New Interfaces and Creation
International Solo Percussion Prof. National Superior Conservatory of Lyon & Paris
Figure 1. Light Music © Thierry de Mey.
MOVING TOWARDS A NEW COMPOSER – PERFORMER RELATIONSHIP
In contemporary musical repertoires, new technology predominates, and via some of my experiences as a performer, I would like to share my thoughts about some fundamental questions that impact both new interfaces in artistic creation but also the evolution of the artist’s role in their relationship with creation in connection with these new tools.
In contemporary musical creation, the questions regarding the development of new technologies and the role of the performer cannot be dissociated. How have these new interfaces changed their role and vision on stage and in the creation process ? What are the challenges and perspectives brought about by these new tools ?
NEW TECHNOLOGIES – A NEW INSTRUMENT
The technological interface, like any instrument, functions as an amplifier for musical intent, and as such, it can be compared to any other instrument: a violin, a piano, a flute…
Whether the sound is produced by capturing movement via a camera, an augmented instrument, a new form of lutherie or motion sensors attached to the wrists or disposed on the body, it is essential for the performer to appropriate the tool for themselves, as in any music project.
These new instrumental interfaces, in turn, influence musical writing in their fashion. The place of the instrument in the creation process is a question that has been posed throughout the history of western music from Monteverdi to the present…
The instrument which is nothing other than an interface or a prosthesis has throughout the centuries influenced the very manner in which we compose. Certain composers having acquired a dominant position, did not hesitate to make their instrument or performer shine through their writing. The « king-instrument » or the « demigod performer », is an approach that historically began in the 19th century, and this temptation is ever present and has contributed to the evolution of numerous artistic movements.
We observe the same phenomenon today with the new technologies, especially with the new possibilities for the transformation of sound, the capturing of gestures, the spatialization, or interaction with video are ever more present and effective, and sometimes, the effects obscure artistic discourse in favour of technological demonstration at times.
WRITING FOR OR WITH THE INSTRMENT
The temptation for a composer to write for the instrument is natural, but the composer must know how to control and master their tool.
In the past, this resulted in magnificent pages of music, provided that the composer’s language transcended the technical potential of the instrument and the performer, with sometimes mixed results, the musical ambition contenting itself with «following» the instrument or the performer, relegating the musical discourse to the background.
The latter approach, more technical than musical, has nevertheless allowed the emergence of new instrumental and vocal possibilities, in in this, participates in the global evolution of music.
In the past, composers often initiated the developments and improvements in the craft of instruments.
Mozart, the instrument maker Theodore Lotz, and the virtuoso Anton Stadler improved the basset-horn, Hector Berlioz’s timpani, the Wagnerian euphonium, the use of timpani pedals to produce glissandi in Bartok, etc.. In these different examples, the composer is the instigator. A sound heard, desire, a colour, an effect, a sort of «dreamt sound» and the instrument makers attempted to respond to this artistic request, always working closely with a performer.
When the modern piano first appeared at the beginning of the 19h century, it was no less revolutionary than the appearance and the development of the new technologies in the 20th , a movement initiated by musique concrète or the art of fixed sounds by Pierre Schaeffer from 1948 onwards.
One can also compare both interfaces, (piano and new technologies) in regards to music initiation and teaching.
Notwithstanding the repertoire it developed, the piano has also allowed through transcriptions the transmission of works (symphonies, operas, chamber music…) and has in this way permitted a widespread dissemination of the period’s repertoire while contributing to the development of music teaching to a large audience.
But here ends the comparison…even if the piano has its own framework, defined and recognized (even if we can always create new instrumental approaches like those of John Cage and his compositions from 1938 onwards with Bacchanale and many others thereafter), the new technologies offer infinite possibilities incessantly renewed, each technological development leading to many new artistic and performance approaches.
It is this wealth and diversity of approaches that make new technologies a unique tool in the history of music, and also what creates its universality. Everywhere, these new technologies create an incredible attraction, they fascinate, across all generations and esthetics.
TAKING OWNERSHIP OF THE INTERFACE – DEFINING A FRAMEWORK
In order to create and compose, one must have the ability to anticipate, to be one step ahead of the instrument/interface, be it, once again a piano, a flute, a computer or sound synthesis software.
This wealth of sounds and the almost infinite signal treatment proposed by the new technologies is also probably one of the difficulties facing the composer today. When confronted with this type of instrument, the composer must find the right balance between writing for and with the interface, defining in advance what they do not want, and what they really want to do, to be able to work on their project.
Often too pleasing and flattering to the ear, the interface’s propositions in themselves could inspire and finally decide instead of the composer. For the artist, it is a question of being tuned-in to the instrument and its possibilities, but also believing in the final artistic project sufficiently to not be influenced by the tool.
It is worthy of notice that it is probably a first in the history of western music that the instrumental interface can be almost entirely modified in real time, and therefore, follow the composer’s wishes throughout the creation process.
It is also the first time that, instead of imagining possible developments as has been the case for most acoustic instruments since their inception, (new ways of playing, the use of accessories etc.) the composer must, on the contrary, set the machine’s framework, coerce it in a particular fashion, to be able to use it knowingly and work within this predefined structure, allowing them to realise this previously imagined art form.
This new relationship with the interface reveals a new framework within the Composer- Performer-Instrument trio.
Today, with the acceleration of computer developments of all kinds, a composer cannot master the interface in its entirety; it was not the same in the past with acoustic instruments, notably due to their instrumental experience. The electronic tool has become very complicated, and the composer needs to be accompanied by a Computer Music Designer.
It represents a significant (r)evolution in the musical creation process.
When one imagines the creation process divided into three key moments: Conception- Writing-Achievement, it becomes apparent that up until the beginning of the 20th century, the composer occupied almost the entire field of creation, from its conception to its completion. Today, they represent merely one-third of the creation time: the conception of the piece, the other two- thirds are done in cooperation with a Computer Music Designer and a performer.
It constitutes a considerable change in the writing process and the completion of the contemporary repertoire and modifies de facto the relationship between the composer, the CMD and the performer, each in their own domain and lending their expertise.
THE PERFORMER’S ROLE FACED WITH NEW FORMS OF LUTHERIE
In addition to their work at the heart of the composer-performer-CMD (interface) trio, the performer has to take ownership of the tool, respond to the technological constraints, and therefore, integrate all the associated phenomena to these new interfaces.
In contrast to classical instruments, which respond to an expert movement, mechanical and practised for a long time, whether they are rubbed, blown or struck, the capturing techniques (cameras, sensors) integrate far more parameters than the individual physical action of the performer at any given moment on an instrument.
Its position on the stage and in space, constitute one of the vital parameters that must be controlled and mastered. It signifies that the instrument must be conceived in 3D, taking into account all the previous musical events in the room which will have an impact on the events to come. The interpreter must be particularly attuned to it, considering not only the musical gesture to accomplish but also all of these multiple parameters.
It is also in this way that the performer’s role has evolved. They increasingly must incarnate a musical gesture, and not only interpret a score during a concert.
It also has a significant influence on the very form of new artistic offerings, be they performances, concerts or shows. Even if this evolution of the performer’s role had already been at the centre of musical theatre’s scores in composers like Kagel or Aperghis, with the new technologies, their role takes on a new dimension.
Regardless of the context: the meta-instrument, real-time processing, or the capturing of movement, the performer must continually renew their approach depending on the technological framework, since it always concerns a new instrument, a new artistic project in which everyone must find their role.
THREE WORKS – THREE APPROACHES
Corpuscules by Jenny Jiyoun Choi (Korea)
It is a piece created at Ircam in 2002, for vibraphone, tom-toms, cowbells, temple blocks, octobans and transformation of sound in real time.
From a technological standpoint, the idea is to transform the live instrument’s sound with sensors (Piézo microphones) affixed to the instruments. The sound of them being played is immediately converted and spatialized live on six loudspeakers surrounding the audience.
One’s approach to the instrument is very different from that usually met in an acoustic context because of the projection and sound diffusion work. This dispersion is to be taken into account right from the beginning of the work on the piece in such a way that it is «played with», as we play with the concert hall (reverberation, sound, dispersion…)
The performer’s job, therefore, consists of working with the transformed sound, which implies a different approach to the instrument, both in the instrument’s playing (work on the dynamics and the movements) and in the choice of the drumsticks (the choice of colours according to the transformation of the sound)
Figure 2. Corpuscules score first page © Jiyoun Choi.
Gran Cassa – Canto della materia by Michelangelo Lupone (Italie)
It is a piece for a Feed-Drum: a large amplified symphonic box with a singledrumhead upon which sensors are affixed, and suspended above a speaker. It was created at the Musiques en Scène Grame festival (Lyon) in 2006.
Figure 3. Gran Cassa – Canto del materia in concert © Michelangelo Lupone.
The piece was written for a large amplified box (Feed-Drum), an entirely new instrument in its conception and how it is played.
The instrument is connected to a patch via a set of pedals on the ground which allow the sound to be transformed during the entire performance.
The first step was to imagine new approaches to playing. New drumsticks, the development of finger play, the hands, but also work on the different parts of the drumhead, through various types of pressure to allow interaction with the harmonics sustained by the speaker situated underneath it.
Different effects are utilized during the performance. Either purely physical (vibration of the membrane due to a Sub placed directly underneath) or by electroacoustic processes that modify the timbre and the sounds of the Feed-Drum, or through work on the harmonic sounds.
It is wholly derived from the acoustic fundamentals of the instrument, fundamental sounds also used in the performance. This classical type of play demonstrates the successive sound processes employed in Gran Cassa even further.
Writing for this new instrument was added to this sound research, as the ways of playing it are directly tied to manipulating specific spots on the drumhead.
Writing for this new instrument was added to this sound research, as the ways of playing it are directly tied to manipulating specific spots on the drumhead.
Figure 4. Gran Cassa – Score first page © Michelangelo Lupone.
The last part of the piece, Canto della materia, is probably the most striking part of the work. By applying pressure to certain areas of the drumhead with the hand, the fingers or the fists, you obtain a harmonic chant which lends its name to the piece, amazing sounds when one realises they come from a simple membrane whose sound is completed by a feedback system.
Figure 5. Points used to play harmonics (very end of the piece) © Michelangelo Lupone.
For Michelangelo Lupone, the objective was not only to transform the box’s sound, with a sophisticated sensor system but also to reveal the sounds originating from the instrument, which up until then were too rarely heard and utilized. This type of experiment for a composer and a performer is unique because they both find themselves facing an interface that is to be developed and which they must appropriate for themselves.
Light Music – Thierry de Mey (Belgium)
Light Music was created during the Musique en Scène Gramefestival (Lyon) in 2004
Figure 6. Light Music excerpt © Thierry de Mey.
This piece was created in its original version in 2004 and was elaborated until its final
version in 2010. The final version of which led to the making of a film.
This piece is probably on of the most stunning works I have ever played. The piece notwithstanding, it is the entire relationship between the performer and the stage, the body, and the space that is brought to the fore.
The artist plays with his hands in a wall of light facing the audience. The performer’s movements in the light create sounds. This action is caught by a camera in the room, and that image is projected onto a screen in the background behind the performer.
Figure 7. Light Music setup for a concert hall © Christophe Lebreton.
This luminous interface integrates numerous possibilities linked to gestures defined and specified in the score, incorporating work on time and space as well. The most remarkable thing being that this interface responds like an instrument, the performer indeed controls the sound, both in its evolution, its projection, in addition to its ending. The movement (the motion of the performer in the light) creating sounds in a dynamic way, and inversely, the gesture’s brutal ceasing also stopping the sound.
With this type of luminous interface, we are truly in a 3D space where everything is «played». It does not suffice to play with our ears by only playing the score itself; we also must also play with our bodies: the perception of a gesture, its speed, our place on stage…..
The dispersion of sound is done via eight points surrounding the audience, the performer’s gestures allowing the sound to be projected into the room.
At every moment of the performance, different methods of capturing and diffusion were utilized ranging from lateralisation, to the remanence of the movement; an entire language was developed to realise and compose this work, the symbols for which were invented during the whole creation process.
Figure 8. Light Music score (excerpt) rhythmical part© Thierry de Mey.
Figure 9. Light Music score (excerpt) spatialization part © Thierry de Mey.
We might be led to believe that being behind this wall of light is the final phase in the technological constraints for the performer, but this is not the case, on the contrary, it is the exact opposite. This interface encourages us to find the most intuitive gestures; a means of retaking ownership of a language of signs that we thought we had long forgotten. It inspires us to listen differently, not only to the sound effects that we produce but also to our bodies.
It is probably in this area that new technologies are the most interesting because they allow us to bring to light experiences and sensations which are not easy to perceive without them, tied in with our innate gestures, our breathing, and our bodies.
It is also interesting to note that at different moments in the piece, the instrument had to be coerced by the performer’s movements and their incarnation, to ensure that the obtained sound was directly linked to the gesture and its energy.
THE INFLUENCE OF OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC
Are we more creative than in the past ? Do we make more music ?
Is the music produced with new technology, radically different than that created with traditional instruments?
It is evident is that the tools for creating have never been more accessible. Yes, the new technologies contribute to rendering musicians of all esthetics more creative than in the past because they dispose of tools that are readily available and that allow for limitless sound treatments. At the same time, we are experiencing a general process of musical globalisation and the new technologies are a part of this . Access to these new tools combined with wide-ranging music broadcasting everywhere in the world profoundly changes the situation.
A child born in 2000 onwards has a far greater musical culture through impregnation than a person born in the sixties, particularly through the different means of broadcast and new media, without mentioning the omnipresence of music in public places, department stores, and other areas.
The development of music education, (a movement that began in France through the development of music schools and new learning methods in the sixties and seventies and a movement that is still gaining momentum), associated with the technological tools becoming commonplace, multiplies de facto the creative possibilities.
The conjunction of these two actions : broadcasting – transmission on the one hand and the immediate accessibility to creative tools on the other, to some degree has created the ideal foundation for the development of artistic creation for the greatest number.
NEW TOOLS, NEW PERSPECTIVES
If one considers the definition of the word ‘Creation’ that the Larousse gives us: The action of establishing or creating what does not already exist, the action of creating original work, it appears that the technological tool itself encourages us to be more creative.
These new interfaces allow us to work directly on the sound, as would a sculptor. New sounds and new spaces where we can have all sorts of interactions with images, videos, spatialisation and diffusion in an almost immediate manner.
As we have seen, these tools have enabled a real democratisation of music and its teaching, valuable tools for people who have not necessarily had any musical training.
Indeed, this situation has allowed the emergence of a new generation of musicians and composers, as well as the appearance of new musical currents that would not have existed otherwise without this technology. These new tools have, therefore, had a decisive influence on musical and artistic creation in general since the seventies no matter the style.
Moreover, in modifying the framework and the standards of creation, these new tools have often inspired composers to enlarge their area of competence over and beyond musical composition, giving another dimension to their work and thus creating new artistic offerings. By working closely with a CMD, it pushes them to rethink the stage as not only being a performance space but also a living space always renewed using a new form of interdisciplinarity.
In a sense, we could say that these new technologies also allow us also revisit the idea of a ‘total performance’ created by Monteverdi’s Orphéo at the beginning of the 17th century, which we later called Opera, with contemporary tools.
TRANSMISSION AND PEDAGOGY
Due to their flexibility and diversity, new technologies permit us to imagine artistic and pedagogical projects with multiple developments and thus rethink our teaching in a global manner.
The most important change is the possibility for children to become more involved in their own learning process, and this is due notably to a ‘deviation’ from certain interfaces which were initially imagined for a particular work and which can be used as a vital teaching tool.
Light Wall System – the body as an instrument
Figure 10. Working with the Wall Light System – Stage research laboratory (CNSMD Lyon) © CNSMD Lyon.
The piece Light Music by Thierry de Mey has enabled the emergence of a new logical environment with a simplified interface allowing scenographic creation, by crossing different forms of artistic expression with movement: visual arts, design, music, and dance: the Light Wall System.
From this artistic and technological framework, the objective is to offer to different audiences, young pupils, students, dancers, choreographer scenographers, musicians from all disciplines and aesthetics, situations based on the sound and visual arts, seeking to define a unique artistic concept.
It is above all about playing, in the truest sense of the term, in an intuitive and innate manner in the light, and to play sounds as we would paint a canvas with our hands.
From six «moments»: lateralisation, spatialisation, granulation, score, remanence of movement, and silence, offered by the interface of the Light Wall System, one appropriates the playing space, rethinks the stage and the role of the performer, through the sound generated by the interface, sounds previously recorded by the participants themselves.
It is a question of playing light as one plays an instrument, sculpting the sound with our hands, but above all, placing people in an unprecedented listening situation.
This tool we are completing the development of with Christophe Lebreton of Grame will be available in the coming months after a year of refining and validating by different audiences.
Over the course of the last few years, the new technologies have completely revolutionised our relationship to sound and its production. They are one of the consequences of the artistic evolutions being experienced by our societies.
This new relationship leads progressively to significant changes in the roles of the different actors in creation today, from the composer to the performer, and including choreographers, performers, scenographers, circus artists…
Artistic education is also being questioned by these new perspectives, from tablets to interactive installations, and one can only welcome the new learning perspectives emerging.
One of the most striking of these being the closer ties between the different professions composing live performance today, and the incredible perspectives for development that we can sense at the beginning of our 21st century.