I remember a day in spring.
I sat on a bench at the Amstel near STEIM and noticed the pink wires coming out of the palm of my hand, running to a small device attached to its back, and felt that I’d probably have to try to not behave in an overly suspicious way.
Me and the device are harmless, I tried to communicate non-verbally to the numerous pedestrians and the curious police car.
We’re both just part of a hybrid instrument, consisting of some software, two of these wireless MiniBee controllers, and two theremins.
Those buttons at the other end of the pink wires – they snuggled so comfortably in the palm of my hand that I forgot about them when I went out of the dark STEIM studio.
* * *
The Instrument Lab #3 started with introductions to the rich history of STEIM by Jonathan Reus and Takuro Mizuta Lippit (including intriguing footage from the archives) and a tour through the building. This effectively set the tone for the week to come, and fired up the inspiration.
When we first presented our initial research ideas to the Steim staff and our fellow residents, I had the plan to develop a (possibly wireless) device which lets me apply and control effects on the sounds of my theremin, without having to remove my hands from the theremin antennas.
Packing the equipment for my trip to STEIM, I had felt sorry for my WiiMote, thinking “you’ll have to be disassembled, poor little thing”.
In the workshop of Frank Balde however, we discussed the disadvantages of bluetooth in a performance setup (though generally, the hacking of poor little devices was encouraged). This, and Marije Baalmans workshop on the Sense/Stage system, saved the WiiMote, but also rendered it superfluous for the time being.
The miniBee controllers of the Sense/Stage system are easily configurable and remarkably reliable – a seductive combination that made me employ two of these for my setup; one for each hand. Basically, they’re mini-Arduinos with Xbee radio communication and onboard accelerometers. This way, I could use the built-in bending- and turning possibilities of my hands to communicate something to the software, while the theremin was still able to concentrate on the distance of my hands from the pitch- and volume antennas.
Attaching the miniBees and their batteries at the back of my hands by means of some white rubber band (widely used to play jumping games on schoolyards) was far from elegant, but I had promised my hands to not force them into gloves while playing the theremin. The same rubber band however, in combination with some strategically applied gaffer tape, also allowed me to fix the three-button-contraption in the palm of my hand, so my fingers could click them without confusing the theremin.
The choice of the pink wire for connecting the buttons to the miniBees made the whole look like a medical device somebody had lost in a park, but unfortunately the extensive wire-and-button-boutique of STEIM was closed for the easter weekend, so I had to go with whatever was to be found in the box that me and Sam Andreae had quickly assembled while the lab was still open.
* * *
To give all the accelerometer- and button-data a meaningful purpose was like juggling with a couple of agitated pythons, but eventually I managed to map everything I needed through a patient max patch into my Max4Live device, whose main job it was to record the live input from my instruments (pataphone, sax, theremin-brothers) into a buffer and replay that in a controlled chaotic way, while applying some filters.
Not too much to ask, one could say.
* * *
After the easter weekend, the STEIM staff returned to check the progress of our projects. The evening of the same day also brought the Concept stage, where we were to present the outcome in a concert, so there was not much time to make big adjustments.
Still I found the comments by Kristina Andersen and Daniel Schorno very useful.
Daniel reminded me that I had to watch out for RSI-problems if I used buttons in the way I did, and suggested to use specific gestures to do the switching of parameters or even different modes of operation. And indeed, during the performance, I realized that my fingers, which were supposed to swiftly dance over the buttons to control recording and effects, were actually clinging to them like rugby players with a personality disorder.
Maybe that was because I didn’t have a chance yet to teach that part of my brain which extends into my fingers to do its new job (which dramatically differs from pressing saxophone keys), but I’ll definitely keep Daniels comments in mind.
And Kristina’s enthusiasm gave me the confidence that I actually could use this system for a performance, even though the software was still figuring out what it was meant to do and my skills for playing this new instrument were not even ordered yet by my consciousness.
* * *
Recapitulating this intensive week of STEIM Instrument Lab #3 of course also brings back memories of my fellow residents and their projects.
Sam Andraea, whose distortion-enhanced saxophone made me jealous for its charming wildness; Hasan Hujairi with his electronically expanded oud, who also played a nice duo with Luigi Pizzaleo and his amazing metal sculpture interface thing; Iris van der Ende with her beautiful harp sounds that even make the stars twinkle; Tim Thompson with his kinect-powered Space Palette instrument that transformed the audience into happily smiling performers.
And of course the STEIM staff, inhabiting this wonderful place and making the center of Amsterdam move counter-clockwise by boldly rowing against the stream of cultural decay.
I’d like to thank them all.
* * *
Ten years ago, I visited STEIM for the first time – for a research week with Italian director Andrea Paciotto. This residency dramatically changed the course of my life, as I learned about all the things for the first time that I now use on a daily basis, like Max/MSP, sensors, live video- and sound processing, Ableton Live and self-made pasta sauce.
Now, as if a loop with some transformation has been applied to my life, I will return to STEIM – and, to my pleasure, for a longer period.
During the Instrument Lab #3, I learned about the Instruments & Interfaces Master course that STEIM and the Institute of Sonology offer together.
After the Instrument Lab, I continued working on my setup, to prep it for using it during the theremin-festival at the Grand Theatre (another endangered species) where I partially played solo, partially improvised together with Knalpot – and the feeling crept over me that I didn’t want to let go, that I had to research further how to really use this interactive system, how to make it part of my setup for solo- and ensemble improvisations.
So I applied for the Instruments & Interfaces master course, and was accepted.
This week, I’ll start into this new phase of STEIM-influenced life.
Exciting times these are!