It’s for this experimental film that nobody knows about and which I’m still figuring out what’s going to go in my experimental film.

Hey, look at this thing I made:

Study for Insomnia from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

This is what I spent the last 4 days doing, instead of everything else I should have been doing instead. I’m calling it “Study for Insomnia.”

It began as a demo for artist Cindy Ng 吴少英, whose video work is presented in the same room as my 路口 sound installation at Art+Shanghai (you have until November 1 to see the show, so hurry!). She was asking how my piece was constructed (audio “phrases” strung together and overlapped in real-time by a computer, providing constant variation), and I suggested that it would be possible to use the same technique to deploy her video work. I made a quick demo to show her last weekend before we collaborated on one of her “Ink Walk” performances, and she was intrigued to the point that we’re now planning a full-on collaboration. I’ve continued to flesh out my little demo over the last few days into something I’m pretty happy with, and it ought to serve as a pretty good template for whatever we end up doing together.

Like most of my electronic pieces, there’s no pure synthesis going on; everything is manipulated from source recordings, in this case, video and audio recordings of rumpled bed sheets (yes, the inspiration came while lying awake a few nights ago). The unpredictable patterns that result are similar to other kinds of natural phenomena from which I draw inspiration (e.g., rain, fireworks, traffic), chaotic on a small scale, but consistent on a large scale. Like my other installation work, the piece can continue indefinitely, with no beginning or end; here, for convenience, I’ve recorded only a brief excerpt.

I guess you could call this my first video piece. I’ve been using Jitter, the video-processing add-on for Max/MSP for over a year, although this is the first time I’m presenting the results publicly. The first time I used it was in the software I developed for my performance (together with Yan Jun 颜峻 and Bruce Gremo) of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play at the Shanghai eArts Festival in October 2008, but it was used only to prepare cues for myself, not projected for the audience to see. (In fact, in the very first version of this little demo, I used a snippet from Screen Play as video source, a shot of rolling waves.) I’ve also used Jitter in some consulting I did for a videogame company last winter, analyzing audio signals to generate game levels.

I’m not sure yet if this will ultimately serve as the background texture of a bigger piece later on, or if it’s fine just as it is, as a super ambient standalone piece. I could see it working as a backdrop for a live performance. Or it could work in a gallery setting (ideally with 4 channels of sound). For what it’s worth, in terms of scale and mood, the 4-day process of putting this program together felt very much like writing a pop song.

What’s happening in the program is pretty simple. I’m picking little bits of my original bed sheet video and slowing them down, rotating them, and fading in and out from black. There are four asynchronous layers of this activity happening at once. The speeds are different, and there are slight hue offsets for each phrase. I adjust the contrast, hue, and saturation, and I add some feedback. For each video phrase, I pick an audio phrase from my original wave file (recorded separately from the video), and fade in and out, in time with the video. I’m also analyzing the average brightness of each video stream and using that to control the pitch of a bank of filters that the audio runs through before hitting the speakers. For each phrase I pick a different pitch multiplier (over roughly 4 octaves of a just intonation minor scale, not that it matters). Hue, feedback, filter Q, cutoff frequency, and probably a few other things are slowly modulated by random offsets to keep things interesting. I found there are lots of settings that produce different outcomes, all acceptable, so I implemented the old John Cage dictum: “Say we have a problem and 100 solutions; instead of chosing just one of them, we use them all.”

I ran into a tricky little trigonometry problem while working on this piece. I had to figure out the zoom ratio while rotating the images so that I wouldn’t go off the image and add weird black edges to the composite. I pondered long and hard, and I think I was at least looking in the right direction, but I eventually had to enlist the help of my pal Micah Sittig, who teaches physics over at SMIC Private School, and to whose class I gave a little presentation on music acoustics last March. He solved the problem in about a minute. It’s good to have smart friends. Thanks, Micah!

Crazy coincidence: yesterday while working on this piece, I thought I’d take a break and listen to something new, and a CD of music by Esa-Pekka Salonen came to mind. I picked up this disk following one of the premiere performances of his fellow Finn Kaija Saariaho’s second opera Adriana Mater in Paris in 2006, but I had never listened to it. I feel like a CD, if I have any reason to believe it will be good, really ought to have a focused and concentrated first listening, and consequently, I have a huge stack of shame of CD’s I’ve purchased, but haven’t yet had the time to devote to a proper first listen. Especially with all the hoo-ha about the new music director Gustavo Dudamel taking Salonen’s place at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I’ve been thinking lately I really ought to listen to it. So today I picked it up and unwrapped it, and to my amazement, the last piece is also called Insomnia! I’d already been planning to call this new piece of mine something about insomnia for a few days, so I swear I didn’t steal the idea, unless it was buried somewhere deep in my subconscious. Anyway, I just listened to it, and it’s really a really nice piece, though somewhat more detailed than mine. Isn’t that nuts?

The Power of Music

I just got back from giving a presentation on sound art at Raffles Design Institute on the campus of Donghua University, about a block from Yu Yin Tang. The hallways are emblazoned with photographs of people like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Stella McCartney, and the glass door to each room is inscribed with maxims such as “Globalization is possible when a brand is built into a cultural stereotype,” “Brands are relationships; there’s nothing else,” “Success financially is a measure of creative success; it is the same in all art” (that one was Stella’s), and my favorite, “The power of music is branding.” It was even creepier than the thought of classrooms full of students being serious about fashion marketing.

But my personal interactions were all quite agreeable. I was there at the behest of the effervescent multimedia instructor and aspiring DJ Raquel Assis, to speak to her “New Media and Environments” class. My presentation seemed to be quite well-received, although I always feel a bit like I’m cheating, since all I have to do is say, “I’ve been making videogames for the past 12 years,” and everyone snaps to attention.

Most of the questions afterwards came from other professors sitting in. One asked how living in China has influenced my work, which was an interesting question, because the piece I had just played was “Radiospace,” which on the surface (in this particular rendering) has lots of snippets of Chinese speech and pop songs, but is actually not about content at all. It’s a real-time program that uses radio broadcasts as source material for audio manipulation, and was actually completed back in Seattle, where the program mangles Britney Spears instead of the Jay Chou. A lot of my work is kind of ambivalent about content, focusing instead on structure, and that’s particularly true of this piece.

But back to the question, while I am an enthusiastic student of Chinese culture, I don’t hear a specific Chinese influence on my work in any overt sense, like using pentatonic scales or whatever (I wouldn’t have to come to China to pick that up, anyway). When I hear something in Chinese music that is relevant to the issues that concern me, I do, of course, take note (I cited a recording of a Buddhist ritual in a Shanghai temple on the French Ocora label, “Chine Fanbai: Chant liturgique bouddhique” [I guess that’s 梵呗], as an example of a static musical behavior). But I’m probably more influenced by the rush of modernity, trying to parse and correlate multiple streams of information, the hum and buzz of a huge, constantly evolving city like Shanghai.

Another question was about the limits of randomness in a closed computer system, and I replied that art made from random numbers is just like art made from pipe cleaners. There’s nothing particularly interesting about pipe cleaners, but I’m sure somebody can make some really neat things out of them; the art emerges from form and relationships. There’s plenty of randomness in a computer. You can progress from sample transforms to synthesis, continuing to insert random choices at every stage of your audio-generating function until you’re sending a stream of random numbers directly to your sound card, the very definition of white noise. If you’re not content with the randomness within your computer, then you can introduce the outside world into the system by hooking up a camera or microphone, which yields information that is potentially more random yet also more consistent than a random number generator.

In all these cases, what’s more important than generating noise (random numbers) is deciding how that noise is used, what the random numbers are hooked up to, how they’re constrained, and what happens in between random choices. If you’re getting random information from a camera, you have to decide where you’re pointing your camera. All works, no matter how aleatory, are framed in some way; they come with some context or expectation as to the circumstances in which they will be experienced. That’s where you see the hand of the artist, and this is why even performances of John Cage’s 4’33” tend to sound pretty similar, despite the fact that ostensibly any sound in the world is admissible.

I’m not sure that I answered either question very clearly, especially considering how long it took me to summarize my responses for posting here.

Two very shy girls came up afterwards and said they had done a sound art piece called “Uneasy” that is designed to make you feel uncomfortable. They’re going to send me an MP3. I can’t wait to hear it!

Below are my annotated notes (yes, that’s notes on notes, or, if you will, the derivative of notes; I think this is what Mike Min meant when he was babbling about calculus in art), and I’m sorry, I’m not going to take the time to clean them up into essay form for you.


Hi, I’m Ben Houge

Example of my work, provide some context

[play Breaking New Ground]
Set it up: SICIW, 100% Design, arctic concept
Imagine 12 speakers

Take a vote: is it music? [Response: no]

Done in Max/MSP
6 wind generators
3 chime generators
1 insect-flute generator

All the parameters of music are still there
Strong harmonic basis

So you could consider it a piece of music
Unlike most traditional music, no beginning and end; runs all day, and start/stop is determined by viewers individually entering/leaving, like sitting on a park bench
No loops, just algorithmic behaviors, many elements up to chance
Site-specific spatial element; can’t listen to it in your home on a CD player; have to go there

Background, how I got here

Piano lessons
Got a synthesizer in high school
St. Olaf College, major in Music Theory and Composition
Focused on electronic music, csound

UW, MM Composition
Sound synthesis, algorithmic processes, aleatory music, Max/MSP

Got into videogames
In Seattle for 8 years
Sierra Entertainment
Such games as LSL7, KQ8, Arcanum, Half-Life: Op4

[play Arcanum main theme]
It’s a nice enough little theme, but I was not happy with the implementation of my music in the final game; everything looped
It’s probably around this time that I really became convinced that the future of game audio was in finding unique deployment methods appropriate to the medium

In Shanghai for 4 years
Tom Clancy’s EndWar, out today!

Parallel artistic trajectory

Early on in my career I was a content provider: music composition, sound design, dialog editing, lip syncing, etc.
Eventually became an audio director, where my job was simply to make the game sound good
Producing very little original content, rather directing other content providers, e.g., working with pals from Seattle on EndWar music (though I still got my song in there for the end credits).

First thought of games as a stepping stone into film, but soon discovered what a fascinating world it was.
Whereas film is codified and calcified and super competitive, grammar of games is still being defined; more fun challenges

[Play sci-fi ambience, built entirely from random and statistical deployment of synthesized sounds]

First heard of John Cage in college, several years later, while working in games, read Silence.
Recommend to all aspiring videogame audio designers
Started making the connections, also reading Feldman
Sound Currents, Seattle school

Began finding a focus for my art, and my extracurricular work, which had previous been mostly sacred choral music, began to focus more and more around the issues I was facing in the evolving medium of games.
Sierra paid for my Master’s, continuing education program; since I had already been working in games for a while, I knew where I wanted to focus
During my Master’s I realized my mission wasn’t to write a symphony or smart little chamber piece, but to connect these dots.

[Play A Reading from _____/Variations on _____, live radio performance on KEXP’s Sonarchy]

Is this music? At the time, I would have said yes, but BMI didn’t think so.

Why “sound art”?

Most open term, least expectations.

Throughout music history, there’s an increasing tendency to incorporate new sounds into music
Mozart’s Turkish cymbals, hunting horns, etc.
Technological advancements: saxophone, sirens, electronic instruments (Theremin, ondes Martenot)
Recording technology, musique concrete, tape music, computer-generated sound, sampling, DJ’s
Now experience almost all music in recorded format anyway

Now just about any sound can be considered of musical use (pop music ahead of classical music in that sense)
So what’s the important distinction?

Not bound by medium; more likely to experiment with cite-specific sound producing configurations.
Not necessarily electronic, speakers, Trimpin, acousmatic
Sound art is not necessarily even sound producing, Christian Marclay’s instrument sculptures and manipulated album covers
Also mention his video work and our recent Screen Play performance

An aspect I find particularly intriguing is the idea that sound art is in some way an “object,” rather than a “piece.”
Music has almost exclusively been about an organization of sound with a beginning and end, unfolds as an event.
But from my game experience, I’ve become concerned with organized sound that is indefinite, that continues until a user decides when to leave.
In this regard it’s more like an ambience, like sitting on a park bench and listening for a while, then leaving when you’ve had enough.
And similarly, it’s like looking at a painting in a museum; so “sound art” seems apt.

Because of all this, my work is just one possibility of what sound art might be
Most of my work has been sound producing, but I’m expanding
Working on giraffes [algorithmically generated digital prints], expressing the same ideas of organization in different media
I kind of still consider this music, too, but most people reasonably wouldn’t, so sticking with “sound art” for now.
Also coming soon: video works.

My issues

Dynamic behaviors
No loops!
“Just loop it” is the dumbest answer to a very interesting question, first thing people think of, cocktail party response
A more interesting answer involves algorithmic behaviors (do not fear algorithms; it’s just a method of doing something, like a fugue)
Also, do not fear randomness; very fertile artistic medium, lots to do with it.
Randomness as an artistic medium; more than just a random number generator
Levels of linearity; usually a continuum, not on-off; find the right granularity for your project

Shuffling, additive systems
Combinatoriality [I’ve stolen this word from 12-tone theory; I like my definition better]: exponential increase in possible outcome when you mix several layers of indeterminate behavior
Responsive; deprived of pre-rendered dramatic trajectory, allows you to switch on a dime

This ability to switch allows you to closely follow another stream of information; this is what happens in a videogame
Mapping from one stream to another; multimedia works, real-time
Coordination between different streams

[Play Mobile 3]

Explain that this is a live performance at the 2pi festival 2006 [and not one of my greatest works, but gets the idea across]
Also served as a prototype for EndWar music system

Granular synthesis
Also interested in what happens when you have lots of similar objects doing slightly different things
Small variations, lend interest, thwarting computer’s ability to be too perfect, the warmth of an acoustic performance
Heterophony, flocking behavior, Zhang Yimou, Curse of the Golden Flower

[Play Radiospace]

Having a big visual art show soon, visit my web site for the latest.
Also, I just started a blog. Visit!


[Bonus: Play “EndWar” main menu music for big finish]

A Stash of Mustache Ashes

My pal Gregory Perez wrote me this poem on his iPhone for my birthday yesterday.  Thanks, man!

A stash of mustache ashes
Flees into Shanghai breeze and traffic

Algorithmic angles
Connecting noise to signal

Every sine surges in wavelengths
Captured alive in self-made Cages

The truth of where this sound begins
Is likely found where Ben has been