Yasunao Tone: Musica Iconologos


Musica Iconologos

The picture of the music – the "notation" – is what the music sounds like, and, if there is to be a picture, the picture comes first.

The composer learns early on that the notion is naive that he/she makes the music as sound (in the mind or in the instrument) and then makes a picture of it – unless the music in the mind or in the instrument conforms to pictures that have already been worked out.  This has been the main concern and one of the most disturbing discoveries of this century.  What to do then?  Change the music in the mind to make it conform to the language of existing pictures?  Or make a new picture language and, on faith, accept the music that the picture produces.  How peculiar that intuition should take this form of obedience.

In Musica Iconologos Yasunao Tone accepts his obedience in a manner that would make his spiritual mentors, the unknowable (to me, if not to Yasunao Tone) scholar monks of ancient Chinese philosophy and the French structuralists of our time, proud.  The picture is everything.  No person could imagine what sounds the pictures that are the notation of Musica Iconologos will produce.

In compositions prior to Musica Iconologos Tone studied many methods of "translating" images (specifically, things seen) to sounds, but for the most part the images in those compositions had been, first, translated into some form of machine-behavior.  Examples:  in Music for Two CD Players the laser patterns on the surface of a compact disc are "rearranged" by the composer in performance (Rauschenberg erases de Kooning) and a new pattern of sounds from the CD is heard; in Lyrictron for Flute the letter-images in an archive of letter-images (a text) are arranged by communications from a flutist in performance and computer software translates that arrangement into a musical "form," a macro-arrangement of sounds from the computer; in Molecular Music light-sensors arranged by the composer on the surface of a projection screen interpret (in any degree of detail, depending on the number of sensors used and depending on the complexity of the image) the visual form (template) of a projected image and send that information to sound-producing instruments.

Musica Iconologos uses the most detailed analysis of the image that is available to us, the pixel resolution of the video image, and so the randomness-factor in the match of signifier to sound, which is the playful element in the performance versions of the three compositions described above (and which is the decisive value-element in almost any notation, including the most traditional — what does the picture mean? and can it be "played"?) is not characteristic of this composition.  In Musica Iconologos the sound is an encoded description of the picture in utmost detail.  In the mythical future (or today) somebody can translate the sounds of this compact disc back into pictures.

That research would produce pictures of photographs that Tone has chosen to "depict" the series of Chinese characters from which the sounds of the compositions on the compact disc are derived.  (Jiao Liao Fruitsismadefrom44characters.  Solar Eclipse in Octoberismadefrom 262 characters.)

What we are hearing is not the picture of a Chinese character (a form of writing that we might recognize as Chinese), but the picture of Tone's interpretation of that character in photo-images from our visual experience.  Tone has "translated" the Chinese character for us, not into words (which obviously would be inappropriate), but into its signifier, both in its form (its visual template) and in its literal trace as a word or combination of signs in the Chinese language.

The result is a music of startling accuracy and purity.  The mind of the listener shifts into a mode of interpretation of sound and absolute belief in meaning that rarely occurs (perhaps never can occur) in the concert hall, but that always occurs when, for instance, we overhear persons speaking in a language we don't speak.  That shift will occur whether or not the listener has read these remarks or has any other knowledge of the technique of the composition.  It is one of the deepest things in us.  Musica Iconologos invokes a mode of musical thinking that I have not experienced before.

Robert Ashley
March 25, 1993

Technical Notes:

This recording can probably be viewed as one of the most extreme and original applications of the current digital recording medium.  When I was approached with the idea for this project, I was aware that the finished product would be an excellent example of pure digital synthesis and recording.  However, at that time I had serious doubts about the possibility of constructing a system necessary to attempt the proposed project.  After weeks of research, it became obvious that the most effective algorithm to convert a digitized picture into a viable sound file was the X-Y projection method used in the optical character and music recognition fields.

An X-Y projection of a scan or image file requires that the image be interpreted as a large array of dots (pixels).  The X projection is achieved by reading each line of the array in a left to right fashion, counting binary 1's (meaning black in our case) and storing the accumulated data for each line.  Similarly, the Y projection is achieved by reading the array in a top to bottom manner.  These two sets of numbers can then be seen as a histogram or bar graph of the general shape or outline of the scan.  It is this data that is then manipulated to produce the sound files.

The sound file generating program developed for this project was the C language program, Projector.  It takes a binary file of 1's and 0's (one digit for each pixel of the scan) and produces sound files based upon combinations of the X and Y projection data.  Projector allows the production of both stereo and mono Sound Designer II files, using data accumulated by straight X and Y projections as well as X+Y, X-Y, Y-X and X*Y sources.  The binary files that represented the scanned images were produced by running each of the 187 scans through a portion of an Optical Music Recognition (OMR) program that is currently in development by Ichiro Fujinaga at McGill University.

The sound files produced were very short in duration, averaging out around 20 milliseconds in length.  The composer considered these to be the very sonic or auditory essence of the picture in question.  All sound that the listener hears on the accompanying CD is constructed entirely from these 187 sound sources.  There was no external processing applied to the sounds in the traditional sense (ie: reverb and EQ); instead each sound was treated digitally using several Digital Signal Processing (DSP) algorithms.

My task as the digital editor and sound designer was to uncover and shape the larger sounds that lay within each short 20 ms burst.  I accomplished this by expanding the sound to a length that best fit the meaning of the word or picture the sound represented.  Then, if necessary, I digitally mixed or merged several projections together to achieve a desired grouping of data, following the structure (word groupings) of the poem and the implicit meaning of the particular word or picture in question.  Also, where appropriate, digital pitch shifting was applied to certain sounds in order to reflect the phonetic implications of the spoken Chinese word.  It should be noted that there was never any exclusion or repeated inclusion of sounds based on their final result.  To his credit, Tone always remained true to the poem's structure regardless of his personal impressions of the music, and in a sense the sounds were a type of "chance operation" in form, as their final organization was established long before the project began production.

Craig Kendall
August 1992

I received help from many of my friends on this project.  I would like to thank:  my friend, Tom Buckner, who commissioned this CD, without whose support and encouragement the project would never have been realized; Robert Ashley for writing the beautiful note in the CD booklet; Barbara Held for her understanding and encouragement at the earliest stages.

I want to thank the people at McGill University, who so generously contributed their time and experience:  Bruce Pennycook, Dale Stammen, Jason Vantomme, Sean Terriah, Ichiro Fujinaga and Kharim Hogan.  Thanks also to David Tudor, Mimi Johnson and Hiro Ihara.  And, last but not least, I want to thank Craig Kendall and John D.S. Adams for the wonderful hours we shared working on the project.

The source for the two texts, "Liao Jiao Fruits" and "Solar Eclipse in October", is the Shih Ching, the earliest Chinese anthology.

Yasunao Tone

Realized at the McGill University Electronic Music Studio and Computer Music Lab
Directors:  Bruce Pennycook, alcides lanza

Executive Producer:  Thomas Buckner, Mutable Music Productions

Producer and Artistic Director:  Yasunao Tone
Assistant Producer an Audio Consultant:  John D.S. Adams
Computer Programming, Digital Sound Creation and Manipulation:  Craig Kendall
Image Selection and Processing:  Yasunao Tone and Craig Kendall
CD Mastered/Prepared at the McGill University Recording Studios
Produced at McGill University, Faculty of Music, Electronic Music Studio.

Art Direction and Design:  By Design

Copyright © 1993  Yasunao Tone
© P 1993 Lovely Music, Ltd.

LCD 3041  [D] [D] [D]