In a world where you are constantly being bombarded by new styles of computer music, it can be tricky to get your bearings. Electro, electronica, electroacoustic—the list goes on and on. At times the possibilities are so overwhelming that you just wish you had a computer program to sift through all the countless sounds and styles and bring you something truly innovative.
John Supko created a music program to do just that. Supko’s bearings_traits is a generative music engine which is capable of creating new music from an enormous database of audio source material. Supko designed the program in order to sift through over 110 hours of music and sounds which he and media artist Bill Seaman compiled over the past three years.
The duo’s database included field recordings, analog and digital noise, acoustic and electronic instruments, old cassettes from Supko’s juvenilia, recordings of Seaman and Supko playing the piano (both inside and out), and documentary soundtracks from the 60s and 70s. Supko’s newly developed software then selected audio samples of varying lengths from the database and combined them in different ways to create new aleatoric, multitrack compositions.
Seaman and Supko took 26 of these computer-generated “first drafts” and transformed them into an ambient, otherworldly album titled “s_traits.” One artist shaped all of the odd-numbered tracks and the other shaped all of the even-numbered tracks—but they’ll never tell who worked on which.
“On its own, bearings_traits came up with things that were totally charming and strange and wonderful, but sometimes a bit too mechanical or impassive,” Supko said. “Our approach was to keep the computer’s crazy inventiveness but to refine it in ways only a human (at least for the moment) can. So, for instance, if I heard something that had some emotional attraction for me, I would enhance the effect. If I heard a ghostly melody, I’d try to support it in the texture. If there was potential for a dramatic moment of attack or climax, I’d try to bring it out.”
Another more human element they added to the album was a text written by Seaman. The full text appears on the CD cover, and each track opens with Seaman reciting a few words from it. These text fragments were assigned randomly by bearings_traits, and function as both an introduction and a title for each of the pieces.
The fragmented texts perfectly echo the album’s ethereal and experimental tone, at times even helping to shape the listener’s perception of the distinctive musical textures. Despite the vast range of acoustic and electronic audio clips incorporated into this musical project, overall the album is very cohesive in its wistful and contemplative soundscapes.
“The computer did things we would probably never do, because it was able to search vast amounts of music very quickly, and put together many fragments in ways that would have taken us many months to try out ourselves,” Supko said. “The results are both unpredictable—since it’s impossible to know which fragments from the 110 hours of material the computer will select and spin into melodies, rhythms, and harmonic accompaniments—and yet oddly coherent.”
The result is a collection of whimsical sound waves and ethereal static which washes over the listener and immerses them in the depths of mesmerizing new acoustic and electronic timbres.
Still, the exploratory nature of the ambient melodies and ghostly static give these pieces a distinctly human quality. The skeletons of these works may have been crafted by a computer, but the melodic and harmonic polishes that bring these pieces to life could only have been created by humans.