Behind the VR music


Behind the VR music

Tom Rae Smith composed the soundtrack for the VR films. He talks about his influences and thinking process. The VR films are open to the public from Thursday 7th - Sunday 10th September. 


As an electronic composer, Turing's work and ideas have profoundly influenced my own, so I wanted to make the music accompanying his monologue reflect those ideas. My contribution here is quite a small one, but I ended up thinking quite a lot about it. What he is saying in this passage, for me, rang a lot of bells with the musical genre of Minimalism (which can be heard in the work of composers like Steve Reich). This genre, which a lot of my work sits near, is based on the idea of tiny musical gestures being repeated and developed according to rule-based patterns to create complex interactions. Music in this genre often sounds very busy and active, so the name "Minimalist" might feel inappropriate, but the name relates to the small original piece of data, and the cleanness of the rule-sets by which it's turned into something larger. More complex products emerge which might seem chaotic and random but are, in fact, born of the interation of simple logical structures. Of course it's not completely sterile - the composer injects their humanity in the creation of the rules, and a degree of cheating is sometimes allowed for artistic effect. Each composer makes their own decision how much they want to break their own rules, and for myself, I don't want to make my music only for people with degrees in it, so I'm comfortable with a fair degree of sculpting and shaping.

The idea of tiny original elements developed through repetition is of course central to much electronic dance music, and this connection with minimalism is cited in the literature too: The Orb's track "Little Fluffy Clouds", which appears on the seminal ambient house record The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, uses as its main sample an extract from Reich.

Some composers want you to know what the rule is they're exploring, and I feel that Reich's work functions better if you know what he's playing with; some composers want you to know that there are rules and be trying to guess them. This comes across into dance music too. A particular example is the amazing drum and bass of Venetian Snares; the album Cavalcade of Glee and Dadaist Happy Hardcore Pom Poms uses unusual, shifting and irregular time signatures which become more fun, more immersive and consuming, once you start trying to count them. (If you're going to listen to his work, you really need to listen to the unpronouncable Hungarian-titled album, Rossz Csillag Alatt Született, or just the track Hajnal, which is, I think, stunning, and a pretty good introduction to the guy's work). Sometimes I put these kind of games into my music for people who are looking for them, but mostly I want it to work for someone who has just picked it up and doesn't know anything about any rules they're supposed to be looking for.

This whole genre, or succession of genres, from Reich and before him, right up to and including Happy Hardcore, is driven by ideas which are at the least related to the ones Turing was thinking about. And virtually all modern musicians, even outside electronic music, will at some stage in their career depend upon the computer.

I wanted to make the music underlying Turing's monologue reflect the ideas in the text, so I composed it using rule-based patterns to generate the material. Another benefit of doing that is that, because my direct influence in the piece is mediated through this mechanism, the piece becomes cleaner, less figurative, more abstract. This works well in music supporting something more important, in this case the text: I don't want a melody which is going to distract, I want to support the meaning already present.

What I've done here is take two really simple mechanisms and multiply them out against each other, so that something driven by very clean rules ends up sounding chaotic and complex; like he said about the tree. It's all based on a scale of C, minus the 3rd note (the E) and the 6th (the A) which are the notes which show you whether it's a major or minor scale. So it should be an ambiguous C major/minor tonality, except that the C feels like a lead-in note to the D, which ends up feeling like the root note of the whole piece, to me at any rate. Except that here again the A is absent, but the G and B are present, so if we were in D major, we'd be lacking the dominant with the 4th and 6th emphasised, which is, in fact, the triad chord of G Major. The F from the original scale of C is present which means we're not in G major either though. What all this gobbledegook means is that even in the tonality, the feel of the harmony, there is a fundamental ambiguity between what is objectively present and what is subjectively there. There is a superficially apparent tonality but we are really in a different key altogether.

Of course this context of layers, hidden realities, shifting relationships relates to the nature of Turing's life, both personal and professional.

That modified scale is revealed using a simple pattern: first you hear the first two notes of the scale, then the first three, then the first four and so on. You can represent it numerically: 12, 123, 1234, 12345, 123456 etc. This expands until the scale covers four octaves, and then it starts to contract from the bottom up, so that eventually you're hearing 12345678, 2345678, 345678, 45678, 5678, 678, 78.

This is a linear addition, +1 each time (then -1 each time), but by resetting the pattern each time, in repetition it produces a curve. I'm not a mathematician so I couldn't tell you whether it's a Fibonacci curve but that rang a bell for me.

Each monophonic (which means one note, no chords, like a single human voice) line in this piece is generated according to the above rules, the bass and the melodic layers. Complexity is created by layering those lines. A new voice is added each bar, which makes a constantly changing rhythmic interaction, because the lines themselves immediately lose contact with any time signature, since they expand each repetition. But the addition of a new layer starting each bar implicitly pulls back to regularity, albeit that in the mobility and density of the texture, this is not very perceptible.

The bass is not as heavily layered, because it's a thick sound already; and the notes are one bar long each, rather than one sixteenth, so much less of the pattern is revealed, but it is the same pattern. And then there are a few occasions where various elements of the piece were sculpted a bit; there is a short intro and an outro to the melody which are outside the rule-sets described above. Each has its own rule, but their presence is a little cheat. And the reason the second melody, the inverted line, appears when it does, is based on the content of the text rather than a rule.

So it's all concealed, complex, something other, and yet I don't think it feels alien or threatening, I think if feels quite nice. It's not quite what it appears to be and that's fine. Whilst making it as mathematically-driven as I could manage, I wanted it to feel nice, rather than threatening. Given that this is a trial which led to a good man's death, I felt that I couldn't depict it in a major key; but I also didn't want to make this, by extension him, feel sinister or threatening or sad. More, lost in his own world. That's why it is those notes which were omitted from the scale, the notes that make it major or minor; so that fundamentally, this piece is clean, neutral, free, and any major or minor tonality that is perceived derives from your interpretation.

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