Barcelona based electronic musician, sound designer and new media artist Rob Clouth has released his new album Zero Point. Rob Clouth delves deep into themes of chance, chaos, coincidence and the ephemeral, using the zero-point energy from quantum mechanics as a unifying concept. Exploiting his skills as a software developer, Clouth has created a suite of tools that tap into data from the ANU Quantum Random Number Server (QRNS), an online service that publishes real-time measurements from the zero-point energy field. So as you might expect from this type of a concept, the album feels experimental, quirky, haunting and at times stunningly beautiful. With the album out today, we asked Clouth to explain a little further with a Director’s Cut feature.
Zero Point is a love letter to noise, chance and probability, using the zero point energy field from quantum mechanics to tie it all together. The zero point energy field is a very weak source of chaotically fluctuating energy that permeates throughout the known universe. Quantum mechanics states that due to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, the energy of a system can never be zero, even in a completely empty space, a perfect vacuum. This is the origin of the zero point energy field.
However, some physicists believe that matter itself is an emergent property of this field. Matter is everything - the sun, the planets, us. Considering that the zero point energy is truly random, it's fascinating to think that everything that we see around us that we consider to be ordered underneath may be complete chaos. Perhaps order is just an illusion that caused by the temporary alignment of shifting probabilities, like the random pixels in a detuned TV by chance aligning to form a perfect square. It's not order, we just happen to be observing it at just the right moment. To explore the themes of chance and chaos, I needed a source of true random data, and in my search I found a lab at the Australian Nation University measures the fluctuations in the zero-point energy field and publishes them online in real-time. I used this data in various ways throughout the entire album, sometimes to control the percussion, the effects modulations, sometimes directly as filtered noise.
1. Dirac Sea Birth:
As the opener, I wanted this track to set the tone for the rest of the album, so it starts with the data from the zero-point energy field played back directly (with some filtering to make it more dynamic). Although it's indistinguishable from white noise, it somehow feels special to me that it was sampled from the core of the universe - from the same source that is bubbling away inside all of us right now.
Like how matter may have emerged from the chaos of the zero-point field, I wanted subtle chords to emerge from the static, representing the birth of order. The chords I improvised, sitting at my piano whilst in a music retreat in a remote town in Northern Spain.
There are also distant voices, echoing the more direct use of them later on.
2. A Moirae Opening:
This track is really a continuation of the opener. It represents the universe bursting into existence with a wall of chaotic sounds. The audio is actually a fast-forward summary of the whole album. If you listen carefully each future track appears briefly. This is a reflection upon determinism, and how in a world based upon chance, fate becomes impossible. Moirae is the Greek goddess of predestination.
This track started while I was fiddling around on a piano in this big hall while setting up for my cousin's wedding. The acoustics of the place were just so lovely, and this melody just fell out of the noodlings. It stuck with me so I recorded it on my phone and took it home to develop further. It turned into this mournful but hopeful melody that I really like.
The beat that comes in after the initial build is my voice, processed with an algorithm I adapted from a research paper for doing audio mosaicing. Audio mosaicing is the process of automatically chopping up and analyzing some source material, and rearranging and overlaying the pieces so that it sounds like another sound. Imagine making a visual mosaic, chopping up parts from a magazine to form another image. It's the same idea but with sound. In this case the source material was hundreds of kick samples, and the target sound my voice. It's a kind of beat boxing. It's super fun because it's a really intuitive way of doing sound design and making beats. But my lord does the original voice recording sound lame...
As the beat develops there are some rhythmic shifts, which are kind of interesting I think. There is one at 5.08, again at 5.27 and one final time at 6.06. At these points the emphasis on certain beats of the rhythm change, completely changing the feel of the drums, even though the pattern itself doesn't change much. It's a useful trick to squeeze more time out of the same rhythm.
4. Emerging From
This is a reference the emergence of the order from the chaos of the zero-point field. To represent this musically I wanted a more ordered rhythm to emerge gradually from a chaotic one. The track seemingly starts in 4/4 but with an odd shuffle. This gradually turns into 5/4, by emphasizing certain beats more than others. Over the space of 6 minutes the track gets more ordered until it ends with the repetitive four to the floor rhythm.
Throughout the track are snippets of voices speaking numbers. These are recordings of 61 friends and family. They are used most prominently in “A Shiver Sequence,” but are in most tracks in a subtle way.
5. The Nothingness Of
This track was born of an improvisation on my piano using some custom software that’s like a mix between a synth and a convolution reverb. Each note is a separate impulse response tuned to that note. The results are these super rich, textured pads. Part of the underlying drum loop is actually taken from my previous track “Crumbling Shuffle” from 2012's Libet Tones.
6. The Vacuum State
“The Vacuum State” is actually a continuation of “The Nothingness Of,” and was in fact made in the same project file. For that reason the synth from “Nothingness” pops up in this track. The heart of this one though is this bassy kick drum. I wanted the rhythms in this one to be halfway between 4/4 and 3/4, and for the listener to never really be sure which state it was in as it blends smoothly between them.
The melody was built off the simplest of cores. If you listen carefully to the looping melody, there's a line embedded within it in 3/4 that barely changes throughout the loop, except for one note. I love how some melodies can change the whole feel just by changing a couple of notes, and this was an experiment to try to make one of those. The rest of the melody was constructed around those couple of notes.
7. An Epimetheus Closing
This track is similar to “A Moirae Opening,” but this time running backwards through the first half. I wanted the album to be split into two sections, and this seemed to be a nice way to close off the first half. Epimetheus is the Greek god of afterthought.
8. A Shiver Sequence
This track was an attempt to give up more control to the data from the zero-point field. It uses the data to directly affect the music in a stronger way than in other tracks. It controls the whole bassline, lots of the percussive details. The overall structure and melody are static however. The result of this is that every play through for me was different, and I had to learn to not get too attached to any specific fill or bassline detail that I liked because the next listen it would be different. This was frustrating at first because my process normally relies on iterating again and again over the same piece of music. But eventually I realized that even though that one detail I liked would be gone, the next time there would be some other interesting unexpected detail.
The voices in this track are recordings of 61 friends and family speaking the numbers zero through to nine, chopped and panned according to the data from the Australian lab. It’s a strange experience for me listening to the clouds of voices, trying to pick out who is who. Some of them are so obvious (I'm looking at you Arthur).
The album versions (the digital and vinyl are different variations) were selected from 100 unique variations that I exported of the track. I listened through them until I found ones that spoke to me. Those are the album versions. The other versions will be given out as a free download to purchasers of the album.
9. A Pareidolic Sequence
This was an experiment to try to represent how coincidences could be seen as subjective in nature, that order itself is subjective in some way. I wanted to have a seemingly random series of sounds suddenly coalesce into an ordered sequence, before dissolving back into disorder. I can't say that the experiment fully worked to be honest, but I like the result. The voice is my friend Emily. I liked her numbers so much that I had to form this track around them!
10. Tunnel Through
This started out as a composition exercise using one of Messiaen modes - an unusual set of scales that can sound pretty discordant. Sometimes sticking to a scale and then breaking out of it works well for me when composing. The rules of the scale force me to try new melodies, but when those rules start to hamper the emotive weight of the composition, I can break out of it and go back to more traditional scales. Music for me is about setting up and breaking expectations. Sometimes you have to play into what people are familiar with or the music just bounces off them. You need to do weird shit but give them enough to cling on to so that they can fit it into their existing experiences.
I can't actually play piano well enough to give this piece the recording it deserved, so I asked my incredibly talented pianist friend Nikos Stavlos to play it for me. We went to a super cool piano shop in Gracia, Barcelona to record. I paid the guy to close for the afternoon and we recorded on several ancient but beautiful pianos. Unfortunately the guy didn't seem to understand that recording meant that we needed quiet, and so you can hear him in the background fixing piano mechanisms. But you know what, it adds flavor. Sometimes you've got to make the best of what you've got.
11. Spaces Far Below
This one was inspired by a series of epic thunderstorms that we had around that time in Barcelona. One thing I love about thunder is that even when its distant and quiet, it still sounds so huge. The sound has a certain quality to it that gives it this massive sound, and it's not just volume. I think it's the way it bounces around. Thunder in a space with nothing to reflect off sounds somehow smaller I think. I tried to capture this essence using lots of reverbs and panning to create the sensation of some huge but incredibly far away.
The zero-point energy is incredibly weak, but because it's so dense it's been said that the amount contained within the space of a light bulb could boil all the worlds oceans. So it's somehow both tiny and huge at the same time, both far away and incredibly near.
Into was born from experiments with the audio mosaicing algorithm I described earlier. The main beat is my voice, reconstructed with tens of different kicks. The whole thing was again reconstructed with various different types of sounds, mostly falling rocks. That's what gives this one the crumbling feel. Later after the break you can hear more rhythms that are based on my voice - the light percussion that comes in just before the main beat returns. "Into" comes from "In Two," referring to the structure of this track, with the defining split in the middle to separate the two halves.
13. A Flickered
I wanted a brutal banger and this was it. There isn't much theme behind this one. I just wanted to make a window rattler. It makes heavy use of a custom audio effect that interprets audio as a series of 2D images, and then processes the images with various image effects like blurring, contrast and other distortions. The processed images are converted back to audio. A lot of the metallic squeals were created like this.
14. Zero Point:
After the aggression of “A Flickered,” the album needed to end on a more uplifting, hopeful note. Zero Point is this. If everything did emerge from the chaos of the zero-point field, and everything is really just randomness underneath, then nothing lasts forever, and everything is ephemeral. But the beauty to this idea is that no experience will ever repeat again. Each one is unique. And we should try to appreciate that. Also that nothing repeats suggests that there will be countless variations appearing in the future -- continuous new life.
After the crescendo, the music returns to pure noise, mirroring how the music emerged from the noise in the opening track. The music gradually appears again from behind the noise and it ends in a very slow fade out. The pure silence of the village where I did the music retreat and where I finished this track allowed to me hear minute details in the music, so this fade out was me playing with that. It contains lots of tiny details, including a reference to the melody in “Dirac Sea Birth.” The quietness is also a reference to the vanishing smallness of the zero-point energy.
The slow fade to silence also sets the next album, which is going to be all about sounds outside of human perception. Very quiet sounds, very loud sounds, ultra and infrasonic.