Chris Korda: Alienation into polymeter
Kaajal Shah / Snippets
July 30, 2019
Ahead of the upcoming Perlon release, Chris Korda presents a journey in and around exploration of the self: an identity hidden in plain sight.
ďMy long journey into complex polymeter is alienating: I feel like a sighted person in the kingdom of the blind. What I call ďthe tyranny of fourĒ (the 4/4 backbeat) is ubiquitous, it all increasingly sounds the same to me to the point of allergic reaction. Itís frustrating. I feel like Iím trying to start a revolution but most people seem unaware that anything is wrong, for now I just try to lead by one example.
Iím presenting a new way of composing music: every note of every part can have a different meter and often does. Some of my tracks take thousands or even millions of years to repeat (the software includes a feature that tells you how long your current pattern will take to repeat). Itís drastic and impractical, and without special tools, which is why it took me so long (roughly 15 years) to make another album. I had to write my own MIDI sequencer from scratch (again). Itís free and open-source, and still actively being developed Ė the system is optimal for building recursive modulation networks in MIDI space.
I have an album hopefully coming out later this year, which sounds like solo instrumental performances, piano and guitar. But itís completely algorithmic Ė all the harmonic and melodic content (often atonal as in pitch class sets) is generated by polymeter modulation. The networks are so complex I had to add a graphing feature to my software to keep track of whatís happening. The subtlety of behavior that can emerge is astonishing Ė I should write a book about it but thereís no time. And there isnít really proper help on using my software, which I feel guilty about. But even if there was, the problem is deeper. Itís the composing methods that are hard to explain, not how the software works but what itís good for.
This is the metaconcept: phase shift as a generator of variation in all dimensions of the musical performance, which allows for the emulation of human embellishment without randomness. But itís not the same as human embellishment itself; people are too complex for that. Yet itís similar; itís the uncanny valley. And past a certain point it becomes credible enough that it no longer matters whether itís synthetic. The key is that this method allows me to explore spaces that are currently untravelled and largely unknown (a kind of space exploration).
Why the bias against randomness? The opposite of randomness is intention. Artistic endeavor consists of cultivating intention and translating intention into reality, more or less faithfully. Randomness is for wind chimes, casinos, genetic selection even. Randomness can never capture our human experience because like all organisms our behavior is driven by pleasure and pain, through seeking and avoiding. Intention is a survival strategy hard-wired into us by billions of years of evolution.
1991, in Provincetown Massachusetts Ė the initial public explorations into gender (self portrait)
The method is rules Ė I build a system of constraints. The rule-crafting activity is akin to sculpting, and the result is a virtual kinetic sculpture. These days I mostly avoid manipulating timbre because itís a distraction from harmony. Music is increasingly made by non-musicians lacking formal training and it shows. Music is not sound design. And DJ culture conflates sound design with composing Ė this is a serious conceptual error. The classic acoustic timbres of piano, guitar, vibraphone, orchestra etc. have survived as long as they have for good reason. For truly complex harmonies found for example in jazz and especially atonal music (where tonality is often dissonant and indeterminate), the classic timbres offer unmatched clarity. Overmodulated or distorted sounds muddy up the harmonic space and obscure the subtle nuances of rich tonality.
Of course thereís nothing wrong with experimenting, but the question is with what Ė if only with timbre, then musically weíre screwed. Music has measurably been declining in complexity since the peak of the jazz age. This is tragic but the battle is by no means lost. It will not be won by retreating into an idealized past as jazz purists now do, but by embracing our brave new technological world and collaborating with machines in order to explore the realms that lie beyond human performance and composition ability.
I did not write the music on Akoko Ajeji in any usual sense of the word Ė I could never have written it, and in many cases I donít understand it. I only understand the degrees of freedom that allowed it to come into being, which is very different.
Itís the opposite of free jazz where everyone does what they like. My method couldnít be more structured Ė itís a deterministic rule-based system that emulates human whimsy. Yes itís paradoxical, but there it is. I built my system for the express purpose of exploring an unknown frontier, like a bathysphere on a deep sea mission I could only guess what weíd find down there and hope for it to be worth the effort.
There are doubtless more degrees of freedom I havenít yet discovered, leading to other hidden worlds. Itís more like n-dimensional space where the only limits are imagination and technological skill. One can imagine a degree of freedom but be incapable of implementing it Ė this happens to me all the time. As always, the devil is in the details. Outside the box is a hard road.Ē