Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Tiny Everything

Posted by midiguru on April 13, 2014

A couple of months ago I learned one or two pieces in Book 4 of Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. And yesterday one of the people on the Xenharmonic Alliance II group on Facebook posted a link to a really nice piece for solo piano (digital, of course) in 17-note equal temperament.

Inspired by that piece, I figured I’d try my hand at a Mikrokosmos-style piece — short, melodic, and harmonically modern, in 17et. It only took a few hours to whip something up:

In case you’re curious: No, that wasn’t played in real time. There’s a lot of hand-editing of note lengths and velocities, quantizing, trying different harmonies by dragging the notes up and down, and manually adjusting the tempo here and there. Hope you like it.

I’m still foodling with the question of how best to notate a 17-note scale on a conventional five-line staff. Or even whether to bother. If you look at the Wikipedia article on 17et, you’ll find Easley Blackwood’s method. Easley obviously put a lot of thought into questions of this sort, but I find it odd that his chromatic scale zigzags. The first three notes, for instance, are C, D-flat, and then C-sharp. Also, with his method the interval of a neutral third (which divides the perfect fifth evenly) is spelled either as an augmented second or as a diminished fourth, never as a third.

If I were to try notating this tuning, I think I’d be inclined to use about ten “white keys,” lettered A through K (omitting I, because it would be confusing to read). This notation system has peculiar properties of its own; if you modulate up a fifth from the all-white-keys scale, you’ll find that the key signature has two flats, not one sharp. But we’ll leave that brain-twister for another day.

Posted in microtonal, music | Leave a Comment »

More Fun with Software

Posted by midiguru on April 12, 2014

I happen to be involved in two software-heavy pursuits — electronic music and writing interactive fiction. The differences between the two fields may be of interest to nobody but me, but this is my blog, so here goes.

The software in both fields is sophisticated and feature-rich. But there’s at least a hundred times more activity in electronic music than in IF authoring. In IF, we have probably seven or eight developers, total, who are actively maintaining authoring systems. If you want to do creative work as an IF author, you’ll be using the tools uploaded by one of these kind and generous souls.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the audience for electronic music is at least ten thousand times larger than the audience for interactive fiction. Second, writing IF is much harder than laying out music in a digital audio workstation, so the number of people who even consider writing a text game is very small. The number who ever finish and release their games is even smaller.

The audience for IF is small for two reasons: First, if you want to play a computer game, you’ll probably get more excitement out of a game with video and music. Beyond that, though, playing a text game requires that you think. Few people think while listening to music … or at least, they don’t think about the music.

I’m grateful every day to the developers for producing such wonderful tools. On the IF side, Mike Roberts and Eric Eve are my heroes. On the digital audio side, there are too many heroes for me to list them all, but sound designers like Eric Persing and Howard Scarr would be high on the list, as would Ernst Nathorst-Böös, whose steady hand on the helm has turned Reason into such an amazing music program. Keep up the great work, guys!

Posted in Interactive Fiction, music, random musings, technology | Leave a Comment »

Bank Shot

Posted by midiguru on March 21, 2014

For the past few years, Livermore has had a wonderful local theater, the Bankhead. Our local community orchestra performs there, as do the local opera company and theater company and a wide variety of touring professional artists. It’s a 500-seat hall, smallish (no balcony) with great acoustics.

Barring a miracle, all that will soon be coming to an end. The Bankhead will be boarded up.

I’m not on the inside; I only hear gossip. Some of what I’ve heard may be wrong, distorted, or incomplete. What I’ve heard is this.

The Bankhead has been operated by an organization called LVPAC (Livermore Valley Performing Arts something-or-other). Not satisfied to run the Bankhead, LVPAC has been hell-bent on building a larger “regional theater” in downtown Livermore. Nobody that I have spoken to ever thought the regional theater was a good idea. Traffic downtown is already bad enough, and if you want to see Lady Gaga on tour it’s not that hard to drive down to San Jose. Nonetheless, the land has been cleared, and LVPAC has spent millions on architectural plans.

At some point after that money had been spent, the State of California pulled the plug on its funding for the redevelopment agency. Suddenly, the state money was gone. LVPAC was left holding the bag. They sued the state. They lost.

LVPAC owes millions of dollars to a bank in New York, and there isn’t enough cash coming in to make payments on the loan. The gossip is Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in music, politics | 1 Comment »

Stepping Out (Csound/JI)

Posted by midiguru on March 7, 2014

Found this little experiment on my Mac tonight. I had forgotten I did it.

It isn’t really a piece of music — just a texture. I suppose it’s post-minimalist, if you like genre terminology: It’s not intended to go anywhere, but it is intended not to be boring or dull while hovering in one spot.

Inspired by hardware step sequencers, which have a limited number of steps but leave open the possibility of modulating the tone while the sequence plays, I thought I’d try to write a simple step sequencer in Csound and give it an interesting amount of variable playback. The pitch sequence table is 16 steps long, but quite often the sequencer resets to the start of the pitch table before all of the steps have been used. The pitches are defined as ratios in just intonation, and after being read they’re multiplied by some factor (usually 1.0, but sometimes 1.5 or 0.75). The table of rhythm values is separate from the table of pitches, and is a different length, so you’ll hear the same rhythm over and over, but in different parts of the pitch sequence. Variable modulation is being applied to the panning (obviously), the portamento rate, and the filter cutoff and resonance. The final few lines of code add a stereo delay.

Posted in microtonal, music | 2 Comments »

When Less Is Not More

Posted by midiguru on March 3, 2014

Was minimalism ever interesting? One of the regulars on the Csound mailing list posted a link to his new online album, which consists entirely of extremely long, sustained sine tones. Or perhaps other things happen at some point; after 20 minutes or so I gave up and moved on.

The album is on the recordings page at the Irritable Hedgehog website. I’m sure you can find it. After listening to some sine tones, I thought I’d check out what else was on the site. This may have been a mistake. I clicked on a recording of Klavierstück 2, by Jürg Frey. This is one of several albums on the site that are performed by R. Andrew Lee. I didn’t make it clear through Klavierstück 2, which is more than 15 minutes long, but I was impressed enough by the middle section (and not in a good way) to rewind a bit and grab a pencil.

In the middle section of Klavierstück 2, the genius (if that’s the right word) of Mr. Frey prompted him to write an unadorned open 4th (I believe it’s C# and F# above Middle C), in quarter-notes, at a tempo of about 60 bpm, mezzo-forte, legato, to be played 468 times. Yes, I counted. Aside from a few minor variations in loudness and speed owing to Mr. Lee’s (presumable) humanness, nothing else happened for more than seven minutes — just an endlessly repeated open 4th, in quarter-notes at 60 bpm, mezzo-forte, legato.

There are several questions that might be asked about this. One might ask, what on Earth prompted Mr. Frey to think that such a musical statement was worth making? One might ask, what on Earth prompted Mr. Lee to think it was worth recording? One might ask, how do Mr. Frey and Mr. Lee explain to their friends (assuming they have any, as I’m sure they must) their perpetual preoccupation with the aesthetic charms of boredom, weariness, and utter vacuity?

You may be able to think of other questions as well. Me, I’m going to go take a nap.

Posted in music | 2 Comments »

Where Music Works

Posted by midiguru on February 3, 2014

In the opening chapter of his book How Music Works, David Byrne makes a provocative and insightful observation. In a nutshell, he argues that the type of music composers and performers create depends largely on the type of space in which the music is to be played. The social purposes being served also play a role.

The simplest example of this is to imagine what high-energy funk would sound like if played in a cathedral. A cathedral is an extraordinarily reverberant space. As a result, the crisp rhythms of funk would turn into a dull roar. Trying to play funk in a cathedral would be all but pointless, because nobody could hear what you were doing.

Byrne gives lots of other examples. His underlying point is that our usual fantasy, in which the artist creates something based on an inner impulse toward personal expression, is exactly backwards. What the artist creates will be based, consciously or unconsciously, on how the work is to be delivered to audiences. A small jazz club has entirely different acoustics and social rituals than a concert hall, and neither has any resemblance to a pair of earbuds.

Once in a while I think about trying to take a bunch of my electronic music and turn it into a live concert experience so as to be able to share the music with a few people in small local clubs. One of the things that gives me pause, aside from the logistical difficulties of live performance, is that I’d have to rewrite everything. Long before I read Byrne’s exploration of this idea, I understood instinctively that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in music, random musings, society & culture | 3 Comments »

When Is a Volt Not a Volt?

Posted by midiguru on January 8, 2014

Regular readers of this space (all five of you) will be aware that I’m fussy about intonation. And yet, I’ve acquired an analog modular synthesizer. Go figure. Analog synthesis is good at many things, but precise intonation is not one of them.

In order to integrate a computer with the modular synth, I’ve acquired Expert Sleepers ES-3 and ES-6 modules. These nifty devices can talk to a computer via ADAT lightpipe, with a very nice PreSonus 1818VSL interface shuttling the 24-bit audio back and forth.

The computer happens to be running Csound. One of my bright ideas is that I’d like to be able to write a fairly complex step sequencer in Csound (not especially difficult to do) and have it play the modular synth.

The oscillators in a modular system of this type are calibrated, in theory, so that when an incoming voltage rises by 1 volt, the oscillator’s frequency rises by one octave. This is called the 1-volt-per-octave standard. My oscillators have 1v/oct inputs.

The output of the ES-3 has a range of +/- 10 volts, and Csound’s audio signals are defined as having a maximum amplitude of +/- 1.000. From this, it’s easy to see Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in microtonal, modular, music, technology | 11 Comments »

Interlocking Organization

Posted by midiguru on January 5, 2014

As part of my ongoing quest to learn more about how music is being made, or might be made, with a modular synthesizer, I’ve been having a few discussions on Facebook. This morning I found myself using the phrase “interlocking layers of organization” to describe conventional composition. I think that phrase provides a useful way of looking at the topic.

The first question that might be asked is, does experimental electronic music (or for that matter experimental acoustic music) exhibit anything comparable to the interlocking layers of organization found in conventional classical composition? If so, I’d love to have someone point out where I can find those layers, and how I can come to understand them. In the absence of any musical examples accompanied by a clear analysis, I’m going to hazard a guess that the answer is no.

The second question is, does that matter? Assuming that my answer to the first question is accurate, does the absence of this type of organization have any significance, either to listeners or to composers? I would argue that it does. Not to all listeners, certainly. There are people who love improvisatory, aleatoric, or simply bewildering music. That’s fine. If you enjoy it, I’m happy for you. In the end, I can only speak for myself. But on the off-chance that others may be interested in these questions, I’m going to try to show how it matters.

You’ll find this type of organization in almost every measure of every piece of classical music, from before Bach up through Stravinsky and beyond. It’s perceptible to the listener. And not only perceptible but satisfying. It satisfies a deep human need for order.

I happen to be familiar with a number of Bach’s keyboard pieces; they provide as good a set of examples as any of this kind of order. Let’s look at the opening movement of the Second Partita, for instance. At the highest level, this movement, a Sinfonia, falls into three very definite Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in modular, music | 8 Comments »

Follow the Bouncing Ball

Posted by midiguru on January 4, 2014

I can’t imagine that any of the music tech magazines I write for will want me to review Musyc Pro, so I may as well tip you off to it here. It’s for the iPad, it’s a toy, it makes pretty sound patterns, it’s clever, and it’s at least modestly addictive. Good for an evening or two of entertainment, at least, and a way to amaze your friends. It’s on the App Store.

It’s sort of a user-designable pinball machine. Little circles and squares and triangles bounce around, and when they hit something they play a note. You set up the “rails” and optionally insert a couple of other objects that the bouncing objects will interact with, such as a gravitational attractor. You can choose from a variety of soundsets, or even import your own samples (though I haven’t tried that yet — don’t know if I’ll bother).

A sequencer object can spit out new objects in a regular rhythm or a steady stream. You can attach one object to another with a spring, so that they swing around one another.


The output conforms to some diatonic scale, but you can insert a scale object and give it several different scales. The played notes will switch from one scale to another depending on where the scale object is located as it bounces around.

The output is an irregular flurry of ambient tinkling — a highly programmable iOS wind chime, if you like. There’s even a reverb effect. You can capture the output as a soundfile, or upload it to your Soundcloud account. It’s all very silly, but extremely cute.

Posted in music, technology | Leave a Comment »


Posted by midiguru on January 4, 2014

When everything is surprising, nothing is surprising. That’s today’s observation with respect to experimental electronic music. When a musical style has no norms, no method of organization that gives shape and structure to the musical ideas, then we can formulate, at any given moment, no guess about what may be about to happen in the next five or ten seconds. Anything might happen, and no matter what it is, it will be equally surprising. Consequently, whatever happens, it won’t be surprising at all.

The only norm I’ve been able to detect is that the composer’s attention span is typically somewhere between 20 and 90 seconds. At some point within that span, the composer is likely to decide to change something — to do something different. But as a norm, that’s not much help for listeners. Something is likely to change, but we can’t begin to guess how it will relate to what we’re hearing now.

Or rather, since music is comprehended retrospectively, by analyzing (quickly and subconsciously) the last few events we’ve heard, when something new happens we will be unable to perceive any coherent relationship between the new thing and whatever preceded it.

In classical composition, on the other hand, stylistic norms are constantly in play. A classical piece is rather like a work of fiction: We don’t know Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in modular, music | 9 Comments »


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