Saturday, 9 October 2010

etymology vs entomology

I made 'a funny' while lecture planning: the interpretation of funny here is pretty loose though, it's a witticism at best.

In thinking about etymology I couldn't resist thinking about entomology, and noted that both disciplines examine something hard to grasp, and that can only be pinned down when dead.

Though this only works because I thought that entomology was the study of butterflies, now that I see that it's the study of insects in general it's not so cool, but I'm sticking with it: I wonder how many other people have thought the same but then abandoned it when the definition wasn't so tight...

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

another musing on originality [or] "by my own thoughts I am betrayed..."

I saw a thing tonight that made me question my own thoughts on 'originality' in art. Something that initially made me angry, and when I thought about it made me angry for being angry. I'm not sure yet how I feel about the whole thing, let me talk you/us/them through it...

While reading about the pieces in an upcoming exhibition of experimental music in the US, I came across a new piece, written in 2010 by a composer whom I shall disguise by naming him Z, which had a single simple idea, (this is pretty common in experimental music). But the idea in question was very similar to a piece by a UK composer from 1995, I shall refer to this composer as K. At this point I found myself annoyed at this 'rip-off', the two pieces seemed to me very similar, too similar. I continued reading through the programme note expecting to find some twist that made it different, or an acknowledgement of the K's work, but nothing. There was however a reference to the work of a 1960s sculptor that was related in concept, but nothing like the similarity between the work of Z and K that had annoyed me so much.

I did some research to make sure I wasn't missing anything (I still could be...). Z's piece, and Z himself, I could find no more information on, while K's piece had an interesting backstory about its genesis that mentioned nothing about the 1960s sculptor. It seemed clear (by virtue of their being next to no information to go on...) that this was a rip-off, some chancer trying to pass off seminal work as his own. I was in the middle of trying to figure out a non-confrontational way to 'out' this charlatan when I found myself annoyed with myself for even considering this move.

The encounter with this piece had turned me into someone I wouldn't recognise. You only have to go back a few blog posts here to find me cheerfully arguing against concepts of authorial authority. I firmly believe that creation in art involves working with a commons of materials and concepts, that individuality arises out of the way particular artists interact with this material and set it off on different paths: I'm not saying there are no new ideas, just that they never spring from the ether, they can always be traced, even if only obliquely, to a collection of sources.

The case of Z and K is interesting but unreconcilable due to lack of information, and I don't really care anymore about them anymore, just bothered by my own annoyance. It's possible that they both knew the earlier work and were influenced by it, but more likely that the two pieces came from completely different places, like Leibniz and Newton's independent development of calculus in the 17thC. There's a book on my reading horizon that covers this exact disconnect in thinking, Lewis Hyde's Common as Air. The disconnect is that a new idea must 'belong' to someone, that it must have been discovered by the genius of one person: there's a certain colonial quality to this, like the braying of great explorers as they 'conquer' exotic mountains that the indigenous peoples had been wandering around for centuries. Hyde sets about destroying the myth of the lone creator by exposing how much work is built on the commons of ideas and through communities who discuss these ideas, even if they are then brought to fruition by one person. There's a great video here of Hyde giving a presentation on this in relation to Benjamin Franklin, whom he describes in the book as the 'founding pirate'.

To go back to Z and K, it's worth mentioning that the idea for both pieces is so clever and simple that it's amazing more people haven't thought of it, and in fact they almost certainly have. This idea probably pops into some brain somewhere once a month, but as Feldman once said, ideas are easy, it's carrying them out that's hard. And when you remove from the equation all the people who already know about K's piece, or who the know the 1960s sculptor's work (and other similar nodes on the network of this particular idea that I don't know about), you eventually whittle the idea's fecundity down to the once per decade manifestation that we see here. Is Z's piece a rip-off? I doubt it, coincidence seems more likely, when an idea is good enough it just keeps on happening.

For me, I suspect that the whole episode (the part in my head at least) is the result of a combination of mundane emotional factors. K is a composer I quite admire, so was I defensive that K's creative honour was being besmirched? Maybe, but no, in all probability I was really driven by the fact that I had submitted a piece for this exhibition myself and was rejected *cue tiny violins*: though in fairness, my submission really wasn't great, I didn't think I was bitter about it... So this amplified the similarity in Z and K's work into something that could be attacked, I had generated my very own little right-wing 'moral panic' in order to (subconsciously) bolster my ego by attacking someone else. I suppose I'm just annoyed/humbled at my own pettiness really, ah well, onwards and upwards.

For anyone who's interested, the pieces in question are Benjamin Thorp's Black Box, and Janek Schaefer's Recorded Delivery, and the 1960s artist was Robert Morris, referring to his Box with the sound of its own makingOriginally I didn't want to mention the protagonists directly as I thought it was unfair to unleash the accusation of artistic plagiarism, but I think it's a moot point really, coincidences happen all the time, we're just not always receptive to them.

BTW if anyone's in the New york area in october they should really go and see the exhibition, it opens on oct 1st, then every saturday in october has something on from 2pm-8pm. There's some great sound-artists/composers involved, and curator Seth Kim-Cohen has an interesting essay on the site also.

UPDATE: Brian Eno commented on the Schaefer piece that, 'Recorded Delivery [...] makes me wish I'd thought of it first.' It is that kind of idea.

Sunday, 22 August 2010


Stephen Graham has just written an interesting article for The Journal of Music, "Where is the Underground?". It's an insightful socio-musicological look at the nature of the "the underground" as a culture in itself, irrespective of its specific musical content. He says;
The underground is essentially a practice, a cultural philosophy of music that exists outside of the mainstream. This philosophy, rather than being extinguished, has actually been invigorated through new innovations in social media, digital technology and audio culture.
As I was reading, a couple of things occured to me as extending a tangent from Stephen's line of thinking: this is not necessarily just the musical underground, I'm thinking in terms of the "underground" as a resistance to the mainstream, be that music, software, or inner-city bee-keeping.

The internet means you can now "find" the underground and observe it, but taking part is still the true ritual of entry. That is to say, it's easier than ever for anyone to be cognisant of the underground, to explore it, even to talk about it with a level of understanding, but only the experience of "doing" marks you as a member.

The underground has always valorised action. "Practice" is in some ways the political article of the underground, antithetically positioned against the passive consumption of the mainstream: an earlier manifestation of this is clear in the iconic punk graphic below:

But the internet has upped the ante by removing more and more practical barriers to joining the underground, and the removal of these barriers perhaps reveals even more sharply the tribal leap required. The internet is awash with forums, how-tos, and help-sites that say "here are the tools, now take part", and perhaps there is also a lingering sense of "what's stopping you?" behind this that makes this is a social change rather than just a passing fancy. Because with most things in the underground, commitment is the essence, commitment to an individualism that's not mediated by "stuff". It's true that the underground has its own styles and cliches, and by choosing to take part there is an element of trading one set of passive consumptions for another, but I believe there's a greater continuum of possibilities beyond that, and the more one is part of the "practice", the more they develop their own voice: and in turn the greater amount of contributing voices enriches the whole scene, which eventually spills back into the mainstream.

Action and commitment, the gateway to the tribe, you don't become a member until you commit to action, and to sharing the results.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

authors outside perceivable time

A lot of thinking out loud below, feel free to comment/correct/extemporise.

This Justin Bieber time-stretch thing has been doing the rounds today, and it sounds fantastic for sure: that said, again I'm a reverb-freak so anything time-stretched sounds good to my ears. But issues of quality/integrity aside, it raises fascinating questions of authorship for me, is an 8x time-stretched Justin Bieber track still a "owned" by the original singer (in terms of identity more than legality) now that it's largely unrecognisable?

J. BIEBZ - U SMILE 800% SLOWER by Shamantis

I'm guessing the law would presumptively side with the rights-holder here, but an 800% stretch is massive alteration to the original (regardless off the simplicity of the technique). When placed side-by-side it's easy to hear the similarity, but without prior knowledge that this was a slowed down version of an existing song I doubt that anyone would guess; much less guess that it was a slice of mainstream commercial pop. The drums now sounds like huge slow-rolled timpani and bass drums, and long cymbal washes, the voice and piano have morphed into slide guitars, feedback, distant clarinets and more.

The pitch content of the two pieces is obviously still the same but a melodic contour completely loses its identity when it's stretched like this. We memorise melody based largely on short term memory, and a sequence of long notes like this presents a serious challenge to memory, but more importantly to melodic "chunking", how we assign the identifiers such as "melody" and "phrase" that help us both as structural markers in the piece and in memory.

The classical repertoire has plenty of long meandering melodies, but Wagnerian soliloquies and Berlioz' idee fixe are supported by a motivic construction and underlying harmonic logic that allow them to be memorable. A time-stretched melody on the other hand is much more difficult to retain in memory, and the granular synthesis that does the stretching tends to add surface level artefacts ("grain") that distract from the overall contour. Simply put, the human brain is generally not equipped (without training) to listen to extended passages of long notes in the same way as pop songs, we don't "chunk" the information the same way. [I'd be interested to hear from neuroscientists/acousticians/psychologists/etc. here].

As far as I know, in copyright dispute cases, the question before the court is whether the conflicting songs sound similar, I think in this case, even though we all "know" that this is a time-stretch, I think there's a strong case for this being a separate piece of music to the original (the source material). To be clear, I'm not suggesting fort a second that this has any special artistic merit. It sounds great, but as I said above, most things sound great slowed down. There are plenty of examples of this kind of thing from electronic music pioneers to people who first get their hands on a DAW, although I imagine we'll see a slew of "Slowed Down Classics" in the next few days. I'm more interested in where the line is that this stops being a Justin Bieber track. And this does not necessarily beg the question "if not Bieber's then whose? Time-stretching is a simple and widely available tool, Shamantis of course gets the credit for the creation but wonder would it be meaningless to ascribe him/her authorship. Does authorship require a specific level of alteration of the source material? or is re-performance enough?

In my 1st-year composition classes I sometimes ask the students if a piece of Beethoven is still the same piece of music when the parameters of performance are stretched beyond what is culturally acceptable, or perceptually normative. Most students agree that the 5th Symphony is the same piece of music when the key is changed, but are less sure when it's performed at an impossibly slow tempo such a 0.5bpm: I don't mean audio time-stretching here, I mean performing the piece on an instrument extremely slowly. At what point do changes to the global parameters of the piece become a new piece?

Does playing a Justin Bieber track at a specific volume count as a new piece? probably not. What if it's played at a volume that distorts the source beyond recognition, and where's the line of "recognition"? This slow version can be mapped very clearly on to the original but such a linearity/simplicity of reverse engineering doesn't change the fact that it's very different upon hearing.

UPDATE: as predicted, there's an 800% soundcloud group :)

Monday, 19 July 2010

Plug! Trio Scordatura Album release

Shameless plug, Trio Scordatura release their debut album on Ergodos records this month, including Marx, a piece of mine they commissioned in 2008. The launch event is in The Odessa Club in Dublin at 3pm on Sunday (July 25th).

Bob Gilmore got the trio together originally to perform the works of Harry Partch, but they have since expanded out to perform a variety of works that use extended tuning resources; from the quantised microtonal world of Just Intonation and beyond, through to cluster-based and sub-semitonal harmonies. I first came across Bob's work through his Keynote (pdf) at UK Microfest I in 2005. I didn't hear it directly, but I found that pdf the following year and loved his approach to "microtonal music", to de-ghetto-ify it and give it room to breathe outside the world of intonation nerds (I use that term with the greatest of respect).

[...] in this talk I would like to question the shelf-life of the term “microtonality” itself as a descriptive adjective, and of related terms (“microtone”, “microtonal”, “microto- nalist”), with their unfortunate connotations of “otherness” and “strangeness” and the general sense they give of microtonality as an outsider activity. Is the designation “microtonality” still useful today? Will it remain so, say, twenty-five years from now? - Bob Gilmore
I briefly saw the trio perform at UK Microfest II in 2007. Although we had to run for our train, I managed to see their fantastic versions of Tenney's Harmonium and Radulescu's Intimate Rituals XI. When Bob asked me to write a piece for them I went through a short period of nervous indecision before settling on a quasi-spectral idea where the voice and viola d'amore would play mostly sustained dyads, while the synth expanded this into clouds of difference tones generated from the voice/viola. Added to this, the text would act as a kind of formant-filter on this material, with the different vowel sounds defining which registers the synth material would be active in from sound to sound: the words are sung extremely slowly.

Here's a mildly edited commentary on Marx I included in my thesis.
I usually avoid writing for the voice, especially in a mixed ensemble, as it can be difficult to blend with other instruments because there is simply too much expression tied up in our relationship with and perception of the voice for it not to stand out of the sound mix. However, the opportunity to write for Trio Scordatura could not be passed up, so I elected to use the voice as both a primary pitch generator, and filter. The voice and viola sustain dyads together, these act
as generating pitches in a ring modulation process, the results of which are played by the synthesiser (as clouds of sine waves). The voice is used compositionally as a crude bandpass filter by allowing through only those pitches which fall within the formant of the vowel is being sung at that moment; an idea which unbeknownst to me at the time had been explored by James Tenney in his pieces Clang (1972) and Three Indigenous Songs (1979) [Wannamaker, Robert, A., 'The Spectral Music of James Tenney' CMR 27/1, Feb. 2008, 109.]

As with other pieces in this portfolio, Marx relies heavily on the structural device of evolution, where a sound object is repeated with successive alterations to different characteristics. In this case the object consists of an attack by the voice or viola, leading to a sustained dyad on voice and viola which is enveloped by a cloud of sine waves from the synthesiser. The compositional process of evolution owes a lot to Morton Feldman's memory processes. He describes this as a 'formalizing a disorientation of memory' [Sani, Frank, 'Why Patterns? An Analysis of Morton Feldman's “Piano and String Quartet”', (2000), , accessed 13/08/08.] where he would compose a page of music and then try to compose the same again without looking back to see the detail; he mentions this specifically with reference to Triadic Memories (1981) but processes of this nature seem to inform most of his composition from the mid and late periods. Marx and many other pieces of mine achieve similar results through indeterminate means. Form is achieved by repeatedly reformulating the sonic object to create local difference, and this stream of local difference creates large scale patterns from which form emerges.
In Marx, the synthesiser part is strictly generated through frequency modulation of the viola and voice parts. Depending on how close the original pitches are, frequency modulation can generate sets of sidebands with frequencies close to the main band, leading to microtonal clusters of pitches. The frequency modulation technique will be explained in more detail below, but as an example of clustering the first two sets of combination tone sidebands derived from modulating B1(61.7hz) and C2(65.5hz) are shown here in Illustration 30:

The psychoacoustic concept of masking, in which sounds are present but hidden because of our perceptual systems, presents a wealth of compositional possibilities; I wanted to make these phenomena audible, to focus on them and place them in the foreground. Early works of mine took a more literal approach to this idea. AfterImages (2004), attempts to sound the melody from the first movement of Schubert's B-flat piano sonata D.960 (1828) in difference tones (see Illustration 31 below), but my inexperience meant that I did not attempt to limit the difference tones to those required to form the melody; with no filtering of any sort, simply stacking frequencies and hoping for a melody to emerge with no prompting of the ear was doomed to failure.

Like Primes(2005), Marx generates a level of tension through contrasting the intonation of live players with a synthesiser whose intonational purity is unrealisable by human player. Each event in Marx is a harmonic system where the voice and viola d'amore sustain an interval and the synthesiser part is generated from their heterodyning. Because the synthesiser part is fully precomposed, the viola and voice parts must be an exact frequency match with the synthesiser in order to generate the same pitches as those of pitches of the synthesiser part. In the real world, this level of accuracy is impossible to maintain, as well as being beyond the resolution of human hearing, making the voice and viola parts most likely "out of tune" relative to the synthesiser. Whether the voice and viola actually generate some of the combination tones which make up the synthesiser part is dependent on unforseeable acoustic factors such as room size and reverberation, but if they do, these will almost certainly be different to the ideal combination tones of the synthesiser. This may seem like an error in calculation but even in this piece the accuracy is not the issue. Any difference in combination tones will only serve to increase the density of the sound.

Marx's voice and viola d'amore parts are in standard rhythmic notation, while the synthesiser part uses stemless time-space notation; durations are to be inferred from a combination of notehead size, ties and position within the bar: see illustration 32.

This is for two reasons: in practical terms there is no point being overly specific about relative temporal notation in the synthesiser because of its slow attack time—the synthesiser envelope is specified in the score—the part often demands more pitches than there are fingers available, it is up to the player to decide which of the pitches is producing the most interesting interaction with the other instruments in a given room. The synthesiser part is intended as a cloud of sine waves, and as there is no rhythmic element to this idea, it is unnecessary to impose one when an approximation under performer control will have the same result.

The metric order in Marx is not apparent to the ear and the rhythmic notation largely only serves to ensure that the viola and voice begin events together. The events are harmonically driven, with voice and viola forming a dyad whose pitches are used in a frequency modulation process to generate the synthesiser sine wave cloud. Once events begin, the constituent elements are quite amorphous and require no real co-ordination except in isolated cases of rhythmic interplay. Indeterminacy here is more a matter of simplification for the sake of practicality than aesthetic purpose.
Trio Scordatura recorded Marx in summer 2009 at Amplus Studios in the Flanders countryside with the excellent Johan Vandermaelen engineering.

Saturday, 10 July 2010


I really wanted to write something up about Tommy Silverman's (of Tommy Boy Records and an RIAA board member) interview with Wired magazine, but Mike of Techdirt and Jeff Price of Tunecore said pretty much everything I wanted to say. Briefly, my beef was with the attitude summed up by this statement.
80 percent of all records released are just noise — hobbyists. [...] Who uses Photobucket and Flickr? Not professional photographers — those are hobbyists, and those are the people who are using TuneCore and iTunes to clutter the music environment with crap, so that the artists who really are pretty good have more trouble breaking through than they ever did before.
It's a direct attack on the notion that anyone not already corralled by a label makes bad music, that the labels "make" the good music. Ultimately, Silverman's pitch is that artists need labels, because he says so. The power of the internet is that it frees us from the need for labels as curators (though that's a charitable term here). There's been a lot of backlash from artists recently in relation to the labels' plea that they're "for artists", when their short existence is littered with tales of artist abuse. More artists are succeeding without labels, and more diverse music is getting out there, fans are voting with their wallets and their feet (and their ears). The major labels have survived a long time on artificially choking the market so that they're the only game in town, now that's ending and they're suddenly trying to play nice. Perhaps they're in stage three of grief, "anger and bargaining", we've already seen the preceding stages, "guilt", and the napster stage "denial".

Masnick makes these points more eloquently, but it's really Tunecore's Jeff Price who says it best.

We're sorry that the fact that people are buying music from TuneCore Artists is stopping people from buying music that Tommy likes. If Tommy could only control what music you get exposed to you would be more inclined to buy his music. It's actually a brilliant strategy: limit choice, force the releases you want to sell down people's throats, control what music is exposed by the media outlets (like radio and MTV) and then take all the money from the sales that come in. Oh wait, my mistake, that's the way it was in the old music industry, and 98% of what the majors labels released failed. I guess limiting choice does not make music sell.

Also pointed out in the Wired article's comments by "our_tunes" and especially "Khaullen".

Monday, 28 June 2010

Research Project - working backwards to find the music

Christopher Small's 1977 book Music, Society, Education takes as a premise that music in non-western societies tends to have an omnipresent social role. He cites several cultures as not having a word for "music" as a whole (though they may have words for specific types of music), and uses this as a negative with which to compare western society in which music is separated from life: through both commodification of music, and institutionalising music into a professional class.
The separation of producer from consumer is confirmed by the ever greater and greater technical skill of performers. [...] in setting standards of technical proficiency that non-professionals cannot even begin to approach, they are removing the practice of music even further from the ordinary citizen and confirming him even more in the role of consumer. [p.94]
The producer-consumer polarity in art, reflecting the polarity that pervades our society, means that ever more value is assigned to the products of the art process and even less to that process itself [...] and we ignore the creative abilities of ordinary people. [p.92]

The abstract quality of post-Renaissance music is linked with another characteristic - its self-containedness. [...] The music of this tradition is essentially without function. It is true that music is used on occasion in the great rituals of state and church - royal weddings [etc.] - and the smaller rituals of private men - a wedding, a graduation, a funeral - but its association is a loose one. It adorns, but is not an essential part of, the ceremony, which can take place perfectly well without it. A couple do not feel any less married if no-one plays The Wedding March. [p.28]

While I am very sympathetic to Small's overall thesis, it makes me wonder about the way we perceive music in our Western society. If asked to describe music here presumably we would begin with the institutions of broadcasting, production, training, etc., or make a distinction between "high"/"low" musics, or talk about the industry. The assumption being that music comes from these places.

I'd like to do a research project, and start the other way around, start with the premise that in western society, music plays the same omnipresent role as it does in the societies described by Small. Where then are the equivalents and how are they manifested? Can we avoid describing western music in terms of it's institutions and begin with first principles of how the music relates to people's lives? What are the social functions of music in western society?

If there truly is no ritual music in our society, or no place where music means something and cannot exist without music (socially speaking, not counting the personal and individual listener)? Is "our" music just an aspect of tribalism? developed in our teen years as part of our identity and doggedly carried along through our lives?

I'm sure there are some contemporary ethnographical studies that approach this, if any one knows of them then please pass them on in the comments.