Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Happy Birthday Charles Ives

Dear Mr Ives

You composed music to be performed from mountain peaks for audiences in the valley between.

You messed with our sense of tonality, harmonic direction and temporal structure.

You created more questions than answers, in the style of a truly great thinker.

Your "Unanswered Question" remains one of the great western musical imponderables.

I dedicate this small foolish greeting to you and hope you are enjoying your birthday, somewhere suitably interesting.

Love etc,
Mawson


Monday, 21 October 2013

A brewery, a gig and Goebbels' secret bunker.

During the evening of my 2nd day at the "Functional Sounds Conference", I walked from the centre of the city, using the paper street map I had fought so hard to obtain on a public holiday. 

Out past Alexander Platz onto Friedrichshain, towards Prenzlauer Berg, I walked for around an hour, absorbing the strangely spacious yet oppressive architectural surroundings, still dominated by the remarkable, absurd 1960s radio tower.

Eventually, at a sudden and unlikely-looking entrance to a newly-built gated community, the street name I sought skulked diffidently in the shadows.

After so long a walk, by six lane motorways, in the rain, this end-of-journey surprise seemed like a kind of practical joke. 

I walked past identical pristine concrete boxes, a mixture somehow of reduced-scale Georgian London and Lego Bauhaus (if it doesn't yet exist, it should). 

At the end of this German Desperate Housewives landscape I did not expect to find an enormous ancient brick warehouse. The numbers were 76 and 78. Seeking 80 as instructed I accidentally strayed into one of the pristine gardens and started to imagine having my legs bitten off. 

I left and stood in confusion as it started once more to rain.

A man on a bike rode past and I called to ask where the studio was. He directed me to a dark corner with a heavy, ajar door, orange light from within.


I entered to a remarkable, huge cubic space with piano, scaffolding towers, an ancient Citroen and people sitting on sofas in the semi-darkness. I asked if this was the studio and they pointed me through a far door. 

I was now behind the fairy-lit bar in a fifteen metre high, square brick, iron pillared hall with Bluthner grand piano, mixers, modules and a Mac on the stage. 

Taking off my wet jacket and fetching a beer and some delicious sushi rolls I looked around to realise I didn't know a single person.

The evening progressed with a series of fascinating conversations with new acquaintances and some extraordinary music. 

Towards the end of the night, when almost everyone had left, I got into conversation with the owner, Jens Reule. He offered to show the only two of us remaining, me and Kevin Logan (Ear of the Duck) the underground bunkers beneath us. 


Down spiral stairs to the basement we followed in the dripping chill of pitch blackness behind Jens' torch beam. The first chamber, semi-cylindrical and around ten metres by forty was lined with rusted rectangular metal frames that had once supported bunk beds. 

A solid-rusted iron chain like an industrial stalactite dripped slowly to the floor by an arched doorway into a chillier, utterly dark second chamber. 

I entered alone, using my phone's feeble blue screen as my only light. Even twenty feet from the others I felt very alone and surrounded by whispering shades, a skin-creeping weirdness to be so close to this strangely silent memorial space.

We were, Jens told us, in the secret air-raid shelter of Goebbels' chosen Nazi-faithful families. The beds were used nightly by over a hundred people, mostly women and children in families working for or useful to the Ministry of Propaganda. 

The former brewery had been requisitioned due to its proximity to the Ministry (now an economics publishing house) and was connected by a number of tunnels to permit safe, rapid access. Goebbels was, according to Jens, not only tiny but a coward. 

Certainly it seemed that the miniature rusty manhole cover under which I stood in the echoing brick well exit was only fit for very young children. How hundreds could have clambered in or out of this hatch in a hurry was impossible to see.

Back to the hall through which we had entered, Jens shone his light into a smaller chamber, through the window space of a locked hefty wooden door. A solid-rusted bike leant against the far wall, next to folded bunk-bed frames. 

In front of these a dozen or so radio transmitters and receivers, the wheel of a tank and, mind-blowing, in a plastic bucket, far to the side, an Enigma machine, in pieces. 

Staring in silence at this mysterious, resonant hoard which Jens has cautiously, lovingly collected through years of local memento hunting, all we could hear was our breath and the quiet, echoing counterpoint of dripping brick.

On leaving, hushed in wonder, Kevin stopped at a thin, rusty iron door, unattached and leaning against a wall by the toilets. What's this, he asked. "Ah, that" said Jens with a proud grin, "is a blast door from the Führer Bunker." 

We ascended again to the empty sound stage, drank another beer with our host, admired the fine piano and played a little to each other. 

Thanking Jens for his hospitality (it was now 2 a.m) Kevin and I left and argued amicably about the way back to town, until the distraction of a kebab shop provided much-needed warmth and meat. Or, in his case, chickpeas.

We photographed the changing colours of the radio tower and discussed poeisis and beer as we walked the long route back. 

More on UFO studios here - its rich and surprising history, their unique approach to audio mastering and studio recording, the engineering team.



 










Sunday, 20 October 2013

Concepts for Virtual Performance. (2)


Thanks for reading the article and the fascinating responses already received to Concepts for Virtual Performance (1) through Google+ and Twitter. 


I look forward very much to a wider discussion about the terms we use to consider "performance" "liveness", "participation", "audience". . . 


Below is a message about Virtual Performance from Mike Milton, composer, multi-instrumentalist, Eigenharpist, movie-music consultant and my tentative responses in italics.


___________

[MM]    So,
- virtual: not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so.  
Mike Milton plays Eigenharp, 
advanced digital music controller
- musical performance: The act of performing music


[BLM]  What is the difference between performing and other forms of sound production? 

I would say it is particularly in the sense of playing To a person or group, of structuring a communicative act. 


We cannot perform in solitude. It is therefore, even if an identical act to the music played when alone, essentially differentiated in this deliberate conveyance of ideas or sensations to another.



  • {MM 2}  Is the reason you feel one cannot perform in solitude that the audience plays a role other than being there? If so, what is that role and how does it contribute to the performance? If not, why could one not perform in solitude? Is a rehearsal in solitude a performance? If a tree falls in the woods....  The key thing you mention is that a performance cannot be in solitude. I'd rephrase that to say a performance requires an audience (and I'd add that the audience must matter to the performance)


[MM]  I suppose that a virtual musical performance then uses software to give the appearance and it would rise above the level of a recording.

It might not require (or allow?) the person offering it to participate at the time of performance.
GPS-guided listening in my 
Audio Portrait of a City (2012)


[BLM]  I’m not sure I understand about it being “above” recording – does this mean it is more valuable or “authentic”because it is being delivered to specific persons at a particular time and place? 

Surely while the historic time constraints of early recording are not a limitation on live playing, there is still a process of constructing an experience at which the listener is present, of speaking to oneself while witnessed in the act? 


Does virtual performance therefore exclude the live-mixed delivery of largely pre-completed sound, such as electro-acoustic / tape music?


I agree that VMP uses software to give the appearance and effect of a live rendition (although there are pre-digital precedents in mechanical musical automata), but it could (and perhaps more commonly does) also imply the blurring between a performance perceived to have actually happened and one that was simulated – in other words a non-live or recorded transmission of that event.


So if the transmission is not of an act of performance being simulated in real-time, then perhaps it could also be said that a highly edited recording was equally a form of virtual performance.




  • {MM2}    I intended only that a recording lacks some aspects of a performance such as the results of an interaction with the audience for the recording (even if there was an audience for the recorded performance. The effect of giving a performance is to somehow include the audience in a material way.  
  • I'd say that what the sounds are made from is not relevant to something being a performance. Perhaps the underlying question (that we skipped over a bit) is: What is a performance? On reflection my earlier comments define performance as an interaction between the performer and the audience. Defined that way, it might be easier to see why a recording (even a recording of a performance) is not *itself* a performance even though the viewer can see that the performer *was* performing for others and may react much like the original audience. The key difference is that their reaction and any impact of that reaction is absent from the recording. Performances never repeat exactly, recordings do?
  • Was the editing done in solitude? If not, was the act of editing the performance or is the result of editing the performance or both?


[MM]  Is a person giving a concert on Second Life a virtual performance? 

Many would probably say it was since the audience sees avatars (software entities that render the appearance of the performance). 

I think it is either a real performance delivered in a virtual space or, if it is not real-time, a recorded performance delivered in a virtual space.


[BLM]  Yes, I believe it can be. 

I know of (but didn’t have the weird pleasure of attending) a Suzanne Vega concert that took place some years ago on Second Life. 


My erstwhile PhD advisor, Richard Polfreman, who develops digital interfaces for ‘performance’ and ‘composition’ was in contact with the person who built her virtual guitar (for which he was paid in real-world pound notes). 


One of his tools uses adapted drivers for the Novint Falcon, an interactive motorised joystick controller which gives powerful haptic response to virtual objects used as musical instruments. 


If the “string” plucked is not a string but a piece of code describing some of the acoustical properties of a string, accessed through a digital controller and a software interface, even if the sound is produced before an audience, surely there is a strong contingent of virtuality to the communication?


But even if you don’t concede that,  and maintain that it’s a live performance on a virtual instrument, how, if we are unable to say with certainty if it is happening now or being relayed to us later, can we say whether it is a virtual performance or a recording?


Indeed, the recording is, at least in some circumstances, a virtual performance.



  • {MM2}  I believe it can be (but often is not) as well. 
  • The condition for this is that the audience matter to the outcome. Tim Exile sourcing sounds from his audience for his performances are a good example (that I'll mention again). 
  • I'd still suggest that a recording of that performance can be entertaining but is not itself a performance and the listener does not experience being an audience member or any facsimile of that experience. 
  • I'd say the original experience IS a performance even though it is delivered online but not a virtual performance because the audience <-> performer interaction is real and not virtual. 
  • If Tim Exile 'canned' the ability for a future audience to interact with a SW system that simulated what he did in his performance, *that* would be a virtual performance.


[MM]  Is a person playing a virtual instrument to an audience a virtual performance? 

No, it is a real performance of a virtual instrument.

Is a video of a concert a virtual performance?  No. 

It isn't a performance at all, just the recording of one. 

(Why? it is static and unresponsive. The things that change from performance to performance are simply replayed identically)


[BLM]  The qualities of stasis or responsiveness are not exclusively the defining ones – I think of Sviatoslav Richter’s insular manner on stage. 

He appeared before a crowd and played the music. Incredibly. But arguably not to them or even for them. 


There was a strong sense that he did not wish to be before an audience in order to get his cheque. 


For different reasons, Glenn Gould retired from the stage to work in the studio, sculpting ‘perfect’ performances by splicing segments of his innumerable striving takes together into a subjective ideal. 


This is how I and many composers work now, with all the apparent greater ease of the DAW over the magnetic tape splicer, always though, bearing in mind the affordances and constraints of the tools which, just like the particular qualities of two different pianos, suggest and lead one towards particular types of music-making. 


But that is for another place.




  • {MM2}  Good points. However, we are discussing performance as well as music. There is no question that wonderful music can be created in the absence of performance and in some cases could not be created in a performance. 
  • So we agree on the point and on the notion that it does not do much to inform this discussion. That said, people who choose to construct music as you describe above sometimes take conversations about performance as a slight on their preferred path to creation. 
  • They should not do this as there are both possibilities and impossibilities on either path. They are simply different vs. being better or worse or more or less effective. 
  • Oh and do you really think that a delivery of (even the most wonderful) music that completely ignores the audience is [not] a performance? 
  • I Do think so for the perverse reason that the audience will react and some will react to being ignored and that, even by dismissing this reaction, the performer is interacting.



[MM]  Is a person directing a computer performance in real time (say using reactable or pre-programmed music parts in a DAW) a virtual performance?

Possibly, but it seems too close to a real performance in that the performer is interacting in real time, directly. 

They are, in fact, performing even if they are assisted in doing so.



[BLM]  I completely agree:  however underwhelming it may be to watch an engineer operate sliders and pots at a lamp-lit mixing desk  -  in comparison to Satchmo’s eye-popping high register, heroically summoned from a coiled brass tube  -  it is in some senses still a performance: actions undertaken in front of a crowd gathered for the purpose of witnessing these actions.



  • {MM2}  Which is *exactly* why an Eigenharp exists. While it is not limited to the hybrid approach of performing with pre-programmed components, it allows it in a more front-of-stage way. 
  • One specific design goal was to allow for a full throated performance by such an electronic musician. It would be a great way to enhance, for example, the performances of Tim Exile. 
  • I particularly appreciated his use of audience supplied sounds in performance (which was online BTW) as one perfect example of audience being material to a performance.



[MM]  So, it seems to me that a virtual performance should work like generative music except that the software acts on performance aspects rather than (or in addition to) the musical aspects.



[BLM]  This is, for me, the confusing part of what you write here Mike: isn’t “generative music” more a compositional process, even a genre or style of production – a way of thinking about the content of music produced - rather than necessarily to do with virtuality, performance, recordings or liveness?



  • {MM2}  Yes, sorry, not very clear. I was suggesting that approaches similar to those used in generative music could potentially create generative performances. 



[BLM] Certainly the virtual performances which I build would not easily sit in the same category as say Brian Eno’s music.

For me, the essence of virtual performance is that it seems to be a performance, it seems to be plausible as a performance and could be happening. 


But it isn’t.  And since the only reason I can think of to make a performance that seems to be happening but isn’t, is that it couldn’t really be performed.




  • {MM2}   Another reason is to allow time and place shifting of a performance so that audiences who are not there, then can experience a performance.



[BLM] I compose music then edit the delivery of that sound to try and make it appear that it is being or has been played by human hands. 




  • {MM2}  To me the issue isn't the appearance of being played by human hands but the experience of being played for me as an audience. Should one applaud a recording? Why would this matter?


[BLM] The fact is, those hands and brains would in fact be incapable of playing this music for reasons of finger strength, agility, stamina, hand size, speed of thought, complexity of rhythm and so on.


So for me virtual performance is the creation of an event or the apparent record of an apparent event where that which is not happening and could not happen, appears to be happening.


Here are two examples:


(1) a pretty unrefined essay in virtuality from 1999, Songs from an Island in the Moon No.16 – an incidental piece for a stage setting of William Blake’s prose satire, An Island in the Moon.





(2) a very recent (2013) composition that takes both played (MIDI and audio input) and generated performance (through instructions to a DAW, written and drawn on the screen) and transforms these beyond what either player or instrument could physically do, Virtual Piano Study No. 1.





[MM]  The author states the rules but then the software alone creates the performance. It is not a recording because the performance will vary based on inputs that feed the rules.


  • {MM2}  My take would be that the software creates a musical rendition. If the software has inputs from the audience, then is also creates a performance. These inputs could be realtime (is the audience quiet or loud, moving or still, and so on) or made in advance by answering questions (are you happy or sad, is your hearing full range or limited, do you prefer jazz or blues, etc)


[BLM]  I agree, that would be a potentially interesting way to work although I for one have never done it, so I wouldn’t recognise the method as a defining one for the more general practice of Virtual Performance. 
A nice idea although I would be so consistently in need of interference, adaptation, editing, that this would only be a starting point for building primary objects to compose with – my end results are always as specifically determined in their minutest detail as I can make them, more like an edited film than teaching an automaton to act for itself so, I suppose, closer to a recording than to something that can truly be called a performance.
Going back to the above examples, for me the Virtual is the principal part, the fact that it seems to be done but in reality could not be done.


  • {MM2}  For me the principle thing is that the audience and player interact or seem to interact (even if that interaction is to ignore one another)

[MM] Consider Tom Jackson's approach to live music production.
He provides a number of performance tools and coaches performers to deconstruct their music into 'moments' that can be used as components to deliver their song in a way quite different than as a recording.
Specifically, in a way that lets an audience see 'into' the construction of the song and allows the performer to point out things they would otherwise miss (like a nice little riff or chord change or piece of percussion or a key lyric).
'Improvising' in this context is simply drawing out, repeating, or eliminating these moments as part of a specific performance for a unique audience.
One might anticipate that a generative approach to doing this would result in a virtual performance.


[BLM]  Sounds like a really interesting approach to music-making and certainly one that would yield surprising results. 

I have been listening to the lush, post-Romantic piano music of Stephan Beneking

I asked his permission to sample and use some fragments from his work - compositions making of his material collaged, reflective responses: would it depend on whether you believed you were hearing them delivered (1) in real-time or (2) by a human pianist to call them virtual performances?

Definitions may be more problematic, limiting, than illuminating in this area, at this early stage in the subject.

I started using the term Virtual Performance to describe my simulations of sonic/musical things happening that could not really be happening.

Then I stretched that to other areas, like something that could conceivably be played if adapted or could readily be played if transcribed and rehearsed by a human.

Then it became, like for Gould, a seeming performance that was in fact sculpted, was in fact a recording: frozen. 

Perhaps this is no longer a Virtual Performance?

Is simulating rhythms from recorded water drips a virtual performance, given that the drip was a naturally occuring phenomenon and not a human act?

If not, do we call Reduzent’s “Solenoid Concert” a performance?

“a software-sequencer controls 8 solenoids, that knock on different things and therefore produce some rhythmic noise. made with puredata, an arduino board and a selfmade relayboard to control the solenoids.” 





  • {MM2}  So, this is full circle. We agree on a great deal and differ about the number of angels on the head os a small pin. I'd add just one angel which is a material role for the audience before naming something a performance. Perhaps this is the appeal of concert recordings. They are not performances but at least they reflect and deliver what one performance for an audience was. It isn't clear to me why a concert recording would be different than a studio recording except for the extent to which an audience is a part of a performance.




______________________


My replies to Mike and further propositions on the nature of Virtual Performance will be in Part (3).



Please follow and comment to join the discussion!





Virtual Piano Study No.1


As I mixed my 'factory' pianos with Conlon Nancarrow's ancient Ampico player-piano (thanks again to Trimpin who obtained and shared it), I started to feel as though each instrument should occupy a different (virtual) physical space. 
Like characters in separate rooms, speaking to, at, over, against, about, in spite of each other.
We move through a series of shadowy places, sometimes close, tight interiors then through warped thresholds to unreal open sky. 

This music is an exercise in 

  • using the sound sources, themselves alone and in uncomfortable combination, 
  • in auditory credulity and credibility, 
  • in exploring the essence of 'realism' and the 'realistic', 
  • how virtual space can be created through delay, reverberation, texture 
  • . . . and retained (after lossy compression to stereo mp3) for headphone listening
  • and in dramatising the wordless languages of musical dreams from which I often wake to sit staring at the dark. 

At those apparently silent moments, music like this has its beginnings. 

Please spend a few seconds to say what you see/ smell/ think of as you hear this:
(Like, Comment, Share, thou knowest the rest)


Friday, 18 October 2013

Little Cluster Essay for Player Pianos - October 2013

Having extended my Bosendorfer sample set to a ten octave piano (EXS24 in Logic), I set about an exercises in phasing or offsetting small groups of gradually changing arpeggio passages.

The three players, at low, middle and upper ranges of the instrument, are binaurally spread around 270 degrees of a hemisphere.

The effect should be as though sitting up close to an enormous piano, curved around you.

I furthered thickened the sound with synchronous doubling of each part to an identical track played using the EXS24 Yamaha grand piano sample set.

This is phased in over half a minute from around 40 seconds in.

Binaural panning of the three Yamaha pianos was offset from their Bosendorfer counterparts, to widen each pitch range's virtual field but not permit blurring between their spatial zones. 

Now two holographic, giant instruments occupy the same, impossibly curved physical space in front of and around you.

This music was inspired most I think by Nancarrow's 11th Player Piano Study, which actually changes your pulse and breathing - it has an effect upon the body unlike anything I have ever listened to. 

I was trying to approach something of this effect; it certainly was energising to compose.

Concepts for Virtual Performance. Part 1.



Building music in the digital studio is directly crafting sound, rather than designing written instructions for it to be recreated by others.

In the digital studio we still write these instructions; they are refined and layered over multiple “rehearsals” with the machines in the virtual band, to create this thing, this performance, that is the heard work.

But it isn’t a thing. And I’ll come back to that.

Having written notes on paper for years (well, decades) I am now mostly using digital tools to manipulate found or partially-formed sound objects.

Problems about simulation are delicious because they are new and have not yet been answered with authority.

How far can we take the sound of the piano - seeming in respect of its touch and handling, as closely as possible to be 'played' - beyond the current capabilities of performer or instrument?

Many new questions dominate these compositional inquiries and the tentative development of a Concept of Virtual Performance is an attempt to address these.

With acousmatic music’s absence of palpable communication – from a player to a listener – there are problems for some in deciding how to encounter the music.

It does not seem to be like a told story where the teller and the tale are a part of the same experience.

The movie is the closest form in another medium and yet this - of course - contains representations of people and their interactions.

Even if without a traditional plot, the movie contains elements that are both within and outside (commenting on) the story - diegetic and exegetic elements - between which the viewer attempts to differentiate.

If music by unseen, inhuman hands is embedded in a space, blended with it, not directly presented but allowed to be experienced, a radically new relationship is formed between the artist and the listener, the listener and the work.

The seated listener at the symphony concert engages both with the sounds directly and something beyond them, which the sounds are perceived to embody

So does the listener to a recording or at an acousmatic 'performance'.

But two profound differences intervene when we try to make a direct parallel.

Firstly, acousmatic music is not always discernibly distinct from its surroundings, because the place, for which the sound structure has been built, contains its own auditory character, activity and flux.

Secondly, there is not necessarily an intention to communicate a message, an object.

It may be that the sounds have been so organised to represent an analogue to a physical form or phenomenon, a process of change or a simultaneous condition of stasis and motion (a delirious favourite of mine, since hearing, as a child in the middle of an orchestra, Bartok’s Dance Suite. 

**Incidentally, compare the Concertgebouw’s orchestral performance with Andras Schiff’s piano version for an example of the difficult matter of “what is a musical composition?”).

And the composer or sound artist no longer necessarily attempts to communicate in a quasi-linguistic form.

They may be asking you to consider the juxtaposition of two sounds. The pulsing that such a combination creates. 

Two frequencies added. Each of them. Their total. Their difference. 

All audible, whether between two violins slightly out of tune with each other or between more complex, harmonic textures that change slowly over time: 

Now it is not the perceived commencing journey that is interesting,
- harmonic direction back towards its starting place -
but the shifting, restless sonic moment.

There maybe a mirroring of the place in the artifice apparently flung down there with such casual ease.

If it is possible – as I sorely hope – to de-reify music and composition, 

to replace the idea of music as a ‘thing’, with the truer idea of an attempt at reconjuring fleeting dreams or visions, 

such that a musical composition becomes less an isolated artefact and more a sensory element of the place it is encountered, 

just as the noises of a building, street or seashore cave characterise our sense and memory of it, then…..

...then new functions for music, 

transcending the ritualised offerings of music as ‘things’, with a social job to do, a message to impart, 
as has existed in the concert hall and church setting for centuries, 

may finally in some senses be achieved.

From a perspective of authenticity of reproduction 

- be that reproductive of an entire illusion or a construct of recording -

headphone-audition offers a more believable experience than speaker arrays and can be used to create a more illusory boundary between environmental noise and the deliberate contents of the sonic artefact.

Unfortunately, for anyone reading this who says

“Yes, but what the hell happened to art that makes sense, tells a recognisable tale that we can discuss as though it were an object covered in symbols whose meaning is widely agreed?”,

I have some difficult news.


In Hervé Vanel’s study on John Cage and Muzak, or what French composer Eric Satie advocated in the 1920s as ‘furniture music’, 
he refers to Lev Thermin's 1919 electronic musical instrument, the Theremin

(A recent resurgence in interest in the Theremin after a period of oblivion, accompanies the accelerated development of digital musical interfaces like the Eigenharp and the Håken Continuum)

To quote,
“As Cage perceived it, the Theremin was undoubtedly ‘an instrument with genuinely new possibilities…nevertheless, the problems remained that the Thereministes…did their utmost to make [it] sound like an old instrument…performing upon it, with difficulty, masterpieces from the past” and that it “amounted to imitating the past rather than constructing the future.”  

Cage complained that the new affordances of this radically different sound-producing object were being ignored, betrayed even, by a continued pursuit of old practices, the hunt for old meanings through new tools. 

Implicit is the futility of finding a new means of sound production if it is only to be used for making “old” sorts of sounds.

Another advocate of new technological affordances for the discovery of new ways to communicate new things, was Edgard Varèse in “The Liberation of Sound”:
the new musical apparatus I envisage, able to emit sounds of any number of frequencies, will extend the limits of the lowest and highest registers, hence new organizations of the vertical resultants: chords, their arrangements, their spacings, that is, their oxygenation.
Not only will the harmonic possibilities of the overtones be revealed in all their splendor but the use of certain interferences created by the partials will represent an appreciable contribution.
The never before thought of use of the inferior resultants and of the differential and additional sounds may also be expected. An entirely new magic of sound!
I am sure that the time will come when the composer, after he has graphically realized his score, will see this score automatically put on a machine, which will faithfully transmit the musical content to the listener.”
Varèse' prescience could not have foreseen the specific challenges of turning automated transcription and transmission into music or the ironically arising insecurities of digital preservation.

We are still though in a very ‘primitive’ technological state.

We have new, magical tools whose affordances for sonic production we are still learning to match - whether due to ability or willingness - with new, magical thinking.

To sound ourselves in languages entirely different from those we have ever spoken.

Furthermore, Varèse' and others’ predictions  

-  that automata could be well enough instructed to deliver, without intervention, ‘soundscapes’ whose richness of expression equals or surpasses the possibilities of acoustic performance -

could neither anticipate the dependence of users on ‘plugins’ to “re-humanise” an entirely quantised sound.

Just as an aside - it seems so counter-intuitive to first input uniform sound data then use automation to make it seem human, an embodiment of some notion that two machine processes can equate to one human one?

Humanising or giving the appearance of sentient, mediated, 'delivery' (note please, not 'performance') must be the most exciting challenge of our new digital tech

- and yet celebration of the tools themselves seems to take precedence over using them to do something, 

at once enough of a continuation of extant practice to be a recognisably communicative form, 

and yet to make a promising departure from it. . . .


The complex arts of simulating human agency in things at once physiologically or cognitively impossible and yet plausible - these are my obsessions.


I have never met any other composer or artist in another medium who shared these fascinations.


It seems strange to me that the digital studio should be so shortly explored as a means 

- not only as it widely is, of creating new 'unrealities' but - 

of extending the plausible yet impossible. 

Of permitting what Bach and Scriabin could only imagine but never dare to transcribe for fear that it was inaudible to all but them.

Digital music seems either to involve MIDI for acoustic composer to demonstrate to performers or an exploration of the tangibly inhuman, whether in house, trance or electroacoustic languages,  

of sounds that (in the latter) carry little connection to the neuro-physiological activity that thousands of generations of practice and inheritance have stamped upon our tiny, biological responses to stimuli.

And of course, makers of music in all fields remain suspicious of each other’s ability to speak credibly; the same tribalisms exist as, for example, when fighting broke out over the reported death of tonality, more than a hundred years ago.

A universe of expressive, evocative possibility lives in the tools and yet the fact of their ‘machine-ness’ seems to remain problematic, necessary to remember, like noting but avoiding acknowledgement of a person’s difference.

Varèse speaks from an age of detailed, manual craft, 

with a vision of the same application, of commitment, to its implementation through tools then unavailable; 

he cannot foresee the cultural changes, or absence of them in music composition that will eventually be engendered by these tools.

Maybe it’s that they are still just too new to us and the new digital instruments are still in their infancy; 

but as he foresaw, we are already finding it
“necessary to abandon staff notation and to use a kind of seismographic writing much like the early ideographic writing originally used for the voice before the development of staff notation.
Formerly the curves of the musical line indicated the melodic fluctuations of the voice, today the machine-instrument requires precise design indications.” 

Friday, 11 October 2013

Sweet Chicago Suite - - Ray Anderson's Pocket Brass Band

I've just returned from Berlin and Innsbruck, first for the "Functional Sounds Conference" and then to meet my week old niece, Maja.

On the train from Munich to Innsbruck, I met some musicians in the restaurant car, travelling to their gig that night, at the Treibhaus.


Visiting family far away and catching up with everyone, the gig was over before we had left the house.

We met the band afterwards in the bar and spent a fine evening chewing the cud about rhythm, virtuality, trumpeter Lew Soloff's interest in the neuro-physiology of musical performing, mine in the geo-location of sounds and bandleader Ray Anderson's recent foray into global jamming via the Web.

They are called the Ray Anderson Pocket Brass Band. To my shame I hadn't heard of them.

I bought their CD "Sweet Chicago Suite" and started listening on the plane back to England.

The shockingly amazing, funny and clever mixture of carnivalesque New Orleans marching band with bop-inflected, poly-rhythmic counterpoint blew me away.

These four guys - Trombone, Trumpet, Sousaphone and Drums - make an enormous, orchestral sound. 

Complex and rich, funny, warm and compelling. 

All the compositions on this disc are highly structured yet full of spontaneous call and response, sudden and gradual processes of change calling on all Matt Perrine's sousaphonic genius to underpin the harmonies while Bobby Previte's drums are a showcase in controlled understatement and wit.

Everyone should own a copy of this music. It will make you laugh aloud with delight.

Buy (and preview) Sweet Chicago Suite here