Musicians at Play
Collaboration between performers and composers in the creation of mixed electroacoustic music
As a practice-based and -biased researcher, I offer the following observations from the field, in situ as a performer working with composers in the creation of new works involving electronics. As such, these observations almost entirely subjective, but hopefully somewhat balanced by the fact that the study group is growing steadily. The two Bird on a Wire projects comprise 15 of my collaborations with composers, representing a wide range of æsthetics, genres and technologies within and outside of electroacoustic music, from acousmatic to noise by way of instrumental and free improvised music. 1[1. See the author’s website for more information on these projects.] The composers also had a wide range of experience with electronics, in terms of type and complexity — some had never worked with live processing (the challenge set in the first set of pieces), others had never tried multi-channel composition (the same for the second). As such, this study group represents the healthy diversity that exists in electroacoustic music. It is, nevertheless, also tied together by a similarity: with one exception, none of the composers had ever written for the recorder before, so a large part of what they would learn about the instrument came directly from me.
As well as acting as a field report on mixed electroacoustic music, I hope to relate some of the new perspectives I’ve come to at this juncture, especially in terms of the collaborative process, whose investigation has been the core of my interest for some time. I do not deny that as my particular understanding of the subject evolves, I increasingly and actively foster and encourage collaboration. In fact, the bulk of my observations about and investigations of scaffolding and play flow directly from having set up working situations in which collaboration can thrive.
Bird on a Wire I: Learning How
In Fall 2008, I received the first set of pieces for recorder and live electronics from six composers 2[2. The composers for the first Bird on a Wire project were Jim Altieri (USA), Ronald Boersen (Netherlands), Juan Parra Cancino (Chile/Belgium), Peter Hannan (Canada), Laurie Radford (Canada) and Peter Swendsen (USA). I also wrote a piece for this project.] and together with one of them, Juan Parra Cancino, I put together a touring, evening-length show. What struck me at that time was the realization that it was the collaborative aspect of the compositional process that most excited me. In preparation, I had met with each composer, mostly in their hometowns, at the beginning of the project, so they could choose one of my many instruments and we could discuss initial ideas about sound, poetics and technology. Then I met with them again once they had some material, usually to test out the live processing patches or parts of the score, Finally, there was a flurry of exchanges during my week of rehearsals when problems needed solving. What I noticed was that the pieces I most connected with were also the ones that were not only most “idiomatic” to the recorder, but they were also so idiomatic to me, exploiting my playing fetishes and avoiding my pet peeves. This started me thinking about what “made to measure” could mean in terms of an electroacoustic musical work. I also felt that as a performer, the pieces were no longer just about and belonging to the composers, they were also mine — not because I want to claim ownership or to have compositional credit, but because I became so intimate with them and the ideas behind them.
The other important point to make here is that I invented the project because I wanted to learn more about the possibilities of real-time processing. Freshly in love with the Amsterdam free improv scene, I was mostly interested in seeing what “interactivity” using technology meant and how it felt. And honestly in this sense, the project was a complete success: I learned so much about mixed electroacoustic music. Perhaps not as much on the philosophical level, but on a very practical one: what touring means in this medium, how does one record this music, etc. It was the crash course I had been looking for, and my teachers were the composers and the challenges they set.
Bird on a Wire II: Inviting More
As much as I enjoyed the adrenaline of that first show coming together, I knew that I had to restart immediately, because the most fun had been working together with composers. It was clear to me that for Bird on a Wire II: Flocking Patterns, 3[3. The composers for Bird on a Wire II were Daniel Blake (USA), Jorrit Dijkstra (Netherlands/USA), Jenny Olivia Johnson (USA), Emilie Cecilia LeBel (Canada), Paula Matthusen (USA), Darren Miller (Canada), Robert Normandeau (Canada) and Elliott Sharp (USA). Hildegard Westerkamp (Canada) is also part of the set, but our collaboration is still ongoing and the piece has yet to be premiered.] I would try to create a situation in which there could be an even greater degree of interaction. My tactics were simple: I would give them a challenge that I hoped they would need or welcome my help with. This challenge was to write pieces involving interaction between me and the computer (with another performer at the computer) in eight channels. The challenge was complicated enough that I had more than one workshop with almost each composer, including time in an 8‑channel studio. By then I realized that the interactivity I was looking for was on the level of collaboration between two creative artists, so that the pieces would become not only the composers’ reflections on my recorder playing in an immersive environment, but that they might in some way define our musical relationship. Some of the composers felt my contribution large enough to merit a composition credit. Others honoured me by including samples of my playing in the pieces, often expanded and embellished in the most touching ways. Playing these pieces feels like being remixed myself, and it is a wonderful experience.
I tried not to infiltrate their compositional process in any forceful way, but I did have two personal motivations:
- To introduce composers to my personal instrumental style (including technological aptitudes and limitations) and invite them to use / exploit / abuse these sounds and techniques. Meanwhile, I learned as much as I could about their sonic imagination and proclivities so that I could best highlight them in the music.
- To be the Zone of Proximal Development — whereby I might learn and adopt new modes of playing, interacting with technology, etc.
The Zone of Proximal Development for all Ages
L.S. Vygotsky, a psychologist from the early twentieth century, whose work is essential for scholars of childhood development and psychology, defined the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky 1978, 86). I suggest that there are so many areas of expertise within musical culture, on all levels — be it æsthetic, instrumental, technological, improvisational, and the list goes on — that as a single creative person, I only inhabit as many of those areas as the nodes on my hub, and each collaboration can generate such a node. In a recent interview, fellow performer collaborator Heather Roche shared her two favourite collaboration descriptors with me: intimacy and dialogue (Roche 2012). Intimacy and dialogue are part of the scaffolding we create for one another within the zone of proximal development to promote the dissemination of expertise and produce nodes of understanding.
Learning and Creating Through Dialogue and Intimacy: Theories of Play
Every parent and teacher understands an intuitive connection between learning and play. Most also recognize the value of play among children of similar and different ages in fostering learning, through closeness and exchange. Similarly, in thinking back on the whole process of Bird on a Wire, it struck me that the modalities of the collaborative exchange and the works that emerged mirrored the games and role-play that we are familiar with as children. If I were to relate to how the best of those meetings, exchanges and finally pieces felt, they were like really good play dates with friends — who often had great new toys!
In his lengthy discussion of the role of play in learning and the creation of meaning in our personal development, Vygotsky observed that as we age, “the old adage that children’s play is imagination in action can be reversed: we can say that imagination in adolescents and schoolchildren is play without action” (Vygotsky 1978, 93). I would suggest that in the journey of a work from the imagination of the composer to its incarnation in sounding action, play can act as a catalyst, returning us to the stage of imagination in action. When I read Clark Abt’s classic definition of game, as “an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context,” (Abt 1970, 6) it strikes me that a score or “the work” could be just such a limiting context. The collaborative creation of a work, in many of my experiences, charts the progression in which free-form play turns into a specific game.
That is in line with Roger Caillois’ continuum from paidia, unstructured and spontaneous activities (playfulness), to ludus, structured activities with explicit rules (games). He also remarks on our tendency to turn paidia into ludus, even as established rules are always challenged and tested by more impulsive tendencies (Caillois 2001, 13). Caillois describes play using six major characteristics:
- It is not obligatory;
- It occupies its own time and space;
- Its results are uncertain;
- It does not create material gain, ending as it began;
- It is governed by rules that suspend ordinary laws and behaviours;
- It involves make-believe, “accompanied by a special awareness of a second reality or of a free unreality.” (Caillois 2001, 10)
Caillois goes on to describe four main forms of play:
- Agon, or competition;
- Alea, or chance;
- Mimicry, or role play;
- Ilinx (whirlpool), altered perception.
In my experience of the most satisfying collaborations, there emerges from the paidia of brainstorming, sketching, trying out patches, writing bits of score, recording samples, improvising in the studio, practicing a more definite score, revising after testing, etc., a work with explicit rules, the ludus of the imagined made manifest. As a performer, when I am intimately involved in that manifestation, I connect to the work in a whole different way. It is not merely that two sets of ideas have intersected, but that the resulting ludus reflects the paidia of our relationship and exchange. At the same time, his descriptions of the forms of play neatly describe some of the exchanges that happen in the preparatory process towards the final work, or in the form of the work itself.
What follows are more specific examples of how the different collaborations of Bird on a Wire II: Flocking Patterns fit into Caillois’ forms of play.
Show and Tell — Mimesis (and Agon?)
This is a game collaborators often play during the preparatory process. It’s a way to get to know each other and the things we like doing most. It becomes particularly interesting when these exchanges are captured in usable, high-quality recordings because they can provide material for a kind of (Show and Tell)2, which is when you take what the other shows you and reinvent it for the other to rediscover.
“Recognizing” my performative voice in the music (both played back in samples and to be played in the score) is one of the most intimate experiences I’ve had as a performer, since it allows me to hear myself through the kaleidoscope of another’s ear.
Show and Tell can also be an exercise in virtuosity, both in what is expected of me, and in the technological sense. For example, saxophonist and composer Dan Blake came to the project with some basic knowledge of programming, but no experience writing mixed music. His jazz background brings with it a very clear bent towards performative virtuosity. First Beginnings was based on the improv session (i.e. Show and Tell) we had during the first collaborative meeting (I recorded all of these sessions so that the composers could use the material if they wished). The first movement was a mashup of tiny fragments he had edited and reordered from the recordings that he then meticulously notated (i.e. (Show and Tell)2). It was the most technically challenging piece, but what else should I expect from such a virtuosic instrumentalist?
Meanwhile, the most adept multi-channel composer of the set, Robert Normandeau, offered a similar “relistening” and “replaying” of an improvisation of mine he had recorded. Since he doesn’t often work with notation, he presented me with a soundfile of his montage of my improvising, which would be accompanied by a surround “chorus” of birds controlled by my playing, accompanied by an immersive octophonic environment (Audio 1).4[4. The author’s Bird on a Wire II: Flocking Patterns was released in 2012 and is available through Diffusion I MéDIA.] I was captivated by how effectively his work La Huppe used simple envelope following to create this long tail for my sound without the usual delays and reverbs — a very satisfying playing experience. It felt somewhat like his Show and Tell about multi-channel environments.
Cadavre Exquis / Round Robin — Alea (with a Hint of Ilinx?)
Who knows what will happen next? + Who knows who started what? — a personal favourite of mine. This game seems particularly attractive to improvisers who like to be surprised, even in composed settings. The three examples here are from the three performing, improvising instrumentalists of the group.
Dan Blake’s piece includes a “collage space,” wherein I respond to samples from a large set triggered — possibly simultaneously — by the electronics performer (Audio 2).
Elliott Sharp’s In a Coalmine… offers a very free score of eight parts, which are to be recorded and then played back over eight individual, dedicated channels. In performance, the soloist performs one of these quasi-improvisatory parts, responding to the sound of the other voices in the space (Audio 3). Elliott was playing with the difference tones and resonances created, as well as letting there be a large space for spontaneous decisions.
Finally, Jorrit Dijskstra’s Slo-Poke arrived as a set of instructions, much like a board game. It called for a system of live capture, transposition and looped playback by the electronics performer, with me moving around the room. Jorrit wanted to play with the illusion of live and reproduced sound, of the sameness of material that could be looped — the slos — with material that popped out of the landscape — the pokes (Audio 4). Again, the piece requires that I respond to what is happening without always knowing what’s coming, or what just happened.
Obstacle Course — Agon of Course (but Falling into Ilinx Sometimes…)
I’d argue this is the most well-known formula for the virtuosic instrumentalist. The Olympic sport with all the points given for technical elements delivered in time with artistic flair. Since I think it is the game that most resembles instrumental music from the 19th-century Western tradition, I won’t spend much time here.
Choose your Own Adventure or Make-Believe Land (Mimesis and Hopefully Ilinx)
It is particularly fun when part of the preparatory process can involve parts of the make-believe land, or its creation. I tried to foster manifestations of such mind-altering environments by providing time in an 8‑channel studio (through individual weekend workshops with each composer), recording and sending any desired material ahead of time, and providing assistance with patch-building or technological solutions. Paula Matthusen came to her workshop with 8‑channel patches ready to go, and her piece flowed directly from what happened when we played with them in the studio. Likewise, since Daniel Blake sent his score sketches ahead of his workshop and I sent him recordings of some material in advance, we were able to build a prototype of his computer patch so that he could imagine how the piece would function and sound, working on its story rather than the technology.
I would like to add that programmatic elements have always provided a script for performance. However, I think that this can have a much stronger ludic element when what is created — and technology allows make-believe on a bigger scale — is a costume and a set for the performer to inhabit. Almost all pieces have some amount of this, but some focus on it more strongly. Normandeau’s La Huppe asks me to take on the role of the hoopoe from the Conference of Birds, and the piece itself is a sonic costume.
Emilie LeBel’s evocative title, I saw the penguins’ home from the highway, suggests a story, as does Paula Matthusen’s sparrows in supermarkets. Interestingly, both of these pieces are written quite specifically for my improvisational idiom. It is as if these composers heard that world in my playing and then created an environment in which my chirping would fit (Audio 5 and 6).
Of course, performers will often talk about creating a story or making a game out of a piece they are working on. I am not suggesting that games are only part of collaborative practice, but I do suggest that creating something jointly brings out our gaming experience, and that every pair or group will have particular gaming tendencies.
Wrapping it up with Technology
Despite the many potential difficulties with using — often in an experimental manner — technology, my feeling is that it amplifies and enhances play, through increased immersivity, additional modes of interactivity, and the sonic expansions and extensions to instrumental capacities. Sharing expertise and preferences in tools and instruments is one of the most powerful aspects of collaborative practice. It is not a surprise that for large-scale multimedia productions, many different experts are brought in. The greater the collective expertise, the higher the level of the game. Contemporary performers and composers these days have more and more experience in all kinds of different technologies, and so collaborative play produces results for the work while also expanding the knowledge of the collaborators through the acquiring of skills through expert guidance — the Zone of Proximal Development.
In my present and upcoming projects, I am pointing my next research to how I can use the interaction of technology and play in the collaborative creation of new music to an even greater degree. In my own compositions for other performers, I am exploring how implementing play forms and tactics can define the musical intersection between myself as composer and the performers I work with and how we can make it part of the pieces. As a performer, I am envisioning a third Bird on a Wire project in which all collaborators are at once performers, composers and technicians, blurring boundaries but arriving at definitions through play. All these collaborations happen in contexts that use and abuse technology.
Abt, Clark. Serious Games. New York: Viking Press, 1970.
Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
Roche, Heather. Personal interview by Terri Hron. 9 May 2012.
Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich. Mind in Society; The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Edited by , Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner and Ellen Souberman. Harvard University Press, 1978.