The Nomadic Diary of Onyx Ashanti Part #5: Boogie Up, Boogie Down, in Oaktown

It hasn’t rained once in the 2 months ive been here.  I hear that there is a drought.  I had forgotten what endless summer is like.  well, hmmm…it s more like endless “spring” mornings, “summer” afternoons, and “autumn” evenings in the Bay area.  this region has a very strange micro climate that is unique but you get used to it.  I used to be…but I find myself consistently surprised by the complete lack of rain since arriving here in may.

there are many things that are unique about this region, for me.  some of which made me come here to live almost 20 years ago…some that made me stay or come back for much of that time, and some that remind me of why I keep leaving.  one of those things here is busking.  when I moved here, the bay area was alive with buskers of all sorts.  as a busker myself, I thought it was paradise.  things like turf wars(not real ones…mostly just slightly irritating ones involving loud sound systems) and cops made me leave on numerous occasions over the last couple of decades but the busking scene here is very relaxed when youre not trying to hit the hot tourist spots.  if you hang out enough, you will be treated to some of the most unique (I seem to use that word a lot when describing this area) buskers in the world…until the politics make them pack it up for somewhere else.  its not all good or all bad…it just “is”.  and it “is” in a region that is sunny everyday currently, so there is not much to complain about.

a pattern has emerged over the years.  I live somewhere else then come back to the bay area to regroup, artistically as a street busker, before taking my re-honed skills back out into the world.  7 years ago almost to the day, I had a choice of going to Berlin in the summer of 2007 or going back to the bay area.  I chose to come back to Oakland because I had an idea for a new kind of live looping improvisation and I wanted to be fluid with it before I went overseas, so I came back here to play on the street and refine beatjazz before I finally moved exactly one year later.

and so it is again…back in the bay area with new ideas that need to be assembled in the peace that is playing on random street corners in a city where my friends treat me as if they just saw me yesterday; comfortable like a glove.  a tiny little rig designed to be compact and unobtrusive as I iterate my process.  a laptop, little speaker and battery, a wireless router and the exo-voice.  that is all.  light, sound and physical motion…..and boogie…

a couple of years ago, I had a dream about playing robots.  rather than the robots making sound themsleves (yet), they conveyed, physically, the data that I was producing when I interface with the exo-voice.  I designed and built one. its job was to respond to accelerometer position with its two servos; side to side motion was x-axis, and attached to it was another servo that would rotated up and down on the y-axis. I named it “boogie”, because even the slightest twitch from the accelerometers would make it “dance”, and thus was the beginning of imbuing this mechtron with descriptions reserved for “life”.  here is boogie v1.0 in all its glory.

As you can see, boogie is very cute but also very low resolution for the purposes of expressing gestural data.  I even built 2; one for the left hand and one for the right.  it got the job done but it was, for all intents and purposes, a baby.  it was a move in a direction but not quite what was needed.

eventually it occurred to me that maybe two, low-res bots were not what was needed.  maybe I needed a singular, higher resolution bot; a singularity of parameter expression; accelerometer data from both hands, a color synth and led light parameter expression.  the first port of call was investigating those 6 axis car building monsters like these…


I took the servos from the two previous boogies and added two more to make a total of 6 servos, and built one based on what I had researched online.  it was cool to look at but it had no real reason to exist.  it didn’t do anything that was crucial or necessary; cardinal sin numero uno-everything must have a function. no superfluous expressions.  so in rethinking the purpose of such a bot, it occurred to me to put the two existing bots together as one bot.  so rather than a 6 axis bot, I would have a 4 axis bot-one servo for each used accelerometer axis.  in hindsight, this was easier to imagine now than it was then.

the problem was determining how to hinge them together.  the first thing I tried was x-y, like the original bot, with another x-y attached to it.  this was amazingly shitty.  it flopped around all spastically.  there was no grace or way to discern function.  but after a bit of playing around with axial connections, it occurred to me to connect them x to y, like the original, controlled by the right hand accelerometer, to y but with the x connected, technically as “yaw”, like a gyroscope, or rather, it looked like a head that could look side to side.  the two y’s together work beautifully.  it feels very organic.  its movements mimic biological kinematics.  so how does this relate to functions of any sort?

in my previous post I described quadvector gestural synthesis.  briefly, each accelerometer axis controls a whole synth of its own-4 in total.  the hand units are designed to make the hand want to go naturally to the center of the gestural range-the half way point between the minimum and the maximum axial range.  the hand should be in a sort of “pointer”position as if you are pointing at something.  this takes practice and attentiveness.  its very easy for the hand to drift into more comfortable stationary positions that are slightly “tilted”, so it occurred to me that I could calibrate boogie to point straight up when all accelerometer axi are at gestural center.  this allows me to create synth and parameter controls that are now calibrated. and they all lived happily ever after…but wait…

on a whim last week, after I had finally gotten around to designing some legs for boogie that could deal with its powerful swinging motion, I was showing my friend jay the bot, which he had not seen except online.  I gave him the hand units.  he did what everyone does-put their hands into some strange contortion that has no relation to controllable gestural anything.  but then, I merely turned on boogie, explained briefly what axis controls what servo and told him to make boogie stand straight up.  within 30 second of puppeting the bot with the hand units, he had boogie standing straight up, and his hands were in perfect gestural center.  boogie had, in 30 seconds, done what words could not do in minutes, or hours.

intrigued, I replicated this experiment with 3-4 other friends and the results were the same-using a robot as a gestural feedback system, yielded singularly positive results.  in addition, after achieving gestural center, they began to puppet boogie in very organic ways.  once they had discovered this calibration concept, the rest was easy for them.  I now have a number of gestural center-robot calibrated sound elements that relate directly to the motion of boogie.  this surprising discovery leads me to think that possibly, everyone who gets into gestural synthesis will benefit from having a parametric gestural feedback robot.  I will know more this week as I bring the light feedback system into the fold.

the mask design is being tweaked constantly and now being put on other peoples noggins, which is gleaning much useful data (spoiler alert: I have a very large head), and after putting the hand units on a dozen peoples hands, I have a few “universal” part variations that I will be testing this week (with associated video and blog documentation).  ive got a number of prototype models for this but did most of the design experimentation on, what could be called, a “test prosthesis”.  there is a brief shot of it in episode 5.  it will form the basis of the next episode, but I want to see if anyone notices it Winking smile

the primary goals with the sound synthesis lately has been to regain a sense of fragility through making the functions more dynamic.  things like making the breath sensitivity pick up the slightest breath and for that slight breath to sound “slight” rather than to sound like it is “triggering” something.  the sound has tended toward functional necessity for about a year now.  if you hear some of my music from a few years ago, there was an ability to investigate a certain emotional vulnerability because of the layers and layers of well programmed software synthesizers (VSTi’s) I used back then. my designs for this system were for it to be much more dynamic than the previous systems and if judged on pure function, it is, but based on the ability to convey wide contrasting emotion, it has been stuck in prototype mode for 2 years, until just recently.

being able to go out and play to no one in particular, any time I feel like, has allowed me to investigate “the now”.  meaning, I go out and “play”, fully, what the system is capable of right now, rather than perpetually “program” toward the future attractor.  now the programming session are more focused because they are informed by a regular playing schedule.  a schedule that isnt determined by who is paying me ( but by what I want to investigate on that day…for as long as I need/want to investigate…or until the battery dies-whichever comes first.

the current evolution in the sound is coming out of the investigation of gestural interaction with the filters and the harmonic relationships, formerly referred to as chords.  I say formerly because once I learned how to produce them gesturally, they ceased to be chords and became more of a harmony array…or put another way, the reason a clarinet and a saxophone sound so different is because of the harmonic relationships created by the material they are made of, and their size.  what was imagined as chords became harmonic series.  this has made me rethink the filter array to create a sort of modulating “cavity” for the sound, like how a saxophone body is the cavity that defines its sound.

here is what this stage sounds like, and even looks like.

you don’t have to grasp any of what I just wrote to see and hear (with headphones) what it means.  there is a coherence to the sound that kind of surprised me.  especially the filter sweeps, where the most interesting phase patterns happen.  below are a few of the audio files I recorded last week and they also exhibit interesting sonic qualities.  I predict that tiny code changes from now on, will produce predictable unpredictability.  the system is finally reaching a certain functional stability that will make it easier to distribute as something that is learnable and playable.  all the pieces are in place.  now is just a matter of making what I understand, understandable for those that choose to investigate beatjazz in the (near) future.


“If Tony Stark played jazz and had a more creative superhero name, he would be Onyx Ashanti.”-WeAreReplicants “But best of all was an African American musician, Onyx Ashanti…a fusion of space and sound so evocative …you suddenly found yourself…swept up into an open place of art ‘in whose openness everything is other than usual.’ – Arthur Kroker, The Will to technology and the culture of Nihilism (2004) “He is not only an excellent musician and craftsmen on his instruments, but he is also exceedingly inventive. In my estimation, … he is one of the brightest lights and most inventive new musicians I’ve run into.” – Rick Walker, Y2K9 International Loop Festival (Sep 18, 2009) “There are no two ways to put it: Onyx Ashanti is an amazing digital musician… Check out this Grammy award winning sound-designer and we believe you’ll understand.” – editor, Indaba Music (Feb 15, 2009) “Looks like a scene from some science fiction movie where an ascended being comes to earth incognito and begins the transmission of love to a dirty, sad, sick world. FEEL THE VIBE!!!” – birchnbark, YouTube (Aug 13, 2008)

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