thinking aloud: listening and making generative music

Why just listen to generative music when you can easily make your own…1

It strikes me that because Generative music is likely different every time it is listened to, the act of listening to it can be accorded the role of creating that particular piece every time, therefore putting listening on a par with making, or even demoting listening as a role for the audience – maybe listening becomes “active,” listening as part of the generative process.

Generative music is the the most adaptable of “live” music – in that it’s always new, always different, no matter if it is a public or private situation, and it’s dependence on mechanical reproduction allows it the portability that “traditional” live music lacks. In terms of community experience, that particular version of the piece could be a shared experienced, in a live performance with an audience, but on a one to one basis it never has the potential to be communal, or shared – every launch of the piece occasions a new version, and unless it is hard coded as a static file cannot be transferred. But hard coding as a static file destroys the nature of the piece as generative.

One might ask what meaning it has if it is always different – where is the piece? This seems an inappropriate clinging onto outmoded forms, given the nature of generative systems, a paradigm for music (and indeed art in general) that may be difficult to maintain. If one must reduce it to such a thing one can look at it from two sides (maybe more). The meaning, the piece, is the method by which the piece is generated, the system, the order, the algorithm. Or, as I suggested above, the meaning is in the reception, but in a very fugitive sense. Static recordings can only be examples, maybe representing practical methods of revenue generation or dissemination, as in the production of documentation for ephemeral works by artists.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, Robin Peckham just posted a link to a piece by Nick Seaver, at the Comparative Media Studies department of MIT, where “he is studying indeterminacy and control in sound transmission, the role of ‘skill’ in aesthetic judgments, and the history of automatic musical instruments.” Nick posted a piece yesterday on his blog, noise for airports, about his research into the Player Piano. He makes an interesting point about “live” music, and its interpretation where the player piano is involved. This definitely relates to my notes above trying to define the “piece” where generative music is concerned:

“Live” music as we think of it today didn’t exist before audio recording—it was impossible for a sound to not be live. The player piano makes things a bit more complicated: is it still live if the notes are all punched on a roll in advance but “interpreted” by a live pianolist? Advertisements showing the ghostly hands of famous pianists on the keys suggested perfect fidelity: the parts of your piano would move exactly how they did when Rachmaninoff or Paderewski played. Would this recording, played on an actual piano, count as “live?” 2

Player Pianos were also an important instrument for the American composer Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote extremely complex pieces using punched paper rolls, pushing the machines to their limits and beyond the limits of the human ear. Sound and performance artist Michael Yuen tells me that:

Nancarrow had to specially alter his player pianos. they were fitted with vacuums to suck air out quicker. There are times when his music calls for 25 notes per sec. That’s a note every 40 msec. The ear can only hear a difference at best at 20msec. Without the turbo charged pianolas, the mechanism pulling the air couldn’t move the hammers and notes go missing. 3

I’d be interested to find out if these machines were popular in China, and if musical production of this sort has influenced the current generations of artists and musicians?

  1. Intermorphic (2010) Mixtikl 2: THE Generative Music & Loop Mixing System. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  2. Seaver, Nick (2010) OLD MEDIA: INTERACTIVITY AND MECHANICAL MUSIC. noise for airports. Weblog. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  3. Yuen, Michael ( (10 February 2010) Re: generative v. hand-crafted. Email to: Sanderson, Edward (

the “auto-” in creativity

Following on from the last post, I wanted to try and clarify my use of the prefix “auto-” to describe the types of sound that came up in the Subjam concert at UCCA. At the same time this will help put some meat on the bones of a project that I’m working on right now, a project whose subjects, and the arguments that I’m touching on in this post, cross over from the sonic arts to the visual.

By using “auto-” I was trying to suggest that the sounds had some kind of automatic, or non-human activity in its formation (although it would be a mistake to think that’s all I was interested in, but I’ll get to that later). In this case I mentioned “Auto-Generative” and “Auto-Destructive” sound, and although I used these terms in the title, I didn’t make it explicit in the text what they were referring to other than a vague idea of additive versus subtractive compositions (where I was tentatively linking the former to Zhang Jian and Wu Na, and the latter to William Basinski).

My use of the term Auto-Destructive is inspired by the work of Gustav Metzger (born US, but now stateless) and the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. Metzger popularised the term in 1959 with his First manifesto of auto-destructive art,1 as a general principle and a way to describe his performance works using nylon and acid, a lethal combination which resulted in the destruction and disappearance of the material of the works. In a similar vein, Jean Tinguely is well known for his elaborate machines which progressively destroy and undo themselves. Both artists were working towards a dematerialisation of the artwork, a throwing into question of assumptions of the object-status of the artwork at that time. This (non- or negative-)thing that results was also one of the focii of Conceptual art, Metzger and TInguely in this case having quite an influence on their thinking. In their work Metzger and Tinguely presented the process of dematerialisation as being an end in itself, literally performing the critique of the object in front of the audience.

From “Auto-Destructive” the antithesis I set up was “Auto-Generative.” In this case the word “generative” comes from its use as a form of musical composition, usually associated with computer music. I have been thinking recently in this regard specifically of the composers Conlan Nancarrow (US) and Edgard Varèse (France, US), whose work involved investigation of systems which, although of course “man-made” in their inspiration or initiation, in execution relied on the working through of a set of rules by mechanical means.

For generative work human intervention can simply be a starting point, from which systems can work themselves out, the “human touch” can be removed entirely from the actual act of music/noise making. The extent to which the human needs to be involved in the act of music/noise making is a very divisive issue. For some the human touch is pre-eminent, for others a hands-off approach is the interesting means and I think it is this subject that can be usefully pursued, an which my project is working from.

It’s an important part of the project, too, that there should be no restriction for this to sonic investigations, it can equally be applied to visual and other forms. Metzger’s words, for example, apply across the board:

Auto-destructive art is art which contains within itself an agent which automatically leads to its destruction… Other forms of auto-destructive art involve manual manipulation. There are forms of auto-destructive art where the artist has a tight control over the nature and timing of the disintegrative process, and there are other forms where the artist’s control is slight.2

I have to admit, setting up these polarities of “auto-generative” and “auto-destructive” is a deliberate straw-man tactic, to create a discursive environment for the project. They serve as ideals around which to drawing out the arguments involved in various artists’ methods. As such, I doubt any artist would commit themselves to one or the other exclusively, certainly not over their whole oeuvre (or even within a single piece of work). However what the use of these terms does do is to set up a field of argument, around which the various participants can set up their camps, like a set of Venn diagrams of creativity, covering more or less of each of the meanings in their practice and theory.

It’s early days yet, but as the project progresses, more information will get posted here.

  1. Metzger, Gustav (1959). Auto-Destructive Art [first manifesto of auto-destructive art; 4 November 1959]. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 3 March 2010].
  2. Metzger, Gustav (1960). Manifesto Auto-Destructive Art [second manifesto of auto-destructive art; 10 March 1960]. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 3 March 2010].

Auto-generative and auto-destructive music

This afternoon UCCA hosted a rather inspiring music event organised by Yan Jun’s Subjam label, including a collaboration between Wu Na 巫娜, on Guqin1, and Zhang Jian 张荐 (one-half of FM3) on a set of seven Buddha Machines2, after which American composer William Basinski 威廉•巴辛斯基 and film-maker James Elaine 詹姆斯•伊莱恩 took over for drones and tape loops, set against scenes of water surfaces intersected with branches forming shapes, in subtly shifting hues of gold.

Conceptually these two duos formed a nice counterpoint in terms of techniques and results. Wu Na and Zhang Jian represented for me an additive process, Zhang’s manipulation of the Buddha Machines producing waves of layered sound, it’s effects occurring through the cycle of sync and de-sync of the individual loops. Most of the time sitting back in his chair studying the hanging Machines and the sounds they were producing, every now and then he would rise up and put one to his ear, selecting a loop and adjusting the pitch to add to the mix, or make subtle changes to the existing setup. These changes initiated active systems between the set of Machines, gradually progressing through possible variations, intermittently adjusted by further tweaks to the dials. The Machines began at a low pitch and at first Wu Na’s playing added harsh interruptions to their flow, the absolute temporal fixity of the plucking of the giqan cutting through the smooth, endlessness of the loops. But as the Machines rose in volume the strings began to bleed into the systems, the highlights of bright picked sequences becoming aligned with the loops to eventually flow with them.

Willian Basinski, on the other hand, set up a spectacle with his loops with definite end-points, the consistent drone punctuated by ageing stretches of tape. Selecting a length of tape from his metal cookie box, inspecting it under the USB light attached to the computer which synthesised the drone, Basinski threads the selected length onto the spools of the obsolete deck which he has tracked down, wedging a spare beer bottle to take up the slack in the loop. The loop’s sound is mixed into the drone to create a series of vignettes of sound from each loop. I didn’t make the connection until afterwards, but I had already heard some of Basinski Disintegration Loops series before, a precursor to this method, recordings of his old archive loops gradually wearing out as the tape is dragged across the playhead – the sound of the destruction of the medium overlapping and eventually replacing the recorded content.

I tend to see William Basinski’s sounds as subtractive in their construction (destruction) of the music, or a process of negation, a stripping over time of the body, flaying the sounds into other forms. Zhang Jian and Wu Na seem to work in a process of addition, adding together to form the result. Loops which technically hold infinity in their structure, for Zhang and Wu form a continuum over which they can play, but for Basinski this continuum surrenders to its physical form’s frailties.

  1. 古琴: A seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the Zither family.
  2. 貝佛: A small mass-produced loop player, developed by Zhang Jian and Christiaan Virant (FM3).

Open studios at Gasworks, Allard van Hoorn (part 2)

(Continued from the previous post)

These thoughts were kicked off by Allard van Hoorn’s work at Gasworks, which had the idea of the urge to involve other groups of people outside the artworld, through the sending out of meaningful objects.

A lot of my concerns about art revolve around the problem (as I see it) with adding more and more things to the world. In some way I see this as unnecessary and wasteful of resources. So I get very sensitive if an artist is making objects, and I am more likely to be sympathetic to an artist that works in intangible ways (music/sound being a good example).

But my biggest problem is with artists who want to get beyond “the art system” by sending out objects into a mythical space outside of that system, where they think some alternative audience exists, some audience that somehow will take the work to another level which the art system is unable to do. I see this as questionable (I originally said “dishonest,” but maybe that’s too harsh), in the sense that these domains, these audiences ultimately are impossible to pin down to any real set of people, and indeed may well simply be the artists very own constructions. You expect/want the two worlds (you have created) to come together at some point. But the artwork constructed these worlds as part of of it’s reality, it forces them onto the world.

Can I better define what my problem is with putting objects into the world? I mean we’ve been doing it forever, it could almost be the norm for a certain type of artist? – they leave remains of their work for posterity, there is some justification to be got if they can prove they exist by the objects they leave behind.

And when the audience for this art becomes insufficient, they search for new audiences, deliberately or by random interactions. In some cases they will do this by creating an object that can be sent out into the rest of the world, can go beyond the world they think is somehow lacking. Are they hoping to bring more people into art, or to bring themselves out of art into some glorious stage divorced from the art world, because the art world is lacking somehow? The former would simply reinforce the problems the artist perceives, if there is a problem with the art world, does bringing more people into it make any difference? The latter would just deny the very structures which created the art in the first place, which seems a perverse action (but not necessarily a meaningless action).

Maybe I’m misunderstanding the attempt. Maybe it’s just a matter of injecting an element of unpredictability into a work rather than a pursuit of a new audience. After all, the person who picks up the object could just as easily be an artist as anyone else, there is no telling.

But there seems to be an urge to go beyond the structures we have already, they are lacking in some way. Is it that art has something to give to the world, but somehow lacks suitable means to engage with that world? Is art a structure good for production but not good for reception? Maybe this is what art is all about, pushing the boundaries, real or imagined?

Open studios at Gasworks, Allard van Hoorn (part 1)

Gasworks is a consistently interesting UK gallery and set of studio spaces, located directly behind the Oval cricket ground in London. The space sports an unassuming frontage which gives little away about the quality of the work that lies beyond. Although small, the gallery is usually filled with what I think are the some of the most interesting and diverse shows in London.

As well as this exhibition space, the building holds a set of three small studios, to which artists from around the world are invited for three month stints, and this weekend saw them thrown open to public view.

It’s a shame then that the audience was fairly sparse – when I visited on Friday afternoon I was one of only two other people taking advantage of the opportunity to see the work the artists have been doing whilst resident in London. I shouldn’t complain of course, a low attendance means that we could easily identify and talk to the artists. But then, again disappointingly, two out of the three studio artists weren’t present when we visited, meaning that the one artist who was there (Allard van Hoorn) kindly took on the task of explaining two sets of work to us – his and his neighbour’s (Marco Lampis), leaving the work of the third artist (whose studio was downstairs) without explanation. These works by Katarina Šević, were presented somewhat in a vacuum with no explanation or background material (and one of the monitors wasn’t working), which would have greatly helped our appreciation of the work.

So I only feel I can comment on van Hoorn’s work as we were able to have a long conversation with him. He was very friendly and articulate about his work (and that of his absent neighbour). From our conversation I learned that, simply put, he works with locations to produce the raw materials, photographs, drawings, sounds, which he then synthesises and sends back out into the world to live on in different forms and spark new developments.

For his residency he has been working on three new pieces in his series “Urban Songlines” which he describes as drawn from “tonal topographies from existing spaces and structures within the local area.” As the name suggests, these are drawn from the Australian aboriginal sense of the recording the landscape and routes through song. van Hoorn’s work applies these methods to specific locations in London, working with the place and the local sounds to create object events. The sites van Hoorn has chosen include the Thames Barrier, Battersea Power Station and the gasometers behind the Gallery and which he sees from the window of the studios.

The first two pieces, of the Barrier and the Power Station, take the form of large format photographs of the sites from which their sounds were collected, these sounds then being formed into sound works. The piece from the Thames Barrier was the most advanced of the works on show, in this case the data for the sound work had been saved to a custom made silver USB stick, shaped like a key and engraved with the latitude and longitude of that particular location. This rather beautiful object was presented in an air-tight glass jar on a small shelf next to the photograph. Once the residency ends, the jar will be thrown into the waters of the Thames at the same site where the sounds were recorded.

In what for me was the weakest proposal and image, the project planned for Battersea Power Station gathers its data from weather balloons attached to each chimney (the photo-montage to illustrate this looked rather clumsy and didn’t really do the work justice). The data collected is expected to cover not just sounds, but other environmental information as well. All this data would again go towards making a new sound work which I believe would then be re-performed at the site. I don’t remember what the artist said would be the end result of this piece, but I expect that, in the same way that the key has been produced for the Thames Barrier piece, there will be some way of projecting the Battersea piece into a future life, beyond the site of performance, but offering the possibility of linking back to it for the future audience (possibly “by googling” according to the artist).

The third work, based on the large iron gasometers visible from outside the studio window (and from which the gallery gets it’s name), takes the form of a series of prints and an animation/sound work. van Hoorn, during his stay in this room has witnessed the process of the gasometer’s daily inflation and deflation as gas for the local area is pumped in and held under pressure by the weight of the structure. The artist reads this movement in and out of the gas as akin to breathing and this becomes the source for what he calls his “score” – a series of drawings of the various states of the structure, from which a sound work (which incorporates breath-like sounds) has been interpreted to accompany the animation of the score.

All the works on display in the Urban Songlines series never really have a point at which they are complete, they are initiated by the artist and then take on a life of their own once released by the artist. This is most clearly demonstrated by the USB “key” which floats away out of reach of the artist, to be picked up someone out there who may be able to interpret the object in some way which may or may not lead back to the artist.

In a way this piece is a lure, by design it draws the eventual recipient back into the art context. This idea fits nicely with the use of the river in the two pieces as a method of adding uncertainty to the process of the works’ development. van Hoorn himself compared the idea to that of the Voyager spacecraft which, in addition to its scientific payload, carries a plaque with information addressed to an alien audience, attempting to explain who, where and what the creators of this object are.

Within the works themselves, an object like the USB key sits in an uncomfortable relationship of mediation between the sound works as ephemeral things and the urge to survive, to keep the record somehow of the sounds. Working with sound and music holds this relationship, between a temporary performance—a one time only result—and it’s life before and after the performance. The scores that van Hoorn has produced for the gasometer piece reflect this interplay between the needs of the two stages: the music needs performance, the scores need to record and prepare for and allow for a future for the sound piece. The key is another method of recording and providing the possibility of a future realisation of the work.

The movement from inspiration, through the various stages and forms of an artwork raises questions about the necessity and value of these stages and forms. For an artist all the stages they realise are assumed to be necessary to the work, but are these purely internal needs, are they necessary to the reception? As soon as you involve or attempt to directly connect with an audience many other concerns affect the work and its value.

In the second part of this post I’ll follow some of my own thoughts about the necessity of object making in art.

NOTCH: Halloween Sleeping Concert

NOTCH Halloween Sleeping Concert

Last night in the aircraft hanger-like space of The Orange in Sanlitun, the NOTCH Festival of Nordic + Chinese culture held their Halloween Sleeping Concert. Described as having “hypnotic audio-visuals and specially designed air bed by Swedish architecture group Testbed,” it’s not often an event would promote dosing off as part of its raison d’etre. Fortunately falling asleep was impossible as the Orange has loose partitions at the end that provide little to no heat retention, and last night Beijing experienced the first snows of winter, so the cloakroom was probably deserted as people generally kept their coats on throughout the event.

The sleeping premise of the concert was already somehow self-defeating, and in the event the cold prevented the complete absorption into the mood of the evening. Nevertheless it had its moments, when a particularly focused set of sounds and visuals attracted your attention, holding you for a moment. A good night.

Carsten Nicolai at Yugong Yishan Club

Lot’s going on this week on the music front. Tuesday saw Carsten Nicolai playing at Yugong Yishan courtesy of Goethe-Institut, with Kid Koala playing there the next night. Over the next few weekends we have the NOTCH Festival (NOrdic+CHina) which was at Yugong Yishan last year, but has now decamped to the rather more chichi surroundings of the Sanlitun Village. I plan on getting over to NOTCH tonight, to experience a:

Halloween sleeping concert with hypnotic audio-visuals and specially designed air bed by Swedish architecture group Testbed.

Lineup: Biosphere (Norway), Mokira (Sweden), Vectral (Denmark), Dead J (China), Chen Xiongwei (China)

I’ll post some pics of that tomorrow – or maybe even tonight if they have a free internet connection there.

Before that, though, I made some notes after Carsten Nicolai’s performance which follow on from my thoughts about live music/events in general, which I outlined after the Laoban event we hosted at the Gallery last year and which keep coming up for me every time I go to hear a performance. I have rather confused, ambivalent and romantic expectations from music, I want it to move me and excite me, and that means for it to have a “meaning” for itself and hence for me. As far as the former are concerned, I know that’s problematic and indicative of a surrendering of my control to someone else; for the latter, that seems an overly analytical reaction to the former on my part. Where is the middle-ground, if indeed there is such a thing?

Carsten Nicolai at Yugong Yishan Club Case in point: Carsten Nicolai’s appearance. I didn’t know much about him before going, but his name had cropped up in art-related contexts, so I was pleased to be able to get a chance to see what he was about. His set seemed short, possibly due to it being marred by some technical glitches (at one point I thought the whole thing would just be called off). At the end of it all I felt quite a bit of frustration. Carsten is described as someone “who uses art and music as complementary tools to create microscopic views of creative processes.” From my point of view, as music I was not hearing anything very “creative” or giving an insight into the processes involved, and as a visual experience it failed to reveal anything beyond a confusing array of techno-fetishism. Sure, there was the requisite amount of glitch, noise, and the visuals were distracting for a short while, but there seemed very little meaning behind it all, very little of an idea to hold on to, very little of anything interactive between the music and visuals beyond a certain didactic “this is what I’m playing and this is what it looks like.”

Carsten Nicolai at Yugong Yishan Club In terms of my reactions, I think it all comes down to what criteria I judge the evening on, either as music, or as visuals, or as art; and I obviously apply different criteria to each format. So, for the music I didn’t hear anything imaginative about the beats he was using, the glitches seemed more or less random, without an underlying form which would have allowed you to follow the reasoning (or an algorithm?) behind them through some sort of progression (in the way you can with Autechre, for instance). The visuals of the filters and processes the audio and video were going through were interesting, but left me with a bit of a “so what” feeling. And, ultimately, as “art” the whole was less than the sum of its parts for me.

  • My stream-of-consciousness notes following the event:
    • I want to feel some connection to the music.
    • Do that through the beats and melody, I think.
    • Beats that make you move, force you to react.
    • Trying to put a good view on that, as it seems like tyranny in a way. Being controlled by the beats, that can’t be good, no freewill.
    • Maybe more like some kind of empathy between the beats and the person – naive, idealistic maybe.
    • Dangerous, as it is too close to letting yourself lose control – letting someone else control you.
    • So CN’s music could be good in that it prevents me from letting go? hmmm..
    • But as a DJ what are you doing? Obviously many different types of DJs. But I think most will want some sort of recognition or connection with their audience – otherwise they could just stay as bedroom noodlers. Working for public display as a means of verification? approval?
    • Doing work is one thing, but in a milieu which guides you, which you participate in, in which you like contributing things – a community of agreement.
    • For CN its slightly different. He is at a stage when he can do what he wants. He is known and he already has an audience which accepts him. He does not have to remake his audience every time.
    • But in a way that’s what we always have to do – hence the technical problems being a way to lose your audience. You already have an audience before the show. Some come to the show and then you have to retain and satisfy that audience in your performance.