Saturday, November 13, 2010

Freedom and Limitations

This sort of 'grandiose' title isn't trying to be an op-ed piece for New York Times or anything :)  I'm narrowly focusing on something I am working with, with myself and with my students on when you start creating interactive computer music.  Recently I was showing my students at Juilliard my older piece called Polytopia, while discussing the creative process and tools to use.   In the piece I only use basically two techniques, delay and pitch shifting.  As I described in the post about it, I started from having a vision of 6 violinists virtually running around in a Surround 5.1 space while playing like mad :)  Then the technique fell in place--all six 'virtual' violinists need to be independent in realtime with no recorded materials in pitch and in timing; thus the delays, a little bit of realtime sampling and pitch shifting.

When you compose for an acoustic instrument such as a solo violin, you are basically confined to the instrument's mechanical limitations (and yes, even with my range-expanding Subharmonics :)  Let's say, a percussionist with longest limbs with several instruments, and who seemingly have no limitations in the palette of sounds, still has his/her limitations. Within that limitation, you are completely free to be creative.

With computer music, your choices are so vast in choosing what to use.  You are more than free, you are virtually boundary-less.  How do you find yourself to be free creatively, when there is no limitation?   In fact, isn't it even harder to be free, when there is no mechanical limitation?   There is no wonder many "art" computer programs, visual and audio, have some kind of "presets" so the users are not completely lost; there is a starting point of some kind where the users could latch onto at first.   But doesn't pre-made-by-someone-else "presets" limit the individual freedom and creativity?   Can a person with body sensors, internet, 100s of banks of sound with high-power computer or smart-phones, make equally as amusing and creative performance as a guy in the subway plucking away on an upside-down tin bucket with one rope attached, an instant bass?   Who is creatively "freer", the computer performer or the bucket guy?  :)


Bernd Buerklin said...

The freedom is internal, not external, it is inside of us and not determined by the tools we are using. I believe that modern technology is so challenging exactly BECAUSE it gives us unlimited choices AND loudly proclaims it to us. We go crazy, insane, unable to choose, what if the choice is wrong (see your previous post about this)?
Ultimately it is the knowledge of the possibilities that can paralyze us.
For myself I found that I have to drop all knowledge and come from a place of not knowing, then I get the most satisfying results. And then it does not matter if I hit two fallen sticks together or create a vastly complicated piece of computer code to generate sounds.
The freedom is ultimately always within, and the limitations are found outside of us.
Anecdote: I recently went shopping in a brand new huge Whole Foods here in LA, and I felt like I was going insane, the choices were insurmountable. Shelves upon shelves of the same stuff! You want water? we'll give you a whole shelf of all kinds of water! You want organic ground cinnamon? We'll give you five different brands, packages and weights!! When I left I was shaken, my brain burned out!

Mari Kimura said...

Bernd, exactly! I wrote a piece in 1997 called "Carrefour" while I lived in France, since I got exactly the same feeling you get at the Whole Foods. (Carrefour is a French mega-shopping center) The vast vast possibility is really paralyzing, isn't it?

When go to Whole Foods here, for me it's like a perfect self-loathing moments--all the hunger and starvation in the world, it just simply feels WRONG.... although I can get anything there, I don't go that often. It just makes me feel so uneasy!!

variable said...

I usually refer to this as "option anxiety."

Bernd Buerklin said...

Yes, I know Carrefour! Your piece must be mental!!
Take my accordion: I have been improvising on it for 35 years, exploring the sounds one can make acoustically. When that was not enough I amplified it and ran the signal through effects processors. Then I found that the microphone system was not good enough, I installed a state-of-the-art microphone system. Took me weeks to fine-tune it and finalize it. When it was done I tried it, was great, unplugged it with sudden boredom and started playing acoustically again, finding new ways I didn't know about yet.
In addition the technical malfunctions and limitations of my equipment also contributed to this.
Then I purchased a shakuhachi and am now sitting around practicing flute, admiring the simplicity of the tool and the vast variety of outcomes it can produce.
No doubt I will at some point pick up the accordion again, plug it in, turn it loud and be amazed and blown away. Or maybe amplify the shakuhachi!
Such is the human experience.

Mari Kimura said...

I think it's heathy to try to limit the mechanics to get back in touch with limitations from time to time :) You have only one bamboo stick with holes, and you have to make music out of it, that would be free of "option anxiety" as "variety" said...

Ben Carey said...

Hi Mari - as always a very pertinent post - I can completely identify with your sentiments regarding your workflow.

I am finding this very same thing myself currently in my own work. Choice in this day and age - in general, and in working with technology - can be paralysing to say the least. Giving yourself limitations does definitely feel like the best way to feel 'free' in a sense - and when the need arises - breaking those limitations will be much more satisfying and perhaps productive than staring the prospect of endless choice in the face - structure and confines - giving yourself a brief to work within.

I'm building an improvisational interactive system myself in Max at the moment - and this is certainly proving a challenging undertaking. I can identify with what you're saying as I'm currently trying to limit analysis, synthesis and control parameters to give myself these much needed limitations...

I know you improvise regularly - have you built improvisational systems yourself also? If so I'd be interested to know how you have tried to overcome these issues in designing systems and working improvisationally with the computer.

Thanks again for thought provoking reading

Mari Kimura said...

Thanks for your comment--I have in fact tried to do improvisation systems, but as I described in my later post about OMAX ( ) IRCAM has this system which is still under development that promises quite versatile results. It is still not quite "listening" on its own and human computer operator aside from the performer is required to "perform" the computer, and to me that is not good enough. But I think it will get there eventually. I hope!

Ben Carey said...

Yes I've read quite a bit about Omax - interesting program looking forward to trying it out one day. I read you post - what lucky students you have to have the opportunity to play with such a system!

I'm definitely of the view that the performer should be able to interact with the computer sonically without any other human intervention - a difficult but exciting prospect!