by Bean with Gino Robair
April 1, 2001
Artists who customize or build instruments to realize their singular artistic visions often make the most exciting music. Three female performers who take that route — Krystyna Bobrowski, Miya Masaoka, and Kaffe Matthews — make groundbreaking music that transcends gender and conventional musical expectations. Composer and instrument builder Bobrowski integrates a curious collection of organic materials with motors and contact mics for extraordinary performance-based installations. Composer and performer Masaoka blends computer-enhanced instruments, gestural language, and assorted living creatures to express a musicality that melds futuristic and ancient sensibilities. Sampling wizard Matthews works with found sounds in an immersive improvisational performance environment.
Each daring performer has a different approach to producing music that is as experiential as it is impossible to reproduce. They rely on the element of surprise, welcome the unexpected, embrace the unknown, and explore the relationship among sound, self, and the audience.
Years of liberal-arts studies formed a solid foundation for Krystyna Bobrowski's keen interest in physics and natural phenomena. Much of Bobrowski's work exploits the sounds that result from demonstrating basic scientific principles in unusual ways. Mundane actions and objects are also important elements in her pieces.
Many of Bobrowski's installations employ simple mechanical devices in novel ways, often using a computer for control or data processing. She especially enjoys working with motors and contact microphones in conjunction with natural materials. As if to prove the point, Bobrowski's work space is strewn with everything from electronic parts to large pieces of drying bull kelp.
Bobrowski came up with the idea for the piece Rock On during a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito, California. “Rock On is a collection of six amplified and prepared rocking chairs,” Bobrowski says. “The preparations include motion switches and electronics. The chairs rock on amplified surfaces, including newspaper, a car hood, nuts and bolts, and pools of water.”
When she borrowed rockers for the piece, Bobrowski found that owners had stories to tell about their chairs. Those tales inspired her to create themes for each rocker. “Each chair includes a speaker that plays prerecorded material relating to the theme of the chair,” she says.
The first chair features recordings of Bobrowski's grandmother reminiscing about the artist as a young child. In addition to recordings of her grandmother's voice, the chair was amplified by contact mics. Bobrowski created a program in the Hierarchical Music Specification Language (HMSL) to interpret the data initiated by the rocking motion. She used an Anatek Pocket Pedal to translate the voltages into MIDI data.
“As a person rocks back and forth in the chair, a mercury switch senses its position,” Bobrowski says. “The switch data is translated into a MIDI message, which is fed into the HMSL program on the Mac. That, in turn, triggers samples of my grandmother speaking while simultaneously fading the speaker volume up and down. There's a nice interaction between the voice and the chair. My grandmother has a very high voice with a thick accent, which blended really well with the squeaks of the chairs.”
The “grandmother chair” is the most technically complex rocker of the group. “The other chairs are more simple in that the rocking motion merely raised and lowered the volume of a long loop as it played,” Bobrowski says. “The loops have an inherent rhythm to them. When the rhythm of the rockers was superimposed as volume changes over the loops, interesting moiré patterns resulted.”
She dedicated a different chair to her father. That chair rocks on amplified nuts and bolts while playing recordings of Bobrowski's father singing lullabies over the phone. Still another, the “news chair,” plays sound bites from a talk-radio station while rocking on amplified newspaper. Not surprisingly, Bobrowski dedicated the chair to friends who obsessively listen to the news.
The “rap chair” rocks on an amplified car hood, which triggers rap beats as it creaks and thuds on the hood's uneven surface. Bobrowski immersed another rocker in a pool of amplified water, accompanied by an ocean soundtrack.
The smallest chair is a child's rocker, which sits on a speaker. Rocking the chair triggers loud squeaks that are pitch-shifted down until they sound like violins and cellos. “Although it was the smallest chair in the room, it was the loudest,” Bobrowski says. “But you couldn't sit in it. You had to push it with your hand.”
Bobrowski put on a performance version of Rock On called Rock Her at the Alternative Museum in New York City. For that incarnation, she choreographed a quartet of performers in prepared rocking chairs.
Bobrowski feeds on the challenge of creating site-specific pieces, and she enjoys working in large sonorous spaces. The Chapel of the Chimes — a beautiful columbarium in Oakland, California, designed by architect Julia Morgan — is one such environment.
For Playing Rain, Bobrowski uses a dozen brass flower vases that are scattered throughout the columbarium. As visitors pour water through the vases, the liquid drips onto plates with piezo triggers strategically placed underneath to sense the droplets. The piezos are connected to a Roland PM16 pad-to-MIDI interface that sends input data to a Mac for triggering samples of gamelan instruments. “The first time I heard gamelan music, it reminded me of rain,” Bobrowski says. “I used gamelan samples in this piece because of their chimelike quality, which seemed to fit the theme of the performance environment.
“The water droplets trigger samples with randomized pitches in a Javanese tuning system,” Bobrowski says. “However, the rhythm of the samples is in sync with the drips. This gives control over the density of the sound to the visitors of the exhibit.”
Bobrowski is also interested in the contrast between the way musicians and computers perform similar musical tasks. The performance version of Playing Rain pits performers against a computer as both attempt to synchronize with the drips.
The musicians play melodic gamelan instruments known as slentem, gender, and saron, in 5- and 7-note tunings called slendro and pelog, respectively. Bobrowski uses a Peavey DPM SP sampler as the computer's sound source. Because the gamelan instruments' bars are highly resonant, players must dampen a ringing note before striking a new one. The combined striking and damping action limits the speed at which performers can play wide intervallic leaps. At high speeds, the musicians tend to play in limited areas on their instruments and cannot hit octaves or achieve as wide a range of notes as easily as the computer can.
“The piece begins with the instrumentalists trying to sync with the drips,” Bobrowski says. “As the piece progresses, the dripping frequency increases, and it gets too difficult for the musicians to keep up. The computer then attempts the same process, which results in a contrast in errors between the human performers and the computer. Both make mistakes but in different ways. For example, the computer often interprets a quick succession of drips as one drop. Also, the sounds are sometimes triggered by the computer so quickly that you end up with a series of drones — especially when the piece is played in a reverberant space.”
For her String Quartet:Music Box, Bobrowski created a prepared string quartet by playing a cello, viola, violin, and quarter-size violin with flexible materials attached to the shafts of small DC motors. The materials include leaves, grass, rubber bands, flexible plastic strips, and tape (see Fig. 1). Bobrowski connected a Variac variable autotransformer to the system to control the motors' speeds. “There are several motors per instrument,” Bobrowski says. “By changing the voltage going to the motors with the Variac, participants can change the tempo of the piece.”
In a variation on the instruments-played-with-motors theme, Bobrowski wrote a score in revolutions per minute for her piece 0002□2000 RPMs. In that piece, Bobrowski gives performers handheld motors with wooden dowels attached to the spinning shafts. Little flags of tape attached to the ends of the spinning dowels are used to play the instruments. Although performers control their own motors, the composer controls one section of the piece with a Variac. The instruments — acoustic and electric guitars, cello, and violin — survived the lashings unscathed.
As part of an installation called Leaf Litter, Bobrowski crafted “leaf speakers” by gluing piezos to a collection of leaves and using them as playback transducers. The sounds of people walking through leaves and children playing in leaves are played through the speakers, creating self-referential filters.
“When you play sounds through normal loudspeakers, you're usually looking for the purest representation of the original sound,” Bobrowski says. “I wanted to take environmental sounds — in this case, sounds involving leaves — and see what happens if you play them through the material itself. I was interested in hearing the resonances and filtering effects that would result from playing leaf sounds through leaves.”
Bobrowski's most recent work, Oceans in a Box, involves an acoustic instrument she devised called the Gliss Glass (see Fig. 2). Gliss is short for glissando and refers to the instrument's ability to create six simultaneous glissandi. The instrument uses six custom glass containers connected by plastic tubing and valves to a large water container. Each glass is open at the top, and the valves control water flow to each glass through a hole in the bottom.
Musicians can play the instruments in several ways, including rubbing a wet finger around the glass's rim, tapping and striking the glass, and splashing the water (see Fig. 3). Each player has an effect on the other glasses, depending on the glass's height and valve position.
“The Gliss Glass is based on a simple property in physics where a body of water tries to return to equilibrium due to atmospheric pressure,” Bobrowski says. “By raising or lowering the glasses, the performers disrupt the equilibrium in the entire system. As the glasses are played, the audience hears rising and falling glissandi as water enters or leaves the glasses, respectively. The Gliss Glass gives you the sonic impression of this physical phenomenon.
“When I built the instrument, I was thinking of closed systems, such as our ecosystem or the body's circulatory system,” she says. “There are a lot of analogies you can draw from this instrument based on hydraulic principles.”
Bobrowski created Oceans in a Box for six female vocalists and the Gliss Glass. Each vocalist plays one glass, usually one that best matches her vocal range. The piece is a structured improvisation using graphic notation that indicates valve position (see Fig. 4), glass height, glass types, and vocal sounds to be used. In the score water flow is the basic time structure rather than metronome markings. The musical result is an exquisite blend of slippery harmonics and vocal and glass textures.
Miya Masaoka is a composer and improviser with training in both Japanese court music and contemporary music. She has collaborated with an impressive roster of musicians, including Pharaoh Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Dr. L. Subramaniam, George Lewis, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Fred Frith, Steve Coleman, the Rova Saxophone Quartet, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars.
The main motivating factors behind Masaoka's work are sound exploration and its relationship to the audience. However, her desire to expand the traditional playing techniques of the koto, a zitherlike Japanese instrument, fueled the development of her electroacoustic invention, the Laser Koto (see Fig. 5).
“The Laser Koto combines the traditional Japanese koto, in this case a 21-stringed instrument, with a computer interface and controllers,” Masaoka says. “I use several different controllers — pedals, sensors, and lasers — and have a library of more than 450 samples of koto-related sounds. The challenge is to have immediate access to this tremendous number of samples in a musical way during a performance.”
As an artist-in-residence at the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM) in the early '90s, Masaoka worked with Tom DeMeyer to develop a computer interface for her instrument. Their collaboration began with a system that included ultrasound rings, an ultrasound receiver, pickups, pedals, and switches. “The rings are worn on one finger on each hand, and each ring has three sensors for capturing gestures in two-dimensional space,” Masaoka says. “This information is fed to samplers and sound modules through STEIM's SensorLab voltage-to-MIDI converter.” (For more information about the SensorLab, see “The Outer Limits” in the August 2000 issue of EM.)
Masaoka began using this performance setup to trigger sounds and control feedback. Through trial and error, she and DeMeyer found that some ideas that worked well in STEIM's studio did not work as well on stage and vice versa. “Sometimes too many samples or processes would get triggered when I moved my hands,” she says, “so we were always fine-tuning the system. For example, in a 6-foot range of the instrument, you could trigger dozens of samples or six samples, as well as have different degrees of effects.”
Returning to STEIM with a laser harp designed by Donald Swearingen and built by Oliver DiCicco, Masaoka continued to develop performance techniques while she explored ways to map performance gestures in an electronic environment. Swearingen's laser design uses a grid of sensors mounted on a pair of camera tripods that flank Masaoka's koto. In performance, she uses a can of Fantasy FX smoke spray to highlight the laser beams and to reveal the virtual instrument to the audience.
Along with her SensorLab voltage-to-MIDI converter, Masaoka uses a combination of STEIM's Spider and Cycling '74's Max software. An audio feed of the music created live is routed into Max, where her samples archive is organized by timbre and pitch. While she plays, Masaoka mixes and matches her phrasing on the acoustic instrument with the phrasing in the samples. Because of Masaoka's fine use of extended techniques and her subtle control of the balance between the electronic and acoustic sounds, it is often difficult for the listener to discern the real koto from the virtual one. That is the exact effect Masaoka strives for.
“Having such a huge range of sounds available — and to be able to work with the computer in this way — is very exciting,” Masaoka says. “The Laser Koto expands people's awareness of the koto as an instrument. The physicality required to play the instrument is something I've always emphasized; whether I'm bowing or scraping the instrument, it's a very physical act. The Laser Koto is an extension of this, meshed with the Mac G3 PowerBook.”
Masaoka believes that the relationship between acoustic and electronic music is closer than most people think. To extend her instrument's timbral range, Masaoka often prepares the koto by weaving objects between the strings. For example, she emulates synthesized sounds by bowing a small cymbal stuck between the strings.
As a result of her years playing Laser Koto, Masaoka has created a gestural and timbral language all her own. She plucks, strums, scratches, and bows the koto acoustically while waving her hands through the laser beams to layer an additional 12 koto-derived sounds.
Complementing Masaoka's fully loaded PowerBook is a DigiTech TSR 24S connected to a MIDIWizard RFX Foot Pedal, which she uses for changing patches. At home she relies on a Mac G4 with Digidesign's Pro Tools and BIAS's Peak for recording, sampling, and editing.
Currently Masaoka is collaborating on new developments for the Laser Koto with Matt Wright from the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies at the University of California, Berkeley. “The ongoing development of the instrument has been with the help of Matt — right down to the core of the whole system, including how the pedals, samples, and controllers work together,” Masaoka says.
Drawing on her interest in the relationship between nature and technology, Masaoka has created works utilizing ensembles of insects. Her Bee Projects series explores the social order and sonic behavior of bees.
In Bee Project #1, Masaoka combines violin, percussion, and bowed koto with an amplified beehive onstage. The piece sets up an interplay between the musicians and bees that highlights the slowly developing rhythmic patterns created by the droning hive. During the premiere performance, the drones were punctuated by the occasional solo statement of a stray bee near a microphone.
Masaoka also fashions pieces that use the human body as a canvas on which she builds dramatic soundscapes and confronts the audience with issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. One such piece, Bee Piece #6, was a collaboration with Joe Anderson, a specialist in sound spatialization. For that piece, Anderson's SoundField ST250 4-capsule microphone is cautiously lowered into a beehive while videos of bees navigating Masaoka's body are shown (see Fig. 6). Anderson's careful placement of speakers throughout the venue lets the audience share the experience of being inside the hive.
In her work Ritual, Masaoka reclines amid an array of motion sensors from Radio Shack, covered by an invited gathering of giant wingless Madagascar hissing cockroaches (see Fig. 7). As the cockroaches crawl over Masaoka's nude form, they interrupt the sensor beams and trigger samples of cockroaches hissing, creating a random soundscape.
Masaoka relies on the human body for the material in Naked Sounds. “In Naked Sounds, I'm treating the body as a potential orchestral source,” she says. “Using medical equipment, I chart and interpret brainwaves, heartbeats, and the sound of the blood coursing through the veins. The brainwaves are output as a musical score that can be realized using Cycling '74's Max and MSP or performed by musicians. The subject's brain activity can also be translated into MIDI data. The interface I'm using for this piece is the Interactive Brainwave Visual Analyzer from IBVA Technologies.” (For more information about IBVA Technologies, see “The Outer Limits” in the August 2000 issue of EM.)
“I think of the skin as a barrier between the internal and the external world,” Masaoka says. “The sounds from the body reveal what is hidden, what is undiscovered. These sounds are always there within us but are so mundane and functional that we ignore them. Naked Sounds reminds us of what lies within.”
Kaffe Matthews describes herself as a “live converter.” Although she electronically processes sound events in real time, every aspect of her performance is improvised, and her spontaneous reactions to the surrounding environment define each performance. That approach highlights an event's temporal nature as she samples, resamples, alters, and regenerates found sounds with her live-sampling setup.
“By working with sound generated at the performance or in another space at the same time as the performance, you're bringing in another place with all its dimensions and history,” Matthews says. “It doesn't just expand the sonic palette. It also means that the musician is actively using place and event as material for real-time perversion.”
An impromptu trip to study drumming in West Africa laid the foundation for Matthews's complete immersion in electronic music. The journey came at a time when she was open to deep listening and could sense the effect of small changes on a complex sound's tonal characteristics.
Matthews's exploration of musical color and texture developed during an intensive phase of performing solo improvisations. She wanted to develop new ways to play the violin while introducing sounds outside the instrument's traditional realm (see Fig. 8). However, the more she performed in public, the more she found inspiration in the unforeseen nuances of each location. A courtyard's ambience, bar noise, even sounds from the band downstairs became source material to be layered into the emerging sonic fabric (see Fig. 9).
Matthews revels in the experience of creating something fresh and unexpected every time she plays. She occasionally works with prerecorded material but only if the sounds are extraordinary, such as the kite-flying samples she created during a recent trip to the Scottish Isles.
Matthews arrives to performance venues early to assess their layouts. Before a show begins, she places lavaliere and PZM microphones around the venue to capture diverse sound material. Then Matthews pulls out the gaffer's tape and judiciously embeds the microphones within the environment. Often the best material comes from close-miking a sound that changes regularly, such as a fan, water faucet, or beer tap. Matthews usually designates another mic for ambience and might strategically hide it beside unsuspecting diners, patrons at the bar, or near another club's sound system. The artist reserves the third microphone for a prime location within the performance space so she can resample herself as she plays.
Like Masaoka, Matthews has been an artist-in-residence at STEIM. With STEIM's Jorgen Brinkman, Matthews retrofitted her violin with a pad of six controls that serve as remote-to-MIDI switches for her Peavey PC-1600x MIDI controller. Despite the upgrade, Matthews prefers to concentrate solely on using microphones and live sampling and has temporarily suspended using violin in her solo performances (see Fig. 10).
Matthews is one of the few musicians actively using STEIM's proprietary live- sampling software, LiSa. Matthews says the software is intuitive and works well for sampling, processing, and playing material in an interactive performance situation. She creates performance templates that let her make spontaneous music — without spending endless hours programming.
Matthews takes full advantage of LiSa's ability to control sampling and processing using MIDI data from external controllers, such as a keyboard, faders, pedals, or strings. For example, Matthews uses the PC-1600x to send sampling commands and to play samples. She employs foot pedals to send continuous controller messages or to determine a loop's starting point or length. LiSa also lets Matthews immediately access and play the samples in a variety of layered combinations. The sonic results range from fuzzy, chopped, and twisted to eerie and ethereal.
Matthews runs LiSa on a Mac G3 PowerBook; she also uses a Behringer 8-channel mixer and a Boss SE50 FX unit, in addition to the PC-1600x. She occasionally augments that setup with ultrasonic tracking sensors for converting movement into MIDI data. This allows a dancer or audience member to use his or her body to produce sounds, whether deliberately or unintentionally. Although Matthews has collaborated with a number of choreographers, she generally prefers to use unwitting participants as primary contributors to an event.
What do these these three artists have in common? They possess large doses of imagination, motivation, and determination that keep them creatively vibrant and make them exemplary sources of inspiration for anyone creating electroacoustic music.
Through self-reflection, research, and good old-fashioned hard work, Bobrowski, Masaoka, and Matthews have developed highly individual approaches to music making that transcend technology. Whether it's transforming physical phenomena into sound, extending a classic instrument's vocabulary, or using the environment as source material during an improvisation, the restless energy these artists exude will keep them at the forefront of creative music for years to come.
A visiting scholar at Carnegie-Mellon University, Bean is tearing up the school's Entertainment Technology Center while teasing new ideas for collaborative music-making schemes from the students. Gino Robair is an associate editor at EM.