Out from the Straits

Album liner notes for s_traits by Bill Seaman & John Supko (2014, Cotton Goods)

s_traits is an ongoing collaboration between Bill Seaman and John Supko.  It started in 2011 with conversations about generative music and how to make it.  The two quickly discovered that they had been independently exploring what might be described as the “uploading” of human creativity to the computer:  Supko’s work involved developing software that emulated his compositional process; Seaman was investigating how creativity could be codified and reanimated through artificially intelligent systems.

A narrative history of the collaboration between Seaman and Supko captures how they wrote s_traits.  Their work together began when Supko gave Seaman the electronic track from a discarded version of his percussion duo Straits.  Seaman edited this track into hundreds of tiny samples, many lasting barely a second.  These samples became the first entries in what would evolve into a database of source material for s_traits.  Over the next two years, they added more than 110 hours of varied but complementary sounds to the database.  The new material included field recordings, analog and digital noise, acoustic and electronic instruments, cassette recordings of Supko’s juvenilia, recordings of Seaman and Supko playing the piano (inside and out), and soundtracks from documentaries made in the 1960’s and 70‘s.

As the source material began to expand, Seaman and Supko increasingly focused on the technical details of using the computer to compose music.  The majority of the samples in the database were created with a series of software tools designed by Supko.  This software was also able to generate new hybrid samples from the existing collection.  It thus enabled both composers to remix–again and again–the work of the other.  The unpredictable results of these processes were added to the database.

When the sample database reached its current proportions, Supko built a new software system that could navigate the many hours of music in the database, extract and recombine dozens of samples, and compose complete multi-track compositions.  The new system paired these compositions with fragments of a text Seaman wrote after the poem Straits by Kenneth Koch, which had inspired Supko’s earlier percussion duo.  (Seaman’s text appears in full on the album cover.)  But rather than leave the system’s compositions untouched, the composers treated them as first drafts, which they developed into the tracks on the present CD.

In the end, 26 tracks were composed this way.  Both composers contributed 13 tracks, although Seaman and Supko do not identify who composed what.  The two sets of 13 are interwoven so that all the odd-numbered tracks belong to one composer and the even-numbered tracks to the other.  Every track begins with a text fragment, which also serves as a title.  Seaman and Supko plan to write a track for each of the more than 300 remaining text fragments.

Jeffrey Edelstein