Category Archives: Scott Miller

Extending the Collaboration

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.

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Third Practice Festival and Electroacoustic Improvisation (Part Two)

This week, I’m continuing an examination of improvisational strategies in electroacoustic music, starting with another example from this year’s Third Practice Festival.

circadia, by Paula Matthusen, is a sound installation that I think might stretch the bounds of what many would call improvisation, but I’ll make my case and see what you think. First, one way of considering improvisation is as a collaboration toward a common goal by free agents working within the limits of a system. The system may be agreed upon or imposed, and the agents exercise choices to achieve their goal in response to the conditions of the moment.

In circadia, multiple glass jars with embedded speakers and microphones are distributed throughout the installation space. The microphones and speakers are a part of a feedback loop that emphasizes the resonant frequencies of the jars. A computer manages independent amplification of each jar, each with its own unique pulsation rate and amplification envelope. The programming for each is such that they want to achieve a sonic balance of consistent, synchronized pulsation. Each jar also has an LED that pulses in sync with the amplitude of the jar, visually reinforcing what we hear.

The audience experience is of a dynamic, immersive sonic space where you intuitively sense the different jars responding to each other and seeking a balance of sound production. It is also readily apparent that as conditions in the space change, for example when someone enters the space, thus altering the balance and behavior of sound, a new process of balance seeking begins.

How is this improvisation? Some might argue that a collection of jars with speakers and microphones randomly reacting to each other is not an improv. But it’s not random. The installation is an ecological model for an improvisatory structure. The computer puts limits on the responses available to the individual agents (jars, in this case). Detect (hear) this? Respond with X, Y, or Z. And X, Y, or Z is a response, of course, which is uniquely detected (heard) by the other agents, eliciting another response, producing a cascade of responses, limited by change towards a common goal of balance. This model has been employed with human agents, where an array of responses is available to choose from in response to different stimuli. A degree of choice, or free agency, is operating, but responses aren’t random, and there is an underlying structure of a common goal. circadia manages to manifest this approach in an installation setting, where audience members are unwitting (though not for long) participants in improvising a unique sonic solution to the goal of balance.

To me, circadia is an example of a larger, more inclusive conceptualization of improvisation. In ecologically informed interactive works, it’s typical to speak of emergent properties, that is, certain aspects of a piece that emerge over time as part of an unfolding process. And, in the analysis of minimalist music, it’s not uncommon to discuss emergent properties, since that approach to composition is typically process oriented and produces musical properties that are entirely the result of the process in progress. Sometime, this is experimental in the purest sense of the word; the composer doesn’t necessarily know what outcomes will emerge from the process, and the only way to find out is to run the experiment and hear what emerges—in other words, perform it.

In the same way, I think we can consider the outcomes of what is normally thought of as improvisational performances as being constructed of kinds of emergent properties. They result from choices made within a structure by free agents (in this case, improvisers) in response to the circumstances of the moment, and as part of a shared goal (creating music). There is a process, however rigidly or loosely defined, that unfolds over time and from which the properties (sound/music) emerge. There are limits on what responses are available to the improvisers, perhaps as part of a style which is defined by a collection of appropriate responses, or for no other reason than the physics controlling the instruments’ ability to make sound, or even the performers’ own abilities and limitations. When we’re lucky, the result we hear as an audience is awesome improvised music. Whether this happens because of 4 or 5 musicians with traditional instruments, an installation space containing interactive electronic devices, or some combination of both, there’s something uniquely wonderful about music making that occurs in real-time and that is specific to the moment we experienced it. Knowing that the specific conditions that produced it are unlikely to happen ever again make it all the more precious.

Music that is really, truly, constructed in real-time takes on the one-of-a-kind value that a singular work of visual art, like a sculpture or painting does. It is something to be coveted, shared, savored, but that you also have to show up for. It really does take some minimal degree of effort to experience, but the reward is an experience that belongs solely the time and place that it occurred. It’s this condition that unites so many otherwise diverse, seemingly unrelated approaches to real-time music making and sound art.

Next week, I’ll continue by looking at expanding the concept of collaboration and what it means to share the venture of making music.

 

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Third Practice Festival and Electroacoustic Improvisation (Part One)

I just returned from the Third Practice Electroacoustic Music Festival, one of my favorites. This was the 10th year of the festival, founded and run by composer Benjamin Broening and held at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA. Among other great things about this festival is that the ensemble-in-residence is eighth blackbird, who have a feature concert on the festival and also contribute as individual performers of various works programmed throughout the festival.

One of the really attractive aspects of Third Practice is that the festival presents a broad sampling of different styles and technical approaches to contemporary electroacoustic music, and the programmed works are always excellent examples of their types. This year was no exception, and I will write about some pieces I heard this year that integrate improvisation into electroacoustic music. Disclaimer: 1) I performed as part of Willful Devices on Saturday night, and while improv is a big part of what we do and as much as I love talking about what I do, I won’t, and 2) due to a long plane delay in Cleveland (including an aborted take-off attempt; that was a first!), I didn’t arrive in time to hear performances on Friday, so I’ll only discuss some works from Saturday’s concerts.

Music in the Western classical tradition has had, let’s say, a sometimes uneasy relationship with improvisation in the past century. That topic alone is a subject worthy of many dissertations, articles and blogs. But electroacoustic music practice is a genre of music making that has effectively allowed for an exploration of the possibilities of improvisation and real-time music creation. The reasons probably have something to do with the technical aspects of making electroacoustic music, but I think also have to do with the fact that many practitioners come from a broad variety of musical backgrounds, including those founded on improvisational principles.

Many different approaches to incorporating improvisation into electroacoustic performance are available to composers and performers, and there’s a continuum of possibilities ranging from the highly structured and controlled choice-based improvisation approach to truly free improv. The following works from the festival are each really excellent pieces that also incorporate and explore improvisation in unique and different ways.

métal re-sculpté, by Heather Frasch, is for bari sax and real-time electronics and it received an excellent performance by saxophonist Susan Fancher. This work exemplifies an approach that involves a mixture of composed sections and structured improvisation, often built around a dialogue between the performer and computer-generated sounds that is managed by the performer. Improvisational sections involve a choice of musical materials with directions to tailor the performance in response to the electroacoustic music being generated. The amount of time spent on these sections, the proportions of the overall form of the piece, are determined by the performer, who either triggers or cues a computer operator to allow for the advancement of the computer programming to the next section of the music when they deem it musically appropriate. A variation on this method allows the computer operator/performer to also choose when a section is complete, or can even initiate changes to the processing in order to elicit a different improvisation with each performance. Where the performer alone is in control, there is a feedback circle between performer and the electroacoustic sound in the space; the second method expands the feedback circle to include the performer at the computer/mixing desk.

This approach to integrating improvisation has the advantage of guaranteeing certain outcomes, of a certain composed structure being present in each performance. At the same time, it allows for a fluidity of performance to occur, as determined by the performer’s improvisation each time. Improv not going well? Move on. Is it really rocking and the audience is really responding? Stay with it. It’s a technique you encounter even in otherwise free improv pieces and when it’s thoughtfully conceived and incorporated, the results are great, as in métal re-sculpté.

Juraj Kojs’ Pastoral Care moves further along the continuum in the direction of free improvisation with a large-scale structure defined by a larger concept. Performed at the festival by the composer, the work begins with a disassembled instrument (a fujara, which is a Slovakian shepherds bass flute, almost 2 meters long) laid out on the stage under a cloth. Microphones on the stage pick up sound to be processed by a computer, at first created by treating the three portions of the flute as percussion instruments. The conceptual structure of the piece is defined by two elements, 1) the pre-composed processing which changes over time, responding differently to the input, and 2) the gradual construction of the instrument, performed in different ways throughout the construction process, ultimately being performed as originally intended once it is complete.

This improvisational approach owes much to the visual arts/performance art tradition, and is a kind of process piece. The process is utterly comprehensible and predictable, once you understand that the performer is constructing an instrument. This is obscured by the pieces of the instrument initially being hidden under a cloth and the use of a fairly obscure instrument, but this creates an element of mystery that engages the audience immediately. Knowing the outcome provides a structural framework for the audience much the same way that improvising over a 12-bar blues structure does. Besides providing a logical framework for the composition, it allows the improviser to play with, deny, fulfill, or satisfy in surprising and novel ways our expectations, which has everything to do with comprehending the underlying structure.

Electroacoustic music provides a unique means to this improvisatory framework, which was also operating in Pastoral Care. Where a 12-bar blues, or a classical Sonata-Allegro are informed or defined by a background harmonic structure over which the performer can improvise, ornament or embellish, here there is a background sound processing structure that defines the form of the piece sonically, over which the performer improvises, limited by the state of construction that the fujara is in.

métal re-sculpté and Pastoral Care are just two of dozens of excellent and excellently performed works at this year’s Third Practice Festival. They both exemplify some very effective methods to integrating improvisation into electroacoustic music performance. Next week, I’ll continue with a look at another work from the festival that, while it isn’t presented as an improvisatory piece, presents possibilities and raises some interesting questions about the possibilities for real-time, interactive electroacoustic music making.

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Why All the Interest in Collaboration?

Since collaboration is such an important part of who I am as a composer, an artist, and as a person generally, Im interested in it as a phenomenon of our culture.

Over the past decade, collaboration has been a topic of increasing interest in classical music and academia in general. I have participated in (been interviewed for) graduate projects in music dealing with the topic, as have friends of mine, and there have been a growing number of university programs in the U.S. that are devoted to studying and exploring collaborative approaches to various artistic disciplines.

Collaboration is nothing new. There are plenty of famous examples going back centuries and more. Some recent examples within music would be Lennon and McCartney, and across disciplines, John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Some ended well and some badly after years of productivity, and some were single projects. Some were hardly what we might call a collaboration, for instance, Edgard Varèse and Le Corbusiers collaboration on the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Worlds Fair amounted to correspondence describing types of images, duration, general ideas about the audio/visual/architectural piece, and then Corbusiers assistant/protege, Iannis Xénakis, would be the one to design the pavilion and coordinate the project. (Xénakis would publicly dispute Corbusiers taking credit for the project, and then go on to great fame as a composer of electroacoustic music and for employing computers to create all kinds of music)

So collaboration in music and other arts has been going on forever and taken all sorts of forms and arrangements; whats the big deal all of a sudden?

A friend recently shared with me an interview in Wired Magazine with Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson here, where they discuss the myth of the lone genius, why it is that so often so many people have the same idea at the same time. Their answer is that ideas are networks, and they cite Brian Eno’s term scenius, which he coined to describe group genius, the ‘intuition of a whole cultural scene.’ (http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/06/scenius_or_comm.php)

If we think of artistic collaboration as a kind of social networking, today’s interest in it is a reflection of our cultural interest in all sorts of networking and collaboration, which has everything to do with the technologies we’re using, developing, complaining about, just generally obsessed with lately. It’s another facet of wondering about networks and their impact on our society: Wikipedia, Facebook, collaborations among artists. I don’t think anyone is claiming to have invented artistic collaboration or to have just noticed that they happen. But for a lot of reasons, going back more than a few years, we seem to be very interested in these things right now.

As a kind of social network, collaboration takes place on a number of different levels. There’s the one on one collaboration that you can have—in person or somehow through correspondence—with another person, working to achieve a common goal. Then there are larger forms of collaboration, which may be organized or just loosely connected, through a shared geography, actual hang-outs, common cultural or social activities, or through the use of global communications networks. Whether or not there’s a shared desired outcome behind the participation, there is a collaboration of ideas that reflect and simultaneously become the tenor of the times. And this becomes part of what defines those cultural artifacts that years/centuries/millennia later we associate with that culture.

When I was a student, and I suspect this was true for many of my peers at the time, I really wanted to be a part of a school of thought. I didn’t want to be told what to compose, but I was reacting to how I was taught about music from the past. I would learn about the composers and the music of this school or that group, and it was clear to me that these were vibrant, engaged communities of different artists and intellectuals. I didn’t realize that I was already a part of such groups, that there already was this collaborative network of thought surrounding me, that I just needed to engage in it. Of course I was also really focused on learning the technical aspects of my craft at the time, too, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that it takes time to create a body of work that one can find a common thread in.

I suppose that at this point, my interest in creating collaborative art is what reflects the times I live in. I didn’t sign up, there wasn’t a coordinator or organizer, but the school of thought I belong to is one that celebrates, explores and cherishes all sorts of collaborative approaches to creativity.

Next week: I’ll be performing at the Third Practice Festival with Pat O’Keefe as Willful Devices. There’ll be a lot happening at this festival that I think will be relevant and I’ll want to write about, so I will be writing on the flight back home Sunday and post on Monday.

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Collaboration as Experimental Laboratory

When truly collaborating with other artists, you open yourself up to suggestions about how to imagine or conceive of the work in ways that are informed by other kinds of knowledge. Your collaborator may have different interests or experiences, even if in they’re in the same discipline. If they’re from another discipline, you can be introduced to radically different conceptual approaches to creation. I’m interested in creating art that’s informed by a broad variety of forms of knowledge, and so I find this very satisfying. The potency of tapping into this surprised me when I first started working in collaborations, and it has absolutely become something I rely on. I’ve discovered, too, that it can be the foundation for experimenting and developing ideas that can generate and inform a lot of different work. My work with Pat O’Keefe as part of Willful Devices is a collaboration that results in its own work, but also serves as an experimental laboratory for approaches to creating sound, interactive-electronics programming and composition in general. I receive commissions to write pieces for performers and ensembles that are not collaborative in nature, and I’m able to draw on my collaborative and improvisational work in Willful Devices to inform these more traditional compositions, where the expectation is to provide a finished work that is ready to rehearse and perform. Of course, it’s in my nature to approach these types of commissions as collaborative opportunities if at all possible, to work with the performers or ensemble prior to the performance and fine tune the work so that it plays to their strengths and brings their perspective in to the process. But having developed a long-term collaborative relationship provides me the ability to experiment with material and compositional approaches in an environment where I get honest and immediate feedback, both in terms of my being able to hear and evaluate sound and also as criticism from a friend and musician whose opinion I value and place a lot of stock in. The video posted with this blog is an excerpt of a performance Pat and I did at the Spark Festival in 2008. The total performance was 20 minutes long, an improvisation exploring some interactive programming I was just starting to experiment with at the time. We had one rehearsal to get a sense of how some the programming would behave and agreed on a general idea of what to do for 20 minutes. I’m very happy with how this performance went, but it paid dividends for some time. For instance, the basic premise of this improvisation would become, a year and a half later, a new structured-improv piece, haiku, interrupted, which we released on our first CD. The programming itself, thanks to our experiments, went on to become an important element in another composition I wrote over the next year, Lovely Little Monster. The success of this approach does have to do with the fact that in electroacoustic music, and especially real-time electronics music, much of what you do is a form of instrument building. If you consider how old many traditional instruments are today and that we are still able to coax new sounds out of them and explore new music with them, well, a brand new electronic instrument has quite a bit of a lifetime ahead of it to be explored. I think that for many young composers, one of the biggest challenges to overcome is a sense of need to reinvent the wheel and start utterly from scratch each time you compose. I’m not advocating writing the same piece over and over again, but there’s often a lot more to be discovered with a sound or a program for producing sound than one piece reveals. And while it can be plenty fun exploring the possibilities alone, I find it even more enjoyable and productive to collaborate with other artists who have a sense of adventure about experimenting with the new and the unknown. Approaching collaboration as a shared exploration, a process of revelation, is probably one of the most rewarding artistic experiences I can think of.

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