Josh Kopecek > Orientation #105 // Experiences and inspiration at STEIM

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I arrived in Amsterdam last Monday a STEIM virgin. Little did I expect the wealth of information and inspiration that would be offered over the coming week. As the workshops and presentations progressed, I sank my teeth deeper into questions that had been hazily forming over the past years; and although I can’t say I have any answers yet, the questions have certainly become clearer. I will try to give an overview of the thoughts and processes that have occurred to me during my time at STEIM.

At first the lectures covered a range of topics directly related to STEIM: the software developed here – LiSa and JunXion – but this quickly developed into broader aspects of performance practice and instrument development. STEIM is clearly a place where one can have an idea planted and watered in the most elegant way.

First I sat back to absorb the information being presented. Sample based performance, whether live or pre-recorded, has been central to my performance for some time now, so LiSa acted as a wake up call to the ideas central to this. Those of being able to record and play back instantaneously, and/or the ability to call on a wide range of samples with relative ease. This is nothing new, but I had the distinct feeling from talks with other artists that the wheel had been reinvented many times with regards to software.

I made some casual research into some topics I had been interested, but had abandoned: those of multitouch interfaces and pressure-reactive surfaces. I was pleased to discover that in the meantime someone had done exactly what I had originally intended to do with my research, and that man was David Wessel with his SLABs. Wessel had developed a multitouch, pressure reactive surface that was able to trigger and manipulate samples instantaneously. My curiosity was piqued.

Amidst a sampling of mayonnaise-centric Dutch cuisine (that didn’t necessarily agree with everyone), we were introduced to instrument building and artist talks. A vast proportion of performance instruments that have been developed seem to be based on existing controllers – for example, game controllers, basic midi devices, dj mixers – and these have to be modified for the purpose. We seem to be battling against the restrictions of the devices, and some win. Basic controllers seem to be better suited, and in fact Takuro Mizuta Lippit’s controller consisted mainly of a switch for triggering alternate recording and playback.

My thoughts moved to the limitations of these controls, and in comparison to acoustic instruments, the dimensions of control we have are few. By this, I mean that with (for example) a violin the left hand controls (continuously) pitch over four strings, tone, timbre, effects, activation of pitch (as opposed to damping the strings); and the right controls volume – pressure and speed, timbre – in multiple ways, tone, pitch (independent, but more restricted in comparison to the left hand), effects; and together these affect the ‘mapping’ of each other. This is all without relatively arduous movement and all simultaneously. Compare this with a fader. There is one degree of movement which takes up the use of almost one hand. So the violin has one hand mapped to 5+ dimensions of control (more if you include the other hand) and the fader has it mapped to one. Wessel’s SLAB has continuous control of 3 dimensions (xyz – z being pressure) and up to 10 independent activations. If this was split into two areas for right and left hands, there could be 6 interrelated dimensions of control and 5 independent activations. Of course this is just theory.

I borrowed STEIM’s Manta device the following day and linked it up to my most recent performance setup, and this worked very successfully, but did not have continuous xy control.

Two more artist talks led to various more philosophical and practical questions. From Wouter Jaspers:

  • How can one survive as a practising experimental artist? (The answer was quite simple: tour and network).

And from Robert van Heumen there were more esoteric questions:

  • What is the ethical justification for the violence done to a performer through live sampling? – this led directly from a discussion about the prevalence of the ‘echo’ effect of sampling and manipulating a player, and the effects that has on a performance.
  • Why is pre-recording samples regarded as cheating? – this has something to do with a conflagration of a desire to live sample and an animosity towards simply re-playing samples.

My thoughts on these questions led to a desire for some sort of hybrid electro-acoustic instrument that did not use synthesis, and that had the power to digitally alter its own sound qualities in a continuous and multi-dimensional way. Call this wishful thinking, but all the technologies exist for making this a reality.

The last talk (by Laura Carmichael) centred on theatrics and autonomous setup for performance of existing contemporary works. This brought to mind STEIM’s expertise in coaching performance practice, and my lack of training and ability in this area. The academic performance practice in relation to current performance theatrics was also discussed, and we talked about the gaping abyss between ‘vanilla’ concert performance – that of traditional stage-based, coat-tail-wearing symphonic players – and contemporary music staging, verging on the theatrical, saturated with multimedia.

This Orientation represented an exploration of the possibilities available here at STEIM, the diversity of the issues explored and the depth of expertise available. It has stimulated my curiosity, piqued my interest and is motivating me to engage fully in realising a theoretical instrument in reality. Call it the making of a meta-instrument.

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