April 20 2011 10:06 AM

Miller Puckette's Pure Data is inspiring musicians, artists and inventors worldwide

Jaime E. Oliver playing his Mano instrument
Photo by Paloma Rodrigo

This is what Pure Data looks like after artists Elle Mehrmand and Micha Cárdenas get done tinkering with it:

And this is what Pure Data looks like when the artists, collectively known as virus.circus, do a performance piece using it:

Of course, what you can't hear are the real-time heartbeats of Mehrmand and Cárdenas being broadcasted through Pure Data and their electronic clothing. The sounds and some of the artists' real-time movements are simultaneously taking place in the real world and the virtual world known as Second Life pictured on the screen behind them.

“We use Pure Data as the bridge between physical and virtual space,” Mehrmand explains. “[It] allows us to capture the data from sensors we wear on our bodies and create live sound within our performances.”

When Miller Puckette, associate director of the Center for Research in Computing and the Arts (CRCA) and a professor in the music department at UCSD, first sat down to write Pure Data, a visual programming language, back in the early '90s, he wasn't really sure what its eventual applications would be. He simply set out to write a program that would be useful for making interesting computer music.

“It's gone in radically different ways than just the data-editor aspect it started out as,” Puckette says, tucked in his small UCSD office, surrounded by speakers, sound panels and three pieces of tile connected to cords running to his computer, one of the latest instruments he's invented using Pure Data. “There have been lots of surprises since it first came out—big and little surprises.”

Pure Data was created as the free, open-source version of Puckette's first programming language, Max, which continues to see commercial success, partly because it allows musicians to easily share files and projects created with different software. Puckette wanted to release an open-source version of Max because he wanted young artists and musicians to start experimenting with it.

“I was interested in casting the widest net possible,” Puckette says. “To me, open-source appeals to a more interesting section of the population because of the do-it-yourself aspect. A lot of what I wanted to do was to try to design situations where people can make music in novel ways.”

A short walk from Puckette's office, in the middle of the dark Spatialization Lab at Atkinson Hall, Rick Snow sits in the glow of his computer screen with an electronic keyboard nearby. When the composer pushes one of the keys or twists a knob, a mix of synthesized and recorded sound blasts from speakers and a corresponding graphic image dances across his screen.

“The idea is to create an instrument that represents the sound you're creating visually in this sort of dramatic fashion,” he explains.

Snow, a CRCA researcher and doctoral student in UCSD's music department, came to the university as an acoustic composer, but after a few years surrounded by Puckette and other pioneers in computer music, he made the switch. For the last year, he's been concentrating solely on electronic music and using Pure Data to come up with new instruments and compositions. His latest invention is called “Drawn Paths.”

“With a new instrument,” he says, playing the keyboard and making sometimes jarring, other times beautiful sounds, “it starts off as improv because you have to feel out what works.”

Eventually, Snow will compose music using Drawn Paths. The instrument uses both the keyboard and a few knobs, though, which means he'll have to blend traditional music notation with some made-up notation in order for others to be able to perform his works.

“We're pushing the boundaries and taking the idea of an invented instrument further than it has been taken,” Snow says, referring to the tight-knit global Pure Data online community. “Though, you know, most of San Diego would never even care. But things could change.”

Click here to listen to one of Snow's Pure Data compositions.

A few miles away from the lab, composer Jaime E. Oliver is experimenting with Pure Data, too. A desk with two bright lamps and a black cloth on top sits in the middle of his apartment. Pointed at the cloth is a repurposed $40 Playstation camera with cords running to Oliver's computer.

“There's something really raw or basic about making a gesture and it making a sound,” Oliver says, as he sits at the desk and brushes his hands slowly across the black cloth, creating a quiet, synthesized noise.

Oliver, also a CRCA researcher and UCSD doctoral candidate, flicks his fingers under the camera and the computer generates a louder noise that sounds something like what you'd imagine it would. A quick gesture makes abrupt sounds while slower gestures make drawn-out sounds. Twirling a hand under the camera makes a cacophony of computer-generated noises.

“I wanted it to be very intuitive,” he says. “I imagine that's part of composing—choosing which sounds you want to go with which gestures.”

Called Mano, it's the second instrument Oliver has created using Pure Data and its accompanying sister programs. Tutorials and instructional videos for both (his first instrument is called Silent Drum) are available for free download on his website (jaimeoliver.pe). He has dozens of photos of different versions of the drum, emailed to him by musicians around the world.

“People are free to appropriate my instruments as I am free to appropriate [Pure Data],” he says. “It's the flow of knowledge.”

That flow has moved well beyond the UCSD campus and even the large, but relatively unknown, online Pure Data community. More and more mainstream outlets have been using Pure Data in the development of video games, robotics and more. The Inception movie iPhone app, for instance, relies on Pure Data.

Joseph Deken, president of New Blankets Inc., a nonprofit seeking to expand access to new technologies, and director of research program development at UCSD's Calit2, says he sees Pure Data going even further. He's helping organize a new, Los Angeles-based Pure Data meetup group (users call them “Patching Circles”) and has plans for getting the programming language in front of even more people, especially kids.

“Pure Data, for me—which I'm just beginning to teach and learn—it represents a certain style of using computers that's very, very powerful and it's different than what people are used to,” Deken says. “It's very visual…. And it's free and can be taught pretty easily.”

The Pd-LAunch is from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday, April 25, at Calit2 at UCSD. For details or to RSVP, email launch@pd-la.info or visit pd-la.info.com.


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