Prologue To A Performance

A quick chat given before a performance at Modulate 20/11/19

A few months ago a friend leant me a book he thought I might like to read. It was obviously a precious thing and the worry that it was nearly falling apart was only emphasised by the fact that its cover declared that it had once cost two shillings and sixpence.

It turned out to be written by Fred Hoyle, who some of you may have heard of as one of the ‘grand-old-men’ of UK astronomy, although sadly today he is mostly remembered for his opposition to the then fledgling concept of the Big Bang. What fewer people are aware of is that he also used to write sci-fi, and when at his best was compared favourably to Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, although sadly not as consistent, but on the flip side Asimov and Clarke were never knighted for services to astronomy either.

So I started reading the book, in a state of terror that it might fall apart on me at any moment and constantly envisaging having to return it in several pieces. After a while the fear got the better of me and I downloaded the audiobook, listened to that, and having finished it (so that I could answer the relevant questions that might be asked by the owner) returned the book in one piece.

Kaoss Pad KP3 holding court in the kitchen

After that it fell of the radar for a while until another friend leant me a Kaoss Pad. For those who don’t know what that is, it is essentially a touch pad that you can use to sample and process live sound. So there I was, sat at the living room table with the manual on my phone trying to figure this piece of kit out.

I needed some sort of audio to feed in, so, as my phone was in my hand I just used the first thing that came up and that turned out be the audiobook of The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle.

It already had a slightly 1960s UK B-movie quality to it, but when you start messing around with the sound and doing basic synthesis with it it lands emphatically in Radiophonic Workshop, Delia Derbyshire retro-sci-fi-horror territory, which was intriguing.

So what you are going to hear this evening is a half hour abridged version of the text which I edited down and built a performance around.

While editing the recording of the voiceover I also did some sound design on the computer generating a few bits that would be impractical to create in real time but. Ironically a lot of this was done in Supercollider which is a text based programing environment, the name of which is just so close to the research done at CERN into the fundamental physics of the universe that it feels completely appropriate to work into the mix.

Supercollider

So I had two streams of sound; the voice over and the supercollider. For ease of use I recorded them to a single audio file. Normal stereo files carry 2 streams of information one for the left speaker and one for the right, and this gives spatialization between the two. In this case I recorded the voice over effectively to one speaker and the supercollider to the other, not so much left and right but synchronous A and B. This means I can isolate and play with the two things separately or in different ways while being able to simply play it out from a normal mp3 player.

Alongside that I have also got the modular synth setup, which is smaller than quite a lot which you see and this is for several reasons. The first is lack of money! Sometimes it is hard to justify spending on something when you could download a free app and get very similar sounds. The second is that I am interested in the ‘live-ness’ of performance and I can only control so many things at once. Finally, and I think this is more important, is the issue of combinations.

As a teenager I had a couple of electric guitar stomp-boxes hooked up to an electric violin and became amazed with the delay pedal and the differences you could achieve with only three variables; delay volume, number of repeats and delay time. It is a bit like trying to work through a combination lock when you have forgotten the code, there may only be 4 variables but after 0000, 0001, 0002… you quickly realise that that there are a lot of options. So what fascinates me about modular kit is really delving deep, getting to know each component and finding a few unexpected or elegant solutions and sounds along the way.

So, we have the two audio streams; the voice-over and the supercollider, as well as the synth, going into the desk which can be routed out, either together or individually to the Kaoss Pad for sampling and transformation, which in turn goes back into the desk. All of this then goes out to the speakers and I will attempt to make this into a cohesive performance.

A very messy rehearsal in progress!

I am going to play straight through as a half hour set so grab a drink, sit back and enjoy!

Footage from the event

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