I recently read Kenneth Gaburo's classic 1970 essay, “The Beauty of Irrelevant Music in some of my classes.  In the essay, there is a line, “and what if these graphics had something to do with my composition?” and “and what if my composition had something to do with these graphics?”  These lines refer to the computer graphics by Herbert Brun that were used in the 1973 performance at The Center for Music Experiment at UCSD.  I've performed this essay a number of times in the past 30 years, always using copies of the original Brun slides.  However, as readers of this blog know, we moved at the beginning of this year from Wollongong to Victoria, and on moving, I plunged immediately into a demanding and time-consuming teaching schedule.  Consequently most of my archive is still in storage, packed away in boxes.  This includes the Brun slides.  Faced with this problem, I decided to make my own graphics “in the style and spirit” of the Brun originals.  I've been working with ArtWonk for quite a while now, on a project to algorithmically generate computer graphics which I will then use as spectrographs in graphics-to-sound conversion programs.  I decided to use this program to generate the images I needed.  After a little while, I made a patch which generated repeating variants on hexagons with randomly determined corners.  It sounds complex, but it isn't – it generates shapes which look like this:

There are 20 sections in Gaburo's essay, each of which should have a different graphic with it.  So I generated 20 graphics.  These look somewhat like Brun's original graphics, but are not as complex , and are in colour rather than black and white.  Still, I was following Brun's instruction to “visualise the process by which one would have liked to generate these graphics and then make a composition with that process.”  I then thought that since I was normally listening to the output of the graphics generating program as sound, I should do the same with these.  I realised each graphic as a little “burst” of sound lasting either 1, 2, 3, 5, or 8 seconds, using Rasmus Eckman's Coagula, which would realise the colours as a mix of sine waves and band limited noise.  It then occurred to me that I might play these sounds at the end of each paragraph of the essay, giving the ears a slight “change of focus” between each text.  It's not in Gaburo's original score, but I thought it was worth a try, and in performance, it worked very well.

I then tried pasting the 20 sounds together, end to end to hear what would happen.  The results were uninspiring.  On their own, as bursts of sound between text, the mix of sines and noise worked just fine.  But put together as a sequence, the result was timbrally disappointing, and the rhythm of change felt a bit limp.  I might have just abandoned things there, but I'd been telling students about waveshaping recently, and I thought that I'd try putting the sounds through the Melda Production Waveshaper, which I recently bought, and with which I was delighted.

I tried processing one of the sounds through the waveshaper, and I liked the way it sharpened the noise, while still retaining the contours of the original gesture.  If I designed my own highly idiosyncratic waveshaping curves, I thought, I could give the sounds a lot more sparkle and bite.  Why not make 20 different curves, one for each sound?  And why not add reverb to each sound?  But instead of a normal reverb, why not use a convolution reverb, with a different impulse response for each sound, thus putting each sound into a distinctive virtual environment? 

I'm a great fan of making patterns and seeing/hearing what happens with them.  Often, if I can't predict the results of an action or a pattern, I'll make a lot of them, and then observe the results.  That was the case here.  I made waveshaping curves that looked pretty counter-intuitive, and I selected impulse responses at random from my collection acquired over the years.  (For those of you unfamiliar with convolution reverb, it's a technique where a short loud sound (the impulse) is recorded in an environment.  Your desired sound is then convolved (combined by multiplication) with the impulse, and the result sounds as if the original were recorded in the environment of the impulse.  The impulse is usually a short burst of white noise, or a clap of the hands, but it can be anything.  For example, if you recorded an announcement in a very reverberant train station, and then cut one word out of that announcement, you could get sounds that sounded like they were played in the train station, but coloured by the vowels of the word from the announcement.

With 20 sounds, each with their own waveshaping, and each played in a different (simulated)  environment, I thought we might be on to something.  And we were.  When these sounds were assembled end to end, the space created by the reverb tails gave the sequence a bit of breathing space, and made a rhythm of succession that seemed both more spacious and yet tighter than the original.  I was tempted to assemble the drawings into a video to combine with the sounds, but the widely varying levels of brightness, and the thinness of the lines did not lend themselves to use in a low-res (YouTube like) video.  So the piece is sound only.  Although here are thumbnails of 5 more of the drawings.

And here's the sound piece, followed by download links for mp3 and ogg (higher fidelity) formats.

Dowload the MP3 format version of the piece HERE.

Download the OGG format version of the piece HERE.



The ever amazing Mike Cooper sent me an email the other day, expressing his appreciation for my graphic-to-sound composition Berries.  He sent along a photo of a Hawaiian shirt of his, wondering what it would sound like if used as a score in the manner of the Berries photos.  Looking at the photo, I realised that it would have to be treated, because all my graphic-to-sound programs use black to indicate silence, and Mike's shirt photo had no black – the picture would be interpreted as fairly dense undifferentiated noise in its untreated state.  So I processed the photo through the free image program GIMP.  I adjusted the colour curve to be almost all black, and only allowed one small area of the image to come through as other colours.  I may have been a bit too severe in my truncating of the colours because, as you can see, only a little bit of the original image survived.  Further, since the original photo was pretty low-res (being only 640 x 480 pixels) the result was fairly grainy.  However, the manipulated image still looked like it was fairly complex, so I decided to use it, and hear what resulted. 

Mike Cooper's Shirt before preparation for graphic synthesis.

Mike Cooper's shirt after preparation for graphic synthesis.

Realised with just sine waves, the result was pretty uninspiring.  A bit of twinkle, but that was about it.  It then occurred to me that a shirt belonging to a virtuoso guitar and ukulele player like Mike should probably be realised with ukulele or guitar samples instead of sine waves.  In my sample collection I have an ancient sample called “Bermuda.”  I believe the sample is from around 1988-90, so long ago that I can't remember where its from, or who is playing on it.  The sample is of a man playing a guitar or ukulele, singing, and stomping his foot in time with his playing.  It's very cheery.  Here's the original sample:

"Bermuda" - original sample

I made two very short samples from this, one consisting of the first strummed chords, the second consisting of just three descending notes with a bit of foot stomping thrown in.  Here are the two samples. 

"Uke 1" - sample 1

"Uke 2" - sample 2

Nicholas Fournel's AudioPaint allows you to use any sample to realise a graphic, not just sine waves or noise. So I realised the processed photo into sound with both samples, producing two short sound files, which I then sent on to Mike. (For those of you who like tech things – Stereo Space was controlled by Red/Green colours; the Duration was either 120 or 180 seconds; and the Frequency Range was from 50 – 12500 Hz; with a Logarithmic Pitch Spread.)

Mike liked the sound of these realisations, and I agreed – the use of the vastly stripped back photo with the guitar/uke samples did indeed produce a fairly exciting sound texture.   I thought that was the end of the thing, but my mind wouldn't rest.  What if we played the photo horizontally instead of vertically?  What if we turned it upside down?  What about upside down and backwards?  You know, all the usual serialist schticks.

I realised that if I was going to do the serialist thing though, I'd actually have 8 different versions of the picture – the original and the original flipped left-right; upside down and upside down flipped left-right, and the same 4 alterations for the photo flipped horizontally.  However, I decided to be loyal to “the tradition” (or I was simply lazy), and only made 4 versions, one each for the standard original, and it upside down; and the horizontal left to right, and right-to-left forms of the photograph. 

Two of these pics used the first Uke sample, the other two used the second.  I then had four sound files, of different lengths, and I decided on an order for them, which included substantial overlapping, and mixed them together.  The result is this little eight minute piece, which I'm quite happy with.  It seems to have lots of variety, and the textures change in a really exciting manner.  The combination of pitch range, register, the choice of samples, the density of the image, and the durations chosen for each sound file all seem to combine to make an intricate and pleasingly evolving sound texture.  The mixing of the four versions enhances this sense of progression as well.  Here's the finished piece, with downloads available in both mp3 and ogg formats.  I hope you enjoy it.

Download the piece in MP3 format HERE.

Download the piece in OGG format HERE.




The Joy of Found Objects: When Everything Clicks.  Berries.

Being involved in algorithmic composing, process oriented composition, and environmental sound composition, as I am, involves a lot of searching for found objects. Often, things don't quite work out, and sometimes, you have to do a lot of work to get something vaguely interesting. For example, I've done pieces using chaos equations that have involved an enormous amount of work before halfway decent things resulted, and then there was a lot of work getting the musical output of those equations to sound appealing. (Endless work tweaking filters, reverbs, eqs, even pitch sets, etc.) Occasionally, though, sometimes things just fall together and feel “right.” Very little work is then needed to “finish” the process up. This is one of those times.

A couple of days ago (Wednesday afternoon to be exact), I left Box Hill Institute, my place of employment, and noticed right outside the door to building W2 that a tree (whose name I forget) had shed all its berries onto the gravel filled strip around it. It was kind of a gloomy day, and the pinkish-white of the berries was really vivid. So I quickly pulled out my phone and took a couple of pictures, thinking that I'd like to try treating those photos as a spectrogram in a graphics to sound program. My thought was that the white dots of the berries might make a granular synthesis texture. 

Here are the original photos I took, reduced in resolution for this website.



Saturday, I downloaded the photos from my phone to my computer, and treated them in a graphics program to increase the contrast. If the background was black, then (in most of my programs) that would be converted to silence, and only the with of the berries, and other colours of leaves, etc., would be converted to sound. Treated, the photos looked like this:

I then placed these photos in Rasmus Eckman's Coagula, one of my favourite graphics to sound programs. Coagula has two modes of conversion. In the red-green mode, red and green are converted into sine waves in different channels. In the red-green-blue mode, red and green are converted to sine waves, while blue is converted into band-limited noise. This is my favoured mode for working with it – it allows your to work with any colour, and then get varying shades of timbre from sine waves to noise, and in any place in the stereo space.

However, when I converted the pictures to sound like this, the results were pretty pedestrian. Not expecting much of an improvement, I converted the pictures to sound using just the red-green colours, to just get sine waves. Suddenly, the sounds I got were wonderful. Deep, rich, and with a full spectrum from low to high frequencies. And the sounds changed in really interesting ways, too. I wondered what the picture would sound like if converted so it lasted a very long time. I set the duration control to 1800 seconds (½ hour), and converted just the first minute of the picture, and listened. The sound was stunning. I immediately fell in love with it. Catherine was walking by my office and heard it, and she said she thought it was lovely too. 

Now I faced a (very brief) moment of crisis. Yes, at this tempo, the sounds produced are lovely. But converting the whole picture would result in a sound a half-hour long. Given that we're not supposed to occupy people's attention spans for that amount of time (but who says that, some dreary time-and-motion study capitalist efficiency expert?), how much of it should I convert? 

To heck with it, I thought – it sounds great at the tempo where the picture produces a half-hour sound, so I'll make a half-hour sound. If people want to listen to all of it, that's fine, and if they want to hear less, that's ok also. I'm nothing if not generous. 

I converted both photos to last almost a half-hour. Photo 1 lasts 29 minutes, and photo 2 lasts 29 and ½ minutes. I then juxtaposed the two sounds, just to get things a bit more polyrhythmic and thick (but not much!). Sound 1 begins at 0'00” and ends at 29'00”. Sound 2 begins at 0'30” and ends at 30'00”. 

The resulting mix had me speechless with sonic glee. It was lovely, and because the berry pictures produced a constantly changing very complex additive synthesis texture, the nature of the sounds changed constantly, and slowly. Now it sounds like voices, then it sounds like bells, now it sounds like a chord, then like an organ, now noisy, then pure, now beating, then steady. I had no problem listening to the half-hour of sound at all. It seemed like an ongoing sound adventure, a continual found-object harmonic exploration.  (By the way, the piece sounds great on good loudspeakers, and on high quality headphones.  I'm not sure how it will sound on earbuds.)

So here it is. I hope you enjoy it just as much as I do:

Download the piece in mp3 format HERE.

Download the piece in ogg format, for higher sound quality HERE

By the way, for those of you interested in graphics to sound exploration, here are the settings I used in Coagula to convert these pictures. 

On opening the photo, run the Colours/More Contrast (K) process twice. Then convert with Time (sec) = 1740.00; Amp. Factor = 3.00; Pitch Range (high) = 12500; Pitch Range (low) = 50.00, Noise Bandwidth = 4 (but this is not used for these pictures); Soft envelope sweeps is NOT checked. Picture 2 was converted with almost the same settings, except Time (sec) = 1770, and the high and low frequencies were 12000 and 100, respectively. If you want to download the program and play with it, and the above pictures, you might have some fun. 

Here are a selection of PC based graphics to sound programs you might be interested in:


Photosounder: (Mac too, and Linux)


Phonogramme: (Mac too)

High C: (Mac, too, and Linux)


Spear: (Mac, too)

Sound 2D Warper: 

and for Mac:


And there are a number of others. 

Each of these programs does different things, but most allow some kind of making of graphics (or loading them in) and converting them to sound in some way. Some (such as Spear, Photosounder, MetaSynth and Atmogen) also allow sound input, and manipulation of the graphic representation of the sound. Some allow a lot more timbral flexibility than others, but all, if used well, produce interesting sonic results, and are a source of engaging sonic exploration. Have fun!


Before, At, and After the Port: A new piece using Process Pack software. OR, The Beauty of Flying Blind.

I'm one of the beta testers for a new piece of software, Process Pack from Wellspring Music. ( ) It's designed to apply algorithmic processes to the processing of sounds. It's got a number of tools (so far 9 plus 2 utilities) and can be used for anything from single modifications to sound to constructing full compositions. I've written an article about it recently for the June 2011 issue of Wusik Sound Magazine.  You can find the whole issue on line at  If you want to read just my review, you can find that here.

In the course of testing the software, I've been making small studies with it, basing each study on either a single sample, or at most two contrasting samples. I've also been acquiring various small instruments, each of which I've been sampling and using in my testing. I've now finished a 10 minute piece, “Before, At and After the Port,” which consists of three of these studies, spliced end to end.

The first section, (0:00 – 1:46) uses a sample of a tiny gamelan instrument Catherine found at a local craft market.

I mainly explored the modulation possibilities in Process Pack's “Dispersal” process – you can hand draw a shape which will change the pitch of each sample or fragment of sample that Dispersal produces. That little riff on the tiny gamelan became a whole series of warbling, gliding sounds.

The second section (1:46 – 6:45) was made with a single sample taken from a cellphone recording of the sound environment of Station Pier at Port Melbourne. Station Pier is where The Empress of Tasmania, the ferry to Tasmania departs from, and it's a fairly busy place. Port Melbourne has become much more stylish and developed in the past couple of decades, but it still retains the sound environment of an industrial area. Back in the early 80s, I recorded sounds for “Yarra for Annea” there (part of Annea Lockwood's World Rivers Project), and the industrial clankings and train and crane whistles are still heard there today, to some degree. In my recording, I was lucky enough to get some of those same sounds that I heard almost 30 years ago.

For those unfamiliar with the area, or who remember it as a very low rise industrial area, here are some shots of the view from Station Pier today.


On the morning of Thursday 2 June, I went down to Port Melbourne pier, to enjoy the view of the Bay and the early morning sunlight. While on the pier, using a sound recording app on my phone, I recorded a bit of the ambient sound, which included some rhythmic hammering and a distant train whistle, those sounds which I remember hearing all those decades ago. Going to a lovely cafe, as well as enjoying some hot chocolate and a flourless orange and almond muffin, I also transferred the sound from my phone to my netbook, which I happened to have with me.

I then got onto the tram for the 70 minute ride across the city from Port Melbourne to Box Hill Institute, my place of employment. I decided that, working on headphones, I would modify that 10 second segment of the Port recording with Process Pack, using the results to make a piece. Once I’d reached work, I would stop modifying sounds, and use only the sounds I made on the tram in the resulting study.

Unfortunately, my headphones were pretty acoustically transparent, and the tram sounds were rather loud, so I found myself composing sounds with the sounds of the tram as a barrier between me what I wanted to hear. Undeterred, I decided to take this as a challenge, or an opportunity to “compose blind” or “almost blind,” and proceeded. After all, my teacher Kenneth Gaburo had experimented with a number of sensory deprivation processes as a part of his compositions, so my working with acoustically transparent headphones in a noisy environment was just one more kind of sensory deprivation exercise.

I took my original pier recording and made 3 different versions of it using the process called Hover. I then processed these Hover sounds through Dispersal, a very sophisticated granulator, and made four sounds with that. Then the four Dispersal sounds were each processed with a different set of frequencies and loudnesses set in the FilterBank process. The resulting FilterBank sounds were processed through Pyramid, a sample duplication and stacking process. The Pyramid sounds were then processed through Wraith, another kind of filter, which thinned them out and inverted them.

I then arrived at Box Hill. I had a set of 20 sounds to play with, including my original sample, each sound representing some stage in a multi-generational transform of the original sound. The final sounds sounded nothing like the original, but all stages of transformation, from slight to extreme, were represented in my final sound set. On the train home (not quite as noisy as the tram, but still pretty dominating), I decided to make some mixes using the PlayMix function, which allows you to combine samples in real-time, and save the results of your improvisations. I made three short mixes varying in length from 3 – 5 minutes. When I got home, and I could hear what I was doing (for the first time!), I decided I liked both the samples and the mixes, and I simply mixed together the three mixes to get the final result, which forms the middle section of this piece.


The final section of the piece (6:45-10:00) was made with samples of a tiny woodblock, with an unexpectedly lovely sound, which I found for $2 at the Box Hill branch of Po Hong, the venerable Chinese newsagency, and a small gong which Catherine bought for me in New York in 2008. (Pictures above, sounds below.)

woodblock sample

small gong sample

For this, I decided to mostly eschew modulating samples (except in the very middle of the study), but to work with the sounds of small clicks and gongs on their own. This was mostly a study in the transposition and sound movement possibilities of the program. I recommend listening to this section with the volume up and with your eyes closed, so you can really hear the panning and spinning of the sounds.

Once I finished that, I simply spliced the three sections together, creating the piece you can here by clicking on the player below, or download in either mp3 or ogg format (for higher fidelity) below that. In the course of making the piece, I put the software through its paces, identifying some issues that are now being worked on. I was delighted to find that the tools in Process Pack provided the means to make a complete piece, just on their own. However, I hope you like the piece not as an example of technological possibilities, but as a bit of sonic fun, providing some nicely intricate sound-shapes to wrap your ears around.

Click here to download the piece in mp3 format.

Click here to download the piece in ogg format (higher fidelity). 


Why Don't Jazzpersons Use These Chords? Score and sound recording of a new piece.

When I started teaching jazz harmony at Box Hill Institute, I became intrigued with those chords that were considered the “building blocks” of jazz, some of which I had been using in a non-jazz harmony context for many years – I'd used the “building blocks,” but not the “harmonic glue” - and wondered what some of them would sound like in just-intonation. For example, the dominant 7th with an added 9th, C E G Bb D, could be expressed with harmonics 4 5 6 7 and 9. After much fooling around, I came to a 12-note scale, based on C, of the odd numbered harmonics through 25, except harmonic 23. Harmonic 23 was eliminated because it would put too many pitches between C & G, resulting in my 3/2 being on Ab instead of G, and for this piece I wanted to use the normal 12-note keyboard with approximate normal harmonic relations (and fingering) for the key of C. The end scale was this:

But, of course, since this is just-intonation, if you play the same chord on different keys, it's going to sound different. Sometimes the differences will be subtle, and other times the differences will be great – a consonant chord transposed a minor second can become a grinding dissonance. To my ears, that's a good thing, but to the traditional world, that's probably not desired. CLICK HERE to hear that same C E G Bb D chord played on all 12 fundamentals.

 The use of a piano timbre makes the differences between each transposition level very prominent. Here's another example. The same scale, but a slightly different chord – the minor 9th – C Eb G Bb D, transposed to all 12 fundamentals.  CLICK HERE TO HEAR THAT.

  I found a chart of the 12 most common jazz 7th chords in a music theory book. To this list, I added a 13th chord (which was not a harmonic 13th chord), and added a major 9th to all the chords. I used these chords as "fingering templates" and applied them to the scale of odd numbered harmonics. I played the set of 13 chords 12 times, each time at a different transposition. Because of the unequal nature of the just-intonation scale, each transposition sounds different from the others – sometimes subtly different, sometimes radically different, revealing that in just-intonation there is the potential for much greater dissonance AND much greater consonance than 12-tone equal temperament provides. Or as Harry Partch said, dissonance in just-intonation is a “whole other serving of tapioca.”   

Once I'd done that, I realized I could turn the whole thing upside down and play it on the scale of subharmonics.  If you turn the scale upside down, you get a scale of subharmonics 1-25, without subharmonic 23. This scale, although inverted, has a lot of the same “sounds” as the harmonic scale. This inversion produces things that still sound like jazz chords, but which have a different colour than the harmonic-based chords. Here's the subharmonic scale:

I used an electric piano timbre for the piece. Finding the “right” electric piano sound was quite a task – I didn't realise the vast range of sounds that fit under the name “electric piano.” Finally, I made the sound I wanted, using Big Tick's “Rhino” synthesizer, and processing it through the Melda Production Multiband Reverb. The piece lasts 45 minutes. It's an exploration of a harmonic world that “might-have-been” or one that “might come to be.” Over the course of the piece, to my ears at least, the chords, even the most dissonant, cease having a quality of “strangeness” or “out-of-tuneness,” and simply become sounds in their own right. Which is what I hope would happen in this pretty yet unrelenting piece – the unusual sounds would become “normalised,” and a new set of harmonic resources would reveal themselves for those interested in hearing and playing them.

The SCORE can be found HERE.

CLICK HERE to hear a recording of an electronic realization of PART 1.

CLICK HERE to hear a recording of an electronic realization of PART 2.

In Google Chrome, at least (I don't know about other browsers), a player will appear, and if you right-click on the player, you can download either file.

The title is a good natured teasing of my many jazz playing friends, but also an invitation to them. Here's a new harmonic world for you to explore! Enjoy!