This week, I’m continuing an examination of improvisational strategies in electroacoustic music, starting with another example from this year’s Third Practice Festival.
circadia, by Paula Matthusen, is a sound installation that I think might stretch the bounds of what many would call improvisation, but I’ll make my case and see what you think. First, one way of considering improvisation is as a collaboration toward a common goal by free agents working within the limits of a system. The system may be agreed upon or imposed, and the agents exercise choices to achieve their goal in response to the conditions of the moment.
In circadia, multiple glass jars with embedded speakers and microphones are distributed throughout the installation space. The microphones and speakers are a part of a feedback loop that emphasizes the resonant frequencies of the jars. A computer manages independent amplification of each jar, each with its own unique pulsation rate and amplification envelope. The programming for each is such that they want to achieve a sonic balance of consistent, synchronized pulsation. Each jar also has an LED that pulses in sync with the amplitude of the jar, visually reinforcing what we hear.
The audience experience is of a dynamic, immersive sonic space where you intuitively sense the different jars responding to each other and seeking a balance of sound production. It is also readily apparent that as conditions in the space change, for example when someone enters the space, thus altering the balance and behavior of sound, a new process of balance seeking begins.
How is this improvisation? Some might argue that a collection of jars with speakers and microphones randomly reacting to each other is not an improv. But it’s not random. The installation is an ecological model for an improvisatory structure. The computer puts limits on the responses available to the individual agents (jars, in this case). Detect (hear) this? Respond with X, Y, or Z. And X, Y, or Z is a response, of course, which is uniquely detected (heard) by the other agents, eliciting another response, producing a cascade of responses, limited by change towards a common goal of balance. This model has been employed with human agents, where an array of responses is available to choose from in response to different stimuli. A degree of choice, or free agency, is operating, but responses aren’t random, and there is an underlying structure of a common goal. circadia manages to manifest this approach in an installation setting, where audience members are unwitting (though not for long) participants in improvising a unique sonic solution to the goal of balance.
To me, circadia is an example of a larger, more inclusive conceptualization of improvisation. In ecologically informed interactive works, it’s typical to speak of emergent properties, that is, certain aspects of a piece that emerge over time as part of an unfolding process. And, in the analysis of minimalist music, it’s not uncommon to discuss emergent properties, since that approach to composition is typically process oriented and produces musical properties that are entirely the result of the process in progress. Sometime, this is experimental in the purest sense of the word; the composer doesn’t necessarily know what outcomes will emerge from the process, and the only way to find out is to run the experiment and hear what emerges—in other words, perform it.
In the same way, I think we can consider the outcomes of what is normally thought of as improvisational performances as being constructed of kinds of emergent properties. They result from choices made within a structure by free agents (in this case, improvisers) in response to the circumstances of the moment, and as part of a shared goal (creating music). There is a process, however rigidly or loosely defined, that unfolds over time and from which the properties (sound/music) emerge. There are limits on what responses are available to the improvisers, perhaps as part of a style which is defined by a collection of appropriate responses, or for no other reason than the physics controlling the instruments’ ability to make sound, or even the performers’ own abilities and limitations. When we’re lucky, the result we hear as an audience is awesome improvised music. Whether this happens because of 4 or 5 musicians with traditional instruments, an installation space containing interactive electronic devices, or some combination of both, there’s something uniquely wonderful about music making that occurs in real-time and that is specific to the moment we experienced it. Knowing that the specific conditions that produced it are unlikely to happen ever again make it all the more precious.
Music that is really, truly, constructed in real-time takes on the one-of-a-kind value that a singular work of visual art, like a sculpture or painting does. It is something to be coveted, shared, savored, but that you also have to show up for. It really does take some minimal degree of effort to experience, but the reward is an experience that belongs solely the time and place that it occurred. It’s this condition that unites so many otherwise diverse, seemingly unrelated approaches to real-time music making and sound art.
Next week, I’ll continue by looking at expanding the concept of collaboration and what it means to share the venture of making music.