Sergi Jorda

interview with: sergi jorda (2005/08/30)
tags: soundtoys, artist, journal, interview, text
journal contents

What is your project and your work about?

In general, my work could be described as creating somehow useless things, using computers. Quite often, these things are related to music or sound, but I am, in fact, more interested about time - which is, I believe, the key element of interactivity- as well as about abstract ideas and concepts, as vague as this may sound. A big part of my work is also about teaching to others some of these things I believe, which means essentially, how to bring creativity and imagination into writing software, and how to write software that can also boost the creativity and the imagination of other end-users. A third component of my work is to think about all that, and take some conclusions or guesses, sometimes, writing articles, giving conferences and so ... This last part is I believe quite close to what people could consider research.

That is in general. In particular, FMOL, the work for which I?m writing that right now, is a quite long-term project that I started in 1997, with the intention of (a) exploring collective music composition on the net, and (b) approaching experimental electronic music to possible ?less-experimental? musicians, even to non-musicians.

In 1997 the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus proposed to me the conception and development of an Internet-based music composition system that could allow cybercomposers to participate in the creation of the music for their next show. I wanted to experiment with collaborative music on the net, and I wanted this tool to be simple and complex all at once, so that it would not dishearten hobbyist musicians, but would still be able to produce completely diverse music, allowing a rich and intricate control and offering various stages of training and different learning curves. If I wanted to appeal newcomers, for obvious availability reasons, the instrument had to be a mouse-driven software. All this led to the development of FMOL 1.0, a freeware stand-alone program with real-time interactive synthesis and http capabilities which worked in combination with a composition database.

The project has evolved since then, and the fact is that FMOL exemplifies several paradigms which can be treated independently. It is primarily a tool for collaborative musical composition on the Internet, but it has also shown to be a quite didactical, intuitive and proselytizing instrument for introducing newcomers into experimental electronic, while at the same time it is being used as a ?professional? instrument in concerts. But I assume that the FMOL?s aspect more related to this site is its graphical user interface, which presents a closed feedback loop between the sound and the graphics. In FMOL, the same GUI works both as the input for sound control and as an output that intuitively displays all the sound and music activity.

FMOL?s real-time synthesis engine was custom written in C++. It supports six real-time synthesized stereo audio tracks or channels, each constituted of four sound modules: one sound generator (sine, square, karplus-strong, sample player, etc.) and three processors (filters, reverbs, delays, resonators, frequency, amplitude or ring modulators, etc.), which can be chosen from more than 100 different synthesis algorithms or variations. Each of these sound modules (both generators and processors) includes four control parameters, where one can be modulated by a low frequency oscillators (LFOs), in which frequency, amplitude and shape (sinusoidal, square, triangular, saw tooth or random) can be interactively modified. That makes a total of 6 generators and 18 processors, with 24 LFOs and 96 parameters to control. While working on this engine, I decided to construct an abstract visualization so tightly related to the synthesis engine architecture, that almost every feature of the synthesizer would be reflected in a symbolic, dynamic and non-technical way in the interface.

In its rest position the FMOL screen looks like a simple 6x6 grid or lattice. Each of the six vertical lines is associated with one generator, while three of the five horizontal lines are associated with the processors. These lines work both as input devices (controllers) that can be picked and dragged with the mouse, and as output devices that give dynamic visual and ?sonic? feedback. Mappings and detailed control mechanisms cannot be explained in detail here, but the key point is that when multiple oscillators or segments are active, the resulting geometric ?dance?, combined with the six-channel oscilloscope information given by the strings, tightly reflects the temporal activity and intensity of the piece and gives multidimensional cues to the player. Looking at the screen the player can intuitively feel the loudness, frequency and timbrical content of every channel, the amount of different applied effects, and the activity of each of the 24 LFOs. Besides, no indirection is needed to modify any of these parameters, as anything in the screen behaves simultaneously as an output and as an input.

On a personal level, why do you make this work?

I make it because I like making it. I?ve been programming for 20 years. After studying Physics, in 1985, I started programming bank machines, but since 87 I only write the programs I like to write. I don?t write all the ones I would like to, but I can say I like to work on all the things I?ve worked since then. Besides, it is also true, that for around the last three years I?ve been programming much and much less. Happily, lately I can work with people that also like to program and also like to invent and create beauty or surprise out of some bytes. So I?m becoming more of an organizer and a catalyser and less of a programmer.

On the other side, I've been making music for 25 years. I started with the saxophone, but once I discovered computers, I realized that I could do much better with them than with the sax. I don?t have the discipline needed for mastering a traditional musical instrument, because I?m very bad at repeating always the same things. I get easily bored, and when that happens I don?t do that anymore. Because of that, with the saxophone I was only playing free music, and with computers I soon realized that computers could learn all the systematic parts at once, and therefore freeing me from all this repetitive parts. And as I liked free-jazz I tried (and still do) to bring it to computer music.

How do you define "soundtoys"? Could your work be classified in this area?

I?ve never tried to define soundtoys; I have not even ever used that term, at least not before now? If my work could be classified in this area depends therefore on this area definition. If a soundtoy is a piece of software that tries to behave as an audiovisual instrument, FMOL is. If soundtoys try to bring new ways of interacting with sound and/or music, FMOL is. If soundtoys can be considered as a new family of virtual musical instruments, FMOL could be. If soundtoys are smart sonic gadgets that can be used for a couple of minutes, and then thrown away, FMOL isn't. If soundtoys have a more sociological component, vaguely related to what Lev Manovich calls the Flash Generation, FMOL isn't either.

The problem I see with soundtoys is that, at their best, they should not be called toys at all. Not because they are not fun to play nor because of their potential complexity (a toy can still be quite complex), but because many of them, the ?good ones?, do not simulate, they do not prepare for the ?real thing? since they should be considered as real as any existing musical instrument.

How long have you been working in this area?

As I said, I started programming a long time ago. In the late 80s I was already making real-time interactive music programs, which were meant to be used in concerts and in an improvisation contest, as I liked, and still do, improvised music. Around 92 I started working with other artists (visual artists, performers?), and started working with not-sounding media (visuals and computer-controlled machines), designing interactive performances or media-shows. With Marcel.l? Antnez, I made JoAn l Home de Carn (92), a natural size human flesh robot made of pig-skin, Epizoo (94), a kind of tele-torture performance and Afasia (98) a one-man multimedia show.

My work in the area of ?interactive abstract audiovisuals? starts in 97 with FMOL, in which I have been working, intermittently, for the last 5 years. The new project in which I?m working now, the reacTable*, which won?t be presented until 2004, is a quite big project which takes audiovisual feedback and net collaboration where FMOL left it.

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?

As I said before, I myself developed as a musician in parallel with developing as a digital creator. Music was one of the big reasons for entering into computers, but then I got in love with the main essence of computers, or better, of programming computers. By then, the net was ????... at least for me. I mean, living in Spain, I discovered e-mail in 1994.

What/ who has influenced you in your work? (themes, other artists etc)

I could mention hundreds of musicians, like John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Claudio Monteverdi, Captain Beefheart, King Crimsom the list would be too long. I dont think Ive been consciously influenced by any digital artist. That doesnt mean I dont appreciate digital art, but I don?t see it as a clear influence. Many of the people I really respect, and that were there before me and with whom I somehow share a creative field, I met them much later: Chris Brown, Scot Gresham Lancaster and Tim Perkis (all three of them from The Hub) Maybe Laurie Spiegel (creator of Music Mouse) was a conscious influence when I started working on real-time music software? Miller Puckette, the creator of MAX and PD, Larry Polansky and Phil Burk, creators of HMSL in the mid 80s, and others which are not really famous, like Henry Lowengard, who wrote a wonderful program called RGS for the Amiga, back in 1987 or so.

Are there any other artists covering the same field as you?

Of course. No one can pretend to be so special to be unique! Talking specifically about FMOL, I now see Golan Levin?s work very related with what Ive been doing, although I didnt know Golan until a year ago. Ixi is also a group with whom a share many common points, in trying to bring new ways of creating music, by means of autonomous and cheap (i.e. software only) systems.

Then, if we talk about interactive music systems in a more general approach, there are many people, mostly from the computer music world, with whom I share many common points. All the ones whose work and research is about creating new musical instruments, considering a musical instrument as an inseparable couple of a controller + a generator, as there are also many people working separately on only one of both sides (i.e. designing controllers OR music and sound generators).

Do you see this work as art?

At this point I would like to be more general, and not to talk only about soundtoys or interactive music systems design in particular, but about digital art in general.

In my opinion, a great part of the digital art speech still comes from the old-fashioned visual arts theorists, and I welcome the idea of taking that out of their hands. Digital art is not (at least the good one, from my point of view) an evolution of video or electronic art or the conceptual art of the 60s. But then, art has not always been what we understood in the XXth century. Before the XIXth century, artists were closer to first rank craftsmen. And that didn?t prevent them from being also influential thinkers or scientists of their time. The XIX-XX idea of art (mainly explicit in visual arts) seemed to collapse at the end of the century: Art could be dead, which doesn?t have to be seen as a lost, but just as an evolution, considering that thousands of years without this concept have not been less creative.

Why digital art has to follow the path of the dead art mainstream? Because many visual artists have become media artists, and visual critics, theorists and curators have become media critics, theorists or curators. Good for them, bad for digital. We could be in a new renaissance. There are again so many new things to try, to learn, to experiment, to think about, that this inherited fatalism seems not very helpful. Artists are not longer needed. Luckily, many young creators do not care at all about all this shit.

With regard to 'soundtoys' especially, why do you think the audio visual form is so key to the net?

I?ll try to be synthetic, but this is a very relevant and crucial question. The audio visual form is not key to the net. It is key to all what is wrongly called multimedia. The digital media does not distinguish at its essence between visuals and sounds. Any byte, anything, can me mapped onto anything else. And these infinite mappings are much more powerful, much more free and rich when they are not tied to a predefined meaning or sense. Therefore, they are much more flexible when they relate to abstract, non-figurative forms. Sound, when it is not speech, can always be considered as abstract. Abstract visuals, on their side, are a bit more restricted but they have also existed for thousands of years.

What is key to the net is, because of its limited bandwidth, the lightness of the elements involved. Lightness means text for example, but when talking about visuals, lightness means generative, algorithmic visuals. And Flash, which was made for the net, means also generative and algorithmic visuals. However, because Flash is a commercial product, and because generative sound does not seem to be too appealing commercially, Flash does not give any chance to generative or synthetic sound. Therefore, sadly, many of these soundtoys suffer from the audio limitations imposed by these leading authoring tools (e.g. Flash and Shockwave) that do not allow much more than playing with layers of loops. Because although loop-based music can still be quite challenging, it is far less exciting to limit all possible musics to predefined loops. Many alternate technologies exist, that could easily bring infinite audio richness to the net; Phil Burk?s JSynth for example, to name only one. Why aren?t they so fashionable?

What defines the aesthetics of new interactive art?

This is somehow a tautological question. Because new interactive art is often considered new, or simply put in that bag, depending on its aesthetics. In the mid-90s, Jodi, NN and many others, started working on the net with what could be described as the aesthetics of digital error, which is now quite ubiquitous in digital visuals and in digital music. Clearly, there shouldn?t be any predefined aesthetic of the new, because then it automatically becomes old and mainstream. Another dangerous consideration is the aesthetics that some software tends to bring.

How important is the visual aspect in the 'new' relationship of the audio visual?

For me, I have to admit, audiovisuality was just a way to achieve a richer feedback between the musician and the system. Arguably, visual feedback is not very important for playing traditional instruments, and the list of first rank blind musicians and instrumentalists is long. But traditional instruments usually bring other kinds of feedback, like haptic feedback, which is not so often present in digital instruments, at least in the ?cheap? ones. Besides, why should not digital instruments use at their advantage anything that could broaden the communication channel with its player? At least In FMOL, I believe that visual feedback has been a fundamental component for its success as a powerful and at the same time intuitive and enjoyable instrument.

Besides, when they come together, the visual aspect has almost always been more important than the sonic aspect, and I think this is clear in all the most popular audiovisual software tools.

Does the net promote visual awareness that is unique to it?

Not at all. The net promotes many things. Some very important for the present and near future development of creativity, like collective creation and the production of open and continuously evolving works. In this context, concepts like authorship and copyright will necessarily have to evolve and adapt to a new reality. But going back to the question, I think we shouldn?t confuse the aesthetic tendency of any given software with the visual properties or possibilities of a medium like the net.

How novel do you feel generative music and interactivity is?

Depends on what you consider novel. Generative music is probably as old as music, or if no so much, at least a thousand years old. Generative computer music is, indeed, almost as old as computers. Lejaren Hiller programmed a computer for music composition in 1957.

If interactivity means interactivity with digital resources, it is also almost as old as computers, although because of their limited speed, computers could only do, at their beginning, very simple things in real-time. But Ivan Sutherland was doing interactive graphics in 1963 and Max Mathews interactive music in 1969 with his Groove system. Besides, I don?t think interactivity means necessarily digital. Driving a car or adding salt to a dish are both interactive activities as they both imply the existence of a feedback loop.

Do you think there is a history to audio visual work?

What makes you think not? Opera, cinema, to just name two well-know artistic disciplines are essentially audiovisual. If we omit then and try to refer to abstract audio visual work, we could quote Bernard Klein who in 1927, and in order to show the secular catacomb stage of visual music, affirmed in his book Color-Music: the Art of Light, ?it is an odd fact that almost everyone who develops a color-organ is under the misapprehension that he or she, is the first mortal to attempt to do so?. This quote is in fact extracted from Golan Levin?s thesis, which makes a very good introduction to Visual Music, starting in the XVII century.

Would you describe yourself as a multimedia artist, a net.artist, programmer, or none of the above?

I like to consider myself as a musician, a luthier, a digital creator, a programmer and a theorist, not in any specific order. I definitely prefer digital to multimedia; I?m not a videoartist; I work with the digital medium. I also prefer creator to artist. It is a way to avoid all the discussions that rise from the previous question ?Do you see this work as art?.

What software do you use most and why?

For doing my programs, I usually use C and C++ compilers. I?ve very scarcely used Director or Flash. I don?t like to work with them, mainly because I don?t like the way they hide programming, and turn it into something unnatural. But I really appreciate what people can get with them without a clear understanding of computer programming. However, to me, they have also a very important drawback. First, too often, many things done with them, if still interesting, are easily distinguishable as Lingo or Flash things... for me, doing ONLY Lingo or ONLY Flash, is like painting with markers, or making music with a flute recorder. No problem in marker painting or recorder music, if people knew that that is not the only possible painting, nor the only possible music. The problem is that there are now too many painters that are not merely painters, but only marker-painters? Although not impossible, with these tools it is harder to subvert their planned functionality, and art should be subversive before anything.

I do however love PD (or MAX) to do quick audio prototyping. I believe it is one of the smartest programming paradigms of the last two decades.
And then I use any kind of software, as anybody. I don?t need sequencers because I mostly play live, but I do use audio and multitrack editors.