Early experiments in data sonification with a FDD (and string quartet)

30.04.2021 - Composition Techniques / FloppyDisk / Music / PhD / Words

In my previous posts I’ve been exploring my transformation of a Floppy Disk Drive (FDD) into an audio sampler. One interesting discovery I made was the FDD samplers ability to sonify floppy disks that hold data. In my post here I briefly presented a sonification of a floppy disk alongside the reproduction of recorded audio on a floppy disk. Below I explore what can happen when considering the FDD sampler as a compositional tool for purely acoustic instrumental composition; a set of short studies for string quartet.

The sampler affords two very different things quite easily, firstly the sonification of floppy disks that hold data and secondly the recording of external audio, its playback and then subsequent manipulation. My initial experiments have been interested in the former, since its simplicity affords the possibility of transcribing what the FDD sampler reproduces, either mimetically or literally, such as pitch, rhythm, timbre, texture and structure. This mimetic approach forms a further framework for composition.

Below is a short 12 second fragment of data that was sonified using the FDD sampler followed by a rhythmic transcription of this data.

Data Ostinato
Rhythmic transcription of above data ostinato

This transcription was further refined by assigning four parameters of perceived pitch represented by staves: Very High, High, Medium and Low.

Rhythmic transcription with 4 categories of perceived pitch

Enter the string quartet. This ensemble was chosen due to my familiarity with composing for it and because I belong to a string quartet that plays regularly. My compositional approach initially consisted of dividing the rhythm amongst the String Quartet members in a variety of sketches. I then approached the mimetic/transcription/sonification process, which more stylised, set out to achieve the mimicking of the sonified data through a musical monody (the quartet only ever plays one note) for string quartet taking advantage of the timbral possibilities that a string quartet has to offer in order to achieve this. The resulting short studies range from traditional techniques, such as bow placement on the string (sul pont/tasto), jete (thrown bow strokes) and ricochet techniques, experimental bariolage, as well as the varying of finger pressure, bow pressure and bow speed within each study. Pitch was also derived from a conceptual reading of the FDD sampler (read about that here) and last, but not least, the whole quartet used knitting needles to mimic the sonification of data in a very abstract way. Each audio file has a brief description of what is happening and how it mimics the sonified data above.

Monody 1 – 5

Monody 1: the quartet uses bow speed when accents are present and octave displacement of one note occurs. Bow placement changes between normal to molto sul pont. (very near the bridge).
Monody 1a: same as above, but the quartet always plays the same note – no octave displacement occurs.
Monody 2A: The quartet is playing constant semiquavers with accents indicating the transcribed rhythm. In this study the quartet uses very light bow pressure and speed but when an accent is present bow pressure is increased. Some octave displacement occurs. (Light bow, normal fingers)
Monody 2B: Same as above but the quartet uses very light finger pressure and when accents are present, depress the fingers. The bow is light and fast.
Monody 2C: This time finger and bow pressure are increased when there is an accent, otherwise they are light.
Monody 3A: The Quartet play each note using bariolage (rocking the bow between two strings), without any octave displacement (i.e playing the same note). The bow is light unless there are accents, much like in Monody 2.
Monody 3B: The same as above but with light fingers, unless accents are present
Monody 3C: The same as above but extremely light bow and fingers unless accents are present.
Monody 4: This study takes a different direction which sees the quartet tapping their bows on the string without movement. Occasionally a jete technique occurs, where the bow is thrown and pulled across the string; a ricochet effect occurs.
Monody 5: A more experimental approach to bariolage. The lower finger is moved up as far a possible, increasing the pitch. The finger is moved up and down once during the study.

Pitch 1 – 2

Pitch 1: using the rhythmic transcription notes are added, derived from a conceptual note organisation derived from a ‘reading’ of the FDD mechanism.
Pitch 2: This study uses a Fibonacci series to arrive at notes within the same conceptual pitch framework used above.

Needles 1 – 3

The following examples are perhaps the most fun. As you will have heard from the data sonification example, bass rich rhythmic noises to barely audible glitches can be heard. At the very early stages of this compositional investigation, I initially ‘mimicked’ these sounds on my Viola by sticking knitting needles between its strings and setting the needle into motion, creating a repeating sound reminiscent of the repetitive sounds when reading each data track. Here all four members of the string quartet use this technique to mimic the data sonification in varying ways.

Needles 1: The quartet set needles into motion in unison.
Needles 2: The quartet sets the needles into motion individually.
Needles 2a: The quartet alternate their attack every beat, moving around the quartet (Vln1, Vln2, Vla, VC).
Needles 2: Same as above but the pitch changes (moving the needles)
Needles 3: Same rhythm as Needles 2, but the quartet changes the position of the needles to change their pitch.
Needles 3: Same rhythm as Needles 2 but the quartet tapp very close to the bridge to set the needles into motion.