- Mobile Performance
- Electric Speed
- Schematic as Score
- (Re)purposed Clothes
- Collaborative Spaces
- Device Art
- Digital Dub
- Rise of the VJ
- Sample Culture
[Rainforest, 1973 / source: davidtudor.org]
"Regnskog 2010" and "Regenwald 2011" were contemporary re-interpretations of David Tudor's series of compositions from the 1970's entitled "Rainforest". They used different types of sonic transducers to play sounds through a series of resonant metal objects suspended in the space.
An 8x8 matrix mixer allowed the sound from any of the objects to be sent to any of the performers, and in "Regenwald 2011" an additional 8x8 matrix distributed the sounds of the performers among the various objects. These opportunities for cross-talk between performers and objects made both pieces experiments in generative chaos.
Each installation/performance was developed prior to the exhibition in a workshop format over a period of five days. The audience was free to move around the performance space, engage in conversations and explore the sonic objects, thus adding new life to the rainforest.
["Regnskog 2010" performance space / photo: Elisabeth Nesheim]
Monkeys in the Trees: Systems Music, Electro-acoustic Autism and the Hungry Animals
The "Rainforest" works by David Tudor, as well as our re-interpretations of them, could best be described as "systems music". Systems music concerns itself primarily with the gradual unfolding of sound within a running process1, rather than with composed, scored or scripted works to be repeated by the performers verbatim. Or, to invoke systems-maestro Steve Reich: "I do not mean the process of composition, but rather pieces of music that are, literally, processes."2 These processes often employ iterative or continuous feedback as a primary method of control. Chaotic sound synthesis, described by Dan Slater as "dynamic systems that have a high sensitivity to initial conditions [and] that include a nonlinear feedback path"3, would be a specific example of such systems music.
In the case of "Rainforest", only one of the systems involved is scored in any sort of sense, that being the technical schematic of microphones, matrices and transducers. The other two systems involved--being those of the performers and the audience--are social in nature and therefore far more chaotic in potential.
Technically, there were many lessons to be learned. I could point out parallels with bio-acoustics and soundscape studies4 for example, when noting that sustained, droning "lo fi" sounds weren't very compatible to the piece. "Hi fi" sounds with clear pitch and amplitude envelopes akin to those made by animals in naturally occurring soundscapes were most easily heard no matter what object was being played. The objects themselves (stainless steel sheets or constructions in particular) were often so harmonically resonant that even the simplest sounds took on far deeper, densely reverberant character when played through them.
Similarly, amplitude was not the key to audibility. The fidelity and overall quality of the work was improved dramatically in one case by simply asking the players to lower their individual volumes by half. While this brings up a technical matter in the work--namely the ease with which the transducers can be blown by too much power driving them--it also introduces the second of our systems: the performers.
It's hardly a secret that most electronic musicians are to some degree autistic, manifesting three major hallmarks of restricted attention, repetitive behavior (click-click-click) and lack of social interaction5. Put a drummer, a guitarist, a trumpet player and a violinist in a room together and odds are that they will seek to find some rhythmic or harmonic relationship between the sounds they are playing. Put eight electronic musicians in a room together, however, and each might just drive off on a separate technologically-moderated path, seeking a relationship only with their gadget. The combined, overwhelming demands of a tactile, auditory and visual interface seem to make laptop artists the worst affected.
In the "Rainforest" works, this disconnection from the communicative feedback loop can lead to performers seeing the object directly in front of them as their own personal scrap-metal-PA, staking out their turf in the forest. Direct competition over sonic headroom then leads directly to the blown-transducer problem already mentioned. Interaction between the less-aggressive performers, alongside awareness of the acoustic ecosystem of the room as a whole, can also suffer greatly in these conditions. In short, the performers as a social system can be far more complex and/or problematic than any of the technical components.
While a written score of "movements" or "sections" could have helped organize the piece along traditional musical lines, instead I set out to use the hardware-technical parts of the system to address issues in the performer-social situation. The use of the first, input-side matrix system, and the stipulation that each player must do something with the signal coming from one of the other objects, helped to make performers aware that they were participating in a complex system rather than playing parallel solos.
The second matrix system employed in "Regenwald 2011", which essentially took away the performer's control over which object they were heard through, did even more to emphasize to them the holistic nature of the performance. Now the monkeys leapt from tree to tree and each sound was heard from a multiplicity of perspectives, forcing the performers' attentions out of the predictable ritual of interface and into the room at large. By the end, I was quite convinced that less individual freedoms, rather than more, were crucial towards improving the work!
Reading over Bill Viola's6 account of Tudor's original "Rainforest" workshops, I get the impression that composer and performers were all up against the same kinds of issues as we experienced. And that these issues were dealt with in one fashion or another during the professionalization of "Rainforest" into a touring performance, with each performer responsible for their own "instrument" as described by John Driscoll and Matt Rogalsky7.
A greater point of similarity between our forests and Tudor's was in the interaction with the third system: the audience-social system. If electronic musicians can be characterized as idiot-savants, then audiences must be painted in wide strokes as hungry, impatient animals. And as systems music often (and deliberately) avoids stimulating the normal pleasure centers such as "harmonic movement, key modulation or thematic development" (Sutherland), this could make works like "Rainforest" incredibly challenging for an audience accustomed to more popular forms of electronic music.
["Regenwald 2011" / photo: Mads Bech Paluszewski]
Luckily, the unique and decentralized performative-installation presentation of "Rainforest" worked to suspend their normal expectations, and much of the audience's time in the space was spent investigating the resonant objects through sound, sight and touch. Members found that by changing their physical relationship (listening close/far, inside/outside, at different angles) to an object, or sometimes by directly interacting (touching, biting, shaking, spinning, singing) with it, new tonalities became apparent. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with responses ranging from "relaxed" and "curious" to "engaged" or "excited".
Attempting to use consumer technology X to solve social problem Y is the default methodology in much (publicly funded) media art at the moment. However, I am convinced that my reading of Tudor's "Rainforest" works, the interpretations of them made in Bergen and Berlin and the workshop-installation-performance format in general contains powerful tools for breaking apart some of the crystalized social difficulties in the production and reception of live, experimental electronic music today.