Last week, I suggested that, from a certain perspective at least, we can extend the idea of improvisation to include non-human, independent agents capable of responding to stimuli. Pursuing this further, we can also extend the idea of collaboration to include the relationship between performers, audience, interactive-computer programming and the space a performance takes place in. The term I prefer to describe works like this is performance environment, which I first encountered in an article by David Saltz (The Art of Interaction: Interactivity, Performativity, and Computers, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 55:2 Spring 1997).
Performance environments aren’t compositions in the traditional sense of the word, but the construction in sound of interactive environments that encourage a particular performance, including various kinds of social interaction between performer, audience, the space, and other media. Often, these works are about relationships in sound, defined by networks of information feedback, which may be in the form of audio, visual, or other data. In these environments, changes in the sound of the room directly influence the production of computer-processed or computer-managed sound in the room, creating a unique and dynamic sonic-ecology in the performance space. In a work such as Paula Matthusen’s circadia, the collaboration occurs without performers, but the different participants (audience, interactive electronics) do interact and alter their behavior depending on their needs and desires. The jar/speaker/microphone agents in this piece are programmed to seek balance. A sampling of audience members might offer a wide variety of needs or desires, from the inquisitive to the delinquent. The audience’s behavior, informed by their desires, will have an impact on the overall sonic-ecology of the room, but they need to collaborate with the computer programmed elements and the behavior of sound in the space itself to try and influence the outcome to get what they want.
Performance environment pieces also commonly include performers who have specific knowledge about the behavior of sound or the influence of their actions on the sonic outcome. The performer’s actions may be thoroughly composed or include improvisational elements, or even be freely improvised. For that matter, the performer may—by design—be as unaware of the specific nature of the programming and the results of their sonic contribution as anyone experiencing the work for the first time.
The compositional challenge presented by these works is to design them so that the focus is on the musical experience, and not the technological processes. My own response to this challenge is to embrace the idea of exploration. I employ improvisation as a means for the performer to explore and musically investigate the sonic-ecology I have created. In my more composed, rather than improvised works, this idea of exploration manifests itself as a process of revelation in the compositional structure. The musical structure may pursue timbral transformational processes, or re-imagine older compositional processes through the filter of 21st century technology. This becomes an approach to process music that involves improvisation, emergent properties, and a sense of collaboration between all the elements of the performance situation. It is an important aspect of some of my recent works, such as The Cosmic Engine and Nebe Na Zemi, both of which include a mixture of dynamic, interactive-electronics, composed electroacoustic music, and the possibility for limited improvisation or embellishment.
In the end, how do you measure success or failure in a performance environment? Usually this is done from the perspective of an audience member, even if it is composer, performer or artist as audience. Some measures include the extent to which the work is engaging or intriguing, whether because we’re hearing something that’s truly interesting or because we’re attempting to decode what’s operating. Beyond that, if there is a concept of relationships that provides the structure, to what extent is it revealed during the performance or our time with the work? Are the connections and relationships transparent or seemingly absent?
There is also the degree to which the audience realizes its own influence on the work—if that’s a possibility—and in the case of an installation, the balance between the challenge of the unpredictable to the satisfaction and fulfillment of our expectations. And while this last may seem to be unique to a performance environment work, the element of surprise vs. predictability is rather old in the arena of Western music. Novel ways of playing with the audience’s expectations, and fulfilling or denying them is a fundamental approach to creating a work that is engaging, challenging and satisfying. The idea of putting some of the power to influence the outcome in the hands of the audience is just a more recent development, reflecting both changes in the technology of sound art creation and also changes to society at large, from a more authoritarian and top-down structure to a disseminated power structure of individuals with influence. The most recent incarnation of this that I can think of harnesses digital communications technology, social networking, and the general idea of distributed knowledge.