THE COMPUTER-EXTENDED ENSEMBLE
David A. Jaffe Visiting Composer
We have been experimenting ... with percussionist/composer Andrew Schloss in a duo called Wildlife. The duo features Schloss and the author performing on two modern instruments, the Mathews/Boie Radio Drum and the Zeta electronic/MIDI violin, with this ensemble extended by two computers, a NeXT and a Macintosh running the NeXT Music Kit and Max. The music is a structured improvisation in which all material is generated in response to the performers' actions; there are no pre-recorded sequences or tapes.
Current work includes The Seven Wonders of the World, which, unlike Wildlife, casts the computer and Radio Drum in the context of a conventional ensemble (or, at least, a conventionally notated ensemble). This piece is scored for Radio Drum-controlled Disklavier, harpsichord, harp, two percussionists, mandolin, guitar, harmonium and bass. It was composed at the Banff Centre for the Arts, where I was a Visiting Artist in 1992-93. The Radio Drum part was worked out in collaboration with Andrew Schloss, supported by a Collaborative Composer Fellowship from the N.E.A.
... The central question for composers is not whether human behavior can be duplicated, but what new musical effect can be achieved with computer interaction that cannot be achieved by prior existing means. A likely place to begin exploring this question is in an area of music in which interaction between performers is central - improvisation.
Introducing a computer as an extension of the improvising performer increases the scope of spontaneous musical decision-making that gives improvisational music its distinctive quality. A computer can magnify, transform, invert, contradict, elaborate, comment, imitate or distort the performer's gestures. It gives the performer added power to control sound at any scale, from the finest level of audio detail to the largest level of formal organization.
But the full power of the computer in an improvisational context does not show itself until we add a second performer to the ensemble. Now each performer can affect the playing of the other. One performer can act as a conductor while the other acts as soloist. Both performers can be performing the same electronic instrument voice at the same time. And these roles can switch at a note-by-note rate. Thus, the walls that normally separate performers in a conventional instrumental ensemble become, instead, permeable membranes. Figuratively speaking, the clarinetist can finger the violin and blow the clarinet while the violinist bows the violin and fingers the clarinet. We have coined the term "computer-extended ensemble'' for this situation.
The challenge becomes finding roles for the performers that allow them just the right kind of control. They need to feel that they are affecting the music in a significant and clear fashion. Otherwise, they will feel superfluous and irrelevant, as if the music has gotten out of control. The computer program may be simple or complex, as long as it fires the imagination of the performers.
Other projects include the following:
1. Terra Non Firma, a work for conducted electronic orchestra and four cellos, using the Mathews Conductor program. This work was commissioned by the University of Victoria in honor of Max Mathews.
2. American Miniatures, a recently completed work for tape alone, uses Common Music, the Music Kit and the phase vocoder to process recorded sounds of strings, voices and drums.