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:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/nnmr20

    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

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1076/jnmr.32.3.239.16866

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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: aschloss@finearts.uvic.ca

    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, David Jaffe and I wrote an article called Intelli-gent Musical Instruments: The Future of Musical Perfor-mance or the Demise of the Performer? (Schloss & Jaffe,1993) in which we discussed many of these issues for thefirst time. Now, ten years later, there is an international com-munity working in these areas, and a thriving conference:New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME), already inits third year (NIME, 2001, 2002, 2003). Intelligent musicalinstruments, in the extreme, can play themselves. Do wereally want them to do that? Perhaps in certain contexts, likein installations or toys, but probably not in concert situations(Cook, 2001).

    Visible effort is something that often enhances a perfor-mance; one could say that it demonstrates being committedto what one is doing. For example, the singing voice is themost invisible acoustic instrument (being internal to thebody), but even for this invisible instrument, emotions, affectand effort are visible via facial expressions and/or the body.For other instruments, this can be somewhat false (as in thegrimacing rock guitarist), or very real, as in the bulging veinsin the neck of the trumpeter blasting a high C, or the sweat-drenched body of an African drummer. It is likely that theappeal of effort in performance led to the ubiquitous attrac-tion of distortion in electric guitars. With electronics, ofcourse, the energy comes from afar (the power plant), andloudness is practically orthogonal to effort. The electricguitar survives this problem because it is still a physicalinstrument, so the observer can extrapolate the effort withouta lapse of belief. However, the computer musician has a def-inite problem where is the effort?

    3.1 The Flying Karamazov Brothers

    My first example is an extremely successful New Vaudevilleensemble called The Flying Karamazov Brothers. Thisensemble has performed internationally for nearly thirtyyears. They began as a juggling troupe, and expanded theirrepertoire over the years. Their case is very instructive,because they begin with the absolute cause-and-effect of jug-gling on stage; if someone makes a mistake, the result is aclub on the floor and the audience has no doubts as to whathappened. Over time, they developed some very interestingand compelling routines that began to merge juggling with

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  • What is a musical performance? 241

    music. In their initial attempts, they were able to create aform of direct visualization of music and rhythm: there wasa one-to-one mapping from the juggling moves to the soundproduced. This was done by wearing special gloves that made each catch deliberately audible to the audience, and in-venting special juggling patterns that generated complexrhythms. It was an added value to an already virtuosic phys-ical display.

    From there, they became more adventurous, adding com-plicated MIDI hardware to their set-up, and finally usingultra-sonic sensors designed at the MIT Media Laboratory.Sadly, the more sophisticated their apparatus got, the harderit was for the audience to appreciate their virtuosity. It wassimply lost on the viewers, who could not perceive what theFKBs were physically doing versus what was being gener-ated by the computer. In fact, I noticed that the audience, con-fused, thought they were juggling to a tape! What a waste ofhundreds of hours of practice. Eventually, the troupe resortedto long verbal explanations of what they were doing, butthese became somewhat tedious. To this day, they are stillgrappling with the problem. Their problem is no differentfrom the computer music performer, but it is crystal clearbecause it is in a physical context, in the midst of physicalrigor.

    3.2 The performance of The Seven Wonders of theAncient World

    Composer David Jaffe and I have collaborated for over adecade in performances that utilize the Radio Drum. TheRadio Drum is an interface that is sensitive to location inthree dimensions, while maintaining a high degree of tem-poral accuracy. When combined with MAX (or anothersimilar real-time processing system), the composer can make virtual configurations of the drum, so that a particu-lar event or combination of events can have practically anymusical result (Mathews & Schloss, 1989; Schloss, 1990;Puckette, 1990; Schloss & Driessen, 2001; Mathews, 1988).

    To take a step back, let us summarize the possible inter-action schemes into three categories: the timbral (micro-scopic) level, note (middle) level and formal (macroscopic orprocess) level (see Fig. 1). We will discuss these levels asthey relate to performance. Since the Radio Drum is three-dimensional, it can be used to trigger events without actuallystriking the surface. This makes it much more than a drum;either continuous or discrete gestures can happen above the

    surface, without hitting anything. It is still important to beable to hit the drum, for several reasons: the naturalness of this gesture, temporal accuracy, and for the sake of theobserver (a satisfying direct physical action that looks as itsounds). To sense a hit, one searches for a change of direc-tion of the stick, which means that there is no impactrequired. This is a substantial advantage in that there is nophysical thud that confounds our perception of the trig-gered electronic result. In this case, the physical thudwould be counterproductive...

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