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25 January 2022

The Music of Science, The Science of Music

austraLYSIS Image: austraLYSIS  

I'd like to introduce our series of five videos on the music of science and the science of music, the 'Milperra Sessions', which have been made freely available on the Australian Music Centre's YouTube channel . These videos are a combination of performance and discussion including twelve new works of music and multimedia. Members of austraLYSIS, their musical guests, and scientific colleagues at MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney University create, perform and discuss the pieces and the processes they engage. The purpose of the series is both to provide insights into the creative processes of the musicians, and into the issue of how we all apprehend and appreciate music. Our targets are senior school students, music teachers, and the broadest possible range of interested adults. These 'Milperra Sessions' were recorded at MARCS performance space at the Bankstown Campus of Western Sydney University, Milperra, in collaboration with the Digital Futures team of the University.

The new works address numerous issues of both daily and large scale importance, such as the formation of character and sociality and the roles of language and learning; the influences of our environments and environmental and climate change; and politics, racism and border control, history and migration. The pieces also focus on core musical issues such as the nature and potential of historical continuity and change, pitch, tuning, timbre and rhythm. Musical works only function when effective interpersonal and human-machine interactions (both instruments and computers are machines) make critical contributions both to music making and its appreciation. Video 3, contributed by members of MARCS, discusses the cognition, appreciation and social mediation of music, and finally ponders the future musical roles of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

With the assistance of MARCS (at which I am also a music researcher), we are well placed to provide both these perspectives on the creation and appreciation of current adventurous musical and multimedia works. Indeed, one of my long-term interests has been in forging stronger links between musical research and musical practice (see Note 1). In our cyclic formulation, research questions arise out of creative work, and the research inspires new creative practice, thereby stimulating change and innovation in both research and practice. austraLYSIS members are deeply trained and involved in both aspects: the five core members, Sandy Evans, Phil Slater, Hazel Smith, Greg White and myself, each have one or more doctoral degrees, as do our three musical guests, Felix Dobrowohl (Australia/Germany), Charles Martin, and Jo Thomas (UK). Correspondingly, MARCS researchers are professionals in their field, again with the highest qualification, the doctoral research degree: in Video 3, the speakers are Simon Chambers, Peter Keller, Jennifer MacRitchie, Eline Smit, Kate Stevens (MARCS Director) and me.

Given a focus on relationships between creative practice and research, it won't surprise you that there are many commentaries in the videos on the fundamental materials of music, and how they do or could function to create interesting and expressive work. Since the 1980s, a longstanding aspect of austraLYSIS's output has been the juxtaposition, conversion and transformation of acoustic sound as digital representation, and its re-sounding as new acoustic sound. Starting with digital synthesis and sampling instruments, and then moving shortly after to computer-driven sound capture, transformation and synthesis, we have sought to form both continua and stark contrasts between instrumental and computational sound. We aimed to make such contrasts a powerful creative tool. Many of the works here illustrate this, with computational sound provided by Greg White and myself.

Once one listens to digital processing of sound, a whole undertow of possible sound transformations becomes apparent and potential. While there was a notable period of development of 'extended techniques' for playing instruments in the 1960s, the computer era has brought a new potentially systematic breadth of possibility into play.

Sandy Evans, in her talk, discusses the mutability of pitch, timbre and rhythm. She gives examples both from her own work and from my piece Babbles, in which she performs with a continuously mutating metrical pattern. This piece uses a freely available software, Xronomorph, developed at MARCS principally by Andrew Milne, coupled to further programming in MAXMSP, a graphical platform for computer music (see Note 2). In essence, Xronomorph creates a hierarchy of subdivisions of an overall repeating time cycle, such that the cumulative patterns need no longer be composed of multiples of a single pulse rate (such as the conventional quaver or 'eighth-note'). Instead, more complex disparities of pattern emerge, and my MAX software drives continuous change of both the cycle length, and the subdivision ratios within the hierarchy, rhythmic change that I have exploited to an extreme. As Sandy observes, this is an exciting context in which to improvise, and parallel opportunities in transforming timbre complement this.

Phil Slater talks about his sensitivity to the timbral impacts of particular environments in which to perform or experiment, and the way that repeated practice in a natural environment near his home resulted for him in a unique process of timbral and music evolution. Environmental sound is a broadly significant source of stimulation in new music, and Charles Martin discusses his interest in making such sounds playable (and mutable) by percussionists, and others like ourselves, as heard in our collaboration In the Snow Nest.

Jo Thomas, UK composer, discusses her love of digital 'glitch', the creation of systematic 'imperfections' or irregularities in synthesized and transformed sound, as revealed in her three miniatures Ultra Tonal. Her work is heard adjacent to a 'drone' piece by Felix Dobrowohl who quite recently completed his PhD (with us at MARCS) on timbral transformation in continuous sounds and its perception. Felix gives an amusing introduction to the piece and its connections with pop stars such as Sunn O))).

Pitch (and tuning) can be viewed as a subset of timbre, pitch perception particularly involving the patterns of energy in different frequency bands of a sonic spectrum (analogous to the different colours of an image). So not surprisingly we interrogate pitch structures in many ways: the physical piano, with discrete pitches, is very different in potential from a string or a slide-brass instrument such as the trombone, which readily allow continuous change of pitch. Some other instruments fall between these extremes of discrete or continuous pitch, and computational devices can readily fill any lacunae that are left unoccupied. Material by the pioneering 17th century composer-improviser Louis Couperin is used in two pieces, neither of which use the tuning system(s) of his time, a time of great dispute about tuning. In the first, Remembering a current conventional piano tuning is heard. In the second, Louis meets Pelog, an approximation of an Indonesian tuning system, and a continuous pitch virtual piano that can play any pitch, are used. The science of tuning is discussed by Eline Smit, together with brief illustrations of another system, the Bohlen-Pierce system, which does not use octaves.

Computational music making is perhaps ideally placed to create sonic relationships with symbols such as word and image that are often intrinsically more representational, more precisely and definitively connected with specific worldly things. A music creator can always use repetition to create thematic (potentially symbolic) links between sounds, but the flexibility of digital manipulation immensely facilitates the moulding of sound sources to particular expressive purposes, with image or text, or without them. Our multimedia text piece The Character Thinks Ahead, brings such issues to mind in respect of language also, since it illustrates a computer learning how characters (initially in the form of individual letters and then groups of letters) are put together in normal usage, gradually acquiring the denotations we associate with specific words. Technological transformation of the speaking voice is also heard in this piece, so that that meaningful words can become sonic entities and acquire new implications. This is another long-standing interest in the work of austraLYSIS.

The other multimedia pieces show related processes at work with image presentation and transformation, and also reveal explicit sociopolitical concerns. For example, The Lips are Different is about an incidence of racial discrimination by Canadian border control officials and has relevance to Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Introducing this, Hazel Smith discusses the political and polemical dimensions of art. Meanwhile, Simon Chambers reveals some of the intricacies of social mediation of music presentation. He emphasizes the importance of fighting for transparency and openness in its distribution, so as to avoid the narrowing and blinding of taste that tends to flow from broadcasters and particularly from online playlists. Obviously, this video series is intended to contribute to this necessary fight.

A further key social aspect of music is also revealed in the performances and discussed in Video 3. This is the importance of interaction between musicians, and between musician and machine, in the real-time shaping of how music is created, presented and perceived. Jennifer MacRitchie and Peter Keller both illuminate important aspects of this. Amongst the performances, not only Babbles (discussed above) but also Blue Note (by Greg White) involve key aspects of musician-machine interaction. In the latter, a virtual rhythm section (bass and drums) is driven by an interactive ('live-algorithm') coded and played by Greg: it provides an interactive backdrop against which the ensemble improvises, as would be the case were there a human bassist and drummer.

A final purpose of these videos is to encourage students, musicians and music-lovers to be sonically explorative. We also reveal some of the historical connections behind our own sonic explorations. These include our improvisation on the music of Couperin, mentioned above, or references to the music of the late African-American pianist Cecil Taylor in the first piece presented. And finally, in Video 3 I myself discuss how we can undertake and analyse experiments on how music works, and then how we can apply artificial intelligence - notably machine learning, a more recent interest in austraLYSIS - to the task not only of recreating musical styles, but potentially of creating new ones.

The vista of interesting new music is thus not just vast, but also infinitely expansible, and I hope these videos may open up some of these possibilities for appreciation and/or creation for you.

The videos include nine new works by myself and austraLYSIS, and three by our guests. I thank all the creators and researchers for their crucial and valuable contributions.

To see the full videos, visit the Australian Music Centre's Youtube channel.

Download full program notes here.

For more information about austraLYSIS and its activities go to www.australysis.com and for an alternative source of the videos, at higher resolution than YouTube, see www.australysis.com/FindOut.html.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Roger Dean, Artistic Director, austraLYSIS


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