Static Gestures II (Formant Pulses) (1987)10:07Kevin AustinPresence, 1, 1
During my mid-80s sabbatical leave I had the opportunity to go to Saskatoon for three weeks and work in their studio with a very large (old) synthesizer, the Synthi 100. I had no firm plans but had considered doing some incidental sounds for a Shakespeare play. The studio was not set up for ’classical studio’ editing and I wanted to play with the Synthi. (I had been informally studying electronics since 1970 and had assembled synthesizers in the 1970s.) The Synthi 100 was lots of fun. I recombined a couple of cognate interests -- linguistics and algorithmic composition, and decided to create “machines” for sound generation. (I had done a few of these pieces in Montreal in my home studio as well.)
Static Gesture is a contradiction in terms, something like Black White. But the idea is followed through. I would set up a machine (patch on the synthesizer) that would play itself, governed by sets of rules and constraints -- algorithmic, but in the analog world, not the digital one. The first electronic computers were analog, but they were quickly replaced by the precision of the digital 0 — I world of Eniac etc.
Since my informal work in phonetics and linguistics I had wanted to create a “vowel” generator, and the Synthi 100 has enough filters (4 multimode filters) to do it. The sound starts from a pulse wave that is under two layers of random frequency control so that the repetition of the patterns would not be able to be heard. This signal goes in parallel through the four high-q band pass filters, simulating the vocal formants of vowels, but done randomly. This was mixed together and randomly pulsed. The version of the piece Formant Pulses, is a 10 minute excerpt from what I left running in the studio for about a week -- no one in the Department of Music had any interest in the studio and it hadn’t been used for many years!
To feel comfortable with the sound(s), I would go and sit in the studio for a couple of hours every day until I was content that it was “ok”. This came from my reading about the American composer Carl Ruggles who sat and played the same chord repeatedly for long periods of time (Henry Cowell tells the story). I figured if I could listen to the patch for 20 or 30 hours, 10 minutes wouldn’t be too hard for others.
The piece took on a second life as a piece for voice and tape, with the voice being ring modulated. The piece and the voice were played at a high level, not dangerously high, but quite loud. As such, the combination of the two together sounded very much like standing behind a Harley-Davidson motor bike, or a bunch of them. And this sounded familiar to me as in 1984/85, one night near Cape Hatteras (about 2:30 in the morning) while I was on the highway recording frogs, I heard in the distance the sound of (apparently) a very large train, but there are no trains with 150 km of the Outer Banks. I stopped recording (foolishly!), and about 2 minutes later was passed, at low speed, a gang of about 50 bikers. As they passed me, the all accelerated. Black noise!
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