The Granular Synthesis of Curtis Roads

curtisroads
Watch Motherboard – The Granular Synthesis of Curtis Roads

This is a pretty amazing video. Granular Synthesis I can wrap my head around (imagine a more complex version of additive synthesis, but on a micro-scale), but what really amazes me is Curtis Roads was doing it in 1975 on a mainframe with punchcards. You heard me. How much more nerdcred does this guy need? Ok, lemme back up for a minute. I am, actually, old enough to know what punchcards are (but, keep in mind I was like 5 years old and hanging out at my mom’s company to learn about them). Back in the day (and my intro to computer science teacher in college was amazing because he explained this to us and made us basically write out our algorythms before we came to class to program them), a programmer would have to write out a program in its entirety and then wait for days sometimes, to get the program to execute. This is totally the opposite of people can work today, where they can see the results of a coding change realtime, or, on the web, with a simple page refresh. Pretty leet, I gotta say.

Check out this video–even an Autechre song makes a cameo (but, I would add to the video’s description that what made Autechre and similar IDM artists’ work so mindblowing wasn’t simply due to complex rhythms, it was that plus the unheard-of-before combination of electronically-generated revolutionary sounds while still maintaining a “more accessible” composition in terms of melody and so forth. At some point Roads says he considers his music “point, line, cloud” because a grain, or sound particle is a point, a series of points on either or both the x or y axis, and a cloud,–IMHO–is actually “a left-to-right series of chords”) BECAUSE CURTIS ROADS OPENED FOR THEM in the early 00s. Uh-huh.

He also recommends a book for sound-design inspiration. It’s called Education of a Gardener. Really. Just go watch this thing, ok?

There are two divergent streams in 20th century electronic music: The one most people are familiar with starts out with goofballs like Jean-Jacques Perrey and Vangelis noodling around on synthesizers and eventually devolves into Kaja Googoo. Curtis Roads is part of the other path, the one that follows insane geniuses like Stockhausen and Morton Subotnik and uses whatever-period-it-happens-to-be’s state-of-the-art computer technology to produce compositions that completely defy conventional music logic and sometimes sound more like a freaked-out ATM than tunes you put on and listen to.

Professor Roads’ primary interests/methods are granular and pulsar synthesis. We’re still trying to wrap our brains around pulsar, but from what we gather granular synthesis is where you break down individual notes and sounds into teensy tiny little bits (or “grains”) and then reassemble them into music full of such microscopic nuances that it could only be fully appreciated by a man who’s like some kind of computer-man or something. There’s also this thing where the reconstituted microsounds don’t produce actual, distinctive tones but nebulous sound masses that can be modulated in ways that regular sounds can’t which we don’t fully understand despite Roads’ best efforts at explanation.

One critique, though….the interviewer is pretty clueless and you can tell so by her questions. If they had someone who was a little more educated the interview wouldn’t seem so condescending (although asking to see the garden was kind of interesting). If they had an interviewer who not only “got it” but could ask leading questions in a way that appealed to a more mainstream audience you’ve really got something [*hey, Vice: I do freelance* :-p]