2020

I spent a lot of time with music in 2020. Most of what I listened to has been confrontational rather than contemplative, something to combat what the year has thrown at us, rather than the ‘balm for troubled times’ variety, but there’s been plenty of that too, with both old-and-familiar and old-but-new-to-me music. I bought only 3 or 4 physical copies of albums but on my hard drive I’ve got around 8 and half days worth of music that was released this year alone. These are some of the things I enjoyed the most.

{arsonist} – Reality Structure. I like this album a lot. Probably one of the most melodic and definitely one of the most emotionally engaging. It includes glitchy textures, generative patterns, saxophone and choral strings, and it literally ends with a bang as the final track bursts into percussion that sounds like fireworks, turning what’s quite a sad atmosphere into something more hopeful.

Maryanne Amacher (19382009) was an artist whose name I knew but not her work. Amacher made some incredible sounds, and specialized in otoacoustic emmissions (OAEs) – sounds generated in and by the ear itself. Sound Characters (Making The Third Ear) (1999) mainly features sounds that generate different kinds of OAEs, while Sound Characters 2 (Making Sonic Spaces) (2008) uses the same techniques more sparingly in fewer, longer pieces. Marcin Pietruszewski recommended this article by David Kemp, ‘Otoacoustic Emissions: Concepts and Origins’, as a good summary of the subject.

Autechre‘s DJ stream on Mixlr was one of my favourite things this year. It was a nice surprise, and it became a daily occurrence for a while. Much of the music they played was their own favourites and influences, with different genres on different days, and some newer music, like William Fields, Kindohm and SDEM, as well as some of their own previously unreleased stuff. They also streamed on Twitch, showing one of their systems that uses video as input to generate and control the music. The online chat provided a sense of community during the first lockdown in March, and when they streamed SIGN just before it was released. SIGN doesn’t follow the trajectory implied by previous albums, which was going towards more messed up beats, more complex sounds, more different styles within and across tracks, and increasing durations. It’s lush, melodic and concise and it repays repeated listening because there’s a lot going on under the surface: the sounds appear to be the residue of a complicated process of creation and erasure, an auditory palimpsest bearing traces of each modification. ‘Metaz form8’ (track 6) and ‘r cazt’ (the final track) are the tracks that catch my ear, not because they’re loud or intrusive, but because of their gentle intensity and emotional potency. PLUS was a nice surprise addition but is more like what you’d expect the new album to sound like, and that’s why I prefer SIGN. When I bought them from AE_STORE, I discovered Sinistrail Sentinel (2018) in my downloads – apparently given to those who bought the CD version of NTS Sessions, but I’d never noticed it. A final treat was the replication of Autechre’s 2008 live set at Echoplex by two fans, ios and digit, who spent a lot of time and effort working with the synth patches and sysex files that had been made available via a hidden link on the website.

Of all the musicians who sadly died this year, the one that hit me hardest was Mr Chi Pig (Ken Chinn), singer of SNFU, a band that’s been a favourite since my teens. He wrote from experience about the pains of everyday life and love, about mental illness and addiction. I got to speak to him once after a gig at Derby Wherehouse in the 90s. As a frontman, Chi Pig was one of the best.

Akira Sileas is one of my favourite new artists, discovered through a recommendation by Mylar Melodies, and I’ve bought everything they’ve made since then. Under the name AB-607 are two EPs of extended acid tunes, both released on cassette. Under their own name are more experimental sounds made with physical modelling algorithms and pure data patches.

De Forrest Brown Jr published How Platform Capitalism Devalued the Music Industry, an article commissioned and then rejected by Resident Advisor. As Speaker Music he made the vital album Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry (Planet Mu) that comes with a booklet of text and images by Brown and other artists. Like Percussive Therapy, the EP that preceded it, this album is made of brutal, broken beats, but instead of therapeutic benefits it offers protest music and contextual information to counter ignorance and discrimination. This is an example of the politicization of art as a counter-response to the aestheticization of politics which Walter Benjamin described in the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction [PDF]

Dave Burraston started a Bandcamp subscription which I signed up to straight away, with loads of existing albums available, plus new and old work added regularly. As NYZ he released his first albums with beats – OLD TRX (87-93) (Death of Rave) and CCD (FLUF), as well as more meditative drones, like a split with ELEH (Important Records). Dave was also part of Knob Twiddler’s Hangout #30, hosted by Jochem Paap (Speedy J), along with Vincent Koreman (Drvg Cvltvre, New York Haunted) and Stephen McEvoy (TUUUN, FLUF), where he talked about working on the presets for AFX Station and how he developed the rainwire environmental sonification system.

In Workaround (PAN), Beatrice Dillon constructs pieces of music that balance extreme high and low frequencies in simple parts that make complex and unusual rhythms. This is a really impressive album, and I listen to it a lot.

Do/While – a DJ live stream by Dan and Wonja archived on SoundCloud. Usually on Sunday night, it’s a nice end to the weekend with some relaxed beats and tunes. Alita the dog usually features on the video stream, lolling on the rug and playing with toys. Dan and Wonja also set up Sound.Rodeo, a message board for sharing rips of hard-to-find and out-of-print music.

Do/While 13/12/2020

Boomkat’s Documenting Sound series of tapes is one of many examples of productive and creative responses to what’s been a terrible year for musicians. Some of my favourites in the series are Mark Leckey, Dean Hurley, Lucy Railton and FUJI||||||||||TA. Another series I enjoyed is Touch: Isolation including Chris Watson, Jana Winderen, ELEH and Claire M. Singer

The members of farmersmanual have been busy putting out old and new music as a group, as solo artists and in collaborations with others. Through their generate and test label they released General Magic’s 2005 performance as The Bratislava File, which is as much industrial metal as glitchy computer music, and Entrée Contrôle by Sluta Leta which combines vocals and retro synths, a bit like Finlay Shakespeare’s album Solemnities (Editions Mego) which I also liked a lot. 11​.​84​.​0​.​-​1​.​0​-​1​.​1​-​1 is an album that started with a single initial track, and each time someone bought the album a new track was generated, based on the initial one, until it reached 100 tracks. Another favourite is flowers a sun hazy by dprmkr, a live session from 1997 with an 808 recorded to digital tape.

FRKTL – Excision After Love Collapses. A complex album of electronic music made with a variety of different methods: field recording, live instruments, generative beats, vocal samples and digital processing.

Darryl Hall & John Oates – Abandoned Luncheonette (1973). A Sunday morning kind of album, one that makes you feel better. I got this for research purposes, while collecting music that features Bernard Purdie on drums, because I’ve been working on a data sonification that uses the Purdie Shuffle. Other favourite albums featuring Bernard Purdie include Young, Gifted and Black by Aretha Franklin and Yusef Lateef’s Detroit.

Eiko Ishibashi – ORBIT (SUPERPANG). The second of three tracks, ‘WE ARE BUILT’, combines arpeggiated synths with snippets of field recordings featuring human voices. It’s one of my favourite tracks this year.

When I met up with Dave Burraston last year, he recommended Nightclubbing (1981) by Grace Jones. Coincidentally, my granny’s name was Grace Jones, although her friends called her ‘Gem’, short for her full name – Grace Edith May. I’d always liked what I’d heard of Grace Jones’ music but hadn’t listened to any albums in full. When Autechre played ‘Feel Up’ from Nightclubbing on their Mixlr stream, it prompted me get the album as Dave had suggested. He wasn’t wrong. It’s got a really good sound, recorded with Sly and Robbie at Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. At the Grace Before Jones exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary art gallery I got to see some of the studio’s master tapes for her Fame album and the log sheets that record the positions of all the knobs and sliders on the mixing desk. Nightclubbing has been on my MP3 player most of the year.

Phil Julian – Carrier Dynamics (fancyyyyy). Recorded at Ina-GRM studios using their Serge Modular system, this is the kind of weird synthesized sound I like. Also really nice artwork/poster designed by Renick Bell.

Atte Elias Kantonen made 3 albums that I very much enjoyed. Studies in Audio Fabrics (Granny Records) is developed from research into the perception of auditory textures. The way that the electronic sounds chirp, groan and growl reminds me of Rashad Becker’s Traditional Music of Notional Species. Similarly, Frankille (Active Listener’s Club) and Nom Occasions (SUPERPANG) explore synthetic sounds produced/composed in such a way that they seem animalistic rather than mechanical or rational.

Nakul Krishnamurthy has previously collaborated with Mark Fell on projects and live performances exploring the intersections between the systems of Carnatic music and generative/algorithmic music. Tesserae (Takuroku) is Krishnamurthy’s first solo album, comprising two tracks that would each fit on one side of vinyl. The first track, ‘Anudhatthamudhatthassvaritham’, builds layers of vocal and string drones into a swirling mass, like a Hindustani version of Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten or Iannis Xenakis’s Persepolis. Track 2 is more sparse, and the sounds get stretched and squeezed in ways that make it hard to tell whether the source is human, instrumental or electronic. Completely absorbing. https://www.cafeoto.co.uk/shop/nakul-krishnamurthy-tesserae/ On the subject of India and avant-garde music, Paul Purgas did a fascinating programme for BBC Radio 3, Electronic India, prompted by the discovery of a box of tapes at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.

Maalem Mahmoud Gania – Aicha (Hive Mind Records). Originally released in Morocco in the late 90s on cassette. Mahmoud was a guimbri player and singer. This is nourishing, spiritual music. The album comes with liner notes including lyrics and analysis by Tim Abdellah Fuson of Moroccan Gnawa music and ritual.

Doris Norton – Personal Computer (1984). I wasn’t aware of Doris Norton until someone re-tweeted a link to this album. As a pioneer of computer music, she deserves to be better known. Norton was a singer in Italian prog rock band Jacula in the 70s before her solo work involving the computer in the 80s. She became the first musician endorsed by Apple and later a consultant for IBM. I’d somehow missed the interviews she did for The Wire and Resident Advisor a couple of years ago, coinciding with the vinyl reissue of 3 albums, but I’m happy to have caught up now.

Pantea is an electronic musician from Iran, and Everydaymeal is an audio-collage made from field recordings in and around Edinburgh and Tehran. There’s been quite a lot of this kind of work recently, but this stands out for me as one that’s particularly engaging. I also liked Things (Active Listeners Club), made with more synthetic sounds. Pantea has been helping me learn about Persian music, specifically Arabic Maqam, a system of melodic modes and a form of traditional folk music also shared with Turkish and Azerbaijani cultures. I’d used part of the Maqam system in a sonification of coronoavirus genome data and done some research on it, and so we exchanged music and articles. One reason for this research is that I just like this kind of music and would like to understand/appreciate it better; another is to break free from the Western 12-tone equal-tempered scale system (on that subject, I recommend this article by Khyam Allami). In December Pantea did her first solo live performance on the SWGBBO online platform, a virtual club where you can hang out and chat as a pixel-art avatar. The event also included Kindohm, Parsa & Ramtin Niazi (who started the Active Listeners Club label) and Calum Gunn.

I think it was listening to Music From Mills (get it from UbuWeb) that got me into Maggi Payne. It’s a compilation album from 1986 celebrating the centennial anniversary of the Californa college where Payne was co-director of its Center for Contemporary Music from 1992 to 2018. Dave Burraston used the college’s 1965 Buchla 100 synth, together with his own cellular automata programs, to make his MILLZ MEDZ album. I soon realised that, like Maryanne Amacher, Maggi Payne is a creator of some spectacular sounds. This year Aguirre Records reissued Ahh-Ahh (2012), and it’s become one of my favourite albums. Joshua Minsoo Kim interviewed Maggi Payne for Tone Glow, where you can also hear and download a new mix, ‘Immersion, Bay Area Soundscape’.

PBTHAL makes high-quality digital rips of records that you’re unlikely to find, recorded on equipment that you could never afford. Previously available only through file-sharing, in January the PBTHAL ARCHIVES started as a blog that collected all the old rips together, provided download links, and added new ones frequently. In November it was taken down, but it now seems to have appeared again here (you just have to email for the links).

One of the genres I returned to this year that helped keep me going was jungle. I dug out my old vinyl – Photek 12″s and the Metalheadz compilation Platinum Breakz, and I listened to some old cassette mixes from Yaman Studios by Peshay, downloaded from Hardscore.com. I also watched some old documentaries, like Jungle Fever (1994) which was part of the All Black series on BBC2, and a Dutch programme from 1996 featuring Squarepusher, Photek and Source Direct.

Pulsar synthesis is a method for making sounds involving the generation of a stream of (usually very short) pulses and was originally designed as a computer program by Curtis Roads and Alberto de Campo in 1997. Its roots lie in the quantum theory of sound proposed by Dennis Gabor (1947), in which sound is composed of ‘acoustical quanta‘, and it is related to granular synthesis – a method first realized by Iannis Xenakis (1959). Whilst possible of producing a wide variety of sounds, the main characteristic of pulsar synthesis is typically a sharp, thin, piercing kind of sound that transforms unnaturally quickly. A bit like a digital version of chewed-up tape. Music made with these tortured synthetic screeches has provided a suitable soundtrack for this shitty year, and many of these albums have been made with one particular bit of new software: the New Pulsar Generator (nuPg) created by Marcin Pietruszewski, who was also part of $ pwgen 20, a collaborative group and label set up by Victor Moragues and RM Francis based on pulsar synthesis, which I’ve been a small part of since Marcin helped me to get nuPg running on Windows. Marcin Pietruszewski’s The New Pulsar Generator Recordings Volume 1 is an organized collection of demonstrations of what nuPg can do and a document of Marcin’s practice-based research. The CD came with a booklet reproducing Curtis Roads chapter on pulsar synthesis, beautifully designed by Joe Gilmore. Marcin also wrote about Auditory Sieve (ETAT) in a PDF that comes with the download. Also, Presto!? Records re-released Point Line Cloud by Curtis Roads.

Propagandhi – Victory Lap (2017). I saw Propagandhi when they last played at Rock City, Nottingham in 2013, after they’d recruited a second guitarist that added a more melodic element to their hard sound, making it even more complex, but I hadn’t kept up to date since then. I caught up this year, and Victory Lap made an appropriate soundtrack to 2020.

Lucy Railton made some really good things. First there was Forma, a split release with Max Eilbacher on GRM’s Portrait series. Louange à l’éternité de Jésus was a cello and organ piece by Messiaen whose proceeds went to charity. My favourite is S-Bahn (Boomkat Editions – Documenting Sound), made with recordings of the light rail transit system in Berlin.

C. Reider‘s Radiodrones is made from recordings of AM and shortwave radio. These processed recordings sound like the retro-futurism of Edward Artemiev’s score for Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

claire rousay – Both. Inaudible for the first minute and a half, the first of the two tracks slowly reveals the quiet noise of a library. Subtly manipulated, the noise builds and reveals the echoes of distant voices, reverberated electronic bleeps and mechanical clanks, and a low muffled drone of traffic. In contrast, the other track starts suddenly, a close-up of crackling noise rather than a distant perspective, exterior rather than interior.

SDEM – ZNS. A collection of beat-based tracks made between 2004 and 2019.

Shedding made two albums of generative music based on flocking algorithms related to the original Boids program by Craig Reynolds. Flocking KF Variations was released on FLUF at the start of the year, and Flocking 19 came out via SUPERPANG in November.

Tone Glow has provided some of the most interesting interviews with musicians and the most useful reviews and recommendations. The epic and meandering interview with Jim O’Rourke is a particular highlight. https://toneglow.substack.com/

Rian Treanor not only made some great music, File Under UK Metaplasm (Planet Mu), but as a result of lockdown has been working on projects in collaboration with Mark Fell aimed at building communities and improving access to music-making. They developed networked systems that allow them to operate instruments remotely and allow members of the public to connect and make music together. One project involved elderly residents of a care home in Paris, others were arranged for school kids, including one in Bratislava and an online performance for the No Bounds Festival by Rian and two children. I attended Mark Fell’s online masterclass, part of a series on algorithmic music which also included one by CNDSD on TidalCycles. Ostensibly on the subject of Max/MSP, Fell’s class wasn’t actually very useful for learning the program but he showed and explained some of the systems he’s developed for various projects, like the early SND albums. It was a bit like a condensed and interactive version of his PhD thesis. I also really enjoyed his two collaborative albums with Will Guthrie, Infoldings and Diffractions. Bits of field recordings included among the mostly percussive sounds in ‘Infoldings 1’ really add to the disorientating Moire effect of the polyrhythms.

Like most social media, Twitter undoubtedly has its faults, yet despite having a negative impact on mental health it’s been a lifeline during isolation. It doesn’t happen often, but receiving some nice feedback on my music – whether from artists whose work I admire or from complete strangers – means more than any sales numbers or earnings, and so I’ve tried to do more of that myself. Slack and Lurk groups have offered a similar sense of community with less of the downsides, having a more limited social circle and more specific areas of interest. So if you’re reading this and we know each other online, ‘hello!’ and thank you (not that this blog is any more real than those virtual networks, but, all the same, thanks).

Valhalla make some really good audio effect plugins. In June they released a new one, Valhalla Supermassive, for free. I’ve used Valhalla Room reverb for a while, and it’s great. Whereas Room is modelled on real spaces and natural effects, Supermassive allows you to explore a possibility space of artificial effects unconstrained by physical models. It’s based on feedback delay networks, a type of artificial reverb, and it makes complex delay and reverb effects as well as flanging and chorus. In addition to the usual delay time and feedback controls, ‘mode’ sets the algorithm that changes the overall character, ‘warp’ varies individual delay times, and ‘density’ controls how much the echoes mix together. Get it here.

Ricardo Villalobos & Oren Ambarchi – Hubris Variation Parts 2 & 3. Two remixes of tracks from Ambarchi’s album Hubris (2016). This has been one of my most-frequently played albums when needing something less harsh or challenging. That’s not to say it’s bland; this is a complex remix of the original guitar, drum and synth sounds overlaid in multiple rhythms. The remixing increases the amount of variation in Hubris, resulting in something that’s constantly interesting as well as danceable.

The raised profile of Black Lives Matter that followed the protests for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd also brought about the dissemination of resources to learn about black history and acknowledge its cultural contributions. The Dweller Forever library is one such repository of writing from a black perspective focusing on electronic music, organized into ‘reading’ and ‘audio/visual’ resources. There’s a lot of good stuff to read, watch and listen to, like this poignant interview with Drexciya from 2002 recorded just a short time before James Stinson’s death. I learned about Underground Resistance, the collective led by Mike Banks, Robert Hood and Jeff Mills. I was more familiar with their individual work than with the collective, and hadn’t previously appreciated UR’s influence or understood their political approach to art and business.

Tatsuhisa Yamamoto – mipyokopyoko / mupyokopyoko. Yamamoto, a drummer who has worked with Jim O’Rourke, Eiko Ishibashi, Keijo Heino and Oren Ambarchi, released 10 albums this year through Bandcamp. I bought 5 of them, and they’re all very good.

ZZ Top – Eliminator (1983). My mum bought this album for the family when it was released, and I’ve still got that copy of it now. An album I hadn’t listened to for years, dismissed for some reason. On listening again, side A is pretty much perfect, and side B is average. ZZ Top are great when they’re raucous and fast, but equally great when grooving slowly and precisely, like ‘El Diablo’ from the Tejas album (the drumming on that track is phenomenal) and also like this:

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SARS-CoV-2_LR757995_1c

My latest music is another sonification of the coronavirus genome sequence. SARS-CoV-2_LR757995_1c is released via Hard Return, a new label run by Jack Chuter of ATTN:Magazine that specializes in “extremely repetitive/persistent music”. It’s a single track just over 40 minutes long, made of 3 parts: synth, drums and bass. The bass part is based on the first 1-bar segment of the genome sequence and repeats throughout. It provides a regular pattern in contrast to the non-repeating synth and drum parts. The 4 amino acid bases that make up the genetic sequence (a, t, g and c) are mapped to 4 different notes/drums. The notes and drum sounds are linked, so the same note always plays with the same drum sound, e.g. the lowest note always coincides with the kick drum and the next-highest note always coincides with the snare. [Even though I know it’s like this, it doesn’t always obviously sound like it. At least, that’s my experience of it. I’d be interested to hear if your experience is similar or different.]

The notes are based on Jins Saba, a fragment of an Arabic scale/mode called Maqam Saba. In Western tuning, Jins Saba approximately corresponds with 4 consecutive chromatic notes, each 1 semitone apart. But Maqam music uses microtonal rather than equal-tempered tuning systems, so the intervals in Jins Saba are closer to 3/4, 3/4 and 1/2. I used equal tempered tuning but modulated the pitch of the synth. In Maqam music, different scales/modes are associated with different moods. In performance, a scale is selected and musical patterns are built up through improvisation with the fragments (called ‘ajnas’, the plural of ‘jins’) that make up the scale. Jins Saba is the first thing you hear in this video – it’s the lower part of the Maqam Saba scale:

Arabic Maqam is more than just a scale; it’s “a system of scales, habitual melodic phrases, modulation possibilities, ornamentation norms, and aesthetic conventions” (https://www.maqamworld.com/en/maqam.php). I’m learning more about Maqam and Persian music, and I’m getting more data on the coronavirus genome, including data on the genes and proteins encoded by the genome sequence. I hope to use this enriched dataset as the basis for programming timing patterns and chord changes based on the Maqam method.

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SARS​-​CoV​-​2_LR757995_2b

I’ve got some more new music out on the label Superpang. It’s a sonification of the coronavirus genome data played with Razor VSTi synth, arranged into a kind of electro beat. The genome data is a list of 4 letters – a, c, g and t – representing the amino acid bases: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. This genome sequence is 29,874 bases long, so there’s quite a lot of data, which makes quite a long track. The COVID-19 coronavirus has a large genome because it’s quite complex in the way it counters the body’s immune system.

The genome data comes from here:

Hunter, C. & Wei, X. (2020). Wuhan seafood market pneumonia virus genome assembly, chromosome: Whole_genome. GenBankwww.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/nuccore/LR757995.1

And here is a good explanation of what we know about the virus:

Fischetti, M. (2020). Inside the Coronavirus: What scientists know about the inner workings of the pathogen that has infected the world. Scientific American, www.scientificamerican.com/interactive/inside-the-coronavirus/

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Liminal Kicks

Liminal Kicks is my latest album, released on the new label Superpang based in Rome, Italy, with cover art designed by Joe Gilmore. It’s a collection of tracks made with drum synths and saturation. I used Mathematica to generate MIDI files with up to one million notes, where the timing between notes was programmed to change exponentially, with the exponent set to the Golden ratio (1.618 or 0.618). ‘Liminal’ derives from the ancient Greek limen (λιμήν), meaning ‘threshold’ or ‘doorway’.

In physiology, psychology, or psychophysics, a limen or a liminal point is a sensory threshold of a physiological or psychological response. It is the boundary of perception. (Wikipedia)

Each of these tracks crosses this perceptual threshold. As the drums increase or decrease in tempo and cross the threshold, our perception of it changes between rhythm and pitch. At lower speeds, we hear separate events as increasing/decreasing rhythm, but beyond the threshold we perceive a note or frequency, increasing/decreasing in pitch.

Rather than playing around that threshold, these tracks go well beyond it, exploring what happens when the tempo is very high. As the sounds speed up or slow down, there is often a cyclic or fractal pattern in the frequency shaping of the sounds. This is probably due to a kind of Moiré or wagon wheel effect, caused by the constantly changing difference between the length of the drum sounds and the tempo. You can see an example of the fractal kind of pattern in the spectrogram of track 4, ‘kick2tom1048576′:

LK4

The sound is made more complex by a saturation effect, which adds some non-linearity to the equation. Sometimes it also produces an effect like a Shepard or Risset tone, an audio illusion of constantly rising/falling pitch, where it generates tones that are overlapping (in time) and parallel (in frequency). You can hear this most clearly in the ‘snare16384’, and see it in the yellow lines in the image below:

LK5a

In ‘kick5’, a symmetrical track, you can hear the cyclic patterns in the upper frequencies. In the spectrogram they form similar shapes at different scales. Counter-intuitively, as the duration between notes deceases, the size of the patterns increases, and vice versa. This is probably due to the exponential rate of change, which starts fast and slows down, or vice versa.

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MoCap Fractals

Today I learned that some suits used for motion capture use a pattern that’s a variation of the Sierpinski triangle fractal. I happened to see a tweet from @LASTEXITshirts celebrating the birthday of actor Andy Serkis (56 today), and I recognised the pattern on the suit he’s wearing.

Searching for ‘mocap suit sierpinski’ leads via a post on Reddit, Why do MoCap suits use Sierpinski triangles?, to the patent for the design in 2013 by Lucasfilm. The patent describes it as a ‘scale independent tracking pattern’. Fractals are, by definition, scale-independent, i.e. they look the same at any scale. A fractal pattern is useful for motion capture because whether near or far there are always some visible points to track. It also means that some of the pattern is visible when photographed in motion, when the image is blurred.

The pattern used for the mocap suits is clearly not quite scale-independent, however. It has only 4 levels (there are only 4 different sizes of triangle), so the range of scales is limited, but presumably this is sufficient for the job, given the size of a human body and the scale of the image on screen. Also, the pattern isn’t the same at all levels – only the largest triangles have smaller triangles within them – but it seems that this isn’t a key feature of how it works (my guess is that this particular pattern was designed to be protected by trademark.). Although the patent describes how the pattern is “configured such that a first portion of the pattern is tracked at a first resolution and a second portion of the pattern is tracked at a second resolution”, this doesn’t rely on the differences in the levels of the pattern. It’s the nested structure of the fractal, its self-similarity, that means different levels of the pattern can be tracked for different levels of detail. Triangles are suitable because they have identifiable points that can be tracked by computer vision algorithms, and these trackable points make up the polygon meshes used in 3D graphics.

As the resolution of the actor and the pattern changes, some trackable portions of pattern may become untrackable by the capture device, and some untrackable portions of the pattern may become trackable. When this happens, vertices may be added or removed from the mesh.

Other shapes shapes work too, if arranged in a fractal pattern. The patent also includes another design for a scale independent pattern based on circles. Like the triangular pattern, the idea is that more shapes can be tracked with greater resolution. By chance, the low resolution of the image in the patent illustrates this feature quite well.

 

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20×20 – Processed Field Recordings

Processed Field Recordings is my new album out on 20×20, a project and label run by Neil Stringfellow. I met Neil in 2015 on a course about field recording tutored by Chris Watson and Jez riley French, and we’ve both participated in the Disquiet Junto. Under the name Audio Obscura, his work includes Gathering Silence, an album based on recordings in empty old churches in rural Norfolk, and an interpretation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four. 20×20 is a project involving 20 artists each making an album of 20 tracks that are 20 seconds long. The first album was released on 20th January 2020, with subsequent releases scheduled every 20 days. This is the 5th in the series, following albums by haLF unusuaL, Daniel Diaz, Tay_ploops and Minimal_Drone*GRL. 

The album and track titles are plainly descriptive. It’s based on recordings I’ve made over the past 10 years in different places: Nottingham city and riverside, a village in Rutland, a smallholding in rural Norfolk, and national parks in Derbyshire and North Yorkshire. The sounds are processed with various effects and some have synthesized sounds added. In all cases, some parameters of the effect or synth are controlled by aspects of the source sound, e.g. volume, pitch and timing. To varying degrees, the processing highlights and obscures elements of the sounds. This is my second album based on field recording. The first was Hyperchaos Volume 1, a collaboration with 23 artists, where the tracks were limited to a maximum of 1 second each. 

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6-Colour Block Cellular Automata

Here are some results of recent tests with 6-colour cellular automata. These are 6-state relations of the simple 2-state block cellular automaton that I use a lot, rule 39 in Wolfram’s notation which translates the output states of the rule specification into a decimal number. This rule family uses a 2-cell block, offset by one cell each generation, so it tiles in a brickwork pattern. Rule 39 of the 2-state CA translates to: “if both cells are in the same state, change state on the next step; if cells are in different states, remain in the same state.” In the program run in Mathematica, this is applied as a set of transformation rules operating on lists of numbers. In full, these are: {0,0}→{1,1}; {0,1}→{0,1}; {1,0}→{1,0}; {1,1}→{0,0}. The rule 39 specification is visualised below. The top half of each part represents the current states of the two cells in a block; the bottom half represents the states of those cells in the next generation.

The rule specification has one part for each possible configuration of states in a block. The number of different possible configurations with a block size n and with k colours is equal to k^n, so a k=2, n=2 CA such as rule 39 has 2^2 = 4 parts. A 6-colour CA rule has 6^2 = 36 parts. The number of different rules is equal to k^(n×(k^n)). With 2 colours, there are 256 possible rules. With 6 colours, there are 106387358923716524807713475752456393740167855629859291136. This is too many to explore exhaustively, so I explored a subset by using constraints. The constraints were to incorporate the k=2 rule 39 pattern within the k=6 rule with at least one pair of colours, and to generally conserve the colours by limiting the rule specifications to simple transformations. Rule 39 conserves the total number of different colours and is reversible, which means that any evolved state can be run backwards, by applying the rules in reverse, and it will return to its initial conditions. In general, a block CA is reversible if its rule permutes all possible blocks. Due to the constraints, many of these k=6 rules meet this criterion and are therefore reversible. This is rule 39 with random initial conditions, 32 cells in size, run for 32 generations:

For the purpose of these tests, the 6 states are represented by the colours red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple (R,O,Y,G,B,P). The final colours might be different, depending on how printing tests turn out, but will have a similar spread, being equally-spaced on the trichromatic colour wheel. My aim is to find combinations of rules and colours that induce perception of secondary colours through optical mixing.

Below are some results of 6 different rules tested with three sets of initial conditions:

  1. Random choice of all colours (R/O/Y/G/B/P)
  2. Three pairs of complementary colours picked randomly (R/G, O/B, Y/P)
  3. Three pairs of neighbouring colours picked randomly (R/O, Y/G, B/P)

I generated one of each type of initial condition, and used this set of 3 for all rules shown here, to make the differences more visible. The initial condition is the top row, and time runs downwards from the top. Each CA is 240 cells in size, run for 240 generations.

Rule 20774264240371331443939583648662020862331869895110587700

This k=6 rule incorporates 2 instances of the k=2 rule 39 pattern: instead of black and white (B/W), it’s R/O and B/P. You can see these in the top-left and bottom-right corners of the rule specification above. Random initial conditions (top) produces a bit of a jumble, but a pleasing combination of colours. Complementary pairs of colours (middle) makes a nice gradient out of reticulated patterns. Neighbouring colours (bottom) makes a horrible geometric mess.

Rule 20796116639275282756883592732765805970567318290529775700

This rule incorporates 3 of the k2 rule 39 pattern with 3 pairs of neighbouring colours: R/O, Y/G and B/P. The random conditions produce a similar thread-like patterns. The patches of colour in the other two blend and interact nicely.

Rule 103541839025819083223383708563702745805808655480680346680

This rule also incorporates 3 of the k2 rule 39 pattern, with different pairs of colours: R/P, O/B, Y/G. Randomness makes mostly vertical structures jostling with each other. In the structured initial conditions, the rule makes for clear areas with rule 39 behaviour that are gradually encroached by tendrils from the neighbouring areas.

Rule 62556620991588118164093337622114268271511526829240714310

This rule incorporates 3 of the k2 rule 39 pattern, with pairs of complementary colours: R/G, O/B, Y/P. In this rule specification, if the colours aren’t one of these pairs then instead of behaving like rule 39, each cell takes on the state of its neighbour, so the colours swap places. The images below are different to the previous ones because the random initial condition produces the most orderly image, comprising vertical repeating patterns. This example is the best of the vertical type patterns yet. In contrast, the other two images are more chaotic than those in the rules shown above.

Rule 62312062993845184628174649112617059049519000489975636340

This rule is quite similar to the previous one but with only 2 rule 39 pairs(R/G, Y/B). I like the squiggly patterns produced by random initial conditions.

Rule 62556620991588118164089965300297552193934650966268789830

Although this rule is very similar to the previous one, it is unlike all the others because it doesn’t have the property of permuting all possible configurations. Two configurations instead of the usual one lead to a configuration of two yellow cells (YY): BB and PP. With all the other rules so far, if you count the total number of cells of each colour in the output parts of the rule specification (the lower half of each part), they are equal, with 12 cells of each colour. In this rule, there are 14 yellow and 10 orange, plus 12 of every other colour. For this reason, it is probably not reversible. It makes some lovely patterns.

Rule 20774264240899287841879128096849235332307474604780057880

This rule differs from all the others because it doesn’t incorporate the rule 39 pattern. In this rule, colours rotate. Whenever a block has 2 cells of the same colour, the colour changes to the next along in the spectral sequence (rainbow order). This property seems to make a mess of any structure in the initial conditions. Interesting to try the rule, but uninteresting results.

Rule 62556585801747746489648698620876988974236430593535788615

What’s different about this – easily visible in the rule spec – is that some same-colour blocks stay as they are (O,Y,B,P). Only R and G are like rule 39. Like most of the other rules, it conserves the colours and is reversible. Not the most interesting results, because this rule doesn’t mix things up as much as the others.

Given that most of these rules conserve the total number of different colours in the initial conditions, it’s surprising how much they differ in terms of overall hue. With the right set of colours, these images can produce the effect of seeing colours that aren’t there, through a combination of optical mixing and colour juxtaposition. This visual effect was explored by Sydney Harry, whose paintings I’ve seen at the colour museum in Bradford. I’d like to see if the effect can work with these CA patterns in print instead of on screen, so I’ll be doing some print tests soon. It would be interesting to see what they look like in large scale – wall-sized, where they can be viewed from near and far.

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Frequency Domain Filtering

On r/puredata Acreil posted this video of generative music made with a pure data patch. It shows a scrolling stereo spectrogram of the music, with wavy lines that represent slices of filtered noise where the filter is always changing. Frequency domain filtering works by applying the Fourier transform to the input signal, resulting in a frequency spectrum which you cut or boost in places, then transform again back into the processed signal. Acreil did a post about this with another video that explains how it works and a link to download the pure data patch. He explains that “frequency domain filtering is nice because what would be a convolution in the time domain becomes a multiplication in the frequency domain.” This kind of processing can make the kind of shapes in a spectrogram that you don’t normally see, because it can make the kind of sounds that you don’t normally hear. The only other thing I know of that looks and sounds similar is the end of the track ‘∆Mᵢ⁻¹=−α ∑ Dᵢ[η][ ∑ Fjᵢ[η−1]+Fextᵢ [η⁻¹]]’ (also known as ‘equation’) from the Windowlicker EP by Aphex Twin. This is the track with the face encoded at the end. The bit that looks like frequency domain filtering is the patch of squiggly lines on the left.

Here’s a close-up on that bit. The face has a different texture – lower resolution, made of lines, whereas these squiggles are smoother, which suggests different techniques were used to make them. But both processes, frequency domain filtering and synthesis from images, involve the Fourier transform. So does the spectrogram. This video of a visual introduction to the Fourier transform by 3Blue1Brown helped me understand what it does.

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2019

Last year I probably spent more on music than ever before. I was trying to support emerging artists and new labels, especially those I’ve been involved with, but was also driven by the usual consumerist desire to acquire stuff and fear of missing out. I bought music on CD, vinyl, tape and digital. This year it’s been the opposite, mainly because I just can’t afford it now, but also in an effort to live more sustainably. So I’ve bought only a handful albums – downloads only, and kept my two Bandcamp subscriptions. I’ve relied more on newsletters, mailing lists and radio. And instead of buying new books, I’ve picked up some of the unread ones I already own. So this year’s list of stuff I liked is a bit more idiosyncratic than usual. I’ve also gone back to a mostly vegetarian diet and make all my own meals from scratch. It’s cheaper and healthier, and although it takes time there’s a therapeutic benefit to cooking, especially if you’re feeding others too, so it’s time well spent. One favourite new recipe is chickpea soup, which sounds dull and measly, but it’s bright yellow with loads of flavour and is surprisingly satisfying:

  • dried chickpeas soaked overnight, cooked for 3/4 hour with bay leaf and garlic clove;
  • chopped onion fried in spices – turmeric, fresh ginger, garlic, black mustard seeds, cumin, coriander seeds, black pepper, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon;
  • combine chickpeas and onion in vegetable stock with chopped fresh coriander and a bit of lemon juice or hot pepper sauce.

A graph showing monthly average carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 1958 to 2019, increasing from 315 parts per million to 410.

Monthly average atmospheric CO2 (ppm). Data source: NOAA, Mauna Loa https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/data.html

The chart above shows atmospheric CO2 measurements from the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii. CO2 is just one measure associated with global warming which, in turn, is not the only driver of the current environmental crisis. But it is representative in the sense that it clearly shows what we have achieved in terms of tackling the broader problem: nothing. CO2 levels are at their highest and the rate of growth for 2019 is 4th fastest, so there’s no signs of a slowing increase, let alone a decrease. The reasons why we’re in this predicament are summed up well in an article by Neil J. Hagens, ‘Economics for the future – Beyond the superorganism’ [open access]. Hagens describes how, through our collective behaviour which is built on cognitive biases, human society is effectively operating as a “single, mindless, energy-hungry ‘superorganism'” that’s eating itself out of house and home. In theory, we are smarter than this big stupid creature, but in practice we’re not, yet (as the CO2 chart shows). Hagens discusses energy and the economy, arguing that “money is a claim on energy” because every good or service that money pays for ultimately uses energy. Similarly, “debt is a claim on future energy” because it drags into the present the consumption of resources that would otherwise take place in the future. Debt is therefore not only borrowed money but “borrowed energy.” There is a lot of debt right now, because for the past 50 years debt has been expanded to prop up economic growth and to allow us to consume beyond our means. This debt may not be repaid, as has happened time and again in history, as shown by David Graeber (Debt: The First 5,000 Years). Hagens concludes: “It is likely that, in the not-too-distant future, the size, complexity, and (literal) ‘burn rate’ of our civilization will be much reduced by forces other than human volition.” On a slightly more positive note, he ends by outlining a need for a new ecological economics:

Whatever we’ll call it, we are desperately in need of a set of guideposts and principles that include not only ecology but also biology, psychology, physics and emergent behaviors. This discipline will focus at least as much on ‘what we’ll have to do’ as on ‘what we should do’.

Various Artists – CODE234 (CO-DEPENDENT)
The CO-DEPENDENT label was on my list for 2018. I didn’t pick out any specific albums then, but this time I will. It’s worth repeating the fact that neither label nor artists make any money from this – it all goes to a charity. CODE234 has only 5 tracks but it’s 3 hours long. It starts with what sounds like hand-controlled filter sweeps of sustained tones by the mysterious dj??water??, whose music and remixes are always interesting. PARSA’s track is digital crunch with vowel-like movements. Victor Moragues packs loads of variations into his track that starts with relatively simple repeats and then gets more chaotic. GOHV make a disorienting sound with beating frequencies and pulsing tones. The compilation ends with Luke Corbin’s 2-hour drone that veeery slooowly oscillates in pitch.

Autechre
This year Autechre gave us free stuff, including a hiphop mix on RA Podcast 687 and a 12-hour eclectic mix on Mixlr. The image below is a snippet from the Mixlr live chat – those comments made me listen to Chiastic Slide again. Best of all though is WARP TAPES 89–93. It’s ace to hear these old tracks, with elements that were later used in other albums. It’s mixed really nicely too, not just fading in/out, it sounds like the tracks are re-worked, with parts isolated, extended and interleaved with each other.

Screenshot of online chat text between Autechre and fans.BandCloud
A weekly selection of electronic music on Bandcamp and SoundCloud by Aidan Hanratty, mostly abstract/ambient and club music and things in-between. Usually delivered midday Friday, providing a nice wind-down to the week and a lead-in to the weekend. Aidan also commissions guest mixes, does a show on Dublin Digital Radio, and has released a compilation album, Missives. Sign up for the email here: http://www.bandcloud.org/about

Bass Clef – Open Hand Real Flames (NTS Radio)
A series of radio shows by Bass Clef. Two of these I particularly like because they focus on instruments I used to play: church organ and steel pan. Other favourites are the Nina Simone special and the one on mechanical musical instruments. I also played the hell out of Bass Clef’s ‘Holy Days Wholly Dazed’, a long piece of evolving looped and filtered beats that starts with a simple chord stab that eventually becomes a layered arpeggio, while a single rumbling bass develops into a fluttering cascade of delays.

Konstantin Batygin et al. – ‘The Planet Nine Hypothesis’ (Physics Reports, 809)
The motions of trans-Neptunian objects in the Kuiper Belt suggest the presence of a larger solar body. This paper reviews the observational motivation, dynamical constraints, and prospects for detection of the proposed object known as Planet Nine.

Tina Besley & Michael A. Peters – ‘Life and death in the Anthropocene: Educating for survival amid climate and ecosystem changes and potential civilisation collapse’ (Educational Philosophy and Theory)
An article that argues for the inclusion of survival skills in education, given the threats posed by the climate crisis. Besley & Peters ask: “Do we have a moral, ethical, personal or professional obligation to now begin such conversations in educational and political arenas? Or should we not bother and just do nothing in light of life and death in the anthropocene?” They cite an article by Luke Kemp (2019) that looks at the history of civilizational collapse and identifies some indicators, including environmental sustainability, societal complexity and inequality.

Boogie Down Productions – By All Means Necessary (Jive)
Some old-but-new-to-me music. BDP’s second album from 1988. Honest, straightforward approach to lyrics (KRS-One) and beats (DJ Scott La Rock) but highly creative and very effective.

David Burraston
I had the pleasure of meeting Dave this summer while he was over in the UK. We went on a pilgrimage to visit the grave of Ada Lovelace, the pioneering programmer, at St Mary’s church in Hucknall whose crypt is also the resting place of her father, Lord Byron. She foresaw the potential for computers to “compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” We also went to Green’s windmill in Sneinton, former home of George Green, a self-taught mathematician who made contributions to calculus and theories of electricity and magnetism. Dave and I have some things in common: living in Nottingham, working in scientific/technical jobs, doing a PhD combining art and science (that’s how I first came across his work, about 10 years ago), using cellular automata for creative purposes, and now making generative music and field recording. The difference is that he does it professionally. He’s also hugely talented and vastly knowledgeable. It was good to discuss music, synthesis, computing and complexity theory, and to talk about being a musician and researcher and surviving through your practice. Listen to Dave talk about all this stuff and his work in this interview for Radio Web MACBA: https://rwm.macba.cat/en/sonia/david-burraston/capsula

Camping in Derbyshire with friends
We’ve been camping at the same spot in an ancient woodland for more than 20 years now. Usually twice a year, around Easter and autumn, but just once this year. It’s halfway up a steep slope, so you’re knackered after carrying the gear up there, but then you can sit, have a beer, and absorb the scenery and the sounds. Facing downhill you get a view through the canopy of trees, mostly beech and some oak. The site’s acoustic quality is defined by the valley that it’s part of, and by the woodland’s hillside that stretches up to the north and down to the reservoir in the south. Motorbikes can be heard from miles off. Honking geese on the water echo off the opposite hillside. Owls and woodpeckers reverberate through the trees. At night, when the traffic has died down, the woodland soundscape is pretty noisy with nocturnal insects, birds and mammals, which can keep you awake if you’re not used to it. Even when it’s dead still, the trees drop their leaves, twigs and branches. When it’s very windy, the roaring sound is all around but there’s always a louder bit that’s localised and moves around, as if God is using a leaf blower. The fireplace we made with the stones lying around has really bedded in to the landscape over the years and moss grows on it. Its shape has been slightly modified to include a space for cooking. By burning smaller sticks first, you can build up a bed of embers that can be scraped over to that part of the fireplace to grill food on one side, leaving the main fire burning for heat and light in the middle. To sit round a fire with friends, sharing food and stories, is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

DEAFKIDS – Metaprogramação
Raw, trippy hardcore. Brazilian rhythms, distorted guitars and delay effects.

Mrs Dink – CODE777 (CO-DEPENDENT)
I also like the other two techno albums by Mrs Dink, CODE091 and CODE187, but CODE777 has the most individual sound.

Kevin Drumm – Bandcamp subscription

William Fields – FieldsOS
Originally broadcast as a series of shows on https://extra.resonance.fm/ in the first half of the year, with hour-long pieces of algorithmic music generated on the fly. William Fields describes how it was made: “FieldsOS was created with Javascript, using WebMIDI to talk to REAPER. Javascript handles the algorithmic/generative aspect. REAPER is the audio/sequencer engine.” The generative system makes different styles of music by setting or controlling different parameters. Some pieces are based on named genres, others on various arbitrary settings. For each show, the system was started and left to run without interference, unlike a live situation where the system would be steered. William explained to me that there are 240 parameters, each with 128 possible values, so the generative space of FieldsOS is 128^240, which approximately equals 10^500. This is a very big number. In comparison, the estimated number of atoms in the entire universe is 10^80. “But most of it sounds like crap,” he said, “so my job is to find interesting zones within that space.” This is a central problem in generative art, particularly in the digital realm where it’s easy to use large numbers. The possibility space of a generative system that’s complex enough to be interesting or useful is likely to be to too vast to map exhaustively. Any system complex enough to generate something interesting will in most cases produce something that’s either simple or chaotic. The interesting states are also the least likely. We may know that “the interesting stuff is in the middle” on the border between order and chaos (so said Gary William Flake), but with such a large parameter space it’s not easy to find. This is also what Dave Burraston’s PhD was about, in relation to cellular automata. FieldsOS represents a new set of solutions to that problem, a journey through previously unexplored algorithmic terrains of familiar and unfamiliar styles.

RM Francis – CODE889 (CO-DEPENDENT)
There’s a great variety of sonic textures in these three long-ish tracks. Synthetic sounds are produced, sequenced and mangled in different ways. Squelches, honks, bleeps and whines. But not harsh or aggressive; it’s more like a methodically paced scientific demonstration. It makes for some really nice spectrograms. The spectrograms may show the structure of the sounds (in terms of their frequency content and amplitude), but they don’t reveal how they were made – in fact, it makes this album even more mind-boggling.

M.R. James – Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (Oxford)
One from the unread pile. Really enjoyed these stories, which I’d been meaning to read since reading k-punk on M.R. James. This year Hyperdub released Mark Fisher and Justin Barton’s audio essay, On Vanishing Land, which is based on and in the eerie landscapes that James wrote about.

Om Kalsoum – Enta Omri (انت عمري)
Another old-but-new-to-me album, Enta Omri is a well-known and well-loved piece of music in Egypt since 1964 that’s been re-released this year by Souma Records.

Scott A. Kulp & Benjamin H. Strauss – ‘New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding’ (Nature Communications, 10)
New research that show it’s worse than we thought. Based on the findings, they made an interactive map that shows the land expected to be at risk of flooding in the near future.

Tom Mudd – Brass Cultures (fancyyyyy)
Algorithmic music that makes use of software developed by researchers at Edinburgh University that models brass instruments. Tom Mudd makes unheard-of sounds by inputting physically improbable parameters into this model, using algorithms to control instrument size and shape as well as how it’s played, “such as breath pressure, lip frequency, lip mass, valve fingering, and even temperature“.

Nihiloxica – Biiri (Nyege Nyege Tapes)
Nihiloxica supported Aphex Twin this year. Hypnotic polyrhythms from a group of drums and atmospheric synth sounds.

Peter Oborne highlighted the political role of the media in an article on Open Democracy and runs a site dedicated to documenting the lies of Boris Johnson and his government https://boris-johnson-lies.com/

Angel Olsen – ‘What It Is’ (Jagjaguwar)
The rest of the album All Mirrors isn’t really my thing, but I like this track. 70s-style production with slapback echo and some nice strings on top. The bass and guitar sound like T. Rex and the drums play a lolloping rhythm a bit like Mick Fleetwood would.

Jim O’Rourke & CM von Hauswolff – In, Demons, In! (iDEAL)
Smeared chants and drones that ooze around and sound like they turn inside out inside your head.

George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four and Why I Write.
Seemed like the right time to read these.

PARSA – CODE147 (CO-DEPENDENT)
An album released at the end of last year, made with cellular automata. You can read my interview with PARSA about the album uvuuvu in an earlier post.

Paul Prudence – Ficciones
Paul Prudence is author of the Dataisnature blog and audio-visual artist, but this is his first album. I like the detail and the kind of nervous twitchiness to the synthetic and and recorded sounds in the first 2/3 of the album. Then there’s a softer collection of drones starting with the hazy track ‘Gravity Map’, before returning to the scratch and hiss of recorded sounds in the final track.

Marcin Pietruszewski – The New Pulsar Generator Manual (Remote Viewing)
It isn’t the actual user manual for the NuPG software developed by Pietruszewski. It’s an essay about algorithmic composition, digitality, experimental sound and sound art, citing Curtis Roads, Manuel DeLanda, and Fernando Zalamea.

Francisco Sánchez-Bayoa & Kris Wyckhuys – ‘Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers’, Biological Conservation, 232
The first global review of published evidence on insect declines, this study shows the main causes to be (in order of importance):

  1. habitat loss, caused by intensive farming & urbanisation
  2. pollution
  3. biological factors
  4. climate change

SDEM – deloc (.meds)
I like all of Tom Knapp’s music. He had 3 or 4 albums out this year, including Index Hole which is a collection of barrelling beats and filter-sliced synths, but deloc is probably the one I’ve played the most. It’s an interesting mix of order and disorder, natural and synthetic sound. I also recommend Tom’s recent mix for Leftovers, LFTMX_28_SDEM, which he describes as “1 TAKE… (POST ELECTION RESULTS HATE MODE) FRIDAY 13TH DECEMBER 2019”: https://soundcloud.com/leftoversuk/lftmx_28_sdem

sold – RA.689 (Resident Advisor)
Really nice mix of non-dance music by sold (Glenna Fitch, @glorbis).

James Tenney – Harmonium (New World Records)
I’m a fan of Tenney’s writing on music theory, particularly Meta + Hodos and META Meta + Hodos. This is an album of his work performed by the Scordatura Ensemble, including Harmonium and four other pieces.

Whitehouse et al. – Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history (Nature, 568)
A new study about social complexity and how it developed in relation to religion, based on analysis of data representing 414 cultures over 10,000 years.

Moralizing gods are not a prerequisite for the evolution of social complexity, but they may help to sustain and expand complex multi-ethnic empires after they have become established. By contrast, rituals that facilitate the standardization of religious traditions across large populations generally precede the appearance of moralizing gods. This suggests that ritual practices were more important than the particular content of religious belief to the initial rise of social complexity.

XI-N – CODE139 (CO-DEPENDENT)
One of the loudest albums ever. It has a dynamic range (DR) rating of 0, the lowest possible score, with an average difference between peak and RMS loudness of 0.3dB. Only four other tracks in my collection have the same DR – one is a mashup of 95 Metallica songs, and the other 3 are all by Kevin Drumm: ‘Another Odyssey Of Waiting’, ‘Blocking’ (2018, Bandcamp), and ‘Purge’ (2013, iDEAL). In contrast with the quite hectic sound of CODE139, XI-N also made some ambient generative music, Pulsar (Amek Collective).

xin – MELTS INTO LOVE (Subtext Recordings)
xin ≠ XI-N, this is a different artist. Well-produced individual tracks and a nicely structured album. Like Saplings Records, proceeds from sales go to planting trees. xin also did a good mix for FACT: https://www.factmag.com/2019/11/21/xin-subtext-fact-mix/

Fernando Zalamea – Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics (2012, Urbanomic / Sequence Press)
François Laruelle – The Concept of Non-Photography
(2015, Urbanomic / Sequence Press)
More from the unread pile. I bought these together a couple of years ago. They have similar format and design with details of artworks on the cover. Laruelle’s book has Moiré 3  by Liz Deschenes and Zalamea’s has Los regalos perfectos by Maria Clara Cortéz. I’ve got some familiarity with photography through formal training and experience, but I know little about advanced maths, so I expected Zalamea’s book to be the more challenging, but it was mostly the other way round. I struggled to read Laruelle’s writing and follow his lines of thought, so it wasn’t a very pleasant or enlightening experience. Zalamea’s writing was easy to read even though I had to look up some things to know what it was even talking about, but it was clear where the limits of my own knowledge were preventing deeper understanding of the text. It was much more highly structured, too, with lots of internal references and some simple diagrams and tables that were necessary and useful. Perhaps that says more about me than it does about the quality of the books. Both worth a read.

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A FIDS MONITOR

This is an album released last year, but which I didn’t write about on this blog. So here’s a belated bit about it.

Like much of my recent work, A FIDS MONITOR is based on sonification of data. This is economic and geophysical data that measure the state of the world: time-series datasets of global temperature, greenhouse gases, polar ice extent, bitcoin and the UK economy. Using Mathematica I transformed the data into MIDI files, applying various mappings between the numeric values and MIDI note pitch, volume and timing. These were often basic mappings, where greater values map to louder volume and/or higher pitch.

In generative music, the mapping or translation between data and sound is arbitrary in the sense that there’s not one particular setup that is ‘correct’ or ‘truthful’. But the choice of mapping determines which features of the data are audible and how they are heard, e.g. its structure, its range of values and its rate of change. This makes it an aesthetic relationship as well as generative (computational/procedural/productive/creative). These particular datasets don’t have a naturally musical structure, so it’s a challenge to make something musical with it, but I like to work this way, using constraints as a creative spur. It’s an approach I’ve grown into, mostly by not being able to afford much gear, partly through evolving taste/style, and it’s been developed by participating in the Disquiet Junto which sets a weekly task to make music under specific guidelines. In this case, the rules were:

  • use the whole of each dataset at least once
  • apply simple mappings to the data, and make simple MIDI files
  • use few instruments
  • make each track sound different
  • make sounds only from the data; no external sound sources

I arranged the MIDI files in Reaper. Most of the sounds are made with Razor – the VSTi synth designed by Errorsmith and Native Instruments, XILS3 – a VCS3 emulator, and Sforzando sample player with the Fluid R3 General MIDI sound font. Using Reaper’s parameter routing capability, I set up connections between the MIDI data and the synths so they interacted and created more variety within the constraints of the simple MIDI input. In this way, as processes become non-linear, the sounds become more complex.

Making the tracks just seemed to flow for once, and I didn’t tinker endlessly with each one. I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. Below are some details about the music and the data, with some charts to show the structure of the datasets. I hope it adds to the listening experience.

Global Surface Temperature

Met Office Hadley Centre. HadCRUT4 (anomaly w.r.t. 1961–1990 mean). 1850–2017. Monthly. °C. http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/hadobs/hadcrut4/data/current/download.html

NASA. GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP – deviation from 1951–1980 mean): Combined Land-Surface Air and Sea-Surface Water Temperature Anomalies (Land-Ocean Temperature Index, LOTI). 1880–2017. Monthly. °C. https://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/

These two datasets represent global warming. Track 1 uses monthly readings and starts from 1880, when NASA started measuring, so both datasets are present throughout. The GISTEMP dataset is played with sample-based percussion and HAadCRUT4 with a synthesized pitched sound. The increase in temperature over time is only really audible in the synth that rises in pitch. Track 2 is similar but uses annual averages instead of monthly, so there’s fewer data points / musical events. Track 3 uses the whole of both datasets, so you first hear the HadCRUT dataset before GISTEMP joins in. Track 4 uses only the Met Office data.

UK Deficit

ONS. Public sector current budget deficit, excluding public sector banks. 1946–2016. Quarterly. £ million. https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/governmentpublicsectorandtaxes/publicsectorfinance/timeseries/jw2t/pusf

The deficit is the difference between money raised and spent by the government. Track 5 is made with two copies of a MIDI file played in sync. One plays a synth bass and the other General MIDI percussion. The sonification works well here, highlighting the annual cycle in the quarterly data from the 1940s to the 1960s, where one quarter with a small surplus at the start of each new budget is followed by three quarters with a small deficit. Then it becomes more unstable and the government accounts go further into the red.

UK Balance of Payments

ONS. BoP Current Account Balance SA. 1955–2016. Quarterly. £ million.  https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/nationalaccounts/balanceofpayments/timeseries/hbop/pnbp

ONS. BoP: Capital Account Balance CP SA. £m. 1955–2016. Quarterly. £ million.  https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/nationalaccounts/balanceofpayments/timeseries/fnvq/pnbp

The balance of payments measures the inward and outward transactions of the residents of a country (in this case, the UK) and the rest of the world. The current account is the national net income – how much money the country has. The capital account balance consists of capital transfers and trading of land and natural resources. Added together, they show whether a country is a lender (in surplus) or borrower (in deficit) to the rest of the world. Track 6 interleaves the datasets, with the capital account data (bass sound) half a beat behind the current account data (drum sound, a modified version of Errorsmith’s excellent ‘Kick to Tom’ preset in Razor).

UK Employment & Unemployment

ONS. Employment rate (aged 16 to 64, seasonally adjusted). 1971–2016. %. https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/timeseries/lf24/lms

ONS. Unemployment rate (aged 16 and over, seasonally adjusted). 1971–2016. %.  https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peoplenotinwork/unemployment/timeseries/mgsx/lms

These measures of employment and unemployment rates are inversely correlated but do not quite sum to 100% because they represent different definitions of employment and different age groups. Track 7 plays both datasets in parallel using bass and drum sounds.

Bitcoin

Blockchain. Market Capitalization (The total USD value of bitcoin supply in circulation). 15/04/2016–14/04/2017. Daily. USD. https://blockchain.info/charts/market-cap

Blockchain. Average Block Size (The average block size in MB). 15/04/2016–14/04/2017. Daily. MB. https://blockchain.info/charts/avg-block-size

Blockchain. Transaction Rate (The number of Bitcoin transactions added to the memepool per second). 15/04/2016–14/04/2017. Daily. Transactions added per second. https://blockchain.info/charts/transactions-per-second

All three datasets are used in each of tracks 8, 9 and 10, but each uses different instruments and different parameter modulation setups.

Sea Ice

National Snow and Ice Data Center. Arctic sea ice extent and area. 1979-2016. Monthly.  ftp://sidads.colorado.edu/DATASETS/NOAA/G02135/north/monthly/data/

National Snow and Ice Data Center. Antarctic sea ice extent and area. 1979–2016. Monthly.  ftp://sidads.colorado.edu/DATASETS/NOAA/G02135/south/monthly/data/

This polar ice extent data shows the annual cycle of increase and decrease, and how the polar cycles are 180° out of phase with each other. It also shows how much the northern ice caps are melting. Tracks 11, 12 and 13 all use both datasets. Each track uses different sounds, but within them both MIDI files use the same sound. In each track the north can be heard on the left and south on the right. The image at the top of this post is based on the difference in northern ice extent from the monthly average.

Greenhouse Gases

NOAA. CO2 air samples collected in glass flasks, Ascension Islands station. 1979–2015. Monthly. ppm. ftp://aftp.cmdl.noaa.gov/data/greenhouse_gases/co2/flask/surface/co2_asc_surface-flask_1_ccgg_month.txt

NOAA. CH4 air samples collected in glass flasks, Ascension Islands station. 1983–2015. Monthly. ppb. ftp://aftp.cmdl.noaa.gov/data/trace_gases/ch4/flask/surface/ch4_asc_surface-flask_1_ccgg_month.txt

These are measurements of the two main greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). The datasets include the time of day at which the readings were taken. I used this in the music to set note duration. You can hear this in the irregular timings of the kick drum in track 14, which uses just a 3-year span of data. The data clearly includes anomalous readings – the visible outliers on the charts. I included these anomalies in the translation into MIDI files. You can hear them clearly in track 15, which only uses the CH4 data, and where the timing is also based on the same method as before. Track 16 uses both datasets in full, with the same anomalies and the same mapping/timing method. In this, the longest and final track, the rising CO2 levels are audible in the rising pitch of the synth sound.

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I recommend Philip Sherburne’s recent article, ‘How Experimental Musicians Are Soundtracking the End of the World‘, featuring Matmos, Hildur Guðnadóttir, AGF and Tanya Tagaq.

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