a little background – part 2

In 2015, I received a delightful email from Cheryl Duvall of Toronto’s Thin Edge New Music Collective. They were planning a collaboration with Rebecca Leonard’s contemporary circus company A Girl in the Sky Productions and choreographer Manu Cyr, and they asked me if I’d be interested in creating a piece with them scored for mixed quartet and circus performer. I said yes, and eventually we created Naked to the Sky. Usually when people propose projects to me, the gears in my head start spinning uncontrollably. However in this instance, my mind was blank for about 4 or 5 months. I couldn’t navigate the logistics of integrating a circus performer with a chamber ensemble in a compelling way. Every time I thought about the project, Ringling Brothers came into my head…

Let’s talk about notation for a moment.

Most composers I know struggle a great deal with notation. The very act of writing down sound is bizarre. Converting a physical action to 2D graphic representation is absurd. It’s no wonder there’s no widespread codified dance notation.

Most approaches to notation can be described on a spectrum with two main approaches: prescriptive and descriptive. Basically, are you telling a performer what action to take, or are you describing what the result of the action will be. These approaches are not mutually exclusive, though traditional western classical notation is usually descriptive. We read notes and rhythms on a page and move our bodies to produce them. While using traditional western classical notation, composers usually don’t write in trombone slide positions or how much bow to use while playing violin. This is usually implied.

Anybody want to name that tune ^^^ ?

Graphic notation (what we tend to call notation that isn’t traditional or text-based) is a strange bird. It can be prescriptive or descriptive (or both) depending on the composer’s intentions. Some come with instructions (Feldman’s King of Denmark)

while others don’t (Brown’s December 1952).

So, back to the project — If the goal is to create a performance that integrates musicians and non-musical performers, you’d need a notation that unites both parties. I wanted the piece to include sections where the musicians actively interpret the circus artist and change their playing depending on his movements. This meant that the notation needed to be flexible, allowing the circus artist freedom to fully commit to the expressivity of the moment, and allowing the musicians integrate his movement in into their performance. I’ve copied a section of the score below.blog4.jpgThis section lasts 90 seconds and features a percussion solo. In the solo, I asked Nathan (the percussionist) to use specific objects to produce music that carries a particular character. I asked Louis (the circus artist) to interpret the percussionist with a few restraints. For the other three musicians, they are given a few techniques, but I’ve excluded any fixed rhythmic schemes or specific pitches. Instead, they’re simply asked to “mirror the articulation and gesture of the dancer”. Thus, the percussionist provides his own accompaniment through two layers of interpretation:

  1. The circus artist interprets the percussionist (sound –> movement)
  2. The other three musicians interpret the circus artist (movement –> sound)

We first piloted this experiment at the Avaloch Farm New Music Initiative, with yours truly faking (terribly) the part of the mover (clip for pedagogical purposes only).

This was the first time I attempted an experiment like this, and I found results to be very compelling. The movements and the musicians’ sounds became embedded in each other. The ensemble acted as a responsive extension of the mover’s body. Here’s Louis’s performance in Toronto this past November at our production, Balancing on the Edge:

I guess I should speak about the live electronics.

Along with creating an analogue connection between Louis and the musicians, we established a digital connection through the use of wireless motion sensors (2 iPods courtesy of the UC Berkeley Dance Department) strapped to Louis’s forearms using medical bandages. These sensors streamed gyroscope, acceleration, and magnetometer data in OSC packets over a wifi network to a MaxMSP patch on my computer in real time. Forgive my messy patching…


The large box in the middle labeled SENSOR_1 takes in and monitors the motion sensor data stream. In the patch, these numbers are scaled and mapped to control digital signal processing parameters that manipulate the sound of the live instruments. For instance, the orientation of the sensor on the x-axis might control the center frequency of a band-pass filter in the violin’s signal chain. Usually, I map the rate of rotation (degrees per second) on the x-axis to the level of the instrument’s processed sound. This means that whenever Louis would twist his forearms, we’d hear sound corresponding to the quickness of the twist. This metric was very easy for him to control, and the sounds responded fairly reliably to his movements. Of course, doing the opposite mapping (loud electronic sounds being wiped away by silence triggered by quick movements) would also be interesting… Anyways, these mappings change throughout the piece, thus creating a dynamic relationship between Louis’s movements and the electronic sound.

Here’s a clip of me testing the patch using pre-recorded acoustic samples at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (clip for pedagogical purposes only).

Thus, we’ve created analogue and digital connections between the movement and the sound. Louis’s movement affect how the players approach their instruments through a human-human interaction, and they affect how the live acoustic sounds are sampled, processed, and played back through a human-computer-interaction. The specific rules of these relationships fluctuate as the piece progresses and are controlled by presets in the maxpatch. Sometimes the performers’ roles are embedded with each other, and at other times they ignore each other. Sometimes the musicians’ parts are represented with squiggles and text, and sometimes they are notated traditionally.

I should add that I was fortunate enough to have the American premiere of Naked to the Sky this past December at the University of California, Berkeley, featuring dancer SanSan Kwan and the Eco Ensemble.

Having another team (in another venue) interpret the work was an enlightening experience. My initial premonition was that it’d be difficult to train another ensemble of musicians to respond to a dancer, but this wasn’t the case. In fact this processes is pretty intuitive. Many musicians trained in classical or jazz idioms have experience following a conductor, so following a dancer just takes a more little creativity on the musician’s part. Perhaps it was more difficult to “train” the dancer to act as an initiating agent. Most dancers whom I’ve worked with have never danced this sort of role, but after a few sessions of judgement-free improvisation and a little bit of feedback from myself and the musicians, they grow comfortable with it.

I’d like to give a HUGE thanks Cheryl, Rebecca, Ilana, Nathan, Chelsea, Louis, Manu, SanSan, Loren, Josh, Hrabba, and Myra for bringing this project to life.


a little background – part 1

Warning: this post is a bit self-indulgent. I will review my collaborations with dancers in a musical context over the past three years and attempt to draw a thread from these to my current projects.

My first project that featured a dancer-musician collaboration was counter(Projections). This project was presented in Spring 2014 in NYC with Hajnal Pivnick and Diane Skerbec of TENTH INTERVENTION.

Besides the performers themselves, the performance calls for 3 large screens, 2 webcams, an adjustable aperture light, live audio and video processing/playback, cued soundfiles, and a few light cues triggered from the back of the hall. I should mention that a caveat of working with dancers is that often these works only get performed once. My ambitions in dance pieces usually exceed what is economical/tour-able, and my more convenient pieces tend to be performed more. However, perhaps the most glaring factor that contributes to the untourability (cough) of these works is that independent musicians don’t typically tour with dancers, especially if the dancer is just featured on once piece. Anyways, back to the piece…

The choreography in (counter)Projections was inspired by the physical and gestural nature of violin performance. The program notes state:

Movement suggests sound just as sound provokes movement. But what about when the two don’t agree? Can a violent gesture change the way we hear a melancholic sound, just as an aggressive sound can change the way we see a graceful movement? How do these incongruencies change our perception?

This work, (counter)Projections, is a performance scored for amplified violinist, dancer, live electronics, and live video projections. The dancer’s role here by and large is to perform a physical and gestural amplification of the connection the musician has with their violin. Through this connection, the body itself becomes musical material. The piece is based on the tensions and resolutions of this relationship, how it builds up and decays. It is, fundamentally, this idea that formed the conception of this work.

The dancer’s part included a list of terms.

  • Physical Mimicry (PM): The dancer should move as if she is holding an imaginary violin. She should mimic the movements of the violinist, but she doesn’t have to limit herself to the detail.
  • Gestural Mimicry (GM): The dancer’s movement should be inspired by the movement and aggressiveness, fragility, jumpiness, smoothness, etc, of the sound. Try to draw as many relationships between the sound and movement as possible, without making a direct
  • Physical-Gestural Mimicry (PGM): A combination of PM and GM. Perhaps the macromovement (the general position of major extremities) is guided by PM, but micromovements (little twists in the torso and back, wrists, fingers, neck) are guided by GM.
  • Contra-Physical Mimicry (C-PM): Take PM into consideration, but move in a stylistically opposing way.
  • Contra-Gestural Mimicry (C-GM): Take GM into consideration, but move in a stylistically opposing way.

Though the program notes tell a more poetic story, you can see that all the choreography is pretty violin-centric. The violin part is more or less fixed, and the dancer must either memorize the violin part, or keep an eye on the musician during the performance (dancers don’t read instructions while performing, and sometimes I feel that musicians shouldn’t either…). I feel that both of these tasks inhibit the dancer from fully committing to the moment of the performance.

Diane’s part was created by combining her understanding of Hajnal’s movements, how the music made her move gesturally, and my critiques. Besides the terms (GM/PM, etc.), she created much of the moment-to-moment choreography, and it is not written in the score. This was done during intense workshop sessions in NYC which took place sporadically in the weeks prior to the performance. I’ll compare and contrast dancer/musician rehearsal culture in a later entry.

The problems in (counter)Projections is that the it leaves the music-dance-power structure untouched. When I speak about this power structure, I’m referring to the fact that in most dance performances, the dancers perform to prerecorded tracks or live musicians playing fixed music (i.e. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). In performance situations, I rarely see musicians actively interpreting dancers and changing the way they play their instruments to accompany them (the dancers). At no moment in (counter)Projections does the violinist react to the dancer. The flow of information is unidirectional and static – though I didn’t realize this until several months afterwards…

My second dancer-musician collaboration was Humid Gravity, written for Ensemble Gô and dancer Sarah Xiao. It was premiered in July 2015 in Hong Kong. This video is an iphone recording of the dress rehearsal, and is only meant for pedagogical purposes.

Though this piece has been performed by other ensembles following the premiere (including Chartreuse and Mosa Tsay‘s Celloscape Collective), it has only been performed with a dancer once. The conceptual approach here is similar to (counter)Projections: the dancer reacts to the musicians. In this piece, the musicians surround the dancer in a triangle, and the audience surrounds the musicians. This arrangement produces a more spatially engaging situation for the dancer. Instead of playing solely to the front of the room, the Sarah explores all 360 degrees of space surrounding her, opening up her movements in all directions.

Instead of the choreography being based on the physicality of instrumental performance, Sarah treats the musicians as gravitational forces that attract and repel her in various ways based on what they’re playing. The musician’s parts are totally fixed, and Sarah established behaviors and motivations for each section of the piece. These behaviors are not written in the score.

Like before, the information flows one way. The fact that Sarah is blindfolded during the performances further alludes to this power structure. Though her movements at times are extroverted and ambitious, they are still at the mercy of the sounds (and the musicians playing them). This performance paradigm was adopted due to the rehearsal timeline of the piece. We were not granted ample time to explore and rework the material as an ensemble, and the musicians were not comfortable improvising with such short notice (dancers are usually more comfortable improvisers than classically-trained musicians – more on that later). Though these were less-than-ideal circumstances, we adapted. C’est la vie.

Ok, 1000 words and 2 videos is more than enough for this entry. In part 2, I will review my 2016 collaboration with Thin Edge New Music Collective. 2016 was my first year exploring motion-sensitive live electronics and performing free improvisation on my viola, and it totally changed my working methods.

movement to sound: multimodal transcription

All sound comes from some sort of movement, whether it’s a strong wind rustling leaves, your lips forming a word, or electrical current. As a musician who grew up playing viola in orchestras, I learned to interpret gestures by following conductors. A conductor’s job is to physically interpret the composer’s score in a way that can be interpreted musically by an entire orchestra in real time. Conductors hone their craft to be efficient and expressive, thus communicating effectively (only using their body from the waist up!) with dozens of musicians.

I became fascinated with the movements of conductors, as well as other types of physical artists (martial arts, different forms of dancing, the movements of musicians), and the sounds (real or imagined) that emanated from the bodies of movers. Conductors, of course, do not make any sound with their bodies, yet pictures promoting orchestras almost always fixate on the conductor and their magic wand. Why do audiences identify so much with the only person on stage without an instrument in their hands? Why is it so sexy? When you watch a conductor, you can almost see the sound traveling out of their hands. Yet, it’s an illusion. It’s in our imagination. Their gestures shape the sounds around them so well (given ample rehearsal time) that we perceive the orchestras as extensions of the conductor’s body. Can we view dancers the same way?

Perhaps the most (in)famous composer/choreographer collaboration of the 20th century was Igor Stravinsky with Vaslav Nijinsky (yes, you could make an argument for Cage/Cunningham, but I would argue that they collaborated on methods for creating, but not during the performance situation itself). The Rite of Spring was premiered by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in April of 1913 in Paris.

Those familiar with the score know that it was quite an unruly thorny beast in 1913. Full of complex meter and tempo changes, it seems like a choreographer’s nightmare, and perhaps hiring young Nijinsky was a strange choice. In Stravinsky’s 1936 memoirs, he wrote, “… the poor boy knew nothing of music. He could neither read it nor play any instrument”. In Nijinsky’s defense, many of the choreographers I work with today do not read music or play instruments, yet they have an utmost sensitivity to sound. Perhaps Stravinsky’s choice in using the score as the medium of communication was simply the wrong choice. It’s hard to tell someone what you want when they don’t understand your language. Try teaching Labanotation to a musician…

Anyways, the collaboration was anything but rosy. Rehearsals were rocky and disagreements between the composer, choreographer, and conductor were frequent. Luckily, they had financial support, got the job done, and made history…

The point I’m trying to make here is that though the Rite of Spring served as a pinnacle of modernism in the early 20th century, this style of collaboration seems unfit for today’s emerging artists. We usually don’t have sustaining financial support, we work with our friends, and most things are DIY. We make art because it’s how we want to spend our time. We see something missing from the world and wish to contribute to it.

So say you’re a musician, and you want to make music that amplifies and recontextualizes a moving body. You have limited time and you don’t want your rehearsals to be a train wreck, nor do you want your collaborators to hate you. If your music is rhythmically complex (as mine tends to be), fixed choreography is tedious and expensive. Thus, it seems like our solution consists of semi-fixed music with semi-fixed dance. I want to create dynamic situations where live musicians respond to a dancer(s) (and vice versa) where neither party feels restricted by the work’s rigidity, and where I can create the illusion of a wild abstract conductor/dancer/mover whose nuanced body leaves vibrant audible residuals.

More later…

collaboration as performance

Two friends of mine (thanks Ilya and Brian) recently gave me the idea of blogging the compositional process. This is something that is common in other fields (programming, cooking, engineering, etc.), but is relatively rare in music. Our work is usually done alone, in privacy with another musician or ensemble, but almost never in the public eye. When our work is presented to the public, it is (we hope) developed and polished, a proper representation of the music as it was idealistically conceived in our mind’s ear. In my humble opinion, presenting only the finished performance perpetuates the romantic stereotype of the composer as the eccentric genius, but most musicians will tell you that during the majority of the composition/rehearsal time, we rarely know exactly what we’re doing or what specifically we’re trying to make. Actually, I don’t have the data to back this up, but I would imagine that many of my colleagues would agree with me… Creating music (for me) is like creating your own map to an imaginary place you’ve never been, then suddenly being teleported to that place wearing a blindfold, and expecting to find your way around. Most of the time, we’re just wandering around in the dark trying to make sense of things.

Anyways, this blog is an attempt to bring the compositional process into the public eye, to scrape away at the all-knowing composer stereotype, to offer my methods as an object of criticism and critique, and to start a conversation. How are we creating performances in 2017? What are the nature of our collaborations?

In the next posts, I will discuss an upcoming project of mine. This May I will be traveling to Berlin to collaborate with dancer Yuri Shimaoka, tubist Jack Adler-Mckean, and contrabassist Adam Goodwin on a new work titled “ironic erratic erotic”. This work will be created using compositional and improvisational methods (which I’ll explain further in a later post) that are novel to both myself and to the performers, and I am eager to share them with you all with the hope that this documentation could inspire some interesting conversations.

Bis bald!