The Code from Beneath Drives the Lines

John Supko & Bill Seaman’s
Presented with Wet Ink Ensemble at Pioneer Works, October 29

Bill Seaman and John Supko celebrated the release of their new album s_traits with an event on October 29 at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. The evening’s performance paired four musicians from Wet Ink Ensemble with bearings_traits, an improvising software program designed by Supko, and visuals of generative images programmed by Seaman. Both professors at Duke University, Seaman and Supko have collaborated since 2011, exploring, as Jeffrey Edelstein writes in the liner notes for s_traits, “what might be described as the ‘uploading’ of human creativity to the computer.”

For Supko and Seaman, this meant amassing a database of, e.g., recordings of Supko’s percussion duo Straits, field recordings, noise, documentary soundtracks, and recordings of Supko and Seaman playing the piano. These samples were hybridized using software, and the results were themselves added to the database, which came to comprise over 110 hours of music. Supko then developed the bearings_traits software, which could cull from this database to generate complete compositions.

Bill Seaman. Photo by Josh Gibson.

The composers treated these compositions as first drafts, then reworked them into the 26 tracks on s_traits. To complement the music, Seaman, taking Kenneth Koch’s poem “straits” as inspiration, composed a poem of recombinant text, which appears in full on the album cover. Lines from the poem provide the track titles; each track begins with Seaman’s voice speaking the lines.

Now, despite my awareness of the long and rich legacy of readymade and recombinant art, and with due deference to Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, William Burroughs and Kenneth Goldsmith, DJ Shadow and J Dilla, let me just say that reading about projects like s_traits,which trumpet the use of wonder software and the benefits of computerized creativity, produces in me an instinctual leeriness. I will defend this leeriness to an extent; I think the glut of EDM and bland dance pop and non-Kanye West instances of Auto-Tune justifies skepticism towards new musical technologies. Still, I’m sure my wariness also stems in part from an extreme notion: I can’t shake the idea that creativity is something not at all determined by random factors, not reliant on prefabricated materials, and not reproducible by machine.

Of course, randomness, prefab materials, and mechanized production are all aspects of the composition process behind s_traits, but to my—perhaps reactionary—relief, Supko and Seaman go a step further. The bearings_traits software, selecting from a vast array of sonic material—some raw, some already reworked through software—generates a new sonic product, which Supko and Seaman then refine further. As Supko explains, “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.”

John Supko. Photo by Kyle Yamakawa.

The average track length on the album is around three minutes. The effect of this format is a density of sound: each track seems to present one condensed sonic idea; often there is one sample that acts as anchor, a center for the diverse array of other sounds to orbit like electrons around a nucleus. The recurrent piano theme on “Predictably Arcane,” for example, seems to function in this way. Seaman’s text, marking each new track, also has an anchoring role for the listener, as when, in a museum, you read the title of a piece of abstract art first before contemplating the work itself. There is also at times an eerie resonance between text and music, as on “The Clicking,” where a rhythmic clicking track marches throughout, intercut with clipped, glitchy sounds; the effect is not unlike listening to a CD skip.

At Pioneer Works, bearings_traits’s inventions were left unrefined; the human element came from the improvising musicians of Wet Ink Ensemble. Percussionist Ian Antonio, bassist Greg Chudzik, trombonist William Lang, and saxophonist Alex Mincek were reacting to compositions they had not heard before, compositions which, after all, the program was inventing spontaneously. The players were tentative at first, stopping when each new scrap of Seaman’s text announced a new composition, falling away to make room for a particularly busy sample. As the evening progressed, however, the players grew more assertive, stretching to fill the empty spaces left by the program’s samples and to bridge the gap between compositions. At times, the players traveled around the Pioneer Works space, so that you might suddenly hear the klaxon sound of a saxophone behind you, like a blast from a pipe organ’s supplemental horns in the back of a church.

I realize that the trouble with my knee-jerk response against computers and randomness playing a role in the creative process is an overemphasis on control. Wet Ink Ensemble sacrificed a great deal of control, improvising along to bearings_traits’s raw compositions, but the effect was engaging. With s_traits, John Supko and Bill Seaman have relied on software to help spin a huge tangle of material into a dense, rich fabric of sound. To be so immersed in material requires the composers to give up a degree of agency, it is true, but this does not preclude originality or invention. The reward is to find the potential for surprise in the material itself. As the last lines of Seaman’s text have it, “the code from beneath drives the lines / mercurial as the light.”


Marshall Yarbrough

MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.