How an image led to an album

Dom Aversano

The Code / Album by Dom Aversano

Curiosity takes you to new places. I arrived in such a place after contemplating what a highly complex polyrhythm might look like. As an instrumentalist, I am accustomed to placing limits on my thinking based on what is physically possible, but since the digital realm essentially removes most physical constraints, we enter a new world of disembodied possibilities. The following image — created in P5JS — is one such example.

 

Visualisation of 750 polyrhythms

This image depicts 750 polyrhythms juxtaposed one on top of another. The x-axis represents time, and the y-axis is the increasing division of that time. At the very top left of the image, there is a single point. The line beneath has two equidistant points — one at the top left and one at the top centre. The line beneath this has three equidistant points: then four, five, six etc. all the way to 750 divisions. To create this by hand would be painstaking, if not impossible, but coding it is simple.

When I saw the image I was astonished — it contained star-like shapes, mirror symmetry, curved lines at either edge, and a series of interesting patterns across the top. Despite finding the image fascinating, I could not find a use for it, so I shelved it and moved on.

A little while later I decided to share these images on Substack, hoping they might be of interest to someone. To bring the images to life I decided to sonify them, by building a simple custom program in Supercollider. The program quickly morphed into a rabbit hole, as when I tinkered with it I heard new sound worlds awakening. It wasn’t long before I realised I was halfway into creating an album that I had never intended to make.

What captured me about the music was the same as the images: they were humanly impossible. Performing 750 rhythms is completely beyond the capabilities of the human mind, but effortless for a computer. The result was music that was temporally organised, but with no meter or ‘one’ to resolve on. There was a logical flow of patterns, but nothing to tap one’s foot to. Using the harmonic series as a scale allowed vast clusters of tones that the chromatic scale could not accommodate. With this vast number of tones, the distinction between timbre, chords, and notes started to break down.

The idea that computers can unlock forms of artistic expression which lie beyond the capabilities of the human body was described eloquently by the late computer artist Vera Molnar.

Without the aid of a computer, it would not be possible to materialize quite so faithfully an image that previously existed only in the artist’s mind. This may sound paradoxical, but the machine, which is thought to be cold and inhuman, can help to realize what is most subjective, unattainable, and profound in a human being.

Molnar’s proposal that machines can provide access to unattainable realms of artistic expression seemed a strong counter-argument to the romantic notion that machines degrade the subtleties of human expression. Rather than having machines imitate human expression, in Molnar’s interpretation, they could express facets of the human experience that the limits of physicality prevented. The machine rather than deromanticising human expression could be a tool used to express subtle aspects of ourselves.

With this idea in mind, I delved deeper into the visual dimension. One day, it occurred to me that the original polyrhythm image could be visualised circularly. In this case, the rhythms would be represented as rotating divisions in space that could be layered one on top of another. The result was an image distinct from the previous one.

 

Visualisation of 104 polyrhythms

The process for generating this image: Draw one radial line at 0°. Then add two lines equidistant in rotation. Then add three lines equidistant in rotation. Then add four lines, and so on.

The new image looked organic, almost botanical. The big division at the top was matched by half the size at 180° and two more half the size again at 90° and 270°. The dark lines represented points of convergence. The lighter areas are spaces of less density.

I chose the image as the cover for the album since having artwork and music derived from the same algorithm felt satisfying and aesthetically appropriate. Had I not made the initial image I would not have made the music, or at least I would have arrived at it in another way at another time. That this process occurred at all remains a surprise to me, which I treat as a testament to the capacity for curiosity to take us to unknown places.