Composition Exercise #58

When working with a MIDI track: duplicate it, including all MIDI information, instrument and other settings.

Select three pitches, either randomly or by ear.

On the first track, delete all the notes with the chosen pitches.

On the second track, delete all notes except the ones with the chosen pitches.

Subtly change the instrument, effect or other settings on one of the tracks.

Repeat the procedure for every voice in your piece, making new pitch selections and applying different parameter changes for each track.

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Kolapse Interview VII: Chris Herb

You are reading the seventh in a series of interviews with the contributors to Kolapse, a new album of remixes of tracks from my 2013 solo album, Kola. In this installment, Cha Blasco, a musician and composer from Spain but now living in Sweden, talks to Berlin-based producer Chris Herb. If you’ve followed the series you’ll have noticed that Chris was also featured in Kolapse Interview IV as one half of Drescher und Wemmser.

Photography (c) Valquire Veljkovic

I think I’ve known about Chris Herb since 2012-2013 when his debut solo album Death To False Techno came out. He has been working and collaborating with other musicians, artists and producers like Markus Reuter, Lee Fletcher, Adrian Benavides, and Tobias Reber just to name a few, whose works and careers has been pretty inspiring to me as well. That’s how I found him.

Actually Adrian Benavides and Chris, along with Alexander Dowerk, his duo partner in the techno project Drescher und Wemmser, have been pretty involved in my last record Urania: Adrian as producer and performer among many others, and Drescher und Wemmser producing remixes for the songs Broken Toys and New Playlist. I guess that’s why Tobias asked me to interview Chris about his feature on the awesome Kolapse remix album. I gladly accepted the challenge, so here is my conversation with Chris.

In all your productions, as I understand it, polyrhythms are a big part of your touch and identity. Which process do you follow when you apply them to your remixes? Do you have some routine?

When working with Drescher und Wemmser, I often choose a time signature beforehand, usually something which divides into several cycles. 15/4 for example divides into 5 and 3, so we can have two complete rhythmic cycles in one measure. We usually compose with longer measures because it gives us a larger playground and a good overview over multiple cycles, thus providing more space for tension and variations. We are very much influenced by Swiss minimal artists such as Don Li, Nik Bärtsch, Ania Losinger and the Swedish metal group Meshuggah, who are pioneers in next level composition techniques utilizing polyrhythms.

You talk about your influences from minimal, jazz and metal artists when it comes to time signature structures, but what about your sound production choices? Are there some patterns you follow? And in the case of your remix for Tobias, what made you to follow this way?

For sound production I follow a technique I’ve learned from Markus Reuter after visiting him in his studio a couple of times. What we do is we re-amp almost all signals through guitar FX gear and really destroy the signal to accentuate one specific aspect of it. Then I mix it with the original signal up to the point where it is almost inaudible. But when you do that a couple of times, it can really bring your signal to life by creating space and depth, especially when working with the audio output of software synthesizers. I think it might be similar to what exciters do, but in a multi-dimensional way. In the case of our remix, we did that in an even more destructive way, resulting in the very distorted bass synth.

Interesting – I’ll take notes for myself too! It seems a nice way to converge between analogue and digital worlds. Now that you mention Markus’ studio, I see that not only are you a composer, musician and producer and I guess sound engineer – you’re pretty much into mixing and mastering engineering also, and you’re doing so good there. How you feel about yourself in these roles?

I do compose and play the touch guitar but I totally see my strengths in producing, sound design and mixing. When I work on an idea or composition, I try to understand its core intention and express it in the way I shape the sound. To me, a composition is really just a sketch (maybe a very detailed one) and in order to bring it to life, I have to finish the painting. I don’t see myself as much of a mastering engineer though as I mostly do pre-masters. I try to let other people do the finishing touch.

Until now, we’ve been talking about things you did and the process, but what about the future? Is there some new Chris Herb music coming along?

No, I’m not actively working on new solo material. I’m very happy to be able to express myself through my work with Drescher und Wemmser. So right now we’re working on our upcoming EP ‘Hausschrank’ and on the live realization of a 60 minute composition called ‘Ultraschrank’. Furthermore I’m working on a live set with my friend Sanni, a Berlin-based DJ, producer and singer/songwriter. So my plan is to be less of an internet musician and to be more on the stage again. 🙂

That sounds exciting! I’m personally looking forward to seeing you live someday, and maybe even share stage together. Thank you for your time Chris, it has been a pleasure to learn more about you.

Thank you! First time being interviewed on my own. Hope I could give some insight

Also the time first I interviewed anyone, haha. Sure you did. Thanks again.

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Kolapse Interview VI: Ritxi Ostáriz

This is the sixth installment in a series of interviews with the Kolapse remixers. Cedric Theys, who already contributed an interview with Lärmheim to the project, talks to graphic designer Ritxi Ostáriz.

How did Kola’s artwork come about? Was it based on the music or did it exist before the music?

It was made originally for the album. In that time I worked mainly in black and white and with geometric shapes. I was starting to get bored with my own style. It was so great that Tobias asked me for something with an “ethnic or tropical” feel (I don’t know if these were the actual terms) [Edit Tobias: I think “tropical” was indeed a word I used.]. So, probably for the first time, I decided to try something more organic, fewer angles and circles.

What techniques did you use? Is it more of a digital creation or does it come from drawing or photography?

It combines both. I won’t reveal the whole recipe of the artboard but I can say it all started with the photography of a pineapple. I think it’s the first time I reveal this secret!

You have a very unique style for album artwork. Where do you get your inspiration from?

I honestly don’t think I have a specific style, though I have been said that many times. If you take a look at my whole portfolio of designs, you will find very different approaches. It would be hard for me to talk about where I get my inspiration from as there is no one single way of working. Every project has its own methodology.

You’ve worked extensively with Markus Reuter and with the Iapetus family. Are there other record labels and/or artists you work with a lot too?

Markus has been a key figure in my design career and he has trusted me and my skills many times. He is for sure the client I have worked on the most projects with. But there is also Vegard Tveitan ‘Ihsahn’ and Heidi Solberg Tveitan, from Mnemosyne Productions, who have commissioned me for many of their projects. In fact, they were my first client in the music scene. I am so proud and grateful for having had the chance to work for them.

What other design and creative work do you do?

Music design has only been one of my specializations. I have also worked as a motion graphic artist and as editorial designer for books and magazines. In the last five years I have worked full time for the brand consulting firm Saffron Consultants and I am currently a Senior Visual Designer at Fjord, a Service Design consulting company.

What are some of the things you are focusing on right now that you’ve never done before?

Good question! I am currently directing, writing and recording a weekly radio podcast about Anthropology, Ethnography and the History of Human Beliefs. I am having a lot of fun and having the chance to meet and interview a lot of great scholars, writers, journalists…

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Kolapse Interview V: Guy Birkin

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with the Kolapse remixers. Will Cruttenden, who releases his music as Spingere, interviews fellow Englishman Guy Birkin about his Piñata remix.

How did you first make contact with Tobias?

Our first contact was probably through SoundCloud and our participation in the Disquiet Junto. ‘Backup Aura’ was one of my favourite albums in 2011, so Tobias was certainly on my radar at that time but I think we only started corresponding later on. We share interests and follow similar paths.

Why did you choose that particular track over the others?

Structurally Piñata was more suited to achieve the intended aim with this remix: to change the track temporally rather than sonically – that is, to deconstruct it and re-arrange on a new time base. One of the things I like is its irregular beat. Also, I love the sound of that kick drum. Because this track is mostly made of percussive sounds, it makes it easier to chop up using transient-detection algorithms, which is how I did it. Using this method the kick drum stem was cut up into 1,543 pieces. I applied the same process to two other parts, the high and low metallic clang sounds, cut into around 900 and 1,400 pieces. Before these fragments of sound were aligned on a new tempo grid, I sorted them into different sequences based on analysis using measures of information content. This is something developed from my research on complexity, and I wanted to use this approach for this remix. So it was the characteristics of that kick and those clang sounds in Piñata that determined my choice of track because they allowed me to use this method.

Tell me more about your research on complexity. How does it apply to fields outside of music?

Well, this research started outside of music, because it stems from my PhD which investigated visual complexity and from my visual art practice which uses scientific or technical methods (e.g. cellular automata, statistical analysis) to make generative artwork. This research turned that process around, using this approach to study how complexity in visual art is perceived. The central research question was about the relationship between visual complexity and aesthetic value. Information theory and algorithmic complexity theory provided the theoretical support for using data compression algorithms as a way of measuring complexity. The underlying theory of this measure, called ‘minimum description length’, is that the complexity of an object can be measured in terms of how much information it contains. A digital image file is a ‘description’ of an image, and data compression algorithms reduce it close to the minimum, and so the amount of information that remains after compression is a measure of its complexity. Evidence from experimental psychology shows a correlation between this measure and subjectively perceived complexity (i.e. complexity ratings of images by test participants). My research corroborated the finding and extended the tests to include more complex images. I also found evidence that the correlation breaks down with random images, because the compression method measures those as being the most complex, whereas we tend to perceive randomness as being quite simple. With this knowledge of the relationship between data compression and perception in the visual domain, we can ask whether a similar correlation might be found in the auditory domain, between digital audio data compression and the perceived complexity of music. That question is driving my current research and my sonic art practice.

How has this method developed during the making of your own music?

The method of research hasn’t changed much – it’s still an empirical investigation, except now I’m working independently, not in academia. But as a method for music-making, it’s always developing, because the research opens up new ways of making, shaping and arranging sounds. I use variations on the original method quite a lot – measuring complexity based on information content and data compression, but it’s is also constantly being refined. More recently, I’ve started using methods developed from network analysis and graph theory. These offer a new way to approach the question of complexity in music, for both analytical and generative purposes. It’s a collaboration with Valdis Krebs, whose research mapped the network of terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks, amongst other things. Valdis mapped the network of notes in Fur Alina by Arvo Pärt, and I wrote a program that uses that network to generate similar patterns. The network maps adjacent notes (two notes are connected if one follows the other) and the program plays successive notes by moving along the connections between them. I’ve now written a program that analyses any MIDI file, maps its network of notes, and generates a new piece based on that network. But at the moment I’ve only got it working on pitch, not yet timing.

How did you know that your remix was finished?

With this remix the aim was to focus on changes in timing – specifically, to re-arrange the rhythmic elements of Piñata on a different tempo, and to use some measure of complexity to re-order those elements. In the end, I also changed the sounds quite a bit too, but I knew most of the work was done when I’d achieved the main technical steps involved in applying that information-based measure of complexity. This included cutting the stems, analysing the pieces, re-arranging them on a new tempo, and editing those placements to disrupt or create patterns. Once that main aim is achieved, then there’s the process of making decisions that are aesthetic rather than technical, and making adjustments that are tonal/timbral rather than structural. It’s at this second stage that it’s hard to know when to stop. Even though most of the technical work is done, it’s easy to spend much longer here, changing instruments, adding effects and tweaking parameters.

Were you tempted to continue or even remix the remix?

Prior to mastering, I declined the opportunity to re-work this remix, but given the chance again, I’d probably make it shorter. However, I’ve extended these methods from this remix and applied them to work that I’ve made subsequently. I’ve also used completely different methods to explore some of the same sonic characteristics that this method produced. Specifically, the perceptual transition between pitch and rhythm that results from changing the rate at which sounds are played. The exploration of these perceptual thresholds is one theme that runs through my practice. It’s part of the creative approach to the research question I described earlier, because it’s a way of exploring the relationship between physical properties, information and perception that are at work in the art of music.

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Notes for the current and future expeditions

To find a gem that will shine in darkness you must venture deep into the cave.

Ignore the pebbles in the entrance’s half-light: the easy wins don’t matter, and have been collected many times before. You may have to chip away at dull rock for a long while until you unearth a glimmer – or you might luck out with an early find.

Talk to yourself if you need company or courage. Take notes. Over time, you’ll learn where it’s worth digging, and your odds will improve.

No matter what you remember hearing from those who never crossed the entrance: follow the goosebumps. Be alert to slight changes in gusts of air, and be still until your senses grow accustomed to the demands of a new terrain.

Don’t rush or you might step on treasures without even noticing. You must look without believing you know what you will see; there are many forms a jewel can take. Learn to see with your eyes closed: to find the thing you need is to find something infinitely familiar but previously hidden.

Remember Borges’ ur and Brussolo’s bounties, and every dream you ever had.

Remember, Strahler: the mountain is you.

Image credit: Purple Crystals by John Wardell (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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