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Hugh Davies - Gesture in live electronic music
|Gesture in live electronic music
by Hugh Davies
I would like to start with a few brief remarks about the musical heritage in Eastern Europe from the last 45 years of largely separate development, especially here in the former Czechoslovakia, which was very little known to us in the West. Just because it is now easier to obtain Western products, please don't throw all the old equipment away, in the future it will regain some of its earlier value. This applies in particular to the electronic instruments and equipment that were developed over here; they may not have been as sophisticated as what we had available in the West, but musicians made the best possible use of them, and much good music was produced. The Gemeentemuseum in the Hague, Holland, for which I am a consultant, is trying to collect a representative selection of electronic instruments from Eastern Europe, not just from electronic music studios, but also examples of instruments used in concerts (I have here a list that I am compiling of all compositions from Eastern Europe that feature unusual e
My subject, live electronic music, is still fairly new in Eastern Europe (including compositions by Georg Katzer, Marek Choloniewski, Krzysztof Knittel, and one by Jozef Malovec), but I am sure that it will become more common in the future. Although I have been involved in live electronic music since 1964, this is the first time that I have specifically written about it. Indeed it is only recently that serious historical documentation on the subject has been undertaken, including an article by Nicola Bernardini in the catalogue of the Nuova Atlantide exhibition in Venice (1986), and a recent complete issue of Contemporary Music Review (1992) in Britain. As I will expand on later, most of the exponents of live electronic music are composers who come out from the studio into the concert hall and become performers, sometimes for the first time in their lives. This is the path that I myself followed, in the first "wave" of emigration in the mid-1960s, so that what I have to say is based on my own person
With the plethora of visual images that we experience daily in our newspapers and magazines, and the images and music on television, it is hardly surprising that in Western culture a person who has never attended a concert has a clear idea of the sounds that are produced by the traditional instruments used in classical and popular musics, and now also recent electronic ones such as synthesizers. Even though the casual listener is unaware of it, this familiarity also extends to the associated gestures of the performers, and especially the correlation between those gestures and the sounds that result from them.
In Western classical music the performer's self-presentation and expressive freedom have become increasingly at the service of the requirements of the composer; in no other culture and no other style of Western music is the composer so predominant. This is largely due to the existence of the precise system of notation that evolved in Europe, which enabled composers to control the virtuosity of performers for their own purposes, allowing them only a small moment of freedom in the cadenzas of concertos. The comprehensiveness of this notation system results from its unique combination of two elements: not only a precise description (sometimes with special symbols) of what the performer's fingers are to do (with an implied translation of this onto the vocal range of singers) but also a graphic or verbal description of the sounds and music that are to be heard. The various tablatures for Renaissance keyboard instruments and Western and Far Eastern lutes concentrate primarily on the former, while the latter is exem
In the music of the second half of the 20th century a number of different attitudes to performance, either intentional or incidental, have contradicted the audience's expectation of the traditional relationship between gesture and sound. Indeed a few composers, such as Mauricio Kagel, have explored the considerable theatrical possibilities of making it more difficult for a performer to play an instrument, thereby magnifying the gestures and reducing the sounds. A further element is the contribution, in musical events that involve performance art, of non-musicians with theatrical or visual art backgrounds. In addition, newly-invented instruments, by their very appearance, indicate that their performance techniques and sound are likely to be unusual. The variety of these is so wide that some new instruments feature only small differences in their appearance, performance techniques and sounds from a familiar instrument (compare the electric guitar with the acoustic guitar), and others have little or on obvious r
The relationship between the visual appearance of some instruments, old or new, can often conflict strongly with the gestures of contemporary performance techniques. In the case of the prepared piano the performance technique is conventional and the instrument appears to be, but the sounds are not, whereas when a pianist plucks or strikes the strings of an (unprepared) piano in contemporary music it is primarily the performance technique that is strange - or at least strange for a keyboard instrument, since the gestures and sounds are "borrowed" from the harp or the cimbalom (Hackbrett/santur), showing the close relationship between all these instruments. And the gestural manner in which the pianist executes these techniques can have a substantial influence on the audience's discomfort with some new techniques that appear to run the risk of damaging the instrument. Indeed many pianists manage to make such gestures look wrong, especially when they are done without full conviction. I always remember t
Electroacoustic music on tape is most extreme example of recent dissociations between gesture and music, and there is not a great deal that can be done for a non-specialist audience to replace the lack of performers in a composition for tape alone. It is often difficult for me to listen to a complete concert of tape pieces without any live musicians in the programme. Multiple loudspeaker systems provide only a partial substitute, by allowing the playback of the music to be sculpted in the performance space. However, additional visual effects with lighting or slides, or even dance or mime, unless sanctioned and controlled by the composer, can destroy the effect of the music by suggesting an atmosphere that is alien to the composer's musical conception. But in this context I would like to repeat what I have been told more than once by Cuban composers; they found that there was no such problem when they played tape music for the workers in factories who had no experience of concert-going, and were used only to h
As a musician who is primarily interested in live performance, my concern here is with live electronic music, from its beginnings around 1960 up to today's interactive computer performances. Most of this music has been created by composers who had considerable experience in the electronic music studio before they decided to bring some of the equipment into the concert hall. The first wave occurred in the seconds half of the 1960s with "analogue" composers, partly as result of the availability of increasingly portable tape recorders, amplification systems and synthesizers; there were then fewer new recruits to this new medium until the second half of the 1980s, when the power offered by the new Atari, Macintosh and other computers enabled a new wave of "digital" composers with sufficient programming expertise (or access to such expertise) to devise interactive performance systems around these machines.
Indeed the range of electronic devices for the modifications of sound picked up by microphones that existed in the 1960s (such as potentiometers, filters, ring modulators, reverberation and tape delay) was exactly recapitulated in the early uses of the most expensive computer systems (such as the DMX-1000) for real-time sound transformation - one wonders if these younger composers knew anything about the earlier live electronic music, since they used such sophisticated hardware to achieve results that were similar to what was possible 20 years earlier with very simple devices, such as the modules on a Putney/VCS-3 synthesizer, or even home-made ones.
In those areas of live computer music in which the sounds and treatments are all created electronically and operated from the computer itself, there is a greater potential problem with the gestural side of the music. The performers sit on stage behind several pieces of equipment on tables [ACTION: PICK UP LARGE BOX, PLACE IT ON THE TABLE IN FRONT OF ME], and they do little more than push a few buttons in order to unleash complex sounds or sequences of sound. Yet very few of them have considered the visual aspects of this type of performance, and could learn from the gestures adopted in rap music for operating equipment, such as the manipulation of gramophone turntables; a student recently showed me a favourite action for activating something by pushing a button [ACTION: DISC JOCKEY GESTURE], which exactly indicates a change in the music.
Twenty years ago I subdivided live electronic music into four categories, and these are still valid: the medium is based on the modifications of sound from 1) traditional musical instruments, 2) new instruments or other sound sources, 3) sound prerecorded on tape (especially sounds that could not be produced live in the concert space) and 4) synthesized or other electronic sound sources (with or without modifications). These can be further grouped in pairs, in which the first two categories require a non-electronic performer in addition to the equipment operator, which is not essential in the third and fourth categories. Potentially the most interesting aspect of live electronic music today is the interactive side. This was already present to a small degree in the years around 1970, as for example in Gordon Mumma's Hornpipe (1967); the sound produced by the composer on a French horn were modified by a "cybersonic" transformation system constructed by Mumma. An analogue computer monitored the resonan
But of course, as in Mumma's piece, it was also possible to create interconnections that were sufficiently complex for such expectations to become negated. Another approach was that of Michael Waisvisz' Cracklebox (Kraakdoosje), developed from 1969 onwards, leading to his Crackle synthesizer (Kraaksynthesizer, 1977). In the latter the voltage outputs of three oscillators can each control one of the others, and tactile control surfaces make it rather harder to regulate such control precisely. Since this paper is concerned with gesture, it is important to mention here that, as with his more recent and better-known controller called The Hands (and even newer developments by him), Waisvisz has always laid a strong emphasis oh his gestures, sometimes very exaggerated (and linked to his involvement in a very Dutch form of music theatre), playing his Crackle instruments usually in improvisations. He also built a simplified version in 1973, designed primarily for children; it achieves a proportional degree of complex
[ACTION: DISC JOCKEY GESTURE]. Digital systems can easily produce similarly complex sounds, although the increasing commercialisation of electronic instruments has meant that is less common on affordable instruments. The next step taken by musicians in the early 1970s was the development of very large hybrid machines (combining analogue and digital elements) which would store prepared material for subsequent processing in performance, as in Leo Kupper's G.A.M.E. system and Salvatore Martirano's Sal-Mar Construction. Such methods are now common with today's systems. They have the effect, as far as gesture is concerned, of enabling the composer-performer to create complex sound sequences with very little physical effort. Furthermore there is no built-in connection with the traditional relationship between gesture and sound, and little need to show effort, tension, strain, difficulty or concentration. How can today's live electronic performers achieve a comparable effect when a single uninteresting action can pr
With traditional, acoustic musical instruments we expect to see particular types and sizes of gesture for the music we are hearing; a larger gesture for a louder sound or for a wider leap in a melody, a smaller gesture for a quiet sound or a small melodic step, lyrical movements for a melody, abrupt ones for percussive rhythms. How can a composer-performer create a satisfactory relationship between live electronic sounds and the gestures involved in producing them, when no essential relationship exists - where a small gesture can cause a loud sound, a large gesture a quiet one, and so on? An interesting study that relates to this is Dick Raaijmakers' article "Over het zitten voor elektrofonen" (On sitting in front of electrophones; 1990), which discusses the situations shown and implied in ten photographs that prominently depict the hands of musicians operating electronic studio equipment or instruments in live performance [ACTION: SHOW MAGAZINE].
It is well known that the brain tries to make sense of the totality of its various inputs; when listening to music we expect to see the actions which cause the sounds. What happens when this expectation is disrupted, or the brain is unable to make such connections? The result will be similar to the effect of listening to two different, unrelated pieces of music simultaneously, or of playing back a piece of recorded music while watching a film on television with the sound turned off: most of the time one experiences a confused simultaneity, but some of the time the brain is able to match the two elements together satisfactorily, occasionally even creating a combination that we consider to be "magical" or inspired. The challenge must be to increase the proportion of such moments so that they predominate in the performance. [ACTION: DISC JOCKEY GESTURE]. Before trying to answer such questions, it is first necessary to discuss an important element that I have so far mentioned only incidentally. Since th
Between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s several different types of non-keyboard synthesizer controllers were developed; in particular percussion, guitar and wind. With MIDI these were much improved, aided by its removal of the barriers between equipment from different manufacturers. Throughout the history of electronic instruments there have also been a few, mostly non-commercial ones that make a virtue of featuring novel controllers and performance techniques. A new gestural language can already be seen with the first electronic concert instrument, the theremin, introduced in 1920, which was clearly derived from that of the violin family; its inventor, Lev Termen, played the cello [ACTION: DEMONSTRATION]. The theremin influenced subsequent electronic instruments in the Soviet Union to such an extent that very few keyboard instruments were constructed until after World War II. Some more unusual controllers from 1980s include at least two laser harps developed in France (best-known from performances by Jean-Michae
[ACTION: DISC JOCKEY GESTURE / REMOVE READING GLASSES]. It is significant that all of the controllers I have mentioned which require new performance techniques are played standing up. But in more experimental live electronic music composers feel most comfortable when they are sitting behind a table full of equipment, exactly as in an electronic music studio. Gradually, however, especially those composer-performers who work largely as soloists, many of them have eventually found a way to escape from this comparative safety (and its consequent reduction in visually interesting gestures), either by eliminating the table altogether, or by building or adapting an instrument or synthesizer controller that makes it possible to perform standing up [ACTION: QUICKLY PUSH BOX FORWARDS OFF TABLE AND STAND UP; FROM THIS POINT ON BECOME INCREASINGLY GESTURAL, EXPRESSIVE, INVOLVED = GIVE A REAL PERFORMANCE!].
Michel Waisvisz, whose earlier work I have already discussed, had made a major contribution to controllers. The Hands, developed during the early 1980s at STEIM in Amsterdam (at one stage a prototype was used to control two Fairlight computer-synthesizers), has become a very flexible and expressive controller of both electronic and sampled sounds under computer control. This could only have been achieved by an enormous amount of work, both by Waisvisz and by a team of hardware and software designers. His work has perhaps the most substantial influence on the present trend towards live performance of computer music, and he has given what some people have considered to be the most successful presentations at several of the recent annual Computer Music Conferences. But I must also mention another major contribution, the recent inventions by the computer music pioneer Max Mathews, and particularly his Electronic Drum, with which the performer can concentrate on expressivity, since each stroke triggers the correct
[ACTION: DISC JOCKEY GESTURE]. What can be done to create a more satisfying combination of sound and gesture in live electronic music? Firstly the activities of the performer, whatever they are, must show a total concentration. This takes time to develop, and is the most important stage in the transition or expansion from composer to performer. The listener's attention is interrupted if the performer for example (as I have seen happen), temporarily stops performing in order to operate a few controls such as hitting a few keys on the computer keyboard as a technician would do, rather than integrating such actions into the performance [ACTION: DISC JOCKEY GESTURE]. Secondly, again usually linked with increased experience in performance, many composer-performers have managed, each in an individual way, to develop a system that allows them to escape from behind a table and perform standing up; it is suprising how much difference this makes. Finally, the hardest of all, and closely linked to the choice of instrumen
> BibliographyHugh Davies: "Electronic Instruments/GAME/Kraakdoos/Sal-Mar Construction/Termen, Lev/Theremin [co-author]/ Waisvisz, Michel." The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (Stanley Sadie, ed.), Macmillan, London, 1984.
> Nuova Atlantide: il continente della musica elettronica 1900-1986 [catalogue], Biennale di Venezia, Venice, 1986; including: Hugh Davies: "Storia ed evoluzione degli strumenti musicali elettronici", 17-59. Nicola Bernardini: "Live Electronics", 61-77. Roberto Valentino: "Le altre elettroniche", 79-101.
> Hugh Davies: "A History of Sampling." Experimental Musical Instruments v/2 (August 1989), 17-19 [abridged text]; expanded text in ReR Quarterly (1993; in preparation).
> Dick Raaijmakers: "Over het zitten voor elektrofonen." Raster 50 (1990), 7-33.
> Peter Nelson & Steve Montague (eds.): Live Electronics. Contemporary Music Review 6/1 [special issue], 1992.
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