Sonic Vigil is a group durational improvisation, held annually in Cork. See my last post for a list of the organisers and this year's participants (some of whom I will picture here). In this article I will describe my approach to improvisation in general, and this event in particular. This will lead into technical discussions to be posted later.
For the last two years Sonic Vigil has been run in a particular manner. A computer programme schedules each performer for a total of one hour, spread over the six hour duration. Just prior to the start time, each of us was given a sheet listing our PLAY and REST times. This is what mine looked like (converted to 24 hour format):
This scheduling method guarantees that a different combination of musicians will be playing at a given time. And that performers don't know in advance who they will be playing with. There are a diverse array of musical approaches among the participants. But since most of us are well familiar with each other, something wonderful is likely to result. And on Saturday last, it certainly did!
I have been making sounds for a long time. In the last few years I have been rethinking improvisation and what it means to me. This can be difficult to explain in casual conversation. The word "improvisation" usually calls to mind jazz players with extensive chops, riffing busily around a complex of notes.
For a diverse historical context, I recommend Derek Bailey's wonderful book Improvisation. His expression "non-idiomatic improvisation" is my favourite way of explaining what I am doing. I think it applies to all "Sonic Vigilantes", though here I speak only for myself.
Idiomatic styles are predicated on existing musical form, say jazz or modern classical. Learning to improvise largely means learning these forms implicitly, so that they can be replicated in astonishing variety without overt or conscious thought. Music is made flesh, quite literally, through muscle memory. This requires many years of dedicated practice and extensive investment into technique.
What results from the pursuit of virtuosity is a hierarchy of players, ranked by skill. Though idiomatic improvisation is an expressive medium, it is also a competitive field. An inevitable cult of personality arises from the fixated and egocentric motivations. The jazz pantheon is filled with musical gods, names reduced to mono-syllabic invocations: Duke, Fats, Miles, Trane. So while their music stuns and awes me, it does not indicate a route I wish to take in my own practice, which is grounded in ideas of networks and flows, of sharing, affordability, and access. (I suppose that I am also allergic to fame.)
In the past decade the primacy of the visual in Western philosophy, literature, and art has been expounded and critiqued. Sound artists consider listening to be a partial antidote to the dominance of the visual. This theme is explored thoroughly in any number of books, for example those by Salome Voegelin.
If you have 20 people producing sound in a room for six hours, listening is an important skill. The quality of the outcome can, to a large extent, be predicated on the quality of the listening. St. Anne's Church is a suitable venue for Sonic Vigil because it allows the performers to clearly hear each other.
Listening is a deeply personal and intangible quality. (What does it mean, really?) In one room there is a multitude of interpretations and listening practices. No wonder that the music produced through the interaction of these systems is a strange and wonderful thing. It's a reflection of internal states and processes. Phenomena refracted.
EMERGENT SYSTEMS AND ACCIDENTS OF LISTENING
In my own practice I came to the point, some time ago, where listening was no longer enough. Deep listening (Oliveros), active listening, ear cleaning (Schafer), reduced listening (Chion)... these are all useful tools. But my interest has shifted to other processes, reinforcing a lifelong fascination with cybernetics.
Free improvisation typically demands that the performer give up a good deal of control to the other musicians, and also to the environment as a totality. I now wish to reduce my autonomy even further. Or, more precisely, to embed my sound-making processes inside my tools in a way that requires me to give up control in the moment, in return for emergent behaviours at a higher time scale.
I am designing a system that encodes my listening patterns, in order to parametrise sonic outcomes. The goal is to nurture an environment that allows for accidents of listening. I have started to write out this concept in my papers, but it will require further elaboration.
Of course, these processes need to be enacted in a collaborative environment in which I remain responsive to others. This is the central contradiction that makes this praxis a challenging one for me.
I have not found any conventional, or even experimental, instruments that encourage this approach. Physical instruments, no matter the type, tend to push one to virtuosity. You must master use of the instrument/interface, in ever-more elaborate and extensive ways. This is as true of the monome as the violin. There are indeed ways out of this trap, complete with their own contradictions. Several of my collaborators are expert at these approaches. But for the time being I am exploring software tools that let me build my own sound environments, which can then run with a degree of autonomy.
Sonic Vigil 9 provided a suitable forum for experimentation. Considering that my schedule and musical partners were to be algorithmically determined, I decided to go one step further, and determine my actual sonic output likewise.
My gear is pictured above. Besides the laptop and sound interface I used only an EM coil pickup and a small plastic mono synth. I fed sounds from these directly into the output. This is a deliberate compromise, designed to keep some small aspects of the sound generation under my control, in the moment.
The random time scheduler gave me three "sets". For the middle one I used a Reaktor ensemble I have developed over many performances. For the first and last sets, I used my new >AUTONOMIC< software, designed for the aleatoric playback of field recordings. Volume, pan, effects, and other parameters are selected randomly.
When I say "random" I do not mean that these parameters are taken from the widest possible range of values. Rather these have been constrained and contextualised in response to the content as a whole. I prepared a number of source sounds, all of which were "relatively untouched" field recordings. (Trimming and volume shifts may have been applied.) There were 151 files in total, grouped into three thematic batches. These were then tagged with keywords that could indicate possible processing. Each batch run also had different sonic variables applied, indicating repetition, sound density, and so on.
The results were heard by those present at the time. Any other representation is misleading. That is the nature of a durational improvisation. Nonetheless, I have certain documentation I can present, for example the log file output of the programme.
To explain the columns: The first is the start time of the sound playback. The second indicates the sound channel, selected from the available pool. The third is the volume level. The fourth is the name of the sound file and the effect it has applied. Panning, effects parameters, and other variables were not documented.
>AUTONOMIC< applies a simple enough logic. Once initiated, a sound will continue to play until its natural conclusion, unless marked to loop indefinitely. In any case it will terminate when replaced by another in the same channel. The number of channels is hence an indicator of sonic variety in the moment.
People who were present at the concert can now match up what they heard with the sound sources. In theory, at least!
1651 PLAY "Electromagnetic radiation" batch
16:53:15 | 1 | 80% | EM laptop 4 -> Harmonizer
16:54:21 | 2 | 60% | EM HiFi -> pass
16:54:37 | 3 | 60% | EM library security scanner -> Delay
16:54:53 | 4 | 20% | EM HiFi -> FreqShift
16:55:09 | 5 | 20% | EM Sony 2000X video camera -> Delay
16:55:25 | 0 | 60% | EM wires -> Chorus
16:55:41 | 1 | 60% | EM library security scanner -> pass
16:55:57 | 2 | 40% | EM laptop 1 -> Delay
16:56:13 | 3 | 20% | EM camera - focus 1 -> Flanger
16:56:29 | 4 | 20% | EM laptop 1 -> FreqShift
16:56:45 | 5 | 20% | EM laptop 4 -> Delay
16:57:01 | 0 | 20% | EM door clamp -> pass [LOOP]
16:57:17 | 1 | 80% | EM tower -> FreqShift
16:57:33 | 2 | 60% | EM library security scanner -> pass
16:57:49 | 3 | 80% | EM laptop 2 -> Schroeder
16:58:05 | 4 | 60% | EM data transfer -> Schroeder
16:58:21 | 5 | 20% | EM laptop 1 -> Waveguide
16:58:37 | 0 | 40% | EM parking machine -> Waveguide
16:58:53 | 1 | 60% | EM mobile 1 -> Flanger
16:59:09 | 2 | 40% | EM laptop 5 -> Schroeder
16:59:25 | 3 | 40% | EM bus ticket dispenser -> pass
16:59:41 | 4 | 60% | EM HiFi -> pass
16:59:57 | 5 | 20% | EM wires -> Harmonizer
17:00:13 | 0 | 60% | EM bus ticket dispenser -> pass
17:00:29 | 1 | 60% | EM mobile 2 -> pass
17:00:45 | 2 | 20% | EM data transfer -> Flanger
17:01:01 | 3 | 80% | EM laptop 6 -> Schroeder
"Household effects" batch
17:01:48 | 1 | 40% | FX eating celery -> pass [LOOP]
17:02:36 | 2 | 60% | DOOR wood knock heavy -> pass [LOOP]
17:03:25 | 0 | 100% | ANIMAL cat jaw -> pass
17:04:13 | 1 | 80% | FX ruler twang 3 -> Chorus
17:05:01 | 2 | 40% | FX rubbish cart -> Freeverb
17:05:49 | 0 | 100% | URBAN gravel footsteps -> pass
17:06:37 | 1 | 80% | FX BRUSH bristles E -> Delay
17:07:25 | 2 | 60% | FX Leister sculpture 3 -> Freeverb
17:08:13 | 0 | 80% | FX drinking -> pass [LOOP]
17:09:01 | 1 | 100% | FX wooden pencils -> Waveguide [LOOP]
17:09:49 | 2 | 80% | FX rubbish cart -> Grainer [LOOP]
17:10:37 | 0 | 60% | FX eating celery -> Grainer [LOOP]
17:11:25 | 1 | 80% | FX BRUSH harsh A -> Freeverb
17:12:13 | 2 | 40% | DOOR shower sliding glass close open -> Flanger
"Out in the field" batch
17:12:39 | 1 | 60% | URBAN Foundation Building -> pass
17:13:39 | 0 | 40% | NATURE Barcelona storm -> pass
17:14:39 | 1 | 60% | NATURE hail in garden -> Delay
17:15:39 | 0 | 80% | URBAN parking garage elevator voices -> Schroeder
17:16:39 | 1 | 100% | NATURE WATER Garrykennedy surf -> Harmonizer
1933 PLAY combined "Household" and "Field" batch
19:33:15 | 1 | 100% | FX wooden pencils friction -> Harmonizer
19:34:03 | 0 | 100% | KITCHEN rinsing containers -> pass [LOOP]
19:34:51 | 1 | 100% | FX metal damped -> Waveguide [LOOP]
19:35:39 | 0 | 80% | URBAN gravel footsteps -> Flanger
19:36:27 | 1 | 100% | FX fire bell 2 -> Harmonizer [LOOP]
19:37:15 | 0 | 60% | DOOR Barcelona latch -> Flanger [LOOP]
19:38:03 | 1 | 60% | URBAN gravel footsteps -> pass
19:38:51 | 0 | 100% | FX coins swirled in glass -> Waveguide [LOOP]
19:39:39 | 1 | 80% | DOOR shower sliding glass -> Harmonizer [LOOP]
19:40:27 | 0 | 60% | DOOR car open close -> pass [LOOP]
19:41:15 | 1 | 100% | KITCHEN filling kettle -> Harmonizer
19:42:04 | 0 | 60% | FX coins in glass 3 -> Grainer [LOOP]
19:42:52 | 1 | 80% | FX Kilfinane winding clock -> Waveguide
19:43:40 | 0 | 100% | FX Leister sculpture 1 -> GrainStretch
19:44:28 | 1 | 80% | DOOR closet wood open close near -> Flanger [LOOP]
19:45:16 | 0 | 100% | FX coins dropped in glass 3 -> Waveguide [LOOP]
19:46:03 | 1 | 100% | CONTACT freezer outside -> Chorus
19:47:15 | 2 | 60% | ANIMAL crows -> FreqShift
19:48:20 | 0 | 80% | NATURE Cordoba rain and birds -> Chorus
19:49:22 | 1 | 40% | URBAN vent 1 -> GrainStretch
19:49:49 | 1 | 100% | FX Blind Pig ice machine -> pass
I will write more on the matters raised here as time permits. The next article will delve into the programming.
Your comments are very welcome. A big thanks again to all contributors.