It’s A Second Life Jim, But Not As We Know It

A few weeks ago I was asked to help move a piano which was being sent to the tip. Now before anyone gets over excited, this instrument had been out in the rain, avoided being scrapped once before and survived toddlers, papier mâché and builders: it was well past saving.

As part of the process of dragging the recalcitrant castors (which to the best of my knowledge have never rotated on at least one corner) across the tarmac and down a steep hill which still required pushing to assist gravity, I ended up adopting the piano’s hammers.

The action of an upright piano is relatively easy to take out, it is simply a matter of undoing a couple of wingnuts, whilst avoiding the glee club of arachnids, and carefully lifting the entire unit out. My prize for this modest undertaking was a massive set of beautifully balanced percussion beaters. This could be deployed to excite almost any object provided it could be struck by the hammers in a roughly upright position, and depending on the size of the sounding thing and the dexterity of the user potentially 88 somethings at any one time.

piano

The problem was, I had no idea creatively what to do with it.

This was just simply one of those opportunities which if not taken at the time may not happen again. So in order to move things along I have tried to consider how I would make it work, so that when the chance to create something artistic with it happens the technical side is already in place. Experience has also shown that often when tinkering with things ideas come to light, but also ideas left un-resolved tend to drift into the background in a world where sedimentation outweighs erosion by a significant margin.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the attic, my basic knowledge of pianoforte anatomy was soon vindicated when I found that by prodding the whippen (!) at the bottom of the action with my finger, the hammer bounced obligingly forward. Several minutes later after the novelty had started to wane fractionally it occurred to me that this could obviously be mechanised in some way.

People have been experimenting with automating pianos for a long time. Sitting as I was, it brought to mind the player-pianos much vaunted in films with cowboys in big hats, or for that matter, Muppet satires of such. The problem with this though it that they work very much like a music box or punch card loom in that the musical material is essentially fixed until one physical record of the notes is removed and another inserted in its place.

So, this was an option to try to avoid if possible. The idea of being able to use the action as an instrument, which after all was what it originally was part of, still held a lot of appeal and somehow a piano roll set-up felt like it would reduce it to some sort of playback device. No matter how expressively you nuanced the predetermined material it would never be something that as a person you could play in any reactive sense.

Starting very simply I tried fiddling around with a servo motor, using it as a robotic analogue of my finger, changing how far it moved and how quickly by way of a simple controller chip and becoming terribly overexcited when I found that it had enough force to easily achieve the task of banging something with a (piano) hammer. Emboldened by this small success I then set myself to the task of scaling up the project. After all, it did not really matter how nice the sound was that the one servo hammer was actuating, within a while it would get perniciously dull.

Seeking out more servo motors I wired them in, duplicating what I had done for the first one, because it had worked. In order to test this new set up I needed something that would be relatively simple to do but was sufficiently detailed to show up any errors or inaccuracies. As a simple starting ‘riff’ I tried the melody from Piano Phase by Steve Reich.

I set up the chip to run playing the loop through the servos, with one chip doing the locked in piano part and the other one doing the part of the instrument which accelerates. The process behind the 18 minute video could be boiled down to a few lines of code, defining notes to the servos, linking them to pins, saying how many times to loop and arranging the order and length of notes in the loop.

#include
Servo E;
Servo Fs;
Servo B;
Servo Cs;
Servo D;

void setup() {
E.attach(9);
Fs.attach(10);
B.attach(11);
Cs.attach(12);
D.attach(13);
}

void loop() {
for (int x = 0; x < 4; x++) {
atempo();
}
for (int x = 0; x < 4; x++) {
accel();
}
}
void note(Servo pitch, int duration) {
pitch.write(90);
delay(duration);
pitch.write(0);
}
void atempo() {
note(E, 147);
note(Fs, 147);
note(B, 147);
note(Cs, 147);
note(D, 147);
note(Fs, 147);
note(E, 147);
note(Cs, 147);
note(B, 147);
note(Fs, 147);
note(D, 147);
note(Cs, 147);
}
void accel() {
note(E, 144);
note(Fs, 144);                                          //etc……
}

Running the two separate ‘pianos’ on two separate chips created something of a problem, as, gradually over time the chips could without any sense of irony fall out of synchronisation, let along the difficulties of starting them off in time initially. So it was with deep regret that I realised I that the simplest answer would be to combine the 2 time streams on a single processor.

There may be people out there who have figured out how to run 2 separate asynchronous loops on a single Arduino chip: sadly I am not one of them. However having sat down with a simple spreadsheet I figured out that if each semiquaver lasted 147ms I could make the ones that get quicker to shift the phase 3ms shorter and that would mean that the music shifted by 1 semiquaver over the accelerated 4 bars to lock back into metrical sync. Sadly the chip I have only reliably works in whole numbers of milliseconds so the ratios are relatively critical, but it did mean that with a little bit of Excel spreadsheet automation it was possible to manufacture the entire piece (phase shifts and all) pretty simply. You can see the link for the full code if you are really interested!

https://github.com/edwardwright/virtual440/blob/master/Piano%20Phase

I am still left at the stage of the piano roll, but we are moving forwards. Time will tell as to how I can make the actual material grow and evolve and what sounds and objects will be brought into life through it, but it is shaping up to be great fun 🙂

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A Short Walk in Cae’n Y Coed

trees

A few days ago a friend of mine got in contact about doing ‘some sound stuff’ at an event she was organising in the woods above Betws-Y-Coed in North Wales. Over the course of several conversations it transpired that it was to be themed around the senses and the woodland space.

After a bit of thinking I came up with the idea of doing a sound-walk through the woods which I could guide people on, and having an interactive digital version (note the funding words!) in a tent at the start of the walk so that the folk who were not able to walk or were not around at the start of the tour could still get the idea and have fun.

So we would have a form of bifurcated experience; the walk which I had yet to work out, and/or the ability to synthesize it. This I planned to make with a set off faders people could use to turn up or down my (as yet to be recorded) pristine 3D audio field recordings of ‘a stream’ for instance or on another fader ‘birds in the canopy’ etc…

Now, it must be said at this juncture that I had never organized a sound-walk, but I felt reasonably confident, and anyway how hard could it be. It turns out that it was not all that difficult to do in itself, after all, the topography is there; but what was really, really complicated to do was to disentangle the concepts and preconceptions I brought into the woods with me.

So 2 weeks before the day I first took the drive down the A470 and A5 (two roads loved and hated by tourists and locals in almost equal measure) with a view to mapping out a route and doing some recording. I planned to make interesting way-points to punctuate the walk, make something of them, and get a good recording to link it thematically into the digital version. If I could work out a set of paths through the woods that could string these together I would be home and dry. I should have guessed it is hubris to try to curate nature.

Unsurprisingly waterfalls, squeaky gates, caves and obligingly vocal jackdaws do not fall into an evenly spaced set of locations now matter much I contrived to organise a route. In addition to this it was a real issue getting ‘clean’ recordings of the various phenomena. The birdsong reverberated around the open space of the car park, but the moment I tried to record it I heard a group of walkers with children approaching. No problem I thought, I’ll give it five minutes and they will have passed by. Just then another car pulled in. Not to worry it’s a Sunday, I’ll be patient I thought. Twenty five minutes later I gave up as I still had not got more than eight feet from the car.

So, feeling slightly chastened about the idea of recording I decided that it may be better to come back on a weekday… possibly at night.

kimn59aqt

I decided to map out the route and record what I could along the way. I found a lot of wonderful ‘sound objects’; birds, shale, creaking trees, humming pylons, a small waterfall, an even smaller but echo-y cave and a wonderfully squeaky gate but these all began to feel slightly superficial. Rather than for a trail between various interesting things, it emerged that the route itself formed the arc and structure of what I was hearing. I had just spent 1 hour and 49 minutes (according to my stupidly over-the-top phone app) walking a loop of just under two miles. It formed roughly an oval, starting at the bottom of a hill, going up the escarpment, doubling back along the contours of the rise and around and down to the start. This had inadvertently formed a structural sweep that almost any composer would be proud of.

There is an ambient, evolving, ecology to the woodland soundscape where elements move in and out of perception and focus. Some are fixed in the landscape like rivers or roads (the latter of which make very little noise by themselves) others are not so locked in place. As you move through the space the recurrence and subsidence of these different elements roll through the ears in way which is in many ways very similar to the repetition and development of themes and tunes in opera or film music. I found that as I moved through the landscape the underlying sounds became more and more noticeable, as I stopped looking for an instant experience from AN identifiable object it became possible to comprehend more of the unfolding immensity of the everyday sonic environment.

There is a saying amongst sound engineers that ‘your ears are always on’, generally in the context of avoiding hearing loss, however, while you can’t mechanically disengage your ears, the perception of their input is a far more movable feast. I found as I walked that the sections where apparently not much happened were in fact the most interesting. Rather than going ‘ooh a squeaky gate’ the emergent detail of soundscape through which I was moving was held in greater contrast. Just by turning your head you can perceive the world in a subtly different way. Birdsong hits you are rays of light punctate through the trees and the rustling leaves close in and muffle as the smell of the damp earth comes up to meet your nostrils.

After a time even the road noise became simply part of the experience. As the sound of the cars became brighter it meant I was descending back towards my own car, closing the loop on my own experience and recapitulating the start of the walk.

So I sit here on the tailgate of the car, trying to organize my thoughts, plan a route and figure out how convey some of this experience to the people who may (or may not) turn up in two weeks’ time. I’m slightly concerned that if I turn on the engine and the radio I may lose some of the insight I have gained. Given it seems to be more to do with noticing detail than excluding material which is arbitrarily valuable I hope the detail stays.

16/10/16
Cae’n Y Coed