…then I jumped…

I’ve recently taken on a few more of the Disquiet Junto weekly musical/audio challenges.

Last week’s project used a very technical Oulipian-style constraint.

Disquiet Junto Project 0097: Ford Madox Ford Page 99 Remix
This week’s project takes as its source a comment attributed to the author Ford Madox Ford: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” We will convert text from page 99 of various books into music.

  • Step 1: Pick up the book you are currently reading, or otherwise the first book you see nearby.
  • Step 2: Turn to page 99. Confirm that the page has enough consecutive text in it to add up to 80 characters.
    Step 2a: If the page is blank or otherwise has no text, turn to page 98. Continue this process of moving backward through the book until your find an appropriate page.
    Step 2b: If you are reading an ebook that lacks page numbers, or a book that happens to lack page numbers, then use the first page of the main body of the book (i.e., not the Library of Congress information or the table of contents) or flip to a random spot/page in the book.
  • Step 3: When you have located 80 consecutive characters, type them into a document on your computer or write the down on a piece of paper.
  • Step 4: You will turn these characters into music by following the following rules:
    Step 4a: The letters A through L will correspond with the notes along the chromatic scale from A to G#. To convert a letter higher than L, simply cycle through the scale again (i.e., L = G#, M = A, etc.). Capital letters should be played slightly louder than lowercase letters.
    Step 4b: Any spaces and any dashes/hyphens will be treated as blank, as a silent moment.
    Step 4c: A comma or semicolon will signify a note one step below the preceding note.
    Step 4d: A period, question mark, or exclamation point will signify a note one step above the preceding note.
    Step 4e: All other punctuation (colon, ampersand, etc.) will be heard as a percussive beat.
  • Step 5: Record the piece of music using a digital or analog instrument.
  • Step 6: Set the pace for the recording to between 160 and 80 beats per minute (BPM). In other words, the track should be between 30 and 60 seconds in length.

In my case, the text was from “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler” by Italo Calvino (English translation by William Weaver; published by Alfred A. Knopf), which probably fits a bit too literally into the Oulipo theme for this week. My segment of 80 characters from the top of p. 99 reads:

“is an important document; it can’t leave these offices, it’s the corpus delicti,”

I converted the characters to notes in SuperCollider, according to the project rules for this week. I played various versions of the note stream to different instruments (using NI Kontakt), and layered on some psychedelic effects, to give an oneiric, vaguely jazzy quality to the whole thing.

I found this week’s project (#98) particularly interesting. It also used a similar idea of text and constraints. The cacophonous layering of voices is really compelling.

In this project, we were asked to do an “audio biography” of sorts. In particular, we had to write three short texts, each beginning with the same words (the starting phrase was chosen randomly from a list of six options). In my case, the texts begin with: “This morning I had a sense that…” The first text contains 100 words, the second 90, the third 80. They were to be played simultaneously, such that the first (identical) words lined up, and then they diverge.

I recorded myself reading my texts, then did some light editing and added various effects in Reaper.

Disquiet Junto Project 0098: Woven Audiobiography
The steps for this week’s project are as follows:

  • Step A: Choose a number from 1 through 6. You can roll a die or use an online number generator, or come to a decision on your own.
  • Step B: Write a 100-word text beginning with one of the following phrases, depending on the number you selected. Where there are brackets fill them in with the appropriate information.
    “I was born in [ ] and I like …”
    “My name is [ ] and I was thinking …”
    “This morning I had a sense that …”
    “Try as I might, the same thing …”
    “The last book I read was and …”
    “On a Sunday morning I usually …”
  • Step C: Write a 90-word text beginning with the same phrase.
  • Step D: Write an 80-word text beginning with the same phrase.
  • Step E: Record yourself reading the three texts as three separate tracks. Record each at the same pace. Speak slowly and take an extended pause after any period.
  • Step F: Layer the three tracks into one track. They should all begin at the same point and the first few words should, more or less, overlap to the point of being indistinguishable.

Step on a Crack…

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Live concerts and live coding

A nice new video of our January Phonos concert is available now on Youtube (thanks, Sònia!).

Since then, we had a more intimate and playful performance (February 8) at a small art space called Niu — it went down really well (maybe drinks helped — audience and/or performers ;-)). We performed three pieces, including extended and more improvisatorial versions of CliX ReduX and Six Pianos (which didn’t use pianos at all this time, instead Hammond organs, electric guitar/bass and a few other funky things).

I updated CliX to use a synchronized clock (MandelClock) from BenoitLib. Proper synchronization between machines helped the piece a great deal, allowing us to get into some really interesting grooves, especially with the sampled sounds and projected video snippets. Caballé is always a hit… However, we did have a few glitches (still not 100% sure why), where the tempo would occasionally change without warning. It corrected itself within a few seconds, but was quite disconcerting (although several people in the audience claim not to have noticed anything wrong). In subsequent rehearsals the problem wasn’t as severe (I made some changes to reduce network traffic), but did still occur from time to time. I suspect it’s to do with lost or out-of-order OSC messages, which happens regularly on busy WiFi networks.

Most recently, the Barcelona Laptop Orchestra performed (March 8) as “pre-dinner entertainment” at the Polifonia conference (a mostly-European grouping of music conservatories), held in Barcelona. It was located in the restaurant area of the Museu Marítim, in a beautiful stone building that used to be part of the old shipyards. We were only performing CliX ReduX, and had managed to build to a nice “welcome” point after five or ten minutes, when suddenly — BOOM! — our power went out. (Everyone applauded; I assume because it was a particularly dramatic stop, but perhaps they were simply glad they could start eating.) Somewhere, we had tripped a circuit-breaker.

It took at least 15 minutes until we found a functional plug (downstairs, using an extremely long extension cord) and got the projector working. Our laptops waited patiently, chugging along on battery power. But by then, we’d lost some of our vibe, and the audience had moved on to chit-chat, toasting and appetizers. We performed the last section of our show, but I wouldn’t claim it was a huge hit. We did get free dinner out of it, though. I’m sure many of the classical music professors were thinking: “Hah – all this new-fangled technology, what a disaster! That’s why violins, pianos and oboes are better!”

In other news:

Live Coding Sessions II @ NiuBcn

I’ve agreed to perform at a live coding event at Niu, on March 22. Yikes, my first time flying solo. I’ve been spending the last few weeks trying things out in SuperCollider, but still (with only a week and a half left to go) haven’t found a good flow. I decided to set myself a constraint — skipping fancier synthesis techniques and only working with sine curves. Well, that’s the plan…

If you can’t read the Catalan on the Niu upcoming activities page or the Spanish on Arte Sonoro, here’s an English translation of my bit:

Glen Fraser (Canada) has always preferred “live coding” to dead coding. Although he’s programmed interactive graphics and sound for fun and profit for a quarter century, it’s always been from the relative safety of his home or office. This will be his first time doing it for an audience. In this performance, Glen will use SuperCollider to explore what he calls “Sines and Symbols”. He is currently a member of the Barcelona Laptop Orchestra and of the Wù:: Collective, where he develops technology for the performing arts.

The concert is also mentioned on Modisti (though I prefer my own English translation…)

The Post-Phonos Post

Barcelona Laptop Orchestra performing Cage's 'Variations II', with remote contributions (and Skype presence, on an iPad on the pedestal) by developer William Brent.  (Photo: Álvaro Sarasúa)
Barcelona Laptop Orchestra performing Cage’s ‘Variations II’, with remote contributions (and Skype presence, on an iPad on the pedestal) by developer William Brent. (Photo: Álvaro Sarasúa)

We had our Phonos concert last Thursday (January 31), and in spite of not being 100% prepared — in spite of a big final-week push — I think it was a success. Probably 30-40 people attended in the “sala polivalent” at the UPF, and they were treated to a very complex setup and six very different pieces. The setup took most of the day; some of us were there from 10h to 22h, and the concert was at 19h30. Eight speakers in a ring around the audience, with eight tables and one or two performers seated at each table. In addition, eight channels of video, fed directly, or (for lack of hardware) in some cases reshot by cameras from external monitors to capture the output (quality of video was not great, in these cases). All those feeds were sent through video mixers to create two projections, each with a 2×2 grid of videos. In some pieces (e.g. Light Scratch), these showed the faces of the performers, in most other pieces they showed the contents of our screens (e.g. Six Pianos). Laptop music can be rough going if the audience has no sense of the interaction between what the people sitting behind the computers are doing, and what they’re hearing. Hopefully the video feeds helped a bit with that.

Roger, Tim, Alex and Nadine of Barcelona Laptop Orchestra perform at Phonos, showing our complex setup!  (Photo: Álvaro Sarasúa)
Roger, Tim, Alex and Nadine of Barcelona Laptop Orchestra perform at Phonos, showing our complex setup! (Photo: Álvaro Sarasúa)

But really, it’s all about the music. Minimalist classics, in most cases, reworked to give them our own touch. We played our reinterpretations of six pieces:

  • In C (Terry Riley) — based on a Pure Data patch by our director Josep, I reworked this piece to run in SuperCollider. We played it as people came in, to create a mesmerizing ambience to open the concert. Audio is a simple synthesizer, to allow people to focus on the interesting phasing effects produced by each performer’s place in the score.
  • Rimandi (Ivano Morrone) — a piece that uses contact microphones stuck to the laptop, and makes ring-modulated noisy goodness from internal computer noises, fingers tapping, rubbing and scratching the laptop itself.
  • CliX ReduX (Ge Wang / BLO) — the original piece, that makes rhythmic clicks based on networked typing, was create in ChucK (Ge Wang, Princeton Laptop Ensemble), but I totally redid it in SuperCollider. Our version sounds similar when in “clix mode”, but beyond that it’s barely the same thing. Now you work with a longer buffer of characters, can change the rhythm and also can change the sound of the “clicks” to be sample-based. We created audio and video samples with fragments of “interesting things” scavenged from various sources (for ASCII characters which are not letters), and for the letters of the alphabet, we use each performer’s voice (and face) making the letter’s sound. We created a video player, written in Open Frameworks, that plays back “video samples” that complement the sound. You can get an idea of what this can look like (for one performer, at least) with the videos in a previous post. This latest version of the piece was very well received.
  • Light Scratch (BLO) — created by one of our members, Nadine Kroher, it uses the webcam to look for bright light spots, and do funky things with an audio samples based on the user moving a light source, or jamming their face up close to the camera, waving hands, etc. It can be quite entertaining (or frightening) to see a macro view of Enric’s nostrils or Jan’s eye…
  • Variations II live (John Cage / William Brent) — this one is a live reworking of an installation piece, created for us by William Brent. It involves each player making a series of very simple sketches (each with six lines and five points), which treated as mini-scores and sent to a central server and used to create the audio of the piece. There is also visual feedback of the scores as they are played. William was located across the Atlantic in Washington, contributing sketches remotely, along with the rest of us. We also had him on a Skype connection, and placed him on a pedestal (literally) as the piece was being performed. This was the premiere for his piece.
  • Six Pianos cover (Steve Reich / BLO) — this is another favourite, as it is very obvious that we are actively doing something. Each player has a webcam pointing down at their workspace (playspace?), with a small light illuminating the space. An Open Frameworks application uses OpenCV and Gaussian classifiers to detect blobs of colour, with the colour indicating scale degree and size indicating octave (big = low, small = high). The playspace acts like a step sequencer, with time-steps along the horizontal, and the vertical axis used to control volume. It is called Six Pianos because that’s the piece that inspired it. In this concert, we performed an excerpt of Steve Reich’s piece, using this new visual instrument. Each player’s notes are sent to a SuperCollider program that is responsible for playing the synchronized audio. The instruments are high-quality sampled pianos, using NI’s Kontakt, output via a six-channel audio interface, and each output going to the speaker of its corresponding performer.

Tonight we have another gig, at Niu (an art centre in the Poblenou neighbourhood of Barcelona). I’m not sure what kind of audience we’ll have, since our concert listing is included in such websites as ClubbingSpain and Le Cool. Ah, if only we truly were. (Cool, I mean.)

Tonight we’ll just perform a few pieces: CliX, Six Pianos and Light Scratch. Even though only a week has passed, two of these pieces have already evolved (software-wise or performance-wise). Tonight we only have two loudspeakers, and a much more intimate space, so we decided not to use pianos but rather six distinct instruments (to distinguish individual players a bit). Also, we’ll jam with these pieces for a bit longer, improvising as we go. We had a good rehearsal last night, where we tried this more “free form” Six Pianos. Take a look (note that the audio level is quite low, so best to listen amplified, or with headphones to get the full effect).

Time War P

This project started from the recording of a clock. I recorded our kitchen clock, but unfortunately it ended up a bit noisier than I’d have liked. There’s some of hiss in there (more obvious once you layer dozens of versions of it!), and there might be the odd muffled street noise. Okay, so I don’t have a silent recording studio. Texture, yeah, that’s what I call it. (-;

I took that single monophonic sample (about 23 seconds long) and then used it as a buffer in SuperCollider, making various drone-like synths, plenty of funky ticking patterns and some weird warping transitions and granular stuff. The opening seconds are pretty much the original sound, albeit layered several times.

I wanted to go for a hypnotic, dream-like effect (yes, you are getting very, very sleeeeeepy) where I could move smoothly between different phases. In some, you’re aware of time being slowed down, in others it flies by, and at other moments you don’t even notice it’s there.

Produced for Disquiet Junto (Project 0056: Matter of Time).

Instructions: This week’s project requires you to make a field recording to serve as the source audio. These are the steps:

Step 1: Locate a clock that has an audible, even if very quiet, tick to its second hand. A watch or other timepiece is also appropriate to the task.

Step 2: Record the sound of the clock for at least 30 seconds, and do so in a manner captures the sound in the greatest detail. A contact mic is highly recommended.

Step 3: Adjust and otherwise filter the recording to reveal the various noises that make up its tick. The goal is to get at the nuance of its internal mechanism.

Step 4: Create an original piece of music employing only layered loops of that sound. These layered loops can individually be transformed in any manner you choose, but at least one unaltered version of the original recording should be included in your piece.

Phonos Frenzy

Have been working slavishly on several pieces for the Barcelona Laptop Orchestra.  Among them, an optical-recognition piece that took Steve Reich’s Six Pianos as its starting point (or — more accurately — it’s ultimate goal, and we’re not quite there yet!), and a piece we call CliX ReduX, inspired by Ge Wang and the Princeton Laptop Orchestra’s original CliX.

We have our Phonos concert coming up next Thursday (January 31, 2013), at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.  Full details of the repertoire we’ll be performing is available on another page (only in Catalan, sorry). You can also read a description of the pieces, by director Josep Comajuncosas (also in Catalan) here.

First up, a sample of CliX ReduX, showing several enhancements, such as the audio and video snippets seen in this video.  In the video, I just run through the alphabet a few times, giving a taste of how it looks and sounds (when in “Vox” mode). The audio and UI components are written in SuperCollider, the video sampler program in Openframeworks.

Next, I show the more “classic” version of CliX ReduX. This one has sound that’s more in keeping with Ge Wang’s original piece, but adds visual display of “flying letters”, and also the possibility of multiple syncopated character streams per player.  The text here is from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, and runs from: “To be, or not to be, that is the question” through to: “Tis a consummation / Devoutly to be wished.” At first there is only one stream, so it’s relatively easy to follow the letters (if you know what to expect!), but after a few lines I put it into “syncopated” mode, where more than one letter can play simultaneously.  It’s like a spelling bee on steroids…

Finally, here’s another example of the CliX ReduX piece (this one featuring another BLO member, Andrés, “speaking” the first part of the famous Hamlet soliloquy — “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.“):

Tintineo refrescante

I recorded myself dropping and shaking ice in a pint glass. Then I used this single sample (of about 7 seconds) to produce all the sounds (percussion, drones, semi-pitched) in this track. Produced entirely in SuperCollider.

Produced for Disquiet Junto project 0053.

Instructions: Please record the sound of an ice cube rattling in a glass, and make something of it.

Background: Longtime participants in, and observers of, the Disquiet Junto series will recognize this single sentence as the very first Disquiet Junto project, the same one that launched the series on the first Thursday of 2012. Revisiting it a year later provides a fitting way to begin the new year. A weekly project series can come to overemphasize novelty, and it’s helpful to revisit old projects as much as it is to engage with new ones. Also, by its very nature, the Disquiet Junto suggests itself as a fast pace: a four-day production window, a weekly habit. It’s beneficial to step back and see things from a longer perspective.

Of Laptops and Orchestras

This fall I joined the Barcelona Laptop Orchestra, a technically-saavy musical ensemble founded by folks from the Sonology Group at ESMUC (l’Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya) and the Music Technology Group at UPF (Universitat Pompeu Fabra). They also allow a few of us non-affiliated “outsiders” to join, thankfully…

If you’re up for a bit of Catalan practice, you can read this great blog post/interview about us (essentially, trying to answer the question: “what is a laptop orchestra?”).

If you’re up for more Catalan practice (hey, you can never have enough), there was a TV report about our most recent performance (with wine pairings!) on November 10, at the Claustre Sant Francesc in Vilafranca del Penedès. This was for Vinfonies, a sonically-experimental wine festival. It had several major benefits (for us, at least):

  • try out new repertoire in a low-stress setting
  • drink some really good, performance-enhancing, wine (for free)
  • have a chance to perform in an unusual and beautiful setting

Barcelona Laptop Orchestra Vinfonies 2012

You can watch the report from RTV Vilafranca here.

I am busily (and happily) coding away on the framework for some of our next pieces.

I think we all realize that “laptop orchestra” can be a confusing term…what does it mean? Does it have some dubious connotation (e.g. if the music is lively, might it lead to “laptop dancing”?). Thankfully, my friend Roger (who introduced me to the group) — a wonderful illustrator — has given us this clarifying comic: