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6 Questions to Composer Freida Abtan

Freida Abtan is a Canadian multi-disciplinary artist and composer. Her artistic and research interests revolve around inter-sensory composition under computational process. She works with fixed and reactive audiovisual media for concert diffusion, installation, and large-scale multimedia production, as well as with computer vision techniques and sensor-based technologies. She earned her BMath from the University of Waterloo and a BFA from Concordia University before pursuing her MMus in Electroacoustic Composition from the Université de Montréal. Her PhD from Brown University is in Computer Music and Multimedia. Freida’s work has been presented internationally at festivals such as the International Computer Music Festival (2009–2012), The Mutek Festival of Electronic Music and Digital Arts (2006, 2008, 2010), The Cap Sembrat Festival (2008) and The Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Arts (2008), and she has also performed at venues such as WORM Rotterdam (2012) and the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco (2009).

[1] Briefly describe your musical / sound art background and education, formal and informal.

When I was growing up, I was really influenced by punk and alternative culture. A friend of mine was an industrial music DJ and I really got into the broader palette of textures that were used in some of that music. Dance floor stuff didn’t really interest me, but I found bands like Skinny Puppy and the Severed Heads, who used samples and more exotic spectral material, completely involving. From there, I started listening to first wave industrial bands that really experimented with form and texture such as Throbbing Gristle, Coil, and Nurse with Wound.

By my early twenties, I had become a serious music collector and was studying Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Waterloo. The first Basic program I wrote created random note sequences. It wasn’t very long until I bought an Apple computer and started playing with software such as SoundEdit 16 and Deck II: a destructive sound editor and sequencer. A small microphone came with my computer, and since I couldn’t play any instruments, I just started making sounds with my mouth and trying every process I could find on them. It wasn’t long before I was recording every object I could find that made a noise and playing with those too. The results were abstract; I organized my sounds according to my senses and my intuition because I didn’t really know how to do anything else.

At the time, I came across a compilation called A Swarm of Drones, part of a larger series on drone music that I was enjoying and featured music by a lot of electroacoustic composers. It was the first time I realized that there was a name for the kind of music I was making, and the possibility of studying it formally. I heard there was a program at McGill, but you needed quite a lot of music theory behind you to be accepted into the program and I had none. A few years later when I decided I was wasting my life being a software developer, I applied to Concordia for a new program called Digital Image and Sound in the Fine Arts. My major allowed me to take one year of electroacoustic classes, and I continued based on the quality of my work.

At Concordia, I studied electroacoustic composition with Ian Chuprun and Kevin Austin. I also studied interactive digital technologies, video and painting, and got exposure to the programming language Max through an electronic arts class. At the time there was no way to take a Max/MSP (the audio part of Max) class at Concordia, so I used a Quebec exchange program to take a course with Olivier Bélanger at the Université de Montréal. Kevin Austin suggested I continue my studies there under Jean Piché, because of my interest in video under abstract compositional process. 1[1. See another installment of Kevin Austin’s ongoing column in this issue, “6 Questions to Composer and Video Artist Jean Piché.”] Lucky for me, Jean responded to my work, and accepted me as a student even though my musical training was untraditional.

During my two years at U of M, I continued my involvement with an immersive media research lab at Concordia, focusing on reactive media production. The combination of fixed and reactive media led me to apply for a PhD in Computer Music and Multimedia at Brown University in Rhode Island where I studied under Todd Winkler and Butch Rovan. My current work integrates fixed and real-time media, motion-tracking, and performance.

[2] Could you briefly describe your current musical / sound art activities, private, within the community, and public. Please indicate whether you view these as “professional”, “artistic” or other kinds of activities.

As well as producing two solo albums, I’ve appeared on several Nurse With Wound albums and a few smaller limited-run releases. I toured internationally as a laptop musician and audiovisual performer several times. In Montréal, for two years I curated and produced an electronic music performance series called “the finite state machine,” which served as an important venue in the community to allow electronic artists a chance to have smaller shows in which they could freely experiment with their practice. I’ve also been involved with the International Computer Music Conference as a reviewer, and in running loosely scheduled events called The Unconference.

Along with my professional activities as an academic, an organizer and a musician, my artistic drive over the last few years has turned towards constructing larger scenarios for multimedia performance. Last year I finished a one-hour long multimedia production called Fear of Flight in which I designed an immersive audiovisual environment. The piece situated the audience between four walls of video and an 8speaker array, and incorporated dance and aerial performance. I produced this piece while teaching as an adjunct in Concordia University’s Computational Arts program.

My professional activities are now centred at Goldsmiths, University of London, where I teach Music Computing.

[3] Please briefly describe your uses of technologies in your creative life. You may want to include a short description of the equipment and software / services you use (number of computers, phones, scanners, Facebook, Skype, etc.), and comment on your use of mobile technologies compared to a few years ago.

Between teaching and organizing events, my smart phone runs my life. There are always a dozen emails I’m supposed to respond to and a million things I need to keep track of or look up. Social media platforms are my main tool for promoting shows and concerts, mine and those of others. They are also how I first hear about important software and hardware developments and interesting pieces of art. Facebook has become an essential part of my networking strategies as a musician, promoter and academic. There is simply no way I could keep track of the people I meet it without it. My Facebook account features a large number of “friends”, not because I know those people in real life, but because they have somehow come into contact with me briefly through my art (or vice versa) and wanted to stay reachable.

My studio is usually filled with an eclectic pile of synthesizers, effects processors, instruments and homemade electronics. At one point, I played in a few bands and needed this kind of equipment to generate sounds live, now I just find them inspiring to look at and play with. I like to sample the kind of processes that only happen when I engage with physical materials. There’s a special kind of playfulness that my body has access to but is beyond my reach when I’m just sitting at the computer thinking.

Freida Abtan
Freida Abtan. Photo © Stéphane Lagrange. [Click image to enlarge]

My sound material comes from things I record, so I always keep a few decent microphones and a portable hard disk recorder handy. I also have a digital video camera, which I use to capture visual fragments. Most of my work happens on computers. I always have at least two: a desktop workstation that I can fill with RAM and use for video and high CPU-intensive audio processing, and a laptop that I can drag around for my live performances. I held out for a long time against getting a tablet because I’ve already got computers and a smart phone, but I’ve recently acquired one and treat it as a special form of multi-instrument rather than as another digital workstation.

Although most laptop musicians like to have hardware controllers for their live performances, I honestly find that what I enjoy using live depends what kind of set I’m producing. My “Freida Abtan” material requires a fairly minimal interface, since I feel like I can only really be expressive with my music when I’m controlling one or two parameters live at a time, and sometimes use only a mouse. On the other end of my performance practice, custom hardware controllers are very fun to improvise with and I’ve designed several, including one built from three Lazy Susans that communicates wirelessly with my computer to trigger and process files using the Max/MSP programming language.

I build a lot of my own sound tools, in hardware and software, not because I find them more useful to work with, but because I find it enjoyable and a really fun part of my practice as an artist. Max/MSP is my favourite programming language for sound or video, but I’ve messed around with others including Pd/Gem Supercollider and C++. I tend towards using PIC Microcontrollers rather than Arduinos or other specific hardware platforms to interface my computer with electronics, and have long-standing ambitions to build my own analogue modular synthesizer.

The kinds of software I use to produce my work varies widely, but my performing practice is ruled by Ableton Live and I also use Adobe Audition, Logic Audio, Cecilia, MetaSynth and SoundHack. For fixed media visual work, I rely heavily on Adobe’s After Effects and PhotoShop, and Apple’s Final Cut Pro.

[4] How do you feel that the use of these technologies has contributed to those areas of your creative life where you employ them? You may also wish to comment on those that you don’t use (and the reasons). Do social media help or hinder in this?

Digital technologies have formed my creative process. My first compositions were based around whatever I could record from my computer microphone and then process in SoundEdit 16. When I started to play around with physical instruments and hardware, I tried to model the kind of processes I was creating on my computer, but in fact, I’m never completely comfortable engaging in the real-time moment of music-making. I always want an undo button. I want to edit. I want to go back and compare what I’m doing with what I’ve done before.

Digital tools similarly inspired my development as a visual artist. I started making images in a piece of software called Painter, using the mouse to draw forms and then modifying them in Photoshop. Later, I discovered that I could paint with a brush by emulating what I was doing on the computer and reproducing the same kinds of digital effects visually. I’m very comfortable with the temporally disjointed fluidity of the digital process.

Social media has given me a different way to share my work, to promote it and to discuss the ideas around it. When I post about an event I am participating in or a new development in my field, the networks of people who care, who’ve shown enough interest to follow what I do online, immediately pick it up. Most of what I do is fairly experimental, and there aren’t always enough people around me who care about the same things to make a movement. The networks of friends I cultivate online help me to maintain momentum in my artwork because we are always discussing ideas. These kinds of relationships are very inspiring.

[5] Facebook, Myspace, YouTube, Skype, Twitter, blogs … are part of the lingua franca of the students I meet every year. Are there ways for the older generation to use these technologies to communicate our values to those who were born after (about) 1988?

I’m from the last generation of people who grew up without the Internet, although I couldn’t live without it now. What I think is appropriate to share online is very different than what my students think, and I know these boundaries change drastically over different age groups and populations. Whatever your age, it’s a good idea to engage with the new technologies that form the means of discourse in your society. Social media is a more effective and targeted means of hearing of the developments in my artistic field than are conferences and journals. Stories spread faster, if only through my connected networks.

Different forms of communication are self-selecting based on cultural identity. The older generations always stumble on the new formats. They need to learn how to compress their meaning into a 140-character tweet, how to use hashtags to select their audience, how to think in fragments rather than sentences. My students never use the same forums as I do, but we help each other because we want to have a conversation. If you want to engage with a younger audience, make young friends and watch how they communicate with each other. Join them. Participate. Young people are also struggling to bridge a cultural divide when they enter society. Communication is an adaptive process that takes effort on all sides.

[6] Distribution of work used to be difficult to secure. Today with YouTube and Clouds, it is ubiquitous. Where it used to be difficult to find a copy of something, today, sometimes it is almost as difficult, not because it is not available, but because there are 1200 other (similar) competing items. Could you comment on how you see your work in this context now and in the future?

The ease of media distribution provided by the Internet has done very little to help most artists earn a living by what they do, or even to be recognized. It’s too easy to get lost in the noise. What the new distribution methods have done is make show-and-tell really easy. If someone has a reason to look up your work, they can easily find it, and this makes self-promotion a lot easier.

If online sharing doesn’t help artists become rich, it still gives those who aren’t famous a chance to know each other’s work and to develop dialogue and friendships around it. It gives people an easy way to share the music they care about with their friends, or to be able to access it out of their homes. There have always been many artists who weren’t recognized by their society, or who were recognized but not economically supported. I think we are living in amazing times for being able to gather community around the things we do. Community is replacing curatorship. I am very happy to say that I love the music friends make, and I usually discover it online.

Though I’ve been able to release a few physical albums, I don’t think I will have many more opportunities to do so in the future. Digital formats have a different lifespan than physical ones do, and they cost less to produce (though the music itself does not). While it’s important to me to be able to sell enough of my work to earn back the money it costs to produce it, after that I am very happy to have my releases be shared and to travel through the communities I’m a part of.

While music has enjoyed relatively low cost networks of distribution in the past, film and video have never had that period of independent growth. In the past, if you made a short film, you could send it to festivals and maybe a few people would see it there, but otherwise you had few options to share your work. Outlets such as Vimeo and YouTube have really opened up a whole new kind of discussion for moving image work in which a broad spectrum of the public are included.

One of the things I love so much about YouTube is that there is a new kind of media producer supporting themselves, or attempting to, through short releases they distribute there. If they can manage to attract enough of an audience the advertising revenue begins to add up. It’s a whole new kind of indie culture. While most of this work isn’t done with incredibly high production values, the bar is slowly being raised. I am often surprised by how much fantastic work I discover online.

Part of the immense difficulty with independent media production has always been in how to fund significant production values. The home studio revolution has both helped and exasperated this problem. Artists can now produce work using only their own computer, but they might not be able to audition or monitor their work properly, and it’s increasingly easy to distribute work of any quality. These issues are compounded by digital distribution, where sound and video are compressed in order to occupy as little bandwidth as possible. Audiophiles can hear the difference between an mp3 and an uncompressed wavefile, but most music fans only know that one thing sounds better to them than another. They can’t tell the difference between a bad file conversion and uninteresting music. There’s a similar problem with video file formats, which compress both spatially and temporally. There is a very different kind of feeling to video of different frame rates and formats. It is very easy to misrepresent your work by compressing it without a sensitive understanding of the tools and methods you are using.

There are new challenges to making work for Internet distribution and they are not all social or economic — they are æsthetic, technical and creative. But art is and has always been adaptive as well as competitive, and in that sense, I think that Internet distribution is really just intensifying an already existing social discussion between æsthetics and medium.

[Tuesday, 21 May 2013]

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