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Thursday, 15 September 2011

Dissertation Draft: Solo Live Electronic Pieces

Phreaking

When the local 2600 group, started organising BrumCon 2007, which took place on 3 May 2008, I asked if I could present a musical set. They had never done such a thing before, but they agreed. 2600 is a hacker group (“2600 Meetings”) with roots in phone phreaking (Trigaux), so I decided to reference that in a piece written for the gig.

As noted in The Complete Hacker's Handbook, “Phone phreaking” refers to the practice hacking phone systems in order to get free calls or just explore the workings of the system. Phone systems used to be controlled by in-band signalling, that is, audible tones that a user could reproduce in order to gain unauthorised control. For example, 2600 Hz was a useful tone to “seize” control of a line. Other such sounds commonly found in telephony are Dual Tone Multi Frequency [DTMF] sounds, which are the ones produced by a landline keypad. (Dr. K.)

I looked up red box phreaking on Wikipedia and also DTMF signals and used those tones as the heart of the piece. It starts with a dial tone, then does coin dropping sounds, followed by the sound of dialling and then a ring back sound, followed by a 2600 Hz tone. After that introduction, it plays dialling signals and then a beat. The beat is made up of patterns of sampled drums. The programme picks random beats to be accented, which will always have a drum sound on them and then scatters drum sounds on some of the other beats also. The loop is repeated between 8-10 times and then a new pattern is created, retaining the same accents for the duration of the piece. If the randomly generated drum pattern seems too sparse or too full of beats, the performer can intervene by pressing a joystick button to add some drum beats or another to remove them. The idea for randomly accenting beats comes a lecture by Paul Berg at Sonology in the Hague where he noted that accenting random beats seems like it had a deliberate rhythm when it's heard by audiences. This is related to Trevor Wishart's discussion of Clarence Barlow's “indispensability factor,” where Wishart notes that changing accents of a steady beat can alter the listener's perception between time signatures. (Wishart p 64) It seems that greater randomness in picking accents leads listeners to perceive more complex rhythms.

After the beats, a busy signal comes in occasionally. There are also bass frequencies which are DTMF sine tones transposed by octaves. Finally, there are samples of operator messages that are used in the American phone system. These are glitched and stuttered, the degree of which is controlled with a joystick. Thus, this piece is partly a live-realisation, self-running piece and partly controlled by a performer.

At the time, I was interested in making computer pieces that necessarily had to be computer pieces and could not be realised with live instruments or with an analogue synthesiser. Extremely exact tunings and sample processing are both examples of things that are computer-dependant. I was also interested to have more live control and more visible gesture, in order to, as Paine describes in his paper on gesture in laptop performance, “inject a sense of the now, an engagement with audience in an effort to reclaim the authenticity associated with ‘live’ performance.” (Paine p 4) I thought having physical motions would engage the audience more than a live realisation. Conversely and relatedly, I was also interested in the aesthetics of computer failure, within the glitches I was creating. Cascone writes, “'[Failure]' has become a prominent aesthetic in many of the arts in the late 20th century, reminding us that our control of technology is an illusion, and revealing digital tools to be only as perfect, precise, and efficient as the humans who build them. “ (Cascone) I thought this intentional highlighting of imperfection would especially resonate with an audience that largely worked in a highly technical and professional capacity with computers.

I also find glitches to be aesthetically appealing and have been influenced by the extremely glitchy work of Ryoji Ikeda, especially works like Data.Matrix, which is a sonification of data. (“Datamatics”) Similarly, in-band signalling is literally a sonic encoding of data, designed for computer usage.

When I performed the piece at BrumCon, their sound system did not have an even frequency response. Some sine waves sounded way louder than others and I did not have a way to adjust. I suspect this problem is much more pronounced for sine tones than it is for richer frequencies. Another problem I encountered was that I was using sounds with strong semantic meanings for the audience. Many of them had been phreakers and the sounds already had a specific meaning and context that I was not accurately reproducing. Listeners without this background have generally been more positive about the piece. One blogger wrote the piece sounded like a “demonic homage to Gaga’s Telephone,” (Lao) although he did note that my piece was written earlier.

Blake's 9

The music of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop has been a major influence on my music for a long time. The incidental music and sound effects of Doctor Who during the Tom Baker years was especially formative. I found time in 2008 to watch every episode of Blakes 7 and found the sound effects to be equally compelling. I spent some time with my analogue synthsiser and tried to create sounds like the ones used in the series. I liked the sounds I got, but they were a bit too complex to layer into a collage for making a piece that way, but not complex enough to stand on their own. I wrote a SuperCollider programme to process them through granular synthesis and other means and to create a piece using the effects as source material, mixed with other computer generated sounds.

The timing on a micro, “beat,” and loop level are all in groups of nine or multiples of nine, which is why I changed the number in the piece title. I was influenced to use this number by a London poet, Mendoza, who had a project called ninerrors which ze* describes as, “a sequence of poems constricted by configurations of 9: connected & dis-connected by self-imposed constraint. each has 9 lines or multiples of 9, some have 9 words or syllables per line, others are divisible by 9.  ninerrors is presented as a series of 9 pamphlets containing 9 pages of poetry.” (“ninerrors”) I adopted a use of nines not only in the timings, but also in shifting the playback rate of buffers, which are played at rates of 27/25, 9/7, 7/9 or 25/27. The tone clusters frequencies also are related to each other by tuning ratios that are similarly based on nine. I was in contact with Mendoza while writing this piece and one of the poems in hir ninerrors cycle, an obsessive compulsive disorder, mentions part of the creation of this piece in it's first line, “washing machine spin cycle drowns out synth drones.” (“an obsessive compulsive disorder”)

While ratios based on nines gave me the internal tunings of the tone cluster, I used Dissonance Curves, as described by William Sethares, to generate the tuning and scale for the base frequencies of the clusters. The clusters should therefore sound as consonant as possible and provide a contrast to the rest of the piece, which is rather glitchy. The glitches come partly from the analogue material, but also from sudden cuts in the playback of buffers. For some parts of the piece, the programme records it's own output and then uses that as source material, something that may stutter, especially if the buffer is recording it's own output. I used this effect because, as mentioned above, I want to use a computer to do things which only it can do. When writing about glitches, Vanhanen writes that their sounds “are sounds of the . . . technology itself.” (p 47) He notes that “if phonography is essentially acousmatic, then the ultimate phonographic music would consist of sounds that have no acoustic origin,” (p 49) thus asserting that skips and “deliberate mistakes” (ibid) are the essential sound of “phonographic styles of music.” (ibid) Similarly, “glitch is the digital equivalent of the phonographic metasound.” (p 50) It is necessarily digital and thus is inherently tied to my use of a computer. While my use of glitch is oppositional to the dominant style of BEAST, according to Vanhanen, it is also the logical extension of acousmatic music.

Indeed, the piece was written with the BEAST system in mind. The code was written to allow N-channel realisations. Some gestures are designed with rings of 8 in mind, but others, notably at the very start, are designed to be front speakers only. Some of the “recycled” buffers, playing back the pieces own recordings were originally intended to be sent to distant speakers, not pointed at the audience, thus give some distance between the audience and those glitches when they are first introduced. I chose to do it this way partly in order to automate the use of spatial gesture. In his paper on gesture, Paine notes that moving a sound in space is a from of gesture, specifically mentioning the BEAST system. (p 11) I think that because this gesture is already physical, it does not need to necessarily rely on the physical gesture of a performer moving faders. Removing my own physical input from the spatialisation process allowed me more control over the physical placement of the sound, without diminishing the audience's experience of the piece as authentic. It also gives me greater separation between sounds, since the stems are generated separately and lets me use more speakers at once, thus increasing the immersive aspect (p 13) of the performance.

Although this piece is entirely non-interactive, it is a live realisation which makes extensive use of randomisations and can vary significantly between performances. In case I get a additional chances to perform it on a large speaker system, I would like the audience to have a fresh experience every time it is played.

Synthesiser Improvisation

When I was a student at Wesleyan, I had my MOTM analogue modular synthesier mounted into a 6 foot tall free-standing rack that was intended for use in server rooms. It was not very giggable, but it was visually quite striking. When my colleagues saw it, they launched a campaign that I should do a live-patching concert. I was initially resistant to their encouragement, as it seemed like a terrible idea, but eventually I gave in and spent several days practicing getting sounds quickly and then refining them. In performance, as with other types of improvisation, I would find exciting and interesting sounds that I had not previously stumbled on in the studio. Some of my best patches have been live.

I've been deeply interested in the music of other composers who do live analogue electronics, especially in the American experimental tradition of the 1960s and 70s. Bye Bye Butterfly by Pauline Oliveros is one such piece, although she realised it in a studio. (Bernstein p 30) This piece and others that I find interesting are based on discovering the parameters and limits of a sound phenomenon. Bernstein writes that “She discovered that a beautiful low difference tone would sound” when her oscillators were tuned in a particular way. (ibid) Live patching also seems to be music built on discovery, but perhaps a step more radical for it's being performed live.

Even more radical than live patching is Runthrough by David Behrman, which is realised live with DIY electronics. The programme notes for that piece state, “No special skills or training are helpful in turning knobs or shining flashlights, so whatever music can emerge from the equipment is as available to non-musicians as to musicians . . .. Things are going well when all the players have the sensation they are riding a sound they like in harmony together, and when each is appreciative of what the others are doing.” (“Sonic Arts Union”) The piece is based entirely on discovery and has no set plan or written score. (ibid) The piece-ness relies on the equipment. This is different than live-patching because a modular synthesiser is designed to be a more general purpose tool and its use does not imply a particular piece. Understanding the interaction between synthesiser modules is also a specialist skill and does imply that expertise is possible. However, the idea of finding a sound and following it is similar.

Recently, I have been investigating ways to merge my synthesiser performance with my laptop performance. The first obvious avenue of exploration was via live sampling. This works well with a small modular, like the Evenfall Mini Modular, which is small enough to put into a rucksack and has many normalised connections. It has enough flexibility to make interesting and somewhat unexpected music, but is small and simple enough that I can divide my attention between it and a laptop. Unfortunately, mine was damaged in a bike accident in Amsterdam in 2008 and has not yet been repaired.

My MOTM synthesiser, however, is too large and too complex to divide my attention between it and a laptop screen. I experimented with using gamepad control of a live sampler, such that I did not look at the computer screen at all, but relied on being able to hear the state of the programme and a memory of what the different buttons did. I tried this once in concert at Noise = Noise #19 in April 2010. As is often the case in small concerts, I could not fully hear both monitor speakers, which made it difficult to monitor the programme. Furthermore, as my patch grew in complexity, the computer-added complexity became difficult to perceive and I stopped being able to tell if it was still working correctly or at all. A few minutes into the performance, I stopped the computer programme entirely and switched to all analogue sounds. While the programme did not perform in the manner I had intended, the set was a success and the recording also came out quite well and is included in my portfolio. One blogger compared the track to Jimi Hendrix, (Weidenbaum) which was certainly unexpected.

It is unusual for me to have a live recording come out well. This is because of the live, exploratory aspect to the music. If I discover that the I can make the subwoofers shake the room or make the stage rattle, or discover another acoustic phenomenon in the space, I will push the music in that direction. While this is exciting to play, and hopefully to hear, it doesn't tend to come out well on recordings. I also have a persistent problem with panning. On stage, it's often difficult to hear both monitors and judging the relative amplitudes between them requires a certain concentration that I find difficult to do while simultaneously patching and altering timbres. In order to solve this problem, I've written a small programme in SuperCollider which monitors the stereo inputs of the computer and pans them to output according to their amplitude. If one is much louder than the other, it is panned to centre and the other output slowly oscillated between left and right. If the two inputs are close in amplitude, the inputs are panned left and right, with some overlap. I think this is the right answer for how to integrate a computer with my synthesiser. Rather than giving me more things to think about, this silently fixes a problem, thus removing a responsibility. An example of playing with the autopanner, from a small living room concert in 2011, is included in my portfolio.

For future exploration, I am thinking of returning to the idea of live sampling, but similarly without my interaction. I would tell the computer when the set starts and it would help me build up a texture through live sampling. Then, as my inputted sound became more complex (or after a set period of time), the computer interventions would fade out, leaving me entirely analogue. This could help me get something interesting going more quickly, although it may violate the “blank canvas” convention of live coding and live patching. In February 2011, there was a very brief discussion on the TopLap email list as to whether live patching was an analogue form of live coding (Rohrhuber). I do not see that much commonality between them, partly because a synthsiser patch is more like a chainsaw than it is like an idea, (“ManifestoDraft”) and partly because patching is much more tactile than coding is. However, some of the same conventions do seem to apply to both.

Bibliography

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*“ze” and “hir” are gender neutral pronouns

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