The Ghost and the Machines

The Ghost and the Machines

Some folks have asked both here online and in emails about the technical aspects of my performance with Melody of China. I’m glad to answer and broaden things a bit to discuss some other performances, making some comparisons. I can fill you in on my installation HAN BAT as I had promised in a future column.

The performance with MOC was one of the most straightforward gigs I have done in a while—no live processing of the other instruments and no use of my Ghost Karaoke technique, which I’ll describe below. Just five musicians—four acoustic and your correspondent playing laptop. The challenge is always to get the machine to blend with the rest of the band. The first decision is whether or not the acoustic instruments will be amplified—these days, much to the dismay of people like the late Henry Brant, they usually are. Assuming all the players are mic’ed and fed through a PA, then obviously the computer sound will be as well. Balancing is done, as always, using the trusted ears of someone listening in the hall. If I’m not too busy performing, of course I prefer to do it myself (in some cases I can set up an automatic process or sequence and go into the hall while the rest of the ensemble gamely plays along). Once basic balance is achieved, the next issue is panning. Most PA engineers will try to pan the instrument mics to approximate the position onstage of the associated player or, as a default, just mono everybody. What about the laptop? Do I want a dramatic contrast between my sounds and the rest of the group? If so, maybe a full stereo assignment is appropriate. Or do I just want to be a fifth member of the band, as was the case with Melody of China. If so, just pan me in like everybody else. In the event that the players prefer to remain unamplified—which we almost did in the Asian Art Museum’s lively hall, until an eleventh hour decision by music director Hong Wang to mic the entire show—then I feel it becomes problematic to use a stereo PA for the laptop. In such a case, I’ll usually opt for a small or medium-ish guitar amp, set up beside me, realizing sadly that I will be losing some detail and fidelity as a result.

In every situation, monitoring is critical. The best case will be when every musician can hear themselves and the computer, at the balance they prefer.

As I mentioned, usually I do live processing of one or more of the instruments I am performing with. Here things are a bit more complicated technically, although with proper preparation and advance consultation with engineering staff, it shouldn’t be a big deal. In the case of live processing, for both technical and aesthetic reasons the other instruments should always be amplified. I ask the PA engineer to send me one or more feeds of the selected instruments I plan to process, either from his console or using mic splitters. These are received by my audio interface and used as fodder for my sonic degustations. Care must be taken that impedance and signal levels match, and that the signal strength is adequate. My part, which usually mixes the processed instrumental sounds and my “own” sounds in varying degrees, is generally assigned to both hard left and right in the PA for maximum effect, while still taking care that a good balance between all players is achieved.

In my Ghost Karaoke pieces, there’s a twist in the set-up that is extremely important aesthetically, but only becomes audible indirectly. An example would be my piece Lauburu, which was composed for pipa (Min Xiao-Fen), shamisen (Yumiko Tanaka), laptop and CD player (yours truly). The specially made CD goes to headphones that all the instrumentalists wear, but the audience never hears the track. Lauburu is a guided improvisation—by which I mean the players are free to play whenever the simple score tells them to start or stop, but their performance should be guided by the CD that they alone are all listening to, and not to what the others are playing. What’s on the CD? About thirty different musical tracks that change every minute or so, material ranging from Japanese gidayu to early baroque to rock to Peking opera to hardcore to nagauta and so on. The results, as the players struggle to join with a virtual, unheard, shifting “band,” are picked up and articulated by me—and the whole thing can usually be pretty interesting, if sometimes just on the edge of spinning out of control. I hope you can hear Lauburu or one of my other Ghost Karaoke pieces live sometime, in a neighborhood near you.

How about you? Any of you want to join in with your own particular experiences combining instrumental and electronic sounds? It would be great to see what you all are up to. Whether you’re a confirmed laptopper or an otherwise unplugged instrumentalist, please share your own thoughts. I await—and will see you again here next week.

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4 thoughts on “The Ghost and the Machines

  1. Daniel Wolf

    Carl —

    I recently heard a beautiful performance of a duo, Rendition Series, by Gordon Mumma for piano and laptop. Instead of amplifying and mixing, Mumma used small loudspeakers discretely placed inside the piano.

    I increasingly find solutions like Mumma’s, of the small amplification systems used in the circuit bending scene are optimal for chamber music settings. It’s not a question of amplification — in the halls new music is usually played in, you can hear anything anyways — but rather of the assertion of the presence of each sound source as unique and localized. With sufficient distinction in musical material and strategic spatial placement, you could hear a q’in in a duet with a bass trombone.

  2. Chris Becker

    The space you are performing in is crucial when playing anything amplified – be it an electric guitar or a laptop computer. What I’ve found is that the laptop is often negated in live performances when it comes to monitoring and amplification. I’ve experienced some pretty negative attitudes from both (ahem) “sound engineers” as well as people who asked me to perform in the first place.

    All this means is that we who play laptops need to be clear with whoever is running sound at a show (be it in a concert hall as described above or – more often in my case – a rock club) that our needs are the same as any musician using electricity. We have to hear ourselves and the musicians onstage (as well as the audience) needs to hear us as well. From there, you can get more fussy depending on the piece, the vibe of the gig, etc.

    Carl, I too utilize guitar amps when I perform on laptop. Tube amps and amps that provide me with some kind of bottom end are essential. But do you use any onboard plug-ins to fatten up your sound? I’m assuming yes. Ableton Live for instance has a nice selection of these virtual guitar amps, compressors and “saturators” that can really color digital sound in a wide variety of ways. Do you have any favorite plug-ins or combinations of plug-ins you like for certain musical situations?

    I have plenty of questions but that’ll be one to start…

  3. msargent

    Thanks for this article! It’s a very solid introduction to performing computer/electroacoustic music, and one I’ll surely be sharing with fellow composers in the future.

    I’ve actually been using the technique that you described as “Ghost Karaoke” in several recent pieces. In the first piece in which I used headphone playback tracks, I was working with a professional brass trio (I’ll leave out their name, as they were very good sports in the long run!).

    Though the piece and concept wasn’t exceptionally difficult, the method of responding to a headphone track (in a similar manner to what you describe in the post), rather than simply reading through a score, came off as offensive to them. I was met with a great deal of bristling in the first rehearsals, which seemed for the most part to be a result of the headphones causing the performers to listen differently than they were accustomed to when they performed.

    I wonder if you’ve had any similar experiences, or might be able to suggest some ways that you’ve introduced this technique to players.

    – Matt Sargent


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