Basic Electroacoustics II: Programming and Electronics for Art & Music

Music G6602
Tuesday 3-5pm, Room 313 Prentis Hall
Spring 2010
Professor: Douglas Repetto [douglas at music columbia edu]
TA: Damon Holzborn [damon at zucasa dot com]
Our Motto: "Why and how."
syllabus | schedule

23 February 2010

Programming: algorithms

What is an algorithm, a system, or a process? And what do they have to do with making music and art? There's a lot to talk about here!

We're going to start off with some quick examples of algorithmic/process/system-based work:

The sit in a circle game - sit in a circle. Look at the person to the right of the person or space directly across from you. Do only what the person you're looking at does. Otherwise do nothing.
Josh Nimoy: balldroppings - interactive sound application, physical simulation
Larry Polansky: Four Voice Canons - a compositional strategy
Ross Craig: Barbie's Phone Canon - a realization of Polansky's FVC idea
Polansky: 51 Melodies - two melodies that start together, diverge, and reconvene, according to a "mutation function"
Candy Jernigan: crack vial painting/map - rule-based activity (*)
Tom Friedman: rule-based sculpture
Tim Hawkinson: rule-based sculpture
Douglas Repetto: SineClock - sonification
LaMont Young: Composition 1960 No. 10 - 'Draw a straight line and follow it'
Rachel Beth Egenhoefer: chutes and ladders - board game visualization
Robert Ashley: In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Woman - text algorithms
David Birchfield: Community Art - genetic algorithms for creating scored music
5voltcore: [Shockbot] corejulio - self-modifying/destroying video system
Alvin Lucier: Music on a Long Thin Wire - physical system *
Alvin Lucier: I am sitting in a room - properties of a room determine result of process
Carrie Dashow: Red Light Relay - human network system
Steve Reich: Come Out - tape phasing as a compositional strategy *
YouTube Doubler: Usher vs. goat -- automatic mashups
EchoNest APIs: Bicklenack, boom boom pow poom
MEAPsoft: backwards/forwards songs - automated composition tools

As the examples above demonstrate, working with algorithms/systems/processes doesn't imply any particular aesthetic or stylistic bias. The only thing these pieces have in common is their reliance, to varying degrees, on an algorithm, system, or process.

What's the difference between an algorithm, a system, and a process? These are all somewhat interchangable, although here's my informal scheme: an algorithm is a low level, highly specified set of instructions. Computer code tends to be algorithmic. A system is a higher level entity that works as a unit, but that is probably made up of a number of lower level units, or algorithms. A process is a somewhat simple, informal, and usually repetitious algorithm, such as some action done by a human using a written set of instructions.

Let's hack!

We'll whip up a very quick algorithmic beat-making application in Processing, using a simple set of synthesized tones.


Below is an unordered list of questions and comments. Post a response (text, code, images, anything) to one or more of them on the courseworks discussion site by Monday.

What is an algorithm/system/process? *****

If a recipe is an algorithm, what are ingredients? *

Is a musical score an algorithm?

Is a map an algorithm?

How does the idea of data reduction fit in to all of this?

How is a loaf of bread different from the instructions for making a loaf of bread?

Who is the good cook? The person who wrote the recipe, or the person who follows it?

What about if a computer bakes your bread or plays your score? *

What if it's not played at all? What about an impossible algorithm? *

Sometimes you know the result of a system before running it, sometimes you don't.

Some systems give the same output every time, others don't.

Some systems finish running, others don't.

Some systems are used to create other algorithms.

What's a deterministic algorithm?

Are we all just lazy?

How does entropy figure in?

What's creative about random numbers? What if they're not even really random? *

What does non-linear mean?

Nature loves algorithms. *

Some people argue that nature is an algorithm. *

What does it mean to "discover" an algorithm? *

If you make art using algorithms, does your audience need to know that?

Do they need to understand the specifics of the algorithm? Jason Freeman's N.A.G. says it "downloads MP3 files which match the search keyword(s) and remixes these audio files in real time based on the structure of the Gnutella network itself."

Do you need to understand the specifics of the algorithm? *

What does it mean if you're not sure whether a work is algorithmic or not? Does the meaning of the work change?

You make a non-algorithmic piece and someone comes up to you and says, "What's your algorithm?" *

"Generative Art" *

"Algorithmic Art"

Is all "Computer Music" algorithmic?


Is it fair to tweak the output of a process in a piece? Do you have to admit it?

Christian Wolff's text pieces. *

Yoko Ono's instruction paintings. *

"Generative Psychogeography." *

The ubiquitous "Game of Life." *

"Serial Music."

What's an "interactive system?"

What's a system with no inputs? *

What's an system with no outputs?

Algorithms make the infinite seem close.

Or really far away.

The ubiquitous "Monkeys Typing Shakespeare." *

Algorithms as time savers.

Algorithms as creative crutches.

Algorithms can be used at many different levels, from generating sound samples to creating large-scale forms.

What's the interesting part? The final product? Several iterations of the algorithm? The process itself?

Who wants to watch a wheel turn?

Who wants to read a computer-generated poem? *

What's the difference between the output from a really complex, difficult to understand algorithm and a bunch of random gunk?

If we can't perceive it, does it matter? *

What's the difference between pressing Play on a CD player and pressing Play on an algorithmic composition?

Can an algorithm tell a story?

Can a system be expressive?

Can a process be a work of art?

Larry Polansky's Four Voice Cannons. *

Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting in a Room. *

Sol LeWitt. *

The proof is in the pudding.