Plurality Spring now available!

In order not to bury the lead, let me start by saying, Plurality Spring, a new game piece by me and Paul Turowski, is available for free download:

In the game, players use acoustic musical performance (via the computer’s microphone) to control robots exploring an orb in deep space.

 

This idea of a “game piece,” where an musical work emerges from performers playing within a set of rules, draws from historical models like John Zorn’s Cobra, or Christian Wolff’s For 1, 2, or 3 People. Since Plurality Spring is a digital video game, though, the performers’ live audio mixes with the in-game sound to create a kind of augmented reality performance piece (whether you perform in front of an audience or just on your own).

It’s been an interesting journey working on this piece and wonderful collaborating with Paul, who’s been working with these ideas for quite some time now. (My previous games feature dynamic or emergent musical ideas as an overall theme but aren’t specifically for musicians.)

One of the things that was particularly enjoyable about the collaboration was both of our willingness to be flexible about the game as it evolved.

The game was originally about this “kid” following a glowing orb. The players directly controlled the orb, but not the kid.

Here is a screenshot of the early prototype:

It’s cute! It’s neat! But without picking apart our whole creative process (maybe another time…), ultimately we ended up with something very different, and ultimately much better.

Our “kid” became three robots, and the orb is no longer something players chase, it’s a traversable planet. Our aesthetic ideas, too, became much more developed, and we ended up with a really pleasing balance of cute and “gritty” in our final visual and audio design.

Photo by Richard Smedley

We premiered the piece on March 24th, 2017 at the Open Circuit Festival in Liverpool, and now it’s available for everyone.

Play it on your own! Perform it for an audience! Share your videos!

We’re excited to hear what kind of AR music you create.

Hiraizumi: Cyberpunk for Wind Ensemble

Hoping to “veg out” a bit upon returning from holiday travel, I put on one of the new Ghost in the Shell animated films.

It’s always funny how ideas connect, but, earlier in the day, I had been chatting with my friend and colleague, composer Aaron Rosenberg, about my current composition project, Hiraizumi, and, in talking about the piece, he had referred to the electronic parts as “sci-fi moments” (fondly, of course).

I previously wrote about how I was crafting the electronics to evoke distortions in digitally-mediated memory, and, revisiting Shirou Masamune’s world of Ghost in the Shell, primed to think about sci-fi music, I realized that my wind ensemble piece falls into the cyberpunk genre.

GiTS Vast Network

In Ghost in the Shell, memory (and its fallibility) is a recurring theme. People with cybernetic brains are able to directly access the internet, but this connection opens people up to having their minds and memories directly changed (and possibly hacked), and interacting with others on the web breaks down the border between self and others.

If one’s self is defined by memories and experiences, inaccurate memories (or memories curated by Facebook), might reduce the sense of individuality. This loss of individuality and the dehumanizing effects of technology are common cyberpunk themes.

As the protagonist, Kusanagi, says:

There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.

GiTS Memories of Childhood

Hiraizumi’s cyberpunk elements seemed even clearer, when, looking back on my choices of sound design in the electronics, I discovered moments that seemed inspired by sounds from Ghost in the Shell and Vangelis’s score to Blade Runner, another cyberpunk film that questions ideas of self and identity.

 

 

That all said, I wasn’t thinking about Ghost in the Shell when I started work on Hiraizumi, but I am a fan of Japanese cyberpunk, and these things are all rattling around in my head

Created without conscious intent, these cyberpunk themes are a byproduct of the expressive goals of the piece, and I look forward to where the music will take me as I finish my journey to the double bar.

(As an end note, I should also mention that it’s no surprise that one of my old musical heroes, Cornelius, did the soundtrack for the new Ghost in the Shell series.)

Custom “Pro Sound” Game Boys

my first two custom Game Boys, BUDO (left) and MIKAN (right)
My first two custom Game Boys, BUDO (left) and MIKAN (right)

Since the winter break, I’ve been tinkering around with some chiptune projects, and I’ve got quite caught up in the simultaneous progressive and regressive sound design of composing with chips of the 1980s and 90s. Perhaps its a stretch, but I believe this kind of cultural re-appropriation as directly akin to drawing influences from outside Western Music.

Philosophy aside for the moment, as my first gaming system was the original Game Boy, I’m particularly interested in the circuit-bending and customization artists are doing with these old devices, so I’ve been getting my hands dirty for the last couple of months customizing these two Game Boys that I picked up on Craigslist.

While a lot of the work was purely cosmetic, I did a “Pro Sound” mod on both of them, which basically is just bypassing the internal (noisy) headphone amplifier and putting in some RCA jacks. On the Game Boy Color here, I also bypassed the existing audio output capacitors with some bigger ones, which supposedly gives a bass boost. While I hope to do some more experimenting in the future, most of what I did to these two units was a matter of just following instructions.

I’m calling the original Game Boy “MIKAN.” Customizations:

  • Orange screen backlight
  • “Pro Sound” RCA Mod
  • Custom buttons, ON/OFF switch, screen lens, link cover, orange LED, and battery cover

2015-04-02 17.12.32

2015-04-02 17.12.45

2015-04-02 17.13.23

The Game Boy Color, “BUDO,” has:

  • Green LED
  • Original (broken) speaker replaced with Nintendo DS speaker
  • “Pro Sound” with bass boost capacitors to RCA outs
  • “Anti-noise” decoupling capacitor

2015-03-07 17.50.28 HDR

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2015-04-02 17.14.41 HDR

They both have their own peculiarities in terms of sound. BUDO has some sub-audio in its output (perhaps a result of the bass boost), and MIKAN, without a decoupling capacitor, sometimes has “clicks” at the start of sounds (perhaps related to the DC power somehow). I’ll post some sound samples as I keep working on my current project.

I have to say it’s really fun and rewarding to do these customizations. While I’m working on a piece now that uses these “instruments,” I’m also trolling Craigslist for another cheap Game Boy so I can do the customizations again (and try some new things).

Of course, lest I give the impression that I’m the first one to be playing with the ideas in the realm of concert art music, check out this fantastic piece by Matthew Joseph Payne, performed by Meerenai Shim, flight of the bleeper bird.

“Academic Music”? OR: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Milton Babbitt

Composers like to say, “I’m not a university composer, I’m a composer who happens to be at a university.” He happens to be in a university because it makes it possible for him to be a composer. Otherwise he wouldn’t eat, and I can’t imagine a more important function than being able to eat occasionally when you’re composing music. – Milton Babbitt

I recently watched this documentary of Milton Babbitt available at NPR Music, and it gave me a new perspective on a composer whose music I often have a bit of a love-hate relationship with.

Watching this film was perhaps especially timely for me because, earlier this year, I had my first experience of someone calling me an “academic composer” in the pejorative sense (at least my first experience being called that to my face). This experience was a bit of a surprise to me because, as a student, I always thought of myself as the populist rebel, what with my melodic writing and triadic harmony.

When people use the term “academic music” with intent to offend, they usually trying to say that (1) the music has no wide, market appeal, and (2) instead of wide appeal, it has narrow appeal, specifically to others in the academy, and this is helps this music to sustain itself, leading to a large-scale emperor’s-new-clothes situation, where, while everyone knows this music is terrible, no one has the courage to say so (except for the populist rebels).

I’ll share a response to this way of thinking from Detritus Review which is far superior to anything I could put together:

…the harm is that this sort of ill-conceived, childish argument perpetuates a commonplace misunderstanding of music. A misconception that music owes something to us. That when we don’t like a piece of music, it has done us wrong, and the composers have lost their way. While everyone is always free to like or not like any piece of music, that music has no obligations to you. Music doesn’t have to make you happy, please you, provide you with emotional catharsis, or look or sound like anything. In fact, it doesn’t even have to try and be popular. – “Gustav”

Of course, “academia is certainly not above reproach.” Whether or not academic music is a real phenomena that holds its followers to a set of expectations (to write inscrutable music and all wink at the same time), it seems that many young composers perceive that there is a set of expectations they must meet for their music to be considered “serious,” and perhaps across all of the different institutions and music professors in the US, there are some who look for particular criteria in evaluating compositions.

Joseph Dangerfield describes his experience in this article, where the composer (whose work everyone should check out) outlines his liberation from the feeling of obligation to please the academy in his work. This article inspired a surprisingly thoughtful and engaging discussion by academic composers in the comments section, as well as an interesting response, aptly titled “Academic Music” – What’s that? by Christian Carey.

IVORYTOWER
Those poor elephants

I like to think I don’t hold my students to any stylistic standards, just technical standards (counterpoint, counterpoint, counterpoint), and I do believe that technique is something that you have to learn and develop.

Otherwise, why offer a degree in composition?

Despite how I hip I consider myself, though, perhaps the second I started teaching composition at a university I became “The Man,” and now its up to my students to rebel against me.

I think I’m ok with that (perhaps another sign of aging) because maybe, as artists, we need to keep rebelling against the previous generation of rebels.

For me, that would be rebels wrote awesome pieces like this:


Milton Babbitt’s Philomel