Thursday, February 11, 2010

Notes on the Music of the Lost Cities

First, thanks to Jing for this amazing photo. Lighting, blocking and and color reminds me of Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters. This is from the the second project of the Oakland-Manila Art Exchange, Music of The Lost Cities. Held at The Living Room in Malate last Feb 6. Three of us at a round table. Chris Brown on the far left, Malek Lopez in the center, and me on the right running two laptops. Not visible is Caliph8, who was behind Chris on turntable and samplers and the muralist Johanna Poethig, whose photographs and concept of "sub-colonials" formed the material of the video projections and the theme of the performance.

Music of The Lost Cities explored the use of networked sound and visuals, and the theme of cultural hybridity. Cultures, customs and technology mixing in the wake of colonial history. Rogue histories of influence and feedback. It's a subject that resonates with the structure of networked music, I think. Networked electronic music is old territory to Chris, who co-founded The Hub in 1986. The Hub was a group formed to explore the possibilities of networked electronic music. The members want to find ways to transmit digital information between the players' instruments, and new ways for musicians to interact. The gig marked the first time Chris' experiments have integrated video, which makes it a milestone of sorts. Caliph, Malek and I have previously used MIDI to sync visuals to live music (notably at the screening and jam/re-edit/deconstruction of the 1921 Italian SF film Mechanical Man at the 2008 Silent Film Festival) but this is the first time we've used (on Chris' insistence) the Open Sound Control (OSC) data protocol.

OSC definitely opens up the idea of interaction. I hadn't understood that OSC meant that you could invent your own data fields. That for instance, Chris's machine could send me a message like "/trg /sample 22 /beat 13 /cycle 27 /bpm 95 " and so convey to my laptop that it was triggering a Marvin Gaye sample on the 13th beat of a 27 beat, 95 bpm cycle. A sentence like that changes the paradigm, the shape of the data space. You hear that and you think, well, then I could send Malek a message that 25 yellow circles are drifting across the screen at 10 pixels a second. It literally changes what you are able to think.

For instance, the open structure of OSC made it possible for me conceive the idea of receiving messages not only about what Chris' machine was doing now, (eg outputting a Marvin Gaye sample) but also about what Chris' machine would do in the future. If I could receive that, then the visuals could forbode and anticipate changes in the music. And so on.

Chris had to rehearse and conduct Invention # 8, a piece he'd written for gangsa and electronics for the anniversary of Dr Maceda's death. Malek and I spent 2 days with him and Johanna in their hotel room jamming code and images together. It was a very new, very pleasant experience to write and test code communally, the first time I've ever done it, I think.
Programming is (like any form of writing) usually a solitary business. It's hard to convey what good company Chris and Johanna are. Laid back, down to earth, and very funny. They're hearty eaters to boot, who chow down on sisig (Pig cheeks, ears and liver chopped, marinated in vinegar then pan-fried. Slave food, but delicious.) without turning a hair. Both of them lived in the Philippines back in the 70s and know how to take the surreal in stride.

The gig was a success, near as I could tell. Lots of questions. Got to hold forth on electronic music as cybernetic performance, ie as the art of steering large, automatic beasts. I have a lot of questions myself, basically subsets of the big question "What sorts of things can we do with this?"

I'm wondering whether there's a taxonomy of interactions somewhere in some book on information theory. I have a growing list that so far contains 6 types of interaction that we could implement between machines. I've named them after the image/practice that exemplify them.

1) Tabletop. People drumming on the same table ie triggering stuff on a common instrument/program. The program reacts to all the triggers independently. This is basically no different from the situation where individual players play individual instruments.

2) Light Switch. The program/instrument can be in one of a set of mutually exclusive states. Anyone can specify that state, but doing so changes/overwrites what anybody has done.

3) Stompbox. I modify somebody else's signal. A variation would be that my output would pass into the mix in parallel with the original signal.

4) Spirit Glass. The program/instrument's output is determined by multiple inputs that are averaged, or somehow combined, the way that the path of the planchette on an Ouija board is the vector sum of all the pressures exerted on it by the participants' hands. "Spirit Glass" refers to the ordinary drinking glass that Filipinos use as a planchette on an improvised Ouija board to play the game known locally as "Spirit of the Glass."

5) Dragon Dance. Parallel inputs are summed to create an output that is perceived as a single, complex output.

6) Harmony. Singers can sing in unison, or contrapuntally. By the same token, two machines can sync to each other or enact counterpoint. So for example, video can cut to the drums, or instead of slaving to an existing drum pattern, it can act like another drummer and create a different pattern based on a common pulse. Machines can base their behavior on explicit or implicit data.

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