Snake Oil

Title Snake Oil
Subtitle Soundtrack
Year 2019
Instrumentation Video and electronics (fixed media or live generated from Scored Synthesizer), 2 channel sound system
Duration 6:56 (loop)
Short Technical Description video HD, projection (variable dimension), 6’23’’ (loop), 2 channel sound
Premiere 2019, August 31st
Premiere Details Snake Oil, Dienstgebäude, Zürich
Artist Valentina Pini
Camera Loris Ciresa

Snake Oil is a video work of Valentina Pini for which I created the soundtrack. It is the first of several works created in collaboration with her. The sound is fully synthesized with a self-built instrument. Both, the development of the instrument as well as the compositional practice on which I started to reflect during the artistic research for this composition had a profound influence on my work.

Valentina Pini developed her work while she was in South Africa for an artistic residency. There she came in contact with Sangomas, the traditional healers from South Africa.

They employ a specific set of fetishes (tokens such as shells, stones, coins, bones, dominos, dices …) to diagnose the causes of the patient’s ailment. This ritual, more commonly known as throwing bones, consist in throwing this sacred set as a way to reach out to the spirit world and ask advice, before recommending an appropriate muti—a traditional medicine based on plants, animal or mineral extracts. Each of these objects is endowed with a distinct significance which, in configuration with the position of the other thrown «bones», will allow the healer to interpret otherworldly messages. Snake Oil shows the functional ambiguity of these tokens beyond their explicit nature—an effect reinforced by the close up filming that somewhat hinders the identification of the individual pieces.

Snake Oil
© Valentina Pini Sound Micha Seidenberg

I started to interest myself in the phenomenon of throwing bones or more generally in the setup clairvoyants use to get their answers. It is a particularly universal act because humans do it worldwide, and there are many materials used to create a setup for the ritual (coffee, bones, tee, wood, etc.). What fascinates me is that the visual structure made of bones, coffee or whatever material the visionary uses is aleatoric but I, as “clairvoyant”, act on it as a conscious and intentional interpreter. Following this reflection, my composition transforms metaphorically the act of throwing bones. As an interpreter, the composer acts, reads and deciphers the structures inherited from the “thrown” set and the visual narrative configuration of the video.

Scored Synthesizer

Snake Oil (2019) well as the soundtracks for With two naked eyes watching slime on the ocean floor (2019), Water into Wine (2020) and Bosque Marino (2021) are resorting to a self-built computer program written in Max/MSP, the Bach Library and its text-code based scripting language called Bell. It is a complex instrument bringing together algorithmic procedures with a notation and representation space. Each note has its individual dataset, but each dataset can be either a specific definition of the individual sound parameters or serve as a set for a following algorithm that will produce the final parameters. I wrote the first version of the program during my residency in Berlin (January-June 2019). It has since then continuously evolved on other projects. For a more detailed explanation of the instrument have a look at the dedicated webpage.

Digital score

The following score represents a full export of the score user interface. As the representation of the data is dynamically adaptable, the current form of representation is only one possibility of many others. The current configuration has the following aspects:

For each note, the position of the note head indicates the base frequency used for the frequency modulation. The envelope for the amplitude (red) and the index (cyan) are shown in the score’s background. The green markers represent the cuts of video sequences.

The score not only allows a dynamic representation of all the parameters it includes (most of them are hidden). It also is an invitation to live interpretation. There is currently a concert version of the piece where the voices are controlled by five different faders. The score represents the attribution to a different fader by the noteheads colour – for eg., notes with a marine blue notehead (and slope) colour are handled by the 5th fader.

Digital Score (Concert Version)
© Micha Seidenberg