JOHN CAGE TRIBUTE: Phillip Stearns

In my work, John Cage's influence is perhaps strongest by way of my encounters with La Monte Young's work.

Test footage of the "Slain-Boy" version of a custom audio-video synthesizer, 201o Prochiptunes, 2010 Apeiron l Peras IX, 2010 Fruiting Bodies of High-Voltage Transmission Lines (2010) Biography


In my work, John Cage's influence is perhaps strongest by way of my encounters with La Monte Young's work.Though I tend to approach the issue of sound and composition from a place where chance and aleatoric processes are integral to the creation of a work, the drone, which is so prominent a feature of Young's work, has been figuring in more as a means of tuning the ear and transforming the experience of sound into a more physical one. John Cage has set the ground work for my ideas regarding music as a privileged form of listening. Sound becomes music through the act of listening, which imposes a system of expectations informed by conditioning and experience of to things heard. The key aspect of Cage's work that has made the greatest impression on me is the idea that finding music is simply a matter of discovering what it is to hear without listening. Though this idea does not directly manifest itself in my audio video work, the connection is there in my approach to creating experiences which demand that you see without looking, hear without listening, sit without sitting.

Test footage of the "Slain-Boy" version of a custom audio-video synthesizer, 2010

Protochiptunes, 2010

Self-Built CMOS Music Pattern Generator/Synthesizer

Proto-Chiptunes: the hypothetical ancestor of modern-day 8-bit video game music, known as “Chiptunes”. Before there were arduinos, video game systems, or even microchips capable of producing sound, there was only binary logic. But in order to find the roots of this ancient music, we must go back further, back before the time of logic, far back into the pre-history of electronics. From the primordial ooze of analog circuits arose the first digital logic circuits. Made only from transistors, resistors and diodes, they clawed their way out of the random void to assert their unambiguous binary dominion over the whole world of electronics. When the digital circuits had established themselves as supreme rulers of the electronic world, and mastered the use of fire, they developed a style of music called “0 01 0110 10010011 0101 01 1″ known today as “Proto-Chiptunes”. Now the digital logic clan, CMOS re-imagine this primitive electronic music under the careful and patient direction of Phillip Stearns (aka Pixel Form).

Proto-Chiptunes is made using CMOS digital logic microchips placed precariously on breadboards, temporary prototyping surfaces for building and designing circuits. The concept of the music is to derive a complex and compelling range tones and rhythmic patterns off a single square wave oscillator running at a very high frequency. The performance is then a navigation of this musical terrain through live re-wiring of the circuit’s connections. The resulting sounds and compositions are referential of minimalism meets 1-bit and 8-bit chiptune music. Where chiptune musicians and composers work with programmable computing systems (both vintage and custom) to produce vintage video-game style music, this proto-chiptunes project seeks a hardware-based solution. By using pure dedicated hardware, there’s no programming involved—or rather, the programming is done by the placement of jumper wires used to reconfigure the circuit in real-time.

Apeiron l Peras IX, 2010

Apeiron | Peras is a series of videographics and sound compositions created using a custom built video synthesizer connected in generative feedback paths. Intense audio-video synesthesia is produced by sonifying and visualizing raw electronic signals as directly as possible, creating an intricately intertwined relationship between what is heard and what is seen as sound and image take turns leading and following each other in a perpetual dance. Each work follows an improvised trajectory, navigating the sonic and visual landscape produced by folding electronic signals inwards upon themselves. Apeiron | Peras audio-video works are the result of a process of seeking balance between exerting expressive control over an otherwise raw electronic signal and letting the wild, unpredictable current follow its own path.

Fruiting Bodies of High-Voltage Transmission Lines, 2010

Dimensions: Scalable 6′ x 13′ | Medium: Sound, Custom Electronics, Salvaged Speakers

8 speakers produce 8 approximate sine tones, independently fading in and out at slow but regular rates. Silence is broken by a single tone slowly growing louder. That tone is joined by others forming a chord. This chord morphs into a tonal cluster, a sonority active with overlapping beat frequencies, melting away into a suspenseful chord and then swelling again, evolving into subtle but unique sonorities, occasionally returning to silence.

Image credit: Yao Chung-Han


Phillip Stearns creates at the intersection of art, philosophy, and science, drawing upon a variety of disciplines including installation, audio-video, circuit sculpture, writing, performance art and musical composition. Deconstruction, dissection, and reconfiguration are methods he commonly employs in the interrogation of materials ranging from electronic objects, biological systems, images, light, video, and sound. His process is that of reduction aimed at revealing hidden macrocosms of potential, new materials for expression, and new paths for inquiries into understanding the state of things. In his work with technology, the machine is understood as the living manifestation of human intentions where the development and application of our technologies, machines and tools reveals our desires and dreams—both conscious and unconscious. His work generates phenomenological experiences that become pathways for interconnecting metaphorical spaces implied in the selection of specific materials, processes and media.

Phillip Stearns received his MFA in music composition and integrated media from the California Institute of Arts in 2007 and his BS in music technology from the University of Colorado at Denver in 2005. His work has been exhibited internationally at electronics arts festivals, museums, and galleries including: Harvestworks (2010 NYC); (2010 Chicago, IL); Festival De Arte Digital (2010 Belo Horizonte, Brazil); FILE (2009 Sao Paulo, Brazil); NIME (2009 Pittsburgh, PA); Filmer La Musique (2009 Paris, France); FONLAD (2009 Coimbra, Portugal); Torrance Art Museum (2008, 2007 Los Angeles, CA); Optica Film Festival (2011, 2008 Spain). He has participated in residencies at Museums Quartier (Vienna 2010), STEIM (Amsterdam 2007), Experimental Television Center (NY 2009), Harvestworks (NY 2010), is the current AIRTime Fellow at Free103Point9 for the 2010-2011 cycle, and curator for the 8th annual Bent Festival (2011).

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