Icarus’ forthcoming album, Fake Fish Distribution (FFD), their 9th in all, uses generative and parametric techniques to create a musical work that is a reflection of the increasingly fruitful relationship between contemporary electronic music, algorithmic software processes and designed variation. FFD was composed using normal electronic music production tools and uses the normal medium of music distribution -- the media file download -- but comes in the form of a vast array of structured variations on the album’s musical content, feeding unique versions to each unique listener. FFD reinvigorates our understanding of what it means to own a ‘copy’ of something, in an age where the contents of our music collections are not even distinct objects, but clones of the exact same bits that belong elsewhere to others. You give somebody your phone number, not a ‘copy’ of your phone number; how can you experience ownership of this kind of data, that old fashioned sense of ownership, going beyond the mere right to use it? With FFD your copy regains a unity based on the relationship to an individualised experience that is lost with network-distributed music, it is a copy in a now potentially archaic sense of the word, that we can only perceive with this hindsight, the term itself diverging to mean at once one thing and its opposite, revealing an in/compatible musical practice.
In 2011, the UK electronic group Icarus (Ollie Bown and Sam Britton) set out to return to studio production for the first time since their celebrated 2005 album “I Tweet the Birdy Electric”. In the interim the duo’s collaborative electronic music productions had focused increasingly on the possibilities of improvised electronic music performance, perfected through custom performance tools and documented in albums that were either live or edited reinterpretations of live improvisations.
Since 2005, though, the world of making and selling records had changed so dramatically that Icarus did not feel at ease with the singularity of a traditional studio production. Generativity has been a strong theme in Icarus’ composition, and the question arose as to why, with so much ongoing experimental generative practice in both music and art, doesn’t generative composition have a foothold in everyday music listening experiences?
That such works often run as software is one factor. This automatically introduces a level of obscurantism and is not in keeping with the relative universality of data files that dominate people’s music collections. Furthermore, the consistency of an album, and it’s longevity both as an artistic statement and as an anchor for memories and associations is a desirable property in the hands of its owner, even if not in the mind of its maker; We adapt to the repeated listening of a complex passage with heightened intensity more than with the waning of interest through familiarity.
Reflecting on these ideas, Icarus settled on devising not a generative album but a parametric one, one in which the album was a fixed and finite entity, a decisive compositional work, but drawn out over 1,000 smoothly varying versions of the same body of musical content, a unique copy for anyone wishing to posses one, of which they can claim an exclusive ownership unfamiliar to the musical data strewn across iTunes and Spotify, but still thoroughly compatible with these worlds.
After some months fusing together software hacking and studio composition in a continuous act, the result of this compositional experiment, Icarus’ 9th album, Fake Fish Distribution (FFD), has been rendered in its entirety as 8,000 tracks -- 1,000 variations on an 8-track album -- ready to be released at the end of 2011 via a custom store that destroys each version as it is sold, handing the rights (and responsibilities) of the recorded work to its buyer. The music of FFD naturally reflects the process that created it, which is itself a natural progression of Icarus’ style, weaving chaos and chance into an awkward narrative of stuttering, stopping-starting spontaneity that all the while resembles ‘real’ music in its coherence and its engagement of the listener, who may perceive either that something has gone wrong in the strangest of ways, or that a door has been opened into an unfamiliar alternative future.
How Does Each Record Differ?
When working on electronic music in a timeline, you have the ability to control certain features of the audio using breakpoint functions. These features might include parameters such as volume or pan, which you can vary during the course of the track by drawing a path in the breakpoint editor. It is possible to extend your control of the audio by adding plugins such as filters, delays or reverbs, neverthless, your control over the musical content of the audio remains limited.
For FFD, we crafted extensions to the timeline pardigm that would allow us to control the musical content using these breakpoint functions. This allowed us to program structural changes such as triggering sounds and sequences into the music by varying parameters in breakpoints.
In addition to this, we made it possible to interpolate from one breakpoint to another, allowing us to compose two (or more) different keyframes (or archetypes) for the control parameters and then generate any number of hybrid versions that lay somewhere inbetween the two.This simple device is repeated on numerous different levels across all of the compositional structures present in the album, from audio effects, to the triggering of samples and sequences, to entire structural changes in the tracks. Lastly, the highest control element is the version number, which specifies a point in the interpolation process between the keyframes for every parameter in each track.The design of the variation for each track is unique and carefully reflects the compositional structure and musical elements at play. In some tracks, the variation is more subliminal (Dumptruck Cannibals, Shallow Tree) and it others there are almost no fixed points (Spineez of Breakout, Old D). Elsewhere there are fixed elements in the form of combinations of sequences that allways appear together, but not necessarily in the same order (Colour Field, Two Mbiras) or guiding instrumentation on which all of the other variation is orchestrated (MD Skillz, Three Stupidities).Despite our knowledge of all of the processes and elements at play, FFD remains an enigma even to us (we have not listened to every variation), we neverthless consider it a ‘known unknown’, in that we can be confident that the variation exhibited in each track, while perhaps unexpected, is compositionally rigorous and that the overall work remains musically coherent.