Pall Thayer

Pall Thayer

I'm an Icelandic visual artist working alot with sound in a visual context. I've just opened a new project of mine called "The Intercontinental Spontaneous Jam Session" at The idea is to provide a musical interface for visual manipulation. Changes to the music affect the image on the page. The image is abstract. Composed of simple forms in the primary colors. Changes to the music affect thepositioning of the objects and their transparency, allowing the colorstoblend. The reason for the connection between an abstract image and music is that music contains an aesthetic quality that the general public can easily relate to. Abstract imagery, on the other hand, is based alot on certain artistic principles not necessarily known to the general public, therefore, alot of people have trouble "understanding" it. This way, the aesthetic qualities of the music and the image are intertwined so that the result is a heightened aesthetic reaction to abstract imagery.

Intercontinental spontaneous jam session

> What is you project and your work about?
ISJS is my most recent effort at creating abstract visual art that borrows from the aesthetic qualities of music. I think that the majority of the general public finds it much easier to grasp the aesthetic qualities of instrumental music than visual abstract work. At least I would fall into that category. I'm seldom emotionally moved by visual artwork in the same way that music moves me. So in general, most of my work is about utilizing sound and/or music in a visual context. I'm a visual artist, not a musician, therefore the visual part of my work is always more important and relative to my aims than the audible part.

> On a personal level, why do you make this work?
In 1994 I was focusing on painting at school. At the same time, I was taking an art history class that spanned David to Kandinsky on top of all that I was taking philosophy and logic. In painting we were still pretty much involved in still lifes, outdoor stuff and the human body. I was getting pretty tired of it and really wanted to start experimenting with abstract concepts. I found what we were covering in the art history class fascinating, especially when it got to more experimental movements and all the logical reasoning behind it. It got to a point where I felt that art should be as logical and clearly defined as philosophy. So for the next few years I was obsessed with finding a good logical way for me to start doing something abstract. I delved into really heavy reading. I read all of Kandinsky's stuff, everything I could find on Paul Cezanne, the Futurists, the Russian Constructivists, Kant's aesthetics, etc. So I finally started working on some geometrical stuff where I was breaking down shapes and trying to find aesthetically critical elements. Really deep stuff. I think my professors were really freaking out on me. But anyway, I spent half a year as a guest student in Finland. The Finnish people are really shy and it's hard to get to know them so I was pretty much alone there which gave me a lot of time to think. I came to the conclusion then that what we know as abstract art isn't really abstract. It's almost always open to subconscious objectivity. Also, when you really stretch the definition of "abstract", when is an image truly abstract? Even Malevich's "White on white" is still a picture of a square. So my solution was that abstract work would need to involve more than one person and ideally, they couldn't be aware of how they affect the abstract image and that's what ISJS is all about. It involves many people and the user doesn't know how what he does affects the image. But the musical interaction provides a certain framework that keeps things within a certain aesthetic range.

> How do you define "soundtoys" ?
I would say that a soundtoy is something that involves an audible element but isn't necessarily about the sound itself. It's using sound as some form of controller. Take for instance a toy guitar. Usually they sound really bad and you can't even tune them properly, but kids still love them. For them it must be about something other than making music. I found a Swedish site with a link to ISJS with a rating system. Last time I checked it had received 16 thumbs down and two thumbs up. But when I read what people had to say about it I figured out that what they were looking for was some sort of system that they could play cool dance music on. But that's not the idea. It's a soundtoy, it's not about making music.

> How long have you been working in this area?
If I really stretch it, I could say since about 1983-84. At that time I had an Atari 400 with a Basic cartridge. I used to write all sorts of weird sequencing stuff on it. Once I wrote a little program that turned the joystick into an electronic drumset. I would sit for hours banging away at the button(the bass drum) and flicking the stick up and down. But in a more up to date way, I would say that 1997 is when I really started to do work related to what I'm doing now. That year I was introduced to BigEye and Max and they really opened up a whole new world
for me.

> Were you an artist/ musician first who got into using computers/the net, or did you respond to the net as a medium in an artistic way?

I started my serious art studies in 1986 and about a year later my friends and I formed our first band. I'd been playing around with synthesizer's for a couple of years and owned a DX21 and a Korg MonoPoly (really cool synth, wish I still had it). But when we formed the band, synthesizer's weren't cool so I ended up playing the bass for the next 10 years. But because of my musical background, I really had some issues with using sound or music in my artwork. Mostly because I was uneducated as a musician but a trained visual artist. But I was an avid computer buff and when I discovered the programs that were out there that would let you combine sound and image in the way that BigEye, Max and Pure Data do, I was ecstatic. It sort of felt like being released from prison (not that I really know what that feels like). Because I had always wanted to combine the two. Even when I applied to the art college here in Iceland, I included a tape with some of my music. The internet on the other hand, was sort of an answer to my needs. As I mentioned before, I needed to be able to involve lots of people and do it in a way that they didn't know what was going on in the background.

> What/ who has influenced you in your work? (themes, other artists etc)
Well, there are the influences I mentioned before that got me all worked up about abstraction. Today we tend to see abstraction as a pretty lame "been there, done that" kind of thing but it is one of the most important thing that has ever happened in the art world and I feel that the possibilities haven't been exhausted yet. In the digital art realm there aren't very many. I don't really follow it all that well. I sort of live in my own world as far as that goes. However there are a few interesting people that I've met and talked to that have directly influenced some of what I do. One of them would be Eric Deis, a Canadian artist doing a lot of multi-user Flash stuff. Before I met him, I didn't even know that Flash movies were capable of loading variables from outside sources. Also, there's Jonah Brucker-Cohen. His work fascinates me. The whole idea of the physical interface I think is really cool. Then there's a British group called Artificial Paradises that are doing some very interesting things as well. Musical influences are Softmachine, Can, Miles Davis' electric stuff, Mahavishnu orchestra. What they all have in common is the desire to experiment with new and different sounds. And of course there's John Cage. Although I've never actually heard anything by him, I've read a lot about him and his ideas and way of thinking really appeals to me.

> Are there any other artists covering the same field as you?
Probably, it's a pretty big world out there. I don't know of any but they're bound to be out there somewhere.

> Do you see this work as art?
If by "art" you mean visual art, I would say that it depends on the way the project works. As I mentioned earlier, in my work, the visual element is the primary element. I'm using sound as if it were the paintbrush but the visual element is the product of the audio interface. If you turn it around, I would be more inclined to call it music. Then the painting becomes the instrument and the resulting sound is the product.

> With regard to 'soundtoys' especially, why do you think the audio visual form is so key to the net?
Actually, I think that there are quite a few people who are mistaken in their use of the internet. A simple flash file that takes you from one scene to another, regardless of the fact that the user controls what scene he jumps to and when, would usually look and sound better as a video piece in a gallery. I also question the interactivity of a piece that only allows for the interaction of one user as most web work does. I think what the net has to offer is the simultaneous involvement of a multitude of different users from as many different backgrounds and cultures. Another thing that intrigues me about the net is the ability to travel around the globe in a very short time. I did a piece once called Sunset where I streamed live sunsets from around the world for 12 hours at a time to create a constant 12 hour live sunset.

> What defines the aesthetics of new interactive art.?
I can't really answer this one. I think we're still at a point where the work being done is defining both the good and the bad. Maybe in a few years we'll be able to look back and say "good, good, bad, good, bad, bad..." and from there be able to form some sort of definition.

> How important is the visual aspect in the 'new' relationship of the audio visual.?
This varies. Again, it depends on the way the project works. Some projects are about the visual, others are about the audible but I think very few are really about both. As I mentioned before, in my work the visual is the primary element. If I removed the image from ISJS all I'd be left with is a really cheasy sequencer that doesn't even do exactly what you ask it to. But if I removed the audio interface it would be like removing a painters brush in the middle of a painting. The work stops where it is but you still have a half decent painting.

> Does the net promote visual awareness that is unique to it?
Well, of course you're going to get a lot of visitors that wouldn't normally come to a gallery exhibition. But since they might not even be aware of the fact that what they're looking at is a work of art, you can't really call it "visual awareness". > How novel do you feel generative music and interactivity is? To me, interactivity is a pretty touchy thing. Experience has told me that if you allow for too much freedom in the interactivity of a project, it's probably going to go somewhere you don't really want it to. You don't really have to pose extreme limits but if you really want to maintain it as something that you'll still want to put your name on, you have to have some limits but if the limits are too imposing, the audience isn't going to get a kick out of it.

> Do you think there is a history to audio visual work?
Definitely. I don't remember what the guys name was, but there was the "light organ" way way back. Then there was Russolo (author of the art of noises) the Futurist and his "noise generators". Even though his performances were about the sound, the generators themselves were like sculptures. Then there's John Cages work with photo sensors, that was even interactive as well. Jean Michelle Jarre and his laser harp and probably many more.

> Would you describe yourself as a multimedia artist, a net.artist, programmer, or none of the above?
I normally call myself an artist working with sound. The net and computers are just my tools. It would be like a painter calling himself a brush artist or a musician calling himself a string artist or multihorn artist.

> What software do you use most and why?
I'm constantly finding new tools to use. What I use most varies from time to time. There was a phase where I used Flash most, then there was Max, then came Pure Data. Right now I'm still at the Pure Data stage. What I really like about PD is the fact that it's available for all the primary server OS's. Being able to create a sound generating patch on a Linux webserver opened a whole world of new possibilities for me. But of course, Dreamweaver is a regular. And believe it or not, I use pico a lot to edit my PHP scripts. I do most of my stuff on a Mac running osx and the new TextEdit program throws a bunch of extra garbage into the files so you can't use it for hand scripting.

Can you recommend three urls to soundtoys?
That's the only one I can think of.

Would you like to tell us how you made the piece?

The main components of the piece are a Pure-Data patch, a Flash file, a few PHP scripts and an Icecast MP3 server. The PD patch basically looks like a Max/MSP patch but it's alot messier because you can't segment cords and hide objects on locking. But it's got a metronome with variable speed that can be controlled from the web page. It has two 8 step sequencers that run between each other. So first it plays note1 from seq1 then note1 from seq2 then note2 from seq1 and so on. The first sequencer sounds like a regular short sine wave with a sharp attack and slow release but it runs through a delay mechanism that runs at a certain percentage of the metronome speed. The second sequencer on the other hand, goes through a mess of oscilators and phasors and sounds really weird. Sort of spacy background stuff. There's also a monophonic synthesizer with portomento and finally a randomly controlled effects generator that also goes through a mess of oscilators and phasors and ramps up or down from the previous note. It has a single netreceive object that accepts the incoming messages from the webpage and routes them accordingly. All of the audio is then sent to the way cool shoutcast~ object from Olaf Matthes which streams it as MP3 to the Icecast server. The web page is two frames. I had to do it this way so that I could update the interface after the user submits his info without updating the page containing the flash file. The interface is just a couple of plain old html forms with a php scripts for the actions. The php script opens a socket to the netreceive object in the PD patch and feeds the info there. At the same time, it writes the info to a text file that the flash file reads from periodically. The Flash file consists of a bunch of movieclips on the stage that move around. The movie clips all contain basic shapes (square, circle, triangle) in the primary colors. The variables that the movie receives form the webpage change the position, rotation and transparency of the clips. The interaction of the clips is capable of creating all the basic elements of visual composition; mixed colors, points, lines, fields, etc. The whole thing is running on a single Linux box with a 400 mhz celeron cpu. There is a bit of delay between the user submitting changes and then hearing the difference. This is appears to be due to the MP3 encoding.

Pall Thayer
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