Music for Shuffling

Composer Kenneth Kirschner talks about how his music, which he likens to a certain popular MP3 player, changes every time you play it.

New York-based composer Kenneth Kirschner is a believer. “If I have a religion in life,” he says, “it’s the iPod.” Asked to detail the tenets of this faith, he quotes science-fiction writer William Gibson, who once noted, “The Walkman changed the way we understand cities.” Gibson’s much-referenced comment touches on how personal technology has allowed music to provide an unprecedented running commentary on everyday life, accompanying us in our heads as we make our way through the physical world, shaping perspective, mood and experience.

If Gibson’s futurist fiction is informed by technology, Kirschner’s art is enabled by it. In Kirschner’s case, that technology is Flash, the ubiquitous multimedia software language that powers countless Internet websites. Kirschner uses Flash to compose ever-changing pieces of music. These compositions generally consist of a set number of MP3s that are randomly layered simultaneously, and that can play for as long as the listener desires. A piece of music that is indeterminate — to borrow a word from John Cage, one of Kirschner’s role models — has no inherent end.

Kirschner also records and performs more traditional music, or what he calls “fixed” compositions, those old-fashioned pieces with, you know, a beginning, an end, and a middle smack between ’em. He’s released CDs of his own and in collaboration with talented microsound composer Taylor Deupree. Earlier this year the duo released post_piano 2, a sequel to a well-regarded album that built quiet textures from material sampled from an old piano. The album is on 12k, the label run by Deupree.

What follows is a lengthy conversation with Kirschner, in which he talks about how the iPod, with its shuffle option, helped him realize his interest in continuing the tradition of indeterminate music. He likens his works, which often involve shifting layers of sound summoned randomly from a set batch of sound files, to several iPods working in tandem. Call it “Music for Shuffling.” Of course, it’s more complex than that. For one thing, Kirschner spends a lot of time fine-tuning the number and content of those sound files, adding silence to the end and beginning of individual files to get the balance right — at least to the extent that he can control what will, inevitably, be set on random. For another, his experiments required the participation of a programmer, Craig Swann, a brief interview with whom appears at the end of this document.

Kirschner discusses the makings of his music in detail, from his habit of naming pieces with dates, to his struggle to create music that minimizes repetition, to how anyone can access the “open source” raw MP3 sound files of his compositions. A call for remixes based on post_piano 2 drew over 100 entries, including pieces by Dale Lloyd, Stephan Mathieu and Minus Pilots. “It was an amazing process for me personally,” says Kirschner, “getting to hear so many creative people taking my work and building new and exciting things from it.”

Most of the music discussed here is available as a free download or, in the case of the Flash pieces, stream on Kirschner’s website, In the appropriate places, those webpages are linked to.

Marc Weidenbaum: This may not be surprising, but I especially want to ask about the “indeterminate” pieces on your website. Could you explain where they’re coming from?

Kenneth Kirschner: Well, let me start off with a quick overview of the genesis of the indeterminate series, and where I see it going. All of my thinking on indeterminate music, of course, comes from [John] Cage and [Morton] Feldman. There’s a key Cagean distinction between chance procedures, which can be used to create a fixed work, and true indeterminacy, in which the structure of the composition itself varies with each realization. Now, I’ve used chance procedures in my work for over a decade, but until recently, I’d had no real interest in indeterminate music. I tended to side on this with Feldman, who, after helping pioneer indeterminate music with Cage, returned to fixed composition. Feldman has a great quote on the subject: “An indeterminate music can lead only to catastrophe. This catastrophe we allowed to take place. Behind it was sound — which unified everything.”

What got me thinking about actually writing some indeterminate work was a conversation with my friend Taylor Deupree a couple years back. Taylor had this idea of doing a mini CD-ROM series on 12k, his label, that he wanted to call Music for iPods — the idea was for us to write pieces built out of a huge number of tiny fragments, maybe 50 or 100 short MP3 files, that you’d then play on the iPod in shuffle mode. This struck me as a fascinating compositional challenge, a totally different way of writing, and I was very eager to try it out. But like so many of our ideas, we didn’t get around to actually doing it — yet. Still, it did get me thinking on the subject.

By early 2004, it seemed to me that a better idea would be to do some sort of software-based indeterminate piece. With the shuffle idea, you can only have one “layer” of material going on at once. But it seemed like it should be fairly simple, technologically speaking, to have several layers going at once, as if you were running three iPods, say, or three copies of iTunes. And this would certainly be much more challenging compositionally — how do you write a polyphonic piece when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and when, sooner or later, everything possible will happen? And the whole idea of building the indeterminacy into the piece technologically was totally fascinating to me. If you did it online, you’d have a piece of music that would be continually mutating and evolving, and that the listener could turn on or off like a faucet. I had the whole thing planned out in my mind — but it was all totally theoretical, since I have no programming skills whatsoever. I had no clue as to how one would go about actually building something like this.

Then, in the summer of 2004, I was invited to play at OFFF (the Online Flash Film Festival) in Valencia, Spain. Speaking there was Craig Swann, of Crash!Media, who specializes in Flash audio. And my first thought was, hey, here’s just the guy to help realize my crazy ideas! Fortunately, he was very intrigued by the concept, and we started corresponding and kicking around ideas right after the festival.

The first piece in the series was “7/29/04,” which I really just intended as a technology test rather than any sort of serious composition. It was basically a Flash realization of the Music for iPods concept: just a little shuffle player for short MP3s, but now built online in Flash. I don’t think the piece is very interesting musically, and I hesitated even to publish it on my site — but it did at least show that we could get the concept off the ground.

With the next piece, though, things started to get more interesting. “8/26/04” has three overlapping layers, and it’s also something I put a lot of work into compositionally. I think you can start to hear the potential of the concept with this one, and I’m very pleased with the way it came out.

“1/15/05,” the next piece, has a completely different sound: it’s a dense continuum of slowly evolving textures, and I think it’s an interesting juxtaposition to the previous pieces — very much an attempt to show the range of what’s possible. From there, I tried, really tried, to take a break from the indeterminate series — but I somehow didn’t quite escape it. The one ostensibly “fixed” piece I did — “4/20/05” — I’m now thinking of rebuilding as an indeterminate piece, because I feel like that’s what it really “wants” to be.

In September 2005 I posted three new pieces: “5/3/05,” “7/9/05” and “8/10/05” — a piano piece, a piece based on field recordings of the ocean, and a dissonant electronic thing, respectively. None of them are running yet in a truly generative mode, as Craig and I are still building out the next generation of our Flash templates; these will allow for more sophisticated compositions, and will likely be downloadable, browser-based applications to avoid the streaming issues that arise when these pieces get too complex. So as of now, Fall 2005, those latest three pieces are just up there as fixed MP3 examples, with the properly generative versions currently in the pipeline and hopefully coming soon.

Since then, I’ve started work on a series of indeterminate percussion pieces that I’m very excited about. While I always have a bit of a bias toward whatever I’ve done most recently, I really feel like these new pieces are the best yet in the series — that they go the farthest toward being actual living, breathing, autonomous little creatures. And these too will of course be posted as soon as the software for them is ready.

The next step for the project, I hope, will be a CD-ROM release of some of these pieces, which 12k is tentatively interested in doing. One idea is to call it Four Infinite Songs, or however many we end up including. I’m very excited about this, and hope it actually happens.

Weidenbaum: If you’re comfortable allowing listeners to peer behind the curtain, could you describe with some detail how the pieces dated “7/2904” and “8/26/04” function?

Kirschner: Well, as noted earlier, these pieces can really be thought of as simply one — or many — virtual iPods on shuffle play. In terms of how it’s actually built in Flash, for this I’d have to refer you to Craig. [Note: see conversation with Craig Swann at end of this interview.] But the basic structure is that each layer — each “iPod” — has a group of MP3s that it draws on, selecting one at a time in random order. These first two pieces use a lot of silence; this results from a combination of delays due to downloading, and intentional grafting of silences onto the MP3s themselves, which come together, hopefully, to give the right flow and spacing to the piece. I have a sense of how I want each piece to “move,” but it takes some tweaking to get the right combination of these factors. I do, though, love the idea that the Internet itself, through delays in network traffic, is helping compose the pieces!

Let me go into a little more detail about the structure of “8/26/04.” The piece has three layers: the first is the piano recordings, of which there are 14; this forms one layer. Then there are two layers of electronic sounds, both of which draw on the same set of 21 MP3s. So there will be up to three things going on at once — one piano and two synths — though often of course there’s only one or two — or none — because the next MP3s are still downloading. Feel free to hit the folder itself ( so you can see the different files and hopefully get a better sense of how it’s put together. I don’t mind people looking behind the curtain! [Note: All source audio files for his streaming indeterminate compositions can be located by manually entering a similar URL, in which the subfolder is the date-title of the piece, formatted MMDDYY.]

This might also be a good time to mention that I certainly conceive this project — like all of my work — as being essentially open source. The intention is not only to share the ideas involved, and get people thinking about the possibilities of this sort of technologically based indeterminate music, but to actually share the tools we’re developing as well. So if any of your readers want to try this sort of thing out, or even contribute to the project’s development, they really shouldn’t hesitate to get in touch with us.

Weidenbaum: On “8/26/04,” there were piano bits that reminded me of indeterminate music by John Cage. I now understand it’s safe to say that’s not a coincidence, that Cage’s work was on your mind as you composed this work. Could you describe the tradition of indeterminate music on which you drew?

Kirschner: These ideas all come from Cage, as well as from Feldman and the other composers of the New York School of the 1950s. Nothing here is new! It’s all completely derived from their innovations, and this series is really just my attempt to adapt their concepts to a new environment. “7/29/04,” in fact, was written quite self-consciously as an homage to Cage, specifically to his late-period piano works. I figured that if we could successfully pull off a “cheap imitation” Cage piece, then we could hopefully try moving on to something a little more original!

Weidenbaum: I found myself a little frustrated while listening to “8/26/04” — not with the piece itself, but with the fact that I needed to listen to it online, that my iPod inherently cannot play generative music, only “fixed” audio files. Again, my frustration had nothing to do with you or with your piece, but with the limitations of my own technology. Perhaps a web-ready device like a Treo would serve me better?

Kirschner: If I have a religion in life, it’s the iPod. So I know exactly how you feel. My original vision for these indeterminate pieces was to have a function through which you could “request” an MP3 of any duration, a sort of “MP3 generator”: you’d, say, ask the program for a 5-minute version, and it would compile a downloadable MP3 for you. You want a different 5-minute version, plus a 25-minute version and two 10-minute versions? Just type it in. The composition then becomes almost biological, in that it’s constantly reproducing itself in new and unexpected forms.

While this is definitely a cool idea, and I’d love to see it happen, Craig assures me that it’s totally hopeless in Flash — the technology just isn’t designed for that sort of thing. But perhaps one day we can realize these pieces in another platform or language in which this sort of functionality can be built. And if any of your readers has a suggestion on how to do this — call me!

Even though the “generator” concept remains the best long-term solution to the portable music question, I am still trying to come up with some options for the present. Anyone can of course record the output of the piece using a program like WireTap or Audio Hijack on the Mac. For the pieces that aren’t yet running generatively, I’ve posted mp3 examples, and I hope to do this for all the pieces in the series with my next major site update. And eventually, if we do the CD-ROM, I’d definitely want to include a large number of “fixed” MP3s on it for people to play on iPods — hopefully something crazy like 20 or 30 versions of each piece, just to get the point across.

Weidenbaum: When you were fine-tuning the piece, were there particular listening environments you had in mind?

Kirschner: I’d like to think that these pieces could be adaptable to a wide variety of environments. I myself always have some ridiculously specific sense of how my music should be heard, and I work really hard not to let that get in the way of other listeners’ interpretations, which are of course much more important than my own. I do, though, feel like these pieces could work well in an installation context, and hopefully I’ll get to experiment with something like that at some point. I’m also really, really tempted to use them in live performance — because I hate performing. And with these pieces, I could just either walk off stage or do a Milli Vanilli, and that would sure be a whole lot more fun for me.

Weidenbaum: Is there an optimal length of play time, in your opinion?

Kirschner: Well, I myself had to listen to each piece for very, very long periods of time, just to debug and get the composition right. I’d go crazy waiting for the damn thing to play the sounds I needed to hear, since of course I have no control over it. But these are my issues! For a normal listener, I’d hope that the piece could be meaningful and interesting no matter how long or short a time they wanted to listen for.

Weidenbaum: Are the silences in “11/18/04” intended to be heard as pure silence, at least silence in the Cage sense — silence that frames the sound inherent in the world around us — or is there sound occurring that I am not noticing?

Kirschner: First off, yes, if I’ve mastered the piece right, the silences in there should be true “digital black,” with nothing hidden going on. So you’re not missing anything. But yes, Cage’s whole concept of silence is that there’s no such thing: true silence doesn’t exist. We’re always surrounded by sound, if only because we’re embodied, as he realized when he went into the anechoic chamber. So inevitably something like “11/18/04” will be interacting with and framing its environment, and the “silences” will not be truly silent.

That said, however, the questions I’m asking with “11/18/04” are not so much about silence, at least for me. The genealogy of “11/18/04” goes back at least to a piece of mine called “4/3/01” and to a whole series of basic compositional questions I’ve been asking, and struggling with, for some time. I’ve wanted for several years now to be able to create a music that doesn’t depend at all on repetition: everything happens once, only once, and yet the piece hangs together, there’s a logic and a necessity to each moment, each event. Repetition has always been one of those fundamental structural elements of my work — a load-bearing wall in the architecture, if you will. Now there’s nothing wrong with this, of course — I grew up on 1980s pop and classical minimalism, and so I certainly have nothing against repetition, per se. But realizing how much I’ve leaned on it all these years, there’s a desire to question that assumption, to see what can be done if you use no repetition at all. And let me tell you, it ain’t easy.

This whole series of pieces has been a real struggle for me, and I’m certainly not there yet, at least in terms of having any sort of confidence or reliable methodology. Without repetition, you’re constantly threatened with chaos, with the unformed and the incomprehensible, and you certainly don’t want your listeners to finish out the piece nauseous and beaten down. My workaround has been these silences. To me, they’re like the ginger you have between pieces of sushi — they clear the palate. So you’re hit with a dissonant, harmonically complex sound — and then you get to rest. And have a moment to reflect and recover. And then comes the next sound. But you retain a memory of the previous sound, so there’s this whole series of complex, almost subliminal relationships that move across those silences, like ghostly afterimages. And that, to me, is what the big silences in these pieces are all about. But again, with this series, I don’t feel I’ve succeeded yet; I’m really still learning.

Weidenbaum: You’ve mentioned how you work hard not to get in the way of listeners’ interpretations of your music. Is that why your pieces have such basic titles, and why there’s so little text information on your website?

Kirschner: Exactly! When I was younger I used to title all my pieces, and the titles were unbearably pretentious, a total disaster. I began to suspect that they were actually somehow harming the music itself. Then I tried giving everything a pseudo-classical title — Prelude! Allegro! — which pushed the pretentiousness even a step further, really. In 1989 I started using the dates, and as the lesser of many evils, they’ve clearly stuck. And yes, the site follows the same philosophy. I’m just not confident that pictures of my cats or a list of my favorite Doctor Who episodes would significantly enhance the listener’s interpretation of the music.

Weidenbaum: Speaking of what classical minimalism and ’80s pop have in common, the earliest MP3 on your site, from 1989, bears little resemblance to your more recent work. Yet, to borrow your description of how the phases in “11/18/04” work in the mind’s ear, once I heard “7/18/89” I found it hard not to remember it when listening to the new stuff. To cut to the chase, can you describe how you got from “7/19/89” to “11/18/04”?

Kirschner: Wow, that’s a long story! But let me at least try to give a quick overview. First off, there’s a whole period in my work, ranging from 1982-1989, that isn’t represented at all on the site. I was a kid then, and was writing either pop songs realized entirely on synthesizer — since I couldn’t sing — or little faux classical pieces, also all synth. There’s actually some fun stuff in there, and maybe one day I’ll put up a little page of “early recordings” so people can hear where I’m coming from. But for now even the best of these recordings are crippled by either embarrassingly poor production values, embarrassingly pretentious titles, or some combination of both.

What unifies this early period, I think, is a reliance on song form: at some level you can parse almost every piece down to a “verse verse chorus verse chorus verse chorus chorus” sort of thing, and most were written quite traditionally by focusing on chord progressions and melodies. What changes with “7/18/89” and the pieces that follow is not so much the song form, which often endures at some level, but rather the method of assembly. This was the point at which I started using what I sometimes call “vertical improvisation” — basically loop-based composition, as is common in dance music. You write a riff, loop it, then starting playing another riff over it, slowly building up a structure from the interacting parts. The epitome of this approach, it seems to me, is a piece like “12/15/92.”

The trick here, though, is that a dependence on these interlocking components generally makes for a static harmonic structure. Evolution is hard, and each piece ends up only expressing one essential idea. And so the next major transition in my work starts to happen around 1994, although the missing links aren’t posted on the site yet — a lot of my work still isn’t mastered and online. There are two key factors in this change, and you could call them Feldman and Cage. I first heard Feldman in late 1993, and this was immediately a huge and life-changing shock, a whole new way of thinking. My work at that point basically becomes a more and more frantic attempt to imitate Feldman. And from Cage, it’s at that time that I start integrating chance procedures directly into my compositional methods, mainly to determine the large-scale structure of the pieces. What you get is a style of composition that’s much more complex in terms of its linear development and how it’s able to evolve harmonically. The apotheosis of this period would be something like “10/8/97,” and you can immediately hear that there’s no longer a single structure that underlies the piece — it’s become more of a growing, evolving thing, as Feldman might say.

The transition out of this period is still ongoing, and the destination remains unclear. Even in 2004 I was still doing pieces that use the older methods, like “4/27/04.” But the questions I’m asking now are moving in other directions, both of which we’ve been discussing: on the one hand, indeterminacy and the possibilities it offers, and on the other, a piece like “11/18/04” and its associated questions of what an a-repetitive music can be. Both of these are direct reactions to the previous period in my work and the questions and limitations that became apparent from it, just as that period was a reaction to the previous one, and so on. The hardest part in music is knowing what questions to ask. Each individual piece poses new questions for the next piece, and in each broader period there is some limitation or concern that gets taken up in the longer term. And so for me, there’s definitely a unity, or at least a consistent narrative thread, to what I’ve been doing throughout all the work you hear on the site.

Also, if I can take a moment to editorialize, I’d like to add one more thought. One thing that I like about my site is that I do keep all these old pieces up and accessible, whatever style they’re written in. If I have one criticism of the current electronic scene, it’s that it’s way too fashion-driven. For a lot of people, if they don’t hear the hip clicks and glitches and really high frequencies and really low frequencies that they’re expecting, they just tune out. And this is a real misunderstanding, I think, of what electronic music is all about: I mean, we have such an unbelievable palette, such a range of sounds to explore — why limit yourself? And so I’m really pleased to present works that don’t conform to what people expect in terms of sound design. I myself think that some of my best work comes from 1997, 1998, 1999 — and I think it’s all the better for not being glitchy or microsound or whatever. Sure, clicks and pops are fun to play with, and can be quite expressive, but within a few years they’re going to be laughable for anything but a Retro Sounds of the ’00s collection. I’d like to think that good composition and good sound design are values that can endure beyond any single trend or fashion.

Weidenbaum: So, I have to tell you, though I’ve been writing about “free” music for some time, about musicians and labels putting music online for download at no charge, your response made me think of something I hadn’t really thought of before in any depth. To back up for a second, I think it’s safe to say that indeterminacy is a generation marker in modern composition, maybe something even more stark: a philosophical line that composers fall on one side or the other, in terms of whether or not they’re comfortable with it. I think that much is understood. Now, you mention how your projects are “essentially open source.” This suggests to me to that “open source” is a comparable generational or philosophical marker for musicians. Thinking of your composer-peers, can you describe what others think about your comfort in posting music for free, and welcoming the unmediated input of others?

Kirschner: I think that’s a very, very interesting suggestion. And I think we’ve come a long way in exactly that direction. I was a teenage cyberpunk, and for years I’d scribble “This music may be freely copied” on cassettes I’d make for people. Everyone just thought I was nuts. I’d make no effort to put my work out on CD, saying that one day a magical technology would come along that would allow music to zip freely and effortlessly around the world. Again, nuts. So I’d make big long speeches on the freedom of information and the commodification of digital copies and on and on, and people would listen patiently and smile and discreetly note the location of the fire exits. And one of the things that has been a real step forward, I think, is the fact that I don’t have to make those speeches anymore. I tell people that I release my music freely online, and they say, “Oh, cool.” They get it. Whether or not they agree, or would do it themselves, they at least get the concept. And I think that shows you how far we’ve come.

Of course, nobody has been a bigger help in getting this point across than the music industry themselves, who really know how to win friends. Their desperate, brutal tactics have really helped show people what’s at stake here. Back when they were getting ready to kill Napster, I was going around repeating over and over the famous last words of Ben Kenobi: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” And that’s exactly what’s happened. No matter how many doors they kick down, or how many kids they threaten to drag off to Guantanamo Bay, they can’t win. Of course, they can’t lose either, not with so much money and so many lawyers. And so the answer, for me at least, is to just step outside of the whole discourse. To help build a parallel world of music, a community rather than an industry. And I think that this is exactly what you see happening now, with the rise of Creative Commons, netlabels, and a whole generation, I hope, of people who have a fundamentally different conception of the nature and role of the digital copy. Of course, I certainly don’t condemn anyone who wants to follow a more traditional model in the hopes of making more money off their music; the goal, I think, should be to work toward a plurality of models, in which there’s a continuum of acceptable practices, with total openness at one end of a much larger spectrum. But what’s important now, I think, is for artists concerned about these issues to lead by example, to use their own work to stand up for what they think is right, so that we do have a future in which a real digital commons remains possible.

Weidenbaum: When post_piano 2 was released earlier this year, you set up a call for remixes on the 12k Records website, a select number of which are now available for download. [Note: Visit] Is this another example of your “open source” approach?

Kirschner: Yes, absolutely. And the PostPiano 2 Open Remix Project, or PP2ORP, as Taylor and I colorfully call it, has really been a tremendously rewarding experience for me. The idea was to invite other composers to follow the same process that Taylor and I had used in writing post_piano 2: to take my little piano sketch “11/11/03” and build something new out of it. When we sent out that call for submissions, we were nervous that we wouldn’t even receive enough tracks to build a release out of, much less a good or impressive release. But we were stunned by the response. We received over a hundred new recordings, from all over the world, and it took us months and months just to listen to them all. It was an amazing process for me personally, getting to hear so many creative people taking my work and building new and exciting things from it. It’s really what I’ve always wanted my music to be about, so it was very inspiring for me, a real honor. And 12k’s netlabel, Term, has now published a selection of the tracks we received — it’s a wonderful collection, and I really recommend your readers check it out.

Weidenbaum: You joke about the iPod being your religion. Could you describe the fundamental tenets of this faith?

Kirschner: Well, I’m a New Yorker, and a devout believer in the virtues of mobile music. To me, there are few higher forms of experience than walking the streets of New York City with just the right music playing. It all goes back to a quote from William Gibson I came across many years ago: “The Walkman changed the way we understand cities. I first heard Joy Division on a Walkman, and I remain unable to separate the experience of the music’s bleak majesty from the first heady discovery of the pleasures of musically encapsulated fast-forward urban motion.” Now, as a religious Joy Division fan, my first thought was, I’ve got to move to the city and do this. And that’s exactly what I did.

I’d also add that one of the great side effects of the iPod’s wild success is the widespread, genuine love of the shuffle feature that’s developed — to the point, even, of Apple’s very courageously basing their whole iPod Shuffle on it. The beauty of the thing is that all these iPod listeners have become unwitting Cageans! Which just goes to show you that great artists are people who are just a little bit ahead of their time, as if the technology itself has only now caught up with where Cage was at 50 years ago.

Weidenbaum: I’m fascinated with a particular aspect of your fine-tuning of the material, that you grafted silence onto the MP3s to get the flow right. Did you know you’d have to do this at the outset, or did it occur to you, and to Craig Swann, as you were working on the project?

Kirschner: From the start I knew the silences would be tricky, and there was definitely a process of trial and error involved in getting them right. Actually, for “7/29/04,” we had tried out building a little silence generator into the Flash file, so that you weren’t downloading blank space, which seemed silly. But that actually made things harder, because I found myself trying to balance three different kinds of silence: the inevitable little silences in the MP3 files, the silences due to download delays, and the silences added in by the Flash file. It was all just too complex to figure out, and so with “8/26/04” I ended up only juggling the grafted MP3 silences and the download silences, and that helped. Of course, all these pieces get tested out on my low-end DSL line — who knows how they move on different speed connections. I just keep telling myself that this whole series is about my learning to let go of things.

Swann’s Way

Computer progammer Craig Swann talks about the Flash engines that drive composer Kenneth Kirschner’s music

Marc Weidenbaum: Do you have musical background yourself?

Craig Swann: I don’t have an educational background with music. However, it has been a part of my life for more than 15 years. I have played the guitar for 15 years, and performed in several bands releasing several CDs. My love for electronic music has grown through the release of technology and specifically I have an interest in generative audio: using computers to create music.

Weidenbaum: Kenneth Kirschner explained how “7/29/04” was what he called a “Flash realization” of this Music for iPods idea that he and Taylor Deupree had discussed, and that it’s with “8/26/04” that he felt the format really got working and interesting. Is the technology behind the two pieces significantly different, or just the work that went into the individual MP3 files?

Swann: The key difference between the two pieces is that the first piece, “7/2904,” consists of one sole audio track. The significance of this piece was in fact the indeterminate lack of audio. In this dynamic composition the most important element became the pauses and lack of audio. These voids of sound are where the tension arose. The piece was built to not only create generative audio structures, but to also create random gaps in the performance of this piece.

In “8/26/04,” the piece was built upon to include several different layers of audio to create a moving soundscape. The concept of “empty space” was not an element in this piece. Instead layers were stacked combining ambient sounds and melody. These shifting soundscapes are again created and stitched via Flash and sequenced with a non-repeating algorithm to create unique compositions each time the piece is run.

Weidenbaum: Could you describe a bit how the Flash program works, and what innovations you implemented as you fine-tuned the software?

Swann: The Flash based generative audio application is basically a system that dynamically sequences audio elements provided by Ken. Primarily it is a random system that selects audio from several banks of associated sounds and streams them into each other, creating the dynamic track that you hear.

Related links: Kenneth Kirschner's website, Crash!Media's website, 12k Records' website, William Gibson's essay on the Walkman, archived at John Cage and Morton Feldman's conversations, at

One thought on “Music for Shuffling

  1. Today. The cool thing about this. Is you can simply go to Ken’s site. Download a few of these zip files. And while each has it’s own html file to go along with it. You can open a few of them up in your firefox browser at one time and enjoy a wealth of beautifully complex music.

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