Monday, April 18, 2011

Out of Captivity

I’ve held a great horned owl before. It was perched on my arm covered in a thick leather glove, its silver dollar-sized, bright yellow eyes gazing lazily at me. Though the owl was kept captive because of an injury and I was physically separated by it from the glove, something wild radiated from it and left me speechless, not from the experience necessarily (though it was amazing), but from its overwhelming aura.
I was recently introduced to a newly created project called “Otomata” made by Batuhan Bozkurt, the self-described “sound artist, computer programmer, performer, and overall a curious person” from Istanbul. Otomata is a generative sequencer that uses cellular automaton technology, meaning that it employs the ubiquitous method of the grid system. Bozkurt created the system to “produce sound events” by assigning each cell of the grid a specific pitch. The user can then select certain cells that will move and can also select the direction. Hit “play,” and your cells are off to start making electronic music, bouncing off the walls of the grid and off each other, changing paths and pitches but keeping their steady beat. Otomata is addicting; all “pieces” that can be created sound final-draft like. Despite the fact that everything is in the grasp of a D minor 7 and, therefore, all tracks sound like part of a close-knit family, it’s fun and provides complete release to any type of composers’ block/block of basically anything.

The aspect of Otomata that is most lovable is its ability to morph constantly. Though the path one sets out for the grid’s cells is originally definite, there is no way of keeping it the same unless all the cells avoid contact with each other altogether. It’s like setting loose 100 bouncy balls in a racquetball court and trying to keep them bouncing in the same place—impossible. Otomata morphs subtly yet evidently, like the heartbeat of an inconsistent runner. While Otomata is unpredictable at the core, it doesn’t hit home like unpredictable, composed music does. When listening to this type of music, I am reminded of my many encounters with Iron Chef America—“It tastes gamey”—and agree. Composed music that follows the unpredictability and gradual growth that Otomata does subconsciously is like the great horned owl. It’s wild music.

Accurate feeling for this type of music
The first two composers that came to my mind while listening to Otomata were Brian Eno, the sort of modern Moses of ambient electronic music, and Nico Muhly, a young new composer who isn’t exactly known for his electronic compositions. Otomata isn’t necessarily ambient, but its personality is.

by Martin Goodwin

Brian Eno is a British composer, theologist, musician, and record producer. Eno began experimenting with avant garde techniques from the beginning of his musical career, playing “Piano Tennis” (much more literal than you would think) with his teacher at St. Joseph’s College and becoming a part of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. Now Eno focuses on the ambient side of music, composing open, windy pieces that often sound like the audio representation of the aurora borealis and other natural wonders of the world. He released his newest album, Small Craft on a Milk Sea, in 2010.
Small Craft on a Milk Sea

Let’s take one of Eno’s new compositions, “Late Anthropocene.” It consists of a faint but twitchy tremble in the mid-ground, low panpipe sounding swells in the background, and almost panpipe-vocal hybrids in the foreground. While the motifs are all the same throughout the piece, never truly changing their rhythms, the piece morphs like a slow-motion shot of cream exploding in a cup of coffee. New motifs come in every once in a while, but the mood stays on the same rolling plain. Ambient music can be emotionally terrifying, but Eno knows how to strike a balance between emptiness and fullness (really achieving both). One can imagine a trek through cold and wet caverns, tunneling deeper and deeper into the depths, but only knowing it by knowledge, not by perception. The piece dies out like someone with anesthesia.

Globe Newspaper Company
Nico Muhly, on the other hand, is no seasoned expert in ambient music, but he is one of my most favorite discoveries. He is most certainly one of the young stars of classical music composition today. Only 29, Muhly has a degree from Columbian and Julliard and has played with Björk, Arcade Fire, Jónsi, Now Ensemble, and many others. Muhly has composed for films such as The Reader and Joshua. He has worked with Philip Glass extensively, and this influence is evident in his compositions. In an interview I watched with Muhly, he described his goal in music: to make it “hospitable.” I think he has achieved just that. Muhly’s music is friendly but smart; it not only draws people in from all walks of life, but it keeps them there, swimming in his light yet flavorful concoctions. I only thought of one piece of Muhly’s music when playing around with Otomata, but all of his music is more than worth checking out.

Muhly's most recent release 

“Fast and Twitchy Organs” by Muhly is one of his only electronic compositions that is publicly (and freely) available, and is the piece by him that popped into my head in accordance with Otomata. The piece fits perfectly into the unofficial genre of “traveling music.” The changes in the piece are again subtle but evident.  The words “fast” and “twitchy” don’t necessarily come to mind when I listen to this piece, but “organ” certainly does. The work is muffled but not shielded in any way, like a heartbeat or magnetism from a body. Muhly’s chord choices are perfect and current—they are melancholy without being obvious, and the barely-there melody is as well. The piece is wild yet calm and the listener can see the animal, whatever it may be, crossing a flat and deserted field of grass in the wind.
Wild music does not have to be savage, for all wild animals are not. In fact, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of “wild” is the overwhelming power a large beast like a moose or elk has without moving or making a sound. Otomata is the epitome of wild music technically, but music by people like Eno and Muhly is truly wild, being able to meander but have a goal. My goal? To listen to this wild music with the owl. 

Listen to my music... or else

photo by Michael Fairchild

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