Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jean-Claude Risset and late nights at IRCAM

Ok, so this is officially bad :) I have not been back home until 2AM, just to sleep here and back to IRCAM in the morning. I'm thrown back into my pre-family days when I just worked and spent time for myself, with no family and obligation. It is also precisely why I decided to HAVE a family and have a life---this cannot last very long. This time, my 'life' comes back tomorrow in the form of two children who are arriving from their holiday camps.

Paris at late night, especially here in the Marais, is so embracingly gentle, I think because of the Gay bars. I walk from IRCAM to Cités des Arts past 2AM and there are many nicely dressed men in duos. It makes me feel so safe and it is truly a gentle atmosphere. I really adore the Marais. These past few evenings I spent with Jean-Claude Risset. He took me out to a restaurant near Les Halles, I think it was called Petite Normande or something but cannot remember... I will find it again. It is where he said in the 70s, "Mme Davis" of San Francisco's Davis Hall, a millionaire, took out French composers for dinner with John Chowning's restaurant recommendation. There was Chowing, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez and Jean-Claude at the table. I was in awe of all the history; Jean-Claude told many stories about the beginning of IRCAM and much more.

Another thing, I was also very, VERY pleased that this was the first dinner date I had with him that were completely in FRENCH as Jean-Claude always speaks English with me. I was so proud of myself. But that was only until I had Pommeau as aperitif (apple-based alcohol, he had Martini Rouge) then Jean-Claude's favorite Jura white wine which I like too, but quite strong I think. Half way into the meal Jean-Claude said, "It must be very tiring for you to speak French" and switched to English! It must have been so obvious how my French deteriorated with alcohol LOL! Oh well :) The dinner was absolutely delicious, starting with the most delicious Soupe Froide de Moules (cold Moule soup, cream based) ending with Sabayon aux Poires (cream and pouched pear). I went back to IRCAM after 11PM. Frédéric was still there as well; we have been having very interesting and musically abstract conversations these days in the IRCAM basement, usually after midnight.

Then today, the phone rang in my IRCAM studio close to 6PM and it was Jean-Claude again, telling me that a French documentary film maker Oliver Meston, who has been following him covering the creative process of Schemes, the first violin concerto using Subharmonics which I premiered with Tokyo Symphony in 2007, are in town and wants to film me. In ONE hour. I scrambled and did a decent job (I hope) but hey, we don't go to music conservatories for nothing--one must be always prepared. I had to play the Cadenza I wrote in front of the camera, without preparation or practice. I did say, "Please, I need 5 minutes" so I could at least run it once. This was a last-minute decision but was a great one on Jean-Claude's part, since we should strike when the occasion arises, and it could very well be a long time before all of us to be in one room again. Oliver 'directed' us to act as if Jean-Claude and I just met in the hallway of IRCAM; we had to walk and say "oh! hello!" for a few times - my brush with Showbiz! LOL! It was a lot of fun. Jean-Claude was also accompanied by a French harpist Sylvain Blassel, who just recorded his piece today at GRM. It was a pleasure meeting him. Here is Sylvain on his cool 1958 "Mobilette" bike!

Then "au boulot", I went back to work. Holy Grail N.2 is GOLDEN, and it is done.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

'Flying' cocktails :)

I'm leaving Paris this Friday picking up the kids at Gare Montparnasse from the summer camp, spending the weekend in Picardie with the grandparents. My collaborator Frédéric Bevilacqua is leaving for his summer vacation on Saturday. We have been always the last ones to leave IRCAM past midnight, in the quest of Holy Grail N.2. I even forgot to eat lunch for two days, testing, fixing, testing...

In the meantime with Nicolas Ramamimanana's Holy Grail No.1, I made my own favorite 'cocktails' that are going to be very useful musically, and what I talked about the musical 'spiral', 'rolling' or 'frisbee' I feel is getting realized, quite unexpectedly, and quite simply by extracting a very particular kind of bowing data. You don't 'follow' anything like pitch, dynamic, or beat, but you 'roll' or 'fly' with your computer :) Kind of a strange thing to say, but it is what you do when you make music with a human. You have no master/slave relationship, but you 'walk' or 'roll' together, and this is what I'm after, with the computer.

I am not a very good programmer, and as my husband (a PhD in computer science) would lament in disgust, I will do whatever to make things work with a 'dirty' or 'bulldoze' programming. So I send rudimentary questions to Norbert Schnell who is constantly on the road for conferences this summer. Poor Norbert gets these questions waiting for him at his next hotel (!) but really, something that I am just staring at for 20 minutes, he can solve in 5 seconds!

This has been undoubtedly one of the most important summers of my life, in terms of my work. And for the kids--now I'm plotting on how to keep their French after we get back to NYC....

Monday, July 26, 2010

Now time to shake, stir, and more :)

I am amassing the Holy Grails, and it is now time for me to mix the drink and drink them :) The Realtime Interaction Team at IRCAM, consisting of Frédéric Bevilacqua, Norbert Schnell, Bruno Zamborlin and Nicolas Rasamimanana, have been bending backwards to support me, taking turns leaving town to visit their families for the vacation so that I will never be left completely alone at IRCAM. They are so creative and open to ideas and it is such a pleasure and an honor for me to work with. It is one of the most condensed and fruitful collaborative relationship I've had. The fact that there is a clock ticking--I have a little more than one month to go here in Paris--makes me feel I cannot waste any time in moving forward. 'Mix the drink and drink them': it is high time to make music using the Holy Grails :) It has been opening many new possibilities of interaction and our ideas are like ping-pong balls, every time bouncing and going into the new territories and ideas.

The kids are in Nantes still, and the last time my husband spoke with them yesterday, they were very happy and learning to play Pétanque, French boule game! Husband is working in his new company in NYC after a 'garden leave', and in his spare time (how is that possible?!) building a... Flamenco Guitar! He posted many pictures on his Facebook page and it's impressive... but I was more concerned that he is looking at the camera, and not his fingers! No chopping off fingers allowed! :) We communicate a lot with Skype these days; here is husband reading a bedtime story to kids, the night before they went off to the summer camp. Thank goodness for technology :)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

More work and friends and food

The first of my 'solitary week' (kids in camp, husband in NYC) is ending with more testing of the gigantic Holy Grail N.2 with Frédéric Bevilacqua who is also family-less this week as his wife and daughter left for vacation in Switzerland ahead of him. We are both pulling long hours even going on this weekend. As I am an obsessive who likes to practice scales (yes, bizarre isn't it), it really doesn't bother me to play the same things 40 times and test the robustness. I am rather comfortable in my 'guinea-pig-hood' :) The interesting consequence is that I do get so bored, and in order to test the robustness of the computer detection, I come into the 'testing' portion of the phrase from something else like improvisation, quite radical at times, and exit to more improvisation, thus, in fact composing on the fly. And having to document what I'm doing I have to write them down. The rate it's going this can become a piece of its own :) An interesting way to come up with compositional materials and I recommend you try!

I do also have some human contacts away from IRCAM :) A colleague from Juilliard who is in town giving a composition seminar came to visit so we had a lovely lunch together, then in the evening I met with a person for the first time, whom I got to be a good friend virtually on Facebook! It is interesting that this was the first time we met face to face but we knew about each other already a lot and felt we were close enough to talk just about anything. It reminded me that me and my husband, when we first started to date, communicated long-distance between Paris and New York via email several times a day, and by the time we actually started our relationship, we already knew a lot about each other. A new mode of human relationship with internet!

We went out for dinner together in St. Michel and I had the most, most.... delicious Soupe à l'oignon. The area is flooded with young people and tourist, I must say it is not my favorite place to go as a neighborhood (and I hope it's not because I'm too old :) I never like crowded place--growing up in Tokyo and the crowd I feel I already paid my dues) but the restaurant... it was somewhere we just walked into. We first found a place on the guidebook but we got a strange 'tourist' vibe and didn't go in. The second one we sat next to two men, who tried to strike up a conversation and then took out a box of cigarette. So we said, "so you choose cigarette over female neighbor? Tant pis pour vous!" and left. Then we wondered into a small place with something saying "savoyard" (things of Savoie) a little out of the way on a very small street, so we sat there. Oh. My. Goodness. The Soupe à l'oignon. Then my friend had Fondue au chocolat for desert, which I also tasted. Pure Heaven. I was by the time, in a mood for something lighter, so I ordered a delicious citron sorbet with Vodka. A 'professional Parisian waiter' flirted with us; he actually spoke good Japanese :) Here we go, a typical Parisian weekend...

Oh and I'm desperately trying to finish mastering one remaining track that's hanging in front of me... the new album depends on this one getting done. UPDATE: it's done, just waiting from NYC for approval :)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Holy Grail Numero 2 is in the making...

One of my main collaborators at IRCAM for the past few years, Frédéric Bevilacqua has been tackling the most difficult tasks of all delivered to him by this crazy visitor from the Upper Westside of NYC. He asked for it, so he got it :) Seriously, I constantly worry and ask him if what I'm aiming at is in line with his research and every time he is assuring me that it perfectly is. Since yesterday, Fred has been coming through with this extremely difficult task. I'm marking July 21st as the "Holy Grail No.2 Day" :) He is delivering, together with Bruno Zamborlin who wrote the program. This is possibly one of the largest prize yet.

This humongous Holy Grail No.2 is a 'phrase recognition' which may seem like an easy thing to do, almost like an old-fashioned "score following", but not the same at all. It can track 'similar' phrases played by the violin with the same bowing, and even double stops (= chords, without pitch detection which has been so far, impossible). The funny thing is, I made a few examples including 'simple' and 'complex' for him to try his system. It turned out, what I thought 'simple' was harder to track, and 'complex' ones were easier! How do I know!? :) We are sitting side by side working in a cool air-conditioned studio at IRCAM's basement, helped by the SECOND can of Maxim de Paris' Oranges Confites Enrobées de Chocolat Noir (orange peels covered in dark chocolate), here it is sitting right next to my motion sensor glove.

We are really testing the system's robustness by improvising etc, trying to 'fool' it. Fred is leaving for vacation at the end of the month, so we are trying to make it work as well as we possibly can. It is crunch time. CRUNCH! I'm still here at 9PM since this morning and planning to do more recording test. How can I waste such an environment. But don't worry, this week I had a wonderful visit with a long lost classmate from Juilliard, composer Chris Culpo who invited me to his home. It was wonderful to catch up with him. Then yesterday I had a dinner with husband's family friend, a Japanese artist living in France. She took me to a Korean barbecue (saying I must not have eaten Asian food for a long time, which was true) near Eiffel Tower, and I had a lovely walk with her in misty evening looking up at the Tower lit with yellow light and shadows of beautiful architecture which was magical. I got home last night after midnight. So yes I am also paying my homage to the City of Light.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Riding on a Frisbee

This week, as I mentioned in the earlier entry, my children are in the camp in Nantes and I am completely free to work on my own. They do call me almost every day and there is a daily update on the activities on the website of their camp. My parents-in-law are in Brittany where it is closer to Nantes just in case. Everything is set up to maximize my work here at IRCAM until the end of July.

I feel like our work together is now at the middle of the Mount Everest. I'm working very closely with my main collaborator for the past few years, Frédéric Bevilacqua. Just yesterday I felt that Frédéric touched the subject I have long LONG thought about. It is quite difficult to describe in words---people have used different expressions in the past: one composer said the music is a kind of "spiral", another said it is the way we walk, and someone else said it is like we are riding on a frisbee. It is a very difficult subject I feel, but the essence and the core of violin playing in a way. I learned to climb staircases without losing my breath, climbing on rocks without STOPPING my motions. It is the same "rolling" principle.

I hope that I don't sound like speaking some secret language or something, but I really don't know how else to describe it. But finally I have the opportunity to actually see this in data, not just in imagination.

As I am alone in Paris now, I take every advantage of visitors coming my way :) Here is a wonderful Soupe de Fraise (Strawberry Soup) I had with my (now former) student and saxophonist Jeremy Viner from Juilliard who came to visit.

Friday, July 16, 2010

M2D12: Bastille Day and Colonie Vacances

I am spending the last 3 days together with my children before they go off to their first "Colonie Vacances", a sleep away camp. I left Paris on Bastille Day, 14 of July. This was the sight below my window, with hundreds of horseback soldiers marching in their formal, beautiful attire, after the "Defilé", the official Bastille Day parade in Champs Elysées with the President Sarkozy (it's the theme of the novel and film "The Day of the Jackal"). The sound of horseshoes on stone pavements which continued for a long time, together with the military uniforms that's created to 'impress and awe', made me imagine what real battles in Europe must have been in the old days. Funny the sounds like this seem to make things more real. I saw part of the "Defilé" on internet TV, with the funny effect of seeing the military planes flying over on the TV then 'hearing' them going over my apartment a few seconds later.

For the "Colonie", husband had done most of the preparation in terms of administrative organization, from the beginning: finding the camp, contacting, applying, health-certification, etc. even shopping for clothing, marking them etc. etc. I just had to finish and tied up the loose ends, buy some missing things, mark absolutely everything with their names and then pack them. I think packing for two weeks together psychologically helped preparing them for the camp as well. Now they are all excited instead of being sad and worried of being away. Although it would have been easier if I had just packed them all myself quickly, I made a point of laying everything out for them, and let THEM pack into their suitcases.

We are in a small village in Picardie, near a town called Chauny. Here we get most of the supplies. A typical provincial town, their markets are great. Here we are, buying the famous French melon. You tell the vender when you are eating it, "one for tonight, one for tomorrow" and he will give you the ones with appropriate ripeness. And of course, they sell the forbidden-in-the-USA "Reblochon".

M2D4-11: Holy Grail Numero 1!

My formidable, FORMIDABLE Nicolas Rasamimanana. Nicolas came through. I have the Holy Grail No.1, 2, 3... or even a lot more possibilities interacting with computer with the bowing gesture. In one month exactly, I feel like it was truly worth everything I worked to get here, applying for this residency at IRCAM, applying for grants (and thankfully got, the Guggenheim Fellowship), spousal separation as husband is working in NYC, and most of all the parents-in-law's enormous support taking care of the kids while I'm in Paris. I maybe a bit emotional exaggerating in celebrating this success, but I do believe that interactive performance for violin using IRCAM's Gesture Follower, has turned its page. I was joking with Nicolas that I feel like I need to make a Special Commemoration celebrating the day: July 12, 2010! :)

The problem I described before, a simple but very difficult one: how do you tell the computer the performance is over, without clicking the computer to shut up, or fading out the sound, without a human operator? It is solved. Nicolas made it so that it even knows HOW I ended: forte, or piano. I made several examples of musical "endings", sending it to the team to take a look, and they were able to calculate my sound+movement combination and Nicolas was able to build quite a robust system. I said 'quite' since obviously, I need the robust system for performance, or 'A'. It is at the moment, around "A-" since I still need to calibrate some parameters in order to fit my various needs in detecting the bowing acceleration. We are making everything configurable so I could interact during the performance with the parameters as well.

My host Arshia Cont also gave me a wonderful studio where we can test things with sounds immediately, which is priceless in our work together. Here is Bruno who is working on other issues with me, Nicolas, and my violin with our computers together.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Here I go again, hiatus from blogging. Again you might guess that I have been with my children twice this week on both weekends. Kids are the enemies of my blog LOL! I do have time but no longer the energy to type after spending time with them.

On Thursday, I had a meeting with my formidable Nicolas at IRCAM. The work was getting clearer by day. I am working in between two teams; Musical Representation Team and Realtime Interaction Team. They do different things and I need them both. I need both of their works combined to make some things work. They also said they have been planning to work together, but it seems they just needed someone from far, far away to make it happen, from Upper Westside in NYC for example :) Nicolas is making something that the computer program says "Mari stopped playing", by analyzing my gesture. Of course it sounds easy, but not so at all, considering musical context and situations.

In the afternoon, I was invited for tea at the home of Pierre-Yves Artaud, the professor of flute at the Conservatoire. Prof. Artaud was one time, the Director of Instrumental Research at IRCAM with Pierre Boulez' request. He lives in Vitry sur Seine and I took RER C (regional train). I met Prof. Artaud at the home of Norwegian composer Ida Heidel, whom I also met by chance at my friend and percussionist Lê Quan Ninh's concert. I am very grateful that I am able to expand my circle of friends in Paris. I had promised to send my CDs to Prof. Artaud, whom Jean-Claude Risset called "The Hero of contemporary Flutes", which I finally did. He very kindly invited me to his home. Anyway, I have researched my path to Vitry sur Seine, and knowing Prof. Artaud is a big Japan-fan, I went to Toraya, a Japanese traditional store for sweets, to get something for him. The picture is Anmitsu, Japanese red bean and jelly desert I had for the first time in months. This is possible in Paris :)

Oh and I got lost in RER C, which skipped his stop and I went back and forth from Bibliothèque Frainçois Mitterrand station. When the scenery got a little too green, I decided that it must have skipped the station; there was no announcement, no train conductor on board, and other passengers would say, "well, it usually stops" and shrugged their shoulders :) So I shrugged mine with them and dealt with it. It didn't have any impact on me since it works exactly the same on NYC subways. They decide to make express stops when they feel like it, and good luck to tourists trying to understand the heavily distorted announcements, which no one understands :) I'm 'christened' by RER, feeling at home in Paris.
Note: I wrote this entry last week but didn't have time to publish it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

M2D3: I touched a Holy Grail

Yes indeed :) Today I tried and discussed a program at IRCAM, the program I mentioned yesterday. This is a sophisticated program that would clone my improvisation. At the moment there has to be a computer operator, which I cannot have on stage. I do understand that the computer operator could be "performing" on stage, but as a classically trained violinist, I guess I am just too old fashioned. He or she has to be physically generating analog sound on stage, or at least moving a little more than computer key click to belong to the stage, I think! OK, ok, not necessarily, but the fact is that it is terribly boring to watch someone on stage clicking the computer, no matter how he/she is being creative or expressive clicking the computer. But again, that's just me.

Even if the computer operator is off stage, the fact that another human needs to make a musical decision, tells me naturally "then why don't I just use another violinist to do the same?" I guess what I am going for is not another human (am I so anti-social!?) but another of my musical brain that behaves different from my own. Do I make sense?

I have done this kind of recording, except a 'fake' or simulated one; I recorded an improvisation of myself then improvised over it. So my second track is interacting to the first one, but first one is cast in stone. It still produced interesting results, as I enjoy noodling around myself to the point when I can no longer distinguish my sound from the other 'me'. This program, does the same thing in real time. That is to say, the computer is taking my notes in real time and plays back in a way it chooses, with many parameters one could set if you wish. It is a very interesting musical cognitive experience. I really treasured today.

So, we discussed how to make it 'stand alone', which lead to many subjects, some easily solved, or to go around the problem, and some highly sophisticated, worth a few PhD thesis. I feel I am a greedy visitor trying to eat anything that is on the dining table, occasionally ordering on a whim, "Oh by the way I would like some soufflé too!". I have only 1 1/2 month left here in Paris and I do need to get things done :)

No food pics today :(

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

M2D2: grinding...working... getting hot...

M2D2 means "Month 2, Day 2" since when I miss my posting I don't think I can count :)

Can't believe the unbelievable: today I stayed inside ALL DAY in Paris working... not even going out. Now why do I feel like being insulting to the city... it needs to be looked at. I tested a few things and made some useful musical examples using IRCAM's stuff. When you are in a grocery store, you can go in there with a clear idea what your menu is going to be and shop for the ingredients, or, you can go in there with an idea but if you see something really nice like a fresh fish or something, you can toss the original idea and shop for the entire menu based on the fish. I approach interactive computer music composition like this. Does this make sense?

In fact two days ago I fell rather violently ill with fever and vomiting but went away in one day. It was the day my husband left back to the US so it might have been the shock and sadness :(

I did go for shopping yesterday, found and got something I loved and missed, Savora mustard! I first had it at the home of Jean-Claude Risset in Marseille. I put this in everything now. I found a similar thing at the Zabars but it isn't the same....

I have been seeing the horrific NYC temperature in the news, and feeling sorry for husband who is heading there tonight. Then I see the temps here in Paris this weekend and it promises to be bad. And, we don't have air conditioning here.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Day24-30: Family, back to Paris

Ah oh, my old habit of taking hiatus from blogging creep in, missing almost a week! The excuse being that I spent a weekend in Picardie with my children and husband since he just left back to New York. We won't see each other until the end of August, unless he changes his mind and be able to make a short round-trip. That would be nice, but it's too much of an effort and too far a distance to just come for 2-3 days... He is starting a new work tomorrow (!); a new and exciting era for him. The photo is a rare and impressive sight of the kids obeying my "Kyo-iku Mama" (Japanese "education mom") orders reviewing their Japanese characters. Just so they don't forget; their young brains are way superior than mine. They can handle this.

My work at IRCAM is exciting this week; I have a studio scheduled for some experiments and will see how it works. Either way it will be very instructional for me. Two of my team members are out of town this week. In France there are two kinds of people, Juilletistes and Aoutistes, people who take vacations in July, or August. The famous French "vacances" started. I have several projects that I'm working on, which will involve my work at IRCAM so I'm doing them in parallel. This week I'm trying one of IRCAM's programs by another team (Musical Representation Team) that would 'clone' my musical behavior in real-time. It is a very sophisticated, almost A.I. (artificial intelligence) kind of program, and I am very excited to try.

On Saturday, husband and I spent the last night on our own at La Chaise au Profond. My husband, as any Frenchman I guess, has a technique of choosing restaurants which I'm trying to learn from him. Among 10s of restaurants, he walks around and reads the menu. This one said the Soup of the day was "Red pepper with Coconut milk". He said that made him think the cook is thinking. Turned out it certainly counts as one of the best dinner we had here in Paris this time. Of course I had my long overdue Confit du Canard, first one since I got here. And the obligatory Ile Fllottant (meringue floating in custard) which also was the first one since I got to Paris. Husband said "What happened, Mari you aren't talking". I forgot to talk and ate. This happens rarely, and one I remember was in Hong Kong performing at ISCM World Music Days in 2002, with Tania Leon. We ate Shanghai Crab and both Tania and I were silent!

Sunday, we met our our friend who came in town Andrew Moravcik, an opera critic (well, his 'day job' is a prof. in Political Science at Princeton). We went to an Opera "Sémélé" by Haendel at Teatre Champs Elysées. Great, very quirky and contemporary production which suited this otherwise rather monotonous and long music. Andy has two careers: this is a kind of life that is possible in the USA, that is (at least when I grew up) hard to do in Japan. The USA allows you to be whatever you want to be, and have as many careers as you want at the highest level, no matter how different those careers maybe. I think things are changing in Japan as well, I hope. Andy knows the cast, production, and always has very instructional comments about the particular opera and what to listen to. When Andy says "let's go to this opera" I don't even think and say yes.

Anyway, I was struck by how singers were allowed so much stylistic liberty, especially regarding the use of vibrato which is practically forbidden for the Baroque string playing with some exceptions. Singers were singing in romantic, or sometimes even popular music-inspired singing style with ample vibrato. I thought the contrast in style between the singers and the rather stoic orchestra was odd: luscious voices and cold 'sword'-like, vibrato-less sounds.

Today, Tuesday I am solving a specific problem with my formidable collaborator Nicolas Rasamimanana at IRCAM, and I am hoping to get something very concrete by the end of the week. We are trying to make the computer know when the piece is over (!). It is strange, but any interactive performance system or improvisation program have one thing in common; it is hard for a computer to detect when things are 'over'. You have to manually turn it off unless it is a pre-recorded material or sequence with fixed timing. I think we are solving this simple but tricky problem, which is very exciting for me. The picture means "End", computer can tell when I'm done. It looks sort of like a heart monitor, "dead"!

Today I spent a fun lunch with a friend Martha, who took me to a little Quiche/omlette place on Rue des Rosier (will get the name of the restaurant later). I had the most delicious omlette with blue artichoke. I didn't eat this but this is their famous lemon pie. Next time. Must take husband.

On the way to IRCAM I saw some kind of protest on the street, and I thought it was funny people were accompanying the speeches with Vuvuzela! Somehow I think they didn't used to do that before the World Cup this year. Then on the way back from IRCAM, all of the sudden military fighter planes started to pass over Paris every 10 seconds in formation; is this a rehearsal for the Bastille Day? (7/14)