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.


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.

Servo E;
Servo Fs;
Servo B;
Servo Cs;
Servo D;

void setup() {

void loop() {
for (int x = 0; x < 4; x++) {
for (int x = 0; x < 4; x++) {
void note(Servo pitch, int duration) {
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!

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 🙂


A Short Walk in Cae’n Y Coed


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.


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.

Cae’n Y Coed

Caddis – new work in progress

Caddis – Notated work for solo instrument


Caddis flies live near ponds and streams. As larvae, they live underwater and make wearable tubes from local materials, such as twigs, sand, stones, or snail shells. The items they select are bound with silk and the larva hooks itself inside with the end of its abdomen. The tubes serve various purposes – stones can be added to increase traction in fast-moving streams; irregular twigs make the tube (and its inhabitant) difficult for a trout to swallow. This may be considered more of an engineering than creative process, but are they are none the less candidates for the stable of “natural assemblage artists”

Caddis draws on this phenomena creating a work from a bank of two dozen notated samples, reworking, organising and blending them into a new abode for the performer to inhabit.

Sample manipulation series (first few rows)

Pitch set Pitch set start point Chunk End Point Transposition steps up Transposition 8ve up Rhythm set Rhythm set start point Duration multiplier Reuse row?
1-12 1-12 Start + 1-12 0-11 0-1 1-12 1-12 0-2 0-row num
10 7 15 3 1 11 10 1 0
10 7 15 3 1 11 10 1 1
4 8 19 7 0 8 11 2 0
5 7 19 1 1 3 9 0 0
3 6 10 11 0 1 11 1 0


Samples to follow when I’ve worked them out! 🙂

Getting excited now 😀

Ricercar (for electric violin and stochastic step-sequencer) 2016

Ricercar was created as a way to create evolving polyphonic textures in a ‘solo’ violin piece. It uses a midi foot controller (currently a Behringer FCB1010) to control an electric violin into a piece of software created specifically for this piece.


Testing at home before the first performance
foot controller, violin and laptop visible in the
chaos of pre-event preparations

The work is essentially fugal, relying on live sampling to create the layers around the instrumental part and uses a 3 layered sequencer to achieve this. Each layer contains a series of buffers which can be recorded into. The top layer has seven 5 second samples, the middle has 5×17 and the lower has 3×71 second samples. These all prime durations so when left to their own devices they will take a long time to ever repeat in precisely the same configuration. Using a foot controller to trigger when to start recording and which buffer to record to or overwrite, thus it is possible to gradually build up a four part texture using the three sampler ‘lines’ and the live violin.


Overlapping prime blocks 5,17 and 71

In itself this is passable, but could be rather recursive and very quickly get repetitive unless loops are overwritten regularly, which in itself could become an oft-repeated task. This has been overcome in 2 ways. The first is that each time a sample is due to be played there is a 50% chance that it will not be in which case the sequencer just moves on and waits until the next step is ready and then re-rolls its virtual dice. When scaled up over each of the 3 layers of fast, medium and slow samples this means that there will probably always be something playing (depending on how many samples have had audio recorded into them!) but the thickness of the texture will vary.  The second way that diversity is added is by changing the playback speed of each sample. As a sample is triggered the sequencer takes a decision as to what pitch/speed to play the audio. This varies over four octaves (two up and two down) and results in a shift in playback of between quarter speed and four times as fast. The speed changes are in discrete even tempered steps and thus a broader sense of harmony and polyphonic/contrapuntal line can be achieved.pitch.JPG

In addition to this audio focused processing there are 2 global controls. The first is how fast the sequencer triggers each step. This in itself does not affect the length of individual samples so at extreme speeds loops will overlap in a densely fired texture or conversely there may be a lot of space and silence at very slow speeds. The last of the controls is volume of playback, which when used carefully can not only help to balance the live and processed material but can greatly increase the sensation of articulation and dialogue.

Within this framework the performer is free to improvise, guided by the constraints and freedoms of the instrument, themselves the hardware and software.


Video extract taken by Diane Evans at OscilloScope 28/6/15

The Xmas-o-lo-phone (no apologies)!


The Xmas-o-lo-phone

I’m going to set up a Christmas ‘xylophone’ between the trees. This will consist of a series of hollow (tuned) pipes hung length ways between the trees, suspended on rope or chord. The overall effect will look similar to a rope ladder slung sideways.

The idea is that rather than just playing a scale it will play Jingle Bells. So, the first few notes will be at the same pitch as with the tune:


Jingle bells, jingle bells

Jin- (It is not until you get to note 8 that it rises in pitch!)


So, each rung is a note of the tune, as you run along blowing or tapping them they play the tune, they will also be spaced so that the rhythm works properly e.g. the third note has twice as big a gap to the next ‘rung’ compared to the previous note.

It would be good to set it up in a horseshoe (probably more realistically a V) shape between the trees so that is can be run around in a loop.

The trick is working it out so that it is dead easy to play.

Tune Pitch Duration
Step Pitch Rhythm Degree of scale Relative pipe length Pipe length in (mm) Cut from pipe batch Relative distance to next note Distance to next note (cm)
1 e Crotchet 3 0.789889 50.0 3 2 50
2 e Crotchet 3 0.789889 50.0 3 2 50
3 e Minim 3 0.789889 50.0 3 4 100
4 e Crotchet 3 0.789889 50.0 3 2 50
5 e Crotchet 3 0.789889 50.0 3 2 50
6 e Minim 3 0.789889 50.0 3 4 100
7 e Crotchet 3 0.789889 50.0 3 2 50
8 g Crotchet 5 0.666667 42.2 4 2 50
9 c Dotted Crotchet 1 1 63.3 4 3 75
10 d Quaver 2 0.888889 56.3 2 1 25
11 e Semibreve 3 0.789889 50.0 3 8 200
12 f Crotchet 4 0.750188 47.5 1 2 50
13 f Crotchet 4 0.750188 47.5 1 2 50
14 f Dotted Crotchet 4 0.750188 47.5 1 3 75
15 f Quaver 4 0.750188 47.5 1 1 25
16 f Crotchet 4 0.750188 47.5 1 2 50
17 e Crotchet 3 0.789889 50.0 3 2 50
18 e Crotchet 3 0.789889 50.0 3 2 50
19 e Quaver 3 0.789889 50.0 3 1 25
20 e Quaver 3 0.789889 50.0 3 1 25
21 e Crotchet 3 0.789889 50.0 3 2 50
22 d Crotchet 2 0.888889 56.3 2 2 50
23 d Crotchet 2 0.888889 56.3 2 2 50
24 e Crotchet 3 0.789889 50.0 3 2 50
25 d Minim 2 0.888889 56.3 2 4 100
26 g Minim 5 0.666667 42.2 4 4 100
1310.2 6*3m pipes 1600

Watch this space for the chance to have a go 🙂

A Brief Intro to Acousmatic Composition

A Brief Intro to Acousmatic Composition

Posted elsewhere but may be of some interest!

ground loop


  • Philosopical

“Our musical alphabet must be enriched. We also need new instruments very badly. . . . In my own works I have always felt the need of new mediums of expression . . . which can lend themselves to every expression of thought and can keep up with thought.”

Edgard Varèse: New York Morning Telegraph 1916

“Perhaps the time is not far off when a composer will be able to represent through recording, music specifically composed for the gramophone”

Andre Coeuroy: Panorama of Contemporary Music 1928

“The rediscovery of the musicality of sound in noise and in language, and the reunification of music, noise and language in order to obtain a unity of material: that is one of the chief artistic tasks of radio.”

Rudolf Arnheim Radio 1936

“When I proposed the term ‘musique concrète,’ I intended … to point out an opposition with the way musical work usually…

View original post 10,895 more words

5am starts

Working writing some music for the wonderful No Fit State Circus (see one of their videos above-not my audio though), based upon a set of poems written by school kids for the opening of the new arts centre in Bangor, Wales. Getting the work done means I get to see a lot of this as it means a lot of early starts.


Sunrise over the sea from studio 1 Bangor Uni

However it does mean that I get to work with a fantastic set of people in what promises to be an amazing new venue. The building isn’t built yet so I’m not to stressed but hey September is going to arrive quickly!

Gosh I forgot how tiring it is being productive! 🙂