The Democratization of Performance
a panel discussion
April 6, 2015
Canadian Music Centre, Québec Region
Adam Basanta — Nicolas Bernier — Myriam Bleau
Gabriel Dharmoo — Erin Gee — Patrick Saint-Denis (moderator)
Pierre-Luc Senécal, Montréal – More than twenty years ago, contemporary music focused around two types of practice: electroacoustic works on fixed media and instrumental works for live performance in concert. Today’s context is characterized by a breakdown of possibilities partly due to the exponential technological advances. Robotic instruments, digital music instruments (DMI), interactive installations and interventions in public spaces are but a few of the means of expression available to artists. And among these media, the development of performance practices is one of the most notable as it allows composers, who used to be “hidden” behind their mixing desks, their scores or simply in their studios, to get on stage and perform their work. This is a major shift of musical paradigm which for centuries has been based on the division of labour.
Often times performance is multidisciplinary, involving several distinct artistic practices. The making of sounds (music), videos (video art), of instruments and digital tools (instrument making) … these are some of the tasks a composer might have to deal with in order to produce a single work. Technology greatly contributed to this hybridization of practices. Indeed, the computer is a key element in the production of digital arts: not only is it a common tool for the creation of music, images, 3D modelling, etc., it also allows one to make an instrument and learn to play it over a very short time span, at least compared to how long it takes to master a conventional instrument. With the advent of more affordable highly efficient computers, multidisciplinary performance is “democratized”.
On Tuesday, April 5th, six leading artists from the Montreal digital arts scene got together at the Canadian Music Centre in Montreal, for a discussion on the democratization of performance. Acting as moderator for the discussion was Patrick Saint-Denis, who himself creates works combining music, live audiovisuals and robotics, often for interactive installations. Sitting next to him was Nicolas Bernier, winner of the 2013 Ars Electronica Prize, one of the most prestigious annual awards in the field of electronic arts. Bernier’s expertise is wide-ranging and includes audiovisual works, live electronics, musique concrète, video art, improvisation. Also present was Adam Basanta, a digital artist and composer interested in performance and whose work encompasses multiple media: sound installation, chamber music, in situ performance and laptop improvisation among others. Next to him sat Myriam Bleau, better known for her Soft Revolvers, a performance involving “audiovisual spinning tops” which evokes the turntables of a hip-hop DJ. This young artist was awarded an honourable mention by the 2015 Ars Electronica jury for her outstanding work. Affectionately called “UFO of the day”, composer Gabriel Dharmoo’s scores successfully integrate composing for traditional instruments with vocal improvisation, ethnomusicology, and something rare in contemporary music: a good sense of humour! In Anthropologies imaginaires, Dharmoo uses video to create a theatrical counterpoint to his vocal performance. And last but not least, Erin Gee. Half-composer, half-engineer, this Saskatchewan native is currently working on her famous “musical robots”. Using biosensors attached to human beings, a program analyzes biodata (speed and amplitude of the heartbeat and breathing, skin reaction) and proceeds to do some mapping of the data (rhythm, pitch, duration) in order to produce a form of algorithmic music played by wheel-mounted bells.
Quite a discussion those whiz kids had on digital arts. Does technology offer tools for the creation of works or does it become the subject of the works? Is democratization of technology a good thing? What would be its disadvantages? How are digital art works archived?
Patrick Saint-Denis started by saying that right after World War II, engineers would spend hours punching cards that would be inserted in giant computers. The cards would then be compiled by these machines for days before a simple sine wave could be produced. In those days, this kind of constraint forced composers to spend a long time thinking about the type of sound they wanted whereas today composers can afford to be less rigorous since it’s never been easier to “make sound”. But there are potential drawbacks! Does the use of presets or tools created by someone else mean one is letting the software, or its developer, do the work? Several “old school” composers, those who have experienced the constraints imposed by the first analog technologies, consider this adverse effect of the software on composers to be disturbing.
On this matter, Adam Basanta acknowledges the problem and says that we might be inclined to make compositional decisions influenced by the software we use. “Some things have less resistance to them because of the software. Logic is completely different from ProTools.” He adds that it is up to the composer to be aware of that and to avoid being completely influenced by the software or the tool. Democracy is a double-edged sword, something we can see as far back as at the time of the Greeks, the fathers of the democratic political assembly as we know it today. “Everyone has the right to vote, but not everyone has the education to make the right decision.” All the panelists agreed that each media has its own limitation. Whether we are talking of a piano, a score, or Ableton Live, every instrument conveys a vision as to what the music should be like.
It is true that presets “belong” to those who create them and the composer must re-appropriate them and make them his own if he does not want his work to sound like the work of someone else using the same tools. Still, Myriam Bleau emphasizes their positive effect, pointing to the fact that they help save time: it is useless to reinvent the wheel every time, so presets help avoid work that could otherwise be tedious.
All those matters brought the focus of the discussion on the do-it-yourself approach typical of today. Traditionally, a composer would write a score and would give it to a performer who would play it on a violin made by a violin maker in a workshop. Once recorded in a concert hall by a sound engineer, the performance would be mixed in a professional studio, then sent to a mastering studio before being cut on a vinyl record or burned on a CD, etc. Whereas every step of the musical creation was once realized separately by a professional and in a specialized venue, now it can all be done by the same person in one place and sometimes at incredibly low costs.
Nicolas Bernier says he does not relate to a rather obsolete separation of tasks and pleads for a holistic approach to creation. “I don’t care if I’m being a composer or whatever… I just do a work, whatever it means… It’s a project as a whole. I’m an artist who uses whatever discipline to make a project.” Adam Basanta replies by saying that there are different steps. The initial idea is present, changing along the whole process and passes through different stages where one builds a physical object or an instrument, experiments with it, compiles excerpts from these experiments to turn them into music, etc.
This exploration of an instrument, as Basanta describes it, raises the question of instrumental practice and virtuosity. Instruments like the violin, the guitar or the drums can take several decades to be mastered. Certain inventors like Jean-François Laporte will spend their whole life mastering their instruments, but this is less an issue for a digital artist like Myriam Bleau. She says that virtuosity finds its meaning with the public if it knows the instrument. Traditional instruments bear a historical, cultural and semantic background with which the public is familiar, which is not the case with digital music instruments the public does not know.
For Gabriel Dharmoo, the task of mastering an invented instrument amounts to composing as a chore. “I love the rehearsals, working with the performer. But I hate composing. It’s hard! The process of making art should be enjoyable.” Basanta agrees: “At times, I feel like I’m punishing myself for months.”
The discussion ended on the question of the legacy of the digital works—their longevity—and more precisely of their archival value. For Patrick Saint-Denis, the fact that certain performances are realized with software doomed to be obsolete within five years brings us closer to a certain form of hi-tech oral tradition. How do artists deal with the possibility of seeing their works disappear? Nicolas Bernier argues that his performances are not made to be seen in any other way than live and that some works are difficult to archive. CMC Québec’s Regional Director Claire Marchand reacts to that by saying that a work not archived is a loss from the point of view of the collective heritage. She insists on the importance of keeping a thread through history. After all, that is what she does on a daily basis; the CMC is currently working on the digital transfer of 8000 works stored in its vault. Scores, VHS tapes … some of these works date as far back as 1920!
More familiar with composition for instruments, Dharmoo says that this notion of legacy was particularly important during his studies at the Montreal Conservatory of Music. “One must create something that works on all angles. We question every note we write because this will be preserved. This is what we leave to history!” And he criticizes this approach typical of white western culture. Adam Basanta argues that the score, the ideal piece of archives, is not really the piece. It is only a piece of the puzzle, it offers a glimpse of the work but doesn’t allow us to really grasp it: “If you weren’t there to hear it, then you haven’t experienced it.”
Erin Gee closes the discussion by sharing her experience in fine arts and computer music where archiving has taken on many different forms. The open source culture, where the code to realize or modify a program is free to use, allows us to share our work rather than our personality which becomes somehow anonymous. In the field of visual arts, one can sell performances simply by sending an email saying, ‘You are authorized to reproduce my work.’ “There are so many rich territories for what documentation means that have already been explored.”