Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Medi(t)ations - Schiemer's Mandala 4

Last week I was in Adelaide for Medi(t)ations, the conference of the Australasian Computer Music Association. There was quite a bit of good old "computer music" (as well as electroacoustic, acousmatic, musique concrete etc), also threads of electronica, laptop, improv, sound art, and intermedia / audiovisual work. The tension between these approaches was clear at times, and like previous conferences in this series it was (for me) the dominant dynamic.

One of the most impressive performances of the conference brought these approaches together - or maybe showed up the distinction as false. Greg Schiemer's Mandala 4 is a piece for four performers and four mobile phones; spread around a large hall, the performers trigger quiet, microtonal chords from their phones, then slip them into little pouches on the end of long strings... and swing them gently overhead, their chords doppler-shifting as the phones orbit each performer.

It was a striking piece of music/theater, especially preceded (in the performance I saw) by a long pause while Schiemer and the performers prepared, huddled over their phones in the center of the room. The piece is a beautiful appropriation of the mobile phone, but also ties (ha ha) a very "now" technology to a long avant-garde tradition. Mobile sound sources were part of the expanded field of 60s minimal and process music; see for example Terry Riley's music/sculpture/video collaborationMusic with Balls and Steve Reich's Pendulum Music. Schiemer's approach aligns him with David Tudor, the composer and instrument builder who treated electronics as musical score.

Schiemer's mobile phone project, the Pocket Gamelan, draws on his "Tupperware Gamelan" instruments of the 70s and 80s. The Tupperware Gamelan, a set of small custom-made electronic instruments, housed in plastic kitchenware, was designed for non-expert players and used in dance and performance. The Pocket Gamelan is partly an effort to migrate this fragile analog electronics into software, and uses Java-enabled phones as the hardware platform. The technical lynch pin here is software from Schiemer's group that ports Pd patches to phone-friendly Java. There's more on the technical side of the project in a paper from this year's New Interfaces for Musical Expression conference.

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