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Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Dissertation Draft: BiLE - Partially Percussive

I wrote a gui class called BileChat in order to provide a chat interface, to allow typed communication during concerts and BileClock for a shared stopwatch. We use these tools in every piece that we play.

We played our first gig very shortly after forming and while we were able to meet the technical challenges, the musical result was not entirely compelling. Our major problems were not looking at each other and not listening to each other, which was exacerbated by the networking tools, especially the chat, but still the standard problems new ensembles tend to have.

Several years ago, when I was running an ensemble of amateur percussionists, I used Deep Listening pieces by Pauline Oliveros to help focus the group and encourage greater listening. Most of those exercises are very physical, asking the participants to use body percussion or to sing. This worked well for percussionists, but did not seem well suited to a laptop band. Almost all of the members of BiLE have previous experience playing in ensembles. While every group can benefit from listening exercises, we were not starting from scratch and the exercises we use should be ones that are compatible with networked laptop music. In other words, we needed listening skills within the context in which we were trying to perform.

I wrote a piece called Partially Percussive in order to implement Deep Listening-like ideas in a laptop context. I wrote the score on a studio white board as a list of rules:

Rules:

To start playing, sample the object.

Listen to other players. Are they playing:

  • Percussive vs Sustained
  • Sparse vs Dense
  • Loud vs Soft
  • Pointalistic vs Flowing

Follow the group until you decide to change.

If you hear a change, follow it.

Lay out whenever you want, for how long you want.

Sample the object to come in again.

The score stayed on the white board for two or three weeks. I took a photo of it for my records, however, the score for this piece has never been distributed via paper or email. I do not know what notes, if any, my colleagues took on the score. When describing the score to them, I said that they should drop out (“lay out”) when they “feel it” and return similarly.

I specified live sampling to add transparency to our performance, so audiences can have an idea of where our sounds are coming from. I picked percussion in particular after a IM conversation with Charles Amirkhanian, in which he encouraged me to write for percussion. We originally had a haphazard collection of various metal objects, however, we forgot to bring any of them for one of our gigs, so I went to Poundland and purchased a collection of very cheap but resonant kitchen objects and wooden spoons to play them with. We also use a fire bell. Because it has a long ringing tail on it's sound, which is quite nice, we use it to start and end the piece. Finally, one of the ensemble members owns some cowbells, which we often also use. Each player usually has a single metal object, but is free to borrow objects from each other. In the case where someone is borrowing the cow bell, they typically allow the bell to ring while carrying it.

While the rules, especially in regards to 'laying out,' are influenced by Oliveros, our practice of the piece draws heavily on the performance practice of the anthony Braxton ensemble, which I played in 2004-5. In this piece, as well as in Braxton's ensemble, players form spontaneous duos or trios and begin trading gestures. This depends on both eye contact and listening and thus requires us to develop both those skills.

When we started playing this piece, I was controlling my own patch with a wireless gamepad, with two analog sticks and several buttons. This gave me the ability to make physical motions and control my patch while away from my computer, for example, while getting an object from another player. Over time, more BiLE members have incorporated even more gestural controllers, such as iPhones running TouchOSC. Thus, when trading gestures, players will mimmic sound quality and physical movement. I believe this aids both our performance practice and audience understanding of the piece.

The technology of this piece does not require more than the chat and the shared stopwatch, but it appeals to audiences and we play it frequently.

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