Chaos Theory And Music

A creator wrote to the research team:
For my senior project, I wanted to see if one could use the Chaos Game to compose music, using the coordinates of notes on a 12-tone Matrix as it’s vertices, and then finding other ways of determining it’s magnification/compression factor, etc.

Your ideas about the connection between music and Chaos Theory are amazing, and I haven’t found many other people who do research on the topic. I would love to hear your ideas or input, and if you know of any resources I could look into, I’d greatly appreciate it!


We replied…

Dear Birdie,

Thank you for your inquiry.

Your idea sounds very interesting and worth pursuing.

Here is an article that is somewhat related:

For some musicians, the link between persona and material is as short as a wick. With Taylor Swift or Frank Sinatra, songs and singer line up and suggest a single human being, with the music presented as evidence of lived experience. Other musicians, like actors, create things that bear little relation to what they do offstage. The composer William Basinski falls into this second category. His work resonates with his name—it’s severe and Eastern European, a body of intense and grave music. But Basinski is Billy to his friends, an unshakably cheerful man who seems more like a retired surfer than like a composer. In September, when Basinski performed a version of his forthcoming release, “Cascade,” on the grounds of Olana, the historic home of Frederic Edwin Church, in upstate New York, he showed up in a white raincoat, a black leather cowboy hat, and driving gloves. As mist scrolled over the Hudson, above the bluish Catskills, Basinski sipped beer and played a series of mesmerizing piano loops that suggested worlds crumbling and blooming between the notes. He seemed unbothered that the small crowd was eating sandwiches, chatting, and drinking wine.

Raised in Dallas, Basinski studied saxophone and clarinet at the University of North Texas, in Denton, for two years. In the summer of 1978, he ditched school and travelled around Texas to see bands like the Sex Pistols and Television. He became interested in the music of what he calls “three points to a triangle”: John Cage, Steve Reich, and Brian Eno. He met the man who is still his partner, the visual artist James Elaine, and moved to San Francisco on Halloween of the same year. Basinski began buying cheap tape recorders and creating the work that sustains him today. He captured the sounds of a rented piano, the inside of his freezer, ambient noises of San Francisco—“the clicking electric buses, the grasshopper legs, and the trolleys creaking,” he says—and made physical loops of this material.

In 1980, Basinski and Elaine moved to a loft in downtown Brooklyn. Over the next few years, Basinski made hundreds of loops, which he organized by hanging them from a tree branch that he kept near his mixing desk. Some loops were made from his own playing, others from accidental noises or from radio-station broadcasts bleeding into his amplifiers and tape decks. Though he didn’t release any music, he was gathering material that he “never could have created with pencil and paper,” he says. “I was getting all this great stuff. It was just coming from the sky.”

In 1989, he and Elaine moved to a loft in Williamsburg that became known as Arcadia. Basinski began to play his loops for people at Arcadia, which got a reputation as a place for others, including Antony Hegarty, later of Antony and the Johnsons, to develop their craft.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2001 that Basinski stumbled into the work that brought him out of obscurity. He had decided to start transferring the loops he’d made in the early eighties to CDs, for posterity. Some of the tapes were in terrible shape, and as Basinski let the loops play they fell apart. Magnetic tape stores information on bits of metal affixed to a ribbon. That metal is the music, and the music was crumbling. Basinski copied as many loops as he could, capitalizing on the changes happening to the sounds as the tapes turned into dust.

On September 11, 2001, Basinski had a job interview with the arts organization Creative Time at the World Trade Center. But from his roof he could see a huge cloud of smoke drifting into Brooklyn from lower Manhattan. Downstairs, he played music as loud as he could, until the “disintegration loops” started. He returned to the roof and began videotaping the clouds of debris at Ground Zero as night fell. When he synched the visual with the disintegration loops, something clicked.

Basinski released “The Disintegration Loops” in four volumes, in 2002 and 2003. Antony called them “the most helpful and useful music I have ever known.” The first loop, officially called “dlp 1.1,” was eventually scored by Maxim Moston, of Antony and the Johnsons, for an orchestra and played in the Temple of Dendur, at the Metropolitan Museum, on the tenth anniversary of September 11th. The loop, which is made from a source Basinski can no longer identify, is a sleepwalking mesh of horns and strings that rises and falls, suggesting neither sadness nor ecstasy but a kind of uneasy limbo. After about twenty minutes, the loop begins to audibly decay, and for the next forty minutes the tape edits itself, introducing gaps and bits of silence that create a lopsided rhythm. As the music dies, it emerges.

Basinski’s music is difficult to classify. Minimalist composers and sampling artists are related, but only somewhat. His loops are being voiced neither by humans—who repeat figures in a way that involves a fairly high level of variation—nor by digital devices like samplers and software programs, which come close to no variation at all. Basinski’s music is based on the flutter in the machine. Digital technology flattened out the analog machine: tape-deck speeds vary, but the speed of iTunes doesn’t. Basinski’s innovation was to step back not a hundred years, and pick up a banjo or a steel guitar, but maybe forty or so years, and find the organic change—the aging, if you will—at the heart of early audio machinery. Basinski’s loops are defined by the fact that machines are always in the process of failing, and that change itself is a form of composition. Like hip-hop producers, who develop sample banks of favored snares and hi-hats from old songs, Basinski has built a career from fragments of thirty-year-old tape.

The changes in his loops are infinitesimal and almost imperceptible, very close to the adjustments a musician might make when repeating a phrase, but slightly more dependable. It’s a loose repetition: a train going across the tracks, the sound of coins dropping into a farebox on a city bus, the flutter of an oscillating fan in summer. Basinski’s music celebrates the decay of the ideal copy. Each successive wobble is a compositional change—it builds up or directs the flow of narrative feeling in a piece. Brian Eno once said that “repetition is a form of change,” but Basinski’s tape loops physically revise that and bring the idea back as “repetition is change.”

I first heard “Cascade,” to be released in March, at Issue Project Room, in Brooklyn, in June. As Basinski played, projections—mostly images of rippling water—made by Elaine fell over him and his equipment. Though “The Disintegration Loops” holds gravitas, it is not his most severe or dark work. That prize might go to “Cascade.”

The main loop is something in a minor key that Basinski played on the piano and then modified. A pair of two-note phrases repeat and are answered by two lower notes, rising. The main section of “Cascade” is that loop, burrowing in and beginning to unfold as it is put through various echo units. At Issue Project Room, Basinski played the first loop from an Apple laptop, which he calls a “third deck.” On either side of the laptop were his most important collaborators: two portable reel-to-reel tape decks. Next to each one was a glass jar with tape loops lying at the bottom. (It is important that the tapes not become crinkled or bent, so Basinski transports “the girls,” as he calls them, in jars or lunchboxes.)

The main “Cascade” loop is followed by another, colder piano loop and then a burst of smeared strings reminiscent of the soundtrack of a bad forties melodrama. Basinski plays these on the tape decks, creating a space that feels increasingly claustrophobic, revealing the unexpected nature of looping. How pretty a loop sounds the first time has no bearing on how you will feel after hearing it for thirty minutes. — The New Yorker

Thank you,
Daniel of the Help Desk

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