has an article
in the most recent New Yorker about John Luther Adams
's generative music installation. In a nutshell:
"The Place" translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into an intricate, vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.
From Roth's description it seems like Adams did a very good job of data visualization (or rather, data auralization). The listener has a sense of what the music represents:
The first day I was there, "The Place" was subdued, though it cast a hypnotic spell. Checking the Alaskan data stations on my laptop, I saw that geomagnetic activity was negligible. Some minor seismic activity in the region had set off the bass frequencies, but it was a rather opaque ripple of beats, suggestive of a dance party in an underground crypt. Clouds covered the sky, so the Day Choir was muted. After a few minutes, there was a noticeable change: the solar harmonies acquired extra radiance, with upper intervals oscillating in an almost melodic fashion. Certain that the sun had come out, I left "The Place," and looked out the windows of the lobby. The Alaska Range was glistening on the far side of the Tanana Valley.
When I arrived the next day, just before noon, "The Place" was jumping. A mild earthquake in the Alaska Range, measuring 2.99 on the Richter scale, was causing the Earth Drums to pound more loudly and go deeper in register. (If a major earthquake were to hit Fairbanks, "The Place," if it survived, would throb to the frequency 24.27Hz, an abyssal tone that Adams associates with the rotation of the earth.) Even more spectacular were the high sounds showering down from speakers on the ceiling.
"The Place" sounds like a very compelling work and a real accomplishment... however, Roth's article does seem a bit naive in regards to how the installation fits into the tradition of generative art. Roth writes:
["The Place"] is a forbiddingly complex creation that contains a probably unresolvable philosophical contradiction. On the one hand, it lacks a will of its own; it is at the mercy of its data streams, the humors of the earth. On the other hand, it is a deeply personal work, whose material reflects Adams's long-standing preoccupation with multiple systems of tuning, his fascination with slow-motion formal processes, his love of foggy masses of sound in which many events are unfolding at independent tempos.
Fair enough... but the same contradiction is inherent to almost every generative artwork. It's almost like waxing poetic over how a particular sculpture seems to be dealing with issues of form in space. Uh, yeah... that's what sculptures do.
I was also struck by this quote of Adams's:
"Actually, my original conception for 'The Place' was truly grandiose. I thought that it might be a piece that could be realized at any location on the earth, and that each location would have its unique sonic signature. That idea--tuning the whole world--stayed with me for a long time. But at some point I realized that I was tuning it so that this place, this room, on this hill, looking out over the Alaska Range, was the sweetest-sounding spot on earth."
I spent part of last summer doing investigations with generative music and sound (and I hope this summer to bring this work to fruition). I discovered that it is fairly easy to create a process for making reasonably convincing (if not wholly compelling) music. What is much more difficult is having that artwork capable of generating a variety of distinct pieces.
I think Adams is being very upfront about how the installation is tuned to the Alaskan environmental variables in particular. If he had done a more generic tuning--one that would work in any given place--he probably wouldn't have been able to achieve his "unique sonic signature" idea. Each place would probably end up sounding very much like all the other locations.Golan Levin
, in an interview with Carlos Zanni, argued that interactive and generative art is about "creating an illusion of control: the sense that the 'artist' has relinquished authorship to the user, or to some clever algorithm. In fact, this is a myth."
What Levin is saying, I think, is that the artist/composer has complete control over how the triggering data is framed. Often the truly defining characteristics of generative artworks are the elements over which the artist maintains control rather than the aspects determined by the stochastic input. For example, Adams said he tuned the installation to that place in particular. He determined that earthquakes trigger the Earth Drums and he undoubtedly adjusted it so that the average level of tremors generally sounds good. This is very much like when I saw guitarist Elvin Bishop at a blues festival--at one point in the set he had an audience member strum the guitar while Bishop continued to finger the chord changes. It was fun and a neat trick, but the strumming no more determined the direction of Bishop's song than the tremors determines Adam's.
These issues of illusion and control remind me of my childhood interest in stage magic. I used to learn tricks and read up on magicians until I eventually realized that stage magic would always be unsatisfying to me because I'm not interested in the illusion of magic, what I really wanted was real magic. I have similar feelings about generative art... I play around the edges of it, but I'm not interested in presenting the illusion of machine creativity.
It is a step in the direction for generative art to be based upon chance--that is based on something unpredictable yet representational such as the brightness of light, the amount of carbon dioxide in the room, etc. Ideally the originating chance occurrence can be sensed by the viewer (in the same way that Roth deduced the change in light based upon the shift in the music's mood). It's hard to say what level of illusion is in "The Place," but it does seem there is a reasonable transparency between the sounds and the real-world input that triggered them.
Labels: data visualization, environmental, generative, installation, sound