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Anathem launch and CD availability

A picture taken by Toasty at the Anathem launch.

A picture taken by Kenneth Lu at the Anathem launch.

The Long Now Foundation hosted the launch event for Anathem on Tuesday evening in San Francisco, and as part of that event, I had the good fortune to present some of the Anathem math-music, live. All of the singers enjoyed having the opportunity to act as avout ambassadors to the event, and we appreciated the good will of the audience, which seemed to enjoy our performances despite having to endure some long delays and some pretty drastic problems with the sound system. I was impressed, in particular, with the spirited participation in our experiments at creating Turing machines and cellular automata directly out of the attendees themselves. Thanks to all who participated!

In Pursuit of Mysteries has a very nice write-up of the musical side of the event, complete with tasteful pictures of our stylish bolts (whose wrapping techniques were developed by Domini). The martial arts demonstration was also pretty fun, as shown in Kenneth Lu’s Flickr set, which captures some of the dangerous moves. Oh, and did I mention that Neal Stephenson, Danny Hillis, and Stewart Brand were in dialogue? They said some pretty interesting things as well!

I’ve received several inquiries about availability of the Anathem CD in the wake of this event. The copies that were available for purchase at the performing hall had just arrived from manufacturing on Tuesday, and copies from that batch are now available at the store at the Fort Mason pier. As soon as CD Baby has processed the CDs, they will also be available there and for electronic distribution. Meanwhile, you can also listen to most of the tracks as MP3 files, which are posted at the Anathem book site.

Despite the availability of the MP3 files, I still encourage you to buy the CD, since all of the profits from their sale go to the Long Now and also because the sound quality is better! The CD also contains a long and beautiful additional track for women’s voices, which is similar to the meditative duet that was performed Tuesday night.

Thanks to everyone at the Long Now Foundation who worked so hard to make this event possible.

mohr mascheroni – math in the music of Anathem

Many people who have heard pieces from the Anathem music project might think that the music is simply a fiction that accompanies the book, and that the science-related titles are a fanciful nod to the plot. As the composer, I certainly hope that the music stands on its own in this way, but for the geeks among us, I also think that I ought to explain that there is another level to the music. Most of the pieces are direct attempts at mapping mathematical structures used or named in the book into music.

Geometry is one of several mathematical disciplines that has proven fruitful during these experiments. Abstract musical space already contains common notions that relate directly to geometry: “line,” “point,” and “musical shape” are all commonly used terms for speaking about music. There are also less obvious, but still pertinent, concepts that map onto other important geometric entities, such as musical “events,” which map onto incidence, and various musical equivalence relations, which can map to congruence and similarity. The world of music has turned out to be a perfect fit for many forms of geometry: finite projective geometries, differential geometries, and non-euclidean geometries all relate well. I have experimented with each of these while attempting to fuse music, music history, math, and SF.

The most familiar of all geometries, however, plane old Euclidean geometry, has turned out to be a harder fit. And for reasons that will be obvious to those who have read Anathem, Euclidean geometry was important to me. An interpretation of the Adrakhonic Theorem (which on Earth goes by the moniker of “the Pythagorean Theorem”) seemed like required programming for inclusion on the IOLET CD. I tried a number of approaches to setting Euclid’s own proof to music (it is often called the “bride’s chair proof” for reasons that are lost to history), but none seemed entirely satisfactory. I even began setting of an entire book from his Elements, in order to derive a musical language.

In retrospect, the factor that held me back was the problem of accurately representing length, which is central to Euclidean geometry, in the musical system. Certainly music has many different notions of length or distance, rhythm being one, interval another, but I found that to make these useful when doing musical geometry, more resolution and range was necessary than the listening and/or performing brain could handle. Hearing simple units when expressed as rhythms was not a problem, but more detailed roots and ratios (which are definitely needed to work the Pythagorean Theorem) needed more resolution, and the notion of rhythmic length was not up to the  task. Interval seemed a better choice, but by using interval to show length I bolloxed up the rest of the mapping: the representation of shapes then became difficult. One of my goals for this project was to try for morphisms resulting in music that humans can relate to, both in terms of performance and in terms of listening, and I was not succeeding. I wanted a generalizable construct immediately recognizable as a simple geometric shapes, but I couldn’t seem to make this work.

Enter Lorenzo Mascheroni. Lorenzo Mascheroni was an eighteenth-century mathematician who rediscovered what Georg Mohr seems to have known 125 years earlier but not received credit for: that any Euclidean construction can be executed using a compass alone. (Mascheroni has a name that is not an English homonym – hence my choice of naming conventions to Mohr’s detriment.) Mascheroni constructions can be visually quite complicated, but their layers of circles upon circles often paint a graceful picture, and significantly for me, they also translate into music more pleasingly than do measured line segments. A Euclidean construction can be seen as points of incidence and lengths, rather than lines. (Remember elementary school now: “two points define a line,” etc, etc.)

The compass is an instrument of measurement. A circle is nothing more than the sweeping out of a uniform distance from a center. So to sing a circle, one needs a center and a distance. I chose to represent musical circles as symmetric scales or patterns that revolve around a central pitch, repeating themselves over and over. More importantly, one don’t need no stinking straightedges or lines or triangles in a world of circles and points! As a result, I was able to draw the points needed for the Bride’s Chair Proof by starting with a single point and a single circle. (I’ve embedded the diagram below in this post.)

Mascheroni Circles

Mascheroni Circles

Armed with the construction, I then prepared to turn it into music by doing an analysis of the centers, radii, and incidences involved. In this particular construction, there were 22 circles and 22 important points. Some of the points were shared by many circles, some not. Some of the points were meetings between circles, some acted only as centers, and some fulfilled both functions. I created a chart based on this information, and started fitting musical patterns to the elements of the chart. And lo, after a few iterations, I had musical elements that were very pleasing to my own ear! As a final nod to the avout, I then turned these musical elements into a game that might be played by fids learning the Adrakhonic Proof. In this game, the musical circles are provided on the page, along with the points within them that are important. Finding the path through them, however, is left as a cooperative exercise to the performers. (See the score for details.)

[audio:circlesexcerpt.mp3|titles=Mascheroni Circles (excerpt)|artists=David Stutz]

To my ears, the performance by Linda Strandberg, Melissa Plagemann, and Rebekah Gilmore on the CD is mesmerizing, and it demonstrates that purely mathematical structures can work well as the basis for music. Click on the arrow above to hear an excerpt from the beginning of this performance. The whole piece is fourteen minutes long, and can be found on IOLET::Music from the World of Anathem.

RADIUS unplugged

Over the weekend, Perri and I performed a new piece at Seattle’s “Arts in Nature Festival.” As is usual in Seattle, this site-specific piece was performed in a steady rain, but fortunately for us, our venue was inside a large geodesic dome in the center of a meadow. While the rain kept the number of participants low, it did created a pleasant background noise on the vinyl surface of the dome.

The 32 points of the compass.

Because of the nature of the site, there was no power in the dome, and so rather than using our normal electronic setup, Perri and I decided to do a totally acoustic ambient piece, using passersby as our source of sound. Perri has a work-in-progress that involves “boxing the compass,” or reciting the points of the compass in order. Not only is this act full of symbol and meaning, but it is also a beautiful source of sound, since there are a small number of familiar words repeated in many combinations. We decided to use this as the sonic palette. As for the structure of the piece, I have been working with simple automata to generate music for the last several years, and so we decided to use an automaton similar to a Turing machine to generate the piece’s triggers.

We were both pleased with the result – I’ve put the score online so that folks can see how it worked, as well as a small excerpt from the performance which follows. (The sound quality is not great, but you can certainly hear the rain pelting down…)

[audio:24aug2008_excerpt.mp3|titles=Boxing the Compass (excerpt)|artists=RADIUS]

Click on the arrow to listen to a few moments of this half-hour piece.

blurbing in America

In Cappella Romana, one of the ensembles that I sing with regularly, we have always been fiercely proud of the review that once branded us “hopelessly arcane,” and then went on to praise the performance so described.

It is in this vein that I cannot resist linking to Steven Levy’s great profile of Neal Stephenson at Wired, in order to capture the short blurb that it contains for my music:

“to the untrained ear it sounds like the neo-Gregorian chanting that accompanies ritual baby sacrifice in horror films”

Adding this to Al Billings’ “weird shit” and Cory Doctorow’s “spooky” and I’m starting to think a horror film soundtrack should be my next project. I’ve always loved performing vocal special effects for horror movies and singing on their over-the-top scores, so why not?

Just for the record, there are plenty of rituals and many kinds of sacrifice in Anathem, but none of them involve babies. Not in that way, at least.

the RADIUS of fourstones

In RADiUS, Perri Lynch and I massage field recordings into electronic collages, live. To accomplish the live resampling part of this process, I use Ableton Live. It has a wonderfully simple user interface that is geared towards performing musicians who use samples, rather than towards engineers who think that forcing musicians to think like engineers is the way to make music. (Not that engineering isn’t important! It just isn’t the correct way to approach the right-brain activity of live performance and improvisation.) Ableton has been my favorite piece of software for last 3 years running, despite the appearance of many other interesting software works such as the massively refurbished Max/MSP, Processing, the horribly flawed but nontheless interesting ChucK, and other worthy digital media thingies that I will someday post about.

Victor Stone sits in with RADIUS

Victor Stone sits in with RADIUS

This week, my good friend Victor Stone, aka fourstones, was visiting Seattle. Back in the day, Victor taught me why samples are musically interesting and how to work with them, and he continues to preach this message as the man behind the excellent Creative Commons remix site ccMixter. He is also musically fearless and a big Ableton fan, and so we decided to plug him into the board at RADIUS world headquarters. It was a lot of fun, and Victor contributed a whole different layer – the photodoc is attached, and I grabbed a recording off of the board for later.

The trouble started when we tried to go to a less ambient and more beat-driven jam. I had neglected to bring an extra midi interface so that Victor’s laptop could slave to mine, or vice versa. What we were proposing to do was not rocket science: “let’s all play at 82 bpm,” says Victor. A musically simple idea, and one that 3 acoustic players would intuitively do without having to mention tempo or to speak about anything. But we knew right away that we were screwed – the current state of the art in laptop synchronization is to use one of several similar synchronization protocols, and if you don’t have the network connection, it is impossible to get your downbeats together, much less to change tempo together or to follow an acoustic musician’s lead. Pretty lame, eh?

I’ve seen a number of experimental DIY ways to synchronize laptop music with the real world, and I’ve used both transient detection and video tracking for this purpose myself, both of which sort of worked. The current state of the art in the commercial packages such as Ableton is “tap time, nudge the tempo, and pray,” which doesn’t work at all. But given that Ableton already has fantastic support for beat morphing, resampling, and recording external input, why not sniff that external input for a beat?  Ableton designers, take note: it would be a very cool feature indeed to allow synchronization with human musicians!

Kidnapping Bottled Water

I’m singing in the premiere of Byron Au Yong’s epic performance piece “Kidnapping Water: Bottled Operas” and tomorrow is the first day of our site-specific performances. There are 64 different sites involved in this piece – Byron is clearly fearless when it comes to logistics. Each site for this particular incarnation of the piece is a body of water in King County, Washington. When I say “body of water,” that includes man-made features such as fountains or culverts in addition to rivers, lakes, stream, and ocean.

The beautiful music that Byron has written is a set of very carefully crafted vignettes; each of the 64 miniatures is set for a single singer and a percussionist, and the percussionist uses his hands or implements made from natural materials to play the water found at the site. For this go, each singer has 16 pieces to learn. They are all quite different, and the longest that I have is probably five minutes. With pieces that short, in locations as unusual as we will be using, it should be clear that this is guerrilla art: you won’t find yourself trundling off to Echo Lake in order to wait around to hear me sing for three minutes. Like all good guerrilla art, this piece is political, taking on the issues that surround bottled water – world water supply, haves versus have-nots, indestructible plastic garbage, the destruction of our natural resources, etc.

The piece will be performed again as part of the Bumbershoot Festival, and the archival materials from both performances, such as sound recording, photographs, video, and water samples, will be used to create an installation piece at Jack Straw New Media Gallery that will be up in September. Besides tomorrow’s performance, I will be out and about, singing, on 16 August, so watch for me in your local bog, fountain, or watering trough! (Not kidding – I will perform in all of these…)

Musical scores used in the Anathem music project

I’ve put together an RSS feed that contains some of the musical scores written for the Anathem music project, some of which didn’t make it to the CD. They are licensed using a Creative Commons “Attribution Non-commercial Share-alike” license, so try them out! (And let me know if you do – I’d love to hear other interpretations.)

Long Now Foundation to host Anathem launch

The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco has announced that they will hold the book launch for Anathem. This event will include some of the music from IOLET, performed live by a small group of singers.

Smackdown! Tallis Scholars versus Tudor Choir

OK, maybe it is a little nicer than a smackdown…

Every year since 2004, Peter Phillips has brought his Tallis Scholars Summer School to Seattle, and every year the Tudor Choir has been invited to collaborate in producing the opening concert of Renaissance vocal polyphony at St. James Cathedral.

Four of the singers from The Tallis Scholars join around a dozen singers from The Tudor Choir under Peter’s direction this year for a concert of English music. I always enjoy singing this concert – the slightly different vocal composition of the group, and Peter’s insights into the music, make for a fun and fresh way to revisit the classic repertoire. This year, for example, we will do Verbum Caro by John Sheppard, which is a monumental and familiar piece; the opportunity to perform such a work with these folks is exciting. Now if I can just lobby for Media Vita next year…

Anathem advance reader edition

Thanks to Al Billings, who posted on his blog about the CD of music that was included in the Anathem ARC. His description of my music: “weird shit”, I take as high praise. He’s right about the Asian throat-singing influences. The mystery language is Orth, of course!

Thanks also to Cory Doctorow and Joey deVilla, whose subsequent postings on BoingBoing and on AccordianGuy did wonders for my traffic here.