FAQ

A lot of people have asked me about the process/etc around composition: I’ll attempt to answer some of those questions here;

What does it sound like?
As always, the best description of the music itself is to listen to it. You can listen to the pieces here – each piece has its own page. You can also buy the tracks via various music services.

Words people have used include: organic, soundscape, ambient, epic, textural.

What’s your process?
I try to develop complex, organic narratives. I believe I take more of a traditional Western Classical approach to composition and performance. I’m not copying or attempting to re-create this style of composition, but it is a narrative reference to my approach.

I tend to view “data” as I’d envisage an instrument maker looking at a piece of wood. I spend a lot of time carving the data into a shape. The title of the release “binary dust” is a reflection of this. Once I have an ‘instrument’ I can write for, it gets “orchestrated”.

It’s a difficult balance in electronic/acousmatic music that the concept of composition and performance are joined. With no tactile or tangible relationship between a physical object (person+instrument) the audience’s job is much harder – they are working with abstract concepts and have to create their own narrative around what they are listening to (a bit like free-form jazz).

I am always minded that there is a tangible aesthetic that I work to. For me, an audience’s perception and relationship with what they are hearing is very important. A lot of my focus is trying to make that bridge more widely traversable, with the creation of tangible narratives, rather than letting the audience fall into a space where they have to do all the work in listening.

A bit of historical context
My Masters degree (1992/93) focussed on “Virtual Reality Audio and 3-D Sound” – how to create “instruments” using mathematics that could be controlled in a virtual space. I worked on the principle that computer-music still works on the basic principles of transformation, therefore control structures could be created that would enable physical control of digital objects. Creating the mappings is interesting.

One idea was to take the various algorithms and model them in a Lego-type VR environment, where the algorithms would be literally translated into objects, and the objects could be joined together in certain ways. This is not dissimilar to MaxMSP today, but there are significant differences. One example would be to use force-feedback as a mechanism for controlling the interaction between objects (e.g. reverse polarity would push the joins apart).

At the time I wanted to create a clear distinction between the instrument maker, performer and composer – I believe each area is a craft in its own right. In acousmatic music we are still in a world where the craftsman/composer/performer relationships congeal. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a big world to explore – I always describe computer-music as the ability to control the microstructure of sound (atomic) in as much detail as its macrostructure (scored).

One example was to create instruments of sufficient complexity that they would have to be ‘learned’, and only after a significant amount of practice would they start to take on the scope that ‘natural’ instruments enjoy. Composers would then write for the instrument. We’ve changed the chain of music creation so much that no new ‘instruments’ have really emerged for a very long time. Keyboards and synth’s make for good control interfaces… but why do live performances give so much of a buzz when the soloist / guitarist / signer belt it out…

Thank goodness that we are progressing out of MIDI (which is only an 8-bit system) into more complex sound textures, control and manipulation devices – it’s only recently we’ve had the computing power to do so. In 1992 I was using 10 NeXT computers in parallel to do what I wanted to do – now I can do it on any desktop.

Applying transformations
It’s now so much easier to access data, and relatively straight-forward to apply transformations to sonify that data. Personally I don’t hear “Music” in sonified data, I hear “Sonic Art” (cf. Wishart). I’m much more interested in the human transformations and interaction with the sonic material.

For a long time, I kept the disciplines (Astrophysics and Music) very separate – apart from occasionally borrowing some of the maths. Over the past decade they’ve started to become closer – probably because I’ve not worked in Astrophysics for long enough to forget most of it…

So, now I work with astrophysicists and painters, media artists and musicians. On an abstract level, the astronomers help carve the data, the painters help with visualisation (since Astrophysics is fundamentally based on light) and I try and direct this into some kind of coherency. We’re working through vast data-spaces (of data and transformations) trying to find worlds that are malleable, diverse and retain their interest beyond first encounter. When we find something interesting, I compose a piece. In the absence of a good control mechanism/interface, this usually involves a massive amount of fiddling about with numbers and code.

I spend a lot of time reflecting on whether what we found is an interesting space, as much as whether the piece was any good in its own right. If I think it works, then I explore what kind of interfaces we could build to make that data-space more controllable and ‘open’.

Then we start again.

More On Sonification
Generally I don’t treat the “sonification of data” as music. To me it’s too literal, like sitting down at a piano to listen to the harmonic motion of a vibrating wire. All sound is just sound in my world. So, the sonification of a bit of data is no different to hearing a clarinet for the first time – they are both data transformations – I prefer to hear a clarinet played, and similarly prefer the data to undergo a form of human intervention.

“Sonification” (sonic visualisation) is as different to “Music” to me, as “graph” is from “painting”. Certainly there are cross-overs, but they are at extremes of abstraction and overlapping disciplines – sonification is an interesting step on the road to the music and, of course, you can get off at any time….

Some starting points:

Wikipedia- electronic instruments

On Sonic Art, by Trevor Wishart