↬ Twenty-three – 07: Clarence, Bézier, Spirals, Curves

Hi, I’m Rudiger Meyer and this is my monthly newsletter covering what I’ve been up to and what’s been catching my attention.

Clarence Barlow, “a genial, gregarious soul with a delightful sense of humour”, and my perhaps most important composition teacher, passed on nearly a month ago. That’s gotten me listening through the available recordings of his music, revisiting some of his lectures and interviews, and thinking through some of what I learnt from him.

Clarence Barlow

Thinking back on his qualities as a person two aspects stand out: His ability with language – a wonderful facility with speech, a way of speaking that made it a pleasure to listen to his lectures. As if he could lift language to a level of clarity not bogged down by the emotional highs and lows of everyday exchanges.

Algorithmic composition was his big thing, but his pieces always grew out of an initial inspiration that was subsequently given a more structured, often computer aided, algorithmic expression. That process lent itself well to teaching – he could aid students in giving a more solid, thoroughly-thought-through form to their (nebulous) ideas. A set of inter-related tempi based on ratios, for example, rather than simply plucking them ‘out of the air’, while remaining true to the basic idea/concept, which might very well have arrived ‘through the ether’, without getting caught up in stylistic questions.

Spiral structure of Im Januar am Nil
Im Januar am Nil – Spiral structure

I’ll write a more thorough commemorative post during the coming week. In the meantime, for for those not familiar with his work a little collection of points from which to start:

Bob Gilmore’s 2007 interview with Clarence provides an excellent overview of his thought and work.

Music Derivata – chamber works beautifully played by the Ives Ensemble.

Musica Algorithmica – an extensive double CD set covering a large part of Clarence’s output, including the larger works that Bob Gilmore lamented weren’t available at the time of his interview.

I’m still very fond of this computer realization of the opening of Im Januar am Nil – the ensemble version of which is available on the aforementioned Musica Algorithmica CD.

Çoğluotobüsişletmesi, his wonderfully crazy and infamously difficult piano piece named after a Turkish bus company .

And the beautiful …until…

Algorithmic composition based on my own work during the period 1971-2017. A video of a lecture covering much of his output.

Another good introduction to his life and works is this interview from the start of his tenure at the University of California Santa Barbara.

On Musiquantics – a PDF of the lectures that I enjoyed back in my student days in The Hague. See also the list of texts on Clarence’s site.

* * *

Jeremy Smith’s Audulus Pitch Wheel remains a work in progress, but is coming along nicely. Robin Sloan posted some prints from an 1883 Japanese fireworks catalogue, and that sparked a vision of how the UI might be shaped.

1883 Japanese Fireworks catalogue

Jeremy threw himself into some smart programming and voila! – a beautiful interface for all those scales, now with colour hues, has become a reality.

Audulus Pitch Wheels with teardrop shapes for the notes.

One of the details that we’ve been working on is creating some musical symbols – the (double) sharps and flats required for all the scales – that fit in alongside the Anodina typeface that Audulus uses. Jeremy has again come up with some ingenious workarounds for what is possible within the bare-bones possibilities of Audulus’ vger graphics renderer. Bézier curves are available, but only the quadratic type, which means that one needs to get creative and generate the cubic curves programmatically via a series of minute strokes – all of which means that it’s been a bit more of a task to get a decent musical flat symbol in place.

(Getting notation symbols to play nicely with sans serif letters is generally something of an art in itself, though fortunately in this case there’s not an extensive notation vocabulary that needs to be taken into account, only the basic sharps and flats.)

* * *

Beach Flower

* * *

While grappling with those Bézier curves I came across this nice interactive web tutorial covering the basics as applied in SVG files.

Bézier tutorial

Wikipedia has a great article on Bézier curves with some wonderful animations that beautifully demonstrate how they are constructed.

Cubic Bézier animation
Cubic Bézier animation

The article includes the mathematical formula for the cubic curves, and that can be implemented fairly simply with Lua in the Audulus Canvas node.

I love how the animations demonstrate the curves as a function of time, and of course they’ve also typically used for animation fades etc.

The Inge Druckrey Teaching to See video that I shared in my May newsletter has a nice section on understanding letters in terms of motion (since the chiselled Roman letter forms that we’ve come to know so well were originally written): The tension between the perfection and stability sought by the eye, and the speed and spontaneity desired by the hand at work.

* * *

I found it interesting that the basic quadratic form of the Bézier curve corresponds to the hyperbolic paraboloids that Xenakis was using in his composition Metastaseis and the Phillips Pavilion at the Expo 58 World Fair in Brussels.

Xenakis – string curves for Metastaseis

And it turns out that around that time, almost exactly the same time(!), two Frenchmen, Paul de Casteljau and Pierre Bézier, were each independently busy formalising the curves they were developing for rival French car companies, Citroën and Renault, both pioneering the use of computers as part of the design process.

Early Car CAD design structure
Old French car in the neighbourhood

* * *

Birkemosegaard – view towards the ocean.

* * *

I mentioned Marcin Wichary’s amazing book on computer keyboards Shift Happens in my April newsletter. It’s now in the process of being printed and he’s been sharing what that involves in some threads on Mastodon. A fascinating peek into the complexity of translating the visual perfection that we enjoy on our screens to the physicality of ink on paper.

* * *

Synthtopia had a post on Helmholtz’s vowel synthesizer from the 1860s. I remember Hordijk mentioning it in one of his talks, full of enthusiasm for that period in which the basis of much of our current understanding of sound and synthesis was established.

All the best,
↬ Rudiger

P.S. This newsletter comes a little later than intended. For the first time following thirty issues I simply lacked that mental wherewithal to pull it together yesterday. And not just my brain, my eyes need a rest too. Time for a break, even though there’s so much I’m itching to try out!

Evening ocean view with a yacht in the center of the picture, a light on its mast.

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Hi, I’m <a rel="me" class="p-name u-url" href="https://rudigermeyer.com">Rudiger Meyer</a>, a composer interested in the play between music, sound, and&nbsp;media.