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Can complex music be composed with simple algorithms?
Two recent papers by Risto Holopainen discuss algorithmic composition using autonomous systems. The ideas are realised on the new album Kolmogorov Variations.
In these days resarch on algorithms, even in music, is dominated by big data and artificial intelligence. While these advanced techniques may engender fascinating pieces they do so by devouring large corpora of pre-existing music, and they require lots of computation. Kolmogorov Variations instead turn towards the simplicity of hand-written algorithms.
All material, from the level of sound synthesis to large scale form, is the result of programming. Each piece is created by a program whose sole purpose it is to create that piece.
The title refers to Kolmogorov complexity. The complexity of an object is measured by the length of the shortest program that generates a description of that object. The longer the program, the higher the complexity.
In this case the programs' output are soundfiles — raw versions of the Eleven Hard Pieces; the goal being to make the code as short as possible and the music as complex as possible. Often that goal has been foregone in favour of curious experimentation.
The soundfiles were further processed acoustically and by analog eurorack modules. For the acoustic processing the sounds were played through exciters attached to the resonating bodies of instruments.
Garbage Collection, Holopainen's previous album on MERE Records, was awarded the Spellemann prize in 2009. Kolmogorov Variations largely builds on insights from the PhD project Self-organised Sound with Autonomous Instruments (2012). No surprise, then, that two extensive papers accompany this release.
Algorithmic Composition by Autonomous Systems with Multiple Time-Scales (Divergence Press, 2021) takes a tour of autonomous systems and various uses of ordinary differential equations in sound synthesis. The paper proposes an integrated method of algorithmic composition in which all time-scales are described by slow-fast dynamic systems. It also makes an unusual connection between the study of surprise in music psychology, and emergence in complex systems.
Making Complex Music with Simple Algorithms, is it Even Possible? was just published in Revista Vórtex, v.9, n.2, 2021. This shorter paper describes the algorithms in some of the pieces and tries to assess the feasibility of composing complex music with short programs.
The C++ code for all pieces is licenced under GNU GPL v.3, and is available for download. The programs are made available for those who want to recreate and study the compositions.
The album is released on December 14, 2021 on MERE Records, and will be available on most streaming services.