One performer searches the museum’s website for the chosen objects while another performer listens in to the network activity and ‘filters’ the results in real time with a voltage-controlled filter (VCF). The score consists of a set of simple instructions (presented in the style of a computer program) that hopefully leads to an unforeseen degree of interactivity, unpredictability and complexity.
Unit Two: Compositional Strategies
The initial inspiration for this piece came from my long-standing interest in minimalism and process. The Compositions of La Monte Young and the Wall Drawings of Sol LeWitt in particular have always held a strong fascination. In both cases the starting point of a simple piece of text helps to generate a surprising degree of unpredictability and/or complexity. In the third Compositional Studies class, my group tried something similar with our score to be performed by another group. We attempted to generate an almost impossibly complex task out of a simple list of instructions, but unfortunately our plans were subverted when the other group discovered a simple workaround!
Another long-held interest which fed into the piece, and which is almost directly linked to the aforementioned ideas of minimalism and process, is a fascination with sounds that accentuate the idea of computation: sounds that make one think about the simple algorithms behind them. For example, in the early days of computer music, the basic programming task was to generate alternating patterns of ones and zeroes at audio rates. This was known as pulse tone synthesis and produced a characteristic hard-edged square wave sound. This quote from composer John Wall (taken from a recent interview with The Wire magazine) held a particularly strong resonance for me:
Well, if I am going to deal with this machine, this computer, then I want to get to the essence of what this thing is all about. I am producing data sounds with a computer: they may have begun life as something else, but that is what they are now, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise (Wall to Pinnell, 2011, p. 30).
Over the past few years I have been experimenting with Linux and the command-line interface: using simple commands to generate complex ‘data sounds.’ Through this I discovered a simple process one can use to listen in to network activity:
sudo tcpdump -U -s 65535 -i wlan0 -w /dev/dsp
I had wanted to use this process in a composition for quite some time, and now the forthcoming Cuming Museum exhibition gave me the perfect excuse. We had been asked to select a number of objects via the museum’s website for inclusion in the exhibition and to come up with a response to one of these objects. My (initially rather flippant) idea was to comment on the process of selection itself: one performer would search the museum’s website for the chosen objects while another performer would listen in to the network activity and ‘filter’ the results in real time with a voltage-controlled filter (VCF). The score would consist of a set of simple instructions (presented in the style of a computer program) that would hopefully lead to an unforeseen degree of interactivity, unpredictability and complexity.
I was also hoping to evoke a number of themes discussed in the Compositional Studies class: in particular the ideas around laptop computer performance and the ‘detachment’ of sound from instrument and performer. Laptop musicians have often been accused of checking their emails or browsing the web during a live set: my aim was to actually make browsing the web part of the performance! Also, by using sounds normally associated with data – listening in to network activity is strongly reminiscent of the sound of the cassette tapes used to store and load data in early home computers – I could maybe ‘reattach’ the sound back to the ‘instrument.’
Composing this piece, my intention was that ‘Player 2’ would have the most ‘musical’ role during the performance: reacting to the sounds produced by the ‘manual labour’ of ‘Player 1’ and in essence producing a form of structured improvisation. While rehearsing the piece (in order to make a recording for the final presentation), I discovered that ‘Player 1’ has an equally ‘musical’ role to play. The overall audible structure of the performance consists of relatively long periods of inactivity punctured by short, concentrated bursts of activity. The spaces occur when ‘Player 1’ is typing a query into the search engine. Once this is completed and the performer hits ‘enter,’ ‘Player 2’ has to react quickly to the sounds produced, perhaps closely watching ‘Player 1’ in order to judge when the ‘data sounds’ will occur. ‘Player 1’ can perhaps get ‘playful’ with this: type the search query slower or faster, hold off on hitting the ‘enter’ key in order to ramp up the tension, etc. All this, I realised, could help place more emphasis on the ‘performance’ element of the ‘traditional’ laptop computer/electronic music performance: making the piece more about the human interaction between the two performers rather than the actual sounds being produced.
Ultimately, I was pleased to discover that what initially started off as a rather flippant and throwaway comment to a fellow student during a lecture turned out to be a compositional idea rich in possibility: reaffirming my belief that a simple idea can generate a surprisingly rich degree of unpredictability and complexity.
Pinnell, R. (2011) Failing better. The Wire, issue 329, July, pp. 28-31.
Roads, C. (1996) The computer music tutorial. London: The MIT Press.
Tutor Thomas Gardner’s comments:
Searching the web for objects in the archive resulted in a performance piece, in which the network activity of the search is sonified live, giving the sought for object a home in the gallery space even though its physical presence has been postponed or deferred.
The performance had fantastic, aggressive noise swipes accompanied by soft whistling. The metaphorical relationships between the Cuming website, the absent objects and the resulting sounds were evoked brilliantly.