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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
I am going to play straight through as a half hour set so grab a drink, sit back and enjoy!
Engagement with the sonic arts is a simple exercise, just
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
For this, and for so many other kindnesses, thank you both.
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.
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:
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!
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.
Susurrate (Latin): a murmur or whisper of
leaves, wind etc.
works with the shapes of the woodland to create a reflective space. Resonant
metal bars are suspended from various trees and branches sonically and visually
amplifying the apparent characteristics of each.
notes being suspended from the trees, the branches dictate something of the
visual shape. Thus the impression of a majestic or skeletal specimen becomes
This is exaggerated by the
notes used. In the case of a gnarled tree, if the notes used create something
bright, a high pitched and major sound; it all of a sudden feels like a
cheerful plucky little tree. Whereas if darker diminished tones were chosen the
atmosphere and presence feel more menacing.
the sculpture is largely silent, requiring a strong gust or outside
intervention to create a sound. Instead, it remains quiet, highlighting the
shapes of the canopy in an alien, almost ritualistic way.
On exploring the space members
of the public can find beaters secured in place with which to tap the bars and
bring the space to life. If audience members want to hear more than one tree at
once in the space then they will have to cooperate and play as an ensemble due
to the distances involved.
has a specific chord cluster, the sounds and appearance of which reflect the
artists’ response to working with that particular organism. Some are sunlit and
beautiful, others are brooding or foreboding, and everywhere in between.
is as much about music as the potential for sound. It is about heightening
awareness of the environment, the magnification of space and listening and the
pockets of existence between, before and after notes.
Wright is a composer and musician living and working in N. Wales. Many thanks
to Golygfa Gwydyr for the commission and Ysgol Emrys Ap Iwan for the donation
of some of the upcycled materials.
Comisiwn Cerflun Sain ar gyfer Golygfa Gwydyr
Susurrate (Lladin): murmur neu sibrwd y dail,
y gwynt ac ati.
Mae’r darn yn gweithio gyda siapiau’r coetir i
greu gofod myfyriol. Mae bariau metel cyseiniol yn hongian o wahanol goed a
changhennau ac yn chwyddo nodweddion ymddangosol pob un yn seinegol ac yn
bod y nodau’n hongian o’r coed, mae’r canghennau’n pennu peth o’r siâp
gweledol. Felly cawn argraff gynyddol o sbesimen mawreddog neu ysgerbydol.
hynny ei chwyddo gan y nodau a ddefnyddir. Yn achos coeden gnotiog, os yw’r
nodau a ddefnyddir yn creu sŵn clir, llon, uchel ei draw; mae’r cyfan yn sydyn
yn teimlo fel coeden fach dalog a siriol. Mae tôn dywyllach a chywasgedig yn
creu awyrgylch ac ymdeimlad mwy bygythiol.
hun mae’r cerflun yn dawel, ac mae angen hwrdd o wynt neu ymyrraeth allanol i
greu sain. Yn hytrach, mae’n parhau i fod yn dawel, gan amlygu siapiau’r brigau
a’r entrych mewn modd estron, defodol bron.
chi fod yna brennau taro wedi eu gosod i chi guro’r bariau a dod â’r lle’n fyw.
Os yw aelodau’r gynulleidfa eisiau clywed mwy nag un goeden yn seinio ar yr un
pryd bydd yn rhaid iddynt gydweithredu a chwarae fel ensemble oherwydd y
pellteroedd sydd rhwng y coed. Mae gan
bob coeden glwstwr cord penodol, y mae ei synau a’i ymddangosiad yn adlewyrchu
ymateb yr artistiaid i weithio gyda’r organeb benodol honno. Mae rhai’n heulog
a hardd, eraill yn llawn pensyndod neu ddrwgargoel, a phob amrywiad arall.
gwaith yn ymwneud cymaint â cherddoriaeth â photensial sain. Mae’n ymwneud â
chynyddu ymwybyddiaeth o’r amgylchedd, chwyddo gofod a gwrando a’r pocedi o
fodolaeth sydd rhwng y nodau, cyn pob nodyn ac ar ôl pob nodyn.
a cherddor yw Edward Wright sy’n byw ac yn gweithio yng Ngogledd Cymru. Diolch
yn fawr i Olygfa Gwydyr am y comisiwn ac Ysgol Emrys Ap Iwan am roi rhai o’r
deunyddiau eilgylch yn rhodd.
Susurrate (Latin): a murmur or whisper of leaves, wind etc.
The piece works with the shapes of the woodland to create a reflective space. Resonant metal bars are suspended from various trees and branches sonically and visually amplifying the apparent characteristics of each.
With the notes being suspended from the trees, the branches dictate something of the visual shape. Thus the impression of a majestic or skeletal specimen becomes heightened.
This is exaggerated by the notes used. In the case of a gnarled tree, if the notes used create something bright, a high pitched and major sound; it all of a sudden feels like a cheerful plucky little tree. Whereas if darker diminished tones were chosen the atmosphere and presence feel more menacing.
By itself the sculpture is largely silent, requiring a strong gust or outside intervention to create a sound. Instead, it remains quiet, highlighting the shapes of the canopy in an alien, almost ritualistic way.
On exploring the space members of the public can find beaters secured in place with which to tap the bars and bring the space to life. If audience members want to hear more than one tree at once in the space then they will have to cooperate and play as an ensemble due to the distances involved.
Each tree has a specific chord cluster, the sounds and appearance of which reflect the artists’ response to working with that particular organism. Some are sunlit and beautiful, others are brooding or foreboding, and everywhere in between.
The work is as much about music as the potential for sound. It is about heightening awareness of the environment, the magnification of space and listening and the pockets of existence between, before and after notes.
The work will be on display in Golygfa Gwydyr Llanrwst from 7th August throughout the Eisteddfod week and for longer if nature permits.