Magnetic Stripes is an audio-visual performance that highlights the potential of algorithmic generation, finding a middle ground between human performance and machine creation. This is achieved through multiple stochastic algorithms controlling various aspects of a performance, with curated specific states created by the artist. By giving control over some aspects of the performance to algorithmic generation, space is made for the artist to have clarity and focus on other musical elements. Magnetic Stripes simultaneously shows the subtlety of human performance and its effect on the experience, and the raw efficiency of machine generation. The generative elements of Magnetic Stripes are made obvious through musical and visual choices, yet are subtle in their control of the performance. All sound, visuals and controls are made with Cycling74’s Max 8 software.
Three probability-based algorithms have been designed for their distinctive effect on the respective musical elements they control. The algorithms are stochastic, but have been created with a rules-based mentality. They are a set of rules that manipulate percentage chances of upcoming musical choices that are inspired by the compositional work of John Cage and Brian Eno. They ensure no certainty in the performance, but possible controlled curves for the artist to react to.
The performance is a powerful, generative drone exploration. Eight channels of audio fuse together to create subtle ambience and moving sonic sweeps, in this contemplative 10-minute experience. They are six channels of simply affected wave table oscillators, and two noise generators. The resulting serene sound draws inspiration from musicians such as Todd Anderson-Kunert, Hobo Cubes and Ryoji Ikeda. The tones wash over the audience through their simplicity and medium movement. The changes in texture create moving sections and crescendos. Four of the oscillator drones (two triangle waves, one sawtooth and a square wave), feature algorithms that control their pitch, timbre and rhythm changes.
A permutation probability algorithm generates pitch through curated percentages of likelihood. The proceeding notes are based on the preceding choices. For the square and sawtooth oscillators, this is a list of eight potential frequencies each, that are generated by the preceding three choices (starting with a random selection). The pitch choices are across a wide register for depth and variety. The two triangle oscillators have four potential choices, based on the preceding four selections (starting with a random selection). These frequencies are at the lower middle range to create a sense of warm undercurrents. The probability percentage lists are individually curated by the artist. The movement between them and the choices are generated by the machine. All of these drones have a second set multiplier that can be individually volume controlled by the artist, creating a possible thicker texture and harmony when necessary.
The timbre of each generative oscillator is manipulated by an algorithm that prioritises selections based on how often they were made prior. The more a choice is made, the more likely it comes up in the future. Each drone has four potential shifts in the partials of the sound, that all start with equal chance of occurring, but the probabilities move and change, as the performance progresses (as with anything chance-based). This produces a sense of consistency over smaller blocks of time in the work, that the performer reacts to. The result is a feedback loop between performer and machine, that is different every time.
The rhythms of the drones are each controlled by curated, individual percentage-based probability algorithms. One for the length of each of the drones (four lists of percentages with four choices) and one for the space between each drone (four lists of percentages with four choices). These are set selections of percentages because Magnetic Stripes is meant to be deliberate, ambient and thought provoking.
Two additional sine wave channels have a constant pitch and no pulse. They create unity to the variety of constantly moving other drones. The sines have a second multiplier that can be controlled by the artist to add further texture. A white noise generator and a clicking-machine like texture (that is a blend of three separate beds); accompany the drones, to add body, where needed in the performance.
The aspects of Magnetic Stripes that the artist controls in real time are volume of each channel, the mix of each drone’s harmonies, each drone’s ADSR envelope, texture control (if a drone is on or off), and the panning between stereo outputs for each channel. These are musical elements that the artist determined should not be left up to chance, as they can create tension, build and shape to the performance.
The visuals are constantly changing, brightly coloured shapes, contrasted against a black background and space. They are generative and connected to the four algorithmic channels of audio. The sawtooth channel controls circular, radiating waves; the square drone controls grid-like rectangles with circular corners; the first triangle wave pushes and pulls multiple squares; and the second triangle channel controls haunting white bars and a simple red waveform. The audio of these channels dictates whether it’s on screen and its volume controls their size. The artist’s control of channel panning, determines the x axis starting point of each visual. The timbre changes determine if the visuals have a pixilation effect applied. This creates a sense of unity and synchronicity in the performance between the audio and the visuals.
The simplicity of the audio channels and the clear visual cues are used to highlight the algorithmic aspects to Magnetic Stripes and the performative controls of the artist. Gestural performative cues are created through audio-visual interaction. The piece sits somewhere between a curated experience, generative work and live performance. Algorithmic art usually either sits in an area of certain control of outcome or created with random at its core. However, in Magnetic Stripes, organisation and prioritisation of certain choices is balanced with chance to create a meaningful experience.
Nervous Plaything is an experimental composer, focusing on a textural experience using heavily effected guitars, synthesizers and artist developed technologies. These self-developed technologies blur the line between artist and machine; analog and digital, and allow for a more timbral compositional focus. Since 2011, he has performed at a selection of Brisbane venues, as well as releasing recordings on Bandcamp. More recently, he has been working on Live Takes: a weekly, improvised live audio-visual collection released on Vimeo. This has been performed in the Precursor experimental art series, and envisioned as Now-What at Backbone Youth Arts’ Future30 festival.