Generations : _

'Generations:_' is a project that uses aleatoric methods to create compositions using field recordings.

Generations : Nelson Hiu
Generations : Feaston
Generations : Ip / Chan (Coming soon)

Click here for the project Discord

Over the past 4 years I have been thinking of a way to redefine the way I work with field recordings and built an instrument that helps me do this. I would like to share with you the current system I am using to create compositions.

First, I would like to introduce my definitions of what a 'field recording' and a 'field recordist' are to me.

A field recording is a document of a situation or place that we have no influence over. I believe the action of field recording is an improvised performance involving the movement and decisions of the recordist. The resulting recording that you hear is a document of that performance.

I define a field recordist as a person who seeks to experience a deeper understanding with the world though sound that often leads to an adventure, no matter how big or small. The goal is the document of this adventure and not any compositional goal.

My approach to this idea and the instrument design was from my background as an audio engineer, field recordist, artist, and architect, not as a musician- which I am not. This can be seen with a bias towards a more objective, technical, and process-oriented composition methods to concentrate on the real performance- the act of recording.

Using field recordings as a medium for composition is difficult. Often, they are selected for their musical properties or transformed into musical elements such as ambience, noise, rhythm, and tone- purposes imposed on them to fit the needs of a 'song'. Rarely are they used in a composition verbatim.

Generations does not consider the recordings as an additive, and the integrity of the recording is kept throughout the composition process.

The goal for this project is to create a method of composition that maintains the improvisational concepts of field recording from its documentation to its execution.

The Instrument
The instrument

The instrument is where the composition is born. It contains physical (hardware) and user-programmed systems (software) that contain it, give it life, and allow it to evolve over time.

The instrument is made of equipment that consumers can obtain and the components can be user defined as needed to make it work.

The concept of ‘documentation’ is also applicable to the hardware and the preservation of their current state of decay. Tuning or calibration is not necessary unless it is to achieve a new sound. This allows for any accidents to happen and also reveals the unique aged character of each machine.

Used magnetic reel tape also allows for serendipitous moments such as drop-outs caused by shedding or age. This can add a lot of character to the resulting sound as different kinds of tape can be combined together and/or taped over for different textures.

Sequencing system


The sequencing System is made up of Songs and Chunks:
Songs are made up of Chunks put in a sequence.
Chunks are the building blocks of 'actions' which control the machines.

The Chunks are the basic functions of the tape machines and digital mixer (play, stop, record, fast forward, rewind, scene change) within a length of time.

The unit of time is based on the arbitrary length of a human breath (B). The ‘breath’ units serve to 'humanize' the actions during sequencer playback of the Songs.

My DAW, Digital Performer, has a feature that allows you to save Chunk sequences in a list for future use.

On the right is the Chunk list. These will be dragged to the left to make a Song.

The Song
The Song sequencing had to be in keeping with the idea of the improvisational concept of field recording. The difficulty I found early on was that I was approaching this instrument the way I would play a typical musical instrument, where one knows the sound they want and makes an action to achieve it: "I want a C so I will press this". However, this method could not apply when the resulting sound is unknown such as a field recording on tape. The composition approach cannot be based on sound before action- it has to be based on action before sound- separating sound and action. Only a sequence of actions are needed to create this composition. This is exactly what we can create with the 'action' Chunks we just made.

As with any program, one tries to find the most efficient way to run it. Many hours may be spent to refine a process that makes things easier and more productive. This process allowed an easy way to build compositions that result in unique evolutions of the original recordings. This also meant I could spend more time recording sound for each ‘Generation’ and less time making decisions to compose it.

In my early experiments, I was not satisfied with my own ‘random’ compositions because the actions had no justification, or reason for existing, which the architect side of me really disagreed with. I felt I was too connected with the piece making arbitrary subjective decisions with no basis and no conviction. After all, our choices are easily manipulated and are not truly random. As I have learned through the production of my previous projects, Generations needed to grow organically on its own in order to progress.

Taking inspiration by the aleatoric composers of the 60s who made compositions using chance: Cage, Stockhausen, Cowell, etc., I used a random number generator (RNG) to pick numbers to make my decisions. Much like using the Yi Ching (a la Cage), you present a question and chance gives you an answer. This method proved very efficient and objectively justified the events and settings happening within the composition.

A detailed post of the process will be posted at a later date.

When is it finished?
This was possibly the hardest question for me at the moment. Technically, you can do this forever with the same source audio. But there must be a limit, there must be an end. Do I leave it up to chance? Or do I choose? For the sake of efficiency I decided that I would limit the production process to 8 hours, then make a batch of final recordings.

As a final step to encourage progress, I wanted to do something to make these compositions truly unique. I remember going to an exhibition of woodcut prints where they showed the final print and the woodblock that made it. After making the final print, the artist gouged a deep ugly ‘X’ across the wood block to prevent any more prints. I always thought this was a difficult but necessary decision a woodcut artist could make, especially after so much time had been spent carving it. To make these compositions truly unique, they must be unique. After the composition process is finished, the tapes will be completely erased and reused for the next 'Generation'.

The Title
Finally, naming a project is always a challenging task. The title ‘Generations’ was an appropriate title because the word has two meanings that I felt that relate to this project.

The first meaning is: "The action or creation of something". This could be used to describe the composition that is created or the sound that is made as a result of the composition process.

The other definition is: "A type or class of objects usually developed from an earlier type." This describes the process of the layering that happens during the recording and rerecording of the composition.

As I said in a previous post, these past 4 years have been a long road of wonderful failures but recently things have been looking promising. Mostly because of the wonderful people I have recently met. One of these people is Nelson Hiu who contributed his time and talent to be a part of this project and is the artist of the first ‘Generations’ release. A future post about the production of this album will be released soon.

Thanks for listening.