Some Recent Max-centric Recording Releases


    Over the course of a number of weekly newsletter releases, my colleague Darwin Grosse and I have been assembling a set of reviews/overviews of books that we hope will function as a kind of “basic library” for interested students and users of Max - as sources for acquainting yourself with the areas you’re working in, or for information in greater depth. You can find examples of them here and here and here and here….
    There’s an interesting corollary to this kind of activity that we haven’t - until now - said very much about: examples of Max/MSP at work that take the form of recordings.
    For one thing, talking about recordings tends to imply novelty - we often mean “new or recent work that uses Max” when we talk about recordings. In addition, there are other great differences between printed and recorded material. These days, recordings appear in a lot more places, and with much greater frequency. The decline of curated spaces (which is what recording labels have tended to do, whatever your other views of them as gatekeepers might be) now makes locating something like a “recording made with Max” more difficult, and often involves a torturous crawl through groups that seem more like self-promotional echo chambers than places to find what you’re looking for.
    The difficulty of locating work can often mask what, to me, is a more interesting kind of question - the interplay between artists and their tools. While we have no problem whatsoever identifying performers with physical instruments (Stian Westerhus’ next recording is probably going to include a guitar, and we’ll be a little surprised if there’s no violin on Todd Reynolds’ next one), it’s not always the case that we actually know how an electronic album is made unless the maker tells us. Moreover, some makers tend to not be explicit about the tools they use. It’s not so much that that reticence is an attempt to mask their “secret sauce” as the fact that no one wants their work to be reduced to a collection of software tools. What's interesting is that we persist in moving past our wonder and delight to the how, anyway.
    Still - I’m always interested to hear about (recent) recordings that include Max in some way. That interest extends beyond personal curiosity, since I’m the host of a weekly radio program of electronic, experimental, and improvised music, and have been for many years - I tend to keep an eye out for the stuff.
    The last couple of weeks have seen an interesting couple of recent recordings appear that I think are worth a mention and that engage with some of the ideas I’ve mentioned. Clicking on the titles of each release will take you to a Spotify version of the release for your listening enjoyment.
    Mark Fell: Intra (Boomkat Editions)
    Harking back to his early days as part of snd, Mark Fell’s always been interested in different ways of generating melodic and rhythmic systems in his compositional practice. His most recent release is something of a departure not in form, but in realization. While Mark continues his fascination with various kinds of generative rhythmic structure, this recording is interesting because it's the first commercial release of his in several decades that is performed rather than electronically generated - in that regard, it stands alongside a new direction for inquiry that includes live performance (his collaboration with Laurie Spiegel on Time and Space Shapes for Gamelan.) or acoustic rather than electronic sound sources (his Protomusic installation at The Great Exhibition Of The North). This outing features the Portuguese percussion ensemble Grupo De Percussão De Serralves, performing on a set of microtonally-tuned instruments originally developed by Iannis Xenakis for his piece Pléïades - the Sixxen. The work continues Mark’s compositional interest in the Carnatic system of tala in terms of generative possibilities, albeit in a more personally expressed form. As you might imagine, Mark’s rhythmic systems present a challenge to the performer. In this case, it’s also MSP to the rescue, providing the click tracks as guides to the performers. Hearing Mark’s work in the hands of human musicians provides and interesting rotation for the listener.
    Autechre: NTS Sessions 1 - 4 (Warp)
    Autechre probably wins the whole trifecta when one considers electronic music recordings that use Max (or don't, as the case may be). Their body of work continues to extend, evolve and amaze us even now, the urge to push past our response to what we hear toward wondering "how it's done" hasn't flagged an iota, and they're probably the hands-down all-time winners when it comes to MSP patch grovels of the "Hi. Can you send me any Autechre patches? Thanks!" variety (a note to new users - some of those patches are authentic, some are not. The challenge to you will be to decide which ones are which). The end of July will bring vinyl lovers an entirely new set of opportunities for these behaviors. During the month of April, Autechre were artists in residence at the Manchester-based NTS radio, where they put together a weekly 2-hour set of performances for broadcast. NTS and online listeners could listen to the performances as they appeared (and were available online for a temporary period). The entire set is now on offer on the Autechre Bleep Store, either in digital form available right now, as a set of 8 CDs, or as a set of four sets of vinyl - one for each week. Yeah, there's some MSP here, all right, and the results are as expansive, varied, and engaging as you would imagine - it's an N-hour tour de force.
    One of the possible snares we encounter when talking about electronic artists such as Mark Fell or Messrs. Booth and Brown has to do with that question of whether or not artists' output reduce wholly (or in part) by their technological choices and the tools they use. While it's true that the arrival of a certain interesting or flexible solution can be the perfect "next tool" for a given artist (Autechre's embrace of and deep and subtle understanding of the classic MSP SimpleFM~.maxpat patch is a classic case in point here. It's not necessary to what they do, but a perfect solution to some of the ways in which they work), that same approach can be terrifically reductive. Here's a pair or recent releases that I think touch on a more subtle approach to that question.
    The origins of Carl Stone's works are rooted in an encyclopedic knowledge of the recorded universe and an unerring ear for timbre and the ways that creative appropriation of that recorded universe can reveal things of grace and beauty. His new release on Unseen Worlds (which follows on from the 2016 release of early works from the seventies and early eighties) continues to make seminal works across his career available to the curious and the non-completist. This double LP release brings us four works (three of them largely unavailable, and one never available on vinyl). Although one of them - the 1984 work Sonali - features Cycling '74's program M, these works all predate Carl's turn to using MSP to realize his work (You can find examples of that later work here and here). It's nearly impossible to listen to these works as an MSP user and not be struck by the notion that when MSP arrived, Carl simply found the next tool beautifully suited to realizing a compositional vision that was already there in force - a tool ready for work already in progress.
    I'm sure you know my friend and colleague Tom Hall from his social media presence and the occasional interviews he's done for us. What you may be less familiar with is his work as an electronic artist. In addition to his recent cassette/CD release Spectra being a ravishing bit of what seems to be analog synthesis, there's something more subtle in play - I sat through it and found myself wondering whether what I was hearing involved Max/MSP or not. I drove around with the thing in my car for a week or two before I got up the courage to actually email Tom to ask him about whether there was any Max on the recording, and - if so - where it was. If you're curious, the recording as a whole skews strongly toward Tom's love of the emotive use of distortion and his love for modular and the Buchla Music Easel (put to particularly beautiful use on Last Retreat) as source material, but you'll find that some of the works like Vail 1123581321 and Remains involve hybridized systems that combine Max's generative and granular processing abilities seamlessly melded with the analog source materials. If it's any comfort to you, I guessed wrong when it came to "where Max was," as well. That's a sign of artistry at work - it's an exemplary new release that calls us once again to remind ourselves that there's a person at the heart of all that software and hardware making the music, whose choices can take many forms. This one is highly recommended.