electronic music (and multimedia art) performance paradigms and its relation to my new piece

Last night i went to a concert at Tulane called “In The Grid”, which was basically a concert of student works of the multimedia/electronic music classes here at Tulane.  I assume it was end-of-the-year or end-of-the-semester projects.

The quality of the pieces varied – not unexpectedly since the students had a wide range of experience with the software and hardware that they were using for the concert – but the concert itself was pretty awesome because the program itself was very varied, a great showcase of exploration and experimentation by the students.   There were a few “tape pieces” which was to be expected, but there was also a piece where someone did some improv with an iPad controller and a pd patch, there was a guy that used a LEAP motion controller to control not just the music, but a projection of images that were aimed at two huge irregularly-shaped boxes that were suspended from the ceiling, and there was a piece that involved projecting varied light patterns and sweeps amongst a constant machine-generated smoke screen in which three dancers danced as silhouettes, an integrated music/light show/dance visual thing.

As i was listening and watching the concert, it started me churning on the piece of electronic music that’s been on my brain for a little while now that i’m going to put some serious work into this summer and how i feel about the performance aspect of the electronic music paradigm in the first place.  Because on the one hand, i’ve always generally been opposed to the idea of pure digital audio pieces, favoring the idea of interactive electronic music instead because i feel like the human element of music performance is a very important one, not just to potentially add nuance to the performance that a pure electronic piece can’t always provide without some meticulous micromanaging of notes and/or some “human element programing”, but also because i feel like the visual element of performance, even if it’s as simple as watching a player play their instrument or hit a bunch of buttons on a computer is a fairly important one for creating a greater connection with the audience.

That said, a lot of the ways in which visual performance of acoustic music correlates with the music itself is built upon an already known set of expectations and standards.  If a cellist was playing on the telly and you muted the sound, you could still have some idea of whether the cellist was playing softly or loudly, a bunch of high notes or low notes, fast or slow.  Not all instruments have that direct correlation, mainly wind instruments, but enough people know what those instruments are that the more subtle visual performance aspects of those still make sense, and with certain performance styles that can be compensated for by the dynamicism of the performer himself – when a trumpet player or a clarinet player plays loudly or plays a hard lick, they might put more emphasis on their body movements, particularly in, say, the jazz idiom.


With electronic music, the visual-to-aural music correlation has much more freedom to it.  If i play middle C on an acoustic piano, it’s going to sound exactly like you’d expect middle C on the piano to sound and there’s no other way to get that note to sound.  But if i were to play an electronic cello, wind controller, or synthesizer, i could play notes and have the resulting sound be a bunch of farm animals.  In order to get a loud note on a cello, the bow has to move faster, period, but in the electronic realm, I could wave my arms frantically and have music play quietly in reaction and i could be perfectly still and have the music go batshit crazy.

More weathered and memorable interactive electronic music systems in my experience typically decide to not go against that grain because it can create contradictions of expectation that can’t be reconciled.  If i wave my arms around frantically and the music plays quietly in response, that’s enough of a visual contradiction to what people expect that it can detract from the experience instead of enhance it.  Such a system could be a deliberate “gimmick” choice, which has its own sense of purpose and validity, but it takes true craftmanship to define or redefine an audience member’s visual and aural expectation in such a way that will make the piece still work.

There’s an electronica duo that i listen to pretty obsessively called Plaid.  They’ve been making music and albums as Plaid for the past twenty plus years.  I’ve seen them perform live a few times, and while the live show is good because hearing their music in a club setting with a slew of avid Plaid fans is awesome and because all of their shows involve integration of video with their music that has anywhere between some and heavy correlation with the music itself, they themselves are not very visual performers, and they have admitted that they don’t do a lot of improv of their set.  They bob their head slightly to their music, they cue entrances and exits, and they fiddle with EQ knobs to make adjustments to the sound, but it all looks very cerebral and introspective and therefore makes it so that focusing on them during their shows is pretty boring even though the music itself and the visuals are fantastic.

In a recent interview promoting their new album and tour, they address this, saying:

We’re aiming for a bit more freedom within the performance, particularly in trying to arrange the visual aspect of the show in such a way that it can be triggered live as much as possible. That allows us to adapt the music for the specific evening. We’re using a variety of other midi controllers to give us more flexibility… It’s about trying to make it more physical. We’ve found over the past few years that we didn’t get fully involved in the live shows. It felt a bit alienating for us – as well as those who were watching. To have a bit more physicality makes it a bit more of a challenge – upping the risk more than just a computer crashing. That adds an element of excitement every night.

For me, one of the more important aspects of multimedia works in which the music is the most important is that any visual element of performance to the piece is something that at most i want very clearly to enhance the connection between the music and the audience, and at the least is something that feels like an appropriate contextualized accompaniment.  What i don’t want to have happen is for any visual aspect to distract from the music or, come to think of it, vice versa.  This is why a part of me wrestles with the belief that In a Fast-Paced World may be better suited as a stand-alone digital audio piece, a very contradictory stance to my normally strong stance about preferring interactive performance over stand-alone digital audio pieces – because I don’t want the live performer’s method of interaction to distract from the experience of the music itself.

Part of that is definitely influenced by one of the “In The Grid” concert pieces, the one that involved the LEAP motion.  That piece had three distinct elements to it.  One was the music itself, which seemed to me to be a pre-conceived set of sequences that had elements that could be semi-randomly manipulated.  The second was the performer who was moving his arms around that was being tracked by the LEAP controller.  The third was the light show that was being projected onto the two huge irregularly-shaped boxes.  All of those things independently were very cool things and were crafted fairly well, but as an audience member i struggled with finding the central focus of the piece because all of those elements didn’t come across as having a strong sense of high direct correlation.  When the piece was done, i remember thinking to myself, “i remember that there was music, but i don’t remember what the music sounded like.  I remember that he waved his arms around, but i was never confident that i understood what his arm waving actually meant.  I remember that there were lots of lights and patterns happening, but i can’t recall at all what it actually looked like.”

In a way that’s the same thing that happened with the piece that I wrote a couple of years ago Shifting Signals Zero.  If you go back and watch the performance and rehearsal of that piece, it definitely feels like there are a lot of elements to keep track of that in retrospect i think needed to be better honed in its conception so that it didn’t feel so “kitchen sink”.  That was tempered a little by the fact that the music itself was fairly minimalist and the performer’s movement and resultant “video feedback” was fairly correlated dynamically to what the performer was actually playing, but it still feels like it’s something that I need to tweak in my brain more before i try to tackle it with a new piece.

I give that piece and the LEAP motion piece both some degree of tolerance quality for the same reason i can give the concert itself tolerance quality – part of what those pieces are all about are about learning and the exploration of all of those things as beginning vocabulary for what is potentially useful and could therefore create more polished pieces and use of the technology in the future.  A lot of my undergraduate compositions and even a few of my graduate ones were of that mentality, where i was still discovering how i wanted to use instruments whether standard or electronic and have that define my musical voice as a composer and music programmer, and as i start to revitalize my music career and also attempt to try out new technologies and/or break out of my comfort zone with the kinds of ensembles i write for, i’m prepared to fail as many times as i succeed to help further hone and identify my musical voice.

And ultimately that’s why going to the concert was so exciting, because hearing everything on the concert helps me identify more things about myself.  There’s a lot of music and art that meanders and/or has a lot of things going on like that LEAP motion piece did, and while i can enjoy those sorts of pieces, watching that (along with the other pieces) further enforced that that style is not something that i as a creator personally usually identify with.  Fundamentally I have been and always will be the composer that prefers to take a single idea, focus it, microscope it, and let it evolve gradually over a long period of time.  The common label for this if you’re into labels is “minimalism”.  That’s an oversimplification of what my music (and minimalist music, actually) is about, but as a baseline, it’s the easiest way to describe what i’ve always identified with, even before i took a single music theory course.  When i was a freshman in high school, one of my friends exposed me to the third movement of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, and i thought it was one of the most amazing pieces of music i had ever heard.  I bought the album and played the piece on my sony discman on repeat over and over again along with my CD’s of Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Genesis’s Invisible Touch.  That early exposure and how much it immediately resonated with me planted the seeds of the sort of composer that i am today and what i’m trying to achieve with any of my art.

So as it relates to In a Fast-Paced World, the question rummaging around in my brain is, will a live performer who is interacting and controlling the piece ultimately enhance or distract/detract from the piece?  On the one hand, you want to be able to hear the surround sound ideas that i have without any external visual distractions, to establish the baseline just through the ears and take people through the journey through the ears only.  But on the other hand, having someone controlling the sounds or cueing the sounds through a LEAP or through other means might help lead the audience on my intended journey, be the visual element that makes live performances great.

Ultimately i think it comes down to careful deliberation in the delivery mechanism – what sort of controller do i use with the piece and how do i make it feel like it’s a truly integrated part of the piece itself.  That will be key as i start exploring these options and make what i feel is the most key decision about the piece – whether it will be interactive or not.  This particular piece is not about the medium that i would perform it, it’s about the music, and i don’t want to lose sight of the importance of that.

  Maynard Ferguson photo courtesy of Easton Express Times, photographer Joe Gill


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