Composition Exercise #2

Take your instrument to a place where you’ll be alone. Tell no one.

Improvise. Performance, not practice.

No recording. No photographs.

Leave when you’re done. Tell no one.

Forget what you played.

Repeat.


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Bad Reviews

[Spanish translation]

Whenever I share a negative review of my work someone will usually ask me why I’d do this. Here’s why: When I promote a project I kindly ask for reviews, not compliments. I am grateful for every person who takes the time to listen, makes an effort to think and then finds the courage to write publicly about their thoughts and experiences. Granted, some reviews are more useful to us musicians than others in terms of what we can learn from them. Some are written with a deep concern for our art while others lack real engagement. But that goes for the good ones just like the bad. And even in the worst case, careless or aggressive negativity will reveal more about the reviewer than their subject.

The way I look at it, a review is an opportunity to begin a conversation: In the most simple way, where do you agree or disagree, and why? But more importantly, how can someone else’s critical reflection help you sharpen your own senses, broaden your perception and deepen your experiences?


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Interview: Lärmheim

Henri de Saussure, who releases and performs under the name Lärmheim, is a composer and producer from Geneva. We both went to the same arts school in Bern but we studied at the Music and Media Arts department at different times, and I think we first met when I taught there in 2013. Lärmheim’s debut album, Cent Soleils, was released in October last year. I loved it and wanted to know more about the thoughts and processes behind the music, so I asked Henri to do an interview for this blog. What follows is an in depth conversation about a uniquely challenging and rewarding work. Listen to and purchase Cent Soleils here to hear what it’s about, and feel free to ask further questions in the comments or on Facebook. Enjoy! – Tobias


What are the origins of Cent Soleils?

Up until 2014, I had only released a few tracks and two EPs on Bandcamp, but they didn’t feel like proper releases to me. I had the desire to produce something whose content was, to me, sonically and aesthetically uniform, with the idea of a visual concept present from the very beginning of the project. I started to work on these tracks around September of 2014, and finished in February/March 2015, so everything was composed in a somewhat limited timeframe (I know, seven months can sound like a lot, but that includes the very first musical ideas and the final touches in the mixes, and I had a few other commitments). I knew I wanted it to exist in a physical form, and as I fortunately could afford it, the decision to release it both on CD and LP was made quite early on.

Adobe Photoshop PDF

Just to get a general sense: How did the pieces on the album evolve? What were the starting points, and was the process similar for each piece or did it vary greatly?

Most pieces started with just a few key sounds or effects that I then expanded into compositions. In Deadeye for example, I only had the mellow piano part around 4 minutes in; it was lying around in a Cubase project for quite a long time, and I had no idea where I could use it. I felt it needed to be brought in by an intro, and then go somewhere else, to a totally different plateau, while keeping the same harmonic mood. I tried to process it through various plug-ins and effect chains, until I found that stomping, distorted sound. The synth melody then almost composed itself; I just let the track play and improvised until I found something I liked.

Video Game Soundtrack on the other hand began with just a few bars or arpeggiated synth over a broken drum loop, and I mainly used regular, tonal harmonic development to lead it forward. Everything else like variations in the drum pattern, layered synths and dance-music effects (filter sweeps etc.) were just ways of giving it a sense of constant development, that something slightly new but still familiar is happening, to avoid the “looped bar” feeling. The second part of the track (after the build-up) came in late in the process: it’s a kind of extended bridge section, which eventually resolves in a coda where the melody of the bridge and the first part are interweaved.

Basically, I couldn’t say I rigorously followed a single compositional approach – I tried to stay as open as possible, and find the most appropriate way to convey my idea of what the track should be like.

What role does improvisation play in your creative process?

A huge role, I should admit. For these pieces, I had a hard time composing “in my head”, with pre-determined structures. I spent a lot of time noodling around with plug-ins, effect boxes (I use a lot of guitar pedals) and hardware synthesizers. When I reached something interesting enough to make a piece out of, I would record it, and then see where it could go by varying the parameters, layering them etc. I also improvise with automation in the DAW, sometimes in precise, almost imperceptible degrees, things like panning, saturation, the amount of reverb… I like when sounds somehow float around in a given space, rather than leaving everything locked on the same parameter values for the whole track; I really try to avoid coldly looping stuff.

Tell me more about Deadeye. The sonic and dynamic palette on this piece ranges from pretty mellow to very harsh, and you’re mixing a lot of techniques as well. The same goes for many pieces on the album. How do you go about integrating such diverse sources and approaches?

I wanted to have some kind of epic piece with a distinctive dramatic development, almost like a mini electronic symphony. I know you’re familiar with what we call progressive rock, and I listened to a lot of Genesis, Pink Floyd and other related bands when I was a teenager: how they managed to combine a wide variety of moods and styles in an album and sometimes in a single piece has apparently deeply influenced me. What we could call the musical narrative plays a crucial role in Deadeye: When the track is over, I would like you to feel like you’ve been through a roller-coaster, a lucid dream or a kind of almost transcending experience.

As far as integrating diverse sources go, I just try and hear how it feels to me. With only a few exceptions, I don’t decide in advance what will or will not make its way into a track, it should be as open as possible, as long as I can keep it musically interesting and moving for me. Sometimes, I would struggle to determine where a track could go, how could I keep it captivating enough, and I would get stuck, writer’s block, chasing my own tail. When that happens, I usually try something which would feel at first musically inappropriate or unrelated, and more often than not, it helps me finish the track.

I’d like to add that a lot of what is produced in electronic music (especially by younger producers) suffers from what I’d call “fader paralysis”. A track stays at the same level the whole time, its elements sit there, grid-sequenced, like books on a shelf, and nothing really moves around or goes anywhere. Nothing happens between points A and B. This is something I really tried to stay away from: with automation, hardware peculiarities, non-quantized percussion, randomized midi parts etc.

Many of the pieces utilize sounds that are being detuned one way or another. Sometimes you’re detuning individual notes or sounds and sometimes whole tracks, is that correct? What interests you about that?

Most of the time, it comes from the tools I use: hardware has its non-linearities, its unpredictable reactions, which add a detuned or modulated feel to sounds. For example, on Deadeye and Streichgraben, the synth parts were recorded with the Polivoks, a vintage monosynth from the Soviet Union designed in the early 80s. Its knobs are clunky and inaccurate, but its filter screams like no plug-in could do and its tuning differs from a digital synth. I also use plug-in synths which I slightly detune, and sometimes pitch-shift large fragments of audio (for the glissandi-type pads on Werkstatt Cysp). I’m fond of the eerie, unstable feeling a small amount of detuning can give – it also feels more like an acoustic instrument’s minuscule tuning variations overtime. I’m not saying all electronic music has to be humanized at all, it just feels better to me when each bar is not a carbon copy of the previous one, especially when I’m using synths.

Are you using any particular scales or tunings, on Werkstatt Fulx for example?

I should first say that this piece mainly revolves around a drone which was processed a number of times through a Moog Delay pedal and distortion boxes, and then simply layered over itself a number of times. The detuned sounds are actually artefacts of the delay pedal, whose analog delay is based on the “bucket-brigade” principle and briefly changes pitch when it is modulated, a bit like tape-delays. By randomly modulating the delay, untempered pitches appear for a second until the analog chips readjust themselves. It’s a good example of how I try to musically use the idiosyncrasies of a specific piece of gear.

03062015-_DSF5381

How did some of the noisier pieces emerge, like Trommelgraben or One Second Before the Most Blinding Light of All?

The first element I had for Trommelgraben was the extremely glitchy sounds you hear right at the beginning. These are actually simple acoustic drums samples, processed with a powerful delay/glitch plug-in called Bow Echo. Many parameters inside the plug-in can be randomly modulated: it would never produce the same result twice. I then designed a very heavy, almost alien kick sound, and further processed everything through delays, chorus-effects and other plug-ins, to give the track a thicker, deeper background. In retrospect, I think I tried to do something which would at the same time feel strongly periodic and rhythmic and also very chaotic, where each listen can reveal new details.

One Second… came from a piece I did during my Bachelor’s degree. I had recorded music from TV ads, edited it into a single audio track and processed it dramatically with a performance-oriented sampler, the Octatrack. What it sounds like would take ages to reproduce with plug-ins in a DAW, but the Octatrack allows on-the-fly control of many parameters at once, crossfade between sets of values etc. its sound engine is truly powerful.

I do get the impression that the track order was chosen very carefully. What was your approach here? Rumori Danza is similar in length to Deadeye. It too has harsh and tonal parts that interchange and merge. And while one is close to the beginning of the album, this is the ending piece. Was that a conscious decision?

To tell the truth, it wasn’t. I knew I wanted some kind of heavy-hitting track to close the album, but for me the two tracks are unrelated. The track order was indeed carefully chosen, as I wanted to have a good balance of noise, percussive moments and ambient moments across the album. I also paid attention to the dramatic effect between the end of one track and the start of the next one: how does the next track feel when it comes in? I also had to be careful about it for the vinyl pressing, as each side of an LP can only contain between 18 and 22 minutes of music until the sound quality gets poorer and quieter. For example, I couldn’t really have two consecutive 15-minute tracks or three 8-minute tracks on one side, so I did my best to foresee how long each track would be and in what order I should arrange them.

Also, Rumori Danza is fun and a little ironic, whereas Deadeye and, I would say, all other pieces are quite serene – was it important to you to end the album on such an exuberant vibe?

It was, yes. I wanted it to feel like an explosion of light – I hope that doesn’t sound too hippie! -, a bold move at the end of an album which is, I must admit, quite dark. To be honest, the thick drums and the pulsating 6/8 feel were a kind of tribute to one of my favorite bands, Tool. And especially their track Triad. When I listen to it now, I find it a bit too “rock” sounding !

I was in fact reminded of Tool when listening to and thinking about Cent Soleils. There’s something about the way you build up and release tension, but also the sudden shifts in intensity are reminiscent of their music. The track sequence too reminded me of the one on Tool’s 10 000 Days where there are two long pieces of the exact same length that separate three sections of three pieces – hence the above question about the sequencing. Now, I know you’ve also been influenced by other metal bands. As someone who has so far mostly released electronic music, what is the appeal of metal music to you, and in what ways does it inform your music making?

Metal was the first genre I discovered and listened to on my own, when I was 12-13 years old; an age where you usually start to develop your own tastes in music. I used to play drums a lot, and I was blown away by the intensity and energy metal drummers could deliver. I think this energy is still very present all across the album, albeit in a different form.

And in a broader sense: What other things do you consider as important influences, whether it be art or something else?

I could mention a documentary about Jiro Ono, the most acclaimed sushi master in the world, where he poetically describes how crucial every aspect of his art is to him: from the ingredients, to the way he treats them, to how precisely he will craft and then serve a piece of food to a customer. The quality of the result, for him, depends on a relentless attention to every possible detail of the process. I found that very inspiring.

03062015-_DSF5447-2_50

Let’s talk about your use of techniques and tropes from a variety of musical styles. Streichgraben sounds like a kind of Proto-Drum’n’Bass, then in the middle of Video Game Soundtrack there’s what you could call a blast beat, right after a section with huge filter sweeps. In other places, such as the second half of Deadeye and on Faurmanter, you’re using side chain compression as a dominant tool. You clearly enjoy using those tropes, but you’re always only flirting with the cliché. Can you talk about that?

Exactly. I consciously use these effects in an almost exaggerated manner, but try to keep them to a point where they still serve the music; they shouldn’t sit there and be the wallpaper of your track, so to speak. Streichgraben actually consists of a drum kit in Kontakt triggered by a randomized arpeggiator; there is a constant flow of 16th notes, but never a repeating pattern. It has a huge amount of modulating effects all over the place, it has some Autechre feel in it, but I noticed this only quite a while after the track was finished to be honest!

Video Game Soundtrack is a track where I wanted to throw in many electronic dance-music clichés and push them to the point where it gets almost comical: filter sweeps, arpeggiated synths, epic drums, dramatic drops and cuts in the arrangement, and a grand finale where melodies and frantic drums collide. There’s a fine line between using a cliché as a way to highlight its omnipresence and using it because everyone is used to it. As you say, I enjoy doing that, but we should always ask ourselves: “am I doing this because it’s what the track really needs to shine, or because everyone does it and almost expects it?”.

Side-chain compression is to our decade what gated reverb was to the 80s – and when something constantly comes up like some kind of muscle reflex, regardless of the feel and intention of a track, maybe it’s time to ask why we really use it and settle down. On the other hand, when used lightly, it can be really helpful to keep a mix clean and bouncing, as elements dynamically interact with each other. I enjoyed using it in an extreme fashion to create drama, but I probably won’t use it as much in my next productions. Too much of a good thing, as they say…!

Related to the previous question: With the piano ending of the album I can’t help but be reminded of Apex Twin’s – the final pieces on Syro, and other pieces as well. The kind of harmonic vamp you utilize on Fourmanter made me think of Amon Tobin, and the extreme side-chaining of people like Ben Frost who also push that technique off the dancefloor and into more abstract territory. Yet you’re blending that into a unique, more bruitist overall sound. Am I over-interpreting there or are those conscious hommages to some of your influences?

You are right on point. Many, many elements on this album are my personal interpretations of specific aspects of electronic music production. I tried to combine them and make them work inside unconventional music, somehow. The idea, most of the time, was to avoid sounding too blatantly like something I knew, while retaining enough similarities and references to known artists in order for people who are into this kind of stuff to find it likeable. It’s always difficult to be one’s own judge, but I think I reached my goal. It was also, when I think about it, probably a way to get these tropes (as you named them earlier) or influences “out of my system”; like writing down some thoughts can liberate you from them.

I know you are composing in a variety of styles. Is the direction you’ve taken with Cent Soleils one that you’re going to be exploring further?

I will probably continue to use improvisation and hardware effects a lot, but I’m already vaguely thinking about my next solo effort and I would like to really compose tracks in advance this time. Cent Soleils contains various flavors of distortion, and I’d like to distance myself from that for a while, or at least only have in the background, far behind – the next release will likely be mellower, slower, a lot less aggressive. But it should still feel huge and awe-inspiring, like meditating inside a cathedral floating in space. I also wish to work with real acoustic environments, like playing synths through speakers in big rooms, recording the sound and process the result, a bit similar to echo chambers you can hear on albums of the 50s and 60s.

As this album has many chaotic, purely noisy moments, I’d like to use a more conventional approach and allow myself more moments of regular, tonal harmony for the next. At the same time, I’m beginning to experiment with everyday objects and foley, like recording the crackling sound of a paper bag and slowing it down 1000% with Cubase’s “tape” time-stretch: it sounds like icebergs collapsing. This is the kind of stuff I will most likely work with in the future.

What are things you’ve learned in the making of this album? In what ways has it made you progress?

I’d say it showed me that creativity is, as far as I’m concerned, absolutely not linear. There were moments where I’d be extremely productive for three days, and then do almost nothing new for two weeks, which would get me frustrated. I would also work 15-20 hours on a track, then decide it’s not good enough for the album, and put it aside (but I never erase or destroy what I do – it can always come in handy later on), ending up feeling like I wasted my time. Although it doesn’t happen that often, I accept this as part of the creative process for now. But I know that the more I do, the more confident I’ll feel, and the more I’ll be able to feel in advance where a specific work should go.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share these insights. Are there any aspects of the album that we haven’t touched on that you’d like to discuss?

I would just take this opportunity to mention and thank Pierre-Emmanuel Fehr, the photographer I worked with for the cover art. We quickly found a common artistic ground and the result is exactly what I was looking for. Also, thank you for the interview!

Links:


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Seeing the Paper

A few weeks ago I led another listening workshop with teenagers, the final episode in a series of weekly inputs before the 40 kids will begin working on projects with professional artists as part of the second Irritationen initiative. Earlier on we had performed Max Neuhaus’ seminal sound walk, Listen, and this time I presented Akio Suzuki’s Oto-date and we then created our own adaptation inside and around the school building.

Now, the benefits of listening are very hard to sell to teenagers. The idea that focussed listening is something worth doing – whether music is playing or not, whether someone is talking or not – seems at first to be very alien to them. And not just that, of course: even the idea that it’s worth listening when music is playing, when someone is speaking, is hard to sell. That’s why we approached this idea from various angles over the weeks: listening to silence, noise, music created from accidental sounds, music as ambience, ambience as music, and so on. Quite a few students were curious to try this out and to experience everyday sound in new ways. And yet it felt as if I hadn’t quite found a way to really make a plausible argument for pure listening from where teenagers are perceiving the world around them.

Returning to the third floor class room after Oto-date for the final discussion, a new thought occurred to me. And so when everyone was seated and attentive and I had just two minutes left before the school bell, this is what I asked: How many of you have ever painted a painting? Of course everybody raised their hands. And what did you need to start painting? Brushes. Pencils. Colours. Light. Yes! And what else – what did you see just before you started?

A blank canvas.

When working with sound, we don’t use paper, but we too begin with what is there. And to work with what is there we need the ability to perceive it. And for that we need to be able to pay attention with our ears – we need the ability to listen. In music, and everywhere else, the quality of our attention is of the biggest importance to the quality of what we aspire to create.

My wish for your in 2016 is that you may see the paper in front of you, and that you may hear the sounds already present, so that you can add your own.

Happy New Year!

Tobias

Listen


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Instant Satie

I’m finishing a kind of “Instant Satie” Max patch for a workshop with kids visiting the Music and Media Arts facilities tomorrow. There will be three 40 minutes blocks that each group of 4-5 students will take turns to visit. Two of them will deal with live electronics and voice recoring and editing, respectively. In my part of the course we’ll listen to Erik Satie’s “Vexations” and learn about his idea of a musique d’ameublement. We’ll then use the studio’s Yamaha Disklavier (a MIDI-controllable grand piano) to create a kind of generative musique d’ameublement where three players interact with each other to steer an algorithm that will play the instrument. One player will play the piano itself and in doing so feed the computer with pitch and velocity data. The two other players, one on an iPad and one on a laptop, will select the number of notes that the computer will memorize the pitch and velocity of, and in what order, speed, transposition, and with what kind of velocity variations and polyphony it will generate derivatives and send them back to the piano in real time – while the pianist is already playing even more notes for it to learn. Here’s a screenshot from the tryouts I did this afternoon. I’ll be sharing an mp3 of what you see here with my email list later this week.

Bildschirmfoto 2015-11-11 um 19.47.39

It’s not blogging but it’s a start. After two months of rehearsing and performing with pulp.noir this is the third new course I’m teaching within only five days. I hope to be writing more on this site soon – starting with the other two workshops.


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Listening to Björk’s Stonemilker

I finally listened to the beginning of Björk’s Vulnicura album today. A good two minutes into the opening track, Stonemilker, it dawned on me that these nods to songs from earlier albums songs can’t be coincidences: Strings that clearly reference Jóga, as does the way the word “emotional” is used. Percussions that are very reminiscent of All is Full of Love (both off Homogenic, 1997). The prominently placed „Who is…?“, a phrase taken from Who is it? (Medúlla, 2004) together with its major triad motif, while “Show me emotional respect” echoes Show me forgiveness from the same album. „Mututal constellations“, finally, seems to allude to Mutual Core (Biophilia, 2011). I’m sure there’s more to be found by people better versed in Björk’s work.

Her songs have often felt to me like their own pristine, self-contained little worlds, polished and perfect both in their sonic and conceptual appearance – sometimes too much so for my taste. Stonemilker, on the other hand, breaks with that hermetic aesthetic. Listened to on its own I find the song strangely meandering, without much of an arc despite simple harmonies, but in the context of the album’s theme of heartbreak and loss and picking up the pieces, this scattering makes good sense. So do all the references, stringing together fragments from Björk’s past like a necklace made of shards, altering the light in which these pieces now appear. Some friends may know my love for Devin Townsend’s music which is wrought through with internal references like this. I’m not as familiar with all of Björks albums, so I don’t want to read too much into this one song. And maybe this is old news for Björkologists anyway, but to me, moments like this open up new readings of an artist’s work, moving from a linear view to one of a web of interconnected nodes of meaning, whether intentional or not. Readings become possible where individual songs suddenly start to sympathetically resonate with each other, to talk to each other, revealing a further level of potential depth in the artist’s body of work. Why is she citing those songs and not others? What web of meaning do they form? Are there other moments in her work where similar things are going on? Other kinds of connections? And so on – without even having heard the rest of Vulnicura yet. The composition thus expands beyond the individual piece (which constituted its own sealed-off “world”), spilling over into a reality which we suddenly find inseparable from art.


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Everyday Application of Arcane Skills, Exhibit #387

Sometimes the skills we learn as adventurous artists seem very ephemeral and arcane, but even these may eventually be of help in very mundane situations. I’m typing this in my hotel room on the morning of a pulp.noir rehearsal day. Waking in the night I had realized that my phone’s battery was going to run out before my alarm was supposed to wake me, and that I’d left the charger at the space where we rehearse. Needing to make sure I’d still get up in time, I made this little Max patch that would wake me by playing a sound file at 8 o’clock.

maxalarm

This took me about thirty seconds I should say, rather than going online and spending time looking for, downloading and setting up an existing app.

And this, of course, is pretty much the most basic way to use [date], the object that allows you to use the computer’s clock to trigger and control events in (the programming environment) Max. If you want to compose music that changes according to the date and time of day, this is the place to start.


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Glass Mantras (On Anagrams)

It’s glam hour!

There have been days, quite a few years ago, when I spent hours with the glamorous art of making anagrams – rearranging the letters in a word or phrase to form new constellations. Anagrams of words, names, phrases, shaping them into existing or nonsense words, names and phrases, sometimes into something vaguely resembling poems. Last week, on an impulse, I started writing anagrams again. And before I knew it, my brain was back in anagram mode. Here’s one result of this impulse, followed by some thoughts about the anagram process.

a meek glass mantra

let’s make anagrams –
man’s talk games are
smart! a glean makes
glam an art. ask, seem
smart: an eagle mask.

salt maker, sage man,
make “art” mean “glass
tear”. man, make glass
lakes! anagrams met
a slang stream. make
a slang maker’s team.
a meta-slang maker’s
garment: a seal mask.

melt anagram’s sake:
a meek glass mantra
melts – ask a manager,
a maker: slang mates.
let’s make anagrams
an art. make me glass.
grant me a seal mask.


Algorithmus

I create anagrams the following way: I write down the word. I pick a few letters and form a new word which I write down next to the original. Then I cross out the letters in the original and repeat the process with the remaining letters, then repeat it again until all letters are used up. When I find a particularly interesting word I’ll often repeatedly start by first crossing it out of the original and work with the rest until I find a fitting way to shape a phrase around it. When I feel like I explored most permutations I may even add another word to create more options, and begin again.

Glamour Shit

There are words that are ideal for making anagrams. With four different vowels and a range of soft and hard consonants, “Algorithmus” – the German word for “algorithm” – is one of them. A good anagram word or phrase has several potentials: First, ideally, it is interesting in itself and has meaning to the person who’s taking it apart. In my example there is also the self-referential aspect that got me interested: the fact that the word “algorithm” in itself refers to a process of taking input data and working on it in a formalized way to create a different output. The same goes for a meek glass mantra.

iGhost Mural

Then there’s a semantic potential: new readings, hidden meanings that can be teased out and made explicit. Or, to put it in a more pragmatic way: meanings that can be generated from its parts, that the original word can be enriched with, from now on to be resonating with it. I often look for anagrams that have some kind of connection to the original – an ironic reading, a profound or mock-profound response to it, a funny remix, and so on. The process can also be used just to find new words, concepts and ideas.

Goliath’s Rum

Another aspect is the mental process that anagrams set in motion: I find that their creation stimulates the brain in such a way that it starts to constantly generate variations, even in the background. New permutations, or new words that can be formed from parts of it, creating an itch to see what can be done with the remaining letters. I feel that the state in which the brain almost can’t stop looking for new meanings gives me a glimpse into its nature: I can see and feel it at work – constantly looking for meanings, trying to make sense, recognising patterns, finding ways to read the world.

Got mail rush?

And finally, rewriting the original word or phrase again and again quickly gives it an insisting, mantra-like quality. Writing as restocking, only to cross it out again, almost meditative in its Sisyphean repetitiveness.  Reloading it, only to explode it in yet another way. My relationship to a word, a name, and its meaning, changes through repetition as much as reordering.

A girl’s mouth

Automatic anagram generators have their uses, but many of the above qualities are lost when generating a list and selecting favourites. The process has its own rewards, and different anagrammers will find different anagrams.

For me, just like an ear worm or a line of poetry that I can’t seem to hear enough times in a row, permutations of a word can lure me in, get me drunk on their layered potentials and tickle my mind for days before releasing their grip on me. It’s a benevolent intoxication that I’ll willingly submit myself to any time.

Raoul G. Smith


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