ensemble & aesthetics

In this segment we describe how the development of our extended instruments led to specific kinds of music and how we practiced on things specifically.

Live sampling

The use of a live sampler has the consequence that the playable source-material can be recorded on the spot. This forces the player to be open to be surprised by the sampler. You can not have it all under control all the time.

As with some (more experimental) pedals, we like to be surprised by the tools we use. It can be very rewarding and inspirational to use things that you don’t fully master or control. There’s a thin line of course; it only works to some extend, because you don’t want your tool to control you. However we think that a small lack of control benefits the freshness of the music. Like on the graph shown in the section about computer processing, a challenging setup creates flow.

In comparison to the naked, acoustic instruments, we have way more options than before to create sound with. As a result the focus in playing is not (only) on the acoustic instrument, but on the whole setup including the acoustic instrument. Because of this the aim for mastering the instrument shifts from the acoustic instrument alone to the extended instrument, creating timbres and being fluent and organic in those skills.

In the music, we focus mainly on how the extended instruments relate to the original (acoustic) instruments, to the other instruments in the room and to the the room itself (acoustics). This leads to an aesthetic in which all of the separate sound sources become somehow indistinguishable from each other. This is something we started to cultivate. Like in dreams, we like the ‘Cause and Effect’ relationships to fade. This idea can be done in different ways. By the use of extended techniques (preparations, unorthodox playing styles, …) and the creation of derived layers, we can be able to disconnect an instrument from its conventional sound pallet. 

In this track we used a live sampler in a synced way; not synced to a metronome but to the pulse of the ensemble. Only the guitar was sampled and processed (by miking it closely). It’s pretty difficult to do these kind of things without the use of a midi-clock, especially when you use longer samples and aim for a tightly synced result. For this reason, we considered this path not particularly suitable for our sampling instruments. As already described in the about section, we had a more free approach to playing in time.

tekening Vitja sampling the band.png

By placing a stereo pair of overheads at a distance from the ensemble, we can sample the band easily as a whole. This gives rise to a new dimension in the music. Image a band to be recorded and treated as a sample, whilst the actual band is still playing. In a blink of an eye, the ensemble can get multiplied several times, which is not very common for an average listener. When listening back to recordings (for the album), we were often put on the wrong track ourselves. To us it felt as a good sign.

In the following example, the ensemble gets sampled and the sampler gets over the band sound. Notice how the organic band sound subtly gets an electronic/processed flavor.

Decision making

When playing together, we are (consciously or unconsciously) making non-stop decisions. Whether we only play our instruments or extended versions of it, the practice of improvisation remains challenging. Although this research did not intend to focus on improvisational strategies, we thought it could be useful to share some ideas. We like to think of playing as painters would do together on a large canvas. They can share colors or state opposites. We drew some scenarios as examples of what could happen when three people are improvising.

scenarios onderzoek.jpgScenario 1 is can be described as composition of contrasting textures. Person 3 installs a drone to which person 1 reacts with a pointillistic approach (preferably in another frequency range). Notice how persons 1 and 2 interchange attention. Scenario 2 shows a composition of different  paces. In scenario 3, person 1 triggers reoccurring events to which the other persons subtly react. Scenario 4 is a little different because they planned on changing textures whenever person 1 plays a musical cue (the double vertical lines). This last scenario is strictly not ‘free’ anymore, since a particular strategy is used. Sometimes these guidelines helped us to go to other places. A good reference for ‘improvisation’ is the book search and reflect – A Music Workshop Handbook by John Stevens.

With our extended instrument setups, it is theoretically possible to make all these layers alone as well. So we could have tried out these scenario’s in solo settings. In practice, we think that controlling four layers (as in: different moving textures) is an absolute maximum, unless your head doesn’t bother to explode.

Note to self: in most cases we see our improvisations as kind of (organic) static states. When we reach a state that feels meaningful to us, we like to stay there for a while and keep the tension rather than develop it. An objective ear defined our music as: 'going to places that are rather than places that go'.

Working with limitation

We used several kinds of limitations and concepts to provoke certain results during recording.

  • limitation to specific timbre: the track called ‘kapla’ came to be when we suggested to only use wood-like sounds, resulting in a specific similarities of the sounds used.
  • concept of form: like in scenario 4, we agreed upon a cue (a melodic motive that the piano plays) that calls for a change. With this intention we recorded ‘amber’.
  • harmonic limitation: harmonically there were two possibilities, either there was a tonal centre (modality) or there was no harmonic reference (free). Not that these modalities were persisted on purpose, but it gave freedom to explore sound more deeply.

Another limitation can be assigned to the distribution of roles within the ensemble. In most ensembles, instruments find its place by its frequency range and conventional function. Because we extended our instruments with all these extra features, our limitations (especially frequency range and conventions about our instruments) started to fade more and more. At a certain point throughout the research process, we decided that Hendrik would be responsible for sampling the band as a whole, Vitja would sample only himself and Casper would treat various objects.

We also played tunes (freely) and worked with graphical scores.

IMG_1776 (1).jpg
Score we used as guideline for improvisation

Practicing improvisation

Practicing control over our extended instruments was a continuous process in order to evaluate and fine-tune our setups. However, we felt like we needed to boil some things down to their core. Hence, we did specific improvisation exercises to get familiar with (and stumble on limitations of our) instruments.

We noticed that in ensemble context we get overwhelmed by the many possibilities we prepared during the individual research: constantly doubting and thinking about what tool to use. As a result, we tried to stay in the same mood during the length of the improvisation.

Note to self: sometimes it's hard to stick to the same musical idea or the same technical tool for a time, but it allows you to get to know them on a deeper level. Try to handle the tools as instruments and not as tricks. 

In this exercise the intention was to create a sound palette together in which each of us only uses short sounds (short attack, short decay, no sustain). Intuitively we tended to glide into a wide sea of sound (meaning from the acoustic sound sources we can easily make one dense mass of sound with the use of electronics, and as a result it was the thing we did most). Noticing this automatism we tried this exercise to go against this ‘automatism’ or ‘cliché’.

We tried to keep the exercise as dry as possible: no reverbs or delays, no effects that make the sound more beautiful or more impressive than the original sound (be it acoustic or manipulated in some way). In general this is what we try to do when we practice. Drying things up gives us a better notion of the details of what we are actually doing: how our electronic processing affects the original source-sound, and how our individual sounds blend with one another. Hendrik acoustically modified the piano so the attacks are (or feel) shorter and harder. Putting screws and clothespins between the strings has this effect. Vitja played with little harmonic dampers (foam) as preparations to have pizzicato-like sounds. He experiments with his prototype Max for Live sampler controlled with a foot-controller and an iPad.

This exercise (again: as dry as possible) is centered around the repetition of certain grains creating pulses. The insinuation of tempos comes from the looping of short samples. We tried to create a texture together in which different pulses and tempos exchange each other and go against each other.

Hendrik uses the fragulator in combination with the stutter (see tools & documentation) The stutter is more controllable, the graingrabber is more organic and feels more as an entity on its own with a ‘free’ will. Casper uses different delays on the piezzo mic. The goal is to use the delays as a time indication but not to create space with it. Vitja plays mainly with sample/loop speed acceleration and deceleration controlled with an expression pedal, suggesting tempo and insect-like sounds. 

In this fragment long decays are being created with the use of extreme reverb. It is effective, the trails become very long, but the sound is not neutral anymore. It gets placed in a fictive space. It actually becomes a spatial illusion instead of a stretched, dry acoustic sound. We have to find a way to alter our ASDR (attack decay sustain release), without the spatial illusion, so this space can be an extra variable that can be added afterwards. The goal is that we are able to manipulate the volume envelope of our acoustic instrument without the fictive space. This is why the Max For Live Freeze plugin was built: freeze a sound in a dry manner with control over attack and release of the frozen sound. (continuation: see tools & documentation)

Hendrik didn’t have the right tools to do this properly yet: instead of a drone a linear thing, it became more like quick pulses again. Using a clothespin to bang the pianostrings regularly didn’t result in a fluent droning sound. The only thing that came close to a drone was the immense reverberated feedback thing: this is certainly a path to look into. The challenge was to create a drone by extending the decay of the standard acoustic sound, preferably without making it wet (because that is very easy to do, and can still be done afterwards. there’s a big challenge in the dryness). Vitja did succeed in this exercise to make a dry but consistent drone with the use of the bow and a looper

This is more of a purely musical exercise than a technical one: an exercise on developing one texture with the ensemble. There are multiple sound sources since the three of us are playing, but the goal is that it feels like one thing, one texture that evolves together. One soundworld morphing slowly into another soundworld. No sudden changes or surprise attacks. We try to be complementary in a fluent way. When someone introduces a new element into the improvisation, all of us try to move into this new sound. The main idea is to sound as one unit.

This is the opposite of the previous exercise on evolving textures. Making one sound that exists solely out of contrast, not going with each other (together) but rather against each other. These exercises about textures are hard tot evaluate in an objective manner. That is why they feel more like exercises for music making: a starting point, a frame that sets boundaries for the improvisation.

Piano waves come and go, sounds like the sea. The guitar plays a high note with a very long sustain, sounds like a seagull or a water boiler. The sound of the piano gets transformed into a playable synthesizer: An unexpected, very digital sound. Drums make cracking noises.

diffuse piano chords, too much of the same chord in irregular rhythms to be able to play this live. A beating electronic loop rises out of nowhere. Guitar noodles some lines in an easy way. Drums join the electronic pulse and die out again. More electronic stutter loops arise. Machinery made by the computer. Guitar joins the mechanical pulse and adds humanness to it. It becomes a song sung by the machine, accompanied by the instruments. In the end the machinery gets stretched into a vague metallic noise, equalizer going out of control to end.

Brute digital noises clearly made by the computer. Piano playing some airy chords that transform into some kind of drone. Acoustic shaker adds a layer of noise. The line between electronics and acoustics becomes more fluid in the end when drums and computer are alone: the acoustic shaker could have been an element of the electronic glitchiness. In the beginning of this exercise there was a very clear contrast between the acoustic sound and the electronic sound. towards the end the two worlds morph into each other: With our live samplers it is very intuitive and easy to morph acoustic sound into electronic glitchiness.

playing the sampler

Bad-ass groove with sampled bassdrum. Acoustic drums play on top. Guitar plays a high drone that feels very cold. Eminem could start rapping any time. The ensemble stops for a second. Hendrik turns the filter open and the remix of the minute that came before starts.

(As a restriction we choose to use a limited amount of source material to feed into the livesamplers. Recording something and playing that recorded sound as a traditional midi-instrument.)

acoustic leadership

The electronically manipulated sounds can be very compulsory. We still have a long road to go to be able to play the electronically manipulated sounds in an equally intuitive way. The electronics tend to lead because of their power in volume and brutality, and the acoustics tend to follow. This is an exercise in which the electronic players try to follow the acoustic player (in this case the drummer). 




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