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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

Listening Off-screen

To the semi-generative glitch of Johannes Hertrich, aka Unifono

At exactly two minutes and two seconds into this short video, there is some motion at the bottom of the screen. Look for it. Don’t dwell on it, but keep an eye out for it. There is other motion throughout, primarily the blinking of lights. Those lights coordinate with the sounds, because the lights emanate from the devices that produce and influence the sounds.

The lights are signals to the musician using the devices, but they can serve a purpose for the listener, as well. For example, look to the upper left, where the word “play,” all caps, appears to the right of a larger-than-average circle. Note how the appearance of that circle being illuminated corresponds with one of the central presences of sound surfacing momentarily. Likewise, look at the tiny horizontal array at the very bottom left, how it serves as a kind of visualization of a certain band of quick and brittle noises.

What’s seen here is a modular synthesizer, more specifically a virtual one. It is a modular synthesizer simulated on a computer. It’s being used by the German musician Johannes Hertrich, who goes by the moniker Unifono, to render what he terms a mix of IDM and glitch. There are, indeed, touches of Autechre’s bracing sonic torques here, but the music is very much Unifono’s. More importantly, the music is generative, or as Unifono puts it, semi-generative (more on the “semi” in a moment). This means that for all the development within the music, all the changes that take place, it is all happening based on a system that Hertrich set up and then sat back and listened to, just as you and I might.

Then there’s that “semi.” This brings us back to the motion two and a half seconds in. There may be other reasons Hertrich considers the music semi-generative, but a sure one is the motion at 2:02. See how the knobs turn a bit, and how the module itself seems to jerk up a little? That’s because even though we can’t see Hertrich’s hands manipulating the software, we can see evidence of it. The knobs turning are one example. The slight motion of the module itself is another. It seems that in touching the module, Hertrich has briefly nudged it out of place. It returns immediately (if you’ve used this software, which is called VCV Rack, you’ll recognize the magnet-like quality the module evidences as it rests quickly back into place).

I realize as I reread this before posting that it could be misconstrued as a critique of the performance. I want to be clear, therefore, that it as meant as nothing of the kind. The audio is great. I played it on repeat for much of the day, and took notes on some of the techniques, the play between modules, by which Hertrich achieved his sonic goals. What I wanted to do in focusing on the motion at 2:02 was to observe the presence of the human touch in a video that is, in essence, a screenshot-in-motion of a machine working automatically, one left, as it were, to its own devices. It’s like an incredibly subtle variant on the Twitch genre of videos, in which viewers watch someone else play a video game live. Except here the software is considerably more obscure, and motion is brief, exceptionally so.

More from Hertich at unifono.bandcamp.com. Try VCV Rack out at vcvrack.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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