Thursday, 2 May 2013

Personal report - Sean Williams


Preparation

I spent a day with mezzo-soprano and vocal artist Frauke Aulbert working on some technical ideas for integrating voice with analogue electronics. The aim was to bring a working system or palette of ideas to the LLEAPP workshop and not have to scrabble around trying to make things work during the workshop itself.


Amplitude Filter

One technique we tried was to use a noise gate (Drawmer DS-201) key-triggered by a John Edwards noise synth or the analogue synth, to act like the amplitude modulator used in the RAI Studio in Milan in the early 1960s. This machine was used by Pousseur to make Scambi, and most likely by Berio in his pieces with Cathy Berberian. This period of electronic experimentation is central to my research so I wanted to try and achieve a practical outcome by incorporating this into my work with Frauke.

The results were fairly awful since the amplitude of the voice signal picked up by the microphone had to be fairly constant, and the key-trigger signal was very very hard to control with enough expression to generate any kind of interesting effect on the voice. In addition to this, the only vocal sounds that worked at all were simple sustained tones, and this precluded the huge range and scope that Frauke is capable of.

Vocoding

Another classic 60s technique is the use of the vocoder. Using a MAM VF11 was a way of integrating both of our sounds to produce a composite sound that we could both influence. In rehearsal this worked well with a wide range of vocal sounds although Frauke was uncomfortable with the amount of control ceded to the electronics. There was no easy way around this without devoting far more time than we had available to designing a more interactive instrument.

LLEAPP

In setting up for the Tuesday evening performance it quickly became clear that axiom 5 from LLEAPP Axioms of Practice: “Live microphones ALWAYS need help!!!” was extremely important. The vocoder was almost impossible to control and the acoustics of the performance space (Inspace) were no doubt a large factor in this.  Even though I had a mic preamp with high and low-cut filters, the mic signal was varying so much that either the vocoder signal would be inaudible or would feedback.

Our decision to have individual speakers and no Front of House had effectively eliminated the options of using any of the techniques that Frauke and I had worked on before, so I had to work out different techniques as we went on.

Ensemble Size Matters

In a small ensemble a technical hitch like this would have been much more problematic than in a 13-person ensemble which we had formed. The larger number of players meant that more space was needed and so each player could easily not play for long periods. This helped our situation in two ways; firstly that I could try different setups and re-patch my synth without feeling relied upon to be filling out the overall sound. Second; whatever sound I could come up with could afford to be subtle, quiet, of narrow bandwidth, or even just a slight enhancement, as the sound-world was already likely to be quite full.

Having given Frauke her own speaker, I could also simply route her mic signal directly through my own speaker and thereby change her vocal sound simply in its spatial presence or location. This was often enough of a transformation, and was easily controllable via a dedicated fader.

Mic Splitting

Originally I had hoped to split the mic signals from both Frauke (voice) and Emma (violin) and send these to anybody who wanted to process them. For this I introduced my modular mixer for its first outing from the workshop. Several others took advantage of the mic signal splitter and at different points throughout the workshop, Owen Green, Jules Rawlinson, Rob Canning and I all processed some of the acoustic signals.
When we changed the arrangement of players this was reduced to just me, however the splitters allowed me to process the signals without affecting them going into each players individual speaker.

Violin

Emma fitted her violin with a Fishman contact mic. This was run through the Radial PZ-DI box, bought especially for LLEAPP, which provides a suitably high impedance (10 MΩ) to get a really good full-frequency range signal from a contact or piezo mic. Emma struggled with her setup to begin with for a number of technical reasons: the signal originally was going through Jules’ soundcard and was subject to latency; the volume pedal Emma was using was at first patched between the contact mic and the PZ-DI, thereby showing the wrong impedance to the contact mic; the gain staging on the small Mackie mixer used to set overall volume for the loudspeaker was badly setup so that the signal was distorting; the loudspeaker was setup at head height and very close to Emma so that she was hearing her own signal disproportionately loudly and playing quieter to mitigate against this.

After addressing these setup issues and repositioning the speaker, Emma’s signal was much more audible and she quickly gained confidence in using this setup which was brand new to her. As she became familiar with the amplified sound and with the response of the volume pedal it became much easier for me to incorporate her signal into my synthesis patches and through simple ring modulation, spring reverb, filtering, and mixing with my own signal I was able to fuse our sounds together quite well a number of times. I used similar patches with the violin as with the voice, and it was also effective at certain times to simply amplify the direct violin sound through my own speaker to extend the spatialisation of the violin sound without further processing.

Space (Axiom 6)

The workshop itself was going very well until the idea of moving everybody around was suggested by Jan Hendrickse, our musical director. My natural reaction to this was negative as I had spent, along with Jules, Lauren and Owen, most of the previous day setting up my own gear as well as everybody else’s – my own setup being rather larger than normal owing to the mic preamps and modular mixer needed for mic splitting and signal distribution.

I was in a distinct minority but, along with Lauren Hayes (digital and analogue electronics and laptop) and Christos Michalakos (drums, percussion and laptop) I was able to remain in my original place. My reservations were that the new orientation would undo some of the work we had done on building good communication skills and techniques between ourselves as many people were now out of view, and the distances were quite large even between people that were in each other’s field of view.

As it turned out, the decision to move from the stage and occupy the entire space was absolutely key in transforming our performance and activating the whole space. The communication techniques which we had worked on evolved with our new spatial distribution. An internalization of some of these techniques was achieved and much more communication was done, not by hand signals or looks, but by using audio cues, and it felt to me, by listening much more sensitively to one another’s playing. I don’t feel that this would have been achieved if we had not worked on the deliberate and obvious methods of communicating suggested by Jan, and if we had remained in place in a semicircle on stage. Thus my resistance to moving was wholly discredited – I had allowed my logistical concerns to blind me to the creative advantages that a different spatial distribution could offer.

One other key factor that relates the space to the number of players is that it was very easy to extend the customary communication strategies by getting up and wandering about during the performance. This was aided by the fact that the audience was instructed to move about and explore the space rather than just sitting watching the stage. This diffusion of the focus of attention allowed me to take a portable noise synth and wander about, interacting with a number of players on the way, and just listening to the whole sound from different points in the room. I played a short duet with Bill Vine and another with Amit Patel in which we linked up our noise synths to form a hybrid dual circuit synth. Other players wandered about too and I think this also had the effect of activating the whole space so that as one audience member said, they felt as though the music was going on all around them and that they were participating in something immersive rather than just watching people do stuff on stage.

Acoustic Instruments

Amongst the most important elements of LLEAPP 2013 was the strong presence of acoustic instruments including voice. I feel that the electronics were able both to come to meet the acoustic sounds in terms of subtlety, timbral content and expression, but were also able to occupy territory clearly distant from the acoustic instruments too. The electronic processing of the double bass (Adam Linson), the electric guitar (Rob Canning), the clarinet (Bill Vine), the drums (Christos Michalakos) and the microphone (Owen Green) acted as a strong and broad bridge that allowed the violin and voice on one hand and the digital and analogue electronics on the other to fit into a coherent sound world. This is going to sound obvious, but at various stages the acoustic instruments did what only they can do, and so did the electronic and digital instruments, but there was a lot of common ground as well. In this way a really rich sound world was created and I think the success of the final performance owes a lot to the combination of instruments and the inherent expressivity of the voice especially.

Conclusion

… need more time…

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The LLEAPP Experience


This year I was first time at LLEAPP, and found it an amazing experience. The Project featured workshops and performances with the group of top electronic and acoustic improvisers coming  from UK, Europe and USA. It was striking to see each performer with so individual setup, custom made software, DIY and hacked hardware.


I brought combination of instruments I use for Space F!ghtRPE Duo and Freeform projects to test their flexibility in large electronic ensamble environment. I was manipulating my own sound rather then other performers and found it challenging to fit aesthetically with so many electronic musicians. 


On the first day we were grouped randomly and performed few sets in quartets and trios finishing with the set featuring all the musicians involved. This followed by the really interesting workshops focused on communication and collaboration in the group. These changed the way group performed, and interacted with each other. I found myself not looking at the gear while performing and visually paying more attention to the people surrounding me, which was really refreshing. This was followed by unique immersive performance of 13th people each with one speaker spread around the venue. I was really impressed with speed of interactions, diversity of textures and smoothness of transitions performers generated.









The whole LLEAPP experience rose my interest in site specific projects, brought few ideas for the workshops and definitely made me play more gestural structures rather then beat based patterns that I am so used to. 

I hope we can tour the project in the future and take it to really interesting places. 

Also posted on my own website.


Wednesday, 24 April 2013

observations on the first two days


First of all thanks very much to Sean and Jules for welcoming me as an observer, and also thanks to those who took the time to discuss their individual work with me in between sessions. There was of course only so much we could cover in so little time, and it was inevitable that  conversations were cut off by other activities or I had to miss speaking with someone, but I suppose it's a good sign that I was left in the end with the feeling that I wanted to hear more from everyone. It was clear, both as an ethnographer and as a listener, that everyone had brought a really thoughtful and inquisitive attitude to the workshop.

As an outsider to the research group it's somewhat difficult to know what kind of observations are going to be seen as useful to you, but after having a quick look through the previous blog posts from this year's workshop, I've decided to focus on stimulating reflection and hopefully starting new conversations. Before I begin, however, I want to note that my position in relation to the project as a whole is not quite as 'outside' as might be expected of an anthropological observer. I started experimenting with electronics in music well over a decade ago when I was an undergraduate at McGill, and I did my master's degree in electronic music at the Institute of Sonology. There I chose to do a thesis project which was musicological rather than performance or composition oriented, and for my doctoral studies at Oxford I've remained in a position somewhere between the ethnographic and historical branches of the music disciplines. As an ethnographer I've also done a fair amount of participant-observation in the form of live performance. So in fact I could almost be writing as an insider, except that I've deliberately chosen not to work in a practice-led paradigm. This decision is motivated by my research interest in the ways that the technical and aesthetic aspects of electronic music practice are distinguished and framed by musicians, as well as the ways connections are made between the technical and the aesthetic in different historical and institutional situations. Writing as a kind of half-breed puts me in a good position to translate these aspects of electronic music discourse and practice for a cross-disciplinary audience of scholars interested in music more broadly. It also often forces me to confront the transformative aspect of the act of translation itself, and often this means highlighting issues that musicians might not otherwise have recognized as central. All this is just to emphasise, then, that I acknowledge that my contribution is not made as an objective outsider, but as someone with an equally vested interest in making (potentially different) sense of what went on. Missing the last day probably also biases my observations, but Lauren suggested that I might get to see the video of the final performance, and I'm curious to see if it might lead me to alter my interpretations. In any case what follows is fleshed out from notes taken during the workshop and further reflections I wrote down after reading my notes on the train ride back to Oxford on the morning of the 18th.

All of the musicians seemed to me to be remarkably well tuned and practiced with respect to their setups and/or instruments. A sense of instrumental mastery was foregrounded. On one hand I wonder how much of this impression was an effect of my unfamiliarity with each person's practice outside of the immediate context of the workshop. For that matter, would I really have been able to tell who was taking risks or being virtuosic, and who was playing it safe? On the other hand it didn't seem to take me long as a listener to be able to perceive differences in each musician's sonic repertoire. Each seemed to maintain a consistent identity at the level of timbre and/or timing. This was probably enhanced by gestural correspondence at a visual level, but it seemed like each person also chose to stick to a fairly stable range of material over the course of the time I spent in the workshop. Having sat through a number of similar rehearsal situations I was also surprised by the small amount of time spent troubleshooting or re-patching. I mentioned this to a few people, and it was suggested to me that this has not always been the case, and that there had been a significant effort this year to avoid getting bogged down in tinkering. Certainly the introduction of Jan as 'musical director' played a central part in this effort, but to me even the inclusion of 'non-electronic' musicians (Emma and Frauke, although I would say that making a technical distinction between what they did and what the rest of the group did was actually quite difficult in this context) contributed to the sense that this was meant to be about performance more than technology. I'm left with the impression, then, that there must have been a direct relation between the level of individuality I perceived and the deliberate effort to focus on the 'human' aspects of ensemble performance. I wonder if the sense of identity in previous years felt more nebulous. To what extent is a sense of individual 'voicing' a necessary or even deliberate aspect of LLEAPP's take on performance practice? This observation about individuality connects with several areas of concern which appeared to become central to the explorations and negotiations that took place during the workshop.

The first was the generation of some form of coherent group organisation out of the individual contributions. Having a single director for the rehearsals seemed like quite an effective way to maintain a shared focus. The fact that Jan didn't also attempt to become the group's 'conductor', however, forced individual musicians to adopt a more personal level of responsibility for maintaining that focus. One effect of this seems to have been to generate discussion around notions of freedom and democracy whenever rules or compromises cropped up unannounced or unexpected. I remember finding it particularly striking when, at the end of the day of rehearsals I attended, the show of hands on whether to move setups the following morning was split almost evenly, only to be resolved afterwards without reference to the vote. Did this belie a foregone conclusion?

Although mitigated slightly by strategies and exercises apparently designed to distribute power more evenly, there were individuals who often seemed to take a more assertive approach than others, taking on a kind of conducting role in order to effect sonic changes. Without getting too theoretical about it, I wonder if this kind of intermittent assertiveness is something people see as an inherent aesthetic necessity (does this music need a sense of 'will', a 'focus' or a 'goal'?) or whether it might invite reflection into alternative ways of distributing power in 'emergent' or other ad hoc ensemble formations. Is there a way to make sure power isn't always concentrated among the same people? Is it possible to think of models of organisation that aren't so much orientated by the notion of subjective sovereignty, or where agency is distributed in such a way as to thwart the emergence of (even momentary) leaders, or give power to the 'wrong' people?

The question of right and wrong in music leads inevitably to aesthetics. Here, however, minor conflicts over the determination of actual sonic content were brushed aside in favour of discussions on the technicalities of structure and human interaction. This was explained to me a couple of times as being for democratic reasons: you couldn't hope to please everyone at an aesthetic level. But does presupposing the incommensurability of subjective aesthetics actually render the overall aesthetic less diverse? Does the foreclosure of discussion enforce unspoken conventions? I'd say that there was a fairly clear sense of a shared background in 'non-idiomatic' free improvisation, and I noted open conversations dealing with several shared aesthetic points of reference, predominantly in the free jazz and experimental traditions. Is it not the case that a certain resistance to 'influence' is, paradoxically, idiomatic in these traditions?

Another area of concern was the role of 'communication' between the individual members. A basic model of communication appeared to pass without explicit discussion. The (to me rather classical) notion that groups of musicians should coordinate their action through visual and gestural contact seemed to go without saying. If the more or less proscenium-style framing of the space and the panoramic/circular arrangement of musicians helped to foreground this approach and probably also to facilitate it, at least in the way it was used on the day of rehearsals I attended, it also rather spectacularized it. Interestingly, as musicians became more adept at communicating in this way the sense of virtuosic display was heightened, certainly in comparison with the first evening's concert. I found myself wondering at several points why it should be worth so much effort to master just this particular kind of communication.

This seems to me an interesting place to open for discussion in the future, especially considering that so many people's setups afford other kinds of communication that aren't so obviously 'musical', at least with respect to the classical tradition. Indeed, there is a sense in which some of the more screen-oriented setups worked against this type of visually-oriented communication (I am reminded of a moment in my video documentation when Marinos continues playing for about 30 seconds following a stop signal because he hasn't looked up from his Supercollider windows). Why not, for example, explore different kinds of aural-tactile communication, different sensory interfaces which might be more accessible to more screen-oriented players? Why not explore 'virtual' communication over a network (as Rob attempted to facilitate, apparently without acceptance from other group members)? What about finding 'analogue' ways of enabling the setups to communicate independently of individual musical intentions, through feedback for example?

This brings me back to my earlier remark about the relatively small amount of time I noticed being devoted to technical issues during the workshop. Since this was intentional to a certain extent I don't want to completely undermine it. Moreover, I think the emphasis on musicianship seemed to have a focusing effect at an aesthetic level, which is perhaps ironic considering the active resistance to discussing aesthetics. My point is that it led me to wonder how much of a challenge it would be to find a productive way of bringing the setup back into the foreground without getting into the kind of technocratic autism that people seem to want to avoid. Several things about the ways musicians assembled and operated their gear were genuinely interesting and inspiring to me. There might be productive things to say, for example, about the ways people combined custom-made and off-the-shelf technologies. The different roles accorded to automation in peoples' setups could bear further exploration as well. What do we miss when we box these setups into the 'tool' or 'prosthesis' concepts often used to frame and explain common-practice instruments? Are these really just objects that mediate human musical intentions? Bearing in mind the risk of drifting into anthropomorphizing platitudes, expanding the notion of 'performance' in the project title to include non-human 'performers' might open up new questions. What role can the gear's affordances play in these explorations? In what ways might the group involve the operation of instruments in a phenomenological inquiry into 'performance practice' that doesn't assume its essential humanness? Could this be done in a way that doesn't assume the received distinctions between 'electronic' and 'traditional' instruments? Like the group's current concern with human organisation and communication, the line of inquiry into the non-human can also be expanded into an ethical domain. What meaning is given to things like mastery, virtuosity, and control in relation to technology? When does technological agency become problematic and why?

To close what is already a much longer text than I had planned, I thought it might be interesting to invite some consideration into the social and institutional positioning of the LLEAPP project. Considering the overall demographics of the academic disciplines dealing with music technology in the UK, the research group is obviously delineated around a certain career cohort which straddles the cusp between late-doctoral studies and entry-level academic work. How does occupying the 'early-career researcher' role inform and frame the direction of the project ethically and aesthetically? Is LLEAPP conceived as something that will remain stable over time as the membership either becomes more established or possibly leaves academia altogether? Are there ways of resisting or complicating the institutional orientation of the project which might prove productive, for example opening to non-musician and/or student members, or addressing the gender imbalance?

Thanks again for a stimulating couple of days. Please feel free to comment upon and respond to what I've written in any way you see fit. I'll be sharing all of my documentation once the archiving provisions are sorted out, and I look forward to seeing and commenting more as I get to see and hear more about the parts of the workshop that I missed.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Photos



 










fun and games


The communication strategies/games introduced by Jan was a great help - getting us away from our instruments to focus directly on interaction skills. I'm not sure we would have instigated this as a collective so it was important to have someone outside the group of players to move us beyond our comfort zone. Our playing style changed markedly after we had absorbed these techniques.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Day 2 - JR Personal Practice

Unlike the events of yesterday (note to self - should really discuss the first day!), where the groupings were the result of spatial distribution and almost arbitrary 'numbering' (e.g. every third person), I spent more time playing with particular people (Christos, Owen, Sean, Amit, and occasionally Adam), as much as anything because they seemed to be capable of quickly moving to the same kind of sound space that I was creating and were responsive to the kinds of gestures that I was trying to introduce. As Christos has noted, there's also a familiarity with instrument and 'voice' that's perhaps an easy option, so maybe I should work harder to meet (in a sonic sense) other participants.

In the early part of the second session I sat out for a considerable length of time, partly due to virus induced lethargy, and also partly because I didn't feel that I wanted to add anything to the sustained, low amplitude textural material that was unfolding (bizarrely the auto correct on my ipad just changed a misspelling of 'unfolding' to 'noodling', which is not far off the mark IMO).

Once I'd shrugged off my torpor I (think I) became a little more directing, instigating a number of duets and trios with Amit and Christos, and a 'stabbing' simultaneous trio with Sean and Christos, which I brought back into play following my call for silence. I was perhaps overly terse at one point in discussions, but felt a bit frustrated by one of the comments made while reviewing the efficacy of signals.

There's perhaps still a need for more decisive gestures on the part of the ensemble, with more dynamic contrast and silence, while also returning to previous material giving shape and form, rather than always pursuing new opportunities (am I being old fashioned here?) I'd also really like Frauke and Emma (or anybody else) to cut loose every once in a while and really 'sing'! The final thing that I'd like to explore further is rotation of small groups with some continuing element (e.g two people in a trio drop out to be replaced by two others)

In respect of interface and instrument, I worked with a limited palette that required minimal attention to the computer and controllers, and familarity with my sound library meant that I was able to quickly load new sounds when required. That said, I think I could probably select 5 or 6 samples for scratching that cover useful timbral territory and simply turn my screen off. This might also require some kind of cueing mechanism to quickly jump to favourite parts of samples. A limited palette does mean of course, that there will be certain situations that just won't be appropriate for contribution.

DAY 2 :: PUBLIC NOTE TO SELF

We have now established a sufficient level of co-performer awareness - what do we do with it?

- Are we making the most out of our individual practices?
- Are we taking enough risks?
- Are we really struggling on any level?
- Don't we need to leave Ithaca first in order to find our way back home?