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

Experiments in Audio Origami # 3: Sampling Terry Riley’s “In C”

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Once again, my attention is drawn to this amazing piece of music as a palette for my own sound creations. Terry Riley’s In C is a sonic Universe to be explored, and even though I spent a year studying the work, it continues to beckon me saying “There is more here than meets the ear!” I am re-reading analyses of the piece to help me appreciate the harmonic, rhythmic and tonal shape of Terry Riley’s In C even as I seek other ways to play with it.

In 1964, Terry Riley came up with these 53 patterns or phrases while riding to work on the bus. He arranged them in a particular order that, when played in the overlapping format described in his performing instructions, manifests a rich and flowing harmonic structure with density, space and shifting pulses. While Riley’s performing instructions are clear, they read more like guidelines than absolutes. Robert Carl, in his book Terry Riley’s In C, notes that the language of the instructions is qualified in a way that invites interpretive freedom and individual expression. The performing instructions themselves elicit interesting questions:

  • While the piece is usually played with all the voices within 2 – 3 patterns of each other, can patterns that are further apart be layered to interesting effect?
  • Riley recommends “not to hurry from pattern to pattern”; what would happen if each voice played each pattern a few times and then moved on? Could we play a Minute In C?
  • The 8th note pulse has become a sonic character of In C performances, but is it necessary when performing with midi loops? It loses its functional necessity; is there an aesthetic, acoustical necessity for it?
  • Can In C be played in reverse? inside out?
  • What happens when In C is played at very slow tempos?

When I look at the score of Terry Riley’s In C (hereafter known as TRIC) each of these patterns stands as a clearly articulated moment that, when looped, carries momentum. As such, they appear to me like notated samples to be mixed down into soundscapes. By calling them samples, I release them from the authority of “the score” and invite them to “talk among themselves.”  At one point, Robert Carl calls TRIC a “matrix of possibilities.” In the context of 21st Century electronic music and the age of sampling, In C offers a bounty of material for building soundscapes.

When the patterns in TRIC are viewed as electronic music samples, a whole new world opens up. The patterns become Lego blocks, to be held up against each other, pushed and pulled apart. They are sonic colors to be tweaked and mixed into new shades and hues. All the while, retaining the DNA of the “Mother.” Here is an example I have been playing with called Blended Edges – this spiraling loop consists of three TRIC patterns, all of which stay true to their internal rhythmic structure with some harmonic alterations. Pattern 10 is two 16th notes (equivalent to one 8th note pulse) which serves as a steady background flutter. Patterns 18 and 20 bring a polyrhythmic two against three into the mix. Pattern 18 covers two quarter note beats, while Pattern 20 covers three quarter note beats. Both patterns have a longer tone on the second quarter note beat, and the remaining notes are 16th notes, so there is this flutter and drag that create the spin and momentum of the soundscape. The notes as written in P18 and P20 have an F# that gave the scape an ominous aura.The F# was transposed to a G and an E. To my ear, the spinning pulse is more upbeat and hopeful with this change. Here is the excerpt with some piano improv:


The impetus for this next wave of exploration into TRIC is the Folding/Unfolding Series that Glenna Batson and I have been engaged in for the past six months. We meet to play with ideas on a regular basis, and we have presented three workshops around the idea of the body folding and unfolding in relation to itself and to paper, cloth, and sound. Rhythmic figures, melodic patterns, reverb, echo, and overtone series/harmonics render sound as a fold (and unfold) around and in the body. The participants in previous workshops noted that the soundscape sometimes lead and sometimes followed their movement – a sort of “meta-fold” in the scape itself.

The first two iterations of the Folding/Unfolding soundscape have been modified and streamlined to create oceanic waves of sound moved more by pulsations than pulse. When playing the soundscape live for movers, I improvise on a grand piano midi-voice to illustrate ways to relate to the swirling pulse. In melody as in movement, patterns can be imitated, contrasted, paralleled, resisted, reconstructed, etc. The piano improvisation provides aural feedback in the moment to the movements I observe from the movers. So the soundscape, like a river, is never exactly the same in any given moment in time.

To further shape this soundscape, I will mix in patterns from TRIC. Here is an example of a quartet of samples from In C, all from far-flung regions of the orginal score. I call this groove “elegant.” The tempo is ultra-slow.  This is heart music to me!

Come enfold with us this Saturday, December 3 from 4 – 6 at The Joy of Movement Studio in Pittsboro. We will explore echo and spiral as folds in action.

(image is of “from your heart to God’s ear” – a pocket installation by Jude Casseday)

Developing a Nested Soundscape

The cohorts and I are working out the language and form of our playing as we prepare to perform in public spaces. We are developing referents to describe what we are doing, studying those referents in our sessions, and then forgetting about them when playing. The big attention goes to LISTENING when we play in spaces with others.

How our soundlings get mixed together is informed by deep listening, working with dynamics in our playing, and making clear decisions to stand out or blend in to what is swirling around us. In upcoming sessions, I will encourage everyone to sit out for at least a minute per soundscape performance. Also, encouraging cohorts to pay more attention to the soundscape in the beginning. Let the soundscape establish a tone or a feel, then we can start talking to it and through it.

Longer soundscapes have various movements where the feel, tone or rhythm changes. I trigger these movements in Ableton, so we are figuring how this can happen in collaboration with others. So far, three methods have revealed themselves:

  1. I listen to the overall sound that is happening in the moment and wait for an opportunity to bring in the change. I trigger the change and the players adjust.
  2. I have the players attention, and direct them out, then bring in the new movement.
  3. I back out voices in the soundscape, or solo the percussion voice. This usually leads to a sudden realization that the larger bed of sound is gone, so the players get quiet. Then a new section can begin.

Here is an example of number 1 and then number 3:

 

As we continue to play together, it will be interesting to see how many ways to accomplish this one shift will be revealed.  In the same way, we are discovering and identifying new ways to sonically interact with each other. It was great fortune that we played together in the Triangle Soundpainting Orchestra, learning the language of soundpainting. (See previous post: http://wp.me/p5yJTY7g) This has given us a starting point to describe what we can bring to each scape. I like loose guidelines. Once again, I follow Terry Riley’s lead with a desire to articulate a vision that has lots of space within it for others, and is crystal clear! I aspire to that.

My sense of how the soundscape will BE in a public space has moved from a warm fire to a dance of the elements and the ethers. This week’s collaborations have helped clarify this dance as flowing and spinning. We are playing in the mud of resonant, deeply intimate interactions of harmonic frequencies. In 2014, while spending a year studying Terry Riley’s “In C”, it became apparent that overtones could be “bumped up” like a balloon above the crowd. (See “Music as Medicine” post from last year: http://wp.me/p4dp9b-br)  Overtones can crowd surf over the swirling frequencies.  So I am favoring reed instruments, resonant bells, and strummed/bowed strings as instruments that contribute to the blending and spinning of large swaths of sound frequencies. The soundscapes are a turbulent circular movement of voices that alternately rise up and speak out, or blend in and move the larger vortex around and around. Horns, flutes, plucked strings, and keyboard instruments cut through the dense underbrush of frequencies to make their own statements. These voices provide a melodic comment on the larger moving body of sound.

Spinning, dancing water creates cloud spiral of gratitude!

Spinning, dancing water creates cloud spiral of gratitude!

Where is all of this going? Now-here! We allow the soundscape at play in a particular space and time to take us where it wants to go.  The recording of the soundscape in a particular time and space is how it becomes “nested”.  I consider the examples above as nested soundscapes because they are RECORDINGS of soundscape creations amplified in the Sun(Ra) Room with Jim, Eleanor, Susanne and I playing within the scape. How deeply embedded this nest can become is a place of further exploration.