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6 Questions to Composer and Video Artist Jean Piché

Jean Piché is a composer, video artist, software designer and professor at the Université de Montréal. His creative output over the past 40 years has explored the more exotic edges of high technologies applied to music and moving images, including visual music, live electronics, fixed electronic media and performance. He has received numerous international awards and his work has been presented in Europe, Asia and North America. He now concentrates his practice on visual music, focusing on parallel compositional strategies for abstracted visuals and music, a new hybrid form he has helped define. He has been heavily involved in software design, notably with the program Cecilia and the TamTam suite on the celebrated One Laptop per Child computer from MIT. He presently directs the institut Arts, Cultures et Technologies (iACT), a new media research collective at the Université de Montréal.

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

There are many ways to become a musician / sound artist nowadays. It didn’t used to be that way. Personally I was raised in a culture-conscious family where piano lessons at six years old were an obligatory, and often painful, passage. Then came the Beatles and Bob Dylan. I was 16 when Sgt. Pepper came out. Without really understanding why, I found that sound was the best passage to expression. Schooling followed, against the grain for the most part. Université Laval in the early 70s, playing at all hours on Arp and Synthi synthesizers. Then Holland at the Institute for Sonology, then SFU with Truax and Murray Schafer. A stint at Stanford at CCRMA. In all these places, I specialized in doing what was not expected of me and abusing the tools I was using. This is perhaps the most important thing I ever learned, as a musician, an image artist and a human being. Always try to make a new mistake.

[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.

Sound, music and moving images. Not necessarily in that order. In the mid-90s, I thought that sound was not enough, especially in the “performance” arena, and began exploring video as a way of organising time from a multi-sensorial perspective. Making images that were music, and music that was visual. I called this activity “videomusic” at the time and the term got some traction for a while. But this practice is now more common, since tools to mediate it are readily available to anyone willing to give it a go. Developing software has also been a major activity. I still think that an intimate awareness of how digital signals are made and created is seminal to computer-based artistic practices. It remains essential to know how it works to make it work. I have also produced new music festivals, worked as an art administrator and tried, not hard enough, to stay out of trouble. I am a professor of composition and video at a major university and all the work I do is public and professional. Which public? That remains to be tabulated in the end. Unfortunately we are too often preaching to the choir / community. Speaking of choirs, I secretly cherish the dream of singing in a choir one day. When that happens, it will definitely be as an amateur.

[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.

Thinking about this “technology” business now, I note that the computer is hardly worth mentioning. It permeates everything, for better or for worse. My work has always lived at the edge of technological breakthroughs: punch cards on an IBM 360 for Music V, nights of audio rendering on mini-computers made to do statistical analysis, etc. The list of tools I have used as an early-adopter is long and laid with wrecks and successes. But ubiquitous computing is now so pronounced that it has ceased to be of interest. In fact it has become somewhat dangerous for the illusion it gives its users. Mobile tech simply means you can do your work on your own without the constraints of specialised labs. It means anyone can do it. It is cheap, powerful and insignificant. Data mining, tangential formalising and the ease of producing “shiny” products are all redefining the nature of performance and creation. “Worth” is in inverse relation to ease of producing.

Jean Piché
Jean Piché [Click image to enlarge]

I use both commercial software and software I have written myself. If I were to equate the amount of computing power at my disposal to relevance of output, there would be a huge discrepancy, which is to say these things don’t really matter past a certain, yet to be determined, plateau of “means”. Scarcity is very often more interesting than opulence.

On another note, my relationship to technology over the last few years has been tainted by the singular non-activity of waiting for video frames to bake. In a sense, the demands of image have not plateaued. A funny perspective of the world issues from this non-activity: you dream of waiting less and when a new chip makes it possible, you just do more complicated things ensuring you wait even more. It’s been like that for decades and I don’t see how it will change.

[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?

The social media aspect is interesting mainly because it is included in the question asked. Dissemination of work is its main use for me and I will try and go into it in the last question. The best answer to the first part of the question about technology and its contribution to my body of work is surely that I was a very lousy pianist and guitarist. This is not only a boutade [quip] — my ideas about sound (basically the stuff I wanted to massage my ears with when I was younger) would not have materialised without technology. I composed some of the very first fully digital audio pieces in Canada in the late 70s. It was no piece of cake to do and the results I got from these long nights at the terminal were certainly indebted to the means at my disposal. My approach was the inverse to that of Bauhaus: function follows form. A conservation of sort was established between the machine and I, where I essentially said: “Show what you can do and I will tell you if it is of interest to what I am trying to say.” Those days are long gone of course. I am now taken aback every time I click some Native Instrument synth. That conversation is rather short and mainly consists of me saying: “Whoa, how did you do that?!?” It is sweet out-of-the-box and too much sugar really is bad for you.

[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?

One has to make a distinction between information- or content-based networks like YouTube, Vimeo, Wikipedia or the myriad of art blogs everywhere, and the interactive networks that run on the ethereal fuel of emotion, empathy and surface values, like Facebook, Twitter and current events commentariat. I am just as attracted to the latter as the next guy, but in pedagogical situations they have given rise to a dangerous illusion that multi-tasking allows you to have your cake and eat it too. When I first started seeing this phenomenon in my classes a few years ago, I was annoyed. I had to deal with the smarty pants checking out my teachings on the internet before I had time to finish my sentence. Rolling with the punches now. I do participate in Facebook exchanges with students on occasion and I suppose it keeps me on my toes.

[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?

An astute observation. One could even say: there is too much good music, good video, good art being made everywhere. Too much for any single person to know, certainly. I suspect this is largely because there are millions more artists than 30–40 years ago. Not only that, all this good stuff is readily available to anyone willing to be a “newness archaeologist”. Ease of access leads to overload, which leads to banality. We cease to be amazed. For my work, I try to ignore this. If someone is interested in finding out about what I do, they can. I understand this is a luxury not everyone can count on but an artist would have to spend more time disseminating his or her work than doing it. And, frankly, many artists do just that. Documenting the work and putting it out there is starting to be as important as the work itself. The most visible, not necessarily the best, gets the prize in fame, money or both, until someone figures out a better way to get into your mail box, that is. And that is bound to come in short order.

We are heading towards a vast “art cloud” dedicated to world self-expression in which everyone’s idea of an idealised self lives. I am not certain how history will deal with so much stuff. After material consumerism, welcome to idea consumerism. And not all ideas are created equal.

[Friday, 10 May 2013]

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