Entries tagged with “Electronic Music”.

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aeolian filter screenshot

Figure 1: Aeolian Filter Nord Modular patch.

One aspect that is vital to understand w/r/t Network Instrument theory is that the network is made up of interconnected instruments. Confusion can be had as electronic instruments are fundamentally made up of interconnected components and something like a modular synthesizer could appear to be a Network Instrument laboratory. Now a sufficiently large modular synthesizer could be patched in such at way that it contained discrete instruments that could then be interconnected in various ways, some of which could actually be interesting beyond simply summing signals in a mixer (for instance a four quadrant multiplier would allow you to intermodulate your signals).  A large collection of individual modules, or a software based solution that works on similar principles thus can be a a Network Instrument laboratory though what particularly makes the instrument is the variety of interfaces which, especially in a soft-synth, can be severely limited.  However it is the networking of the individual instruments that  is of interest and is something that can be exploited.  This, plus the fact that “instrument” is a rather loaded word that in an idealized network instrument might not meet the basic criteria that people hold, is why in Network Instrument theory they are referred to as subnetworks.

Synthesis v. Complex Waveform Modulation

Typically what people are doing with synthesizers is subtractive , additiveFM synthesis or a combination of these  (of course there are plenty of other forms of synthesis:  Wavetable, Karplus-Strong etc). A Network Instrument can utilize any or all of these techniques in its subnetworks but it is explicitly not a form of synthesis. Synthesis is taking very fundamental parts, typically quite simple waveforms (triangle, sine, saw, etc) and altering those waveforms to create a more complicated waveform. The Wikipedia links above are actually quite informative for a basic overview of these forms of synthesis and of course there is much on the web describing these techniques in greater details. Synthesis is almost always trying to create other sounds:

Subtractive synthesis is a method of creating a sound by removing harmonics, characterised by the application of an audio filter to an audio signal. For example, taking the output of a sawtooth generator and using a low-pass filter to dampen its higher partials generates a more natural approximation of a bowed string instrument than using a sawtooth generator alone. Typically, the complexity of the source signal and the cut-off frequency and resonance of the filter are controlled in order to simulate the natural timbre of a given instrument. – from the Wikipedia article on Subtractive Synthesis


Additive Synthesis
Figure 2: Additive Synthesis

Additive Synthesis which is the process of sound generation via the combining of simplified waveforms to increase the complexity of the waveform is a bit more akin to the notions of Network Instrument theory. However it is still at a much more basic level than what is done with an Network Instrument. That is the process is still trying to create a singular sound, usually tied to a pitch. The process though is much closer and if you applied the basic concepts not toward creating single sound but on an instrumental level you’d have a simple network, however the methods of modulation between subnetworks via interfaces doesn’t limit the process in which waveforms interact to just the additive.  Additive synthesis simply as a process does create enough complexity that it is rarely used in commercial synthesizers but of course this doesn’t limit its use for those that have enough of the constituent parts to explore the technique.

Network Instrument in contrast to the various forms of synthesis has no interest in replicating the sounds of other instruments or even in creating “new” sounds. It’s concerns are for utilizing the sounds in and of themselves and to increase the complexity and unpredictably of the sounds generated through the interactions of the complex waveforms generated by complete instruments. In this regard a Network Instrument is much more akin to a musical ensemble than a synthesizer. When you see an ensemble, say a string quartet, play live there are four separate sound sources that are bounced around in a space, altered by running into other objects, reflecting from walls and finally being mixed by your brain from two separated inputs.  This is what a Network Instrument is trying to do

An Example Subnetwork

Pictured at the top of this post is is the Nord Modular patch utilized in the recording of the aeolian electrics (part of the Eleven Clouds [Hollow Earth Recordings 2010] series). This is a patch that is run on Clavia’s Nord Micromodular which is a DSP based synthesizer that basically runs a softsynth in hardware. With two inputs and two outputs (plus a headphone jack that can be used for additional output) it is a useful and quite flexable addition to a Network Instrument. I often use it as part of another instrument, as several instruments or for processing of other instruments. With it’s multiple Ins and Outs it can be setup to create feedback which it can then process itself. My first use of this synth was what I called the Feedback Synthesizer where I’d only use feedback as a soundsource (no oscillators). It also can internally create feedback from interconnecting of modules which allow for a pretty high degree of instability from a digital instrument. However I find I get the best results when I feed in an outside source into it and incorporate it as part of a network. The typical setup with the Nord is a feedback loop on one channel and the other input either bring in another instrument (in a network sense) or a signal source to be part of the subnetwork in the patch.  These two parts can be interconnected and thus form a Network Instrument. In the above example I’m using a single input source, in this case another instrument (my Chimera BC-16) and then I’m splitting its input and feed it into two subnetworks. These two networks are interconnected to increase the interactions between the complex waveforms.

Figure 3: Annotated aeolian filter Nord Modular patch.

In figure 3 we can see isolated the two subnetworks of the aeolian filter. The object used to access the inputs is in the middle of the image (the Network Input) and the two subnetworks are in the top and bottom of the image. The input coming in is split into multiple signals which are then delayed to shift their waveforms.  These signals are altered in various ways (filtering, quantizing etc) but primarily they are inter-modulated with each both internally and across the two networks.  This of course is the essence of Network Instrument theory: the interactions of complex waveforms leading to increasingly complex and unexpected behaviors. The use of delays here (all very short; the Nord doesn’t have the memory for long delays and frankly I’m not very interested in the use of delay in and of itself) is always to create a new signal which increases the complexities as the are mixed with the other signals. This network (along with the instrument that was used in conjunction with this patch) was being used to invoke the chaotic behavior of the wind; effectively I should add as Brian Olewnick on his Just Outside blog described it thusly:

“One disc involves ringing metallics (a Tibetan bowl buffeted in some manner by wind?), the other more “whistling wind” (through some aperture?).”

The ringing metallics, is one disc (which was actually two contact microphones on windchimes) of this two disc set, and it is the other disc of electronics described in this post that Brian described as “whistling wind” (through some aperture?). The goal of course was not to directly replicate natural processes but to to capture that natural randomness that doesn’t seem random since being in the world it is always around us.  Use of the cascading complexities of a Network Instrument worked admirably for this.

Aeolian electrics excerpt by spiralcage

Above is an ~18′ excerpt from the ~80′ piece which gives a fair example of the sound. It can be downloaded via SoundCloud as well as played by click on the above.

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.