Video: 70 Crowdsourced Scores Performed in 9 Hours

On June 13, 2015 I collaborated with a team of nine students and nine musicians on a project I directed for Northern Spark, an annual, all-night, art festival In Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. We titled the project, Instant Composer: Mad-libbed Music and the intent was to engage the audience into instantly writing musical compositions for an ensemble of improvising musicians.

I discussed the concept here in-depth and also announced the project last June. I had no idea what to expect, but was thrilled with the outcome. Around 115 crowdsourced scores were entered into a database via our mobile application. During the nine hour performance we interpreted nearly 70 of those pieces for the audience.

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This video should give you a sense of what went on that night, but no media can fully represent an event like this. I can say that it wouldn’t have happened without the student collaborators, our collective of excellent musicians, the Northern Spark organizers, Art Institutes Minnesota, and the hundreds of people in our audience willing to engage in the process. Please see the video for the full project credits.

Art + Music + Technology

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Recently I had the honor and pleasure of having a discussion with Darwin Grosse for his podcast Art + Music + Technology. If you’re not familiar with his interviews I suggest that you check out his program. Darwin’s straight forward conversations with a broad range of media artists seem to fill a void that no other programs do. It’s hard to single out any of the programs specifically because they are all entertaining (and educational), but some of my favorites (sorted alphabetically) include:

Brian Crabtree
Richard Devine
R. Luke DuBois
Mark Henrickson
Andrew Kilpatrick
Keith McMillen
Ali Momeni
Pauline Oliveros
Gregory Taylor
David Zicarelli

BYOB: Carnage, E-Turn, and Ostracon at the Dakota

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This Saturday, August 29, Carnage the Executioner presents B.Y.O.B. at the Dakota in Minneapolis. B.Y.O.B. stands for “Be Your Own Band”, and that title will make complete sense once you hear about the artists on this bill.

Carnage aka Terrell Woods can only be defined as a multi-instrumentalist even though he performs exclusively with his own voice. Carnage uses his vast vocal range to emulate bass, drums, synth lines, samples, percussion, turntablism, and more, layering and synchronizing the arrangements with nothing but an off-the-shelf loop pedal. On top off all that he stacks his extraordinary rhyming facilities.

Orlando based artist E-Turn is a mega-talent who often combines forces with DJ SPS and many other notable artists. E-Turn effortlessly generates an orchestra of music and vocals during her performances while drawing from her hiphop influences, Persian vocals, and Iranian poetry.

Ostracon is myself on synthesizers and Graham O’Brien on drums. The two of us perform evolving compositions that fuse rich analog electronics with dynamic live drumming. You’ve heard plenty about us here on audiocookbook.org, but at this show we will be presenting new tracks that we recently recorded for our next album.

What all of us on this very special bill have in common is a drive to make music that is bigger that we are. Hence, “Be Your Own Band”. Music starts at 11pm. Cover is $7 and ages 18 and up are admissible. Don’t miss it!

MNKINO Film Fest: Familiar Pavement with Aaron Marx

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On August 13 I had the pleasure of performing an original film score to picture at the Landmark Center in St. Paul for MNKINO Film Fest 2015. The event featured more than twenty short films with original scores. Most of the scores were performed to the films by a talented orchestra assembled for the event. I wrote and performed the music for the film Familiar Pavement by Aaron Marx.

Performing my four minutes of electronic to the film in real time was quite challenging. I did not use any time lock, relying on the original BPM and finding a good starting point to get the timing right. What made the timing critical (and a little tricky) was that I had processed the original film audio with filters and reverb so that it sat well within the arrangement. However, once I found a good marker in the film and practiced it several times I was well prepared.

The original score used the DSI Tempest for all the drums and the Elektron Analog Four for bass, pads, and an arpeggio. The melody line was sequenced on the Analog Four control voltage track and played on a Korg Monotribe (if you didn’t know that was possible read this). At the event I added the Moog Sub 37 to the setup so I could harmonize and embellish the melody lines.

Vintage FM: Swapping Bricks for Loaves of Bread

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I recently picked up an eighties vintage Yamaha TX81Z FM synthesizer. I’ve always loved the sound of frequency modulation synthesis, but like many of us, lacked the patience to do the programming; especially since most FM synthesizers have hundreds (thousands for the Yamaha FS1R) of parameters that one is expected to edit via a few buttons and a thirty two character LCD.

Understandably FM has largely taken a backseat to subtractive synthesis, wavetable synthesis, and sampling. In the 80s FM was great because memory was expensive. Bell tones, plucked instruments, strings, and brass could be simulated by cleverly selecting an algorithm and adjusting the frequency, levels, and envelopes of the carrier and modulator operators. The price of that sound quality was handling the complexity of the instrument and the time investment that that required.

Soon memory fell in price and the cost of sampling and wavetable synthesizers dropped with it. By the mid-90s the broad popularity of FM synths like the Yamaha DX7 had given way to samplers, ROMplers, and wavetable synths. Perhaps we were attracted to the realism of sampling, or the uncanny quality of pitching familiar sounds into unfamiliar territory. But, all of these synthesis technologies have their place, and what makes FM synthesis relevant to this day is not simulating brass or bell tones, but its ability to uncover new sonic palettes through the complexity of maths, parameters, and algorithms versus the brute force of digital memory banks.

So, how do we navigate this world of nearly infinite possibilities? There are many approaches to this dilemma. Software editors are available, and FM synthesizer plugins like Ableton’s Operator and Native Instruments FM8 are much, much easier to program than their hardware counterparts. All while maintaining flexibility and sonic range. FM8 can load DX7 patches, morph between sounds, or randomize parameters. My approach to this experiment was to exploit a hardware instrument (the TX81Z) already limited by its design.

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I composed this piece by designing a Max for Live process to “degrade” patches in the the Yamaha TX81Z over time. The TX81Z is fairly simple within the scope of FM synths. However, the spectrum of sound is still vast thanks to a few clever features; each of the four operators can have one of eight waveforms, while older FM synths only had sine waves. The degradation process occurs as shuffled parameters in the synth are randomized at a specified pace. Imagine pulling bricks out of a wall and then replacing them with things like a loaf of bread, Legos, or a shoe. The degradation can be interrupted at any moment by the performer to “freeze” a patch for later use, or looped to generate chaotic textures that morph continuously. This excerpt stacks two layers of the degradation process with some panning and reverb to add ambience. Based on these results I anticipate that a lot more is available to be discovered through this and similar techniques. Currently I am working on a way to interpolate between the existing parameter and the “degraded” one for a more legato feel to the entropic process. Stay tuned!