Electronic Music


 

Fully Connected Neural Network

Fully Connected Neural Network

The Network Instrument – a work in progress

This post summarizes my current thinking on the Network Instrument, a lot of which is in flux. It is derived from a document I’ve been writing where I have outlined these ideas and have been more or less working them out in practice.  As I continue to explore these ideas expect a lot of the material here to change and develop. I haven’t really done any sort of systematic analysis of other electronic setups (beyond what I reference below of David Tudors), this really is more of an attempt to generalize what I’ve been doing then an attempt to create a pedagogy of Live Electronics (as much as I think this needs to be done).  I think it would take real research to do that, something that would require the ability to work on it near full time. Alas not something I can do what with a demanding day job, musical practice and a wide amount of interests. I’ll keeping work on this  document as I go and perhaps occasionally updating this post or adding new ones.

There were really three major developments that led toward this conception of an electronic instrument. The first would of course be the musical practice I’ve been involved with for the past ten years or so. When I worked with electronics I almost always worked intuitively, connecting things together, experimenting basically until I would get a configuration that I found interesting.  I ‘ve long referred to this as state exploration which is more or less referencing finite state machines, which are also networks (see directed graphs for the mathematics behind a lot of these notions).   In that context a state was a particular network configuration and the exploration aspect was permuting it until it shifted states.  The electronics of David Tudor would be the next major influence on this way of thinking. His large tangles of devices, layers of feedback and cascading amplification would certainly be a form of network though without really getting a chance to examine particular setups it is hard to really classify them. But looking at the existing diagrams of his networks a number of them would fall into my category of a Feedforward Network. Of his work most importantly conceptually though was the Neural Network Synthesizer which would be an example of a highly connected network though a bit more literal then what I’m describing here.  When I was in college Artificial Intelligence was what I spent the bulk of my time studying and at that point in time Neural Networks were all the rage.  I’ve programmed more than my fair share of them, exploring the wide variety of networks and their various features and behaviors (of interest to perhaps some, I was actually studying these during the time the Neural Network Synthesizer was developed and while I didn’t end up stumbling onto Tudor at that time I do remember interest in those chips and hardware being made from them).   It was this experience combined with the above that really got me thinking of the electronics configurations in ways that I hadn’t before.

Neural Synthesis Nos. 6-9Tudor’s Neural Network Synthesizer is a direct application of neural networks to music making which is quite interesting and is something that should perhaps be explored further (see this) but the Network Instrument is more of an attempt to understand something, a metaphor a certain practice. Live Electronics really is almost folklore and there has been little attempt to codify concepts and ideas and what has been done is in scattered journals and often out of print books. A lot of wheels are being reinvented due to an increased interest in live electronics from a handmade/diy/maker/hacker perspective.  The noise, eai, underground comp and new live electronics scenes are rediscovering much of what has been done and thanks to the web it is at least being somewhat documented. Most of this is from the technological standpoint, how to make the tools (for instance, this great book) but the ideas behind it all have been rather neglected. So this is an attempt to put out there some of my thinking on this, though of course it is only my perspective and relatively narrow. It comes from as I said above both experience and paying attention to other sources, but aspects of it are certainly theoretical due to only working with a subset of what is out there. Furthermore there are notions here that arose out of my attempt to codify these ideas which are rather unexplored but will point out aspects of my own current endeavors.

The Network Instrument

The basic concept behind the network instrument is of a number of complete (or near complete) instruments that are networked together to form a greater whole. Beyond mere summing of inputs the network is interconnected and utilizes feedback (in a networking sense) to create instabilities and variation. The notion of the Network Instrument is not necessarily new, it is more of an attempt to codify existing practices.  Within the conceptual framework there is certainly avenues for exploration that could be considered new and there are a few notions here that I’ve rarely, if ever seen, employed.  Note that I’ve appropriated a lot of the notions and terminology from neural networks but the way in which they are applied to this notion of an electronic instrument is not meant to imply any sort of direct correlation.

Network Components

A network has three components:  nodes, connections and interfaces.

Nodes
These are the sound sources which in most cases are a mini-network in and of themselves. That is they can be sound source(s) and various effectors setup in various formats (series, parallel, summed, etc.).  They can be electronic, acoustic or electro-acoustic as long as they can be integrated into the network.

Connections
These are the connections between the nodes. At the most simple this could be seen as the audio out from each node connected via a single mixer whose output is then made audible. Other setups though can include multiple sound outputs, connects between nodes, the lack of a central summing component and so on.

Interfaces
Interfaces are manner in which connections are made. These are generally either direct, indirect or a hybrid of these two. Direct interfaces are simply wires going from an output to an input.  Very simple but these are the backbone of the bulk of the connections.  Indirect interfaces, on the other hand, can be highly diverse but can be primarily thought of as an external input/output interface. That is a node has its own audio-output which is then connected to the network via sound capturing device. Indirect interfaces can be thought of as a layer of processing applied upon a node but done via its connection as opposed to an external device.  The use of a device between the output of a node and the input of another node could be thought of as a hybrid interface. That is to say a form of processing is applied upon the signal but the connections themselves utilize a direct interface.

Network Configurations

Determinate Configuration
A configuration that is more predictable, namely with a decreased amount of interconnections. You could think of a standard chain of guitar pedals as an example of this: the guitarist expects something played on the guitar to be modified in an expected way.

Indeterminate Configuration
A configuration that maximizes the unpredictability of the instrument, primarily though degree of interconnection. To continue with the guitar pedal example above, if you increase the the inter-connectivity, so as to not be in a standard linear configuration the transformation of that sound becomes increasing difficult to predict at least from a given input.

Note that Determinate/Indeterminate denotes a continuum upon which any given configuration lies

Network Types

Fully Connected Network
A configuration where every node is connected to every other node.

Partially Connected Network
A configuration where every node is not connected to every other node. This is the typical network case as a fully connected network is impracticable beyond a certain limited size.

Note that while the degree of connectivity lies upon a continuum a network is either fully connected or not.

Feedforward Network
A type of network where multiple elements are chained together and summed together prior to output. This configuration may contain loops in its various sub-elements but these too are always fed into the next element. The modular parts that make up a Fully or Partially Connected Network are almost always feedforward chains but it is the interconnections between those chains that create the distinction.

Interconnections

Electro-Acoustic Nodes
Using of an acoustic sound source that is tied into the network via various interfaces.  These can differ from other nodes in that they may allow for only certain types or degrees of interconnections

Electromechanical Interface
These interfaces are used to drive an Electro-Acoustic node in a mechanical method. These may offer limited degree of interconnectivity and may be only one way.  However they often can be extended for higher degrees of connection.

Clouds

Clouds are the myriad states within a network. This is a more nuanced understanding of the State Exploration that I pursued in the early phases of the no-mind project. A given network has a large number of permutations that can be varied by altering inputs, adjusted various values (feedback, volumes, filtering, etc) that in and of themselves can be sufficient for a piece of music. Conceptually if you thought of each possible setting of a component as its own device that could only be connected in isolation you would have a vast array of networks within any given network. In the same way that a cloud is both the signifier of an individual as well as a constantly shifting collective of individuals, a network instrument is a single entity that is made up of myriad of states.

An Example Network Instrument

An Example Network Instrument

Sound Sources

1.1 – Chimera BC16 patchable synthesizer
1.2 – Sinewave/Squarewave generator
1.3 – Realistic Mixer with stereo feedback
1.4 – Berhinger 16 Channel Stereo mixer

Effectors

2.1 – Realistic Reverb
2.2 – Spring Reverb
2.3 – Parallel Universe Oscillating Fuzz

Interfaces

3.1 – Berhinger 16 Channel Stereo mixer
3.2 – Direct connection from node 1.1
3.3 – Direct connection from node 1.2
3.4 – Indirect connection from Node 1.3
3.5 – Indirect connection from Node 1.3
3.6 – Indirect connection from Node 1.4

Output

4.1 – Primary Output
4.2 – Secondary Output
4.3 – Mini-Speaker for Node 1.3
4.4 – Mini-Speaker for Node 1.3

This was an actual setup I used for a bit as I explored some of these notions, but I don’t think I ever recorded anything with it. I’ve listed the specific instruments, effects, etc used here but obviously they aren’t particularly essential.

In some sort of conclusion

While it was my own electronics work that got me started on this path and David Tudor’s that really got me thinking, these notions are like I said a metaphor and not really describing specifics.  You could use this terminology to describe any electronics setup, I’m sure discovering that there are gaps in the terminology perhaps even discovering a form of electronics that is not network based.  This document is certainly incomplete, my descriptions insufficient, probably even downright incoherent at time. But its a start and I’ll keep working on it. Feel free to start a dialog in the comments about any aspect of this. I would definitely like to flesh out a lot of these ideas and could certainly use feedback.

Read more on the Network Instrument: Subnetworks

References
1) David Tudor Pages at EMF
2) Neural Synthesis Nos. 6-9, Lovely Music
3) Neural Network Synthesizer 1 by  Forrest Warthman
4) Neural Network Synthesizer 2 by Mark Holler
5) Neural Networks on Wikipedia

Minimal Live Electronics SetupI’m working on a new project that I’m releasing via my Hollow Earth Recordings label that is an investigation of music as a physical object. There are many facets to this project, more than any previous project I’ve work on. It is a year long project with twelve different releases (11 musical documents and a “summation”) each release exploring a different aspect of “music as object”. Beyond that though the music itself is a year long exploration of Live Electronics. I’ve basically always worked in this area, almost all of my earliest releases fall into this category, but I tended toward an electro-acoustic aspect with a blending in of my prepared wire-strung harp.  About mid-2009 I began a serious exploration in my electronics performance primarily codifying ideas that I’d been working with for years.  This has led to the theory of the Network Instrument and the notion that a particular instance of a Network is actually a continuum of networks. This is basically the “state exploration” notion that the earliest releases in my no-mind project were based on. In Network Instrument parlance I refer to these particular states as “clouds”.  So for this new project in conjunction with the ideas that I’m exploring I am also iterating through a series of clouds, exploring this simple live electronics setup that I have reduced myself to (pictured). This isn’t I should say as minimal as it may appear, the red box is a Nord Micro-Modular which is a virtual analog synth which while having its own limitations allows for a vast amount of creativity. The small white circular device is a Chimara BC-16 patchable synth which while also quite limited thanks to its patching allows for quite a bit of variety. The larger silver box is a Korg Kaoss Pad (the original) which I’m using exclusively as a controller for the BC-16.  I’m not adverse to patching other things in with these elements, but this is the core and I’ve only used these for the music so far.

I'm not completing any thoughtsWhich brings me to the first couple of entries in the series. The first is I’m not completing any thoughts. It was made with the setup as described above and clocks in at about 20′.  It was put onto a 3″ cd-r in a little slim jewel box with the image to the right there. See its page on the Hollow Earth Recordings site for both more information and a larger version of this picture. This was put out in an edition of four (4) all of which have been given away as of this posting. Each of the objects in the Eleven Clouds series have a unique criteria for how they are to be distributed and this release required that they all be given away. It also was desired that they spread as far as possible in such few copies.

Skipping StonesThe second release, Skipping Stones, was made with an iteration of the above setup, in effect a new “cloud” though still the same network. It is a longer piece, a little over 33′, and thus wouldn’t fit on my beloved mini-cd format so it is on a normal sized cd-r.  It comes in a vinyl pocket with the image to the left there printed as a nice 5×8 postcard. This piece to me is vindication of this process for as much as I love I’m not completing any thoughts. (which is a lot) I think that this piece is maybe the best pure electronics piece I’ve done. Every aspect of it works for me, from the structure, to the flow to the sounds used, to its dynamics and so on. Even the one or two moments that flirt with failure (it is live electronics after all) I think add to its structure and its overall charms. And as I say on its page on the Hollow Earth Recordings site there is a stretch of maybe five minutes that may be the best bit of music I’ve made.

Now that I’ve talked this up I’m sure you are saying, “yes and is this one is already oop as well you bastard?” and I’m pleased to say that as of this posting it is not. It is in fact available to anyone who wants a copy for free. Well almost free you must send me a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope and then I will send you a copy. Oh and this envelope must be mailed out to me in the month of February (so if you are reading this outside of February 2010, then yes I’m afraid it is oop).  To get my address to mail your SASE to simply send an email to skippingstones AT hollowearthrecordings DOT com and the auto-responder will send you my address. This is all automagically  handled and is not checked by a human so if there are any issues please contact me via my email address here or post in the comments. Also please contact me if you reside outside of the united states and setting up a stamped envelope is impracticable and we shall work something out.

I’m quite pleased with the first two entries in the project and am looking forward to working on this throughout the year. I’ll post here for each of the releases as they come out but it is worth keeping ones eye on thee Hollow Earth Recordings site where updates will appear first. At the close of the year there will be an assessment of the project and I’ll go into such details as the multitude of ideas that have gone into this project, why the releases are put out as they are and so on.

April 30th 2009
Morton Subotnick
Chapel Performance Space, Seattle  WA

Its been one of those weeks – I’m in a busy phase at work, there’s a backlog of chores piling up around the house and to top things off my glasses broke on Tuesday.  My old backup pair was now quite old (from 1998 it turned out) and my last prescription was over two years out of date. So along with all the other stuff that needed doing I sorted out the insurance, got my eyes checked and then desperate for a pair of glasses that wouldn’t causes headaches went to one of those “glasses in an hour” places and got a new pair.  All of these latter activities happened on the day of this show and what with trying to get some work done and bad traffic I made it to the show about 5 minutes after the advertised start time.  Luckily they hadn’t begun yet and I found a seat way to the right in the back.  Glancing around the room I noticed the four speaker setup and knew I’d regret this position, so I moved up to an empty seat on the aisle of the center section. It still turned out to be somewhat dominated by one speaker, but definitely a lot better then my previous seat.

As I became increasingly interested in electronic music I of course checked out Morton Subotnick.  The college I went to happened to have several Buchla Synthesizers and they were the first of that kind I was ever able to play with.  Subotnick is as associated with the Buchla as Carlos is with the Moog, so this was my first reason to seek out Silver Apples of the Moon.  His mastery of the Buchla was clear, but honestly I wasn’t particularly taken with his compositions.  He does I think deserve his pioneer status as a real new music composer for pure electronics in that he avoided the two most common traps you found in electronic musics of the era: reinterpreting popular classics on new instruments and the gee whiz factor.  The first of these of course would be what made Wendy Carlos famous (though to her credit she went on to do a lot more, particularly excellent work in the soundtrack area) but it has a long history. Arguably the first electronic instrument the Theramin was heavily promoted as fitting in with the orchestra and its greatest practitioner Clara Rockmore devoted her immense skill to basically trying to replace the principle violin parts in classic pieces.  Far more common though was the “gee whiz wouldja listen to this” factor where electronic instruments would crank out wacky sounds and there was little or no effort placed on composition.  This too has a long history from the absolute beginnings of electronic music: so many of the musique concrete and tape music pieces are absolutely without compositional merit and are simply novelties.  

Subotnick composed real music for electronics it just happens that I’m rarely 100% behind his compositions.  They almost all have strong segments but then there is always some form of excess that spoils them a bit for me.  It wasn’t until the excellent Avant Garde Project that I finally heard Subnotnik’s “Ghost Electronics” and a number of pieces that I really loved especially on The Double life of Amphibians (though one track is not so hot, maybe the one with the soprano?). A later AGP volume feature more “Ghost Electronics” which while not as strong as The Double life of Amphibians is still worth the download. Ghost Electronics for those not familiar was a term that Subnotki coined for applying electronic processing to acoustically sourced sounds.  He had a system of parameters that he’d manipulate and the electronic score for the (conventionally notated) instrumental pieces would consist of the application of these parameters. More information on the Ghost Electronics process can be found in the technical section of Subotnick’s website.

I wasn’t sure at all though what sort of music Subotnick had been doing since the 70s and figuring this was a rare chance to see him perform his works I did all the necessary rushing around to get to the show. A few minutes after I got my seat the director for the Washington Composers Forum Transport series, who had brought him out, introduced the show. They hadn’t printed very comprehensive program notes so Subotnick came out and introduced the pieces.  It turns out that he still is working with ghost electronics though in a much more sophisticated way thanks to modern digital electronics. The program would consist of two of these later ghost electronics pieces and his last pure electronics piece composed in 1978.

1) The Other Piano (2007)
Subotnick described this as a “four dimensional painting of the piano piece” which was traditionally notated piano piece.  The piece was dedicated to Morton Feldman and is titled from an amusing episodes that the two Morties had experienced.  Apparently shortly after Subnotnik had gotten married Feldman was congratulated on his recent marriage, to which he replied, “thanks, but that was the other Morty”.  So this piece is “The Other Piano” which is presumably the electronic image that Subotnick painted of the acoustic piano piece.  Interesting he also described his processing of the piece as improvisatory making me thing he is no longer scoring at least all of the aspects of the processing.

The piece open with just the piano, playing faster and louder then one would expect for a piece dedicated to Morton Feldman.   Then the electronics switched on with that audible thunk you hear when you turn on an amplifier when a source is already on.  At this point the piano settled down and while it clearly wasn’t aping Feldman it definitely was more in his territory.  It was more sweetly tonal then Feldman and notes didn’t linger nearly as long so it didn’t have that effortless floating effect of his piano pieces. But it used a lot of space, short little runs, single notes and soft chords.  Clearly the space was there to give the electronics room to play out and often I felt this was actually to its detriment.  The electronics was quite often delayed afterimages of the piano’s lingering tones and some of this I felt was rather stereotyped and even a bit cheesy. For example on fairly lengthy segment consisted of a single note or chord that would be echoed three times (at least audibly) with a certain amount of processing one each echo. The processing was of a spectral nature, taking the tone and smearing it out across its partials creating a wash of harmonics that had a fuzzy gentle dissonance to them.  Much more effective to my ears were sections where the processing overlapped with the piano playing which gave the piano an alien sound as if it was playing glass strings or was actually made of electricity.  

In general I quite liked the piano piece and probably about a third of the electronics and for a long piece (20-30 minutes I’d say) I was pretty engaged most of the time.  The aforementionedd echo-y bits and later section the came across as almost new-agey string washes from the electronics were the only parts where my interest waned. You read more about this piece and actually watch a few video clips at The Other Piano page at Subotnick’s site.

2) A Sky of Cloudless Silver (1978)
This piece was Subotnick’s final electronic piece after which he focused primarily on combining electronics with acoustics.  Apparently from 1961-1978 he worked only with electronics which, especially in the early days, involved a lot of technical work and he was instrumental in the development of some of the early instruments and techniques.  He said it wasn’t until this piece that he was able to really work without limitations and after he did this piece he was able to move on.

Subotnick was seated a large-ish mixing console in roughly the center of the audience and for the other pieces the other musicians were up front on stage.  Subotnick remained in the back with his laptop playing this piece which definitely used the four channel system.  This piece was not super removed from his other electronic compositions of the  Silver Apples of the Moon era and while it didn’t seem to be a big break with any of those techniques it could be read as a summing up of that era of his music. In general I found this as I have all of his early electronics – interesting, occasionally fascinating, but the composition didn’t do to much for me. At first I thought it was going to be the best of his pure electronics yet as it began with a much more deliberate introduction that even included several gaps in it.  But as his pieces always seem to do, it evolved into a firestorm of activity which while still made up of pretty interesting sounds (and avoiding a lot of the traditionally cheesy sounds you’d hear such as arpeggios, ring modulation abuse, campy filter sweeps and the like).  The final movement was highly rhythmic and was clearly using African polyrhythms with this hollow almost drum like sound. This was actually pretty different and neat for electronics if not exactly my kind of thing.  In the final analysis this piece probably was the best pure electronics Subotnick I’ve heard but still wasn’t a piece I could totally get behind.

After the piece he came to the front to receive applause and told us that he is going to embark on a world tour next year where he’d perform this piece and all of Silver Apples on the original Buchla!  He’s said he’d try to book a Seattle date for that tour, which drew a cheer. I know I’d go.

3) Then and Now and Forever (2008)
This piece was not dedicated to a specific person but was loosely dedicated to a series of people who had died recently.  It was scored for Piano, Clarinet and Violin again with electronics.

This was probably my favorite piece of the evening though it did seem to display a little lack of restraint in the middle section.  The beginning was quite sparse with just the piano picking out notes in the beginning as the electronics, violin and clarinet seamlessly fused into an otherworldly texture. In a way it reminded me a bit of Lucier’s works for oscillator and ‘cello though not quite as piecing as those pieces. But it had that effect where it seemed like the electronics and acoustic instruments were working in a narrow range and twisting around each other’s tones to creating beating effects at times and at other times it seemed like there were impossible overtones from these instruments.  The piano would poke through this with spikier little interjections, usually little runs and chords.  This was broken for the more energetic section but it wasn’t a deal breaker. Mainly the piano and electronics were a little loud, losing the other instruments and the electronics was more in synth wash territory for a bit.

Overall a nice piece if not 100% to my liking.  It’s one of those slippery pieces were a lot of the events and details slip from memory though it was constantly varied. The parts that evoked the Lucier piece but with piano was definitely the most memorable.  Overall this was quite an interesting evening of music and it was good to see the Chapel so packed with people to see this kind of music.  I wasn’t sure what to expect and while I wasn’t blown away by anything I enjoyed myself quite a bit and would see Subotnick again.