ci unc

ci unc is the first in what’s planned as a series of cloud pieces. It’s short for cirrus uncinus, the kind of whispy cloud you see high up in the sky usually on a fine day (but actually probably means rain’s on the way). This one’s for shakuhachi (that’s me playing) and the processing’s done in Supercollider. Here I’m sampling myself playing, using a foot-pedal to trigger live capture of the shakuhachi sound. I’m improvising, essentially, but according to a broad pre-planned structure. The processing is a combination of different kinds of granulation, Fourier transform-based spectral freezing, microlooping, high-pass and low-pass filtering (to playback more of either the breath sound, or more of the fundamental), and resonant filters fed by the granulation to create sustained resonances in the later half of the piece. These resonators are a little bit ‘broken’, in that they’re trying to pick-out specific partials in the spectrum of the granulator output signals, but the resolution of their pitch estimation is quite broad, so some of them sound just ‘off’ the partial they’re trying to hit. I like this idea of sound machines that are a bit ‘broken’, that misbehave in respect of their intended function.

The layers of processing types are each spatialised into an enveloping ambisonic ‘sphere’ around the listener; in the recording presented here, this is converted to binaural format suitable for headphone listening.

As the piece progresses, I’m sampling my playing from time to time and building up what amounts to a library of up to 50 samples, each of up to 10 seconds in length, from which the sound processing devices draw their input. Once I reach the limit of 50 samples, which happens a few times in this recording, the whole library is erased and the collecting of samples starts again from scratch. In this way the soundworld of the piece is reset from time to time. The combination of types of processing used at any given moment is determined by a pre-ordained structure over the c. 13 minute duration.

This piece is an early step in a bigger research process aimed at building more adaptive spatial improvisation frameworks that modify themselves dynamically to the material being played or to the prevailing sonic context. This is underpinned by an interest in interrogating the ways in which spatial sound processing can create an environment for exploring agency within ensemble playing. More on this anon. For now, ci unc sets up a basic framework for structuring and ordering spatial processing parameters; it was basically an exercise in whether I could make something useful in Supercollider, not really having used the platform in earnest before.

The piece is also partly an exploration of tailoring of live processing to my way of improvising with the shakuhachi, which extends some of the conventions of gesture, timbral inflection and patterning found in the traditional solo honkyoku repertoire (the sometimes austere but very beautiful solo repertoire that has its origins in the Fuke sect of zen buddhism). When I’m improvising, I’m often playing around with these elements, modifying and reframing them for my own ends. To an extent, the design of the processing is led by that kind of reconfiguration of honkyoku-derived elements.

At a broader level, the piece is also a simple reflective meditation on the whisps and curls of cirrus clouds hanging, silently, seemingly immobile, against the blue sky.

Photo by Cheung Yin on Unsplash