from a French street organist, MIDI-fied and manipulated, and finally re-WAVd.

In 1864 an extraordinary open letter was addressed to Michael Thomas Bass, MP by a formidable representation of the then cultural A-list:

Sir,—Your undersigned correspondents are desirous to offer you their hearty thanks for your introduction into the House of Commons of a Bill for the Suppression of Street Music; and they beg to assure you that, in the various ways open to them, they will, out of Parliament, do their utmost to support you in your endeavour to abolish that intolerable nuisance. Your correspondents are all professors and practitioners of one or other of the arts or sciences. In their devotion to their pursuits—tending to the peace and comfort of mankind—they are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians. They are even made especial objects of persecution by brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads; for, no sooner does it become known to those producers of horrible sounds that any of your correspondents have particular need of quiet in their own houses, than the said houses are beleaguered by discordant hosts seeking to be bought off. Your correspondents represent to you that these pecuniary speculations, in the misery they endure are far more destructive to their spirits than their pockets; and that some of them, not absolutely tied to London by their avocations, have actually fled into the country for refuge from this unmerited persecution—which is none the less grievous or hard to bear, because it is absurd. Your grateful correspondents take the liberty to suggest to you that, although a Parliamentary debate undoubtedly requires great delicacy in the handling, their avocations require at least as much, and that it would highly conduce towards the success of your proposed enactment, if you prevail on its opponents to consent to state their objections to it, assailed on all sides by the frightful noises in despite of which your correspondents have to gain their bread. (Signed):—Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, John Everett Millais, Francis Grant, John Forster, J. R. Hebbet, John Leech, W. Holman Hunt, Wilkie Collins, J. E. Horsley, W. P. Firth, F. Seymour Haydn, R. Doyle, T. Carlyle, Alfred Wigan, W. Boxall, George Jones, Alfred Elmore, Thomas Faed, John Phillips, Thomas Cheswick, James Sant, E. M. Barry, J. H. Robinson, S. Cousins, L. Stocks, W. C. Dobson, Thomas Woolner.

A superb piece by John M Picker, The Soundproof Study: Victorian Professionals, Work Space, and Urban Noise, deals with the struggle of this class of Victorian creative professionals against their lesser but noisier and often foreign brethren, where extra-parliamentary remedies included the construction of anechoic chambers and flight to the countryside. Such complaints are not new–somewhere there’s a story of Mary Queen of Scots being kept awake on her arrival in her “native” land by 500 fiddlers, to say nothing of the sad affair at Jericho–but, as Picker notes, at the turn of the century some attitudes begin to soften. And then along comes Igor Stravinsky and writes a ballet score, Petrushka, featuring defective street organ and accordeon sounds (did he know Bergson on mechanism vs determinism & humour?), and a substantial number of subsequent pieces that musicologists would have recognised as celebrating the broken-down sounds of outside if they didn’t spend all their time behind double-glazing.

I’d guess you’d define ours as a visual rather than an aural age because there are no effects or plugins for Sibelius or Cubase comparable to the standard set available in Illustrator or Photoshop. So: as far as music software goes, user output based on non-instrument user input tends to be rhythmically and tonally dull. When my organ is finished I want to get round this problem by reworking live recordings of mine or others. Here’s one recipe on the go:

  1. Record a knackered organ playing a dodgy arrangement. The one in the fragment below was made on the street somewhere in France (Toulouse?). Most (but not all) the ambient crap was eliminated during WAV and MIDI editing
  2. Open with Intelliscore. Dunno what instrument it is, Easy timing setting, Finish -> generates a test version, detecting key, pitch deviation etc. Hit Adjust these settings: Audio tab: if doing in segments make relevant choice. Pitch tab: adjust upper limit to get enough real notes and not too many overtones, transpose to the most appropriate key for your own (tonally limited) organ – in my case that’s Bb. Timing tab: check Easy timing (you’re not notating), adjust the pitch and time quantisation settings until you get something whichever side of borderline chaotic you do. Etc etc
  3. Wav -> Midi with AmazingMIDI by Araki – freeware which got as good results for me as Intelliscore, with a less complicated interface and without constant errors on Vista
  4. Sequence bits of MIDI with Mixcraft if required and export
  5. Open the exported MIDI with APrint to check the output against organ specifications, and to export to WAV using your VST (using French organ samples taken from the APrint site) if that’s what you want.

And here’s my modest fragment, created with step 10, of auto-generated sub-Stravinsky to terrify any latter day Dickens or Babbage passing this way:

OK, not that scary, but keep a-hold of nurse.

[You may also want to check this post on 19th century musical noise pollution.]