answers to questions of paul doornbusch
Mapping concerns the connection between gestures, or structures and audible result in a musical performance. While this is of intense interest to performers of new instruments and instrument designers, it has also been an area of interest for some composers. Algorithmic composition is sometimes the process of imagining a gesture or a structure - perhaps physical or visual - and then applying a mapping process to turn that 'gesture' into sound which may display the original gesture in some way. This article looks at mapping from the point of view of algorithmic composition, particularly where persistence is an issue, such that the gesture is embodied and perceptible in the result.
1. (PD) Can you comment on the statement above, with respect to your own practice of algorithmic composition and the mapping component of that?
LP: I think that the emphasis, for me, on words like gesture and performance has a lot to do with a kind of recent loss of memory syndrome, and very user-friendly and relatively new programs like HMSL and Max and Supercollider which made those kinds of connections possible. Mapping of musical idea, or of any idea, into sound and composition is much older, and nearly universal culturally and historically. That said, I would tend to focus, for convenience sake, on the recent history, considering people like Schillinger a sort of ancient ancestor, and using Hiller, Koenig, Tenney, Matthews (I think of him as one of the most interesting algorithmic composers even if he can't abide his own experiments in that area), and so on as early workers (Ames has written beautifully on this history, and I certainly put people like him and me in the next generation of those people).
As for myself, I don't think in gestures, usually, but in ideas. And I try to make those ideas as deep and resonant as possible. Sometimes those ideas have clear and intricately connected sonic manifestations inherently obvious in them (the four voice canons are a good example), sometimes they don't (that is I work on ideas independently of sound, such as the metric and mutation functions, which came from a deep, sort of philosophical interest in the whole notion of change).
Mapping ideas is different than mapping data, though it is clear to me at some level that data and ideas are the same (and I'm thinking in sort of a Chaitin-esque mode here). My way of working is to come up with fertile ideas and explore them a lot, usually playfully, since that's my nature as a musician. Sometimes I feel like the conceptualist in me is a kind of wholesaler to the musician - one gives the other raw stuff, and the other makes music out of it. Sometimes these two are the same person, and that's when the pieces, to me, are the best.
2. Musical instruments tend to have consistent but complex mappings between physical gestures and the resultant sound. Do you have a consistent approach to algorithmic composition and mapping or does it vary and why?
I don't agree about musical instruments, but I'll leave that for a different discussion. I don't have a consistent approach to algorithmic composition (I don't even really accept or like the term, but I'll use it here since we both "kind of know" what we are talking about).
The reason I don't have a consistent approach is by my very nature as an experimental composer I am trying to avoid a consistent approach. I think that experimentation should go on at every level. It would be a lot simpler for me if I had one program, one score package, and just kind of cranked out pieces for instruments using a set of ideas in some consistent technology. In fact, it would probably be the sane thing to do. But I don't do that. I experiment, continually, with every aspect of the concept, technology, and realization process. I do this not in a cavalier way - in the 80s I worked very hard and consistently to evolve, via HMSL and my own works, live interactive intelligent music, and also to work on a lot of computer aided compositional stuff that I hadn't been able to do. In the early 90s, mainly due to a change in lifestyle, I started to write a lot more scores using HMSL (while still doing a lot of performance work, but not as much). Recently, I've been moving in some new directions. I always take a kind of "what if" approach, and try to do new things. It makes me happy, and I get irascible at myself when I feel like I'm repeating myself out of laziness or out of not knowing why. Other times, I will explore things at great lengths (I have "series'" of works like the four voice canons, the Psaltery set, the Cantillation Studies, the "toods", etc.), but I like to have fun and invent new worlds within the context of my own universe.
3. When implementing a mapping strategy for (part of) a composition, do you organize this in a particular 'analytical' way (decomposing the problem in a technical manner), or in a more creative and holistic way for a purely aesthetic result?
I use play, and humor, and oftentimes reference. Like Roads to Chimacum, where the most sophisticated software I've ever written is transforming a fiddle tune (or 51 Melodies is another good example, where the mutation process transforms two "found" guitar licks, both of which I just wrote in a few minutes). I try not to be dogmatic about the mapping (I don't think it's reasonable to do that, or healthy), and I try to use what you are calling the "mapping" but what might be called "realization" or even "orchestration" (in fact, I've got a whole set of pieces, the four voice canons, which is based explicitly on that) as a place for intuition, humor, cultural reference, expression, etc.
To me, this "stage" of the process, which often comes into my mind even before the idea, is a good place to relax and have a beer and have fun. In a certain sense, it's arbitrary (I think of, as a good example, what would have happened had Steve Reich decided to use complex, thorny atonal chords in his early works, instead of minor ninths like in Piano Phase? - they'd be the same concept, but a very different, much less accessible sound). Mapping a mutation onto "Roads to Chimacum" is isomorphic to mapping the mutation to "Hard Day's Night" (as Dirk Rodney, the great English experimentalist from the 1960s, seems to have done). The idea, in a lot of my works is sort of independent of the "medium" through which it's transported to sound. However, mostly what other people hear is that medium (in 51 Melodies, screaming guitars; in Four Voice Canon #4, gentle marimbas; in Roads to Chimacum, fractured fiddle tunes, etc.). So those media are, on the other hand, crucial.
I've very deliberately chosen elliptical, obscure, or even deceptive media, not wanting to make it too easy. If I wrote a piece that mutated gentle and lovely marimba chords into gentle and lovely but different guitar sounds, all would be very happy and I'd be working with the exact ideas that I've often used. But I'm contentious by nature, and I feel that I would be sort of tricking people into liking something that is by nature sort of difficult, and requires a lot of effort and thought. Sort of sugarcoating, which is fine in life but music is a place where even the wimpiest of us can dare to be courageous. I respect Ames' music a lot for this reason (and David Feldman is a wonderfully extreme example of this): Charles, throughout his work, has been obstinate in couching the most elegant, beautiful and sophisticated ideas in the most recalcitrant and unfriendly of media. Nick Didkovsky, another composer who I admire tremendously, has found a nice synthesis of media and idea, and I think that's because media is something he's actively a participant in (he's a great guitarist and musician, and when he steps up to play, he wants to play something that appeals to him on that level, not just the conceptual one). There are diverse approaches to this, and all interesting, and many admirable, but in the end I think it boils down to personality. We all have our own communication styles, and those may or may not be related to our concepts. That's why the gods gave us poetry.
4. Is the mapping component of your compositions something that you think might be perceptible by a listener, or of interest to them and why?
It's hard to perceive, certainly impossible at the level of complexity that it's conceived, but not impossible. In all my pieces, since I'm kind of a formal purist, or rather, shy of ornamentation and drama for their own sake, one hears clear processes, deliberate formal trajectories. Often, as in 51 Melodies or the Casten Variation, it's more or less obvious what's going on, but not in detail. That's one of the reasons I write so much about my work, because I think that's necessary, and not in bad way, or because I think the work is incomplete. I think the world is incomplete in the way that often ideas are written off as ancillary because they can't be conceived or felt immediately. We don't immediately perceive differential equations, but they're both beautiful to understand on their own and consequential to our existence. Neither does per(e(xc))ception of the rules and usages of English rules/grammar in every sentence used in detail explicit itself as us, but boy do we, feel, them, if used by us irregularly they are(ent).
In any case, I believe strongly in sound, in music and in idea, and feel no need to give any of them a lack of respect.
5. Is the mapping component of algorithmic composition something that is pre-determined for you or is it part of a process of exploration?
6. Do you use individual mapping strategies for individual parameters or is there reuse of mapping strategies or a global system? (i.e. are they monoparametric or multiparametric?)
Depends. I don't like the historical reference of this question, because it seems to me to have evolved as kind of a political question, and as a way of composers making rather historical pernicious statements of self-annointment. It just depends on the piece.
10. Can you give a concrete example of how you use mapping in your practice of algorithmic composition?
In my case, I've tried to assiduously write about every piece that does this kind of thing, so I'll just lazily bow out of this question and refer the reader to my work.