Some of the systems art of the late 1960s and early 1970s—for example, Sol LeWitt’s modular lattice sculptures or Mel Bochner’s number grids—embodied a certain regularity of form. A systematic regularity, one might say. A basic element might be repeated at constant intervals or an input sequence subjected to a defined operation. By contrast, some other systemic artworks—integral serialist compositions, for example–produced surfaces of unpredictable, irregularly occurring events from an underlying set of rules. In either case the systems generating the artworks featured a certain autonomy requiring little or no ongoing oversight from the artist. Chvad SB’s Phenomenalism Cartesian Doubt and Bomb #20, a long piece for modular synthesizer, leverages carefully crafted feedback loops into a soundwork that essentially plays itself.
With its collection of fragmentary musical gestures, Phenomenalism sounds something like the pointillist serial works of the mid-20th century—it’s possible to hear in it a refigured echo of Milton Babbitt’s compositions for the RCA Mark II synthesizer of the early 1960s, for example. Like those compositions, Phenomenalism aggregates individual pitch sequences and timbres into a kaleidoscopic sound of playful unpredictability. Also like those compositions, the pleasure of the surface sounds requires no knowledge of the systems underlying them.
Caroline Park: RIM [vuzh 047]
Caroline Park’s RIM, a new EP released on the Vuzh netlabel, presents two works exemplifying a generative or systems approach to sound art. Both pieces take minimal initial input material and subject it to controlled or semi-controlled processes, the result of which is a complex output.
The first track, we can be what they are doing, feeds in a brief sample of a viola to a layered system of delays. The output is an overlap of sounds varying in length and tonal complexity, which in turn are fed back into the system for further processing and reprocessing. The reiteration of these more or less fixed processes gives way to semi-chaotic results. The second track, Live at Studio Soto, takes several pitch sets generated by sine wave oscillators and runs them through structured combinatorial operations. In both tracks the layering of transformative processes creates a rich, shimmering weave of converging and diverging harmonies, pitch shifts and variable dynamics, the cumulative aural pattern of which is highly convoluted. Yet there are moments of transparency when the source material is laid bare.
Although both pieces’ compositional focus is on process this isn’t to the detriment of the end results, which are pleasing in their own right. Park’s iterative structures are designed to generate relationships between specifically audible elements, and in the end it is precisely the sound that remains with us. Thus RIM shows that a systems aesthetic can be sensually appealing as well as conceptually compelling.