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ARTICLE FOR SEAMUS: TRANSCENDING TRADITIONAL PERFORMANCE
Transcending Traditional Performance
by Jeffrey Krieger, e-cellist
Since 1989 I have been performing on the e-cello and computer collaborating with composers, choreographers and video artists, as well as other musicians working to create a unique and wide spectrum of repertoire for the instrument. My main goal as a contributor to this exciting new art form has been to integrate technology in such a way as to make it performer friendly and to foster this relationship of performer and technology in a seamless and compatible way. A performer’s ease of control combined with the complexities of the computer, software and electronics has always been and continues to be one of my biggest challenges. I have also tried to expand the use of this new instrument in its traditional performance contexts as soloist with orchestra, chamber ensemble and solo recital as well as explore new areas of application through collaborative efforts. Just as pianists have performed entire solo concerts for centuries I have worked to create an exciting repertoire for cellists to perform for audiences without the need of an accompanist. The following article discusses issues related to presentation, composition, collaboration and computer interaction of interest to composers and performers with specific examples from the repertoire for the e-cello that has allowed me to explore new illusions transcending traditional performance practice.
One of the main presentation issues I have encountered in my e-cello performances is the placement of speakers. In a solo concert setting the speakers are traditionally placed out in front to the left and right flanking the performer. The performer is provided with a stage monitor. The sound engineer adjusts the volume of the house speakers for audience comfort level. The stage monitor volume for the performer is set independently. In a sense, the performer is removed from the entire experience. From this perspective he or she is allowed only limited control over very important aspects of the performance. This has been a main issue for me in presenting entire concerts of new music involving electronics. Attempting to educate a sound engineer at each venue about the subtleties i.e. the relative balances in each work, is very awkward, tedious, sometimes disastrous, and usually not one hundred percent satisfactory. It is not always practical to travel with a ‘seasoned’ sound engineer who knows the repertoire. I have concluded after years of traveling to concerts with my own entire sound system and controlling every aspect of the performance myself that placing the speakers slightly behind the performer angled inward greatly changes the performers perspective and control over the sound. The performer feels part of the sound he is producing and is able to make more subtle changes with the bow during the performance. The audience experiences the sound more as if visually and sonically coming from the performer. The combination of amplification, digital effects, and the performer’s sensitivity to the repertoire can produce a broad spectrum of sound not possible on the acoustic cello if he or she has control over the entire experience. The concert becomes in effect an installation by the performer.
In works for performer and pre-recorded digital audio the relative balances or relationship between the performer’s sound and for example, sampled sounds played by the computer, as well as overall volume levels are usually quite particular for each work. This delicate, intimate relationship of instrument to audio must somehow be reflected in the actual balances in order for these works to be successful. Proper time and attention needs to be given to each individual work in advance by the performer and at the technical rehearsal in the performance space. The performer will have more control over these balances with a small onstage mixer and a volume pedal with the use of headphones in rehearsals being highly recommended.
One work in particular that pushes the performer to the edge in terms of the relationship between the instrument’s sound and accompanying audio is Henry Gwiazda’s themythofAcceptAnce (1991) for e-cello and sampled sounds1 . The work was created as a tape collage of sports sound effects and cello excerpts played through various Digital Harmonizer settings. After the work was completed the performance part was subtracted from the tape. The work questions the illusion created by the performer in performance. The audience sees the cellist performing with electronic components comprised of computer, pedals and digital effects. However, the performer’s sound played through speakers is coming from both the instrument and tape making it at times difficult for the audience to ascertain exactly what the performer is or is not playing. How much is the performer playing? Is the performer playing everything or nothing at all? The sound level and timbral characteristics of the live instrument must match the instrument’s level on the tape. The challenge is to perform much less conspicuously as a soloist and more like a sampler in order to fully integrate with the sound effects and taped e-cello. I do not simply mean to play more mechanically. The concept of an instrumentalist performing more like a sampler helps to level the playing field in the performer’s mind. There should be a continuity or sense of equality and scale between performer and tape. One must not only blend like a chamber musician but also physically react in a way that acknowledges he or she is part of the level of activity on the tape. This ‘non-soloistic’ approach to the work is important to understand before attempting successful balances between the instrument and sampled sounds.
There are many creative ways to broaden the use of amplification and digital effects. Performers and composers can use electronics traditionally meant for the recording studio in new expressive ways. For example, modulating a digital effect such as reverb in real-time with a pedal gives the illusion that the performer is expanding and contracting the acoustical space. This is one of the many illusions that can be created with real-time electronics.
To elucidate this notion, a work that incorporates the creation of space into the performance is Shadows & Light (1989) for solo e-cello and effects by Ken Steen2 . The score has instructions with settings for the Alesis Quadraverb that are simply plugged into the unit. The performer must control the percentage of reverb and dry signal of the instrument with two separate MIDI pedals as the work progresses. The pedals are notated directly under the musical staff in the cello part adding an additional integral layer of expressivity. Real-time effects add a new dimension to performance greatly expanding traditional composition and the sound of the instrument by enabling the performer to change the sound gradually over time. This technology allows the performer to create the illusion of the expansion and contraction of 'acoustic' space as well as other manipulations of timbre.
Shadows & Light starts with a long, distant sound of a natural harmonic high up on the G-string with a quarter tone pitch bend as if the sound is trying to grow. The dry signal of the e-cello has been removed making it as if the cellist is ‘bowing the space.’ The sound gradually comes closer to the listener. The music hesitates and the space expands and contracts through the use of a MIDI pedal controlling the amount of reverberation. The music finally expires only to give way to a loud, intensely dramatic section using the full range of the instrument. Each moment changes through a maze of human emotions supported by subtle electronic manipulations. The piece settles into a huge cavern of sound with the cellist suggesting an ethereal, improvised melody by bowing the harmonic series of the C-string. Abruptly, the music tries to make a full return but expires. The music ends with a delicate ascending scale and artificial harmonics high on the G-string the sound never more distant. The extended range of emotion and play of sound in this music would be impossible on the acoustic cello. The unique capabilities of the e-cello make this new repertoire absolutely idiomatic and non-transferable.
Another reason why MIDI pedals are so indispensable is that they allow the performer independent control over the digital effects eliminating the need for the composer or a partner to ‘play’ the electronics. Organists have been doing this for centuries with their feet, why not cellists? MIDI pedals can do everything from simple patch changes to gradual modulation of an effect as well as complex multiple effects with the help of computer software. Software such as Cycling ’74 MAX/MSP can turn one MIDI pedal into a complex, real-time instrument. For example, one MIDI pedal can frequency modulate an instrument’s sound similar to the bow moving from over the fingerboard (sul tasto) to on the bridge (sul ponticello) by increasing the high frequencies at the top of the pedal and the lows at the bottom. It is possible with one or two pedals to sample and layer live performance, trigger patch changes, gradually modulate an effect and play digital audio all at once with the help of computer software.
The integration of digital effects and a stereo playback system can give the illusion of multiple instruments. In Tom Flaherty’s Trio (1991) for e-cello and digital delay a Ping Pong delay type and a setting of 468 milliseconds delay time is used on an effects unit such as an Alesis Quadraverb3 . The Ping Pong type delay setting means that in a stereo playback system with two speakers the sound will first repeat in one speaker, then in the other creating a trio effect between the performer and the two speakers. Single staccato notes played together with the digital delay create playful rhythmic hockets while long tones explore rich sonorous textures. This music would be virtually impossible to perform with three live performers because of the necessary precision and endurance. There are beautiful bowed harmonics, clever composite rhythmic pizzicato, rising natural harmonics and double-stops. All registers of the instrument are explored to great effect. The works harmonic palette is wide and there are various references to music as diverse as Varese’s Poeme Electronique, Bach’s chorale Es Ist Genug and at the works high point, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
Another work that focuses on the use of the stereo playback system is Alvin Lucier’s indian summer (1993) for solo e-cello4 . The performer must improvise using the rhythmic beating of a slightly detuned, rising unison double-stop. A Harmonizer setting of a variable range from 0-10 cents allows the performer with a pedal to slightly detune one speaker producing a second set of acoustical rhythmic beats. The work challenges the performer to improvise using two interacting sets of beats. At times there is almost a physical sensation of being gently pushed or lifted by the acoustical beating patterns coming from the stereo speakers. The length of the improvisation is open ended. indian summer is by far the most untraditional and controversial performance piece in my repertoire.
I have found that there has been two approaches used by composers in the creation of new works for the e-cello. The first approach has been to focus on only one or two digital effects and provide finished scores that have detailed instructions for the electronics. The works mentioned earlier in this article were composed this way. The second approach has been to write a short narrative description for each section of the work in order to inspire the performer to create their own unique electronic interpretation. This approach will reflect the performer’s level of electronic expertise. In a way, this makes a lot of sense. After all, as a performer I should know virtually everything about the capabilities of my instrument. Also, this open ended approach to composing acknowledges evolving technology that will most certainly effect future interpretations of music composed today.
One of the most unique works to date is Michael Gatonska’s On Connecticut Naturalism (2003) for e-cello and digital effects5 . He was able in a few short sessions to understand the instrument’s possibilities and use them as key compositional elements. The composer decided to focus on the capabilities of a Lexicon Sampler/Delay unit and I created the effects patches. The virtuoso music and real-time sampling pushes performer and instrument to the limits. The composer was inspired to compose the work while riding his bicycle along the Connecticut River. The performer creates multilayered effects patches on the Quadraverb and Harmonizer, or similar such units, according to the narrative descriptions for each section. These narratives are so broad performer’s future electronic interpretations will be quite different from one another. One way to accomplish what may seem like an overwhelming task of creating the e-cello patches would be to alter patches one has already successfully used in the performance of other works. But what makes the above work so outstanding and exciting to perform is the use of the Digital Delay/Sampler. The cellist is able to build up the sound by adding more and more layers to a sample in real-time with a pedal creating long, overlapping sustained phrases. There is a strong sense of nature in this work as well as an imposing human presence. Among the musical references are a gathering mass of birds, humming power lines, a huge underwater cavern and the gentle brushing of a hand through still water. In contrast to all of this beauty and peace is the interruption of cement mixers, an ethnic street band and even Harley Davidson motorcycles!
Some of the most successful works for the e-cello are by composers who have studied the instrument to learn what the electronics can do and how the e-cello differs from an acoustic cello. In some cases the composers have based an entire work on one electronic effect for example, digital delay.
One such work is by Carlos Rodriguez, the composer of the 5-movement suite titled Crater Lizards (1986)6 . The funky titles of each movement, except for the third, are anagrams of the composer's name and the cellist, Matt Cooker, for whom the work was composed:
* I. Rogue Tom Cooks Crater Lizard (Toccata)
* II. Mr. Grue Sez: "Too Radical To Rock!" (Funk I)
* III. Plateau
* IV. D. Koz Tours Electric Raga Room (Funk II)
* V. Mazes, Lit Or Dark, Occur To Ogre (Finale)
The electronic gear necessary to play the piece is a Digital Delay unit that can be turned on and off with a foot pedal and can also be used as a sampler. A sampler captures only a portion of what is played. Then this portion can be used in various ways in real-time as an accompanist or by adding new material to the original sample.
In the first movement, the delay setting of 35 milliseconds creates a slapping effect in passages of fast arco, col legno and left hand tapping on the fingerboard. The tapping is greatly emphasized by the amplification. The delay effect creates a great sense of urgency throughout the movement. The second movement is entirely pizzicato played in the style of a funky, electric bass player. There are fast, light passages, rolled chords, glissando and slap pizzicato. An optional use of an octave divider pedal dropping the sound down an octave makes a cool, solo passage stand out. The movement ends with two slap pizzicato notes played as if working a vibrato bar on the instrument that creates a funky waver pitch. The beautiful and eerie third movement titled The Plateau emulates a vast, natural environment. A long delay setting of 1240-1260 milliseconds layers sustained natural harmonic double-stops. Another world of sound is created by double-stop harmonic glissandi sometimes played in contrary motion and bowing behind the bridge. In the fourth movement, the delay setting is 800-950 milliseconds. The movement begins with the cellist playing an open G and D string drone that is sampled and held. This sample creates a regular, rhythmic beating pattern. The cellist plays a funky, 'raga-like' improvisation in sync with the regular beating pattern as an accompaniment. The movement ends with the cellist sampling sixteenth notes gradually slowing down then speeding back up going out and back in sync with the sampled rhythm. The fifth movement, a ferocious finale begins hesitantly with the 750-800 millisecond delay turned off. The delay is abruptly turned on and off throughout the movement helping to keep momentum and excitement. The piece comes to a close with a huge downward double-stop glissando beginning on the highest possible pitches and ending with a final fortissimo chord.
The computer is an important tool for the performer, an essential part of the instrument that could even be thought of as a ‘partner’. The computer allows the performer to organize complex performances where flawless technology should be the goal. There is nothing more disastrous in a concert of electronic music than a ‘false start’ or a glaring technical error such as a computer freeze to bring a performance to a screeching halt. This can destroy the illusion of ease created by the performer. Fortunately, computers are much more powerful and reliable these days. The first way to incorporate the computer into performance aside from the convenient storing of accumulated DSP effects patches is to create software files to set up the electronics before beginning each work. There are usually numerous settings or adjustments to be made to the electronics before the start of each work. The possibility for errors is high at this point. By simply opening a computer file for each work the electronics are automatically set up for a flawless start. It is of the utmost importance that the performer works with the computer and electronics on a daily basis to correct bugs that could mar a performance as well as to make continual adjustments. Gaining control of the technology allows the performer to concentrate on more important musical aspects of the performance. Of course, this means that there is a lot of advance preparation especially for new works. Numerous DSP effects patches have to be created for each work and tailored for the performance space. Software files are programmed to perform multiple tasks such as set up, patch changes for several DSP units, sampling, triggering audio and video, etc., by way of MIDI pedals and the instrument connected to a pitch-to-MIDI converter. This advance preparation or‘ tuning’ can be compared to a traditional musical instrument such as a sitar or a North Indian sarangi. The many sympathetic and playing strings of these instruments must be tuned for the mode of each work about to be played. So must all of the electronics be ‘tuned’ for each work on a concert. The computer can help make concert set up fast and flawless.
Once a performer begins to incorporate the computer into their performance the creative possibilities are endless. Learning how the computer performs a simple task or a small creative project using software will help one get started. Eventually the performer will want to know everything about multimedia software. I became interested in Cycling ’74 MAX/MSP software that encompasses multimedia and digital audio by creating a version of John Cage’s Variations II (1961) for any sound producing means that is played from the computer screen7 . In order to create the score the performer follows instructions to calculate the musical elements such as pitch, duration, etc. Normally this would take many hours by hand. By programming MAX/MSP software a random score as Cage intended is created and performed in real-time. The computer software is able to perform all the necessary calculations in a split second. The real-time score appears on the computer screen for the performer to sight-read at each performance.
Software can be an environment in which to create in realtime. An excellent example of an interactive computer software environment for a technologically advanced performer is Amazing Maze (1996) by Karlheinz Essl8 . The computer plays algorithmic compositional-based sounds or phrases inspiring the performer to respond with an improvisation and influence the computer by way of the computer keyboard and MIDI pedals. The large computer file of sounds the work draws from includes recorded e-cello as well as a multitude of instrumental sounds. The performer can also trigger sounds from this large library using the fingerboard of the instrument. The e-cello’s sound is converted to MIDI information by way of a pitch-to-MIDI converter or the audio input of the computer channeled directly to MAX/MSP software. The e-cello, computer and software can then be used to trigger the sound files. Once again, what is actually played by the performer in real-time can be quite ambiguous to an audience. The pacing controlled by the computer and performer can be very quick in a kind of face-off, competitive manner. The real challenge for the performer is to have fluid control of the technology while at the same time being musically spontaneous. The musical result of this interactive improvisation is often a colorful, humorous ‘cartoon-like’ collage of sound. It is interesting to note that the collaborative effort by the composer and performer was done entirely over the internet.
The exploration of technology has led to my own work titled Videocello (1999), an interactive video improvisation for e-cello and computer. In Videocello, the visual score made up of short video clips is played on the computer screen for the performer to accompany and are projected on to a large screen for the audience to experience. The video files are triggered from the fingerboard of the e-cello by way of a pitch-to-MIDI converter, however, the software is programmed so the computer randomly selects the order. Sampled sounds triggered from the fingerboard and digital effects allow the sound track for the images to be created in real-time. This is all made possible by the computer software.
My goal with Videocello was to explore and exploit to the fullest the e-cello, computer, Cycling ’74 MAX/MSP multimedia software and Digital Effects Processors. The big challenge was to harness the technology in the context of an improvisation. A complex software patch was created to help accomplish this goal. I used a repeating 30-second delay (Lexicon Jamman Delay/Sampler) that allowed me to control and vary the layers of sound. I also used one of the oldest real-time effects, a frequency modulator or Wah pedal invented in the ‘60’s by the rock star, Jimi Hendrix. By lightly rubbing the strings of the e-cello while working the Wah pedal a wind effect is created. Additional panning and reverb effects were used to create depth. Since I did the entire project myself it was a challenge to create the videos on my own. It took a great deal of effort to master all of the technical aspects of video as well as to create a collection of short video files that satisfied me. I conceived Videocello with the idea of transcending the walls of the performance space and it was greatly inspired by nature. (For an August 13, 2001 Kennedy Center Sonic Circuits archival performance go to http://www.kennedy-center.org/programs/millennium/artist_detail.cfm?artist_id=SONICCIRCU)
Technology has allowed me a new level of control over my performances and has enabled me to extend the musical expressiveness of this control and of the instrument. I am able to create new illusions with the help of electronics and my interactive partner, the computer. I have a unique dual perspective as a performer and collaborator on a new instrument such as the e-cello as well as being a seasoned performer on the acoustic cello. The various challenges I have mentioned in this article have given me invaluable insight into the creative process. This ‘hands on’ approach or direct experience has been conspicuously absent when realizing traditional cello repertoire. The complexities of technology I have encountered have made the collaborative process much more necessary and meaningful.
In the future I would like to collaborate on repertoire that continues in the direction of being much more idiomatic for the instrument focusing on the capabilities of the computer, software and playback system. Currently I am working to streamline my equipment thus reducing the amount of actual gear I must carry to concerts and set up time before a performance. My ideal set up would be computer, software, MIDI interface and MIDI pedals. This streamlining will be done mainly through the capabilities of software such as MAX/MSP. A powerful computer and software does much of what a multi-effects processor will do so consequently I will be able to phase out bulky, redundant hardware and wiring making my performances much more elegant. This will in turn influence a new body of repertoire. The digital audio portion of software such as MAX/MSP seems promising in helping me to achieve the above goals. I look forward to the challenge of diverse, multiple collaborators and the blending of various complex technologies. I want to continue to keep my original goal intact of using the e-cello in as many interesting ways as possible.
Additional highly recommended repertoire for the e-cello can be found at Jeffrey Krieger’s website listed above.