Wednesday, September 12

Sound as art - art as sound

Toshio Iwai stands on the stage holding a translucent digital panel rimmed in steel. Dressed all in white, with a wireless headset, he appears to have stepped from a pure, utopian future. Quickly he generates a rhythm of electronic pulses, then adds a simple melody over the top. He moves sound sources around on a grid, phasing tones in and out, building them to a resonant crescendo. As any electronic musician will tell you, his performance isn't technically difficult. Software sequencers - where the computer triggers a note or sample if a grid node is turned on - have been around for years. The difference lies in the execution and aesthetics. Instead of a performer hunched over a mysterious laptop, Iwai's Tenori On instrument moves with the player, glowing and pulsating, communicating the sound visually.

We enjoy connecting the visual and the aural: the whip crack of a snare as a drummer's stick comes in contact, the tensed face of a singer reaching for a high note. So it's fitting that recent projects seek to bring that connection to the sometimes cold black box of electronic sound. Instruments like Iwai's, visual programming software like Max or Pure Data, and Bjork's recent use of the 'reactable' instrument in her live shows try to address this lack.

A 'tangible music interface', the reactable is essentially a tabletop which senses specially tagged blocks put on top of it and overlays graphical data on them. The typically invisible tempo which lies behind a song becomes a very visible digital ripple, triggering sounds as it touches blocks. Difficult concepts like signal paths are made clear - we can see the original signal emanate out, then become squelched and agitated as it passes through a filter block.

Of course, the type of visual feedback can also take a lo-fi bent. At the last experimental sound night known as Vitamin S, dancer Christian Larsen and a fellow dancer reacting to a looped, overdriven guitar performance.

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