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!


Easter Colour Mix - the companion piece

Sometimes, things go pear-shaped, and sometimes, things happen in pairs.  (Ask Erik Satie about pear-shaped.  After all, he wrote "Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear.")  I had just finished "City Night Rain," the previous video on this site, when, on Easter morning, I was sitting at Cliffy's Cafe in Daylesford, Vic, watching people passing on the sidewalk.  I noticed that my cellphone could take pictures tinted red, green or blue, so I filmed 30 seconds of passing people on the sidewalk in each colour.  At home, I loaded the videos to my computer, and stretched both the videos and the soundtracks, and made a music track as well, then mixed them all together in such a way that the balance of red, green and blue was constantly changing.  Although my original idea was inspired by Arthur and Corinne Cantrill's "Three Colour Separation" film series, I realized that my mix was more about changing colour balances than about reassembling a sense of realistic colour. The result is a sort of daytime companion to the nightscape of City Night Rain.  The piece sort of "wrote itself."  That is, it just fell together, but I'm really happy with the results.  I think these two video works turn out to be sections of a larger work, yet to be conceived.  To me at least, they seem to suggest that.  For the moment though, I'm happy with them as a pair of mood pieces.  And for those of you into such things, the electric piano track is a jazz chord progression retuned into a just-intonation scale based on a Fibonacci-like additive series.  There are two tracks of electric piano, in the rhythmic ratio of 84:87, with the two tracks approximately a minor third (6:5) apart.  Again, like in City Night Rain, I think this will look best in a dark space in full screen with the sound pleasantly present, but not overly loud.



City Night Rain - a new video work

Wednesday 20 April, was a rainy night in Melbourne.  The downpour turned the streets into a mud river.  I felt like a character in a detective novel, or even a noir film like Blade Runner. All my thoughts were turning into quotes from old detective radio shows!  Only one thing to do, Quick! Whip out the cell phone and take a 30 second video of the night.  On Good Friday, I uploaded the video to my computer, and began playing with it.  Various electronic modifications of the video (all slowly changing, of course), and stretchings of the soundtrack, and a couple of tracks of microtonal electric piano chords were mixed in.  I found the results quite moody and lovely.  A portrait of the city on a very rainy night.  And my first video work in quite a while.  Here's hoping more follow soon.  This one will look best, I think, in full screen with the lights off, and the sound at a pleasant, but not too loud, volume.