Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address 2014
Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address is an annual forum for ideas relating to the creation and performance of Australian music. Named after the Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks, it has been igniting debate and highlighting crucial issues since its establishment in 1999.
The 2014 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address was delivered by Warren Burt at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on 28 October and in Melbourne at Deakin Edge Theatre, Federation Square on 31 October 2014, and recorded and broadcast by ABC Classic FM. See also: a summary article on Resonate.
Warren Burt: Music - Still Ahead of the Game
1) Play comb acoustically
2) In AudioShare, play Comb.Wav
3) In Virtual ANS, load Comb.ANS and play
4) Play with cutups of sound, then change speed and pitch
5) In Virtual ANS, load Combcut2.ANS and play.
6) In Audiobus, load Thumbjam and Aufx:Dub – alternate Combcut2 and CombContactMic 1 & 2 in a short improvisation.
In the 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet, Dr Morbius states that the alien race of the Krell, whose achievements dwarfed those of humanity, were on the brink of some great accomplishment which would have crowned their entire history, when they vanished in a single night. While acknowledging that this sentence shows the nuclear war fears of the 1950s, it’s also a very telling sentence and can apply equally to our own era.
This is one of the most exciting times in the history of humanity. Every day, news comes of even more amazing discoveries in science and technology. What is going on now in the field of astronomy is astounding. Exoplanets being discovered by the dozen. Even an older technology (a whole decade and a half old!) like the Hubble Space Telescope is still producing amazing images. As my father-in-law, an astrophysicist, says, 'Some of the things in those images, we don’t even know what we’re looking at!' New understandings of stellar structure and behaviour, black holes, and the like, are coming to light almost weekly. Stellar seismology, where one analyses sound to probe the interior structure of stars, is but one example of the advances in astronomy. And of course, the various planetary probes are another.
Medicine is another field with exponential growth. Stem cell research which promises to mend broken spines is only one area where great strides are being made. Books such as Damien Broderick’s The Last Mortal Generation detail the many areas in which medical breakthroughs are being made.
In biology, barriers to knowledge come falling down each day. Genetics is an incredibly exciting field. What is being learned through DNA analysis is quite wonderful. And in the way that we see the new understanding of the genetic relationship between humans and our Neanderthal brothers and sisters being debated and reversed almost weekly, we see the nature of the back and forth debate that characterises science – the way in which it forges a path forward. In physics, mathematics and biology, the revolution in non-linear dynamics and the many fields it has influenced, from chaos theory through artificial life to advances in power generation, biology and a number of other fields has been, for many of us, a subject of absorbing interest over the past several decades. And because it’s such a huge topic, here we only allude to all the work going on in quantum physics, and the very structure of matter.
Technology, it almost goes without saying, is another area of phenomenal growth. I’m typing this (on a train) on a rather underpowered tablet computer which weighs about half a kilogram, and which has more computing power, by many factors, than the lumbering cybernetic giants I grew up with in the 1960s. When Peter Vogel, one of the designers of the late 1970s classic Fairlight Computer Music Instrument realised that the iPad had more computer power than his machine did back then, he was delighted, and the Vogel CMI app was the result. Developments in robotics, cybernetics, artificial intelligence et al., are happening at an ever-increasing rate.
Music is not divorced from this either. In a semi-Pythagorean manner, I’m going to consider music a part of the sciences tonight, and if we do, we see that the discoveries being made in the field are wondrous, and the rate at which new resources are appearing is even increasing. If you are the type who devotes large amounts of time exploring and intuiting the compositional potential of newly appearing musical resources, as I am, you’ll find you can hardly keep up with things. Later on in this lecture I’ll show just a few of these new developments and how I’m just starting to deal with them. After 46 years of composing, I feel like I’m just getting started.
However, while the sciences and the arts are expanding human knowledge at an amazing pace, the current political, economic, and let’s say 'ethical' situation of the human race is completely dire.
While one segment of humanity is rushing forward into what looks like an amazing future ('Yah-hoo! Singularity, here we come!!!!' - cough, ahem – apologies to Vernor Vinge and Damien Broderick for that one…), another segment of humanity is either frantically trying to hold things back, or is actively running away from the many forms of new knowledge, or is distracting themselves to death in wilful ignorance of both the hopeful AND the dire developments of the present. Climate-change denialism, religious fundamentalism, and the lamentable past 40 years of the absolute rule of economic fundamentalist neo-liberal economics are just a few examples of this.
The American critic Frederic Jameson, looking at the situation, said that we seemed to be simultaneously involved in both catastrophe and progress. I think he was too wimpy. I’d rather phrase it that we are currently poised between catastrophe and triumph. Hence the Dr Morbius quote earlier. Let’s deal as briefly as possible with the current catastrophe. My friends remind me that my political thinking is at best mediocre, while my musical thinking is much better. I think they’re right. With profound minds around like Thomas Piketty, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Richard Tanter, Vandana Shiva, Henry Reynolds, and Chris Mann, any political analysis I can give will be strictly amateurish. However, in the spirit of radical amateurism (and creative incompetence!) that has animated so much of my compositional thinking for the past 46 years, let’s have a go, and just say:
Australia’s immigration and border protection policies are just AWFUL. Cruelty and inhuman torture are the rule, not the exception. Aussies love football. We now have thousands of political footballs in concentration camps awaiting – what? How’s THAT for denying people their basic humanity? In a word: AWFUL.
Australia’s Indigenous relations policy from 1788 up until the present day. And that includes all the hypocritical self-serving policies which are supposed to 'help' but only end up making matters worse. In a word: AWFUL. Anybody ever hear about self-determination?
Climate change and other forms of scientific denialism as government policy at the exact moment when we most need enlightened forward-oriented thought. In a word: AWFUL.
Cuts to the science, medical and research budgets. Stupid and short-sighted are only the nice words for it. In a word: AWFUL.
The continual restructuring that the education sector has faced since 1988. The casualisation of the workforce. The imposition of completely inappropriate economic criteria on education (and on medicine!). In a word: AWFUL.
The continual underfunding of education, medicine and social services. Cheap-arse, tight-wad, penny-pinching, ungenerous, nickle and diming the generations of the future, are just a few terms that could apply. But, in a word: AWFUL.
The immature and ethically stunted behaviour of government personalities, on ALL sides of politics. In a word: AWFUL.
The behaviour of the press (more on this later). In a word: AWFUL.
A general societal lack of compassion, which has been taught to us by the past 40 years of neoliberal economic so-called 'theory'. In a word: AWFUL.
The total domination of every aspect of our society by money. In a word: AWFUL.
The ongoing perpetual wars. AWFUL.
Racist and sexist policies and actions which demonise members of various religious, racial, ethnic and gender groups. AWFUL.
Obscene amounts of money spent on the military. AWFUL.
Enough of that. I recall with fondness a sweatshirt I once had which said something like 'Won’t it be nice when our schools have all the money and facilities they need, and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?'
Bill Griffith’s wonderful character, Zippy the Pinhead, said 'If you can’t say something nice, say something surreal'. My mother was tickled by this, and said it herself to me. So, as a loyal son, who am I to disobey my mother? Rather than elaborate on my totally justified and completely warranted bitch list, I here use my computer to generate 13 surreal statements. These are all generated in real time, using an algorithmic writing program I made in the generative music program Art-Wonk, which I helped develop. What you hear tonight in Melbourne is different from what the audience in Sydney heard on Tuesday night. And the statements that are printed below are different yet again.
Since I am unable to say anything nice about the current political situation, I hereby say:
Small Sad Numinous Mid-City Whiffle-ball, Screaming Sphinx Truly Fragrant Jiggery-Pokery
No, my Grapefruit, Latent Metempsychosis Manifest Grapefruit to Smooth Koala
The Pleroma of Mafia Must Quibble, Refrigerator Have Puking Egg
Bar Sonic Transubstantiation, Be the Bottle of Man Pumping Cloth Glossolalia
Undertones of Truly Sharp Chocolate Almond Koala to the Revelations
Crumbs of my Noospheric Platypus of Ineffable Death of Exclusive Above
And Eschew the Highest Harmony of Smarmy Dog of Pumping,
In the Mystery Programs, Mid-City Daffodil Grapefruit Undertones Jiggery-Pokery Bessemer Furnace
The Fragrant Revelations Latent in Death Button the Glossolalia Noospheric Playtypus
The Latent Enharmonic Food-Miles Drive the Small Chicken Woman Disks
Beware Studio Corn of the Eyeless Herbaceous Acoustic Entomologist Sphygmomanometer
Quibble Micturition Defrauds the Smarmy Bar, Build Famous Bread Glass
Clandestine Poodles Inscribing the Sphinx Muffin Must Eschew Heteronormative Screaming
Thank you. And apropos of nothing in particular, although it’s relevant to the mainstream of this evening’s symposium, here’s a short poem by my late and dearly missed friend, the sound poet Jas H Duke:
There’s only three kinds of economic news, and they’re all BAD.
The dollar goes up. That’s inflation. That’s BAAD.
The dollar stays the same. That’s stagnation. That’s BAAAD.
The dollar goes down. That’s deflation. That’s BAAAAD.
There’s only three kinds of economic news, and they’re all BAAAAAD.
One of the subjects I teach is Medieval and Renaissance Music History. In that subject, I’m continually apologising to the students when I have to teach them about yet another bit of Catholic Church dogma, religious belief, policy, or structure. But as I point out to them, European society of that time was not just influenced by the church, to a large extent it WAS the church. People were completely marinated in religious thought. And except for rare individuals such as Julian of Norwich, or Teresa of Avila, or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, it was absolutely impossible for people to think of a life without God. And for those three geniuses of negative theology, who could and did think of a life without God, it was a vehicle for them to experience even greater religious ecstasies. The Reformation was made by serious people who did not envisage a secular society, but merely wanted to change the nature of the religion that saturated the society. Gradually, however, over 500 years, the practice of religion became optional, and today, in some countries, if one chooses to practice or not practice religious thought, no harm will come to you. However, while the stranglehold of religious thought was loosening, the power of economic thought over society was increasing.
The rise of banking, the decision of the Catholic Church (from some Pope who I believe was either a Borgia or a Medici) to have charging of interest no longer be a mortal sin, began to create a new societal order.
Our anarchist friends at AK Press have the slogan. 'The five hundred year long sentence of life at hard labour which has been with us since the Renaissance'. I’ve thought that sentence was cute, but didn’t really 'get it' until I taught the Medieval-Renaissance course. Then I got it. For just as that society was marinated in religious doctrine and thought, so our society is thoroughly soaked in economic thought. Rather than God being the dominant force that saturates every waking hour, today it’s Mammon. Money. I would love to live in a society where the practice and belief of economics was a freely chosen option, just as religion is today. How would such a society work? I have no idea. For just as a nun in the 13th and 14th centuries could not even conceive of a world without God (unless she were Tess or Julie, of course), so I and most of my friends can’t conceive of a world without money.
Certainly, the press as it currently exists, is part of the infrastructure that enforces the complete dominance of money-thought. In Australia, of course, most of the information we get is controlled by one man, and his minions who have sworn allegiance to his kind of thinking. And the opposition, à la Fairfax, or the Guardian, is simply a different face on the same economic imperative. I might like what they say a little better, but it’s still the same story, just nicer. With sugar twinkles on top.
Our poets are sometimes our prophets. One who managed to be both was Alan Ginsberg. In his 1956 masterwork Howl, he uses the name of the ancient god of child sacrifice, Moloch, as a symbol of capital in its total infiltration of modern society. Part II is a stunning denunciation and mantra of Moloch, and it really conveys the way we are totally dominated by this crap-thought. Here’s a very brief excerpt:
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls
and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable
dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys
sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless!
Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone
soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch
whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of
war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is
running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!
Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose
ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose
skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless
Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the
fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is
electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter
of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless
hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!...
They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven!
Is there any alternative to this? Once again, science-fiction might give us a clue. In one of the Star Trek movies, the man from the 20th century is aboard the Enterprise. He says something like 'Wow, this must cost a fortune! How do you afford it?' The reply is evasive and non-committal – something along the lines of, 'Oh, our economy is structured along different lines. We don’t have money'. And in true science-fiction fashion, nothing more is said. But there is a clue there, and a hope – yes, there IS a way to have a society without money. What that is, we don’t know – and it might take 500 years for it to be figured out. Both communism and capitalism may someday be relics of the past – being viewed both as simply different ideas about how to distribute and manage money. Something else might, hopefully evolve, and maybe in the future, humanity will figure out a better way. And my hope is shared by much of humanity. Wearily, America’s finest news source, The Onion, recently had the following story:
Under the headline:
Humanity Surprised It Still Hasn’t Figured Out Better Alternative To Letting Power-Hungry Assholes Decide Everything
NEWS • World Leaders • News • ISSUE 50•25 • Jun 25, 2014
A relevant quote reads:
'We’ve all seen what this system leads to, so you’d think that by now, someone, somewhere would have sat down and thought up another way to keep our societies functioning without giving all the power to arrogant, amoral dicks whose only concern is improving their own status', said Mumbai software designer Ankan Rao, one of 7.1 billion humans who conveyed continued surprise that their species has so far proven incapable of formulating a method of governance that was even slightly more tolerable. 'Boy, maybe we shouldn’t do that anymore', Rao added. 'Anyone have any better ideas?'
The article continues in that vein.
And while we’re on the topic of possible alternatives in society, here’s a little story from the study of primate behaviour.
Dr Robert Sapolsky was studying stress. He found that baboons had stress for many of the same reasons as humans, and many of those were social. Baboons can meet their caloric needs with about three hours of work a day. The rest of the time they spend in social behaviour. They have a very vicious pecking order. Those who are on top work to stay on top, and do so with massive intimidation and threats of violence. As a result, lots of stress. The ones lower in the hierarchy because of bullying from the top. The ones on top, in the effort to remain on top. In one troop in Africa, a restaurant near a nature reserve threw out its tainted fish on to a local dump, which was next to the reserve. The alpha males (and a few females) who were on top, had first pickings at the dump. They ate the tainted fish, and all died. The lower ranking males and females were left without leadership. What happened next astounded Sapolsky. After a long period of mourning, in which the baboons showed massive signs of stress, things got back to normal, but the females who were at the lower ranks seemed to take over, and signs of the dominance behaviour of the alpha baboons seemed to disappear, or be greatly diminished. Stress levels for the whole troop plummeted. Further in subsequent years, when young males from other troops joined the de-alpha-ed troop, they did not fight for dominance, as they would when joining other troops, but learned the mostly non-aggressive behaviours of the now mostly matriarchal troop. And this mostly non-aggressive behaviour has now continued in this troop for several generations.
So maybe there is a better way. If baboons can do it, can we? Mind you, I’m not recommending feeding rotten fish to the all the members of all the parliaments, all the editorial boards of all the newspapers and broadcast stations, and all the CEOs and boards of all the corporations in Australia, but it does make we wonder – is there a way we can improve our behaviour?
I have one possible activity which might help, even a little bit:
The non-verbal intelligence embodied in music is one of the most powerful tools we have for the expansion of human consciousness. Not only what sounds we make, but also the way In which we make them, in the structures we create in order that sounds may happen. The continual exploration and search for new kinds of sounds and structures which will support them is our crucial mission and our greatest task. It’s what we, as musicians can contribute to the ongoing spiritual quest through sound to discover what our potential to be human is. And what a rich, multidimensional source of information music is! If only one learns HOW to listen!
Here’s a quote from my composer friend Stephen James Taylor which neatly sums it up: 'When a musician plays a single phrase, that phrase carries (amongst other things): pitch data, acoustical data, location data, emotional data, biographical data, numerical data, time binding data, historical data... Have I left something out?' What an amazingly rich source of information, and that’s just from a single phrase.
[Sings a single non-verbal vocal phrase]
And even dealing with music as a set of pieces, in different styles - I mean, screw economic thinking. In the world of music, we live in a time of the greatest abundance of sound resources in history. Back in the '70s, Kenneth Gaburo asked, 'And what if we replaced every Either/Or statement with an: AND statement?' And for the past 30 years, music has embraced that idea with a vengeance. I agree with Buffy Sainte-Marie when she said that the concept of genre was one of the most damaging ideas that has afflicted music for the past 60 years. 'Genre' seeks to impose sets of rules on musical behaviours. So that it can be marketed more easily. But those pesky musicians keep expanding what they are doing. Genres proliferate until the concept becomes meaningless. As both John Cage and Leonard Meyer pointed out – if there ever was a musical mainstream, by the '80s it had already developed into the situation of the delta, where there were lots of parallel streams of development, and by the early '90s, and even more so today, we were already in the ocean, swimming in a field of thousands of different musical fields and styles, each one of which has something different to offer. Advances in 3D printing and molecular engineering hold out the promise of a future of abundance and diversity. Ahead of the rest of society, music may already be getting there. That is, musicians may, in their collaboration and diversity – outside of the economic order – already be making the future.
Earlier this year, I organised a version of the 60x60 project for the Australian Computer Music Conference which happened in Melbourne. This is a project where 60 composers write a piece exactly one minute long (or less), and the resulting pieces are put together to make a one-hour program. For our version, we decided to only invite composers from Melbourne (and nearby country regions – Stawell, Clunes, Bendigo and Dromana, to be precise). This was the 'Melbourne 60x60' after all. (Sydney friends, I would encourage you to make your own. I’m sure you’ll get just as interesting and varied a collection as we did.) We had such an enthusiastic response to the project that we had to put together a second compilation as well. In the end, about 110 composers contributed to the collections. Of those 110 pieces, by my reckoning there were about 85 different styles. Everything from modal piano improvisation to screaming distorted noisebands, and all areas in between. If in one city in Australia we can have this kind of variety, given planet Earth, the amount of stylistic riches existing in music is truly astounding. And how much did this project cost? Including the Hightail drop box account I rented just to do this project, under $100. If we don’t count the drop box cost, then the cost comes down to near zero. Everyone contributed freely to a project they thought would be fun. Many this is hint of what a future society might look like.
In fact, maybe my 60x60 friends, and the free improvisers, and other creative types who are doing artistic exploration for very little or no money are a small sign of people beginning to think in an agnostic way about economics. Most of this work is, at the moment, self-funded, and is utterly marginalised by the media. I have to admit, I have no ideological problem with being on the margins or with the arts being self-funded. However, and it’s a big however, I only have no problems with self-funding AS LONG AS the society is structured in such a way as to make self-funding possible. That is, after a day of work (doing something else) one has enough energy and money left over to indeed do creative things in a rewarding, fulfilling way. At the moment, the situation is not like that. Economic conditions have deteriorated to such an extent, and the conditions of employment have decayed so much, that self-funding at the moment has the aspect of a perpetual struggle, with total exhaustion and defeat around every corner. I echo the words of a Canadian-Lebanese composer, Radwan Ghazi Moumneh, when he says 'I’m tired of working 70 hours a week just to pay the rent!' Believe me, for the past four years I’ve had a full time, or nearly full time, job, and finance is a perpetual struggle. And nearly all of my colleagues at work tell me the same story. Under these conditions, this is not my envisioned self-funding utopia: under these conditions, we make music not because of the economic order, but in spite of it.
Jacques Attali, in Noise: the Political Economy of Music, surely one of the essential music books of the past 50 years, makes the point that the behaviour of musicians now is a good indication of how the rest of society will begin to organise itself in the near future. He also talks about music moving from a commodity based economy into a state which he calls 'composition', where all of life is subsumed into a series of creative acts. A medieval Christian mystic would be tempted to call this a 'state of grace'. I think I know what he’s talking about, because I think I’m there. For the past few years, I’ve devoted my commuting time on V/Line to composing, or working out musical and artistic problems. I’ve probably written 2 to 3 pieces a week during that period. Some are just exercises, or proof of concept pieces, or sketches. Others are more fleshed out conceptions, but all are the result of an ongoing search through new musical resources to find those sounds which might transport us to ongoing realms of depth and spiritual and sonic understanding. One can only hope that this quest will also eventually benefit society at large, probably in non-linear ways that we can’t even conceive of at the moment.
One of the most interesting and positive things about the experimental music scene worldwide is how much it is off society’s radar. It’s a very vibrant, intellectually engaged scene made of many dedicated people that largely exists outside of the concerns, venues, and publicity practices of much of the rest of the music world. So much of what I’ve done over the past 46 years has been so under the economic radar – concerts in pubs and dance venues for audiences of between 9 and 20 – that sometimes I’m amazed that it gets noticed at all. However, radio, the internet, a lot of self-publication, and those dedicated audiences of between 9 and 20 make a big difference. I do a lot of performing, and over the years those 9-20s have added up to a considerable number. But there is an economic hierarchy to the arts world which over-determines what has the potential to get reviewed and where. Raise a budget big enough to play the Melbourne or Sydney Festivals, and you have a chance of getting reviewed in The Age or the Sydney Morning Herald. The wonderful Real Time, which I find absolutely indispensable, mostly reviews events from what we used to call the 'small to medium arts sector'. The experimental music scene, including improv, electronics, performance art, sound poetry, etc., mostly exists below even that level of economic hierarchy, and critical notice.
This music, obviously, is not written to support or play along with our current economic order. But, neither is it written in opposition to it. In fact, let’s just say that the current economic order is simply irrelevant to our musical concerns.
I think our obscurity may also be our advantage. As Daniel Wolf said recently of Charles Ives on his 140th anniversary: 'Taking advantage of the freedom offered by isolation to compose the impossible.' And politically in Australia, where the media often treats the arts as simply amusement, with the subtext that artists are simply wacky wankers, our obscurity is also a benefit. I was telling students the other day about the troubles Shostakovich had with his boss, Joseph Stalin, and remarked that we don’t have that problem in Australia. It’s true, I said, that capitalism will probably ignore you to death, but at least we don’t have to face the problem of a hostile homicidal boss. Imagine if the right-wing commentariat were to take an interest in our work. If the alternative to being pilloried by shock-jocks (or critics!) is obscurity and small audiences, I’ll take the small audiences, thank you.
John Cage said that one of his ideas was that music compositions (and musical activity in general, I might add) can provide models of the kind of social organisation which might help us out of the current mess. Some examples of current organisations that might be models for a better society might include the Make It Up Club in Melbourne, the nowNow in Sydney, the Australian Art Orchestra, and the Astra Improvising Choir. The avant-garde (which Cage defined as 'flexibility of mind') doesn’t want to write advertising jingles for the revolution – it wants its music to BE that revolution.
Back to music, and a hopeful future. I mentioned the sciences earlier. Here are a few pieces I’ve made that are responses to ideas that have occurred in the sciences, often using materials from them in interesting and unusual manners.
I mentioned the field of stellar seismology earlier. The sounds of stellar seismology are freely available on the net. They sound pretty undistinguished and noisy. But hearing them, I wondered what would happen if you greatly magnified them – if you could get inside the sounds, on a minute level, to hear their inner structure. The fast Fourier transform is a sound analysis technique that enables you to do just that. When I analysed the sound, millisecond by millisecond for its harmonic content I was delighted. Now, I felt, I really was listening to the Pythagorean idea of the 'harmonies of the cosmos'.
Late last year, a Hubble Space Telescope photo of the star cluster Messier 15 was released by NASA on the net. I saw it and immediately thought that it looked like a score. (I’ve been doing a LOT of work over the past two decades with converting graphics into music, so I think I can recognise a good potential sound when I see one.) Here’s the very beginning of the piece, Messier 15 in Three Different Modes for an Hour in which I took the image of the star cluster and used it as a score.
For the past 20 years, I’ve been collaborating with John Dunn, of Algorithmic Arts, on a series of interactive composing programs, the most recent of which is called 'ArtWonk'. This program has a big set of resources for reading and sonifying DNA protein patterns. Working closely with the biologist Dr Mary Anne Clark, they developed an extremely sophisticated set of resources for working with these patterns. I’ve been exploring a tiny corner of the infinity of found-object patternings found in DNA protein patterns for the past few years. A couple of years ago, I did a series of pieces, called Nightshade Etudes, where I explored the DNA patterns of various members of the Nightshade family, using them to control a series of physically modelled historical keyboard instruments. I used the DNA patterns to control pitch, rhythm, loudness of the notes and the overall structure of the music. The results are very complex pieces, probably closer to experimental musical compositions than useful scientific sonifications. However, I really, really wanted to hear what would happen if you had a harpsichord played by a potato, so here it is:
[Short excerpt from 'Potato Harpsichord' from Nightshade Etudes (2012)]
Since the early 1980s, I’ve been working with the applications of non-linear science to music. This has encompassed work with chaos theory and a number of other non-linear phenomenon. In 2013, I finally figured out how to use ArtWonk to do serious work with what are called 'cellular automata'. (I’m a slow learner.) I used these structures to make a series of etudes. However, unlike many composers, who use the kinds of timbres they use as a badge of stylistic identification, I tried to use as many kinds of different timbres, from game audio crudeness, to sophisticated instrumental sampling and high-end additive synthesis to make a very diverse orchestra. Here’s an excerpt from the results.
[Short excerpt from 'The Perils of Paulinian Polyrhythms' from Cellular Etudes (2013)]
There are so many areas of music which offer rich possibilities for future exploration. To be sure, if we’re starving, we might not be able to do these explorations. But at the moment, food is (just) still affordable, and the number of tools being developed for musical applications is astounding. For just one platform, the iPad, there are 2 or 3 new tools coming out each week. I’m not exaggerating. It’s true, that a lot of this technology is still on the bleeding edge. The recent disastrous introduction of iOS8 for the iPad, which disabled many of my music-making apps, and which are only gradually coming back online is but one example of that. This, however, points up the new nature of virtuosity in the electronic medium. The old idea of virtuosity, for example, spending 20 years developing performing subtlety with an unchanging technology, say the violin, is not relevant here. The rate of change in technology mitigates against that. Today, it’s not just that if you spend 20 years developing performing technique on the iPad, by the time you become a virtuoso the iPad will no longer be here. It's worse than that. With the iPad, at the moment, apps are appearing and disappearing on a weekly basis. Again, I’m not exaggerating. (In fact, as Henry Thoreau says, 'I cannot exaggerate ENOUGH to make a true statement!')
So virtuosity is different these days. Here’s what I think it is.
Virtuosity in electronic music today has to be both physical (old-fashioned performance skills) and conceptual and technological. Enormous flexibility is called for. So that when the patch you have been working on for weeks falls over because the apps you were basing it on don't work any more, you can immediately go to other apps which offer similar resources, and re-compose your patch to use the new resources, and then learn how to perform with the new resources in less than an hour and perform with them with a sense of elegance, grace and (gasp) timing. THAT'S the virtuosity called for in the electronic music world of today.
This is different than say, an old analogue patch or a software set up which at least had the feature of being stable for months at a time. Your Moog would be there next week, even if a module or two might go flooby, and at least until it crashed, you could rely on your computer to be roughly the same from week to week. But now, in the developing iPad environment, all bets are off, and one had better have a firm conceptual grasp of the concept of the piece you're working on so that you can adapt it at a moment's notice to a different set of software.
So it’s exciting times. New possibilities are offered on a weekly basis, and some of them then vanish into thin air. But with all that, here are some areas of exploration that make it all worthwhile.
Tuning is one area of intense exploration among experimental musicians at the moment. There are a number of apps being developed to explore these. One of these is Wilsonic, still in beta testing, which allows one to explore the many harmonic worlds of California based speculative music theorist Ervin Wilson:
[Short demo of Wilsonic, including using a file from it in Thumbjam]
At the beginning of this talk, I demonstrated the program Virtual ANS, by the Russian programmer Alexander Zolotov. In that demo, I took the sound of a comb and chopped it up, using its spectrogram, and then loaded that sound into the sampler program Thumbjam. In conjunction with the programs Audiobus, which connects applications, and the delay program AUFX: Dub, I performed a small musique concrete composition based on comb sounds. This is an example of the exciting kinds of new performing interfaces that are being developed just now. The iPad is not the only platform this is happening on. It just happens to be the one I’m working with at the moment.
And speaking of new performing instruments, here’s the program Samplr, which allows you to perform live with samples of recorded sound in a number of different ways. This is a short piece called A Degenerate Practice in which I play with different samples in different ways, showing the possibilities of the program. Most of these samples involve violations of copyright, but all the composers involved are either friends or people whose music I admired, and they’re all dead anyway. So sue me.
[Short demo of A Degenerate Practice using Samplr.]
Lemur is an app which allows you to make performance surfaces of just about any kind. Here, I’ve made an 11x11 matrix keyboard to play a 21 note scale made of prime harmonics and subharmonics 17, 19, 23, 29 and 31. It’s controlling Thumbjam which is playing a sample which combines a low harpsichord note with a riff by George Benson. You won’t be able to hear either George or the harpsichord in the new timbre. But be assured, they’re both there, and contributing to the richness of the sound.
[Short demo of Lemur and GB Drone piece.]
Musix Pro is another experimental keyboard using a hexagonal layout which allows easy access to different ways of performing harmonic progressions. Here I’m using it to control a Grand Piano sample in 13 and 17 tone equal temperament.
[Demo of Musix Pro controlling Thumbjam Grand Piano in 13 and 17 tone ET]
Finally, CSound is a computer program that has been around, either under that name or under the name of one of its predecessors, since the early 1960s. Recently, Richard Boulanger and his team at Berklee College of Music in Boston packaged up some of the resources of Csound into a nice performance instrument. Here I’m using it to modify a recording of frogs, ducks, rapids and birds that I made last Sunday at Tipperary Springs in Daylesford. I made the recording on my cell phone – another example of how the tools to make this music are getting more and more available.
[Performance on csSpectral with Frog and Duck Recording]
While recognising that the farces of dorkness are pulling us backwards, or worse, leading us to oblivion, I feel I should keep my eyes on the expanding potentials of music now so that I can give the best possible gift to the future. If there is to be a future, I want it to have the potential for personally transformative beauty. And even if I disappear, and my work is utterly forgotten, if the spirit of enthusiastic exploration of sound and the uncompromising expansion of the human spirit survives, and even revives, I will feel that my efforts will not have been wasted.