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As musical old-timers repeatedly sing the sad song of the supposed demise of the full-length album, a funny thing has happened. Lovers of games have taken up a growing passion for game music, and in particular the indie score for indie games. Independent game publishing and independent music composition – from truly unsigned, unknown artists – go hand in hand. Indeed, the download and purchase charts on Bandcamp are often dominated by game scores. Fueled by word-of-mouth, these go viral in enthusiast communities largely ignored by either music or game reportage.

Far from the big-budget blockbuster war game, these scores – like the games for which they’re composed – are quirky and eccentric. They reject the usual expectations of what game music might be, sometimes tending to the cinematic, sometimes to the retro, sometimes unapologetically embracing magical, sentimental, childlike worlds.

And now, defying music’s typical business models as well as its genre expectations, you can get a whole big bundle of games for almost no money. Pay what you want, and get hours of music. Pay more than $10, and get loads more. You just have to do it before the deal ends (five days from this posting), at which point the bundle is gone forever. In a sign of just how much love listeners of these records feel, there’s a competition to get into the top 20, top 10, and top-paying spots, which with days left in the contest is already pushing well into the hundreds of dollars. But for that rate or just the few-dollar rate, these are the true fans. You’ve heard about them in theory in trendy music business blogs and conferences, in theory. But here, someone’s doing something about it, and it’s not a fluke or a one-time novelty: it’s a real formula.

http://www.gamemusicbundle.com/

Game music itself is, of course, a funny thing. Game play itself tends to repetition, meaning you hear this music a lot. So it says something really extraordinary about the affection for these scores that gamers want to hear the music again and again. This gets the musical content well beyond the level of annoying wallpaper into something that, even more than a film score you hear just once or a few times, you want to make part of your life. That endless play gets us back to what inspired ownership in the first place, to buying stacks of records rather than just waiting for them on the radio. And in that sense, perhaps what motivates owning music versus treating it like a utility or water faucet hasn’t changed in the digital age at all. Maybe it’s gotten even stronger.

We’ve already sung the praises of Sword and Sworcery on this site; it’s notably in the bundle. But I want to highlight in particular one other score, the inventive and dream-like Machinarium. Impeccably recorded, boldly original, the work of Prague-based Tomáš Dvořák, Machinarium mirrors the whimsical constructed machines of the games. There’s a careful attention to timbre, and music that moves from film-like moments to song to beautiful washes of ambience, glitch set against warm rushes of landscape. For his part, Dvořák is a clarinetist, and his musical senstitivity never ceases to translate into the score. It’s just good music, even if you never play the game, and easily worth the price of admission for the bundle if you never listened to anything else (though you would truly be missing out). It’s simply one of the best game music scores in recent years.

And another look at Jim Guthrie’s score to Sword & Sworcery:

Game Meets Album: Behind the Music and Design of the iPad Indie Blockbuster Swords & Sworcery[Create Digital Music]

Game Meets Album: Behind the Music and Design of the iPad Indie Blockbuster Swords & Sworcery [Create Digital Motion]

Also in this collection: Aquaria, To the Moon, Jamestown, and a mash-up, plus a whole bunch of bonus games when you spend a bit more that feel heavily influenced by Japanese game music and chip music.

And some of the best gems are in the repeat of the last bundle, which you can (and should) add on for US$5 more:
Minecraft: Volume Alpha, Super Meat Boy: Digital Soundtrack, PPPPPP (soundtrack to VVVVVV), Impostor Nostalgia, Cobalt, Ravenmark: Scourge of Estellion, A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda, Return All Robots!, Mighty Milky, Way / Mighty Flip Champs, Tree of Knowledge

I’ve sat at game conferences as composers working for so-called AAA titles lamented the limitations of the game music production pipeline. Quietly, indie game developers have shown that anything is possible, that the quality of a game score is limited only by a composer’s imagination.

More music to hear (and some behind-the-scenes footage), including a really promising Kickstarter-funded iPad music project from regular CDM reader Wiley Wiggins:

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This update I believe is worth a second post, as it makes visible the otherwise-mysterious algorithms producing music in our previous post.

And yes, I believe this is “music,” naysayers aside. Whether it’s good music is in the ears of the listener, but if you can describe this much sound with this little code, imagine what’s really possible in computer music. Whatever it is you want to hear, it’s within the power of your imagination to describe it, on a score or in code, either one.

Thanks to none other than Stephan Schmitt for the tip.

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You know you’re in for something different with an article that contains this line: “as 256 bytes is becoming the new 4K, there has been ever more need to play decent music in the 256-byte size class. ”

In just a single line of code, Finnish artist and coder countercomplex, working with other contributors, is creating “bitwise creations in a pre-apocalyptic world.” What’s stunning is to listen to the results, even if you have trouble following the code – the results are complex and organic, glitchy but with compositional direction, as though the machine itself had learned to compose in its own, strange language.

This is, naturally, the opposite of the musical coding in the previous post: in place of human-readable languages representing abstractions atop other abstractions, this is pure algorithm transformed into music. Geeky, yes, but it also says something about musical composition and thought independent of the computer. It is as compact an expression of a human musical idea as one could imagine.

I recommend reading the whole blog post (and following the blog for new developments). Embedded in this whole exercise are thoughts about musical algorithms, the history of chip and 8-bit music and the demoscene, and, most interestingly, the question of whether digital music might yet yield “new” (or at least largely unknown) discoveries:

Hasn’t this been done before?

We’ve had the technology for all this for decades. People have been building musical circuits that operate on digital logic, creating short pieces of software that output music, experimenting with chaotic audiovisual programs and trying out various algorithms for musical composition. Mathematical theory of music has a history of over two millennia. Based on this, I find it quite mind-boggling that I have never before encountered anything similar to our discoveries despite my very long interest in computing and algorithmic sound synthesis. I’ve made some Google Scholar searches for related papers but haven’t find anything. Still, I’m quite sure that at many individuals have come up with these formulas before, but, for some reason, their discoveries remained in obscurity.

Algorithmic symphonies from one line of code — how and why? [countercomplex]

But can you dance to it?

Matt Ganucheau contributed to this story from San Francisco.

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Writing code for music may still seem a remote notion to the vast majority of even geekier digital musicians, but as exemplified by the language Overtone, it looks very different than coding once did. Whereas sound code was once a type-and-render affair, new coding environments focus on live coding. They use elegant, lightweight modern languages that take up less space. And they can be surprisingly musical, coming remarkably close to just typing “play a c major chord.”

Not to say that you won’t look plenty geeky doing it — but, hey, if you can’t impress slash frighten your friends a little…

Using a brew of powerful free and open source tools, all available via GitHub and running here on the Mac (though any OS will work), contributor Sam Aaron walks through the program at top and demonstrates some musical examples. After the jump, a much longer screencast walks you through how to get up and running with the emacs text editor for live coding.

Key ingredients:
overtone @ github
emacs live coding @ github
supercollider for sound production
clojure, the language, modern dialect of lisp

Features, as described by the creators:

Overtone is a toolkit for creating synthesizers and making music. It provides:

  • a Clojure API to the SuperCollider synthesis engine
  • a growing library of musical functions (scales, chords, rhythms, arpeggiators, etc.)
  • metronome and timing system to support live-coding and sequencing
  • plug and play midi device I/O
  • simple Open Sound Control (OSC) message handling

Note the MIDI support — code, like many other things on the computer, isn’t very tangible. But you can quickly go to MIDI or OSC for some hands-on control of what you’re making. I have to say, some of this is quite a lot easier and less abstract than what you see in a Max/Pd-style environment. We’re blessed to have such choices in music making. Let us know if you try it out.

More videos and screencasts from this Cambridge-based artist:
Sam Aaron on Vimeo
http://twitter.com/samaaron

CDM’s Matt Ganucheau contributed to this story in San Francisco.

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You may have seen it already as it makes its viral rounds, but an advertising video for Japanese mobile giant NTT Docomo is a poetic model of how musical events are encoded, whether through means tangible or digital.

A track of pitches makes a wooden ball into a mallet, traversing a track as it is driven by gravity. The keys of that track become a xylophone, the traversal of space sequencing notes in time, and you hear Bach Cantata 147, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” While there’s a clever take on a trill, the only disappointment is that we don’t get polyphony – I’ll let you work out the Rube Goldberg-style machination necessary to make that happen. This being Bach, though, a single line itself contains contrapuntal motion and sounds just beautiful on its own.

But it’s also remarkable how the idea of Bach, the essence of the musical information, can be so neatly encoded in a simple machine. Computing, after all, owes its very existence to tangible, mechanical constructions first developed for textile manufacture. We get punchcards because these devices were built for automated clothing makers, containing logic in mechanical form. MIDI is often derided for being simplistic, but in that same simplicity is the elegance with which we can store a musical idea – a simple representation of relative pitch in time is often enough. And whatever the source, there is a relationship, as in this video, between the simple stored event and the complex sound that can result once triggered by that event.

As you watch the track extended through the forest, you also see the way in which a single melody line is spatial. There, against a forest, there’s a wonderful sense of the conceptual against the organic, artificial thought against a deeper universe.

Oh, and, uh, you’re supposed to by a phone or something, but I’ll ignore that part since most of us aren’t even in a part of the world that’s getting the phone.

It is, however, all real. Filmed in Kyushu, Japan, it’s the work of acclaimed director Morihiro Harano, who insisted on doing all of this record in the field. In fact, it’s too bad we don’t know more about the recording, as that in itself is a story — and requires careful balancing of natural sounds to create the final mix. There’s more information in a lovely blog post by Lia Miller, for The New York Times:
Doe, Xylophone, Cellphone

Also, great headline. A doe’s a deer, a female deer, right?

While not the intent of the ad, I know I’ll return to this image the next time I’m reflecting on encoding music, scores, time, and space. And maybe I’ll be fortunate to do so in the woods.

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Jim Guthrie was a rockstar long before the iPad was. Paired with pixel-intense artist Craig D. Adams (aka Superbrothers) and the co-design and coding effort of a crack team of video game “wizards” at the indie studio capy, he’s made a soundtrack that’s destined to be a gaming classic. But if you don’t want to play it, you can still listen to it. And if you’re playing it, you may find that it feels as though you’re listening to it, and gazing into its artwork.

From the moment you tap to launch it, Swords & Sworcery plunges you into a world that’s part game, part interactive album. Yes, there’s the obvious presence of a spinning vinyl record you can scratch and brake, right there on the title screen. And yes, there’s the conspicuous “EP” in the title, or the just-released LP (a real LP, on digital but also now sold out on vinyl).

But it’s once you navigate the expansive digital forests of the title, once Jim Guthrie’s moody soundtrack taps away at your brain, that you begin to get it. Sword & Sworcery will certainly get the dreaded (or is that coveted?) “arty” title, but it’s the way in which it spins out audiovisual entertainment that makes it special.

It’s pure aesthetic deliciousness, a brew that makes your head buzz.

And it’s finding that aesthetic sense – neither retro nor modern, neither low-fidelity nor slick – that makes this title relevant beyond even the world of gaming. Jim Guthrie’s songs and the lush pixel art graphics are the perfect fusion of old and new. It’s telling that Guthrie himself crafts his tracks in a combination of a PlayStation music game (MTV-branded, no less), GarageBand, and then high-end Universal Audio plug-ins. (See video above, and have fun gear-spotting familiar toys through the jump cuts.) It’s sort of studio garage, in the way digital music can be now. Its unabashedly synthetic instrumentation gives voice to a generation that grew up with computer-produced music. The musical score itself sometimes nods to Philip Glass, sometimes to punk rock, very often a mixed-up, intimate fantasy folk cinema, with sounds both shiny and flat.

Composer Jim Guthrie.

But happily, this isn’t just a game with a clever soundtrack, or a release of game music. It’s a real fusion of album and game, music and visuals. And, lest we get to carried away with the Art label – capital a – music and game alike are good fun.

CDM managed to pry co-creators Craig D. Adams and Jim Guthrie from an adoring gaming press long enough to talk to us in depth about the making of the music and release, down to every last technical and artistic detail. They said so much – and crossed two media so completely – that I’ve broken up their ideas into two stories, across Create Digital Music and Create Digital Motion. Their reasoning for committing to those two media has a lot in common, I think, with why we run these two sites and why a lot of you read and contribute to them.

Out now: both an LP music release on Bandcamp and iPad version. Coming this month: recent-gen iPod touch and iPhone versions of the game, too.

Jim Guthrie: Sword & Sworcery LP – The Ballad of the Space Babies @ Bandcamp
http://www.swordandsworcery.com/project/

Let’s begin with the notion of this as musical-visual collaboration. Obviously, some of our favorite game experiences have used music effectively. What’s different about this project?

Craig:The iPhone & iPod Touch, and the iPad to some extent, don’t have an input style that lends itself to precise inputs. So, it seems to me that a lot of traditional video games seem to fall a bit flat on these platforms. The thing is, these machines are great music and video players, so we knew going in that we wanted to make something that was as open and as laid-back as a record-listening experience matched with a naturalistic visual presentation inspired by film, so that was really the starting point. We also felt that a more relaxed, more occasional, less punishing, more interesting experience would be a better fit, something that was closer in pace to browsing the Internet or whatever. Early on we were calling S:S&S EP “a brave experiment in Input Output Cinema.” I/O Cinema is kind of an intentionally absurd nonsense buzzword but I think it’s perfectly apt for this type of entertainment, it’s a heckuva lot more descriptive than ‘videogame’ anyways, in that it gets away from the idea of a program with rules and win/lose conditions and it puts the focus more on the conversation the audience has with the creators while the audience pokes, prods & problem-solves an authored audiovisual creation.

How did you work together, Superbrothers and Jim, to combine music and visually? What was that collaboration like?

Craig: When we looped Jim into the project in we told him the name, described the aesthetic, talked a bit about The Legend of Zelda & Castlevania, and then Jim dug around and found a few songs he thought might fit. I went ahead and tried to generate art & narrative concepts using Jim’s songs or else stand-ins to set the mood. As we started to mix things together we’d evaluate, iterate & improvise. Eventually we’d get into situations where me and Kris, Capy’s creative director and co-designer on S:S&S EP, would have a plan for an environment or a scene or a situation, and we’d get the art & the mechanics together and then pass along a rough build to Jim with some kind of suggestion like ‘go John Carpenter on this one’ or whatever, and then Jim’d work his magic, filter the concept through his music-making mind and barf up something totally beautiful & shockingly perfect. So yeah, it was a messy process, but towards the end we kind of got a feel for it, I think it all worked out super well.

Jim: It wasn’t always clear if the art needed to inspire more music or the other way around, but it was a very necessary process considering the relation the two elements share in the game.

Jim Guthrie’s music studio. Photos courtesy the artist.

Technically speaking, is there anything unique to the way the music integrates with game play? How did you approach the technical challenge there, in other words?

Craig: For the music integration aspect, we really just made things up as we went along. We tried some things; some of them worked, some of them didn’t. Then we’d iterate on them or revise them as necessary. We tried chopping things up into a million loops and then stringing them back together with logic, and it kind worked, but was kinda rough, so then we’d revise it or refine it. Eventually we started to figure out a bit of a groove – we learned what the limits were with the machines & the quirks of fMOD [the game sound engine]. We’re a whole lot wiser now, but I think it was a positive thing going into something like this a bit naive.

Jim: Technically, there’s nothing in this game that hasn’t been done before. We sort of ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’ and made it our own. It’s more about the mood and atmosphere that the music and art create that is special. Like Craig said, we made things up as we went.

From the beginning, we knew it was very possible that this would be released digitally as an album, but it wasn’t until a little later on that the idea of vinyl struck us as a good idea. You would think it was all planned from the beginning considering how often the image of the record appears in the game but it sort of willed itself in that direction over time.

It’s always tough to describe the process of summoning one’s art. After we had sort of figured out what the first few tracks were going to be, I just let Craig’s art and ideas lead the way and I reacted. It also really comes down to knowing your craft and what tools you use to create with. Once you figure that out the tools don’t get in the way when you’re hot on the trail of a fleeting melody. There’s noting worse than loosing that spark because a technical issue. Computers have robbed me of so many musical sparks, but to be fair, they have given it back tenfold.

I will give into the temptation to ask one obvious question – what does it mean that it’s an EP? Obviously, it’s a reference to the notion of a game release as being akin in some way to an album, but anything beyond that you wish to say?

Craig:The EP concept goes back to the start of the project – we wanted to put the sound component right out front. We wanted the whole project to feel like a musical composition, and at first we wanted to make something small and acknowledge that this was a tentative first release by a new videogame ‘band.’ The project grew from ther,e and it goes well beyond the 37 minute running-time we had originally envisioned, but everything else fits.

We had always planned to prepare a record release to accompany the project and when the time came to commit to this we basically had to make a vinyl edition, and Jim basically just put that into gear on his own… so that became Jim Guthrie’s Sword & Sworcery LP – The Ballad of the Space Babies. While the record is a smaller component of the project in terms of man-hours, the music on its own is kind of larger than the art and the story we tried to create in the actual videogame, so I think it’s kind of perfect that it’s the LP.

Jim, the music really has a quirky personality all its own, and I think it’d be too easy to describe it aesthetically. How did you approach scoring the music, in finding a voice for this title?

Craig: Several of Jim’s songs pre-date the project, so they informed the aesthetic & concepts from the start. My role early on was to translate the music into artwork & narrative that would fit the general idea of the project. But yeah, beyond that I’ll let Jim fill in the blanks here!


What’s the production process like for the music itself?

Jim: I captured all of the music either on a PlayStation using MTV’s Music Generator and/or
[Apple] GarageBand. For example, on the song, ‘Lone Star,’ I drummed a beat onto a cassette four-track, burned that onto a CD, placed the CD into the PlayStation, sampled and looped in MTV Music Generator,
and then built a song around it using that software. THEN I brought it into GarageBand and added more layers and effects. I also used a [Casio] SK-1 peppered throughout. In terms of plug-ins and soft synths, I used a lot of the Arturia stuff, [Native Instruments] Kontakt, [XLN Audio] Addictive Drums, [Toontracks] Superior Drummer, and a [Universal Audio] UAD-2 card loaded with a bunch of their processing plug-ins.

Not all games are narrative, and I’ve never found conventional narrative to be a prerequisite to art (cough, Ebert). But there is a strong narrative aspect to this title, too. How do you go about telling a story and building a game mechanic at once? (And, for that matter, do you still scrawl things on index cards to get there?)

Craig: It’s funny, we are getting some positive responses to S:S&S EP’s narrative, but really, the narrative only exists to make sense of the player’s experience; it’s not exactly ‘the point.’ We started with the songs, then the art, then the mechanics that would bring it together. And while the broad narrative concepts were always there, it was only in the final stages that the script came together, and really it’s just a way for us to help communicate what’s supposed to be going on. I was on the line to write the script, and for a good long while, it kinda sucked while I was buried under art, sound & design tasks, but I kept iterating on it, editing it for brevity, clarity, and humor, with Jim and Kris and a few others kinda guiding the process.

So yeah, I guess we did some okay things with narrative, and I’m actually super-proud of the mind-fuck tear-jerker heart-breaker finale, but I think the only reason any of it comes across is because of Jim’s music wrapped up in paintings. And really, Jim’s songs are all the narrative I ever wanted.

Now that you’ve become gaming rockstars, what’s next?

Jim: A bottle of vodka?

Craig: Hahahaha… Jim’s already a rockstar, so this stuff is probably old news. I think we’re definitely enjoying our fifteen minutes of fame in this very specific niche, and I’ve been trying – maybe too hard – to keep that buzz going so the project stays visible as we gear up for the all-important iPhone & iPod Touch launch. Once all that’s out of the way, I’m really just looking forward to some quiet time: bike rides, swimming, hiking, and whatever else.

We’ll keep the Sword & Sworcery project rolling along in the background too. We have plans for a gala event here in Toronto in a few months and some other schemes related to the app itself that’ll last the year & maybe into next year. We’ve been given a real opportunity here & we want to continue to honor that.

What are you excited about in gaming – or, for that matter, audiovisual work – at the moment, beyond your own work? Anything you’re listening to, watching, playing (or all three) at the moment?

Jim: Honestly, I went into my iTunes to have a look at my ‘Recently Played’ list and for as far as the eye could see, it’s all stuff I’m working on. No time for art! Just work!

Craig: I’ve been too busy and too exhausted to be paying much attention to what’s happening out there in videogames, film or music. To be honest, what I’m most excited about right now is the prospect of getting some fresh air and some exercise, maybe getting away from electronic screens for a bit sometime, and then after a little break maybe starting on some new creative work.

I had the opportunity to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in theaters a few months ago. I’d seen it a few times before but only on VHS… so that was a real treat, it’s an entirely different film in the theaters, there’s so much more to enjoy. I’m also a huuuge fan of Kanye West’s “Runaway.” I think that’s a genuinely incredible piece of audiovisual work; Vanessa Beecroft’s art direction really shines. Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop and James Cameron’s Avatar blew me away too, for entirely different reasons. I’ve just recently seen my friend Firas Momani’s Fantasia Festival award-winning short film The Adder’s Bite & it gave me all those groovy Cronenberg + Lynch + Kubrick feelings, very inspiring.

On the video game side I’m still intermittently playing Motorstorm: Pacific Rift for PS3, a 2008 effort from Liverpool’s Evolution Studios that I think is basically perfect, plus I’m digging in to Monster Hunter Tri on Wii. I’m playing Monster Hunter co-operatively with a couple friends every Sunday morning… we’re still just scratching the surface but it’s easily the most intricate and deep video game I’ve ever played, which takes me way outside of my comfort zone in an interesting way. I’m also cautiously optimistic about L.A. Noire, Uncharted 3, and The Last Guardian… we’ll see how they work out in the end.

On the music side, I’ve been listening to Jim’s Sword & Sworcery LP… even though I’ve heard these tunes so much in the last two years that my ears hurt, the record itself still comes across as beautiful & fresh, the songs still evoke all kinds of imaginings. That record aside I’ve got a heckuva lot of catching up to do… but first I have to give my ears a bit of a break. That said, I’m amped for the Beastie Boys record that’s hitting in the next little while.

All images courtesy Superbrothers and Jim Guthrie. Used with permission.

Do let us know what you think of the game, folks – or whatever audiovisual creations, in the form of games or otherwise, inspire you.

More on the art, the design, the coding – and why Superbrothers went iOS-only.

On our sister site:
Inside Handheld Game Art: The Art Style and Making of Swords & Sworcery, Superbrothers Pixel Cinema [Create Digital Motion]

And, oh yeah, don’t forget to get the game:
http://www.swordandsworcery.com/

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Algorithms are Thoughts, Chainsaws are Tools from Stephen Ramsay on Vimeo.

In an extended video that begins with Radio City’s Rockettes and kettle drum players, Stephen Ramsay explains a litany of technology’s most elusive topics, in terms anyone could understand — no, really. I dare you to ask anyone to watch a few clips of this video, regardless of whether they’re regular readers of this site. Secrets such as why the programming language Lisp inspires religious devotion, or how someone in their right mind would ever consider programming onstage as a form of musical performance, represent the sort of geekery that would seem to be the domain of an elite. But in the dry deadpan of this Professor of English, those mysteries actually begin to dissolve.

I love the title: “Algorithms are Thoughts, Chainsaws are Tools.”

I doubt very seriously that live coding is the right performance medium for all computer musicians. (I expect I’ve occasionally made people wince with a couple of lines of code in a workshop example; I shudder to think of scripting in front of an audience. I’d probably be less disastrous at stand-up comedy.) But Ramsay reveals what live coding music is. It’s compositional improvisation, and code simply lays bare the workings of the compositional mind as that process unfolds. Not everyone will understand the precise meaning of what they see, but there’s an intuitive intimacy to the odd sight of watching someone type code. It’s honest; there’s no curtain between you and the wizard.

That should be a revelation about other computer music performance instruments, even the MPC. They, too, bring in elements that are as compositional as they are about performance (though the MPC has the unique power to be both at the same time). And sometimes, it’s seeing the naked skeleton of that process that allows audiences back into the performance.

The live-coding composer in question is Andrew Sorensen, who has live-coded an orchestra and does, indeed, also use samplers in the tradition of Akai. Whether you do it in front of an audience or not, you can try his gorgeous Impromptu music language, among other tools.

If you’re messing with code at all, even just to make an occasional bleep in Csound or picture in Processing, it’s worth watching Stephen’s videos. In fact, if you compose at all, it might be worth watching. (See also his reflections on writing, programming, and algorithm.) After all, even someone strumming out a tune on an acoustic guitar and scratching the results on paper is using some sorts of algorithms.

This video has been out for a few months, but I sometimes wonder how we got into the business with blogs of posting stories with expiration dates in the hours. It’s like buying milk in Manhattan.

Thanks to Philip Age for the tip.

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