Saturday, November 29, 2008

Arvo Pärt and tintinnabulation

My experience singing in choirs, my love for jazz and 20th century harmony, always led me to love some of the more, shall we say, difficult 20th and 21st century choral composers. Arvo Pärt is certainly one of them. Every composer gets criticism, especially those who are recognized before they are dead. I don't really care much about such controversy, I just love his sacred choral works.

It is not often that something described as minimalism gets across such intense passion. And it is not often that such intense passion actually enables genuine meditation. So I just have to do a little bit of praising this man's work. Pärt is an Estonian composer living in Germany. Do a google search for more, but the Wikipedia article on him is helpful.

Right now I am listening to his setting of St. John Chrysostom's Litany for the hours for monks. First of all, you simply have the awe-inspiring words of the saint himself "even if I had not done anything good before Thee, do Thou help me, in Thy grace, to make a good beginning." It reminds me of St. Benedict's Rule, "always we begin again." Moreover, "O Lord, implant in me the root of all good - Thy fear in my heart." Finally, I am just struck by:

O Lord, shelter me from certain men,
from demons and passions,
and from any other unbecoming thing.

I love the possible play on words with the adjective "certain" modifying "men." I love the patristic angelology here clearly and analogically (organically?) linking the fallen angels to the vices (passions outside of rational control). I love the simultaneous domestication of the demonic and the archetypal amplification of simple, human bad habits.

But then it is not just the words, of course, but the kind of powerful pulsating choral phrasing that Pärt devises for setting them. He rolls eastern, Byzantine and Russian-style chant with 20th century harmony through the focusing lens of his minimalist "tintinnabulation." I couldn't find a public mp3 of the above piece, but the following should give an idea of the general technique, and will, hopefully, convey some of its power:

Check out this website, Arvo Pärt Website, dedicated to Pärt and the free mp3 samples available there.

So, "tintinnabulation" is this great word that Pärt invented to describe a technique he stumbled upon to generate, in a minimalist fashion, these kinds of simple chant-like patterns that achieve meditative (in their simplicity) emotional depth (in their harmonic complexity). Here is how the Wikipedia article about it describes it: "tintinnabular music is characterized by two types of voices, the first of which (dubbed the "tintinnabular voice") arpeggiates the tonic triad, and the second of which moves diatonically in stepwise motion."

I practiced this the other day with my wife. I sang the arpeggiation of the tonic triad in solfège and she simply went up and down the scale in solfège. The result was suddenly "Pärt"!

There is so much to say and medidate on with regards to Pärt and tintinnabulation, but I'd like to end this accolade by relating it back to another major focus of my web log: the monome. I am not a programmer (yet), but a dabbler. I simply appreciate and make use, in my minimal way, of the great wealth of monome applications shared among the monome community out there. But it seems to me that this technique of tintinnabulation is just perfect for mapping to the "decoupled grid" that is the monome! (Sacred) minimalist technique meets (technological) minimalist interface! I've even got a name for it: "tintinnabulome," of course. It seems that something like Stretta's Polygomé, blended with his Cygnet could pull this off: set up the tintinnabular chord voicing with one"hold," then, with another "hold," or, perhaps in another "frame" set up the undulating scale. Of course, different modes and chordal possibilities could be offered, like tritones and the like.

I am serious: is there anyone out there in the monome community who can program and would like to take this on? Creative commons attribution on the name, "tintinnabulome," and then share it with all! Anyone? Stretta? And, Stretta, if you are interested, don't forget that I only have a 64! Thanks for reading and thanks for the support.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Aristotle meets the monome

Aristotle's metaphysics, like Plato's, and like the basic world-view of most of the ancients, assumed that there were realities that transcended the material and human. And for both of them, forms, or, what I want to call "patterns," were more real than matter, or "stuff." The key difference between these two thinkers being that, if a certain pattern was not currently found actually shaping something (some stuff), then, for Aristotle, it simply no longer existed.

Now, I am more a Platonist myself; and I like the idea of patterns, as higher ontologically than stuff, actually somehow existing whether or not they are currently shaping anything at all, or not. Nevertheless, when it comes to the monome, I love the beautiful and kind of melancholy seriousness of Aristotle's ephemeral patterns.

Now here is the question: which is the pattern: the monome grid, or the given software application running with the monome at a given time? I think there is an analogy from Aristotelian metaphysics to working with the monome and I want to draw it out. Same question from the other side: what is the stuff, the mater (the prime material): is it the actual physical equipment of the monome, or, again, is it the application?

One thing I know, the concrete instance is the resulting music, design, or what-have-you output of the artist's creativity. Which, I suppose, makes the artist or musician a kind of demiurge. Is this poesis or mimesis? Oh, boy, I need to slow down.

Look, here is what I am really meditating on right now that I think is so cool. It seems to me that at least a significant part of the beauty of the monome as a minimalist interface is the way in which it so clearly embodies (at least analogically) this Aristotelian paradoxical intuition of both the primacy of pattern over material and, nevertheless, the fleeting nature of the pattern. The pattern, for Aristotle, although higher, has this kind of dependence upon stuff, material, the lower.

A recent discussion in the monome community asked this question: which is coolest about the monome: the interface itself, or the amazing user-developed and community-shared applications? Now, someone commenting in this discussion quite definitively stated that it was the interface, giving the example of a certain program (mlr) and saying that it would be horrible, on, say, a traditional keyboard. True enough. And yet, if I remember my monome history correctly, Tehn invented the monome to realize certain musical ideas that he had envisioned. So now which is it?

Here is where I want to loop back to my previous theoria post and remember that the monome, without an application and its creative user, is really nothing. But not "nothing" in the sense of absence; rather, "nothing" in the sense of possibility. The monome as interface is the possibility (literally, the matrix) for the artist (demiurge) to forge new pattern possibilities. So now we have pattern (pater), matrix (mater), and creator (demiurge). Wow, this is starting to move beyond Aristotle, and get kind of theogonical. Cool.

At least in terms of its musical application, being "freed from the comfortable tyranny of the piano keyboard where . . . hands fall into comfortable patterns" (as sagely stated by Stretta while describing one of his early and beautiful applications, fourths), means the freedom to generate music in new directions, directly exploring the nature of music as itself beauty in pattern formation, dissolution, combination and reformation. The beauty of the monome is that of a minimalist interface that enables maximalist results (if desired).

So, I still haven't answered any of my above questions. But I have begun a fun line of meditation. Thanks for following and thanks for the support.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Some initial dabbling with my monome

Some initial dabblings from Tetramorph on Vimeo.

Okay, here are some initial dabblings with my new monome 64, driving my Prophet 600 through Stretta's polygome application on max runtime. The audio is then processed through my KP3 Kaoss Pad.

This improv represents exactly why I wanted to get back to music and rebuild a project studio. Real time modification of a sequence - so that my hands are free from the synth keyboard, real time effects processing and analog synthesis. This video concentrates on the monome and the KP3, so when I am not active there, that means I am probably doing something on the board of my Prophet.

Okay, so I'm still pretty low-tech: sorry! This is just my dear wife volunteering to capture me on our pretty decent little digital camera acting as a pretty poor tiny camcorder. So, of course, the sound capture is horrible. I know you all can insert a little imagination and hear how great it really was (I hope).

Problems I've got to work on: recording quality audio when I capture this kind of video, and taking video that neither glares the surface of the KP3 nor is so dark that very little can be discerned (as is the case here).

Oh, well. I still wanted to share this joy of mine. So I hope you enjoy. Thanks!

Friday, November 14, 2008

One hour with monome and Logic Express

So here is what one can do in one hour at an Apple Store "One on One."

I have signed up for the Apple Store "One on Ones" and, not to be an endorsement or an ad, but, wow, I am glad I did. I'm really slowly gaining facility with Logic Express after not having been a garage band synthesist for almost 15 years! It is a joy to be back in music again.

So I met the teenager that was going to tutor me and I said: "Okay, here is the goal, by the time we are out of here we will have laid down tracks, we'll have an intro and a vamp and we'll bounce it to iTunes so I can share it on my blog." The kid was great and took me right through it.  He was a little trepidatious when I pulled out the monome, but was relieved when he discovered that I had done my homework and had already set it up to sync with Logic, etc.  At any rate, he could recognize "cool" when he saw it!

Now the piece, admittedly, leaves something to be desired. But, at least for me, it bears the hope of future glory. I am using a generic rhythm bed from Ultrabeat. I've got a bass tone from the ESM and I'm triggering it with Stretta's Press Cafe. The treble tone is from the ES2 and it is being triggered by Stretta's Polygome. The result is not unpleasant!

I plan to go back in, add some variation to it (ABACA), and choose a better matching rhythm bed. I'll post it when I've bounced it.

Thanks for listening and thanks for the encouragement!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Towards a philosophy of monome, or, how I learned to stop worrying and love minimalism

What is the monome? What does it do? What sounds does it make?

These are questions I get when I try to explain the monome and my love of it to most folks: friends, family, etc.

How can I explain how cool it is?

The monome 64 is a box. It is approximately 6" X 6" X 1.5." Without a computer that supports USB, that is all it is.

But not exactly. The monome is beautiful. It is itself an example of minimalist design done right. Very mod, it is made of handcrafted wood with a Mondrian-like grid of translucent silicon buttons placed within a punched grate of brushed metal. So it is art. You could, in the right place, hang it up on the wall.

Let's say, however, that we do have a computer that supports USB. Now what? The monome is now a box with the electronic capacity to send digital data regarding the pushing of its buttons to the computer. It is also capable of receiving, independently from such button pushing, signal to illumine the LED lights that back-light the various translucent silicon buttons.

And that is it. That is all the monome does. Which is just short of saying that it does nothing. And that is exactly where possibility enters.

The monome makes no sounds (intentionally); is not, of itself, a musical instrument, etc. What it makes, in the minds and hands of those capable, is possibility.

To those that would like the concrete before I wax philosophic, the monome is an interface or alternative controller, that allows for a near infinite possibility of user-designed and community shared software applications. If you want it to send MIDI data (info from a computer that triggers a synthesizer) then you can. If you want it for graphic design, there you have it. To trigger and modify sequences of musical patterns in real-time. To generate arpeggios, undulating recursive patterns - its up to the programmer.

In an important sense, the monome is neither the almost numbingly simple hardware, nor is it the near infinitely possible software - monome - is what happens when a creative mind brings the two (hardware and software) together in order to bring something new into the world. In order to generate unique (and sometimes unrepeatable) patterns of beauty.

So before this gets theological I will conclude by saying that I need some Aristotelian metaphysics at this point. And end it now with the intention: more to come . . .

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The monome arrives!

The monome arrives from Tetramorph on Vimeo.

The UPS van could not have arrived any later. But arrive it did. Here is a little slideshow to share with you some of the joy of receiving my monome 64. Even the packaging is art! Music by one of the monome community's pillars, stretta (creative commons).