Enter your username and password

Forgotten your username or password?

Your Shopping Cart

There are no items in your shopping cart.

29 May 2015

Insight: Out of Our Hands

Music made from non-musical sources

Insight: Out of Our Hands

Chris Perren's 30-minute work Go Seigen vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke (2015) for chamber septet uses the moves of a 1953 championship game of Go as stimulus for harmonic, rhythmic and melodic material. In this article in Resonate's 'Insight' series, Perren writes about various ways of relinquishing control of compositional decisions to non-musical source material. Perren's work is featured on Nonsemble's new album by the same title - see Bandcamp for more details.

> More 'Insight' articles by the AMC's Represented and Associate artists.

The compulsion to create music from non-musical information seems unique to Western art music of the past century. Examples from popular music or non-Western traditions are comparatively rare. Ten years ago, I was decidedly opposed to this kind of thing: if I heard of someone creating a sonata from patterns of animal migrations, I'd decry the composer for missing the point of music entirely. Youthful passion for art always comes with a little naive hubris. But somehow, in the past two years, I have found myself creating the largest and most complex work of my humble career to date: a work based on the patterns of an arcane board game. How did this happen?

The contradiction here has presented me with an opportunity to consider why we make music from non-musical sources. Why on earth would composers relinquish compositional decisions to a blind process? Why expect non-musical material to contain the kind of musical expression that we otherwise have to work so hard to capture? Is it possible that some works of this kind are simply the afterthought to an idea for a really great program note? There is certainly a fondness in Western culture for the explicit and explainable, with which the ineffability of music has often had an uneasy relationship. When we borrow from the intelligible and the rational, are we also trying to borrow some legitimacy for an art form which we fear is not explicit enough?

The program note holds a powerful position in Western art music. Many works of the kind I am discussing rely on the program note to orient the listener to a process, in which the interest of the piece lies. Whether a work would be as effective without any contextual information is a moot point - once the program note has been read, it becomes an inseparable part of the work. McAdams states that 'music listening is and must be considered seriously by any artist as a creative act on the part of the participant … perceiving is an act of composition'1. Whatever knowledge the listener brings, from program notes or otherwise, is inextricable from the music as they experience it. So, regardless of how the music ends up sounding, incorporating some non-musical source can be a way of orienting the listener to the work in a certain way, via the narrative of the process.

The degree to which the composer is relieved of decision-making duties varies greatly among works of this kind. One might ask, 'given the same source material, could another composer have arrived at the same final product?' The degree to which we answer 'no' to this question indicates where the composer's unique contribution lies. We might imagine a work where notes have been derived, say, from the Fibonacci sequence; it might appear on the surface that the composer has outsourced the composition to a blind process. However, if we consider the diversity of works which have used this very sequence (contrast for instance, Debussy's 'Reflections in Water' in Images I and Tool's Lateralus), it becomes clear that the composer can in fact retain a great deal of control.

The impulse to make music from numbers or other data can come from quite diverse motivations. The most simple of these is exemplified by Daniel Crawford's A Song For Our Warming Planet, in which the composer aims to assist climate scientists to 'communicate their data' 2. Average annual temperatures are assigned chromatic pitches and played in sequential order. It is part of a growing field of musical explorations going by the name 'data sonification'. While this work was a viral success, to me its musical appeal is limited. Crawford's aim is to communicate the data itself, but a cello solo is not my medium of choice for understanding data. And whilst the medium of music is certainly more expressive than a graph, ascending crotchets with no dynamic or textural change are not my idea of an engaging musical experience.

Other artists use data to communicate something beyond the data. Michaela Davies's While Rome Burns uses seismographic data to control musical events. The data is converted to electronic muscle stimulation impulses which drive the movements of the performers, resulting in an unsettlingly affective experience. Davies aims to offer 'a unique way of making visible the fragility and intimacy of human relationships to areas of science'3. So, while Crawford aims to present information in a kind of musical graph for the purpose of communicating that information, Davies aims to explore the space where human beings meet the data, and utilises all the expressivity available to music performance (and some which is not normally available, via muscle stimulation) to achieve this.

I'm not sure if Crawford or Davies would consider there to be any latent musicality in the data they've chosen, but the belief that some structural beauty lies dormant in the source is certainly central to the techniques of some composers. In these cases, composers aim to reveal some musical beauty contained within their source. Robert Davidson's work with speech melody is a good example, which relies upon a belief that there exists something inherently musical within human speech patterns - a belief given justification by the strong evolutionary relationship between music and language. On Davidson's recent setting of former Prime Minister Gillard's misogyny speech, Not Now, Not Ever, he explains how we are 'confronted with the melody that perhaps was not evident to us before'4. Thus it is implied that the musicality is already contained in the source, and the composer's job is to reveal it.

Another interesting example is Tim Opie's 'eco-structuralism', a proposed methodology in which 'patterns are derived from analysis of natural environmental sound sources that reveal structures within the material', and then 'these structural data are used as the dominant material for creating the musical composition'5. Opie's work is mainly electroacoustic, and relies upon software processes to analyse the source recordings. The presence of a computer within the composition process very readily affords the use of non-musical sources, and thus Opie's is one of many such methodologies used in electroacoustic composition. A belief that the source contains something of musical interest is shown in the strictness of the rules, which ensure 'that the structure of the sound event must remain intact throughout the compositional process'6 (ibid.). The rules essentially outsource structural decisions to the source material, leaving the composer to focus on surface details. It seems to me a great deal of faith is placed in the source material to contain something of musical interest, or alternatively, great pressure placed on the composer to find the right source recording. However, it might be said that our natural environment is a more likely reservoir of hidden aesthetic beauty than some other more arbitrary data sources (a board game for instance).

There is a level of strictness involved in all of the above works, a focus on purity of process. Being true to the data is part of the compositional challenge. If any had doctored their source material toward contriving a more immediately pleasing result, there is a feeling that something would be lost. However, not all processes of this kind are bound to such restriction. Clocked Out Duo's Time Crystals has a wonderfully vivid source of inspiration: a theory in physics that describes time unfolding as a kind of crystalline structure. The composer Erik Griswold explained in an interview on Dots and Loops Radio, that it wasn't about 'mapping equations' but more about 'imagining a manifestation of these crystals, what that could be like'7 . The result is of course far more intuitively musical, as it lacks the formal constraints involved in being faithful to some non-musical data.

Some of Chris Perren's notes for writing Go Seigen vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke.

In my own recent work, Go Seigen vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke, the patterns of moves from a 1953 game of go, the ancient Chinese board game, are used to stimulate musical ideas. I converted the game data into melodies, rhythms, harmonies and structures, through a whole range of strict and not-so-strict processes. In this way, the building blocks of the work emerged. However, unlike Crawford's climate change piece or Opie's eco-structuralism, the data itself is absolutely secondary to the musical aesthetic, and the process secondary to the product. Once the material was generated, its use was governed entirely by free musical intuition. In fact, I often admit that the data could have been anything at all - the value lies not in the data itself, but what it elicits from me. Choosing another match would have resulted in a different work, certainly, but I held no belief in some latent musicality contained in the data I chose. The data is like a pebble thrown into the pond of the mind, for the purpose of observing the ripples.

What the go game provided was a source of interesting abstract patterns, and the manipulation of abstract patterns is at the very core of the joy I find in musical composition. I am fascinated by the kind of complexity which can be achieved through simple processes of elaboration, abstraction, and permutation. By these processes I aim to make work which is complex but not complicated. My creative process is therefore quite iterative and recursive, with many ideas folded out from relatively few.

When this kind of process begins with a blank canvas, there is a danger that its unfolding may follow predictable paths. By throwing some kind of arbitrary stimulus into the mixture of initial idea-generation, it ensures some unpredictability in the direction the work takes. Whilst the work is undeniably my own in compositional style, it is grown from seeds which I would never have conceived ex nihilo.

If the go game is audible to any listeners, then that may have more to do with their creative perception than with the work as it exists objectively. And whilst I make the point that the source patterns could have come from anywhere, I also think that the go game is a wonderful mythology with which to surround the work. As discussed above, it is a way of orienting the listener and priming them to listen in a certain way. The ancient game of go fascinates me, and I am captured by its mysteries, its elegance, and its overwhelming complexity despite the simplest of rules. Allowing listeners to project that image into their perception of the music becomes part of the composition, regardless of whether those attributes exist in objective reality.

Works of this kind are most successful to my ears when the data is not simply translated, but transcended in some way. Whether the focus is on process or product is a matter of aesthetics; both can result in profound work. But I think my dislike of this kind of work 10 years ago was based in a badly generalised understanding of it. I imagined its aims were invariably to avoid the real work of composition by palming off the decisions; to extract ready-made music from an unmusical source, expecting it simply to be waiting there to be found; and to co-opt some sort of procedural rigour in order to dupe the audience into assigning the work more value than it deserves. While works of that description certainly exist, there is also a great diversity of work with much more convincing motivations for extracting the musical from the non-musical. While some decisions are taken out of the composers' hands, the best of these works belong quintessentially to the composer who penned them. It is hard to imagine that any other artist, given the same seismographic data, would derive anything like Davies's work. Likewise with Davidson's and Griswold's works and their respective sources. The uniqueness of these works exists in the space where the source material has been transcended rather than simply translated.


1) McAdams, S (1984) ' The auditory image: A metaphor for musical and psychological research on auditory organization', Advances in Psychology, 19, 289-323.
2) Colman, D (2013) 'A Song of Our Warming Planet: Cellist Turns 130 Years of Climate Change Data into Music', Open Culture [Online]. Available: http://www.openculture.com/2013/07/a_song_of_our_warming_planet.html [Accessed 26 May 2015].
3) Davies, M (2011) While Rome Burns [Online]. Available: http://www.michaeladavies.net/while_rome_burns.html [Accessed 26 May 2015].
4) Davidson, R (2014) The Australian Voices: Videos [Online]. Available: http://www.theaustralianvoices.com/watch [Accessed 26 May 2015].
5) Opie, T & , Brown, A (2006) An Introduction to Eco-Structuralism. International Computer Music Conference. New Orleans, USA.
6) Ibid.
7) Mitchell, S & Perren, C (2015) Interview with Clocked Out Duo. Dots and Loops Radio. Zed Digital.

AMC resources

Chris Perren - AMC profile

Chris Perren is a Queensland-based composer and one of the AMC's Associate artists.


Be the first to share add your thoughts and opinions in response to this article.

You must login to post a comment.