Phantom Circuit #142

The latest programme of “strange and wonderful sound waves” from internet radio Phantom Circuit ends with the track Ovst3p-m12 from my recent EP, Bits. The show features an interesting session recorded for the programme by Wizards Tell Lies. Also included is a track by the related project Isobel Ccircle~.

Phantom Circuit #142 (24th Jun 2014) by Phantom Circuit on Mixcloud


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‘Bits’ + basic_sounds

I have a new EP out today via the basic_sounds netlabel which is run by Andrea Ayotte. These tracks are a bit different to my previous releases – partly because they’re less focused on a specific concept or process, and partly because they are more rhythm-oriented. But as with earlier stuff, this is generative music – it’s made with algorithms, granular synthesis and phasing patterns. The EP, ‘Bits’, is free to download via the link below, and is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license. I hope you like it.

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What I’ve been Listening to this week

Karl FousekRelative Position of Figures (Phinery)


SculptureMembrane Pop (Software)

CoHTO BEAT (Editions Mego)


Austin BuckettSand Stems 1–7 (ROOM40)


Joe EvansSeptimal (spectropol records)


J ButlerSo Long, Voyager (basic_sounds)

Aldous HuxleySpeaking Personally… (Trunk Records)

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Opus 17a + EVOL

I recently had the honour of working on something for EVOL, the computer music project by Roc Jiménez de Cisneros and Stephen Sharp. This particular project involved a re-creation of Opus 17a by Hanne Darboven, and my task was to analyse the music from an MP3 and identify the notes so that EVOL could play it.

Hanne Darboven was a conceptual artist who worked with processes that could be described as generative because they were based on rules for manipulating numbers and making patterns. Darboven often used calendar dates re-arranged according to rules, displayed visually in grids drawn on paper that were arranged in larger grids. Opus 17a is derived from one such calendar-based artwork (Wunschkonzert, 1984), in which the numbers are transcribed into notes. The result is an hour-long piece for solo double bass.

At first, Opus 17a might sound ‘random’, but there are different patterns at different scales that become identifiable with repeated listening. My approach to re-constructing this piece from the recording ended up using these perceivable patterns. Initially, I’d hoped to be able to identify the rules that Darboven used and to re-create the piece by coding it into a computer program, but this wasn’t possible because we couldn’t find enough information about her process. Roc managed to find the music for the piece Wende 80 (‘Turning Point’), which had been performed by Trevor Dunn and Eyvind Kang. Although this provided some clues to the process, it was still impossible to reverse-engineer the music of Opus 17a to figure out the numbers, and the rules that had been used to map the numbers to notes.

So with the idea of programming defeated, I ran the MP3 through a plugin that would analyse the pitch and timing and output MIDI. The result had lots of mistakes, and was quite pleasing in a way. I’d used this inaccurate conversion process before – in the piece Mirror in the Mirror (on the album Symmetry-Breaking, 2011), which was based on analysis of Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt. In that case, the errors were central to the piece, but EVOL’s Opus 17a required a good, clean transcription. Tidying up this messy MIDI output was laborious but it seemed like the only viable option. This meant removing all the obviously wrong notes, re-aligning the remaining ones in time, and gradually removing any remaining clutter and filling-in the gaps by listening to the original and comparing it with the MIDI version. Working in this way relied more on identifying the patterns by ear, then also beginning to recognise them visually as they were constructed in the MIDI editor. The output of the MIDI conversion became less useful as the new piece, which was set to a fixed tempo grid, drifted away from the original recording in which the performer modulates the tempo. It would have taken too long to do the whole piece this way, so it was restricted to the first 12 minutes, which is just over 1,500 notes. This 12-minute portion is cut off at a section similar to that at the very end of the piece.

Listening to Opus 17a in the process of re-constructing it – bit by bit, and seeing the pattern of notes build up in the MIDI editor – brought its musical structures into focus. The process of analysis and re-synthesis revealed that it has a semi-regular tempo based mostly on 4 beats and sometimes 2. There are lots of 4-note arpeggios that gradually ascend in pitch. Often there are ascending arpeggios interleaved with static or ‘drone’ notes. It is based on a fixed scale (F Lydian) with a range of just over 2 octaves, from E1 to F3. The first 64 notes of the piece are based on this pattern of ascending arpeggios:

Opus17a-MIDI-1This image reveals how the 4-note arpeggios are related: First the middle two notes are raised, then the first and last notes are raised. The first 4 arpeggios are: {{F, A, C, F}, {F, B, D, F}, {G, B, D, G}, {G, C, E, G}}. The root note F often appears to be the lowest note in the piece, as in this section, but occasionally a note below this (E) is sounded. Numbering the lowest F as 1, the sequence for the first 16 notes is: {{1, 3, 5, 8,}, {1, 4, 6, 8,}, {2, 4, 6, 9,}, {2, 5, 7, 9}}. With this numbering scheme, the low E would be numbered 0, and the highest pitch (F3) would be 15. It’s unlikely that Darboven used this method, because it’s not easy to see how the numbers 0 to 15 would map to the calendar numbers in the visual version of this generative artwork. It means that even though we can’t know Darboven’s generative process, this analysis does shed light on the generated structure. In the section pictured above, this process of shifting arpeggios continues until the pattern is just a step away from one octave above where it started. The next 64 notes in the piece look like this:


That section shows some of the variations on the main 4-note arpeggio, including a 2-note variation at bar 19. Starting near bar 28 is another type of pattern with ascending notes alternating with a steady pitch. Sometimes these ascend from the steady pitch, or descend from it, or pass through it from above or below. The whole piece has some symmetry, with the densest clusters of higher pitches appearing in groups at the start and end of the piece, and fewer in between.

EVOL’s début performance of Opus 17a opened the Unsound festival in New York, along with Oren Ambarchi who performed the epic Knots, from the album Audience of One. A review in the New York Times described how

Mr. Jiménez de Cisneros unleashed a prismatic extended tone at excessive volume. He shattered that core sound into jagged rhythmic clusters, each lacerating note accompanied with a piercing strobe light flash.

Roc’s performance was recorded but the quality of currently available clips isn’t very good, so I’ve removed the link until a decent one is available. It’s interesting to note that the variation in tempo that had been introduced in the original instrumental performance, then straightened out in the analysis and re-synthesis process, is now taken to extremes in this computer music.

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Mapping Tintinnabuli Transformations

My project, Tintinnabuli Mathematica, involves the process of trying to understand Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli method of composition in order to use this knowledge for my own music-making. The tintinnabuli method transforms the notes of the M-voice into notes in the scale’s triad, either above or below the original pitch. For example, the first T-voice above the M-voice (T1↑) takes the first note in the triad above the M-voice pitch. The T2↑ voice takes the second note above the M-voice, and so on. In Pärt’s composition, T-voices may use these transformation  rules consistently or may alternate between them. My aim in this project is to code this generative process into a program to create musical sequences, and to use the code to explore the process. For this purpose, I drew up a couple of charts that map the transformation rules. These simple charts allowed for an analysis of the process, and revealed that there are six different forms of T-voice. The following charts use scientific pitch notation, and are based on the A natural minor scale (or A Aeolian mode), which is commonly used by Pärt. Other scales or modes produce different characters, and the amount of consonance/dissonance varies not only with the chosen scale but also as the T-voices are closer or further away from the M-voice.

The first chart is a concise representation of the tintinnabuli rules. The colours represent pitches: the scale forms a spectrum and the triad (A-C-E) is red-yellow-blue. Each row represents a voice, with the M-voice in the middle. The chart shows which notes each of the T-voices take for each of the M-voice notes, by looking at the columns. For example, if the M-voice is sounding the note D5, the corresponding T1↑ pitch will be the first note in the triad above it, which is E5. The pattern repeats in both directions, such that T4↑ is equivalent to T1↑, etc. This chart also demonstrates that there are six unique T-voices, i.e. that pairs of the upper (↑) and lower (↓) T-voices are dissimilar. For example, T3↑ is identical to T1↓ except when the M-voice is sounding one of the notes in the triad. The same goes for the pairs T2↑ & T2↓ and T1↑ & T3↓.

tintinnabuli_transformations-a1The second chart looks at the same transformation rules in another way. This time, the rows represent notes in the scale rather than the voices. A range of 3 octaves is shown here, with higher pitches towards to top. The M-voice is shown in the middle again, but in this arrangement it forms a diagonal line. The six T-voices are coloured differently. because of this, you can see how the pattern of voices repeats, such that T1↑ comprises the same pitch classes as T4↑. Like the previous chart, it also shows that the six voices are unique because they don’t align with each other.

tintinnabuli_transformations-b1These charts have been useful for the purpose of my musical projects, but since they reflect my personal understanding, they may be an inaccurate representation of Pärt’s approach. My understanding is largely informed by Paul Hillier’s biography of Arvo Pärt and by the analyses in the Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt edited by Andrew Shenton. Those studies suggest that Pärt uses only four of the six T-voices, to avoid octave transformations. This occurs in the T3↑ and T3↓ voices only when the M-voices sound one of the triad notes.

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Tintinnabuli Mathematica Vol. I

I’m pleased to announce that, with the help of Joe Evans at Runningonair Music, my new album, Tintinnabuli Mathematica Vol. I., has been released. It’s the result of a generative music project that I’ve been  working on for over three years, and which is still ongoing. The Mathematica in the title refers to the algorithmic processes and number sequences that are used as the basis for the melodic parts of the music, and also to the programming language that is used to code the algorithms and generate the sequences. Tintinnabuli is Arvo Pärt’s compositional method. In this project the method is coded in Mathematica and programmed to generate harmonic parts by transforming the melodic parts.

The MIDI files that are generated with those processes are voiced with a single instrument – the free VSTi Synth1, which is modelled on the Nord Lead 2 ‘Red’ synthesizer. The idea was to keep the sounds quite similar to allow the different musical structures to be perceived. The main effects used are those by Variety of Sound, specifically FerricTDS and ThrillseekerVBL for dynamics processing, NastyVCS and pre-FIX for EQ, and NastyDLA mkII for delay. I’ve written more about the processes behind this project in the post Programming Arvo Pärt. This album  –  Vol. I – comprises the first 11 pieces of music from this project. The 12th piece was released on the SEQUENCE7 compilation album. The next volume will continue the exploration of the relationship between the programming language and the musical language of tintinnabuli, but with new methods and different sounds.

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Experimental Music Mix

On Tuesday 9th January, via KFAI radio, Eric Frye posted a new episode of Splice-Free, “a programme examining experimental compositions past and present”. The mix includes work by many artists whose work I admire: Alva Noto, Theo Burt, Jo Thomas, Ryoji Ikeda, Rashad Becker, Jean-Claude Risset, Martin Neukom, Mark Fell, EVOL and Autechre. Read the full track listing and stream the mix here, or listen by clicking on this:

Given that selection of established artists, I was very pleased to find one of my own pieces of music included in the mix: Tintinnabuli Mathematica 10b, from my forthcoming album Tintinnabuli Mathematica vol. I. In trying to establish my solo musical practice over the past few years, it’s been a gradual process of discovering my own ‘voice’ or style. Participating in things like the Disquiet Junto (an open group for making music based on creative constraints) has been good for this kind of development because it encourages cross-fertilization and enables comparisons with alternative approaches to the same musical problems or projects. Through such activity I’ve developed friendships and forged working collaborations with a variety of musicians, many of whom tend to be loosely classified under the label ‘ambient music’. I’m not entirely uncomfortable to situate my own work in this genre since I too share an engagement with quieter and slower forms of music. But my affinity with ambient music is perhaps less closely related to a particular style than with the associated approach to listening that it engenders or demands. This approach is articulated by Brian Eno in the liner notes for Music for Airports when he describes his aim to make music that is “as ignorable as it is interesting” and which is “able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular”. So, whilst my own music shares some characteristics of ambient music, it also has much in common with the generative and computer-based approaches of those artists included in the Splice Free programme. As a result, my work arguably sits more comfortably here than, for example, Tintinnabuli Mathematica 12d does within the mostly electro-acoustic pieces in the SEQUENCE7 compilation. And yet, of course, the label ‘experimental’ is no less problematic a term than ‘ambient’. But, in the end, I’m just happy to hear my music amongst such esteemed company, and I’m pleased to have the chance to share my work with others who might appreciate this kind of thing.


Eric Frye runs the label Scumbag Relations, and can be followed on Twitter at @sleepycobalt.

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