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.

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