Jeffrey Roberts > January 2010 Orientation

As part of the Orientation residency at STEIM in January, I began to investigate how I could develop a system of sensor controls to use during live performance on Chinese guqin. Chinese guqin is an indigenous instrument of China, with a history stretching back some 3,000 years. Among other very unique aspects of this tradition, the element of timbre as a primary expressive element is central to both the guqin tradition and Chinese music in general.  In this context, I am looking to expand the timbral and gestural aspects of guqin performance by analyzing and manipulating the harmonic spectrum of a variety of instrument techniques that produce different timbres.

To do this, I had imagined going into the orientation that there would be some hardware sensors involved, perhaps adapting Wii controller sensors in some glove type of sensor system. The guqin lays flat on a table, with the left hand moving fluidly in right to left and left to right motion (there is a great amount of glissando and portamento in the fingering techniques).

One of the nice aspects working at STEIM is the relaxed and open vibe of the overall environment. It is more of a collective than hierarchical structure, at least in my interactions with the STEIM people. This was also true of the other Orientation participants. David Fodel and I worked to work up a crude proto-type by taping a Wii remote to my left hand and experimented with controlling parameters of a slightly delayed, slightly processed guqin sound. The hands on work immediately gave a tremendous amount of practical feedback as to what aspects of hand gesture would be effective in controlling what sound processing. In this context, we worked with STEIM’s JunXion software and Ableton Live. Investigating LiSa’s live sampling and buffer control/playback also produced a number of possibilities. This laid a foundation of understanding on possible design of the control sensor systems(s) for guqin, as well as possible software solutions that STEIM could offer for my guqin project.

In addition, my observation of Daniel Shorno’s hardware setup and his performance demonstration perhaps revealed to me the most interesting and promising solution. Among other controllers in his rig, light sensors in which he was able to control sound by floating his hand above beams of light seems to be the perfect solution (at least in theory) to working with control sensors and guqin. I am imagining an array of various light, infrared and ultra sound sensors, as a sort of wireless, cable-less control device that will allow me to float my right hand above the guqin as a way to manipulate live processed sound during an improvised performance. This hand motion above the guqin extends very naturally from guqin left hand technique and arm/hand motion and thus it seems to be a perfect and seamless blend of instrument technique and technology control.  This is my next trajectory of hardware investigation.

One of the most helpful parts of the STEIM Orientation for me were the presentations by other artists involved with STEIM. Watching how they set up control devices to achieve specific goals and with a variety of software provided good exposure to solutions others had arrived at in their interactions with computers and software (also with live performance). Also, the larger STEIM community was a great resource in connecting with other people who might be worth talking to regarding creative projects or hardware/software solutions. I found many times in conversations the phrase “You should really talk to . . . “ came up. This resulted in a few meeting with other artists in Amsterdam. One very good one was with Joel Ryan.  Also playing guqin while Robert Van Heuman manipulated my sound in a live improvised context provided a great number of sound manipulation and processing ideas using LiSa, as well as ideas for improvised collaborations in the future. All in all, it was a very fruitful experience, providing many avenues for further investigations, perhaps resulting in a STEIM Residency application to help realize these investigations.

Two short clips (thanks David!) of some of the collaborations are posted online:

Jeff Roberts and Robert Van Heumen:
Jeff Roberts and David Fodel:

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