a great way to compose!

Modern Glitching – Auditory Enhancement of Reality with Music

I recently gave a talk at TedXTokyo 2014 about a musical device I built with the aim of giving other people the chance to hear the world as musically as I do. To date, around fifty people have tried my mobile composing inspiration rig with me – mostly with very enthusiastic responses afterwards, and in the more musical/auditory types there’s also a degree of joyful disorientation.

Some of the background to what I think is going on: Around twenty years ago, psychology professor Diana Deutsch discovered what she called the Speech to Song illusion. Essentially, a spoken phrase repeated often enough starts to take on musical qualities. There’s a great Radiolab episode which explains the phenomenon.

For me, I don’t require repetition in order to hear spoken phrases as musical. Speech is intrinsically musical for me, and so is the rest of the world – from cars passing to people typing. I really wanted to share my experience as I find it very beautiful.

 

STORY TIME!

It was the day after winning a prize at MusicTechFest’s Boston Hackathon event, which I took part in and filmed for the BBC. I was sharing a small apartment with a bunch of other music obsessives.  The day before I left, instead of packing neatly as normal I optimistically chucked everything I could see into my case and hoped for the best.

The idea of adjusting auditory experience or adding a ‘Glitch’ to reality – at least in aural terms - is not a new process.  But glitching with modern tech sounded like a great way to reveal the music I hear all the time – plus I wanted to add a more musical classical compositional element to the practice.

Sean Manton and CJ Carr (who was familiar with glitching) were two other music hackers I met at the Hackathon. They were instrumental in my sleep-deprived electronic inspiration.

So, grabbing my iPad and headphone splitters,  I built the first iteration of a device that messed with the ambient sound in the room in real time in a pleasurable manner. Raw audio is changed in real-time and enhanced with sound effects, and crucially, I added basic musical elements and phrases that would play simultaneously. A while later, I got the thing working in a way I liked and emerged from my room, eager to try it on other musical / technical people. My ideal system would allow for me to sing and play melody and harmony but I was nowhere near doing that yet.

So, extra headphones bought, splitter in,  time to try my rudimentary iPad device on CJ and Sean in a quiet teahouse. It was so much fun! The sounds of tea being made, the door opening, teaspoons hitting cups, amplified and enhanced by repetition! Those sounds were unexpected, made musical and wonderfully tingly. I sang along to the notes in the cafe to accentuate them. The staff at the teahouse got interested, all they could hear was us singing and hitting teaspoons and laughing. So we asked if they wanted to try it then wired them in to see their response – they liked it – a lot.

 

Going mobile was more interesting – we were physically connected by our headphone cables, so it took a while to maneuver through the door but together we emerged, wired up out into the wild. And, once our headphones were in, we pretty much stayed ‘glitched in’ for at least 5 hours straight. I could hear the music I normally hear but amplified! Wow! I sang in joyous harmony with the world for my cohorts, who joyously joined in. An ear-opening experience indeed, and I expect we were a strange sight, connected together by cables, singing and swaying – especially as only we could hear the glorious harmonic results of our musical musings.

What followed: glitching around a bookshop, glitching through a delicious dinner at a noodle restaurant until we got chucked out at closing time – and (my favourite) glitching on public transport all over Boston. Some time during the evening, I added a recorded drum loop to the experience – an albeit low-tech but incredibly effective way to turn the world into a very funky soundtrack – rhythm along with harmony generated by reality transcended a run-of-the-mill walk through a city, making it a musical recital!

Now, without our headphones in, the world seemed dry and desolate. And, after trying this on six other people with the persuasive line ‘Hey, you wanna do some digital drugs, guys?’ to gratifying results, it didn’t take long for us to ascertain this was indeed a pleasurable and slightly psychedelic auditory experience – not only as a participant, but also as a listener. The three of us decided to take modern glitching further with a bit more technological clout.

A quick stop on the way back to the hacker apartment meant we now had extra kit. And, by 0100, Sean had plugged his Raspberry Pi computer into the TV – programming on the Pi with PureData. We made some tea and ate bread with the most delicious honey (the honey was in Bb major 6th) and kept working. By then it was 0300 and my taxi was due to arrive at 0615, we only had a few hours left!

We all wanted to add fine-grain control to this strange and wonderful auditory experience. CJ had brought his FM transmitter and binaural microphone/headphones and we plugged everything into my Mac.   I wanted to do more than just sing the city, I wanted to play it too. That meant configuring something that could take multiple inputs – MIDI and Audio at the same time.

Finally at 0400, and full of incredible quantities of tea, bread and honey, we were now running a glitching instance on Ableton Live, with a binaural microphone / headphone setup and my iRig Keys midi controller hooked up. I started building musical stems right then and there.

The latest version has more than just repetition, my new glitching device can harmonise and play with the world in a much deeper way – and I walk around a city first to get what key its in and compose something beautiful that goes with the natural sounds around me. Then I load those sounds up – I can then trigger them when I hear something in the right key, so a motorbike going past in B flat will mean I trigger my ‘B flat, traffic’ piano composition. The main problem is that the laptop gets really hot, also I’m covered in wires so it looks a little strange.

And this is what glitching sounds like – some of these examples have music in, others don’t.

The tech is still very much hacked together, but there’s more documented in the talk.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

CJ, Sean and I are all enthusiastic about sharing the joys of glitching – and we’re all working on versions of glitching devices. We’re hoping to create a resource online for anyone interested to play with the idea in their own way.  I’m going to list everything I use in my hacked-together inelegant solution in another post.

I want an app that does this! I want to create a glitchpad! Beautiful musical stems that trigger automatically when friends walk through that city with this app! I want to be invited to perform ‘glitching’ concerts in cities around the world!

(for reference, I’ve reposted the TEDxTokyo video here)

More on this story as it unfolds….

Musical CV: About me 2014

So, I’m a freelance presenter and music composer/hacker.  I do a lot for Click, the BBC’s tech show but I’ve also hosted BBC Orchestra events and most recently hosted my first Radio 3 show, which was great fun. I love doing projects where music and technology meet, so any excuse to do more is fallen upon with great joy.

These are the things I love.

1)     Music composition and performance –  I do a lot of classical piano and orchestral composition – including spontaneous classical piano composition in pretty much any style.  It just comes out like that, I can’t explain it, but I’m OK with showing it off now.  I really enjoy giving live recitals! https://soundcloud.com/ljrich/140420-flying-through-colour  – recently performed at BBC NBH much to the surprise of some of my work colleagues…

Here’s an informal performance from a few weeks ago:

 

2)      As well as presenting on TV (hard work but lots of fun) I enjoy hosting live events – a few weeks back I had the fabulous experience of hosting a classical orchestral concert including the National Orchestra of Wales playing the Doctor Who Theme. I also give keynote speeches on technology and social trends. I grew the @BBCClick twitter account to nearly 2 million followers, so I used to give talks about how to do that until I realised it’s much more fun to talk about future trends, music innovation and host events instead.

 

3)      Music hacking – tech/music innovation  – I filmed a feature for the BBC in Boston which involved entering MusicTechFest‘s Hackathon competition and staying up for 24 hours – I won one of the top prizes! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-27067106

 

4)      The two things I liked most about my music degree were composition and critical music analysis. I do like explaining why songs work and sound good…  music theory, but with a contemporary twist. Here’s a radio pilot I made a while back

 

5)      I recently gave a talk at TedXTokyo 2014 about a musical device I built with the aim of giving other people the chance to hear the world like I do.  I built the first iteration of the device in my room while sharing a tiny apartment with a bunch of other music obsessives - the process is ‘Glitching‘ – not a new technique, but certainly easier to do with today’s tech. I’ve augmented traditional glitching with musical inserts based on what key the world is in. People doing it report the practice as a pleasurable and slightly psychedelic auditory experience. More of the story is documented in the talk, and I’m working on an epic blog post which explains a lot more.  I love classical composing in the wild! I want to do ‘glitching’ concerts in cities around the world! 

 

6)      I’m very interested in new musical interfaces and software synthesisers too – these deserve their own blog post.

 

7)     And Finally…  here’s a link to even more BBC stuff I get up to and finally, here’s a link to loads of free Music I’ve composed.  

 

Video

Impromptu Classical Piano version of David Bowie’s “Changes”

So, I hosted a concert last month with the National Orchestra of Wales at St David’s Hall, Cardiff. It was amazing fun. After the event, I snuck onto the rather lovely grand piano to give my fingers a bit of exercise. Here’s my classical version of David Bowie ‘Changes’, a great song in any genre. Impromptu filming by Martin Daws, Young People’s Laureate for Wales on his mobile.

I do rather love taking music and giving it a classical twist – I like to call the process ‘Classifying’.

Of course this music is copyright David Bowie – you can buy the original through this link

TedXTokyo: Music, Technology and Synaesthesia

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at TEDxTokyo on synaesthesia – and how it helps me compose music spontaneously – a few minutes in you’ll see me using the piano to describe my synaesthetic responses when entering a new city.

 

I also composed some music during my journey on the Shinkansen – Japan’s legendary bullet train.

 

 

Ever since I’ve started composing more frequently, lots more opportunities to combine music with presenting have come up… I hosted my first show on Radio 3:  Saturday Classics plus I compered #NOWYourTurn, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales concert at St David’s Hall, Cardiff.

I am looking forward to doing more thoroughly enjoyable things!

 

Non Standard Jazz

 

Marko, one of my friends asked if I would live-compose some Jazz…

So here it is, an early morning optimistic look at the day ahead. I rather enjoy the crunchy chords! This is one of those times where it feels like I’m just listening to what another part of my brain is playing. I’m uploading it, fluffs and all!

As ever, this was composed in just one take.

I’m really enjoying live-scoring. I can’t wait to start doing more while I’m on the move!

Composing with a head cold

(crosspost from my Soundcloud account)

I spent the day outside, it was beautiful and green and sunny. I am not a natural gardener – in fact for the first time I planted something in a pot!  I did enjoy putting the compost in, though the sound of the roots being pulled unsettled me! I loved the smell of jasmine flowers and the chords behind the greenery and fragrance.  I also ate a lot of sugary treats and drank the most delicious single-estate oolong tea, a riot of tastes and experiences!

But at the same time I’m also experiencing a head cold that has bunged up my ears in a very strange way. So this is the sound version of what my day felt like through my cold. I’m impatient to get back to full working order so I can keep on with composing!

Listening to this back, I can hear all the cupcakes and chocolate as well as the feel and taste of the wet compost and getting scratched by nature.

 

It’s been just over a month since I’ve started putting my ‘live-composing’ online. Some FAQ’s

1) how long does it take to compose?

It just comes out like that. I think about something, and play it – in one go. In fact, I don’t even feel like I think about it. It just – happens!

2) What kit do you use?

At home it’s currently Logic 9 on an old Mac Pro, with Ivory II synth for the piano, and an old Yamaha P90 or Roland FP2 with sustain pedal to ‘play’ the notes.

On the road it’s either MacBook Pro running Ableton which I’m just getting the hang of, or Logic 9. I also use the iRig Keys (a small keyboard that has a sustain pedal input) and a sustain pedal. I also have an iPad set up with Garageband which is frustrating but OK in a pinch, kind of like a notepad.

 

Living with perfect pitch and Synaesthesia – what it’s really like

I was at a party last week, and a fellow dinner guest asked me what having perfect pitch was actually like. They wanted to know if it was just knowing what an ‘A’ was – and whether it could be learned. They were musical and seemed genuinely interested – so I decided for once to give them the full, no-holds-barred explanation. It’s complicated, and I get asked this a lot, hence this post.

Yes, having perfect pitch includes knowing whether something is an A or an A flat – that’s also the case for excellent relative pitch which is something that can be learned with time and effort. But for me perfect or absolute pitch is more than that.

With the caveat that this is my personal experience, and it might be different for fellow sufferers/carriers, this is how it feels for me to be a composer with perfect pitch.

Train from Gothenburg to Stockholm is in B Major – the trees outside are beautiful. Composing on the train is a wonderful experience. I love the sound of the train and how it interacts with the landscapes. Trees and lakes and the sea are generally in major keys so it feels uplifting and inspiring to me! This music was recorded in two takes – first the strings, then the piano sound.

 

Now, I’d like you to imagine you’re chatting with your conversation partner. But instead of speaking and hearing the words alone, each syllable they utter has a note, sometimes more than one. They speak in tunes and I can sing back their melody. Once I know them a little bit, I can play along to their words as they speak them, accompanying them on the piano as if they’re singing an operatic recitative. They drop a glass on the floor, it plays a particular melody as it hits the tiles. I’ll play that melody back – on a piano, on anything. I can accompany that melody with harmony, chords – or perhaps compose a variation on that melody – develop it into a stupendous symphony filled with strings, or play it back in the style of Chopin, Debussy or Bob Marley. That car horn beeps an F major chord, this kettle’s in A flat, some bedside lights get thrown out because they are out of tune with other appliances. I can play along to every song on the radio whether or not I’ve heard it before, the chord progressions as open to me as if I had the sheet music in front of me. I can play other songs with the same chords and fit them with the song being played. Those bath taps squeak in E, this person sneezes in E flat. That printer’s in D mostly. The microwave is in the same key as the washing machine.

 

For me perfect pitch is not knowing notes, it’s about living in a world where everyone resonates, every thing has music. Everything and everyone weaves together a fantastic audio symphony that I have no choice but to absorb. For me if there isn’t music somewhere, I’ll add it in. Say someone is walking along a station platform, I almost unconsciously compose a tune fitting into their footsteps – it’ll generally be in the same key as the resonance of the station. While I hear a piece of music I generally imagine a counter-melody to complement the existing melody everyone else hears. It was only on talking to my friend Jonathan in Boston that I found out these things are not typical.

It’s odd – though I’m a composer by nature, I also love encoding the melodies and harmonies I hear in music for other people to appreciate, for example – the sound of a sunrise – or the beautiful noise of an aeroplane at 33,000 feet in D major.

I recently live-composed some classical music for each of my friend’s children at a naming ceremony. They had very different personalities and I captured them each in a short musical piece recorded for posterity. It never fails to amaze me how many people agree with my musical perception of someone – even someone young! There must be something I pick up on that is there, intrinsically, inside everyone.

When I taste things, I also hear music, mainly chords – sugar and desserts almost always in major key and chocolate and coffee are particularly complex sounds, with overtones and harmonics. I love broccoli and cauliflower which are a cycle of fifths. Sushi tastes like power chords on an acoustic guitar. Lemon meringue pie is a concoction of A major chords and inversions, 7ths and minors. I’ve ‘played’ tastes to a bunch of very gifted musicians who agreed with my interpretation of doughnuts, eggs and the like. I love delicious food mainly because of the pleasurable sounds it generates for me. Roller coaster rides also kick my synaesthesia into overdrive, oh, the harmonies and melodies of weightlessness and acceleration, I’d love to live-compose in variable weight conditions like that!

For me every single piece of life is flooded with sound – so much so that I didn’t realise for many years that this is not the case for everyone.

Auditory is most certainly my main sense.

 

Finally a few other strange characteristics that may or may not be attributable to perfect pitch – listed below in case any fellow perfect-pitchers would like to add their comments!

Picking up a language is easy – once you hear which notes people associate with particular things, it’s generally just a question of working out which scale they are using. My grammar is almost always terrible but I’ll pick up vocabulary words quickly. Optimism and the desire to communicate take over once I’ve decoded where words begin and end. For me, a laugh is almost always in a major key – crying is almost always in a minor key, regardless of language.

Other traits!

  • difficulty recognising people visually – especially if I meet them again out of the original context. I can however (given enough of a sample) recognise people by gait or voice.
  • hardly ever get motion sickness
  • great sense of direction
  • rather clumsy if I’m not paying attention
  • ultra-high scoring spatial awareness and pattern recognition skills – but also incredibly unobservant in everyday situations
  • I’m rather good at opening locks!

Hopefully I’ve given you an insight into the condition. It’s clear to me now that we all encode the world differently – and in my case very intensively and musically. Though I feel surprisingly vulnerable sharing these thoughts with the wider world, it’s also a pleasure to finally explain what it’s like to have perfect pitch.

 

Music = sometimes better than words

(cross post from my soundcloud account)

 

Right now, a few people I really like are going through some tough times. I sometimes find it comparatively difficult to express my emotions in words – even through the richness of language there are times when words are a poor substitute for music – a super-conductor of emotion and meaning.

I truly know how it feels when no-one can reach me, and I don’t want to be reached. So this is for you, and anyone else currently undergoing adversity. I think that even if you, like me, are experienced in how to deal with hardship, it doesn’t make it any easier when it happens.

This composition to me represents wordless, deep support to my friends, and also to myself. It’s reassurance that even in the most dark of situations, where it might feel bleak and desolate, grey and hopeless – after some time has passed, a glimmer of a smile, a glance of understanding, a random act of kindness from a stranger could be all that’s needed to transform that grey world into something more habitable – infusing it, finally, with much-missed slivers of light and colour.

This music was live-composed in just one take.