Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Electronics and Live Performance

     I attended another  concert in the Sundays at Three Lenten series at Central Presbyterian Sunday afternoon. The performers were flautist Sara Traficante and 'cellist Kirk Starkey. They began with Guillaume de Machaut (14th C., as you will remember your 1st year music history survey), included some Baroque and Romantic era pieces, Villa Lobos (this one from about 1950) and some New Music including one of Kirk's own compositions. The performances were very adept and the Hamilton audience rewarded the performers with a Standing O. That's not what this posting is about, however.

     Kirk played a movement from his piece "Four Quartets". It is for solo 'cello and live electronics. There's a contact mike on the 'cello and the sound is run through a computer which has been programmed to process the sound and then amplify it through a sound system. The sounds that you hear are either the sound of the live 'cello or those same sounds simultaneously modified by the technology. I am fascinated by all of this and really enjoyed the piece. 

     Innovative pieces like Kirk's aren't the only way that live performance and electronics are combined though. Here are some questions to think about. They certainly challenge me.

     Where, exactly, do we draw the line between legitimate artist endeavour and expediency? Indeed, is it necessary to draw such a line at all?

     I've long puzzled over the relationship between electronic media (in whatever form) and acoustic performers. What, for example, do you make of performances of Broadway shows to a prerecorded band? If you pay money to see such a thing (and were expecting live accompaniment), are you being cheated? The composer certainly intended that the people singing on stage would be accompanied by a live band. I don't even like to hear school choirs sing with prerecorded CDs (although the result can be hysterically entertaining when the choir can't hear the accompaniment.)

     For a time in the last century Musique concrète was in vogue. Composers recorded real sounds and then chopped up the tape and manipulated the sounds to make their pieces. The most famous example is Hugh LeCaine's Dripsody.  How is what they did then different from what anyone can do now using a keyboard to trigger digital samples and bussing them out to an array of effects?

     For a long time, legitimate composers prepared electronic tapes with which live musicians performed. Now this material is recorded to CDs and the performers "play along." How is this different from Music Minus One?
     Artistic intent, originality and competence are the obvious answers. Composers have always striven to incorporate current technology in their pieces and to achieve new musical effects. Sampling passages of somebody else's piece and incorporating them into yours is merely expediency and borders on plagiarism. If, however, the composer is trying to achieve sounds and effect hitherto unheard, let him go for it, and hope the public is engaged. 


  1. I have performed with electronics (starting in the old days with tapes and stopwatches!) and a bit with simple sound manipulations (less intrusive than AutoTune is today!)
    It is great fun and can be quite demanding. I a, interestesd to hear the full capacity of the medium as a creative tool.

  2. In this context, I'm talking about live acoustic performers. It could mean live amplified performers as well. "Live performers" as opposed to prerecorded music or sounds generated by a machine (computer, drum machine, etc.)