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Workshop: Animal to Machine to Animal, Composing with Technology

Workshop prerequisite:

2-3 workshop participants must bring examples of music technology they are currently working with to the workshop. These may include: samples, soundtracks with mixers, any kind of ambience or other sound processing, and anything else (subject to my prior approval).

The equipment for these technologies must be set up, trouble-shot and soundchecked thoroughly, before the workshop begins. So the time and space for this must be planned.

When we weave technology into our musical expression, we are essentially re-structuring something which is already structured, and is, in a sense, inflexible. Anyone who works closely with music technology tends to see, instead, its variables, its unpredictability. As composers of an overall piece, of which that technology is just one element, we need to understand it from further away—as something actually very fixed.

We need to examine this immutability closely so that we can learn where it—or we—can change. The risks of not doing this are: a piece of music which collapses mid-concert because the composer is doing battle with the technology. Or "noodling"—where the audience is invited to sit and listen in on a private composer-to-machine improvisory dialogue because the composer is letting the machine shape the piece.

We start the workshop by asking the individuals who have set up their equipment in advance, to demonstrate what each instrument of technology does—show us all its tricks. I encourage all the workshop participants to imagine possible extensions of each element's capability and to ask the demonstrators questions. Slowly we get a specific picture of the range and power of each technological instrument.

At this point I assign a group of workshop participants to each instrument. I ask them to individually develop a notation system for that instrument which expresses in some graphic way the instrument's capability as accurately as possible. I ask them to compare their notation systems with each other and with the instrument owner and to collaborate on one combined notation.

In this way, the owner of the technological instrument can see her or his instrument from the perspective of someone who is less involved and perhaps less myopic. The group can combine and maximize their observations with the expert information that the owner can provide. The result is a clear grasp of what the instrument can and cannot do and a premise through the symbolism of notation for how to begin conceptualize the intrument's abilities musically.

I ask each group to explain the notation system they have developed to the entire workshop. We discuss how to and how not to include the instrument in a composition: when can we reasonably expect specificity from the instrument, when can we not, how we can create a structure which allows for variable performance from the instrument, and more. We may further refine the notation system based on these discussions.

Now I ask the groups (and owners) to switch to another instrument, adopt another group's notation system, and co-compose a short, fairly structured piece for themselves and the instrument (calling in its original owner as necessary) to perform. Each group performs its composition.

We close the workshop after a discussion of the performances:

  1. was the performance musical?
  2. if not, why not? if so, how so?
  3. was the technology used as musically as could have been? can we imagine extended applications?
  4. for the owner/demonstrators: have you benefited from this workshop? If so, tell us how.
  5. " " : can you offer suggestions to non-demonstrator participants as to how they might work with their own technology interests?

Note: I co-lead a similar workshop with Dafna Naphtali (audio and computer expert, composer, improviser and coloratura soprano) adjunct to concert appearances by What is it Like to Be a Bat? Please visit the Bat? site to find out more: What is it Like to Be a Bat?

Dafna Naphtali's portion of the workshop covers live interactive technology while I cover the compositional aesthetics of using technology. Both are vast topics and we offer the workshops separately as well. What I have described above represents the gist of my portion of the Bat? workshop.