John Levin > STEIM Orientation Workshop #110

My goal in coming to STEIM was to evaluate my electronic music practice from the perspective of performance.  My music frequently involves sustained tones, generated by analog synthesizers, that change slowly over extended periods of time, with careful attention to small adjustments of ring, amplitude, frequency or filter modulation.  Carefully tweaking a slider on an old analog synth requires little extroverted physicality.  In several of the orientation workshop courses, when watching the video documentation of performances by STEIM artists, I realized that many of the works created at STEIM feature a high degree of both sonic and visual activity, an approach quite opposite from the way I tend to perform.  It seemed to me that investing electronic music performance with one’s own physicality, gesture and personality is a hallmark of many of the artists associated with STEIM.

Late at night after the first day of the orientation workshop, I wrote into my notes in Google Documents, “would it make any sense to perform slowly changing music with gestural controllers?  And would there be any way to perform slowly changing music using gestural controllers with lots of movement?  Kind of a strange economy of scale: so much effort to produce so little change in the sound.  How would I go about creating a gestural controllers for drone music?”

Oddly enough, another controller idea came blasting out of the past.  I had the opportunity to experiment with the EMS VCS3 synthesizer that STEIM houses in its collection of older analog gear.  I had never approached one of these legendary (and now rare) instruments before.  The VCS3, unlike perhaps any other electronic instrument of its time, includes a joystick as part of its interface.  By mapping parameters of the synthesizer (such as filter frequency and resonance) to the X and Y axis of the joystick, I could achieve a level of subtlety of motion that I had never experienced with an analog synthesizer before.  This experience helped point out some possible directions for a new control interface for performance.

In addition to electronic music performance, STEIM encourages work in the field of sound installations.  This focus also inspired new ways of thinking about my work.  Late at night after another day, I wrote in my notes about an aspect of my music which I have been aware of for a long time, but have never put to use in an intentional manner, instead preferring to leave it to chance: how the timbre, texture and overtone content of the music changes depending on where in the room you listen.  “An installation or performance in which the location of people (performers? audience?) in the room determines changes in the sound material.  The motions of people, picked up by sensors, would make changes to either pitches or types of modulation.  Then, as people move to hear the sound in another location, that causes the sound to change even more.”

Whether or not I will pursue these ideas in a second residency at STEIM, I found my time there to be extraordinarily valuable.  The orientation workshop merged a conceptual approach (philosophies of music) with a practical approach (electronic instrument design) without being tied to any stylistic agenda.  Spending a week immersed in electronic music was inspiring on its own terms, while the captivating city of Amsterdam offered a thriving music scene, and pleasant walks along the canals.  I learned much from my fellow workshop participants, who were all dedicated musicians from a variety of backgrounds.  Every day, following the workshop classes, we shared conversations, ideas, technology, music and wonderful meals.  STEIM provided an ideal place to evaluate, challenge, and renew my artistic practice.

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