portrait animation

Music beyond Scripture

Karlheinz Essl in Conversation with Maarten Beirens
about his new piece Champ d'Action (1998)
for computer-controlled ensemble

MB: Are there some things you would like to tell us about your relationship with the ensemble "Champ d'Action"?

KHE: I met the composer Serge Verstockt (who is on the board of the ensemble "Champ d'Action") ten years ago in Arnhem. At this time a group of composers, musicologists and computer scientists were collaborating with Gottfried Michael Koenig in creating a new type of algorithmic compositional environment called "Project 3". In the early 90s we met in Darmstadt where I was one of the young "composers in residence" - together with Richard Barrett, whom I met there first. Last summer Serge and Koen Kessels came to the Salzburg Festival where I was presented with 2 portrait concerts and 2 sound installations within the "Next Generation" series. We spent several days together attending the rehearsals and discussing future collaborations.

After several months I got a letter from Koen asking me if I could write an "Internet" piece for them. Apparently Richard Barrett (who is on the artistic advisory board of CDA) told him about the live broadcast performance (on air / on site) of AMAZING MAZE which we did in September 1997 for the Austrian Radio.

This was an improvisational concept based on my work-in-progress Amazing Maze (1996 ff.) for sampled sound particles and live performers. Involved were seven musicians from different musical contexts (new music, jazz, rock, free improvisation, experimental, electronic, ethnic). A random-based computer program decided which musicians would play together, and whenever a "trigger" was sent to the computer, a new constellation was chosen. The triggers could be supplied by the listeners on the radios or the Internet (either by telephone or via a button on a dedicated web page) which would immediately change the music. In fact, there was also an Ariadne thread who helped us orient ourselves within the MAZE: a self-generated soundscape (the very core of Amazing Maze) in which we all were embedded and to which we were reacting.

In fact, my commission from the ensemble "Champ d'Action" took this former project as a starting point: the idea to set up an environment were musicians are "controlled" by an external source which could be either a random generator, a physical sensor, the Internet, or even one or several conductors. As an extension to Amazing Maze I wanted to supply the musicians with precise information regarding what should be played. On the other hand, this information must be completely fluid because it has to be changed on the fly. So I had to abandon the idea of a fixed notation, even if one can think about pre-fabricated structures printed on paper which could be used like "mobiles". Anyway, these things have been done extensively by my admired friend Roman Haubenstock Ramati (1919-1994) in the 60s and now, with the advent of computers, other technical solutions seem possible. These considerations led me to the vision that musicians are playing a sort of "fluid" notation which would be generated in real-time at the moment of the performance. Instead of music sheets on music stands, the musicians are now playing from computer monitors.

Champ d'Action (1998) - guided version

Performed by Burkhard Stangl (e-git), Werner Dafeldecker (double bass), Gene Coleman (bass clarinet), Radu Malfatti (trombone),
Elisabeth Flunger (percussion), Mary Oliver (violin), Richard Barrett (sampler) and Karlheinz Essl (conductor)
6 Oct 1998, Radiokulturhaus Wien

MB: Is there a special reason for dedicating your new composition to them, even for choosing their name as a title?

KHE: The reason for the dedication is simply that I have written the piece for the ensemble "Champ d'Action," which gave me the commission. The name of the group also inspired me to set up a "field of possibilities" in which the musicians would react according to given instructions -- something that is very close to my idea of open processes [see below].

MB: What are, according to you, the advantages or possibilities of this "computer-controlled" composition compared with more traditional ways of composition and music notation?

KHE: The view of a musical composition not as a fixed work, but an open process is central for my compositional thinking. This, however, cannot be achieved with notated scores which basically supply a TEXT to be re-produced. (I have to mention that I am also working in this domain and that I am very much interested in exploring the use of traditional notation and its extensions. As someone highly interested in calligraphy, I write my score always by hand, in the old-fashioned way with china ink, transparent paper and a razor knife).

What still needs to be solved (and Champ d'Action is one step into this direction) is the dialectic, between the antipodes WORK and PROCESS, which I try to mediate by various methods that I am currently exploring. In Champ d'Action, I am using eight different types of structures that are described as models:

POINTS isolated "punctual" events
PLANES sustained sounds of different envelopes, pitches, and durations
DRONE a repeated single sound, swelling, and fading
FIGURES grace-note figures, glissandi, espressivo gestures, etc.
SOLO reely improvised musical phrases using material from other structures
CLOUDS short sounds, distributed in time and space, producing a cloud-like (mass) texture of a certain shape and density
TRILLS apid permutation of a number of sounds
REPETITIONS repetitions of a single sound with various amounts of pauses ("excavations")

Here I try to give a structural description of basic musical phenomena that are specific, but also generic enough to be placed into different musical contexts. Each of these types is specified by an individual set of parameters, and by changing these parameters one can draw infinite variants from the same type.

This information (the structural model and its current parameters) is displayed on the computer screen in a mixture of graphic and verbal notation - below an an example of a POINT structure is given - and the musicians are improvising / composing (in fact it is both at the same time) the structure according to these indications.














types: pre / post
periodicity: 4

Click on the button above or on this link to see the notation of
another randomly selected and specified structure.

NB: To view this page your browser must support JavaScript.

MB: To what extent are you concerned with actual sounds in this "meta-composition"

KHE: The "actual sound" is the result of a complex interaction of musicians who are realizing compositional structures that have been designed as "models" in advance. Due to my interest in open processes, the goal of these "meta-compositions" is not to obtain the very sounds that I have already figured out (as opposed to my work on a highly determined score for instruments where every single nuance is known by myself in advance). On the other hand, in the process of rehearsing, I am working directly with the musicians separately in order to explore their individual musical and instrumental abilities and to help them to find the sounds that I have envisioned. I see a musician not as mere executor who realizes exactly what I have written, but rather as a partner and collaborator, and also someone I want to learn from.

MB: Is a structural framework for you the most important aspect of a composition?

KHE: The structural framework is indeed basic, but not as a goal in itself. I see it rather as a hidden depth structure (perhaps similar to Noam Chomsky's "generative grammar") which has the power to create an immense variety of musical structures which are related to each other by different degrees. During the piece, structures played by different instruments will start to mingle, thus creating new types that have possibly never existed before.

MB: Would you agree with being called an "abstract" composer?

KHE: If "abstract" is understood as being 'off-the-ground', I would disagree. On the other hand, if "abstraction" means 'going beyond the surface', I would agree. In fact, I am very interested in achieving a powerful and highly expressive music, something I am constantly exploring myself as a performer and improviser. A 20 year involvement in musical improvisation -- from style-based types such as rock and jazz (from which I actually derived my earliest performance experience), to rule-responsive conceptual based improvisations, up to completely free and intuitive methods -- led me to the point where I wanted to find a fusion between composition and improvisation; and I am still on the way.

MB: The musicians have to obey the instructions on the computer screens and have to listen carefully to each other in order to give a good performance. Does that mean that the best results are to be expected when the piece is performed by musicians with experience in improvised music such as free jazz?

KHE: Experience in this field would help a lot, but could also be a hindrance (especially if someone tends to reproduce implemented playing patterns). The best preposition is a musician who is interested in exploring new playing techniques, who has a sensible ear, who can offer spontaneous reactions, and who also brings a certain amount of compositional thinking and interest.

MB: In the performance, Richard Barrett will play the sampler. Have you given instructions about the sounds the sampler may or may not use? Or is the performer free in his choice of sounds?

KHE: I've already performed with Richard and I admire what he is doing on his sampler, which he turned into a highly individual, expressive meta-instrument. I have not given him any instruction about which sounds to use; as a composer (whom I highly esteem!) he knows himself which material he will need in order to realize the given instructions. And I am sure that Richard will consider the other instruments (bass clarinet, cello, trombone, and percussion - one instrument of a different instrumental family, by the way!).

MB: Has the sampler got a "musique concrète"-like function or does it rather use pitched sounds?

KHE: The function of Richard's sampler is the same as that of the other instruments - due to the given structural models it would embrace a wide field of different sounds which would not necessarily exclude or stress certain "styles". Anyway, due to the fact that there are also acoustical instruments involved in the performance, the sounds of the sampler should have the same qualities of rich and modulated timbres. The question of pitched or non-pitched sounds is defined in the notation of the piece itself - the so-called "quality" of sounds includes three types: from pitched to semi-pitched to non-pitched sounds, which are chosen for each structure by the underlying computer program.

MB: Out of curiosity a technical question: Why have the computers to be linked by MIDI, since the information they exchange consists of instructions and not of musical (MIDI-) data?

KHE: I use MIDI, here as a quite a simple and versatile communication protocol between computers, for supplying structural instructions which are "disguised" in MIDI information like note-on, controllers, and program changes. These instructions, transmitted from the "central computer", are decoded by the attached "monitor computers". On each of them an independent computer program evaluates the MIDI bytes and uses this information to generate the playing instructions on the fly.

© 1998 by Karlheinz Essl / Maarten Beirens (De Standaard, Brussels)

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