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Algorithmic Composition Substructures
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xbeemer



Joined: Dec 04, 2003
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PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2006 7:50 pm    Post subject: Algorithmic Composition Substructures Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

After reading the thread "Program in Progress" started by bachus -

http://electro-music.com/forum/topic-7812.html

- and with great commentary by several others, it has occurred to me that perhaps, just perhaps, the community here can help me with a wall I've hit after some 20 years of trying to create algorithmic composing software that is capable of being the primary tool for creating rich and expressive algorithmic compositions. Not just excerpts that get folded into the mix, or small, fairly simple algorithmic pieces or (as I tend toward) sonifications of data of one sort or another.

The wall is how to create large scale, but subtle and polished compositions algorithmically. And how to do it with less effort in the mechanics, and thus more available to be put into the art.

It appears to me that bachus is going to hit exactly the same wall as I've hit, but from the other side. So in a way this might be a companion thread to his. I thought of putting it in his thread, but 1. my program is finished, at least to the extent they are ever really finished, and I'm looking more for content than software development, and 2. it probably would be best to keep his thread exclusively about his project. Or at least more polite.

However I look forward to comment by bachus, perhaps even a collaboration could develop. I say this up front to make it clear that in no way to I denigrate his project. I applaud it. Great concept, and clearly he has the chops to pull it off, so I only wish him the best. But I still see the same wall looming for him that I've hit. Really, that I've been running into for years, but I wasn't ready to acknowledge it because I hadn't refined my software to the point where its own limitations couldn't be ruled out. Now I have, and there's no doubt, the wall is there.

I think I know where the problem lies, at least for my software, and how to get to it and fix it. But I'm going to need help from more experienced composers, probably from composers who don't feel computer programs are worth a hell of a lot when it comes to composing music except perhaps for the mechanical stuff, setting down tracks and producing a score. So I'm putting my appeal for help here, rather in the development oriented sections.

Coming from my side of the wall, the problem is how to create algorithms and processes that know about compositional rules, whether it is Bach or Schillinger, but without being mechanically constrained by them and thus coming off mechanical sounding such as programs like Band-in-the-Box, or Jammer.

Coming from the other side of the wall, the problem will be how to create a dynamic flow and immediacy to the music that is pretty well impossible to get from any system that does not include real time interaction by the composer.

The problems I have solved over the past 20 years, are 1. how to make the software fairly easy to use when composing large pieces (it's all easy to use once you've gotten past the basics for small pieces); 2. how to efficiently handle and encapsulate virtually unlimited processes, to enable all the tests and exceptions and special cases and whatnot algorithmic subtlety requires; and 3. how to make look ahead (and look behind) an integrated part of the overall system, so it becomes a readily available process rather than a difficult special case.

Here is an old Keyboard magazine review of my 1st attempt:
http://web.inter.nl.net/hcc/davies/algmbox.html

...and here is a review of my more recent work by electro-music.com's own Howard Moscovitz:
http://electro-music.com/article.php?t=784

More info on the web site: http://algoart.com

There is more to be said on this problem, this wall, but already I've run on too long. So for now let me just lay out what I'm looking for, and if there is any interest I'll get more specific in future posts.

My program (ArtWonk or "AW") has the ability to encapsulate to a virtually unlimited degree, in structures called Macros that look like modules, but open up recursively deeper structure; and at any point branches not needed at a particular time can be shut down so they take almost no CPU resources, even for structures that are hundreds or even thousands of modules.

What I am looking for is help in developing these macros so they can be dropped into compositions to solve particular problems. This way, the composer is given complete freedom, but common musical problems that tend to be much, much more resistant to solving with a computer than with pencil and paper can be handled in a moment, with a minimum of the mechanical programming overhead it takes to solve each one individually.

If this sounds trivial, I assure you it isn't. Nor do I want to trivialize the composition process by creating cook book solutions. This is why I'm appealing to people with composition chops who have solved many of these problems the old fashioned way with pencil and paper and creative sweat.

John Dunn
Algorithmic Arts
http://algoart.com

PS: If you want to know who the hell this guy is, here is a 1-page bio:
http://algoart.com/johndunn.htm
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paul e.



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PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2006 8:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

this is coming from a naive stand-point because i am not a programmer..

but my intial reaction is : is it even possible to ever have a machine create a fully satisfying musical composition..in whole or in part?

is music ultimately just number? wether or not humans or machines or both are at the switch?

i know this questions the very precepts that AI and algorithmic music is based on, but i am seriously dubious such a thing could ever be acheived to the scope you envision

i.e. is this 'wall' just that gap between human and machine that will never be crossed?

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Blue Hell
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PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2006 9:03 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

noone seems to have bothered to say welcome to you in 03 when you registered here, so : welcome John!

Your wall may have a third side, the side I'm looking at right now while building a self playing thingy for the nord modular.

You bring up a very interesting subject and I'll click your links tomorrow, but today has ended for me :-)

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Last edited by Blue Hell on Sat Mar 04, 2006 9:05 pm; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2006 9:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

paul e. wrote:


i.e. is this 'wall' just that gap between human and machine that will never be crossed?


Maybe, that's what makes it fun for me :-)

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paul e.



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PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2006 9:18 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Blue Hell wrote:
paul e. wrote:


i.e. is this 'wall' just that gap between human and machine that will never be crossed?


Maybe, that's what makes it fun for me Smile


hehe i'm glad to hear that..it is an intriguing pursuit...

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xbeemer



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PostPosted: Sun Mar 05, 2006 8:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

paul e. wrote:
this is coming from a naive stand-point because i am not a programmer..

but my intial reaction is : is it even possible to ever have a machine create a fully satisfying musical composition..in whole or in part?

is music ultimately just number? wether or not humans or machines or both are at the switch?

i know this questions the very precepts that AI and algorithmic music is based on, but i am seriously dubious such a thing could ever be acheived to the scope you envision

i.e. is this 'wall' just that gap between human and machine that will never be crossed?


Not naive, but you ask a question - albeit a very interesting question - that I never addressed.

Can computers create music? Today, I would say yes only in the sense that elephants can paint pictures or bears can dance. This is likely to change in time, and no doubt the world will change dramatically with it.

Meanwhile, in the here and now, I don't remotely claim or want my software to create music. It is just a tool for a composer to use to create music. In fact, I personally abhor software that allows the user to create music and/or art by simply making a few parameter changes, drawing or the screen with the mouse, or whatnot.

This kind of software cynically treats the user as an input stimulus to some unquestionably clever and creative programmer's piece of generative art. These are terrific when they are honest about what they are and credit the real artist. But too many get commercial treatment and claim to make YOU an artist with NO EFFORT. And of course you do get great stuff with little or no effort, but it looks just like anyone else's work who uses that particular software because it's really the art of the programmer you see, not yours.

Art, among many other things, is a time battery; for it to be successful a lot of time has to be put into it. My software doesn't change that, it changes where you put the time, and enables you to perhaps address some issues that simply cannot practically be addressed by conventional means. And if drops some that can be better addressed conventionally.

What I'm looking for here is the creation of, and subsequent ability to drop in, macros that do some of the more mechanical stuff in composing, the algorithmic equivalent of figured bass perhaps. Not to have the machine create music, but to have the human operating the machine more time for the creative part and/or more creative options to work with.
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xbeemer



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PostPosted: Sun Mar 05, 2006 8:34 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Blue Hell wrote:
noone seems to have bothered to say welcome to you in 03 when you registered here, so : welcome John!

Your wall may have a third side, the side I'm looking at right now while building a self playing thingy for the nord modular.

You bring up a very interesting subject and I'll click your links tomorrow, but today has ended for me Smile


A welcome is always nice, whenever it's given. Thanks!

I look forward to your comments after you've seen the goods.
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paul e.



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PostPosted: Sun Mar 05, 2006 9:44 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

thank you for your response..i am finding it thought-provoking

welcome btw

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 07, 2006 2:11 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

As for the question, "can computers ever write music?" - I think it is a yes and no. Already there are many pieces composed with ArtWonk, or Noodles on the NMs, or Keykit, or Max/MSP, or a bunch of other automatic stuff that I would much rather listen to than this year's Academy Award winning song, "It's hard out here for a pimp".

If the center of one's consiousness is in their genitals, then the computer is probably not going to do it, but if one is an intellectual maybe the computer has an opportunity.

I think that computer music and art can be inspiring.

Virtually all computer art is based on the computer being used as a tool - a complicated paint brush or a cybernetic musical assistant.

At any rate, I don't think this this is John's issue. People working in this field have enough experience to know that algorithmic generators can make some very nice substructures (short compositions), but sucesssful large scale compositions are much more rare.

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paul e.



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PostPosted: Tue Mar 07, 2006 3:11 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

wow..great post...things to ponder
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 07, 2006 3:48 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

What if we didn't ask "can computers write expressive music?" and instead asked wether writing algorithems can be a expressive act?
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 07, 2006 5:59 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Hi xbeemer!

Sorry I didn’t’ see this sooner. I’m going to download the trial version of ArtWonk immediately and spend a while with it to see if I can think of anything intelligent to say.

And a hearty welcome from the alternative mentalities group!

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 07, 2006 7:24 pm    Post subject: Re: Algorithmic Composition Substructures Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

xbeemer wrote:
...The wall is how to create large scale, but subtle and polished compositions algorithmically.


It seems to me this requires at least the possibility that every quantifiable dimension of the music be under the control of a “unified” aesthetic design. And this must include the possibility of setting the creation context for any single event to be the whole of the composition on one or more levels of abstraction. –eh?

xbeemer wrote:
And how to do it with less effort in the mechanics, and thus more available to be put into the art....


Aye there is a question! I have strong opinions, but so does every body else.
More to say on that later. Very Happy Very Happy

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bachus



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PostPosted: Tue Mar 07, 2006 9:52 pm    Post subject: Re: Algorithmic Composition Substructures Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I wrote:

It seems to me this requires at least the possibility that every quantifiable dimension of the music be under the control of a “unified” aesthetic design. And this must include the possibility of setting the creation context for any single event to be the whole of the composition on one or more levels of abstraction. –eh?


OK I’m beginning to see how that could be done, but ouch, ArtWonk seems to have sided with generality and flexibility over ease of use—i.e. the scope and generality of ArtWonk dictates a low level implementation. Am I correct that the only built-in hi level “musical” abstraction is the hierarchical macro infrastructure? If I have seen the currently availiable set of macros (and I may not have), then a truly daunting amount of “graphical programing” would have to be done to effectivley implement, say, a “cadence” macro that could meet minimum requirements for contextual aesthetic value. But I am still just scratching ArtWonk’s surface here.

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xbeemer



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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 4:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Kassen wrote:
What if we didn't ask "can computers write expressive music?" and instead asked wether writing algorithems can be a expressive act?


This is pretty much the issue I've been struggling with, and have asked members of this forum for help on.

Not so much whether, as how; and not so much how, as how without getting bogged down in the minutia of the process.

There are algorithmic composers who are really algorithmic music programmers, programming in a text based language with or without built in music composition extensions. Forth/HMSL, SAIL/Sampson, Lisp/Symbolic Composer to name a few I'm personally familiar with.

These do the job. You can get any level of nuance, any level of complexity, any level of subtlety you are willing to put the time in to achieve. Which is why a lot of serious composers use them and generally won't consider looking elsewhere.

My problem with them is twofold. 1. they are not interactive and 2. they require a huge effort for relatively little payback.

Regarding the effort, I'm not looking for short cuts because by and by and large you get what you pay for. As mentioned before, art takes time. But just putting in a ton of tedium has no virtue in of itself.

Also, the effort is not just in writing the code, it's also in knowing what you've written later. Dozens upon dozens of seriously clever sections that made the piece work so well artistically end up as write-only code you have little hope of modifying or reusing later because you no longer know what the hell they are doing. Most of us who've gone this route recognize the problem. We have perhaps one or two pieces we're very proud of, but they are pretty well frozen because the code became impenetrable.

A computer based algorithmic composing environment needs not only to be capable of dealing with large pieces without sacrificing nuance and subtlety, it needs to do it at multiple levels of abstraction, so the process for the composer need not be a coding grind, and cool processes either laboriously developed or serendipitously discovered can be reused as variations, transformations, and so on. If not effortlessly then at least with low enough overhead that it becomes routinely practical.

This is basically the wall I mentioned in an earlier post, that I believe bacus and I are trying to deal with coming from two different directions. More on that, perhaps, in another post.

Regarding interactiveness, this is a personal requirement, perhaps not a requirement needed by others to write perfectly expressive music, but I gotta have it. And, frankly, I'm suspicious of those who claim they don't. Beethoven may have done fine without it, but even he in his earlier years composed with a piano within reach.

In any event, I think that for the time being, a computer based algorithmic composing program that is not fully interactive, is probably not going to be able to provide the environment needed to create expressive music. I do not claim it has to be real-time and immediate as I prefer and as my software always has been constructed, but at least there needs to be a very short write-listen-modify cycle. Very short.

Given the above, I think the answer is yes, algorithmic composing can be an expressive act.
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xbeemer



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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 4:51 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

bachus wrote:
...ouch, ArtWonk seems to have sided with generality and flexibility over ease of use...


Not over ease of use, but as a starting point above all else. If a composing environment lacks generality and flexibility then the user is not the composer, the person who designed and programmed the system is the composer and the user has become a controlled random input to someone else's generative art piece.

This, I know, is a pretty severe attitude. And, frankly, it has kept me in Fords instead of BMWs most of my career. But I am just not interested in using or creating rule based systems that end up producing pretty much the same results from one user to another.

As I said, it's really the same wall, but we are approaching it from opposite sides. This is why I think we might have a great deal of insight to offer one another, along with others on this forum who will likely take a less personal view.

It will be a hard subject to discuss with the kindness and grace that permeates this BBS, but as fellow appreciators of bonobos, I'm optimistic that we can pull it off.
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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 6:12 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

xbeemer wrote:
It will be a hard subject to discuss with the kindness and grace that permeates this BBS…


…Especially for me. As I am a tactless old recluse. But I will try.

xbeemer wrote:
bachus wrote:
...ouch, ArtWonk seems to have sided with generality and flexibility over ease of use...


Not over ease of use, but as a starting point above all else. If a composing environment lacks generality and flexibility then the user is not the composer, the person who designed and programmed the system is the composer and the user has become a controlled random input to someone else's generative art piece.

This, I know, is a pretty severe attitude.


Yea, really. I feel that the reality is painted more in shades of gray rather than black and white. Every tool entails some limitations. But if one will tolerate only the least restrictive environment then certainly ArtWonk fits the bill. So on that count let me say very well done good sir!

xbeemer wrote:
… But I am just not interested in using or creating rule based systems that end up producing pretty much the same results from one user to another.


Again, I feel that is based on a false dichotomy (or rather an Aristotelian rather than fuzzy analysis) but I am in no position to prove it.

xbeemer wrote:
This is why I think we might have a great deal of insight to offer one another, along with others on this forum who will likely take a less personal view.


It remains to be seen if I have any insights but I’d be glad to share any relevant thoughts that I might have.

bachus

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 8:13 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I’m having difficulty grasping how one creates context. Say I want to create a counterpoint macro, when I generate a trial next note I need to analyze not only the notes in the voices that occur at the same time as this next note but also those occurring at least within the previous beat and the next beat if any. So far I have not found any built-in infrastructure in ArtWonk to support the construction and maintenance of such context. Would I have to build these facilities from scratch using global arrays or am I missing something (well that goes without saying…but you know what I mean Smile ).
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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 10:00 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I'll address other issues later, but just in case you are held up on this, here is the quick answer:

Yes, arrays. But you needn't sound like it's eating fish heads. AW makes extensive use of arrays, from sequencers to multi segment envelope generators to clocks with look-ahead to MIDI i/o to slider and LED arrays and other widgets. Also the Function module has access to the same arrays. After you create an array by dropping in one of two modules (depending on wether you want to preserve the array contents, or start with the array zeroed), all the array management is automatic. This means you can copy and paste modules with arrays in them, and bury them as deeply as you like in nested macros, and they will still be all right. There are also modules to automatically make snapshots of them and/or to swap whole arrays in and out of meta arrays. And if you have looked at the Array & Sequencer page in the manual, you will have seen that there are a lot of different array accessor modules.

So, as I tell students, if you are going to use AW beyond the basics, make arrays your friend.

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 10:28 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Thanks!
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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 10:42 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

...also I'm generally willing to write a new macro or module or function to do a particular task. It's how maybe half the modules came about.
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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 11:59 am    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

I guess there is a great deal of crossover in systems for algorithmic music composition and computer programming. In regards to computer programming I'm convinced that the UNIX Programming Environment is the most productive.

The general concept is that there are a lot of little programs that can be connected with pipes. Files can hold anything a pipe can and visa-versa. The shell is a program to link programs together. The shell itself is a programming language. Whenever possible, the data and intermediate files (or streams) are text format.

Thus, it seems that the UNIX Programming Environment (I capitalize it out of respect and because it is a book by that title) is conducive to open systems. Here, open is not free, but rather descriptive of a system where people can easily collaborate by writing small components (awk, sed, vi, wc, grep, col, diff, lex, yacc, join, cat, etc.) that contribute to the overall system. UNIX wasn't developed to be an OS for some commercial purpose, but as an environment for people doing research (development) of software, including the OS itself.

At Bell Labs Al Aho was always talking about "little languages", and you can see a lot of that in UNIX. For example, there is troff, a language that converts text to commands to format text for a graphical printer. There is grap, a language for describing graphs. There is a grap to troff converter. Then you have converters that can take tabulated data, spreadsheets if you will, that generate grap, which gets converted to troff, and then printed. These are piped together in the shell.

I think it works best when the original concept of small programs is carried through rather than when larger more powerful systems , like PERL or PHP, are developed. These tend to become closed such that a person writing in PERL has a hard time integrating work done in PHP, or LISP, or whatever.

This is a bit different that what you two guys have been developing, but I submit that a system based on something like The UNIX Programming Environment will have the best chance at breaking through the wall. This is because a community can accomplish much more than an individual.

I tend to disregard the arguments for efficiency that people make when discussing this because the march of time brings technological progress that ususally makes these points mute. This is the classic argument in favor of database systems over flat files. Ironically, the fastest systems use flat files, not databases. In any case, the points made by John imply that ease of use in music composition systems is much more important than efficiency.

So, from the point of view of a software based music composing system, it seems that if a common set of intermediate formats were developed, then several people could work together to create a UNIX style music composition environment. Thus, when Bachus speaks of quantifiable dimensions I'm motivated to think of a format for describing these so that maybe I could write a program to read them in, do something with them, and write them out.

Programmers usually develop optimized internal data structures but rarely develop open text file formats. Doing this forces the reduction of complex notions to well defined levels of abstraction.

The development of these open little languages is not well loved in the realm of commercial and proprietary software because the fact is that anyone can create code at all levels in the system. But if a software based music composition system were to be developed, like Unix, it would by nature not be proprietary - although it could be commercial.

Anyway, we have great systems like Keykit, Artwonk, MAX, Reaktor, Csound, Kyma, etc. While these all have interfaces to the outside, they are not open in the sense I am speaking of. (Keykit is close though).

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 2:59 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

Basically I agree with most you've said above, with the exception that I don't share your enthusiasm for Unix. I've used Unix off and on over the years, and during the early 90's I used it exclusively for about 2 years in order to do a project in Franz Lisp, so I'm pretty familiar with it at least as of a dozen or so years back. I've not tried the newer GUIs, or even Mac OSX. But it's the small programs that users can create, share and pipe together that you hold out as a good model for an algorithmic music system, not the GUI or super-geek console interface. And that, I do find enthusiasm for.

In fact, while I didn't think of Unix, I did very specifically think of Common Lisp when I designed the ArtWonk Package system. Even swiped the name from CL.

Pretty much, AW Packages, along with the availability of a free AW Player (which currently ships with AW, but will shortly also be available stand alone as a free download), gives a vehicle that would allow the same kind of open source collaboration, and also for those who need it, a means of delivering a commercial type closed application. This is because the AW Player allows the developer to password protect the "source" module pages.

Here is from the AW manual Packages page:
Quote:
Packages are thematic groups of Functions, Macros and Patches supplied as add on packages which are created and maintained by the contributor. They are not simply example patches; rather they are extended works that include substantial documentation to provide you with comprehensive and comprehensible tools for advanced algorithmic composing.

Here is the full manual page:
http://algoart.com/help/artwonk/packages.htm

So far there are two Packages available, both open source. One is from composer Warren Burt, on Probability Distributions and Additive Sequence Generators; and the other is from Jamy Sheridan, a group of MIDI and graphics utilities. Jamy, who department chair for Experimental Animation at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, is working on what will become one or more extensive Generative Art Package, but he's not ready to give it up just yet and bugging him for it hasn't worked out. But Real Soon Now.

What I hope to do, perhaps with people from this group, perhaps with my own just created user group when they reach critical mass in a year or so, perhaps just with random users who are interested enough to pursue it - is to expand the Package system into a content rich resource for composers. I'll give hands on help to those who are willing to create the open source Packages, including writing macros, functions, and-when it seems the best solutions, new modules or other extensions to AW.

What I get out of it is obvious, a more content-rich system; what you who are willing to get involved get is a lot of help from me in getting the low level stuff to do what you need, whatever that may be.

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John Dunn
Algorithmic Arts
http://algoart.com
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bachus



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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 3:31 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

xbeemer wrote:
The wall is how to create large scale, but subtle and polished compositions algorithmically. And how to do it with less effort in the mechanics, and thus more available to be put into the art.


Counterpoint offers an obvious well-defined example of the need for simple local context. But in terms of exploring the scope and qualitative dimensions of the contexts necessary to scale the “wall” it might be worthwhile to spend some effort teasing out the role of the placement of points of salience and caesura* in creating “large scale, but subtle and polished compositions.” Would this tack be of interest?

*Of course, they are often one and the same.

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 08, 2006 3:54 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote  Mark this post and the followings unread

mosc wrote:
I guess there is a great deal of crossover in systems for algorithmic music composition and computer programming. In regards to computer programming I'm convinced that the UNIX Programming Environment is the most productive...


I think you just made it obvious to me why I like both *nix and modular synthesis so much. It reflects engineering: Break down the problem into solvable units, then build your system back up. K.I.S.S.*, at least on the lower levels.

(*Keep It Simple Stupid)
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