nico Espinoza + bernardo Girauta = free improvisation + machines

bernardo Girauta - electric guitar & effects
nico Espinoza - bass & computer

Photos by Elisa Mendes

Machine Intervention for Musical Indeterminacy Radicalization
(vóia at Forum Ircam)

The starting point of this project is the algorithm developed for our free improvisation practice with electric guitar and bass. This algorithm works as intermediary creating a probabilistic relation between some motion sensor and the sounds generated by the system.
In this particular case images from a camera input are transduced to control the parameters of a Digitech Whammy pedal. This pedal effect, to which guitar or bass is connected, manipulates pitch and creates intervals in a very flexible way subdividing different pitch intervals in one hundred twenty eight parts, allowing the exploration of sounds outside the range of the well tempered tuning.
The fact that the relation between input and output is probabilistic implies a high unpredictability degree in the formal constitution of the relationship between the two poles of the system, image and sound. As the Digitech Whammy is a pedal for pitch manipulation, this unpredictability creates a constant uncertainty for one of the instrumentalists, in relation to the sound pitch that his instrument produces. Such unpredictability is obviously extended to the other musician in the sense of the possibilities of group improvisation.

We understand this algorithm as a machinic intervention in the music that does not seek to facilitate the representation and subsequent aware manipulation of sound elements, formalizing them in a predictable operability language, but rather by increasing the degree of unpredictability of some of these elements, to function as a destabilizing device of the musical language. All decisions of the algorithm are taken without direct influence of past events. The option for this relative unpredictability directs our practice toward an aesthetic orientation that we adopt through dialogue with ideas and practices of other artists, especially those related to the so-called North American experimental music, where the concept of musical indeterminacy occupies a crucial and decisive position, and the practice usually called free improvisation. Let's briefly explain what aspects of these practices connect with our improvisations.

The term American experimental music is used in reference to practices that arise primarily around John Cage's proposals, extending to various artists more or less close to him, such as Christian Wolf, Earle Brown, Cornelius Cardew, La Monte Young, etc., almost all coming from the concert music scene.

If we try to briefly identify what American experimental music means in terms of language, delineate its activities, and explain its singularities in relation to other musical and artistic practices, we will inevitably come to the concept of musical indeterminacy, which is fundamental to the choices we make in developing the algorithm.

In his first writings on the subject, Cage identified as musical indetermination the indefinition, in the score, of certain parameters in relation to the performance of the music: pitch, duration, timbre, morphology and amplitude. In this sense, there is indeterminacy if there is no clear instructions in the notation to define the characteristics of a certain parameter, characteristics that function as a criterion from which one can affirm the correctness of the performance sounds in relation to the score, that is , if the performance sounds correctly represent the score images. Therefore, such composers have as a singularity the option to write scores in which sounds as objects have acoustic and morphological characteristics, mainly in terms of pitch and duration, central aspects of staff notations, almost always unpredictable and whose precise definition has little relevance to the the work in question. In the words of composer and researcher Michael Nyman, many times there is not "musical facts" in common between two performances of the same composition. What these artists seek is the proposition of processes, in Cage's words: "not an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown."

Those composers did not abandon the notation, even if it lost its function of representing the sounds by an image encoded in signs. For these artists, the score became a place of proposition of diverse activities that look for the unpredictability. There are several strategies adopted for this search, from instructions for the construction of sound automata to the suggestion of processes that generate unpredictable sounds from incessant repetitions of specific processes. What most of these strategies have in common, and matters to our practice, is the proposition of situations for people gathering in spaces in order to show the relationship between them, and from that relationship generate sounds, not the opposite, that is, defining specific sounds and bringing people together in a predictable, automated and unnoticed way. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein stated in his Philosophical Investigations that our language is like a city, it has different zones: centers, suburbs. Of course, in a common musical situation, there is also a gathering of people in a space, but this relationship is like a suburb of language and its ramifications, while the acoustic characteristics of sound, such as pitch and duration, occupy the center. The practices associated with indetermination operate inversely, bringing the spatial and interpersonal relationship to the center and shifting the acoustic characteristics of sounds to the suburb of the musical language. In Cage's words, "let the notation refer to what is to be done, not what is heard, or to be heard." This leads many critics to question whether this is really music, to which composer Robert Ashley responds by stating that "the ruling metaphor of music is time, not sound."

A notation is an image, even if its function is often that of a code that seeks to enable the representation of this image by the sounds generated by musicians, which is not the case of the composers mentioned. In our system, the relation between the image captured by the camera and the sound isn't a representation, which occurs because of the use of probability. This feature makes impossible a total predictability of the pitches and durations of the generated sounds, putting our system closer to the concept of indetermination. At the same time, if there is no movement in front of the camera, the algorithm does not work, so that the issue of space and interpersonal relations that occur in it become absolutely relevant, causing the audience to abandon passive viewer status and become also a sound producer.

The other practice to which we relate is the so-called free improvisation, which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and which shares some characteristics with indeterminate music. The writings of guitarist Derek Bailey, practitioner of free improvisation, helps us understand this practice.

Bailey argues that the term free improvisation characterizes an improvised musical practice whose language would be literally disjointed, whose constituents would be unconnected in any causal or grammatical way and so would be more open to manipulation. A language based on malleable, not pre-fabricated, material. In his words, "I was looking to use those elements which stem from the concepts of unpredictability and discontinuity, of perpetual variation and renewal." It is evident here, the relation with the experimental practices that we described previously.

Bailey further states that the word "free" refers to the impetus toward the questioning of musical language, or the rules governing such language. For the philosopher Wittgenstein, any language is a game with a set of rules, and this is no metaphor. Such rules are not immutable, they change over time. It is in this sense that tonalism, with its typical movement of tension and resolution, has already fulfilled the function of a fundamental rule for what we knew as music, something that Arnold Schoenberg's experiences changed definitively about a hundred years ago. In free improvisation, there is a constant refusal to adopt a fundamental note, be it in a modal or tonal system, as well as the adoption of discrete time units (beats). More than that, the musicians seek an improvisation in which each moment is independent of the previous moment, in an incessant escape from standards. Bailey is aware of the dangers of this practice, stating that "once free improvisation descends to be the recycling of previously successful formulae its relevance becomes pretty remote."

At last, but not least, there is, in both American experimental music and free improvisation, an attempt to break with the principle of form as the fundamental aspect of giving consistency to music. Otherwise, such artists prefer formlessness. In other words, they prefer the music to dictate its own form. Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in their writings on aesthetics and politics, affirm that every artistic operation gains consistency in this way, that is to say, from a conjunction of relatively disparate elements that generate a form later, not the opposite, not a form in which the materials are directed from the consciousness of a subject-author. Therefore, there is a refusal, on the part of these philosophers, to understand art as a sort of formal design generated by a subject's single consciousness. The form arises from impersonal forces that pass through the subjects and the material objects that happen to be in the world, at the same time transforming them and constituting them. This does not mean that there is no subject-author, but that he can do nothing without interpersonal and extrapersonal forces that are not totally controllable by a consciousness. The experiences of American experimental music and free improvisation accept this condition by withdrawing it from the suburb and repositioning it at the center of its practices. We expect our experiences to come close to these elements.