Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure

Hey, wow, new video! This piece is a bit quirky and personal, so I should probably fill in a bit of context. But first, imagine that you are viewing this piece on a huge bank of 24 TV screens, the sole light source in a huge, black warehouse, which is how I would ideally like to present it. [Note that you can turn HD on/off in the video below; it will load faster with HD off, but if you’re up for it, turn HD on, click the icon to the right of the play bar to make it full screen, and turn scaling off.]

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

I find myself constantly refuting the notion that art made with computers is somehow cold, impersonal, rational, unfeeling, etc., etc. In general, I refute the idea of absolutes in art, that a work must be, for example, either rational or emotional. In my work, both elements are present, and this one swings perhaps farther than most to the emotional side.

All art (including digital art) has some kind of inspiration, and in this case I was inspired during my trip to St. Paul, MN, last winter by the intricate patterns formed by barren tree branches, and how those patterns would shift with just the slightest change in perspective or movement of the branches. I think the first time I consciously started paying attention to tree branch patterns, I was looking out the window of Famous Dave’s on 7th in St. Paul, where I was having lunch with my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my two little nieces. Later I noticed that the same kinds of patterns were occurring right outside my brother’s living room window. I spent a lot of time, last winter in St. Paul, sitting in the stuffed chair of my brother’s living room, working on my computer, opposite this window (to the point that the chair came to be referred to as “Uncle Ben’s office”), and as I gazed at the branches outside, I kind of started to identify a bit with this tangled mess of branches and what they might represent.

I was working on a couple of video projects during my two months in St. Paul, notably Shanghai Traces, and also collecting source material for my foolhardedly ambitious plan to produce backdrop videos for my live pop show. I really wanted to capture some of the unique topographical features of winter in St. Paul (i.e., snow), but I could never seem to find just the right combination of meteorological conditions and presence of mind to go out and actually tape them. So in the end I spent the last 10 minutes of my St. Paul visit standing in my brother’s snow-covered front lawn, videotaping those branches as the sun was setting, just before I hugged everyone goodbye and my brother drove me to the airport.

So my new video installation takes those ten minutes and makes them last forever. A lot of still art can be said to freeze a moment in time, but that’s not the same thing as prolonging a moment indefinitely. In a photograph, for example, whatever was happening at the moment when the photograph was taken is not happening anymore; it’s been stopped. But here, the moment is still happening, and it will never stop happening. It’s not the same thing as looping a video segment, either. In a loop, it would happen repeatedly, which is not the same thing as happening continuously. As in Shanghai Traces, I think this is a really good pairing of subject and medium.

How is this miraculous feat accomplished? By using the same techniques I’ve developed to make sound continue indefinitely in videogames over the past thirteen years or so: shuffling, staggering, offsetting, layering. These techniques are some of the most fundamental in my toolbox, but they’re endlessly applicable to a wide range of real-time organizational challenges. In this piece, each of the 24 screens is independently picking a section of the video to play for a certain amount of time, then picking a new section to play, and so on. The duration and position in the original video are not completely random, but constrained by previous behavior, so that the overall distribution of images across all 24 channels is constantly shifting. It’s very similar to the granular synthesis techniques I’ve used in my audio works, mixing together little chunks of a larger sound to kind of homogenize it into a steady texture (see the sustained textures in Radiospace for a good example).

As is quite obvious, the original video was shot without a tripod, which gives the piece a performative element (not that the world needs another flimsy performance video document). The unsteadiness in my hand as I’m holding the camera is the other subject of the piece, creating motion and the subtle changes of perspective that (in addition to passing breezes) animate the primary subject matter. It focuses attention back on the person holding the camera and the minor endurance test of holding the camera still for 10 minutes in below freezing weather. This idea of endurance echoes comments by Richard Karpen and Mike Min (that the drama of a performance arises from the struggle of a person pushing against his or her limitations). In other words, the motion of the camera in the video is a visualization of my own failure to hold it still, despite my best efforts, which you are free to view as a metaphor for the attempt to hold back time itself.

The end result displays all kinds of interesting formal and textural qualities, byproducts of the same behavior being multiplied across 24 screens. The original video was shot at dusk, so there’s a gradual transition from yellow to blue hues; as my piece runs, the various screens are constantly changing their position along the spectrum, forming new groups and contrasts. The motion of the different screens prompts a different organizational tendency, a kind of counterpoint, sometimes seeming to move together, at other times in contrary motion. When screens pop to a new image, a rhythmic texture emerges as well. The eye is drawn to the sudden popping of a screen to a new point in the source video, but because the new image shares the same perspective as the previous one, it can create a kind of paradox; you know something’s changed, but you’re not sure what. The eye and brain are constantly engaged (although on this small video rendering it may be hard to tell; again, think of a big bank of TV monitors), as the viewer is constantly challenged to re-evaluate what’s the same and what’s different as groups form and dissolve.

The audio for the piece is basically just the audio from each of the 24 individual screens mixed together. It happens to include the sounds of several different transportation mechanisms, which nicely underscores the idea of imminent departure. Occasionally you’ll notice the audio cutting out or in at the same time as one of the screens popping to a new image, reinforcing the structure of the piece. I wasn’t completely happy with the sound I captured on the camera’s little built in microphones, so I wanted to filter it a bit, and once I got into filtering, I really liked the mood I got by notching certain harmonic sets of frequencies. But I also really liked the neutrality of the unfiltered sound, and I couldn’t decide if this was too much meddling or not, so in the end I have it both ways, with the notch filters algorithmically fading in and out. The filters’ base frequency changes at longer intervals, which gives the piece a higher level structure and periodically refreshes the ears by establishing a new tonal center. For a public installation, I would revisit the filtering behavior; ideally, if I could present this piece in the big warehouse I’m dreaming of, I’d tune the piece to the room’s resonances.

I have no idea when I’ll actually have a chance to mount this as a public installation. Ideally, it should be displayed on a big bank of 24 TV screens mounted in an 8 x 3 array in a huge, dark, empty space. (If it strikes you that such a bank of TV’s would resemble the banks of monitors displaying airline departure times at an airport, you might be interested to know that in fact I did the first draft of this software while waiting overnight at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, for my connecting flight to Nairobi last January 29, seated across from just such a bank of monitors.) I like the idea of encountering it first from a distance, the images gradually coming into focus as you approach, with the bank of screens generating the only light in a room so big and dark you can’t see the walls. There should be a bench in front of the screens, or pillows, so people can hang out for a while, or maybe some stuffed armchairs, like at my brother’s place!

This is kind of the worst possible combination for a digital installation: expensive, but subtle. Typically, if someone invests in a big, 24-screen video wall, I guess they want something big and flashy, not quiet and contemplative like this. But if anyone would like to be the first to present it, that honor is yours for the taking!

I’d like to dedicate this piece to the Minnesota Houges, with love and gratitude.

Words of Wisdom from the Chairman

[9/18/09 One more added paragraph!]
[7/13/09 Updated with two bonus paragraphs!  Can you find them all?]

Before I left for China in August 2004, I went down to the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district and, on the recommendation of my good friend and former fellow Lemur Celia Chavez, bought a nice, hand bound journal.  I’d always thought that, in the course of my life’s many sojourns, it’s kind of a shame I’ve never kept a journal to record my experiences, and I vowed to make amends on this subsequent venture.

When I first arrived I wrote fairly diligently, documenting my acclimation to life in China.  That lasted about a month.  Entries grew further and further apart, culminating in the lengthy gap between November 22, 2004, and April 9, 2005, before breaking off altogether.

When I started studying Chinese characters a while later, I realized that the only way these things were going to stick in my head was if I wrote with them regularly, and the journal effort recommenced, this time in Mandarin.  Since June 4, 2006 I’ve been keeping a Chinese journal, with much greater success than the English version.  There have been a few dips in frequency, especially earlier this year, as I focused on trying to read my first Chinese book (Lang Lang’s 郎朗 autobiography, and boy, will I have a lot to say about that when I finally finish it!), but now I’m back up to about once per week.  One of my simple pleasures is to go hang out in a bar on an off night, or occasionally one of those all you can eat sushi joints, find a quiet corner, and catch up on my journal for an hour or two.

It’s good for reinforcing characters, but there are drawbacks to a Chinese journal.  It lacks the immediacy of writing in my mother tongue, and my means of expression are drastically reduced to more or less recounting the bare facts.  I write less, I write more slowly, and I hardly ever go back and skim over what I’ve already written (one of the primary joys of journaling, I believe), since I read so slowly.  And due to its personal nature, I rarely have anyone proofreading it, so I tend to reinforce the same dumb mistakes over and over.

So I’d been wanting to write for a while about Mike and Liza Min’s recent honeymoon visit to Shanghai, but I eventually realized it simply wasn’t journal material.  Therefore I have decided to take it to the blog and get all gushy on you for a minute.

As Mike put it on the webpage for the Bike Bin Project, I’ve known him for forever and a half.  That would put our first meeting at the Bauhaus Café in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, where he, me, Korby Sears, and Erik Aho had arranged to go see Harry Partch acolyte Phillip Arnautoff’s homemade string instruments in just intonation.  From there, Mike joined me, Korby, and Geoff Ogle to found the Sound Currents concert series, and Mike assembled the Seattle School composers collective (him, me, Korby, Erik, and Guy Whitmore at its inception) to perform Mike’s piece “Folding” at the first Sound Currents show.  Seattle School went on to conquer the Seattle new music scene with confounding, confrontational pieces, culminating in the hugely successful Iron Composer songwriting competition/obstacle course/drinking game/audience participation/performance extravaganza (in which Mike went by the moniker “Chairman Min”).  I’m not going to tell the whole, crazy story; you can read about it on the Seattle School web site (though even that doesn’t really do it justice).

Unquestionably, my Seattle School cohorts are what I’ve missed the most about Seattle (well, them and good beer).  So when Mike announced that he was marrying Liza Keckler (whom I’d had the pleasure to meet on my last visit to Seattle in 2006), and that they were stopping by Shanghai on their honeymoon, I was ecstatic.  They were here for just 3 days, about a month ago, and it was so awesome to see them that I didn’t even want to waste time Twittering about it.  Jutta and I picked them up at the airport in a car with champagne and fresh fruit, and did our best to show them the best of our fair city of Shanghai in the limited time they had.

It went by super fast; it felt like there wasn’t nearly enough time to talk about all the important stuff, the kind of things that Mike, Korby, and I would stay up late drinking bourbon and dissecting, the inscrutable calculus of composer, performer, audience, expectation, sympathy, structure, innovation, tradition, all the factors that are at the core of any serious art.  I realized that in some ways we’d grown in different directions, but in the important ways, those directions were pretty much parallel. 

I consider Mike one of the wisest people I know, and in retrospect, I realized that I was kind of looking for Mike’s approval on my work and activities in the five years since I left Seattle, and especially in this last year, as my sabbatical is starting to wind to a close.  So the day after they left, I took out a sheet of paper and tried to capture all of Mike’s morsels of admonition.  My memory’s already going fuzzy on the details, but here were the salient points as I captured them then.

Chairman Min says:

I should find a theater guy to consult/collaborate with me on shows.
I can do a lot in two months (approximately what remains of my sabbatical)
I’m getting upset about the wrong things (I think he meant when I’m complaining about loops and peoples’ misapprehension of non-linear or algorithmic structures)
Prebound” is “sweet,” but “口口口口口口口口” should be the single for my new album.
I should curate my own art show; I know enough people to pull it off, and it would be incredible, or amazing, or awesome, I forget which.
When I said I don’t like most people (I think I actually said “anyone”), he said, “Yes you do; you’re just a big Ben bear.”
He digs my three big non-linear spectacle ideas: the opera, the symphony, and the restaurant piece (must get these realized, stay tuned!).
Again I said I didn’t really like anything, and he said that probably the problem was that, like him, I’ve been so overwhelmed by something truly excellent in the past that I’m disappointed when things fall short of that standard.
In the current economic climate, I should feel no remorse whatsoever about selling my downtown Seattle condo when I moved to China (which I had previously described as one of the big regrets of my life).  Mike has an MBA, so I trust him on such things.  What a relief!

Mike also completely disagreed with my frequent observation about how artists have an obligation to know their materials. I’m still thinking it over, but I trot that one out less frequently these days.

Another conversation stuck with me.  I mentioned a poet friend of mine that Jutta and I had gone bowling with a few weeks prior.  She’s since left Shanghai to pursue a graduate degree, which involves picking a new language to learn (you need four).  So we got to talking about career prospects for poets, and thinking about what poets really want out of life.  Mike said, “I think poets just want to be left alone.  Like composers!” 

So true.  That’s all I’m looking for.  I wish I could set my Facebook “looking for” field to “solitude.”  Perhaps as a composer I fetishize time a bit, but it’s really the only thing I need to do good work; I’ve got everything else.  My original plan for this sabbatical year was to move to another city where I didn’t know anybody and just be a hermit, focusing on my work.  As my sabbatical is starting to wind down (less than 2 months remaining!) I’m starting to think that wouldn’t have been such a bad idea.  I mean, I’ve gotten a fair amount done, but I always feel like I could be doing more.  So many opportunities in Shanghai, but, oh, so many distractions…

Other things I observed about Mike, which I think have always been pretty much true, and which I should really take to heart and emulate.

Mike is empathetic; he’s not over eager to talk about his own stuff, but is very receptive to what other people have to say.
Mike keeps his cool.
Mike doesn’t get hung up on insignificant details.
Mike seems to drink a bit less than he used to.
He looks a little older (a reminder that I’m sure I look much older than I did when I moved here), but he looks really happy. I mean, it’s his honeymoon and all, so I’d hope so, but in general he seems really happy with where he is in life.

So anyway, thanks to Mike and Liza for stopping by; your presence here was a tremendous joy and encouragement to me.  Accept my heartiest congratulations on your nuptials, and may you have every success with your impending projects (like that iPhone app).  Sorry for sending you to the beach with cupping bruises on your backs.  I love you guys.  You’re welcome back anytime.

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.

Introduction

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
Ubisoft
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

Multimedia
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!

Questions?

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