Aesthetics of Technology-Based Performance

Aesthetics

—the philosophy and critical reflection on art (read more)

  • On the substance of a performance:
  • On the elements of a performance:
    • Stage presence—the ability to engage an audience from the stage (read more); Examples—three performances using a Monome: (1) a demo of the product; (2) Edison; (3) Deadalus
    • Mise en scène—the way in which all design elements actively contribute to the aesthetic impact of the performance (read more); Example: Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt” Album version and Live version (skim beginning and then 3:52)
    • Semiotics—the way in which things contain/express meaning, e.g., associations from nature (clouds mean rain), conventional associations (red means stop), resemblance (drooping lines mean sadness or weakness), or a representative portion of something larger (Washington means the US government) (read more with examples)
    • Synaesthesia—a psychological condition in which senses are inextricably linked, a phenomenon which is inspiring in art (read more); Example: Terri Timely, Synaesthesia
    • Intermedia—art that inextricably links multiple modes of expression or experience (read more); Example: TERMINALBEACH, Heart Chamber Orchestra (through 3:00)
    • Counterpoint—the interactions among elements in a work that establishes a balance between coordination and independence (read more and more); Example, J. S. Bach Fugue in D Minor

Technology-Native Performance Techniques that Exploit these Concepts

  • Appropriation—creating art using “readymade” or “found” materials or from other works of art. Examples: John Oswald’s activist Plunderphonics (recordings are hidden on his site)/Martin Arnold’s films/Christian Marclay’s live turntablism (3:10–4:00)
  • Live sampling—a performance practice starting without any pre-made/pre-recorded materials, only tools that capture material live in during the performance and transform them into new material that makes up the performance. Example: Shankcraft (TAMU)
  • Feedback—creating visual, sonic, or other material by connecting a system’s output to its own input, allowing complex, unpredictable material to emerge. Example: Rodrigo Guinski’s live cinema (TAMU)
  • Circuit bending—creative rewiring of commercial electronic devices to achieve sounds and images beyond what was intended by the manufacturer (read more); Example: Greater Sirens, BEND: A Circuit Bending Documentary
  • Glitch (in visual art and music)—creating art primarily from (or mimicking) technological artifacts usually considered to be flaws, mistakes, or garbage. Examples: MerzbowGlitch Art documentary
  • Generative (or algorithmic) art—creating art by setting a (usually simple) system into motion without knowing the what the outcome will be. It’s often a computer program, but it needn’t be. Examples: Ferin Martino (TAMU)Philip Galanter (TAMU), Mozart’s minuet dice game (he wasn’t alone)
  • Live coding—a performance practice in which a computer is programmed on stage in the moment of performance (read more); Example: Glitch Lich—TEDx talk and performing at TAMU
  • Another performance to consider: Loud Objects. This performance practice isn’t widely adopted enough to have a label worth learning, but it’s somewhat a combination of circuit bending, live coding, and generative art, and it could also be made to incorporate appropriation, feedback, and glitch if the artists desired.

Classical Electroacoustic Performance Practice

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Troubleshooting Notes

METHODS

SEEKING HELP

  • First define the problem succinctly
    • Explain what you did, what you expected, and what happened instead
    • Is something completely missing? Partially missing? Intermittently missing? Is something added (noise)?
    • Minimum Working Example
  • “Find something and read it”
    • Pay attention to error messages and printed labels
    • Consult the manufacturer’s documentation
    • Search the web (use terms from your succinct problem definition)
  • Asking others
    • Put in the work yourself first, lest you annoy those you ask
    • Use your succinct problem definition
    • Provide your minimum working example
    • Potential sources of help:
      • Knowledgeable people you know
      • Internet discussion forums
      • Manufacturer technical support
      • Professional repair companies, preferably recommended by the manufacturer

CAUTIONS

  • If disconnecting something in an audio signal path, ensure its channel is muted or the power amps that channel feeds are turned off. Otherwise, you will hear loud pops as you unplug and plug in the connector. Be mindful of multiple outputs in the signal path, e.g., mains and monitors.
  • Don’t touch lamps/bulbs in lighting instruments, projectors, etc. The oils in your skin will make it heat or cool unevenly or excessively and shorten its life.
  • Allow projectors (and other equipment with lights and fans) to cool down before disconnecting power or you’ll shorten its lamp life. Power the device down, watch for indicator lights still on and fans still running. When the device is completely dark and silent, then it is safe to disconnect the power.

COMMON EQUIPMENT PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS

  • Unresponsive hardware
    • Correct inputs and outputs used?
    • Correct mode activated?
    • Error messages or warning lights?
    • No lights on the device lit: Power button? Burned out fuse in device (it will look like a burned out lamp)? Fuse in power strip? Tripped GFCI? Tripped circuit breaker? A receptacle tester will indicate active power to outlets as well as proper wiring and grounding (click here to read more).
  • Cables and connections
    • No connection: Use a continuity tester (or the resistance/Ohms setting on a multimeter) to look for broken conductors or shorts between conductors (click here to read more).
    • Partial connection:
      • Some analog video signals have separate conductors for red/green/blue or for brightness/hue, so a broken conductor may result in missing color information instead of a black screen.
      • Weak audio with changed balance between instruments can result from stereo phone plugs that aren’t plugged in all the way. This is because the tip (left signal) is touching the right input contact (which should be touching the ring of the plug) and the ring is touching the ground contact (introducing an inverted version of the right channel to be mixed with the left channel). Any instrument that is the same in both channels will be cancelled out; any instrument that is partially in both channels will be weakened. A similar but less dramatic effect can occur when the left and right speakers are wired “out of phase,” meaning the hot and ground conductors are reversed in one speaker.
    • Intermittent connection: irregular crackling audio, disrupted video signal, or sporadic unresponsiveness. A conductor is partially broken in some place. Wiggle cables and use a continuity tester to find it.
    • Ground loop: when electrically connected devices have multiple paths to ground (usually when they use outlets that go to different circuit breakers) it can hum in audio at 60Hz (with harmonics, so it’s hard to filter out) or horizontal lines in video. Some devices have a switch that will “lift” (disconnect) the ground at one end of the signal path. Be sure that all equipment is still properly grounded even when this is activated. To lift the ground in power cables, a cheater plug may be tempting to use, but it is not safe unless all equipment has one proper path to ground (click here to read more). An isolation transformer inserted in the signal path designed for audio or video signals is an appropriate tool (click here to read more).
    • EMI or RFI (electromagnetic interference or radio frequency interference): Electromagnetic fluctuations from nearby power cables, power transformers, arc lamps (e.g., fluorescent lights and CFLs), motors, and even radio stations can induce noise in cables. The result may sound/look like ground loops (see above), whines or static (sometimes voices in the case of radio reception), and it may interfere with control signals. An RF choke can be attached around a cable to block interference (click here to read more).
    • Long cable runs: These have more surface area exposed to interference sources (see above), but every signal will lose energy over a long run, resulting in quiet audio with less high frequencies, darker video, or unresponsive controllers. Sometimes amplifiers (whether manual or automatic) may try to compensate for the signal loss, resulting in more noise introduced into an audio or video signal, because the noise floor of the equipment and any interference is being amplified along with the weak signal.
    • Feedback: When any input device picks up the output it is feeding, the signal will reinforce itself and grow out of control. A microphone placed too close to a speaker or in its path will usually evoke a sinusoid Larsen tone. A camera that can see its own output on a projection screen or display will get brighter until it clips.
    • Electrical fire: Cut the power first. Dousing it may cause more damage and electrocution. Not all fire extinguishers are rated for electrical fires. Once the power is disconnected, it can be treated as an ordinary fire.

COMPUTERS

  • Overloaded CPU: If the computer is overloaded, audio may suffer brief isolated clicks or drop-outs or stutter. Video may suffer “dropped” frames (meaning temporarily frozen images) or blocky patches or deformed motion if a codec lowers image quality to maintain frame rate or if it misses encoding information (click here to read more).
  • Exit/Quit all unneeded programs, e.g., a weather update program, and turn off any processes that might run in the background during performance, e.g., software updates, virus scans.
  • If a program is unresponsive, use controls in the operating system to force quit the program (Ctrl-Alt-Del in Windows, Command-Option-Esc in Mac OS). Any unsaved data in the program will probably be lost.
  • If a device or multiple programs are malfunctioning, then warm reboot or soft rebootthe computer using the Restart function in the operating system (Ctrl-Alt-Del then click the Power icon and Restart in Windows; Select Restart from the Apple menu in the upper left corner of the screen in Mac OS).
  • If the operating system is unresponsive, first check that your controllers are plugged in properly. Then cold reboot or hard reboot it by holding the power button for 5–10 seconds until you hear the fans shut off (otherwise, the computer might just be in “sleep” mode). Then press the power button to boot it manually. Any unsaved data in the program will probably be lost and any open files might be corrupted.
  • In an emergency, e.g., to stop imminent damage to people or equipment, disconnecting the power cable may be necessary. In addition to losing any unsaved data and risking corrupted files, hardware in the computer or connected to it might be damaged.

Technical Rider Notes

Additional reading:

Image Editing Notes

Additional Materials:

Visual Hardware Notes

On Cameras and Photography

These versions of the Exposure Triangle may be helpful:


On Lighting and Projection

 

Analysis Notes

1. These aren’t songs

Songs are specific forms of music that are sung or have a singable tune. You might describe moments or elements in your assigned composition as “song-like,” but you will have a hard time justifying calling them songs outright. Instead, try using one of the following ways to refer to the work:

  • “composition”
  • “piece”
  • “work”
  • “movement” in the case of a multi-movement piece like Sud
  • simply by the title of the  composition

Songs aren’t bad things, but these compositions aren’t songs. Refer to the songs & sandwiches discussion in class.

2. Avoid asserting how a sound was made

While it’s a great exercise to guess how you might go about making the sounds you hear, and it’s a worthy endeavor in some other class to figure out how a composer achieved specific sounds, those aren’t the point of this project, so avoid doing it even by accident. You most likely don’t know for sure how the composer made the sounds you hear, so avoid terms that suggest that you do, like “random” (try busy, hectic, complex, complicated, sporadic) or “synthesized” (try synthetic or synthetic-sounding).

3. A play-by-play is not an analysis

…although it is often the first step toward one. Think of a football game. Don’t tell me what happened each down when I ask what the game was like.  Tell me what happened in the game that made it exciting and different from other games. You do need to think about everything that happens in your composition before you can say anything meaningful about it as a whole, but a play-by-play does not make an analysis of how the piece works as a whole.

more Analysis Advice

1. Don’t tell me you like it

Because (for the purposes of this course) I don’t care. The purpose of the analysis isn’t to prove to me that you like this stuff now. It’s difficult listening, and it was chosen for a pedagogical purpose (refer to discussions on the first day). Your analysis should show the reader how the piece works, how to make sense of it, get something meaningful from it.

2. “No wrong answers” doesn’t mean everything is right.

I’ve said before that in this project, there are few wrong answers, but many unsupported ones. It’s okay if this makes you uneasy, because it may be new for you. However, don’t let yourself think that means your work won’t be evaluated seriously. In recent teaching workshops, I’ve been shown research on different stages of learning that all basically boil down to four stages:

  1. Teacher is right—trust an authority figure absolutely. But eventually you’ll come across a teacher who is wrong, and your world is shattered.
  2. Procedure is right—the ability to determine right from wrong is in your hands (e.g., If ____ and ____ then definitely _____), but procedures can’t universally fit all cases, and procedures can be improperly applied (e.g., this dog only has two legs, therefore dogs are bipeds).
  3. Everything is right (in its own special way, la la la la)—also called relativism. It recognizes that there can me many right answers, but shies away from admitting that things can still be wrong.
  4. Constructed knowledge—at this stage, you recognize that there can be many valid answers, that some may be generated by procedures or consulting experts, but you also recognize that any of those things can also be wrong or at least used improperly. With this knowledge, you take in theses and evidence, evaluate them in context and form your own informed answer.

So, if our approach to evaluating analyses in class has been uncomfortable for you. Be heartened—you’re growing!

3. Narratives are natural (but not always sufficient)

If you catch yourself thinking, “This sounds like an alien invasion; the aliens are attacked with cannons, and… eventually one side wins,” that’s okay as a start—it’s very natural to use narratives (stories) to make sense of things. E.M. Forster reflected on this in Howard’s End:

“It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come– of course, not so as to disturb the others–or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee…”‘

So, don’t be afraid of using narratives, but heed these warnings:

  • Remember that models/narratives/metaphors always fail us at some point. The show us certain things about a subject, but not every conclusion made from the narrative will be true for the subject (e.g., Africa doesn’t really have a stain where you dripped coffee on your map). Find the right scale, context, and limits of your narrative’s applicability. In most cases, your narrative will best serve you as a parallel path to discovering a way to describe the interrelationships you see, in more abstract terms.
  • Sticking with a narrative means you’ll probably need to spend most of your essay connecting sonic elements and events with characters and events in your narrative, which brings you dangerously close to giving a play-by-play account without any larger view of the whole. Always make sure you’re connecting your conclusions back to the sounds in the music and to the big picture.
  • Don’t force a narrative on the piece. It just might not fit, or in might only be helpful to a certain level of detail. Once you find a narrative that fits in certain ways, it’s great if you look closer and find sonic details that fit details of your narrative, but if it doesn’t fit, don’t force it.
  • Back to the example at the start of this section: if you use a narrative, check to see what that narrative may reveal about you. If you say, “This sounds like an alien invasion…,” what is it that makes it sound alien? Is it just because you’ve never heard anything like it before? It’s probably not a useful analysis if you’re only comparing it to your own life experience or subjective tastes. Why an invasion? It’s not just because this unfamiliar (to you) is simply persisting in its presence, its own right to exist, is it? Be very careful when using terms that suggest value statements, intentions, or motivations like this: Find the underlying reasoning leading to these conclusions, and if you find they have emerged from your own bias, discard them. They’re preventing you from finding an objective model to understand the work.

 

The Football Analogy

1. Someone’s trying to tell you something

When approaching unfamiliar art, my best advice to an audience is to imagine that it’s a message from an alien: you know someone is trying to tell you something, and you know your usual tricks for making sense of it may not be helpful.

2. Stick with it

The longer version of this considers the alternative. Imagine an alien were watching a game of football. He might be inclined to say “it’s just a bunch of humans running all over,” and ignore it. He’d be missing a lot of understanding about humans and maybe missing out on an enjoyable experience. If the alien decided to stick with it longer, he might notice that certain things are predictable, other things are not predictable, and that sometimes would-be predictable moments have thrilling surprises.

(This concept is adapted from Richard Taruskin’s evocations of a “Martian musicologist,” speculating on what would appear to be most important in our music, from the perspective of an extreme outsider to our culture. Richard Taruskin, “Reply to van den Toorn,” In Theory Only 10, no. 3 [October 1987].)

3. Where’s the playing field? Who are they players? Where are their goals? (How) do they get there?

The alien might notice things gradually about the football game, and gradually begin to make sense of it, then compare it to other football games, and maybe enjoy it. These are some gradual realizations the alien might have.

  1. It’s just a bunch of humans running all over.
  2. Well, they run around inside this green rectangle.
  3. Actually, half of the people run in one direction, and half face the other way.
  4. Oh, there’s a ball, too.
  5. They all seem to be following the ball around, with half of them moving the ball, and the others trying to stop it.
  6. The people stop running when one person moves the ball to one end of the green rectangle.
  7. They actually run and then stop, then start again.
  8. They usually do that four times, and if the ball hasn’t reached the end yet, the other people try to move it to the opposite end.

and so on.

Try this process when you encounter new art. You might not find meaning in the usual places. If you’re used to listening to melodies and beats, but a piece has a constant pitch and a steady pulse with no pattern to it, then there’s no meaning there: that’s just the playing field. Instead, listen for meaningful patterns and developments in timbre or loudness or space (e.g., left/right): they may be the players. Next, figure out their goals, how they try to get there, whether they ever get there, etc.

For further reading on this approach, look at Richard Schechner’s “Seven Ways to Approach Play” from Performance Studies: An Introduction (Routledge) on eCampus.

Graphic Score Notes

1. You can’t show it all

…so figure out what’s most important and find a way to demonstrate that. It will be different for every piece. DO NOT give a play-by-play account in your analysis. The inventory of events that happen is one step on the way to understanding how the piece works, but in itself, it is not an analysis.

2. Mixed approaches to notation

Stockhausen, Study II (1954) was completely scientific in its approach, but you miss the musical relationships.

Stockhausen, Kontakte (1960; excerpt) uses a combination of multiple staves, shapes suggestive of scientific parameters, shapes suggestive of traditional music notation, and plain words (which are in his native language, German):

Luening/Ussachevsky, Incantation (1953) was an early composition made by editing sounds recorded on tape. Modern scholar Brian Evans made a graphic score of it using only a few symbols, and marking its sections. He clearly didn’t notate every single sound.

3. Relationships, not just a list of sounds

Harvey, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980) only has two sound sources in it, so Dr. Evans had to focus on how the sounds were transformed, more than an inventory of which sound happened when.


See more examples and discussion on graphic scores here.