In 1961, John Cage laid a musical stave over a map of the galaxies and traced clusters of notes over the stars. The result was Atlas Eclipticalis, an unusual attempt at capturing the music of the spheres. He repeated the technique in 1974 for Etudes Australes, a set of short, blindingly difficult piano pieces he composed—or transcribed, anyway, with the help of the I Ching—for the pianist Grete Sultan. In a 1975 review in the New York Times, John Rockwell drew a comparison to Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, noting that “the music sounded almost serial, in a lazily erratic sort of way. The process of its creation reflects Mr. Cage’s all-embracing mysticism, but one result is to insure a harmonic randomness that Schoenberg sought by far different means.”
In the intervening years, as the world has been plotted across every type of map and grid imaginable, such translations of data points to musical values have become commonplace. Tobias Frere-Jones’ “F-Hz (#190736, 1996)” gathered a year’s worth of high and low temperature readings from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts, and converted them from Fahrenheit to hertz. On the 2000 album Traceroute, the noise collective UBSB (Zbigniew Karkowski, Atau Tanaka, Edwin Van Der Heide, and Ulf Bilting) created a Unix software agent that eavesdropped on Internet communications before translating that mass of data into abrasive noise. And in 2011, a multimedia project called the Radioactive Orchestra paired the electronic musician Axel Boman with a group of nuclear physicists to generate musical patterns from the behavior of radioactive isotopes.
The latest addition to this canon of data-oriented music making comes from James Murphy—well, strictly speaking, from James Murphy, IBM, the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, the “visual storytelling” brand agency Tool, and all of the players in the 2014 U.S. Open. Last summer, as a demonstration of IBM’s cloud-computing might, data scientists from Tool worked with Murphy to create generative music, in real time, out of all 187 matches in the tennis tournament. Excerpts of the results are available on IBM’s SoundCloud page, and while it’s difficult to discern much about their methodology from the music itself, we know from interviews with the project’s masterminds that basic variables like pitch, timbre, and tempo were determined by players’ names and seeds, temperature, court names, etc., and that game data—game score, set score, time between points, and “significant events” like aces and point breaks—determined the shape of the music as the games played out.
If you’ve listened to a few of the excerpts, you may have noticed that a little bit of this goes a long way, at least as a listening experience. (Apparently the audio was initially live-streamed as the matches played out, along with complementary visuals that parsed additional data points from the tournament.) It sounds a little like a Casiotone with the hiccups, or a small animal walking over the controls of a sequencer. A few of them are mildly unpleasant to listen to; on “Match 6, Round 1”, some variable or another has given the sound a harsh, distorted edge, suggesting an etude written on crumpled tinfoil. Others are more absorbing: “Match 104, Round 2” is animated by lively swing and odd little call-and-response motifs; “Match 184, Men’s Semifinals” is both placid and quietly stylish, as though a computer virus had hybridized the back catalogs of Windham Hill and Smallville. But only a crazy person would listen to them all. For the most part, they recede into the background, like wind chimes—or at least windchimes rigged, via strings and pulleys, to a metronome.
For the final step in this long, lazy volley between humans and machines, James Murphy has remixed various segments from the tournament into a dozen discrete tracks. A few of them, like “Match 186 Set 1”, don’t sound much less aimless than their raw material, but that’s also not a criticism; especially at these more manageable lengths, that meandering quality is part of their appeal. In general, though, Murphy’s guiding hand has become visible as he selects key motifs and reworks them into arrangements resembling techno or ambient music. “Match 4”, displaying Murphy’s fondness for Carl Craig, features steady Roland drum programming, a grinding bass arpeggio, and a dramatic breakdown, complete with congas. The breakbeat under “Match 104” brings vintage Aphex Twin to mind. In “Match 184”, harpsichord-like plucks are fleshed out with a doleful 303 line and a slow, four-to-the-floor kick drum, and the results sound uncannily like Tin Man’s mournful, drifting acid. The electro-disco ditty “Match 185” might almost be an early sketch from the Sound of Silver sessions, while the closing “Match 187″—with plucked arpeggios beating against buoyant choral pads—takes the whole collection out on a high, hopeful note.
This isn’t a major work for Murphy, which I think is implicit in the fact that it’s been given away for free. But, particularly when compared with the truly random raw data that was his source material, it has plenty of charm. Whether or not the original feed tells us anything about tennis, as he coaxes data points into patterns, and massages happenstance into meaningful events, we learn at least one thing about Murphy: this guy can make music out of virtually anything.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/17GejSp