By Tobias C. van Veen
Featuring reviews of:
The C74 Trilogy of Two Halves
Cycling 74, the software company that develops the influential and powerful audio-visual environment programs Max/MSP, M, and Pluggo, has taken a rather creative direction by releasing Max/MSP created and otherwise treated works on their own CD label. The first half of this article is concerned with the technical usage of the software as well as reviews of the current albums (1-5) on the C74 label; the second half, to be published in a future edition of incursion.org, will incorporate the transcript of an interview with C74 on the creation of the label, discussing the politics of a software company releasing its own music and opening onto a philosophical investigation into the question of technology and humanityquestions such as the state of performer/artist and controlinvariably raised by soft-hard-ware interactions through Max/MSP.
Line 10: GOTO "Come Here, Max"
Max is a "graphical programming environment." According to the C74 website, its goal is to "control anything with anything." With a bit of coding knowledge and a lot of patience and practice, users-artists-programmers (you need to be a bit of all three) can use the "objects" included to make, say, your joystick control MIDI commands, which can be sent externally out to your sampler or routed internally to other software (such as Reactor, for example). The major power of Max is its graphical interface which allows you to draw little boxes for things (such as volume, inputs, outputs, algorithmic variables) with little lines drawn in between to hook things up. This is a much more intuitive solution to the otherwise dryness of programs such as Csound. These "patches" can then be run in assemblages, or in parallel, or in any number of combinations, with the limits ultimately depending on your computer's processor speed and RAM. Max, however, will only handle MIDI and visuals, and for the audio manipulation you will need MSP (usually most people purchase these together as a bundle). The MSP side of Max is a "large set of objects that you connect together to make audio patches where signals flow from one object to the next." Like a modular soft synth or an old Arp, you can plug bits together to make sound and to process it. The kicker is that MSP is much more powerful than your average soft synth for, combined with Max, it makes an "environment" for MIDI-audio-visual interaction that prods you to explore weird and wonderful aspects of interactive multimedia composition and performance, allowing you to compose, process, route, and control things (or indeed, program chance elements) with a wide range of creative commandsthat is, if you can survive the never-ending learning curve, for Max is like learning to play a classical instrument, and takes some time to use in a manner which is truly spectacular.
That said, many contemporary electroacoustic musicians and experimental electronic composers on both sides of the academic divide have embraced Max/MSP as a creative toolas the sole environment to create and perform music, as an instrument to be used in conjunction with other sound sources and processes, or as a controlling or composing environment to run everything through (many musicians use all three and more of these variables). The sounds which come out of Max/MSP have been mainly associated with the "glitch" and "microsound" genres as many musicians have been enamoured with its granular synthesis possibilitiesthose rough, speckled synth-grain sounds which often sound like scattered sine waves, often in very high frequency or barely audible ranges, oddly time-stretched and warped. And, whether due to a general minimal/post-minimal aesthetic or the ghost of John Cage, many composers see Max/MSP as a way to create random or accidental "music," or at least non-linear ways of interacting with technology to produce everything from abstract soundscapes, electro-acoustic and avant-post-rock to minimal house and techno.
C74's own label gives the company the chance to put forth their own interpretation of what can be done with Max/MSP. I don't mean that C74 tells or controls what the artists are doing, but certainly one would expect that they choose the artists based upon a certain level of innovation with the product and the sound they are making. So far this sound has been decidedly experimental, although in conversation they have also shown themselves to be open to pop-interpretations.
On to the music. With this knowledge in hand, what can we say about the releases? Let us start with the last release and proceed in reverse chronology to the first.
Tetsuo Inoue and Carl Stone's pict.soul exemplifies the sort of staccato sound placement and glitched synth-scapes that have become a trademark of contemporary experimental microsound and post-ambient music. This collaborative album was made using not only the required Max/MSP but also Csound, an FS1R (a Yamaha synth that has computer programming capabilities) and Supercollider (another real time audio synthesis program). However, tones and sine waveswith their glitches, high pitch whistles, and sound "bits"aren't the only material of this sometimes difficult yet intriguing album. Track 9, "?.digit," uses a distinguishable sample of 19th Century Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" from the Peer Gynt Suite. This sample fascinates me as Grieg wrote the Peer Gynt Suite as incidental music to accompany Henrik Ibsen's theatrical telling of the Norwegian folk-tale; also because Grieg uses repetitive chromatic harmonies to interpret folk musicmuch like that other influence on (post)modern music, Ravel's Bolero. In this context, Grieg was a regular postmodern composer, and the use of his music in an environment such as Max/MSP hints at what might be "going on" at the level of creating and processing the music for Inoue and Stonefor the software itself can often be "incidental" depending upon how it is used. Theoretically, we are listening to a double-simulacrum; just as Grieg interpreted folk tales, we are hearing an electronic interpretation of that interpretationwhat Jacques Lacan would call "quadrature." Perhaps this double-mirroring effect, like being in a funhouse where all the mirrors reflect your portrait into infinity, accounts for the stuttering of sounds heard throughout the album, beginning with the first track, "%.disk," which bears a strong resemblance to the individual layers of Kim Cascone's recent work: shimmering sound-waves flit in and out of the track in a repetitive nature that nonetheless gives way to a linearity, suggesting not so much progression as distance, similar in concept to the beat-oriented experiments of Ricardo Villalobos on Perlon. In this fashion, "@.fine" explores permutations of static and bumpy tone squalls, setting up a rough palette that eventually smoothes out into crackles which, after becoming the dominant thematic, permitor perhaps combatmutant slivers of harmony to pass by in gasps between the ripping fabric of the sonic texture itself. The rest of the album proceeds in a similar fashion, often starting with granulated or tonal sounds that repeat within a framework of silence, setting up coextensive sounds that open onto brief harmoniessuch as the pronounced ambient beauty and Phillip Glass-like rhythms of "!.tuning"or moving into destructive and violent squalls that battle harmony and their own disintegration, such as the complex "(.ram" (which has a buried piano sample that sounds suspiciously close to Steve Reich, drum samples stuttering away in the background). Overall, the album is an experimental listening experience that is at points harmonious, minimal and beautiful, and at others dissonant and rough, providing not so much a collection of "songs" as explorations of musical topographies.
Kim Cascone, composer, co-founder of microsound.org, and theorist, has become a prominent figure and spokesperson for the microsound scene, mainly through his self-coined "post-digital" music. A thinker as well as a musician, Cascone is interested in pushing software such as Max to its limits in order to investigate the "aesthetics of failure" possible when software and machine breaks down, as well as introducing random elements of composition that keep musical systems from closing in on themselves and becoming entropic and stale. Not surprisingly, his recent compositions are not so much arrangements as compendiums of sound possibilities where delicate sound textures flit in and out of hearing, often over the course of at least twenty minutes. "Dust Theories 1" and "2" follow this program by wandering through a gaseous topos of inter-stellar sonic breeding grounds, playing with panning and random "composition" as aural-clouds are encountered, dispersed, and followed. Although Cascone is focused on a sonically nomadic agenda, his aural discourse still maintains a narrative theme, with certain sounds returning as motifs. Whether this is entirely accidental or a result of having a limited set of source sounds is unclear; however, the result is that some sounds are heard too often and others not enough. However, as Cascone would be quick to point out, such a critique is presupposing that even randomness would have no repetition, and that furthermore, I am seeking a harmoniously balanced aesthetic. While I agree with the theoretical critique, I prefer Cascone's Dust Theories 2 on his own Anechoic label, which explores similar sonic territory, although in a much more powerful and overwhelming way, and where he seems to grasp a hold of something beyond himself, a sonic exploration that evokes memory and emotion as well as intellectual response. On the C74 album, it is track 3, "Edgeboundaries 123," which approaches this intensity, with bird-sounds propelling an entrance into a territory fraught with distortion, noise, and danger. It is a much shorter track, but in also far more concise. However, it is the "Edgeboundaries 123" remix by C74 programmer and minimal house producer Ben Nevile that is perhaps the most fascinating track on the album, as it takes the avant-garde aesthetics of Cascone and re-interprets it to the dictum of the beat. The result is a strangely funky, "glitched" non-house house track that sounds nothing like the "glitch" of German artists; instead, it works on its own terms like some strange crackly, noise-grained lake monster, the Ogopogo of glitch music, using delays, echoes, and drop-outs subsequently run through Max patches available on the CD for the Max owner to play with. Nevile also uses drum machines to sequence his material, which is an odd combination of dancefloor vs. academic approaches and which perhaps accounts for his unique sound. The last track is by the elusive DJ4'33", and is a mellow, quiet sine-wave affair that lulls one into a comfortable repose. Patches for both remixes can also be found on the CD, along with a stand-alone Mac OS program to play them.
Amnon Wolman's Dangerous Bend is dedicated to the textures of sounds, merging drones, ambient tones, and soundscapes of varying pitches and harmonies into vibrating white spectacles that encompass the speaker and the room, propelling the headphone listener into chilled arctic landscapes. I am immediately reminded of Lustmord's drone work as well as the movie The Thing and its sonic bleakness. However, unlike Lustmord and classical ambient, the sounds are heavily processed and textured, encompassing spectrums that would normally be considered "noise" (although avoiding feedback and sustained static) if not for the stratification of musical elementsi.e. the careful layering of material through attention to volume and sonic range. Wolman's work seems not so much to be based upon time patternsa beat never drops throughout the entire piece, nor do elements mix into rhythmic structuresas it is upon composing the mix, which calls for a strategic attention to the volume and pulse of each sound. Each track is on average at least nine minutes long and as a whole produces a meditative work which, in its inertia, contains elements of both chaos and calm. The first and title track, "Dangerous Bend," illustrates this principle in its tension-filled sounds that eventually (d)evolve into a bell-like peal that leaves one feeling as if every sound has gone missing without its presence being fully accounted forincluding the deeply buried cello playing by Anton Lukoszevieze. "No Stopping Any Time" begins on the quieter note which "Dangerous Bend" finishes with, modulating cosmic waves of sound at a distance from the listener while introducing event-notes through the sublimated playing of the marimba by Michael Burritt (which is very difficult to hear and is sustained with pops of air punctuating its undulations). "Traffic Circles Ahead" explores the scattered spaces of air-like wraiths of sound, placing the work squarely in the Max/MSP collage of sound designone gets the feeling that samples or generated sounds were run through algorithmic processing effects and tweaked in real-time, perhaps with post-production layering. However, it is "Detour" that reveals the impact of sound through the use of bells in all their splendour, sending echoes and hums into massive and resonant spaces, striking the listener with what I can only describe as a classically positive emotional experiencehints of sentimentality and spiritual ascension, overlain with the dangerous possibilities of the dark and evilin a structurally non-classical and striking work (out of all the tracks, this is certainly my favourite). Finally, "Picnic Site" descends into silence and obscurity, with low harmonics clouding delicate wisps that scrape by at the edge of one's hearing. Overall, the CD feels more like a complete composition than a collection of tracks, and although the soundscapes at times sound rather "classical," close listening reveals a subtlety of texture and sound that is obviously indebted to the software used in its production.
Interface is an apt name for this trio's use of Max/MSP in their creation of the album ./swank. Curtis Bahn and Dan Trueman are post-Princeton graduate students in composition with an obvious flair for the most experimental of avant-garde improv music. After hooking up with Princeton professor Perry Cook, they developed an anarchic system of creating noise using software and acoustic-based instruments. Forsaking melody, rhythm, tone, and perhaps all structures of "music," the trio uses Max/MSP as the interface between their custom-built "sensor" instruments and their custom-built spherical sound system. The "Sensor Bow," "R-Bow," "Sbass" and "DigitalDoo" make no sounds of their own but are wired with sensors that detect all kinds of input: pressure, acceleration, tilt, and touch. The signals are then sent to Max/MSP, which interprets them into sounds which are played through a special, multidirectional spherical speaker system. With a traditional speaker system, they felt that their goal of uniting "direct and immediate musical interaction" with the technology of software was not complete as conventional sound systems created a "sense of disassociation with the music." They then set about modifying speaker systems created by Perry Cook and Dan Nbody so that they "radiated sound in a way similar to natural acoustic instruments." The result, I am sure, is spectacular to hear in a live setting. However, all of their experimentation begs the question as to why they bothered going to all this trouble to attempt to imitate an "acoustic" or "natural" sound when all of the elements are obscurely and academically technological the sensor bows, the software, and the speakers. Is this an attempt to humanize technology, i.e. redefine our relation to technology by artificially creating "natural" interaction? Or is it an attempt to once again reinforce our humanist interpretation of "nature" over "culturally" made objects, thereby doubly-removing ourselves from any sense of "nature" altogether? Isn't the latter critique relying upon "nature" as a point of origin, and for that matter, isn't the entire project? The interface project is paradoxically anti-Futurist, for although it embraces technology in a live and improvisational manner, at the same time it attempts to modify the sonic output into "natural" and "acoustic" categoriesthrough very advanced technology. The paradoxes are unending. Very strange indeed. On the other hand, perhaps the live performanceor playing as a performer in the groupmakes up for the theoretical curiosities. Unfortunately, the CD does not stand up to the array of inventiveness displayed in the construction of the technology. Perhaps this is because these "songs"especially "sphism," the first track are the most difficult piece of "music" I have ever encountered. Or perhaps it is because the somewhat muddled theoretical application of the technology has led to somewhat muddled improv sound collages. At this level of the avant-garde, anything could be "randomly intentional." In any case, the tracks themselves are like Miles Davis' Down on the Corner run through a blender, pasted together with serial notes, deconstructed with a jigsaw hammer you name it, but it just doesn't sound as cool nor have the impact of Davis's seminal album. "sphism" compiles snatches of "violin" or "cello" here and there, but no sense of organisation or any of that "musical" stuff or drones or anything remotely listenable in a comfortable setting. This is uncomfortable music at its best, the musical score to Woody Allen's mindif he wasn't a sexaholic, leaving nothing but the dry husk of psychosis. Sonic chaos theory meets asexual anarchism "spogo" contrasts the madness with a more string-influenced selection, and other tracks take their turns on exploring the processed digital digeridoo and the other instruments; however, each track delves into the same chaotic mess. Although Max/MSP is definitely used in this album, the details as to what it is really doing are hazy, and more time is spent in the liner notes explaining the construction of the "instruments" than how Max interprets the signals, thereby obscuring the central piece of technology in the ensemble. And given that C74 is putting this work out, it would have been more productive to know what role Max/MSP was playinghow was it processing the sounds? How was it responding to the sensors? Overall, the music on this album is academic, obtuse, and difficult, although perhaps intellectually rewarding for a technological fetishist or a real fan of scatological improv. As Todd Burns says of his review of Req's Sketchbook on electronicmusicreviews.com:
Fortunately or unfortunatelyI'll let you decidethe effects of this album come off as the former.
The Freight Elevator Quartet released the first CD on C74's label, and it still remains one of the best, mixing live creations with studio editing in a format which, although "intelligent" in all the right places, gets right down bombastic with pop-refrain breakbeats and melodic synthesizer lines. The CD is a collection of live improv performances over the past three years, and throughout the diverse tracks one can hear a number of instruments: cellos, synthesizers, drum machines, guitars, basses, and of course, the obligatory Max/MSP running off a Powerbook. A straightforward, refrain or melody-based structure anchors each track, which at time sounds like early Massive Attack or Portishead. Relying primarily upon breakbeat and light drum'n'bass drum sequences, the various musical elements interweave themselves much like a classical quartetno surprises here, given the name of the group. However, as one is listening, one cannot but wonder where Max is involved, and how. Is it simply spitting out samples? Providing structure? Adding effects to instruments? The liner notes leave much to be desired in explanation, but leave a clue when they say: "As computers become so immersed in our cultural discourse that they become literally transparent, we're interested in highlighting the juxtaposition of technology with acoustic instrumentation and human improvisation, using electronics and computers in the framework of four people in a band performing on stage." Which means that the computer is becoming ubiquitous in the band as well
A quick trip to Cycling '74's website helped to clear some things up; here you can find interviews with several C74 artists including Luke Dubois of the Freight Elevator Quartet. However, there is no interview with interface. (And although Ben Nevile tells me that interface uses "Max to interpret the messages from their controllers and MSP to synthesize the weirdo sounds," my general critique of the sounds created through this "interface" remains the same). The interview with Luke Dubois reveals that he uses Max/MSP to essentially replace the analogue synthesizers he used to drag around to the Freight shows; and so with this in mind, we can listen to the Freight album and hear Max piping in strange choruses and riffs as a digital laptop instrument. In terms of the creation of the music, Max acts as an agile stand-in for a previously used instrument, and as Dubois notes, as a mysterious object on-stage that mystifies gearheads and audience members alike Dubois uses a Wacom pen-pad to control elements of the waveform, creating a fairly esoteric and non-traditional musical interface that usually mystifies the audience to some degree).
Five Albums and Two Months
It took me over two months to listen to these five albums. There is a large body of work presented here from a diverse array of musicians, and my overall impression is that C74 has put their money where their mouth is by providing a musical outlet for underground and experimental artists; in that sense C74 is furthering the production of such music and fostering a musical community. The caveat remains, however, that one must be using Max/MSP within the performance or the studio at some point to be considered for the series. But given this caveat, I felt like I did not know enough about what Max was doing within the majority of the albums. Kim Cascone's album, by including Max objects on the CD, was the only major step toward allowing the listener to see and understand the technology. And although there is nothing within the liner notes, it is perhaps more generally known that Cascone primarily performs and composes within the Max environment. However, the relation of Max to either the performance or composition of the other artists is obscure at best. Given the context of the series, it would have proved fascinating to give more space to explaining how Max was being used. Obviously, this could not have been done in any serious detail, but even a general description would have benefited the average and curious listener who, and I would say most of the time, cannot hear Max's influence whatsoever. And it must be mentioned that web-research on the Cycling 74 site yields the fruitful interviews with some of the artists. However, for the average listener Max remains the ubiquitous instrument, an overlord of omnipresent technology found in the highest realms of the avant-garde in both electronica and academia. And although this series is a step toward showcasing Max as something much friendlier, Max still comes off as the Holy Grail of music software: only understandable and played by the lucky chosen few, its processes hidden to the uneducated. What we have then, is a musical list of five sermons from Mount 74.