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.
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.
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 »
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 »
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 »
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.
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 »
To compose music is to dictate some type of organization to a series of sound events. This is true even of John Cage’s aleatoric compositions; he doesn’t dictate the sounds themselves, but he dictates their organization quite carefully according to some abstract schema. I find aleatoric music stupid and boring, however. I feel the listener ought to be able to perceive the organization that the composer has imposed on the sound events.
How do composers of avant-garde or experimental electronic music organize their pieces? As far as I can determine, they don’t. No formal organization lies behind the surface phenomena.
In researching this question, I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Thom Holmes called Electronic & Experimental Music. He documents the early years of experimentation and discovery in loving detail. Primitive means were employed toward equally primitive ends. Folks who enjoy modern music technology may be excited, humbled, or horrified to learn Read the rest of this entry »
Now that I’ve spent a fairly ridiculous amount of money on a modular synthesizer, I’m challenging myself to figure out what to do with it. The challenge is this: My whole life has been spent listening to, playing, and composing music that was built out of notes. Or let’s say notes, chords, and phrases. Groups of notes are almost always organized either vertically into chords or horizontally into phrases. In fact, it’s reasonable to say that if a sound of a fixed pitch and duration is heard, but has no relationship to other sounds of fixed pitch, either vertically or horizontally, it’s not a note. The idea of “note” embodies the idea of a certain kind of organization.
It’s certainly possible to play notes, chords, and phrases with a modular synth. But it’s not the best tool for the job. If you want to play note-based electronic music, a software system (Propellerhead Reason, for instance, or Steinberg Cubase and a few good VST plug-ins) is a much better choice. Using software, you can store and recall your sounds. You can keep the same set of notes and try it with different sounds, or vice-versa — and you can come back to the stored piece a month later and try out different combinations.
With a modular synth, you can certainly record reams of audio to your computer, cut and paste useful segments, add effects, and do a mix. But once you’ve pulled apart the chord-generating patch to do a bass, percussion, or melodic patch, getting the chord patch back again the next day will be difficult and perhaps impossible. As a result, the process of assembling a note-oriented piece using a modular synth faces some serious roadblocks.
On the other side of the aisle, quite a lot of composers are using modular synths and other kinds of electronics to perform and record new kinds of music. For the most part, however, this music is not Read the rest of this entry »
After struggling a bit earlier today (see the previous post) with intonation in my modular synth, I felt I should do a few more tests. There’s some good news to report, and some bad news.
Bad news first: The output of the Toppobrillo Quantimator simply doesn’t match the desired 1v/oct input of my analog oscillators across more than an octave or so. Nor does there appear to be a calibration trimpot on the Quantimator’s circuit board. At least, if there is, I haven’t found a document where it’s mentioned. The quantizer for the Make Noise Rene is pretty much the same. Across three octaves, it just doesn’t produce a reliable 8:1 increase in frequency.
The only oscillator in my system that produces perfect octaves is the Mutable Instruments Braids. This is a digital oscillator, and does its own quantizing of the input CV internally. No surprise that it’s perfect; digital audio is all numbers. The Intellijel Cylonix Shapeshifter, on the other hand, is also a digital oscillator — yet it suffers Read the rest of this entry »