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Music as process music as weather

August 23, 2005

In 1997 my wife got a two year contract as a fishery biologist in Namibia. I was still studying composition at the Grieg Academy. I stayed behind for one semester and arrived in Luderitz by Christmas at the end of 1997.

Up until then I’d mainly been writing for instruments and I had no experience with computer music. Purchasing a piano in Luderitz seemed out of the question being a small fishing village at the Sceleton Coast and far away from everywhere. But I needed something to do and I wanted to continue working on music so my wife spent most of her sign-on fee meant to cover extra expenses on a Mac 8600/200 a synth MIDI controller and a bunch of software for me.

My composition teacher back then Morten Eide Pedersen (he is also a supervisor for my current fellowship) suggested that a program named Max might be of interest to me. I had never heard of it before and didn’t have a clue towards what it was all about. From time to time when I’ve received suggestions pointing in completely new directions I’ve been jumping at it just to get off-balance hoping that it will bring me somewhere new somewhere I didn’t know of beforehand. This was one of those times.

Composing was difficult and frustrating to me at that time I could have a lot of very short ideas and sketches but as soon as I sat in front of a piece of sheet paper I blanked out. In addition to Max I was also bringing along Finale (I knew that one from beforehand) and Opcode Vision a sequencer. Neither Finale nor Vision appealed to me. They shared some of the same assumptions: You are about to create a linear piece of music spanning time from point A to B most likely marching along at 4/4 and 120 bpm. My ideas didn’t really want to go from A to B the theme at A seemed perfectly happy as is and didn’t have any desire of moving anywhere else. It had no story to tell no drama with opposing characters no desire for transformation confrontation and resolution..

I had been obsessed with the music of Brian Eno for at least 10 years already. Although I started listening to his early rock albums in particular Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy and Another Green World I soon got preoccupied with his ambient records not only listening to them and enjoying it but also absorbing the philosophy behind suggesting a different aesthetic and a different way of creating thinking of using and listen to music. Via Eno the work and thinking of Erik Satie also became very important to me.

I don’t know if it was a coincident or a sign of predisposition but the punk band I played in a few years earlier was named Muzak. Now I was listening to Ambient or “intelligent” muzak.

When I started studying composition I had a clear “project” defined to myself but it was difficult to fit that in with the expectations I felt as a student. The first composition teacher the Danish composer Mogens Christensen never really asked why I was studying composition what I’d been doing before what I wanted to do or why. I felt strong expectations towards composing complex contemporary music and struggled to be able to create something that I could relate to myself. On the other hand Mogens was really good at the craftsmanship bit so I chose to emphasize that digging deep into renaissance vocal polyphony according to the style of Palestrina harmonization and orchestration.

I learned a lot from that but concerning composition itself after two years I was at a loss. At that time Mogens moved back to Denmark and Morten became my new composition teacher. He waited patiently for a year while I struggled to sort myself out. Slowly I started writing again writing two movements for string quartet.

In spring 1997 all of the composition students went to Paris for a one week study trip. During that week we visited Ircam attended a lot of concerts and managed to get a class with the late Gerald Grisey. That turned out to be a very good thing for me. He did not like what I did but he understood what I aimed at probably better than I did myself. To me that confirmation of a message coming thru was important. He also asked a question that was very enlightening to me and that I’m still asking myself. When he looked at/listened to the movements for the string quartet he said that I seemed to pull in two opposite directions at the same time at one hand aim for a strong degree of simplicity and at the same time also striving for complexity. He asked me what i really wanted to do and which of these two directions I really preferred.

I was still very confused by the time I moved to Namibia. I started out looking at all the programs I had brought with me in addition to struggle to set up a working internet connection connecting over long distance on a bad line to Windhoek. I was new to Mac back then owned the only Mac in Luderitz and ended up driving to Windhoek a little more than 800 km one way in order to get assistance.

Finale and Vision did not appeal to me once I stood in front of a timeline I felt lost. Max was something different. This was like playing Lego again. I quickly realized that in order to be able to use it I would have to learn it thoroughly so that my ideas wouldn’t vaporize while I was searching the manual looking for an object to do the job.

I created my first piece of music based on Max in April-May 1998.000 By then I had had enough time and silence to really ask myself why I started composing in the first place and came to the conclusion that I had to go back to the ideas I’d had before I started studying and persuade them until I either were thru with it or else keep working on it for the rest of my life.

My first Max piece was a revelation to me. The technique behind it was fairly simple all MIDI based and basically using the “metro” object to get something to happen at irregular intervals (by randomly changing the interval). But the change in the way of thinking was tremendous to me. Instead of walking along a line from A to B deciding step by step what’s supposed to happen I could now approach the music from a birds perspective rather decide how often something was supposed to happen. The composition no longer was a line segment but an infinite line hypothetically stretching infinitively far in both directions past the two points A and B. This became my first music for installation and the first piece of electronic music. It was never presented in any real setting but I thought of it as being installed at the ghost town of Kolmanskop 10 km into the Namib desert from Luderitz. I named it “texture I” assuming that there where more to come. I later found out that Eno had released a limited edition CD in 1989 named the same.

As I kept working on installation music I developed some analogies that I used to explain to myself what kind of impact I wanted them to have.

In the same way as a painting I wanted the music to reveal what it consisted of at the first glimpse. You shouldn’t have to spend 20 5 or 2 minutes in order to hear what components makes up the sound image. Instead of a horizontal listening I aimed for a vertical listening. The act of continue to listen should be similar to continue to stand in front of a painting looking deeper into it rather than seeing a story spanning time unfold in front of you.

This did not mean that I wanted the music to be totally static. I wanted to have a certain drift variations at various time scales. But all of these should happen within a certain range and you shouldn’t have to spend long to realize the size of the space spanned by these drifting parameters. 2/1 from “Music for Airports” is a very effective and minimal example in this respect. I likened this slow drift to the principle of Erik Saties of composing works in groups of three like viewing the same sculpture from different angles. Another way I explained this to myself was by thinking of the real composition as an idea in a platonic sense and the actual sound at any one time being a shadow of that idea.

Yet another analogy seemed important to me. Earlier on I had been walking a lot in the Sandviken mountain close to where I grew up. Some places I came back to again and again and I knew them by heart. I’d see them changing due to changing wind and clouds while I was there and change with the season and weather from one time to the next. I wanted to create a similar sonic environment that you could visit and revisit. I wanted those places to have a similar drift subtle fluctuations at various time scales a kind of artificial nature free from traces of human influence. For a long time I have wanted to use meteorological data for my installations.

As I turned from composing sheet music to work on music for installations I felt that I had to develop a new and different craftsmanship. Instead of meticulously deciding which notes where to stand next to each other bar by bar as in counterpoint study or harmonization I had to develop compositional techniques working at a meta level composing the algorithms that would generate the actual sound. Creating a piece of music of a fixed duration and looping it was never an option and I’ve always been bored with video installations working this way.

How to approach the generative processes is an ongoing research.


The Generator.x project is a conference exhibition and weblog examining the role of software and generative strategies in current digital art and design.