reflections, or, narcissistic procrastination

I sometimes evaluate my own work as an artifact of my past self. Composers sometimes joke that listening to old recordings of earlier pieces conjure up feelings similar to when we read adolescent diary entries. These artifacts are a marker of what we cared about, our environments, the problems we were confronting, the people we were working with, and what we wanted to say. At pivotal moments in my life, I usually pause to reflect on these markers, how my ideas about music and performance have changed, what I’ve learned while working through these projects, and how to move forward.

On the eve of my PhD qualifying exams (yes, they’re tomorrow), I can’t help but explore ways to contextualize my past and present work with regards to the many trajectories of 20th and 21st century musical performance.

Three years ago, I left Montreal to begin my doctoral studies at UC Berkeley. The last piece I wrote before I left was the Bath Clown Duo for Jeff Stonehouse and Gabrielle Gingras; two friends from Ensemble Paramirabo.

Looking back on it, one can hear (putting aside questionable recording/mixing techniques) piano writing suggestive of Beat Furrer, gradually-unfolding repetitive structures of Philippe Leroux, and percussive flute playing reminiscent of beat-boxing; everything well within the confines of your traditional concert experience.

The work that followed this was (counter)Projections, my first venture into multidisciplinary performance – particularly, working with a musician, a dancer, and composed visual elements: a silhouette screen, live video projection, blocking, and light cues.

I’ve written extensively about this project in a previous entry. Being my first work that included a dancer, the sound-movement relationships here are very clear, perhaps to the point of redundancy. The work’s didactic opening establishes this interaction, opening up the possibility for sophisticated elaboration and subversion.

Recently, while discussing the piece with a close friend, I became aware of its structural strength. The combined use of staging, silhouetted performers, didactic structural signposts, and clear points of recapitulation (in both audio and visual domains) yield a discernible trajectory of the sound-movement narrative.

In a lesson with one of my teachers, they encouraged me to “obfuscate the relationship between the sound and the movement so much that the perceiver can no longer find it. Instead, they perceive a performance” (I’m paraphrasing). This piece of advice harks back to one of the tenants of modernism: avoid any clear elements that allow a perceiver to firmly anchor their frame of reference – any pattern that carries on a bit too long has the potential to become boring. Though I deeply admire this composer’s music and their capacities as a teacher and mentor, this advice comes with a grain of salt. I did want to break away from obvious movement-sound relationships, though I still wanted to create a loose but present thread to guide an audience through the performance. I guess it really depends on the nature of the audience, and what “perceiving a performance” means. Grisey knew that constant unpredictability becomes predictable, and the works of both Reich and Boulez are “perceived as performances”. I guess I’m still scratching my head on this one.

Berlin, three years later…

In ironic erratic erotic, the support/subvert dichotomy was present in the methodology used to create the materials (described here), but they are obscured in the actual performance. Thus, this piece could come across as lacking the strong narrative arch found in (c)P. We don’t have as clear of a sense of what the piece is ‘about’, but rather the audience is left to solve this puzzle themselves, to find their own meaning in the complex interactions between the performers. The structure of the piece still makes use of traditional elements (repetition/recapitulation of cycles), but the moment-to-moment action hosts a more complex sense of spontaneity and mystery.

Perhaps a middle ground is needed – relationships that are simple enough to subvert in a creative, clever, and meaningful way, though complex enough to sustain a sense of intrigue – dramaturgy that compels and propels without pandering – didacticism without annoyance. If a work is meant to be completely self-referential (which is impossible…), it must have some degree of self-didacticism. If we’re lucky enough to draw an open-minded audience, we should at least give the audience an initial frame of listening. I’ll admit the silly titles of my pieces fail to do this (I guess I’m trying to avoid didactic titles), though I’m less afraid to overtly work this in to the fabric of the music itself.

Contextualizing this work into the rhetoric(s) of 20th/21st century music requires a bit of compartmentalization. With regards to its technical aspects and its problematization of sound and physical gesture through acoustic/live-electronic mediums (i.e. motion-sensors), one could draw links to the work of Laetita Sunomi and Thierry de Mey. If I look at the process in which the piece was created, one could see values present in the work of John Zorn. If I look at the acoustic and electronic sonic materials themselves, the balances between noise- and pitch-based sounds, there are influences of musique concrète instrumentale, Pierre Schaeffer, and the glitch/granulation textures common to users of Max/MSP. If you look at the relationships between the performers and their stage presence/sense of focus, one senses the performers-as-fallible-bodies notion of the “New Discipline”, etc, etc…

Clearly, this work doesn’t align itself cleanly into any one specific –ism, nor should it; the choices inform the genre, not the other way around. Though I wish performances of my work were more proliferated (don’t we all?), and I understand that the forces required to produce these performances are not exactly portable nor easily marketable. Of course, this leads into a long (and depressing) discussion of this music’s place in the economy and the academy, but I won’t get into that now. At this moment, I’m able to see a few loose ends that my work exposes, and different directions it can take, and suggestions for future experiments. And this brings me a little comfort.

ironic erratic erotic: work in progress

In this entry, I’m going to dive further into my process for composing ironic erratic erotic. This project is in collaboration with 3 Berlin-based performers: dancer Yuri Shimaoka, bassist Adam Goodwin, and tubist Jack Adler-McKean. In an earlier entry, I wrote a bit about this project, what I’m trying to accomplish, and my methods for doing it. As you might remember, I sent 20 audio samples of myself improvising on viola to Yuri. She sent 20 video samples of herself interpreting these samples to Jack and Adam, who then recorded themselves improvising to her movements. They recorded two takes for every one of Yuri’s clips: the first amplified her body, and the second subverted it. These verbs (amplify, subvert) were meant to be interpreted loosely. My aim in using these verbs was to create an atmosphere of provocative behavior in which the musicians can create their own dynamic textures.

Let’s walk through this with an example:

Here’s viola sample #11:

It’s basically longish sustained soft notes in the high register. There’s not really a pulse, and the rhythm is irregular. Short notes are scattered among with longer ones, and my left hand is constantly sliding slowly up and down the fingerboard.

This was Yuri’s response (mute the audio before listening):

It’s a simple behavior that focuses on the right side of her body. Her right arm mainly stays extended out sideways at around 90 degrees, and her left hand move along the right arm. The timing of her small-scale and larger-scale gestures seems similar to my treatment of long and short notes, and I think the attitude of her movement mimics the non-aggressive character of my improvisation.

Here is Jack and Adam’s first interpretation. Keep in mind, they never heard my initial improvisation:

Here’s their description of the music: sustained chord, if closer to body = closer to unison, if away from body = larger range. They chose to modulate the interval of the chord depending on Yuri’s right hand movement. The irregular legato character of my initial improvisation seemed to transfer through Yuri’s movement to the musicians’ playing.

Here’s the second:

Their description for this was: same sustained chords with extremely large intervals. I think that rather than subverting the character of Yuri’s movement (i.e. play something more pointillistic or detached), they chose to place the previous sound in the extreme registers of their instruments. Adam pushes the bow through his lowest string on the bass while Jack takes the tuba into its highest range. Yuri’s movements convey a sense of closeness. One arm follows the length of the other, and they are almost always together. The musicians subvert this closeness through the use of these extreme registers the music communicates an incredible daunting spaciousness.

This was one in 20 groupings of video and audio samples that will make up part of this work, and they cover a wide range of audible and spatial behaviors and interactions. The trick was then discovering the relationships between them and exploring them in ways that create a convincing architecture for the work’s structure. I’ve copied a draft of the score below:

ironicerraticerotic2-19-17 copy.jpg

The boxed numbers indicate approximate duration in seconds. The dancer’s behaviors are referenced under the durations, followed by the musicians’ behaviors, then the motion-sensitive live electronics (haven’t started those yet…), and finally the pre-made soundfiles (haven’t started on those yet either…). Again — it’s a work in progress. It was important to make the musicians’ parts first so they have as much time with the score as possible. The beauty (and curse) with electronics is that you can continue to edit them up until showtime. Hopefully though, it doesn’t come to this…

The first system establishes a loop where the dancer repeats behaviors 5, 11, and 16. The musicians perform the same loop, but offset by one time-duration. Thus, the combinations are [5-16], [11-5], [16-11]. The goal in these loops is to communicate to the audience how the performance should be framed and experienced. Yuri’s movements have analog relationships to the upcoming music, yet the sound that will accompany her in the present moment doesn’t quite seem to fit until we reach the end of the first system when both dancer and musicians play behavior 7. While Yuri’s analog relationship with the music is projected into the future, her digital relationship to the sound (through the use of motion sensors) affects the present.

The second system revisits the previous loop, but entrances are scattered. Then we encounter a short loop with behaviors 12 and 7, and then a long interpolation. Here, the performers start at behavior 12 and interpolate to behavior 14 in 30 seconds. The dancer continues doing 14 as the musicians pause. Then, the musicians come in playing behavior 20 (while the dancer is still on 14), and the they slowly interpolate to behavior 5. Divergent behavior interpolates to convergent behavior.

The third system introduces the improvisation game that Jack and I developed last summer in Darmstadt. I went over in an earlier entry, but I’ll repost it here for reference:

In the written score, I’ve based these improvisations off the original material created by the performers. The movement/sound concepts will be based on different movements or musical ideas found in this material, and they will be worked out during our rehearsal sessions in Berlin. The goal for this system is to have a more fluid structure than the first 2 systems, which I view as being a bit rigid. I left the duration for these sections unknown because I have no idea what exactly the performers will do here, nor what kind of momentum they will bring to the situation. Thus, I will rely on them as to know when to move on.

The last system is a traditional recapitulation of the first, though with a few small changes. Basically, the form is A, A’, B, A”.

See? Totally traditional! And under my word limit!

 

define//defile: working methods of dancers and musicians

In this entry, I’m going to go over DEFINE//DEFILE, a recent project of mine that will be premiered by the Mivos Quartet and dancer SanSan Kwan this Friday night in San Francisco. Click here for details. I’m also going to go more in depth comparing how artists in different disciplines work, and what these comparisons mean for interdisciplinary collaborations.

For the past 2 or 3 years, I’ve been collaborating on projects that interface dancers and musicians. In the process of forging these collaborations, I’ve been exposed to different working/rehearsal styles native to each respective discipline. Typically, these differences can be traced back to performance practices, audience expectations, and the way we experience time and space (vague, I know…).

P.S. I’d like to thank dancer and choreographer Christine Bonansea for inviting me to observe rehearsals for her show Asteria, which was presented in Berlin last summer. It was fascinating for me as a composer to learn how dancers rehearse. If you aren’t familiar with her work, it’s badass and you should definitely check it out.

Anyways, let’s start with the obvious differences:

  1. Many dancers don’t read Western musical notation, and I’ve never seen dancers perform while referencing a visual representation of the choreography. Usually composers use paper (or electronic) documents to communicate with musicians, and the musicians often read the music while performing. If a piece hasn’t been played yet by musicians, or if mockup recordings don’t exist, the composer and dancer must use some other medium of communication.
  2. Dancers usually rehearse for many weeks before a performance, and choreography needs to be demonstrated/shown, not read. Therefore, if many dancers are involved and the choreography is complex, this takes more time. When dancers perform, their shows usually run 3 or 4 iterations in the same venue. Musicians might put in 3 long rehearsals the week of the show (even if it’s a world premiere!), therefore relying on each individual musician thoroughly preparing themselves prior to meeting. With written chamber music, this usually works (dependent on the effectiveness of the score). In situations involving more complex paradigms of interaction, this rehearsal structure may be less effective.
  3. Musicians are more sensitive to WHEN something happens, and this aided through the placement of the notated score on the music stand. Musicians rehearsing written music will reference moments in the score, and improvising musicians will reference audible features that occurred at a given moment (i.e. “that moment after the piano arpeggios when the violin plays tremolo sul pont in the high register”). Dancers, on the other hand, are more likely to remember WHERE it happens. They usually refer to moments through spatially-oriented features (i.e. “that moment where our hands are above our heads and we’re standing stage-left”).
  4. Not all musicians play all the time during a performance. Someone may sit quietly in their chair waiting for a cue to come in, yet we still acknowledge their idle presence in the performance space. This is more complicated with dancers because all on-stage/off-stage movements are choreographed, and dancers cannot simply idle like musicians. If they are visible to the audience, they attract attention, and their movements must be stylized.

These differences manifest themselves during the composition and rehearsal process:

As a classically-trained composer, I learned how to create detailed scores to be read by musicians during a performance. When I started working with dancers, I struggled to learn how to create a graphic representations of the piece that could be easily committed to memory. I realized that I needed to represent the music in a way that is readable by dancers. Usually, this meant creating a highly-condensed graphic-score specifically for the dancer’s perusal. They are able to carry the score folded up in their pocket during rehearsal, and can quickly pull it out during pauses. This graphic score needed to present approximations of the general activity of the music with a few words referencing the dancer’s movements. Usually, the words/symbols used in this document make reference to the dancer’s personal highly-detailed notes.

During the rehearsal process, musicians reading music usually won’t be visually sensitive to spatially-oriented events (unless directed otherwise), and dancers typically don’t hear subtle audible cues the same way musicians do (there are, of course, exceptions). Thus, interfacing performers of these two disciplines in interactive/improvisatory environments is sure to involve tricky rehearsal situations…

This past November, I wrote a piece scored for string quartet and dancer to be performed by the Mivos Quartet and SanSan Kwan. In the work, I wanted to engage themes of  influence and control by playing with the modes of interaction between the musicians and the dancer. My compositional process was simple:

  1. Record myself improvise on viola while keeping in mind how I wanted the sound to relate to the movement, and vice versa. Being a violist writing for string quartet, I can easily (electronically) modify my improvisations to fit all the instruments. Though my technical prowess on the instrument isn’t great, my shoddy playing served as a personal reference to what I knew a professional musician could do.
  2. Edit the improvisations to my liking to create a mockup recording. This was sent to the performers.
  3. Transcribe the recording to create a score.

As is the case with most ensembles on the university circuit, the Mivos Quartet will spend a few days in Berkeley and learn 5 new pieces, giving each piece 90 minutes of rehearsal time. My piece is scheduled to be rehearsed the day before the concert (yikes). Granted, they are professionals of the highest order, but the sheer magnitude of this labor scares me a bit. Due to the time constraints of this collaboration, I limited the amount of improvisation in the piece. If I wanted a moment of seemingly improvised coordination between the dancer and musicians, it’d have to be predetermined, and I’d have to specify it in the score. I submitted my finished score and sent it to them a few months ago.

Lucky, SanSan is local. I proposed the project to her back while we were still working on the choreography for Naked to the Sky. It would have been impossible for us to create the choreography in a single 90-minute rehearsal with the musicians. She would have to have it memorized before the first (only) rehearsal. We met several times during the past several months to develop the choreography, and we created a graphic score for her personal use: definedefile-dancescore.jpg

This is about ten minutes of highly-notated music approximated on a single page. The large letters will be used to reference passages in the score during the rehearsal, and the durations are approximations of each section’s length. The graphics used in this score were chosen intuitively, and they communicate the music’s general character/effort, articulation, and register. They don’t succeed at conveying specific pitch relationships, but I didn’t believe these features were salient enough for the dancer to readily perceive.

*breathes*

Let’s just hope it all works…

–edit–

It’s gonna work!

mivospic.jpg

 

 

 

music amplifies and subverts the body

In the summer of 2016, I attended the Darmstadt Summer Courses where I met Berlin-based English tubist Jack Adler-Mckean. We quickly became friends and I learned about Jack’s unique situation: he was the only tuba player at Darmstadt. In case you’re not familiar with the general make up of this event, it consists of hundreds of composers and performers of new/experimental/contemporary music (whatever we’re calling it now…) who arrive in a small German down about 20km south of Frankfurt for two intensive weeks of concerts, masterclasses, bier, discussions, lessons, lectures, und mehr bier. Out of the hundreds of instrumentalists, Jack was the only tubist. Not only this, he was an avid improviser, champion of collaborating with composers, a specialist in microtonality, and regularly performed standing with his instrument strapped to his torso. He explained to me the stark lack of contemporary music for tuba. If you’ve never heard a microtonal tubist shred, please take a moment to listen:

As we became friends, I told Jack about my current project with Thin Edge, my then-annoyance with complex notation, and my desire to work with dancers and improvisers. His solution? Let’s do some work together. We soon found an empty class room near the Lichtenbergschule and things got weird.

We decided to do an experiment similar to the one I did with Thin Edge (which had taken place only weeks before), though with a few important modifications:

  1. The dancer (being myself at that moment…) would pick 3 movement concepts. These could be body-centric (movement that focuses on various body parts, i.e. the elbow or the shoulder), or more abstract (handling imaginary objects of different sizes, using gestalt gestures, different types of attitudes)
  2. The musician (Jack) would pick 3 sonic concepts. These could be simple (pitch/rhythmic/motivic ideas), technical (modes of playing/interacting with the instrument), or conceptual (different types of attitudes).
  3. Optional: these choices are kept secret by the performers.
  4. During the session, the musician maps their three concepts to the dancer’s three concepts. The players learn these concepts in real time. The mappings are made as follows:
    1. Musician concepts 1 and 2 mimic/amplifies dancer concepts 1 and 2.
    2. Musician concept 3 contrasts/subverts dancer concept 3.

Here’s one of our sessions:

The rules are meant to be bit vague/flexible. The point in this experiment was to create a fluctuating feedback loop between the musician and the dancer. The dancer’s behaviors become an abstract score, and the musician’s response naturally becomes material to which the dancer may react.  Both performers learn during the improvisation how they affect the other. The concepts are there just to serve as communicative signals. Thus, the performers become each other’s scores through a multi-modal translation. Movement is translated into sound and back again in real time.

While exciting, this experiment also turned out to be quite difficult. Dancers and musicians treat time and development differently in their respective disciplines (more on this later). As a musician pretending to be a dancer in this situation, I intuitively phrased my movements in more of a musical manner, less in a physical one. Additionally, the task of juggling 3 concepts, learning 3 concepts, and preserving the mappings while improvising is challenging. I can’t speak from a dancer’s point of view, but as an improvising musician, playing your instrument and keeping a sense of musical continuity is hard enough without actively interpreting a constantly changing body. During a session, current material often naturally suggests the following material, but those tendencies must be acknowledged and checked. The dancer might suggest changes that the musician is not ready for, or unable to make (both disciplines have their physical limitations).

I chose to encourage Jack to mimic and subvert my movement to problematize the movement-to-sound mapping. I didn’t want the piece to be simply an exercise in sound-painting or abstract conducting. Once a 1-to-1 mapping is “learned” by an audience, the performance becomes a banal act of “Mickey-Mousing” (sorry for the Disney reference) – like hearing a downward scale as a cartoon character tumbles down the stairs.

By creating the possibility for subversion, the relationship between the musician and the dancer flirts with hostility and betrayal, creating the opportunity for tension and resolution.

Anyways, Jack and I discussed collaborating on a performance for tuba, contrabass, dancer, and motion-sensitive live electronics. I wanted to further investigate the ideas I was working on with Thin Edge, but in a wilder, more experimental setting. Thus, the concept for ironic erratic erotic was born. The piece will feature instruments that have the lowest register in their respective families, but I feel that this also sets up a musical expectation that can be creatively subverted by creative improvisers. The instruments are large and physically imposing on the players, which contrasts well with an instrument-less dancer. More so, the possibility of the dancer gaining sonic dominance over the musicians through the use of the motion sensors problematizes the power dynamics of the performance situation.

I should probably address a fundamental question at this moment: why write for improvisers?

As I said in an earlier entry, I felt like my written compositions could not approach the level of dynamic reflexivity, spontaneity, or inter-personal focus that I found manifested in free improvisation. Additionally, my ego was slowly becoming more comfortable with my music not being performed exactly as written (which is to be expected in any situation regardless…). I wanted my imagination to be the foundation of a musician’s performance, not the ceiling. Thus, I began to imagine the compositional process not as crafting precisely-written instrumental lines, but creating situations in which performers are free to explore provocative behaviors and relationships in different ways. I would rather work with a performer to create compelling material that originate from the performer themselves, making the material prime for quick embodiment/memorization and development without the use of complex notation.

Making this piece will be an exercise in creating responsive and flexible performance situations while working remotely with improvisers. While composing ironic erratic erotic, I will not write down a single note. Here are our methods:

  1. I record 20 short (ca. 30 seconds) viola improvisations that I send to Yuri Shimaoka (the dancer).
  2. Yuri films herself embodying these improvisations, focusing on creating a clear behavior from each one. She will identify an attitude in my playing and translate it onto her body. These clips are sent to Jack and Adam Goodwin (the contrabassist).
  3. Jack and Adam mute the audio from Yuri’s clips, and together translate her movements back into music in two sessions of improvisation. The first amplifies her movements and reinforces her behavior, the second contrasts it. These audio clips are sent back to me.
  4. I take all the clips (about 20 groups of visual and audio recordings), analyze them, and order them, being sensitive to the time-scale that each suggests, the sense of continuity or contrast between them, mixing and matching clips from the same group, staggering transitions, etc…

Additionally, sections of the piece will implement of the game that Jack and I developed at Darmstadt, though of course with two musicians and a dancer. The concepts that will be used in the piece will be planned ahead of time, hopefully eliminating elements of insecurity in the performers and helping the flow of the piece.

By working in this way, we are free to explore complex material and compelling interactions without the burden of complex notation. Since all the material originates from the performers’ bodies, all that is needed for notation is a symbol to reference a particular behavior (documented in online video and audio files) and a system of simple graphics to communicate cuts/transitions/interpolations/durations between different behaviors. We should be able to fit the entire 15-20 minute-piece on one piece of paper, eliminating the need for long rows of music stands, huge cardboard scores that hide the performers, page turns, and footpedaling. This stage setup allows the performers freedom to engage/interact with each other, hopefully creating a more vibrant and visceral concert environment.

I’m already over my self-imposed word limit. So much for restraint.

started from the bottom now we where? part 3

Until last October, I hadn’t played viola solo in public for about 8 or 10 years. I had performed with orchestras and string quartets, but never alone. I had always thought of myself as a terrible player. I did not have the patience to practice, but I still enjoyed playing, if only for myself in private.

While I was living in Montreal, I would go to hear improvised music at Cagibi, la Plante, Sala Rosa, Wilder & Davis, and other venues. These musicians almost never read music. Their eyes were either closed or fixated into the ether. There was sense of intense focus and sensitivity. Their performances were explosive, contemplative, and thrilling. The goal wasn’t playing correctly; it was making situations of provocative behavior. Literally people interacting through their instruments, creating conversations that transcended the norms of typical social behavior. They were creating something that I felt I could never write down.

^^ Lori Freedman, one of my favorite improvisers

I mean, I love written music. I still rock out to Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, Romitelli’s Professor Bad Trip, Sørensen’s Angel’s Music, music that would not exist without precise systems of music notation. But I felt at that time that my notation practices were lacking.

So I started recording my own improvisations and transcribing them on a 5-line staff. This was brutal. Most of my improvisations feature rapid changes in bow pressure, bow position, finger pressure, irregular rhythms, and things that they don’t teach you in conservatory. A 5-line staff was inadequate. I tried tablature notation. It looked something like this:


Now I have mad respect for Timothy McCormack, but I didn’t want my music to look like this. I wouldn’t want a performer to rehearse several hours to create something that took me a few takes to play. I didn’t want to establish “one correct way” of performing something if what I’m after was created with spontaneity.  I don’t like causing other people headaches. Granted, I’m not a seasoned performer, and there are certainly players out there who eat notation like this for breakfast. But to me, it seems masochistic.

In addition to my phobia in creating overly complex scores, I was also fed up with the rate at which composers learn. Typically, composers may spend several months on a piece. The project might be proposed in August, you finish the piece in January, make the parts and send them off in late January, have a couple of rehearsals in April, and a concert in May. Thus, this model gives us approximately a 9-month period between a work’s impetus and the performance. In my experience, I’m not convinced a piece works until several months after the premiere when I can clear my head and listen to the recording. It might take a year to figure out if a particular musical device works or not, and in which context it functions best. Sure, you can imagine an orchestra’s sound to the best of your abilities, but hearing the musical flesh is a totally different experience. The point is, I wanted to learn faster.

Young composers often sound very different from year to year, so when you hear a premiere, chances are that the music was written about a year ago, and the composer is already working with more matured ideas. Listening to my old pieces is like cringing while reading old diary entries…

When I moved to Berkeley in 2014 to start my PhD, I was immersed in a totally different socio-economic situation. The rent here is high, thus putting a strain on the local artistic communities. Thus, there was, in my opinion, a huge shortage of peer ensembles playing challenging notated music (see Tim’s score). Thus, I was drawn to the free improvisation scene and started performing at monthly sessions in Temescal led by Jacob Felix Heule. In these events, participants wrote down their names on slips of paper that were placed in a hat. Jacob pulled out three names. If your name was called, you went up to play with the other two folks who were called. 7 minutes on the clock. Go.

They played with the complexity and intensity of a Ferneyhough score without the neuroticism involved with looking at the score during performance. The focus was still there, but it was directed towards the sound, the instrument, and the situation, not the score. I grew comfortable performing in public, and I was hooked.

13062870_10157122643855157_5649983112981637903_o.jpg

I gave up writing down my improvisations, and started I performing them. In order to mask the insecurities I had in my playing technique (but also due to inspiration from improvising saxophonist Frank Gratkowski), I thickened up my sound by strapping a motion sensor to my bow arm and hooked it up to a maxpatch similar to the one I used in Naked to the Sky.

I started performing with other musicians. This clip features composer/pianist and fellow UC Berkeley colleague James Stone, also wearing a motion sensor. His motions process my sound and mine process his.

And I started performing with dancers. This clip features James along with Shoshana Green, a butoh dancer. Shoshana has the motion sensors and is controlling the musicians’ sound, and the entire performance is improvised.

There was no concrete method to how we (the musicians) interpreted Shoshana’s movements, or how she responded to ours. We just jammed, talked about what felt good or awkward, talked about what we could do better, and jammed again.

Tangent: in 2015, I met Beat Furrer at Impuls in Graz, and I was speaking with him about his approaches to music composition through the years. He told me that he used to improvise at the piano until stopping around the age of 25. Coincidentally, I started improvising (in public) around the age of 26 — just a strange bit of information that I just remembered.

This brings me up to the present. In the next entry, I’ll discuss my next project, ironic erratic erotic. And you’ll see another video of me dancing with a tuba player. Hopefully it’s not the most awkward thing you’ve ever seen, but to be honest, it might be.

started from the bottom now we where? 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…

blog4a.jpg

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.

started from the bottom now we where? 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.