I had the great pleasure of playing William Hazard's Theatre of the Flat Imagination Volume 2: Jack the Modernist on November 18th in Philadelphia together with Dan Derks as parens chat. The purpose of this post is to share the recording of the performance that Dan thoughtfully edited and to talk a little about the set we played.

Table of Contents

Here is the video:

1. Gear

And here is a photo of the gear Dan and I used for the performance.

Dan's gear is nearer to you in the photo: they had two monome norns sound computers, a monome grid, a 16n midi controller and a laptop. Each norns was running a script they wrote: on one of them a revision of their script cheat codes, which is a deep and incredible sample mangler / looper among other things. You control cheat codes with a monome grid, which you can see lit up next to the norns. On the other norns they ran kildareFX, a collection of audio effects they created in SuperCollider. The laptop routed audio from me + their norns and ran Visual Synthesizer, an audioreactive visuals plugin, the effects of which you can see in our part of the video.

My gear is the remaining stuff in the photo: two more norns devices, two grids, and a monome arc. I wrote one of the scripts the norns were running, xD2, which you can check out on GitHub if you'd like. The other norns was running tapedeck, a collection of tape-style effects written by Zack Scholl.

1.1. xD2

Here's a little more about xD2: it's a multitimbral synthesizer script designed to be interacted with via two grids and an arc. (Use what you have, right?) There are six timbres available to you, three each using different "synth architectures".

The first architecture is a light edit of my FM synth script, xD1. xD1 is based on the SuperCollider UGen FM7, which supports 6-operator FM using the DX7's "algorithms." On top of FM7, I added a pair of filters and a light saturation stage.

The second architecture is an edit of a norns synth engine, Turns, originally written for my sequencer script Faeng. It's a more "traditional" 2-oscillator subtractive synth with some interesting quirks. One of the oscillators is a square or pulse waveform (based on a UGen I wrote called PulsePTR, based on oscillator code implementing the "Polynomial Transition Region" anti-aliasing technique originally written for a Max4Live synth called Poli by Peter McCulloch). Its little quirk is that it also can be FM'd (or strictly speaking, phase modulated) by a sine wave with rational frequency ratios set by the user.

The other Turns oscillator is a little more interesting. It also uses a UGen I wrote; this one is called FormantTriPTR, which again uses the Polynomial Transition Region anti-aliasing technique, but using an asymmetric triangle wave with "envelope time" and "frequency" decoupled, a technique I learned from Whimsical Raps's gorgeous Mangrove oscillator. To describe briefly, one can set a "formant" frequency which describes how fast or slow the waveform happens. When the formant frequency is higher than the actual oscillator frequency, the oscillator rests in between waveforms, making a "thin" sound not unlike a thin pulse wave shape. In all settings, it's not possible (by design) for the waveform to reset while rising. Therefore if the rise time is longer than the period of the fundamental frequency, what you'll hear will be a frequency which is a division of the original pitch according to the "utone" series: first half as fast, then a third, and so on, corresponding musically to certain (just intonation) intervals. The two oscillators can affect each other a little too.

1.2. Interaction

I interacted with xD2 through the norns itself, as well as two grids and an arc. One of the grids was responsible for choosing which timbre was active and playing notes into it. Most of the grid's 128 buttons were imagined kind of like strings of a guitar: as you move horizontally to the right, the pitch increases a half-step at a time, like the frets of a guitar. Also like a guitar (with standard tuning, for the most part) as you move up a row, the pitch increases by a perfect fourth. I grew up playing the piano, so I decided to highlight the "black keys" on each "string". This helped me enormously in terms of staying in key with myself and having a little bit of intellectual knowledge of the notes I was playing. The arc, and the knobs on the norns, was in charge of altering timbral parameters.

I also added, for the second grid, an interface to loop both parameter changes and notes played. This let me layer together multiple lines without having to be constantly playing them and without forcing Dan to use their script as a simple looper.

2. Performance

It was really such a gift to perform with Dan. We chose the name parens chat, which the video explains, refers to "a conversation in an oft-ignored space". In more words, it's the kind of (textual) conversation that you feel compelled to put between parentheses for one of many reasons, but paradoxically, the unimportance of the content is usually not one of those reasons. Of course, it's entirely possible to replicate the feeling of parens chat in a face-to-face conversation.

Dan and I live in different cities, but they visited me in October and we had a chance to practice synchronously once before our show. After practicing I think we had a rough outline of the parameters we would play in for the show: My synthesizer would turn out to be the original of every sound playing, and Dan would use their cheat codes script to delay, mangle and reflect sounds back to me. I did have a way to loop patterns I played on my own, as I mentioned above, which had the positive effect of freeing both of us up a little—me from having to play every note in real time, and Dan from having to use their script as a looper. I will say it also had the negative effect of meaning I was often listening to the literal sounds I had created myself, rather than listening for the ways Dan was affecting them.

Like when we practiced, the show was completely improvised. I had maybe two ideas that I wanted to try, but I was kind of deliberately unprepared for what the execution would be like.

The section of the set I’m proudest of was the ending. After setting up some chunky chords, I was curious about what the chord sound would sound like if I played a higher note. You can see me throw my head back and grin when I do—it sounded fun! I ended up riffing in this major key, melodic earnest vibe for several minutes. In the moment I felt a little bad—surely the sounds I was producing were pretty shrill in the room. Dan has masterfully edited them to be less piercing in the recording.

I’m kind of flabbergasted that what was essentially the second time playing music at all together, much less improvising, turned out so well? Hopefully you’ll hear more of parens chat in the future. To that point, if you book shows or have connections to doing so within shouting distance of New York City, I’d be tickled pink to chat with you about playing. Consider that my “yop!”