Composition Study #13

Posted by PH on October 15, 2014
Composition Study, Music & Technology / No Comments

Something of a curio: I used Rainwaves this year in the Contextual Studies module as my algorithmic composition, but it was actually done back in 1992 when I was a student myself (at City University, studying Music Information Technology under Jim Grant and Simon Emmerson).

The piece was actually written in Lightspeed C (on the original Mac LC) for my programming module. The finished software outputs four channels of MIDI notes, each generated by a separate equation. However, each of the equations was of a similar type, a variant of the “hailstone equation” I found when reading Clifford Pickover’s book Computers, Pattern, Chaos and Beauty. The main characteristic of an equation of this type is that it initially outputs a haphazard sequence of values which then settle down into a rhythmic cycle.

So: work out a way to map the outputs onto MIDI note numbers; fiddle with the starting values to get some artistically satisfying results; record some sections into a sequencer (Opcode Vision); add an outro. I only had one keyboard at the time (a Korg Wavestation) and so just took the stereo output from that directly into a hired-in DAT machine. Finished.

Interesting. I didn’t do any manipulation of note values at all, and yet it all sounds very musical despite the fact the “melodies” are being generated by equations playing themselves out. Yes, there was a selection process and, yes, there was an element of quantization going on in terms of the choice of notes (insofar as the numbers output from the equation had to be mapped onto the 0-127 range permitted under the MIDI protocol). But otherwise I didn’t manipulate any of the variables or play a single note to make it artificially seem musical: it just is.

22 years old and still fresh as a daisy!

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Tim Davies

Posted by PH on October 09, 2014
Visual Culture / No Comments

Tuesday 1pm, about three years after we originally proposed it: lunch with Tim Davies.


Street Food Cardiff

Posted by PH on October 05, 2014
Miscellaneous, Visual Culture / No Comments

Last night we experienced the opening night of Street Food Cardiff‘s new venture: a “popup” food venue in The Depot. According to WalesOnline:

…it’s a brand new concept in dining, promising to work with the best food vendors, chefs and cooks from Wales to create an independent food court and weekend warehouse dining experience.

What this means in reality is a deserted warehouse decked out with furniture made from old pallets, cable drums, and logs; dead tree boughs stuck upright into yet more cable drums; fairy lights and bare neon tubes; “street art”; and the food vendors selling from a variety of trailers, converted garden sheds, and recycled bar furniture.



There were a couple of teething problems. Come 9:30pm the whole place was filling up with smoke and the warehouse’s roller-shutter doors had to be raised a foot or so, which doesn’t bode well for the winter months. And perhaps more seriously, the benches started collapsing with the result that a couple of guys started circulating armed with wood struts and an electric screwdriver. Oh yeah: and the art needs to be a lot better.


As you can see from the poster above, the food on offer was somewhat one-dimensional: lots and lots of fried meat. More consideration needs to be taken to get a good balance: we thought a vegetarian option (other than the obligatory veggie pizza) and a decent coffee were the essential items missing here tonight.


Proof of the pudding though: we had a really good time. The food was good, the music selection hugely enjoyable (a deal-killer otherwise), and it was all very atmospheric.


Part pop-festival, part post-apocalyptic township, part fashion runway—think Mad Max or Fallout III or one of William Gibson’s gomi-built dystopias—eating out on a Saturday night has just acquired a shambling, barely coherent, but very friendly alter-ego. Promising: let’s hope they develop it intelligently.

[Thanks to Alison and Pete for the heads-up.]

[Update 09.10.14: according to The Guardian, it looks like everyone's at it. Ho hum...]


Composition Study #12

Posted by PH on September 23, 2014
Composition Study, Music & Technology / 1 Comment

Quick recap: I teach a Contextual Studies module on the MA Creative Sound Production course at UWTSD. Students have to produce a series of short “composition studies” to a given brief, and I usually do one as well. This year, however, due to all sorts of craziness going on in my life I wasn’t able to keep up. A shame, and I humbly apologize to my lovely students…

Anyway, I promised them that I would at least complete this one, the brief being very simple: produce a piece of music using only a pencil and paper (provided!) as sound sources. I’ve tried to keep in the spirit of things and have produced it very quickly, as they would have done. I reckon to have spent about 15 hours in total, most of which was spent processing sounds (MetaSynth).

I’m not entirely convinced by it. I love the basic sound set, but at a certain point I wanted to stop just using the pencil-and-paper sounds and to add something completely different, synths or flugelhorn or whatever… Still, it is what it is.

[PS: I shall consider entering it for next year's £8000 Jerwood Drawing Prize.]

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Cardiff Art Now

Posted by PH on September 21, 2014
Visual Culture / No Comments

Again following directly on from previous posts, here’s a quick overview of the exhibitions currently running in Cardiff. You’d have to say it’s been a busy couple of weeks…

Books of the Unexpected
Curated by Becky Adams this show at Craft in the Bay focusses on the way artists are using books as a source material to create art (putting it bluntly). There are some lovely pieces here, particularly those by Betty Pepper and Becky herself:




Criticism? I think my main concern with this sort of work is its pervading sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia is not always a bad thing, but when it comes to dominate artistic production in the way it does here it seems fair to at least ask the question… To put this into some kind of context first: the comments in the exhibition’s catalogue are a litany of claims that the artists are rescuing “abandoned” or “lost” materials and the stories they supposedly evoke. The appeal is obvious: recycling and reusing found materials immediately and inescapably engenders the feeling that we are creating ties with the past, links with tradition. It’s all about “authenticity” in an age of superficiality, inbuilt redundancy, social mobility, and the collapse of social consensus.

Whilst this may well therefore be a reasonable response, it is often very difficult to discern what the artists are saying about the world we live in now because it simply isn’t present in the work. This negation is of course a comment in itself, but what we seem to be left with is a mythological British childhood circa 1950: warm, cozy, hot-chocolaty, with the World Service muttering away reassuringly in the corner as Grannie bakes cup cakes. In other words, the work in this show tends toward overt sentimentality and much of it veers dangerously close to kitsch.

[I think McLuhan would also have something to say about this type of practice: the artist rescuing an obsolescent medium, an old medium becoming content for a new medium, etc.]

Still Life: All Coherence Gone?
This exhibition opened yesterday at Bay Arts. Curated by Frances Woodley, the show explicitly “explores how contemporary painters and photographers engage with traditional still-life painting” with particular emphasis on the Dutch painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


My friends—most of whom know far more about art than I ever will—were all enthusiastic about the show and the general response seemed very positive, but I have to say it didn’t do much for me. I found much of it uninspiring: hanging meat, dull flowers, run-of-the-mill oils, and more kitchenware than you could shake a stick at. Plenty of kitsch (sigh). Pieces often spoiled by overly-reflective picture-frame glazing.

High points: Alan Salisbury’s real flies stuck on oil-painted stylized fruit, Clare Chapman’s sfumato, and Krista van der Niet’s beautifully composed Rabarber:


An exhibition for the connoisseurs?

Wales Rajasthan Exchange
This exhibition at Butetown History and Arts Centre is curated by Richard Cox. The show is an ongoing series dating back to the mid-1990s when a cultural exchange programme between Wales and Rajasthan was originally set-up.

There aren’t a huge number of works on show, but a couple of beautiful pieces by Lalit Sharma and Meena Baya manage to successfully combine traditional techniques with a modern sensibility. Here’s a detail from one of the Sharma pieces (again somewhat spoilt by the glazing):


Cox also includes in the show a couple of his photographs of stepwells taken on his visits to Rajasthan, one of which I use here with all due respect:



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Malevich, Gómezbarros, Wilson, Mascaró

Posted by PH on September 20, 2014
Visual Culture / 1 Comment

[Directly following on from the previous post.] The next morning we went back to the Tate Modern to see the Malevich exhibition. His work was presented in a more-or-less linear chronology. The early paintings are obviously derivative, but somehow he manages to pull a wide range of disparate influences together and quite quickly develops the “Suprematist” style he is famous for. Later, under threat from the Stalinist regime, he goes back to a more figurative way of painting where his individuality almost disappears: one portrait painted in an almost 19th century way, another looking like Braque, the next like a Byzantine icon, and then there are the faceless peasant paintings…

We get a look at his educational materials. The Suprematist Teapot is there (hurrah!). But, overall, I came away somewhat disappointed. Despite so much source material being available, I got very little sense of the actual processes driving the work, and there were whole sections of the exhibition that it was impossible to view in any meaningful way because it had been placed so high on the wall.



Worthwhile, nonetheless. Maybe we just had a hangover from the blistering and vivid Matisse exhibition from the night before: it couldn’t have been more of a contrast.


We then went across to the Saatchi gallery for the Pangea show, a collection of works from Africa and South America. A very mixed bag. This was the best piece—completely taking over Gallery 1—and my favourite (as a big ant fan): Casa Tomada by Rafael Gómezbarros.



The ants are made from casts of human skulls, reflecting the overtly political nature of much of the work in the show (as one might expect given the geography).


Of course, no visit to the Saatchi is complete without a visit to Richard Wilson’s wonderful 20:50. Beautifully still and serene, and it just smells so good:



Finally, there was the bonus of an exhibition by Spanish artist Xavier Mascaró:



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Matisse Cut-Outs

Posted by PH on September 20, 2014
Visual Culture / No Comments

The weekend before last—how time flies—we went up to London to catch the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibition at the Tate Modern. This being the last weekend of the show the Tate scheduled an all-nighter. We duly turned up at about 9:30pm and the place was absolutely heaving (although it did quieten down at about 10:30 and was actually quite civilized by about 11:30 when we left).

Anyway. Thank goodness we went. Despite being a huge admirer of Matisse’s paintings—noted in several earlier posts on this blog—I had been somewhat sceptical and had never really been enthused by his later work. But, as usual, seeing the actual works rather than reproductions made the world of difference. Firstly, the sheer scale of some of the works completely transformed their effect and their affective power:



Secondly, the intensity and inter-relationship of the colours was simply astonishing. The cut-out method gives every colour block a clean and definitive edge, emphasizing contrast. The vermilion in The Dragon (below) was was almost unbelievably rich and deep. And placed next to that blue? Not obvious, but very effective:


The Lagoon series. Note how certain shapes are the negative of others i.e. they were all worked on together:




Which brings us nicely onto number three: repetition and rhythm. There is a lot of both in this series of works and in this respect it remains very modern. However, unlike most contemporary imagery of this sort—which relies on the computer’s ability to copy-and-paste ad infinitum—there is no exact repetition in Matisse: each motif in a given series is slightly different from every other because they are all hand-made. This organic element gives his work a humanity and interest simply not possible with mechanical reproduction: in fact, humanity is exactly what the repetition of identical elements destroys. There is an important lesson to be learnt here for those churning out modern computer-based music:


Finally, when you see these works in reproduction they lose their depth and texture. When you see the originals it is incredible how rough they are: you can see where the cut-out elements have been sliced, ripped, and torn; you can see the pinholes where they were temororily tacked up before fixing; you can see the scribbles and outlines of the pencil marks on the paper; and you can see where the colour blocks have been modified by layering. This is a detail from Blue Nude IV:


Similarly, there are often different versions of these works in various media. Note the simplicity and flatness of the lithograph of Woman with Amphora and Pomegranates with the complexity, texture, and apparent depth in the relatively huge original:



Summing up then, I think it is both exposure to the simplified lithograths and the flattening effect of reproductions in general that, in the past, have put me off these works. However, seen in the flesh, the signs of intelligent and skilled human activity are all too clear. They are a magnificent achievement.


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Becky Adams

Posted by PH on August 12, 2014
Visual Culture / 1 Comment

Another Private View this week, this time at the newly-refurbished Penarth Pier Pavilion. Becky Adams produces beautiful and painstakingly crafted miniatures steeped in sepia-tinged nostalgia. The very personal world they evoke has a warmth and sly humour that is entirely disarming. Lovely.








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Composition Studies Vol. 1

Posted by PH on August 05, 2014
Composition Study, Education, Music & Technology / No Comments

Last year I taught a module on the MA Creative Sound Production course at UWTSD. As part of the module students had to compose a short piece each week: I did one as well, money where your mouth is and all that…

This album is the result. An unusual experience insofar as:

  • All the tracks were done to some outside brief. I didn’t choose to do any of them and, Hell, I don’t even like some of them.
  • All the tracks were done very quickly (usually in a couple of evenings).
  • These were the first tracks I’d produced in nearly 10 years. I was on a steep learning curve myself.

Hugely enjoyable and very satisfying in an odd, oblique, way that even now I can’t quite pin down.


[You can track back on the blog—or search using the "composition study" tag—and find posts describing the methods used to produce each of the tracks. If you're interested.]



Dario Argento – An Eye For Horror

Posted by PH on August 01, 2014
Film, Visual Culture / No Comments