Remembering Musical Organics at STEIM

Posted by Thor Magnusson on October 27, 2016

For a couple of beautiful spring days in May, a group of people came together for the Musical Organics Symposium at STEIM, Amsterdam, to discuss the topic of new musical instruments. The aim was to question composition, performance, and instrument design in the context of our new materials: the processor-based meta-machines we use to build our expressive instruments. However, the symposium acknowledged that the “digital” didn’t appear from nowhere: our work continues research and development that has taken place for centuries across different musical cultures. For this reason, the practitioners and researchers invited to present at the symposium came from diverse interdisciplinary backgrounds. From a traditional violin maker to an electrical engineer, the range of expertise was, in itself, truly inspiring. Moreover, the participants also perfectly embodied the symposium emphasis on interdisciplinarity: that very violin maker conducts excellent research in digital sound modelling and the engineer is also a composer and instrument designer. Composers writing instruments, performers designing instruments live, improvisers notating in the form of code, software engineers performing on stage: the degree of fluidity between concepts and practices was immense.

The presenters at the symposium were: Till Bovermann, instrument designer and software engineer; Sarah Nicolls, composer, performer and instrument designer; Hans Jóhannsson, violin luthier and instrument engineer; Koray Tahiroğlu, musician and HCI researcher; Adriana Sá, interdisciplinary artist, performer and researcher; Andrew McPherson, electrical engineer and composer; Marije Baalman, live coder and installation artist; Pete Furniss, clarinettist, performer, software designer; Joel Ryan, composer, technologist, philosopher; Halldór Úlfarsson, luthier, product designer and maker; Sam Duffy, saxophonist, HCI researcher, theorist; and Thor Magnusson, a software designer, musician, writer. I’ve given people these “role descriptions” and I’m sure they would object to the categorisations (I already object to mine), but this is roughly how people appeared as actors with roles in the symposium. The symposium was open for registration and judging from the quality of the work of the 23 attendees who signed up for the day they could equally have been presenting themselves.

Musical Organics Symposium Pictures from the first day of the Musical Organics Symposium

We spent the morning and afternoon of the first day listening to short presentations, where people contextualised their research with the symposium theme. In between and after the presentations, we had excellent performances by Stephanie Pan, Stelios Manousakis, Marije Baalman, Koray Tahiroğlu, Adriana Sá, Till Bovermann, and Pete Furniss. Somewhere in-between that we found a time to discuss the issues that had come up during the day, with very useful input from the audience. The discussion explored the concepts of composition, of performance on new instruments, how we communicate what we’re doing with new technologies, how to compose for new instruments, what happens to tradition and or legacy when technologies are in such flux. We also discussed how a NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression) education might be designed - a topic we explored further in a workshop the following day.

The second day consisted of diverse discussions and workshops. We began by considering themes emerging from the presentations and the discussions we had already begun. How can new instruments be introduced, maintained, and sustained in terms of use? How can they be documented and archived (related to this, Andrew McPherson and others ran a workshop related to this at this year’s NIME conference)? It is one thing to document the successes, but we discussed whether we also need an instrument cemetery, a NIME junkyard, where the mistakes go for a documented rot! Some of the best scientific papers are ones describing hypotheses that turn out to be false - would NIME benefit from such a repository? Might this allow designers better access to ideas that have been tried in the past, so that they can build on them rather than repeat them? Could it be that at times we learn more from mistakes than successes?

Following a discussion that went far and wide, we had open workshops: we discussed Halldor Úlfarsson’s plans for his Halldorophone instrument and Hans Jóhannsson demonstrated his 21st Century violin, which incorporates interesting physical modeling techniques. Sarah Nicolls presented her wonderful Moments of Weightlessness performance on her Inside-out piano. We then split into two groups, one designing instruments with paper and another discussing what an education in the are of NIME or DMI (Digital Musical Instruments) might consist of. The idea was to investigate if and how a musical culture, as the one we find around acoustic instruments, might appear around electronic and digital instruments.

Sonic Writing Research Fellow, Sam Duffy, took part in the workshop designing instruments with paper, facilitated by Till Bovermann, which explored aspects of human-computer interaction, product design, and psychology. She said: “We stripped instrument design back to basics, exploring the auditory possibilities of materials and form possible from a single sheet of paper. This was an opportunity to reflect on my personal desire to connect acoustic sound with digital opportunities. This was a meditative process in a beautiful surrounding and we were able to consider aspects of the environment, such as the effect of the wind on the sounds produced by the structures we created.”

I participated in the education workshop. We had an interesting discussion on what a NIME curriculum would consist of. How might musicians best be educated to become skilled performers of new musical works? Firstly, it is unlikely that such an individual would be a performer only. We found it more likely that they would be composers, instrument makers, and performers, all at once. Considering the interdisciplinary role, such an education would be equally practical and theoretical - experimental and reflective. An important part would be to understand electricity and computer chips. Here, new types of notation will be learned: those of electrical schemata and computer code. In practice that would require some Arduino or Bela programming, as well as learning computational thinking with tools such as Pure Data, SuperCollider or Web Audio API. Sensors, motors, actuators; resistors, capacitors, transistors: these are the compositional materials at hand. Human-computer interaction, product design, and psychology are important elements of this type of study too. Understanding the human body, ergonomics, interface semiotics, and of course the most important elements, those hardest to measure quantitatively: creative expression and the beauty and fun of a musical instrument. We listed these areas as a necessary technical underpinning for creating instruments, composing new musical pieces, and to be able to perform older pieces (or recreated older instruments).

We agreed that we should not operate with dichotomies such as technical-musical, technical-compositional, or technical-theoretical: in this context the technical becomes compositional, and as live coding practice demonstrates, it is performative as well. Having fused such distinctions, we started thinking about the role of the body in acoustic instruments: the dexterity of the fingers, the human breath, the human limits for pulse (phrasing, rhythm) and gesture (starting, sustaining, stopping). How do these embodied parameters feature in electronic and hybrid instruments? Considering the body schemata and its limitations, the focus moves to mapping: how bodily gestures can be meaningfully translated to sound. And the idea of “meaningful” here also relates to how the audience can interpret what is happening.

A meaningful performance cannot exist without music of some interest and value. A student of NIME would have knowledge of music and instrument design from a global perspective, they would understand acoustics, culture, history and design. But most importantly, what needs to be taught and trained is performance practice. What the instrument is for? How it is played? How it works in ensemble with other instruments? How the performer connects to other performers? Or to the audience? How much theory is inscribed in the instrument, how much freedom does the performer have? Who takes these decisions? Why?

A grounded NIME education will consider creativity at all levels of practice. How precisely to implement the above as an educational programme is a matter of institutional support, course goals, local research and musical cultures, and the personal style of the tutors. But this will be an education that stresses the role of context, community, and communication in musical practice. It will train approaches to invention and innovation. But just as in any musical education, what can’t be taught is the art of making good music - it can only form the conditions for that to happen.

Finally, writing this blog post, I came across this old The Wire article on STEIM. I thought it might interest some. I thank the wonderful people at STEIM for welcoming the Sonic Writing project for a residency at their great institution.

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