Ron Herrema discusses Music and Code
Ron Herrema is a composer who works with sound, image and code. He recently spoke at an Artful Spark event under the theme of “Immersive Sound” at Google Campus. Samuel Fry interviews him about his work.
How would you describe what you do?
I usually introduce myself as a composer of music, sound, image and code. Most of what I do involves some combination of those four elements, whether working on my own projects or in collaboration with others. I am, for example, an iOS developer who has a special interest in creating iPhone app/artworks. Though my formal training is as a composer, coding is perhaps the most sustained part of my practice, since I use it to create music, sound and image. In recent years, I’ve focused especially on creating work that relates to contemplative practices, though not exclusively.
You have always felt that computing is the means to eachieve what you want to in music. Why do you say that?
I wouldn’t say always, because I was writing music before I ever encountered a computer. But I felt the potential of it intuitively the first time I saw a personal computer controlling musical output (this was 1985). For one, I could see that it would enable me to control the musical production from start to finish by myself, and secondly, I think I sensed a mode of creating that would feel comfortable to me. This probably has to do with the speed of the creative feedback loop, and with the extraordinary efficiency that’s possible with code.
What is Pure Data?
Pure Data, or Pd, is a visual programming language for the creation and control of audio. It’s called ‘visual’ because, instead of working exclusively with text, as in most programming languages, you work with graphic objects on a virtual canvas. Every object has a unique function, accepting input and generating output. Thus, programming involves connecting one object to another in as many different ways as you like. It’s free and open source and was created by Miller Puckette, who had previously created the commercial version, Max/MSP.
How and why do you use Pure Data for your work?
In keeping with Pd’s status as a generic audio workhorse, I use it in a variety of ways: for example, to create a bespoke synthesizer that I can play from other software; to create an interactive system for people exploring sound in workshops; or to generate and process sound and music within a smartphone programming environment. I use it because it’s versatile, it’s free, it has a strong user support community, and because it’s often the quickest, most efficient way to meet an audio programming challenge.
You are creating a new app called Infinity. What does this do?
Infinity is a follow-on from my previous app, Dancing Wu Wei. Broadly speaking, the purpose of these apps is to create a generative, audiovisual environment that is, on the one hand, meditative, and on the other, engages the user aesthetically. My intention with Infinity is to create a somewhat greater degree of interactivity than I had used in Dancing Wu Wei. It’s being supported by the arts organisation B3 Media and by the University of Nottingham‘s Mixed Reality Lab, where they want to integrate it into their research.
How are you using barcodes with this new technology?
A couple months ago, I found some code on the web that makes it quite easy to read barcodes with an iOS device (i.e. iPhone/iPad). I thought it would be fun to extract the numbers and use them as a means of generating music. From a computer’s perspective, music is nothing but numbers, so the translation is fairly easy. Not surprisingly, I made the engine behind my barcode music generator with Pd. The sound has an amusing 8-bit, retro quality but is combined with a classical, though slightly awkward, contrapuntal technique. I like these kinds of juxtapositions.
How can people without tech knowledge begin working in digital music composition?
I think most people already have some tech knowledge. If you know how to work your smartphone, you can download an app like Loopy and just start to play, for example. There are some other apps, like Sound Drop or Sonic Zoom, that do a fairly good job of walking that line between play and composition. And there are free sound editing apps, like Audacity and Spear, that are quite approachable. Finally, we have Pd, the visual programming language, if you enjoy building things in a nuts and bolts fashion, and which has lots of online tutorials for learning.