Improvising with Reson8 - A Sort of Manifesto


Reson8 works with the sound spectrum of speech, which changes from moment to moment (else it wouldn't be speech). The actual input may be live (from a microphone) or from a stored recording. The live input may also be recorded (sampled) in real-time. Recordings may be stopped, started, looped, cropped, and/or 'scratched'. They may also be shifted in pitch. The input to the Reson8 software can thus be anything from 'pure' voice to a short loop shifted in pitch, with all of the selection parameters controlled manually in real-time.

Reson8: Four Spectral controls: also controlled manually in real-time

1 Filtering 2 Threshold 3 'Smearing' 4 Decay

Filtering. The input speech may (optionally) be filtered before the spectrum is extracted. Reson8 can use low-pass, high-pass, band-pass or band-stop filters. The choice of filter, centre/cutoff frequency and Q factor are all controlled independently.

Threshold. A volume threshold may be applied so that only those spectral elements above the threshold are extracted. A low threshold allows all sounds through, a high threshold may remove all sounds....

Smearing. In the limit, with no 'smearing', the output spectrum will follow closely the input signal, giving just a slightly distorted voice sound. As the smearing is increased the resulting texture becomes more extended, with overlapping, interlocking sounds that create the characteristic Reson8 soundscape.

Decay. Closely related to smearing, delay controls the length of time that portions of spectrum (created at any instant) remain in the soundscape. The effect sounds a bit like reverb.

Global parameter. There is one further, rather technical parameter hidden deep within the spectral processing, and that is the FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) length, with presets between 512 & 65536 (powers of 2). I normally leave this setting at 8192 samples, as a compromise between spectral richness, processing power and time delay.

Improvisation & Performance Practice

Controls & Choices.

At any instant I can choose the input – live or recorded. If live, I can choose to process the sound immediately and/or take a live sample recording and process it later. With a recording I can then choose a loop length and position, and vary the pitch and/or volume. For the Reson8 spectrum I then control the filter, threshold, smearing & delay. Finally I can set the output volume and panning.

Two Separate Processing Channels. Everything in the above paragraph is duplicated in 2 entirely independent channels, including separate volume and panning controls.

Knobs, buttons, sliders & keys. At any instant I can use 29 knobs, buttons & sliders: 6 Reson8, 6 filter, 5 clip, 4 selection, 4 transport, 2 pan & 2 volume controls from a MIDI controller; all of these controls are duplicated on the keyboard.

Effects of These Controls

The effect of changing any one of the contols depends in general on the settings of all the other controllers. Thus it is not possible to predict what you will hear following any action I take. Additionally, due to the inherent processing time, smearing and decay, the resulting soundscape will always change more slowly than the speech it is derived from.

So, in spite of all Reson8's 29 controllers, the output is generally a slow moving, rich, complex soundscape, with no abrupt attacks or sudden silences. Luckily, that's how I like it!

My Approach to Improvisation with Reson8

I have been improvising seriously in one form or another, on a variety of instruments, since about 1960. First it was trad jazz (I don't count skiffle!), then avant-garde jazz (I love, but could never play bebop or modern jazz). More recently I have been involved with free, experimental, 'improv', and have flirted with bass-recorder multiphonics and electronic effects. I came to Reson8 via Alvin Lucier's 'I Am Sitting In A Room', and I came to my current position on improvising after discovering I had nothing more to say either on conventional (or unconventional) instuments, or in the rarified atmosphere of inaudible improv. My ideas have been strongly influenced by a number of my heroes, though I would neither blame nor credit them and I will only name 3.

Gavin Bryars, whom I played with in the 60s, gave up improvising on the double bass when he saw how easy it was for others to 'fake' the improvised music he was playing. For my part, I found myself 'faking-it' in the improv scene, and also being unable to distinguish the authentic from the fake in other people's performances.

I was fortunate enough to attend a summer school in 2002 with Keith Rowe (among others) and I have had several conversations with him since. He approaches his instrument as an art object on which he performs various actions or processes. The sound follows the actions. He taught me the importance of the integrity of the action, rather than the search for a special sound. A tiny action may result in a very big sound, and vice-versa; a sudden gesture may be infinitely extended in time.

Musical developments throughout the 20th century removed the need for harmonic direction, climax/anticlimax, thematic development and so much more. Morton Feldman asked that sounds should be left alone to be themselves: they shouldn't be pushed around. Ha also emphasised the intuitive aspect of music making. Finally his (joking?) definition of form is something I believe in. He said 'something happens; a bit later on something else happens, which may or not remind you of something you have already heard; this process is repeated until the piece ends.' I like to think my sounds do have an overall structure in this sense.

Putting all these influences and experience together, I would like to think there are 3 important features of my improvisation practice: integrity – action – intuition

By integrity I mean only making actions that are driven by the inner logic of the situation, not by the need to make sounds that people like or find interesting. I try not to fall back on cliché settings that I know will 'work' in some sense: each performance is a genuine exploration. Also, I only attempt to control the Reson8 parameters, not the raw voice inputs or recordings.

By action I mean that the act of turning a knob or pressing a key is what is important: the sounds that follow must be left alone.

Intuition is what guides my actions. I can only control my own sounds, so I pay close attention to my sounds, and absorb other musicians' and poets' sounds more subconsciously. I listen deeply and use my intuition to move a controller slightly to change what I am hearing in some way. I wait for the changes to work through, then just wait, or change something again. Because the input sound (speech) is constantly changing, the Reson8 output is never static, and controllers may be left untouched for long periods. Equally, if I feel it is time for a change, or a reminder of an earlier texture, then I can select another recording or change controller settings more dramatically.

So What?

Traditionally, the interest and excitement from live improvisation comes from the obvious, instantaneous interchange of ideas and inspiration between the performers. There is usually clear rhythmic or thematic interchange and development: whole strategies for improvisation have been documented based on reflection, expansion, commentary, and opposition. In short: conversation. Even 'non-idiomatic' improvisation seems to require many of the same salient features, becoming more 'poly-idiomatic' than 'non-'.

Perhaps the word 'improvisation' has gained too many associations to be a good description of what I do with Reson8. If there is a comparison with other (recognised) improvisors, the most flattering would be with Keith Rowe. From the earliest days with AMM and through all his many other collaborations he provides another, complementary soundscape to amplify the overall aural experience, and inspire his fellow performers. That's the most I hope to do.

So; I don't provide a partner for aural gymnastics, nor a witty or provocative conversation-maker. I do improvise; I do listen; I do use my intuition and experience to make considered, genuine actions and thus create and develop a complementary soundscape. The Reson8 sounds are constructed entirely from the spoken words and sounds of the other performers; there could not be a more intimate connection between what I do and what they do from moment to moment, even if this is not immediately obvious to the listener.

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