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.)

Hiraizumi – Japanese Instruments and Post-Digital Distortions

I’ve been enjoying focusing my recent creative efforts on a new piece for wind ensemble and electronics, Hiraizumi.

DSC00947

This work is a consortium commission spearheaded by Dr. James Smart, director of the University of Montana Symphonic Wind Ensemble, and, as I write on the consortium page, Hiraizumi draws its inspiration from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the same name.

Hiraizumi’s collection of temples were a quick trip from where I lived in Japan for many years, and I wanted to write a piece drawing from my memories of the site, centering on my relationship with the location as an “outsider.”

As I write the piece, it has been evolving from a simple homage to the temples into a larger exploration of memory and how the past is mediated by the present. My nostalgia about my time in Japan (and that time in my life) flavors my memory of Hiraizumi, and, in addition, the centuries of history embodied by the site is mediated by our experience as citizens of the modern world (who, for example, might go home from the site to our digital lives).

DSC014772

Expressing these thoughts in prose feels a bit clumsy, so that seems good reason to unpack these ideas using the expressive possibilities of art and music.

Here’s a teaser of the electronics, a kagura-suzu brought into the post-modern world of digital distortion:

More updates to come.

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

2015-04-02 17.02.27

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.

SN76489 Chip-Based Synthesizer

Over the break, I took some time to put together an arduino-driven synth from this “instructable” by Brian Peters.

2015-02-03 17.36.47
Yeah, inside the radio case

This is a synthesizer made from four SN76489 chips. These chips appeared as a cheap audio solution in a number of old computers and game consoles, including the ColecoVision, NeoGeo Pocket, Sega Genesis (although the Genesis had another chip capable of FM Synthesis).

Because these chips are cheap, this ends up being the cheapest synth on my rack:

$19.00 – Teensy 2.0 Board
$4.50 – 4x SN76489AN Chips (includes shipping)
$1.30 – 1.8432 MHz Oscillator
$0.10 – 4x 75k Resistors
$0.10 (or so) – 4x 10µF Capacitors
$5.00 – 4x 1/4″ Audio Jacks (these were way too expensive on Sparkfun)
$5.00 – Breadboard

$45.00 – Total (give or take)

So, it’s been about 15 years since I bought it, but I think that’s even cheaper than my Alesis Nanobass (appears in the background of these photos).

Why did I put it inside and old radio? Because that was what I found a Goodwill for $2 that was an appropriate size.

The aptly named Arduino "Teensy"
The aptly named Arduino “Teensy”

Teensy, SN76489 chips, and quartz clock ready for wiring
Teensy, SN76489 chips, and quartz clock ready for wiring

The rats' nest
The rats’ nest

So what does it sound like? Here’s a quick and dirty demo:

RCA Output on a Super Game Boy

Always looking for an excuse to open something up
Always looking for an excuse to open something up

For my latest “chiptune” project, I’ve put in some RCA jacks on my Super Game Boy.

Of course the Super Nintendo already has the possibility of a component out (via RCA jacks), but, since the Super Game Boy basically contains all the circuitry of the Game Boy, this mod bypasses the Super Nintendo altogether.

If you’re interested in trying this yourself, check out this instructable for step-by-step instructions.

Super Game Boy guts
Super Game Boy guts

Testing...
Testing…

Closed back up
Closed back up

So… Does it sound better? I don’t really know, and I don’t really have the time to set up a comparison, but this mod sure makes it easier to get sound to my mixer.

Here are a couple quick recordings of games I had lying around:

Battletoads

[audio:http://www.simonhutchinson.com/BattleToads.mp3]

Ninja Gaiden

[audio:http://www.simonhutchinson.com/NinjaGaiden.mp3]

The thing I have to be careful of, though, is that the clock speed of the Super Game Boy (4.295 MHz) is 2.4% faster than the Game Boy (4.194 MHz). A minor change, certainly, but a significant one if I’m trying to keep my music in tune between different devices, and I’m switching between the SNES and a Game Boy.

…like the time I brought my NOPera to Germany, forgetting that Europeans don’t tune to A440.

KISS2014 – What is “Organic Sound?”

WordLens
Word Lens’s attempt to translate information about our wine

I’ve just returned from a fun and educational week at the Kyma International Sound Symposium in Lübeck, Germany. The conference (like last year’s) consisted of four days of thought-provoking lectures on variety of topics and concerts in a variety of musical styles, all unified in the implementation of Symbolic Sound’s Kyma System.

The theme of this year’s symposium was “Organic Sound.”

I’m a bit ambivalent in the use of the term “organic” in regard to music and sound art, mostly because I never understood what my composition teachers meant when they said that my music needed to develop more “organically.”

I now believe that this was kind of a way of saying: “I don’t know what’s unnatural (uncanny?) about how this piece you wrote progresses, but it’s just not right.”

Of course this understandable, as form and development are possibly the most challenging aspects of composition for many students, due, in part, to the enormous amount of subjectivity in composition and absence of “right” and “wrong” (but, arguably, the presence of “good” and “better”).

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” –Richard Feynman

This is why, for my organic KISS2014 piece, I found the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) guidelines, a set of rules and regulations: binary and infallible! Then, I fed the text of these guidelines into an algorithm (another rule!), which produced a wonderfully organic text for my NOPera.

It was a pleasure, then, to collaborate with a number of other organic entities in performing the piece, including mezzo-soprano Kimberly Gratland James, and the young instrumentalists from the Musikhochschule Lübeck

NOPera

At the conference, though, I found many of my international colleagues had spent a little more serious effort in engaging with the question: “What is organic sound?”

“What is the pattern that connects all living creatures?” –Gregory Bateson

Composers, sound artists, and researchers shared a wide range of ideas over the course of the conference, and there were a significant number of discussions of capacitive sensors, sensors that react to the capacitance of the human body, including a performance by former Oregon colleague Nayla Mehdi, and a presentation on “plantification” (using plants as capacitive sensors) by Damien Grobet, Ludovic Laffineur, and Rudi Giot.

Plantification

Ms. Mehdi called capacitive sensors a “interdependent symbiotic sensor system” (and thus “organic”), a point I wish I had a greater understanding of last year, when working with a student frustrated by the inconsistency of capacitive sensors.

Of all the discussions of organic sound, however, particularly striking was Kyma creator Carla Scaletti’s talk “What is the Most Organic Sound.” Engaging with the work of researchers in the scientific community, Dr. Scaletti made a compelling argument that the description of “organic”–interdependent, modular, evolving, concerned with change–in regard to sound aptly defines “music” (and perhaps better than the “organized sound” definition commonly used).

So, post-conference, while my ambivalence about the imprecision of term “organic” remains, I appreciate my international colleagues’ engagement with the idea, and I understand that perhaps my ambivalence stems from inorganicism in my own thinking (scientism?).

I mean, since sound is a vibration in a physical medium as perceived by the ear, isn’t all sound organic?

theEar

Did I miss the point?

“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