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Essays and Reviews

Todd Barton's "metaScapes"
New Music with MetaSynth

The title of Todd Barton’s outstanding new album begs the question, what is a metaScape?

In the particular case of this album, a metaScape is of course a creative work that happens to employ new music technology, called MetaSynth. More will be said about this technology in the interview with Todd that is appended to this review. Suffice to say here, MetaSynth is one of a variety of new computer software programs that emulate the functions of conventional music synthesizers. The electronic music studio has been typically a patch-quilt agglomeration of cumbersome keyboard and rack-mounted synthesizer and sound processing modules, connected all together by a nightmarish tangle of audio and other cables in a bewildering complexity of configurations. But now, many musicians are turning to the general-purpose personal computer to replace all of this gear. Understandably, the simplification in the design of the studio seems to enable a commensurate increase in the beauty and distinction of the music. Such is the certainly case with the music of Mr. Barton.

There is, however, a deeper meaning to be found in the title of this album. This larger meaning helps us to probe not only the place and significance of the music of "metaScapes" in particular, but also to focus once again on its relation to the whole process of revolutionary development in music generally speaking that was initiated by the ideological and technological movements of the 20th century. For if the pieces in this album are metaScapes, one can imagine that this is their particular distinction. A metaScape may be a new word intended to describe a new thing, part and parcel of the radical newness of music in our time. Yet, this possibility may also lead us to remember that "symphony" was a new word in its day, likewise invented to describe something new.

Being at some remove now from the volatile arguments that accompanied the musical life of the last century, we may be able to see more clearly that all of its revolutionary fervor only highlighted a process of constant musical change that began with the birth of the art itself. In other words, the whole process that has given rise in the present instance to the music of "metaScapes" may not after all be limited in scope only to contemporary developments in music, let alone to the invention of the electronic music synthesizer. Instead, it is coterminous with the entire history of classical music in our culture, which renders our impression of this music less subject to our consciousness of the newness of its sound.

Approaching this realization from another direction, we may wonder if a metaScape is just a new name for something that is actually not new at all, except in the way that every original work of music is new. We may then wonder if any and all music could be called a metaScape in some sense of the word. In considering the title of this album, we may even hope to disclose something about the nature of music, per se.

Clearly, for the composer, the title "metaScape," refers to something else quite apart from its connection with MetaSynth, for one easily associates the title with the idea of the landscape. And, we are confirmed in this association of ideas by some of the titles given to the individual tracks on the album. "Forbidden Palace." "Forbidden Chamber." "Terrain." Yes, even, "Dark Landscape."

As it happens, the representation of a landscape is itself one of the principal metaphors applied to the function of art in general, being a subsidiary aspect of the ancient Greek definition of art as a reflection of Nature. There are other metaphors, which resemble it in essence. For example, at one point during the 1960s, a period when modernism in the plastic arts achieved full maturity, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a show entitled, "The Image of Man." It purported to encompass all of the varied developments in modernist art within the rubric of that fundamental human metaphor. After all, it is not entirely obvious what constitutes the image or reflection of a man. One might take the x-ray photograph of a man as emblematic of this fact. It will not look very much like the person we ordinarily recognize, but it is his image nonetheless. In similar wise, so the museum suggested, an abstract painting may be the image of another kind of interior man, not ordinarily recognized, but real.

The word "landscape" became originally associated with art during the 16th century by the Dutch, whose artists were the first to master the depiction of the earth itself, and thereby made it a suitable subject of artistic interest. The English word comes out of the Dutch landschap referring to a region or tract of land. According to the New American Dictionary, "The fascinating thing is that 34 years pass after the first recorded use of landscape in English before the word is used of a view or vista of natural scenery. This delay suggests that people were first introduced to landscapes in paintings and then saw landscapes in real life." The imaginary product of the artistic consciousness is here transformed into a substantial reality recognized by all and sundry. This may possibly be the most essential function of art: i.e., to dispel the illusions that people take to be reality, and to reveal the reality in what people take to be illusions. Reasoning along these lines, one might suppose that a time may come when people will recognize real metaScapes in Nature. At least in the opinion of this reviewer, appropriating Byron’s verse, there is "no ear so dull, no soul so cold," but can hear the reality in the metaScaped illusions presented by Mr. Barton.

The application of the word "landscape" to music partakes of a larger and more conventional notion of musical space (these are only some of the related metaphors that help us to talk about the ineffable, the indescribable, and the insubstantial). Its use in music probably greatly postdates its use in the art of painting. It has less relevance perhaps to the musical space depicted in the highly abstract, and so-called "absolute" music of the Baroque and Classical eras. However, it would be a mistake to assume that it came to be applied to music only when composers took a more active interest in the design of new orchestral sonorities, thus creating individualized depictions of a more personalized musical space. When Debussy’s music was called "impressionistic," to his chagrin, people tried to express with that term the way in which the composer split "light" in novel ways, painting orchestral "landscapes" with "colors" that had never before been imagined. But it is also worth remembering that Debussy’s "colors" were as much a function of the new harmonic and melodic entities and procedures that he employed. It will be seen that, in this respect, by virtue of revealing new harmonic "regions" or "territories," he was very much in accord with the pulse and momentum of his historical muse.

Much could be said about the way in which the words "space," and "region," and "territory," are applied in music. One could, for example, examine the correspondence between on the one hand humanity’s relation to the physical and social reality implied by these words, and on the other hand, the artist’s handling of the musical entities that these words define. Thus, during the Middle Ages, a man’s immediate geography, and the human culture expressed in it, were the be all and end all of his experience. There was, it’s true, the implicit exoticism of Dante’s Heaven and Hell. But these too existed in a hierarchically constructed here and now of consciousness that was also perfectly expressed in music within the austere limitations of a small number of ordered tones (say five or seven).

Can it be mere coincidence that while Columbus sailed the ocean blue, madrigalists in Italy were suddenly employing the full "chromatic" of twelve tones? In so doing, they created complex tonal arrangements that hinted at musically exotic "territories" unheard of in the days of the flat earth. But what a chaos of space they revealed to us; nowhere any order whatsoever; the relations between harmonic regions being arbitrary and entirely subject to the whim of the musical adventurer. No rule. No law. Might made right, and one highly chromatic madrigalist is even reputed to have committed murder to prove it (Gesualdo).

Not the least curious aspect of chaos is that it cannot endure, this being a perverse feature of the tiresome and repetitive cycles that we are condemned to tread on the earthly plane. Just when one is getting used to the mess that has been made of things, someone comes along and brings order out of confusion. And so, just when the great European powers were drawing borders and coming to some accommodation amongst themselves as to the rules and limitations under which they would individually undertake the exploitation of their colonies in the New World and in Africa, just then came composers who fashioned a map of musical space subject to the laws of harmonic relations that is familiar to us. The system of order that they devised will always be remembered as one of the most sublime products of the human artistic sensibility. It is the harmonic system of the so-called common-practice period, elaborated in its fullness roughly from the time of Bach to that of Wagner. In its purview, every harmonic region was accessed according to a coherent protocol of relationships that was every bit as subtle and powerful as the political diplomacy of the time. Nation-state policy united the physical world, and common-practice tonality governed the musical world, in systems that were at least comprehensive, if not optimally satisfactory in other respects.

Yet neither could that particular order endure. Thus did the international order break down during the 20th century. And, at the same time, the tonal order could hardly be maintained. As Yeats said, "the center cannot hold." The system of harmonic relationships, describing musical space as organized around a tonal center, came under much abuse and attack. It had been supposed that all of musical space had been discovered and mapped. People were in for a big surprise.

Once again, musicians went exploring uncharted territories. And, new vehicles of transport became fortuitously available to them. The breakdown of established norms in the combination of orchestral instruments gave rise to an unprecedented deluge of new sounds. Once again, these were as much the product of new combinations of conventional orchestral timbres as they were of new harmonic combinations. But it is impossible to deny the importance of instrumental innovations in bringing about the change. Ultimately, sounds originating even outside the realm of conventional orchestral instruments began to be imported into the musical palette of sound.

Here, too, the historical development has been from the beginning all of a piece. When the Popes ruled the musical domain, the human voice was the only timbre worthy of the art. Instruments of all kinds were abhorrent to many in the Church. (Who knows? The violin, with its supposed darkly pagan roots in India may have set off the Medieval divine in much the same way as the sound of the saxophone terrified those early 20th century classical musicians who viewed "jazz" as the product of a deeply despised Africa.) They could not, however, hold back the musical tide. By the time of the madrigalists, use within the art had been found for a full compliment of viols, and a plethora of wind and brass instruments. And, then, again, came the assertion of power and dominance to establish norms and create standards of value. It is a fact that the Renaissance "orchestra" was a much more varied thing than the "classical" equivalent. So many instrumental timbres were exiled to the periphery when the conventional symphonic orchestra came into being. Most instruments of the earlier period did not survive into our time. Fortunately, the loss was more than made up for when, in the last century, electronic instruments made the musical element of timbre into a matter of literally infinite ramification.

All these developments in harmony and instrumentation were marshaled into the service of "painting" the musical landscape, or, if you will, in the present instance, a metaScape. We should probably favor the word "metaScape" since it pinpoints the metaphorical nature of the notion of musical space. A metaScape is a metaphysical entity. Any "meta" thing is derivative by nature. Every musical work ever composed may, in this light, be considered a metaScape. This means that nothing is "new" in Mr. Barton’s album except the unique expression of a distinctive musical personality in original works of great fascination and beauty. This is exactly how it should be in the practice of any art. The revolutionary technology employed in its creation is in this sense merely of technical interest, and in no way explicatory of the artistic content in the music.

To appreciate and understand the music of "metaScapes," as distinct from simply knowing something about its fabrication, one needs to listen with an open mind, heart, and spirit - just as one needs to do with any other music by any other composer in any other medium, in any other time. This is music that bears deep contemplation. The highly advanced state of the technology employed in its creation is witnessed precisely by the susceptibility of Mr. Barton’s music to purely musical analysis and evaluation. This was not always true of electronic music in the days when one made certain "allowances" for the limitations of the hardware and software. The music of metaScapes presents musical ideas in the conventional sense of the term, developing those ideas across musical time and space with "classical" reason and sense of proportion. It partakes of the same eloquence of expression that is the hallmark of all art music. In short, it is music that manifests the highest functions of the human spirit.

This now said, and hopefully having reduced the importance of the purely technical to its proper level, what can we learn about MetaSynth, and about making music with it on a personal computer?


Interview with Todd Barton

Question: In your studio, what kind of computer is running MetaSynth, and what musical controllers (such as keyboard, or breath) do you use to interface with the program? The sounds seem to be created out of pre-existing elements in some cases, i.e. instrumental or percussive sounds, chimes, etc. Do you use digital audio samples as raw material that is then processed musically by MetaSynth? Do you use a separate "audio-editing" program along with MetaSynth?

T.B.: I'm using a Mac G4 (265 Ram/450 Mhz/26 G hd) but it runs quite well on PowerBooks and G3's. The important thing is to have as much RAM as you can afford since the program is pixel based and renders pictures into sound and music. Regarding controllers, I just use the mouse and the qwerty keyboard. MetaSynth was designed by genius, Eric Wenger, to be an all-in-one box environment. The complete "suite" of software includes MetaSynth, an image based synthesis/sample playback and editing tool; Xx, a powerful midi-style sequencer with awesome algorithmic compositional tools (and a special feature that allows the saving of midi, piano roll notation as a picture that can then be opened in MetaSynth and further manipulated as an image); and Metatrack, a 16 track, stereo multi-track environment with individual effects, pan, volume and fades on each track.

MetaSynth can use as its sound source: digital samples, subtractive synthesis, granular synthesis, and fm synthesis. Every parameter is user definable and completely interactive. For instance, you can record a vocal or speech phrase directly into the MetaSynth sample editor, then do a Fast Fourier Transform analysis of the wave (turning the vocal sample into hundreds of sine waves), and then use that audio "x-ray" as a guide to paint other timbres of sounds into the natural harmonic structure of the original sample. Then, of course, you can take this newly created sound and use it as the original source for a sound picture painted in MetaSynth's Image Synth.

Basically, every pixel on the screen is a discrete oscillator with it's own amplitude envelope, it own filter envelope and it's own panning envelope. So. . . you can have up to 1024 oscillators!! That is why you want lots of RAM, since, once you've created a picture, it then may be "rendered" in order to hear the results and that "rendering" takes place in RAM. Once you've created a picture you can invert it,

repeat it at different pitch centers, overlay and out-jog it, apply retrograde, and retrograde inversion, filter out parts and use them as new secondary material in a formal composition. . . it is truly infinite in possibilities!

A sample editor is part of the main MetaSynth window. Besides having lots of specific editing tools: cut, paste, crossfade loop, reverse, interpolate, etc. There is also a powerful Effects Palette that includes grain synthesis, echo, resonator, harmonizer, phase vocoder, shuffler, flanger, phaser. . . These effects can be auditioned in real time and the parameters varied with a virtual joystick. Quite awesome!

Question: Where do you actually mix the many sounds employed in each piece?

T.B.: In Metatrack (see above).

Question: MetaSynth plays through the computer sound card. What kind of sound card is required to produce the quality of sound that you have recorded in your mp3 album?

T.B.: Most of the music on my site was done through an AudioMedia III sound card, but my most recent piece (at the time of this interview), Foreric: piano study, was done through the G4's sound card and sounds quite impressive for a piano sample with brass washes. At present, MetaSynth is designed for 16-bit sampling.

Question: Does MetaSynth allow for any of the "real-time" fun that comes from playing a musical instrument, or is it all numbers and algorithms and programming, programming, programming (!!@#$@@!!!!)?

T.B.: As mentioned earlier, MetaSynth renders sounds and music and is thus not a real-time instrument. But the deep, endless possibilities of sound and its sculpting is well worth the lack of real time. It is, simply put, a real compositional tool and musical environment. Instead of algorithms, numbers and programming, the interface is more akin to PhotoShop or CorelDraw. MetaSynth is a paradigm shift, a metaphor of music as color and space. MetaSynth is like vodka, it takes on the taste of whatever you put in it and enhances the experience!

To quote from U & I Software: "Computer music, sound design, 2D illustration, 3D graphics and multimedia: These fields always need new research, new techniques and better tools, which requires a passion, renewed daily. U & I has this passion, plus the urge to develop serious toys for creative people. The U&I team are experienced artists involved in both music and graphics, and they're the first users of the products they design. That is why U&I makes friendly software that is creative, recreational, productive and inexpensive, since we think that creation tools should be accessible to anyone."

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