Benjamin Thigpen > Head transplant experiment

I participated in a workshop 4-10 September 2007 and then returned for 2 weeks of serious composing 7-20 January 2008.

The project I was working on, “head transplant experiment,” commissioned by Ina/GRM, is my first (second?) live piece for solo computer (most of my work is for fixed media). So I spent an enormous amount of time exploring and experimenting and finding my way. I developed a myriad of fantastic modules using light sensors, accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetic field sensors, mercury switches, piezzo, contact microphones etc. to control various processing, synthesis and sampling patches.

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But in the end (just before coming to STEIM) I set most of that aside for future development and honed things down to a very simple setup (i.e., reliable, controllable, musical…).

I use Midi faders, knobs and buttons (Behringer BCF2000, Lexicon MRC) and the computer keyboard:

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to control 1 Max/MSP patch that performs various types of (extreme) distortion on 2 soundfiles:

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All the parameters can be controlled gesturally in a variable range and with appropriate precision, thanks to the high resolution of the BCF2000 and to a method I set up for flexible controller mapping and scaling:

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The patch responds very nicely to my control inputs, and yet at the same time has a kind of “mind of its own.” This is not the result of algorithmic parameter control but of the impossibility to foresee the outcome of certain combinations of parameters given two constantly changing sound inputs. So when I play the instrument I am truly in an interactive situation where the other sometimes seems to be a kind of animal with its own inscrutable intentions to which I must respond, and the result is that I discover new material each time I play.

The patch has an elaborate system for saving and recalling parameter values (including a method that can be used to save presets on the fly during a performance), and the values are sent to the BCF2000 (which has motorized faders), so after recalling a preset parameters can be changed with no discontinuities. I used this potential extensively in the studio as I was exploring, improvising, composing, revising, etc. But for the performance of this piece I chose to recall 1 preset at the beginning and perform all parameter changes by hand. For this reason I wrote a detailed score describing all the manipulations I need to perform during the piece.

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In the truly ideal studio and living environment that I found at STEIM, I was able to finish developing the instrument, explore its potential, and write a first version of the piece. After leaving STEIM, I finished the revising the piece at GRM. It was premiered on 9 February 2008 at the Maison de Radio France, in Paris, and performed again in March in a more informal club-like atmosphere in Buffalo, New York.

Because it is extreme, noise-based, total-sound-experience music (you bask in the sheer energy of its very complex, dense and active sounds: one listener said it was like sunbathing), rather than a piece based on an articulated, hierarchical structure, I believe it is best suited for an environment where the audience is free to move around, rather than a traditional concert setting, where the listener is trapped.

I am looking forward to performing the piece again, and I am planning to write a few companion works for the same instrument in order to make a very noisy set. I’m also planning to develop the other instruments I began, for use in both solo and ensemble situations.

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