Day 149 @ ITP: Algorithmic Composition

Week 1
Reading: Exploring The Self Through Algorithmic Composition by Roger Alsop

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<< Freedom and diversity in expression is a requisite of artistic endeavor, but boundless freedom can be confounding. By creating or subjecting oneself to a set of rules, or a set of processes such as an algorithm, one hopes to confine one’s actions to an area of truer self-expression. My approach is to build algorithms as agents that assist me in creating music. By using an algorithm in this way, the composer can make worlds of complex interrelations, generating cascading actions that trigger other foreseen and unforeseen reactions. It is possible, due to the increasing power, elegance and availability of computer hardware and software, to easily preview the results of these interactions. This ease allows me to examine my motives and actions and their results while working, without the preciousness of prolonged, painstaking and single-minded efforts required by more traditional compositional methods. As each action of a composition algorithm has foreseen and unforeseen reactions, one tends to want to be accountable for these reactions. However, this sense of accountability is tempered as the process becomes more practiced and intuitive, much like the sense of accountability for each sound a novice violinist makes is reduced as the playing becomes more practiced and intuitive. At this point of expertise, the building of a computer algorithm becomes equivalent to making an instrument, learning how to play it and creating a composition all at the same time. Therefore the process and its result reflect the composer’s relationship to all three of these activities. Thus, the algorithm becomes a transparent, systematic and detached path of self-exploration. The above questions are continuous and are continually answered. The beauty of this approach is that the answers often come without the questions being articulated—or if they are articulated, they seem of little importance at the time of inspiration. One concentrates effort on building the world in which the music can exist and hopefully flourish. With the completion of a composition comes an understanding of the processes used. This understanding comes about in two ways: firstly, through the resultant music, when the composer recognizes a piece as uniquely his or her own. On listening to the piece, one discovers things about it that are novel, challenging, familiar and comfortable. By asking what results fit these categories and why, the composer increases his or her understanding of their personal relationship to music. Secondly, the algorithm that has generated the music is a map of the composer’s processes in creating the world from which the piece has come. Within this map one can discover the processes and pathways one favors in creating and organizing sound. >>

The goal of Guitar 21 and Selectnotes is to make the improviser approach his or her physical gestures in unfamiliar and challenging ways. Rather than starting from an exterior compositional influence, each of these algorithms create different contexts in which to improvise. Guitar 21 removes the gesture to sound relationship of traditional instruments. Instead, the improviser creates a musical context and reacts to it with non-musical gestures. For example, holding the C# note on the B-string of a guitar for half a second may result in a pitch bend of a tritone being applied to all notes on a specified MIDI channel; holding the D# on the same string may change the time period over which the pitch bend occurs. In this way, the traditional gesture-to-sound relationship of the guitar is grossly distorted. In this situation, the improviser cannot rely on any learned actions, as there is almost no relationship between the improviser’s action and the musical reactions generated. Instead, each action results in many possible reactions, all of which have no expected relationship to the actions of the improviser. Here, two or three gestures may generate a whole composition, forcing the improviser to acknowledge the criticality of the minutae of each gesture. Subsequent gestures radically and irrevocably alter the path of the composition, creating new musical environments in which to react. >>

<< The trap of over-protectiveness is especially dangerous when creating with algorithmic processes. There is an endless, almost overwhelming desire to adjust the algorithm in the hope that a better composition will result. This desire must be restrained in order for truer and more frank self-expression to take place. >>