Étude In Memoriam Alan Sutcliffe

Tom Hall

For the Computer Arts Society Alan Sutcliffe memorial issue of PAGE, 2015

Étude In Memoriam Alan Sutcliffe audio (mp3)


I had the privilege to spend a little time with Alan over the last few years in connection with research around Peter Zinovieff’s EMS company and studio. Alan and Peter had collaborated to make the algorithmic electronic music composition ZASP in 1968, which counts as among the very earliest British computer music. Conversing with Alan was a pleasure: snippets from his wealth of thinking on computation and the arts would unexpectedly surface among measured sentences.

In 2013, learning that I was to organise a symposium around a concert for Peter Zinovieff’s 80th birthday, Alan offered to republish an earlier edition of PAGE devoted to Zinovieff and EMS. He asked me to contribute a new opening article, which I did,[1] and he kindly travelled to Cambridge with Nicola and Matthew to deliver copies of the journal hot off the press. Later that year, articles that we had respectively written appeared adjacent in a volume edited by Bronac Ferran, who had first introduced me to Alan. In his article,[2] Alan describes the making of ZASP in the context of algorithmic music and his approach to randomness and patterns. To illustrate his point, he printed a 10 x 7 matrix of random numbers between 0 and 9, the first of which, for example, is 9 5 2 0 4 5 3 5 0 2.[3]

In writing the short composition Étude In Memoriam Alan Sutcliffe, I had in mind the historical approach that Alan outlined in his article, the experience of repeated listening to a recording of ZASP and the ideas outlined in my own article adjacent to Alan’s.[4] The composition is an étude in algorithmic music, and, like ZASP, is different each time it is run. The Étude is programmed in SuperCollider, which both synthesises the audio and animates the music’s visualisation. The source material for the piece is Alan’s 10 x 7 matrix mentioned above, which is traversed and transformed in various ways to make the piece as heard and seen. This algorithmic process determines the overall structure (in this version 6 short phrases), notes, durations, rhythms, articulations and timbre within the piece. Observers may recognise in the animated visualisation a nod to Alan’s wireframe animation for the movie Alien.

  1. T. Hall, ‘Peter Zinovieff and Cultures of Electronic Music’, Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, PAGE 69 (Spring 2013), 1-3. Available online:  ↩

  2. A. Sutcliffe, ‘Main Grounds (Anag) 5.6’. In B. Ferran (ed.), Visualise: Making Art in Context. (Cambridge: Anglia Ruskin University, 2013), pp. 55-59. ISBN 978-0-9565608-6-5.  ↩

  3. Ibid., p.57.  ↩

  4. T. Hall, ‘Sharing Electronic Music Performance’. In Ferran (ed.), Visualise, pp. 60-63. Available online:  ↩

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