Writing an opera, a few reflections

The Bridge follows a man’s progress through early diagnosis and the experiences of living with Alzheimer’s. It is part fantasy, part fractured memory, and the meeting of research and real life as we gain insight into the existence of the main character and the world that unfolds around him.  

From initial confusion with his wife over something as trivial as a cup of tea, we follow his course through frustration and fear with occasional twinges of humour as it becomes apparent that there is something amiss. As members of the audience, we catch intermittent glimpses into his life, seeing snippets of the world as he perceives it, rather than what may be regarded as an empirically ‘true’ timeline of events.  

Moving on from diagnosis through well-meaning but occasionally misguided help, the world of our protagonist becomes increasingly internalised and disconnected from the environment, while simultaneously remaining no less vibrant and emotionally meaningful.  

As time continues to pass, we notice clarity and solace in occasional memories. A photograph, a song, the warmth of love. We see that these things may be ephemeral, as the present, memory, and fantasy envelop the mind like separate planes of origami being folded in, constantly shifting in aspect, but nonetheless maintaining their own intangible consistency.  

In short, this is an opera about grief and love. It is easy to see how any artistic output dealing with the core subject matter could be laden with grief. That is an understandable and well-trodden path. It is as much about fear and loss as it is about retained memory, care for others, hope, and the ability to empathise with a reality at times jarringly different to one’s own. It is about acceptance, and finding a way to exist in the present, not only for the person with the diagnosis but for those around them. To square that circle of what has been, may have been, and could still be yet to come. 

As a creative rather than medical endeavour this work cannot cure anything, but perhaps we can provide a little more understanding for some, solace to others and inspiration to a few. 

* * *

“To my mind, most opera characters don’t know they are singing until they think they are singing in the story…”

Compared to instrumental music or even standard “song”, I was struck by how many different layers of meaning and reality could be implied within the operatic genre. Implicit within most sung material is the idea of words, on a superficial level these can tell you a lot about the emotional state of a given character, their desires, and motivations however this is only incredibly superficial.

Alongside this there is the musical content, an apparently happy text recalling an event sung over a minor/sad chord progression implies something very different from the same text sung over something happy. This tension can open avenues towards commentary on a subject matter rather than simply demonstration or documentation of fictious events.

Parallel to these considerations come the elements of performance; a singer may lean into a note, warm a phrase, or slightly attack an entry and this gives life to a subtlety beyond what is purely on the notated page, often in ways I had not fully anticipated.

Working on the next plane of understanding, we reach a musical world external to the singers; namely that inhabited by overture, musical as opposed to textural structure, and the non-diegetic (outside of the world as perceived by the characters on stage) nature of most operatic music. To my mind, most opera characters don’t know they are singing until they think they are singing in the story.

In terms of text, it is very rare for a story or libretto to map 1:1 to the idea of a musical structure. For example, while music may outright repeat material to form a sense of continuity or recapitulation, it is very unusally that written works (Jabberwocky aside) specifically use the same material at the beginning and the end. Conversely this is almost de rigueur in classical symphonic writing.

Non-diegetic music short-circuits this facile understanding of structure and enables the score to better represent the libretto at a meta-textual level rather than simply mirroring the action word for word. In short, the sound world that the characters in the story don’t hear, bridges the gap between the written word and the sung word, creating a way that the two different media of word and music can achieve compatibility while not destroying the internal consistency of the other.

* * *

Reflecting the protagonist’s increasingly agitated and occasionally disconnected mind.

The Bridge is an attempt to invert expectations. It would be very easy to travel from comfortable harmonies towards fragmented dissonance towards the conclusion. Instead the overall sound world follows that of the baritone lead. There are moments towards the start where the mischievous and satirical nature of the works shines though with the major/minor tonality evoking a domesticated environment better suited to Wallace and Gromit than serious opera.

This gives way to a more disjunct and fragmented atmosphere of evolving modalities, rolling various augmented and diminished chords, reflecting the protagonist’s increasingly agitated and occasionally disconnected mind.

When matters are addressed the baritone climbs out to the other side towards tonality again: initially battered by the excessive chirpiness.

As a composer working in this medium there is a certain pressure to create newness, to embrace something which the public may not comprehend until long after I have passed away. While creating a legacy and history would be nice, I am more interested in helping those around me. I have tried to stay true to my principals of writing interesting and articulate music, without falling too far into the introspective navel gazing implicit within almost any artwork emerging from a creator with a western c.20th background.  

More to follow…


Brief thoughts on a “remix” and a name

Firstly this probably needs a bit of context. Late last year I was involved in a crossover project between the Oscilloscope and Modulate music communities, where each effectively took over the other’s event for a night and tried to work within that genre. Out of this experiment a number of great pieces came into being and at the close of the second show it was suggested that each camp should remix the others work. This was then put to a public vote as to who should who work on which track. When the votes were counted it showed that the wisdom of the crowd suggested I should remix Julian Roberts’ Izotope.

Listening to Jules’ track it really brought to mind some of Kandinsky’s paintings. There are strong vibrant colours, arranged in blocks and wedges which seemed to fit with the ramping up and metrical jump-cuts of Izotope.

I started working on my remix of the piece, taking the idea of a remix very loosely using only the sounds from the original but manipulating them and reworking the structure to almost become a completely different track from the mix of the same constituent parts.

Initially I was creating sounds and textures from the original and trying to build a structure, but this felt a little arbitrary; an active bit here, a quiet bit there to then make a build feel more impressive and so on. It didn’t seem to have a soul or be about anything.

Vasily Kandinsky Small Worlds I (Kleine Welten I) from Small Worlds (Kleine Welten) 1922

So, I went back to the Kandinsky I had in my head and tried to find the painting I had thought of when first listening. Eventually I found Kleine Welten I (Small Worlds I) which was the closest to what I had imagined.

I realised that not only was my work already potentially quite sci-fi in its sound, but that within the discrete textures and even the way I was composing I was indeed imagining my way between a number of different space and planets. It also gave a not particularly subtle nod to the micro/macro scale implied by Jules’ name for the original track. As a result the title for the remix Small Worlds has stuck.

After the release of the Oscilloscope/Modulate Collab, artists were paired up and challenged to remix each others work. This [full album, not just this track!] is the epic result. Some amazing work by an amazing community. All proceeds going to C.A.L.M (The Campaign Against Living Miserably) Charity. This has been a weird/rough year. Communities of people being human is so important for well being. Thanks to everyone involved with this release, you’re all amazing!

4 Years of OscilloScope

Oscilloscope ident

This week marks four years since I started Oscilloscope, a monthly event focusing on experimental electronic music. I’m currently writing this as Wales in under lock-down due to the Covid-19 pandemic and as such, any form of gathering is impossible.

Over the last 4 years we have been completely voluntary and survived on donations of time, energy, talent and even sometimes performance space. It has been an amazing experience. With a growing team of organisers, an supportive and articulate audience and performances over 50 different artists from at least 12 different countries producing genuinely world class work, I am truly humbled.

I could go on singling out highlights and kindnesses, but that would seem to neglect those that did not get mentioned, and perhaps I will return at a later date to update this blog and expand on some of those memories. However at this stage I think that the double bill of streaming that was put together with next to no budget and a lot of goodwill for the anniversary double bill on the last day of June and and the 1st of July 2020 speaks for itself.

Thank you to all in these videos of the two live streams from 30/6/20 and 1/7/20; but also a massive thank you to all those involved in the 4 years leading up to them.

Stay safe and enjoy!

OscilloScope 4th Anniversary Event Day 1
OscilloScope 4th Anniversary Event Day 2

Digito In Machina

Out Now! 🙂

Digito In Machina was composed over the course of a week during the 2020 lock-down. Working from home with no access to performers, recording venues or instruments other than what was immediately to hand narrowed some of the physical possibilities, but in so doing paved the way for the exploration of different solutions.

Superficially Digito In Machina can be perceived as a work for piano and computer, but to draw this conclusion would be an error as the whole piece was generated digitally. What interests me is how it is still so tempting to conjure a physical causality behind the piano (all the notes of which were pre-programmed) especially when it blurs into, and is overwhelmed by the ‘other’ of electronic processing which is in turn based upon the “piano” sound. Up until seven weeks ago the idea of not recording it with a real person playing the instrument would have been anathema; but given sessions are currently not an option it frees up this new metaspace between the inference of instrument, performer and computer audio.

The work reflects some of the strangeness of the lock-down time, arching over an approximately bell-like curve mixing whimsy and moments of beauty, with occasional flashes of fear, engulfment and the feeling of a niggling itch somewhere inside the mind. I sincerely hope we all arrive well on the far side. Stay safe.

Ed Wright
Penmaenmawr 4th May 2020

Precession – work in the pipeline

Pyramid music

It is common for composers to consider their work through a number of dimensions or axes; examples of which can be found in fugue technique, Whishart’s lattice model (Wishart, 2002) or more extremely, embodied throughout the methodology of 12 tone serialism (Schoenberg and Stein, 1950).

This planar thinking lends itself to the invention of various compositional techniques, on a simplistic level running variables in in retrograde fashion through to the nested recursion of the Art of Fugue (Bach, 1750) and Markov Chain compositional techniques (Roads, 2000). This is often linear, looking at a set of pitches or rhythms; interrogating and manipulating a stream of data points. From there it is only a small step to link extra information to this data. For instance, at a given time a certain note could be played at a specified volume by a given instrument (Boulez, Cage and Nattiez, 1999). Thus, in computing terms we arrive at a two-dimensional array of data, something potentially very close to a square if you were to tabulate it.

With the addition of other data and relationships comes the opportunity for higher dimensions within this array, popping an extra axis into a cube, followed by a tesseract, up until such points as it would be difficult to perceive within an audible work.

What if, rather than dealing with data points the composer was able to manipulate the dimensional space of the larger work?

Precession is an exploration of these ideas. It draws on the Pitch Volume Timbre space defined by Wishart but folds in one side of the ‘cube’ to form a pyramid space. Working from the assumption that pitch is mapped to x volume to y and timbre to z notes can be placed anywhere within the body of the pyramid. This simple translation brings a deal of creative perturbation to the system, as when any datum is near the apex of the pyramid (z axis) its potential placement within the two remaining axes (x,y) across the square base are several limited.

Where this becomes especially interesting is being able to roll the pyramid like a die within compositional space. If the view point remains fixed with x for pitch etc. any movement of the pyramid re-voices the notes therein, potentially in strikingly different ways. Thus, phrases are cast and re-cast within the rolling die of the shape causing processionary transformations of the material.

Instrument design realised in Supercollider

Visual components and data transformation in Processing

Composition and array transformations Excel

System communication OSC

Edward Wright 3/12/19

Bach, J.S. (2013). The Art of the Fugue & A Musical Offering. Composed c. 1740-50. Newburyport: Dover Publications.
Boulez, P., Cage, J. and Nattiez, J. (1999). The Boulez-Cage correspondence. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.
Roads, C. (2000). The computer music tutorial. Estados Unidos: The MIT Press.
Schoenberg, A. and Stein, L. (1985). Style and idea. First published 1950. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wishart, T. (2002). On sonic art. London: Routledge.

The Black Cloud-video

A video of a performance 20/11/19.

For more information about the piece itself please have a look at my previous post 🙂

Many people ask about the kit invovled so here is a quick rundown of that was on the table if you feel the need to geek out completely!

There is a synth which I put together, comprising the following modules:

Manufacturer ModuleDescription
2hp FreezFreez is a voltage controlled locked looper
2hp TMTM is a probabilistic random sequence generator.
DoepferA-124 SEWasp 12db/oct Multimode Filter
DoepferA-140ADSR Envelope Generator
DoepferA-145Low Frequency Oscillator
Erica SynthsPico CV MIX3 channel DC coupled mixer
Erica SynthsPico DSPCustom stereo effects
Expert SleepersDisting mk4Many-in-1 multifunction module
Gershom ElectronicsTrash-80 One of a kind evolving generative FM
Make NoiseFunctionFunction generator
Manhattan AnalogCVPControl Voltage Processor
Mutable instrumentsEarsContact Microphone
Mutable instrumentsVeilsQuad VCA

2. This was processed with a Korg Kaoss Pad KP3

3. The audio book sections and prepared sounds were played from a Zoom H2

4. The audio was routed through a Soundcraft Spirit M12 (which was overkill but does have busses and direct sends!)

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.


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

A Foreword

For Host/Operator

Creativity takes many forms.

Engagement with the sonic arts is a simple exercise, just listen.

Therein lies some of the beauty of this medium, it can be grasped instantly; and in so doing the listener can become (at least partially) cognisant of an enormity of meaning, symbolism, experience and practice that the acoustic information implies. 

This is particularly true of the work of Host/Operator. Theirs is an expression which embraces the audible and then exceeds it. The live composition of the work coupled with its instantaneous performance, are facilitated by a wealth of experience and self-reliance. The supreme mastery over ones medium to the point of the subversion of the self is an accomplishment few achieve, and in so doing this raises their work from that of a solely musical endeavour into an overarching meta-sphere of creativity.

Theirs is the hyperspace of the present, the infinitesimal point where past and future meet: reciprocation of past and projection to future are mediated through creative process, physical action and technological affordance to create a visceral, resonant dimension, outside of the day to day experience.

For this, and for so many other kindnesses, thank you both.

Ed Wright PhD FRSA

Penmaenmawr N. Wales 2019

Turbo 15-10-19

New music out now at:


Turbo is a piece of acousmatic music. It draws on three separate sound sources namely two Formula One cars which raced when I was young, the Lotus 97T and the Ferrari 412 T2, as well as a Scalextric set. These three sources form the basis of the track with the remaining sounds derived from them or synthesised from first principals.

The engines of that era sounded very different. It was a less regulated time, before the advent of widespread electronics, the introduction of hybrid engines or the level of concern about petrochemicals and their environmental impact. While there have been many changes for the better over the last thirty years in F1, the sound of the grid is not one of them.

While working with the audio to create something musical rather than a historical document several things jumped out at me. Firstly it is amazing how melodic these vehicles are. From the chord of D and A created by snapshot sample of a car in the distance to the almost choir-like textures created by zooming right in on only a very narrow set of frequencies it really should not have been a surprise how ‘tuned’ race cars are. Secondly, the sounds are highly cyclical, but in an evolving way which can be exploited to find not only glitchy textures but also built on and augmented.

As well as drawing on the sounds of the turbo engine the idea of a turbo spiral extends into the structure of the work. There are four main sections to the music which repeat and develop with increasing rapidity. If you travelled around a spiral at a constant speed you would find a new section of music every ninety degrees. As the spiral tightens the sections become shorter, leading to a whirling inexorability in the final stages.

This idea of structural acceleration extends to a Ferrari engine sound heard throughout the work. It starts very low and slow; five-thousandths of its original speed and then gradually ramping up to become audible, first as a bassy rumble before transforming into glitchy background antics before flying past at full speed at the end.

Creating this piece has been an interesting challenge; trying to balance something which is intellectually rigorous (e.g. the golden-spiral mapping and computing), along with creating something which is engaging to listen to. I have tried to convey something of the excitement and nostalgia the source sounds bring to me, but also that tranquil space that you find in split seconds of extreme focus, the loudness and brutality of the spectacle, and hopefully something beautiful. 

Turbo, Maths and Music

I have already written about some of the creative aspects of Turbo, the piece of music I am currently working on here https://edvirtual440.wordpress.com/2019/07/22/turbo/, but following interest from a number of people here is a bit of a deeper dive into the mathematics of the piece.

Under the gloss and shine of the main body of the work there is a continuous recording of a Ferrari 412 T2 F1 car. The recording starts played back very slowly; gradually getting quicker until it is at normal (breakneck!) speed at the end.
Artistically this was done to draw the listener in, there is a slow but impending inexorability about it but I wanted it to work creatively as more than just a cheap trick.

The playback speed is modelled on a golden spiral (i.e. a logarithmic spiral whose growth factor is φ the golden ratio) a design found not only in some engine turbos but also the humble snail from which the component took its name.

A golden spiral with initial radius 1 has the following polar equation:

\ r = \varphi^{\theta\frac{2}{\pi}}\,

If one were to travel inwards on such a spiral at a constant speed the time it would take to describe a full rotation around the centre decreases. While your speed would stay the same, in terms of RPM you would be accelerating. The manipulated Ferrari recording follows this pattern making 3 full rotations of the spiral appearing to get faster towards the epicentre at the end of the piece.

At a simple level digital audio works a lot like animation. A snapshot of a soundwave is taken numerous times a second (44100 for CD quality) and these snapshots are essentially then played back in order to create a close likeness to the original continuous sound. Just like animation and flip-books you can change how fast you leaf through the individual ‘pages’, and thus gain mastery of speeding up, slowing down or even appearing to reverse time.

The piece of music was to be 8 mins 39 seconds long. I wanted the Ferrari to be at normal playback speed at 8:38. Hence it was a task of mapping the sample rate to time or its equivalent distance along the spiral. Looking at it backwards I was aiming for a sampling rate of 44100 Hz at 8:38 with that rate decreasing by the proportions of the golden spiral as the time elapsed from the beginning of the piece of music trended to 0. 

Several cups of tea later I came up with the following which gives sample rate (Hz) relative to time (s). This is copied from the code which I had left deliberately un-simplified so that I could still almost see what I was doing!

Sample rate =44100(1/(pow(((1+sqrt(5))/2),((LOG(1-((1-pow((1+sqrt(5))/2,(12)))/(1-(1+sqrt(5))/2)-TIME)+(((1+sqrt(5))/2)*((1-pow((1+sqrt(5))/2,(12)))/(1-(1+sqrt(5))/2)-TIME))))/(log((1+sqrt(5))/2)))-1)))

This resulted in a gradual and inevitable winding up of speed but was still very ugly not to mention the processing power it drew before even handling audio. It turns out that trying to feed a digital-analogue converter floating values for sample rate (as opposed to integers) is not a great idea and leads to clicks and glitches. This brought down my need for fine grained resolution by a significant factor. In addition the difference of +/- of half sample is inaudible when 44100 are going past in a second! 

This meant that rather than calculate it all on the fly I stuck the formula into and excel spreadsheet and told it to calculate relative to the rows while rounding to the nearest integer; hence an instant lookup table with a revised sample rate for every second. Incidentally it started off *really* slowly at 221 samples in the first second!

I then cooked up a simple playback and record program (it has had 2 incarnations, being initially built in MAX/Msp and later Supercollider due to cross platform issues). It takes the excel table and looks at the values over time, interpolating between the 1 second breakpoints and applies this to the playback speed of the audio while simultaneously recording the output to disk. 

The net result is a lookup table and a bit of ramping between values; far more computationally efficient than the junk equation above! Sonically if produces a seamless transition from inaudible, through rumbling sub-bass, murmuring rumbles up to urgent build and finally a howling drive-by.

Turbo is due for release in October on Spotify, iTunes, Bandcamp etc. (click the links to go direct to the artist page). For more info see www.virtual440.