Digital Processes and Time Based Media – 1

Time based media, be it audio or visual, provides the artist with the ability to not only change the perspective, quality and meaning of the material they are working with, but also to present this change to the spectator or listener.  There are many different forms this change can take, from an alteration in the overall aesthetic, to definite compositional changes. Compositional changes in both audio and visual time-based forms (montage, Kuleshov effect, etc) are the obvious givens in time based media, be they the introduction of a new instrument, a new shot, a change in depth of field (rack focus), a new time signature etc. Changes made in the overall aesthetic give the artist the same power over the representation and interpretation of their material.  For example aesthetic changes in audio works can take the form of production changes such as altering the parameters of an effect, the spatial qualities of a sound or the relational space between different sounds (such as changes to compression, gates or EQ). The same is true for aesthetic changes in visual work, which can likewise be changing effect parameters to changes made to the images colour range (grading) etc.

The possibility of changing a works material aesthetic over time has always been available to film/video work, and has been also available in audio work since it was possible to create audio recordings. What I would like to posit is that in digital media that not only are there more possibilities available, but that the nature of digital workflows, and the interfaces available to artists, suggest aesthetic reinterpretations of the material that would not be possible (or may not have readily occurred) to artists not working in digital media. It is also true to say that as digital data is digital data, it’s structural form (in as much as digital media can actually possess a structure) is also inherently flexible, such that audio data can be ,via processes taking any of a number of various forms, be easily transposed into visual data and vice-versa. However I will be covering that particular quality of digital media in another area of my research which relates to defining creative freedom when working with digital tools. This flexible quality however is not unique to the digital medium, as with the advent of video both audio and visual content became electronic signals, and were therefore capable of a similar transposition. Although they lacked a lot of the flexibility that the digital medium has, in terms of the processes that are now available to affect such a structural transposition, they did fundamentally possess the same properties, and shared the same medium (a waveform on magnetic tape).

I want to concentrate on how the aesthetic changes available in digital media; affects the work produced, creates new production methods (altering the artists’ relationship with their material), allows for new expressive forms and vocabulary in both narrative and non narrative time-based work and also potentially provides fresh interpretations of pre-digital techniques and the forms usually associated with them.  While my research will be primarily concerned with digital film making I will start by illustrating some of my ideas by exploring some of the influences digital media has had on music. The reason for this is as I’m also a digital musician it’s an area I understand well. It’s also because I believe the software tools available for digital audio production (and those who use them) have reached a higher state of maturity than digital film tools, although this maturity gap between the two forms is shrinking.

As digital music production proliferated in the 1990s, due to its relative low cost of entry, many new experimental forms of music emerged.  As well as the mostly repetitive forms of dance music, (from electro through to house and hip hop, which rely on the ease of collage, layering, and editing together of disparate sound sources offered by samplers and sequencers), there were also new forms that came from exploring the essential qualities of digital sound. Notable among these more investigative forms are glitch music, electro-acoustic music and noise, which are peculiarly digital in nature and would not have come into existence otherwise. It is also true to say that some electronic dance forms also owe their existence entirely to the digital domain, and in some cases they can be linked directly to the creation of specific pieces of hardware and software. (Although as a T-shirt of the early 90’s said ‘303+808+909. Now form a band’ referring to the model numbers of Analog Roland drum machines, they too had their sounds and processing sampled and became part of a purely digital palette). However it’s the forms that attempted to create new types of music by taking a more philosophical approach to the inherent qualities of digital audio that I find more interesting. As in, what can be learned from these new genres of music that were a result of exploring the quality of digital, and will we likewise see new forms of digital cinema ? This is parallel research to my research into the new aesthetic possibilities, and how changing these aesthetics over time within a single work may lead on to new expressive techniques.

Glitch music in its digital form was pioneered by a group called Oval, the purest examples of which are on their album ‘Systemisch’ (1994 Mille Plateaux). Although the ideas behind glitch itself can be traced back to the futurist movement, and the ideas of John Cage, I would argue that it was Oval who truly originated the genre.  It is music predominantly made by splicing together very small cuts of samples, and digital artifacts such as skipping CDs (on the track ‘Compact Disc’) as well as vinyl scratches, electronic hums, and other noise sources. It is the ease, or even suggestions, made by digital sequencers and samplers that made this form of music possible. This is also true of electro-acoustic music which although has now come to be a very broad term encapsulating many types of music that feature both digital and traditional acoustic and analog instruments, it is essentially music that is made from the digital manipulation of recorded sounds. As it is such a broad definition it is hard to objectively select examples of this genre but UIs remix of Microstoria (Microstoria is a project of Markus Popp of Oval and Jan St Werner of Mouse on Mars)  ‘Run, I jolly well won’t run. I’ll be happy to get you chaps another ball’ (1997 Mille Plateaux/Thrill Jockey Records) is to me a good example. The track itself goes through many dynamic changes, using many different types of sound sources, but is held together aesthetically by a consistent overall production which is something digital tools can do quite easily. Another example of how dynamic changes can be produced differently to traditional analog approaches is present in the work of the Norwegian duo Alog (Red Shift Swing album, ’Expand the Heart’ Rune Grammofon 1999). It is this ease with which you can create consistent yet unique aesthetics within digital audio that has encouraged artists to experiment and create new types of music.

To simplify my point, the ability to tweak, cut and assemble your source material, and improvise freely not only a pieces composition, but also the overall aesthetic and production (and also having so many different points of input to affect change) is why digital audio is responsible for giving birth to such a wide variety of music. It is not only the flexibility now offered to sound artists, but the immediacy of the medium in terms of its feedback which has encouraged the experimentation that has created these forms. Flexibility is to a large extent an inherent quality of musical composition (due to many factors), the digital audio tools themselves have matured in that they now reflect this and they have also added to it. They have added to it to the point that no sound artist has the same workflow even when they use the same software, which makes a unique production aesthetic a happenstance of an individual artists process.

To get back to my initial point of how an aesthetic can be changed over the time of a work I think the best examples are to be found in dub music. Dub music itself is as much a production technique as it is a genre, in that it is a way of developing and exploring the sonic quality of a piece of music using simple techniques such as basic mixing (EQ, Panning and levels) and effects such as reverbs and delays. This technique has developed into many different directions, and a lot of these developments are a result of digital techniques being employed (as well as different cultural influences). The work of King Tubby to me sets the aesthetic and techniques which are the most influential on the modern dub forms. His work is signified by a gradual exploration of the raw material through controlled EQ sweeps and changes in delay timings that create an overall sound that is easily identifiable as his. As dub has developed digital production possibilities have resulted in similarly identifiable unique production qualities in other dub artists and labels such as Adrian Sherwoods On-U sound label (The African Headcharge track ‘Far Away Chant’ sounding nothing like anything else on earth but being unmistakably dub and unmistakably an On-U sound release), and the work of the two german producers Moritz Von Oswald & Mark Ernestus who created the Basic Channel & Chain Reaction labels. Oswald and Ernestus created a genre which is called Dub Techno and this clean sounding and very digital hybrid is typified by gradual changes to the sonic qualities of the elements in each mix but the changes happen much more gradually than in other forms of dub (For example Maurizio M-Series ‘M6-[b] edit’, listen to how the tambourine through EQ and slow shifts hints at ska and then falls back into a dub counterpoint). They later took their Dub Techno methods back to the source, in terms of applying them to classic dub with their Rhythm & sound label.

Other examples of how gradual aesthetic changes that are peculiar to digital audio (in terms of how the change is created), which you could argue all have their roots in dub, also now crop up in other genres such as the resurgence of the german ‘motorik’ form of rock music (kammerflimmer Kollektief – ‘Konstant’ from the Maander album – Payola/1999)

Like any other art form music informs itself, in that there is cross pollination across the genres as well as reinterpretations of earlier forms. A good early example of this is how early folk music informed, and was taken from by composers, such as Tippet, Britten, Debussey, Stravinsky and Weil. This reinterpretation is something that digital audio seems to be predisposed to in many regards, obviously in hip hop, but also there are artist such as Espen Sommer Eide (of Alog) whose recent album Kreken (Phonophani) is mostly inspired by Norwegian folk Music (track kvaale ii from Phonophani – Kreken 2010). The Kreken album is a very good example of how digital audio techniques can reinterpret musical forms in a very unique way. The cross pollination across musical genres is something that digital audio has increased, due to the ease with which such work can be created. Some clear examples of this come from the Brain Damage dub systems crossing of American hip hop with Algerian folk music in the track ‘Embolism’, Tied and tickled Trios dub/motorik hybrid ‘Motorik’ and X-Echos ‘Listen dis’ a short dub piece which is constructed mostly from Violent Femmes samples (Violent Femmes can not by any stretch be described as a dub group).

I’ve covered a lot of ground in this post, and haven’t really approached the subject of digital film making. What the above research and arguments were for is to get straight in my head what the digital medium has made possible, and is responsible for, in terms of the development and creation of music. However I have only really scratched the surface and admittedly most of my assumptions are subjective.  What I plan to go on to cover in subsequent posts is what is it in the quality of digital itself that will affect digital film making, and what aesthetic possibilities very roughly may align to the digital music experience from an artists perspective. Also, and more importantly to me, what aesthetic possibilities may emerge that will be unique to digital film making.


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