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The latest issue of eContact! features articles which discuss the reasons behind the development of several unique, technology based interfaces and instruments for performance and composition.

The Body

Questions regarding interface design cannot be usefully considered separately from the problems of composition and the theoretical issues of what it is we want our music to be or what we want it to do. (Richard Scott)

A common topic of many a conversation in the electroacoustic milieu is a concern for the role and presence of the body in technology based instruments and interfaces. Reflecting on this situation in “Other Voices, Other Bodies,” Erin Gee points out that although the incredible range of individually configurable options in today’s recording, performing and playback technologies would seem to suggest that a uniquely individual experience should be possible, the body itself seems to be absent more than ever, in particular in increasingly “arbitrary and user-specific” listening environments, where the “social or physical presence” of the creator is disconnected entirely from the creative entity. Her recent installations exhibit the human voice disconnected from the body: a representation of a corporeality fragmented by the use of technologies and presented using technological means. 1[1. These works seem to paraphrase Samuel Beckett’s observation in The Unnameable that although words may be a problem, we must nonetheless rely on words to articulate the problem.]

Richard Scott and Bill Thompson comment on this “disconnect” from the perspective of performers concerned with the absence of connection between the performer’s movement and the resulting sound in electroacoustic improvisation. Detailed in “Getting WiGi with It. Performing and Programming with an Infrared Gestural Instrument: A Case Study,” the configuration of Scott’s Wireless Gestural Instrument (WiGi) is a reflection of his belief that the connection between “gesture and sonic outcome” is something that ought to “be expressed through the technology, not in spite of it.” For Thompson, the physicality of exploring “the material aspect of an instrument or device in the search of new sonic possibilities… is a voyage of discovery,” one which recently led to the creation of dismantle for laptop (solo), described in “Scrapyard Aesthetics and the Swansong of the Inspiron .” 2[2. See Alex Nowitz’s article in eContact! 10.4 for more on the “synchronicity between movement and its resultant sound.”] However, as Thompson notes, the inherent limitations some instruments or technologies place on the physicality of performance are worth noting in this context:

Asking a laptop artist to be more demonstrative in their performance is sort of like asking someone to put a bit of English on the light switch as they turn off the lights.

With the development of “The CyberWhistle and O-Bow: Minimalist controllers inspired by traditional instruments,” Dylan Menzies aims to maximize the “fingerprint” of the performative gesture originating in instrumental performance practice. This is not, however, intended exclusively for performers using electronic versions of acoustic instruments; the tiniest variations in position and pressure captured by the optical sensors can be put to great creative use in the entire range of experimental music, making use of “a wide range of synthesis engines from authentic sounding to experimental.”


What the interface or instrument “offers” the user in live performance, how it contributes sonically or gesturally to the performance, or even how it impacts the compositional process, is another point of interest commonly encountered. 3[3. The larger realms of Interactivity and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are both complex areas which we will relegate to a future discussion… Also see eContact! 10.4.] Scott’s appreciation of the “resistance and feedback from the physical object,” for example, has much to do with his background as a improvising saxophonist. Less concerned with the corporeality than with the immediacy that some lo-fi technologies offer the performer, Risto Holopainen embarks upon “Lo-Fi Adventures in Obsolete Media,” using cassette recorders and portable CD-players in tape pieces and in works composed for live performance and spatialisation. Indeed, in an age where digital technologies are ubiquitous, increasingly affordable and accessible to larger and more diverse communities, many artists still find lo-fi technologies more suited to their work.

The development of an interface for live performance is often a ping-pong process of composer intention (and tastes!) driving interface design and the results of this design — its successes as well as its failures — provoking in return new or more developed ideas about how to further programme or organise the system. Ritwick Banerji finds that this developmental process applies not only to the patch he has “trained” to accompany him performing on sax, but has also helped him in pedagogical settings, as he describes in “Maxine Banerji: The mutually beneficial practices of youth development and interactive music system development.” In both cases, he is concerned with forming an “interdependent, socially-responsible, friendly, and creative member of a group,” whether the group consists of musical agents or of children. In Rick Nance’s case, it is the compositional process that benefits from this kind of feedback system. For the composition of recent works of his, “Plastic Music, Aural Models and Graphic Representation” are three mutually influential stages in the composition of acoustic or mixed works, wherein electroacoustic models serve as “scores” to be reproduced sonically by instrumental performers and the results of these reproductions are used in the final composition.

Function and Identity — Recognition and Transformation

I have heard many people brag about not owning a television but I have never found one who boasted, at this point in time, about not having a record player or turntable. (Mike Hansen)

Low-tech, “obsolete” technology is at the base of Mike Hansen’s work as well; his “deconstruction of the record player” allows him to both generate and alter sound in live performance. He places his work within the established tradition of redefining the purpose of the turntable, which was transformed from an “entertainment machine” to an “instrument” long before the hip hop and DJ worlds began to explore new uses for it in the early 1990s. “The Turntable is Dead, Long Live the Record Player”! Another familiar household object is the subject of Marinos Koutsomichalis’ installation, “Domestic Appliances Project #1.” Here the instrument — a domestic freezer — is the performer, the space and setup serve to help it “speak for itself”. Similar perhaps to Hansen’s improvisational work, the inherent sonic nature (barely audible under “normal” circumstances) of the object is given voice and contributes to aspects of the work’s form, and a “sonorous geography” with an organic relation to the source is the result.

DIY Instruments

The background and development of several of Mark Applebaum’s self-built instruments — the mousetrap, mini-mouse, duplex maus, mouseketier — and electronics set-up are described in fantastic detail in his “2006 Progress Report: The State of the Art after Sixteen Years of Designing and Playing Electroacoustic Sound-Sculptures. A detailed examination of original instruments and reflections on their cultural context.” His “trans-idiomatic improvisation” performances on these instruments are further informed by his work in two other areas of musical activity, “non-vernacular composition” and jazz piano improvisation. Both Applebaum and Eric Leonardson are well-known instrument builders and improvising performers in the USA and an issue on instruments and interface would not be complete without their contributions! Leonardson’s brief discussion of his Springboard in “Handheld Audio Art Devices” offers a few resources and tips about building instruments such as his. 4[4. Also see Leonardson’s article in eContact! 10.3 for a more detailed description of his instrument: “The Springboard: The Joy of Piezo Disk Pickups for Amplified Coil Springs.”]

Finally, Manuel Rocha Iturbide offers a contribution to our Community Reports column with “The First Retrospective of Mexican Electroacoustic Music,” an extensive overview as far back as 1937 of the people and institutions that have shaped the history of electroacoustics in Mexico.

Many articles in this issue feature audio and video support materials and several new works have been submitted to by contributors in this issue. We encourage you to explore this issue as a multi-media experience!

jef chippewa
13 June 2010

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