To say that working with SND's Mark Fell is exciting would be an understatement. A prolific multidisciplinary Sheffield-based artist, Fell's work in sound, image and interaction shows a keen interest in and mastery of technology, computer science, philosophy and contemporary art. Fell's bio outlines an extensive and accomplished career of critically acclaimed sound publications, curatorial and academic works, the design and development of generative art systems as well as an exhaustive list of exhibitions and performances at major international festivals including Mutek, Sonar and The Corcoran.
It is not surprising then that SND (Mark Fell along with Mat Steel) are hailed as difficult-to-categorize innovators of new digital minimalism with an impressive array of uncompromising and habitually out-of-stock releases to their credit. SND are also renowned for live performances where each 'event' explores and advances unique interconnections between transmitter, receiver, message, medium, software and scene.
Olaf Bender aka Byetone one of the performers headlining that evening alongside Raster Noton colleagues Carsten Nicolai (Alva Noto) and Frank Bretschneider affirms that the relevance or emphasis of these events is not due to any one part or aspect like music, visuals or context but rather to the correlations and synthesis of all these elements, or "the room" as Bender put it.
That the room is truly greater than the sum of its pixels is accentuated by SND's performance where strips of different hues incrementally generated and released by a progression of moulded tones traverse across an expansive 30' screen to the side of the performers drenching the capacity audience in mounting assail of pulsing light and oscillating resonance. The feeling or impression is difficult to pin down. Dynamic, permeating, confrontational, fixating, and somehow truthful... concurrently and unflinchingly so. One is left confidently anticipating the near future feeling exerted and generally transformed.
SND @ Club Transmediale 09 from Wuestenarchitekten
Turning 2 lines of English into 20 TouchDesigner nodes Fell: "what we wanted from the system we wrote in 2 lines - it was really that simple."
Markus Heckmann who worked closely with Mark Fell using TouchDesigner to produce the visual element describes the technology behind the spectacle:
"Both Mark and Mat are using Behringer BCR2000 with sets of knobs mapped to both sound elements and RGB colors. Whenever one of them turns a knob, TouchDesigner receives an encoded RGB value via OSC (Open Sound Control, similar to MIDI over Ethernet). In TouchDesigner the RGB channel is decoded and the separate RGB values are appended to a Table DAT (data operator), which accumulates a growing list of colors. The Table DAT is then transformed into 3 RGB channels which are converted to a row of pixels in a Texture Operator.
SND had us program in a reset button which would trigger an OSC message from Max to TouchDesigner, run a 1-line script to delete all color table entries, make all stripes disappear and cause them to start again."
Fortunately the temptation of Reset didn't happen, all stripes were preserved. Another way of looking at it is as described by Greg Hermanovic - the analogy of the visuals forming a geological history of SND's set - as at any time during the set, the left of the image is the beginning of the set and the right side is the present.
Every time a controller knob is adjusted by Fell and Steel, a colored stripe is added on the right making less room for the rest of the stripes. Each guy is sending a different color, often at the same time, which is why the colors alternate so much. By the time the set is over, they have adjusted 6555 times, making 6555 stripes. With a screen of 3000 pixels wide, toward the end of the set, strips drop out of view and reappear moments later, as if history is lost and recovered.
Although left to right is past to present, the division of time is not uniform but actually quite jagged. The time-separation between stripes is not known. All stripes are the same width, but one stripe may have happened several seconds since the previous one, followed by another one hundredth of a second later.
Fell and Steel made an interesting choice as to what is seen. Not all their musical controls affect the visual, only 18 knob controls each that affect filters and fx on 3 audio tracks each. There's an incongruence of the audio and the visual, even though they are controlled by the same knob-turns. Any change, no matter how slight, produces a new stripe. Twisting one audio parameter alone may produce a slight, unimpressive gradient of color. Conversely, two guys who are simultaneously, very slowly moving several controls at once will produce a rainbow of new stripes.
Also incongruous is the dynamic and temporary nature of music, contrasting with the image, which is technically very static but persistent.
Despite the seemingly organic evolution of their set SND's m.o. is one of tightly orchestrated intention, artistry and technology. As my college friend was droning on about them, anticipating the latest SND release 'Atavism' slated to drop any moment now, he had this to say about their set and put it well:
"The startling shifts are what get me whenever I hear their compositions. Suddenly within the span of a single song, you're aware that you've been listening to several structures, none of which fully supersede or are superseded by a single dominant structure. It is a traversal of varied musics within each song, each of which carries within itself the vestiges of rhythm from its antecedents, while revealing through fits and starts the atavisms of melody and harmony which are to be exposed and resumed at the elapse of startling moments of clarity and exposure. It's affecting and cumulative beauty is wrought through innovation within varied rhythmic, melodic and harmonic spectra defining the continuity along which the composition is developed. An overdose of awesome."
To provide visual accompaniment and then a document for such fleeting and temporally expansive audial insight is something Mark Fell has an interest in, or as he put it: he really likes the idea of building up, with the assist of TouchDesigner, a series of colour-based records of their shows. Simply put, but how to articulate?
Beyond the room and the culminating spectacle leaking and seeping from its physical and more intangible perimeters, what is quite remarkable here is the collaboration itself with artists like SND and Raster Noton who typically create their own visual elements just as they maintain full artistic control of creating their idiosyncratic sounds.
Increasingly TouchDesigner provides new and sophisticated capabilities to these visualist superstars. Scott Pagano recently expressed excitement for the new version of TouchDesigner, a product he claims to have been "keeping an eye on for a long time" and is now devoting some time to exploring. Pagano headlining with Jochem Paap (Speedy J) at the Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Arts on February 21st in Minneapolis is performing a live version of their piece “Umfeld”. Pagano who sees this show as the catalyst for a complete re-design of his live set intends that it will be his first show to incorporate TouchDesigner and a more sophisticated sampler/compositor.
R-N at OFFF Lisbon May 09
In May this year TouchDesigner will once again play a role in the design and facilitation of events. Raster Noton and 12 artists represented by the label including SND will unleash their spectre for a primarily commercial audience of media practitioners at OFFF, the Festival for the Post-Digital Creation Culture in Lisbon. While not much can be disclosed about the special Raster event 'LOOPITA' at this time, some discussion has revolved around 'the room' and the creation - from scratch - of a performance context that is likely to set off a chain of events not quite definable at this time but of gargantuan magnitude for sure. Stay tuned.