Continual Transition: Making a Memory Machine

Mountain overlook

Mountain overlook in the Ozarks. Image courtesy of Sarah Belle Reid

Silence & the Arcane in the Ozarks

I spent the first many years of my life in the Ozarks—more specifically, a region of Arkansas comprised of equal parts farmland and forest, peppered with occasional homesteads and settlements. Long stretches of heavily wooded land stood between my home and my neighbors’, and the odds of sound escaping one family's orbit with enough strength to pass through acres of trees were minimal. Everyone in the region is effectively isolated not only from the world outside the Ozarks, but from one another.

For most, this is by choice. Homesteads were built deep in the woods for the purpose of seclusion. Many of these are the work of survivalists, intentionally avoiding contact with a society they had chosen to abandon. Others are remnants of an older, more disjunct period: built long before by people whom the forest eventually grew over. Homes that border between farmland and forest (such as my own) were built by people originally from elsewhere, all of whom had chosen to leave the more "connected" parts of society in favor of isolation.

If asked about the appeal of this isolation, many would reply, with varying degrees of sincerity, that they want to live somewhere quiet to raise their children. The assumption among natives is that, in fact, this response can be measured on a spectrum: a gradient with sincere "family values” on one and and desire to exist outside of scrutiny on the other. These are, of course, the reasons that these same natives have stayed there: to remain outside external influence and go unnoticed altogether. As such, these regions are full of people who habitually engage in and are in many ways defined by idiosyncratic, "unconventional" activities, if not bordering on or breaching into the arcane and taboo.

All people who choose to stay there unwittingly participate in an ongoing stream of decisions which will, in various forms, be echoed, multiplied, and absorbed by their children. Regardless of their intentions or awareness, they will embed in their children a relationship with isolation. Many of them have continued along this stream of decisions perhaps only because they are themselves products of the same process.

The nature of the relationship with isolation emerging from successive generations of this lifestyle is...knotted. Now living in a much more crowded, populous area, I realize that this relationship can manifest on a literal perceptual level: not only does it condition one’s social awareness, but also one’s methods of orienting oneself in a physical environment.

Continual Transition production unit 1

Cedar Falls. Continual Transition production unit #1
Image courtesy of Ryan Gaston

Being outside at night in the Ozarks is a complex sensory phenomenon. The woods, water, and fields all have distinct acoustic-ecological states to which one inadvertently becomes attuned over time. I often sat aimlessly with a friend in the middle of a field in the dead of night—no humans for miles—inadvertently embedding in myself an interrelated sense of loudness, pitch, speed, intimacy, distance, and an infinitely scalable comprehension of relative duration. Cicadas’ undulating drone, guttural groans of bullfrogs, crazed vocalizations of coyotes, and stealthy movements of small predators in the grass and trees combine to clarify how full a silence can be. One’s own breath, a slight bend of the knee, straightening of a shirt, or alteration in the direction of one’s attention would be at once deafening, yet also buried, the distance inescapable.

If you were to exist there for long, you would be faced with a manifold of equally inescapable, intermingled, and irreconcilable phenomena. You would judge distance by sound. You would equate aloneness and intimacy with a sense of submission to the overwhelming presence of your surroundings. You would be forced to cope with the fact that your actions cannot be perceived beyond the chatter of insects and growing forests, and you would face the seemingly contradictory reality that your slightest intentional or unintentional actions could, in a sufficiently large and empty place, ring out deafeningly and echo indefinitely, constantly changing form as each repetition is absorbed into the chaotic din in which, through an increasingly apparent and knotted combination of choices and consequences (both new and strikingly old), you would be engulfed.

Time in Continual Transition

Continual Transition is an electronic noise device which may, when patiently explored, alter one's consideration of their temporal awareness. It employs a chaotic synthesis system with multiple feedback/feedforward nodes, each of which plays a unique role in defining both timbral and structural aspects of the emergent sound.

By using a series of effectively recursive processes to commingle information generated in the past, present, and future, Continual Transition expands a user's interactions into short- and long-term processes which alter sound with varying intensity as time continues. Users may hear finite actions repeat, grow, and distort as time progresses; or they may hear dramatic actions gradually overtaken by forces originating from the synthesis algorithm itself.


Continual Transition production unit 1 with prototype. Image courtesy of Ryan Gaston

Employing an array of knobs, switches, buttons, and LEDs for user interaction, Continual Transition bears resemblance many “electronic musical instruments”; but in use, it differs from most such devices considerably. It does not provide direct control of any distinct musical parameters, instead only surfacing controls which alter the shape of the internal chaotic structure. Interacting with Continual Transition is not a matter of making deterministic choices on the musical scale of the "phrase," "note," or lower strata: it is a matter of listening carefully to one's interactions manifesting in the emergent unstable sonic structure. Furthermore, users gradually develop an awareness of what actions and inactions led to that emergent structure, and how present actions and inactions will affect the unfolding of the future, given the present state and memory of the events that led there.

Continual Transition as such engenders various facets of the nature of memory: the way memories re-contextualize the present and affect the decisions we make toward the future, and the humbling understanding that actions in the past are unchangeable, constantly echoing in gradually deforming condition into the future.

Continual Transition is comprised of two functional halves: a Temporal Reflection Interval Processor and an Arbitrarily Traversable Memory Register, each emblematic of a distinct aspect of memory and the continuation of time.

Temporal Reflection Interval Processor (TRIP)

The Temporal Reflection Interval Processor (TRIP) defines Continual Transition's gestural and sonic proclivities. It is both a sonic structure and a control structure, and, based on its present state and conglomeration of its past states, can generate signals ranging from sub-audible, long-term fluctuations to bursts of animated sounds.


Cedar Falls.
Internal signal flow in the TRIP. Image courtesy of Ryan Gaston and Sarah Belle Reid

TRIP’s signal flow when viewed from a traditional "synthesis" perspective is simple, comprised of an oscillator, delay, multiplier, and crossfader (see accompanying diagram). Three feedback/feedforward nodes disrupt this structure’s linearity. The TRIP provides six nodes of interaction (as illustrated): Perturbation Rate, Reflection Interval, Forward Influence, Reverse Influence, Downward Influence, and Vertical Fade.

With even just three feedback/feedforward nodes, all controls break free of typical designations. Instead of producing effects one might expect from an oscillator, delay, or multiplier, they alter all musical parameters simultaneously: pitch, rhythm, timbre, etc. Typical of feedback-based systems, the emergent behaviors include uncanny couplings of parameters; traditional synthesis vocabulary/technique offers no help predicting the outcome of a given interaction. Additionally, because of the delay line's deep integration, the results of a discrete action may unfold indefinitely.

For the user, TRIP surfaces personal and otherwise impossible listening experiences beyond typical passive musical cognition (in which listeners simply identify patterns and perceptual gestalts), into a realm where the listener understands that the emergent structures are the result of their own actions, even actions that had occurred minutes before only to reappear applied to some new aspect of the sound's character.

Arbitarily Traversable Memory Register (ATMR)

The second half of Continual Transition is an Arbitrarily Traversable Memory Register (ATMR). ATMR is a re-writable audio memory buffer (a Memory Register) paired with a Memory Traversal Trajectory Generator (MTTG), a function which plots trajectories through the Memory Register.


An abandoned field near Ione, AR. Internal signal flow in the ATMR. Image courtesy of Ryan Gaston

Unlike typical buffer-based synthesis methods, the ATMR focuses on distorting, reordering, and plotting paths through literal memories, with only secondary regard given to the direct sonic outcome—which ranges from continuous drones and noisy chatter to low-frequency digital zippering. There is no inherent assumption that the memory traversal path will be linear or literally recurring.

ATMR is based on capturing audio directly from Continual Transition’s output: after pressing the red button, five subsequent seconds of sound are stored into the register for traversal. Traversal nonlinearity is a product of the MTTG, which allows the listener to determine the rate and order in which portions of the register are traversed.

TRIP + ATMR: Continual Transition in Use

TRIP and ATMR provide compelling, yet distinct analogical relationships to the process of memory. Once any feedback node is engaged, TRIP continuously processes its own memory, causing it to distort over time, gaining new characteristics in correlation to its past gestural shapes and durations. ATMR, on the other hand, is a means of re-examining, reorganizing, and re-contextualizing literal memories. TRIP is a model of subconscious aspects of memory, analogous to the chaotic shifting of external influence and trauma into unanticipated facets of our lives; ATMR is analogous to a memory to which we obsessively cling, occasionally disintegrating into something unfamiliar, and occasionally resurfacing characteristics from its original form.

Combining the two provides countless ways of intermingling these modes of memory. By permitting signals generated by each section to control the other, Continual Transition allows the unending, chaotic process of subconscious memory to drastically alter the perception of an obsessively-retained memory, and in turn, for the act of revisiting a memory to influence the subconscious process of recollection/integration. The two form a complex and highly volatile network which can, with subtle adjustment of any parameter, change its emergent behavior entirely.

Internal signal flow

Internal signal flow for the entirety of Continual Transition. Image courtesy of Ryan Gaston

Interacting with Continual Transition is a matter of careful attention. Once chaotic interactions between TRIP and ATMR form, it becomes impossible to predict how any interaction will alter the emergent sonic structure. Sometimes turning a knob will have no obvious impact; sometimes a millimeter of difference will cause a distant, calm whistle to devolve into motoric bursts of energy. The volatility of the system is critical: over time, one realizes how suddenly things can change through either action or inaction.

By approaching every subsequent movement with elevated attention, a hyper-awareness of the implications of one’s actions develops in both directions. Because of one’s careful attention, the events of the past remain strongly in focus even when evaluating the present, and by extension, one develops a keen consideration of what may happen in the future.

When one understands how long-term transformations can result from simple interactions, faith and willingness to submit to chaos are required. That is to say, through using Continual Transition, one’s expanded perception of musical/gestural time is gradually accompanied and interwoven with an acceptance that actions very well may expand beyond their original intention, or that they may be enveloped by forces outside one’s control. How one copes with these feelings may manifest in different ways: some may exercise only careful, restrained actions because of how delicate the persistence of memory truly is. Others may revel in the freedom of knowing that not every action has lasting consequence, and that the ones that do often manifest in novel, unexpected ways. Which approach is taken at any given time is the result of one’s own personal proclivities, defined by one’s own evolving state of memory and trauma.

Continual Transition sounds like a mixture of failed radio communication, passing aircraft, subtle, distant resonances, an animal becoming prey, and small creatures chattering in the brush. Like any chaotic system, over time it seeks resolution: often orbiting on the edge of a stable state, though not always reaching it. By coming to know all the chirps, squeals, and rustlings that hide within any given state, one develops a palpable understanding of its volatility: and by carefully respecting this volatility, one becomes atypically aware of what balance of their own actions and their environment had led them there, and what creatures will emerge from the grass if they make even the slightest motion. Sometimes, an action will clear the field of its inhabitants and leave one somewhere even emptier; sometimes an inaction will lead all semblance of the present and the accumulated significance of the past to be consumed. Sometimes, after the chatter has settled, a hint of the past will return, making one aware of how everything has changed, and thereby what the scope of future changes may entail.

Continual Transition’s affect is sometimes grating, sometimes absurd, and occasionally peaceful. In light of the invisible cyclical processes that surround and shape us, though, Continual Transition simultaneously surfaces a hidden dread, an intrinsic suspicion of the balance between the “true” state of things and the things that we remember.