Poetic Tech at the Decatur Book Festival: The “Bloop-Bleep” Stage

On Sunday, August 31, 2014, I did a presentation on the intersection of technology and poetry at art|DBF, an art-oriented segment of the Decatur Book Festival. The presentation was the culmination of several months of coding to develop a system that allowed a poet and an audience to create an interactive soundscape.

 

Why did I do this?

Most people, when they think of poetry, they think of it as this fundamentally human, often life-affirming human activity.

Most people, when they think of technology, think of it as this inhumane, if not inhuman, often soul-crushing process.

This is a false dichotomy, of course. Poetry and technology are both artifacts of what humans do. They are both profoundly human acts.

From the campfire to the cathedral, from the crystal AM radio to the liquid crystal display, our technology has affected what form poetry takes, who creates it, who listens to it, where it is experienced, and how it is distributed.

My intent was to build a demonstration of one possible way to enhance the the experience of poetry for both poet and audience.

 

How did it work?

I built a web based audio application that controlled sounds with smartphones.

The phones accessed a web server running on my laptop. The pages for the audience could read through the poems being performed and manipulate sounds using one of three instruments.

Audience UI

The audience accesses a website via smartphone. The site offers a view of the current poem, a dropdown selection of poems, and links to one of three musical interfaces, the first of which displays by default.

The three interfaces do the following things:

  • Instrument 1: create a rain stick-like sound with different effects based moving a point within an small window;
    swipe demo - Chromium_465
  • Instrument 2: a set of four percussion pads;
    swipe demo - Chromium_466
  • Instrument 3: a text area that creates sounds for each word typed.
    swipe demo - Chromium_467

Poet UI

The interface for the poet has six options – unfortunately only four worked at the time of performance, and only three worked without issues.

  • Effect 1: pitch follower creating audio effect a fifth higher than detected frequency
  • Effect 2: pitch follower creating audio effect a seventh higher than detected frequency
  • Effect 3: Multicomb filter
  • Effect 4: Spectacle filter
  • Effect 5: Hypnodrone – drone effect kicked off by detected amplitude
  • Effect 6: Stutter – warbling bass line using sine oscillator. Originally intended to create a glitch effect.

Poet UI - Chromium_468

 

The speaker had a separate interface for adding vocal effects and a background beat.

The web pages sent messages to a set of ChucK scripts running on my laptop. The scripts generated the sounds and altered the vocals as well as recorded the presentation.

 

How did it go?

The presentation itself was well-received. It was in the tent for Eyedrum, an Atlanta-based, non-profit organization developing contemporary art, music and new media in its gallery space.

I did my presentation outside with a set of powered PC speakers attached to the laptop. Later, I borrowed a PA and mixer from my friend and fellow poet Kevin Sipp. By the way, check out his debut graphic novel, The Amazing Adventures of David Walker Blackstone:

 

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The laptop was attached to a wireless router that passersby could use to connect to the website. Everyone was able to connect and interact with the site. There were some glitches – which I’ll talk about later – but for the most part, people seemed intrigued by the possible uses of mobile and web technology for poetic performances.

A couple of components either did not perform as expected or did not work at all. Of the audience-specific pages, Instrument 3 did not play or was at too low a volume to be heard over the ambient sounds of the festival. There were also some issues with switching between poems.

The poet-specific pages had issues with two of the six effects: “Multicomb” and “Spectacle”. The multicomb filter had a problem with feedback and was too loud. The spectacle effect didn’t work at all. In addition, the audio started suffering from latency issues. The recording of the first twenty minutes of the presentation started suffering from unintended glitching and was pretty much ruined. The recording of the last fifteen minutes was a little better (I stopped the recording to switch to Kevin’s PA setup), but suffered from the same issue not long into the presentation.

 

Conclusion

Overall, I think the presentation was well-received, and people were intrigued by what they heard. The issues with the setup became clear when I reviewed the recordings. There’s definitely room for improvement, and I will definitely build upon this design for future performances.

So good, bad, or ugly, I’m posting both recordings (Part 1 and Part 2) and the code for all to see.

Despite the issues, I consider the project a success. This is a prototype, so I expected some problems. Luckily, none of the problems were catastrophic. There were lots of bloops and bleeps, but nothing went “boom”. It would only have been a failure if I had learned nothing from the experience.

Until next time, check out the code, play with, let me know if you use it or modify it.

 

Enhancing Poetry With Pitch-Following Effects And Sounds, Part 2: Interesting Mistakes

I’ve put together a proof of concept for enhancing poetry with ChucK scripts, however, I soon realized that I wasn’t actually doing pitch-following. Instead, the code I put together was something called an “envelope follower”. I’ve uploaded the code to GitHub in case anyone wants to play around with it (you’ll need ChucK and the Audicle or miniAudicle IDE).

My physics is really rusty, so the best way I can explain it is that instead of checking the pitch of the voice to determine whether to kick off an effect, the script checks the *power* of the voice. I interpret this as more of a measurement of inflection or stress.

Not exactly what I’d planned, but it’s in the right direction.

This first draft of the script taught me a few things about how to build ChucK scripts that would respond to vocal input. For starters, I now have a new dimension to the vocals that I can use to kick off effects. Currently the threshold used to determine when the effects start has to be manually adjusted, but that could be dynamically changed through some other criteria like external data feeds or input by other people.

I also found that I needed to have a means to stop as well as start effects. When I first put the code together without having a means to stop an effect, the result got noisier and louder until I manually stopped the program.

I also wanted to vary the duration of the effects, so I did the following: (1) I included a global class for setting tempo and note durations; then (2) I added an array of time durations and looped through them each time an effect got kicked off.

Most of the resulting code is cobbled together from existing code examples found on the internet. My coding philosophy for the most part is based on what I call “the thieving magpie”: find components that do what I want (or close to it), slap them together, then modify as needed until I get the desired result.

The poem I used for the demo is “The Seekim”, by Sidney H. Sime. It comes from the book “Bogey Beasts”, which is out-of-print and hard-to-find. Each poem was written and illustrated by Sime; each poem also had a musical score written by Joseph Holbrooke. I’ve never heard the music performed, but the book fascinated me. I’m still kicking myself for having sold it at a used book store almost twenty years ago.

So even though I didn’t exactly know what I was coding, I got some results I liked, and learned enough to start thinking about next steps.

The Fungi from Yuggoth Project – Programmatic (and Problematic) Composition

I had never heard the phrase, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset” until I was listening to a lecture on poetry on CDs  with my son Jack. It made me think about this project of mine – creating an audio book of H.P. Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth. Not only was I recording my spoken version of it, but I was adding original soundtracks. And to put the cherry on this Geek Sundae, I was going to write code that would “render” the music for me.

The task was – and still is – daunting, and I’m uneasy about how it’s coming out. I can tell right now that more than half of this project will prove very difficult for a lot of people to listen to.

But you know what? To hell with it – this is fun for me…

My criterion for success is pretty simple: the project will be complete when all 36 poems are posted on Bandcamp.

The project consists of two versions of each poem – “compressed” and “uncompressed”. More on that later…

The music is created as the poem is typed. Each key pressed creates a note with a duration. Vowel keys and the space bar kick off samples or percussion instruments.

I’m using a programming language called ChucK for creating the music. I discovered the language while browsing for online classes at Coursera. The site had a class called “Introduction to Programming for Musicians and Digital Artists”. If you’re interested in using programming to create music, I recommend this course – it’s well-organized and you learn something regardless of whether you start as a coder or a musician.

To use this language, you’ll need to install ChucK and its development environment, miniAudicle.
You can get them both here. I’m not going to get into the installation process – the ChucK website has a page devoted to that.

I use five scripts to create the music:

  • initialize.ck – this calls the master script, score.ck
  • score.ck – this calls three scripts needed to create and record the music
  • BPM.ck – this program defines Beats Per Minute (BPM) as well as named note durations (from whole note to 32nd note)
  • mechanical-typist.ck – this script is the heart of the music “rendering” system. It defines the rules and the instruments used. It also listens for the keyboard input that plays the instruments and effects.
  • rec-auto-stereo.ck – this is the recording script. It records until you shut off all the “Shreds” or pieces of code running in ChucK.

There is also a folder called “audio” containing all the audio samples used by the scripts.

Each of these scripts was based on either the examples used in the Coursera class or examples on the ChucK website.

I’m making  the files I used to create the music available as a zip file on my Google Drive, so feel free to play with them and create your own pieces.

Here’s an example of what a “rendered” composition sounds like:

I’ve taken these  initial renderings and done additional processing in Audacity.

Here are some examples of a “compressed” and “uncompressed” version of the poem, “Night-Gaunts”:

You may have noticed that the uncompressed version is significantly longer than the compressed version. I was initially at a loss for how best to present the poems. I didn’t want to use the rendered music solely as raw material – the rendering is the actual text of poem, just transformed into sound. Each rendering is a tone poem in a very literal sense.

That still doesn’t make it any easier to listen to, which is why I’m adding heavily processed version of the vocal track to the uncompressed pieces. As I progress in the project, I’ll think about what else, if anything , to add.

Stay tuned for more updates on the project!