What’s a “lab,” anyway? For music, any number of tools – software or hardware – can become gateways to creative musical explorations. Chris Stack joins us again to look at Nodal, Mac/Windows software that generates musical patterns from graphical maps of nodes, alongside hardware explorations. Along the way, Chris has some reflections on composition itself. -Ed.

Sometimes life imitates art. Sometimes life imitates avant-garde art. Random events placed together can often form surprising harmonies, causing daily affairs to resemble an aleatoric composition. This concept was brought to mind by the juxtaposition of a pair of recent events.

The first was downloading a demo of Nodal. I was immediately drawn to its unique way of making music. Setting up constantly-evolving soundscapes in multiple time signatures was a breeze. You create music by drawing networks of nodes. Nodes can trigger a set note or step through a list of pitches on each visit. The lines (“edges” in Nodal parlance) connecting them can transmit MIDI continuous controller commands and individual networks may be triggered by external MIDI notes. This is not your father’s sequencer.

I couldn’t wait to dive in, but the second event required me to postpone that for a bit. Event #2 was a visit to the Lake Eden Arts Festival: an incredibly enjoyable amassing of creativity held twice yearly on the grounds of the former Black Mountain College.

When faced with possibilities, dive in. The idyllic Lake Eden, photographed by Chris Stack.

Black Mountain College was a progressive educational institution that was home to some of the leading innovators in the arts during the 30s, 40s and 50s. I listened to Maceo Parker play near the spot where Buckminster Fuller built his first geodesic dome and swayed to honky-tonk blues in a log hall where Merce Cunningham once danced. I visited the Bob Moog Foundation’s MoogLab exhibit on the grounds where Einstein was a guest lecturer, all the while thinking of the amazing things I could do with Nodal when I got home. The fact that Black Mountain College was also the site of John Cage’s first Happening also affected my Nodal thought experiments. The irony and beauty of that bit of aleatoric magic still makes me smile.

Courtesy Chris, images of the Bob Moog Foundation’s MoogLab.

After the festival, I dove into Nodal headfirst and have had a great time experimenting. It has so far worked seamlessly with my softsynths and external hardware. Pitch lists, velocity lists, random branching and wormholes combined with analog and digital synths and controllers are opening new ways of creating and interacting with music. Cage would have loved it.


Aleatoric Composition [Wikipedia]


Lake Eden Arts Festival

Black Mountain College

Bob Moog Foundation

Nodal provides one way of exploring music onscreen; Chris provides some images of the MoogLab’s hardware for more tactile sound manipulations. You know — for kids!

The Dewanatron Novitiate synth, a rare teaching synthesizer (good idea!), at the MoogLab. Photos courtesy Chris Stack / experimentalsynth.com; used by permission.

Many more sounds and explorations on Chris’ Tumblr site:

Previously, Chris shared some work that went from a tiny little phone all the way to a very big set of pedals: From a Little Droid to a Big Moog Taurus Pedal, Analog to Digital, More Experimental Sound Tips

  • I've really enjoyed playing with Nodal for a few days too especially synced into Bidule triggering softsynths and samples but it's not quite perfect. I like the idea of the MIDI triggering of patterns in Nodal but it's not working as well as I'd have hoped.

    Being a fan of alternative notation I was also thinking of how to lay out nodal pieces to actually be readable so you know more about what is going on just by looking at the screen (or could even play it manually by sight reading). My first wish was for each node to be able to have a different size based on velocity and for different styles of connections between the nodes other than the wormhole and general lines. You could have waved lines for vibrato/tremolo or even cc/note envelopes directly on the node view rather than in an external menu.

    Some way of labelling the pitches and instruments by better colour coding, a choice of different shapes for the nodes and more would be great too.

    The way you can drag nodes around and change the timing live while the piece is playing is great but reminded me of the fantastic Jasuto which does the live and relative distance thing perfectly (especially the recording and playback of motion system).

    Sometimes I just wish for a set of graphical building blocks which can be dragged, connected, resized and anything to send OSC or MIDI the way I want them to. I suppose I could create that in VVVV or such or look at the types of OSC messages that Jasuto sends.

  • Kim

    Nodal rocks! I have been using it for a few years now and no its not perfect but it is better then some of the others I have tried.
    I look forward to further development but don't let that stop you from using it now as it is very capable software. Thanks CreateDigital for covering stuff that matters.

  • I've got a few ideas for Nodal and the Moog Multi-Pedal that may make it into my next video. Stay tuned.

  • Peter Mc

    As a designer of Nodal I'm very gratified to see the positive response to it that people are making. I do have one small grip and that is that sometimes people claim that Nodal is "flacky" or "not perfect" and often these comments steam from a lack of understanding of how the software works or is intended to work. Furthermore there is often little explanation as to what this flackyness is or how the software fails to attain perfection. Another example is that there have been complaints about the list system that we use, in which you can type in values without people realising that you can enter notes values using a MIDI keyboard.

    We have spent much time making sure the software is robust and does what we say it does and given the funding and resources that we have put into the software, its price is really very, very cheap. I actually think it is capable of doing a lot of things that people don't yet realise. I will soon be making some video tutorials that outline this and I hope that will help people understand more about its potential. Nodal isn't for everyone but for those that are interested in sophisticated forms of composing and improvisation I would suggest that it is significant tool.

  • Andy

    I wish Nodal would have 16 midi channels to control (soft)synths directly instead of installing any obscure midi pipelines.

  • Kim

    @Peter Mc Your software is brilliant don't be disheartened as people will catch on.