Joe Diebes > BOTCH workshop at STEIM

Entropy Duet

In July I spent two weeks at STEIM developing some early concepts for a new sound-theatre work called BOTCH.  The work will premiere in New York City in 2013 so there’s a lot of time to experiment with different ideas.  Basically I’m interested in finding interesting relationships between people and machines that highlight our contemporary co-dependence while finding what is is distinct about the human half of the equation.  It seemed to me that working with STEIM technology would be a good way to experiment with this since the institution is so involved with interface.

New York singer / performer Christina Campanella joined me for the second week and we explored a number of ways to use LiSA with JunXion.  We used Wii remotes as the main interface and experimented with the built in video tracking in JunXion.  Generally speaking we were not trying to do anything fancy.  In fact, we were trying to find the simplest ways to demonstrate a theatrical relationship between voice and machine.  For example, we spent a few days building a basic sampler that would record Christina’s voice and allow her, using the remote, to scan forward and backwards through the recording, and then punch in a new recording at various points.  I was interested in what happens when the sound recorded is verbal information, and the manipulations that follow are aimed at the semantics of altering sequence etc…  I was thinking mostly of Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” in this regard.  Creating a solipsistic world where a single performer on stage is accompanied by her recordings.  The recorded voice was output to a small speaker, which made it almost come alive.  Like a weird little pet droid…

Christina with speaker

In BOTCH each vignette or section operates as a self contained module, and the directions for what the performers do is notated as an algorithm, rather than a conventional score or script.  And so the performance directions for this work are written in a kind of pseudo computer code with if/then statements, loops, and random numbers generated by coin tosses.  By having the humans on stage operating according to the logic of a computer brings out a nice tension between what is human and what is machinic.

Another experiment we tried involved Christina and myself on opposite ends of the room, listening to a small speaker.  The speaker would play back the voice of the other performer on a time delay, and each of us had to try to mimic what we heard in real-time.  This quickly devolved as it’s an impossible task, though an abstract musicality emerged.  After the actual verbal information is lost, the melodic and rhythmic aspects of the voice become the focus.  Though this is quite a simple idea, it would be really difficult to pull off using Ableton Live or sequencing software.  Also, being able to easily integrate the Wii remotes made it possible for the performers to control everything rather than a sound operator, which in a piece like this is essential.

I’d used Max/MSP in the past to create theatre performance systems, but since my main interest is capturing live recordings and immediately manipulating them, LiSA offered all the possibilities I needed, and after an initial learning curve I was able to quickly prototype ideas. We also worked with more advanced ideas, such as using the 3-D axis control afforded by the remotes, resampling techniques, and video tracking to effect a range of parameters, and I’m not sure where that will lead.

during random melody section

On the last day of the residency we had an open studio presentation, where we showed about 20 minutes to an audience.  These were really just the initial sketches for four different sections – each one investigating a different relation between voice and the electronics.  Afterwards we had a good question / answer session.  One thing that really stands out is how engaged the audience was in responding to the work.  I find QA sessions in the U.S. to be mostly perfunctory, but here both the STEIM staff and the other audience members really dug in and gave us constructive feedback and a good discussion came out of it.

Overall this was an excellent experience at STEIM, and I feel that the work we did here will be important for the future of our piece.  I’m grateful to everyone at STEIM who offered technical help, artistic advice, and a conducive atmosphere for making this work.  Thanks also to the Netherland-America Foundation for funding our travel to Amsterdam.

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