Nick Fraser is a producer, journalist, and documentary editor. Film-maker Alex Gibney describes nick in an interview with The Guardian as the person responsible for making documentaries so popular, pushing film-makers to make better work while being generous and understanding with them (Bromwich, 2018).
In the foreword to The Documentary Film Book, writing “ Why Documentaries Matter?” Fraser attempts to analyse documentaries through personal experience and by retracing the history of this medium.
Many are the possible definitions of what a documentary is, what it should depict, and how it should make the audience feel. What Fraser is really trying to find is an answer to why are we so attracted by documentaries. He does so by recalling the history of documentaries from their newborn-like status of being that genre that “never caught on in cinemas” to becoming a “recognisable cultural form”.
Broadcast television played an important role in this process, the journalist continues, in the way that it saved documentary film-makers, funding their projects and enabling those to reach large audiences. As rising trends demonstrate, documentaries are now well popular both in cinemas and online — often thanks to festivals like Sundance for putting documentaries to the forefront.
The producer’s experience with documentaries has not always been the easiest. Fraser disliked the predictability and conventionality of documentaries prior to his arrival in the BBC. However, a few years later, he was left in awe by Hoop Dreams— a 1994 American documentary film in which the lives of real characters were portrayed with such depth that, he states, made possible to think of Hoop Dreams as “something new”.
Fraser analyses the shift from documentaries being the public broadcasts’ favourite “filler” entertainment to becoming a tool against mass culture. He argues that the idea of the documentary as a binding force of society has been replaced by the idea that documentaries are made to change the world.
Despite the many attempts at depicting documentary films as fake — as artefacts mixing reality with fiction — the genre still subsists in a “crossroad of contemporary culture” (Fraser, 2012) attracting the likes of many including television entertainment, journalists, storytellers, and curious public alike.
“First I was my father’s Janie, then I was my Charlie’s Janie, now I’m Janie’s Janie.”
Set in Newark, New Jersey, in the early 1970s, Janie’s Janie tells Jane Giese’s journey to “self-determination” (Metrograph.com, n.d.). It was directed by Geri Ashur, with Peter Barton, Marilyn Mulford and Stephanie Pawleski, and produced by The Newsreel collective.
Janie’s Janie is the story of a single mother who refuses to be disempowered and made feel worthless by her abusive ex-husband. Determined to raise five children on her own, she achieves a feminist consciousness that helps Jane find her voice and navigate the welfare system in a post-1967-riots Newark.
Last year marked 50 years since the Newark riots. In 1967, a changing population had led to racial tensions in what was a majority black city controlled by white politicians, historians say (NJ.com, 2017). At least 26 people died and hundreds were injured in the rebellion of 1967. The city was devastated for decades to come (The Guardian, 2017).
Not only the film is a document of an era and the efforts of feminists and interracial movements, but it is also the first “personal documentary” produced by Newsreel (Twn.org, n.d.). Using a mix of handheld verité material and interviews, the directors make the viewer part of Jane’s everyday life.
It is a complex, beautifully edited, and decisively intense film for its 30 mins duration. The documentary has been praised by international critics on multiple occasions as “breathtakingly candid” (Monica Castillo, Village Voice) and “one of the most moving documentaries of the era” (Nellie Killian, Tell Me: Women Filmmaker, Women’s Stories).
This past two months have been nerve-racking. But we’ve eventually created something to be proud of.
A group of four undergrad students. We’ve build a net artwork, or as programmers like to call it: a web app.
We named it avtest. In a nutshell, avtest is an interactive multimedia web app that gathers textual data via the YouTube API from either predefined or user-selected videos to create generative music and visuals. It’s still a work in progress*, but it’s near enough to completion to be shared to with everyone.
*It works in almost every aspect but its behaviour changes independently from platform to platform.
What does it do
On the surface, the artwork generates visuals and music when clicking on one of the 5 checkboxes or when inserting a valid link in the underlying text-box and checking the relative checkbox to its side. Each checkbox is “connected” to a YouTube video selected by our team. The text-box + checkbox option instead allows users to insert their own link to any youtube video; this has to be a special API link formatted through Google’s YouTube Data API platform. We imagined most people would not be able to retrieve such info, so we’ve added our own links to make the artwork function without much effort.
Checking into the “About” box will take you to another page where some info about our team and the project are shown.
Details and code
I created and programmed the sound composition and designed the website (HTML, CSS, text, DOM elements, etc). The rest of the team has worked on setting up the data-retrieving system and designing the visuals.
The list of comments is first “translated” from an array of strings (text) into numeric ASCII values (numbers) and then scanned to find the most recurrent number — which happens to be a value between 0 and 127. Such number is converted first to MIDI and then to a note value (C, D, E, F …) through tonal. From here — using sorting tools, plenty of for loops and arrays, and a list of all possible scale modes, I build a system that automatically defines a custom root note and a scale mode for every input (API link). Such scale is eventually played by the pattern element mentioned above so that sound can be heard on the page.
An almost transparent ellipse shows up when the synth is finally loaded and is playing.
Elements of the visuals and the DOM design may not work/display properly at first try nor instantly. We are not all professional coders and our experience in front-end dev is limited — hence many improvements are still to be made. The project has not yet been tested on every current browser and device. The audio does not work when the site is open on Internet Explorer (IE doesn’t support the Web Audio API).
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
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)
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
“…I ask Eno how long he’s been in this space. “All night,” he says. If that’s true — it’s 10:30 in the morning — he looks remarkably fresh. I clarify: But for how many years? “All night for the past 22 years,” he deadpans. The room’s appeal is obvious; it feels like an oasis. A few tree branches are faintly visible through the skylights, silhouetted against February’s slate-grey sky. The city feels far away.” (Philip Sherburne in conversation with Brian Eno for Pitchfork, 2017)
“Here it is…”, you’re probably thinking. Another bustling piece of writing praising the beauty of Music For Airports and celebrating the uniqueness of Ambient as the stress-alleviating genre for excellence.
And you may be thinking right.
Still, whilst I regard the statements above to be true, I feel the need to analyse and reason my beliefs as a way to challenge my personal take on the subjects I write about. Therefore, before start arguing why Ambient music does and will always matter, it is worth shifting our attention to the concept of ambience.
That which surrounds
It is fundamental to reflect on the abstraction of the term ambience — especially for those in the creative works — since its understanding could influence the way we engage with our surroundings both in our “daily and aesthetic lives”¹.
Ambience refers back to the Latin ambiens (“a going around”) and ire (‘to go’): to go around².
Through his research project, The Ambience of Ambience Luke Jaaniste “expands upon a mode of being that has been hinted at within creative practice and intellectual thought” which he calls “the ambient mode”. It alludes to the pervasion of space and “deals with how we exist in our surroundings”¹. According to Jaaniste, ambience is not just “somewhere within a surrounding”, but widespread, evenly diffused in a place. Anything that stands out is divergent, “salient”¹.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines salience as “the fact of being important to or connected with what is happening or being discussed”³. The concept of salience “has been studied with respect to interpersonal communication, persuasion, politics, and its influence on mass media”⁴.
By desisting salience while still remaining deeply connected with it, Ambience implies a political statement. To make art that incorporates the concept of ambience is to create something that is neither-back-nor-forth — articulating a belief in how things exist together, in our surrounding, and in society.
Ambience in the arts
Around the mid-1970s artists began to embody ideas relating to ambience in their works. New practices originated, not only in sound but also in screen-based, literature, architecture, and performative domains.
Anthony McCall’s Long Film for Ambient Light (1975) is a work of “Expanded Cinema” exploring “the ambient materiality [becoming] vital part of the aesthetic experience”¹. McCall’s Long Film came at the end of a series of works in which McCall was stripping back cinema to its absolute minimum — light, time, and human experience/perception.⁵
Ambient video is video not to be distracted by, intended to play in the backgrounds of our spaces. The most well-known ambient video trope is the venerable “yule log”, which has been burning in video screens on television sets since its introduction at WPIX New York in 1966.⁶ It also involves the long-take slow-changing video works of Andy Warhol, Michael Snow and Yoko Ono.¹
My relationship with Ambient Music
I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in ambient music. I haven’t been listening to it for long and obviously haven’t listened to every ambient record out there. However, most of my time is spent listening to ambient. I have a special relationship to the genre as it has helped me get through some rough moments in life. Ambient music has pervaded the empty rooms I’ve been living in with a strangely suffused sense of calm — that calm that makes you feel connected to the ground and helps you find new clarity.
It is difficult not to mention the Eno’s coining of the term when talking about Ambient Music. He is not only a leading personality in modern society but also the “chief figure in any discussion of ambience”¹. Ambient music, however, has an important anthology that traces back decades before Eno and is still developing outside Eno’s studio through the work of others artists to this very day.
Erik Satie’s Musique d’Ameublement (1917) is probably the earliest example of ambient music ever composed. No, it does not sound anywhere close to sweeping synths and ringing bells of Eno or Harold Budd , but I still find Satie’s work to be way ahead of its time. Despite his natural extravagance posing him at the centre of scandals and litigations, with pieces such as Musique d’Ameublement and Gymnopédie No 1 Satie demonstrates to be the minimalist and ambient precursor par excellence.
Of the many — but not all — records labelled as Ambient I have listened to, there are some that I particularly enjoyed at times only for their musicality, others for their ability to inspire my practice as a musician. A short sample of those is presented below in no particular order. Only need to mention that some of this music, while sonically close to Ambient is often re-labelled by the media belonging to a range of disparate sub-genres — including new-age, ambient-techno, drone, chill-out, space music, IDM, and others.
Seefeel — Quique
Alessandro Cortini — Avanti
Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto — Vrioon
Ryuichi Sakamoto — async
Andy Stott — Faith In Strangers
Brian Eno — Ambient 1 / Music for Airports
Brian Eno — Apollo
Dedekind Cut — $uccessor (ded004)
Deru — 1979
Surfing — Deep Fantasy
Stars of the Lid — And Their Refinement of the Decline
Oneohtrix Point Never — R Plus Seven
Max Richter — Sleep
Global Communication — 76:14
Heathered Pearls — Body Complex
Terry Riley — In C
Huerco S. — For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)
Luke Abbott — Wysing Forest
Mark Pritchard — Under The Sun
Tim Hecker — Haunt Me
Aphex Twin — Selected Ambient Works 85–92
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.
According to tradition, music and noise are consirered opposite. For decades, composers and musicians have striven for the perfection of form and “purity” of elements. Malfunctions in such environment were to be avoided and corrected where possible.
However, with the rise of underground rock and hip-hop, as well as the availability of cheaper workstations in the early 90s, more and more artists started to produce music. While never saturating the market, less pristine-quality recordings and experimental works began to make their way into the mainstream. Such music was defined in retrospective as belonging to the lo-fi, noise, and glitch aesthetics. Genres that saw the light of the day at different points in the 1990s but are all connected through conceptual vectors.
Lo-fi, in particular, refers to the lack of technique and technology regarding the recording and mixing of music. It is the natural antithesis to high-fidelity. Ground noise, buzzing, and other imperfections in the recording are magnified and veneered. Because of their capacity to add layers of “grain and dust” to otherwise clear recordings, the produced effect is a sense of nostalgia and a moodiness that is characteristic of many contemporary lo-fi releases.
Similarly, glitch describes the failures and in a flow of communication. Sonically-characteristic errors (glitches) are organised in the arrangement as if they were instruments, becoming central elements in the composition. Glitch music is about pushing the tools available to you as a musician to make something never heard before.
Failures at the centre of attention
My appreciation for music falling under the umbrella of lo-fi & glitch has often been challenged by musicians attempting to appropriate themselves of a sound only to meet the needs of an audience. At the same time, there have been scenes that have thriven, and some still do, for their unprecedented music production skills.
It is difficult, however, to label electronic music and restrict its sound to a specific press-ready niche. The obviously biased list of artists and music presented below is by no means exhaustive inventory of every lo-fi or glitch release ever, but only a short sample only meant to exemplify what a piece of lo-fi or glitch music could sound like. Neither am I, with such a subjective take, trying to designate the artists as belonging only to that particular genre and musical scene.
A visionary album that got me into the genre of glitch — that with hip-hop references later renamed as glitch-hop — is edIT’s“Crying Over Pros”. One of Planet Mu’smost overlooked releases struck a chord with me because I’ve never heard any hip-hop producer use their tools in such a way before. edIT used techniques that were only sometimes found in experimental electronic music before, but nowhere near hip-hop. It was a record ahead of its times.
Amber by Autechre is another recent discovery dear to me despite its now 24 years since its release date. Blurring genre-labelling, but often defined by the press as belonging to IDM and Glitch, Amber presented an “entirely electronic and entirely instrumental” soundscape that could still compete with most modern productions.
Teen Suicide (band, now known as American Pleasure Club)ismaybe the most representative of the noise-pop and lo-fi aesthetic. Their ingenuity and quirkiness, paired with a deliberate lack of recording-quality — especially with their early releases — is effective as it’s catchy.
In contrast, Lo-fi House, be it borrowing from the indie-rock/lo-fi aesthetic or creating a sound of its own to stay distinguishable in the dance arena, has experienced a disproportionate growth during the past 5 years. Thegenre quickly evolved “from an online community of fresh-faced producers into a palpable underground phenomenon”¹.
With its wide sound palette and extensive DJ experience, Ross From Friends is the “leading figure” in the lo-fi movement and an always favourite of mine.
What is noise depends on what we are listening for
I ever so often find myself questioning the etymology of genre names in music and their development leading to what we know them as today.
Some genres, however, do not only represent a musical style, but also carry on their shoulders a considerable anthology in history and philosophy. Noise is one of those. Once we start researching beyond the formalisation of noise intended as an auditory phenomenon, we discover a realm where noise “resists” erasure and “persists” in time — because it cannot be reconfigured or recontained¹ — challenging the limits of its very own definition
The etymology of the word noise traces back to the Latin nausea, ‘seasickness’ — word that could have developed a sense in Vulgar Latin of “unpleasant situation, quarrel”, meaning a “loud or unpleasant sound”.²
The Oxford English Dictionary gives us two main definitions of noise:
a. In scientific and technical use: random or irregular fluctuations or disturbances which are not part of a signal (whether the result is audible or not), or which interfere with or obscure a signal; oscillations with a randomly fluctuating amplitude over a usually continuous range of frequencies. Also in extended use: distortions or additions which interfere with the transfer of information.…
b. In non-technical contexts: irrelevant or superfluous information or activity, esp. that which distracts from what is important.”
Both “scientific” and “mundane” ideas of noise presuppose a flow of information passed between to vectors which noise can interrupt or disturb. Fundamentally, then, noise not only defines anything that is unwanted, but also everything that is admissible. As Paul Hegarty writes, “[noise] does not exist independently, as it exists only in relation to what is not”³. For Hegarty, to be deciphered, noise needs a listener — someone able to tell the difference between what is necessary and what not.
But how far does objectivity go? What one person can perceive as disturbance another might perceive as intended message. For example, whilst during a phone call we are (almost) all able to tell the eventual disruption from the message of the person speaking, it isn’t as easy to individuate noise presenting itself in other forms and media.
The sound of noise
While in white-bread culture, the acceptance of restlessness and disruptions has always been inadmissible, noise has often thriven in the minds of creatives. Noise in the arts is, in fact, everywhere: music, photography, visual-art, film-making, writing, theatre, fine art. They all share a passion for merging the “noisy” with the “pure”.
“Noise is a judgment, a social one, based on unacceptability, the breaking of norms and a fear of violence”⁴ (Hegarty, 2018)
Yet, noise is too often associated with a sentiment of revolt or sometimes with an idea of destructive power. The artist, in one way or another, becomes the politically revolutionary creator, even when their use of noise is conceptually non-destructive and “peaceful”.
How would you describe a piece of “noisy” music (not noise music) ?
Thunderous guitars and bone-shaking drums? Or high-pitched sine tones and shattering glitches?
The further we try to label noise, the more problematic it becomes. By doing so we would only end up with a bunch of disparate examples of what noise in music could sound like. On the other hand, it would be too easy to mention the gritty noise rock of Sunn O))) or the harshness of Merzbow’s “Japanoise” to exemplify this concept. Noise in such music is blatantly presenting itself though heavily processed and distorted sounds lacking any identifiable expression. Examples like these represent what we would imagine noise music to sound like — achieving their purpose of committing to the label of “noise music”, but giving us little to reflect on.
What if we consider noise to be a synonym of randomness?
Plenty of more examples would then add to our already lengthy list. However, it is important to remember that noise and randomness do not always represent the same concept. Thoughtlessly merging the two definitions can result in inaccurate assumptions. As defined by Wikipedia, randomness is the lack of pattern or predictability in events.⁵ It refers to the impossibility of predicting some events than an unwanted, while sometimes unpredictable, disruption in a two-way flow of information (as in noise).
In the most electrical-engineering of definitions, Noise is an audio signal consisting “of an accumulation of sine waves of all the possible frequencies in the hearing range and with all possible amplitudes and phase relations.”⁶
No sound is ever entirely void of noise. The act of filtering noise from a signal is itself known to produce unwanted artefacts, e.g noise. Virtually all sounds can be situated on a continuum based on their inherent “noisy” component. On the one end of the spectrum, we would find extremely simple sine tones, on the other totally unpredictable sounds such as white noise.
A cardinal example of what noise on the latter extreme of the spectrum sounds like is Luigi Russolo’s Futurist work on his “Intonarumori” — a set of experimental instruments build between 1910 and 1930 to recreate different types of noise.
Whether the Italian Futurists were actually good at what the did or not, their pseudo-academic research in sound and their courage to perform such findings in public despite the general lack of appreciation, have shaken the public ground and let several doors open to many experimental musicians to come.
In this world of often extremely organised sounds, even silence can become noise. In fact, to an extent, silence in many media is perceived as unpleasant — something to be filled. For example, room noise is usually used by audio editors to fill in the silent gaps in-between the edits of a voiceover. Here, noise is used to replace silence as if they were interchangeable. In the same way, a fine layer of noise (grain) is sometimes added to pictures shot on a digital camera to help blend the sharpness and textural aesthetic of non-analogue pictures by many photographers.
Taking this same concept to the extremes, could we define John Cage’s 4′33″ as a work of noise music? Its lack of information is replaced by the “noisy” and inherently randomised mutter of the audience. As Mitch Renaud suggests “Cage opens the site of music to indeterminate sounds [as he] shifts the production of music from the site of utterance to that of audition”⁷
Noise injected into the composition is what fascinates me the most. Not the aesthetic of noise in sound, but the concept of noise and randomisation of the sounds’ behaviours and of elements in the arrangement. The work of Robert Henke is probably one of the best examples to describe the use of noise as I like to mean it as an integral part of his audiovisual practice.
Renaud, M. (2015). Tracing Noise: Writing In-Between Sound. Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies in the Department of French, the School of Music, and Cultural, Social, and Political Thought. University of Victoria.
Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, multimedia artist, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.
Why cold minimalism is still an undefeated force in contemporary art
The never self-proclaimed artistic movement for excellence and one of the most influential styles since the1960s, Minimalism identifies works of abstract art usually lacking any decorative ostentation and striving for extreme simplicity of form.
Minimalism is chiefly American. It originated in New York in the late 1960s as a practice-in-progress among creators disavowing recent art — especially 1950s’ Abstract Expressionism — which they considered stale, pretentious, and too personal. Not-yet-defined minimalist artists turned to its head the idea that art creation should be an emotional and existential act, as exemplified by Action Painter Jason Pollock, by creating extremely simplified art that would not refer to anything other than itself.
Minimalism is linked with conceptual art, which also saw a rise in the mid-1960s. Conceptual art is similarly concerned with how the audience experiences a work of art rather than with the need to express the artist’s personal emotions through art-making.
In music, in particular, minimalism was the single most important idea of the last century, the one that made possible virtually all that we now listen to and hold dear […]. Minimalism wasn’t just a movement, it was a paradigm shift: it brought about a sea change in the way that sound is made, heard and thought of. (FACT Magazine, 2010)¹
However, simplicity in the art has for long been pursued prior to the minimalist period. In music, examples of moderation and minimalism can be found in works such as Debussy’s early “Préludes”, Erik Satie’ s “Gymnopédies”, Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier’’ and in plenty of other compositions written well before the “minimalist era”. As composer and conductor Jonathan Sheffer suggests, minimalism was in fact invented in the 18th century. Sheffer advocated that is important to include the works of composers such as Handel and Bach alongside those of Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, and John Adams when mentioning minimalist music.(Griffiths, 2018)²
In the early 20th century, composers including Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg began to abandon traditional melodies and scales, posing the basis for all experimental musicians to come. “Minimalist musicians looked to the east as no one had done before, and also embraced the new noise of the 20th century. Classical music up to this point had shut its doors firmly on the sound-world of the streets in order to conserve the pure sound of acoustic instruments. Minimalists did the opposite, flinging open the concert doors and letting in a panoply of new sounds and remixed them alongside acoustic instruments to create a new sound order.” (Hazlewood, 2018)³
It is important to remember that minimalist composers were the firsts to compose using, simultaneously, multiple experimental techniques — such as delay and tape manipulation — as well as musical elements from non-Western culture. African, Indian, and Indonesian music were often notable points of inspiration.
What we now would define as minimalist music has undertaken a development that began somewhere in the 18th century, was fine-tuned in the 1920s, and reached a peak in the 1960s via the works of Riley, Reich, Glass, La Monte Young, Pärt, Adams, as well as others. Of all of them, I have a special relationship with the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Their art has been a constant inspiration since finding my way into minimalism a couple of years ago. So much that I managed to watch 1hr and 26mins of “Koyaanisqatsi” twice, despite its inherent lack of content — aside from the shattering Philip Glass soundtrack. Reich’s Electric Counterpoint and Music for 18 Musicians are probably some of my favourite works. His use of dynamics and perpetually-shifting repetitions is still unmatched in contemporary composition.
Terry Riley’s “In C” is another foundational work of musical minimalism. Composed in 1964 it was meant to be performed with unspecified instruments by an indefinite number of players.
“It was total disruption of time as we knew it. It was like being in a time capsule and floating out in space somewhere waiting for the next event to happen. And I enjoyed that kind of waiting.” Terry Riley about “In C”
Modern minimalism in music is still breathing in the works of many aspiring composers as well as those who have already successfully repurposed minimalist ideas to produce new works: Brian Eno, William Basinski, Harold Budd, and Max Richter only to mention some.
Modern computer programs are textual languages written in a way that is meant to be understandable — or at least readable — by virtually everyone.
For those willing to get their hands dirty with coding it is essential to be able to “read” a computer program. This means developing an understanding of the computer’s behaviour, and interpreting the significance of the structure of the program when this runs the code, even when this code is purposely intricate and very difficult to read— i.e. obfuscated.
As defined by Wikipedia, software obfuscation “is the deliberate act of creating source or machine code that is difficult for humans to understand. It may use needlessly roundabout expressions to compose statements. Programmers may deliberately obfuscate code to conceal its purpose or its logic or implicit values embedded in it to prevent tampering, deter reverse engineering, or even as a puzzle or recreational challenge for someone reading the source code”¹
Yet, while a computer system may compile code even when this is obfuscated, I believe it is crucial that code should be written in a such a form that can be easily interpreted by people as well. This is a typical perspective on writing code that follows rules of clarity and elegance. It is, in fact, very easy to find programmers praising the beauty of well-written code online. It represents such a common practice which cannot be unseen, and both the web and programming textbooks are inundated with tutorials and tips for writing elegant code.
However, as investigated by Nick Montfort and Michael Mateas with their paper A Box, Darkly: Obfuscation, Weird Languages, and Code Aesthetics, how do we explain the existence of obfuscated programming — either as a software development or as an aesthetic practice — in a world schooled with intelligible coding in mind?²
Some languages, often referred to as weird or esoteric languages, are often specifically designed to make legibility of a program arduous. They aren’t geared towards real-world applications neither are designed for any educational use. Weird programming languages exploit the concept of obfuscated code to “highlight the importance of the human reading of code in software development.”(Montfort and Mateas, 2005)²
With the rise of weird language programming, professional programmers and hackers alike started to organise obfuscated code contests as a mean to get creative with coding, rethinking the way most people perceive this practice (often idealised more as technical and structural, rather than artistic).
We shouldn’t be afraid to associate developers with artists. And yes, while some branches of programming are aimed at “fixing” and “posing the foundations” for the work of other coders (i.e. not what one would usually define as creating coding); there will always be creativity involved in writing code.
The aim of obfuscated code contests is never just about programming software through hard to read code (this is often achieved by introducing layers of complexity into the structure of the code) — they are about pushing the boundaries of the semantics of a language, creating art by playing with the syntax of code itself.
“In 1984 Landon Curt Noll and Larry Bassel held the first International Obfuscated C Code Contest. The contest was a success that has been repeated many times. […] The contest’s stated goals include demonstrating the importance of programming style. […] There is also an Obfuscated Perl contest, run annually by The Perl Journal since 1996.” (Montfort and Mateas, 2005)²
Common theme to all obfuscations is their intent to explore “the play in a language”², eliminating boundaries — or creating new ones — in programming language design.
Coding in the realm of weird programming languages is often referred to as multiple coding. An example of multiple coding is Perl Poetry — “often little more than an exercise of porting existing song lyrics into Perl” which “does little to articulate the language of Perl itself”²
On the other hand, the aim of Minimalist languages is to achieve “universality” while providing the programmer a very limited range of language constructs.
Other weird languages, rather than simplifying and minimalising code instructions, they play with the syntax to produce literary artifact that can also run as valid programs.
Obviously the list of esoteric programming languages doesn’t end here. There are hundreds of weird languages out there, some trending while others almost abandoned.
This is the story of my three-days quest into understanding what is the Web Audio API and what are its capabilities. During this time I have also experimented with creating an extremely simplified synthesiser using the Web Audio API and p5.js.
The Web Audio API involves handling audio operations inside an audio context, and has been designed to allow modular routing. Basic audio operations are performed with audio nodes, which are linked together to form an audio routing graph. […] This modular design provides the flexibility to create complex audio functions with dynamic effects. (Mozilla Developer Webpage)
Here I could be taking time to explain how the basics of Web Audio work, but (thankfully!) other more experienced folks have already had a successful go at that which I would rather not replicate. I recommend following Greg Hovanesyan’s tutorial and Boris Smus’ Getting Started with Web Audio API, as well as the project’s official website if you want to learn more on how to implement Web Audio into your projects.
Here’s how my synth works
Available here is my modest attempt at building a simple “multi-waveform” synthesiser. It is composed of 3 main groups of elements (excluding other HTML components such as buttons, sliders, or text):
Oscillators, Filters, and LFOs.
First step to creating your own sound with this synth is choosing a waveform among the four available. The frequencies of the two oscillators can be set using the first two sliders. Once you are happy with the pitch you’ve chosen, you can play with the speed of the LFO which is connected to two inverse filters — a low and a high-pass — opening and closing simultaneously following an inaudible sinewave. You can also control the upper boundary of the filters by setting a frequency, which I named Contour, using the slider at the bottom— “opening up” the sound by doing so.
I used p5.js to automate the movements of the sliders, as well as positioning the elements on the page. Basic CSS styling has also been added.
A more precise approach would make use of other Web Audio elements to modify audio parameters. In this case I only needed to test the capabilities of the API. Therefore, I settled on using a simpler approach —p5.
In prophesying the future of digital media, many have questioned — without finding an answer — its ability to maintain the promise of permanent storage vowed since the early days of television.
Through its storage (memory) power, digital media was once considered the solution, if not the antithesis, to volatile media like television. It was to make things perennial and available at any moment. It was also to overcome the drawbacks of degradation and unreliability connected to analog formats. However, it has been demonstrated that the digital is cause of numerous archival problems of its own — memory being the most troublesome one.
“The Enduring Ephemeral or the Future Is a Memory” by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is a centerpiece in the field of new media criticism. Kyong Chun argues that “the slipperiness of digital media” is mainly caused by two components: the speed of the digital evolution (and digital technologies themselves), and the concept of digital memory which “blurs the boundary between machine and human”(as insinuated by Von Neumann in 1958).¹
The injection of digital media into our lives has shifted the way we experience events and access information to such an extent that it originated a nonlinear temporal line that “races simultaneously towards the future and the past”¹.
Engaging with the present is becoming so difficult already for folks at my age (early 20s) that it worries me to imagine how the younger generations will be able to cope with it. Traditional scholarship, as writer and scholar McKenzie Wark suggested, has become incompatible with the types of images and events, produced and distributed at lightninglike speed by the internet, that interrupt the homogeneous formal time of learning.²
Digital media has always had an hard time engaging with the present because of its instinctive desire to “program the future”¹ rather than the present. A large majority of engineers and scientists alike are currently creating for future generations, trying to shape the next rather than integrating with the present. And they have been doing this for decades— see Vannevar Bush’s Memex machine theorised in 1945 for example.
“Digital media is not always there. We suffer daily frustrations with digital sources that just disappear. Digital media is degenerative, forgetful, erasable. This degeneration makes it both possible and impossible for it to imitate analog media.” (Wendy Hui Kyong Chun)¹
The fight against ephemerality brought us to devising machines with a memory which is, at least, more permanent the the human’s one. If we exclude early forms of regenerative memory, such as the mercury delay line or the Williams tube, and today’s storage technologies like RAM, and flash memory, all that is left is the internet — the professedly enduring machine.
Yet, even a seemingly perpetual technology such as the internet won’t, most probably, last forever. Projects such as The Wayback Machine and the Interplanetary File System are currently acting as Internet backups archives and eliminating the need for websites to have a central origin server.
Internet is data stored in real-life servers somewhere, some of which can hold terabytes of information. Servers are hardware machines, and like any hardware technology, they deteriorate.
Even if the web winds up in a new, better of digital archive, plenty of problems still remain. Today’s web isn’t just a collection of static HTML files; it’s dynamic apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Slack. The operating systems and hardware of the future might not be able to read or run any of those. The same holds true for videos, photos, maybe even text. (Klint Finley, 2016)³
But even if a way to solve this issues could be found, after an insane amount of work, why even bothering? Should data really last forever?
Music and the human voice have always been in a good relationship. Since ancient Greece, words were taken and set to music. “[Without music,] even with words alone, something was missing. For the Greeks, the lyric in lyric poetry was literal: the verses were composed to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre.”¹
The majority of contemporary popular music is characterised by the use of voice as the main, leading, instrument. Besides, the ability of the human voice to “articulate, communicate ideas, create beautiful melodies, and translate human emotion into sounds is unmatched”.² There are almost endless ways in which the voice can be articulated — in terms of duration, rhythm, and pitch — to produce always new results.
Examples of how voice can be controlled, played as an instrument, and let free, are many. Below I will present — a list in no particular order and by no means exhaustive— a few examples dear to me that exemplify the multitude of was voice is used in contemporary music.
Trevor Wishart is a composer of orchestral and electroacoustic music whose fame is (partially) attributable to his innovative approach to composing with computers and the human voice. He is also a researcher on sonic arts, a developer, and a music educator.
“On the one hand the (human) voice is much more than a musical instrument. […] It reveals much about the speaker, from gender, age and health to attitude, mood and intention, and it also connects us with our Primate relatives. […] At the same time, apart from the computer itself, the voice is the richest sound-producing ‘instrument’ that we have, generating a vast variety of sounds from the stably pitched, to the entirely noisy, to complex rapidly-changing multiphonics or textures of grit and so on.” (Wishart, 2009)³
Prolific Venezuela-born experimental producer, Alejandro Ghersi (aka Arca) has made a name for himself “producing for heavyweights including FKA Twigs, Björk, and Kanye West, and through formidable solo recordings”⁴. In his latest self-titled music venture, Arca unveils his singing and does it with uncompromising fluency and violence.
“Ghersi’s voice is not perfect, but rather than polish out any blemishes, he works the flaws. His voice cracks, he breathes sharply and his lips smack; at one point you can hear what sounds like someone taking a sip of water.” (Miles Bowe, 2017)⁵
Examples obviously are not limited to Western culture. African music, and especially that of Pygmy groups, is mostly improvised over a “basic” tune. Pygmy music not only makes use of the voice as key instrument, but is characterised by a polyphonic “contrapuntal communal improvisation”⁶.
“The Mbenga [and Baka] Pygmy music is based on repetition of periods of equal length that each singer divides using different rhythmic figures specific to different songs. This creates endless variations not only of the same period repeated but of various performances of the same piece of music. As in some Balinese Gamelan music these patterns are based on a super-pattern which is never heard.” (Wikipedia)⁶
“Defined by the pure vocals and confessional lyrics of singer/songwriter Justin Vernon”⁷, Bon Iver never fails to astonish the public with their multilayered use of vocals and intimate lyrics. Vernon’s voice has become one of the most recognisable instruments in indie music.⁸
In 2016’s “22, A Million”, his voice is taken apart, recomposed, stretched, repitched, autotuned — yet, it still manages to maintain its authenticity and musical power.
“ About a decade ago, when Justin Vernon was recording the songs that became the band’s début album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” he realized that ranging just above his usual register made it easier to sing about memories that were otherwise too painful to recount. Vernon’s falsetto caused an obvious strain on his voice, making it sound weary and brittle. His recordings gave the impression of someone forcing himself to venture far outside his comfort zone; they communicated a sense of solitude and drift.” (Hua Hsu, 2016)⁸
Italian theorist, composer, musician, and teacher Luciano Berio is among the leading charcters in avant-garde music. “His style is notable for combining lyric and expressive musical qualities with the most advanced techniques of electronic and aleatory music.”⁹ Berio’s works on the human voice demonstrates boundary-pushing achievements in the way we perceive voice as music.
The representation of unstructured, everly changing, chunks of data represents an issue which is just as complex to pin down as it is the variety of Big Data itself.
“Data in its raw form has no value. Data needs to be processed [and visualised] in order to be valuable.” (Technopedia)¹
As the volume of Big Data keeps growing, new practices and concepts concerned with its rendering, and the usage of this, are born. As Morten Søndergaard suggests in his article “The Politics of Big Data Aesthetics”², “the impact that big data techniques are having on the real world is motivated by the way we conceptualise [in other words, visualise] them”. Søndergaard also argues that the reason why this phenomenon is so controversial lies in its involvement with “real-life matters such as surveillance, (ubiquitous) marketing and tracking, the environment, the industry, and globalisation”.
When investigating the issue of representing big data in the realm of installation art, or more generally New Media art, the artist subjectively influences the mapping of data for this to be experienced as something “pointing beyond the data itself” (Søndergaard, 2016)².
How can we associate the concept of data with that of beauty?
This process requires us to think of “the database as medium — and use this medium as cognitive reference tool”(Manovich, 2002)³.
Experiencing data as a representation which we navigate is a the heart of the language of new media. “It is a very human process, and should not be understood as the language of computers”, Manovich describes.
To an extent, data visualization artists are a bit like translators. Aiming at mapping empirical phenomena into something we can perceive as humane, constituting a cognitive experience that eventually goes beyond the characteristics of data.
In January 2018 Facebook announced plans to reshape the content and priority of posts on its News Feed. Zuckerberg claims that spam, fake news, and clickbait content from marketers and publishers would be minimised, while priority will be given to relevant posts from friends and groups.
The aim is to gain back the original focus of Facebook, “establishing meaningful connections”, profiting from value added to the image of the social network and the company itself.
For the first time, Mark Zuckerberg is making a major decision that goes against one of his long-held beliefs: any change to the network must have the goal of improving engagement. This move, he concedes, will likely lead to people spending less time on the site. (Chris Baraniuk, 2018)¹
Facebook has often been researching methods to improve the way people interact with their main social media platform (let’s not forget that WhatsApp, Oculus, and Instagram — among others companies— are also owned by Facebook).
At the heart of Facebook Research there is the acknowledgement that their products are far from perfect. Building a safer and more inclusive design is always at the order of the day for everyone working at Facebook.
Social networks need to be constantly redesigned to meet the needs of their audience. To maintain its status (and profits), the social network colossus needs to be concerned about its users.
Sometimes this means collecting data from users through several tools which we interact to while on the platform. In the past few years, the company has put a lot of effort into diminishing self-censorship.
Self-censorship is the act of preventing oneself from speaking. Important in face-to-face communication, it is unsurprising that it manifests in communications mediated through social networking sites. On these venues, self-censorship may be caused by artifacts unique to, or exacerbated by, social media. (Sauvik and Kramer, 2013)²
Facebook believes that self-censorship in social media, while not the greatest of modern day issues, is perhaps still one which is worth reflecting about. An insight into this behaviour can be found in a recent article written by Sauvik Das — Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon and ex software engineer intern at Facebook — and Facebook data scientist Adam Kramer.
The research focuses on last-minute self censorship. This behaviour happens when a user refrains from sharing a post or comment, “filtering a thought after it has been formed and expressed, but before it has been shared”².
The study revealed that 71% over the 3.9 million Facebook users in their sample, self-censored content at least once over the course of 17 days. The behaviour could be attributed to two main factors: people’s perception of their social media audience, andthe multiple identities the user needs to manage when sharing online to “totally distinct social circles”².
Furthermore, the data acquired indicates a prominent gender and age gap regarding self-censorship. Men are found to censor more than women, and so do users with more opposite sex friends. On the other hand, younger users generally censor less — an exception comes from users with an higher percentage of older friends, who will censor more.
Additional data and conclusions from Sauvik and Kramer on this research can be found here.
The papers also report how this data, and what kind of it, is collected. Facebook claims that when users type in a textbox nothing but binary digits of whether that post was published or not get collected. Information about what you type are not sent back to Facebook’s server.
For some, even the remote ability to collect such data poses threats to the user’s privacy. At the same time, we all would benefit from a more open and diverse platform where thoughts are shared freely — without that constant fear of spamming your entire circle of friends.
“…Facebook considers your thoughtful discretion about what to post as bad, because it withholds value from Facebook and from other users. Facebook monitors those unposted thoughts to better understand them, in order to build a system that minimizes this deliberate behavior.” (Jennifer Golbeck, 2013)³
I, sometimes, find myself self-censoring thoughts online for the fear of not being true to my persona. And while I — like many others — would prefer to know which of my online movements are tracked by the website I’m visiting, I also would do want to see a change in the image and content of modern social media. And can guess we all wish that will happen soon.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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).
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
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
Gestures and Textures are elements in a sound composition each performing a different musical function.
A gesture is an abstract motion. In the music domain, a sound that is going somewhere — say moving from point A to point B — can be defined as a gestural sound. It implies a movement expressed via a change both in the frequency and time domain — through spectral and morphological change of energy. Denis Smalley illustrates how gestures enhance the impression of time passing.¹
Gestural music is concerned with narrative and mostly deals with the spectromorphological consequences of a physical activity.
Spectromorphology is the perceived sonic footprint of a sound spectrum as it manifests in time. A descriptive spectromorphological analysis of sound is sometimes used in the analysis of electroacoustic music, especially acousmatic music. The term was coined by Denis Smalley in 1986 and is considered the most adequate English term to designate the field of sound research associated with the French writer, composer, and academic, Pierre Schaeffer. (Wikipedia)²
We use gestures to communicate. If we listen to a language that we don’t understand, we can sometimes still work out how the speaker is feeling (and perhaps even some of their message) by listening out for the gestures in their voice.³
A texture can provide a basic framework within which gestures act. If we think of a sound composition as an organised mass of elements, its texture would represent the patterning of such mass upon which gestures are “drawn”³. The word texture relates to parameters of sound such as density, layering, and timbre. Textures can be described in terms of their relative homogeneity, frequency range, and amount of notable randomness. They can be produced by layering recordings from similar or different sources, or from synthesising textural sounds. Both techniques can be also used in the same composition to achieve interesting results.
The experimental use of both texture and gesture in composition is the primary focus in electroacoustic music. Often, electroacoustic musicians make use of gestures to achieve the feeling of real-life motion through a dynamic change in the properties of sound. They do this by exploring the acoustic properties of materials, spaces, as well as various sound sources and loudspeaker systems.
As a musician my interest often lies inTextural music.I am fascinated by how textures can concentrate on internal activity at the expenses of changes over time. Rather than focusing on the narrative happening in the foreground, I make use of textures to enhance the spatial properties of sound permeating the surroundings— layering slight variations of the same element to achieve choir-like properties and adding depth by playing with effects modulated over time.
“The past is reinvented and becomes the future. But the lineage is everything.” (Philip Glass, 2015)¹
Saying that originality is nonexistent is recurrent these days. There is some truth to such statement. Artists have been cutting up, re-arranging, and mashing-up material created by others and claimed this as their own for decades. Not only music, but all art practices have developed through endless variations of what came before.
In his TED Talk filmmaker and writer Kirby Ferguson explores creativity in a world where “everything is a remix.”
“Our creativity comes from without, not from within. We are not self made, we are dependent on one another. Admitting this to ourselves isn’t an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness — it’s a liberation from our misconceptions, and it’s an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves, and to simply begin.” ( Kirby Ferguson— as cited by Jory MacKay, 2015)²
In music, new genres have developed completely or partially out the idea of variation, or remix. For example, rearranging music cut-ups, as a practice, is way older than hip-hop — the genre which brought it to the mainstream audience — itself. It developed amongst Freudian poets in the early 20s.
William Burroughs is the man who probably contributed the most to the expansion of the cut-up practice.
“Blending discrete genres isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Hip-hop came about from a heady mix of blues, jazz, reggae and soul. Rock and jazz techniques mixed to become prog rock.” (Rob Boffard, n.d.)³
However, there are movements (if they can be called so) in music, those of mash-up and remix, which have redefined the idea of creating through the use of others’ work. Even though those may be seen by some people as the laziest of music practices, the art of sampling and has clearly worked its way up the music charts and it is being accepted (and understood) by a vast section of the listening audience.
At the basis of the copyright clause authorised in 1787 is the protection of the interests of the creator. This does not take into account for any subconscious and conscious acts of inspiration and homage from an artist by, and to, another.
“These rights given to protect artists from copyright, illustrates how imitation is not considered the sincerest form of flattery to these creative minds but a threat to originality. […] The fashion industry on the other hand, avoids copyright restrictions. Designers take ‘inspiration’ from other designers, but in the fashion world this has no impact on the success of their work. In fact, it gives their work credibility and success.” (Giovana Picone, 2013)⁴
Creativity exists, and so does originality. That of ideas and not of source material. Just because our society is obsessed with ruling whether is acceptable or not to copy or be inspired by another artist’s work, it does not mean we should not seek to be innovative.
As Luc Godard once said “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to”⁵. Originality is not about reinventing the wheel each time we try to compose a new piece of music, or paint a new canvas. Originality is imposing our style and touch to the things that directly speak to our soul.
Probably one of the greatest questions of all times. Especially for someone like me who has been in a loving relationship with music for about a decade now. A question which, in reality, rarely comes up. But when asked about it, no logical answer springs to my mind.
Is music only what an artist decides to call so? Is music really a universal language? Is it redundant to still address it as music, and not eventually as “just” art?
Well, [to me] music is an universal language. I listen to music actively, to understand it, to feel it. Music speaks to us without the need for any translation.
Probably the roughest and most intricate of arts. Music is raw and powerful. It can stimulate your brain as nothing else can (well, maybe VR and 3D visuals can go that far, but let’s not take such a tangent just yet).
Sound is an entity which we can’t seem to perceive. It exists without a form and it carries meaning well beyond the scope of its notation.
“When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic — here on Sixth Avenue, for instance — I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound.. .I don’t need sound to talk to me.” (Cage, 1991) (1)
The composer as the ultimate sonoric artist.
I believe there should not be a formal distinction between music and art. The boundaries between the two have been crossed so many times that is it rather ingenuous to think of music as separate from art.
Sure — artistically, sound has its own cluster within which it flourishes and develops. But its creation and execution merge so seamlessly into other works of art — be it visual, stimulatory, etc. — that we should begin to look at sound just like we do with “art” itself.
But if everything can be music — What isn’t music?
When discussing about such a primitive and personal matter as that of music everyone’s personal taste influences a possible critical reflection about the boundaries of the existence of music itself.
To be called music, a sonoric event arguably has to possess some well-agreed characteristics. Music needs to develop over time, and present measurable frequencies — which can either translate into perceived or symbolic pitches. So, following these standards, noise and silence cannot be called music. But if these two elements are indeed a crucial component of music, why their presence alone should not be considered musical?
What I consider to be music — be it a musical preference of mine or not — is, most probably, different than what other individuals think as music.
It is also for this reasons that the threshold below which music can’t be considered as such anymore is still to be delineated. And it is why the question in the main title above will never find an answer we would all agree with.
Quote of Cage, in an interview with Miroslav Sebestik, 1991; in Listen, documentary by Miroslav Sebestik. ARTE France Développement, 2003.
Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, multimedia artist, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.
Once web art at its peak, Form Art now seems like a forgotten achievement in the infinite world of new media.
Yet, the innovative thinking that came along with the short development of Form Art as part of the net.art “movement” has inspired a plethora of contemporary artists.
Alexei Shulgin was one of the prominent members of the movement. He “created” Form Art, but also collaborated with many net artists such as Olia Liliana, Natalie Bookchin, Heath Bunting, and Vuk Cosic in projects which marked a turning point for new media art in the 90s.
In his perfomance Cyberknowledge for Real People (1997), he handed out printed collections of critical texts, previously distributed only online, to shoppers in Vienna. This showed that net art was not medium specific at all, which until then was the predominant theory; it did not have to be experienced online.¹
Shulgin has also organised several software arts festivals, spent time in Moscow collaborating with the creative arts collective Electroboutique, and gained a reputation with his “386DX” performances.
Form Art was commisioned to Shulgin during his residency at C3 in Budapest in 1997. He affirms to have started developing what became his most popular project at that time out of a simple need to experiment with the formal interface of internet technology and reshape it something different.
“I had those buttons, test areas, checkboxes in my mind for a while. The initial idea was to use them not as they were supposed to be used — as input interfaces — but to focus on their shapes, their position on a page, and to try to animate them.” (Alexei Shulgin)
Rhizome describes Form Art as “an interactive, formalist art site navigated aimlessly by clicking through blank boxes and links”².
The power of Form Art comes from its “misuse” of the browser aesthetic and HTML conventions imposed to users interacting with the web. Unknown behaviours, glitchy checkboxes, and patterns of textboxes are characteristic of Form Art.
By playing with combinations of these “forms”, Shulgin manages to create an abstract work of contemporary art which updates itself over time, in tandem with software’s constant evolution. In fact, the work’s appearance relies largely on whichever operating system [and browser] the viewer is using to access it.²
My extremely minimalistic attempt at Form Art
Not much needs to be explained about its concept and operation. “Giving and Taking” is an endless loop between discomfort and relief.
To “generate” — as described by the Merriam-Webster dictionary — is to define or originate (something, such as a mathematical or linguistic set or structure) by the application of one or more rules or operations.
For generations, artists and scientists have helped reshaping this term into an abstraction:
Generative art takes place in a structured system – such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural inventions¹ – created by the artist and aimed at producing multiple, and potentially endless, results from the manipulation of an initial form.
[When we talk about generative art], the term (generative) is simply a reference to how the art is made, and it makes no claims as to why the art is made this way or what its content is.¹
Despite its modern approach, generative art is “as old as art itself”¹. Since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and throughout history, artists have designed complex and simple systems — as in the works of Elsworth Kelly or John Cage — for the creation of new generative artworks.
Set aside Computer Science and AI, several art practices have contributed to the development of generative art. These include Electronic Music, Computer Graphics, Animation, VJ Culture, Industrial Design, and Architecture.
The youth culture and audiovisual artists, in particular, are bringing generative art to the eye of the media as no one has ever done before.
To bring generative art to a club night is to expose and showcase the potential of such practice to a massive crowd. Max Cooper, Alva Noto, Ryoichi Sakamoto, Squarepusher, and many other A/V artists are currently basing most of their work and live shows on machine generated art.
Complexity science is a relatively young discipline aimed at understanding how the systems that rule the generative world work.
Complex systems are called so because they (typically) have a large number of small components that interact with similar nearby parts.²
Local components will interact in “nonlinear” ways, meaning that the interactions act in a non-sequential or straightforward manner. These local interactions are dynamic and in constant change, leading to the system organising itself. Scientists define these self-organising systems as complex systems.
Examples of complex systems are the human brain, Earth’s climate, living cells, the stock market, etc.
It is important to remember that complex systems may act in a chaotic manner, but never do so randomly. There is a somewhat clear distinction between chaos and randomness, especially within the field of generative art.
Philip Galanter provides us with a great example of the difference between chaos and randomness:
“…even though it is difficult to predict the specific weather 6 months from now, we can be relatively sure it won’t be 200 degrees outside, nor will we be getting 30 feet of rain on a single day, and so on. The weather exists within some minimum and maximum limits, and those expectations are a sort of container for all possible weather states.”
There is an aspect to code which goes beyond its pure written form. Its execution constitutes what we experience.
[However], to appreciate generative code fully we need to ‘sense’ the code to build an understanding of the code’s actions. To separate the code and the resultant actions would simply limit our experience, as well as the ultimate study of these forms.²