The Resistant Violin – Project Blog and Information
NB: pictures to be posted later
The Resistant Violin: Initial ideas and concept
The Resistant Violin is a work-in-progress that aims to find a way of adapting a violin, the main instrument I have chosen to work with in free improvisation, to interface with digital technology. However, the project does not strive to extend the existent possibilities of the violin but works instead to restrict them – even to negate them. It does not seek to make the technological interface more ergonomic or intuitive but rather to problematize the notion that technologies make things somehow easier or more possible. Physically, the prototype that I developed at STEIM between the 5th and 16th November this year (2008) consists of a violin and bow connected together with strong elastic at various points, making free movement of the bow almost impossible (fig. 1).
Resistant Violin fig. 1
At several of the points at which the elastic connects to the violin there are different sorts of sensors. The struggle against the tension in the elastic, and against the restricted positioning of bow and violin to one another thus generates voltages from the sensors that are then converted through a junXion board, through the programme junXion, and relayed on into MAX/MSP and LiSa. This data is then used to control various of the processing and playback parameters of whatever sonic material the instrument is able to produce.
The idea for this arose while talking to Daniel Schorno during an Orientation Week I spent at STEIM in December 2006. We were looking at ultrasound sensors, which several bowed string players have used to great effect, and Daniel was discussing how crucial it is to get the placement and design of the sensors just right as they are often heavy enough to seriously impede the accuracy and fluency of the bowing. One of my motivations for coming to investigate new instrument design was to find new things to do with the violin and it occured to me that playing with the restrictions of adding sensors might be an idea to develop in terms of reinventing the instrument – the restrictions imposed on the bowing might be seen as an integral characteristic of the new instrument, rather than an impediment to the old one. Although I could imagine loading up the bow with multiple ultrasound units to make playing it a challenge it was the stretch sensors that had been originally deployed in Michel Waiswisz’s web (made by Feteris Components BV – fig. 2) that most strongly suggested the direction that I have ended up taking.
Resistant Violin – Feteris Components BV sensor (lower centre of the image, with multicoloured cable attached) fig. 2
The sensors consist of a thin metal rod that is spring-mounted, and able move inside the black plastic housing. There is something about the resistivity of these devices that resonated for me with the sensation of playing the violin, the backward and forward motion of the bow that is combined with the slight stickiness of the bow moving over the violin strings, as well as something reminiscent of the stretchiness of the bow hairs and of the strings themselves as one feels them pressing back against the bow, either when playing spiccato or saltando, or when using excessive bow pressure to make noisy, splintering textures.
To find a way to join this kind of sensor to the violin very quickly led me to the idea of using strings of elastic that have a very similar feel to the sensors, as well as allowing the inherently resistant feel of the sensors and the elastic to be deployed as a way of introducing resistance into the violin, and thereby, within the frame of reference of the project, of transforming it into a new instrument or physical interface (fig. 3).
[insert scan of original drawing made at STEIM]
Original sketch for the Resistant Violin made at STEIM, December 2006 fig. 3
To get an idea as to what such an adapted instrument might feel like I used a regular office stapler to attach strong elastic bands that are used by the UK Post Office to the front of a cheap school violin, and then tied these elastic bands to the bow (fig. 4).
Resistant Violin – the low-tech prototype fig. 4
I have developed a free improvisation practice over the past five or six years, centred on the violin that, in the absence of any serious formal training or advanced technique on the instrument, I have grounded in an extremely physical playing style that borrows from the sound worlds and gesturally-mediated intelligibility of electroacoustic music. When playing I have a very strong sense of sculpting sound in real time, and of organising the music according to an immediate and intuitive reading of the gestural qualities that my own physical actions and reactions (to other members of the group) put into the sound, which the sound then carries. In attempting to theorise what is happening when I use the violin in improvisation, I have been drawn to the idea that the violin is as much a site at which my physical and emotional (ergo bodily rather than intellectual/theoretical) states are demonstrated and registered, with the notion emerging that the violin is a sort of measuring device, acting as a kind of sonification interface for my body, a corporeal seismograph . . . or maybe a lie detector! (I can imagine certain musicologists getting excited by the idea that all music is, in a sense, a sonifying lie-detector; true rock as opposed to false commercial pop, maybe, or the abstract and truth of Beethoven as opposed to the seductive but possibly dishonest emotional manipulations of Wagner at his worst).
It is a relatively short step from there to proposing the violin as a kind of blank space upon which a truth about myself as a performer/creator can be registered, bringing with it a whole string of problematic ideological and metaphysical issues. Another way in which the Resistant Violin offers up a challenge, then, is in making it impossible for me – or anyone else – to efface the presence of the material instrument in the interests of any metaphysically-dependent notions about self-expression, or allowing that the sounds we hear have somehow originated in some transcendent and ideal musical imagination. The instrument draws attention to itself, it gets in the way of the Music, but it does offer up the truth that it is impossible for me to delude myself into the idea that I am expressing my self.
The Resistant Violin: Work done during the STEIM residency
I knew when I arrived at STEIM that the first thing I wanted to do was to build the Feteris stretch sensors into the instrument and connect them to the bow using some quite strong elastic I had bought in the UK. Jorgen Brinkman had sourced some of the sensors for me, but I had not realised they were quite so expensive, and this caused an immediate rethink of what I’d intended to do. Originally I had imagined there being about eight strings of elastic connecting the bow and the violin together, with a stretch sensor at each end of every piece of elastic – a total of sixteen sensors altogether. However, as the sensors cost around 45 Euros each it seemed a good idea to start small (and cheap!), and so I connected only four of them to the violin, drilling into the thicker wood found on the pointed edges of the instrument’s waist ( as you can see in fig. 1) as the other parts of the instrument were too thin, and therefore too fragile, to take the tension that would be applied when the bow was drawn to its maximum point of resistance against the elastic restraints (it is interesting how naughty it felt to be drilling holes into a new violin!). Jorgen advised using the small screw-clamps used to connect electrical cables together in order to attach the elastic to the sensors, and then I drilled some holes into the bow just big enough for the elastic to thread through, and then tied a knot in the elastic to stop it running back through the hole. We soldered the sensor connections to the STEIM junXion board and pretty soon were receiving control data from the violin.
The first experiment I made to begin exploring the creative potential of the instrument was to build a very simple ring modulator in MAX/MSP where the data coming from the sensors changed the modulator frequencies of four separate multiplication objects that were applied to the direct adc~ to dac~ chain.
I had always wanted this to be an instrument that defied my personal control or self-expression, and I had imagined making a MAX patch that would, in effect, destroy whatever gestural material I was able to generate on the violin itself. I therefore began building a patch in which the continually changing data from the sensors controlled the start point and duration of playback of a 10 second buffer that was being continually re-recorded. Playing short, jagged, struggling sounds on the violin was thus accompanied by similarly short, splattery sound from the MAX patch and, to my ears, this seemed to perform the resistance of the instrument, as well as feeling somewhat out-of-control. However, we learn strong lessons about ourselves when we experiment with things that we are already, in a sense, familiar with. Struggling hard against the elastic restraints, and restricted to being able to make only short and distorted sounds I found myself physically fighting with the instrument. Using my full strength I reacted by forcing the bow as hard as I could downwards. I had not planned it this way, but I had set junXion to invert the data coming from the sensors on the right-hand side of the violin, and so forcing the bow down as hard as I could caused the left-hand sensors (at maximum relaxation) and the right-hand sensors (at maximum extension) to all put out zeros, which effectively stpooed playback from the patch altogether. What I learned about myself was that although I said that I wanted an instrument that took control away from me, what I got most excited by was having this absolute control of being able to stop the electronic sounds. I enjoyed playing with this – generating chaotic, scribbling textures with the electronics but then pushing or pulling the bow as hard as I could to cut the electronics dead, and leave only a sort of scratchy, shuddering tremolando of the unprocessed violin. Using my physical force to, in a sense, open up a window for the non-processed violin, felt stragely empowering after several hours of feeling like I had no control whatsoever over the sonic results of my playing.
Notwithstanding the multiple, diverse, and subversive creative distortions that are possible using (or abusing) programmes such as CuBase, Logic Audio, Ableton Live, Reason, and so on, the music that we are all empowered to make now that digital technology has democratized the creative process is a highly normative, even-tempered, constant tempo-ed, 4/4, with a distinction drawn between percussion (MIDI channel 10) and all other instruments. Strange that electronic technology, imagined earlier in the twentieth century as one of the strategic devices for bringing a radically expanded world of sound (Varese, Cage, Xenakis, etc.), and radical new ways of organising musical structure (Schaeffer, Wishart, Smalley) should have, in the name of democratization, effected such a reactionary turn in musical culture (though the Marxists, Anarchists, and Critical Theorists among us should not really be so surprised at this).
This, then, is the another of the critical stances that I took in thinking thorugh the Resistant Violin. In practice, digital technology is used to make the instrument even less controllable, less immediately responsive, and to ambiguate the relationship between what I do and what sound comes out. Nevertheless, my aim has not been to make a device where the connections between action and sonic result are wholly arbitrary – a random number generator could do that. The violin (and the digital system with which it is interfaced) explicitly offer up resistance to a performance ideology that expects to see interiority directly exteriorised through technology, yet the material that the overall system works upon remains tied to the agonistic or self-renunciatory gestures, the struggle of the player with the system, or their acquiescence and passivity in the face of this same resistant system.