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Lisa Bella Donna: Circulus

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Lisa Bella Donna: Circulus

Lisa Bella Donna

On April 16th of this year I recorded a solo record titled “Circulus”, a series of musical sketches and sequences that I shaped into instant compositions. I had just returned from the first annual Synthplex in Burbank, California. It was a truly inspiring event. I had the privilege to perform a concert as well as conduct demonstrations with Moogs and a host of EarthQuaker Devices.

Upon my return I prepared for a new release to bring with me to Japan in support of the Boris/Relaxer/Crypt City tour. I decided to arrange a concise setup to program, perform, and live mix as much as possible in one take, with minimal overdubs.

Fortunately, the weather was absolutely clear and beautiful that day, so I set up on my extensive back deck facing the forests just outside my studio. It was really an awe-inspiring and excitingly challenging experience.

My setup consisted of a pair of Moog Grandmother synthesizers controlling my Moog “Mother Modular” which is a 9-module system of Mother32s and DFAMs. A Mellotron 4000D and Mellotron M400, an Old Siel Organ/Ensemble, and everything going through an EarthQuaker Devices board. No other effects or outboard equipment was used.

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In addition to my recording equipment I had two Sansui 4-track reel to reels set up for abstract sounds and field recordings, along with a small assortment of chimes, bells, and gongs. I also mounted a pair of microphones facing out along the landscape in a far/wide to capture any sounds of birds or trains nearby.

By 11am I was set up, tuned up, and ready to start recording.

“Kohouték” went down quickly and efficiently, starting off with a tape loop I created using the Moog DFAM and a few small hand drums. I then patched that stereo into an EQD Pyramids flanging device and Avalanche Run reverb/slapback delay. At the desk, I typically have a pair of The Warden Optical compressors on a stereo bus. This was used on the percussions for a nice warm rhythmic texture.

Moog bass line was then tracked with the tape loop, adding in some Ghost Echo to create a haunting and inviting depth.

Then Mellotrons. The melodies and chordal textures were performed in tandem with the Afterneath into a Transmisser, Arpanoid and then patching into the right channel of the Avalanche Run. I love going from the vintage acoustic type sounds of the Mellotrons into the dualism between the Afterneath and Transmisser. You pull up the mix on the Afterneath after a phrase or line, and dial up the decay so it transforms into a relative musical note or harmonic. Then before the event fully self-oscillates, you surround it with the rich, sweeping filtering and modulation of the Transmisser. I use this extensively all throughout the record.

Once this gorgeous open soundscape was laid out, I simply added Moog melodies and splashes of sequences to compliment, typically patched into a Space Spiral for saturation that works musically with the swirling of synced oscillators. Sequences and articulate flourishes almost always through a pair of Levitation reverbs. Panned stereo with one channel phase reversed.

This is a beautiful and inspiring setup I urge you to try on almost any foldback. Synthesizers, drums, vocals, and of course guitars. It allows you to surround your listeners in a wide, warm, and wonderful spatial environment.

“Storm-Weaver” came immediately after some extensive programming of the sequencers. A long-form track, I wanted it to build into a sort of everlasting galloping through vast and various landscapes.

Having essentially nine channels of modular sequences allows me to hydrate the listener and gives me great musical command of the movements as they take shape within a performance. Harmonically and sonically I can create a far reaching illusion of depth.

You can pick and choose the moment when and where sequencer clocks and divisions need to be applied or abstracted. It’s all about elemental texture and guiding the listeners into your home in the forests of the music. Along with the reverbs I mentioned above, I love routing the sequencer stereo bus out into a stereo pair of Rainbow Machines. This piece features this towards the closing of the main passage into the final ambient closing. In just a few slight twirling shifts you can go from rich, shimmering ensemble-style modulations into fountains of extrapolations from each sequence triggering it. To get the most out of this transitional device, as you spread out the time and regeneration of the delays of the Rainbow Machine you slowly tighten up/shorten the decay and release of the synths envelope generators. Keep a hand on the “Magic” knob. This allows for smooth transitions between flourishes and adds lots of air and refreshing humidity to a long winding musical passage. If you really want to layer this deeper without clogging up the mix, do two passes of this, and then route the Rainbow Machine through your favorite high-pass filter. It evokes a very four dimensional feel to your stereo spread.

After a short break and a walk around the woods, I returned with some coffee and the sketches of a piece I’d been waiting to record for some time. “Kanawha Falls, West Virginia” is my personal favorite piece on this record.

It opens with some bereft and solemn vintage Mellotron, offering a reflection of all the damage and stripping of such beautiful areas where I grew up and developed my musical awareness and awakenings. There’s something very musically spiritual for me about this area. I’m grateful that I took full advantage of getting lost and found time and time again all throughout the Allegheny and Appalachian trails of West Virginia. It taught me to listen, learn, and respond to the temperament and psycho-acoustic activities that were rich and diverse within its depths. If you listen long enough in such environments, you begin to formulate your own impressions and reference for intervallic invention outside of the western scale. The pressure sensitivity of amplitude vs. frequency modulation. Endless days and even nights I would spend hiking all throughout these areas all throughout my teens, 20s, and 30s. My personal university.

However, time has taken a great toll on many of these areas in the 21st century. The beasts of the apocalypse have seethed their way in to take their full advantage of the great wilderness and the generations of people who only know that life. Now many of them are left surrounded by scalped mountains and ridges that were once rich with life and the resonance of spirits and sounds reaching far into the oracles of the past. Streams once giving aid and purpose all around are now toxic flowing creeks of acid. Many friends and family who had homes there were either bought and sold from them via eminent domain, or from arson, time and time again.

So conceptually, this piece is a river that has run deep through my entire existence and development as an artist, technician, and spirit living in the material world.

All previous signal paths listed above are used here. Adding a pair of Arpanoids to some pink and white noise generators create amazing birds taking flight throughout this piece. I also used a pair of Tone Jobs as external filtering to add stereo drama and direction to the rippling streams, bells, and birds I’ve carefully recorded all along the Elk, Muskingum rivers, and Kanawha Falls.

The vintage Mellotron tends to always drift in and out of tune, so adding the mix on the Avalanche Run into its pre-delay territory creates a musical phase shifting as the tuning modulates itself naturally.

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As a few of the photographs show, it was amazing witnessing a beautiful, colorful sunset as I finished the final mix of this sonic journey. After sunset I made some dinner for my family as I listened to the final mixes echo around the hillsides through the open windows. The record was mastered the following day by the immensely talented and skilled Harold LaRue at his lab in Louisville, then released that Friday. Shoutout to the wonderful Keith Hanlon for the limited CD release. A beautiful three day evocation and satisfying project to take flight with.

Thanks to Moog Music Inc., Mellotron Sweden, and of course EarthQuaker Devices for creating such sonically musical and reliable equipment for making music in the moment.

~ Lisa Bella Donna

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