composition, ideas, ramblings

a synthesized horizon

Thoughts on abstraction and concréte


Recently I watched Jupiter Ascending at a cinema empty enough that the management clearly decided it wasn’t worth air-conditioning.

Early on there is a battle sequence between greys in transforming spaceships and the jet-booted dog/man/hero.  It was amazing.  A completely engrossing, seemingly chaotic yet clearly well choreographed combination of green screen phantasia compellingly setting against a backdrop of “real” Chicago.  The remaining space-based action sequences were to my brain far less effective, particularly the Hellscape that is Jupiter.  It became a blur of incomprehensible “elaborate action set piece with computer imagery” after “elaborate action set piece with computer imagery”.  Appreciating the cultural and physical requirements of this particular version of reality is hard enough.  The version of reality was as great Scots would say,  beyond our ken!

It got me thinking about the line between abstraction and emulation in art(ifice).  I love the strange and the alien, however a truly alien music may not be as appreciated, if indeed it could be perceived and understood.  Along these lines Rashad Becker’s “Traditional Music of Notional Species Vol. 1” remains for me the most compelling release of the last couple of years precisely because it manages to balance sounding completely alien with having a structural unity akin to gravitational forces and the physics of motion. Despite fairly abstract sounds they have both tonality and texture that allow us to perceive, follow and even predict compositional movement in space and time.

Likewise the “cod surrealism” of Nurse With Wound (purveyors of whimsy to the wretched) makes clear it’s grasp on structures of reality before twisting off from them.  This balance seems to be hard to get right – not all NWW is persistently engaging and tangental experiments in modern concréte often fall short on one side of the barrier – be they inaccessibly abstract or far too mundane.


My move to synthesis was part sea change, part work requirement.  There was a sense that maybe crafting pure sound from scratch might be a worthier goal than mangling samples but in my experience the “real” in pure synthesis is an aesthetic cliche (especially when it comes to modular abstraction.)  My last two Makrotulpa releases (Radio Atlantis and Inner Visions) are full of synthesiser cliches – I wonder if this is not part of the (un)learning process? Someone perhaps wiser than I once told me that the shape of our tools help define our artworks.  Boxes with knobs therefore are locked into a knobby, boxy paradigm as much as the disembodied sounds emanating from our pocket scrying mirror.

If I’ve learnt anything over the last couple of years it is that a “pure” workflow is impossible – as it leads to stasis. Better to constantly create challenges to work through and processes to observe.  Not getting bogged down in complex hardware or software is perhaps the key to more frequent music but of what quality and inspiration. Perhaps it comes down to finding the right balance of abstract and concrete, earth and sky.

Thoughts on a new(ish) electroacoustic development framework

Thinking of the tool defining the artwork i’ve been back and forth between Ableton Live 9 and Numerology Pro 4.  Both sequence based – both heavily focused on looping and both readily controllable with Launchpad / Launchcontrol.

The difference to me is that Numerology encourages lengthy improvised jams recorded straight to hard-drive – whereas Live encourages a methodical layering of samples and loops with continuous refinements and reframing.  The open artwork is never finished.  When I’m not using it as an educational tool (which is most of the time) I’ve been using Live as either a MIDI to Device routing tool or a sample juggling device.  The recent Max For Cats “OSCillot” release (requiring Max For Live) is one of the best software modular systems out there.  All that said i’ve been looking for an inspiring system with an emphasis on “flow” rather than “work”.

You know how sometimes you don’t immediately “get” a work of art until you revisit it later?  Took me time to get into Stalker despite enjoying Roadside Picnic and it was also a while before the MDMA addled “Loves Secret Domain” by Coil pushed its way through my “Industrial Music” pretension to become one of my favourite albums.    So it is with Usine Hollyhock that I subscribed to a couple of years ago based on concept, and put aside when the reality did not match (my perception of) the salespitch.

Well V2.0 is out and boy is it a different story.  Where Logic X is increasingly locking down “The Environment” and making Logic / Garageband follow more tried and tested approaches this is going in the other direction ending up with something like  “Mainstage” for hackers – a primarily rack based performance tool where all the parts can be rearranged and repurposed.  It’s probably the messiest, most cluttered digital audio workstation i’ve ever used and yet is perhaps the most compellingly concréte.

Click to enlarge this!

Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 4.05.14 pm

What you are seeing is a loop running through Melda Granular and then through B2 Reverb.  Each rack sits on a different CPU thread.  The patch stuff shows the Melda Granular – when you wiggle a control on the GUI it shows up as an inlet on the module.  I’ve popped some additional knobs that i’ve subsequently recorded pink automation curves for (subsequently editable – I could even change their colour!)  I can drag whichever track I want to record into that “record” box and get a separate stereo wave file.

The ability to break into the flow and mess with it is key to the usefulness of this.  Another example:  I had a track with a piano-roll outputting MIDI to an external synth – I wanted the MIDI and AUDIO on the same rack – so I added audio input modules into the piano-roll patch on the channels the synth was sending into and… it worked!  There’s around 500 little modules that can be used as well as a bunch of user generated add-ons.  Insane and awesome!

The image above – and the track I mention were the origins of the following piece.  I finalised this in Tracktion 6 – another under-rated DAW with an interesting flow well suited to digital concréte and electro-acoustic manipulations.


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