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In 2009, this section of my site, along with a number of others, was extended, developed, polished, and folded into my latest project, Emergent Music And Visual Music: Inside Studies. The new project includes a book, a set of four DVDs, soon to be released CDs, and, eventually to be released, Part 4 featuring the writings and compositions of other artists in field. For more details on the project, go to its Introduction.

Compositional Algorithms as Cyberspirit Attractors

Compositional Algorithms as Cyberspirit Attractors

Ron Pellegrino, October 27, 1998

The premise.

Approaching the design of compositional algorithms as complex systems modeled on organic life processes is a powerful method for creating the right conditions for attracting the presence of cyberspirits. When compositional algorithms generate dynamical systems that jell appropriately, it seems sometimes that the cyberspirits enter from the ether to join in play; other times it seems cyberspirits assume their ephemeral forms by emerging from the very natures of the sound and light instruments and tools whether they be hardware or software.

The search for compositional algorithms that work in this sphere is a metaphysical pursuit that is more mystical art than hard science; nevertheless, observation, the key ingredient in science research, is crucial to the discovery, development and evolution of effective compositional algorithms. Initially, very often serendipitous functional combinations will produce dynamical events that seem to attract only the toes of cyberspirits. With a patient experimental (scientific) approach, emerging compositional algorithms can be pushed and pulled into systems of sufficient complexity and refinement such that cyberspirits will build an attachment to them and return to play through them at a moment's notice. Some of the cyberspirits that join me in my public performance-multimedia events of the late 1990s are old friends, such as the Laser Seraphim that I met in the mid 1970s when I began my work with animated laser visual music meditations. The search for compositional algorithms that work as cyberspirit attractors provides fascination without end. It's also the perfect litmus test for separating the mystics from the mundane.

A temporary caveat.

This is an essay I'll post in modules until I've exhausted my knowledge of the subject or the subject exhausts me. There's no good reason to rush this piece to completion yet I'd like to post it sooner rather than later. So my compromise is to post it in its emerging states and, as time and inspiration permit, to refine and add to it periodically. Until it's complete, module names/links will appear in date marked module groups.

October 26, 1998 Module Group

Definition of a compositional algorithm
Definition of a cyberspirit
Cyberspirit retaliation
Requirements for cyberspirit attractors
Compositional algorithms as teachers
Cyberspirit sensitives
Cyberspirit tests
Dawning awareness of cyberspirits
Path to compositional algorithms
Synthesizers as crystallized and embedded spirits
Sound and image design
Integrated approaches to algorithmic composition

Definition of a compositional algorithm.

In a living language flavors of meaning emerge from context. When I use the expression compositional algorithm I'm referring to a more or less complex system composed of a pliable network that includes:

  1. generative and control functions,
  2. internal and external influences, modifiers, and drivers, and
  3. feedback loops

all working together in an integrated process to create a dynamical structure with life-like properties that include macrostructural predictability and reliability built upon a substructure characterized by ebb and flow, variable windows on indeterminacy, and controllable volatility. Whether the technology in the network is analog, digital, hybrid, or biological matters not at all.

Such an algorithm is also either:

  1. open to being performed in an interactive way by an individual, a group, or an environment, or
  2. once initiated, behaves as if it's deciding by itself how it should evolve based on the nature of its design.

Such compositional algorithms are not intended to generate any of the traditional notation symbols found in western music scores. Rather they are intended to generate dynamical sound and light structures that communicate information that carries the sense of being alive.

Because of the high order of their interactive complexity, such compositional algorithms do not lend themselves to a simple step-by-step analysis or complete flow chart representation. Though often built up in modules that are individually accessible by analysis and flow chart representation, the complete structure, because it's multidimensionally interactive, is best analyzed (as well as sculpted) based on the nature and quality of its output rather than the individual natures of its unintegrated parts.

Such compositional algorithms create problems not in search of solutions but in search of observers, thinkers, and players who enjoy unusual and possibly new wrinkles.

Definition of a cyberspirit.

Cyberspirits are presences that more or less inhabit technological systems depending upon the consciousness levels of the original creators of the technology and the attitudes of the users of the technology. Though normally recognized only by sensitives, cyberspirits affect all who work with technology. Most people intuitively understand their relationships with their technology; those who fear or disrespect technology will always have difficult technical problems whereas those who accept and respect it tend to find its natural idiosyncratic paths, including, when necessary, its "workarounds" to seemingly unsolvable problems. Like other more obviously living systems one's technology will absorb, reflect, and feed back the care, attention, and respect given to it just as a mate, a friend, a pet, or a plant would.

Cyberspirit retaliation.

Recently I attended a San Francisco North Bay Multimedia Association presentation by Ted Nelson, the computer communications pioneer, that served as a perfect illustration of what can happen to anyone, including those whose life's work is bound up with technology, who shows a wanton disrespect for his technological tools. Ted Nelson made only disparaging references to the "tekkie outlook", technology in general, and the technology he was using in his presentation; in retaliation that technology nipped at his heels and coughed in his face from the beginning to the end of his presentation - his lavaliere microphone was intermittent all night long; his sound system decided to ring from time to time; his portable computer misbehaved like a spoiled child in a candy shop; and his data projector would switch off the computer input at the most crucial times. And Ted Nelson's young whiz computer technician was at a complete loss. For a cyberspirit sensitive it was a most instructive evening. Here was a man who was recently awarded the Yuri Rubinsky Memorial Web Award at the 7th International World Wide Web Conference for lifetime achievement in the "care and feeding" of the global information infrastructure and there was the technology he disparaged yet had to use in his presentation doing everything it possible could to undermine his delivery of information. No surprise.

Requirements for cyberspirit attractors.

In the sphere of cyberspirit attractors, the most effective algorithms are those inspired by or similar in structure to natural processes such as the weather on a local or global scale, bodies or rivers of water interacting with both the weather and the topography, flexible social systems, a garden's growing season, a compost heap, solar storms and storm cycles, and the like. Without exception the best compositional algorithms are modeled on life processes.

To be effective as cyberspirit attractors compositional algorithms (systems) need to be malleable such that all variables are instantaneously tweakable; the variables must be available to be tuned both coarsely and finely, on the fly, in a quasi-conversational mode until the cyberspirit contact threshold is sensed, at which point the cyberspirit forms can begin to either enter into visual dance or music dialogues with people or to be left to their own devices to carry on monologues that deliver information only available through the direct experience of those monologues.

Compositional algorithms as teachers.

Since 1967, in addition to play-driven dialogues with compositional algorithms, I've spent countless hours observing by ear and eye the monologues of algorithms as they generated sound and light expressions of their changing natures while I experimented with adjusting the algorithms' variables individually and in combinations. All I know of the electronic arts of sound and light came by way of those experimental algorithmic expressions. In the realm of the electronic arts of sound and light, compositional algorithms are far and away the best teachers. Compared to the expressive processes generated by compositional algorithms the products (the recorded pieces) are no more than selected droppings.

Cyberspirit sensitives.

The threshold at which cyberspirit contact is made is self-evident for those with a metaphysical or mystical bent - for want of a better expression, call those individuals cyberspirit sensitives. The contact threshold is reached when the sound and/or light structures begin to come alive taking the forms that cyberspirit sensitives intuitively recognize as intelligence. The cyberspirit contact threshold is normally a range and not just a single point. The greater the number of variables that are tweaked to take on life-like characteristics the stronger the attractive nature of the algorithm is to cyberspirits and the stronger the sense of cyberspirit presence. Of course in terms of adding variables there's always a point of diminishing returns; the art of creating compositional algorithms is bound up with having a keen sense of how to balance variable boundaries - those uncharted brackets that mark the divisions between enough, not enough, and too many variables.

Cyberspirit tests.

Since the late 1960s I've invited many musicians, visual artists, scientists, academics, and students into my studios to demonstrate the work I do with emerging technology and the arts. I use those visits to test exploratory materials by observing the responses of the visitors to the materials. I always test recently completed compositional modules that I'm considering integrating into my public performance events. I also test experimental creative processes and the thinking involved in them. Over the decades what I've noticed is that the presence of mechanically minded visitors (mainly academics and scientists) invariably creates an environment that gets stuck on literal and technical matters whereas the presence of those open to flights of fancy, musing, and wondering often leads to the best conditions for attracting Cyberspirits. Like so many other experiences in life the foundation for the Cyberspirit experience depends on attitude - in this case whether the visitors "have eyes to see and ears to hear." After decades of such testing I can determine the attitude of most people to the Cyberspirit experience just by looking at them; surprises come most often from youngsters and mixed groups, small or large.

Dawning awareness of cyberspirits.

It took several years of work, play, and exploration before I noticed that cyberspirits were attracted to my compositional algorithms. I became aware of the presence of cyberspirits through the eyes of people attending to my early synthesizer demonstrations, listening to the sounds I created, and looking at the corresponding images on the oscilloscope, especially the Lissajous figures. The response of those people helped me make the leap from seeing oscillographic imagery as simply functional to seeing the imagery as archetypal. Breaking free of the academic mechanical mindset made it possible for me to enter the mystical realm where music is the foundation for all life forms, physical and metaphysical. Nobody explains this idea better than Inayat Khan in his book The Mysticism of Sound and Music.

Path to compositional algorithms.

The path that led me to working with compositional algorithms began in 1967 with my entry into the world of modular systems design, the world of analog sound synthesizers consisting of collections of small modular units that served to generate, modify, sequence, and mix waveforms as well as to initiate, shape, and sequence envelopes. Even though I had studied a good number of acoustic instruments from all the major families, when I decided to take on learning the Moog Synthesizer as part of my dissertation project I was confronted for the first time in my life with an instrument that was designed to create instruments; and that was done with the available set of modular functions that shaped voltage over time which gave rise to analogous sound shapes (analog sound).

Although there was no instructional material for the Moog at the time I began my work, it quickly became clear to me that to make music with the Moog meant to create instruments by designing systems or configurations of modules that were performable in a musical way. So I spent nine months with a decent stereo sound system and a dual trace oscilloscope exploring the ins and outs of all the wavetrain generation and modification functions of all the modules on the Moog; the log of what I learned from that process became one-third of my dissertation project as well as the basic text for the Moog Synthesizer. Another third of the project was an orchestra of 110 instruments (musically performable systems) that I designed to compose and perform the music for the final third of the project, a multimedia music drama called The Tale of the Silver Saucer and the Transparent Apple.

Synthesizers as crystallized and embedded spirits.

When considering the notion of cyberspirit it's helpful to view synthesizers as instruments that contain the crystallized and embedded spirits of those who created them. This is not a farfetched idea to anyone who has ever designed and constructed anything either alone or in collaboration. The care and attention of an individual or group always show in how well a construction functions and wears; and idiosyncratic details set one construction apart from another. Especially with emerging technology in the arts, personality and creative perspective are sure to show in instrumental tone and bias. What happened in the mid 1960s with music synthesizers is a perfect example. During the same period with very similar general conceptual influences Robert Moog and his collaborators created a synthesizer with a strong East Coast bias whereas Donald Buchla and his collaborators created a synthesizer with a decidedly West Coast flair. Though they were based on the same set of fundamental acoustic and electronic principles, there were significant differences in how those synthesizers sounded, looked, and were played and that was due to the different regional personality types and cultural biases of the groups that influenced the design of those synthesizers.

Because I find it immensely instructive and inspiring to see through the eyes and hear through the ears of the creators of emerging art technology, my studios are always populated by synthesizer collections (hardware and software) that cover the gamut of synthesis techniques and instrumental interfaces. My favorite compositional game is to search for the "voice" or personality of a synthesizer. Rather than forcing a synthesizer to do what I want, I work to discover what's "natural" for the synthesizer to do. That attitude stems from my education as a composer of acoustic music that included private instruction in all the orchestral instrumental families so as to understand from a performer's viewpoint what was special and idiomatic about all the acoustic instruments.

Sound and image design.

What's called "sound or image design" in the 1990s is what was called "instrument design" in the 1960s - different instruments (hardware and/or software) create different sounds or images...different sounds or images are created by different instruments. Synthesizer presets, both in software and hardware, should be considered sound or image designs or instrument designs. In the 1990s, thanks to outstanding tools and widespread instruction in sound and image design, there are numerous excellent sound and image designers working in the synthesizer industry and their creations grace synthesizers of all price ranges with especially fine designs found from the middle price range upwards. With the uniquely voiced and sculpted presets of the 1990s, synthesizers almost amount to a cyberspirit light or sound band in a box. With a new synthesizer my first project is always a leisurely journey through the presets discovering their voices so as to meet and play with the cyberspirits of their creators.

Integrated approaches to algorithmic composition.

For holistic integrated algorithmic approaches to composition that are targeted at attracting cyberspirits, algorithmic thinking is best applied to all aspects of the compositional work including sound and image synthesis and production, compositional structure, performance handles, composition-to-audience communication channels, and the correlation of sound, image, performability, microstructural behavior, and macrostructural evolution. Among the most fruitful models for such algorithms are organic systems that are readily observable in the course of one's everyday life simply by being open to the myriad currents and patterns that create the web of life. For more information on this subject see my essay on Patterns in Nature: Rhythms of Life.

For compositional examples see the following:
Metabiosis V
Taoist Magic Figures
Animated Laser Visual Music Meditations

To be continued...

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