Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rehearsing interactive computer music for classical performers

I've been on hiatus from the blog, as I've been organizing home parties, inviting close friends for dinners, house-guests, the usual holiday fair plus the kids out of school, and the NYC blizzard which doesn't help :)   I'm also working on a MaxMSP program for cellist Joel Krosnick this week, for him to perform Ralph Shapey's Solo, Duo, Trio.  Joel approached me earlier in the year, since he wanted to perform this work interactively.  The piece is written for solo cello, over-dubbing twice.  He has been performing it with the recording of himself playing the 1st and 2nd parts, but Shapey explicitly said that he wanted this to be done live.

Since the piece is entirely written, it probably is a good candidate to "score follow" to make this piece interactive.  But score following, as I described in my earlier post, to me is rather unmusical performance wise.  For the computer to "follow" all the notes and beats in order to accompany a human player seems quite unnecessary and too complicated since the human performer can perfectly "follow" the sound itself than following the score, which is just the representation of what is actually happening with the "flow" of the music.  So I'm doing something a lot simpler, and it is not too difficult to do technically.  But rather, I'm spending a lot of time on rehearsal schemes.

Since Joel will be alone on stage, and there will be no human assistance on or off the stage, AND he has no hands so to speak--he is playing the cello--he needs complete autonomy.   That goes without saying for the performance patch, but what I'm trying to do is for him not to have to use both hands to touch the computer even during the rehearsing of the piece.  He has his instrument on his left hand as I do my violin, so the only possibility to touch the computer is the right hand, or even one finger of the right hand while he is still holding the bow.   I'm trying to make the system that's versatile as possible for him that only thing he will have to do is just to type a few keys to rehearse, not even scroll the mouse, drag and click the mouse or anything like that.  While I was at IRCAM this summer, the first thing I asked the team to do was to consider me hand-less; many computer programs require the operator to use two hands or type, and that's not good enough for a string player interacting with a computer, not to mention on stage, but also during the rehearsal. I think.

Since I primarily program for myself up until now, I don't have to be so caring about the performer's needs and I can put up with my own un-elegant programming :)  But this time around, and for my new piece for the Cassatt Quartet, I am learning to take more care of the interface that musicians, who are not used to operating interactive systems, will be able to use it with ease.   The system I'm working on, Joel could rehearse from where ever in the piece he wants with a stroke of a key or two, without having to put down his bow.   I'm trying to write the Max patch so that there will be no scene where he needs two hands to touch the computer.  Well we will see if it works!  :)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Visualizing Music vs. Physical Competence

As I mentioned, I just received a 2010 Fromm Commission to write for a quartet and interactive computer.  I have been thinking for quite a while, how to go about it.   When I compose, I think I tend to visualize the performance even before the piece is written.  That is to say I actually see the quartet on stage, with a computer on the side, and start listening (in my imagination) what and how they are playing.  It might seem strange, since the piece is not yet written down on paper.   But for me, when I have the clear visualization on how they are sounding, the rest, putting down notes etc. is very fast and easy.  On the other hand, if I start from writing down notes themselves before I am able to visualize the performance, which I also have done in the past, the compositional process takes a lot longer and not necessarily with the best results.  I think I'm trying to listen to the musical logic or the "flow" of music which I described before, or see how the "Magic Carpet" is flying, even before I put down the notes.

My proposal stated that I would write the work so that the quartet is completely autonomous on stage, without the need for the 3rd person or assistant to be "performing" the computer.  At the moment, I'm "visualizing" how this is going to be done.  I am somewhat fatigued by the conventional "score following", which happens a lot in computer music.  For me, making the computer follow a score is not very interesting; why would I want to do that, instead of a having a real person to do the same?  Instead I would be more interested in creating a behavior itself, and having computer interpret musical expression, creating more symbiotic relationship with the human players.

When I'm doing this visualization of music, so to speak, I often am rather physically decapacitated.  I would be loading a dishwasher, (which seems to be a good time for visualization or imagining my musical schemes) my hands are stopped in mid-air holding dishes, water running in the sink, and I'm as if the time has stopped, standing there frozen.  It must be very funny to witness this, as my daughter who found me in this state and laughed, "Mommy, you stopped!"   I would be cutting something like a broccoli, a knife in my hand and I'm stopped mid-way through the vegetable.   If I do this "visualization" work on the subway, I miss my stops, take a wrong train, get out from a wrong exit; all kinds of real-life small catastrophes happen.

I have been curious why this happens to me, and it seems that I'm "slowing down" time in my head, listening to what I'm creating, almost like a slow-motion.  That seems to be the explanation to why I seem to lose track of time and focus in real-life.  There is a time-stretching going on inside my head which stops my real-life kinetic movements!   I'm also curious, when we day-dream, is this what we are doing, stretching time in our heads?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

"Hopping" onto the next

Well, not exactly because today is my birthday, but I just had kind of a visual thought of "hopping on to the next"  :)

Yesterday at Juilliard I video-taped my students trying IRCAM's improvisation system called Omax, on a special stand-alone version created for me this summer.  That is to say, Omax is usually operated by an off-stage operator, or "computer performer" (see this online presentation on IRCAM page).  However, I wanted everything to be operated from my violin without assistance, using my various data alone without the 3rd person; I want a compete autonomy on stage.  So Benjamin Lévy of the Musical Representation team at IRCAM created this special stand-alone version for me this summer.

Omax is not "listening" to the behavior of the performer, but rather it analyzes incoming sounds,  then chooses and segments your sound on its own and plays back.  So, in a way, it is "listening" but the musical decisions are not truly made based on the continuous input; that is the role of the "computer performer".  The computer operator is the "ear", who can control many parameters in realtime and can "perform" with the player.   In my "stand-alone" version I used, to create my new piece called Viomax this summer which I premiered in NYC this October, I control some parameters on my own via pitch, loudness and bowing detections.

Even with this limitations, i.e., there isn't anyone "home" so to speak, a performer could create quite an interesting performance.   To attest to this, both my students and myself, can go on for quite a while without losing musical interest, ending up playing with Omax and create interesting results.  It could create quite an engaging musical performance scenarios on the spot, provided that the "live" person is quite accommodating to the Omax's behavior.   Since Omax plays back what you played, but perhaps not in the strict order you did and keeping the history of your improvisation in the memory, the "playback" could be compositionally interesting.  But by chance.    That means that it still could be NOT interesting.  The reason why us performers can go on despite of this, is that when Omax does something that is rather 'out of context' or musically not expected, a skilled performer/improvisor could adjust the trajectory of the music, correct and carve the path of past-present-future, or just to "Hop On" to the next on the fly, ending up making sense of the music at hand.  It still boils down to the human performer's musical will.   I look forward to continuing working with IRCAM on this, and to develop this paradigm in the future.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Both sides of the fence

This week, I'm finding myself in two opposite sides: I'm evaluating projects as a music juror and I'm writing a proposal for myself for a grant application.  This is not uncommon for musicians, but it makes you think.

When you apply for grants, I find it easier for those who read it, that the proposal is concrete and specific as possible.  As a juror, it is not easy to go through paragraphs of work description written in philosophical or metaphoric manner, or too vague, covering too wide a range of possibilities, or overly elaborate in manner.  In fact, when you see that kind of a proposal, the juror's task seems to become more like deciphering what is really being proposed there.

To save both sides the trouble, the best way is to read the application guidelines as carefully as possible, and try to find out first, if the grant or the venue is truly the match for your project and proposal.   Of course there are other reasons for people to apply: money, prestige or both.  But without the concrete purpose and the matching of the grantee and grantor, the chance of success isn't very good.  At least that is what I am seeing.

Now, I'm also on the other side, having to apply for a grant.  Sometimes, a particular grant is indeed, asking for something grander, vast in scale and long term.  So far my compositional projects have been quite limited to my own (violin), and I have had just a few big-scale proposals that went through, namely a work for Youth Symphony which received New York State Council on the Arts grant, and a Violin Concerto, my first orchestral work I wrote for myself using Subharmonics, which received Jerome Foundation grant.   These are projects that are bigger than one violin, but nevertheless, limited in scale, in terms of timing and scope.   For the first time I am having to think in longer term with different aspects, and it is a little overwhelming.

Some grantors maybe actively seeking for something grander in scale, rather than a composition of "usual fair".  I might have to go elaborate, philosophical, and metaphoric this time.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Birthing a Project, and Choosing the Tools

This week, I am doing some paperwork.  I am on a music jury reviewing some proposals which is due soon.  I am also finally getting to finish the progress report from my residency at IRCAM this summer, which is also due.  I am also at the moment, beginning stage of several compositions, including two commissions: a duo with cellist Joel Krosnick, and for the Cassatt String Quartet.   And, I am also working with several students at Juilliard on building their projects.   In another words, this is a week of "birthing" the projects.

I think composers approach a new project in different ways.  Sometimes, especially when you are starting out, you might feel overwhelmed, and the overwhelming feeling could get multiplied when it involves technology, as the possibilities are just too vast, as I mentioned in my earlier entry "Freedom and Limitations".   In one of these cases, I have suggested to some students who claims to be "stuck", in fact, to start writing the program notes first! :) Composers compose because they have desire to express, before they know which tools, motifs, the building blocks they will use.  Sometimes, it is useful to spell it out trying to explain to others what you are trying to express, which could help in fact, in choosing the tools you need.  It's like watching my children play; sometimes the tools are already in front of them, for example, a play-dough, and the tools themselves inspire them to create.  Sometimes the play-dough gets to be combined with something that happen to be lying around, such as wooden blocks or LEGO (yikes!), and become multi-media productions.

Sometimes they have something specific they want to make, and they seek the tools they need to make that happen.  And when the tools turn out to be unavailable, (such as scotch tapes this mom fiercely guard against being exploited!) they go to the end of the earth to find the substitute for their projects.  Or sometimes, when they only have sticks, leaves and stones in the field, they still manage to create a theater if they want to.   The will and desire to create, and functions that enable them, are most important; the tools are always of secondary importance.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Obituary: Yumiko Kano (鹿野祐美子)

My mother emailed me yesterday that she received a "Deferred New Year's card" from the parents of my best friend from Toho School named Yumiko Kano, that their daughter has passed away back in March.  In Japan we still have the tradition of sending New Year's card, which is to precisely arrive on January 1st, called "Nenga-jo" (年賀状).  However, when you have a death in the family, we send in the greetings in advance.  I was quite shocked that I didn't learn of her passing until now.

Yumiko was a composer/pianist.  As a young teenager she was a class ahead of me at Toho School, and was at the top of the ear training class.  Toho School's Music School for Children (like Juilliard' Pre-college) was where you get the most rigorous western musical education in Japan.  Yumiko was at the highest level which means that she could pretty much sight-read orchestra scores on the piano perfectly, transpose, improvise, solfage, analyze and compose in any style on the fly.  We became friends, and I have performed her compositions, when not many violin students were playing composition students' works. I was introduced to courses in harmony, orchestration, analysis that "normal" violin students wouldn't take at Toho School.

Part of the reason which put us together, was a rare group of composers who formed a "mountain climbing club" at Toho School!  I wanted to join the club, and they made it a condition that I perform their pieces :)   Imagine, these rather geeky group of composers had an odd member, the only violinist :)  I fondly remember our trips in high mountains, chased by approaching thunderstorms, cooking on mountain tops, sleeping in cabins together.  Yumiko taught me how to climb for a long time without much effort, the method I still use to climb up stairs.  You basically "roll" from one to the next step, without pausing, carrying your weight from one to the other.   It curiously has a lot in common with music and rhythm.  We spent hours discussing the difference between how Asians (Japanese) and westerners walk, and the kind of steps we take, influence the rhythmical interpretation.  We talked about shoes worn by westerners; the tip of their shoes are curved upward, where Japanese shoes are not, since Japanese don't walk the same way as the westerners.  Japanese were used to wearing sandals for a long time, and our clothing: kimono, didn't allow us to walk the same way for generations.  And we discussed how this traditional Japanese character might be influencing when Japanese perform western music.  I make use of our discussion today for my own performance and phrasing in music.

Yumiko and I performed a lot together; she was a formidable pianist as well.  She went on to study at the Conservatoire in Nice, France after Toho School.   She leaves behind 2 CDs published in Japan: "The Seasons of High Attitude Plants", and "Quatre Tableaux Féeriques"(4 pictures of Féeriques) for four-hand piano, which won her the 1st prize at the 2nd International Composition Competition for Piano Duo in 1992 in Japan.    These works are published from Ongaku-no Tomo ("Friends of Music"), the prime music publishing house in Japan.   The program include:  Quartre Tableaux Féeriques-Chansons de France pour les Petits Français, Fantasie sur les Thèmes des Alpes, Sept Vielles Chansons: Veilles Chansons et Rondes, accompanied by her advice notes on performance.  (Ongaku-no Tomo, No. 438610)

Yumiko taught at Toho school, and performed and taught widely in Japan.  This Amazon link is in Japanese unfortunately and it says it is out of stock, but says will be filled shortly.  Above is the CD of this work,  available on Amazon.  It is published from a Japanese company called Nami Records, which lists a contact info. The CD number is WWCC-7264.  The aforementioned "The Seasons of High Attitude Plants"is WWCC-7361.

Yumiko also published piano textbooks, which are quite amazing, including pieces like "Let's have fun with *mixed time signature*", "combined rhythm, 2 against 3, 3 vs. 4, etc", illustrating uniquely and clearly through her compositions, quite advanced musical concepts for children.  The scores are in two volumes, "Expressive Piano Lessons" book 1 and 2. (Also Ongaku-no Tomo, but I couldn't find it in the website. I have them)

Yumiko leaves behind her parents, after a long battle with breast cancer.  She fought very hard for several years, after it metastasized to her spine.  She researched all the radio-active hot springs and knew all the data, measurement that she needed to slow down her cancer.  The last time we spoke, she rather joyfully explained to me in length the locations of hot springs, which extended to Taiwan I think, and the radiation levels, how often, how long she should go into the hot spring etc.  It was very analytical and typical of Yumiko, that she took her condition quite scientifically and dealt with it as the best she could.

The news of her passing slowly is marking me as the end of an era in my life, although she passed away last March.   I owe her our countless hours of lively questioning and discussions, thinking and searching of music.   I miss her terribly, and I celebrate the life and contributions of Yumiko Kano.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Subconscious vs. Conscious Performance and Composition

I have always noticed when I have a performance, if I am completely focused, or "with it" so to speak in my head during the performance, the performance itself to the audience, isn't necessarily the best (!).

On the other hand, when I am slightly distracted because of the nervousness or other reasons, and not necessarily "with it" every single minute of the performance, the outcome to the audience seems better.

In the first scenario, I am personally very satisfied that I was "with it" perfectly and did everything I was supposed to do.  I assume the audience felt the same and were happy.  In the second scenario, often I'm a little disappointed with my own lack of concentration and not sure of the outcome, and assume that audience was able to tell my unfocussed-ness.

It isn't so.   I have found time and again, audience's responses are opposite to my own perception, at least to a certain degree.  It seems that when I am too "with it" there is some kind of area, a subconscious area of performance that isn't there.   I'm too close to the performance, and my focus and concentration, in fact limit subconscious freedom to take wing. On the other hand, even if I'm a bit space-out or unfocused or lose concentration (*if* I am technically well prepared) it seems to give that subconscious level of freedom in performance that audience appreciate.  It is very difficult to explain but I don't know how else to describe it.

Now, I'm wondering.  Is there a parallel to this in composition?   Improvisation, yes I believe.  But a written composition, planned and laid out, is there a room for composer to be working on the subconscious level, and if so, how would the listener respond?

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Flow Following" not "Score Following"

I just put up a YouTube video from one of the demonstrations I did in Berlin recently.  It's basically an "automatic accompanist" thing, which, musically doesn't interest me at all; why would you not want to use a human pianist?   I made this demo in the summer at IRCAM during my residency in Paris, just to illustrate that there maybe an alternative to the tradition of "score following" in computer music, where people have been developing sophisticated systems to detect pitch, beat, rhythm etc. in order for computer to "follow" the human player.  Although "score following" doesn't interest me as a musical tool in interactive music, I wanted to show that it is the "musical flow" which is more crucial to performance than notes and beats themselves.

When I thought about it, I just imagined how do we, in fact, performers "follow" the other player during performance.  We do listen to the pitch, beat etc., but we don't really try to match note by note without the "flow" of the music.  We are following the "flow" of music that notes and beats and the rest of it "fit" inside.

So my approach was, to create the "flow" using the bowing motion sensor, in a very "violin" way, by simply tracking a "sustaining" motion, which carves the "flow" of the phrases.  The result, with this very simple "one trick pony" approach, was surprisingly accurate.   Today people still ask "How are you tracking this?" even though I repeatedly say there is no "tracking" or "score following" involved.

In the MaxMSP program I have used some of the "common sense" of performance, such as setting the the minimum and maximum tempo.  No sane performer would slow down or speed up beyond the acceptable musical limits, for example :)   So no matter how I try to speed up or slow down using the bowing "sustaining" motion, there is a "limit".  In this video therefore, I am simply controlling the tempo within those limits.

The mathematics behind the system was created by Nicolas Rasamimanana of the Realtime Musical Interactions Team at IRCAM.  We worked together to come up with the correct calibration which was the most time consuming part.  Nicolas is also a violinist, so it was so easy for him to understand what I wanted.  When I first approached him with this idea, what he said was, "But we already have that function, although we never thought of using it this way!"  There is however, a hand-drawn calibration table I made inside the program where I listened and tried so many times to get the scaling just right.  And that really is user-specific.

For those who are in computer music, in this demo I am running MaxMSP inside Ableton LIVE's Max for LIVE, using API to simply control the tempo of the quantized MIDI piano sequence.    By the way, the piece I'm playing for this demo is "Eu Te Amo" by Tom Jobim and Chico Buarque.  It is a very soothing music perfect for me trying over and over again calibrating :)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Categorizing and Labeling

As a musician, a performer/composer who comes from a classical violinist background who is also composing, I face this almost everyday: labeling and categorizing of my identity as a musician.

I am not frustrated, but rather puzzled.  People have the need to put you into a "line" or a "box" where it can be "shopped" in stores.  A few weeks ago I posted about "Head Space" saying that I have known performer/composers who stopped performing other people's music.  I was thinking in particular about one person whom I looked to as kind of a model, although he isn't a violinist.   Yesterday I was told that this person HAD to stop performing other people's music in the 70s and 80s, since that was the only way to be taken seriously as a composer!!!!  WHAT. THE....

I am not sure if this is entirely true, but 3 decades later, if I am puzzled being asked, "So, you are a performer.  AND a composer, right?"  as if that is something extra-terrestrial (never mind Vivaldi, Corelli, Paganini and the gang) I am just wondering, WHEN in the world, this "categorizing" has become a norm, and being both performer and composer in classical music world has become a novelty; just in the 1900s?

If I were in charge of conservatory education, I think I would like to see that all performers are REQUIRED to compose and improvise, both.  You learn so much about performance by understanding composition, or the process of composition.   I am not saying that all performers need to be Ligeti or Boulez :)  But wouldn't it be so much more fun to liberate ourselves creatively?   On the other hand, "all composers must interpret and improvise" might not work, but still they are, as I hope, required to play at least one instrument.  I do think though, if a composer could be an instrumental performer at the level who can give a public performance, that might actually help their compositions.

Would it be possible to have a structure where performance and composition world can have more fluid relationship?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Performer / Composer

Today, I received another surprising and humbling news that I was awarded the Fromm Commission 2010.  I submitted the proposal specifically for composing for the Cassatt String Quartet, which I also posted about last month on their kids-friendly concert.  (I said "another" news, since in this astonishing one year, I not only received the IRCAM residency, but also the Guggenheim Fellowship)

I was revisiting my proposal to Fromm, which stated that I would compose an interactive piece for the quartet, which doesn't require a computer operator or assistant on stage or off-stage, but a stand-alone computer system that would work when they take it on tour.   I also stated that, as a violinist who has been composing for myself mainly and have been working with interactive systems, I would have intimate knowledge of the strings as well as interactive performance.

This time, I am embarking on a strictly "composer" role.  I have composed limited amount of pieces where I did not perform, but mostly, even I wrote for other instruments and orchestra, I was part of the ensemble or I was participating as a violinist.   This new work for the Cassatt, I am totally retired as a performer, letting others play my music without me participating, which makes me feel a little bit in a new territory.

I feel comforted that I have a huge advantage this time, since the first violinist of the Cassatt Quartet is Muneko Otani.  She studied with the same teacher with me, Toshiya Eto at Toho School in Japan.  (Eto was a student of Efrem Zimberlist at Curtis, and is the first Japanese violinist to give his Carnegie Hall recital.)  In terms of our violin playing, we are somehow of the "same breed" so to speak.  I know how she would change her bowing strokes, sound quality etc. because she was taught the same way I was.   I am formating my compositions this time not from motifs or materials, but from their sounds, her playing and her sound.  I guess that's a typical performer/composer's approach  :)

Mario Davidovsky, the only composition teacher I ever had, said, "You have to write for performers. If they like your piece they will kill themselves to play it, but if they don't, forget it!"

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Educational" or "indulgent" composition?

I spoke about self-indulgence of improvisation I feel as a listener sometimes, but this is slightly different.   I just listened to a concert with a composition that represents a particular musical theory, and the composition was "showcasing" that theory.   I failed to understand the point of it, it seems, since it sounded to me as if we the audience were being "explained" or "educated" about this theory as a series of tonal experiments, or listening to a demonstration or lecture, making sure that we understand it.

I suppose it is "nice" to be explained, but I actually found this form of composition rather passive aggressive, another kind of "indulgence".   Why would you want to "explain" your theory via music, instead of "expressing" music?  Does the composer seek the justification of his composition or some kind of validation?

I am very curious, since I do "showcase" my Subharmonics technique, composing works for the violin that includes the "lower" pitches and the particular technique I am developing.  In my new album, "The World Below G and Below", I did include a set of 6 "Caprices" for Subharmonics, which "showcase" my various technique, and music is composed to use this technique.  But I hope that I am making those pieces for the sake of music, rather than the showcasing of the experiment, or for the sake of educating the public with my new technique.   I hope that people will hear the music as it is, and not as some kind of an educational experience I'm forcing upon people.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dharma in Hamburg

I'm in Hamburg this week, spending the Thanksgiving in Germany.  It's two years in a row I do this - I was in Munich last year!  I'm Japanese and don't really have much nostalgia with turkey meat, but did bring back fond memories having Turkey with friends.  I do my own turkey sometimes, but my French husband isn't that keen on the turkey taste so much--they don't eat much in France either.   So not knowing how to cook, and having inviting guests for the feast, I cooked a 'practice run' which was a large chicken.  I called it "practice chicken" and made my husband laugh.

Here I am rehearsing with the Hamburg Symphony.  My foot pedal is doing fine, but still adjusting the sound quality of the electric violin, with compressor, filters, reverb, and so many variables.  Funny I don't have to adjust sounds on my wooden box with 4 strings attached at all :)  There is a funny feeling of sound you are not so sure how you are making, and completely in the hands and mercy of speakers and the sound technician at the booth.

The piece is The Dharma at Big Sur by John Adams, performance is tomorrow.  I know the 'philosophical' significance of Dharma but for me, I can't shake the "Daruma-san" I grew up with, or every Japanese child grow up with!  We have games like "Daruma-san, Daruma-san, let's stare at each other, the first one to laugh, loses, 1, 2, 3!!" and we make the funniest faces try to make the other person laugh.  I'm doing that with my kids at home....  I guess he was a very serious guy -- oh well, having to bring ZEN to China, and said to have stared at the wall for NINE years meditating...  :) 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Day of Lists

Obviously I'm taking a mini-hiatus on my blog as I'm leaving tomorrow to Berlin/Hamburg.

More later, on many things but today (Friday) everything has to work like a clock-work, going through my mega-list of "to do", including taking daughter to her doctor's appointment, son's potluck, and oh yes, packing :)

Here is a picture of my DIY (do it yourself) footswitch I will use for my performance in Hamburg, high-heel safe mouse trap! (computer mouse)  It's sand paper, weather tape and rubber sheet which will not slip on wooden floor :)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Head Space

This week I'm in a crises mode  :)  Not really "crises" but I'm preparing intensely for my upcoming concert in Hamburg, Germany.  I'm performing John Adams' "The Dharma at the Big Sur" with Hamburg Symphony on the Thanksgiving day.

Since the early 90s, I started to compose for myself, using violin and violin with electronics.  I started to sculpt my own language, searching for my voice, so to speak.  In the beginning, I was not sure of myself---still today I am often not sure of myself--and in fact I kept, and still keep, a notebook writing everyday asking myself, "What do I feel?"  I was putting myself into a cheap self-therapy :)   Anything that bothered me, I learned to extract what was bothering me, often a social situation.   Those "bothers" I found are actually quite debilitating, and kept me from focusing on my work.  It was more important, still is, that I am emotionally free of worry than trying to come up with a compositional scheme.

Today, things are more systematic and I don't get to the point where I have to ask my notebook "what do I feel?", but rather I make tons and tons of list "to do".  I have a multi-faced life with family, kids, etc and I cannot keep up with everything---my head space is full.  Or I like to say, my "RAM is full"  :)   I like to keep very empty head where I could day-dream:  My 9-yr old daughter probably got it from me saying recently, "Don't bother me, I'm busy DAY-DREAMING!!"  and it's the state I also like to be in :)

Speaking of head-space, and going back to composing for myself:  I have met wonderful musicians, composer/performers who only compose for themselves or others, but stopped performing other people's music.  For me, I absolutely LOVE going into someone else's head-space, practicing someone else's compositions, or getting onto someone else's Magic Carpet.  Not performing others' music, I'm afraid, might narrow my musical understanding as a performer/composer.   There are states of mind, feelings, musical languages that I cannot possibly come up with myself, and it is refreshing to learn them.  It is probably as close as going surgically into someone else's brain, but without blood!   Although I have been composing for myself I would very much like to keep performing as a "musician for hire" performing someone else's music.

As for how I practice, you will have to catch my husband and ask how he feels about it :)  I decided to marry him (in my mind) when I took him to one of my tours performing a recital in Budapest.  I had a concert to give and I had to practice so I sent him off on his own.  A mathematician by training, I thought he would enjoy visiting great Hungarian mathematicians and artists monuments and spots to visit.  He came back very tired, when I was practicing Luciano Berio's Sequenza No. 8 (by the way, the 1976 work, it was me who gave the US premiere in 1994 in NYC!  Nobody touched it until then.  I got a nice hand-written note from Berio.)

Oblivious to my quite a painful repetitive practicing to listen to (I'm sure), he went to sleep with no problem.   It was this moment I thought, OK, if he can survive my Berio practicing, he would survive me and my life!  :)

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?  :)

Friday, November 12, 2010

The taste you don't understand

I went to a concert, a very well attended contemporary music concert.  It was a last-minute thing and I didn't quite know the program nor what to expect, and I went for a pleasant surprise.   In a typical New York city new music concert fashion, the audience included many colleagues and friends.

The concert, which was in the style of semi-written, semi-improvised form, had its good moments, and also I thought, not so good moments.  It wasn't bad, but not extraordinary in my opinion.   However, my company, who are good friends of mine--and we do share good deal of similar tastes in music--were absolutely raving about it as if it was one of the best things they have heard.  Then I realized, this particular company I had, are from an older generation, sharing different taste and history which I didn't belong to.

I do realize that I come from a classical background, growing up with Western classical music in isolated Japan.  I was quite sheltered in an "ivory tower" of elite classical conservatories for a long time.  At present, I do a lot of contemporary music, I do compose myself and consider myself quite open to all kinds of sounds and music.   But this particular concert, and the audience who seemed to have shared the same language and values, I did not understand.  I didn't understand their taste.

I thought about it quite a bit, since I am very curious when I don't understand something.   Then I thought about food.  There is a food I couldn't eat as a youngster--namely Japanese "Natto", rotten or fermented beans.  To a first timer, it simply stinks and some might even think it's gross.  I thought so when I was a pre-teen.  Then one day, I tried it and became very fond of it.  It was an "acquired" taste for me.   Is it possible that what I heard at this concert could be my "Natto"?   It very well maybe.

But then, once I become "used" to the taste, do I forget the part that was revolting or unpleasing?   Suppose I get "used to" the kind of music I heard, and start to understanding it; would I then disassociate from the taste of people who don't find it interesting?   I somehow like to remember that I used to hate the smell of Natto, and now I can eat it or even like it.   I don't think I can find it revolting again.   However, as an artist, I would also like to remember my present and past tastes, and if possible, go in and out of the time past and present, in taste.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Art of Tool Making, Art of Art making

It used to be in the old times, tool makers made tools such as instruments; violin builders were not violinists although surely there were able to play the instrument; they were not artists USING their tools.

Today, especially with computer technology, computer programmers and engineers, many of them are also musicians or at least, composers.  They create their tools to invent their own musical tools, thus of course they would make music using their tools.   In the particular circle of interactive computer technology and electronic music, the tool and the field itself has been somewhat confined to those who can operate them; it is changing rapidly and those of us without the computer science background, can now relatively easily access the latest technology to create music.   It hasn't become as easy as someone sliding in front the piano and start creating masterpieces, but still, it's coming.

The peculiarity of today's tool-driven music making, is that there isn't much time for the tool and the users to mature, tested, evolve etc.  Of course they do, a lot smaller in scale compared to the history of pianos or violins.  And that is OK.  The tool makers have to keep creating tools, for money or getting their "inventions" published for tenure, etc.  Computer operating systems gets upgrade, software companies need to keep churning out new functions and versions.  So there are user groups, forums etc. to keep up with them.  This is simply the fact of economy-driven art today.

Of course the argument "for" these new form of art is that we are creating a new ways of human expression.   We are giving ourselves the new dimension in creating art.   We are not replacing the past, we are continuing the tradition of art making and expanding it.  With the new version and software, comes the new art.  And that's all valid.  

My question is, are the tool makers making as excellent "art makers"? Do the computer-programming "tool makers" who make art, making as good art as an excellent Jazz performer from the streets of New Orleans because of these sophisticated tools?

This isn't very comfortable, but it is a question that has to be asked.  As a friend recently said, the "time" might take care of it---what seems hip and new today, might very well be forgotten in 10 years and those with true lasting power would survive to the next generation.  There are street musicians in New Orleans today, but OS9 is dead   :)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Magic Carpet

I talked about when improvisation fails, or if there is a "wrong note" in improvisation.  I said in more motivic or context-based possible "wrong" note, when improvisation appears not working too well.

When a musical performance--any performance, classical, contemporary or improvisation, isn't working, one way it sounds to the audience, is as if the music is 'losing steam'.    Before you go on stage, or at least before you start playing, either on your own (solo), with accompanist, or with orchestra, i.e. before the music start, I like to see an imaginary stream, like a jet-stream where I'm supposed to hop onto.   To be more substantial, one could imagine a Magic Carpet, which isn't stationary but is coming around for you to hop onto.

The point I'm trying to make is, the movement of music, or the "time" itself is already there before you start playing; it is like a stream of air that's already moving.  You are to get onto that "time stream" while you mold the rhythm of your music in it, but not trying to artificially start or create it.  It is easier that way, to imagine you "join" the already-happening "time stream" to play your first note, rather than trying to get the Magic Carpet float from the ground.

This is probably too abstract but I really don't know how else to describe it.  But if you don't do this "hopping onto the Magic Carpet", or worse, you fall from it during the concert--which happens-- the performance feels as if it has lost its steam.  I have, of course, felt it myself, and it is a bad experience. More than half a year ago, I had a semi-informal concert, which was a small dinner-concert where I ate before I played, which was a mistake.  My attention wasn't really there, and my Magic Carpet fell.  I wasn't interested in my own playing which still remains as a bad memory.

As a performer, a goal is for every performance I give to be a good memory, and not have a bad experience.  That is truly important, since what you did last is what you build upon.  We have to keep the Magic Carpet flying.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Final thoughts on Improvisation: Becoming a "Medium"

When I am on stage performing, I tend to imagine myself disappear. I literally walk out on stage as "Mari Kimura", who is just DELIVERING something to the audience, and not Mari Kimura who PERSONALLY has something to say or to express.

Last month, I posted a thoughts on Having Something to Say.  I was speaking about listening to "boring" performance and wondered why.   When I am performing, I am having something to say, but not myself personally.  This is true in being both as an interpreter and performer/composer or improvisor.

Ever since I was young, I always had a feeling of "separation" within myself; I was floating away and looking at myself from outside.  It used to scare me as a child, and it happened often especially when I was sick or coming down with a cold; it was like almost having a nightmare while being awake.  Curiously, today I have internalized it, and I automatically "externalize" myself when I am performing.  This was a conscious decision, or a form of "self protection" after experiencing years of quite a harsh "stage fright" all through my adolescent years growing up in the most competitive music conservatories.  I became so nervous before performance, I used to almost throw up weeks before concerts, my pulse would become very fast and I would hyper ventilate; it was rather pathetic.  So I had to work on a method to overcome my nervousness.  I read many books on acting, especially Stanislawski.   This subject is for another post, but what I achieved, or what I have become, is to be someone other than myself, when performing.

I stopped being afraid on stage, because I myself wasn't there anymore.  I become someone else, or at least a "Mari Kimura" who is merely delivering the "3rd dimension", the musical flow I talked about, expressing and communicating to the audience.  I become sort of a "medium".   I lost the reason to be afraid on stage, since I have nothing personally at stake; I understood that the reason you maybe afraid on stage, is because you have something personal to lose.  Since I am a "medium", my failure and success depends on how I'm able to deliver as kind of a "middleman" between music and the audience, and "Mari Kimura" myself has really nothing to do with it except to managing it.

In my real life as "Mari Kimura", I like to keep myself quite neutral; there are more flamboyant type of artists whose personal life, demeanor or mannerism maybe more "artiste"; their professional and personal profiles are closely related.  That would probably help my career advanced since people seem to need to put you in a "artist" box, and expect you to act and dress like one!  I really consider myself quite plain in person, not a "performer" in social occasions or parties etc.  I like having a quiet, normal life with my family, except when I am on stage or recording.  Then I become someone else.  Improvisation is the same, and I like being someone else, or a "Medium", completely detaching myself from my quotidian life.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Thoughts on Improvisation (3): Is there a WRONG note?

Let's me think about when improvisation "doesn't work", or at least, from my audience point of view in contemporary free improvisation context (not cultural, ceremonial etc).  Is there a wrong note you can play?

Yesterday I talked about the "3rd dimension" or a kind of musical flow that is not on paper or written notes.  I think that in any performance, classical or contemporary, or any performing arts in that matter, needs this "3rd dimension" that is not on the score or text, to bring the performance to life in order to communicate.  Again, I still have doubts that in some improvisation circles, "communication" may not be the goal.  I just don't know.

When you don't have a score, and let's say that you are performing the "3rd dimension", I do believe you could play it wrong, by somehow losing a thread, or a "train of thought" so to speak.   And that may be equivalent of playing a wrong note.   The performer could go on exploring musical materials for a while, but there comes a time the exploration itself becomes some kind of a purpose of performance, and NOT what you are trying to communicate across.  Again, if the performance is meant to "explore" music in front the audience without the regard to the outcome as a musical performance "communicating" with audience, and if the performer-audience relationship is not based on communication but rather, a performer and a kind of "spectator" who is witnessing the exploration, then those "spectator" maybe satisfied.

The "train of thought" is again, like a conversation; you could be talking about an "egg" (for example, I don't know why! :)  cultural significance, old legends, nutrition or recipes.  The point is, when you are talking about eggs, you probably don't talk about a jeep.  But the fun part is, if you did mention a word jeep in the middle of old ancient Japanese mythical story about eggs, then you could somehow tie the jeep into Sci-Fi-esque story!  And that's the fun thing about improvisation as you probably don't do that in real life.  Or you might not tie that in, and decide to have two completely different, parallel world within your dialog.  But in that case, you would probably want to develop both at the same time.   The point I'm trying to make is, it could be random but it still needs to be presented as such.

But if this isn't the case, those who do not wish to be a spectator who takes a pleasure in witnessing the experimental exploration rather than musical communication, and the audience who feel "trapped" by not being communicated to, are being alienated by the performer?

In that case, I am pretty sure the experimental and free improvisation will surely stay in a very small circle of people who like to spectate, and surely will be difficult to get programmed in main stream concerts where at least some audience expect "communication".  And that very well maybe the way to be.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Thoughts on Improvisation (2): The 3rd dimension

As I continue my Thoughts on Improvisation, today I would like to start to put in words how I try not to be a "self-indulgent" improvisor  :)

Recently I was having a conversation with an artistic director of a prominent institution, who is said to be "friendly" towards improvisation.  However I sensed that, like most people in an established administrative positions, he would be more "comfortable" if a performer like me would comfortably fit myself wearing an "interpreter" hat playing "scored" or "composed" work put down on paper.   This is besides the point, but I think the "fear" among the establishment towards the free improvisation form comes from not really musically understanding what is happening, or one fears that he/she is listening to someone who is making random noise, thus hard to evaluate the performance/performer artistically.  And that is totally understandable.

At IRCAM in September during my exit talk, I said that I now need a "3 dimensional score", adding to what we have now, the two dimension one.  I need the 3rd dimension to describe the "wave" or the "flow" of the music, which moves 3D or maybe even 4D in space (I will talk about this "4th" later).  And this 3rd dimension, in any mode of performance whether it's classical or contemporary or even improvisation, is where the musical performance lies, and what audience is being presented to.  It is this 3rd dimension, the "musical flow" that the performer creates, "interpreting" what has been reduced to 2 dimension by the composer.  It is as if the performer is "re-inflating" the musical flow a composer has imagined, but then forced to shrink down to 2D in order to let others try to understand his/her music.

For me, free improvisation is performing directly in this 3rd dimensional mode, without the 1st and 2nd dimension, the written notes.  In another words, you don't need the specific notes, rhythm and timing spelled out, but directly express what is inside the 3rd dimension.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Thoughts on Improvisation (1)

First off, I said (1) since I probably have a lot to think about.... 

I often think of improvisation as non-verbal communication, speech, or conversation.  "Communication" by default, you have a "person" whom you are conversing with.   That "person" in fact, could be a real one, imaginary one, a dead one, not just one but several people, or even yourself.   There are many schools and tradition of improvisation, and having no so-called 'tradition' such as jazz attached to my background, but just being a so-called "natural" improvisor, I mainly listen to this "conversation".  

People listen to improvisations in different ways.  For me, it is about listening to what is "being said".  I like to think like a dinner table, a dinner conversation with several people.  Two people started to share a topic, or one person started to speak about a topic.  Then they can agree, disagree, talking over each other, speaking in parallel passionately arguing.  Or one can choose not to say anything verbally but silently thinking about it, expressing within him/herself.

When improvisation "works" for the listeners, I think at least one of the above "communication" is somewhat established.  Otherwise, the performance become self-indulgent.  This happens more often, in fact VERY often; the performer starts to improvise in his/her own space, not communicating, and audience is trapped being force-fed the self-indulgent "monologue".   I too often find myself feeling  "trapped" as a listener.  My husband, who is a very open-minded listener of any kind of music, describes it well, "It is as if you are taken as a hostage".

How do you avoid this?  How does one improvise and not be self-indulgent but communicative?  Or, in some improvisation tradition or circles, it is in fact NOT the point to communicate, but indeed to BE self-indulgent?  And some people like listening to the self-indulgence, or don't consider that as a passive-aggressive form of performance? And "like" being taken as "hostage" audience?  

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Listening to something you haven't heard

I've been working with my students at Juilliard, on how to start composing for interactive music.  The conventional paper-pencil developing of musical materials do still work, laying out motifs, planning the total landscape, constructing the architecture with rhythm, melody and harmony of the piece etc.  

However, in interactive computer music, you have to train yourself to listening to something you haven't heard before, or try to imagine it.  I believe it starts much more with the instrument you are writing for; really knowing its characteristics, what it can and cannot do acoustically.  Since there are acoustically "impossible" things you can now do with computers, it is somewhat a difficult task to open your ears trying to listen to somethings that you haven't heard before.   It could very well be very similar to orchestration, imagining instrument combinations, but at this point, a lot has already been done and you could actually get a recording of it.  Better yet, if you want to you could simulate some sounds using samplers!

So how do you listen to something you haven't heard?  Or try to imagine?  I have to say that there isn't much you can do except try things out to the best of your abilities, and the varieties you could think of. The best way to approach would still be "imagining" the abstract character you are trying to achieve, then deduct what you want it to happen electronically.  I do this for my own compositions, but it is difficult to explain to students (or others) how to go about it.   What I'm telling people is to "think of going to Mars" or beyond, such as "If I play C#, I launch a rocket to Mars and I beam in", "Oh and I also want to beam up my teddy bear from the 3rd drawer of a closet in my old bedroom when I lived in Japan 30 years ago" !!! Can I do that?   :)

Monday, October 18, 2010

String Quartet concert for kids!

The Cassatt String Quartet gave a very nice concert this weekend at the Symphony Space in NYC entitled "Arriba!" featuring contemporary Mexican composers.   What made this particular evening special is that they said the concert was FAMILY FRIENDLY!!!!  I took my 9 and 7 yr olds who sat through a full-length evening of contemporary string quartet concert for the first time in their lives.  It wasn't exactly an easy program for kids to sit through, but they did.  There were other children in the audience, and yes, they were some murmurs, soft-spoken-then-hushed comments such as "I'm bored....", and occasional squiggling and walking around, but all in all, I can't thank the Cassatt enough for giving the kids this opportunity.

And it is a brave thing to do, risking some noise while performing which can be very distracting and disrupting, but if you don't nurture the future generation, how would we survive?   

Of course, I was armed with Clif bars (snack bar), husband, and his iPhone which has some games on for them, but still, it was great for my kids to be able to wave at the players at the front row.  There is something to listening to actual acoustic instruments live, instead of sounds coming out of speakers.  You feel the vibration in your body differently, and it is kinetic; it's a physical sensation, and it's an emotional experience seeing someone moving their bodies and making music.  Next up, symphony concerts and opera  :)  well wish us luck!

Friday, October 15, 2010

CD release concert, now putting a different hat on :)

My CD release concert last Sunday went very well, everything worked as it should (well, alllllmmmmosst).   I had one little glitch in a "pedal" piece; I was creating a pedal without a foot pedal sustaining my sounds, which I cut off by my bowing motion sensor.  At one instance the motion sensor failed to track it, so I couldn't turn it off at a first try, so I had to repeat a note.   A friend in the audience said that it was almost better to show that sometimes it fails :)  Here I am doing some demo during the concert, waving my right hand with the bowing motion sensor, IRCAM's Augmented Violin system inside.

But all in all I am quite satisfied with the result of my new pieces, and I have a good ground to develop my works further.  I created three short pieces at IRCAM, sort of in preparation for my new duo work with cellist Joel Krosnick, the cellist of the Juilliard String Quartet.

At the moment, what am I doing?   I am studying Just Intonation, since now I will be wearing a different 'hat', an "interpreter" hat, performing next month in Germany with Hamburg Symphony as a soloist, for John Adams' "The Dharma at the Big Sur" (2003).  I'm studying the solo part, and trying to get my ears into Just Intonation mode.  It is quite ideosincratic I think, if it is done right....  Anyway I like learning something that I haven't heard nor can create on my own, getting into the head-space of someone else's creative mind.   It is thrilling.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The World Below G and Beyond, NEW CD release

On Sunday, October 10th at 7PM, I'm giving a CD release concert at Tenri Cultural Institute in NYC.   My new album is entitled "The World Below G and Beyond" released by the Mutable Music label.  At the concert, I will perform pieces on the album, as well as works using the Augmented Violin system, a bowing motion sensor and analysis program developed by the Real Time Musical Interactions team at IRCAM. I use the Augmented Violin to "clone" my playing, to "changing the past" (or what I call creating the "elastic past"), and to use it as a "sustain pedal" WITHOUT using a foot pedal :)  These new works were created during my stay in Paris this summer.  For further information on the concert program and the CD, please visit:

"The World Below G and Beyond" (Mutable Music) CD release concert
Presented by Electronic Music Foundation and Mari Kimura
Sunday, October 10th at 7PM at Tenri Cultural Institute, NYC
43A West 13th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues

$15 General Admission
$25 for tickets+signed CD
Tickets can be purchased at the door, or Online at:

“Mari Kimura has performed astounding explorations of new sonic territories on the violin, extending its range to The Word Below G and Beyond: this indispensable historic recording retraces her instrumental and compositional inventions.” 
Jean-Claude Risset

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Technology and Performance

Well, this is just about one of my main subjects in life ;)

When there is a division of labor, i.e. performers are "interpreters" and just perform, programmers program, how does one know what could work, or crash your performance?   Since I got into the "car" metaphor at IRCAM :)  if I am a race car driver I would like to know what kind of turns I can make with my car and how fast, and the tricks I can play.  I would like to know what might crash my car if I do certain tricks.

So, although I might not be able to tighten the volts on the car by myself, I would like to know how many times it has to be tightened and how often.  After all you are on the driver seat = you are on stage and you are the one to face the audience.   This isn't about being afraid if things might crash, but is a responsibility to yourself and for your audience.

Of course this is easily said and done... I wish myself good luck next time! :)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Having something to say

When you listen to either a new composition, interpretation of a new composition, traditional classical repertoire, improvisation or anything really, as an audience I listen to what is "being said".   I don't listen to particular patterns, follow pitches analytically or too carefully, but the overall impression of "something being said".

I have seen and heard performers or students with perfect technique, impeccable technical skills but who are utterly boring to listen to.   What is there to teach them?   They are clearly talented, there is nothing else to be learned technically; they have mastered it all.  They might have won competitions and even have a concert career.  But they are boring to listen to.   What does "boring" mean?  To me, it is a performance that has "nothing to say".

Some teachers express their discontentment with comments like "Have more life experience, see the world, fall in love and live your life, then you have something to say!", which, in my opinion, is utterly useless.  Even with all the experiences above, boring musicians are still boring.  I think it is really a technical skill to be more expressive and communicative.  It's a skill that one could acquire to be a more effective performer, and musician.

How could one teach someone to have "something to say"?   I am thinking Stanislawski, or the "method".  Having an emotional context and logic that the listeners could follow.  You need the technique to build that architecture of performance, build the structure, finish it, decorate it and put plants and arts inside.  For some, especially child prodigies, this skill seems to come naturally without thinking. Their world seems in tact perfectly as it is, and there is nothing to be corrected.  That is, until they grow up and start thinking.  Then everything has to be restructured.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A new season, regrouping

Now that we have entered a new school year, and back in NYC, things are grinding along; YES! My new album is FINISHED, and now printing. It is entitled "The World Below G and Beyond: works for Violin Subharmonics and Interactive Computer", coming out next month from Mutable Music label. I am organizing a CD-release concert in NYC on Sunday, October 10th at 7PM. More details later....

On the family front, I have found a wonderful new assistant for my kids, a Francophone Swiss student from Columbia University. I said "assistant" and not babysitter, since I also benefit from practicing my French speaking with her! My husband and I are getting English out of the house, and I'm slowing moving towards Japanese via French :) This way, the kids will speak English to the rest of the world around them but keep the languages of their parents... or at least that's the plan. This means I am speaking French with my kids with my not-so-great grammar....and I feel I'm back in school! It's not easy! :)

There are several other projects I'm preparing at the moment. My life is moving in parallel, and I'm a list maker... my "RAM" is full, so I have to write down everything I have to do. Yet I still forget things. I did miss my medical appointment the day after we came back from France... totally forgot and must reschedule.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Back in NYC, Paris peeves :)

Now everything is quickly coming back to where it was. I'm back home in NYC, and within short 3 days my children and I got haircuts (husband? hmmm...), attended a Gala Fashion show (me?!) organized by the Vilcek Foundation with whom I will be collaborating on a project this year, went to Juilliard convocation and shook hands, both kids went back to school (and here is my poor little boy crying separating from me, and who came back home so happy declaring "What an AWESOME day!!") and I made lunch boxes at 7AM. I switched my Parisian "carnet" (subway ticket) to Metrocard, and I think now my re-assimilation as a New Yorker is complete :)

I am at the final editing phrase of my upcoming solo CD "The World Below G and Beyond" (Mutable Music label) booklet before it goes to print, reading and re-reading the program notes, finding little things here and there every time. There should be an end to this! :) This is the culmination of all my works using Subharmonics, as well as some interactive computer works. I'm very nervous about casting any of my work in stone!

Now that my life in Paris is over, and those of you who have been reading my posts know how much I loved my time there. What I haven't done however, is to list the 'peeves', the reason why Paris will probably remain a place where I would LOVE to VISIT, but not to settle or to live in a long term.

Peeve No.1: SMOKE.
This is perhaps the biggest one, which might seem silly to some people. Although my mother-in-law assures me it was because of the summer and people are more outside, I just cannot, can NOT get used to smoking one cigarette a day by just second-hand smoking on the street. Wouldn't it be so nice if I could just sit outside and enjoy a cup of coffee and delicious croissant in a picturesque Parisian café looking at the beautiful architecture... and when I do it, BANG! the whole experience gets ruined by the first-thing-in-the-morning cigarette-breathing experience. I went out very little for breakfast (I think only once) and ate at home. France is a country of tolerance, I understand. Then I really cannot belong to a place where non-smokers aren't tolerated but smokers are. Although there are now laws to prohibit smoking in public places, they still smoke in public places and they ARE tolerated. My husband told me to "Just get used to it". I can't, and I won't. Now I'm breathing easier here in Manhattan.

Peeve No.2: Subway :)
After getting squashed several times in those strange but powerful rubber-encased glass doors that open and shut at the most mysterious timing after you insert your 'carnet', I learned to time myself 'musically' (it seems it's a dotted-quarter note in q=86 tempo LOL!) not to get squashed. This might be speaking volumes for French culture of "control". In NYC subway, after you swipe your Metrocard, the turnstile is activated and you are free to go WHEN YOU CHOOSE to go through. You are in control. In Paris, after you insert and collect your carnet, it is the DOOR THAT DECIDES the timing when you are allowed to pass through. IT has the control, not you. UPDATE: just come to think of it, Tokyo metro works the same as Paris.

Peeve No.3: More Subway :)
There are now the newest subway cars that have automatic doors, which open after the subway comes to a complete stop. But the most of them have either a button or a little lever handle that the passengers open on their own, when the subway comes to a NEAR stop. The result is that the subway is usually still moving when someone opens the door. I'm surprised there aren't many accidents especially involving children. Then I didn't see that many children on the subway as we do here in NYC. My husband said small kids don't really get out of the areas where they live, and they really don't have much need to get on subways. It scares me a lot, and glad I didn't have to bring up my kids there. Now, contrary to the Peeve no.2, this seems to giving too much 'control' to the user. What gives?!

Peeve No.4: La Poste
I understand, it is a governmental post office/bank combined, very protective of people and has good rates. But I really would like my husband to close that account, since he cannot get a credit card to his own account (since he doesn't live there) and I, his wife but non-French citizen, have no right to the account. However I could deposit my IRCAM salary as much as I wanted there. What a business model :) So we had to go around them for me to use my own money, using husband's debit card. UPDATE: Husband says it's the same in all French banks.

Peeve No. 5: Division of Labor
This is quite general, and there must be exceptions. But my impression is that France is a country where things are done by people who are only 'qualified' to do so. You aren't allowed to touch, change, modify, even think about things that don't belong to your expertise, or what they call your 'métier'. Of course, the upside is the superb quality control; just anyone's sister-in-law can't be selling bread in France, you have to be 'qualified' to do so. Things are controlled. The downside, which makes me feel stifling, is the lack of freedom to move 'horizontally' in society. A mathematician cannot be bakers. Probably a bright neuroscientist aren't that encouraged to becoming a violinist (see David Soldier/Dave Sultzer). Even at IRCAM, engineers don't 'do art', and composers don't program; they have 'assistants' who help them. In NYC I do everything, mostly by necessity. I do everything from composing, programming, producing, and performing. By doing so I learn a lot about all aspect of music I make, and I like it that way for myself. Although I do hope that things are slowly changing, I cannot belong to a place where I have to do only one thing that I'm 'supposed to do'. Life is short. My friend Martha sent me this interesting article about French education system.

Peeve No. 6: Cobble stones
This is what the charm of Paris, France is, I'm sure. The cobble stones on the streets. It's HELL for my feet and my heels. I just don't understand how French women walk on those things with those beautiful shoes. I guess I'm not trained right.

UPDATE: And now my husband is saying I have become FRENCH, as I complain like this LOL!!!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Final Day in France

This is my last France posting, after 3 weeks of hiatus towards the last-spurt, my 'exit' presentation at IRCAM on Thursday, giving the Radio France interview. In the end, EVERYTHING WORKED :) And that is how it should be... and that is why I double, triple, quadruple+ times check and re-check until things run 150% of the time, since that is the only way you can be sure it runs 100% of the time. Anyone who had a conservatory training like I did, won't think twice about this discipline and I apply it to my own interactive performance. This is crucial especially when you work with Prototypes, since the builders want to constantly improve their mechanisms but I have a performing deadline. And it's hard.... Here is my main collaborator Frédéric Bevilacqua who made last-minute adjustments for me. The presentation was filmed and will be posted on IRCAM website, which I will share with you once it is up. Here is one of my slides, illustrating the two methods: things that should be but might not work ("Lamborghini") and the way I would go around it to make it work ("Toyota"). After working with four European men (French, German, Swiss and Italian!) for the entire summer I became one of the 'guys' :)

One thing though, struck me, similar to the feeling I got earlier in my stay here after listening to the formidable performance of Ensemble InterContemporain. There was a question at my presentation at IRCAM which was, "What is the FEAR factor?" for me performing interactive music, of being afraid something won't work on stage. Although I answered that I am usually with a violin, a box with 4 strings attached and have to make sure to change the string, this question saddened me. Since when, music, or musical performance, has become something to be afraid of? Of course there is 'stage fright', but this is something more serious. Music is supposed to be fun and joy. There are enough things in life to be afraid of. Fear, is when your young son has a burst appendix and lying helplessly inside an ambulance, or being told that you have a cancer and have to see an oncologist to get chemotherapy. I know these fears (my cancer was relatively benign, 12 yrs ago). Compared to these real-life events, music is just music, nobody is dying, or getting hurt. If musical experience connects to fear, what is the point of it?

Radio France interview was also a lot of fun, and considering after I had consumed three servings of Sake I served for the after-talk reception at IRCAM, I survived. After I recorded a few items in a studio at Radio France during which everyone spoke in English for me, my sweetest Radio host Bruno Letort declaired "Mainetenant, on parle QUE en Français!" (now we only speak in French). I am quite mortified with my first interview in French and kind of glad I will be sitting on the plane when it will be on the air tomorrow, but alas, it will also be on the internet... :)

I also had visitors and a bit of social life as well; my friend from Japan and today's premiere concerto soloist, Kyoko Takezawa who now lives in Paris, came to visit IRCAM and tried my system, then we went for lunch. We shared a same babysitter in NYC, but never had time to spend such a day together. I also demo-ed my subharmonics for her. Here is Kyoko wearing my sensor glove. As a violinist of the top-caliber, she understood immediately what I was doing with the bowing sensor for musical expression.

Also a good friend and French composer Marc Battier invited me to his home for dinner in Neuilly, and there I made a delightful acquaintance with an Opera composer John Eaton and his wife visiting from New Jersey. We'd forgotten to take pictures, until we were in Marc's garage on the way home, and I thought that it's better later than never :)

All in all, my 3-months life in Paris was spectacular. You have to remember that I am usually a stay-home mom, and this was a once-in-the-lifetime opportunity for me to devote my time entirely to my work, all thanks to my extraordinary support system; my parents-in-law in Picardie, who kept my children, and most of all my husband, who let me do what I do, who worked in NYC for 2 months without his family. I loved living in Paris, its food, architecture, food, pastries, and food :) I was treated so well at IRCAM and I feel I did what I set out to do, thanks to the Real Time Musical Interaction Team, all of whom went out of their way to accommodated and supported me. We now have a standing collaborative relationship, which we will be continuing without missing a beat.

I am however, equally glad to go home, to get back into my own life in NYC, to get back to reality.

Since this is my last French post, you have to bear with me; I needed a lot of help from the marvel of French pastries. Here are what I had consumed ALL on my own. This is the grand finale. You could probably tell things were quite intense, when these pastries have to pay visits next to my computer and the violin.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

3 more weeks in Paris...

Some family and friends lamented that my blogging has not been updated :) I now have less than 3 weeks left in Paris...

I haven't really bragged about the Paris weather, knowing many of my friends and family in New York and Japan are having a horrifically hot one... Paris is average of 18-20C (around low 60F) and very, very beautiful this August. Besides I spend most of time indoors without a window in air-conditioned studio, so I decided to do a day of tourism for change.

I went on wondering about in my neighborhood the Marais. It is a posh area, with many fashionable stores that I would probably have nothing I can afford :) Here is a beautiful store of beads; like any women (sorry if I'm mistaken) I have entertained the idea of making my own jewelry and failed, or at least I am never confident enough in wearing my own creations in public! But I do proudly wear ones my kids make for me :) This store could revive my imaginary hobby again.

As my brother-in-law Frédéric suggested, I went to Paris Musée Carnavalet, the city museum of Paris. He said that it has a very good description of the French Revolution from the point of view of Parisians, and it was true. I could not help but to stop and be grateful to the people of this country for the "liberté, egalité, fratanité", seeing many panels of the "Rights of Men", and feel the amount of blood that was shed. When you walk on the streets of Paris, you feel it. There was a drum which played the rhythm "liberté, egalité", the hand-made ladder that was used to break through the infamous Bastille prison. The real objects that were touched by people, the evidence of people's kinetic memory can transport you to that time, more than any description of the revolution.

I am now composing and preparing for my upcoming appearances, incorporating the tools that we have developed together. Some are still 'under construction' but as I remind my collaborators, I am the one on stage and things have to work :) It is simply not acceptable that a program works 'most of the time'. It has to work 150% of the time to be on stage. I take robustness and crudeness of the program over an elegant program that looks good but crashes sometime! Or an old version that works over a new version that is unstable. Those of you in Paris, you are welcome to attend my 'exit' presentation on Thursday, September 2nd at 12:00 at Salle Stravinsky at IRCAM. Please let me know as I need to make a guest list.

My host at IRCAM Norbert Schnell and I have been having some late dinners; in general people eat late here. Or maybe even in NYC we eat earlier than 'grown ups' without small kids! This is the famous L'As du Fallafel where there usually is a huge line during the day. I was told it is the "world best" including the middle east. I could eat here everyday. I also had a very nice Tajine near Belleville, again with Norbert after we fixed some of my bugs even on a Sunday.

I'm preparing for my life after IRCAM, now using all my own equipment to make sure things run on my own. After my presentation at IRCAM on September 2nd, I will go to Radio France in the same afternoon and record an interview, planning to perform with my own system. It'd better work. :) The broadcast will be on September 5th while I am going to be sitting in the airplane back to JFK.

ps. This is a tea store called Mariage Frères, one of my favorite stores. I don't know if my husband remembers, but when we just started dating he asked what he could bring from Paris. I said, "Please go to MARIAGE Frères, and get me a kind called EROS". Poor man, he really didn't stand a chance :)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Last month in Paris

(Wednesday) I'm cold. It's 11:20 PM and freezing cold here in the basement studio of IRCAM. I'm wearing two long sleeve sweaters, wool scarf and thin comforter on my lap! It is so quiet and I must be one of the only people here. July was calm but August is so quiet the BEST time to be here at IRCAM, I was told. I hear June and September are the worst with everyone coming back in force and festivals in June.

(Friday) I have been completely immersed in work, barely coming up for air. Because of the intensity, and need to stay inside this ice-cold Studio 1 at IRCAM, I brought in electric water boiler for my Oolong tea, blanket, leg warmer, sweater and scarf. It's very comfortable. My children are with grandparents visiting Brive la Gaillard (south of Limoge, north of Toulouse), a fois gras country where my sister-in-law lives. I would have gone with them but I really need to make a dent in what I'm trying to do...

I do occasionally dine out, when friends come to visit or someone at IRCAM asks me out. I went out with my dear Florence, the administrator of IRCAM who takes a great care of me. She took me to a restaurant near Les Halles, and I had the most fabulous "Dorade". Again I was silent in eating this. Then my old Juilliard classmate, turned out we also both went to Boston University, Chris Culpo came to visit and he took me to his favorite hound near Rue Rambuteau called Le Feteu. The owner Jerry said "Oh it was the birthday of Pierre Boulez yesterday!" How nice that a restaurant owner would proclaim the birthday of a composer. Paris is a big city but somehow it still retains that old small village quality. I had the most, most..... delicious Boudin (blood sausage) here, and learning I'm a visitor at IRCAM he said I'm welcome back anytime, and I certainly will. After all they had my favorite Confit de Canard, and judging from how Boudin tasted like...

My work now is very intense because I am now in the creative phase using all the hard work my team has been creating with me. The new ideas between us keep on growing in the form of, "Oh by the way, how if we do..." and off we go for another Holy Grail hunting. It is truly a rewarding experience. Here is my main host this summer Norbert Schnell who is one of the most elegant scientist/programmer cleaning up my mess grimacing :) and fixing my "DIY" (do it yourself) bulldozing programs.

(Saturday) For once I wasn't at IRCAM last night after midnight and had a decent sleep. I vowed myself to visit a museum today, Hôtel Carnavalet, Museum of the city of Paris which is in the Marais. Then I must go eat that famous Falafel. There is always a huge line I get discouraged...