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.

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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).

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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

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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

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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.

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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

Electronic Music and the Uncanny


Louis Dufort’s Zenith: Creepy? Awesome? Both?

In introducing electronic music to students, there usually comes a time in the semester where one of my students asks, “Why is all this music creepy?”

I’m not sure I agree with my them about the music being creepy, but, as a specialist (of sorts), though, I’m maybe too close to the subject, and I can sympathize with my students coming to terms with these new materials.


Ok… Stockhausen may be objectively creepy

So, in general, what makes something “creepy”?

In a TIME article a few years ago, Why is Scary Music Scary? Here’s the Science, Patience Haggin suggested that music used in horror scenes of films was similar to animal distress calls, and that these sounds “trigger a biologically ingrained response by making us this our young are threatened…” The dissonant and minor chords, then, are naturally unsettling, due to their “nonlinear chaotic noise.”

MONSTER
Rar! Nonlinear!

Katy Waldman quickly responded with an article in Slate point out the TIME article’s lack of consideration for the cultural components of music. Waldman says the minor chord isn’t something that is “biologically ingrained,” noting different world cultures have difference perceptions of dissonance.

Sidestepping this nature/nurture debate, though, perhaps one of the reasons that uninitiated students think electronic music is “creepy” has to do with Freud’s uncanny, “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

The uncanny is the distorted ordinary.


Yakusho Koji encounters his double in Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Doppelganger (2003)
A persons doppelganger is familiar, because it’s one’s self, but it’s also an impossibility, an aberration, and therefore a great example of the uncanny

There’s no shortage of uncanny images that exemplify this idea, but we have to take another step to show how audio can be uncanny. A example might be that of “hearing voices,” where a disembodied voice occurs without anyone around speaking.

That said, in the 20th-Century, audio recording makes sound portable across both space and time, allowing us to hear music performed by someone on the other side of the world, or even by someone who has died years ago. Composer R. Murray Shafer coined the term “schizophonia” to describe this separation of sound from its source:

We have split the sound from the makers of the sound. This dissociation I call schizophonia, and if I use a word close in sound to schizophrenia it is because I want very much to suggest to you the same sense of aberration and drama that this word evokes, for the developments of which we are speaking have had profound effects on our lives. -R. Murray Schafer

In recorded audio, then, all of these schizophonic sounds are uncanny, disembodied voices separated from their sound sources, like the severed body parts that Freud describes in his essay:

Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, feet which dance by themselves—all these have something peculiarly uncanny about them, especially when, as in the last instance, they prove able to move of themselves in addition. -Sigmund Freud

CRAWLING HAND
The Crawling Hand, from the movie of the same name

That said, we don’t perceive all recorded music as unsettling. Schafer points out: “Modern life has been ventriloquized,” and perhaps we’ve become used to the phenomenon of sound reproduced by loudspeakers, visible or not. Speakers and headphones have become the surrogate sources for these sounds and prevent us from feeling all recorded sound is uncanny.

So why is electronic concert music specifically uncanny? Perhaps this perception has to do with a phenomena that has become a cultural trope: the Uncanny Valley

A term perhaps best explained in an episode of 30 Rock (“Succession,” Season 2, Episode 13 for die-hards), which I sadly can’t link here but you can read about it in this blog post from several years ago by Mike Arnzen.

Put simply: Real things don’t bother us, fake stuff doesn’t bother us, but when fake stuff gets to close to being real, there’s a threshold where it becomes perceived as “uncanny” — the distorted ordinary.

GRAPH

a graph showing familiarity over human likeness

So, for example, we can consider vocals in music. To paraphrase the “30 Rock” scene: On the right of the valley, you have a real singer, possibly singing in the room with you, and, on the left you have things like Daft Punk or DJ Q-Bert, but in the valley, you have something like this:

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

…which is the audio equivalent of this:

GEMINOID-F
Hiroshi Ishiguro‘s “Geminoid-F”

…and maybe that’s a bit creepy.

Of course there are a number of other aspects common in electronic concert music that can make it challenging for new listeners–unfamiliarity, unpredictability, extreme dynamic range, to name just a few–but maybe what gives people the creeps is electronic music’s ability (nay, duty!) to manipulate and distort sounds that we might find familiar. Or, at the very least, put these sounds into new contexts.


Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronique

FALLINGROCK
Josh Shalek’s “Falling Rock National Park” (guest comic by Reid Psaltis)