San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF), Part 2

Last week, I presented the opening night show of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival at SFMOMA. Today we look back at the September 10 installment of SFEMF, which took place at the Brava Theater.

It was a busy Saturday evening of art and music, but after a trip through three neighborhoods on our illustrious public transportation system and chatting with several friends on the way in, I was still able to get a perfect seat in the center of the theater for the full immersive experience. As I often do these days, I was live-tweeting between sets with hashtag #SFEMF to share with a wider community both in the theater and beyond.

The concert opened with a tribute to Max Mathews presented by Marielle Jakobsons. Mathews is considered to be the “father of computer music” and his career spanned over five decades and continued up until the last days before he passed away earlier this year. The tribute brought together the technologies that Mathews pioneered and his love of classical music. It began with a recording of his 1971 piece Improvisations for Olympiad, set against images of Mathews’ long career and time with family and friends. In the piece, one can hear how far computer-music technology had advanced since the 1950s, in large part do to his own work (though it still hard to fathom that the piece was done using punch cards). The photos demonstrated how much he was loved by the community around him – many featured familiar faces from CCRMA at Stanford, where he had most recently worked.

[Diane Douglass and Marielle Jakobsons. Photo:]

Jakobsons then presented a personal tribute in the form of a new piece, Theme and Variations on Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4 For Violin and Phaser Filters. Jakobsons had worked with Mathews on his Phaser Filters, a technology for live performance based on tuned resonances. With Diane Douglass on computer, Jakobsons performed on violin, with the familiar classical sounds blending seamlessly with the rich sounds from the filter technology.

Next up was Area C, a project of Erik J. Carlson. Carlson’s performance featured live looping of electric guitar and a variety of analog and digital effects, which were output via two guitar amps.

[Area C. Photo:]

Although the piece unfolded as a series of loops of small melodic and rhythmic figures on the guitar that were processed and re-looped, the overall texture of the music gave the impression of an ever evolving drone, not unlike something we might do at the Droneshift but with less strict rules and more opportunity for bits of texture to emerge.

After an intermission, the concert resumed with 0th, a “collective of four female artists, Jacqueline Gordon, Amanda Warner, Canner Mefe, and Caryl Kientz” presenting a live-performance piece Deep Blue Space: Factories and Forests. The performers were scattered at the edges of the stage, with a large lit hemisphere in the center, and an array of base drums in front. Behind them, a large video was projected. Additional unnamed performers beyond the quartet contributed to the dance elements. Costuming was also an important part of the piece, with interesting outfits and one performer sporting a pyramid-shaped hat.

[Setting up for 0th. Big bubble in the middle stage. And bass drums in front. #sfemf ]

Their performance was based on a fictional story that followed the exploits of the chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue on a satellite that leaves Earth orbit and heads to the asteroid belt. The performance unfolded with a series of very punctuated sounds set against very deliberate motions with frequent pauses. The overall effect was mechanized and robotic, enhanced by the industrial imagery in the video. This was of course appropriate given the theme of machines in the underlying story.

[0th. Photo:]

Towards the end of the piece, several of the performers moved into place at the front of the stage, each behind one of the base drums and they began to strike the pedals in unison, a loud stream of slow rhythmic thumps against the electronic sounds spread in the background.

The final performance featured a collaboration by Yoshi Wada and Tashi Wada on a piece entitled Frequency Responses: 2011. The piece explored the interactions of the timbres of a variety of instruments and devices that can sustain long tones, such as a bagpipe, sirens, and old analog oscillators. It begin with jarring sound of an alarm bell but quickly settled into a steady state with an ever changing combination of sounds and instruments. Yoshi Wada, a veteran of Fluxus, frequently played the bagpipe during the piece. Tashi Wada remained behind the main table focused on a variety of electronic elements.

[Yoshi Wada and Tashi Wada. Photo:]

The equipment and overall texture of the piece evoked the early experiments in electronic music, and brought the concert full circle from its starting point with the tribute to Max Mathews. Although the interaction of the timbres could sometimes be rather intense, the focus on this element and listening for beating patterns on other details was quite meditative.

I think my live tweet “An exploration of very long tones ends in a major harmony #sfemf” is a fitting end for this review. Overall another strong concert.

RIP Max Mathews (1926-2011)

Yesterday morning I received the sad news that Max Mathews, considered by many of us to be the “father of computer music”, passed away.

Not only was he among the first to use general-purpose computers to make music, but his work spanned many of disciplines within the field that we know today, including sound synthesis, music-programming languages, real-time performance and musical-instrument interfaces.

He studied electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, receiving a Sc.D. in 1954. Working at Bell Labs, Mathews wrote MUSIC, the first widely-used program for sound generation, in 1957. For the rest of the century, he continued as a leader in digital audio research, synthesis, and human-computer interaction as it pertains to music performance. [Wikipedia]

The “MUSIC-N” languages have influenced much of how we still program computers to make music. It has direct descendants such as Csound, and has also influenced many of the other languages for composer, perhaps most notably Max (later Max/MSP) that was named in his honor.

His rendition of “Daisy Bell” (aka “Bicycle Built for Two”) is one of the early examples ofphysical modeling synthesis. Sections of the vocal tract were modeled as tubes, and sound generated directly from physics equations. His work inspired the version of “Daisy Bell” sung by HAL9000 in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (though he did real at a talk in 2010 that the version in the film was not his recording.)

Mathews continued to expand and innovate throughout his career, moving into different areas of technology. In the 1970s his focus shifted to real-time performance, with languages such as GROOVE, and then later with the Radio Baton interface, which can be seen in this video below.

I had the opportunity to see and hear Mathews at the ICMC 2006 conference and MaxFest in 2007, both events that honored his 80th birthday and five decades in music technology. At 80, it would be relatively easy and quite understandable to eschew the latest technologies in favor of earlier technologies on which he did much of his work, but there he was working with the latest MacBooks and drawing upon new research in connection to his own work.

[Max Mathews at GAFFTA in 2010. (Photo by Vlad Spears.)]

More recently, I saw him give a talk at the Gray Area Foundation For the Arts in 2010, where he introduced the work of young artists and researchers, something he continued to do all the way to the end. He was at the Jean-Claude Risset concert at CCRMA (and I later found out, gave the introduction, which I had missed.) I have also heard comments over the past day that he was still involved in email and discussions over current projects up through this week, a testament to his character and his love for this field and for the work that he pioneered.

In Tandem with Max Mathews, Aaron Koblin, and Daniel Massey

Last Friday I attended a talk featuring Max Matthews and a new conceptual work by local artists as the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA). GAFFTA is an intriguing new organization and space for the intersection art, design, sound, and technology. They are “dedicated to building social consciousness through digital culture.”

Max Mathews. Photo by Vlad Spears

I had last seen Max Mathews, considered by many to be the “father” of computer music, at an 80th birthday tribute at the Computer History Museum in 2007, and before that delivering the keynote address at ICMC 2006. It is great to see him still going strong and engaged with technology and supporting others’ creative work. His talk primarily focused on his work at Bell Labs, and in particular the history and technologies surrounding his 1962 computer rendition of the song “Daisy Bell” (aka “Bicycle Built for Two”). It was an early example of physical modeling synthesis, where sections of the vocal tract were modeled as tubes, and sound generated directly from physics equations. His version of the song was popularized in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, although Mathews revealed that the version Kubrick used in the film was not his recording. He also presented another famous example of computer-generated vocals, a performance of the “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This piece used formant synthesis in which focus on recreating spectral characteristics of the sounds (i.e., the formants that characterize vowel sounds) without necessarily modeling the physical processes that allow humans to create those sounds. The voice is quite compelling (if a bit dated), and demonstrates that the most realistic sounds are not necessarily those generated from physical models.

[Mathews, Koblin and Massey.  Photo by Vlad Spears.]

Mathews’ presentation of “Daisy Bell” served as an introduction for a new project “Bicycle Built for 2000” by Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey. Koblin has been working on a series of conceptual pieces that utilize the Amazon Mechanical Turk, a framework for harnessing human intelligence to solve large problems. There are some things that humans are quite efficient at and computers are very poor at, such as recognizing distorted text (think of the CAPCHA codes that we all deal with on websites, including here at CatSynth). The Amazon Mechanical Turk, which derives its name from an 19th century hoax where a supposedly mechanical chess-playing machine turned out to be a human hidden inside a box, provides a framework and API for defining tasks to be solved by humans, recruiting people to work on them, and then compensating them for their efforts according to a fixed budget. One of Koblin’s pieces provides the instruction to “draw a sheep” for a few cents. He then collected the resulting drawings of various sheep (and non-sheep) from around the world and compiled them into a larger mosaic work, The Sheep Market. You can see the overall mosaic as well as click on individual sheep and even see an animation of how they were drawn by the individual contributors.

[Screenshot of Bicycle Built for 2000, by Aaron Koblin and Daniel Massey.  Click to enlarge.]

For “Bicycle Build for 2000”, Koblin collaborated with Daniel Massey on a work that focused on sound and music. The Max Matthews rendition of Daisy Bell was decomposed in a sound segments no longer than one syllable, and for each segment an Amazon Mechanical Turk task was created for someone to sing back the sound. Koblin and Massey then reassembled the sounds to re-create the song as sung by the participants. The initial version, in which only one singer was used for each component, was almost unrecognizable, though quite interesting. A larger version which included a chorus of voices on each segment better represented the original qualities of the song, and clearly recognizable. You can hear the full version at the project website, along with an interesting visualization of the assembled recordings. The fact that the larger ensemble produced a more recognizable result, essentially averaging out the various sung renditions, is perhaps an example of the oft touted “wisdom of crowds”.

There is also a slightly more ominous set of questions from these works concerning exploitation of individuals who don’t know the overall purpose of their tasks, or about hive mentality and such, but I still find it quite interesting and am inspired to try out the Mechanical Turk for a future art project.