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Jeff Krieger
Jeffrey Krieger - Electric Cello

Archives: March 2004

Mon Mar 22, 2004

A performance of Videocello, an interactive video improvisation for e-cello and computer by Jeffrey Krieger at the University of Connecticut Cello Society in January 2002.


Posted by: Jeffrey on Mar 22, 04 | 10:34 am

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Sat Mar 20, 2004

VIDEOCELLO at the Kennedy Center

This is a link for a performance of Videocello sponsored by the Washington DC chapter of American Composers Forum Sonic Circuits on August 13, 2001. More...

Posted by: Jeffrey on Mar 20, 04 | 12:18 pm

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Thu Mar 18, 2004

Introduction: A Twelve-Year History of the E-Cello

The history of my e-cello activities begins in 1989 with first performances on an electric cello I commissioned from Tucker Barrett of Vermont. Before 1989 I had been performing music that required me to amplify my acoustic cello: Voice of the Whale by George Crumb (USA); Axolotl by Morton Subotnick (USA), which uses Subotnick’s ghost electronics; and numerous works with pre-recorded tape. I experimented with a Fisher contact microphone attached to the bridge of the cello with sticky putty and a minimal home stereo speaker system. Much of my time was spent working for a good ‘concert quality’ sound. I also experimented with an air microphone normally used for recording or singing and speaking in performance. I found that the contact microphone attached directly to the bridge was much more successful because it produced a stronger, cleaner sound that could be processed. The contact microphone picked up everything including the sound of rosin scrapping the string! The air microphone’s signal was considerably weaker than the contact microphone because the sound travels through air first. Therefore the volume had to be increased which led to feedback problems. Since neither of the above were ideal, it made sense to commission an electric cello from craftsman, Tucker Barrett when I first visited him in Vermont. Tucker’s instruments are beautifully sculpted hard body instruments, very much like an electric guitar. The bridge of the instrument has transducer pickups built into it under each string and is designed by Rich Barbera of New York. Theoretically, it would be possible to have a separate output for each string. In other words, each string could have it’s own speaker and could be processed independently.

I was very excited to receive my new electric cello built by Tucker Barrett! I could imagine so many uses for this new instrument. I quickly became interested in exploring sound improvisation. By amplifying and processing the cello’s sound using a device called a Digital Sound Processor I was able to enter a new, creative, musical world. A Digital Sound Processor or DSP is a device that can provide many electronic effects such as reverberation or digital delay. These effects can emulate a large performance space such as a cathedral when the actual performance space is acoustically dry. Effects such as digital delay can add a compositional element of layering.

First, I wanted to search for scores to see what repertoire already existed for such an instrument. I searched libraries and catalogs and posted a notice at the American Music Center in New York City. Other international organizations saw the AMC notice and in turn did their own posting which led to about 40 works sent to me from all over the world. Many of these works were originally for acoustic cello and tape which the composers thought might sound better on the electric cello. I liked so many of the acoustic works that I adapted them to the e-cello. It was very interesting to hear the same music played on both the acoustic and electric instruments. The music was transformed in a new way when played on the e-cello. The sound of the e-cello is a very intense experience that seems to reach out and surround the listener.

To my delight there were several works already composed for this new instrument. My first concert in Hartford, Connecticut was made up of works from that score search and my first commission*. The following was the program:

Cello Chi for a singing cellist by Sarah Hopkins (Australia)
On A Dark Night Kindled...... by Richard Einhorn (USA)
Garland for tape and video by Robert Carl (USA)
With Love for e-cello and tape by Vivian Adelberg Rudow (USA)
Crater Lizards for e-cello and digital delay by Carlos Rodriguez (USA)
Born Dancin'’ for e-cello and drum machine by Eve Beglarian (USA)*

The main physical difference between the electric cello and the acoustic cello is of course, the body of the instrument. The electric cello has a hard body just like an electric guitar. There is virtually no acoustic sound, which means that the sound of the instrument can be completely transformed through electronic processing. The actual sound of the acoustic cello and e-cello are completely different from one another. The acoustic cello’s sound quality has a complexity and richness because of the vibrating wooden body. The sound is produced and varied by the use of the bow on the string and amplified by the body of the instrument. It is further enhanced by the acoustics of the performance space. The e-cello’s sound is produced by the use of the bow on the string, amplification and the digital electronics. The electronics can replace the sound of the resonating body cavity in many interesting ways. The goal of the e-cello is not to ‘out do’ the acoustic cello but to extend it’s creative potential.

The next step was to try to convince some composers to write original works for the e-cello. This was not difficult. For a composer, writing for a new medium is a very exciting and even liberating experience. The challenge is the process. For composers who work with technology on a daily basis there is no problem with learning to use electronic hardware unfamiliar to them. They usually have interesting ideas and ways to use the technology because of their technological expertise. For a composer who has never worked with such a new instrument it is much more of a challenge. It is somewhat overwhelming to have to learn an instrument with so many possibilities. However, a performer who knows his new instrument's possibilities can be a great collaborator. The composer can write a fine composition and the performer can interpret it on an instrument he or she knows well. Just as a piece of music has been reinterpreted over the centuries by new performers with updated instruments in different contexts, these new works for e-cello will also be effected by time. E-cello repertoire will be interpreted in new ways in the future. The technology will have evolved and an old one will have been replaced. I have already had the experience of updating changing technology I have been using for the past 12 years.

I've had some wonderful experiences in the process of collaborating with a composer on a new work. Each process is usually quite unique. A work titled Shadows & Light by composer, Ken Steen (USA) was written in the middle of the AIDS epidemic about the epidemic. It was to be choreographed and danced by a male dancer who fell ill in the middle of the project and died before it was performed. The work ironically was performed without dancer. It is a sensitive and poignant work that uses real-time electronics in a very subtle, beautiful way. (See the repertoire section for more information on works.)

Music for dance is a great way to begin collaborating. Many contemporary choreographers are excited about improvisation and original music. I have done several dance projects and they have been wonderful experiences with very interesting results. The dynamic range of the e-cello can fill a large space and the electronic processing gives the improviser a wealth of ideas to develop.

I was very fortunate to receive one of the last to be awarded National Endowment for the Arts Solo Recitalist Fellowships in 1993 allowing me to tour the US performing concerts and workshops on the e-cello. This allowed me the opportunity to work on the problem most classical musicians never learn to address adequately: how to program an entire concert of music. In music school we follow the traditional recital format given to us of a work from each period, usually Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Contemporary. One becomes tuned into subtle issues of time and flow when only new music is programmed. One of my goals was to use the instrument in as many interesting ways in order to sustain an entire concert as soloist, much like a piano soloist. I thought it would be liberating to rid the cellist of the need for piano accompaniment! I used different kinds of music, a work with tape, then a work with video, followed by one that used my singing or spoken voice, etc. to help keep a flow and sustain an entire concert. This was difficult with limited and often experimental repertoire.

After approximately 4 years of work on the e-cello I had many wonderful works in my repertoire and was ready to submit my first CD proposal to a record company. Composers Recordings Inc. CD 680 titled Night Chains was my first solo CD. Each work on the CD was recorded and assembled in a unique way. The Lead Plates of the ROM Press by Jonathan Berger (USA) was recorded in the traditional manner, in concert at Woosley Hall in New Haven. themythofAcceptAnce by Henry Gwiazda (USA) was assembled in a nontraditional way. I sent my recorded part to Mr. Gwaizda and he in turn inserted it into the tape part! Both Shadows & Light by Ken Steen (USA) and night chains by Douglas Knehans (USA) were carefully recorded in the studio. Ryoanji by John Cage (USA) was completely assembled in the studio. I did not know whether this version for e-cello was going to be successful until completely finished. All of the above methods led to new approaches to performing the works live.

I began using the computer in performance mostly as an aid to organize the technological aspects of the performance. There is a different electronic setup for each work on a program. This means it is very easy to make errors when beginning a work if the correct settings in the electronics are not made accurately. Opening a prepared file on the computer that effortlessly makes all of the correct settings on the DSP units eliminates any false starts. There is limited memory for storage on the DSP units for sounds especially created for my repertoire. Eventually it became necessary to store all of the sounds from the DSP units onto the computer where there is greater storage capacity. I also started to assemble what were formerly tape parts in sequencing software making it more convenient to edit and change the part at any time. This was the first step in using the computer during a performance. But what really excited me was the new multi-media software opening up endless interactive possibilities and ways of extending the range of the instrument. I was able to setup all of my electronic gear as a traveling interactive studio. This led to what I believe are the best works in my repertoire. I even assembled my own work, Videocello, an interactive video improvisation for e-cello and computer (a performance of this is on the CD ROM). Videocello combines all of my original objectives including improvisation. I like to compare the e-cello to a folk instrument with sympathetic strings such as the sitar or the cello-like sarangi of North India. These folk instruments are tuned in advance depending on the mode of the work to be performed. The technology used to extend the e-cello’s range also has to be 'tuned' for each work.

An added benefit from playing the e-cello was that my acoustic cello sound improved. It is not necessary to force with the bow on the e-cello since the volume can be boosted electronically, even in a large room. I was able to achieve a more relaxed style of bowing my acoustic cello by releasing extra tension while playing the e-cello. Also, we find ourselves more and more in less than desirable acoustic settings, for example, outdoors. The e-cello seems to fit into these settings more naturally.

By collaborating with composers on original works I have gained insight into the natural process of creation. I am able to compare how this modern process differs or is similar to the process of a work composed centuries ago. Of course, last but not least one is able to enjoy alternative career benefits by cultivating activities on a new instrument in a very rewarding way. We are helping to create a future for those that follow by giving back to a profession something new.

Jeffrey Krieger

Posted by: Jeffrey on Mar 18, 04 | 10:01 am

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