Jascha Narveson Interview


I first met Jascha when I was an undergraduate at Wesleyan University and he was a graduate student. I took my first informal course in SuperCollider with him and Charles Celeste Hutchins. At the time, Jascha said that he didn't have much programming experience before using SC so I found that encouraging for myself as I began the process of learning the language.

Jascha Narveson was raised in a concert hall and put to sleep as a child with an old vinyl copy of the Bell Labratories mainframe computer singing "Bicycle Built for Two." He now makes music for people, machines, and interesting combinations of people and machines. He’s a founding member of Sideband, an experimental laptop ensemble and professional offshoot of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra.

Carl Testa: When did you first become aware of SuperCollider? How long have you been using the software?

Jascha Narveson: I first became aware of SuperCollider in 2002 at a composers conference that was held between Wilfrid Laurier University (my undergraduate school), the University of Toronto, and Western (in London, Ontario). A guy named Scott Wilson was doing an MA/PhD at UofT and told me about it. I think I was one of the last people to actually buy a license for SC2 before it went open source. I’ve been using it ever since, with a big ramp-up once I started studying with Ron Kuivila during my MA at Wesleyan from 2003-2005.

CT: Did you have a background in music synthesis and/or programming before using SuperCollider or did you start from scratch?

JN: When I started using SC2 I had no programming experience whatsoever. I had a lot of experience using Pro Tools and messing around with synthesizers, but I didn’t have any organized DSP knowledge - I learned everything as I went along through a combination of experimenting, reading stuff, and talking to people.

CT: Are you primarily a developer or a user? Or both?

JN: I’m primarily a user of SC - I haven’t contributed anything to the SC language directly beyond the odd help file. I’ve used SC to create standalone applications, the most useful of which is something I’ve named LANdini, which is a networking utility for groups using wireless, local area networks (like Sideband, PLOrk, and other laptop ensembles). It’s a tool that I made in response to a direct need by me and my bandmates for something that would render OSC communication more reliable, and it’s been incorporated in to MobMuPlat, an iOS/Android app that can run PureData patches on mobile devices.

Jascha's setup

CT: Could you talk a little about the background/development of your piece "Lament for Solo Computer"? It's one of my favorites and I would love to hear more about where the idea came from and how the piece developed.

JN: My piece “Lament for Solo Computer” (listen in embedded player below) just fell out of the process of messing around with a simple karplus-strong style SynthDef and the Patterns library - at some point, I tried playing the sound really fast, and liked the result. Compositionally, I liked the idea of a time-cycle, and set up arrays of timings that added up to 12 seconds: each array is N numbers, sorted from largest to smallest, and then normalized to 12, to get long-to-short notes within each block. The density of the repeated note followed a curve that I arrived at by trial and error, going from just a few hits per 12-second block to a couple of thousand, always with this sorting to achieve a kind of uneven accelerando in each block. The accompaniment is 3 “bars” of 4 notes each that average 60 bpm, but I use the same sorting method on each “bar” to get the uneven quality. What’s nice about this is I knew that every 12 seconds everything would line up, and that the accompaniment would always feel like 3 even divisions of 12, even if, within each “bar”, things were a bit shaky. I like how this makes the rhythm highly imperfect, like a novice musician who can’t quite keep time.

The gradual introduction of the delay on the tails of the dense accelerandos in the repeated-note voice is totally proportional - the level sent to the delay gets bigger as the notes get faster - that’s it.

CT: What do you feel is the greatest strength of the software?

JN: Its extreme open-endedness is obviously a huge strength - there are so many different people using SC for different ends, and I don’t feel like too many assumptions are being made about what kind of work I want to do with it. For me personally, the greatest strength is sound-design: multi-channel expansion with UGens combined with the huge number of methods available with Array and its associated classes lets me build up amazingly textured sounds with a clear and concise notation. Does that chain of 3 comb filters sound good? How about 3000? I change one number: done. I love that.

CT: What is the most frustrating thing about the software?

GUI creation is more of a pain than I’d like it to be, even though it’s been getting easier - this is one area where Max seems better.

CT: How do you use SuperCollider in your music?

I’ve made standalone electronic pieces and interactive multi-channel installations, I’ve used SC to generate MIDI files that I’ve used in scored acoustic music, and I’ve used it to make performance pieces for Sideband (the laptop group I’m part of - a spinoff of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra). This last category also spurred me on to make a networking utility (named LANdini, ha ha) for wireless laptop ensembles that Sideband now uses all the time - it helps take the jitter and indeterminacy out of wireless networking, and makes our performances way more stable. So, I’ve used it for a bunch of different things. I’ve even dabbled with using it to make simple animations that I use as fun e-cards for friends and family...

CT: Has using SuperCollider changed your approach to music?

There some sense in which my head was already wired to think about music in the kinds of ways that SC allows - learning how to code allowed me to start exploring fun ideas about rhythm, timing, and poly-everything-ness that were way harder to try out in DAWs and scoring programs. Also: using SC was where I really sorted out DSP theory for myself, and I definitely owe my sense of the possibilities of sound-design to the hours I spent messing around making SynthDefs.

CT: Do you use SuperCollider in combination with other software or hardware?

JN: I use SC in conjunction with Reaper (my favorite DAW) a lot - creating sounds in SC and then being able to manipulate them in a traditional DAW-ish way is still a useful way to work, especially when I’m making fixed soundtracks for choreographers. Laptop groups like the ones I’m part of all love the Mad Catz “Real World Golf” game controller, which we just call “tethers” - it’s an amazing controller for electronic music, and I’ve been using it with SC for years.

CT: What current musical projects are you working on?

JN: My current musical project doesn’t involve SC - I’m working on a piece for cello and laptop for Ashley Bathgate (of Bang On A Can). She performs a lot with Ableton Live, so I’m making this piece in a Live with Max-for-Live environment. I’ll probably make some sounds in SC and import them, though...