Electronic Music

  • "Tapestry" - mixed media

  • "The Noise Sculptor" - A noise-based synthesizer developed in Max

  • "Chymera" - fixed media

  •  "A Pleasing Aroma" - fixed media

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Tapestry

Tapestry is what the name suggests– a mix of my favorite musical strands, woven together into one sonic landscape. Electric guitars, electronic drum machines, choirs, complex noise synthesis, heavy metal scream vocals, sample-driven organs (a massive buddha bell, in this case), and various blurring, cross-synthesis procedures. Tapestry straddles the line between experimental and popular idioms, leaning at times more in one direction than the other. I am interested in the different modes of listening required to engage conceptually with these different spaces, and in utilizing motion between these spaces as a significant element of expression.

 

I'm also interested in exploring the tensions that such multi-positional creativity place upon me as an artist. As someone who grew up surrounded by and honestly very fond of popular musical genres (especially rock and metal music), my music-academic journey has been a curious one. I find that there are tensions between the various musical, artistic, and thus even social dispositions I've developed over the years. It can be easy to feel torn between art-cultural spaces that aren't always mutually agreeable (at least in the practice of many who occupy those different spaces). These tensions are not merely matters of taste, but of aesthetic and sometimes even socio-philosophical mores; they have to do with the different perspectives of and responses to the world around us. These are the ideas and questions that lie at the heart of Tapestry.

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Tapestry began here. Following the completion of A Pleasing Aroma in late 2021, I had initially hoped to compose another large-scale electronic piece– and to group the two along with Search for the Sublime in a three movement work. I took materials from both pieces and began to explore them in various ways, and the Max patch pictured to the left was one of the spaces in which I carried out that exploration. 

The primary objects, highlighted in red, were developed by Joseph Malloch, Stephen Sinclair, and Marlon Schumacher for their Max package Digital Orchestra Toolbox– seriously, go and get this package and dig in, they've done some fascinating work and I have had hours of fun over the past several months just playing with the tools they've given us. Thank you all!

 

But to the point: the object in question performs something of a spectral interpolation of four different signals, and the values for that interpolation are determined by the output of those pictsliders there. As the output is mono, I simply doubled the process for stereo audio– which allowed for interesting deviations between the left and right channels depending on how different the control values were for the two.

This is one of the materials I produced during this exploratory phase. It combines two drone-looped samples from vocals for A Pleasing Aroma (one a chorus of untreated voices, the other a chorus already blended with a second vocoder chorus), as well as two others I designed especially for the experiment: a droning loop of a string chorus; and a droning loop of a sample-driven organ (the sample in this case was a carefully sculpted Buddha bell).

I performed several 5 to 10 minute improvisations using the patch above over the course of a week in order to plan out the course I'd like to take for the final material. Once that was determined, I made a few passes and came out with a 7 minute material that I really liked. I didn't end up using the whole improvisation in Tapestry, but you can hear what did make it in by playing the file on the right. This material was also subjected to further manipulations in-project, as you might imagine; but even as is, I'm still quite pleased with the sounds.

While I actually produced three other drone materials using this same process over the course of about 2 or 3 months, I only ended up using one other in Tapestry, which appears toward the end of the piece following the second guitars-bass-percussion section.

Drone in F, Interp better (Abbrev.)
00:00 / 03:27
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Technicolor Turbulence

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I want also to make a few comments about the graphics. I haven't done a great deal of mixed media work; the only other such piece which remains publicly accessible is Technicolor Turbulence. This piece's graphics are also audio reactive, though the two pieces differ  in the degree to which the audio drives the graphics. They also differ in that Tapestry's visuals are more complementary, and were designed after the audio had already been composed. I see the visuals in this piece as augmenting, amplifying the presence of Tapestry's subject-matter.

In the first half of the piece, we are presented with something of a digital canvas upon which various shapes in shifting colors meander kaleidoscopically. Even apart from this motion the very substance of these images swirl and undulate as if they were still in the process of formation– digital graphics being rendered, or even paint drying. The edges of the canvas are frayed and actively crumble, and this distortion intensifies as the piece progresses until it reaches more of the images themselves. Between one-half and two-thirds of the way into the piece, the paradigm shifts: entirely new canvases appear. And then a host of canvases appear, but our ability to study them is challenged by distortions of the entire visual frame, as if it is now not merely the content of the canvas, nor even the  nature of the canvas itself, but our very perspective which is called into question. As the piece moves towards its close the canvases deteriorate and our vision of them stutters along or perhaps in contrast to their own increasingly erratic transformations: until all that remains is a single canvas once more, a single tapestry woven from the eroded remains of the many.

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The Noise Sculptor

The Noise Sculptor is a synthesizer I've been developing over the last year or so in the Max programming environment. This instrument uses a fleet of elaborate and intensive filter banks to produce complex and variable tones. 

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The image on the left illustrates the core of the synth's programming. A noise source enters a filter bank (the [fffb~] object, in particular) with a filter-count of 20. The frequency value around which filtration occurs for each individual filter is calculated according to increasing, whole number multiples of the first from 2 up through 20: n * 2, n *3, n * 4, etc. This series of calculations produces values corresponding to the harmonic spectrum. 

The gain of each individual filter can be controlled via a multislider. The synthesizer includes several presets in which the amplitude of each filter is set to a value approximating the partials of a sampled sound: a cello, an organ, a bell, and so on. In other words, the gain function of the filter bank is being used to approximate the timbre of other, recognizable sounds. 

Finally, the Q value for the filter-bank has a range of 1 to 2000 (in float-point values). An additional amplitude module has been programmed into the synthesizer to compensate for the decrease in amplitude produced by higher Q values. Higher values produce "cleaner" tones; and lower values produce "noisier tones", until filtration no longer occurs and the input noise signal is released as is. 

All of what was just described is a single instance within the synth; there is one instance for every note in a four octave keyboard. Sending the Noise Sculptor midi messages corresponding to the note values for the concert range C2 - C6 will activate an enveloping device for each note played. In other words, play a note to activate its instance within the Noise Sculptor.

As is evident in the video above, the Noise Sculptor includes several other features-- variable values for each note's "partials"; variable values for the chromatic scale; distortion, and granulation. It has already appeared in several of Stephan's piece's, including A Pleasing Aroma and Chymera. 

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Chymera

Chymera was my final project for a popular music course at UIowa. Like a few of my other recent electronic works, this piece is a blend of idioms– chant and choral music; pop, rock, and electronic dance music; and then noise synthesis (more background in this piece) with touches of granular manipulation for texture. Overall, Chymera sits a little closer to music in popular spaces.

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Formally speaking Chymera is something of a binary, with two strong sections-- an A and a B section-- dominating the substance of the piece. Considered another way, however, it strongly resembles a basic song form: Intro, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Outro. 

Now, Chymera features a 2:3 polyrhythm motif in the piano, and the major sections of piece are delineated by alternations of meter following one of the two components of this polyrhythm. In the verse sections, the duple component drives the meter and the musical content. Conversely, in the chorus sections the triple component governs the material. So while the verse and chorus sections each possess different metric textures, the polyrhythm itself can be traced steadily throughout the entire piece. 

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I think that the substance of Chymera's programmatic content lies with its vocal materials. The chemists' recitation of chemical formula isn't an arbitrary reference to science; the formula is actually the chemical content of the average human body. Then the O Vos Omnes record: the chant-style melody heard from the antique record player is meant to call to mind worship, devotion, and both age as well as decay. The vocal soloist brings the poetry of that chant into the present day and translates it into simpler, more heartfelt language: "Can't you hear, can't you feel me calling out?" The tutti chorus continues the chant's dialogue but does so momentarily free of the record medium: shedding both age and decay... but only temporarily.

In the piece's closing verse and final moments, the antique turn-table sounds return. Now throughout the piece, the record medium has always been subordinate to, a container of voice. But in this final section, the voices are gone; the container is empty. 

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A Pleasing Aroma

A Pleasing Aroma is a musical work of fixed media which presents the listener with a grainy collage composed of three aural images: a concert hall where a large audience offers applause in anticipation of a performance of piano music; a trio of monastic singers performing an Agnus Dei in their chapel, while bells sound overhead and a rainstorm offers additional counterpoint; and a rock concert— synthesizers, electric guitars, and intense, guttural vocals. These three images do not present themselves discreetly or in clear terms. Instead, their unique elements are warped and distorted as they are transformed at different rates from one into the other. The global effect is like that of a dream, in which separate images are smeared across each other until they are joined in a disorienting whole.

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This is a graphic I created for a presentation I gave at Elmhurst College in 2021 to their composition department. See the placement of the sonic images: The piano concert at #1; the monastery at #5; the rock show image blended into those of both at #3 and #9. Also note that several sections of the work seem rather indistinct: #2, #4, #6, #8, #10. These are passages of transition in which the image of the previous scene has eroded or distorted beyond recognition into noise, and it is from that noise that the next scene will emerge. 

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A Pleasing Aroma is something of a follow up on a piece I had written previously, called Search for the Sublime. The latter began as an exploration of various electronic tools which were new to me, some of which I had developed myself in Max/MSP. The other is Robert Henke's "Granulator II", also developed in Max/MSP. Henke's granulator allowed me to explore audio materials in new ways. It both gave me new sounds as well as the capacity for new imagination. I'm grateful to have come across it, and for his work in creating it. 

The other tools are a series of spectral devices which I've been developing in order to perform manipulations on discrete portions of sounds' spectra. Search for the Sublime features a spectral panner, which allows the user to pan five bands throughout the space independently of one another; and a spectral blender, which allows the user to crossfade between two sounds in five bands (also independently of one another).  A Pleasing Aroma features both of these, and one more: a spectral delay, which allows the user to add delay to three to five bands on a single sound. It also sees further use of Henke's granulator.

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Both Search for the Sublime and A Pleasing Aroma have in common an interest in sonic transformation. For the first, this plays out in the opening of the through-threaded contrapuntal duo into a trio of sonic landscapes. And for the second, this plays out in the blending, transforming, and overlapping of the three images. This idea of sounds which transform has appeared in nearly all of my music since 2018.