Karlheinz Essl


generative sound environment
after "Fontana Mix" (1958) by John Cage


Sound generators for video soundtracks (Rudolf Boogerman)
in: Miracle Tutorials (22 Mar 2017)

FontanaMixer is a generative sound environment based on John Cage‘s conceptual piece Fontana Mix (1958), by the Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl. Like the other sound generators discussed here, FontanaMixer also creates random sound compositions.

At first, FontanaMixer was a bit disappointing for me because you have no control over what happens. It is literally a digital version of what John Cage had in mind when he dreamed up random procedures to create music which is free of personal taste. It happily randoms along, so to speak. There are 4 base sounds that are used to create the sound effects, like phrase, duration, speed, offset, transposition and reverb. The default installed sounds are interesting in itself: John Cage’s own voice, Street ambiance, Nature and Art (a Karlheinz Essl creation). It is possible to change those sounds by replacing them with mono files in AIF format. At that point, it becomes more interesting because at least you can control which sounds are used. And that influences the outcome considerably.

For the first test, I exchanged the human voice with the sound of water, a sound loop I recorded myself and converted it mono. Karlheinz recommends an audio file no longer than 2 minutes for the best result. I left the other default sound files in there. It didn’t change dramatically, but at least the rather unearthly human voice was gone. It uttered distinctive words from time to time, which I couldn’t use in my project.

You can see (and hear) the end result of the first experiment here.

From Tape Recorders to Laptops - The Evolution of Fontana Mix (Thom Holmes)
in: Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture (Routledge 2008)

(...) Yet another laptop version of Fontana Mix was developed by the Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl (b. 1960) in 2004. Essl's version, also called FontanaMixer, is a completeley self-generating sound environment that the composer programmed using Max/MSP. Adhering to Cage's instructions, and providing for sound channels as in Cage's four-track tape version, Essl's program uses chance-based operations to assign values to each of six possible parameters affecting the sound source. The audio sources become highly modified using granular synthesis techniques. Essl's FontanaMixer is provided with four sound sources including the voice of John Cage and nature sounds, but the user is invited to replace any of the given sources with audio tracks of their own. (...)

Karlheinz Essl: FontanaMixer (Jason Freemann)
in: Mediation Station - an unauthored music terminal (Indiana, 2006)

Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl's software implements the chance operations of John Cage's Fontana Mix — which originally involved the placement of transparent sheets over each other to determine the parameters and timing of each sound object — as a computerized chance algorithm. This program generates a realization of Cage's work on-the-fly, visualizing the random decisions of the algorithm as they are made by the software.

Essl's recreation of the Cage work not only transfers it from the analog to the digital domain. It also crucially delays the execution of the chance operations from the moment of composition to the moment of performance (on each listener's own computer). And each performance is unique not only because of the different results of these chance operations, but also because listener-collaborators control the performance by determining its duration and by selecting the source soundfiles to be used.

Tools We Use: Random Noises (Matt Neuburg)
in: TidBITS #761 (10 Jan 2005)

Composer Karlheinz Essl is single-handedly responsible for several interesting real-time music-generation applications. His FontanaMixer is an attempt to recreate a famous aleatory John Cage piece; it's remarkable, but it grabs most of your CPU, making it hard to get anything else done, and its sounds are raspy and clanky, involve a human voice, and are mixed with long periods of silence, as if someone were muttering while sorting through the garbage cans in an alley.

FontanaMixer, simulating John Cage with algorithms (Alessandro Ludovico)
in: neural.it: Hacktivism, E-Music, New Media Art (22 Aug 2005)

The coding of conceptual works through the programming code is a peculiar form of ‘digitalization’ that implies an important mediatic shift (from a material medium to an immaterial one), even if at the same time it exalts the ideas in the perennial algorithms’ output. FontanaMixer is a generative software based on ‘Fontana Mix’, a conceptual work by John Cage made in 1958, programmed for the Mac OSX platform by the austrian Karlheinz Essl almost 50 years late. The score was made by ‘instructions’ expressed as full stops, lines, and graphics and juxtaposed through transparent sheets in a casual manner. It calculated six different parameters for very sonic event, letting the interpreter freely choosing the parameters. This anarchic freedom of interpretation with no apparent order, that Cage connected with the liberation from the personal tastes connecting it to the natural events, is reflected in this software with four autonomous channels and parameters that autonomously modifies under the user’s eyes. The work’s theatricality is disappeared, and also the equipment presence on stage (four tape recorder) then used by Cage. But this work, commissioned by the Wien Modern, realizes a sort of software ‘cover’ of an historical performance. It preserves (instead of the common ‘musical’ covers) the inspiring principles that once motivated and animated them. The vagueness, the opportunity and the silence are here again, calculated by a microprocessor fed by the necessary instructions, and protagonist of the same poetic original automation.

Home Works Sounds Bibliography Concerts

Updated: 6 Apr 2018