Interviewer: Guy Harries
Date of interview: June 2013
Location of interview: the artist's home studio, Berlin, Germany
GH: You work with live electronics in different contexts, in FURT and in collaborations with other musicians, as well as integrating it in your compositions. Is the presence of the performer actually something that you think about in advance?
RB: Well, if you'd asked me this question a few years ago, I might have said that the main point of the presence of the performer is that, with electronic music of any kind, you're faced with such a multiplicity of possible directions that the music can go in that it can lead to a certain kind of creative paralysis - where you think that, if anything is possible, how do I choose which direction to take?
At the same time the discovery of those directions and the sense of, I suppose, freshness or newness in the approach to the music is one of the most interesting things that communicates itself to an audience in electronic music - this idea that anything is possible and that the music is at every step going further into the unknown so to speak.
So if you'd asked me that a while ago I would have said that the presence of the performer is about communicating that process by putting it in real time, by putting that process of discovery into the real time of the performance as a way of communicating it in the most immediate and direct way possible, which is not just a question of the performer being on stage or being in the performance space rather than being some disembodied presence who has made the music in advance - it also has to do with the practice of improvisation and how that in itself is a way of transposing the process of discovery, which is one of the most interesting things about working with electronic music, into the direct communicative theatre of action that is the performance.
I think I'm maybe not so sure about that these days. It's not because I don't think that aspect is so important, but something possibly more important has come to my consciousness more recently, and that is the way that the presence of the performer impacts on the other performers taking part. This is where some kind of direct physicality in performance, I think, has an important role to play.
Say for example I'm performing with a violinist or a vocalist, there are certain constraints on what they are going to have to incorporate into his or her work. A singer is going to have to take a breath from time to time, and that's going to affect the way that the music articulates itself, and as somebody performing with a vocalist then I would be thinking to myself, "Am I ignoring this aspect? Am I working in counterpoint with it? Am I breathing with it?" However that works, there is this constant character that the articulation, the structural rhythm that the vocalist needs to have. I have to orient myself in relation to it and that gives the music a chance to operate on a differently reactive level than if I were just treating the vocalist next to me as somebody who is just sending out a stream of sounds and sound forms. That kind of thing applies to a greater or lesser extent to very many different kinds of performers.
But then how does it work the other way around? I think if the movements involved in performing from my point of view were so small that nobody could see them from even a short distance away, then that would make that kind of relationship a little bit one sided. I think that the way that interactions in classical music and classical free improvisational music using acoustic instruments, the way all those things work, depend on a great sensitivity to the body language of those fellow performers.
Therefore I think it's important for me as an electronic performer to have a body language. It's maybe not so transparent that you can immediately tell the relationship between everything that I do physically and every sound that comes out, but that's not really true of a saxophone either. With some experience it's possible to understand the personal body language of one's fellow performers in such a way as to be able to react more meaningfully to what they do. So I think that has a direct impact on the way the music is made, and thus on the way the music sounds.
GH: Actually you're creating a world of gestures that isn't necessarily functional in the terms of producing sound; does that serve another function of communication?
RB: That's a tough question: how functional is it? If you look at classical pianists for instance, some of them are very demonstrative in the way that they behave physically when they play, and sometimes it seems as if that's a distraction from the music. I think that the gestures that an electronic performer might make are related to the sounds that they make to a similar kind of extent to which that would be true of a pianist or a performer on any other instrument. Of course it's possible to play any instrument by sitting completely still or standing still like an automaton and just making the absolutely necessary movements that playing requires, some people do that.
The actions of playing involve a kind of two-way traffic between the performer and the instrument. If you make a certain kind of gesture and it produces a certain kind of sound, that's not just you transmitting your physical movement to the instrument but the instrument also transmits something back to you as well, which can form a kind of positive feedback loop which then amplifies the gesture that was made in the first place.
The example I always use is that if on my keyboard I have a particular key at a particular moment which actuates a sound of a certain kind of shortness and sharpness, then the character of that sound will affect the way that I approach that key in such a way as to make it shorter and sharper than it already was. So that loop is something subconscious, but it tends to have a strong effect on how one physically relates to the instrument, in order to emphasise those characteristics of the sound that one is making which already exist there, and are already part of the character of the instrument.
It's very malleable in electronic terms because if like me you're using massive numbers of banks of sounds, one's physical relationship to the physical part of the instrument can seem to change quite radically. With an electronic instrument maybe because the sound is composed as part of the instrument, the sound is part of the instrument building process.
GH: So the feedback loop relates to the sound rather than the haptic feedback and the sound in an acoustic instrument?
RB: I think the balance is different; the balance between the haptic aspect and the sonic aspect is maybe a little bit different because there is no necessary haptic connection between yourself and a particular sound. I could quite easily make the same kind of sounds as I do with a completely different interface from the one that I use. There is a kind of disjuncture then between the physical interface and the sound because the connection between those is basically arbitrary. It's just a question of MIDI or OSC or whatever it is that connects those two.
On the other hand, if you look at a grand piano mechanism, at everything that has to happen between the key and the string, there are a lot of levers pushing each other in different directions which as an “interface” in some way also has a kind of arbitrariness about it. Because we have that familiarity through history and practice of operating on that instrument for the past 200 years or whatever, it comes to seem like second nature. With electronic instruments those things are still very much in their infancy, which goes back to what you were saying before we started the interview about methodology, because I think one of the reasons why we can have a methodology for playing the piano is that the instrumentation has become increasingly standardised over the 300 years of history that the instrument has had. If we looked at pianos in the early 19th century they'd sound very different from one another, and now they sound hardly at all different except in very subtle details, which a casual listener might not even notice.
With the instrumentarium that we use for electronic music, firstly it has existed for a much shorter amount of time, and secondly, far from becoming standardised, it seems to be going in the opposite direction from standardisation. The existence of standard protocols like MIDI doesn't seem to have stopped that expansion from happening. Everybody has a very different idea of what their methodology actually is. I think that's an indication that these previously separate disciplines of composition, performance, instrument building are confused with one another to an increasing extent. Well… not confused, but merged with one another. I tend to use that as an umbrella term to cover all those other things as composition, including for example improvisatory performance or the conception and practice of electronic instruments, because it's no longer practical to see those as things, activities, which can be separated from one another.
GH: It seems like even though it's really difficult to find a generalisation of what live electronics could consist of, it seems like people are asking similar questions and approaching them very differently. The involvement of the body as a performing entity on stage and how that relates to the sounds seems to be a question. So… is it functional? Is it communicative in relation to an audience or other players? Is that important? Is there a choreography that can be part of that? The question of resistance, counter-force, even though there are diverse approaches, there are these questions that keep popping up so it's not so much related to the construction of the instrument itself.
RB: I think that the answer to those questions could also be not so much an article of faith, but more a decision which one might take in different ways for different projects. For instance, I never thought that I'd be as involved in making fixed media electronic music as I have become in the last few years. I mean, it's never going to be a mainstay of my life, but I recognise at the same time that there are things I'm interested in doing which can only be achieved in that domain, particularly as far as complex spatial composition is concerned, which I think is very difficult to do in live performance without handing it over to somebody else.
If I want to take care of those things in my own composition then I have to think of it in terms of a fixed media piece. Of course that then takes away the performative aspect almost completely. The composer is sitting behind the mixing desk, but I don't really regard that as performance but just a little bit of ‘caretaking’ you might say. Given that there are possibilities in that medium which don't exist elsewhere, and given that I'm interested in those possibilities, then I also have to come to terms with the fact that clearly my preference for the physicality of live performance in electronic music is not the whole story. I think what it comes down to is the fact that I don't really want to close off any potential avenues for exploration.
I've found all my life really that if I get to the point where I think I really believe that things need to be done in a certain way then it's not going to be very long before I start doing them in the opposite way just to see what that feels like. In a more general sense there is often a question that comes up when people are talking about musical composition, performance and so on: "this works while this other thing doesn't work." I think we need to interrogate the idea of what works and what doesn't work - to the point of perhaps sidestepping that question completely, and saying that whether something works or doesn't work is not a question that one should necessarily ask oneself in the act of creation, because it's too limiting.
GH: There is the idea of instrument intimacy where you get to know an instrument very well and you know that on this key you have that sharp sound so you know the gesture that will go with it. Then again, you want to ‘shake things up’ and move forward. So how do you strike a balance between getting into the depths of the possibilities of the instrument and still progressing along that path?
RB: One very simple way of describing that is to say that when I'm performing there are always some banks of sounds which are extremely familiar to me because in some cases I've been using them for 15 years already, when I started using something like the present set-up, around the end of the 90s. There are some materials that still remain in some form from that time and I know them as well as any trombonist is going to know the positions of the slide.
I normally try to take care that there are also materials I'm using which are completely unfamiliar to me at the time of performing. Although my practice on the physical side of the instrument creates a certain fluency, part of that fluency is to do with not just an immediate transposition from imagination to sound. It also has to do with a reactive aspect of hearing something unexpected and being able to make something out of it.
GH: From another musician?
RB: Or from myself. That's the point of constantly replenishing the sound material with stuff that I might be completely unfamiliar with. I just throw together some new sounds that I've been working with in the context of some compositional project and put them into the performance instrument and see how they behave in that context. So again, that's another aspect of taking the process of discovery into the live performance part. But also it's to do with this balance that you're talking about between the familiarity, or even the virtuosity if you want to call it that, with the instrument that one develops over a period of years and on the other hand the idea of retaining a certain unfamiliarity and a certain sense that anything can happen with it.
Going back to when I started working with electronic instruments, that's probably one way of articulating what I found attractive about giving up playing the guitar and moving on to doing what I've been doing since then. I could have been one of those people who would stick to playing the guitar for their whole life constantly finding new depths and new directions in that relationship between the person and the same sound-producing object. While I can appreciate and understand that attitude to instrumentalism, the existence of the instrumentation, of the resources we can use in electronic music, all of that makes it possible to have a different attitude towards developing one's relationship with the instrument from what was possible previously. Quite early in the game, back in the 1980s, when I started working with live electronics in a very low-fi kind of way because that was all I had available at that time, it seemed to me that suited my musical personality better than the kind of practice process that would go into concentrating on a single instrument. It's a little bit like the idea that composing music for orchestra is the closest you can get to playing all the instruments in the orchestra.
GH: In live performance there is an audience who is watching you, so there's the visual aspect as part of the music, a ‘choreography’ of what you're doing during the performance. Do you feel that this is actually part of the music or part of the composition?
RB: It's part of the experience as far as the audience is concerned. Does that mean it's part of the music? Is the sound all that the music consists of? It's a social phenomenon as well. It's not just a question of the presence of the audience as some kind of undifferentiated mass, but of each member of the audience in relation to their fellow audience members as well as the performers. I think all of that constructs a social phenomenon which has characteristics that go beyond just the sound that comes out of the loudspeaker and what the performers happen to be doing on stage.
As I was saying before, you have the possibility when composing multi-channel electronic pieces to do things with the spatialisation of the sounds that in a live performance you would have to hand over to somebody else; or you'd have to hand something else over to somebody else. When we performed my big composition CONSTRUCTION in 2011 for instance, which is a two-hour piece involving 23 performers, I made the conscious decision to sit on stage with my instrument and not behind the mixing desk.
I realised at a certain point it was not going to be possible for me to take care of everything because the whole thing was much too complex for that. That decision had to be made. I suppose that it's rather indicative of something to do with my attitude towards performers that I decided to take myself away from the mixing desk and sit on the stage, partly because I didn't have the feeling that I needed to be at the control centre and able to take anything in and out at will, but also that I wanted to submerge myself within the performing group and not to be something outside it. There's a certain kind of statement being made there about what the relationship between the composer, the composition, the performers, and the audience might be.
For the rest, I think I would like to put across the idea that in the kind of performing that I do nothing happens unless I do something. That means that when there is an enormous amount of activity going on, it’s actually the result of the physical engagement of the performers in what they're doing. For example, it just takes my mind back to the last performance that FURT did which was last month in France. It was by far the most consistently fast moving performance that we've ever done, which is saying something because we've been going in that direction for a long time! At the end of it I could hardly move, I was so exhausted. I'm basically not moving very many parts of myself in a totally strenuous way; it's not like having a workout at the gym or something like that. The combination of psychological and physical energy that went into that performance is something that I think was reflected very clearly in the music that was made. It would be strange if that were not the case I think. It would be strange if Paul [Obermayer] and I were sitting behind our table and just doing nothing and that same music would emerge. Obviously it would be very different from the audience’s point of view.
Then something which is still a puzzle to me… When you then listen back to a recording of that performance, which I have done several times, I'm constantly asking myself, " Do you hear that physical energy? Do you actually hear it? Are you aware of it because you know that it's there or because you suspect that it's there? Could the sound of the music also have been generated by means that didn't involve that huge input of psychological and physical energy?” My answer is: I just don't know. I think that it was the only way of creating that music. I think that when you hear it you would indeed be aware of it, even if you hadn't seen the performance or any performance that we've made or any performance that I've made. You’d be aware that there was some kind of very high velocity interaction going on there at a mental level if not at a physical level. If somebody listened to it and said they didn't think that was true then yes, I think it's a question of what attitude you bring to listening. You can listen to any music in an infinite number of different ways, which is not something you should try to change or try to hold back.
GH: In terms of physical engagement with the instrument which does not have haptic feedback necessarily: are there ‘resistances’ that you build into your performance, conceptual or physical, or concepts that you use as a ‘counter-force’?
RB: I don't think I really see it in that way because when I set up the performance interface, which has been very gradually developing since I first began to use it, my first thought was that I should have direct control over all possible parameters. Not necessarily simultaneously, because I only have ten fingers and two feet. But it should be possible to control any combination of a reasonable number of parameters simultaneously at any time, to be able to get from one part of the instrument to another in a similarly fluent way to the way acoustic instruments can.
Acoustic instruments of course in many ways have a big advantage there. To get from the bottom to the top register of a trumpet for example requires a movement of the lips, which if you were standing two metres away you probably wouldn't even see. It's something that at the same time requires a great deal of control over those muscles which produce the different lip tensions, but the trumpeter won't be thinking about that. The trumpeter will be thinking, "What pitch do I want to play and where am I aiming at in the range of the instrument?" What I wanted to do was to put myself in a position where I could think in those terms: not which faders and which keys do I need to use to do this but just to make that process transparent so that I could get to the desired place in the configuration space of the instrument as rapidly and as fluently as I could.
I found that the question of resistance didn't really come into it, because what I ended up doing was not so much creating higher order parameters which would enable me to control several things at the same time, but rather going in the opposite direction, that I would have a number of controllers which would control the same parameter but in different sorts of ways. For example, one thing that's characteristic of every stage that my instrument has been through so far is that I have three pedals: There's a sustain pedal in the middle, there's the volume pedal on the right, and on the left there is a pedal which generally controls the length of a sample loop. All three of those functions are also reproduced on the table, on the fader board, because different combinations of hands and feet doing different things will produce different kinds of articulation of the sound.
So there are several advantages to this kind of concentrating on these parameters. One is that it enables different combinations to be used. The second is that obviously when you're changing a parameter by moving your foot, that has a different kind of feeling to it, a different kind of articulation, than if you're using a finger or a hand to do the same thing. Thirdly, if you're controlling those two parameters at the same time with different parts of yourself then it opens up a whole different level of articulation complexity because the two things can be kind of contradicting one another. So I think the answer to your question in short is ‘no’. I think the resistance, in as far as there is any resistance at all, is how far I can think simultaneously about all these things that I'm trying to do at the same time, all these things that I'm trying to keep in balance with one another or throw out of balance with one another, so the resistance is in the mind.
GH: Yes that's also included in what I would define as resistance.
RB: OK, but I'm not interested in building that into my instrument so much, I guess, I don't find it necessary since I have enough physical and mental restrictions without having to add any more in there, in the technology.
Another way of looking at it is from the point of view of the spontaneity of performance. This is a point that I often find myself coming back to as well. One of the ways in which an improvisatory mode of performance is particularly suited to live electronic music is that it creates a necessity to react and produce something at that moment. There is this huge range of possibilities that you can choose from, but the fact of the matter is that you have to do something now. That means that some of the time you might know exactly what to do at that moment but at other times you might think, "I'm just going to throw something random in here and then make it the right thing to do." This is where, for example, the unfamiliarity of some of the sound materials comes in, so as to even surprise myself with my reaction to what's going on and then think, "OK, this is where we are now and we have to work our way through to making some structural and poetic sense out of this situation that we've landed in." To that extent I suppose that the electronic instrument functions has the unstable characteristics that any acoustic instrument will have.
GH: And the possibility of right and wrong decisions?
RB: Yes, except that those instabilities are in different places and also there's the instability which is a little bit similar to the instrument having a mind of its own. I think one of the reasons why I'm very seldom to be found playing on my own is that the situation you're placed in when you're collaborating with somebody else - that's one of the most valuable things to me because then that does create a situation where you not only have to act but also to react. On the few occasions when I've done solo performances, I have to build in a different kind of instability in order to push myself somehow.
The rest of the time I'm writing music which is rendered predictable in a certain way by being notated, and when I'm performing myself I'm impatient with something like that because I can always think of different ways to do it. Actually, making a choice between those things in an improvisational situation for me very often presupposes the presence of other minds there which are going to condition what I do. Another aspect of the resistance is not just in my mind but in other people's minds as well.