Piano:Forest

for piano and live data

An impressive combination of both a tech and data sublime, Piano:Forest is overwhelming in its multilevel sound
design. The performers become both arch pagans and number-crunchers at GCHQ, and even then, the force
of Piano:Forest takes over‘.

Emily Bick, The Wire online, March 2015. Full review here

Mike McInerney – piano
Shaun Lewin – live data
Richard Douglas-Green – sound projection

One impulse that has often found expression within musical forms is the desire to create simulacra of phenomena that would otherwise remain resolutely external to culture. From Olivier Messiaen to medieval Chinese musicians, composers have drawn inspiration from birdsong and, on a more general level, the use of music to describe the affective response of humans to landscape is extremely common. This drive to render nature intelligible is shared with the physical sciences; science renders nature intelligible through parameterisation and the reductive modelling of an incomprehensibly fractal reality.

With the development of magnetic and digital recording technologies, the emulation and study of natural phenomena ceased to be purely a matter of human cognition. Data captured from natural processes can now transcribed directly into an archive of knowledge without any human intermediary. This practice has proved to be immensely profitable for music. For composition, large scale organic data matrices have provided new sets of source materials. In performance, the ability to capture data from a live performer and use this information as compositional material has transformed the relationship between the performer’s actions as input and the output experienced by the listener.

While the Romantic artist of 18th or 19thcentury might engage with the idea of a Sublime that is immanent to nature, today we read nature through a palimpsest of mobile computing, infographics and real time streaming simulations. In these conditions, ‘nature’ becomes a hybrid phenomenon experienced through the twin channels of sense and simulation.  In keeping with the Romantic spirit, Piano:Forest uses the scientifically dubious ‘St Michael line’, which, according to the Earth Mysteries scholar John Michell, runs the length of the  Southwest of England (and beyond), as a transect to audit woodland biodiversity recorded by Natural England. This data is then analysed using geospatial software to generate a video score.

Ecosystem:

Piano:Forest is a collection of movements for piano and live data which express woodland diversity through a vocabulary of piano, field recording playback and live sampling.

The live piano material engages with the changes in woodland composition along the route of the leyline by applying its patterns to the performance parameters of tessitura, median pitch (or pitches), density (number of notes per second), duration, amplitude and chord formation. Tonally, the performance maps the humanisation of nature against the relative complexity of musical scales, employing  a meta-scale from stable pentatonicism to wild chromaticism as a measure of the degree to which parts of nature might be most readily assimilated by human cultures – either as productive landscape or as cognitive model .

The field recordings used in the performance act both as a form of habitat foley and as a percussive commentary on the piece, marking changes in the landscape. Once the initial data collection phase of the project was completed, it became clear that birds and insects were key components in the arboreal soundworld. In keeping with the hip hop tradition of sampling as quotation, the source material is largely unaltered, an ornithologist or entomologist should be able to recognise all of species involved in this performance (It would be particularly impressive if any botanist could recognise the tree species).

The synthesis of these elements and their playback into the auditorium constitutes the primary production of the Piano:Forest ecosystem. As with all stable ecosystems, Piano:Forest recycles its primary production, some material being retained as structural biomass, some returning to the ground as a highly consolidated material and some becoming highly disaggregated sound particles that will be gradually leached out of the system. This recycling of material uses live data capture technologies to record both audio material and abstractions of pitch and timing. The data capture applies patterns within the score to the performance parameters of buffer length, granularity, number of voices, stability, timestretching and playback speed.

Forest structure:

Piano:Forest investigates the spatial patterns that structure forest ecosystems. Associated with this investigation of spatial patterning is a consideration of scale and fractal similarity at different scales. The concept of forest is ontologically unstable, being exceeded both by the perspective of an aphid who can only perceive a cluster of leaves and by the perspective of the global economy which perceives forest as isolated fragments of wooded land.

Piano:Forest deliberately exploits scale based variation in natural phenomena, with sections of the score traversing this continua between the highly systematised world of orbital surveillance systems, the pentatonic tonality of the human scale and the overtone saturated, melodically and harmonically dense leafscape of insects. With regard to the live data capture, the orbital scale is described through the use of highly stable structures composed of few isolated elements; as the score plunges towards microscopic scales, the data becomes less stable, more timbrally complex and develops shorter buffer lengths.

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