Using Contemporary Technology in Live Performance: The Dilemma of the Performer

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of California Santa Cruz]On: 27 November 2014, At: 02:17Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: MortimerHouse, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Journal of New Music ResearchPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:

    Using Contemporary Technology in Live Performance:The Dilemma of the PerformerW. Andrew SchlossPublished online: 09 Aug 2010.

    To cite this article: W. Andrew Schloss (2003) Using Contemporary Technology in Live Performance: The Dilemma of thePerformer, Journal of New Music Research, 32:3, 239-242

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  • Abstract

    The use of computers in live performance has resulted in a situation in which cause-and-effect has effectively disap-peared, for the first time since music began. Once we startedto use computers in live performance to interpret abstractgestures and generate sound as a result the age-old rela-tionship between gesture and result became so blurred as tobe often imperceptible. In historical terms, this problem isextremely recent, involving only the last few decades ofmusical practice preceded by at least thirty thousand years of music-making by conventional (acoustic) means. The aimof this paper is to show how this affects contemporary per-formance and the relationship between the performer and theaudience.

    1. Introduction

    As the final speaker at the STOMPS 2002 conference, I wishto approach performance from the opposite direction. Insteadof asking: What is a musical performance? I ask What is a musical performance? That is to say, I am not talkingabout what makes a performance musical (certainly a deepquestion); rather, Im talking about what makes a perfor-mance at all. I focus here on the aesthetics of performance,not the aesthetics of music.

    We have studied traditional performance practice byapplying tools (computers) to aid us in the analysis of musicperformed by traditional means. But what happens whencomputers and modern technology are used in the live per-formance of music? Suddenly, we are confronted with a new

    problem: Can the observer/audience understand the perfor-mance from a direct, physical standpoint? And does it matterif they can or cannot?

    No matter what the culture, there is a relationship betweenperformer and audience. This relationship is based on manyfactors, most significantly on trust, and also on the audienceunderstanding what the performer is doing on stage. Typi-cally, the performer is doing something that the audiencecannot do themselves; there are of course numerous reasonsthat people go to concerts, but this is one of the most impor-tant and universal reasons. We can listen to recordings, butof course it is not the same thing as going to a live concert.Ironically, with technology, some performances havebecome as dull as pressing play on a CD player (or theequivalent button in Pro Tools or iTunes).

    1.1 My claim

    It is now necessary, when using computers in live perfor-mance, to carefully consider the visual/corporeal aspects ofthe performance; that is, to consider the observers view ofthe performers modes of physical interactions and mappingsfrom gesture to sound, in order to make the performance con-vincing and effective. Even though these are in many casesextra-musical requirements, I believe that it has becomenecessary to deal with them directly, because the integrity ofthe performance is in jeopardy.

    2. Background

    In the 20th century, we have seen the ideological boundariesof music and musical performance tested, beginning withatonality, serialism (of pitch first, and eventually all musical

    Accepted: 25 March, 2003

    Correspondence: W. Andrew Schloss, School of Music, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada V8W 2Y2. Tel.: +1 250 721 7931, Fax: +1 250 721 6597, E-mail:

    Using Contemporary Technology in Live Performance:

    The Dilemma of the Performer*

    W. Andrew Schloss

    School of Music, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada

    Journal of New Music Research 0929-8215/03/3203-239$16.002003, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 239242 Swets & Zeitlinger

    * Presented at the Stockholm Music Performance Symposium, 18May 2002.




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  • 240 W. Andrew Schloss

    parameters), and continuing through various philosophicaland theoretical phases. One could say this came to its logicalconclusion with John Cages 433 from 1952. We havefinally broken all the rules. However, the liberation ofsound during this period was not only aesthetic, it was alsotechnological, in the form of electroacoustic and then com-puter music (Varse, 1996). By far the most important aspectof electronic music has been the potential to explore timbre.But, as David Zicarelli so controversially put it in his ICMC2001 keynote address (Zicarelli, 2001), there is more tomusic than timbre.

    We can say that computer music has finally maturedenough and the machines are fast enough so that we can gobeyond timbre now, and explore live performance possibili-ties using computers. In the early days of computer music,when it took 100 real-time to make a sound, the only kindof performance possible was a taped performance. No one ison stage, and no one needs to be. Tape music may have beenboring to watch, but it was honest, with no false expectationsof performance. Also, the music, by definition, was finishedby the time it was performed. Some pieces performed nowa-days claim to be interactive, but in reality they are simply notfinished yet. So the performance involves the baby-sittingand knob-twiddling we might see on stage that is so unsat-isfying to watch. At least with tape music, we can concen-trate on the music; there is nothing else to worry about.

    To reiterate, now that we have fast enough computers toperform live, we have new possibilities, and a new problem.From the beginning of the archeological evidence of musicuntil now, music was played acoustically, and thus it wasalways physically evident how the sound was produced; therewas a nearly one-to-one relationship between gesture andresult. Now we dont have to follow the laws of physicsanymore (ultimately we do, but not in terms of what theobserver observes), because we have the full power of com-puters as interpreter and intermediary between our physicalbody and the sound production. Because of this, the linkbetween gesture and result can be completely lost, if indeedthere is a link at all. This means that we can go so far beyondthe usual cause-and-effect relationship between performerand instrument that it seems like magic. Magic is great; toomuch magic is fatal.

    With virtual instruments, we can theoretically recognizeany gesture. We might want to know what gestures are impor-tant to recognize. What can we learn from conventional instru-ments? As Perry Cook points out in his new book (Cook,2002) there are basically only three gestures or modes of inter-action in all families of conventional acoustic instruments:

    blowing (voice, whistles, wind instruments etc.) striking, plucking etc. rubbing, scraping, stroking, bowing etc.

    Can we go beyond these gestures with electronics? Certainly,but it takes a great deal of experimentation to discover whatworks when there is no underlying physicality.

    If we search for evidence in the literature, we find thatthere are several studies that show the primacy of visual cues

    in a musical performance. For example, Davidson shows thatobservers are as skilled to perceive intended musical expres-sion by solely watching the video as when they actually listened to performed music (Davidson, 1995).

    3. Examples

    We can call these new computer-based systems intelligentmusical instruments, in which there is embedded intelli-gence between the sensor and the sound-generator, so thatarbitrarily complex decisions can be made on the basis of the composers or performers design. The possibilities areendless and exhilarating, but also problematic. Nearly tenyears ago, Davi