Brown Thoughts

Brown Thoughts

John Baez

Click the box to download Brown Thoughts, a piece of music I made using Greg Egan's QuasiMusic program, which translates quasicrystals into sound.

In this piece completely resisted my usual urge to break time translation invariance by applying transforms with explicit time dependence, except for fading in the piece at the beginning and fading it out at the end. So, every piece of this music is a lot like every other, though like a quasicrystal it never exactly repeats itself. It explores a limited space.

This can easily be a bit dull — but instead of fighting that, I decided to go with the flow, and aim for the mood they call 'brown study'.

I started with Demo 4 on the QuasiMusic program, which features a harp sound. I switched the notes to a small set of fairly low notes taken from a minor key with one extra note thrown in: C, C#, D#, E, F, and G#, or something like that. I split the stereo track and time-shifted the right track a bit so it comes a bit after the left one. I moved both tracks a bit towards the middle of the acoustic field, so you don't hear them solely with one ear if listening with headphones: the effect would be too extreme otherwise.

Then I used Audacity's 'Gverb' filter to make a highly reverbed version of one of these tracks, and put it in the middle of the acoustic field. So, at this point you'd hear a harp note in one ear, then the other, then vague echoes in the middle.

Then I made a copy of this reverb track, time-shifted so it enters later, and put at the extreme left.

Then I made another copy of this reverb track, shifted the pitch down a minor third, and moved it to the right. I time-shifted so it enters between the other two reverb tracks.

Then I took the QuasiMusic setup I had and turned most the tiles white, so only a few play sounds. Most of the remaining tiles I changed from harp to acoustic bass. I transposed some of them an octave down, to make sure they were all suitably low and bass-like. I hit 'rewind' and recorded this new track, then attempted to align it perfectly with the first harp part.

But I'd already noticed that sometimes the program would stop for a second or two and just sit there silently! This is death to any ordinary music, but not avant-garde stuff that's supposed to sound weird. I tried to cut and add snippets of silence to and from the bass track to make it line up with the harp track, but it was hard to do perfectly so I soon gave up.

So, the bass and harp drift in and out of synchrony. And since the bass part is just a subset of the harp part, and there are all these time-shifted echoes running around, it's very hard for me to mentally keep track of exactly what's happening as I listen to it, even though I created it.

The end result is rather somber and 'brown' — but there's enough going on that when you bother to pay attention, it's poised at the edge between predictability and unpredictability. But don't feel the need to pay attention! It should serve as 'music for thinking'.
December 31, 2012

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

more music