Archive | August 2012

“Hidden Control Lines – a performance/presentation”

Composition–Experiment–Tradition
Orpheus Research Centre in Music, 22-23 February 2012, Ghent, Belgium

Alejandro Olarte, James Andean, Andrew Bentley
“Hidden Control Lines – a performance/presentation”

Centre for Music & Technology, Sibelius Academy, Finland
alejandro.olarte@siba.fi, jamesandean@gmail.com, abentley@siba.fi

Over the last two years, our research group at the Centre for Music & Technology of the Sibelius Academy has been investigating the grey area between composition and improvisation, in a context combining acoustic instruments, sounding objects and electronics.
Why look for a middle ground between improvisation and composition, two musical contexts which seem at first hand antithetical?
Improvisation provides a possibility for spontaneous response to the situation and the moment. It also offers the possibility, not just to respond to circumstances, but to explore musical options which suggest themselves in the heat of performance – stemming perhaps from subtle inflections, acoustics, the combination of performer personalities, moods, etc. – which can lead to musical possibilities impossible for the composer to envision at the hermetic bubble of the writing desk.
We can further extend this to suggest that the final form realised and codified by the composer is only one of a near infinite number of possible outcomes. While it is the composer’s task to ensure that this particular outcome is satisfying, finely crafted, etc., it can never be the only fulfilling outcome imaginable, nor is it a necessary conclusion that it is automatically the best.
While the composer enjoys all the advantages of time and reflection, the improviser, on the other hand, is able to respond to the subtlest details of the moment, and able to freely and immediately follow their intuition in a way generally more difficult in composition, communicating through multiple stages of mind to pen to paper to performer. However, while this freedom and suppleness can be of great benefit for a number of musical parameters, there are others which are more likely to suffer from the inability to reflect and craft the work outside of the flow of its sounding creation.
Primary among these are form and structure. One of our observations from our workgroup has been that our improvisationa often fall into a certain number of reasonably predictable forms: the ramp up from nothing to an eventual peak, followed by a slow return to nothing, for example. And, while there are many ways in which material is more easily crafted and developed in improvisation, there are others in which composition is more useful, for example in developing structures based on more ‘textual’ readings of pitch relationships.
It is thus of potential benefit to search for effective means of combining the strengths of both improvisation and composition, retaining the advantages of each. To this end, we have focused some of our energies on the use of pre-determined structural elements in improvisation, or other combination of defined compositional parameters within an improvisation context – in other words, retaining the improvisation context, but attempting to integrate some of the formal/structural advantages of composition.
Some of the means of accomplishing such a combination are well-known: for example, graphical scores, text-based scores, etc. The inclusion of electronics offers yet further options and possibilities.
But, how does one maintain the delicate balance of improvised and composed elements? For example, despite the relative freedom of these more ‘open’ categories of score, it is nevertheless easy to get stuck in the score, as in the heat of performance it risks becoming a crutch or a handicap. Even the most open of scores can psychologically limit the performer’s ‘nowness’, their freedom to respond, to be in the moment.
Our demonstration offers one possible approach to the problem: the use of control lines. In our performance, electroacoustic processing is controlled by curves and lines which are calculated during the performance, but according to a certain number of pre-determined limits. In other words, it offers control curves which are predictable in their broader details – beginning from zero, ending at zero, with a fixed number of points, and so on – but unique and unpredictable in their details. This offers the advantages of formal structuring, while allowing the performer to remain in the ‘now’, to focus solely on responding to the moment. It is thus a question of balancing pre-determined control with controlled randomness, so that these are not ‘fixed’ elements which are ‘learned’ by the performer, which risks being detrimental to the ‘nowness’. But, it maintains the advantages of the creation of form and structure according to pre-determined plans or parameters, which can be difficult to achieve in ‘pure’ improvisation.
We were inspired by Morton Subotnick’s use of ‘ghost electronics’, from some 40 years ago, in which voltages stored on a tape were used to control electronic treatment of performed instrumental sounds. Subotnick’s project was, however, primarily non-improvisational, the invisible presence being a poetic approach to composed electroacoustic music. The idea of ‘ghost electronics’ addressed the somewhat ‘klunky’ aspects of live electronics at the time; to some extent, some of the poetry fades once the ‘ghostliness’ of the electronics is relatively commonplace, as today when nearly any degree of powerful sound processing is readily available from a simple laptop.
Another inspiration was some of Andrew’s previous performance projects, including for example Pied Piper (2005), in which a patch built around granulation and delay lines is controlled by a set of about 20 lines, spanning 8-9 mins, which controlled the processing of the sounds of Andrew performing with water and a straw. Another example is The Joy of Discovery, a duet for two players destroying a packet of Marie biscuits over a chessboard. The patch employed the same kind of timeline-controlled processing over a span of about 10 mins. Thus both of these employ control lines, however, unlike with our presentation, these are fully determined beforehand.
The quality and degree of control of the lines is thus critical to the form of the work. The work consists of a series of lines of one minute in duration each. In its current form, only two of the lines are fully pre-determined: those of the opening and closing phrases – the piece ramps up from zero processing (and amplification volume) to begin, and reduces down to zero to finish the piece.
Lines between the opening and closing sections are spontaneously generated, once a minute. The points along the line are pre-determined, but the spacing of these points is randomised; as a result, the general shape of the curve is known, but the amount of time taken by each rise and fall is unknown. This proved to be a reasonably graceful manner of balancing concern for the shapes of the control curves with the desire for flexibility and variability.
The processing unit is also randomly selected every minute; thus, the performer operates within one minute processing windows, never certain what the next minute will bring. The line controls the amplitude of the processor’s output, as well as either one or two parameters of each processor. It is interesting to note that the central role played by parametric control in our performance, while common with live electronic performance practice, is not, in fact, generally employed as a structuring element in either composition or improvisation.
At first sight the line appears to be a kind of score, however in this case it is a score with IMPLICATIONS for the performers, rather than instructing or directing. While in theory it is simply affecting the sound of the perfomers’ actions, in practice it acts as a third performer. The primary distinction is that the performer’s action is necessary to make the line audible; if the performers are silent, the line vanishes. At the same time, the line extends the voice of the performers, and also unifies the two performers – if either performer stops, the line carries on, offering a valuable sense of continuity and unity.
Making the line visible to the performers extends its role as ‘third performer’, as it allows the performers to engage with the line, and to craft their performance according to the potential offered by the line. With the line invisible to the performer, one is constantly attempting to dialogue with the line’s immediate past, rather than with the line’s upcoming behaviour. The line becomes a process: it guides the performer by offering an idea of the immediate future, without this being fully determined or precisely predictable. We have made them visible to the audience in order to clarify both our process and our theme.
Are there advantages to keeping the lines invisible to the performers? Perhaps, depending on one’s emphasis. Our emphasis here is on the line as the primary structural factor, rather than on the electronics as an active or passive performance partner, with the capacity to surprise the performer, etc., which might be better served by keeping the lines invisible.
Storage of the lines generated for a given performance also proved very useful in analysing the outcome and refining the performance patch.

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Perspectives on Improvisation: A report from the Impro Research Group of the CMT

International Music Club, Petrozavodsk, April 26th-27th 2012

Perspectives on Improvisation: A report from the Impro Research Group of the CMT

James Andean & Alejandro Olarte
Centre for Music & Technology, Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, Finland

For the last two years, we have been part of an artistic research group into multidisciplinary improvisation at the Centre for Music & Technology of the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki. To date, our work has focused on two distinct research questions. We will introduce these questions and our primary projects and research, but first, it may be useful to take a moment to situate our performance practice.

Free improvisation

Our improvisation practice is primarily located within the genre often termed ‘free improvisation’. This is a somewhat nebulous term, which may or may not include, among others, free jazz, non-idiomatic improvisation, and so-called ‘contemporary improvisation’. The only clue to the genre’s qualities and characteristics offered by the term is its only qualifier: the word ‘free’. This is an abstract, and entirely relative, notion, and is, in fact, to a significant extent inapplicable to the very genre that stakes this claim. Furthermore, free improvisation is a particularly flexible genre, with startling differences in methods, materials, and results between communities of performers.
We will begin with a brief overview of free improvisation’s genesis and development, followed by a consideration of some of its core principles, and finally situate our own, personal practice(s) within the larger context of the free improvisation genre.
Free improvisation was born slowly, from a combination of elements, some from different musical traditions, which cross-pollinated and coalesced into performance communities, and, beginning in the 1960s, began to recognise certain affinities. Early influences include:
free jazz, both the structuralism of performers like Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor, and the more lyrical expansions of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane;
increasingly complex contemporary scores, whose structures can no longer be perceived by the listener, with the resulting tendency of ascribing a ‘spontaneously generated’ quality to the music;
the ever-increasing demands such scores placed on the performer, as limits of performability are stretched, thereby approaching improvisation as a practical consequence of attempting to ‘perform the unperformable’;
increasing interest in extended instrumental techniques, which, often difficult to accurately notate, encourage a more flexible performance paradigm;
extended contexts in contemporary composition – pursued by composers such as Mauricio Kagel and Vinko Globokar – which sought to break down established roles and barriers between composer, performer and listener;
more flexible contemporary scores – including graphic scores, text scores, indeterminate scores, etc. – which placed greater responsibility on the performer to shape the work, and often left significant space for spontaneously generated material;
electroacoustic performance practice; and
expanded musical and extra-musical resources, such as those which would come to be associated with sound art practices.
As these began to mingle, a performance practice started to emerge, with a multiple background in contemporary music, jazz, electronic music, and more popular forms. This practice prioritised spontaneously-generated forms and materials, placing greater emphasis on parameters such as timbre, texture and space, and reduced emphasis on more ‘traditional’ elements of rhythm, melody, and harmony, often eschewing these altogether, replacing them with a more open sense of gesture and phrase. To this end, many performers deliberately sought out new or extended sonic resources, in an attempt to escape from the old, established habits so thoroughly ingrained, both physically and psychologically, by decades of traditional instrumental practice.
A further and significant aspect of the developing genre is the expanded importance of interaction and relationships between performers – relationships in musical action, as opposed to musical results. It is not only the sounding output of the improvised act that is of significance; it is the process of improvisation itself, and its moment-to-moment evolution. This, of course, in no way diminishes the relevance of the resulting music, but rather adds a potentially exhilarating dimension of musico-social interaction, as performers choose, at any given moment, to dialogue, to cooperate, to be supportive, antagonistic, disruptive, constructive, destructive, to lead, to follow, to change course, to hold steady, to return, to shift focus, to change materials… the list is, in fact, endless in its possibilities and potential. In other words, the constantly evolving interaction and communication between performers becomes in itself a potential source of fascination for the spectator, through its spontaneous, unpredictable variety, change and metamorphosis.
The tradition that has evolved into what is now generally termed ‘free improvisation’ arguably involves as much of an established code as most more established musical forms, which calls into question the implications of the term ‘free’. Many of the characteristics described above have become codified: the use of clear tonality or rhythm is often frowned upon, as is open reference to established genres (jazz, classical, popular, etc.); a certain amount of musical space left open for the other performers is generally expected; open communication is sometimes expected, sometimes viewed unfavourably, depending on the community; and so on.
Our own, personal improvisation practice, while broadly positioned within the general perspective of free improvisation, is consciously and deliberately anti-dogmatic: no musical direction is rejected automatically, but rather we feel relatively free to follow the spirit of the moment, even if this involves moving away from territories more clearly marked as ‘free improvisation’.

Projecting the Musical Future: Communication of musical intentions in collective electroacoustic improvisation

A key element of our research has revolved around the grey area between improvisation and composition. In particular, we have focused on the exploration of possible means for the real-time communication of individual structural or formal intentions within an improvisation context. While it is clear that such communication commonly takes place between improvising musicians, we are exploring the possibility for more explicit collaborative structural and formal development, thus working in a territory between ‘free improvisation’ and ‘spontaneous composition’ in a collaborative context. The potential for such tools seems particularly strong in electroacoustic improvisation, due to the possibility of building communication methods directly into the performance software itself.
Central questions have included:
What information would it be useful to communicate more explicitly during collective improvisation?
How might this information be communicated?
What available tools can be used for this purpose?
What new tools are we able to design and develop for this purpose?
What characteristics would be desirable in the development of such tools?
To these ends, a series of simple empirical experiments were conceived to help clarify the objectives and potential difficulties of such a project. Individual experiments included the focused and directed use of the following techniques for communication between performers:
textual methods;
mapped methods;
verbal methods;
networked methods;
symbolic methods.
These range from the most basic methods of communication – verbal, gestural – to more elaborate software-based experiments.
Our observations have proven valuable, particularly by drawing attention to fundamental questions concerning the premise of such a pursuit. A closer examination of these questions, through the lens provided by our limited experiments, has proven useful in refining our goals and methods in moving forward with the development of software and other tools dedicated to these purposes.

‘Hidden Control Lines’

One of the practical implementations of this work is the ‘Hidden Control Lines’ project. This is an electronic trio performance, in which automation lines and curves are generated, which are then applied to a set of digital sound processing units – frequency and amplitude modulation, sampling, filtering, spectral modelling synthesis, and delay lines – which are then mapped to synthesis and treatment parameters. While key aspects of this automation isl thus conceived and prepared in advance, the results are of course heavily determined by the improvised performance to which these are applied, which in turn affect not only their combined results, but also the subsequent choices by the performing musicians, in terms of both the materials they develop, and the manners in which they choose to reflect and interact with the electronics. Thus, though prepared in advance, their ‘meaning’ is only determined in the course of performance, creating an interesting paradox in which the electronics shape the live sound, but the live sound spontaneously assigns both role and identity to the electronics.
In this manner, such a technique expands upon common classifications of interaction (f.ex. Lewis’ ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ degrees) by combining a system that cannot know or analyze its input, with a series of pre-compositional decisions that determine processes, thus allowing for a supple formal development which combines the structural possibilities of composition with the flexibility and spontaneity of improvisation, while simultaneously redefining the roles of the performing agents.

Sound and Motion: Strategies for cross-disciplinary improvisation between musicians and dancers

The second of our research projects has been the exploration of the intersection of free improvisation in music and dance, including issues relating to cross-disciplinary improvisation, perspectives from each discipline, general improvisation strategies, and strategies for communication and collaboration between musicians and dancers. (The music context embraces instrumentalists, electroacoustic performers, and sound artists.) Through our collaborative research, we have begun to form an understanding of the differences in perspective between the two disciplines and effective strategies for collaborative improvisation and performance.

Our observations have included perceptible differences in:
perception of the performer’s role in an ensemble;
approach to group dynamics;
strategies for engaging with one’s fellow improvisers, and for following their activities – potentially challenging when combining sonic and visual art forms;
performance actions such as ‘engaging’, ‘leaving space’, ‘entering’, ‘exiting’…;
the roles of analogy, metaphor, onomatopoeia, illustration, etc.;
structuring of performances, both in the real-time elaboration of an improvisation, and the post facto recall of a completed improvisation, with dancers tending to structure their performances spatially, as ‘events-in-space’, while musicians tend to structure performances temporally, as ‘events-in-time’;
…as well as sounding dancers/moving musicians, and the roles of theatre and speech.

These have led us to work to deepen our collaborative process, to move past collaboration in which dancers dance ‘over’ or ‘to’ the music, through more profound methods of communication and collaboration, with the eventual goal of forging a unified performance which bridges and fuses the two genres – not merely by crossing or combining roles, but through a sharing and fusion of perspectives, goals, and techniques.

Sound, Music and Motion: Sound Art and Music in Cross-Disciplinary Improvisation

Third International Symposium on Music/Sonic Art: Practices and Theories
Karlsruhe (IMWI), 7-8 July 2012

Sound, Music and Motion: Sound Art and Music in Cross-Disciplinary Improvisation

James Andean & Alejandro Olarte
Centre for Music & Technology, Sibelius Academy

Introduction

We are part of an artistic research group into multidisciplinary improvisation at the Centre for Music & Technology of the Sibelius Academy, in Helsinki, Finland. For the past year, we have been exploring the intersection of free improvisation in sound and dance, including issues relating to cross-disciplinary improvisation, perspectives from each discipline, general improvisation strategies, and strategies for communication and collaboration between musicians/sound artists and dancers. Through our collaborative research, we have begun to form an understanding of the differences in perspective between the two disciplines and effective strategies for collaborative improvisation and performance.
The group’s members come from a range of backgrounds and traditions. The ‘sound’ side includes instrumentalists, live electronics, and sound artists, while members on the ‘motion’ side come from backgrounds in dance, contact improvisation, and mime, as well as broader forms of expressive bodily movement. Touchstones in terms of starting perspective include free improvisation, electroacoustic music, contemporary music, sound art, contact improvisation, and new dance.

Goals

Many of the group’s members are active in the Helsinki improvisation scene, with dancers and musicians/sound artists regularly collaborating. The research group was born in part from a desire to develop and perhaps move past and over certain recurring stumbling blocks.
The group seeks:
an understanding of the differences in perspective between the two disciplines;
effective strategies for collaborative improvisation and performance;
to deepen our collaborative process;
to move past collaboration in which dancers dance ‘over’ or ‘to’ the music;
to forge a unified performance which bridges and fuses the two genres, through a sharing and fusion of perspectives, goals, and techniques;
the capacity to break down our identities as ‘musicians’ and ‘dancers’, becoming instead agents collectively expressing an idea (or web of ideas), with the fact that some are expressing this idea through sound and some through motion reduced to a semantic detail.

Working method

The group’s working method involves a very liberal interpretation of the term ‘artistic research’. The methodology is largely organic and self-organised: rather than impose a pre-determined approach or procedure, the group’s working method developed naturally through practice. The resulting method is thus experimental, practice-based, and constantly evolving.
It is arguably impossible to expect decisive ‘conclusions’ to result from this project; rather, it is an endless process of discovery. Observations, rather than leading towards fixed conclusions, instead generate new questions and directions for inquiry; results are fed immediately back into the process.
Group sessions generally begin with a free or open improvisation, without a specific theme or goal. This is followed by discussion, of both the improvisation which just took place, and of themes and ideas from previous sessions to be explored and developed over the course of the current session. This is often followed by directed exercises, specifically designed to explore in greater depth one of the themes, issues or questions raised in discussion. These exercises are then discussed and analysed; possible observations or outcomes are discussed; and any knowledge gained in this manner is then used to design new exercises, or to propose new performance strategies. These are then explored either immediately, or at the next session.

PRACTICAL SESSION ↔ DISCUSSION ↔ OBSERVATIONS ↔ NEW PROPOSALS ↔ NEW PRACTICAL SESSION

Improvisation is thus simultaneously a performance practice and a research method: the task of spontaneous collaborative creation is in and of itself an active act of exploration and research into the subject of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Music vs. sonic art

As already mentioned, the sound performers of the group include both musicians and sound artists, with many performers moving flexibly between the two. As a result, it has become possible to outline general categories of potential for communication between sounding performers and dancers, which vary somewhat between the ‘sonic’ and the ‘musical’.
First, it must be stressed that this is by no means a clear distinction, and no attempt is being made to define or delimit either term. This is simply an attempt to address two observable poles of a shifting continuum, between more traditionally musical tools and techniques, and those more commonly associated with more extended sonic practices – the use of everyday objects or found sound, for instance.
Of course, much performance will be difficult to place clearly in either camp: the use of extended instrumental techniques – scraping the piano strings, for instance – could well fall into either category, depending to a significant extent on the subtle details of shifting context. However, such detailed definition is not particularly relevant to our project, and in fact may be an undesirable, unrealistic or impossible goal. Again, we stress that we point to the ‘musical’ and the ‘sonic’ simply as broad categories of observable practice.

Sonic expression vs. musical expression

There are some broader generalisations that can be made from our observations regarding the different opportunities each of these offers in collaborative improvisation with dancers.
Firstly, musical practice could claim to be a more structured communication than sonic practice – or rather, to offer structure that is potentially more generally and intuitively recognised by non-practitioners. It also tends to be more recognisably directed or goal-oriented, and may involve a greater degree of patterning than is common in sonic practice. This can be reflected in questions of rhythm, of directed melodic movement, of pitch centre, and so on.
As a result of such qualities of patterning and direction, it can be proposed that musical practice may have a higher degree of predictability, at least in the short-term, which has certain potential for engagement from the dancers, who may now have the option of constructing their own performance according for example to an expected melodic outcome, or, in perhaps the most obvious case, according to the stable structure of a repeating rhythmic motif, pulse, or beat. Of course, this is not the sole property of the musical domain, which may avoid such patterns or predictability while remaining identifiably ‘musical’ in nature, while sonic practice can employ a number of strategies for activating similarly predictable lines or patterns.
However, it is our experience that a more traditionally ‘musical’ performance is more likely to inspire a similarly traditional relationship with the dancers. If our goal is to attempt to shake off these established relationships in search of a closer degree of collective expression, it might be proposed that an approach rooted in sonic practice may offer greater potential.
There are also more detailed aspects of sonic practice with strong potential for engagement with dancers, though this can vary significantly depending on the tools in use. One of the more effective initial methods for collaboration and communication is through a strong sense of embodiment, at any of a number of levels. For example, the use of an embodied approach to phrase or gesture from the musicians/sound artists in response to the gestures or movements of a dancer is often easily recognised, offering a degree of synchresis which communicates well, and which can be very effective in forging a performance bond between the dancer and musician/sound artist.

Use of electronics

The use of electronics by a number of members of our group opens a number of interesting issues. One of these is the potential lack of performance gesture, in the use of a laptop for instance, as the sonic performance gesture as a visual cue can be useful to the dancers on a number of levels, from identifying a given sound source among a group of performers, to offering a preliminary level for engagement. Further issues are raised by the use of samples, field recordings, or pre-recorded material in general, which for example may offer the recorded traces of a prior performance gesture or other implications of embodiment, offering a different set of possibilities for the dancer.
In general, however, the dancers find the loudspeaker to be something of a barrier, and are less comfortable engaging with the more mediated material it presents than with the performance of an acoustic performer, who is potentially more localised, whose actions may be more closely linked with their output, and who is more easily imagined as a part of a general choreography than the fixed and impersonal loudspeaker.
A final element of interest in the use of electronics is the capacity to perform sonic space, either as a central or secondary performance parameter. Conceptually this has significant potential, as the creation of space is very much a primary part of the dancers’ practice, albeit along very different lines. In early efforts in this direction, dancers have engaged with the performance of sonic space primarily as metaphors or symbols, but there may be more to be discovered here.

Sound & motion: primary differences

Primary differences between these two art forms, while seeming perhaps somewhat trivial and/or obvious, in fact can have important consequences with significant impact on cross-disciplinary improvisation.
Many of the issues our group has observed can be described as stemming from one of two primary differences (or, indeed, from both):
One is a visual art form (at least in terms of reception), while the other is auditory;
Differences in performer roles and relationships.

We will now examine some of the issues observed during our practice. It should be noted that many of these are interlinked; these are a web of intersecting issues, rather than discrete units.

Visual engagement vs. auditory engagement

Dance focuses on visual reception, while sound and music focus on aural reception. In the heat of improvised expression, there is the risk that both parties, in increasing concentration on their own expression, will begin to lose track of the other side. Musicians may forget to remain visually aware and engaged, resulting in a break in communication with the dancers as musicians retreat into sonic-only experience and communication. Dancers may be less able or less likely to forget or shut out the musicians, as auditory perception continues unabated regardless of where you turn your gaze; however, they may retreat into ‘individual agency’, potentially ignoring other modes of agency in which the musicians may be engaged.

The performer/ensemble relationship

This leads us to a further potential difference in perspective between musicians and dancers: differences in the relationship between individual performer and group. A dancer’s ‘tool’ or ‘instrument’ is his or her body, which has a clearly defined location and very visible physical and spatial limits. There is thus a tendency towards individual agency as a discrete unit, stemming from the physical and spatial limits of the body: each dancer is visibly and undeniably a single performing agent. A given agent can certainly choose to engage, communicate, or interact, and is often concerned not only with one’s own expression, but with the collective composition. However, a dancer can never completely merge or dissolve into the collective, allowing their personal contribution to be subsumed by the collective, in the manner accessible to musicians and sound artists, who are able to collectively produce qualities such as timbre or texture such that individual contributions are indivisible and unknowable – collectively speaking with a single voice. A dancer, on the other hand, no matter how close, tight, or physical the communication with another, is forever a known, visible, and finite quantity.
This results in some admirable characteristics: for example, dancers are personally, intimately tied to their output – the individual and his or her expression are one and the same. As a result, performance demands a degree of responsibility and presence from a dancer that is more easily evaded by a musician, who often expresses through an intermediary instrument, and whose direct physical engagement with the audience is less essential, or at least more distanced and mediated.
It also results in potential differences in general approach to improvisation. A key dichotomy here might be expressed as “communication/interaction vs. collective expression”: the former focuses on individual performers as independent agents, with the focus in improvisation on the interaction and communication (or lack thereof) between agents, where the latter focuses rather on a single collective expression. While the extent to which the results of these two paradigms differ varies significantly, as processes the contrast is significant, though perhaps more so in sound and music than in dance; consider, for example, the distance between call-and-response, or perhaps dialogue between performers, and the collaborative generation of a single texture or timbre.
It should be stressed, however, that this difference in perspective is not strictly between dancers and musicians; it is common to find improvising musicians who fall into each category, and indeed, most will access both of these according to the needs of the moment. However, it could be argued that the dancer’s discrete identity, as already described, might somewhat encourage the ‘communication and interaction between independent agents’ approach.

Spatial experience vs. temporal experience

Here we find a difference in approach between dancers and musicians which, while on the surface somewhat obvious, leads to potentially fascinating consequences. We realised fairly early on in our group that the dancers tend to structure their performances spatially, as ‘events-in-space’, both in creation and in recall, while the musicians tend to structure their performances temporally, as ‘events-in-time’. Thus, where musicians tend to discuss a completed improvisation according to when things took place, the dancers, on the other hand, tend to discuss things according to where they took place.
While this offers great potential for rich collaboration, it also poses certain challenges in communication and discussion, and possibly serious barriers to collaborative creation, if unity of purpose is taken as a priority.
Is this an inevitable dualism? Or, a simple translation problem? Or, must we strive to arrive at a common conception?

Experiments

A key component of the group’s efforts has been the design and implementation of simple experiments and exercises, to test or develop specific proposals or issues. A few examples of such experiments are described below.

i) Gesture
Dancer/musician pairs attempt to unify musical gesture and danced gesture, using a range of strategies:
literal: using equivalent physical gestures to produce sound and motion;
abstract: sonic arc and danced arc are matched, creating the same phrasing;
metaphoric: more interpretative, symbolic, etc.;
further strategies: embodied, narrative, abstract, coded, etc.

ii) Sounding dancers, moving musicians
A number of attempts have been made to blur the borders between the two groups, including:
exchanging roles;
integrating roles: sound-producing motion, motion-producing sound;
having musicians incorporate movement in, through, and across the space.

iii) Reenactment
Upon completion of an improvisation, performers must attempt the exact duplication of that performance.
While on the surface, the connection between this task and our cross-disciplinary theme is not clear, in practice this exercise led to valuable results. It reveals how performers structure a performance, through the points they focus upon in recall: What constitutes an ‘event’? What points are significant? Further, the collective attempt to recreate leads to mutual recognition of unifying elements, as well as opening up discussion of issues such as embodied memory, oral memory, narrative memory, abstract memory, and so on.

‘Conclusions’ – ?

As described in the discussion of the group’s methodology, no attempt is made to draw definitive conclusions. Instead, observations, rather than leading to conclusions, are used to directly construct new hypotheses. Thus, our questions don’t lead to answers; they do, however, help us to develop as a group. The impossibility of arriving at definitive research ‘conclusions’ is thereby compensated for by the knowledge we gain as performers, as improvisors, and as collaborators.

Sound and Motion: Strategies for cross-disciplinary improvisation between musicians and dancers

Sound, Sight, Space and Play 2012: Sound and Interdisciplinary Creativity
June 6th & 7th 2012
Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre, De Montfort University, Leicester UK

Sound and Motion: Strategies for cross-disciplinary improvisation between musicians and dancers

James Andean, Andrew Bentley, Marianne Decoster-Taivalkoski, Alejandro Olarte
Centre for Music & Technology, Sibelius Academy

Introduction

We are part of an artistic research group into multidisciplinary improvisation at the Centre for Music & Technology of the Sibelius Academy, in Helsinki, Finland. For the past year, we have been exploring the intersection of free improvisation in music and dance, including issues relating to cross-disciplinary improvisation, perspectives from each discipline, general improvisation strategies, and strategies for communication and collaboration between musicians and dancers. Through our collaborative research, we have begun to form an understanding of the differences in perspective between the two disciplines and effective
strategies for collaborative improvisation and performance.
The group’s members come from a range of backgrounds and traditions. The ‘sound’ side includes instrumentalists, live electronics, and sound artists, while members on the ‘motion’ side come from a range of backgrounds, including dance, contact improvisation, and mime, as well as broader forms of expressive bodily movement. Touchstones in terms of starting perspective include free improvisation, electroacoustic music, contemporary music, sound art, contact improvisation, and new dance.

Goals

Many of the group’s members are active in the Helsinki improvisation scene, with dancers and musicians/sound artists regularly collaborating. The research group was born in part from a desire to develop and perhaps move past and over certain recurring stumbling blocks.
The group seeks:
an understanding of the differences in perspective between the two disciplines;
effective strategies for collaborative improvisation and performance;
to deepen our collaborative process;
to move past collaboration in which dancers dance ‘over’ or ‘to’ the music;
to forge a unified performance which bridges and fuses the two genres, through a sharing
and fusion of perspectives, goals, and techniques;
the capacity to break down our identities as ‘musicians’ and ‘dancers’, becoming instead
agents collectively expressing an idea (or web of ideas), with the fact that some are expressing this idea through sound and some through motion reduced to a semantic detail.

Working method

The group’s working method involves a very liberal interpretation of the term ‘artistic research’. The methodology is largely organic and self-organised: rather than impose a pre-determined approach or procedure, the group’s working method developed naturally through practice. The resulting method is thus experimental, practice-based, and constantly evolving.
It is arguably impossible to expect decisive ‘conclusions’ to result from this project; rather, it is an endless process of discovery. Observations, rather than leading towards fixed conclusions, instead generate new questions and directions for inquiry; results are fed immediately back into the process.
Group sessions generally begin with a free or open improvisation, without a specific theme or goal. This is followed by discussion, of both the improvisation which just took place, and of themes and ideas from previous sessions to be explored and developed over the course of the current session. This is often followed by directed exercises, specifically designed to explore in greater depth one of the themes, issues or questions raised in discussion. These exercises are then discussed and analysed; possible observations or outcomes are discussed; and any knowledge gained in this manner is then used to design new exercises, or to propose new performance strategies. These are then explored either immediately, or at the next session.

PRACTICAL SESSION – DISCUSSION – OBSERVATIONS – NEW PROPOSALS – NEW PRACTICAL SESSION

Primary differences

Primary differences between these two art forms, while seeming perhaps somewhat trivial and/or obvious, in fact can have important consequences with significant impact on cross-disciplinary improvisation.
Many of the issues our group has observed can be described as stemming from one of two primary differences (or, indeed, from both):
– One is a visual art form (at least in terms of reception), while the other is auditory;
– Differences in performer roles and relationships.

We will now examine some of the issues observed during our practice. It should be noted that many of these are interlinked; these are a web of intersecting issues, rather than discrete units.

Visual engagement vs. auditory engagement

Dance focuses on visual reception, while sound and music focus on aural reception. To some extent, performers in each group are thus principally engaged with different modes of output; it is easier for each group to maintain focus on their given mode of perception. As a result, in the heat of improvised expression, there is the risk that both parties, in increasing concentration on their own expression, will begin to lose track of the other side. Musicians may forget to remain visually aware and engaged, resulting in a break in communication with the dancers as musicians retreat into sonic-only experience and communication. Dancers may be less able or less likely to forget or shut out the musicians, as auditory perception continues unabated regardless of where you turn your gaze; however, they may retreat into ‘individual agency’, potentially ignoring other modes of agency in which the musicians may be engaged.

The performer/ensemble relationship

This leads us to a further potential difference in perspective between musicians and dancers: differences in the relationship between individual performer and group. A dancer’s ‘tool’ or ‘instrument’ is his or her body, which has a clearly defined location and very visible physical and spatial limits. There is thus a tendency towards individual agency as a discrete unit, stemming from the physical and spatial limits of the body: each dancer is visibly and undeniably a single performing agent. A given agent can certainly choose to engage, communicate, or interact, and is often concerned not only with one’s own expression, but with the collective composition. However, a dancer can never completely merge or dissolve into the collective, allowing their personal contribution to be subsumed by the collective, in the manner accessible to musicians and sound artists, who are able to collectively produce qualities such as timbre or texture such that individual contributions are indivisible and unknowable – collectively speaking with a single voice. A dancer, on the other hand, no matter how close, tight, or physical the communication with another, is forever a known, visible, and finite quantity.
This results in some admirable characteristics: for example, dancers are personally, intimately tied to their output – the individual and his or her expression are one and the same. As a result, performance demands a degree of responsibility and presence from a dancer that is more easily evaded by a musician, who often expresses through an intermediary instrument, and whose direct physical engagement with the audience is less essential, or at least more distanced and mediated.
It also results in potential differences in general approach to improvisation. A key dichotomy here might be expressed as “communication/interaction vs. collective expression”: the former focuses on individual performers as independent agents, with the focus in improvisation on the interaction and communication (or lack thereof) between agents, where the latter focuses rather on a single collective expression. While the extent to which the results of these two paradigms differ varies significantly, as processes the contrast is significant, though perhaps more so in sound and music than in dance; consider, for example, the distance between call-and-response, or perhaps dialogue between performers, and the collaborative generation of a single texture or timbre.
It should be stressed, however, that this difference in perspective is not strictly between dancers and musicians; it is common to find improvising musicians who fall into each category, and indeed, most will access both of these according to the needs of the moment. However, it could be argued that the dancer’s discrete identity, described above, might somewhat encourage the ‘communication and interaction between independent agents’ approach.

Spatial experience vs. temporal experience

Here we find a difference in approach between dancers and musicians which, while on the surface somewhat obvious, leads to potentially fascinating consequences. We realised fairly early on in our group that the dancers appear to structure their performances spatially, as ‘events-in-space’, both in creation and in recall, while the musicians tend to structure their performances temporally, as ‘events-in-time’. Thus, where musicians tend to discuss a completed improvisation according to when things took place, the dancers, on the other hand, tend to discuss things according to where they took place.
While this offers great potential for rich collaboration, it also poses certain challenges in communication and discussion, and possibly serious barriers to collaborative creation, if unity of purpose is taken as a priority.
Is this an inevitable dualism? Or, a simple translation problem? Or, must we strive to arrive at a common conception?

Expression over time

We have noticed certain differences in ‘expressive timespans’ for musicians and dancers. For example, more time is often required to establish a sonic or musical theme than to establish a movement or gesture as a thematic quantity. This may result in dancers exploring or moving through local-scale material more quickly than musicians. Musicians use repetition to stress or establish thematic material, while dancers are more likely to steer away from unnecessary repetition; exploration of longer term repetition in movement thus has potential as a strategy for greater integration.

Vocabulary differences, conceptual differences

Differences in vocabulary have occasionally formed obstacles, either as simple challenges in communication, or as symptoms of more significant underlying conceptual differences. Key examples include:
– ‘Composition’: the structuring of a musical performance or work, vs. the arrangement of the elements of a scene, surface, or space (referring once again to our ‘temporal vs. spatial’ dichotomy);
– ‘Theme’: a primary expressive musical unit, vs. a quality, characteristic, subject, or idea;
– terms such as ‘Engaging’; ‘leaving space’; ‘entering’; and ‘exiting’, which are symptomatic of paradigm differences between the focus on ‘performer relationships’ and ‘material relationships’, described above.

Experiments

A key component of the group’s efforts has been the design and implementation of simple experiments and exercises, to test or develop specific proposals or issues. A few examples of such experiments are described below.

i) Gesture
Dancer/musician pairs attempt to unify musical gesture and danced gesture, using a range of strategies:
literal: using equivalent physical gestures to produce sound and motion;
abstract: sonic arc and danced arc are matched, creating the same phrasing;
metaphoric: more interpretative, symbolic, etc.;
further strategies: embodied, narrative, abstract, coded, etc.

ii) Sounding dancers, moving musicians
A number of attempts have been made to blur the borders between the two groups, including:
exchanging roles;
integrating roles: sound-producing motion, motion-producing sound;
having musicians incorporate movement in, through, and across the space.

iii) Reenactment
Upon completion of an improvisation, performers must attempt the exact duplication of that performance.
While on the surface, the connection between this task and our cross-disciplinary theme is not clear, in practice this exercise led to valuable results. It reveals how performers structure a performance, through the points they focus upon in recall: What constitutes an ‘event’? What points are significant? Further, the collective attempt to recreate leads to mutual recognition of unifying elements, as well as opening up discussion of issues such as embodied memory, oral memory, narrative memory, abstract memory, and so on.

iv) Floor lines
For this exercise, lines are drawn across the floor in tape; musicians must change some element of their performance whenever a dancer crosses a line. This task provides a concrete focus to the attention and interaction between musicians and dancers, as well as adding a playful level of unidirectional control to the interaction.

‘Conclusions’ – ?

As described in the discussion of the group’s methodology, no attempt is made to draw definitive conclusions. Instead, observations, rather than leading to conclusions, are used to directly construct new hypotheses. Thus, our questions don’t lead to answers; they do, however, help us to develop as a group.
It should be stressed that our research exercises are not effective performance strategies, as they tend towards monodimensionality. Performances deemed more ‘satisfying’ tend to be those with sufficient ‘multidimensionality’: multiple levels on which interaction takes place, and a sufficient level of sophistication in this interaction. Our exercises have, however, made us better performers, by focusing on and developing specific issues.
Thus, the impossibility of arriving at definitive research ‘conclusions’ is compensated for by the knowledge we gain as performers, as improvisors, and as collaborators.

Projecting the musical future: Communication of musical intentions in collective electroacoustic improvisation

Sixteenth Nordic Musicological Congress, Stockholm University, 7th-10th August 2012

Research Report:
Projecting the musical future: Communication of musical intentions in collective electroacoustic improvisation

James Andean
Centre for Music & Technology, Sibelius Academy, Helsinki

Work group:
James Andean, Andrew Bentley, Marianne Decoster-Taivalkoski, Visa Kuoppala, Alejandro Olarte

For the last several years, I have had the pleasure of participating in the Improvisation Research Group at the Centre for Music & Technology of the Sibelius Academy, in Helsinki. The group’s mandate is to each year explore a particular subject relating to the broader field of improvisation; recent topics have included, for example, interdisciplinary improvisation, and musical vs. sonic improvisation practice. One of the group’s core interests is in the grey area between improvisation and composition, which led us to the project we will be discussing here.

First, however, it might be useful to situate ourselves a bit, as ‘improvisation’ is a very broad term, making reference to a vast number of musical traditions, communities and practices. In general terms, the group is largely involved with what we might term ‘contemporary improvisation’ – the improvisation culture and practice which has to a significant extent grown out of the contemporary western art music practice and tradition. This is a practice which really began to take form in the 1960s and 70s, to a certain extent encouraged by a general ‘opening up’ of possibilities beyond the rigid strictures of a traditional score. These included increased focus on elements which are difficult to notate or accurately represent in a written score, such as timbre, space, expanded instrumental techniques, and the use of electronics, as well as new and innovative scores which offered greater control to the performer, from the invitation to arrange blocks of composed material at will to the extraordinary freedom of interpretation offered by graphic scores or text scores. It has also been argued, by David Cope for instance, that a further factor was, perhaps ironically, the increasing complexity of more ‘traditional’ scores, which stretch the performer’s capacity to precisely recreate what is notated on the page, thereby opening a path to a performance practice which can focus on musical outcomes without the pressure of being bound to the clinical recreation of complex notation.

The practice that has resulted is far from homogeneous, and tends to be a loose network of ‘micropractices’, with much in common in their approaches, but often with significant differences in priorities and approach between communities, or even between individual improvisers. A number of terms are used to refer to areas of this practice, prime among them being ‘free improvisation’ ( which is prone to misinterpretation due to its proximity to the term ‘free jazz’), ‘non-idiomatic improvisation’, and others.
It should be noted that our research group has a strong focus and background in electronic and electroacoustic music, although all participants shift regularly between acoustic instruments and electronics, as well as a broad range of other possible sound sources, such as found sound, toys, everyday objects, and so on.

The group’s interest in the territory in between composition and improvisation is not an uncommon concern for practitioners with a background in the contemporary music community. But, why look for such a middle ground between two musical contexts which seem at first glance antithetical?

The answer is that they each offer significant, and contrasting, benefits. Improvisation provides a possibility for spontaneous response to the situation and the moment; it also offers the possibility, not just to respond to circumstances, but to explore musical options which suggest themselves in the heat of performance – stemming perhaps from subtle inflections, acoustics, the combination of performer personalities, moods, etc. – which can lead to musical possibilities impossible for the composer to envision in the hermetic bubble of the writing desk.
While the composer enjoys all the advantages of time and reflection, the improviser, on the other hand, is able to respond to the subtlest details of the moment, and able to freely and immediately follow their intuition in a way generally more difficult in composition, which must communicate through multiple stages of mind to pen to paper to performer. However, while this freedom and suppleness can be of great benefit for a number of musical parameters, there are others which are more likely to suffer from the inability to reflect and craft the work outside of the flow of its sounding creation.
Primary among these are form and structure. One of our observations from the workgroup, and which is a common comment in free improvisation, has been that our improvisations often fall into a certain number of reasonably predictable forms: the ramp up from nothing to an eventual peak, followed by a slow return to nothing, for example. And, while there are many ways in which material is more easily crafted and developed in improvisation, there are others in which composition is more useful, for example in developing structures based on more ‘textual’ readings of pitch relationships.
It is thus of potential benefit to search for effective means of combining the strengths of both improvisation and composition, retaining the advantages of each. To this end, we have focused some of our energies on possible combinations of defined compositional or structural parameters within an improvisation context – in other words, retaining the improvisation context, but attempting to integrate some of the formal or structural advantages of composition.

Some possible means of accomplishing such a combination are well-known: for example, graphical scores, Cornelius Cardew’s ‘Treatise’ or Earle Browne’s ‘December 1952’ being famous examples; text-based scores, such as Stockhausen’s ‘Aus den Sieben Tagen’; or Stockhausen’s ‘Plus-Minus’ works.

But, how does one maintain the delicate balance of improvised and composed elements? For example, despite the relative freedom of these more ‘open’ categories of score, it is nevertheless easy to get ‘stuck in the score’, as in the heat of performance it risks becoming a crutch or a handicap. Even the most open of scores can psychologically limit the performer’s ‘nowness’ – their freedom to respond, to be in the moment – while a pre-agreed formal or structural line cannot take into account the qualities or characteristics of the improvised musical material, leaving performers unable to adapt their formal intentions according to the unforeseen evolution of the performance.

A key focus of our group’s research in this regard has therefore been the exploration of possible means for the real-time communication of individual structural or formal intentions between performers within an improvisation context. It is clear that a great deal of communication passes between improvising musicians; however, it is possible to imagine a more direct, explicit development and control of structural and formal goals than is commonly the case in such performance contexts.
This is commonly seen, however, as being antithetical to both the spontaneous qualities of improvisation, and the collaborative qualities of group improvising. Our group has thus been seeking means of communication of musical intentions, without being detrimental to improvisational spontaneity, thus placing the project in a territory between ‘free improvisation’ and ‘spontaneous composition’. The group’s familiarity with the electroacoustic context offers particular potential for tools aiding in such communication, through the possibility of for example building communication methods directly into performance software.

This, in fact, was more or less the initial conception of the project: to plan, design, and implement software for real-time communication between improvising performers. Existing paradigms which reference some aspect of our proposal were examined, for their advantages and potential limitations. These included:

– Works by composer-programmers tackling similar issues, including ‘LOLC’ and Stefan Prins’ ‘Infiltrationen’;
– Software using visual, symbolic, or geometric abstractions to represent musical gestures and parameters, including SCRIME’s Acousmoscribe, or Pierre Schaeffer’s TARSOM notation more generally;
– Software using various timeline paradigms in real-time performance, for example the Timeline objects in MaxMSP;
– The Virage sequencer software – first, for its visual representation of processes; second, for the abstraction and separation of representation and destination;
– And finally, the performance practice known as ‘Live coding’, in which a group of programmers work collaboratively, in real-time, with their code often projected to be visible to the audience.

This is a somewhat unique case, in that live coding’s charm comes from taking a practice that usually takes place beforehand and alone, and making it a) live and realtime, and b) a public and collaborative performance act. Live coding further serves as a method for the collaborative development of evolving form, in a manner which is laid bare to the audience.

This latter point is another potentially important aspect of our initial conception. There is a range of audience reaction in terms of ‘reading’ performer interaction in free improvisation, from listeners who find this interaction fully legible and a rewarding aspect of the listening experience, to listeners who remain bemused. One of the possibilities offered by the use of a software system for communication between improvisers is to make this visible to the audience, if so desired, thus either assisting those who might otherwise struggle in attempting to follow the interplay between performers, or else adding a new aspect through which to experience the performance.

Before embarking on the practical design of our system, the group felt it might be helpful to explore some of the basic issues involved, in the hopes of gaining insight that may prove useful in planning our system. To these ends, a series of simple empirical experiments were conceived to help clarify the objectives and potential difficulties of such a project.

For each experiment, a basic method of communication was proposed and tested in group improvisation. These included, for example, verbal, textual, symbolic, mapped, and networked methods. Specific exercises included, among others:
– verbally notifying other performers of our intentions;
– the use of a collective timeline, with performers drawing or writing in their plans for upcoming formal development or events;
– the use of chat windows to communicate intentions to other performers; and so on.

Some of these were extremely simple, while some were rather more elaborate. The timeline exercise in particular was explored in a range of variations:
– the use of text vs. symbols;
– range of detail: from only the broadest strokes, to very detailed rendering of planned processes and events (frequency range, density, dynamics, spectromorphology, etc.);
– most importantly, a range of approaches to the timeline itself:
– linear vs. circular;
– a single trajectory vs. a looping/repeating trajectory;
– ‘clock time’ (synced to a counter) vs. ‘relative time’ (a more flexible, subjective, elastic approach to time, focusing more on the placements relative to one another rather than a specific position in time).

More subtle alternatives were also explored; for instance, efforts were also made to explore ‘silent’ communication of formal intentions, for example by pre-establishing relationships and interactions to encourage support in formal design.

Our primary intention in performing these exercises was to find answers to key questions felt to be central to an effective design for our proposed communication tool, such as:

– What information would it be useful to communicate more explicitly during collective improvisation?
– How might this information be communicated?
– What available tools can be used for this purpose?
– What new tools are we able to design and develop for this purpose?
– What characteristics would be desirable in the development of such tools?

However, not only did we find some of these questions difficult to answer to our satisfaction, our results were sufficiently problematic as to cause us to question the very foundation of our proposal, as well as its feasability, and even its usefulness. As a result, the focus of our efforts shifted from the development of an eventual communication tool, to a closer examination of some of the underlying problems in such an attempt, hopefully enabling a certain degree of increased insight into the acts of improvisation and of collaboration.

Problem #1: Influence of the method on the performance

First of all, there is a clear distinction intended between the performance and communication between performers; the communication tool is not intended to impact the performance in anyway, but rather to float invisibly alongside it. Through our exercises, however, it has become abundantly clear that this is not the case: the design of the communication tool – both in its general vision and the details of its implementation – affect, determine, and even limit, the performance to a quite alarming degree.
This occurred primarily on two levels. First, the performers tended to limit or focus their performance on those qualities which are most easily expressed using a given communication system. Visual symbols on a linear timeline, for example, tended to inspire discrete events which are easily drawn and placed, as opposed to text-based or verbal systems, which more easily allow for layering or textural work than the visual systems.
More significantly, the use of a timeline and its design had an even stronger impact on the performance, as it defined not just the performer’s choice of individual statements, but their entire conception of the musical context, again according to those qualities most easily expressed in a given system. Using a linear timeline, for instance, nearly guarantees linear formal thinking, while a circular timeline inspires circular thinking. A system employing discrete symbols nearly guarantees a performance structured by discrete events, while a system that presents performers in individual bands tends to inspire a streaming output. A looping timeline automatically results in a thought process focusing on looping material. A clocked timeline has a very different impact on the performance than a relative timeline. And so on.
This issue was immediately apparent, and remarkably tenacious; even once aware of the issue, it remained difficult to impossible to consciously avoid being strongly guided in our performance by the implications built into the approach taken by the communication system. While at first this may seem to be a simple design problem, requiring some forethought in designing the communication system, this is easier said than done. One notes, for example, that each and every existing system we explored is heavily burdened by similar problems – and yet, this does not seem to be addressed or acknowledged, which gives us hope that raising the issue might be of some general use. Further, some of the strongest issues are so fundamental as to seem unavoidable. For example, any system concerned with formal design must have some relationship with time; but the improvising musician’s relationship with time is perhaps the single most important – and variable – aspect of their performance and their process. Thus, any such implications carried by the communication system immediately has an alarming impact on the performance.
Obviously, this is far less than ideal. While it is possible to imagine a particular system which is appropriate for a particular improvisation style or context, there is certainly no intention to limit, or even to impact, the performer’s possibilities via the design of the communication system.

Problem #2: Performance vs. analysis

Another significant problem lies not in the design of the system, but rather in the demands placed on the improviser in our models. Improvisation relies entirely on the instantaneous, intuitive and organic mental flow of the performer. Our project to some extent expects the performer to detach their present-tense musical thinking from their upcoming musical plans; this is often quite awkward and artificial. The improviser nearly always does indeed have such plans for the future of the performance, but it is generally tied indivisibly with their thoughts about the sounding present. Dividing these, such that formal plans can be communicated to the group, is thus artificial at best, and likely limiting once again, in that it leads to musical thought processes in which these are more easily divided and expressed. Again, while there is material and contexts for which this might be suitable, it is once again very limiting, and has too strong an impact on the performer’s musical thinking, where no such impact was intended.

Problem #3: Performance vs. communication

Perhaps most importantly of all, there is a major problem in the demands placed on the performer to simultaneously improvise and communicate. It appears that the cognitive processes required in performance, and those required to communicate one’s intentions, are entirely different, and every member of the group reported the need to regularly shift completely from one to the other. In other words, it was not possible to communicate intentions from within the flow of musical thought; rather, this required stepping outside this flow, communicating, and then returning to the flow. Obviously, this is problematic in the extreme, and is very detrimental to the focus needed for satisfying improvisation. And, interestingly, this problem was observed with every system employed. Of all the problems encountered, this one seems significant enough as to necessitate the complete questioning of the very basis of the project.

Problem #4: Ease of use vs. limitation

Finally, in broad terms, we found a general tendency across the systems explored: systems which were less limiting to the performer’s possibilities generally required more time to write, draw, or otherwise express one’s communications with the other performers; systems which were less imposing in communication were those which placed the greatest limitations on the performance possibilities. In other words, maintaining a broader spectrum of performance possibilities requires a burdensome amount of communication; simpler communication tends to limit the performance possibilities.

Conclusions?

Interestingly, the conclusions drawn by the various members of the group differ significantly.

It is clear that an effective system for communication of formal intentions would need to be vastly more subtle, and much less invasive, than the systems explored to date. The ideal system would not require shifting between performance and communication, but rather the communication would stem directly from the performance itself. It would also avoid the need to shift between thinking in the ‘now’ and planning the future, again allowing direct expression of one’s plans for the future form via one’s musical expression in the present.
Work in this direction has made very clear to us what the exact form of such an ideal system would be: it is the improvisation act as it already exists, in and of itself. In other words, and as already expressed, improvising performers are constantly communicating regarding their future musical plans; these plans are contained within their present sounding output. It is potentially impossible to design a communication system which could so completely or so fluidly communicate these plans, at least not without either affecting the performer’s possible output or limiting the performance context to an unacceptable degree.

On the other hand, it is possible that a communication system such as that already envisioned may nevertheless be a useful endeavour, but for more specific musical situations. We have been unable to design an open system that would be useful across the full range of improvisation conditions; however, effective systems for more limited and prescribed musical situations remain possible. For example, software performance that involves a streaming output is easily amended to communicate upcoming material to other performers; however, this means we have limited our tool to being accessible only for those using software instruments, and to performance based on streaming or flowing output, as opposed to discrete events. This also begins to draw very close to existing paradigms – live coding for instance – thereby again limiting the usefulness of the design project.

Some members of the group have therefore opted to shift our software efforts away from a communication system, towards other approaches to finding formal solutions for improvisation contexts. Others, however, maintain that the issues encountered might nevertheless be resolved either through more sophisticated software design, or through greater virtuosity and fluency in the use of the tool. Thus, this may yet be a challenge to be overcome in the future, either as system designers, or as performers.

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