composer, pianist, music theorist

A Cybernetic Garden in Shambhala

a virtual, automatic and infinite sound/musical environment intended for meditative practices, algorithmically generated in real-time by computer means.

This musical creation was composed by Marcus Alessi Bittencourt and Francisco Alves de Oliveira during a research project with financial support from the PIBIC/CNPq-FA-UEM Undergraduate Research Program, and was developed at the Laboratory for Research and Audio Production ( Laboratório de Pesquisa e Produção Sonora - LAPPSO) of the State University of Maringá, Paraná, Brazil. It consists of a piece of software which generates algorithmically in real-time a continuous, endless musical composition originally intended to serve as a musical background to be projected by loudspeakers in places used for meditation and aesthetic contemplation, mostly in public spaces devoted to the practice of meditative arts, like Tai Chi Chuan or Yoga. The composition is also suited to be experienced at home as an online experience, either as a live audio/video stream or as a pre-recorded (and possibly very long) stream.

The work is a composition entirely generated live by a computer algorithm which was implemented as a rule-based system that relies heavily upon stochastic procedures implemented by dozens of intertwined Markov chains. The software that generates the piece includes a great number of different stochastic algorithms (mostly based on Markov chains) that control and manipulate:

  • the evolution of the musical system itself (generating microtonal scales and moving them around by transposition);
  • the changing and synchronization of several rhythmic streams, which are connected by multiplicity rules and interrelated tempo changes;
  • the creation of two melodic streams, by the application of rules for melodic contour;
  • the manner of conjunction of the rhythmic and melodic streams;
  • the distribution of these streams to the virtual instrumental groups, creating the opportunity for solos, duets, trios and such, for imitative counterpoint and different types of polyphony;
  • the “changes-of-scene” of the musical textures;
  • the musical dynamic balance of the instruments;
  • the intensity, motion, and density of the environmental sounds;
  • the overall musicality of the sound-engineering end result;

The ensemble of virtual instruments was designed to sound like a Bloomsian misreading of an Eastern-World ensemble, in which some of the instruments were meant to sound in a quite realistic manner, as real-world physical instruments mostly of Asian origin, and some were intended to sound as electrified or even plainly synthetic-sounding versions of instruments. The virtual instruments implemented in the piece are:

  • a Javanese Gamelan ensemble, which was implemented by sampling;
  • a Shakuhachi, a japanese traditional bamboo flute, which was here also implemented by sampling;
  • Qin, a plucked-string instrument inspired by the Guqin Chinese traditional instrument, which was here implemented in two versions (a natural version and an electrified one), by digital synthesis using an implementation of the Karplus & Strong method;
  • a Suikinkutsu, a choir of water droplets which emulates the “water koto cave” automatic instrument present in certain Japanese gardens and parks, which consists of a pot buried upside down underneath the drainage area of a water source such as a fountain, inside which droplets of water fall giving birth to delicate pitched sounds that resonate through the device. This instrument was implemented here by means of a mixture of the sampling of real water-drop sounds with digital signal processing (filtering) guided by spectral measurements taken on a real suikinkutsu;
  • an electrorimba, a purposely quite artificial marimba-like concoction, synthesized digitally by physical modelling;
  • an ensemble of Japanese Taiko drums, implemented by sampling;
  • a layer of environmental sound effects, which completes the sound world of the piece presenting sounds of wind and water flowing (all implemented by a large-grain version of granular synthesis from a database of samples), and the interactions of a group of insects (synthesized by additive synthesis), which emulate insects heard on field recordings made on the coastal woods of the Brazilian state of Paraná.

The goal of the overall musical design was to have a music that nods to an Asian quality of sound (although clearly including electrified or synthetic sound presences) and that works under a musical language that both rhythmically and harmonically evoke Eastern-World musical traditions, while being actually a synthetic experimental abstraction. In this sense, the musical harmonic language is a microtonal pitch environment constructed by the piling up of sequences of specific just-intonation intervals. The results of this construction process strongly resemble specific Asian scales (such as the Japanese Kumoi, the Balinese Pelog, and the Chinese pentatonic scales), but are in the end artificial, xenharmonic non-octave-based microtonal scales. The composition selects five of such scales for use, which further undergo constant transposition by a revolving series of 5/4 intervals, which in theory would never bring one back to the point of origin, although in the piece a small error of 9 cents is rounded off to make the 87th transposition reach an octave of the point of origin.

The composition was programmed with the free software Pure Data (PD), the notorious visual patcher-style programming language originally developed by Miller Puckette for real-time processing of data, audio, and video. The PD patch of the composition can run in any modern standard personal computer under Linux, Windows or Mac OS X operating systems, preferably a system with at least a 2GHz dual-core processor and 1Gb of RAM, equipped with a proper sound card. The computer must have Pure Data installed in it, in its vanilla 0.51.0 version or newer, with the libraries zexy, flatspace, ggee, iemlib, rtcmix~, freeverb~, and PeRColate installed, which are all freely distributed through the web. Once running, the software of the composition will automatically and algorithmically produce in real-time a continuous, endless musical composition/soundscape that can be streamed live through the internet and/or be projected by loudspeakers. The music was originally intended to be played in places used for meditation and aesthetic contemplation, such as art galleries, museums, and public spaces devoted to the practice of meditative arts in general, such as Tai Chi Chuan and Yoga.

The name of the piece, “A Cybernetic Garden in Shambhala”, takes into consideration the algorithmic profile and automated character of the project, with the word “cybernetic” being here used to imply the presence of a computational algorithm capable of handling music material automatically and of regulating itself through feedback loops towards a state of equilibrium and stability. On the mention to the word “Shambhala”, it refers to the legendary kingdom from Tibetan mythology considered to be a great source of wisdom and culture, a place of piece and prosperity, a model society, populated by kind, wise, and compassionate inhabitants.

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