Randomness

Ambience & Noise

A reflective essay and composition log including research and examples leading to the creation of my latest creative project

This article is part-reflective, part-descriptive. Here, I will, at different points in time, expand this post by writing updates about my current Creative Project for Organising Sounds as part of my Sound Design degree.

The project implements the thematic of genre-merging in music composition by combining the concepts and aesthetic styles of Ambience and Noise. It does so by not taking such definitions for granted. The back-story of my finished composition includes research in literature, sound, visual art, performance art, moving image, and a generous amount of hours of listening. I wanted not only to create a work I could be pleased with but, simultaneously, to learn more about the art that inspires me — its etymology, history, concepts and notable figures.

I have already talked about the theme of ambience in the arts and in relation to my sound practice on Medium here

[embed]https://medium.com/@francescoimola/the-unintruding-beauty-of-ambient-music-925f5db47351[/embed]

and about the “issue” of noise in music as something to be proud of here

[embed]https://medium.com/@francescoimola/the-unintruding-beauty-of-ambient-music-925f5db47351[/embed]

While the pieces above develop on the contents surrounding the many definitions of Ambience and Noise, here I will describe how I’ve applied such concepts to my composition.

Why Ambience? Why Noise?

I have for long been gushing about how much I connect to Ambient music because of its intrinsic ability to slow down time and make space for thoughts — yet, I realised that before starting to put my ideas together, I needed a broader perspective on Ambient Music. Not only that given by random Brian Eno quotes found on the web, but that which connects the history of Ambient Music to the ideas of Heidegger interrogating the relationship between ontology and phenomenology in our daily lives*.

*Heidegger presents a view that what exists (a question of ontology) cannot be separated from how we engage with it (a question of phenomenology).¹

I soon found that the term ambience represented broader domains of practice. There has [in fact] been a recent resurgence of interest in ambience in music and sound art [correlating] with a broad spike in interest around other ambient media.²

What better way to compliment the forever-looping slowly-changing aesthetic of ambience with the disharmony and disturbance found in noise. Ambient and Noise music are very distinct genres on the surface, but very similar at the core. If Ambient music maestro Brian Eno defined the genre of his invention “as ignorable as it is interesting”, could we say the same of noise?

While not as easily ignorable, noise position itself much in the background as in the foreground. It may be “louder” that some of the rest, but still shares the permeating properties of ambience. Similarly, loud sounds can become ignorable over time (see example below from Alva Noto’s Bit)

[embed]https://youtu.be/fOXxiM1Ujp0[/embed]

However, I’m not claiming to be the first attempting at such practice. A similar approach has been taken in drone music for decades. While not conceptually combining the aesthetics of Noise and Ambience, drone music sounds much like what I’ve had in mind for this work.

[embed]https://youtu.be/qNt1b9u7cZ4[/embed]

Many artists before —names such as Luke Abbott, Ben Frost, Fennesz, Black Mass, Alessandro Cortini and others — have produced beautiful music that merges elements of ambient and noise together. They are also some of the same artists who have inspired me to take this direction.

In order for my style-merging to be successful, I needed to find elements belonging to both aesthetics — or only to one of them — and combine those in a way that was pleasing to the ear. But it was at this point in my research that I had to face a major challenge.

Should my composition actually be pleasing to the ear, or should I strive for “noisiness” in every aspect?

The work I have created is not trying to sound like ambient music for noise fans; nor vice-versa. It implements concepts of noise, intended as unwanted interference rather than painful distortion. Disturbances can be embodied as randomly controlled pitch changes, a general disregard for quantization, generative sequences influenced by Jitter*, uncontrolled phase cancellation, and so forth.

*Jitter is the deviation from true periodicity of a presumably periodic signal.³

Creative Process

The fundaments of my compositions are based on a parallel stack of 3 synthesisers of the same type (Max for Cats’ FM Synth: Bengal) controlled by individual generative sequences. Each synthesiser plays a different semi-random sequence of notes over several octaves and at different speeds — disharmony par excellence.

Every chain is first EQed multiple times to enhance certain sonic flavours and then processed through a “gliding reverb” effect capable of adding rising and descending pitches to the reflections of a reverb.

Beginning of April 2018: A first iteration of this process is the piece named “Noise Sketch” available below. Although it may not sound similar to the later mentioned finished work, it makes use of a very similar setup — yet this time pushed to the extremes. Here, the harsh and gritty soundscapes of the digital synths are paired with a couple of field recordings. While I don’t believe this first part of the work to be an extremely successful attempt per se, I could say to have learned what to take and what to leave from it.

[embed]https://soundcloud.com/user-766630368/noise-sketch-march-2018[/embed]

End of April 2019: With a now conceptually redefined approach, I went on repurposing the work to what it started to sound like the music I had in mind. This is where my piece was one month into the project:

[embed]https://soundcloud.com/user-766630368/untitled-sketch[/embed]

May 2019: The sample above is sonically very close to the completed piece. Much of the work done at this point was meant to add density and one more layer of “noise” to the composition. I decided to play with phase in a less controlled way than when using autopan-like effects.

I bounced down three iterations of the same live-running generative system. By doing so I collected 3 version of the already-three-layered stack of synthesisers. Pitch-shifted each of those bounced tracks by a few cents and nudged in time each by a few milliseconds.

Immediately, you begin to notice the effect that phase has on each element. It makes the composition move in an (almost) unpredictable way — gestures that suggest a struggle: the music fighting to climb to a point it will never reach. I’e always loved the idea of never-resolving musical sentences and here had the chance to begin and end on one.

You can hear the completed work below:

[embed]https://soundcloud.com/user-766630368/permeating-with-disharmony[/embed]

Screenshot of the Ableton Live session where all the work was produced. CPU usage running at 90% in some section of the arrangement!

References:

  1. Jaaniste, L. 2003–2007. Approaching the Ambient: creative practice and the ambient mode of being. PhD Project Doctoral Research. Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.
  2. “The Politics Of Ambience”. Sonicartresearch.Co.Uk. Accessed 10 May 2018. http://www.sonicartresearch.co.uk/the-politics-of-ambience/.
  3. “Jitter”. En.Wikipedia.Org, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jitter.

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, multimedia artist, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

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Randomness

How to account for the unaccountable

You may have never thought about it, but life would not be the same without randomness.

Our entire lives are nothing but an enormous game of chance.

Source: Pexels

But what is it about randomness that make it so special, yet inexplicable to most of us?

In French, aléatoire is the term used for uncertainty and mathematical randomness. It is taken from the Latin alea, the name for dice-games.

Uncertainty is so compelling [to us] that even otherwise skill-based games usually incorporate formal elements of chance, such as the coin toss at the beginning of a football game. Incorporating chance into the game helps delay the moment when the outcome will become obvious.¹

Randomness in the arts

Tristan Tzara’s “To Make A Dadaist Poem” is one of the most well-known – and one of the earliest – examples of indeterminacy applied to the creation of an artwork. While initially seen as an anarchic provocation by the Surrealists of that time, “pulling words out of a hat” has given birth to a valuable trend of chaos in the arts.

Tristan Tzara, To Make a Dadaist Poem, 1920.

While modern artistic implementations of unpredictability have mainly served to address a lack of inspiration or a writer’s block, early uses of randomness could be identified as a “deliberate reaction to World War I”¹.

In music, the major figure making extensive use of indeterminacy in his work was certainly John Cage. According to Cage, randomness can help eliminate the artist’s bias and, therefore, enhance the work by reaching into unexplored territories.

“…Each performance of (such) a piece of music is unique, as interesting to its composer as to others listening. It is easy to see again the parallel with nature, for even with leaves of the same tree, no two are exactly alike” (1996)

[embed]https://youtu.be/Yp07ipz3pQ0[/embed]

In the rest the digital arts, randomness was explored as soon as technology allowed images to be produced via imputing random variables. But is when the first few professional artist gained access to computers, plotters, and microfilm that the visual arts were revolutionised.

Manfred Mohr, for example, made extensive use of random values in the creation of his digital drawings.

Manfred Mohr, P-360-F{FF}, 1984, Plotter ink on canvas.

Randomness in computing

The need for randomness in engineering has always been so necessary that an entire book of random numbers – “A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates” – was published in 1955 to address the need for more random numbers (before the advent of computers).

A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates, RAND Corporation, 1955.

An obvious question to ask about randomness is why a computer would need to implement it in any form.¹

Unpredictable random sequences of numbers are what machines have to deal with all the time. Think about forecasting the weather, or calculating a route taking the traffic conditions into account. These are only some of the operations that can deal with an high amount of uncertainty in computing.

Yet, complete randomness is never what scientists, engineers, and orogrammers usually deal with. Pseudo-randomness is the “subject matter” for indeterminacy in most applications. It is the term used to describe the deterministic process of a machine in producing an evenly distributed sequence of random numbers. It is based on probability and on the existence of constraints within which random functions can exist.

Various uses of randomness

Perlin Noise is a technique employed mostly by game programmers and Hollywood’s VFX industry which generates organic textures with “seemingly” random patterns. Those can be finely controlled to make for perfect natural-looking results.

It was created by Ken Perlin, one of the graphic programmers in Tron, and by the 1990s, it was being used extensively in Hollywood special-effects films and had been incorporated into most off the-shelf modeling software.¹

Example of the use of Perlin Noise for the creation of virtual landscapes. Source: Giliam de Carpentier.

Randomness also plays a crucial role in the security of networked systems.

Security protocols like SSH (Secure Shell) and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) enable us to make payments on the web and rely on random numbers in many ways, but mostly for generating keys for encryption.

With continual increases in processing power, attacks on encryption are becoming easier, and the goal of making random numbers more. random will be critical for securing society’s constant digital transactions.¹


References:

  1. 10 PRINT CHR$ (205.5+RND(1));: GOTO. (2014). 10print.org, [online] (1), pp.119–145. Available at: https://10print.org/.

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

w. http://francescoimola.com/

tw. https://twitter.com/francescoimola