ListN Up Playlist: Isaac Io Schankler (July 27, 2023)

ListN Up is a series of artist-curated playlists that offer an intimate sonic portrait of contemporary artists by showcasing the diverse and stylistically varied music that influences their creative practice. 

Isaac Io Schankler is a composer, accordionist, and electronic musician based in Los Angeles. In recent years, they have collaborated with ensembles like C3LA, SPLICE Ensemble, Autoduplicity, Nouveau Classical Project, the Ray-Kallay Duo, Friction Quartet, and the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. Additionally, Schankler has written music for acclaimed video games like Ladykiller in a Bind and Analogue: A Hate Story. They are the artistic director of concert series People Inside Electronics, and Associate Professor of Music at Cal Poly Pomona.

Hello! As a composer with an ongoing love/hate relationship with technology, I tried to assemble a playlist of music that has shaped the way I think about machines and music, from early experiments with simple processes to recent forays into generative AI. Inevitably there are lots of omissions but my hope is that this can be a springboard for further exploration!

“Horos” by Iannis Xenakis, performed by the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra and Arturo Tamayo

It’s almost obligatory to bring up Xenakis in the context of algorithmic music, but his compositions also have a strange power that algorithms often fail to conjure. Here he uses cellular automata, simple rulesets that can result in intricate, mesmerizing patterns. You can hear (and see!) automata at work when the music fans out from a single pitch into increasingly dense, mammoth sonorities (0:52).

“Because Patterns/The Deep State” by Isaac Io Schankler

Like many people before me, I also got sucked in by the hypnotic patterns of cellular automata. Here they form just one part of a larger sonic texture that fades in and out over the course of the piece, with the sense of a pattern that is just on the edge of comprehensibility, almost but not quite cohering.

“The Gentle” by Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros was concerned with, among many other things, music as a social process, mediated by complex and often unpredictable interactions between people. Her pieces often take the form of exercises or instructions for groups of people to carry out. Her solo accordion version of “The Gentle,” one of these person-process pieces, has an incredible sense of sustained focus that keeps me coming back to it.

“A Harmonic Algorithm” by Laurie Spiegel

Originally coded on her Apple II computer in 1980, this is one of Spiegel’s early attempts to encode her own personal “methods, preferences, processes and… aesthetic sensibility” into software. This more recent version, created in collaboration with Seth Cluett, also makes a remarkable use of space, captured here in 360-degree video.

“Mystic Brew” by Vijay Iyer with Stephan Crump & Marcus Gilmore

Iyer and co. take Ronnie Foster’s oft-sampled groove from “Mystic Brew” and run it through a series of rhythmic permutations inspired by the golden ratio (3:5, 5:8, then 8:13). But far from sounding like an intellectual exercise, the result is something infectious and joyful, with a sense of discovery that flows through the trio’s nimble improvisations.

“Like a Prayer” by Happy Valley Band

Happy Valley Band uses bespoke machine-learning algorithms to transcribe pop songs, which are then re-interpreted by the band’s all-too-human musicians. The results sound something like if music could be repeatedly run through Google Translate, with mistakes amplified until the original is almost but not quite entirely mangled. What initially seems like a one-off joke becomes increasingly compelling the more you listen. I think of it as exploring the aesthetics of failure, something that feels increasingly relevant these days.

“Ultrachunk” by Jennifer Walshe and Memo Atken

An improvisational duet between Walshe and her AI doppelganger. I love the sense of distance between the two performers: the shuddering video interpolates restlessly between different locations while Walshe remains rooted to the spot. Meanwhile, she sings virtuosic circles around the metallic drones of her machine counterpart.

“The Duke of York” by Alvin Lucier, performed by Jen Wang and Isaac Io Schankler

I became fascinated by vocal deepfakes and came across Lucier’s 1971 composition at just the right time. He asks for a vocalist and a “synthesist” to find songs from childhood and run them through a cumulatively destructive series of effects. I created a machine-learning model of Jen Wang’s voice, which we could then tweak to create all kinds of harmonies and textures. As often with Lucier’s music, what initially seems abstract can take on almost shockingly personal dimensions. I can’t listen to it now without thinking about memory, cultural assimilation, and loss.


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