Thursday, November 28, 2013
Domenico Sciajno et. al. - Sonic Shuffle (Bowindo)
How to even begin? First off, I should express the caveat that I helped Domenico with the English presentation of the copy included in this release and on the website.
I therefore knew the general idea involved but resisted hearing any advance examples until I received the card. So yes, this is a card you insert into a USB port on your computer. The card contains a program that deals with 48 sound samples contained therein. These samples are contributed by (deep breath): Yasuhiro Morinaga, Carlos "Zingaro", David Brown, Francesco Giomi, Franz Hautzinger, Chris Brown, Lawrence English, Toshimaru Nakamura, Phill Niblock, Frank Bretschneider, Günter Müller, Oren Ambarchi, Lionel Marchetti, Kim Cascone, Asmus Tietchens, Ivan Zavada, Vladislav Delay, Alvin Curran, Daniel Schorno, Michael J. Schumacher, Elliott Sharp, Philippe Petit, Kazuyuki Kishino (KK Null), Lukas Ligeti, Thomas Ankersmit, Lucio Capece, DJ Olive/Gregor Asch, Cat Hope, Robin Fox, David Chiesa, John Duncan, Constantine Katsiris, Matthew Ostrowski, Yannis Kyriakides, Tim Hodgkinson, Marc Behrens, Gert-Jan Prins, Anne Le Berge, Anthea Caddy, Nikos Veliotis, Benoit Maubrey, Tom Recchion, Luciano Chessa, Thomas Lehn, Idrioema, Zimoun, Axel Dörner and the late Laurent Dailleau, to whom the release is dedicated.
When you click on the application, the program loads, giving you two screens: a mixing board and a randomized display of the 48 tracks. If you're lazy (like me) and do nothing else, eight of these tracks will load and begin playing simultaneously. They're each five minutes long. When they're through, if you've set a parameter to continue, they'll very nicely meld into the next set, and so on. This is Sonic Shuffle at its most basic and, I have to say, it's pretty fantastic to listen to just like this. But wait, there's more. I imagine the mixing area isn't too dissimilar to others available (I've no experience in this area)--you can adjust the volume of each track, use anywhere from one to eight tracks at a time, change the tracks available, etc. In other words, you can "conduct" this ensemble as you see fit, mixing and matching. You can also import any audio files you like, including your own, if you've always wondered how you might sound in a trio with Lehn and Nakamura. More technical details are available at Bowindo. I'm pretty sure I've only skimmed the surface here.
Given that there are, almost literally, an infinite number of possible results when using Sonic Shuffle, I can offer only general impressions of what I've heard over some five or six hours of listening thus far. What's most remarkable to me is how clearly the tracks layer into one another; there's never a sense of muddiness or overcrowding. I'm not sure if Sciajno culled particularly (somehow) appropriate passages from what he was given or if there are any buried algorithms that manage to sift among possibilities that more or less insure a well-rounded outcome (I doubt it) but, I have to say that, most of the time, had I heard this "blindfolded", I doubt the notion of a computer-generated ensemble would have occurred to me.
This gets to one of the more interesting issues a work like this raises: human pattern recognition. As far as I'm concerned, it's impossible not to, without trying, mentally reform these randomly layered sounds into a purposeful pattern. You find yourself saying, "OK, this sound has just lowered its volume to reveal that duo nesting over there. Now this layer is worming its way in, complementing that one. Ah, hear how nicely these textures grind against those", etc. Partly, as implied above, this may due to the transparency of the recordings. They're also quite varied, ranging from abstract noise to drones to the rare pulse track. Often, when one of these latter appears, it automatically functions as a kind of backbone for its companions. After a while, you begin to recognize some offerings (though that's rare enough); I heard Nikos Veliotis' high pitched cello two or three times, emerging like an old friend. At this moment, Marchetti and Caddy are having a bit of a drone/scrabble square-off--sounds great. Is it always great? Of course not. Is it ever less than intriguing--I haven't found that to be the case yet.
Naturally, this project is problematic on several levels. First, as far as even semi-related ideas go, I'm more partial to that undertaken by Rowe with his "sight" conception for MIMEO where, even though the music was created remotely, the musicians were instructed to perform their five or so minutes over an hour as if they were in a live performance with their partners, attempting to anticipate and imagine what the others would be doing, having come to know their proclivities well enough over the years. I find that element, of isolated attempts at empathetic communication, to be inherently more interesting. There's also the practical aspect of a release like this: how often is one going to listen? There's more than enough material contained herein to occupy one for years, even without making one's own contributions. Clearly, no one will do that. I do find that it's a more than reasonable substitute for playing itunes on shuffle, a frequent activity in those rare moments when I don't have to listen to something that requires writing about. Sonic Shuffle does that job very well; I've had it on for hours and enjoyed it greatly.
Will this sort of approach become more common? Hard to imagine, but who knows? In the meantime, I'd urge people to snatch one of the only 50 copies available of Sonic Shuffle. Not just for the current uniqueness but because it's really good.