Music For Writers: In Not-So-Dire ‘s_traits’

This is one of the posters being produced by media artist Bill Seaman for the release of the album on November 4 on the Cotton Goods label.
This is one of the Seaman-Supko posters being produced for the limited run CD, releasing November 4 on the Cotton Goods label.

‘A Sentence Swimming In Uncertainty’

A generous and “generative” heart beats at the conceptual center of composer John Supko and media artist Bill Seaman’s sweetly addictive new release, s_traitson the Cotton Goods label. The work is among the most writerly studies yet in our series on contemporary composition for authors.

The work stands, almost imperceptibly, on a vast collection of textual phrases — a verbal intelligence deftly submerged in a shimmering gully of sonic handshakes, winks, caresses, nods, sighs.

Visuals produced by the two men’s collaboration include complex imagery from Seaman’s video-engine software, and a set of specially created posters for the limited-edition physical release of the CD.

And the music, which sounds as if it’s floating on a watery expanse, arrives as an exquisitely rendered sargassum, drifting — tantalizingly — just out of reach. Supko’s own comments on the piece, which is predicated on a percussion duo he wrote, Straits, say that it’s “the product of three minds: two human, one artificial.”

Constantly in languid motion, a line of text from s_traits could mean something, might not, then again may just very well be…no, it’s gone again, enveloped in a sophisticated, undulating current of layered sound and light.

This is recombinant text that Seaman created after the poem straits by Kenneth Koch. A part of it reads:

what I say it is, it is not • what I say I say in the silences • reviver • a bidirectional revolution • a code in the breaks • putting a spin on coded records • the late voice was welcomed in • the boat gently oscillated • a room of numbers in one • roussel never made it to africa • the ocular canal • lined with tiny waves • using misunderstanding • the woman’s pun was spun

Like someone’s bare shoulder grazing yours, Seaman’s opening phrase for each section of this music teases and come-hithers you as much as the found-sound music that follows. When Seaman says “and the ice appeared blue,” for example, to open the 9th section, there’s a fluctuating song of discovery waiting, a quiet chord on a piano folded deep behind a door-hinge string phrase over a deep bass-rolling continuum.

The work will be released for sale on November 4.

And if you know some of Campbell Scott’s best audiobook narrations (Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer, Don DeLillo’s Point Omega), his voice will come to mind when you hear Seaman speak these curious snatches of prose — “acting as they do as substitutions,” “the doubled was doubled over,” “the angle of the lips,” “I had fallen for the delicacy.” Free of affectation and smoothly engaged without emotion, Seaman positions each segment title on something like a musical sandy bottom — within seconds, Supko’s “bearings_traits” software rolls and ripples over you: urbane, sensitive, pulsing.

‘And The Lines Lived Beneath The Surface Of The Sound’

John Supko | Image from JohnSupko.com
John Supko | Image from JohnSupko.com
Bill Seaman | image from Cotton Goods Records
Bill Seaman | Image from Cotton Goods Records

This is “generative” production of the recording you hear. It took some three years for the duo to collect all the audio source material that goes into the work. Notes on the production say that what was sampled includes casette recordings and both acoustic and electronic instruments. Supko’s bearings_traits system then generates “spontaneous, multi-track compositions.”

More of the text available in the project:

gentle persuasions, invasions, on less than ocular occasions • the legitimate family resemblance • the thrown sense • palpable, taking on another • the forking cut • the throat of light • the salient flow • action at a distance • the floating sight • the flesh curtain • the sensual tongue • folded and folding • the cycle is over as soon as it begins • the breath of chance • in a change of wind • the still are moving and moving still • windows are spoken, bored, and barred • the drunk is plastered and sings a succinct cypher

As soon as you read violist Doyle Armbrust writing for Q2 Music that Seaman and Supko’s new collaboration “mines more than 100 hours of source material culled from Supko’s percussion duo straits, field recordings, 1960s and ’70s soundtracks, and the collaborators’ cavortings with a piano,” you want to run the other way, right?

Wrong. Sit still, listen. What a rich, compelling suite this is. One or two quick sections in, you’re hooked and not about to wade out of this tide of intriguing, sleek, somehow exceedingly fit music — as Seaman’s fifth snippet has it — “against the volume of the sea.”

‘The Absence of Spoken Words’

s_traits releases for sale on November 4, 2014
s_traits releases for sale on November 4, 2014

In a curious result of this highly idiosyncratic music, you get the sense of one of those dreams in which everything is clearly identifiable but nothing comes together in a way you can recall fully. If you don’t think frustration can be delicious, then you haven’t heard these short, dodgy bobs and weaves. More of the Koch text:

painted sound and painted text • words made luminous • and the lines lived beneath the surface of the sound • the piano was quietly restructured • becoming furniture for the guests • holding the music in his fingers • the body of the text was strewn to the wind, left hanging in the air • this founding of words was later elegantly scattered and deeply reflective • yet merging with the landscape • the sound was entrained • the lines focusing flows • out from the straits

Composer John Supko is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of Music at Duke and holds a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University’s Jacobs School of music and a PhD from Princeton.

Artist Bill Seaman is also at Duke, co-directing with Supko a program called The Emergence Lab in the university’s Media Arts + Sciences division as a professor of art, art history and visual studies. His degrees include a BFA from San Francisco Art Institute, an MSVisS from MIT, and a PhD from the Center for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Art at the University of Wales.

The forthcoming album features 26 tracks, 13 contributed by each man — Supko and Seaman have not revealed who composed which of the tracks, according to music critic Jeffrey Edelstein, who has contributed some very articulate notes to the production.

Edelstein tells us that Seaman and Supko think of “generative” music as having to do with “the ‘uploading’ of human creativity to the computer.” Their software can generate hybrid samples, he writes, from the existing collection, which allows the composers to “remix — again and again — the work of the other,” and these outcomes were added to the library of sound they built to create new depth.

Once the system had output its compositions, the two co-composers then developed what you hear as the album’s tracks — some 77 minutes of remarkably stimulating textual imagery and glowing sound:

the code was broken where the lips had spoken • the floors shifting • the furniture was splayed • holding its breath the silence shimmered • her lips for a moment mouthed the lines • the fabric of her code was woven in song • at the end of the mouth • on the tip of the tongue • one notices what one has forgotten • the code from beneath drives the lines • mercurial as the light TC mark

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