December 9, 2016 - LAB report
The third lab of the year featured presentations by Andrew Hugill and visiting composer David Pocknee. The theme of technology and human agency emerged across the two sessions:
Andrew opened his presentation on ‘“Open” Scores and Creative Computing’ with a set of challenges to consider the role of the user/audience, the creative abuse of technologies, the dominance of the concert-hall paradigm in music, the problem of notation and issues of human vs machine creativity. Considering both experimental music and computing, his challenges raised questions about certain accepted aspects of music. In thinking about audiences, for example, he pointed out that computer games don’t have ‘audiences’ they have ‘users’ (or more specifically ‘gamers’) and the relationship between those users and the game may be more mutable than that between an audience and a piece of music. His description of the way users have interacted with the audio-only mobile game Papa Sangre framed their role as sometimes being akin to that of composer as they build their own sonic experience by exploring the game as an environment instead of pursuing the game’s own progress-oriented goals.
Andrew suggested that experimental music (as defined in Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond or Jenni Gottschalk’s Experimental Music Since 1970) is often focused on the tactile and the local and that this may be a reason behind its tendency to reject technology, as demonstrated, for example, by its historical separation from sonic art, sound art, digital music, etc. and by the creation of scores which are effectively algorithms that don’t use computers. Digital content is not tactile (the only tangible objects are the computer and any peripherals, and content cannot be extracted into a physical form without undergoing an analogue conversion process, such as printing), and computer networks including the internet dissolve geographical barriers, which may bypass the physical presence of objects, content, creator, or audience member/user.
A brief tour of Andrew’s own work touched on ideas as disparate as Brisset’s belief in the evolution of humans from frogs (Catalogue de Grenouilles ), collaborative compositions created using the internet (Symphony for Cornwall  and Soundson: City Soundings ), a successful online educational project (MusiMOO ) and ended up with digital opera and a questioning of what ‘opera’ might be (answer: not necessarily singing) (Secret Garden  and The Imaginary Voyage [2013 – unfinished]). Examples of several of these works can be accessed via Andrew’s website.
The session closed by looking at a new project Andrew is developing with Simon Atkinson from De Montfort University, Encounter with Silence. After a quick overview of the Semantic Web and an introduction to ontologies to provide context, we were presented with a topic for discussion in relation to this new work: if two sounds have a relationship with each other, how could that relationship be expressed via a third sound? The resulting conversation opened up intriguing areas of thought including the possibility of multiple relationships between the original pair of sounds, whether the descriptive sound’s meaning needs to be obvious to listeners, or only to the composer – and, related to this, whether there might be universal interpretations of meaning as conveyed by sound or if these are culture-specific. (Caitlin Rowley)
David presented recent work that gives the illusion of choice for its players, while often disguising a kind of determinism that makes the results inevitable. The underlying theme was particularly resonant given Andrew’s earlier discussion of human and machine agency in work involving technology. David began by performing Cipher for The Lighthouse Twins with Oogoo Maia. The piece uses two book scores, with each page presenting symbols that instruct its reader to turn one or two pages forwards or backwards, depending on the number and direction of pages turned by the other player. The players alternate turns, responding to each other by carrying out the instructions printed on each page. At certain points the combination of pages results in a closed loop; registering this requires the players to close the book, and open in a new place to begin a further cycle. In the related Selfhelplessness, the solo reader is presented with pages that offer mood diagnosis options (‘Are you anxious?’) that lead to a binary yes/no response. Following the format of choose-your-own-adventure books, each option directs the reader to a new page containing a linked question. There is, however, no end point. Both pieces give players an apparent choice, but the eventual patterns and routes through the pages are constrained by the structure of the underlying network. There is very little choice.
An earlier piece, Conditioned, references Pavlov’s conditioning experiments on dogs, where reproducing the appropriate response to a cue gives a reward. In the installation-performance version, the experimental subject responds to a sequence of images by playing a simple instrument, which may result in a sweet being delivered through a tube by the other (unseen) player. The correct associations are randomly generated by the second player’s computer, and the piece concludes when the first player has correctly guessed each of the eight associations three times in a row. The player may make mistakes, but ultimately to succeed they must complete the conditioning prescribed by the systematic associations generated by the computer. In contrast Economics presents players with a means to pay each other to alter what they play. Using voting charts with options to play higher/lower, louder/softer, or faster/slower, players – and potentially audience members – place money on each other’s sheets, forcing them to follow the direction associated with monetary gain. There is considerably more agency here for anyone paying players to alter what they play, but the players themselves are again controlled by the system.
Economics presents an explicit value system, and David noted the context for this piece was a protest against uses of institutional funding. The choices here inscribe values in the piece: I found parallels with my recent reading of Mary Flanagan’s Values at Play and an attempt to translate this framework from game design to compositional design. Economics presents a gamelike situation, and to prosper players must negotiate a complex network of sonic, social, and financial relationships with others in the group, and with the audience, but this is mediated by monetary exchange. It espouses very clear values. The other three pieces, which give the players very little real agency, also engage players and audience in a consideration of systemic control and the apparent superficial choices available. There are clear metaphors for societal control present here. But despite the constraint of the processes present in all four pieces, the experience of seeing them performed (live, or on video) highlighted the humanness of the players’ responses. The duo performance by David and Oogoo revealed much about their characters and the way they each responded to a clear stimulus (although Oogoo noted later that it became increasingly difficult to concentrate in the resulting labyrinths). My own internal reading of Selfhelplessness was momentarily disturbing and revealing. Economics and Conditioned show their players working within and responding to a deterministic environment, and the behavioural traces of this interaction. I found myself reflecting on the way in which we might embody or suggest real situations in performance, whether through direct correlation or association. (James Saunders)