Friday, November 16, 2018

Interview on Solar Sound

I was contacted by Alex Nathanson, a graduate student in New York, for some questions relating to his project, Solar Power for Artists, and with his permission, what follows are his questions and my answers.

When did you start working with solar power and what drew you to working with it?
In 2014, I finally had a chance to design a long-running line of solar-powered touch instruments called Tocante. They work by storing solar power in a battery, and run anytime including night. They are normally off, saving battery power, until a slight touch on the surface activates them. Furthermore, playing electronic music by touch works so much better by battery, because the grounds are isolated and you get a really clean tone. You see, the whole concept of touch and battery power goes hand in hand, and battery power desires a little solar panel as source of what we call trickle-charge, a constant renewal of its chemistry during the day. Later, in 2016, I decided to use solar panels as a source of raw and immediate energy for Solar Sounders, which are essentially a larger 9v panel, an analog circuit, and speaker amplifier, all in a self-contained box. They are best in an ensemble, where overlapping voices in the same range create difference tones and interlocking melodies. Because each voice uses its own solar panel and speaker, they can be separated in space, and also their electronic responses to the solar environment can be unique.
Where did you learn the technical skills necessary for this work?
It's really simple, you just get a solar panel and try powering things with it! I've been trying to make my own cellphone charger for a long time, but cellphones are actually very picky about what voltage input they take. We'll get into this pickiness later.
What are your design criteria in regards to solar powered artwork?
It should work. And that means if there are separate mechanisms they work independently as power is starved, unless it is intended for strange behavior to arise during this starvation.
How has your process evolved over time?
The typical narrative of “becoming cooler as a materials artist” means you may use the resource for a specific task at the beginning, and then learn to design for the resource itself, use its quirks.
Do you consider the visual aesthetics in addition to the audio aesthetics?
Sure, but I listen to sound more. I'm a synthesizer maker so most of my time is spent critiquing sounds, but also, realize that solar sound art is usually outside, and its sound-mark extends over a farther range than its physical presence. It's like asking if the bird considers calls or plumage more important. Birdcalls signal danger or food, but plumage is basically for sex.
When I was talking with Daniel Fishkin, he talked a lot about the impact your solar circuits had on him. Could you describe your approach to designing circuits?
I'd like to point you to an article I wrote on designing the Solar Sounders for eContact! It's called Bird,Monk, Train: Three Approaches to a Solar Sounder Workshop. It is about emulating the calls of those three things for a solar sounder piece to interact with the long-term outdoor environment.
What resources do you wish were available to you when you started building PV based art?
I think electronic sound engineers and composers could work with outdoor metal artists more, because they have the facilities to cast a case that is weather proof. I keep my solar sounders in windows to protect them, and really my shed in the backyard is like a meta-case for the ensemble, but the fact is that most electronic sound engineers don't think about weather proofing because it is assumed for good reasons that their work is conducted in climate controlled, indoor environments.
What are misconceptions you encounter when you present PV art to the public?
Let's talk about any conceptions at all, I mean I think it's pretty unknown still. Most artists like to think of their art as permanent, solid, and thus would prefer to think of it as powered by the wall. That's a misconception right there, is wall power more permanent than solar power?
I don't think of an audience for solar sounders, they are just there. In my yard, I have them in a small potting shed painted red. I polished the windows and put a shelf in them so solar sounders can sit there and absorb the south-western sky. The shadow of the neighbors' cedar tree is a sort of pause in the morning ritual, especially on bright summer days. But don't underestimate the solar-power qualities of a snowy landscape, even on a cloudy day. Actually, I do think of the audience, but I'd like to expand that idea to crows, my neighbor raking leaves, and especially kids playing on a sunny day; isn't that a fresh ear for electronic music? I work directly adjacent to the kindergarten playground. I don't think most kids notice the sounds because they are a constant in their experience of the playground, but that's because they only play on sunny days. There's a whole other time of darkness, where the solar sounders are off, and the audience experience is more subtle then: a dog-walker hears silence. Actually this doesn't just have to do with solar powered synthesizers; when any synthesizer is off, is it dead or sleeping?
Are there concepts that solar power allows you to explore and/or express that other mediums would not?
Let's say for the point of the answer, that there are two kinds of solar power for art: regulated and unregulated. You can see where I'm going here; I'm interested in unregulated because it swings dramatically according to the movement of the sun and the weather. That said, I'm not interested in solar power as a gesture controller; I have made gesture controllers that I feel are more intimate and musical. Also the solar power is a great direct connection between light and sound; in solar sounders I don't use it to charge batteries, but there is a big capacitor that you do need if you want to drive a speaker and not jack the circuit. In regulated solar power, you would make it solid, or steady, for most of the range in full sun, but it would turn off or disappear when under-powered in dim light. I like to explore that lower range, and listen to the variations of nature with the naked power supply unregulated. My favorite are when the clouds are granular with spaces of clear sky between, and also the swaying of tree shadows in the wind. With multiple solar sounders, you can chorus and leverage these luminous effects.
Are there challenges which are unique to solar power or sustainable energy systems more generally that you have encountered while working with this material?
The solar sounders are some of the lowest hanging fruit available out there: just pick a simple electronic circuit and make it sing nicely at all light levels, think about voicing it. It's more of a resource and you can focus on your compositional problems, like voicing highs and lows, timbre, and pitch movement. The power transfer is direct. With Tocante, I designed a solar battery charger that works in all light by using an inductor to boost any energy and dump it into the battery. With that I feel like it was more of a challenge because I wanted to get the most efficient energy transfer and have it work in all circumstances. I remember doing a Tocante workshop in San Diego, and we tried to charge them in some really harsh California light, and they conked out at the brightest. We eventually switched out the inductor values and that fixed it, but it shows how doing a specific task with a variable energy such as solar is more challenging than just saying, “what can I make with a variable power source?”
What resources do you turn to when designing a solar power project? How do you problem solve and troubleshoot?
You should pick your panels first. I think the questioner here knows about that. On your website you seem to be working with interesting “shards” of panels, and micro-wiring them together. It's a comment on the waste materials of electronic industry, which can either go into the ground or we can try to keep up with them... Once you have your power supply, everything else seems to come from that, you put a motor in, I just used some of my work already with analog synths. I am interested in older, more primitive circuits and solar power was a great venue for that. My friend Dan Conrad gave me a toy phaser from the 60s. By listening to its little electronic sound, I could tell that it was made with discrete components, transistors, and it was analog. This is because of its action; on depressing the trigger, it swooped up with a little organic startup sound, and upon releasing, it did not immediately stop but made this wonderful sighing fade. The designers gave it this boinginess by putting a capacitor on the power supply, essentially making it variable like a solar panel on a cloudy day. So people have been using this variability since the 60s at least, and the circuits are out there; listen to the internet and click on your friends for help!
Do you have a sense of how many artists are working in this space? What does the community around solar power art look like?
Lucier did something in the 70s, and I think it used regulated power, even batteries. I've seen other solar art used in this regulated way, sometimes just an amplifier playing samples. To me, that didn't quite question the medium enough. I have a concept, called the “interrogajoke.” it is both an interrogation and a joke on some conception. Here, the interrogation should be about why hasn't anyone treated solar power as fundamentally different from wall power? The joke, for me, is about taking ones-self seriously. When I think of my skills at emulating a bird or a Tibetan monk with a transistor circuit, I do chortle to myself, but I'd rather poke around at the strange sounds that result than try to plan a piece from the beginning according to my own expectations. I want to see more people playing with the power supply, making jokes or whimsies with it, rather than composers or artists trying to own it with a definitive “piece.”
Can you describe the type education projects you're involvedd with? Who are the students?
I did a workshop tour last November, in Europe, where we assembled solar sounders as community arts projects. The thing about November in Rotterdam is that there's a lot of gray sky, however I did find one moment in the day where I could project some sounds into the Dutch alleyway. Also, in Stockholm it was dark by the time we finished but I checked them with some strong lights inside the electronic music studio. That was an interesting turn for me, I realized due to the contingency of the solar medium, that I won't actually be there for the interesting sounds, in the summer. I can remove my self that way.
Do you have a particular teaching philosophy or method?
The idea for the solar powered workshop tour was twofold: to have a capitalist part and a community part. The solar sounders are kept in community studios, such as Worm in Rotterdam, EMS in Stockholm, and Patch Point in Berlin. They are like a library, or part of an instrument library; if it's a nice day outside, members can check them out and put them outside, usher them around town to find some really interesting places for an intervention of solar art. The capitalist part was about individuals assembling Tocante kits to take home, a nice synthesizer for your art and collection.
How do you define learning objectives and successful projects?
Since the feedback is not immediate, such as I explained in the European winter for solar sounders, it takes time to trickle in. So, it's actually an open-ended project. Ideally though, the library of instruments should be protected, repaired, there should be stewards. Luckily there are some really good stewards in all the people who maintain their own or community electronic music studios.
Are there particular challenges when teaching projects that incorporate solar power?
Just what is evident about the relationship between the electronic music studio with its healthy complement of night-people, dramatic dim lights, and the outdoors, sunshine and weather.
In addition to the academic aspect of my research, the main public facing components I'm working towards are 1) a user friendly online archive of artists and creative projects involving solar power 2) a framework for solar power design 3) instructional resources for artists and designers interested in working with solar power. Would resources like these address gaps in available information in this space? Would resources like these be of practical use to you, other artists or your students?
I would just like to point out one thing, that at IRCAM in its heyday, whenever that was, they had a "diagonal" department, which cut across all the fields represented in the basement, computer music, composition, art, and engineering. The diagonal also represents a line of flight in the Deleuzian sense, that seeks to escape the constraints of stratification; it may incorporate other fields such as landscape design and sports, and other activities involving a sunny day.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

ESOTERIC FRIDAY 2018, SHBOBO SHTARS HALF PRICE


For sale this Esoteric Friday, 11/23/2018, are four new SHBOBO SHTARS. This instrument is a lot of work to get right, but I wanted to challenge myself to bring new users to it, at HALF PRICE!

Since I machine the acrylic face-plates out of milky plastic and smoky plastic, there are four permutations: smoke/smoke, milk/smoke, smoke/milk, and milk/milk.


The SHBOBO SHTAR is a "Computer Music Persian Tar," respectfully blending the concept of neutral intervals, USB gesture controllers, and everything else you would expect from pieces this beautiful! SHBOBO WEBSITE

Woods include the traditional walnut and mulberry, as well as osage orange, madrone, maple, and catalpa.

My goal was to build them at half price, but there are also some deeper discounts due to cosmetics. All instruments work and play exactly as new, but the smoke/smoke and smoke/milk are discounted 50% AND $200! Details: smoke/smoke has slightly tarnished frets because I was still learning how to solder stainless steel correctly, smoke/milk has a re-calibrated tailpiece because of an offset in string alignment but as I said it plays perfect.

Included in the package are extra bridges of various plastic colors, and an extra-long USB cable. Shipping is $25 in US and $35 outside.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Fish 2.0

Fish is the program (for Windows, Linux, and Macintosh) to edit and upload patches for Shbobo devices (SHNTH and SHTAR). With the release of the new Shbobo SHTAR, the program has received an overhaul. Most noticeably, the older system of tabbed soups has been replaced with a universal map of the whole file as loaded. Thus, soups are all visible, adjacent to each other. It is like a world map, and users are encouraged to use both horizontal and vertical layouts to organize their patch ideas.
To facilitate navigation, there is a Zelda, or world map, like the Photoshop navigator, so you can click on different parts of your world and teleport there.

The expression selection system now follows keyboard focus. Only one expression can be focused at any time, when it becomes the current object being edited. In the following picture, "slewb" is selected, as indicated by a yellow plaid fill:
 As selected, various editing operations can be enacted, in addition to drag-and-drop stuff,  as detailed on the "Edit" menu: 
 
Most are self explanatory, but let's talk about the "Reference" command. This is important for writing patches in core Shlisp, where it enables feedback loops most notably. A reference is simply a fish-expression, with its "cdr" removed, so it is just the "head" or "opcode". Thus (horn 64 64) becomes (horn) as a reference. At runtime, this expression will yield the last computed value of that opcode.
In the "View" menu, note that Fish can now Zoom!...
Here's the "Shbobo" menu. "Serve selected" tries to upload the currently selected expression to your device, so you can listen to parts of patches. The command for this is redundant with the simple action of double-clicking. Yes, double click on any soup or fish to quick upload only that code! "Serve all" uploads the complete file. "Change cuisine," as before, is for re-initializing your device's DSP matrix. Note, pick "shnth.bin" or "shtar.bin" appropriate to your device. Gwonzer is a readout of the data received:

Typewriting

Patches can be composed visually, mostly through dragging and dropping, but also keys can be used almost identically to the way they would be if it were a vanilla text editor. For example, I typed the following keys into a new file:
  • {
  • (
  • "left"
  • enter
  • (
  • "horn"
  • enter
  • space
  • space
This is the patch that Fish thus composed (with random values for spacepress):

Doubleclick

Doubleclick shall become an important tool in this new version. As mentioned, a doubleclick on any recipe will upload it to the device. However, if you double click on the head of an expression, the symbol that denotes its opcode, the program will open up a representative help file from the local "tutor" directory. Thus doubleclicking "horn" will open up "horn.txt" to explain it.

Fish Soup Tank Boat

Let's review what expressions are. In lisp, there is only one kind of expression, besides symbols, the parentheses, (). In Shlisp, as it stands, there are Fish, and Soup, respectively denoted as () and {}. Fish is a DSP core expression, and Soup is a preset. The new version of Fish paves the way for two new types, known as Tank and Boat, denoted as [] and <>. They are not implemented yet, but Tank will be for listing things and Boat will be for scripting things in classical Lisp, thus the possibility for generative patches. Note that the previous version of Fish had randuplicate, and this has been eliminated because Tank and Boat will be bearing the burden of generating permutations of patches.

The new version of Fish is available at shbobo.net, as shbobo.zip

Quantus Barney: Secluded Residence @ Radio Shack, Part X

While his dog was off in outer space, Quantus meditated in the radio shack, mostly about the extreme importance of ground. "I like simple things," his thoughts said.

"These simple radio theremins require the strongest and truest source of electricity, the Earth. Otherwise, they're floating on the power lines like birds. I'm trying to broadcast the Earth here, through the air. I start with the same Earth that the corncob man, Heinmann, plows."

Quantus' thoughts drifted to space, as he envisioned his residency in a satellite transmitter: "The spaceship has no Earth, so all signals dwell within it. It's like a little environment of electronic signals. In a way, electronics are the natural life forms of outer space, for electromagnetic radiation dwells in the void. It feels good to disperse. The dog knows how to play the ship. He has a special paw-shaped button that turns off all the electronics so he can fart in the void."

The sun shone through slits in the radio shack's wooden walls. It illuminated odd corners of the room, bases for musical bagatelles about hairballs. With his sharply pointed pinky fingernail, Quantus strummed the string of his zither on the low end, producing a sharp foghorn. He looked again into the strange corner of the room, blurring his eyes to make it appear a sleepy Pacific bay. In this bay, a disturbance appeared on the water as if an actor was breaching.

Focusing his eyes, Quantus noticed a paper bag stuffed with something. The motes of dust were swirling above it in the thin beams of sunlight. Someone had stuck their hand in through the walls of the radio shack, to put that bag there. Quantus reached out with his walking stick and shuffled the bag towards him. He reached down, tipped it, and felt a wet heavy body inside. A fish fell to the ground, with red dots painted on its side.

Quantus picked it up. Its skin was not slimy, having dried to a thin leathery film over the flesh. "Did I just see its eyes light up? It must have been a trick of light as it crossed the red cornea of the fish. What a prank, a bass in a bag." He drummed his fingers on the side of the fish, and its eyes did indeed light up red.

Astonished, Quantus realized quickly that the bass contained a transducer inside its belly, and two red LEDs in its eyes: "What a strange prank! However, I think I can use this on my radio show. For optical disks we use light-sensitive diodes. I can position one on a tiny crane above the eye of this fish. Now, when I drum on the side," Boom, boom, boom, the thrilling motion of his fingertips articulated a loud sound in the radio station monitors.

The sound became radio waves in the station's transmitter, and traveled over the corn fields, and one of these waves reached Blanc's house by the lake, as he was tending his bleach-lagoon. He chuckled to himself. I had an idea to get an old MLPT (Multi Layer Piezo Transducer) from electronics surplus. I disemboweled that fish enough to slip the transducer inside. Then, I drilled the eyes of that fish out, and inserted red LEDs. So Blanc chortled to himself mischievously. To bring the dead bass firmly into the domain of his personal artistic medium, he painted red dots on its side, as a secret message to his frenemies within the sect.

In the next installment of "Quantus Barney: Secluded Residence,"
Blanc's bleach-lagoon.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Quantus Barney: Secluded Residence @ Radio Shack, Part IX

The dog is shaggy and sometimes looks gaseous in form but this is only when photographed.  For in the real world, on the pine-root paths between the zither shed and the radio shack, the dog is real to the monk, searching out squirrels and running up to sniff his sandals while Monk thinks about the invisible shape of his radio fields.

What was his instrument used for in the beginning, when a man chopped a plank off of a Pawlonia trunk?  Perhaps the tree was hit by lightning and it split exactly into the phallic purple-white-tan zither that he is custodian of.  He knows that silk is an important part of the equation, just as much as nylon is, for the ancients would not have heard the potential of Pawlonia without the crystal tones of stretched silken filaments, buttressed by the arch of the branch: convex for koto, straight for qin. 

"This koto is for my wife on the internet, for she takes the curved wood and I take the straight wood.  My zither is played like a man who is chanting lowly and inflecting with slow movements accompanied by the rustling of his rob, and of course the sound of the fans that cool the transmitter, birds outside of the shack."

The monk hears the wind in the pines, and impromptu, as is allowed by tradition, he recites a poem over broad zither strokes, in a dry lilting voice which then becomes wet and sloppy as he turns the feedback up on his radio-zither, high chaotic tones enter the situation: bombs in the pines, shrieks elicit from radio receivers across the land.  The corn-cob-man, listening, has a stroke; immediately Monkletto senses this, and putting his facemask on, steps out into the sofa...

The Dog Does the Drugs
"I like poop," says the dog.  "Now when I go out in the pines because my monk is playing those post-musical high frequencies which beat in my ear, I go and look for poop out in the fields past the pines.  Out here I can hear still his matrix of ultrasound, but it is fading out into the wind, squirrels, and cows.  I comb the grass for poop, poop that grows mushrooms.  Quantus Monk is projecting structured ultrasound into the fields, and transmitting this on the radio too. 

In the next installment of "Quantus Barney: Secluded Residence,"
On first encountering the monk Quantus Barney, playing his zither in a concert hall.

SHTAR MANIFESTO

SHTAR MANIFESTO

 Think about the bumper sticker "this machine kills fascists." The most appropriate place for this sticker, according to Woody Guthrie and your own good conscience, is on a musical instrument.
Music affects our emotions. Overly simple music is emotionally manipulative. Think of war marches, pop music, and religious (not esoteric) mood play. The core flaw of Western Music is its division into happy and sad, major and minor.

In America, we are musically bipolar. The simple message of Islamic music, I feel, is offering a most sublime alternative: analog gradience between minor and major. Like non-representational art, it leaves out the extremes of hate and love.

Our research into 17 tone equal temperament (17tet) goes back a decade, when Carson Garhart and I built our first Namastitar, fretted in just intonation according to the ratios outlined by Zalzal. Our goal was to respectfully recreate neutral seconds and thirds.

The affect of netural intervals is one of yearning, perpetuity, and eternal motion. -Ron Shalom

Foucault admired the Iranian revolution because of its return to irrationality in the face of modernism, and its spirituality. The way to transmute our president begins with this irrationality and ends with solving global imperialism.

Protest music has always been termed "noise" and "irrational;" It strikes a dissonant chord. In the Bush years, it was literally "noise music." We seek an evolution of protest noise that is not literally noisy.

The band "Sun City Girls" termed their music as "disorientalism:" an appropriation that makes you dizzy, or a misinterpretation that creates new appreciation for the world. When we first fretted an instrument in 17tet, we heard its neutral thirds quite clearly.

If I had made the SHTAR in 12tet, it would not have 33 frets, because that would be impossible on any instrument but a berimbau. 33 frets is a lucky number, because it uses a 32-bit computer, and there is an extra one for emergency situations. -Peter B

The Persian Tar's neck is made of walnut and its body of mulberry, which are also common American fine hardwoods, so we can understand this instrument materially. Whereas the tar uses goat, the SHTAR uses acoustic plastic for its skin. Likewise a bridge in bone became one of black gold: smoked polycarbonate.

It is strung in bronze: although it is weaker it is more resonant. The bronze age of music was like the Baroque, offering microsound for soft touchers. What Foucault saw as the creative force in Iran was to skip modernism and reconnect spirituality to the bronze age. He also admired closeness to danger.

A computer music system in Islamic tuning requires an intellectual commitment. Contrasted to analog culture, offering instant and intuitively fun sounds, this instrument must take years to develop a relationship. That's the epitome of computer music; it's a different business plan encompassing hacking and the idea of the recipe.

Everyone knows that taking pictures of a modular, or trying to write down the patch system, is bogus. The dial's gradience is the true basis of the composition, and it is anti-semiotic. but in computer music, a score, or text, is truly a legitimate thing.

Musically, Christianity prefers intervals of salvation, and Islam those of yearning; one is simplifying, the other is subliming. In Phillip K. Dicks "Divine Transformation," a major world religion is Islamo-Christianity. In this world, what would the pop singer Linda Fox sound like?

-Control NYC, November 2017 (Thanks to Rachelle)

Bibliography 

Afary, Janet and Anderson, Kevin B: Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islam.

Farhat, Hormoz: The Dastgah Concept in Persian Music.

Note

During the time of the SHTAR development, my friend Daniel Fishkin invited me to have a lesson with Professor Shahrokh Yadegari, at UCSD. Miller Puckette also stopped by, who immediately recognized the "fret-scanner" nature of the instrument. Shahrokh's response was from an Iranian who had left that country to live in the alien shores of California, and likewise had spaced out in the basements of IRCAM, a formidable French presence. The fact that he knows well the Persian Tar made his response that much more heartfelt. Understanding the populist nature of my computer music controller's gesture, he cautioned that the neutral third is chosen by the musician, so fixed frets could never accommodate the truly esoteric nature of seeking the sublime neutrality; the ancient Tar uses rawhide sinews tied on the neck, that can be moved anytime according to the tarrist.

As a junior to these professors, I prepared my thesis defense. I explained that radical cuts are to be made in the 70s matrix of technology, so I could produce a lightweight instrument that stabs at esotericity, a compromise. And that adding computer music to the heart of the instrument is an attempt to regain this esotericity "lost" in the body of the instrument. That the fret-scanner is not for each string, but is "monophonic" is not a detriment but a simplification of an important bottleneck in a string synth: too much data. At this point in my defense, I pointed out that Pat Methaney had a six-string scanner-synthesizer, but his solos are usually monophonic. So are Fripp's, concluding my 70s references. The tar had doubled strings, but this one does not; the chorusing and tremolo effects are to be regained in a new way from the computer music.

POST SCRIPT

Dear Charlemagne Palestine,
i saw your concert last Fall in Sophienkirche.
I had been waiting a long time to hear your organ performance live,
ever since my friend Ezra Buchla gave me a CD in college,
when I apprenticed to organ builders in Oregon and Ohio.
I noticed that your current work has more glory-of-god dominant modulation,
and I wonder if you think so too ?)

I am not Muslim, in fact my middle name is Christian.
However, I often meditate on how immigrants enrich my country,
even though some were slaves to it.
Your name is composed of a holy roman emperor and a trodden Islamic state,
have you ever thought of it that way ?)

I am a synthesizer builder, and honestly
I wanted to show you one but I am cautious after shows,
so I stood outside instead.
I have released a string instrument with embedded computer music,
in an tuning good for Islamic music,
like the neutral intervals in the call to prayer:

17 tone equal temperament, have you heard of it?

My dream project is to convert a pipe organ
(for the glory of Fid)
retuning it to this scale, with neutral intervals.
If you ever notice a mosque in Berlin that wants this radical project,
let me know!


Thursday, November 2, 2017

Introduction to Fishbobo

[] is space list
<> is time function
{} is space situation
() is time sound