Indeterminate, interactive son et lumière: Kenneth Kirschner & Joshue Ott’s Variant

by 5:4

Interesting things are afoot for those with a penchant for the indeterminate. Composer Kenneth Kirschner has teamed up with digital visual artist Joshue Ott to create a trio of audiovisual apps, under the umbrella title Variant, that enable one to explore in different ways indeterminate music and visuals in a stimulating and strikingly beautiful way. In terms of the nature of its user interaction, Variant bears a resemblance to Brian Eno & Peter Chivers’ suite of generative music apps, but that’s where the similarities end: Kirschner’s music doesn’t seek to establish a kind of saccharine stupor, and Ott’s visuals don’t resemble something manufactured by Fisher-Price.

Kirschner has for a long time been interested in indeterminacy, both in terms of the act of composition itself (often involving chance procedures) as well as the way events take place over time. It permeates much of his output, but the seed for Variant can perhaps be located most specifically in the collection of pieces Kirschner composed from 2004-5, which, unlike the rest of his output, comprised not a standalone recording but instead a collection of sound fragments ‘performed’ via a web browser, and which would play continuously, different on each occasion, until stopped by the listener. (A detailed examination of these pieces can be found in my essay ‘Determined/Indeterminate’ in the free ebook Imperfect Forms, published by Tokafi.) These indeterminate pieces used a very simple set of rules to determine basic things like superimposing layers of sound on top of each other, but the process was otherwise essentially random.

Variant:flare is arguably the work that resembles most closely those earlier pieces; the style is minimalistic (one of Kirschner’s self-confessed musical roots), made up of looped elements that are rapid, percussive and tonal. In flare, six loops play simultaneously, and these can be switched in response to taps on the screen; the visual elements—fast, dancing swirls and vortices—react according to which elements are playing (anyone wanting to peer under the hood can press in the bottom-right to bring up a data readout that shows the six elements, traces the app’s progression through them, and even shows their respective volumes).

Variant:blue shifts the role of the user to the other side, now influencing the visuals through drawing lines across the screen, which in turn influence the choice of sonic elements; blue features eight fragments rather than six, and its soundworld is much more akin to Kirschner’s music of the last few years, slow, harmonically ambiguous, pensive (in the best sense) and deeply immersive, using a variety of instruments, including clarinet, glockenspiel and piano, together with electronic sounds. It is, i have to say, quite deliriously gorgeous, al the more so as Ott has fittingly made the visuals here small, dark and subtle, almost introverted, perfectly complementing the tone of the music.

Variant:sonic combines the two approaches; here the user draws shapes on the screen, triggering both sight and sound, but the musical elements—now comprising voices in addition to instrumental and electronic sounds—only persist while the user’s fingers remain on the screen; this is therefore the most directly ‘hands on’ of the three, and extends the role of the user from that of an interactive listener to something tantamount to performance, wielding Kirschner’s brief fragments (as many as ten, one for each finger!) and Ott’s jagged slashes of colour, like a kind of post-ambient Gantz Graf.

Taken as a whole, Variant is a splendid, educational and deeply engrossing contribution to the world of indeterminate music. They’re available from the Apple App Store here, here and here (Variant:sonic is free), and you can read all about their development via the Time is Space Development blog.

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[…] Interesting things are afoot for those with a penchant for the indeterminate. Composer Kenneth Kirschner has teamed up with digital visual artist Joshue Ott to create a trio of three audiovisual ap…  […]


Have tried Sonic and really liked it but unfortunately Flare & Blue aren’t compatible with the older iPads 🙁

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