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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Dissertation Draft: BiLE - The Death of Stockhausen

My next piece for BiLE is a large-scale piece called The Death of Stockhausen, which will be approximately an hour long. I'm calling the piece a “laptopera,” although there are not currently any singers. Although this may stretch the opera genre a bit, it's not unprecedented, as Gino Robair's opera in real time, I, Norton, lists singers as an optional part: “A performance can be done without actors, singers, or even musicians.” (“FAQ”)

The inspiration for my opera largely comes from the Adam Curtis documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which discusses how individuals stopped feeling like we are in control of society or the future. A review of the series in the Guardian describes the premise as,

[W]ithout realising it we, and our leaders, have given up the old progressive dreams of changing the world and instead become like managers – seeing ourselves as components in a system, and believing our duty is to help that system balance itself. Indeed, Curtis says, “The underlying aim of the series is to make people aware that this has happened – and to try to recapture the optimistic potential of politics to change the world.” (Viner)

Curtis lays much of the blame for the current state of affairs at the feet of computers, or at least the mythology of stable systems which was inspired by computer science. (All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace) I thought it would be interesting to do a computer-based piece that addressed his documentary. While I don't believe that computers or anything else are a neutral platform, I think a large part of the problem comes from the way in which we are using computers and allowing ourselves to be used by technology companies. Any solution will certainly have to involve computers, so it seems useful to think about how to deploy them positively rather than under a politics of invisible corporate control.

The Curtis documentary is also appealing because he addressed some issues that had been coming up in conversations I have been having with friends. When we think of the future, we think only of better gadgets, not a better world. For example, when describing a new iPhone app Word Lens, techCrunch breathlessly stated, “This is what the future, literally, looks like.” (Tsotsis) They were not alone in this pronouncement, which was widely echoed through major media outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle who imagined a consumer reaction of, "holy cow, this is the future." (Frommer)

Our envisioned future is thus one of hypercapitalism. More and more things to buy while at the same time, less and less money with which to buy it. Consumers economise on food, but still buy expensive iPhone contracts, presumably because they want to own a piece of the future. Meanwhile, they have less and less control of even that as Apple's curatorial role prevents most consumers from being able to install apps not approved by the corporation. Smart phones disempower their users further by collecting their private information. (Angwin and Valentino-Devries) The future is passive consumers under greater control from the state and from corporations, such as Google, Apple and Facebook, who win us over with appealing gadgets. An online contact described this as a "totalitarian pleasure regime." (Dugan) Thus we envision Huxley's Brave New World for those who can afford it and Orwell's 1984 for those who can't.

The left seems to have no widely articulated alternative idea of what a better world would even look like. The Guardian quotes Curtis on 2011 protests, “'Even the “march against the cuts”,' he says, referring to the TUC march in London in March, 'it was a noble thing, but it was still a managerial approach. We mustn't cut this, we can't cut that. Not, “There is another way.”'” (Viner) Curtis does not hand us a vision for what this other way might be, but calls on us to imagine one.

This opera will restate the problem outlined by Curtis and go on to link the end of the future with the current apocalyptic concerns. Originally, I want to focus mostly on the American preoccupation with the Apocalypse and Rapture. If all the future will be just like now, but with better gadgets, then we are only waiting for the end of the world, which might as well come sooner rather than later. However, various recent secular events seem to also bear inclusion. The New York Times described a possible outcome of the US debt crisis as a “Götterdämmerung,” describing a far right wing hope for a “purifying” fire. (Posner and Vermeule) As the stock market tumbled, looters set fire to high streets in the UK. Zoe Williams, writing in the Guardian, noted that the consumer-oriented nature of the riots is something “we've never seen before.” (Williams) Rather than battle with the police, looters focused on gathering consumer goods. Williams quotes Alex Hiller, “Consumer society relies on your ability to participate in it.” (Williams) Even their ability to be passive consumers was thwarted. They had minimal access to what we've deemed to be the future. However, setting large, destructive fires seems to imply that there is more than just this going on. All of these things from religious beliefs, to economic disaster to civil unrest share a sense of hopelessness and feeling of things ending.

However, rather than end on a negative note of yearning for oblivion, and the end of the avant-garde, I do want listeners to consider a better world. All of us have agency that can be expressed in ways other than acquiring consumer goods. I do not present a view of what a better world might look like, but do hope to remind them that one is possible. There is another way.

I've broken the opera up into four acts with connecting transition sections. The durations are based on the fibonacci series. The structure will be as follows:

8 min: Act 1 - The Promise: Cooperative Cybernetics

2 min: Transition 1

21 min: Act 2 - The Reality: The Rise of the Machines / Hypercapitlaism

3 min: Transition 2

13 min: Act 3 - The Apocalypse

1 min: Transition 3

5 min: Act 4 – A Better World is Possible: Ascension to Sirius

The durations will probably vary slightly from performance to performance and may evolve with our practice.

Act 1 explores the idealistic ideas of self-organising networks. Every player in BiLE, as is normal, will create their own sound generation code which will take no more than five shared parameters plus amplitude to control their sounds. These parameters may be: granular, sparse, resonant, pitched. Each player would have a slider going from zero to one where zero means not at all and one means entirely. Players will not control their sliders directly, but instead vote for a value to increase or decrease. Their sound will thus change in response to their own votes and votes of other players. They can control their own amplitude at will. There is also another slider, individual to every player, which controls how anti-social they are. A value of zero will follow the group decisions entirely and as the value increases, they will deviate more and more from the group. A value of one should be actively disruptive. All players should start with anti-social values of zero and increase that number in a non-linear fashion until at the end the group is, in general, very anti-social. The idea of group following in this piece is also present in my earlier piece Partially Percussive but the users have much less agency in carrying it out in this act.

The opera will be accompanied by video projections from Antonio Roberts. I would like the start of this section to visually reference Richard Brautigan's poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” from which the curtis documentary takes it's name. The second stanza is

I like to think
   (right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.


From there, I would like there to be archival images of advertising and assembly lines. As anti-social disorder increases, I'd like to see more archival images of rioting and property destruction.

This act will not begin rehearsals until October 2011.

Act 2 is included in my portfolio. It is the most operatic of all the acts in that it includes live vocals. Players sample themselves first reading common subject lines of spam emails, then common lines from within spam emails and finally start reading an example of “spoetry” - machine generated text that is sometimes used in an attempt to fool spam filters. The players manipulate these samples to create a live piece of text-sound poetry. In order to get material, I mined the spam folder of my email account. I broke the material into sections and assigned every line a number. (See attached)

Other composers, such as Yannis Kyriakides in his piece “Scam Spam” have used spam emails as source material. However, Kyraikides does not include a vocal line in his piece. In 2008, composer/performer Polly Moller approached me to improvise live on KFJC radio in California. She played flute and pitched noisemakers and read a “spoem” called “Nice to See You” and I did live sampling/looping of her sounds and vocals. (No More Twist) I felt satisfied with the results of this improvisation. Afterwards, I was interested to keep working with spoetry and to look at doing more structured text-sound pieces with a greater live component than I had previously.

This act builds on my experiences with Moller, using a larger ensemble, and asking every member of BiLE to develop programmes specifically for the manipulation of text sounds. They also manipulate artificial sounds, which are recordings of my analog syntheiser. The score is expressed as rules:

Rules for playing:


Start immediately with the artificial sounds. You may play these throughout the piece.


Then start recording and playing from the A section. These can go throughout the piece.


Then go on to the B section. These can also go throughout the piece, but should be used more sparingly once this section is passed.


The C section takes up the largest section of the piece. You do not need to get to the end of all the lines provided.

Players should announce what line they are recording via the chat.

Once a line is recorded, other players may record that line (or fragments of it) again, but cannot backtrack to a previous line. Players can also choose to advance to the next line, but, again, backtracking is not allowed.

When a player is picking a soundfile to process, she can pick from any section. If she picks from section C, it should be normally a recent line, however you can break this rule if you have a good reason, ie. you feel a really strong attachment to a previous line or think it can exist as a counterpoint / commentary to the current line.

Blank lines in the text should be interpreted as pauses in making new recordings.

I have not yet thought about videos for this section.

Act 3 will also have text sound, but as a collage on top of other material. I was originally planning to have this section concentrate solely on people's religious or spiritual beliefs surrounding the rapture, the apocalypse or 2012. I'm hoping to do telephone interviews of Americans who believe the end is neigh. I'm hoping the promise of being able to witness to new audiences will be enticing enough to persuade them to participate. I have not yet found any rapture believers to record, but as we are not going to start working on this until October or November of 2011, it's not yet urgent.

In addition to rapture believers, I hope to do in-person recordings of people who have New Age beliefs about the winter solstice of 2012. So far I have interviewed one person and another has agreed to participate also. I plan to have the piece organised so that the rapture believers come first in the piece and the 2012 believers, but as I have not yet acquired much material, this is subject to change.

I plan to ask interviewees about current events, like rioting, economic turmoil and climate change and include those things in the text by how they correlate to religious and spiritual beliefs. The collage will also be made up of samples referencing these also, such as fire sounds, windows breaking, sirens, etc. This does present a risk of being overly dramatic, but appropriate use of heavy processing will turn the sounds into references that are more indirect. Also drama is not inappropriate to the medium. The collage should become less and less alarming towards the end, as the text switches to the generally more hopeful New Age respondents.

Act 4 will have a graphic score, in the style of Cornelius Cardew's Treatise. I recently participated in the first all-vocal performance of that piece, at the South London Gallery on 16 September 2011. The group I sang with did not have a lot of experience with free improvisation, and it was interesting to see how exposure to such open material challenged and inspired them. I hope that similarly, BiLE will go places we would not have otherwise without the graphic score.

I do want it to move from a spiritual hope of the previous act to something more inclusive. My hope is that the audience will leave not with a sense that the apocalypse is coming in one form or another, but that it is possible to avert disaster.

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