Trevor Paglen, PRELUDES © Trevor Paglen

Pace Verso

Trevor Paglen’s PRELUDES NFT Series, Explained

Published Wednesday, Apr 5, 2023

Artist Trevor Paglen, whose rigorous practice spans photography, sculpture, video, and installation, is known for his investigations of invisible phenomena and forces, including technological, scientific, socio-political, and historical subjects. His first solo exhibition with Pace in New York, titled You’ve Just Been Fucked by PSYOPS, will examine the enduring effects of military and CIA influence operations on American culture. On view from May 12 to July 22 at 540 West 25th Street, this in-person show is part of a multifaceted, gamified project that includes a “speculative reality work” in the form of a mainframe computer interface and vinyl LP record along with an NFT series called PRELUDES.

The following explainer outlines the conceptual and technical underpinnings of PRELUDES, Paglen’s first-ever Web3 series, debuting on the generative art platform Art Blocks on April 5.

Background and Conceptual Summary

For PRELUDES—a series of 250 unique, generative, and musical NFTs—Paglen drew inspiration from the work of John Cage and Iannis Xenakis, pioneers of algorithmically generated music, as well as composers Michael Haydn, Johannes Brahms, and Olivier Messiaen, who developed systems for encoding messages into their music. Each NFT’s original musical composition is paired with a visual score that draws on 20th century innovations in notating electronic and experimental sounds. These visuals serve as animated representations of the music in the NFTs—notes quiver and light up in time with their corresponding instrumental sounds.

With PRELUDES, Paglen, who has spent much of his career finding and divulging that which is hidden in plain sight, harnesses the peculiarities of blockchain’s underlying technology to plant secrets within his interactive NFTs. Teaching the fundamentals of cryptography, these NFTs are loaded with easter eggs hidden by the artist. Collectors are tasked with uncovering and deciphering their NFT’s secrets, and then utilizing their findings in other parts of Paglen’s new multifaceted project spanning Web3, “speculative reality,” and IRL experiences.

Technical Details

With PRELUDES, Paglen set out to create generative music that could translate itself into a visual language. Taking cues from the history of this musical genre, the artist built different harmonic structures, rhythms, and other musical elements that make up each NFT’s sonic composition. The particularities of the musical pieces are determined by a custom-built compositional algorithm that creates many different combinations and varieties of sounds—each NFT contains 12 bars of music generated through this process.

The music in the NFTs was created using an external library called Tone.js, an integral tool for this project. Every notational representation was designed and drawn by Paglen and then converted to a location on the screen based on when, how long, and how loudly a note plays. These visuals are accompanied by animations that allow the viewer to follow along with the score as it progresses.

Generative Effects

A generative process applied to each of the 250 PRELUDES NFTs creates sets of unique musical and notational characteristics. Variations in sonic and visual effects include:

  • The overall style of the music, which may be made up of short “blippey” notes; long “droney” notes; a combination of “blippey” and “droney” notes; or random, “chaotic” notes
  • The key in which the piece is performed—the algorithm will pick one of 13 different keys for each NFT
  • The scale in which the music is performed—there are nine possible scales that will impact the notes used and, therefore, the visual notation depicted in the NFT
  • The number of instruments performing the music—there is a range of two to five instruments per NFT
  • The inclusion of organ, marimba, oscillator, base, and/or bell sounds—any and all combinations of these musical elements are possible
  • The number of linear musical notations, which can range from zero to five, depicted visually in any given NFT
  • The number of circular musical notations, which can range from zero to three, depicted visually in any given NFT
  • Pace Verso — Trevor Paglen’s PRELUDES NFT Series, Explained, Apr 5, 2023