Exploring algorithms in contemporary music

Algorithms in music is not a new phenomenon, but recent contributions both in terms of the software available to the way contemporary artists use it to explore new musical territory is well worth a deeper examination. To be clear algorithmic composition is the partial or total automation of the process of music composition by using computers. Since the 1950s, different computational techniques related to Artificial Intelligence have been used for algorithmic composition, including grammatical representations, probabilistic methods, neural networks, symbolic rule-based systems, constraint programming and evolutionary algorithms.

An interesting aspect of algorithmic compositions regards creativity. Computers and software are prevalent among many composers, and some artistic scenes (as generative music) embrace computer-generated music as part of their identity. However, creativity is still in the hands of composers for the most part, but how is this materialized in today’s contemporary music scene? A good example of this is Mark Fell.

All of the solo material that Karl does is made using generative systems. He uses Max/MSP and creates something that generates patterns and then changes the parameters and record the output. None of his work is ever constructed in a timeline using a grid that you might use to put beats in. For Sensate Focus, everything is done using the pencil icon in Digital Performer. The roots of MOTU’s Digital Performer go back a staggering 30 years. We’re talking about a time when MIDI was still quite new, as such, DP has some claim to be among the most mature DAWs out there, one that’s ridden out tumultuous changes in computer architecture and operating systems and overseen the gradual march from a hardware/analogue to digital/virtual world. Karl is also engaging in making synthesis algorithms in Max/MSP, both when it comes to sound installations or as in the UL8 album.

Then there is Autechre, Rob Brown and Sean Booth started the band nearly thirty years ago. Their sound is hard to pin point, including that every component is always in flux, minced and reconfigured into a wholly unfamiliar new shape. With the 1995’s Tri Repetae, they hit upon what would become their signature sound: cold, clanging, cerebral, merciless, and entrancing.

Autechre is also a strong contributor in the worlds of algorithms. The machine-made otherness of Autechre’s sound as an aural Rorschach test. Where one listener might hear nothing but random, cacophonous noise, another might hear the sound of futuristic structures, inexpressively emotive landscapes or gravity-defying club environments for undiscovered lifeforms. Others might be intensely aware of a specific detail in a track; the way one sound morphs into another, or how a peculiar rhythmic pattern evolves. Each listener experience is unique, with the colourful descriptions they garner becoming so subjective they’re rendered almost futile.

As stated by Autechre in an interview: How much do algorithms figure into your compositions as of late? : “Quite a lot. Algorithms are a great way of compressing your style… It has always been important to us to be able to reduce something that happened manually into something that is contained in an algorithm. Then the algorithm allows us to add a bit more flair or a bit more deviation that we would also do ourselves in a little script. Just a few slight tweaks can spin it out into all sorts of recreations. It’s a great way to spawn yourself if you like (laughs), and spawn your actions. It’s an addictive way to work. Programs like Max allow you to reduce these ideas to collections of numbers and scenarios that are recallable, cascade-able, even nest-able.”

Moving on; the band Second Woman are also fond explorers of algorithms.

Second Woman, consisting of Josh Eustis from electronic pop outfit Telefon Tel Aviv and drone disciple Turk Dietrich of Belong, follows an IDM tradition that dates all the way back to early Aphex Twin and Autechre, skipping over a whole period where things got quite unfunky and rejoining with the algorhythmic form laid down most recently by SND or as mentioned above Mark Fell. Second Woman’s almost analogue hum gives a deliciously tactile and dubby warmth, which is appropriate for a label operated by vintage synth enthusiast John Elliott of Emeralds. Speaking of SND, named after a Macintosh file extension, they were founded in Sheffield, by ex-art students Mat Steel and Mark Fell, their contribution over the years is quite impressive. One good example is the almost anti-melodic rhythmic explorations of the Makesnd Cassette era with ‘15/16’.

If we keep digging we will of course find the art-collective Detroit Underground. Detroit Underground, established in 1997, has often been portrayed like this: “Detroit Underground takes us on a chaotic and gripping trip into the nexus of modern experimental and future core music. Representing a palette of artists whose unflinching passion for the bizarre and surreal sonic landscapes of this, and other dimensions, Detroit Underground keeps the secular world at large guessing where the boundaries of sound and silence begin and end. Sounds are fractured into geometric slivers which penetrate the observer’s existence and embed themselves under the skin. Self-replicating fragments of noise expand from seed form into a digital chaos garden, challenging the notions that humans and technology are, and will remain, biologically separate.”

Installments of Detroit Underground are presented by an ever expanding roster of experimental artists, citing Kero, Annie Hall, Richard Devine, Jesse Somfay, Sense, Vaetxh, Exillon, Jimmy Edgar, and Corbin Davis. Detroit Underground is firm in it’s resolve to deteriorate our collective sanity into pixelated half-remnants of our analog beginnings. Militant brigades of audio destructors pose serious threats to those who wish music to remain in the cozy confines of historical context. All memories of socially constricted sound will be washed away into the gutter of primordial sludge, and reformed by the noxious twisting and turning of an ever evolving interconnected series of drain pipes, piping hot steamy sleaze for your future neural apparatus.

Finally we need to cover a brand new release from mtch. Mtch, working in the footsteps of Autechre, has released Dplx Cut Optr, an album filled with clinical beats and bass, and an infinite range of permutations and combinations . Glitch reconfigured mayhem continuously rolled into a blip-bleep manifest. The distorted modular activity is processed into deformed sonic sculptures. Listen below and see if you agree:

Background reading:

The earliest instance of computer generated composition is that of Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson at the University of Illinois in 1955-56. Using the Illiac high-speed digital computer, they succeeded in programming basic material and stylistic parameters which resulted in the Illiac Suite (1957). The score of the piece was composed by the computer and then transposed into traditional musical notation for performance by a string quartet. What Hiller and Isaacson had done in the Illiac Suite was to (a.) generate certain “raw materials” with the computer, (b.) modify these musical materials according to various functions, and then (c.) select the best results from these modifcations according to various rules. This “generator/modifier/selector” paradigm was also later applied to MUSICOMP, one of the first computer systems for automated composition, written in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Hiller and Robert Baker, which realized Computer Cantata: “Since [MUSICOMP] was written as a library of subroutines, it made the process of writing composition programs much easier, as the programmer/composer could use the routines within a larger program that suited his or her own style”. This idea of building small, well-defined compositional functions—i.e. “subroutines”—and assembling them together would prove efficient and allow the system a degree of flexibility and generality, which has made this approach a popular one, as we will see, in many algorithmic composition systems even into the present day.

Another pioneering use of the computer in algorithmic compostion is that of Iannis Xenakis, who created a program that would produce data for his “stochastic” compositions, which he had written about in great detail in his book Formalized Music (1963). Xenakis used the computer’s high-speed computations to calculate various probability theories to aid in compositions like Atrées (1962) and Morsima-Amorsima (1962). The program would “deduce” a score from a “list of note densities and probabilistic weights supplied by the programmer, leaving specific decisions to a random number generator”. “Stochastic” is a term from mathematics which designates such a process, “in which a sequence of values is drawn from a corresponding sequence of jointly distributed random variables”. As in the previous example of the Illiac Suite, these scores were performed by live performers on traditional instruments.