Sunday, 20 October 2013

Concepts for Virtual Performance. (2)


Thanks for reading the article and the fascinating responses already received to Concepts for Virtual Performance (1) through Google+ and Twitter. 


I look forward very much to a wider discussion about the terms we use to consider "performance" "liveness", "participation", "audience". . . 


Below is a message about Virtual Performance from Mike Milton, composer, multi-instrumentalist, Eigenharpist, movie-music consultant and my tentative responses in italics.


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[MM]    So,
- virtual: not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so.  
Mike Milton plays Eigenharp, 
advanced digital music controller
- musical performance: The act of performing music


[BLM]  What is the difference between performing and other forms of sound production? 

I would say it is particularly in the sense of playing To a person or group, of structuring a communicative act. 


We cannot perform in solitude. It is therefore, even if an identical act to the music played when alone, essentially differentiated in this deliberate conveyance of ideas or sensations to another.



  • {MM 2}  Is the reason you feel one cannot perform in solitude that the audience plays a role other than being there? If so, what is that role and how does it contribute to the performance? If not, why could one not perform in solitude? Is a rehearsal in solitude a performance? If a tree falls in the woods....  The key thing you mention is that a performance cannot be in solitude. I'd rephrase that to say a performance requires an audience (and I'd add that the audience must matter to the performance)


[MM]  I suppose that a virtual musical performance then uses software to give the appearance and it would rise above the level of a recording.

It might not require (or allow?) the person offering it to participate at the time of performance.
GPS-guided listening in my 
Audio Portrait of a City (2012)


[BLM]  I’m not sure I understand about it being “above” recording – does this mean it is more valuable or “authentic”because it is being delivered to specific persons at a particular time and place? 

Surely while the historic time constraints of early recording are not a limitation on live playing, there is still a process of constructing an experience at which the listener is present, of speaking to oneself while witnessed in the act? 


Does virtual performance therefore exclude the live-mixed delivery of largely pre-completed sound, such as electro-acoustic / tape music?


I agree that VMP uses software to give the appearance and effect of a live rendition (although there are pre-digital precedents in mechanical musical automata), but it could (and perhaps more commonly does) also imply the blurring between a performance perceived to have actually happened and one that was simulated – in other words a non-live or recorded transmission of that event.


So if the transmission is not of an act of performance being simulated in real-time, then perhaps it could also be said that a highly edited recording was equally a form of virtual performance.




  • {MM2}    I intended only that a recording lacks some aspects of a performance such as the results of an interaction with the audience for the recording (even if there was an audience for the recorded performance. The effect of giving a performance is to somehow include the audience in a material way.  
  • I'd say that what the sounds are made from is not relevant to something being a performance. Perhaps the underlying question (that we skipped over a bit) is: What is a performance? On reflection my earlier comments define performance as an interaction between the performer and the audience. Defined that way, it might be easier to see why a recording (even a recording of a performance) is not *itself* a performance even though the viewer can see that the performer *was* performing for others and may react much like the original audience. The key difference is that their reaction and any impact of that reaction is absent from the recording. Performances never repeat exactly, recordings do?
  • Was the editing done in solitude? If not, was the act of editing the performance or is the result of editing the performance or both?


[MM]  Is a person giving a concert on Second Life a virtual performance? 

Many would probably say it was since the audience sees avatars (software entities that render the appearance of the performance). 

I think it is either a real performance delivered in a virtual space or, if it is not real-time, a recorded performance delivered in a virtual space.


[BLM]  Yes, I believe it can be. 

I know of (but didn’t have the weird pleasure of attending) a Suzanne Vega concert that took place some years ago on Second Life. 


My erstwhile PhD advisor, Richard Polfreman, who develops digital interfaces for ‘performance’ and ‘composition’ was in contact with the person who built her virtual guitar (for which he was paid in real-world pound notes). 


One of his tools uses adapted drivers for the Novint Falcon, an interactive motorised joystick controller which gives powerful haptic response to virtual objects used as musical instruments. 


If the “string” plucked is not a string but a piece of code describing some of the acoustical properties of a string, accessed through a digital controller and a software interface, even if the sound is produced before an audience, surely there is a strong contingent of virtuality to the communication?


But even if you don’t concede that,  and maintain that it’s a live performance on a virtual instrument, how, if we are unable to say with certainty if it is happening now or being relayed to us later, can we say whether it is a virtual performance or a recording?


Indeed, the recording is, at least in some circumstances, a virtual performance.



  • {MM2}  I believe it can be (but often is not) as well. 
  • The condition for this is that the audience matter to the outcome. Tim Exile sourcing sounds from his audience for his performances are a good example (that I'll mention again). 
  • I'd still suggest that a recording of that performance can be entertaining but is not itself a performance and the listener does not experience being an audience member or any facsimile of that experience. 
  • I'd say the original experience IS a performance even though it is delivered online but not a virtual performance because the audience <-> performer interaction is real and not virtual. 
  • If Tim Exile 'canned' the ability for a future audience to interact with a SW system that simulated what he did in his performance, *that* would be a virtual performance.


[MM]  Is a person playing a virtual instrument to an audience a virtual performance? 

No, it is a real performance of a virtual instrument.

Is a video of a concert a virtual performance?  No. 

It isn't a performance at all, just the recording of one. 

(Why? it is static and unresponsive. The things that change from performance to performance are simply replayed identically)


[BLM]  The qualities of stasis or responsiveness are not exclusively the defining ones – I think of Sviatoslav Richter’s insular manner on stage. 

He appeared before a crowd and played the music. Incredibly. But arguably not to them or even for them. 


There was a strong sense that he did not wish to be before an audience in order to get his cheque. 


For different reasons, Glenn Gould retired from the stage to work in the studio, sculpting ‘perfect’ performances by splicing segments of his innumerable striving takes together into a subjective ideal. 


This is how I and many composers work now, with all the apparent greater ease of the DAW over the magnetic tape splicer, always though, bearing in mind the affordances and constraints of the tools which, just like the particular qualities of two different pianos, suggest and lead one towards particular types of music-making. 


But that is for another place.




  • {MM2}  Good points. However, we are discussing performance as well as music. There is no question that wonderful music can be created in the absence of performance and in some cases could not be created in a performance. 
  • So we agree on the point and on the notion that it does not do much to inform this discussion. That said, people who choose to construct music as you describe above sometimes take conversations about performance as a slight on their preferred path to creation. 
  • They should not do this as there are both possibilities and impossibilities on either path. They are simply different vs. being better or worse or more or less effective. 
  • Oh and do you really think that a delivery of (even the most wonderful) music that completely ignores the audience is [not] a performance? 
  • I Do think so for the perverse reason that the audience will react and some will react to being ignored and that, even by dismissing this reaction, the performer is interacting.



[MM]  Is a person directing a computer performance in real time (say using reactable or pre-programmed music parts in a DAW) a virtual performance?

Possibly, but it seems too close to a real performance in that the performer is interacting in real time, directly. 

They are, in fact, performing even if they are assisted in doing so.



[BLM]  I completely agree:  however underwhelming it may be to watch an engineer operate sliders and pots at a lamp-lit mixing desk  -  in comparison to Satchmo’s eye-popping high register, heroically summoned from a coiled brass tube  -  it is in some senses still a performance: actions undertaken in front of a crowd gathered for the purpose of witnessing these actions.



  • {MM2}  Which is *exactly* why an Eigenharp exists. While it is not limited to the hybrid approach of performing with pre-programmed components, it allows it in a more front-of-stage way. 
  • One specific design goal was to allow for a full throated performance by such an electronic musician. It would be a great way to enhance, for example, the performances of Tim Exile. 
  • I particularly appreciated his use of audience supplied sounds in performance (which was online BTW) as one perfect example of audience being material to a performance.



[MM]  So, it seems to me that a virtual performance should work like generative music except that the software acts on performance aspects rather than (or in addition to) the musical aspects.



[BLM]  This is, for me, the confusing part of what you write here Mike: isn’t “generative music” more a compositional process, even a genre or style of production – a way of thinking about the content of music produced - rather than necessarily to do with virtuality, performance, recordings or liveness?



  • {MM2}  Yes, sorry, not very clear. I was suggesting that approaches similar to those used in generative music could potentially create generative performances. 



[BLM] Certainly the virtual performances which I build would not easily sit in the same category as say Brian Eno’s music.

For me, the essence of virtual performance is that it seems to be a performance, it seems to be plausible as a performance and could be happening. 


But it isn’t.  And since the only reason I can think of to make a performance that seems to be happening but isn’t, is that it couldn’t really be performed.




  • {MM2}   Another reason is to allow time and place shifting of a performance so that audiences who are not there, then can experience a performance.



[BLM] I compose music then edit the delivery of that sound to try and make it appear that it is being or has been played by human hands. 




  • {MM2}  To me the issue isn't the appearance of being played by human hands but the experience of being played for me as an audience. Should one applaud a recording? Why would this matter?


[BLM] The fact is, those hands and brains would in fact be incapable of playing this music for reasons of finger strength, agility, stamina, hand size, speed of thought, complexity of rhythm and so on.


So for me virtual performance is the creation of an event or the apparent record of an apparent event where that which is not happening and could not happen, appears to be happening.


Here are two examples:


(1) a pretty unrefined essay in virtuality from 1999, Songs from an Island in the Moon No.16 – an incidental piece for a stage setting of William Blake’s prose satire, An Island in the Moon.





(2) a very recent (2013) composition that takes both played (MIDI and audio input) and generated performance (through instructions to a DAW, written and drawn on the screen) and transforms these beyond what either player or instrument could physically do, Virtual Piano Study No. 1.





[MM]  The author states the rules but then the software alone creates the performance. It is not a recording because the performance will vary based on inputs that feed the rules.


  • {MM2}  My take would be that the software creates a musical rendition. If the software has inputs from the audience, then is also creates a performance. These inputs could be realtime (is the audience quiet or loud, moving or still, and so on) or made in advance by answering questions (are you happy or sad, is your hearing full range or limited, do you prefer jazz or blues, etc)


[BLM]  I agree, that would be a potentially interesting way to work although I for one have never done it, so I wouldn’t recognise the method as a defining one for the more general practice of Virtual Performance. 
A nice idea although I would be so consistently in need of interference, adaptation, editing, that this would only be a starting point for building primary objects to compose with – my end results are always as specifically determined in their minutest detail as I can make them, more like an edited film than teaching an automaton to act for itself so, I suppose, closer to a recording than to something that can truly be called a performance.
Going back to the above examples, for me the Virtual is the principal part, the fact that it seems to be done but in reality could not be done.


  • {MM2}  For me the principle thing is that the audience and player interact or seem to interact (even if that interaction is to ignore one another)

[MM] Consider Tom Jackson's approach to live music production.
He provides a number of performance tools and coaches performers to deconstruct their music into 'moments' that can be used as components to deliver their song in a way quite different than as a recording.
Specifically, in a way that lets an audience see 'into' the construction of the song and allows the performer to point out things they would otherwise miss (like a nice little riff or chord change or piece of percussion or a key lyric).
'Improvising' in this context is simply drawing out, repeating, or eliminating these moments as part of a specific performance for a unique audience.
One might anticipate that a generative approach to doing this would result in a virtual performance.


[BLM]  Sounds like a really interesting approach to music-making and certainly one that would yield surprising results. 

I have been listening to the lush, post-Romantic piano music of Stephan Beneking

I asked his permission to sample and use some fragments from his work - compositions making of his material collaged, reflective responses: would it depend on whether you believed you were hearing them delivered (1) in real-time or (2) by a human pianist to call them virtual performances?

Definitions may be more problematic, limiting, than illuminating in this area, at this early stage in the subject.

I started using the term Virtual Performance to describe my simulations of sonic/musical things happening that could not really be happening.

Then I stretched that to other areas, like something that could conceivably be played if adapted or could readily be played if transcribed and rehearsed by a human.

Then it became, like for Gould, a seeming performance that was in fact sculpted, was in fact a recording: frozen. 

Perhaps this is no longer a Virtual Performance?

Is simulating rhythms from recorded water drips a virtual performance, given that the drip was a naturally occuring phenomenon and not a human act?

If not, do we call Reduzent’s “Solenoid Concert” a performance?

“a software-sequencer controls 8 solenoids, that knock on different things and therefore produce some rhythmic noise. made with puredata, an arduino board and a selfmade relayboard to control the solenoids.” 





  • {MM2}  So, this is full circle. We agree on a great deal and differ about the number of angels on the head os a small pin. I'd add just one angel which is a material role for the audience before naming something a performance. Perhaps this is the appeal of concert recordings. They are not performances but at least they reflect and deliver what one performance for an audience was. It isn't clear to me why a concert recording would be different than a studio recording except for the extent to which an audience is a part of a performance.




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My replies to Mike and further propositions on the nature of Virtual Performance will be in Part (3).



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