Art of a Scientist @ Golden Belt April – June 2019

The Art of a Scientist is an annual exhibit curated by Duke University graduate students who are interested in promoting dialogue between art and science. STEM graduate students submit images from their scientific research to the AoS Committee. I answered a call for artists to work with the project, and was paired with a graduate medical student who submitted a video.

The video is of the vascular system of a mouse hind leg. It begins with a view of the murine vascular tree branching out in red. We see the side of the leg rotating, then it tilts and rotates around, and disappears. An angled plane (that resembles a microscope slide) moves from bottom left of screen to top right of screen, to reveal the leg with the soft tissue enclosing the vascular system. The image rotates, then the layers melt away as the leg disappears. Then the image reverses and the layers swirl back together. The image stops before the layers finish, rotates a half turn and is complete.

The video is a collaboration between Hasan Abbas, an MD/PhD student, and the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facilities at Duke University. The mouse leg visualization can be used to model healthy and diseased cardiovascular systems. When I asked Hasan what he heard while creating the video, he said, “scholarship”, “elegance” and “discovery”. I love this as a jumping off point for a soundscape – “elegant discovery”.

And then there is the mouse! My first thought while curating samples for this project was to “give voice to the mouse”. Modern medical research is built on the backs of mice, so it seems right to honor and acknowledge their participation. I found hours of recordings of mice squeaks and scratches. Another element I wanted to capture was the branching of the vascular structure at the beginning of the video. So the creak and cracking of a large body of ice was layered into the sound bed. These sounds were synthesized into a liquidy flowing underbed (suggestive of bloodflow) over which orchestral voices swell in wonder. This piece is called O Men and Mice.

Hasan Abbas and I had several email correspondences. I sent him my first soundscape and he gave wonderfully useful feedback. In all of his correspondence, Hasan spoke with keen interest about the technology used to create the video. The method is called diceCT and the technology is a micro-CT scanner. Hasan referred to the technology as “a thousand tiny X-ray” images stitched together to create the detailed 3D image of the mouse hind leg. This made me wonder how 1000 Tiny X-rays might sound. So a second soundscape was born.

For this piece, while the primary idea is the sound of 1000 tiny x-rays, I also wanted to convey a sense of excitement and pride in an amazing technological accomplishment. diceCT is a new way of seeing living matter that could reveal hidden organic structures or systems. Drum rolls, claps and cymbal crashes are iconic sounds of triumph, so these were used as the sound source. In the video, when the tilted slide-like plane moves from bottom left to top right, the full leg emerges, and there is a feeling of a “great reveal”. This feeling is emphasized by a drum roll and cymbal splash into a moment of silence in the soundscape. For the sound of thousands of X-ray images being taken, granular synthesis was applied to the drum sounds as they built up in dense layers. Interestingly, granular processing does a similar thing to audio as the diceCT method does to matter. Hasan provided me with a video that was slower in pace for this piece. The layers of the whole leg system as they swirl away and return are so beautiful and perfectly fitted together, I wanted it to take more time.

The Art of a Scientist will open Saturday April 6 at the Golden Belt Grand Gallery (800 Taylor St. Durham) and will run through June 23, 2019.

Riding and Playing the en/Harmonic Waves

My quest to synthesonize Ableton Live has taken an exciting new turn. Last Sunday, we discovered that by micing The Bells at the Central Park School Soundgarden, I can run that sound through Ableton and into the various synth modules and FX racks I am building. What happens is that the Abeju Synth Modules and FX Racks capture most of the harmonics that arise from Eleanor’s bell playing. The harmonics can be shaped by envelopes and attenuation and, of course, granular synthesis. My goal is to gradually shape the bell harmonics into a watery stream sound. This will be part of the soundscape for The Place ReSounds of Water (TPRSW) on April 14th at 4pm for SITES Season 2018-19.

When iBoD first started playing with The Bells, I recorded and analyzed their harmonic content. These bells are former compressed air tanks with the bottoms cut off, so the metal is not pure, it is some kind of alloy. This translates to lots of harmonic AND enharmonic content! A pure metal would render more pure harmonics. These pure harmonics are pretty, often beautiful, but my ear grows tired of the stasis of it all. The idea of purity in all of its forms is an illusion that leads to much misunderstanding and anguish in the world. Think about what striving for purity has given us: genocides, fascism, chronic autoimmune diseases, disconnection from and attempts to conquer nature, diminished empathy, and on and on. It is my prayer that riding and faithfully playing All the en/harmonic waveforms will encourage evolutionary growth. That is what I am going for!

TPRSW is my first attempt to sync up with the National Water Dance. My timing is off as this is not the year for National Water Dance, however I am hoping this will kickoff some interest for 2020. The idea for TPRSW is to give prolonged loving attention to water in the form of sound, light and the liquid itself. The soundscape will consist of Eleanor Mills playing The Bells, dejacusse aka Jude Casseday capturing and playing the en/harmonic waves from The Bells and morphing them into a watery feeling soundbed. Then Susanne Romey will play Native American flute over that for a while, then we start the wave again. The movers will pour water from vessel to vessel. An altar of flowers may be built. The whole thing is a mystery.

Our location at the Soundgarden at Central Park School gets full afternoon sun, so the visuals might include sparkles and shimmers of water. We could be lit up! If it is overcast, the air will be moist and the sounds of water will carry more clearly. If it threatens rain on Sunday, we will do it on Saturday instead! Or, perhaps, we will figure something else out and perform as it rains.

Whatever we do will be in praise of water!

Synthesizing in Ableton Live: Envelope Generators

My first pass at working with Ableton as a modular synth was to explore “dummy” clips. These are tracks that contain an audio clip with the actual content muted. The clip is then transformed into a container for audio effects automation that can be applied to any audio routed through whatever audio track the clip is in. The clip becomes an Envelope template that can be pulled into other projects.

Ableton Live allows the sound designer to see and manipulate many parameters within each individual clip. This is most amazing, and something I have not paid enough attention to. Here is a picture of the clip console from the Ableton Manual:

For Audio Animation Clips, the focus is on the Sample box and the Envelopes box. The slider in the sample box is used to mute the audio by simply turning it completely down. Now the clip is ready to be shaped into an envelope. (That is how Audio Animation Clips will function in my Abeju Synth Station – as Envelope Generators (AAC/EG). The two drop down windows in the Envelope box give the sound designer access to all the effects and mix processing available on the track for this clip only. So whatever I draw onto the audio clip itself only happens when that particular clip is playing. In the case of AAC/EG, the clip will play the animation of the envelope and the envelope will be applied to any audio routed through the track.

In order to create an AAC/EG, we need an audio track and an audio clip. The length of the clip doesn’t seem to matter cause it loops. (Currently, I am sticking with 8-12-24 bars and I hear potential for longer clips with more complex movement in the automation in the future). Use the volume slider to mute the audio within the clip. (Addendum: Experience has taught me that the original audio in the clip should be low volume. I am going to start experimenting with creating audio specifically for these clips.) Then assemble a rack of audio effects you want to use to shape sound and insert them on the track. In the orginal audio clip, use the drop down box in the clip to access each effect, and turn them all to Device Off by moving the red line in the clip box to the off position. Now you have an open audio sleeve with no effects enabled. When source audio is routed through this clip, the audio will sound as is, with no effects present. Next, duplicate the clip. This will be the first AAC/EG. Go to the drop down box and turn on the devices you want to use. The top box takes you to the main effect, and the second will bring up every adjustable parameter within the effect. When you identify a parameter that you want to change, go to the red line in the audio clip window (on the right above) and draw in the animation you want.

Once I finally understood all this, I began to design AAC/EG Modules. Each module is a track with 2 to 4 different envelope template clips. Each instance of the clip can be shaped by adjusting the automation (I am calling animation) of the effects that are on the track. One technique I like is layering three effects over three clips. The track contains three effects (a delay, an EQ and a reverb), so the first clip has one effect on, the second has two, the third has three. Initially, I tried linking several modules (tracks containing the clips) together but found this too cumbersome. The option to layer modules is in the routing in each particular set.

To use the modules, insert another audio track that will hold the samples you are using. I label this track Source. Now there are several routing options, but the main idea is that the AAC/EG modules need sound coursing through them in order to perform. On the In/Out tab on the track, audio can be routed from someplace and routed to some place. The best mixing option so far is to have the AAC/EG modules receive audio from source and then everybody sends audio to the Master Volume. This allows the faders to act as dry/wet attenuators. The Source can be heard as is or through the AAC/EG Modules and Clip Templates.

So far, I have created four modules. Combed, Mangled, Stutter Delay and Harmonics Flinger. [Post Publication Addendum: More modules are added to above and all are being fined tuned. Our April 14th SITES event was rained out (rescheduled for May 19th) so the debut of Abeju Synth Station will be tonight as part of Electronic Appetizers program at Arcana. I am playing a piece called Perimeter Centre, which will feature the Ripplemaker semi-modular ios synth as my sound source for the Abeju Synth Station. Come listen!

Audiorigami Phase 2

Since releasing Audiorigami (Meditations on the Fold), my sonsense as to how to explore the Fold has shifted. This shift is in sync with Glenna Batson’s return to Durham and the start of a monthly Human Origami Jam. Glenna is interested in exploring folds through a variety of deep somatic frameworks. She narrates the biomolecular potentials that the body travails from utero through the many modulating intersections of growth . My own sonsense of the Fold is opening to the quantum aspects of sound and further harmonic interplay. I sense that these sonic realms might possibly allow access to some basic templates of life. Perhaps sound, in the form of patterned frequencies, guides life into being. Perhaps harmonic frequencies are part of a templates for the growth and movement of life forms through space and time. That is what I am playing with here.

The focus of Audiorigami will now be to explore the changing shapes of sounds themselves. Audiorigami will propogate, excavate, and modulate the folds that emerge from and disappear into the waveforms that are the vehicle of sound. Modular/ Granular Synthesis and Frequency Modulation are the methods for engaging with sound media. I plan to more carefully curate the sound sources I use and to do more sampling from my own recorded sounds.

Here are some excerpts from the Human Origami Jam which happened last month at ADF Studios. Glenna leads an exploration of lines and trajectories, corners and angles. The soundscape is my first rendering with some of the Abeju Synth Station modules I created from “dummy clips” in Ableton, coupled with TAL- Noisemaker VST synth plugin and Ripplemaker on the iPad.

Next Human Origami Jam will happen THIS FRIDAY March 15th at Joy of Movement Studios in Pittsboro NC from 4:30 to 6:30 pm.

Come join us!

The Sourdough Project

A major soundscape creation for 2019 is to sonify data for the Sourdough Project. The Rob Dunn Lab at NCSU, the Ben Wolfe Lab at Tufts, and the Noah Fierer Lab at the University of Colorado are collaborating to further the study of microbiomes in sourdough starters. The Sourdough Project has gathered starters from many parts of the world in order to study the bacteria and yeast interactions that create the fermenting acids and leavening gases necessary for the creation of sourdough bread.

In October 2018, the Sourdough Project Team and two artists met at the As If Center in Bakersville NC. The As If Center (Art and science In the field) is the burgeoning vision of Nancy Lowe, who is keenly interested in exploring this fertile collaborative area.The other artist was Ferne Johannssen, freshly graduated from college, and off to see what life outside of Vermont has to offer. Ferne is a visual artist/printmaker. [Interestingly, Ferne made a print on a scoby (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) which grows and ferments in kombucha tea.] The purpose of our meeting was to seed an artistic and scientific direction for sharing the data from the Sourdough Project. All three labs were represented and we spent most of our time sharing information and structuring the research paper that will come from this study. Here is a description of the study from the Rob Dunn Lab website:

There are millions of kinds of bacteria and fungi on Earth. We have found several thousand species in human belly buttons alone. Yet if you mix flour and water, the community of organisms that colonize the resulting concoction is almost always composed of a small handful of organisms that are able to leaven bread, yielding a sourdough starter. How this happens is one of civilizations great mysteries, a mystery at the heart of the bread making (and, for that matter, traditional beer brewing). Yet, while bakers understand how to make starters, the underlying biology of the species in these starters remains mysterious. Starters can produce similar effects on bread (and similar flavors), despite being composed of different species, a key different ingredient. Conversely, starters composed of the same species sometimes yield different flavors. Then there is the issue of what happens to starters over time. The organisms in starters are hypothesized, by some, to stay the same over time—an old growth forest of miniatures—even if their living conditions change. Few ecosystems are so (apparently) stable. Then again, starters can change through time, sometimes suddenly. Starters are, if anything, predictably mysterious. But not for long. We aim to understand the biology underlying the differences among starters and the changes (or lack of change) in starters through time.

The last sentence of this description is what I honed in on. My current sense of how to render data as sound is that it would be most effective with data changes (or lack of) across a timeline. The other word that caught my eye is biology. What is biology? The science of living matter in all forms and phenomena, with special reference to origins, growth, structure, behavior and reproduction. The bases of biology are macromolecules (proteins, lipids, nucleic acids and carbohydrates), cells, and evolutionary changes creating phylogenic families across species. With sourdough starters, we are at the microbial layer of life. On the microbial level, diversity rules and it may have something to teach us. That is what I hope!

The Sourdough Project team had a conference call a few weeks ago, where we saw some of the data analysis of the samples, and received updates from each of the labs. Patterns are starting to emerge as the data is narrowed and focused into categorical relationships. This is the crossroads where it all comes together in the question: What do I want from this data? This most interesting question was posed our first night at As If Center, as we sat around an outdoor fire: what is your currency? what do you want from this project? I can’t remember ever having been asked that before.

The bakers who sent in samples want to know the microbiotic fingerprint of their particular starter. The scientists want to discover some new information about the ecologies of sourdough starters in general. The artists are interested in translation, transposition, representation of the discoveries found in the fingerprints. For myself, I am looking to identify a timeline and voice the bacteria-yeast exchange that is fermentation and leavening. Here is a diagram of a potential time frame:

Water + flour =

aab(acetic acid bacteria) ~ LAB (Lactic Acid Bacteria) ~ Yeasts

which give rise (the timeline but also a phase within the process)

to VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) aroma

To my ear this begins with the very lively interaction of the organisms that changes over time into a lighter, gaseous state. There is an alchemy that takes place and we are trying to hear and understand that.

Still looking at TRIC (Terry Riley’s In C) as a template for orchestrating interesting timbral relationships in this context. Pattern 35 is a possible frame for rise which seems to be the name of this piece. Pattern 35 jumps to a start with an eighth note run. This is the organism interaction phase. Then the mid section is where the rise happens with more space and elevation in tone. Then the aromatic texture is very open and light and unfinished.

What other sound elements might lend to this soundscape? There are likely real live sound samples to be had from this process. Another thought is what if each starter could have its own microbiome sounded out? To do this, I need to see more deeply into the data then I have to this date.

More to come…

*Photo from The Sourdough Project website

Modular synthesizing in Ableton Live

Even though I have worked intimately with Ableton Live DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) for over eight years, I KNOW I have only scratched the surface of its capabilities. In the last few years, I have come to think of Ableton Live as my “instrument”, my medium, what I create with. What an incredibly rich and mysterious instrument it is! Now I am enamored of modular synthesis, striving to be come engaged with modular synthesis, particularly Eurorack modules. I love the knobs and sliders, and the patch cables just put me over the top. Modular synthesis is like sonic legos, a form of prayer, and a particular patterning of vibrations that matter. I want to plaaayyyy!!

This is the 2019 plan: spend time researching, listening to and playing modular units. I am learning about how modulars work by playing with the Ripplemaker ios app on iPad. Ripplemaker is a semi modular synthesizer which means that some of the signal routing is already patched together. Ripplemaker contains five modules, an LFO and amplifier/mixer, so it is a good basic learning tool. In addition I am studying the book Patch and Tweak which just came out a few months ago. It is a comprehensive survey of modular synthesis from the basics, to the gear, to the practitioners. I bought the book because it contains an interview with a performer whose work I admire tremendously, Caterina Barbieri. The book is a treasure trove of information that I am studying every day. The write ups about all the major brands and models of Eurorack synth modules is amazing. While Patch and Tweak could pass as a coffee table book, it is a bible to me. While doing all of this, I will save the money to buy my first modular synth unit. This could happen at Moogfest, or sooner depending on the progress of research and saving.

As for now, I have invested alot of time and money in Ableton Live and my computer set up, which is essentially a soft synth – I just need to configure it as such. Up to this point, I have treated Ableton as a composition tool/recording studio for the most part. I have been performing with Ableton and learning how to use the control surfaces (Novation LaumchPro and AKAI Key 25) to create soundscapes in real time. Now I want to configure and play Ableton more like a synth. This new approach will mean I have to deeply learn all the audio effects in Ableton, and other external plugins. I can configure the control surfaces to function as synth controls by mapping the parameters I want to sculpt with to the knobs and sliders of the control surfaces. The rest is signal routing.

Ableton Live is so robust and complex that the signal routing possibilities are numerous. Audio effects can be placed on tracks, within tracks routed together through a group submix, within a clip, within send/return tracks, on the Master track. Then within the larger set, tracks can be routed to and through each other using the in/out sub menu embedded in each track. So, with this in mind, how can I create control voltages, oscillators, slopes, envelopes, LFOs, Noise, and other modulators and configure them and play with them within Abelton Live?

The journey begins…

*photo of basic Auto Filter from Ableton Live Manual

Minding the Oscillations

Reading deeply into sound, physics, chemistry, and nuerobiology, it becomes clear that lived experience is comprised of waveforms modulating each other. These waveforms weave around and through us. The waves are different frequencies and different amplitudes, they have different shapes and resonances AND they interact with each other, all of which creates various densities of matter. As extreme examples, there is a diamond and a thought. These extremes define the boundaries of material experience – the hatd shell of the matrix we exist within. There is more beyond these boundaries, and the more seems to be the field of conciousness.*

With this as a basic understanding, it is my intention to mind the oscillations, particularly those that eminate from my human being/my earth suit/the event horizon of my world. The waveforms I conjur come into phase relationships with themselves and with the waveforms of other human beings as we event our common reality/the hard-shell matrix. This is an amazing realization! This realization sheds light on a major question I have danced with in my life:

How can I be more loving? So much of my living is spent seeking love from “the world”. That was my quest for the first half of my living experience. While it does hurt so good, I finally realized the question is framed in an unhelpful way. So I am moving from how can I get more love, to how can I be more loving?

My most important practice for exploring this question is awareness and presence in the moment. We have been listening to Eckhart Tolle go on and on about this. He works very hard to articulate awareness/presence in all the ways that might possibly bounce around (or cut through) the mind. Listening to ET, I am aware of the trinity of self, egoic mind and conciousness all walking into a bar. (It is a good practice for them to stick together, although the bar was probably egoic mind’s idea.) These three are waveforms of their own, and their interactions eminate into manifest world! These two thought-fields (waveforms of matter and awareness through being) intersect at my heart.

One definition of oscillation (from physics) is

regular variation in magnitude or position around a central point

This aptly describes the interplay of these two planes intersecting through me at heart center. I feel this most intensely when I am sounding harmonics through a space. Especially using modular synthesis – with all the operators, envelopes, slopes, attenuations, triggers, gates and frequencies- to create actual sonic forms in space. At present I play with Ripplemaker ios app from Bram Bos. It is great to learn on. Ableton can function as a synthesizer. This is my focus at present- to configure Ableton into a synthesizer. (I am deeply desiring a modular system, but must go slowly due to funds. So work with what you have!)

This first week of 2019 – a new year (marking earth’s intersecting oscillations with the sun, moon and stars) brings some interesting mantras –

Listen more deeply, mind the oscillations, propagate harmonic vibrations, learn to play with forms, depersonalize the whole thing! The WoW

Alrighty then!!…on with the emanations!

*These books have informed my thinking about all this:

Long, Manya J. The Psyche as Interaction (Electromagnetic Patterns of Conscious Energy)

Lanza, Dr. Robert Biocentrism and Beyond Biocentrism