Background

A point of departure in this project is to investigate man – machine interactions, with the improvisation group Natural Artefacts that features a mix of acoustic and electronic musical instruments. The main questions are: is it possible to program electronic instruments, such as sequencers, samplers, and synthesizers in such a way that an organic “groove and feel” of jazz occurs? And is it possible to perform with them in a live context retaining a “true” jazz feeling?


The author has composed a number of compositions that in different ways explore this avenue, with an aim to blend elements from diverse musical genres and traditions such as free improvisation, serial music, minimalism, ambient, electronica, and electroacoustic music.

Playing, Controlling, and Secondary Processing

At the EMS 2014 conference in Berlin I presented a taxonomy for electronic instruments that distinguishes between direct gestural control, playing mode/instruments, and indirect control, controlling mode/instruments, and secondary processors.


Playing mode refers to acoustic instruments like piano and violin, which features action-sound coupling. This implies that a bodily gesture carried out by a player on such an instrument is directly and proportionally audible; its action-sound link is strong.

Controlling mode is primarily a phenomenon in conjunction with electronic instruments and devices. In this group there is no direct causality between a bodily gesture and audible output performed on the interface; the action-sound-link is weak.2 An additional distinction occurs between active control and active monitoring. The former is close to playing, however carried out on a controlled instrument, whereas the latter deals with automatic generative processes where the instrument is left untouched, but monitored and adjusted if necessary.

Secondary processing implies processing and coloring of incoming audio on behalf of pre-determined parameter settings, and/or in controlling modes in processors employed.

Aestethics

A major aesthetic tenet in my music in general is ambiguity, which can be created in many ways. In this project ambiguity is created partly by tonal organization, and partly by the rhythmic.

 

The Tonal

The tonal organization is inspired by serial methods such as 12-tone techniques, permutations, in addition to bitonalities, and "trompe-d'oreille" constructions that fool the ear, such as shepard tones, and open chord constructions with many possible outcomes. Inspiration comes from jazz, particularly Ornette Coleman, else from Joni Mitchell, and classical composers such as Olivier Messiaen, and the post World-War II avant-gardistic and experimental music traditions.


The Rhythmic

The rhythmic organization can, in short, be described as pulse-based without meter.1 This means a pulse-based music with no obvious one, the down beat is ambigous, and from time to time the pulse is not clearly audible. The main inspiration comes from eastern traditions such as Arabian maqam, Iranian radif, and Carnatic music of South India. To achive this, different methods can be used: one way is to employ the probablity function in the Octatrack, namely the possibilty to program each sequence event with e.g. 50% probablity to get through. Another "trick" is to put accent generation under random control, in order to override the rigid bar division at the machine.

The Instruments

At the core of the investigations are two machines, the Octatrack sampler/sequencer from the Gothenburg based company Elektron, and a Nord A1 synthesizer.1 In order to create creative constraints, the present repertoire of Natural Artefacts is made almost entirely on these machines. At the outset, the Octatrack is designed for musical genres such as techno, electronica and other types of beat-based dance music, which means that sounds, in principle, are trigged from a pre-defined position in a rhythmical grid. By playing around with function generators, such as low frequency oscillators, sample and hold, and probability based trig conditions however, it is possible to circumvent the rigidity of a pre-defined grid. As it turned out, with deliberate programming, the Octatrack (Digitone) can be a flexible musical partner, and mostly acts as a virtual bass player, comprising a jazz sounding rhythm section together with Natural Artefacts drummer Anton Jonsson.

Playing the Octatrack and Digitone

With respect to proposed taxonomy, the bass lines generated by the Octatrack/Digitone is actively controlled, and sometimes monitored when actively playing another instrument, e.g. an analogue modular synthesizer. The crux is to design, to program if you like, the bass line to be functional with respect to the genre in general, and the present composition in particular, that offers enough variation. In other words: retaining a jazz groove and feel that at the same time sounds natural and non-human, since I believe no one will mistake the machine bass for a human player. The live element consists of chosing among a number of pre-programmed patterns, and to perform some variations within these, e.g. fills, secondary processing such as filter and envelope settings, and "playing" arpeggiator parameters such as, notes/scales, mode, range and speed/subdivisions.

Playing the Octatrack Digitone in a Live Jazz Setting

Natural Artefacts

 

Anton Jonsson, drums and percussion

Merje Kägu, electric guitar

Susanna Lindeborg, piano, electronics

Per Anders Nilsson, electronics

The Crux

This composition came out of a series experiment undertaken on the Octatrack and the Nordlead. The basic idea was to intergrate the built-in secondary processors, such as delay lines and arpeggiators, to create the groove. The melody is an example of applying Shepard note thinking on a melody: the "signaling" melodic cell is transposed one major second down each time it occurs, in total six times, and in between an ascending chromatic scale is heard. Eventually, it became evident that The Crux accompaniment relied on affordances that the two machines offered. It turned out a mission impossible to port the programming into the Digitone, despite many similarities between the machines. This is clearly audible when comparing the two versions of the composition that is included.

Natural Artefacts performing the Crux in Porto, October 2019

The Crux from the CD The Crux