Monday, April 20, 2015

Exposure

Recently I had the intriguing, and in some ways unnerving, experience of giving a half-hour solo improvised performance live to the internet from my living room. It was part of a 24-hour round-the-world online music performance relay event called ToBeContinued...

There were a number of aspects of the performance situation which were unfamiliar, adding up to a strong feeling of being more exposed than usual - out on a limb. That's what I want to write about in this blog.


To begin with, the acoustic picture was a little hard to control. What I mean is that the nature of my set-up made it very difficult for me to get an accurate picture of the balance of sounds I was putting out.

You can listen  to a recording of my performance on SoundCloud.

There were seven channels of audio going into a mixer from three different broad types of sources:
  1. A stereo pair of condenser microphones provided a live stereo acoustic image of sounds I was making in the room using my voice, flute, mandolin, a collection of transistor radios and a few other objects. 
  2.  A third microphone - an old dynamic mic - was mounted right next to me to capture close acoustic sounds without capturing the sound of the room - an 'airless acoustic' - with sounds including bubble wrap and other materials rubbed against the surface of the microphone.
  3. Four other channels of two stereo line inputs were used to play a synthesizer app and a variety of field recording and other studio treatments directly into the mixer. The field recordings brought their own separate layer of indoor and outdoor acoustic contexts to the sound picture.
The instruments/sounds themselves were all a familiar part of the approach I've been developing to improvisation over the past few years. What was different was that I wasn't hearing all these sounds in the room with the audience. Instead, due to the mix of microphone and direct line inputs, I had to have the headphones on in order to hear all the sounds I was making. But there was nothing I could do to prevent the live acoustic sounds in the room from resonating my body at the same time. This made balancing these acoustic sounds against the sounds sent directly from digital devices quite a challenge. This was particularly difficult with the voice and flute as both of these were also resonating directly inside my skull. As a result I found it pretty much impossible to properly judge the level relationships between these two instruments and the field recordings and synth app.

This gave the performance a strangely out-of-control feeling. I responded to my sense of exposure by trying to ride the unpredictability and play with the ragged edges of the sonic (and social?) situation - the improviser's trick of feeding off whatever constraints there are on a performance. Gradual cross-fades and ambiguous overlays of sound sources contrasted with sudden stops and starts, variously aiming to expose or obscure the acoustic layers and sound sources, and foregrounding breath and the mechanics of turning on and off radios, picking up or putting down objects and switching mic channels on and off. At times my voice and flute became jagged foreground interruptions to the subtler sound spaces - the jaggedness made more intense by my inability to accurately judge the relative levels.

Added to the aural instability of the situation was the fact that, although improvising is something I've been doing for as long as I can remember, almost all my solo improvising has been in private, to no one but myself. For me solo improvisation has mainly been a source of private enjoyment and, with a microphone involved, a source of raw material for studio sound pieces and musical scores. In all these cases the sounds I've made are not intended to be heard in their 'raw' form by anyone else but me.

Performing in my living room for an actual though invisible audience was like inviting an unknown number of strangers to spy on me. Or - given the way in which the context of event and observers inevitably change the experience of performing - like turning this personal exploratory/reflective space into a performance venue.

Which brings me to the next unfamiliar thing. Here I was improvising to an unknown number of invisible strangers. I couldn't see who they were and I couldn't see or hear any of their reactions. There was no audience feedback - no 'atmosphere in the room' - just a compressed digital 'chasm'. And of course, the audience also couldn't see me or what I was doing. Except for what might be gleaned from the above photo that I posted online shortly before I started playing.
 
The sheer undecidability of all this made me feel as though I were in a space without any up or down - no gravity - no sides. No reference points.

But of course there was a context - a kind of frame of reference. There were close to 48 other individuals or ensembles also playing their 30-minute sets one after the other over this one 24-hour period. And what's more, there were specific individuals playing before and after me. This was my context. A kind of distended collaboration - a cultural relay.

As I made my final preparations (following a brief online soundcheck with Antonio Della Marina and the other organisers in Italy), I heard bits of the very full electronic textures Masashi Isai coming from Tokyo. Hearing the driving rhythms of his banks of samples I wondered what listeners would make of the rather exposed and fragmented soundworld of my set.

Whatever my anonymous listeners made of my contribution, after 30 minutes the relay duly moved on, this time to laptop musicians in Capetown. After that came a collaboration between electronic artist Fabian Racca and guitarist Mario Ayala from Argentina, making music that also had its exposed moments. Then it was off to Teheran for the intriguingly named MP|vH+ Computational Sound Art Projects -with sounds of a more abstract nature. And thus we were all mutually exposed to this curious online community of half-solipsistic collaborators - the closest thing to a visible audience.

I wonder how many of us listened to each other and how much? I felt I couldn't really listen properly until my set was done. And the invisible audience - what did they make of this eclectic smorgasboard of contemporary sounds?

I also wonder how Antonio Della Marina and his collaborators stayed awake through the 24 hours (plus prep) of the event, sound-checking every half hour and monitoring the streams, and even finding time to write following our sets to thank us participants for our contribution to this sonic marking of World TB Day.

On reflection, exposure and risk - a quality of ragged edges and uncertainty - is familiar territory and a necessary part of all real-time music-making. Perhaps even one of its chief attractions. For all its 'almost-solipsism', the invisibility of the audience and the strangeness of the acoustic experience, ToBeContinued... was definitely a performance - a play with sounds and circumstances fuelled by the adrenalin of uncertainty and that 30-minute space of potential silence waiting to be filled and shaped. Or left dizzyingly empty.

That empty stretch of time, framed by expectation (an audience, however obscure), is what produces the necessity of performance - a necessity that seems to enable unexpected leaps of creative invention. It's a more pressing necessity, and more reliably productive for me, than the need to write (and to eventually finish and post) a blog article - also presented to an invisible and unknown audience.

But then this invisibility is a familiar attribute of all writing. And recording. Who knows who's out there?

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