New Disquietude podcast episode: music by Lesley Flanigan, Dave Seidel, KMRU, Celia Hollander, and John Hooper; interview with Flanigan; commentary; short essay on reading waveforms. • Disquiet.com F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #field-recording, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

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

tag: ipod touch

Tangents: Remixing/Rewording, Cellular Sculpture, Bitrate Guidelines, …

Recommended reading, news, and so forth elsewhere:

Rewarding Rewording: The site Translation Telephone, at translation-telephone.com, pulls an Alvin Lucier / “I Am Sitting in a Room Listening” on words. In Lucier’s landmark work, the sound of a recording is heard to disintegrate as a phrase is read aloud in a room, and then a recording of that is played in the room, and then a recording of that recording is played, and so on. In Translation Telephone, you type in a phrase, and watch it cycle from one language to the next. For example, here’s a paragraph from a Disquiet post a few days ago:

The remix takes many forms. Music is remixed, but so too are videos, photographs, words, recipes, buildings, ideas. The remix is a means by which the past is made vibrant. It is the means by which the certitude of any form of documentation is probed and prodded until it loses its illusion of integrity.
And here is how it turned out, after going from English to Macedonian to Hebrew and back to English, with 18 additional languages at various stages in between:
Love is in many ways. The Sound of Music Mixer. But he added, video, photos, graphics, love the structure, how to live. This document is credibility
If a good mantra is a universal one, then Disquiet.com’s — “Just sitting here, listening” — holds up OK. After cycling through Bulgarian, Hindi, and 18 others languages, it came out “Just sit and listen,” which is, arguably, an improvement. Of course there are differences between Lucier’s piece and Translation Telephone, in particular that Lucier’s disintegration algorithm does double duty to provide a sense of the contours of the room in which it is recorded. If there were a parallel in Translation Telephone, what would it be? (Thanks to Paolo Salvagione for the tip. He called it an example of “rewording.”)

Bowl Alone: The intersection of physics and spirituality is a not uncommon one. This video accompanied a brief piece at io9.com that discussed how physicists were exploring the unique properties of Tibetan bowls, which are a popular tool for experimental musicians, especially those interested in the drone.

Max/R.I.P.: Belatedly, an excellent interview with famed computer-music legend Max Matthews done by Geeta Dayal just weeks before his death: frieze.com. Dayal is the author of the 33 1/3 book on Brian Eno‘s Another Green World. When she was prepping for the Matthews interview, she asked, via Twitter, if anyone had any questions for him. (Matthews is synonymous with electronic music, because his first name is part of the name of the popular software Max/MSP.) I’d seen him speak at CCRMA at Stanford several years ago, and had wanted to ask him about the multi-channel mixer he had reportedly built for John Cage‘s 1964 performance of Atlas Eclipticalis with the New York Philharmonic, then under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. Dayal did indeed ask the question, for which I am eternally thankful. This is just an excerpt from her Frieze piece:

GD: Didn’t you build a 50-channel mixer in 1964, for the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein? For a performance of John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis? MM: [Laughs] Yes, it would have been in the 1960s, because Cage and Jim Tenney were the two conductors; they ran the mixer. The mixer did have roughly 50 input channels, one for each pair of musicians at a given music stand. It was an octopus of wires, and they all came into these two consoles with a lot of knobs to adjust the volumes, and to direct the sound to one or more of about a dozen loudspeakers which were positioned around Avery Fisher Hall. Cage wrote the music for the performers, and he and Tenney ran the mixer during the performance. Even by Cage’s fairly generous standards, it wasn’t what he had hoped for. He added a piano portion, and I forgot the name of his pianist to the piece [David Tudor], and my judgment was that Bernstein stayed as far away as he could get; he couldn’t stand it. And I was just as happy to have him stay away, to tell you the truth. GD: Did you and Bernstein not get along? MM: We didn’t get close enough to not get along. But if we had gotten any closer, I would have quit the project. The instruments did not have contact microphones on them, and of course you don’t want to put a contact microphone on a Stradivarius. I’d encouraged the musicians to bring their second violins, or any old violin, instead of their best violins. I arranged the contact mics to be on parts of the instrument that aren’t permanent, like the bridge, and had gone through quite a bit of trouble to be sure that the contact microphones could be put on the instruments without damaging the instruments. I think most of the instrumentalists didn’t have any trouble with that. So I was really mad at Bernstein when he came in one morning and told the instrumentalists that if they didn’t want to use the mics, they didn’t have to. I think most of them went ahead and used the mics. And Bernstein didn’t come back again. It was a concert series, about four or five nights of this piece, that it was played. Anyhow, it was fun to work with Cage, and it was fun to work with the orchestra, and it was fun to build this rather large mixer.

Board Game: There is something really beautiful about motion frozen, like fast-frame stills of bats in flight and of water drops hitting solid surfaces. And then there are Jeff Cook‘s wood sculptures based on cellular automata, like those in John Conway‘s influential “Game of Life” (via boingboing.net‘s David Pescovitz):

They’re on display at the gallery Chalk (chalkla.com) in Los Angeles through July. More photos from the opening at the gallery’s facebook.com account.

Kick It? Yes You Can: Two worthy musical Kickstarter campaigns, both from New Orleans: There’s the new Chef Menteur album, and a musical house. On the latter: “A growing group of local and national sound artists are working towards interactive instruments that can be built into its walls and floorboards so that visitors can bring the house to life through their touch.”

The Sound of Pixels: During dinner with a friend recently, talk turned, as it occasionally does, to the process of taking one’s physical audio recordings and converting them to MP3s. We discussed various subjects: the reasonable legal right to download files of albums you have already purchased, those scary stickers on old promotional LPs you bought used that say they remain the property of the record company, and, inevitably, the proper bitrate. Certainly not 128kbps, but 192? 320? And should it be MP3? OGG? FLAC? I said I usually rip mine at 320, but I have this lingering fear that a decade from now standard audio equipment will be upgraded in a manner that will make our 320kbps MP3s sound the way that our old VHS cassettes look on fancy new HD TVs. The momentary look of anxiety on his face was straight out of a John Carpenter movie.

Navel Browsing: I need to do a better job of tracking comments I make on other people’s sites. Here are two from excellent newmusicbox.org: A piece by Colin Holter takes apart a quote widely attributed to Duke Ellington (that there are only two types of music: good and bad), and while Ellington did say it, he didn’t mean by it what Holter says it means, and I tried to correct the record. Also, in a separate piece, Frank J. Otieri asks, “What is the sound of music-less music?” and I suggest that the answer is held in a study of phonography, or the art of field recordings.

Archives Anonymous: The great ubu.com site now has a landing page for all its electronic-music goods: ubu.com/emr (via Chris Power, of twitter.com/chrisjohnpower)

App Swap: The remarkable app Reactable appears to be the first major port of a general-interest (i.e., not framed as a next-gen instrument) generative-sound app from iOS to Android: reactable.com.

Playing Defense: Reports on “sonic warfare” generally discuss snazzy new weaponry, but there is recent news of an “acoustic ‘cloaking device'”: bbc.co.uk.

Truly Representing: Diego Bernal is the new City Council member representing District 1 in San Antonio, Texas. This is, indeed, the same Diego Bernal who remixed the Atlanta-based Fourth Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra‘s “Ose Shalom” last December for the tabletmag.com Hanukkah remix compilation I produced. Major congrats, man. Do your city proud.

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The Many Flowerings of Otomata

Otomata is a simple generative audio app, in which chance collisions yield unexpected patterns, both visual and sonic. Its arrival on the Internet a month ago has, in turn, yielded unexpected flowerings, from myriad new patterns generated and shared by users (pictured here is one such example), to its employment in fixed sound recordings, to its inspiration of new software development. What follows is a survey of just some of those efforts, much of it (audio and software) downloadable for free. (Meanwhile, read an interview with the Otomata developer, Batuhan Bozkurt, “When Cells Collide,” and check out the software itself at earslap.com.)

Mitzilla‘s “Audio Recording on Sunday Afternoon” (at soundcloud.com/mitzilla) uses the beading pulses of Otomata as a rhythm track, against which he plays generously spaced strums of an acoustic guitar. It’s a promising sketch of what will, one hopes, eventually yield a more fleshed-out composition. Mitzilla hails from El Paso, Texas:

For DrDerek, the Otomata-derived material provides not the rhythm but the melody, to which he adds other digitally sourced material (“my Electribe SX-1 and Korg Kaoss Pad 3 and the Korg Kaossilator Pro. recorded live,” he explains, listing his tools with one caveat: “some things may sound a bit off”). The result (at soundcloud.com/drderek) is louche, loungey electronica.

And for bongo_g, who is based in Amherst, Massachusetts, Otomata provided not sound source material, but an overall approach. His “Ricochet1” (at soundcloud.com/user4724971) is evidence of an implementation of an Otomata-like software tool that he is developing on the popular device called the Monome.

Bongo posted the code at monome.org, where the discussion is ongoing. Here is a video demonstration (from vimeo.com) of bongo’s Otomata-derived instrument on a 256-cell Monome, performed by Machsymbiont:

Just to take the proceedings one further step meta and virtual, this next video (also at vimeo.com) shows Bongo’s Monome implementation of Otomata as ported to the Nomome, which is a software emulation of the Monome on a 64-cell device called the Novation Launchpad:

And because no cultural instance is complete without an iOS app implementation, this is Sound Cells (at apple.com), which debuted in the iTunes App Store earlier this month. As its developer notes, Otomata’s inventor is himself working on an iOS version. Sound Cells offers six different scales, among them the Hang scale, based on the Hang drum, which was the inspiration for Otomata’s tuning:

Two more videos. This is Otomata paired with another sound app, called SoundPrism:

And this is four instances of Otomata working together in tandem — with TV food personality Alton Brown (the patron chef of hackers) in the background:

Check out the original Otomata software for free at earslap.com.

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When Cells Collide

Istanbul-based 'Otomata' developer Batuhan Bozkurt on generative sound, app development, cross-browser incompatibilities, and unexpected outcomes.

There is a grid, and it is blank, just 81 squares arranged in nine rows and as many columns. Click on any single square, and it lights up: a cell has been activated, and it begins moving upward, toward the top of the grid. When the cell hits the wall, it rebounds, emitting a pinging sound at the moment of collision. The cell then travels down until it hits the opposing wall, again rebounding and pinging at once. Click on two squares side by side horizontally, and watch the resulting cells travel in unison visually, though they are pitched apart. Click on enough of these squares, and the resulting cells will collide with each other, triggering sideways motion and ushering in a new level of sonic and geometric complexity.

Yet for all the potential chaos, for all the unpredictable interactions, the resulting sound is what could widely be described as musical: tuneful, percussive, internally coherent.

Grid, Unlocked: Video footage of Batuhan Bozkurt’s Otomata audio-game in action.

This is Otomata, the grid-based generative music system, or audio-game, or sound-toy, developed by Batuhan Bozkurt, who is based in Istanbul, Turkey. A little more than a month ago Bozkurt announced the free tool’s existence on his earslap.com website. The rules, as he describes them, are simple:

Each alive cell has 4 states: Up, right, down, left. at each cycle, the cells move themselves in the direction of their internal states. If any cell encounters a wall, it triggers a pitched sound whose frequency is determined by the xy position of collision, and the cell reverses its direction. If a cell encounters another cell on its way, it turns itself clockwise.

The resulting wave of Internet-fed curiosity proved just as unpredictable as the sonic outcomes inherent in his creation. The Otomota site received more than a million page views in a matter of days. As of this writing, the above YouTube clip of Otomata in action has had more than 175,000 views. Coverage popped up not only on digital-music sites like createdigitalmusic.com (where Peter Kirn highlights Otomata’s social component, in which users share the result of their experiments), but also consumer-tech site like engadget.com. As a measure of the extent to which Otomata has helped popularize generative sound, note that the comments at Engadget are relatively free of the sort of snarky nay-saying that has been the reader response there to posts about sound art (witness, for an unfortunate contrast, a recent Engadget post about Switzerland-based Zimoun).

Contacted via email, Bozkurt agreed to be interviewed, and what follows is that conversation, lightly edited. He talks about the software-development fine-tuning that yielded Otomata, the promise and precursors of generative art, and some of the unlikely sources of his inspiration, notably the “hang” (“hang drum”), the steel instrument from which he derived Otomata’s tuning and sounds.

Steel Wheel: The “hang” drum, from which Otomota’s sounds are derived

Inevitably, the discussion touches on John Conway’s Game of Life, the popular ur-application of cellular automata, in which simple rules yield complex patterning. Bozkurt is careful to distinguish between the shape-changing algorithms of Conway’s 1970 concoction, and the more straightforward collisions of his own creation.

Primordial Programming: An example of Conway’s Game of Life in action (via wikipedia.org)

The email format of the discussion proved fruitful, allowing us to pursue various tangents, and easily track back to the moment at which conversation diverged. We talked about how he utilizes generative tools in live performance, and about a possible aesthetic parallel between his programmed and composed musical output.

Excellent Birds: Though he didn’t note the Conway-esque figurations at the time, Bozkurt linked to this video of a flock of birds from his twitter.com/earslap account a few weeks after the debut of Otomata.

Bozkurt, who was born in Istanbul in 1983 and continues to live there, is especially eloquent about the way that the ever-changing nature of computer technology shapes his decision-making as an artist and as a software developer. In a manner of speaking, the chaotic realm of digital sound — as exemplified by diverging platforms such as Flash and HTML5, and browsers that have their own idiosyncratic standards — is itself a generative construct yielding unexpected delights.


Marc Weidenbaum: The rules that apply in this game, the way collisions alter the way sounds are triggered — were they the first set of rules that you experimented with, or did you develop them through trial and error?

Batuhan Bozkurt: I have experimented with cellular-automata systems a lot in the past. I always found them fascinating for a multitude of reasons, the most important one being that they included the most essential elements I tend to employ for creating generative art. They have clearly defined states, they use feedbacks (the system is fed back its previous state and generates a new state), they have well-defined rules, and as a result they have emergent behavior. I’ve been programming my own tools to make art for many years and I don’t always work with very simple systems. Working with cellular automata (CA) is like a recreational hobby for me. They are very simple to implement, use, and understand, yet they include almost all of the ingredients I care about.

So if we take my past interest in these types of systems into account, it is an evolutionary step for me. That said, the rules Otomata uses were derived without any type of experimentation whatsoever. The idea just popped into my mind just as I was drifting into sleep one day. Later I thought it wouldn’t work well, or it wouldn’t be interesting at all, but I implemented it anyways to see how it behaves. A few tweaks (not to the rules but to the way they generate sounds) and I liked the result. Actually this was the first time I experimented with such a system. I mean, all the CA systems I’ve worked with in the past relied on neighborhood rules (like in Conway’s Game of Life). Otomata is distinct in this sense (it only cares about collisions) and I’m not even sure if it can be classified as a CA system technically. Read more »

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A Different Kind of “Local” App

Thicket app co-developer Morgan Packard currently lives in Denver, Colorado, and a local alternative weekly for which I do some writing, the Colorado Springs Independent, picked up my interview (“Being Decimal: The Anticipatory Pleasures of the Thicket App”) with him. The app is his co-creation with Joshue Ott. The new version has a different introduction and has been trimmed for a more general audience, and it includes some additional information about the local community he’s found in the area, having moved there from New York with his wife. Packard focuses on the Communikey Festival (communikey.us), to be held next month and at which Monolake, William Basinksi, and Radere (Carl Ritger), among others, many from Colorado, will be performing. Read the piece (“There’s a Thicket for That”) at csindy.com.

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2011 Resolutions: 1. Upgrade Streaming Music

These aren’t quite resolutions, but there are several things I intend to do a better job of on Disquiet.com in 2011 than I have in the past:

1. Feature more streaming-only music. True, there is arguably no such thing as streaming music. It’s all downloadable, since the audio you’re hearing is on your computer (or other web-enabled device) by some means. In many cases, all you need to do is look at a streaming-only page’s source code (Ctrl + U in the Firefox browser) to locate the URL for the streaming media.

But even if the distinction between downloadable and streaming is artificial, an illusion, it is still a distinction made consciously, one way or the other, by people who post their music online. This site honors such decisions, aside from the occasional gray-market tip regarding particularly remarkable items that have long been out of print. This site also favors, to a great degree, downloadable music over that which is only intended for streaming. (There’s a whole department dedicated to it, Downstream, much as there is for commercial music, The Crate, which has far less coverage, and there’s no section for streaming-only.)

Part of this decision to pay more attention to streaming audio is curatorial: There’s an enormous amount of streaming-only music available. Part of the decision is practical: Once upon a time, the distinction between downloadable and streaming-only was a matter of what was and wasn’t portable: downloadable music you could pop onto your iPod (or semi-equivalent MP3 player), whereas streaming music was only available while you sat in front of your computer. With the rise of the smartphone, especially in our age of 4G/Mobile-WiMAX/LTE/etc. connections, it’s arguable that the tables have turned: the downloadable file is now a weighty object that needs to take up precious space on a device, whereas streaming audio is available (allowing for some hyperbole) in any place at any time.

In the past, there’s been this sense that downloadable music is part of a community that takes open-source culture seriously and that non-downloadable (i.e., streaming-only) music can, as a result, have a sense of being promotional, but that divide no longer seems to hold. (Please don’t read anything into this about the fate of the Downstream section — it will continue to exist, a new item each weekday.)

In any case, I’m hoping that in 2011 I’ll spend more time acknowledging, critiquing, recommending, and otherwise paying (and directing) attention to audio that is streaming-only … such as this track by Chris Herbert, titled “Shortwave Study for Scott Morgan.” Scott Morgan is better known loscil, and he and Rafael Aton Irisarri are compiling a compilation titled Air Texture II for spring 2011 release, and this is a rough sketch of something that Herbert is working on for them. It’s a lovely, low-key bit of near-silent ambience, all slow gusts of aether with occasion additional tones and textures and bits of voice.

More on the track on the page where it is hosted, soundcloud.com/chrisherbert.

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