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]

Wound Up and Worn Out

The Subs show last night was p-double-a-acked! I haven’t seen Yu Yin Tang so crammed since, well, since the Rogue Transmission CD release party a week ago, another awesome show.

Opening was Yellow Riot, a Clash tribute band that bore an uncanny resemblance to Rogue Transmission for some reason I just can’t put my finger on.

Every time I see Boys Climbing Ropes, it brings to mind this half-remembered quotation, something Elvis Costello said about the early eighties Attractions, something about how they could sound pent up and strung out at the same time. Or laid back and wound up. Or worn out and hung up. (I’m thinking of songs like “Strict Time.”) For a while, I had a sense that Boys Climbing Ropes were kind of two bands fighting for the same stage, but now it seems they’ve managed to balance their yin and their yang in a most satisfying way. Great show, and we sweaty masses summoned them back for an encore, a triumphant reading of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

The Subs were awesome, as you may have anticipated. Monstrous peals of arena-ready guitar riffs rent the fetid air, while lead singer Kang Mao 抗猫 magnetized the crowd with her wild-eyed thrusting and jabbing, convulsing as she squalled. She was doing a really weird thing with her voice, a kind of tremolo that sounded more like two sine waves beating; I have no idea how she did that. It was great, but like I said it, the place was super packed, and having made rather merry the night before, I left halfway through the set. I realized I still had their CD at home that I still hadn’t listened to, with better sight lines and less smoke and no mosh pit to spill beer on me. I know, I’m sorry, I’m lame.

It was fun to see BCR and Subs on the same bill. While BCR’s tunes are bit more foursquare, with steady chord changes, the spice provided by the lean interplay between guitar and base that sidesteps standard voicings, The Subs are more likely to stay put for a while, bluesing around a chosen key area for longer stretches. Whereas BCR were more about edgy riffs, The Subs favored extended solos. Nice contrast.

Oh, and it was Halloween, so people were dressed up funny, but I wasn’t. Since Halloween’s the day after my birthday, I still nurture a childhood grudge against it for stealing my birthday thunder.

Speaking of birthdays, maybe it’s because I’m getting old, or maybe I was just worn out and hung up from the previous evening’s festivities, but I sure wouldn’t mind if these things started a little earlier. With the headliner taking the stage after midnight, I almost always konk out before the DJ afterparty fun starts, much as I would like to stick around. Now get off my lawn.

Update: just saw Andy Best’s review is up, and it’s more thorough than mine, so go read his blog instead! Great finally meeting him in person last night.

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

Breaking New Ground


Breaking New Ground is an installation I did in collaboration with Jutta Friedrichs of MÜ Furniture to represent 100% Design at Shanghai International Creative Industry Week. It ran from October 16-21, 2008, way up on Lingshi Rd., just north of Shanghai Circus World. My job was the audio component, a sound installation of six discrete channels synthesized in real-time and deployed algorithmically.

Jutta quit her job as an award-winning product designer a few months ago to launch her own furniture company, MÜ. Her public debut was at the 100% Design Shanghai show last June (and she’s racked up something like 15 glowing magazine write-ups in the short time since). 100% Design is an annual design show based in London, and it seems to be a pretty big deal in design circles. This was the first year they mounted one in Shanghai.

Shanghai International Creative Industry Week is exactly what it sounds like. I don’t know how long they’ve been doing it, but last year’s was held at a big, renovated slaughterhouse on the north side of town, super funky building, but kind of an incoherent and sprawling exhibition. This year’s event was held in a brand new complex, one of those just-add-water Shanghai developments that apparently wants to be known as “The Factory.” A month before the exhibition Jutta had to wear a hardhat and climb piles of sand to visit the space, and the morning of the show landscaping was still being installed.

The Concept

Anyway, Jutta’s pals with the 100% Design folks, and they wanted to have a big display at SICIW to remind people of their presence in Shanghai as a champion of cutting edge design, and in particular to plug next year’s exhibition. So they invited her to design their space (a large, tall cement room, 240 square meters), and she came up with a kind of arctic theme, with furniture (highlights selected from the previous 100% Design show) variously floating on or bursting up through shards of Styrofoam masquerading as ice.

For my sound component, the basic idea was wind and wind chimes, to support the artic theme. There’s also this kind of insect-flute thing that occasionally floats in over the top. When we first got the sound up and running and I looked around the room, I was very pleased at how well the sound and visuals collaborated to evoke a unique ambience that was quite distinct from the rest of the show.

The Set-up

I programmed the sound behavior in Max/MSP, and it exemplifies the maxims I’ve developed from doing game audio design for the last 12 years. The sounds are completely synthesized in real time and deployed algorithmically, to ensure that nothing ever loops. The six channels are completely independent (technically superior to Dolby Digital, since Dolby is a compressed format, and I’m sending out 6 discrete channels of uncompressed PCM audio data). The goal was to create an ambient, natural-sounding environment that’s consistent yet unpredictable, analogous to what you might hear sitting on a bench in a park (if the park was in Antarctica).

The sound was generated in Max, came out of a MOTU UltraLite sound card, ran through a Yamaha MG16/6FX mixer (not strictly necessary, but handy for testing and setting up), then out to some big BAL AP1600 amps, then out to the speakers. There were actually 12 speakers, with each channel output from the computer routed to two different speakers. The speakers used were these small, black Bose speakers with no model numbers, suspended along a ledge that ran around the perimeter of the 240 square meter room, about 3 or 4 meters off the ground, a perfect height for this piece. Except for the sound card (which I had to buy at the last minute), the rest of the equipment was rented.

What’s Going On


Though it’s not immediately apparent, there is a firm harmonic underpinning to the work. It’s all in just intonation (i.e., small number frequency ratios, no temperament). There’s a fundamental frequency (a low A=110 Hz) that changes on a random timer, something like every 1-2 minutes. It can pick from among 5 different pitch multipliers (1, 1.125, 1.25, 1.375, 1.5), which correspond basically to scale degrees 1, 2, 3, a sharp 4 (not represented on a piano keyboard, but corresponding to the 11th harmonic), and 5. There is a constant low wind drone (filtered white noise) that constantly plays this pitch, doubled at the octave, to kind of anchor the rest of the sound.

All other sounds are multiples of this pitch, and when it changes, it really refreshes the whole piece. I first discovered this effect in 2000/2001, when I was developing a DirectMusic score for a cancelled Xbox project called Jonny Drama (making extensive use of VBScripting to try to get some interesting juxtapositions to arise from asynchronous music deployment). It feels kind of like you’re cleaning out your ear after you’ve become accustomed to hearing one harmonic center for a long period of time.


There are six independent wind generators, one for each channel of audio output. The synthesis couldn’t be simpler: a noise generator and a resonant band-pass filter (noise~ and reson~). I use a random walk (drunk) to pick harmonics of the fundamental frequency (6th-16th), changing on a random timer (and the timer itself uses a random walk, so sometimes changes are more frequent than others, creating a drunk envelope). Low frequencies are weighted to be more likely than higher frequencies. The first version I did had the pitch constantly changing, but Jutta felt (and I agreed) that the effect was too creepy, a kind of ghost-like moaning, so I decided to have each wind generator swoop to a new pitch, then sit there for a while, with all pitches being multiples of a fundamental, making the whole piece very stable and consonant, while still evoking wind that blows whithersoever it will.

I spent way too much time on a subtle function that allows the wind to swoop to a new pitch in a more natural way. Rather than simply sliding from one pitch to another, it picks a new pitch somewhere close to the desired pitch, then gradually hones in, kind of like a pendulum coming to rest. It’s hardly perceptible in the final piece, but I’m happier knowing it’s there. When the wind’s pitch is swooping, I open up the Q on the filter a bit, so it’s a noisier sound, becoming more pitch-focused only when there’s an important pitch to sound.


The chimes are also super simple. When I started work on this piece, I began by trying to develop a software synthesizer modeled on my beloved Roland JP-8000 (still recovering from a power surge at the 2006 Ubisoft company party), but I quickly realized this was not the best investment of my limited time, so I stopped with the basics: simple synthesis objects, amplitude envelope, filter. So in the end all chimes are just filtered triangle waves.

The chime deployment is really the interesting part. There are 3 chime generators, each associated with a pair of wind generators. They’re on random timers to decide when to start. When they start, they pick one of the associated wind generators, and from then on the density is linked to the wind’s pitch (perceived velocity). They have a drunk envelope (i.e., drunk target and drunk time to get there) that tells them whether to get louder or quieter, and if they get quiet beyond a certain threshold they turn themselves off. The chimes are where you can really appreciate the “cleaning out the ear” effect I described earlier, if the fundamental multiplier changes while the chimes are playing.


The insect-flute is probably the least successful element of the piece. It felt like it needed another layer, but deciding exactly what that layer should be was a bit tricky, especially given the relatively short time frame. Jutta had this concept of “bees in a bag,” to create a feeling of percolating excitement bubbling over, with one bee every now and then escaping, which is a rich concept and could probably be a piece unto itself, but in this implementation, the sound is a little too similar to wind, so it’s kind of in this middle ground that’s not quite merging with the other sounds into a new aggregate, yet not quite putting them in some kind of interesting contrast. I had the idea of something really solid and statuesque that the other sounds would kind of waft around, but it was hard to fit that into this ambient conception; it would be fun to do a variation as a concert piece with an acoustic trumpet or something.

Anyway, bees in a bag instantly suggested granular synthesis, which I’ve been doing a lot of lately, so I created some drunk envelopes to constrain the various parameters and put limits on it, so that if it gets below a certain threshold it will turn itself off, but if it gets above a certain threshold, the length of the grains increases, the pitch and volume variation narrows, and it bursts into song! The “songs” are based on Markov chains, derived from some short melodies I wrote for this piece. This was the last element of the piece I added, and it caused me a lot of grief to debug (and I can lay a small part of the blame on a bug in Max 5.02 that was fixed in 5.05). In my final implementation, I feel the Markov chains still sound too random; I’ve just scratched the surface of how they can be used, and plan to explore it further in subsequent pieces (using second order chains, coordinating melody and rhythm, lots of stuff to try).

Also, I was using a sample of me blowing on a bottle of Qindao beer as a basis for granular synthesis, and the sound is too similar to the wind blowing; it would have been nice to have something more contrasting.


First thing I noticed from doing this project is that I need a new computer. This program brought my 4-year old Pentium 4 single core laptop to its knees with frequent audio dropouts, but the new laptop volunteered by one of the organizers to use at the exhibition didn’t even break a sweat, averaging around 20-30% of the CPU.

I also confirmed once again that you can’t just send an email and expect your technical needs to be covered. Despite stressing numerous times that we needed a computer and 6-channel sound card, no computer was to be found when the contracted audio team arrived to set up. As far as I can tell, it is only through sheer luck that they happened to be setting up the 12 speakers in pairs to accommodate 6 discrete sends (although I had originally requested 8). The organizer eventually found a laptop, but I had to go out and locate and buy a new sound card for this show at my own expense (and thanks to my former Ubisoft colleague Zhang Lei for helping me track down the card on short notice). Next time I’ll do better to insist that I talk with the audio contractors myself in advance, or even better, supply my own equipment and let them rent it from me instead.  At least I was wary enough to start on-site set-up two days earlier than planned, to prepare for just such an eventuality.

I was surprised that it was a bit of a tough sell to do an ambient installation; towards the beginning, folks kept wanting me to turn it up. I think that’s maybe just what everyone in Shanghai is used to hearing, ugly sounds blaring out of store fronts. Subtly’s a hard sell, but from my experience in games (and singing in choirs and going to bars and in many other contexts), volume doesn’t guarantee excitement or interest or anything, really, other than volume; after a while, you just tune it out. A well-made piece doesn’t need to keep trying to draw attention to itself. In the end, I think people came to appreciate what the piece was about, and visitors to the exhibition seemed to like it.

Future Directions

There’s a bunch of other stuff I would have liked to do in this piece, but there wasn’t enough time.  But I think a sign of a good piece is that it points you in a clear direction for future work.

In general, I want to work towards more coordinated systems. I think that’s the next challenge, once you’ve got some interesting dynamic behaviors going on: adding more layers and coordinating them.  There was some coordination going on already (chime density linked to wind velocity), but there could have been more (e.g., connecting chime and insect-flute start/stop times to some aspect of wind behavior instead of random timers). I also would have liked to make the 6 wind generators work together in kind of coordinated network, to get the feeling of gusts of wind moving through a space.

The insect-flute thing might have been more interesting if there were several layers of it going on, coordinated to do chorale-like things, or even counterpoint. I want to experiment with that more, but adding two more layers of processor-intensive granular synthesis would have been way beyond my laptop’s capabilities, so I’d have to use a different synthesis technique.

It would have been nice to have a more sophisticated synthesizer for my chimes; FM in particular would be an obvious choice for such sounds.  I’ll keep working on my virtual JP-8000.

As I mentioned, I barely scratched the surface with Markov chains, but I’m planning to explore them in detail in a subsequent work.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

I developed a small crush on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha about a year and a half ago in Los Angeles. While I was in town to kick off our monumental dialog recording sessions for EndWar, I checked out a show called WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Geffen Contemporary satellite of the Museum of Contemporary Art, down in Little Tokyo.

It was not a great show, which is often true when the message is more important than the work itself. The only pieces to captivate me were two small black and white videos by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. They were very simple, very lo-fi (dating, as they did, from the 70’s), just some plain images with written and spoken text in English, French, and Korean. They felt very personal and intimate, like I was being let in on a secret, or even sneaking a peek at a diary.

I did a little more research when I got back home and I found out that she died very young, only 30 or 31, murdered a few days after her only book was published in 1982. So I ordered the book, entitled Dictee, to find out more about her work and her world. The book dives deeper than the video pieces I saw, and while it’s much less crush-inducing, it’s notable for a number of reasons.

I want to call it Dictée, but all over the book the title is written without the accent, so Dictee it is. Like the video works, the book mixes French and English and just a few words of Korean (rendered either in Roman letters or in Chinese characters, as used to be the standard for official communication in Korea). From my years of French lessons, I can testify that a dictée is an oral test, during which the teacher reads some text, and the students have to transcribe it as accurately as possible. This act embodies two major themes of the book, memory and language. Language is inextricably linked to identity, and the act of expressing a memory in language and recording it inevitably alters it.

Dictee is broad in scope, using the nine Greek muses to represent the work’s primary divisions, and at other times reflecting aspects of Christian rite. It addresses Korean culture from a national level as well as a personal perspective. The work serves as a biography of several women, not only of the author herself, but also her mother and the Korean national martyr Yu Guan Soon, among others. The French lesson that opens the book builds in resonance later on, as the narrative turns to Koreans living in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, who were forbidden from speaking their native tongue.

While the book is fascinating to me as a student of Asian culture, the aspects that intrigued me most were structural, which is not what I had expected when I first cracked the cover. The book is a multimedia collage, weaving different kinds of text together with images, including photographs, a map, a diagram of the vocal tract, a still from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, and copies of letters. At times, Ms. Cha treats the two adjacent pages as two streams of information proceeding at the same pace. Sometimes it’s English and French, sometimes it’s narrative and commentary, and other times the relationship between the streams is more oblique.

The most distinctive feature of the book, and one of the most intriguing ideas, is also the thing that makes it a real slog at times. Much of it is written in a kind of perpetual present tense, evoking a steady state with no forward impetus; this is a real trick to pull off in writing, as reading is an inherently linear activity. But by fragmenting sentences and repeating the same idea with only minute variations of text, Ms. Cha at times succeeds in achieving a sort of constant incredulity, as though she never wants to give the reader time to grow too comfortable with the idea being presented. It’s not hard to imagine why she’d want to do this, when the subject is personal or national subjugation; this specialized writing style never lets the reader lapse into complacent acceptance, keeping the shock and indignation ever fresh. But the problem with trying to make each word a revelation is that after a while, after a while they all start to sound the same.

It did occur to me a few times while reading that this effect might be well served by a non-linear musical setting. I could imagine shuffling up pieces of the text, deploying them in real time, creating a kind of indefinite, almost devotional space, dedicated to rumination and memory, and allowing for unforeseen juxtapositions to emerge through multiple streams of sound.

Then again, I kind of have musical states on the brain a lot these days, so perhaps I’m just finding in the work the kinds of ideas that are already on my mind. But that’s kind of what everyone does, isn’t it?

My Sabbatical

There are many ways to lead a life in music, and life is probably too short to experientially determine which works best. The one I’ve kind of fallen into is what could be labeled the “commercial” route. I’ve spent the last 12 years designing audio for videogames full time, squeezing in more “personal” or “artistic” projects wherever I could around the edges.

Early on, I would sometimes experience anxiety, worrying that I was prostituting my art in the crass and commercial games business, and accusative looks would occasionally be directed my way from other, more artistic quarters as well. But as my understanding of the medium grew, I came to realize what a fascinating world I had stumbled into.

When I started out in games, I had the idea that it might serve as a stepping stone into film down the road, but now I would consider that a step in the wrong direction. Whereas film is codified and calcified and highly competitive, games are full of fresh challenges and opportunities as technology evolves, genres proliferate and diversify, and the very language of the medium continues to be defined.

Not only that, but working in a high-tech corporate environment provided unwitting training in other less glamorous yet useful skills, such as team management, scheduling, budgeting, and general IT savvy, not to mention the invaluable experience of contributing to successful, long-term projects that require lots of people to work together. So I’m not knocking the games industry.

Nonetheless, from early on I had the idea that working a regular day job in the videogame trenches would at some point reward me by providing the wherewithal to take some time off and devote myself exclusively to my own projects. And as my artistic pursuits grew ever more closely in line with my professional pursuits (non-linear structures, algorithmic processes, real-time sound synthesis, etc.), I longed for a period of pure research, during which I could explore these ideas freely, without time constraints, competing tasks, or other practical considerations.

So during the inordinately long time I spent on my last game (Tom Clancy’s EndWar, which I served as audio director for the past 3.5 years), as the side projects piled up, I began to formulate a more concrete exit plan. About two years ago I started laying some extra cash aside, with the idea that I would leave Ubisoft after EndWar was completed and spend a sabbatical year in China devoted exclusively to developing my own work.

And now that EndWar is finished, I have actuated my plan. Though I’ll continue to take on small tasks here and there (doing more freelance writing, maybe a bit of consulting), I’ve freed up the bulk of my time for personal, artistic pursuits. Welcome to my sabbatical!

I’ve formulated a mission statement to guide my activities this year: to apply the techniques I’ve been developing to structure non-linear sound for videogames over the past 12 years in a broader cultural context. I’m convinced there’s some vital work to do at the nexus of videogames, music composition, sound installation, and digital art, so I plan to poke around this area and see what connections I can find. The goal is to try out new ideas, with the agility to iterate rapidly and follow up on the good ones, while developing relevant skills to help me better tackle problems as they emerge, all of the things a good sabbatical should be about.

When the year is up, I’ll reevaluate and see what makes sense as a next step. I may go back to doing the kind of work I was doing before with renewed vigor, enthusiasm, and perspective. Or I might continue trying to push at these ideas from the non-commercial side for a while. It might even be possible that the virgin soil of gaming is receptive to a new kind of organism that wouldn’t force the choice, but could represent a new, viable structure for the dissemination of serious art. I’ll let you know in a year.

More Channels for Jay

After finishing up the second half of Taal last night, I attempted once more to watch Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲, yet once more I was confounded by a faulty DVD. So to sate my Jay Chou 周杰伦 craving, I popped in his 2007 World Tour concert DVD, unquestionably the least exciting selection out of my copious media haul from Beijing’s Blue Line store three weeks ago.

And I’ve got to say, it’s not a notable improvement over his previous concert DVD from 2004’s Incomparable tour. Most egregious fault: no Dolby Digital. Even Jolin’s 蔡依林 imaginatively titled “Live Concert” DVD from 2005 had Dolby Digital, though the constant subwoofer pummeling makes it nearly unlistenable. The set list on the new Jay DVD reminds me of the Shanghai stop of the Incomparable tour that I caught live a while back: following an opening flourish, there was a long stretch of very similar sounding ballads in the middle of the show, and he only made an effort to rouse the crowd with some peppier material towards the very end. There were some curious omissions, too: no 东风破, no 七里想, no 简单爱, no 夜曲. The performance overall seemed pretty lackadaisical (although it could be argued that this is simply his very calculated and well-worn style). He even flubbed the words of a few songs.

For surround sound, Curse of the Golden Flower was turning out to be much more titillating, before my Xbox gave up on the DVD. I loved hearing the imperial time-tellers scurrying about the imperial chambers intoning the hour in a flurry of bells. Even Taal was more imaginatively mixed, if none too subtly, fully Dolby Digital, with delayed vocal lines and hollerbacks bouncing around the rear speakers.

If Mr. Chou seeks to dominate in the global marketplace, I am afraid that simple stereo sound is not going to cut it.