Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Event: NIME Conference 2012, Concert 2

Energy and attention waning a bit, I'm thankful at the moment that the profusion of media on the Internet can give me an excuse to neglect the play-by-play of last night's concert.  Instead, you can experience, at home, in your dressing gown, the program yourself through the magic of videos and links.  Commentary, if coming at all, will come later.

Of Dust and Sand – Per Bloland

Jack Walk – Scott Deal

Desamor IRoberto Morales-Manzanares
 No media available for this one, but my Wii reference in the last post came true!  RMM had strapped to each arm a Wii controller, used to modify sounds played on and in the piano, through the microphone, and brass singing bowl.

Flue – Bill Hsu

Vocalise – Sergei Rachmaninoff, Medley – Brian Wilson (arr. for theremin cello)
Thought.ProjectionRobert Alexander, David Biedenbender, Anton Pugh, Suby Raman, Amanda Sari Perez, Sam L. Richards

Check out their website, which includes video, at  This particular performance does deserve a description, especially for its spectacular projection work, but later.

Eigenspace – Mari Kimura, Tomoyuki Kato

Where Are You Standing? – Bongjun Kim, Woon Seung Yeo

The version performed last night differed from this in two ways.  First, instead of the performer's icon chiming when having located a target performer, it is the target performer's icon chiming at having been located.  Second, the stage environment was blocked into concentric rings like a bulls-eye, also projected on the board.   Each of those rings corresponded to a tone, a drone activated when the performer stands in it, so that absolute position mattered to the overall background sounds as well.  If I remember correctly, the outer rings were higher pitched and the center lower.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Event: NIME Conference 2012 Concert 1, Part 1

Good fellows, forgive me.  While my goal is not journalistic excellence, I perhaps let my imagination and hopes as expressed in the last post supersede reasonable expectations of a conference.  And, having neglected to do my homework on it (and leaving aside those other minor factual errors that I’m too lazy to correct) missed the one sadly relevant thing this conference shares with many others: it’s really expensive.  Therefore, no conference for me.

But the evening concerts are cheap, so I went to the concert last night at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater and have much to say about it.  Unfortunately, the experience tempered my previous enthusiasm quite a bit.  But, contrarian as I am, my new favorite emotion is ambivalence.  Let me talk it out through the descriptions and critiques of the night’s works.

Floating Points II – Matthias Schneiderbanger, Michael Vierling

This work is what they called a “collaborative performance” of two performers, one enclosed by a Sensor-table and the other gloved in a Chirotron, both uniquely created instruments, of a kind.  The Sensor-table is a table with upward-pointing sensors that detects object ranges, here the hands of the performer, and the object motions are then translated through a computer into sound.  (I assume the principle is the same as in this sensor LED table below).

It appeared that each sensor corresponded to a different suite of synthesized sounds, of booms, crashes, metallic jingling, that the performer commanded all around his body. A direct downward fall of the hand resulted in a percussive activation with decay, a hovering hand a sustain, and most interestingly, an upward pinch, as if gingerly plucking grains of sand from a beach to let them fall, sucked the sound away like a percussive strike reversed.  I am not sure whether the flat area of hand-object had any relation to the sound created.

The Chirotron is a glove that very literally the direction the sound from the Sensor-table comes from.  Wherever the operator pointed, the sound would appear from the speakers in that area of the room, surround-sound to the max.  The performance involved both of those, and the Chirotron’s performer would sweep his hand across the room and the sound would travel as well, but of course without the Doppler effect of an actual traveling sound-producing object.  The Chirotron is a neat analogue to the conductor, who points to a part of the orchestra to get that section to respond.  However, in this case it’s the actual performance environment that responds and not the activation of the instrument itself. 

Floating Points II demonstrated a fun kind of manipulation; still, together the Sensor-table and Chirotron represent an evidently persistently capturing idea of playing through gesticulation and body movement without any actual physical contact that is still, well, kind of old.  I mean, remember the Theremin?  That was an instrument of essentially translating gesticulation through a magnetic field while this is infrared.  The medium is different, the concept the same.  And the analogue of a conductor mentioned before is evident, although what is new is the idea of conducting of electronic sound live.

As a performance, while the Chiro-tron showed a very literal and concrete role to play, it was very difficult to understand what control the Sensor-table’s performer held.  The raw classes of sounds apparently were synthesized pre-performance, and the performer’s job was to activate them (that’s a word I’m going to use a lot – activate) but with very little real control.  There appeared no ability to manage pitch, just the timing of strike and decay.  The appearance of a many wires and a Macbook showed that the origin of the sounds themselves came from elsewhere, and even in performance the performer seemed disconnected in more than one way from the actual making of music.  It didn’t help very much that the sounds they chose to perform were ugly and the composition itself had nothing like structure, much less architecture, to it.  While an interesting a demonstration of technology, it does not work so much as an effective medium for music yet.

Still, I must give much credit to a very effective demonstrating of how manipulation of sound direction and performance space vastly changes how we could experience performances, if only they were composed to make advantages of sound origins than the stage just in front you. 

Oh wait, that’s also an old idea, dating back to the Italian Renaissance and the era of Ars Nova, where cathedral acoustics and balconies were exploited to have separate sections of performers that would have call-and-response concertos from across the rooms and thus a directional perfomance.

You can watch a performance of Floating Points below and judge for yourself.

Violent Dreams – Hans Leeuw, Diemo Schwarz
Uh oh.  Another Macbook.  I have a feeling that the most used musical instrument here is going to be a computer.

Double uh oh.  The word “improvisation” in the program.  It’s going to be a long night.

The electrumpet, performed by Hans, appears to have two mouthpieces and two functions, one as a trumpet making acoustic trumpet sounds, and with the other attached set of buttons an instrument that senses the column of air produced and translates that into electric signals.  While making many ugly noises, as a concept it is still interesting that it seems that some physical elemenets of the original physical vibrating column of air are still retained in the electronic interpretation, and it’s not just a matter of button-pressing.

The other “instrument” suite was an array of tablets and programming called CataRT which Diemo operated by touch, again appearing to really be controlling the initiation and manipulation of sounds pre-recorded on that damn Macbook.  As would make sense, taps produced percussiveness, swipes of the finger across trackpads produced swipes of sound, etc.  Here, through his iPad-like device we evidently see now the introduction of the accelerometer; instead of operating by touching the pad or by the pad sensing movement of the performer, the pad manipulated sounds by translating its own movement.  Sometimes this did produce analogous imitations of manipulations.  Jiggling the pad wavered the noises, shifting it one way shifted the timbre, shifting it the other did something else, like he was playing tilt ball in secret.  More on accelerometer use in the next performance.

Yet, and this will be a persistent problem throughout, the performance was not of a musical piece but a demonstration of musical instruments, and an improvisation of displeasing noises played on two seemingly ridiculously complicated new instruments was hardly an endorsement of their potential to play controlled, composed music.  What would the sheet score look like for CataRT, for instance?  Probably like a cheat-code for Mortal Combat.  Up-up-down-left-A-down-B-B-Up, and then destroy your audience by ripping their spines out.

Again, you can check out a similar performance below.

4 Hands iPhone – Atau Tanaka, Adam Parkinson
Each of the two performers holds in each hand an iPhone, again using them as the interface with which to manipulate pre-recorded sounds.  The main medium here was motion, and now I get to talk about accelerometers.  These sensors sense the force of acceleration on its object in all directions, though I think people would prefer to call them the axes x, y, and z.  The object set in motion or coming to a stop exerts forces in those axes, which can then be translated as instructions to the sound to wiggle around, crescendo, change timbre and such.  Set flat and still, gravity forms a baseline so that accelerating force from gravity alone also sends a signal when the sensor is tilted, its pitch and roll and the position of the object can be known and, again, translated as instructions to the sound.  I’m not sure if the spatial position of the sensor has itself any effect, for instance if the same motions 1ft off the ground produce the same sounds as 10ft off the ground, but I don’t think it does.  In any case, the concept of being able to translate physical forces experienced by an object – not inflicted on the object, like striking a string or blowing into a tube – into signals is really cool.  I feel it’s analogous to being able to hear physics, as if (synesthetes know about this) color could be translated into taste, or light into smell, or temperature into sound. 

Oh, but wait.  Where have I seen this tech before?

Sigh. Yet again the performance itself was not a ringing endorsement of the technology, and the technology not a ringing endorsement of its creator’s attunement with pop culture.  First, there are enormous complications of performance.  The motions of the performers don’t always translate reliably, so, again, the performer often looks disconnected from the sounds produced by his device.  Then, in this case, any motion at all is a signal, even if unintended, so the performer is limited to very delicate and cautious motions.  No fiery performance here.  (Of course, there could be a computer program, or say, a console and software, maybe call it Nintendo, which can determine the acceptable range of motions and sounds in any instance.)  And also, because the performer only has so much space and ability, the accelerometers are confined foremost by the performer’s own range of motion and movements.  What happens if you want to accelerate upwards but are already holding the device above your head?  You have to move downwards first even if you don’t want to.  Really, the performance space is the reachable sphere around the performer and good old physical ability.  In this case, then, it seems really ironic to see such a massive amount of computing power in ones hands and then limit it to such a cumbersome and circumscribing and clumsy method of having to handle it. 

Plus, and the pre-recorded sounds they were manipulating were, once again, at dangerous volumes and deadly horrifying to listen to.

Aphasia – Mark Applebaum
I’ll leave you with this.  It’s a piece of performance art, this one, and does not actually demonstrate live creation of sound.  Mark performs his own gesticulations, a sign-language of sorts, in-time with a recording of vocal chop-suey. I think it shows the sort of control music engineers wish to aspire to with gesticulated performance that has not nearly yet been achieved with previous efforts.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Event: NIME Conference 2012

During the Events Calendar on Dead White Guys last Sunday, I mentioned the New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) conference coming to U-M next week, and would now like to tell you more about it.  Hopefully, you’ll be convinced you should attend, because if you don’t attend it will prove one of the great mistakes of your life, one of the great missed opportunities you’ll tearfully recount to your only, reluctant, there-because-s/he-would-feel-bad-otherwise friend while decaying on your deathbed after a disappointing existence spent shunted off from intellectual exploration.  Trust me, go and your corpus callosum will thank you for it.

Did I say conference?  That’s unfortunate, because most conferences aren’t fun.  The presenters usually compete with Saltines for dryness. Everyone in attendance seems as if instead of Sports Illustrated there’s the Proceedings of the American Society for Plant Husbandry in their toilet-side magazine racks, and people only really go to wipe sweat on each other’s hands and get blind drunk on business expenses afterwards.  But I hope and expect this one is different.

NIME is three days worth of presentations, papers, and posters by visiting boffins and U-M affiliates on new ways to perform, produce, listen to, analyze, and interact with music and sound creation.  For music geeks like you and me, that’s already promising, because dear heavenly Hostess we really don’t need to hear anything more about the influence of the metronome on late classical-Romantic performance practice, or what actually killed Mozart.  (Answer: aliens.)  There’s the future and experimentation to think about, and the future is really, really interesting, and what people did to innovate with interfaces in musical expression in the recent past is still incredible.

And now, a digression.  For thousands of years, up through the 19th century, musical technology was confined to the tangibly physical, and most physical innovations to sounds and instruments were innovations and refinement of shapes, materials, and mechanical processes – better alloys, piston and cylinder valves, slowly perfecting resonance chambers and such. And in fact, most of these innovations (along with other reasons I won’t go into here) were accompanied by a narrowing diversity of instruments and sounds in art music.  Think about how few instruments actually appear in most acoustic music, and how many became extinct in the meantime.  There’s a reason we don’t hear traditional crumhorns and glass harmonicas and melodeons anymore.  They didn’t live up.  They were crap to play and crap to listen to and far too limiting in performance compared to what replaced them.

The addition of electricity and electric recording media reversed this trend significantly.  Electric pickups, synthesizers, soundboards, software, tapes, synthaxe drumitars, all these things popping up in the last century and dominating how we create and process sounds.  It’s freaking amazing to think what the possibilities can be, limited not by chemistry and physical laws and physical abilities so much but now by computing power, creativity, and the limits of the human hearing.  (Even that last one is debatable.  Would a symphony written in the range above human hearing still be music?)

And these last – no, latest – frontiers are what NIME appears to explore.  If you hadn’t suspected, yes, I did wet myself a little while writing that last paragraph.

Here’s a sampling of the titles of posters, papers, and demonstrations listed in the programs for this year:
“Temporal Control in the EyeHarp Gaze-Controlled Musical Interface”
“A New Keyboard-Based, Sensor-Augmented Instrument for Live Performance”
“SenSynth: a Mobile Application for Dynamic Sensor to Sound Mapping”
“The Planetarium as a Musical Instrument”
“Movement to Emotions to Music: Using Whole Body Emotional Expression as an Interaction for Electronic Music Generation”
“Tweet Harp: Laser Harp Generating Voice and Text of Real-time Tweets in Twitter”
“AuRal: A Mobile Interactive System for Geo-Locative Audio Synthesis”
“FutureGrab: A wearable synthesizer using vowel formants”

Why aren’t you excited?!?!  I’m excited.

Best yet, there are two sessions of concerts each night of the three days, which appear to be demonstrating these amazing things.  Heck, the nighttime concerts for Tuesday and Wednesday are at Necto for goodness sake.  Maybe they want to keep the tradition of having the opportunity to get blind drunk at these things.  I will do my best to be in attendance for the conference and concerts and, if feeling enterprising and sober enough, will post retrospectives after each day to this blog.  Stay tuned.

The conference is all day Monday-Wednesday, May 21-23, largely held on U-M's North Campus with concerts at the Lydia Mendelssohn theater.  I’ll leave you with links to the website and some videos of NIMEs past.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Concert Review: Sahar Nouri, piano

Iranian pianist, Sahar Nouri, recently graduated from the University of Michigan School of Music with a specialist degree, after studying collaborative piano with the esteemed Martin Katz. She received her master's degree from Arizona State University, and has played at prestigious summer programs such as SongFestAspen Music Festival, and The Music Academy of The West in Santa Barbara. She will be joining Utah Opera in the 2012-2013 season as a young artist pianist coach.

Sahar Nouri, recently performed her final recital at the University of Michigan School of Music on April 7th at 2pm in Britton Recital Hall in the Moore Building, and I was privileged enough, not only to watch it streaming on Ustream (which you can watch here), but also to obtain a beautiful recording of it, which I fully intend to leave at WCBN for everyone to share for our listeners.

The emotional sweep through which Sahar led the audience sparked my imagination again and again during the concert. I could hear the plinking of rain, the burbling streams, the howling winds, and the hooves of racing horses so clearly, without needing her to explain a thing. Listening to Sahar play, I was impressed by the simultaneous control of the music, and the openness expressed through her playing. The subtlety with which Sahar controlled the balance and followed the singers was so comforting; as an educated audience member, I never had to worry about what I was hearing, and could truly relax, which is a rarer occurrence than you would think. And, I admit, sometimes my mind has drifted during concerts, but during Sahar's recital I felt completely enthralled every moment.

Although I wasn't able to attend the concert in-person, the live-stream made it totally accessible, and it is something that I encourage any classical musician to do for their recital or performance. 

Sahar's program was very well-planned, and I was absolutely delighted to see the singers with whom she collaborated. Here's the program:
  1. Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
    1. Auf Flügeln des Gesanges
    2. Allnächtlich im Traume seh' ich dich
    3. Die Liebende schreibt
    4. Neue Liebe
  2. Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
    • Dicterliebe
      1. Im wunderschönen Monat Mai
      2. Aus meinen Tränen sprießen
      3. Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne
      4. Wenn ich in deine Augen seh'
      5. Ich will meine Seele tauchen
      6. Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome
      7. Ich grolle nicht
      8. Und wüßten's die Blumen, die kleinen
      9. Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen
      10. Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen
      11. Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen
      12. Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen
      13. Ich hab' im Traum geweinet
      14. Allnächtlich im Traume seh' ich dich
      15. Aus alten Märchen winkt es
      16. Die alten, bösen Lieder
    1. Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
      1. Der Wanderer an den Mond
      2. Die Taubenpost
      3. Wandrers Nachtlied
      4. Auf der Bruck
    2. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
      1. No word from Tom...Quietly, Night (from The Rake's Progress)
    3. William Bolcom (b. 1938)
      1. Toothbrush Time
      2. Amor
      3. Waitin
      4. George
    The set by Felix Mendelssohn, performed with soprano Amy Petrongelli, was very new to me, and really set the tone of intimacy for the entire recital. After talking to Sahar, I found out that above all else, she wanted to start with "Auf Flügeln des Gesanges," because the entire idea of her recital was to "take the audience away on wings of song."

    If I had a choose a favorite set (which oh my goodness is really hard), I'd have to say that hearing the entirety of the Dichterliebe played with such sensitivity, and such nuance in regards to baritone Jean Bernard Cerin was a very special experience, and not something that a lot people are willing to commit the time and emotional energy to.

    The Schubert set, sung by baritone Jonathon Lasch, was the first from which I had heard most of the songs, and "Auf der Bruck" especially was positively explosive. The amount of sensitivity to articulation that Sahar achieved, even within a single run of notes, was mind-blowing.

    The aria from The Rake's Progress, sung by soprano Anne Jennifer Nash, popped out the texture brilliantly, and it was evident that Sahar had the piece firmly in her body as she played it. Over the winter semester, Sahar was the coach and pianist for the University's production of 'The Rake's Progress'.

    The Bolcom set that Sahar played with mezzo-soprano Sarah Davis, was not only fun to listen to, but fun to watch. Both the singer and pianist seemed to simply be having fun up on stage, and they were able to engage the audience completely.

    If I could say one thing about this concert, it would be about how tangible the energy of the performance was, both via the internet, and in the audio recording. Sahar and each singer created a beautiful sense of intimacy with the audience, very much like how I imagine Schumann and his band of friends would have when the Dichterliebe would have been performed. I never felt like she and the singers were performing for themselves, but they were truly performing for their audience, to share something special with the audience, and to give an absolutely professional recital. I can't wait to share this recording with others.

    Very soon you will get a complete transcript/audio of an interview that I conducted with Sahar, as well, where we really get down to what it means to collaborate, and what the most important aspects of being a performer really are. Watch for more concert reviews and interviews on my own show, and "Dead White Guys" as well. Stay tuned!

    Heidi Madagame, mezzo-soprano, BM Performance from University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance