techniques, tools and performance

This blog post is a pretty long-winded musing on my relationship to technology in music creation, through the prism of some of my recent interests and an analysis of previous experiences. Begun in January of 2013, it was initially written for myself as a way of understanding some of the things that have gotten me stuck creatively. I find this kind of writing therapeutic, the circuitous nature of sifting through my own creative process by articulating it helps me make sense of where I’m at, but also I enjoy being embedded in the actual doing of writing (which may become clear throughout the post). Throughout my doctoral research I’ve written a number of reflective memos about my own creative work, how it’s evolving and where the links are in seemingly quickly changing and sometimes disparate interests. This has been in an effort to make the explicit implicit by highlighting tacit knowledge accumulating through doing – a kind of reflection-on-action as Schön would put it. Coming back to my thoughts helps me understand the changes in my thinking over time, and editing and massaging these memos into a coherent analysis is an attempt to clarify ideas that might not have been clear at the time of writing.

: creative recording and tools

Ever since I began working with electronic music, recording has been a major part of my practice. Exploring the possibilities of recording is what got me into working with sound and computer music in the first place, so it’s no surprise that amongst my various experiments I have maintained an interest in capturing sound from a variety of sources. At the beginning of this year I began getting excited about field recording once more, and about recording in general. I began obsessively looking into expanding the modest recording setup that I currently owned, and did a lot of reading about and listening to field and foley recordings of those in the field that I admire.

A number of years ago, my first experiments with any kind of field recording for a creative purpose were with the minidisc recorder, going out and about with my brother recording what we could with the minimal equipment we had. This was mainly to see if we could use the material to create weird and wacky sounds through manipulation in simple software packages. In other words, the intention behind the recordings was to manipulate, transform and re-appropriate – to be immersed in the doing of recording and processing – rather than to document or to fit a conceptual theme. The problem was however, besides naïve manipulations and experiments of one kind or another, I never really made great use of anything I recorded. I recorded material, explored this material a little bit, but things never seemed finished, or ‘finalised’. Perhaps my intentions from the outset of the recording were too narrow in focus, too focused upon experimentation and less focused upon an end goal.

I mention this because I believe that this has been a recurring theme in my creative relationship with technology. The idea of the tool is enticing, the possibilities of the tool, and I relish in the chance to hone the skillset needed to allow me seamlessly integrate the tool into the eventual context envisaged for its use. However, I’ve found that sometimes I have great difficulty in actually putting the tool to good use, potentially rendering the skillset useless. One of the things that frustrates me is that I really embed myself the pre-planning, the testing, the optimisations, making sure that things work the way they should etc. I am really interested in the quality and the efficiency of the tool as an artefact, of making the artefact/tool something that can be easily incorporated into the specific context it needs to be incorporated in, and then spend much less time working in that context itself. It seems that I’ve sometimes been more excited about setting up the potential of technology, rather than actually exploring this potential through action. So to come back to specifics then, I’ll give some examples of the way I approach technology to give a clearer picture of my relationship to it.

I’m the kind of person that likes to know exactly how everything works before beginning to use it. It’s like setting the scene for an encounter with the world – getting prepared so that in the moment in which you are faced with it, you have skills that you can rely on to help you deal with anything that it might throw at you. If I think about it, I believe I can pinpoint two related yet contrasting contexts where perhaps I developed this mindset that is often reflected in my use of music technology. These are: 1) interpretive musical performance, and 2) learning another language – in my case, French. Both of these really large aspects of my life I think have profoundly affected the way in which I approach technology, but also (tellingly) they also include aspects that I feel are lacking in my relationship with technology.

: instrumental technique and language

Learning instrumental technique is a fascinating thing, but most of all because of the way in which technique becomes ingrained, frozen and ready to be accessed at any point. The process of learning technique is, of course, tightly bound to the musical context envisaged for its use. Also, the notion of having technique implies a strong potentiality for exercising it. The technique has been honed and refined through repetitive practice, and so in this sense it is knowledge and skill acquired through the application of previously acquired knowledge and skill in the same practical domain. Technique acquired through classical training is developed and refined in a practical session, it cannot simply be theorised about, it must be practiced to be developed. Technique is honed and improved through doing exactly what would necessarily be required in the circumstance of a performance.

There are some clear similarities with learning another language. The way that one improves spoken and written communication in another language (after learning some basics about the general principles of how the language works, grammar, etc.) is to use it. Refining instrumental technique (in the case of interpretive – not improvised – performance) is about perfecting a skill set that allows a work to be presented as a finished product to an audience. Language however lives in a social sphere, and as communication it doesn’t have an end goal such as performance that necessitates the technique to be accessed and exercised exactly as practiced. The technique of communicating in another language (whether written or spoken) gets improved by being used, and the end goal of improving the language is for it to be put to use. Therefore, the method by which language is improved is identical to the eventual usage context of the language itself. It could then be said that the stage of performative utterance of language is also the practice studio, so to speak.

: practice as pretending to perform

This is different to accessing musical technique in interpretive performance, because in order to perform something well, and for it to be an accurate, musical and technically correct rendition of the work, the musician goes through a serious amount of repetition, of preparation through private practice as ‘mock performance’. I have never thought of practice being like this before, but it is exactly what it is. Looked at from this angle it seems so absurd. Pretending to perform is what a much of practice is all about. Even some of the smallest parts of instrumental practice; practicing the throat position so as to not pitch something incorrectly, playing the same phrase a thousand different ways to develop a repertoire of possible phrases that might work in different performance contexts. What I have always found difficult with practice is that once the obvious technical issues have been refined, I get bored. I don’t want to practice performance, and I don’t think I ever have. I have always found the notion absurd, and have strayed away from it as much as possible. I think in my mind there is a large separation between acquiring/refining technical skills, and exercising those skills. There needs to be a separation otherwise the line gets blurred, and this is impossible in performance of something that exists already as a fixed musical score is concerned. This blurry line is however where language lives and breathes.

: preparation

Knowing that you have all the necessary skills to accomplish a task, or approach a set of tasks that may adapt and change unexpectedly is the stuff of preparation. Language skills and acquired instrumental technique are the same in this respect, though with some fundamental differences. From the point of view of technique, in interpretive performance the aim is to be in complete control over all of the elements of the performance in advance. This is because the real-time unfolding of the work (in most cases) is predictable. It’s like giving a speech as opposed to having a conversation. You prepare the material you have to talk about, and you get through the material. There’s no need to adapt and change if it is completely scripted, you just need to know that you have the skills there to remember all it is that needs delivering. In contrast, having a conversation in a new language is different because the direction of the unfolding dialogue is unknown in advance. There are common points of reference, cultural signifiers and past history between two or more people, but it is the language skills themselves that form the backbone upon which the conversation can take place. In this real-world context, the language skills and the conversational skills are both exercised and developed in the real-world setting.

So, to get back to how these two things link up to my approach to technology, the fundamental constant here (regardless of the differences in modes of use and reception of skill and technique) is that both language and interpretive performance are skills that are developed and exercised performatively, and in real-time. Practicing small parts of a piece of music, and then only putting these together in the moment of performance still necessitates a conception of skill building that is exercised through time, in real-time. The same applies to spoken language; it is learned, refined and exercised in real-time, however, the crucial point of difference is that these occur in a real-world setting, not in a studio. So, where some music technologies are concerned, I find it quite difficult to reconcile what I have learned about acquiring and exercising technique because there is a fundamental conflation of preparation, skill building and skill exercising. Some of these live in real-time, others that lie outside of real-time, and others that float in and out between these. It’s a question of performative context more than anything. Referring back to the idea of potentiality and of preparedness, it’s then difficult to discern between what is honing and refining and what is exercising a skill set, and how the two can work together towards creation.

This is the end game, because at the end of the day it’s about creating music using technology. I see a disconnection between the variety of skills and techniques acquired through working with technology and how these are then exercised. If interpretive performance, improvisatory performance and communicating in a second language require real-time skill building, in addition to real-time skill exercising, then is it any wonder that I see the end goal of performative utterance to be exercised in real-time, through performative action? This is why all of my hard work on my interactive system _derivations goes into enabling a performance paradigm that relies upon real-time development and use of performative skills.

: programming and performance

This leads me to programming. The act of programming itself, getting lost in developing software, solving problems that have been set for oneself, by oneself. The _derivations project that has dominated the majority of my doctoral program can be described as a semi-autonomous system for musical improvisation. One of the goals of the system are to be able to enable a performer the freedom to interact with digital re-interpretations of their performative actions, without having to control the computer’s contribution. It can be viewed as a performance partner, directly influenced yet indirectly controlled by the contributions of the performer, both in performance and rehearsal.

What is ironic about this situation is that so much performative, action-driven   creative decision-making has gone into the creation of something that stands on its own – uncontrolled by a performer. I would suggest that all of the programming, testing, optimisations, and debugging that goes into the development of such a piece of software is extremely performative in nature in and of itself, in a physical sense. When looked at in this light, the number of hours spent engaging in a performative dialogue with the system through code far outweighs the number of times the system has been engaged with on a musically performative level. What does this say about my performative engagement with the system, and what does this say about the separation between the acquisition and refining of technical skills and their manifestation as a creative artefact?

: recording and creation

To come back to my original example of field recording, I would say that there is an almost performative immediacy to the activity of collecting sounds, the act of recording itself. To me, developing skills and technical knowledge and know-how relates to the real-time act of recording. As I mentioned previously, my initial concerns with field recording – or any recording for that matter – was that the sounds be transformed, mangled and twisted post-recording. The field/foley recording itself becomes the object of a transformative process in the studio, a material with which to work. However, I am increasingly feeling disconnected from certain aspects of this practice, because the detached nature of much computer processing seems to detract from the immediacy of the initial act of recording – unless, of course, these recordings find their way into a performative re-appropriation or re-animation.

I believe that the main crux of my issue is that I don’t feel like there is a strong enough link between the acquisition of skills and knowledge and how this is exercised towards a creative end. It is true that recording itself relies upon creative decision making skills related to equipment choice, microphone placement, gain levels, what to frame, how long to record for, whether or not to activate the environment or to remain a passive observer. However, recording is by its very nature a means to an end. Recording itself is relaxing and can be quite a profound experience, and listening back to recordings made becomes an act of learning and navigating through past experience. For me, however, working out what to do with these recordings leaves a big hole in this link between technique and creation. Personally, I feel a disconnection between the creative agency I embody when recording these sounds, and the possible ways of framing and/or re-contextualising them in the studio after the fact. Unless I plan to somehow prepare materials to be accessed/animated in real-time, I’m not really interested any more. As I’m not planning to go out there to record specific things for a specific context, the way in which the material is used is going to differ depending on what it is. All I know is that I would like to be able to use these recordings in some kind of real-time context. If not, I’d prefer not to touch them at all, and to let them be.

What all of this says to me is that, although I value the act of recording and listening as a creative act, I have a fundamental bias towards activating sounds performatively. This is something that most definitely comes from being a performer is the sensation and a perceived need to activate sounds. Technique that is developed through real-time action (practicing, speaking, improvising, conversing, code) is necessarily accessed in a performative manifestation of some kind. It’s no wonder then that the way in which I approach what remains of the performative experience of recording is to reframe it into further performative realisations.

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