Metabiosis V

A light, sound, and audience environment (1972)

Ron Pellegrino, composer

Metabiosis V is an example of a very early algorithmic composition. During the late 60s-early 70s I thought of what I was doing as integrated multimedia systems design or interactive environmental design. As you can see, Metabiosis V is what would be called an algorithmic composition today.

What follows is a description of the context and process of Metabiosis V. It was taken from my book The Electronic Arts of Sound and Light, published in 1983 by Van Nostrand Reinhold. It's out of print but you should find it in most university libraries. Check it out if you're interested in what performance multimedia was like in the 70s and how it set the stage for today's desktop multimedia scene.

An example of the music of Metabiosis V is included on a CD called Volume 1, The Electronic Arts of Sound and Light: Music for the Book. An audio sample is found with the program notes for its track.


Metabiosis V

The composition is a performance ritual with no beginning, no middle, no end, and no particular duration other than the length of time an individual wants to spend with it; the audience enters and exits at will and its movement determines the phrasing of the music.

Beginning in the late 1960s, various lines of my personal research began to come together in environmental designs that embodied systems of simulated intelligence. The compositions incorporated sensors and transfer functions that interacted with the external environment in ways analogous to living systems. Inspired by the observation that the greatest number and variety of life-promoting forces are always found at the intersections of matrices - the meeting of land and water, weather fronts, multiple subcultures living in proximity - I began work on the Metabiosis Series. The term metabiosis refers to a mode of living in which one organism is dependent on another for the preparation of an environment in which it can live.

The forms of the Metabiosis Series were based on the fundamental principle of the living process, i.e., continual movement created by differences in potential. Healthy natural systems tend to gravitate toward a condition of ideal disorder, a condition that absorbs order from the environment as order-inducing influences of the environment become available in sufficient strength. In such systems absolute equilibrium leads to a condition of absolute repose - death or nothingness. In contrast, life is marked by exchange, communication, response, selection, assimilation, and change.

Metabiosis V was a collaborative work. It was installed in the Fairchild Chapel on the Oberlin College campus in Oberlin, Ohio. The installation ran for two days. The figure above illustrates the connections between light, sound, and audience-induced airflow.

A dark, warm chapel on a cold snowy night in mid-November Ohio. Someone opens the door and warm air rushes out into the night drawing in cold air behind it, creating air currents that spin the large suspended plexiglass lenses shaped by the hands of sculptor Toby Raetze.

High-intensity light flows through the aperture of a small wooden box designed by Raetze to cool an 850-watt bulb quietly, soundlessly, by having hot air exit through a light-tight port on the box top, thereby drawing cool air in its wake across the surface of the hot bulb. (No noisy fans.) The light strikes the lenses. A small percentage of it becomes images reflected by the lenses' surfaces onto the side and back walls of the chapel; the images are subjected to the warping effects of traveling along the varying contours of the rectangular space. A large percentage of the light passes through the lenses and is refracted into ever-changing forms on the front wall.

Distributed along 140 degrees of the front wall are six photoresistors (the light sensing part of the interface), each in circuit with a power supply that provides voltage to be varied according to the intensity of the light striking the photoresistor. These voltages travel by cable to the back of the chapel, where they are fed into the remainder of the interface constructed by engineer Robert Faud to communicate from the light forms to the collection of synthesizers which includes a Moog III, a Buchla Electric Music Box, an ARP 2600, and two Putney VCS-3s. The six channels of the interface produce dynamic scalable voltages that can be applied to any voltage controlled sound variable and/or can be used to produce command pulses by adjusting the threshold levels of trigger circuits reading the voltages. The pulses are used to initiate, change the order, or terminate single events or chains of events; they are also used to change the state and position of pulse driven functions. The circuits or patches on the synthesizers are composed to respond to the translated light information in the domains of frequency, timbre, amplitude, ring, and location modulation, as well as to mix events and control their relative durations.

The phrasing of Metabiosis V is directly influenced by audience flow. The mood of the environment ranges from meditative to frenetic; the greater the audience flow, the more agitated the state of the environment. An often recurring macrophrase structure surfaces during the two-day installation. It begins with a 5 to 10 minute random entrance of the audience that excites the air currents, driving the lenses to produce light images of a frenzied nature, which in turn trigger and create highly complex sound events. A time of complicated sustained activity follows the seating of the audience; then the macrophrase gradually evolves to quieter levels, though often given a brief activity boost by a random entrance or exit of an audience member. After a period of a half to three quarters of an hour, the macrophrase winds down to a level at which the light images change almost imperceptibly, and the only sounds in the space are soft low-frequency thumpings accompanied by nearly inaudible wavetrains coursing through their assigned quad-location paths. Following a meditative period, the length depending upon the disposition of the audience, a new cycle begins, initiated by the changing audience composition.


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