Calls, Compositions, & Controllers.

07/08/2017

It’s been a busy and productive start to the summer after a reflective ending to the spring.

While taking a break from live performance to reflect upon my practice and contemplate some new ideas, I’ve also responded to a few open calls for works with some composition pieces.

I don’t know how successful I will be with the submissions, but I’ve enjoyed the different style of working – being able to form and refine an arrangement over a longer time period, rather than everything happening in real-time – and I’ve also enjoyed responding to the different briefs for the different calls.

The first piece I’ve submitted is for a competition seeking audio works that respond to the theme of climate change, and specifically themes of time-scales and patterns.

The piece, titled Temporal Observations, explores possible contradictions between short term events and patterns, and longer trends, and how the experience at one point in time may not be indicative of the bigger picture.

The next piece was for the MUSLAB 2017 International Festival of Electroacoustic Music, which didn’t actually have a brief, so I submitted a slight re-working of a piece I completed earlier in the year, exploring formant and granular synthesis.

This piece, titled Terraforming, was actually submitted for the festival jukebox at the Audiograft festival in Oxford earlier in the year, which I believe was installed at an event prior to the festival.

And the final piece I have completed was for the Cities & Memories Protest & Politics project.

This project asked sound artists to respond to and re-mix field recordings taken from protests, demonstrations and political speeches from around the world.

The recording I chose was from a demonstration against the result of the Brexit referendum.

My submission presents the idea of politics as an echo chamber, and how political discourse can sometimes be reduced to reflecting and repeating the same popular ideas.

The piece, titled ReSounding, can be found on the Protest & Politics website here.

As well as this I have still been exploring building my own control interfaces using the Arduino platform mentioned in an earlier post.

I am really enjoying this work and have been learning a lot – the results of which I have been documenting on the Arduino Controllers padlet I have created for the project. I’m hoping to have something usable for the next time I perform.

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Listening & Analysis

28/03/2017

As my live performance schedule reaches a natural pause, that is to say, no one is offering me any more gigs, I am taking some time to focus on some supplementary ‘listening’ activities.

The first is a fairly lengthy reflective analysis of my performances to date.

One of the reasons for starting this solo improvisation project was to improve my skills as an improviser, and I think a key part of that is having the ability to reflect upon, critique and evaluate my work – It would be easy to just continue doing whatever I have been doing, but if I want to improve then I think it’s worth taking some focused time to listen back through my performances and really evaluate what I did.

I also think it’s useful to write up this analysis in essay form as a way of developing the means to talk about my work. Generally I only talk about my work through ‘artists blurbs’ for gig listings, or in casual pre/post show chats. I think it’s good to attempt to describe my work, my methods, and results in a more formal, expansive way.

My plan is to publish the essay as a series of blog posts on here at some point in the future.

The second listening project is a gestural analysis project.

I’ve recently been admiring how artists who use physical objects in their performances have a rich variety of gestural sound at their disposal, and I have been considering how I could develop some of my own instruments to recreate some of those physical, gestural qualities.

The other week I spent some time making recordings of performances using various physical objects, and I am now closely listening to and analysing those sounds to see what I can learn.

I’ve found it particularly useful to explore the speed and pitch changing effects in Audacity, which allow me to uncover hidden details of the sounds.

So far this is turning out to be a rewarding experience and I’m quite excited to start putting what I have learnt into some new instrument designs.


Arduino

14/01/2017

I was really pleased to be given an Arduino as a Christmas present this year.

I’m going to be using it to develop and explore some different ideas for interacting with and controlling my Pure Data patches.

I have no experience with Arduino, or electronics in general, so I am very much starting from scratch. So far I have been impressed with how easy it is to get going, and have already been able to hook up some sensors in simple circuits and control some things in pd.

I’m particularly interested to build some more gestural controllers, so will be exploring sensors that work with proximity and light initially.

I’ve decided to document some of the resources I find useful, as well as my own thoughts and discoveries on a padlet – https://padlet.com/ollieowen707/tmz4v41uic2b


High/Low Complexity

07/12/2016

In an earlier post I mentioned that I had been thinking hard about contrasting elements of activity.

My Bristol Hum performance was planned/structured around different techniques, but with little planning for what I would do when exploring each technique.

If planning a structure around activity, I can freely use any techniques, and develop an arrangement that plays with areas of high activity, and low activity.

I also developed this notion to include ideas of high and low complexity.

I think of this in terms of how complex is the arrangement for the listener – how easy is it for them to make sense of what they are hearing?

An area with high activity can be complex, but if this area is very repetitive, then eventually the listener makes sense of this and the complexity is reduced.

A single gesture could contribute to a sense of complexity if its direction is not obvious and predictable to the listener.

I have found good results from keeping these ideas in mind, making sure I am considerate to the complexity of what I am doing – ensuring enough complexity to keep the listeners interest, but whilst also trying to develop a structure that can be ‘understood’.

I have 2 performances coming up this month and I am looking forward to exploring these ideas further, along with some newly developed instruments, some refined versions of older instruments, and some better developed performance techniques.


Flexible Arrays

17/09/2016

A few weeks ago I started tinkering around with the Sonic-Pi live coding environment. I had been inspired by some other live coding examples, but didn’t fancy diving in to a complex software environment, and Sonic-Pi was quick and simple to install and start working with.

One thing I quickly discovered that I liked was the way you could work with arrays of values.

The syntax allows you to create an array of variables, called a ‘ring’, and then ‘tick’ through the values in-time with the bpm of the piece, automatically going back to the 1st value in the array when reaching the end.

You can adjust the size of the ‘ring’ by adding or removing values, and the ‘tick’ will also adjust to reflect this.

I enjoyed using this with multiple ‘rings’ hosting variables corresponding to amplitude values for percussion sounds. Adding or removing values from a ‘ring’ would have the effect of adding/subtracting beats from the percussion loop, allowing me to easily set-up and manipulate interesting poly-rhythm effects.

I wondered if there was a way to mirror this elastic/flexible array technique in Pure Data – there is.

screenshot-from-2016-09-16-150254

The patch above lets me type values (up to 16) into a message box and send these values to an array whilst also adjusting the limits of a counter to ensure I only read through the values sent to the array (rather than the whole array).

I’ve been playing with a version of this today to trigger some karplus-strong synthesised percussion sounds, also using another array to adjust the rate of the metronome to vary the ‘swing’ of the loops.

Another element of this techniques I like is the ability to quickly increase or decrease the activity of the soundscape, simply by adding or removing ‘zero’ values into the array.

Also, by creating multiple message lists for each array, I can develop more structured arrangements for percussion parts, switching from one section to another and back again, which could open up some areas for exploration in performance.

I’ve found it interesting to consider how my experience with one set of tools has led me to develop the way I work with another set of tools – whilst I don’t imagine that I will spend much more time developing work in Sonic-Pi, by using it for a short time I have discovered some new approaches to building compositions in real time which I have been able to transfer to the Pure Data environment, opening up some new areas for me to explore in my work in this environment.


Structure and Activity

13/08/2016

I have had a few weeks to reflect upon my Bristol Hum performance now, as well as to think about some new ideas.

(An edited recording of my performance is available to listen to on the Sonic Improvisation part of this blog.)

My preparations for the performance centred upon some clearly defined techniques, with a plan to move through the techniques during the performance.

This seemed to strike a good balance between having a plan and direction for the performance, but without planning exactly what I would do and for how long.

I was largely happy with how this turned out, although there were some parts of the performance where I now feel there was perhaps too much stasis – particular sounds ringing out for far too long.

This perhaps worked OK in the live setting – I think time is experienced differently by an audience in these circumstances – but it wasn’t entirely what I wanted to achieve.

I have since started to think about other ways to structure performances, and this week have been thinking about levels of activity and intensity.

I’m interested to see how I can further explore these 2 ideas – juxtaposing periods of high activity and low activity, building intensity through increased activity and exploring low intensity activity.

Through these ideas, I wonder if I can better craft a performance with narrative than if I relied simply on sonic palette.

I’m also hoping that if I can develop a natural intuition for manipulating these ideas they will naturally form a part of my performance without me having to plan how and when to deploy them.

Alongside all of this I have also been developing a new instrument exploring first order formant synthesise, as well as making a few improvements to some of my existing instruments to improve spectral depth and richness in my sound, so looking forward to using these too.

 


Performance Strategies

02/07/2016

I’m pleased and excited to have my first solo performance of improvised electronic music coming up next week.

I’ll be playing at this event on the Saturday night.

In the build up I have been working on a strategy for the performance.

It’s a fine line between forming just enough of a plan to help myself navigate through the performance, and ending up with something that is so prepared it almost becomes a composed piece.

At the moment I have decided upon a set of techniques, or ‘sound worlds’, which I intend to move between throughout the performance.

These techniques have largely been discovered through ‘free play’, rather than focused realisation of particular processes. (If that makes any sense)

Whilst these distinct audio landmarks will allow me to structure my performance, how I perform with each of them will be left to improvisation, as will the way I move from one to another.

For this performance I also want to focus my attention on the gestural shape of the sounds I use, and how they come in and out of the mix. For some of the techniques I will be trying very hard to blend the sounds of my performance with the sounds of the performance space, so I will be listening very closely to the environment I am in and trying to respond to that.

The performance is going to be recorded, so I’m looking forward to listening back to what I did and considering how the strategy worked.

 

 


Example Recordings

03/05/2016

I have uploaded some recordings as examples of what I have been doing with the Pure Data instruments I have been working on, as well as my ongoing development as an improvising musician.

The recordings can be found on the ‘Sonic Improvisation‘ section of this blog.

I have been recording short pieces using the instruments for a few weeks now, but these are the first 2 recordings that I’ve actually been truly pleased with and happy to upload.

It’s been quite a long process to get to this point; Initially planning and imagining what type of instruments I might want and how I might use them.

Then actually building and developing the Pure Data patches before starting to create some test pieces.

There were 2 parts to the testing process which made it kind of tricky. On the one hand I am exploring the boundaries of the instrument, experimenting with the types of sounds it can produce and looking for flaws to be fixed. On the other hand I am learning how to play the instrument and developing a personal approach to the tool-set.

Sometimes it was tricky to know whether I was uncovering limitations with the instrument, or a limitation with myself as a performer.

But at this point I am largely happy that I have a set of tools that are very workable and capable of producing a reasonable array of sounds.

And also that I am beginning to find a way of interacting with the instrument and producing the types of pieces that I want to create, although I can certainly see where I have improvements to make.

But that was one of the key motivations to starting this work – I wanted to start something that would allow me to develop and grow as an improvising musician – to analyse and reflect upon my practice and improve.

A rough plan now is to get to the point that I can perform live in front of an audience – something I have never done with electronic/computer tools, and am incredibly nervous about doing. Some more practice required.

 


Interface Design

06/04/2016

The other week I finally got round to installing Pure Data on my new PC and decided it would be a good time to start a new project.

I’ve started working on a new set of instruments with a view to doing some live, improvised laptop performances.

As a side note I’ve actually been working in pd Vanilla, rather than the extended version. There is very little I miss, so will happily continue with this version, which I also understand to be the better maintained version too.

One of the tasks I have been grappling with this week is how best to map the parameters of the instrument to the midi controller I have set up. (An Akai LPD8)

If you consider a traditional synthesizer with keyboard interface, you press keys to trigger sounds, and use knobs to manipulate processing.

But I’m not sure this is the method of interaction I want for my instrument.

I’ve been thinking very hard about which aspects of the instrument I want control over – what affords me the greatest opportunity for expression and which are most useful in building an interesting and evolving piece.

This is made trickier when attempting to control multiple instruments in real time with a limited interface.

I’ve had to think deeply about the process of building a performance, and what instruments I will want to perform with at different stages of the performance.

I think I’m getting close to a point where I have a usable interface that affords me the control over the aspects I want – the next stage is to try some performances with the tool-set and learn what works and what needs to change.

One of the benefits of building my own tools is that I can easily change and adapt them between performances, either to improve the interface or to try out new approaches.

Will hopefully have some recordings to post in the next week or so, demonstrating where I’ve got to.


Alternative Guitar Tuning

15/01/2016

Regular readers of this blog (snigger) will know that I have had an interest in alternative tuning methods and extended guitar techniques for several years.

I think this all boils down to the fact that I never really got to grips with playing proper scales on the instrument, and so had to find my own way to tackle a performance – to become a master of the instrument on my own terms.

I’ve always found that alternative approaches to playing, whether using different tuning methods, or extended performance techniques, opened up new possibilities for expression – the results always felt more personal and as though I had a greater degree of control over what I was producing.

A few months ago I began experimenting with a new tuning method that would allow me to explore quarter tones on a standard guitar fretboard.

The drawback of a traditional fretboard is that the change in pitch as you move up the frets will always be half a semi-tone.

I decided to experiment with tuning the instrument with quarter tone differences between adjacent strings, as below;

QT_Tuning

So the 1st string tuned to D, the 2nd tuned 50 cent higher, the 3rd string tune to A, the 4th 50 cent higher, the 5th string tuned to F, and then the 6th string 50 cent lower.

I had experimented with some other methods before this, but found this tuning to give the best results – a rich dissonance in some places, whilst also allowing for some more traditional melodic ideas.

The experience of playing in this tuning has been a rewarding one. At first it felt alien, and I found myself struggling to settle. It definitely takes a few hours of playing for your ear to become accustomed to the new tuning.

Once this has happens though you can start to explore what the tuning has to offer as it reveals interesting textures and melodies. I found it was best to tentatively explore these areas once they presented themselves, starting with 2 or 3 notes, and then expanding out to see where I could take things.

I especially like the subtle beating effects you can hear when particular notes are combined – you don’t get this in a standard tuning, and it just adds something really special to the overall sound world of a piece.

Not everything will work, and there will be moments that just sound ‘out of tune’.

Which leads me to another idea…

One of the other things I have found is that once you take away the comfort of a standard tuning system, you might find yourself making better use of other musical tools, such as dynamics and rhythm in order to build the narrative of a performance.

A few weeks ago I recorded a lengthy solo improv session in the tuning, which I’m pretty happy with. I’m deciding at the moment whether I want to add any additional instrumentation, or vocals to the piece, but thought I would share an excerpt in the mean time – partly to demonstrate what can be done with the tuning, and partly because I’m also very proud of the piece.

I hope you enjoy.