Hello and welcome to this issue of eContact! It has been my pleasure to serve as Guest Editor on a topic very close to my heart: music with live electronics, and especially for keyboards and live electronics, as you might guess.
The use of live electronics is not a novelty anymore but although the term “live electronics” is common currency there is still today no definitive answer as to what it means (there is still no entry in the Groves for “live electronics”) Is a tape piece a live electronic piece? Or is the playing of a tape piece live electronics? Does pressing the play button on a CD player constitute a musical activity? Or only when it’s done with a musical gesture? Does the setting up of loudspeakers constitute a musical activity? The choice between several speakers certainly amounts to an interpretation. But then again, a pianist choosing between three grand pianos for a concert makes the decision on musical grounds but certainly wouldn’t think of the task as making music, let alone interpreting the piece. But an interpreter, who may have only heard the electronics for the piece on that evening’s programme during the dress rehearsal — and in less-than-ideal circumstances, as the “sweet spot” is far from where the performer sits on stage — is this interpreter really interpreting the piece or merely the player of the piano component of the piece?
For this issue of eContact! we will define live electronics in the sense of a musician playing an instrument live on stage with some degree of interactivity between the performer and the computer. And interactivity is defined here to be more than the performer pressing the play button at the beginning of the piece. At best it’s the start of a process based on a musical decision — whether it’s a decision made “live” by a human or pre-programmed by another human and thus imitating some form of decision making.
This issue does not try to give a conclusive overview about what constitutes piano and live electronics and its definitive history. It is more of a reader: this is what it is that this we’re doing. We will hear from performers, composers, people in between and experts in some related fields like archivists and technicians. One might initially expect that interpreters and composers talk about the same thing: the music they’re bringing to life. But in fact it’s not so and an analogy from the theatre world will make that instantly clear: when two playwrights meet, they will probably talk about the writing techniques they employ and the subjects they’re writing about. When actors meet, they will talk about how they filled the character with life, how they interacted with the other actors, how they did or didn’t learn the words. To put it bluntly: when the two groups meet they will most likely talk about the food in the theatre canteen because that’s what they have most in common. Similarly composers and performers: performers typically know very little about composing, while composers try to realize an idea, sometimes regardless of the players. Which is all very well but we must realize that composers and performers are living in different worlds and performers are only slowly finding their own voices to be able to articulate what matters to them when it comes to playing with live electronics.
We’re very happy to have assembled in this issue of eContact! some of the finest interpreters of music for piano with live electronics. For me it is quite refreshing to see that my colleagues struggle with the same issues I do — and for what it’s worth, we have struggled with the same problems since the beginnings of live electronics. And although we have so much more technology readily available now it looks like not much has changed from the performer’s perspective over the years. My introductory article, “The Game Changer: Playing with electronics as soloist,” is an overview on all that’s different from “normal” performance practice in pieces for instrument and live electronics. Other pianists have also contributed articles from the performer’s perspective: Rei Nakamura’s “My Cyber Chamber Music Partner: A Project for piano, electronics and video” relates the process of creating new work in collaboration with the composer, and Sarah Nicolls offers some ideas on “Getting Started with Live Electronics.” Catherine Vickers not only writes about performing but also on her take as organizer of the Piano+ festival for piano and live electronics in “An Innovative Opportunity”. Reading these articles it is immanently clear that performers and composers talk about different subjects when they talk about making music.
On the composer’s side we’re very happy to have gathered such a wide range of composers talking about a multitude of projects, innovative ideas and, when they’re exceptionally brave, even about the things that didn’t work out as planned. Michael Beil’s “AV — Music and Video” and Ludger Brümmer’s “Extending the Piano” talk about the integration of (live) video into the performance, another step towards the original Gesamtkunstwerk, here played by only one (!) performer. In “Max/MSP vs. the iPhone: Two compositional approaches to the use of live electronics,” Hans Tutschku tries to simplify the setup by using portable loudspeakers and iPhones. In a similar vein, alcides lanza’s credo for using electronics — and a wise one it is — in compositions for piano and electronics such as “plectros III” can be summed up as “keep it simple”. Fernando López-Lezcano goes in the opposite direction and at the moment he is the only one able to tame his “Very Fractal Cat”. Another complex setup is the one used in Robert Ratcliffe’s “Mutations (megamix)”, conceived with the programming help of Jon Weinel and premiered in a mock-up version by pianist Zubin Kanga. Both pieces strive to be performable by an external interpreter in the future. Difficulties with technology can lead to the demise of a whole composition (an all-too-common fate!) and Joan Riera Robusté recalls vividly how “one thing led to another” in “Piano, Sensors and Live Electronics: The Performer’s Perspective.”
Using the popular Wii remote as an additional controller for the pianist (and referring to yet another animal) is the strategy for Christopher Jette’s “In Vitro Oink,” whereas David Plans Casals uses the computer as an improvising partner, as described in “Gravikords and Pyrophones: The Reflexive piano.” The latter probably sounds much easier than it is, because the idea of a computer reacting musically means nothing else than programming towards artificial intelligence.
Manfred Stahnke doesn’t use computers as we know them, or rather he uses a seemingly old rendition of them. Although a Yamaha DX synthesizer is of course nothing else than a computer, he views it as a veritable instrument in “Partch Harp” and this can lead to musings about differences between the two and what actually constitutes a musical instrument, and why we don’t think “Oh, an instrument!” when we see a computer. Which is where Thomas Wenk’s “Analog Zombies or Retro Nostalgia? The Second Life of cassette recorders as musical instruments” comes in, describing his compositions with and for cassette recorders. We don’t usually think, “Oh, an instrument!” when we see a cassette recorder, but what else would one call a cassette recorder than a live electronic instrument, capable of producing and reproducing sounds by means of electricity?
The Yamaha DX7 and the cassette recorder have still more in common: they aren’t produced anymore or at some point will cease to be produced. Obsolescence will eventually be the fate of the computer patches for contemporary compositions as well: when the hardware is no longer produced the software will have to run on a new platform. This is by no means a trivial problem, as anyone will discover when trying to install software stored on e.g. a floppy disk on a current computer. Major institutions around the world are working on it and Julia Haecker of the <mediaartbase.de> project gives us a glimpse into the problems archives are facing when it comes to storing our digital heritage in “The Digital Mind: Challenges and possibilities of digital archives and the <mediaartbase.de> project.”
As if this multitude of articles on live electronics and its conception and performance wasn’t enough, we have gathered a few complementary resources around the topic. We have a range of interviews I conducted in 2009–11 with some of the most brilliant heads in the electroacoustic community who discuss their approach to live electronics and especially how things can be made easier. There is also “The Piano and Live Electronics Repertoire List”, compiled in recent years by Xenia Pestova. The CEC has also built a new wiki area for this issue, and in this “Keyboard + Live EA [wiki]” a list of Toy Piano + EA Repertoire as well as an annotated Bibliography for keyboard and electronics can be found. Readers are invited to contribute to this “live” resource.
We hope this issue will give the reader broader understanding not only of the newest tendencies in composition but also the constraints performers are dealing with — an understanding that will ultimately lead to better performances of music involving live electronics.
Enjoy the reading!
28 April 2011