Saturday, February 04, 2006

Music, Noise, Acoustics, Electronics, and the Future IV

One Possible Future

The logistical and technical barriers where what I have, for over a decade, imagined the sonic arts could venture are starting to disappear. If we take a look at the possibilities as they have existed and as they have been haltingly explored in the past when trying to combine electronic music and noise-art with acoustic music and noise-art, we can see both the problems involved and the solutions required. I am not going to address the situation in which all acoustic and electronic instruments are under individual and direct human control, as this is simply an obvious case which differs little from any traditional performance arrangements. What I want to address is the situation - let's use a symphony orchestra with choir for example - where all of the electronic elements are composed and reside within a computer wherever possible. In this "ultimate solution" therefore, all of the electronic elements will be pre-existing and pre-recorded. I'm doing this to streamline the explanation, so just keep in mind that human performers on electronic instruments can be added to the folloing scenarios in whatever ratio is desired, though logistical problems will compound when this is attempted, as you will see.

When attempting to integrate live performers with electronic and computer instruments, the following possibilities present themselves when the above restrictions are observed:

1] Live performers with a static pre-recorded version of the electronic elements as accompaniment.

Obviously, this was the first reality to appear, and performing to pre-recorded analog tape tracks was ubiquitous during both studio sessions and live performances where there was no other possibility (Or, the performers were so lame that they had to cheat) from the moment such a thing became possible. In reality, it does not matter if the electronic elements are recorded on analog tape, digital tape, digital magnetic disk, or digital optical disk: It's all the same concept. I used to subscribe to the notion that there was an exception for sequencers, such as the Synclavier's Digital Memory Recorder or MIDI sequencer devices - the idea being that such a situation qualified as a live performance - but I have since shed that notion: It's ultimately a static pre-recording nonetheless. However, it was computer generated sequencing technology that would eventually allow for this prison to be broken out of.

The problem here is that the performers are slaves to the recording: While dynamic expressiveness is possible for the performers, temporal expressiveness is out of the question. The recording is, of course, obsinately static and sounds exactly the same every time. To call this situation less than ideal is an understatement for art music, but computer-accurate percussion tracks are actually an aid for pop/rock and especially dance music a significant portion of the time.

2] Live performers with a dynamic pre-recorded version of the electronic elements as accompaniment.

This can only be realized with computer-driven sequencing technology that has some sort of expressive interface. The simplest version of this must have temporal and dynamic variability, and that can be realized with something as simple as a human "conductor" for the computer sequencer who has tempo and dynamic control. This has been possible for several years using simple MIDI expression devices like foot controlers: One pedal for the tempo and one for the volume would cover the basics, and the conductor could still slash the air with a stick to cue the performers (Though I wonder how many traditional conductors could manage to chew gum and conduct simultaneously, much less how many (few) would be willing to diminish their egos enough to learn how to do this effectively).

This particular situation actually has far more dynamic implications than it might appear to at first blush, because with a computer sequencer and synthesized and sampled sounds dynamics don't have to apply only to volume or tempo: The dynamic input (Whether it is primarily a tempo controller or primarily a volume controller) can be mapped to filter envelopes, FM envelopes, LFO's, stereo pan, or anything else the composer can imagine that the software will allow.

When these extended possibilities are well thought out (composed), then each performance could be radically different with only slight variations of the expression inputs!

Here, the electronic musical and noise elements began to come into their own, and they become a factor that adds significantly to the resulting effect of the overall performance. Not only would the performers be reacting to each other, the conductor, and the audience, but they would also be relating, interconnecting, and reacting to the electronic elements to boot.


This kind of a situation would allow an infinite number of different composers on an infinite variety of computer systems to compose in the sonic arts using whatever variety of electronic and acoustic elements they wish to combine to go on tour with their works and reach any public audience who have access to an orchestra and a hall. This is the kind of symbiosis that is possible right now between the acoustic and electronic worlds.

Obviously, there are logistical problems with this kind of an idea, the main ones of which relate to the computer system and the sound system it requires. Such things need to be toted around, but the computer and sound system required to integrate with a relatively quiet symphony orchestra - even when the added choral resources I mentioned previously are present - would be absolutely miniscule compared to the gargantuan sound systems that even moderately successful pop music acts tour with. I could carry around such a computer and sound system in the covered bed of my pickup truck. Rehersals for such novel presentations would be more intense and would require the added dimension of a sound check, but any talented live sound engineer could handle the technical issues involved there with ease.

But there are still more possibilities for effective interconnection between the human performers and the computerized elements.

3] Live performers with a dynamic, cue-based pre-recorded version of the electronic elements as accompaniment.

Here, the (near) future is the subject, so the possibilities become infinite and limited only by the imagination.

First, let's eliminate the conductor's added burden and allow him to return to his usual histrionics: We'll let the performers determine the cues for the computer to follow (Though a condustor's baton could certainly be harnessed as a controller device if the interfacing element was wireless and tiny enough). Starting with the idea that all, or some, or one of each of the instruments in the orchestra can have a controlling input to the computer (Such devices would have to be small and unobtrusive enough not to irritate the performers, and they would also have to be harmless to the sometimes wildly valuable instruments, and wirelessness would certainly be a plus, though not absolutely required), and considering the miriad effects these inputs could be mapped to and control within the dynamic computer sequence (Pitch, volume, tempo, envelopes, pans &c.), one can see that this would offer truly limitless possibilities for symbiosis between the performers of the acoustic elements of the music and noise-art and the electronic elements of the music and noise-art. Since the possibilities are endless and in the realm of conjecture, I need spend no more time describing them. If your head is not spinning wildly with possibilities at this point, you are a dullard with no imagination anyway.

As is always the case with these sorts of advances, what it is going to take to break down the barriers that are preventing this from happening are not only technical and/or logistical. A personality is going to have to emerge with the imagination, talent, resources, and force of will required to overcome the inertia of conventional thought and institutional resistance.

Leaving a little to the imagination instead of spelling it all out is... er... cool.


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