Ray Larsen - June 6th, 2010
For the past couple of years, a certain subject in particular has been prominent in directing my musical contemplation and exploration. That subject is “randomness”, or maybe better put, the fine balance between control and an absence of control. It is this subject that I would like to explore together this Sunday, to an extreme and on many levels of interpretation.
Musical randomness was first introduced to me by instructors in the DXARTS department when I was in the sound series last year (DXARTS/MUSIC 461-463, I implore you to check it out if you’re at the UW). Computer musicians use randomness to abdicate control over their music, by delegating that control to the computer itself. A computer musician might desire to create a texture that is composed of many sounds, or many instances of the same sound, or a single sound that changes over time, but the musician might not wish to be specific about exactly when the sounds start, or what the pitches/durations/amplitudes/etc are, or how a single sound is specifically shaped. Or perhaps there are so many instances or alterations of the sound(s) that the composer could not possibly code all the minute events/alterations. Or perhaps the composer just wants to see what the desired texture might sound like if his/her decisions are restricted to a certain level of composition (like large scale events) and detached from other levels (like small scale events). In these situations, the artist might decide to pass parameters to the computer, and allow it to generate the texture by way of random number generating algorithms, thereby losing control of the music, whether the loss is perceptible or not. (It could also be argued, though, that in many cases the composer actually gains control of the music by achieving a product that would have been impossible without computer empowerment.)
As musicians dealing with interfaces that cannot make their own decisions (or can they? read on!), it is easy and common to develop a mindset where absolute control of the interface is the perpetual aspiration. As composers deeply entrenched in the musical history of our race, it is easy and common to treat composition itself as a process by which we exert absolute control over sound (or future sounds). These were the assumptions that my experience in the sound series, and the concept of utilizing randomness as a compositional tool, challenged and overturned. I started to think about ways these concepts could be applied to playing and composing on instruments that aren’t endowed with random number generating algorithms.
But let’s pause for a bit. Whats the point? What is so great about randomness?
Well that brings me to another favorite subject of mine that has shaped my musical exploration: using observations of the world around us to inform musical ideas. EVERYTHING is a constant flux of randomness and control (life is so random, omg lol)! Ok, consider the aggregation of water on the tip of a tree branch or from a leaky faucet. Drops meet by random paths and at random times, forming a single pool. The pool grows and surface tension mounts until the pool forms a critical mass, an impulse emerges, and a drop falls. More water meets the pool and the critical mass is reached again and the falling drop is in time with the last. The whole random process gives rise to a rhythmic system! Order from Randomness! And check out this awesome time-elapsed video of the development of an embryonic fruit fly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j87y7EAj8qE&feature=related This is the point when the fly’s 3 main tissue types are formed and positioned so they can differentiate further into organs and such. Notice how synchronized everything is, and all from pretty random cellular signaling dictated by the genetic code (itself a seemingly random sequence of molecules that actually give rise to extremely specific structures)! Did you know that muscle cells are continually flexing and unflexing in random ways? but its only when they spontaneously act together that our arms move and our legs dance. And music too is only minute vibrations of the air until our eardrums resonate, our brains electricate, and our minds perceive order and beauty.
To translate our observation of the world into music, we should (I think) emulate the ubiquitous balance of order and randomness. So what does it mean to use randomness musically, and how can we transform order into randomness and back again? That is what we are to discover together. I’ll be presenting a couple of my ideas, which will hopefully interpret the challenge in very different ways. First, I’ll play a “piece” on piano, which I have very little training in, and whose sound I have almost no harmonic control over. I will concentrate instead on exerting control over shapes and phrases, and allowing the instrument to sound harmonically however it will. Second, I will play noise trumpet, a technique I am only in the very beginning stages of developing. When I play in this fashion, I have only a limited control over the harmonics and vibrations of the instrument. I think of the resulting timbres as niches which I can shape somewhat, but often the trumpet will act on its own, surprising me by switching between niches and sometimes combining them (thus, acoustic instruments really can and do make their own decisions!).
Afterwards, I’ll have some challenges for the group to undertake, exploring different levels and interpretations of what controlled randomness might mean in a musical context. Then its up to you to try out your own stuff!
Below are some pieces by two of my favorite composers. I think that both of these composers in general, and these pieces in particular, light the way in the search for balance between randomness and control. Try to find your own reasons why.
I would like to conclude by saying that randomness and control are both myths. Neither of these concepts actually exists. Randomness is impossible because everything is connected by cause and effect. Control is a lie because things never go the way you want.
See you at the Session!
Fire in Wind—from the album The Yelm Sessions
Hawk’s Prairie—from the album The Yelm Sessions
Hour of Fair Karma—from the album The Story of Iceland
REGION I – Anfang/Beginning—the first section of his giant piece Hymnen
Orchestra Fade Out + Silence at the End—the final section of his giant piece Orchester-Finalisten