Album Preview: Distance to Jupiter – “Phonon”

phonon | ˈfōnän | 
noun Physics 
a quantum of energy or a quasiparticle associated with a compressional wave such as sound or a vibration of a crystal lattice.

The new Distance to Jupiter album Phonon is now available for streaming. Release date is October 24th, 2019. Pre-order is available, which gets you four tracks instantly. Upon release, download the rest of the album, including two bonus tracks: Introspec and Ringdown (Repetition is a Goddess), a thematic digital booklet, and three high resolution variations of the cover art. All tracks are available in any format you prefer, including 24bit/96kHz AIF files.

Noises From the Threshold: “Madness Rides”

Madness Rides is an experimental soundtrack for H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Music of Erich Zann” (first published in the National Amateur in March, 1922). While Lovecraft’s descriptions of Zann’s music, as heard by the tale’s protagonist through the walls, hint at chaos and pandemonium, this soundtrack instead takes a dark mathematical approach to the breakdown of the barrier between the world we know and a mysterious place beyond it. From the story:

“There in the narrow hall, outside the bolted door with the covered keyhole, I often heard sounds which filled me with an indefinable dread – the dread of vague wonder and brooding mystery. It was not that the sounds were hideous, for they were not; but that they held vibrations suggesting nothing on this globe of earth, and that at certain intervals they assumed a symphonic quality which I could hardly conceive as produced by one player.”

“The Music of Erich Zann” by H. P. Lovecraft.

This project began shortly after reading a piece in Quanta Magazine about Cohl Furey, a mathematical physicist at the University of Cambridge whose findings are “…fueling an old suspicion that fundamental particles and forces spring from strange eight-part numbers called octonions.” Soon after, I became mesmerized by Furey and her videos on YouTube (her work became a muse, in a way). Attempting to get my head around octonions, I ended up going down a very deep rabbit hole. At times, I feel like I am still down there (it’s quite dark, and my intellect just doesn’t burn brightly enough to light the way). So throughout all this, H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Music of Erich Zann” kept drifting through my mind. I’ve always interpreted Erich Zann as not only a ward against what might come through his lone gable window, but also the reason that window was opened in the first place (and to a modern reader, Zann feels like a prefiguration of the electronic musician – someone toiling alone, in obscurity, armed with but a single instrument). My deep dive into the octonions led me to a mnemonic device called a Fano plane (this can be seen in Furey’s videos). The Fano plane is an equilateral triangle, but it consists of 7 points and 7 lines, with 3 points on every line and 3 lines through every point. In music, there are seven musical notes, so it felt natural (read: uncontrollable impulse) to convert the seven points of the Fano plane into musical notes via numbered musical notation. I’m a fan of “found numbers” and what they sound like: page numbers in books, random serial numbers, catalog codes, numbers embedded in the fabric of society, culture, technology, or even the human body. So the Fano plane was fascinating to me. The rules that govern the multiplication of octonions are basically built into the Fano plane, represented by arrows (moving with the arrows yields positive answers; moving against the arrows yields negative answers). I wasn’t multiplying numbers, but I did pay attention to the arrows. Using the Fano plane from Furey’s video, I mapped the corresponding musical note (in the key of C) to each point, and then I picked a starting point and followed the paths defined by the arrows to generate 3-note sequences. When played, there was something haunting and melancholic about the tones. I started looking at the Erich Zann story in a much different light at that point, since Furey’s research was pointing towards an explanation of our physical reality. Would translating those mathematics into music be much the same as what Erich Zann had been doing? Note: the lone window in my studio remained unchanged throughout the recording process.

The tracks on this EP emerged from exploring another set of found numbers known as “Kirmse integers” and transforming something called “halving sets” into notes. If a halving set contained a 0, and by ignoring it, it caused the set to have less than 3 integers, I’d move to the next. I really loved that these small sequences of numbers were all innately musical when converted into tones. In the key of C, the tracks “Strange Currents” (3612) = EACD, and “Zann’s Rest” (5134) = GCEF were directly translated from a halving set. The other two tracks had their note order altered or shifted to fit the mood. “Lone Curtained Window” was originally (∞235) = DEG, but I altered the note order to obtain GED. “Madness Rides” was based on (∞561) = GAC, which I shifted to obtain ACG. These notes merely formed the core of each track. It took many weeks of experimentation for the final products to emerge.

Madness Rides is $4US at Bandcamp in 24bit/96kHz format. It can also be obtained in standard 16bit/44kHz format from iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Music, and most other digital music retailers. It can also be streamed on Spotify, Apple Music, Napster, or just about any other streaming service you can think of.

The Lure of Short Distances: “Euclidean”

Euclidean consists primarily of ambient tracks with a pair of rhythmic constructs sequenced into the flow. This is a continuation of the music for imaginary films idea, with tracks inspired by marginalia from Euclid’s “Elements” and the extraordinary experience and complexity of the video game “No Man’s Sky” by Hello Games.

These tracks also leverage the idea of found mathematical notes. 3- and 4-note blocks have been stretched, skewed, sliced and otherwise distorted to form the core of each track. Where a rhythmic element made sense, one was applied.

Time lapse experiment with an emphasis on the beautiful lighting found on a frozen planet. Footage was captured in No Man’s Sky (PS4 Pro, pre-NEXT update).

These works are a collision of pursuits – both virtual, in the case of exploring a procedurally generated universe of 18 quintilion worlds in the video game “No Mans Sky” (“Siren Hush,” seen above, is an experiment in virtual time lapse, and “Dead Planet,” below, is a walking tour of a seemingly dead moon orbiting a massive ringed planet) and the literal, in the exploration of Euclid’s “Elements” (specifically Book 6, which deals with the construction and recognition of similar figures). Each track shared its structure with the next; upon completion of one track, its instruments and effects would be brought forward into a new track, with only the block of notes changing. Then a new set of iterations would occur. This process was repeated for the entirety of the album. The album’s working title was actually “Similar Figures.”

Walking tour of a dead moon orbiting a massive ringed planet. But is this place truly devoid of life? Footage captured in No Man’s Sky (PS4 Pro, NEXT update).

Euclidean is $8US on Bandcamp in 24bit/96kHz format. It can also be obtained in standard 16bit/44kHz format from iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Music, and most other digital music retailers. It can also be streamed on Spotify, Apple Music, Napster, or just about any other streaming service you can think of.

Distance and Time: “Fifth From the Sun”

Fifth From the Sun runs a gamut of human scientific inquiry – from the earliest computers (and points before) to the looming Singularity (and points beyond). Incorporating both ambient and rhythmic constructs, the album takes its name from the planet Jupiter’s position in our solar system.

This work initially started as my first set of experiments with translating numbers into musical notes using numbered musical notation. Each number was basically a translation into tones of the numeric distance between Jupiter and the Earth, at specific times throughout human (and pre-human) history. Planetary positions and distances from Earth change over time, depending on where in their orbit around the Sun they are. Using the precession function in some off-the-shelf astonomy software, I pulled distance values from various moments in time. These values were processed by discarding any zeroes, since numbered musical notation uses the integers 1 through 7. However, the first (and only the first) zero encountered would be used to denote a longer note. Example: if a distance was 487,020,000 miles, all the zeros were discarded along with the 8; the 4, 7, and 2 were retained; the 7’s duration, however, when performed, was doubled because a zero had initially followed it. In the key of C, “472” translates to the notes F-B-D. The goal was to obtain 3- or 4-note blocks of notes and then see how they sounded when performed. Often something with pleasing structure or feeling would emerge. These blocks formed the foundations, and the end result of this process can be found in the eight tracks on Fifth From the Sun.

The full 24bit/96kHz album comes with a digital booklet, high resolution album cover, and a collection of computer desktop backgrounds in a variety of aspect ratios, including 4:3, 16:9, and 16:10.

Fifth From the Sun is $8US on Bandcamp.

Notes on “Juno” by Distance to Jupiter

The 4-track Juno EP was released on November 22nd, 2016. It was recorded May through October, 2016, with final processing of both audio and visual components throughout November.

Juno is a spacecraft that left the Earth in 2011. Launched by NASA/JPL, its primary purpose was to unlock the secrets of the solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter. These are some background notes about the tracks.

“Juno (Five-Year Journey)” – Track #1 represents the cruise phase, with the listener along for the ride. It took Juno five years to reach Jupiter after launch. The spacecraft existed in a state of hibernation for most of the trip, but at certain key junctures, Juno awakened to perform course corrections or other scientific activities. The metallic drones, chirps, and chaotic string sequences represent the deep space network NASA uses to communicate with its spacecraft; the day-to-day; the maintenance. Then Juno slept, to await arrival. When she next opened her eyes, Jupiter loomed ahead. Around the 3:30 mark of the track, epic swells engulf the listener as the spacecraft begins to pierce the solar system’s strongest magnetic field and most lethal radiation belts.

“Juno (Orbit Insertion)” – Track #2 represents Juno slowing down, and the beat gives us the reference. We’re about to go into orbit. Radiation is increasing. Each moment could bring disaster. Tension is mounting, not only on the spacecraft, but back in mission control in Pasadena, CA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But there is beauty here – staggering vistas of the solar system’s largest planet. The plaintive melodic sets of tones that hover above the beat are the voice of Juno. The synthetic guitars herald the stresses of orbital insertion. Tempo doubles. The pace quickens. And a droning guitar greets us like a protesting howl, the voice of secretive Jupiter itself. A conversation ensues between Juno and her estranged husband. Juno is in orbit now.

“Juno (Unlocking Secrets)” – Track #3 represents the regular communication between Juno and NASA via the deep space network. It is constant. The spacecraft is performing its science duties, pulling in data, probing the secrets which are locked away within Jupiter’s massive atmosphere. This track is all about discovery. Out of the data stream comes a clearer picture – one of beauty, chaos, and unimaginable forces. The background noise – an atmosphere – is a sea of data waiting to be explored. The unearthly swells are measured, relentless, beautiful, repeated. Understanding grows at 2:20; the picture becomes clear as an alien arpeggio fades in. Secrets are unlocked with a key of astonishing complexity – the Juno spacecraft itself. The track fades, and Juno’s time is up.

“Juno (Deorbit)” – Track #4 represents the fact that all things must end. For Juno, the end will arrive during its 37th orbit of Jupiter. A deorbit burn will be executed, placing the spacecraft on a trajectory that will reset its point of closest approach to the planet to an altitude that is below the cloud tops at 34 degrees North Jupiter latitude. Juno is not designed to operate inside an atmosphere and will burn to ash. She will be studying her mate throughout this final plunge, sending data back to us for as long as she can. The haunting strings of a bandura mix solemnly with the sounds of impact, of thunder, and the sounds of distress. A strained arpeggio grows as the pressure and heat rise. Juno sends her final batch of data. We can’t follow and witness only a thunderous, fiery implosion in the fade.

UPDATE: In June, 2018, NASA extended the Juno mission through at least July 2021; the spacecraft still faces a fiery demise: “When Juno’s work is done, the probe will be de-orbited intentionally into Jupiter’s thick atmosphere, to ensure that the spacecraft doesn’t contaminate the potentially life-supporting Jovian moon Europa with microbes from Earth.”

‘Juno (Arrival)’ is the demo verison of what became ‘Juno (Orbit Insertion)’.

Juno is $4US on Bandcamp in 24bit/96kHz format. It can also be obtained in standard 16bit/44kHz format from iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Music, and most other digital music retailers. It can also be streamed on Spotify, Apple Music, Napster, or just about any other streaming service you can think of.

The Curious Proceedings of “Sentient Vortex”

Most Distance to Jupiter tracks begin in the unconscious. They begin as fragments, splinters, particles, sometimes with words or phrases attached. I’ve often called them “proceedings,” for lack of a better term. I find wisps of melodies or chord progressions in my head sometimes when I wake up in the morning. They are stuck, repeating, and they force me to stumble sleepily into the studio where I attempt to rescue them from the inexorable oblivion that consciousness brings. Months can then pass, as these proceedings pile up on the computer. Eventually, there comes a sudden urge to sift through them all, and work begins on a new collection of tracks.

Philip K. Dick was an American science fiction novelist (December 16, 1928 – March 2, 1982). I’m a huge fan, but that wasn’t always the case. In high school I found his prose to be an impenetrable wall. I didn’t possess the elasticity of thought that was required to truly get into his work until much later in life. Today, I’m fascinated by Dick’s life, and by what he put himself through to produce his work. Dick once wrote and published seven novels in a single year. He’d often produce work that required little to no revision. Finished prose simply flowed from his mind, through his hands, into his typewriter. His biographers have suggested he suffered from the best form of hypergraphia, a so-called uncontrollable desire to write brought on by issues with the temporal lobe of the brain, perhaps due to amphetamine abuse. No matter the cause, the reality is this: he was a beast of a writer. He could finish an entire novel in a month, and these hallucinatory texts still reverberate today. Based on his visions, Dick once postulated that the universe was made from information, decades before this notion became a core tenet of the Holographic Principle (itself a property of cutting-edge string theories and a supposed property of quantum gravity theory). I’m still amazed by the volume of Philip K. Dick’s output. After reading various Dick biographies, I realized my workflow for creating music wasn’t dissimilar to his for writing novels, especially during the period 1999-2005 when I released eleven albums, five in the year 2000 alone. I don’t know if there’s even a term for an uncontrollable desire to make music. That said, some very curious things occurred in 2015 while working on Sentient Vortex. I spent the early parts of the year skimming or rereading some of Dick’s novels, mostly in preparation for Amazon Prime’s adaptation of Dick’s Hugo award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle. At the same time, I started rummaging through the dream fragments of music I’d been collecting.

I worked on Sentient Vortex for seven months, from early May to mid-December, 2015. Ultimately, eleven tracks emerged. In the end, two never made it (they had health problems). A third was jettisoned quite late in the process, in mid-November. The eight tracks that remained all had strange words associated with them. These were part of the original dream fragments. I’d label blocks of MIDI data with these words. This allowed me to preserve these dream words along with approximations of the melodies, and ultimately, the words became working titles for each track.

In mid-November, after binge-watching the first season of The Man in the High Castle series on Amazon Prime, I found myself digging through the Exegesis of Philip K. Dick looking for clues. I am unsure what I was looking for, but as I flipped around, opening the heavy tome at random day after day, I’d find sentences that contained the words I used in the temporary track titles. Statistically-speaking, this isn’t exactly unexpected; these are all fairly common words. But the sentence fragments in the Exegesis made much better track titles and truly fit the moods of the music. My one regret is that I didn’t make a note of the pages I found the sentences on (it didn’t cross my mind; the published Exegesis is a gargantuan work, a mere chunk of the thousands of handwritten pages that constitute the original, and which even now hasn’t been fully transcribed or published in any form). I found a searchable version – a work in progress – of the Exegesis online and input the final track titles, but they can’t be located. I can find the words, but they appear in different orders. This delighted me. It’s the kind of thing PKD’s otherworldly sources of enlightenment might have subjected him to as he struggled to come to grips with the life-altering events he experienced in March, 1974. In the case of these track titles, the fact that I now couldn’t find the exact phrases within a searchable form of the Exegesis amused me greatly. It’s as if the words I’d found had rearranged themselves, or been rearranged by one of PKD’s otherworldly intelligences (or PKD himself?). Sentient Vortex was inspired in no small part by Dick’s body of work. The mental imagery he conjures, especially in works like VALISUbik, and A Scanner Darkly, is often difficult to shake off. This album is about disparate fragments of “dream melody” finding a form in reality. It’s about barriers breaking down between worlds, mysterious places and things, and celebratory rhythms that evoke distant times, either in the past or the future. 

“Causal Trains Melting” video, with visuals from Double Damage Games’ “Rebel Galaxy.”

The next Sentient Vortex curiosity occurred during the creation of the album’s cover art. The piece developed over a matter of a few hours. It consists of four layers: a symmetrical star field (background), a blue layer, a red layer, and the text/logo layer (foreground). No real revision was required except for some positioning of the text elements. The whole thing just sort of happened. And the eeriest element is the “sentient vortex” itself. The blue layer. The face.

Left: the original render. Right: copied, flipped and overlaid to reveal the face.

Curiously, if you look closely at the center, a five-pointed star emerges (slightly blur your eyes, you’ll see it). What’s odd here is that my original idea for the cover was that it would be based on simple linear forms. The plan was to place a large, hollow circle on a black background, and within it, a smaller off-center hollow circle. I was going to map the position of the smaller circle to the exact position of the planet Jupiter’s great red spot. The outer circle would represent Jupiter’s atmospheric perimeter. I had an urge to drop a five-pointed star within the smaller circle, to form a pentagram (potentially inverted) or pentacle. I had collected a series of pentagram images for reference, as well as some high resolution images of Jupiter from JPL to use as a positional guide. The initial version of the cover amounted to nothing more than an uninteresting framework, so experimentation with fractally-generated vortexes ensued. I found a lovely construct almost immediately, and started playing around with it. I duplicated the layer and flipped the copy along the horizontal axis. Suddenly staring back at me was the “face in blue.”

The myterious “face in blue.”

Not only did this eerie thing instantly satisfy the “sentient vortex” theme, it also met my desire to place a five-pointed star somewhere within the design (though not inverted, unfortunately). After a few color enhancement passes, the organic five-pointed ideogram became more apparent. The red layer was another simple randomized fractal rendering, horizontally duplicated to frame the blue face. The fact that the face emerged instantly, from the very first random mathematical seed I generated, is very “phildickian,” and a testament, perhaps, to the power of the sentient vortex we all wander through as we sleep.

When purchased via Bandcamp (see link, below), the full 24bit/96kHz album comes with a thematic digital booklet and copies of the album’s cover art – perfect for whichever era the listener/time traveler is computing in (aspect ratios include 4:3, 16:9, and 16:10, featuring resolutions as high as 5120×2880)!

Sentient Vortex is $7.99US at Bandcamp in 24bit/96kHz format. It can also be obtained in standard 16bit/44kHz format from iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Music, and most other digital music retailers. It can also be streamed on Spotify, Apple Music, Napster, or just about any other streaming service you can think of.

Toiling in Musical Obscurity, Volume 1: 1999​-​2005

The tracks in this compilation were taken from the “live performance” phase of Distance to Jupiter (1999-2005). All tracks were performed and recorded live.

This compilation is a playlist crafted by Pete Muller. I first met Pete in the hallowed YakYak forum, the virtual home of Jeff Minter and Llamasoft back in the late 1990s. Pete hails from Adelaide, Australia, where he’s been consuming whatever the fringe has to offer for years (and by “fringe” I mean the Adelaide Fringe, which is the largest annual arts festival in the Southern Hemisphere, held in the South Australian capital of Adelaide). Pete is a prolific writer, blogging at length about his consumption of Art year after year, and fittingly, somewhere along the way, he became interested in Distance to Jupiter – which is about as fringe as it gets. Now many years later, Pete probably possesses more rare editions of Distance to Jupiter albums than anyone else on the planet. That said, back in 2007, Pete compiled the list of tracks for this compilation. For him, these were Distance to Jupiter’s “greatest hits” during the period 1999-2005, and his choices surprised me in multiple ways. Obviously, Pete had concerns: Would these tracks all fit on a standard audio compact disc? Yes. Would these tracks suitably represent the albums they were taken from? They do. But for me, this compilation is vital to gaining an understanding of this strange body of work. Maybe it’s Pete’s attunement to the fringe, but he is clearly seeing/hearing things that I was unaware of. Think of these tracks as a set of skeleton keys for the 11 albums represented. They unlock a prolific period in the history of Distance to Jupiter – a period in which every single track (120 of them, possibly more) is a live performance, recorded direct to MiniDisc. Perhaps this helps explain how 11 albums came to be in six short years (no time-wasting do-overs, no endless tinkering in software; just one performance leading to the next). I tend to characterize these tracks using simple words like abrasive, dissonant, challenging, and haunting, but I’ll let Pete describe this compilation, as he did in an email from 2007:

“‘Message’ is still a natural opener, and the flow through to ‘Alone’ was too good to miss. ‘Alone’ also sets an unnerving tone to the compilation, something which I tried to foster through equal parts ambiance and beats. Likewise, the transition to ‘Outward’ was just too good to avoid; it also allows for an up-tempo transition. Whack in ‘Move’, it goes with the groove, but with sufficiently different instrumentation. Drop back down to a gentle ‘Collapstar’ which trades some speed and abrasion for a touch of sweetness, before a mildly worrying edge. Forget the worry: now just bliss out with ‘Galileo’. Reflect in a maudlin manner with ‘Red’, then push through the shadowy branches of ‘Pluto’. Suddenly, we’re in the open: ‘Turn’ is crystal-clear; it knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s a gear-change for the mind as, rather than creeping along in our own heads, we’re grabbed by the hand and told where to go. We’re led through the rains and portent in ‘October’, before being scraped through an uncomfortable memory with ‘Transform (Fragment)’. And now we’re into the heft, the weight. The meat. Straight into the simmering opus of ‘Gundam’. It bubbles away, poking without intent at the mind. ‘Firmament’ provides the perfect backdrop to reflect upon that which has gone before. ‘Infinite Unknowable Abyss’ activates the brain once more, seemingly innocuous soundscapes that suddenly dissolve to a land of menace before returning us to safety – or not? As the rumbling conclusion is inconclusive, we rely on ‘Ohm’ for context: gritty excitement, constantly on the edge of our seats. Oh yes. ‘Crate’ lulls in with a half-drunken swagger, before organizing itself into an assertive direction. Showing no sense of urgency, it pointedly indicates how we should be packing our bags and sends us home with ‘Overdrive’ – which is just a fucking magnificent track.”

Pete Muller, May 27th, 2007.

Though Pete later remarked “…this reads like A-grade wank” he was just being even-handed (and hilariously honest) with that comment. But his descriptions of these tracks manage to encapsulate and represent the albums from this period in a way I had failed to do time and again, and I’m grateful for that!

This album is avaiable for $0US at Bandcamp. Name your price!