Europe's most forward-looking centre for music technology development is alive and well and flourishing in Holland. Ron Briefel pays it a visit, and comes away suitably impressed.
When the most innovative electronic music centre in Europe opens its doors to the academic world and to the general public, there's got to be something worth writing home about. We review the activities at Steim Studios, Holland.
STEIM IS AN INDEPENDENT artist-run centre in Amsterdam which has a long history of championing the art of live electronic music performance.
The centre has always encouraged a broad sphere of musical influences and activities, and this certainly came across whilst I was there - in the music itself, and through just talking to people. Within the centre's walls, you could sense strong jazz and experimental rock influences, as well as a lot of interest in popular folk and "world" musics. And we have rock 'n' roll, scratching, hip hop, improvisation, "found sounds", radios, and a whole load more. All this, and computers too...
Recently, Steim has become heavily involved with small, interactive computer music systems, and with the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) taking place a short train ride away a few days later, it seemed a good idea to organise their annual symposium to fit in with interested participants' schedules. And as things turned out, Steim would also be making a substantial contribution to the ICMC.
Most of the symposium consisted of presentations and concerts given by people who don't actually work at Steim at all, but who share its interests in live, interactive electronic/computer music.
Let's begin by running through some of the personalities who gave talks at Steim. First off, there was David Wessel from IRCAM in Paris, who gave a talk on MIDI Lisp and the latest exciting developments going on in the by now well-established small systems department at IRCAM.
Roger Dannenberg discussed a powerful interactive MIDI toolbox that he's designed for performance and composition. The system gets around a lot of MIDI's limitations, such as its equal temperament (in pitch) and subdivisions of the beat (in time) fixations.
Then there was John Snell, who gave an overview of the latest digital signal processing chips on the market, and their applications to computer music.
And Rainer Boesch demonstrated a versatile hardware add-on to a DX7 that allows it to be played (via MIDI) quite differently from the way it was designed to. A young Yamaha engineer in attendance was evidently quite spellbound.
There was a session on networking that examined the possibilities of creating a community of musicians communicating digitally. The initial goals in this area such as "bulletin board" information networks are now well-established, especially in the States. But the race is now on to develop a comprehensive music and performance data communications network - of which MIDI would be only a small part.
A favoured possibility in Europe consists of adopting the widely used Unix operating system. So, for example, IRCAM could send packets of specialised music data to, say, Amsterdam University via Unix. Then local musicians in Holland could plug into the university computer via a local modem communication, and their home computers could then receive and transmit much of the same data as the small micro-based composer workstations at IRCAM itself. (By the way, they've now got 18 Apple Macintoshes at IRCAM, which must prove something.)
The ICMC itself would go into more details on networking and concentrate on the proposals for data standards and so on - so more about that next month.
There were some other presentations at Steim by people who would not be at ICMC. For example, Peter Cusack (from Britain, would you believe?) gave an engaging demonstration of his arsenal of live analogue processors which interact with a large range of natural "found sound" sources as well as acoustic instruments. An impressive and sometimes dramatic setup in performance, it could well be complemented in the near future by computer control, and possibly by samplers.
Another presentation was by Nicholas Collins - an actual Steim stalwart. He showed a cleverly designed computer music instrument that consists of a modified trombone whose slider turns a digital pot that is interfaced with a Commodore 64. Several touch sensitive switches replace the trombone's valves, and their output data also feeds the computer. The Commodore itself is connected to a reverb and sampler combination, so "performing" on the trombone involves accessing the various reverb presets and sampling controls. The output is fed to a small speaker situated in the mouthpiece of the trombone, so during performance it sounds as if everything is actually coming from the trombone itself. Ingenious, inexpensive, and very, very effective.
Of the main concerts given at Steim, two pieces stood out as exceptional. The first was a piece by Thomas Kessler called 'Flute Control', in which a flute played by Philippe Racine was given direct interaction with a Fairlight CMI via a Fairlight VoiceTracker, the latter controlling the pitch, dynamics and timbre of four independent voices of the former. Four additional voices were played by a Fairlight music program written in MCL (Music Composition Language) that was controlled live by the flautist to synchronise with the rest of the piece.
There were some lovely compositional ideas - like long, held high tones only slightly differentiated in pitch so that you could hear the beating, something that happened at various points during the piece. There was some fascinating sound material, too, and overall, the composition succeeded in being a genuine piece of music, rather than a demonstration of a piece of music technology.
The second notable performance comprised a series of improvisations by Chris Brown. He has developed an instrument called a Gazamba, otherwise referred to as a "percussion piano". It is, in fact, a sort of prepared electric piano where bits of assorted (mostly metal) objects such as springs, washers and bits of cutlery have been carefully inserted into the keyboard action of an old, tired and substantially remodelled Wurlitzer.
When played, each key activates its own set of metal clangs, which are subsequently amplified or processed by a small interactive computer and network of custom-designed effects units. Each improvision highlighted a different aspect of the system.
The overall effect was not unlike that of an elaborate, electronic mbira percussion orchestra (mbiras are those little metallic thumb pianos played in Africa, otherwise known kalimbas), rich in rhythmic counterplay and complex timbral structuring.
The performance itself was quite a theatrical experience, especially the way Brown was getting physically involved with his instrument. Expressive in both a visual and an aural sense.
Steim also sets out to engage and involve the musicality that exists in us all (yep, that means you), and to this end, an exhibition of instruments and installations developed at Steim was organised, and was on for the duration of the symposium. This was open to the general public, for them to discover the joys of interactive electronic music making.
The exhibition consisted of six installations designed over the last ten years, with the two most recent making use of Apple Macintosh computers.
Joel Ryan's 'Lina' is a complex system that involves a Fairlight video processor digitising and processing images of people at the exhibition. The image obtained at any one time is subjected to a process of digitised resolution reduction, which produces a block of black and white squares (linear cells). These are displayed on the Macintosh screen. A program then converts this block of black and white visual information into MIDI data, and a regulation DX7 merrily plays it out. The music sounds a bit random, to say the least, but if you got to know the system well, you could probably learn what visual inputs produce musically useful results.
The other Macintosh system was the work of Michael Waisvisz, Steim's director. It's an instrument called 'The Tree', which consists of a collection of differently shaped metal plates (leaves) suspended on a tree-shaped framework. The shape of the tree appears on the Macintosh screen, along with the positions of the leaves.
The mouse is used to select a chosen leaf on the screen, and each leaf generates a different sound. The sounds themselves are generated from Yamaha TX7 modules, and each time you select a leaf you access a certain preset sound. In this way, it's possible to play quite interesting timbral and rhythmic melodies by "mousing" across the tree.
Also in this section, Nicholas Collins cropped up again with an electric guitar installation called 'Killed in a Bar'. Here, the guitar is modified so its strings can be vibrated by the signal from a transistor radio. The sounds of the tunable radio are filtered by the strings picked up, and heard through a combo amp. A clock motor and cam move the guitar's whammy bar, continuously retuning the strings and thereby changing the filtering of the radio sounds. The meaning of this "instrument" is a little elusive, but its clue probably lies in its title, along with the message on the guitar warning that anyone touching the strings will get electrocuted. Weird...
Christina Kubish had a very wonderful installation in which you wear a pair of cordless headphones and are invited to listen to the "music of the cable walls". You enter a room with lots of cable running horizontally and vertically along the walls - some cables are also suspended from the ceiling - and as you approach each cable, you pick up its sound, which is transmitted to a receiver in the headphones. By rotating your head, you get the sound panned across stereophonically. In areas where the cables are bunched together or crossed over, you get several sound sources interacting according to your head movements.
All I can say is: what a wonderful idea. If some of the sound sources had been just a bit more interesting and of higher audio quality, this really would have been amazing. As it was, it was just great.
Another movement-orientated installation was Kees Van Zelst's 'Ogenblik', which consisted of a room lined with several photoelectric cells. These observe the movement of people in the room, and feed data to a complex analogue and digital analysis and processing system. As well as creating a sound environment, the people in the room also control a light show which itself acts as feedback to the system.
Unfortunately the installation wasn't working to its best advantage when I entered, but I've heard its been used effectively in a performance situation, especially with dance.
There were several other installations, quirky in design and amusing in effect, but space is too short for me to detail them here.
So for now, I'll sign off from Steim, though there'll be a whole load more from them in next month's ICMC report, where their work was, if anything, more extensively demonstrated than it was at their own symposium. Director Michel Waisvisz, for example, gave a performance of his piece 'Touch Monkeys' at ICMC, which was to prove the most aweinspiring musical experience I've had in a very longtime: full report next month.