The dualities of digital composition

I’ve been very busy the last few weeks teaching and working on other people’s projects.  One of the things I’m involved with is a test of a system for computer based duets call CIM.  Andrew Brown is curating a show called Musician & Machine at the Queensland Conservatorium this Friday to demonstrate various practitioners and their varied approaches to the system.  Here is a video where i’m demonstrating the technology.  Some more deep thoughts after the jump.

I’ve been returning to a deeper listening to music of late, as something more than just background noise.  Two artists I’m very much into at the moment are Bee Mask and Rashad Becker

What I think is particularly inspiring about them is how much they have outlined a unique pliable sound without easy reference points and developed a live setup that supports this. While I’m loving the renaissance of interesting synthesiser music, much of it comes across as needlessly retro, redolent of a trendy nostalgia for Cabaret Voltaire or New Age Ambient warped on Ketamine.  It is far too easy to fall into the groove and the material i’ve been posting on Soundcloud is evidence of my excitement minus reflection or forethought.

At the Conservatorium i’ve been trying to inspire students looking at the web and music technology by way of Douglas Rushkoff and his Program or be Programmed mantra.

In relation to sound artistry there is much that resonates to me here.  It is worth at least being aware of how much your sound is defined by the technology, the software, the presets.  And also to what degree you are OK with this.  Striving for “that” sound is to my mind missing the point. It falls on deaf ears mostly but I argue with my students that commercialisation is not possible without innovation.  Yes it is useful to know how to make the “wub-wub” in FM8 but  you can’t make sell-out music without finding what it is that you can do more interestingly than the next clone.  On the other hand an ugly grey din is uninteresting static without something grounding it.  Clearly defined thought, passion and context can make the ugliest sound fascinating even to relatively closed minds and sensitive ears.   As architects of sonic experience we plan and build our instruments and soundscapes, if not from metaphoric mud and sticks then at least from solid materials with strong foundations and connections to the unique us, our essence, our presence, our being.  Not the latest, the newest, the trendiest or most expensive.

The development of a sonic watermark requires much thought, a fair amount of DIY and a vision to realise.  Merely getting an instrument and practising night and day to proficiency is nothing in comparison to expressive and fluid creative innovation.   This is definately what i’m aiming for with the SKONLab modular setup which has iterated again to include a Macbook Air, a launchpad for sequencing, and the MOTU Ultralite for multichannel routing and recording.  Here is a brief bit of video showing initial work with the system.

This setup suits live performance very well but I’ve been a bit stuck conceptualising it’s use in a broader compositional sense.  In thinking about my constraints and affordances I realise I’ve exposed something like a skeletal taxonomy for digital composition. Below is a list of dualities that I need to balance in order to feel like my compositional and performative vision is a reality.

The Technicalities:

  • composed and prepared / improvised and performed
  • transformation of sound /  synthesis of sound
  • rendered reflective / real-time instinctual
  • sequenced by step or curve / looped in variable cycles

The Theoreticals.

  • contextual work with a vision / processual work with a ritual or ideology
  • surrealist collage or cut-up / abstract expressionist blur and melt
  • pagan metaphysics and fortean augmentation / pragmatic geometry and a cult of mathematics

In practice: a work forever open

  • recorded material input – states the context or suggests the process – field recordings, media quotations, phonographics or previous experiments;
  • Composers Desktop Project and Metasynth – curation and transformation of material – leans towards surreal or abstract
  • SKONLab + DAW (Numerology/Launchpad or Ableton/Max/Thesys) – live intervention incorporating pre-rendered reflective material (played via Izotope Iris to keep the spectra visible) with real-time instinctual synth patching.  This process is facilitated by step-sequencing or variable loop manipulation.
  • The sonic result is recorded to six separate stereo tracks which can be collated and re-entered into the process ad infinitum.

There is possibly a paper in this.  I’m certainly going to attempt to explain these elements a little more in further posts.  Connections can be made with my PhD (currently in hiatus) though i’ve not been able to establish a working approach with visual content that can be iterative and simple enough to become instinctual.  And that is the key that i’m currently grasping towards.

Comments and suggestions?

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