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A quiet corner and a laptop

Researchers analyze how computer technology affects creation

A four-holed flute and a laptop. That is what composer Silvio Ferraz takes to his concerts. His colleague on the stage and in research, Fernando Iazzetta, also a composer, arrives armed with a no less improbable pair: a berimbau (African-brazilian instrument mainly use in capoeira fights) and a portable computer. The concerts in question are part of a research project entitled Environment of Musical Composition and Performance with Technological Support, which the two researchers of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP) are carrying out, with the support of a grant received under the of FAPESP’s Program of Support for the Young Researcher.

More than simply studying music made with the aid of a computer, the two researchers tried to understand how technology interferes with the creative process. The idea at first was a lot more ambitious: to discover new ways of composing and playing. Another differential of this research is that it leaves the purely theoretical field, setting up real laboratories in the place where music interests most: the stage. “Besides studying how the creative process is altered by the equipment, we tried to develop interfaces for new ways of manipulating sound” Ferraz explains. The interfaces are programmed devices in the computer that either interact with the instruments, processing the sounds they emit, or they produce certain sonorous results using digital commands on the keyboard itself, or, again, they release prerecorded music. The concerts use a mixture of the three procedures.

Infinity of wires
The research – which lasted about four years and received a grant of roughly R$ 60,000 – started with the assembly of a “mobile performance module”, a set of equipment that would allow concerts to be carried out at which the interfaces would be tested. The module is made up of two laptops, where the sound is processed, four loudspeakers and an infinity of wires. According to Ferraz, the module cost about R$ 50,000, but the expenditure is worth it, since Brazilian electro-acoustic music also has to face the high cost of the rental of the equipment. PUC’s Laboratory of Sound Languages was used as the project’s headquarters.

When research began, the composers worked on a few theoretical issues and 21 papers were produced as a result. After that, on the computer and with the use of a programming environment called MAX/MSP, they built interfaces to allow the sound to be controlled and processed in live presentations. Theory and practice were united at the concerts. There were ten, given at festivals of electro-acoustic music and in partnership with artists from other areas.”The concerts began ‘closed’, with little interaction”, Iazzetta. “As we improved our mastery of the tools, we started to interact in real time, in addition to using other resources, like dance and video”, he adds.

“What we were able to notice in the course of the research was how the basic division of western music – between the manufacturer of the instrument, the composer, the player and the listener – does not apply to electro-acoustic music” Ferraz explains. “They are all blended in just one person” he goes on. According to the researcher, this “new musician” is like a child, who decides to take a blade of grass and brings its to his mouth, whistling, in the attempt to make a sound. At the same time that he creates the new instrument, he needs to learn to interact with it, and he should also compose the music that is best adapted to its characteristics.

Another change revealed by the research was in the conception of compositional unity. “At the school for composition, we learn how to create unity, for the person to realize that the sounds he hears are part of the same music” says Ferraz. “With the computer, I was able to work with more varied sounds at the same time, without worrying about this unity” explains the researcher. In the course of the study, the researchers also came across other issues that involve the new ways of composing and playing. Iazzetta, for example, concentrated on the loss of the aspect of gestures. “When electronic music appeared, the performances boiled down to pressing the play button.”

Musical gesture
“From the 80’s onwards, when the equipment became portable and quicker, technology left the studio and went onto the stage”, says the researcher. With live performances, the musical gesture had to be reintroduced. However, the act of playing instruments that have their sound processed or on a computer keyboard simply does not obey the laws of mechanics. On a violin, for example, the musician knows that a certain string will invariably produce certain sounds. In electro-acoustic performances, though, the rules are not so clear any more. “You create artificially the gestures that used to be natural, as well as having to create new gestures for new sonorities and interfaces”, Iazzetta points out.

Something else that was discovered was that the existing programs for composing for computers on the market make use of “compositional thinking”, limited by the musical concepts of the decades of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. The programs are restricted by such procedures as repetition – which came into fashion with the minimalism of the 70’s -, the arrangement of sounds with fading – a technique used by the composers of electronic music in the 60’s -, and the permutation of musical phrases – in vogue in the 50’s. “In addition, the young composers are limited to working with a linear concept, in which one idea comes after another, when thought, at the time of composition, does not flow like this” Ferraz explains.

To deal with this problem, he tried out a few procedures to allow greater freedom of action. One of the ideas was to transpose the technique of the Spanish painter Miró to composition. Each day, Ferraz would put sounds, at random, into a sound sequencer, “of the kind that any boy has at home. Like Miró, who every day would throw a bit of paint onto a canvas, I would create a different sound every day, and then observe the result, like a graffiti” says Ferraz, recalling that only a computer – the very one that can restrict – permits such procedures.

The researchers are now setting out on the new venture: studying acoustic environments. “While we were doing this research, we came up against the problem of the propagation of sound” Ferraz says. “Now we want to use the space to discover how a musical script can change the sensation of the size of the hall of positioning of the instruments, for example.” he adds. The music that make nightclubs go crazy has arrived at the university.

The project
Environment of Musical Composition and Performance with Technological Support (nº 96/05379-0); Modality Support for the Young Researcher; Coordinator Silvio Ferraz – Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo; Investment R$ 44,193.80 and 153,100.00