27b/6 (blog and build)
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/217234966″>27b6</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/alexchristie”>Alex Christie</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
Original Goals and Themes
27B/6 is my first investigation of several artistic themes that have recently presented themselves as significant, and perhaps integral, to my creative/compositional process. The connective tissue of these themes is the reexamination of “composition” and what this term means for music, art, intermedia, instrument design, space, theater, audience, and performance practice. More specifically, the goals of this piece (27b/6) are to explore the following:
Instrument as Composition: Both the digital and physical construction of this “instrument” are necessarily connected to the composition of sound, formal structure, and performance practice. From here on I will refer to the instrument/composition as “piece” as I find it to be a more accurate term in describing this project.
Instrument as Composition as Space: The piece interfaces with the architectural performance space in a variety of ways: 1) it requires more space (at least 18 feet) than many traditional instruments 2) its instrumentality and composition create and radiate space through which the performer moves and acts. This space affords the use of theatrical performance and staging 3) it accentuates the containing architectural space through placement/arrangement of the physical structure and interactive lighting that casts light and shadow on architectural surfaces.
Instrument as Composition as Space as Sculpture: The physical scale and form of the piece require compositional engagement that is not directly related to sound production. The decorative aspects of design mirror themes of the piece and even record the history of its production. The physical material is treated in the same way as the sonic material, or at least the aesthetics of each reflect each other.
The above themes are drawn in part from Rosalind Krauss’ essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field.
The “Anti-”, Impracticality, and Bureaucratic Systems: I don’t necessarily like the term anti-_____, but I understand its use. Anti-communication, and anti-aesthetic are two terms that come to mind in relation to 27b/6. I would also like to include anti-instrumentality, as this instrument is purposefully designed to interfere with itself and the performer. This is not an instrument that is meant to optimize performer control for the sake of a “more musical” performance. Instead, compositional form is dictated by the fragmentation and interruption of musical phrases and performance. The composition and instrument are purposefully impractical. This impracticality leads to new and expanded forms of performer engagement. The performance becomes an act of navigating a relentlessly faulty and inefficient system in which some forces hold more power than others. These concepts were heavily influenced by Stanislaw Lem’s novel Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil.
The Process of Composition and Construction
Digital: 27b/6 uses the Bela I/O platform and BeagleBone Black processor to run and Pure Data patch that combines pre-loaded sample manipulation, basic synthesis, and lighting control through digital outputs.
I began the composition of 27b/6 at the Pure Data level, an environment that is familiar to me especially compared to physical fabrication, wood, sculpture, etc. The first iteration of the patch is for a different encasement: a box that is too large. This instrument consisted of an awkwardly large and heavy box with button and knob controllers inconveniently located out of sight and around rough edges. In this piece, the audio is output through a speaker contained within the box creating a physical connection to sonic production. This project led me to 27b/6 and the heart of the PD patch remains the same.
There are four pre-loaded samples (percussion-based) in the PD patch for 27b/6. These samples are performed through the use of an uncertain sample electro and the manipulation of their playback rates and looping parameters. Before these samples are accessible for manipulation, however, the performer must initiate the “startup sound”, and ascending sine tone that signifies the performer is about to (re)gain control over 27b/6. The system (PD patch) will interrupt sample-manipulation and disable performer control. When this happens 27b/6 produces one of several basic synthesis sounds (sines tones at 60Hz, 1kHz, 13kHz, or white noise) and loops/freezes the current sample-based sound stream. The performer must now engage with Side B of the piece, a simple probability based set of switches that will either return control to the performer and allow for the continued performance of sample-based material or just continue to produce the raw synthesis. When performer control is returned, the piece turns completely silent until the performer re-initiates the “startup sound” (it is the removal of sound that signifies the return of control).
The construction of this PD Patch was fairly straightforward until I began to consider more carefully its formal compositional nature of the piece. I found myself stuck in an uncomfortable middle ground between my experience as a composer of notes on paper and an improviser using probability-based electronic instruments. This patch seems to sit right in the middle of these two perspectives and composing a trajectory that kept the exchange of control intact and compelling is difficult, and something I still have not yet achieved in this piece.
Physical: Before I address this construction aspect, I want to provide a list of controllers as is pertains to the above PD description:
Side A (Performer Side)
3 potentiometers for the manipulation of pre-loaded samples
1 switch for “reseting” the system after the performer regains control (startup sound)
1 lightbulb to signify the control state of 27b/6 (performer, system, or waiting for reset)
Side B (System Side
3 switches that trigger a random generator that has a 1/25 chance of returning performer control
1 lightbulb to signify the control state of 27b/6 (performer, system, or waiting for reset)
The piece is built out of 18-feet of wood (eventually stained) with decorative bands carved in using an X-Carve CNC router. The 18 feet consist of 6 3-foot segments. Each segment is essentially a roof made of two 36”x7” boards glued together at a right angle. The process of cutting, carving, sanding, and staining these segments was the most unfamiliar to me and involved a lot adjustments along the way. My original intent was to laser-cut designs into each segment, but I miscalculated their size and they ended up being too large for the laser bed. I consider this a lucky mistake now as using the X-Carve to carve out different bands allowed me to experiment with texture and mirror the theme of interference on the physical body of the instrument. This process also creates a tactile element that invites and intimate engagement with the piece. I stained the uncarved wood to accentuate this contrast. I’m still not sure how happy I am with it.
I installed the potentiometers, switches, and lightbulbs by drilling and a using a dremel to remove wood from the inside of the structure. The components were then mounted from the inside. Wiring was problematic due to the length of the instrument and its necessary modularity (as proved in performance). The Bela lives under the Side A of the piece which means a total of 162 ft. of wire must be run from Side B in order for the switches and lightbulb to function.
Other Compositional Elements: with the digital and physical elements in place and fully functional, the performance of 27b/6 runs something like this:
- The performer wears a suit.
- The piece begins with silence as the patch loads.
- The performer removes their suit jacket.
- The performer initiates the start of the piece with the Side A switch, the startup sound begins, and the pre-loaded samples being playing.
- The performer explores this sound world searching for textures of stability and instability. These textures are eventually interrupted by harsh, raw synthesis and performer controls are disabled.
- The performer puts on the suit jacked and walk to Side B where the control switches for the raw synthesis are housed.
- The performer flips these switches until all sound stops. The performer then walks back to Side A.
- The performer removes suit jacket.
- The performer flips the switch and the startup sound plays and everything repeats.
- Eventually the piece ends and all sound is disabled.
In the ideal version of this piece, the lights will flash, stay on, or turn off depending on what force is in control of sound: Side A is on during performer control, Side B is on during system control, and the two sides blink, alternating between them during the silence before reset. This aspect was not function for the first performance.
The theatrical element of the performer/suit is meant to engage the audience, performer, and space. The performer’s role changes when they move to Side B and more formality suggests less autonomy. The unrelenting repetition and routine is hopefully humorous but also darkly disturbing. I would like to have a coat rack by Side A.
The First Performance
The first performance was imperfect, of course. For, at least, the following reasons:
Digital: The formal compositional structure, both in terms of sonic elements and the lighting sequence, is incomplete. My programming of this aspect in PD is still glitchy and I did not iron out the details in time for the performance. The result is, what seems to me, a flat form and lack of direction. This form might actually be appealing if it is supplemented or supported by a more structured lighting sequence. This could also enhance the theatrical elements of performance. The acceleration in blinking lights present in the first performance of this piece was a last-minute solution to an incomplete lighting sequence.
Physical: 27b/6 is difficult to transport and requires significant disassembly which of course means it also requires significant reassembly. During the rehearsal and setup process I accidentally disconnected one of the wires controlling the relay for Side B lightbulb. As a result, only the Side A light functioned in performance.
What to Do About Space: The first performance was held in a relatively informal environment, which is almost always my preferred performance space. During the performance, however, I imagined the benefits of a stuffier, or at least more formal environment that mirrored the system/setting that 27b/6 plays with. Additionally, the instrument takes up a lot of room and its staging greatly affects engagement. In an ideal setting, I would have rotated 27b/6 45 degrees so the walk from Side A to Side B would cross diagonally through the space.
I plan to continue to work on this piece. My first goals are to shape the formal structure both in sound and light and document a more complete performance of this piece. Once this aspect is more firmly established, I am curious to explore how the physical space and be expanded further, perhaps through the use of more digital outputs to trigger lights or other mechanical devices.