OTOPLEXUS [Masses and Objects]

Draft 2.1: Ongoing ideas exploring the behavior, organization and experience of sound [work-in-progress, last updated: Oct 15th 2017]

OTO = Japanese word for sound / PLEXUS = A network or interwoven mass

Gazing at Green Silver, another 1949 “all-over” masterpiece, he says, “See? There’s the top of the painting, there’s the bottom. But as far as the activity going on all over, it’s equal.” He pauses and shakes his head, impressed. “It’s not random. He knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s finished. But still, it’s free-form.” [Ornette Coleman on the work of Jackson Pollock from a 2006 New Yorker Observer article.]
Masses formed from parts (left to right): Swarm behavior in birds and ants, Jackson Pollock's  White Light  [1954] used on the cover of Ornette Coleman's 1960 LP  Free Jazz , example of a social network map, crowds of worshipers at the annual Hajj in Mecca, Cellular Automata. (Image sources at the bottom of the page).

Masses formed from parts (left to right): Swarm behavior in birds and ants, Jackson Pollock's White Light [1954] used on the cover of Ornette Coleman's 1960 LP Free Jazz, example of a social network map, crowds of worshipers at the annual Hajj in Mecca, Cellular Automata. (Image sources at the bottom of the page).

Crickets [2011]: The synthetic stridulations of crickets gradually oscillating in unison. The inspiration behind this algorithmic piece was my experience of listening to fields of cicadas, frogs and crickets in the Japanese countryside. Local interactions between individual crickets causes change to emerge at the global level. An attempt at mimicking the sound and behavior of insects through a form of additive synthesis.

The ideas of Otoplexus first emerged while carrying out research as a student in Japan. This resulted in a collection of Otoplexus sound pieces inspired by the ideas of complexity theory, multi-agent systems and the notion of a mass forms composed of many interacting parts. (Information about this period of work and audio excerpts from the Otoplexus suite are found here). I was attracted to these ideas initially through my interest in collective improvised music. This led me to studying different systems and procedures for organizing sound that were explored by composers and musicians of contemporary music in the 21st Century. Underlying my interest in this work was an increasing understanding and awareness of the sociopolitical structures organizing modern life, connected to a broader consideration of the relationship between individual and group in everyday life. Since returning to the UK in 2012 my interest in these ideas has continued to develop. Today I work as sound designer for moving image and this presents me with a new context through which I'm able to explore the behavior, organization and experience of sound. It is these emerging thoughts and ideas that I hope to sketch out here.


#1 Clocks, Clouds and Japanese Music

I discovered film through electronic and contemporary music. It seemed like a meaningful transfer of skills and a way out of the university. Before film I spent my time interested in chaos and complexity theory, exploring how order emerged out of large complex structures formed from a multitude of individual agents or objects interacting together. It wasn't just the work of 20th Century contemporary composers like Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen that excited me, but the notion of order and chaos emerging through large groups of musicians performing together in jazz, rock and live electronic music. The following quote from British-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper acts as a succinct description of the kind of notions I began to become interested.

My clouds are intended to represent physical. systems which, like gases, are highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable. I shall assume that we have before us a schema or arrangement in which a very disturbed or disorderly cloud is placed on the left. On the other extreme of our arrangement, on its right, we may place a very reliable pendulum clock, a precision clock, intended to represent physical systems which are regular, orderly, and highly predictable in their behaviour. [Karl Popper, Of Clocks and Clouds, 1965, link to essay here.]

A fan of György Ligeti's music, I recently learned that his 1972 piece Clocks and Clouds was inspired in part by the Popper essay. Ligeti's wider micro-tonal and textural explorations have always been an important point of reference for me. Along with Xenakis and Roland Kayn, Ligeti created music with an immense sense of scale and power, composed from many, smaller interacting parts. This I feel has a strikingly similar acoustic effect as the many masses audible in the world: rain, wind, rivers, crowds, swarming insects, herds of animals, traffic, pedestrians etc.

Unazuki Night Frogs [2005]: During the hot days the air would ring with the incessant whining of cicadas. At night it was the swarm of frogs and toads croaking in the water-filled rice paddies that surrounded my home. For three years these were the sounds of my summer.

The collision of hail or rain with hard surfaces, or the song of cicadas in a summer field. These sonic events are made out of thousands of isolated sounds; this multitude of sounds, seen as a totality, is a new sonic event. This mass event is articulated and forms a plastic mould of time, which itself follows aleatory and stochastic laws. [Iannis Xenakis, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, 1963, p. 9]

I first began experimenting with these ideas around 2005. At the time I was working as an English teacher in a small town in the Japanese countryside. In the evenings I was studying Nagauta music and learning to play the shamisen (a three-stringed lute) with a local teacher. Through my experiences performing as part of an ensemble, I became interested in the collective sound of many shamisen instruments playing together. Usually this would be performed in unison but occasionally sections of music were played in a contrapuntal, poly-rhythmic fashion - two or three part lines. I began playing around with these ideas by using real-time computer sampling to layer individual notes to form large clouds of sound. These and other pieces make up a collection of recordings documenting my work with the shamisen from 2004 up to 2013.

Density [2005]: A series of pieces using real-time sampling to create growing layers of sound. My aim was to gradually sustain and extend the sound of the shamisen, transforming single note-events into dense clouds of overlapping sound. Frequencies re-enforce themselves, while changes in pitch bring about harmonies and subtle melodies. Much of this kind of endless 'strumming music' was heavily influenced by the work of people like Glenn Branca and Charlemagne Palestine.

At the time my desire to transform the sound of the shamisen was motivated by certain sonic limitations I felt were inherent in the instrument; something about the short, sharp, percussive nature of the instrument that initially felt unsettling and abrasive. It seemed to lack a sustained resonance - like a guitar or lute - capable of producing a rich array of chords and sustained textures, which felt familiar and somehow reassuring (music as continuous sound; continuous sound as life force). As well as listening to composers of minimalism, I was also absorbing a great deal of improvised modal music from around the world. These different styles and traditions emphasised the use of sustained tones that fed into my ideas concerning the shamisen. Later after moving to Tokyo my attitude and ideas towards the instrument changed. I began to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the shamisen and Japanese traditional and contemporary music in general. Much of this came about through the film music of Toru Takemitsu, and discovering how traditional shamisen performers like Tanaka Yumiko were actively engaged in contemporary music with people like John Zorn and Otomo Yoshihide.

#2 Crowds and Power

Everyone has observed the sonic phenomena of a political crowd of dozens or hundreds of thousands of people. The human river shouts a slogan in a uniform rhythm. Then another slogan springs from the head of the demonstration; it spreads towards the tail replacing the first. A wave of transition thus passes from the head to the tail. The clamour fills the city, and the inhibiting force of voice and rhythm reaches a climax. It is an event of great power and beauty in its ferocity. [Iannis Xenakis, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, 1963, p. 9]

Over the years I've returned to the phenomena of clouds and masses of sound. The Otoplexus collection from 2011 is a snapshot of a period in which I began to explore greater degrees of interaction between individual parts. I became interested in self-generative systems and began playing around with basic algorithums to create new generative textures. Genetic Drift [2011] was an important experiment. This piece uses colliding agents to create changes in pitch. Each independent agent (square wave oscillator) inherits the frequency value of another agent it collides with. Dominant pitch values gradually emerge, creating shimmering chords that move through the population.

Granular synthesis - itself a type of crowd-organizing method for synthesizing grains of sound - has also produced different results. The following two examples demonstrate some interesting uses of the technique to produce large masses of sound interacting in different ways:

Bug Boids [2011] combines granular synthesis with the old Boids object in Max/MSP. This algorithm was developed by Craig Reynolds in 1987 to model the behavior of flocking birds. He writes: "The basic flocking model consists of three simple steering behaviors which describe how an individual boid maneuvers based on the positions and velocities its nearby flockmates: 1.) Separation: steer to avoid crowding local flockmates 2.) Alignment: steer towards the average heading of local flockmates3.) Cohesion: steer to move toward the average position of local flockmates." Control of these boid parameters together with the various granular synthesis settings produced a wide variety of textures changing through space.

Jerusalem is sung every year by an audience of thousands at the end of the Last Night of the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall. The Ecstatic Lament for Jerusalem [2017] is a reworking of the famous piece inspired by unaccompanied Gaelic psalm singing and the plunderphonic escapades of Canadian composer John Oswald. Using realtime sampling, melodic intervals are stretched, re-ordered and repeated to create an ever increasing rapture of sound and emotion that marks the prolonged, collective lament of a nation. The original recording of organ and chorus produced some pretty cool harmonic and melodic textures when processed electronically. The staggered, polyphonic effect of many voices singing together seems to lend itself well to the granular process.


#1 Film Sound: The Design of Attention

Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible. [Paul Klee, Schöpferische Konfession,1920]
Details of objects designed to be heard: (left to right): Resonating bodies and the crips details of nature from  The Sacrifice  [1986], Anton Chigurh pops open the door in  No Contry for Old Men  [2007]. opening shot of  The Conversation  [1974] in which we find ourselves moving from a wide field of activity to a very specific point of focus.

Details of objects designed to be heard: (left to right): Resonating bodies and the crips details of nature from The Sacrifice [1986], Anton Chigurh pops open the door in No Contry for Old Men [2007]. opening shot of The Conversation [1974] in which we find ourselves moving from a wide field of activity to a very specific point of focus.

There is a sense that conventional filmmaking is an attempt to tame reality. To chisel it into some new shape, bringing a kind of order to its unruly manner. The objective of this is to serve the telling of a story or expression of an idea. I believe all film work to be a lie, constructed to form experience in an attempt to reveal truth. The concern is not with reality, but “a question that lies behind it: the question of truth” as Herzog puts it. Or at least that's what I've come to believe of the filmmakers and artists who I most admire. 

Conventional or popular filmmaking - the style and general mode of production of most modern narrative-based cinema films - employs all the modern filmmaking tools to assist in this task. Microphones, recorders and cameras allow us to capture the raw material around us, store and render it submissive to every filmmaking need. Through this a film work emerges that offers the possibility of presenting to us a unique perspective on the world. This is as evident in the soundtrack as much as it is in the image.

There is a natural (or perhaps unnatural?) detail to the Tarkovsky world. Everything sparkles with a mysterious audible presence and charm. This comes across in Solaris [1972], The Mirror [1975], Stalker [1979] and most effectively in his last film The Sacrifice [1986].

Everything we hear tends to be highly orchestrated - in a film that is, of the conventional or popular kind. Uncooked actuality, captured on location at the time of filming often presents the problem of too much or not enough 'reality'. Too many or too much sound forcibly making itself heard. By its very nature sound is an evanescent force. Unwilling to yield to our control, it exists in a state of perpetual escape fleeing from itself. It takes flight across vast spaces, round corners and through the darkness. Often the audible presence of a thing precedes its optical representation. It has in this way a tendency to infringe upon the narrowly defined space framed by the camera, within which exists the intentions of the filmmaker. This desired signal is marked out by the script and all the action it denotes. Everything else is rejected. Owe Svennson illustrates this in the following interview extract:

Andrei's principle was - and he told me from the start that during filming, his focus is always on the picture, while the sound comes later. I agreed with this completely but the producer asked that I still record usable sound on location, but when we arrived on the Swedish island Gotland, the set was built in a bird sanctuary - in the month of May,  when all of Swedish fauna is breeding right there and the noise is overwhelming - it defies description. You could not use the sound from there [...] During shooting, Tarkovski told me in passing: "You know, Owe, in the end we must hear no birds" And I thought to myself: "OK, fair enough".  I knew I was wasting my time... [Interview with Owe Svennson discussing his work on The Sacrifice dir. Andrei Tarkovski. Online here.]

As all extraneous noise is removed in post-production, an order and clarity emerges from the chaotic activity of the world. This ordered soundtrack contributes to the design of attention that the filmmaker wishes to achieve, helping to guide the audience to what needs to be heard at any particular time. This I think helps create that magical atmosphere of sound in film where we the audience feel compelled to listen, with a deep intensity, to the world of the film. Perhaps nowhere is this atmosphere more potent than in a film like Bresson's A Man Escaped [1956] or Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice [1986].

#2 Film Sound: Perspective and Presence

Fidelity: Loyalty, faithfulness, adherence to fact or detail, accuracy, exactness

Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky together with Ingmar Bergman and Jacques Tati (and Walter Murch I might add) have all developed a complex audiovisual language in their film work. Music, selectively used to score mood and emotion, often makes way for a sophisticated, highly controlled cinema of noises.

A strange and magical introduction: Bergman's Cries and Whispers [1972] begins with what sounds like the metallic chime of wine glasses, before the sound of a distant church bell and crow gently pull us into the world of the film. As we enter the house we see and hear a variety of clocks, each differing in charm and character. Bergman like Tarkovsky orchestrates the sound of the world with great control. Everything is imbued with a precise quality of atmosphere.

Hyper-Presence: The chracteristically tactile soundworld of a Jan Švankmajer film.

These detailed, almost pointillistic soundtracks suggest an experience of the world that R. Murray Schaffer, pioneer of acoustic ecology and the study of sound environments, describes as 'hi-fi':

The hi-fi soundscape is one in which discrete sounds can be heard clearly because of the low ambient noise level … In the hi-fi soundscape, sounds overlap less frequently; there is perspective – foreground and background … In a low-fi soundscape individual acoustic signals are obscured in an overdense population of sounds … Perspective is lost … there is no distance; only presence. There is cross-talk on all the channels, and in order for the most ordinary sounds to be heard they have to be increasingly amplified. [R. Murray Schaffer, Tuning of the World. p. 43. 1993)