Essay on my work

By Marcel Zaes, March 2013
First published under the title "Creating technical media music within a digitized world – a personal approach" in the blog 'a100ql' by Tobias Reber, March 2013

Being of the “postmodern generation”

I'm one of those composers / sound artists who was born into a mediatized world that was in the act of being completely digitized within a few years. The digital era has brought forth new methods of composing and creating music, new definitions of the traditional roles and professions, new forms of education to enter professional digital music creation and, notably, new aesthetic ideals. From a technical point of view, everything has become possible, and the postmodern way of thinking has allowed doing nearly everything. Due to this paradigm change, it has become obvious that every single step in the process from composing to performing has to be re-thought from scratch. Every single decision to take is either a quotation or a negation of the past. In this essay, I will to mention some personal notices and points of critique on performance in the field of electronic music. Then I’m going to chronologically describe the development of my method of composing and performing, in particular with respect to the importance of “liveness” compared to that of “performativity” in my own work. (Note: it is important not to equate liveness with performativity. By “liveness” I mean the immediacy and authenticity caused by a given uncertainty and the fact that some parameters always remain uncontrollable when performing live; that’s why each representation is unique. “Performativity”, for me, means the visual and theatrical (or even catchpenny) content in the act of performing digital music on stage, that is to say the size respectively visibility of hand or body movements while handling electronic controllers and interfaces.)

Performativity and musicality as substitutes?

Many performances in the field of electronic music bore me; guys fiddling around with immense technical equipment on stage, operating some control dials in an irreproducible way, generating weird and noisy sound clusters, which to me seem arbitrary and not necessarily musical. Such artists came up with haptic interfaces and large-dimensioned controllers for the sake of comprehensibility and performativity – often at the expense of musical quality and musical form. Others came up with great music without any “performativity”, that is to say without any visual-theatrical content. A few artists succeeded and still succeed in creating great music and great performances at once. Yet another aspect of the same thought on the “evolution” of the live performance in the field of electronic music: I observe that many artists place great interest in inventing and constructing amazing experimental interfaces while they invest less in the successive process of learning to handle these interfaces and in the development of good quality music. Instead, a big amount of all the existing digital music is no more than demonstrations of (new) technologies and experimental interfaces; many works remain studies. In this point I absolutely agree with Markus Reuter (cf. post of March 4th, 2013). Actually it is not the skill of “playing the computer” what I’m missing (since I do not believe that the computer is an “instrument” that can be played as traditional instruments can) – I’m rather criticizing the lack of musicality within the field of digital music. Furthermore, at a certain point I’ve discovered that, as opposed to Jeff Swearengin’s notice (cf. post of March 18th, 2013), the sound palette of digital media is quite limited (later on in this essay I will go on to claim that the library of sound samples today is endless; nonetheless I insist that the resulting sound is often no more varied than that of classical instruments, or even less). Through all these observations and experiences I grew stimulated to search for further sounds, means and methods. On the one hand, I became interested in the discussion of the performativity aspect of non-performative arts and I follow the developments in this field with interest, on the other hand, I do not seek to pursue performativity in my work. What I do seek to maintain is liveness on stage, since I’m still convinced that liveness endows electronic music performances with additional value.

Combining studio and live

With the digitalization the traditional sequence of composing, producing and performing music has become obsolete. As Adrian Benavides reports (cf. post of February 18th, 2013), music creation, studio environment and live performance moved closer to one another. In the early stages of my personal music development, I came up with the idea of bringing techniques and methods out of the studio environment onto stage. I realized that the simplest studio strategies that are used by sound engineers as well as sampling artists, namely the use of prerecorded sound material which is cut into small pieces (“samples”), could get interesting when applied on stage, in real-time. Instead of using such samples, I've started working with a kind of self-programmed real-time sampler based on real human instrumentalists (mostly professional classical musicians) who act on stage during the performance. By producing mainly long-sustained notes they provide organic sound material that is edited in real-time by a software tool (note that I do favor the term “tool” over “instrument” in order to accent its difference from traditional music instruments). This tool, similar to a “noise gate”, is basically a switch, which is able to open and to close the instruments’ amplification. As the opening and closing process is controlled by repetitive rhythmic patterns (with a smooth algorithmic variation), strong rhythmic textures arise. This computer-generated rhythmic microstructure does not become audible until the instrumentalists start to provide sound; this is the basic concept of my “real-time sampling tool”. Works originated from this tool usually consist of a sequence of several such “textures”. Afterward it’s me deciding the order of these sequences, that is to say the macrostructure or the musical form.

The real-time sampler or human sampler

The first version of this real-time sampling tool was born in 2009. It’s not an instrument; it’s not named, though it has become most probably the essential tool in my work since then. It combines a contemporary notation tool, algorithmic modules (being used for the rhythmical microstructure), a sound recording and playing back engine, a sampler, a simple six-step sequencer and a digital mixing console with sound equalization and sound improvement tools. Both the software itself and my role when handling it have become complex and sometimes even overlap. When creating new work I would often find myself simultaneously an improviser, musician, composer, producer and sound engineer. Later on, when performing on stage, I would be mixing the volumes and improving the sound in three-dimensional space – which is a rather engineering work than a musical one. I’ve never really been interested in searching for experimental interfaces in order to render the software tool “performative” or “playable”, rather I've always looked for the most musical way of controlling it. In the majority of cases, the most musical solution wasn't at all “theatrical”. I controlled and still control it by using the laptop keyboard and the cursor, eventually extended with some very basic faders and knobs. As I’m not looking for an “instrument”, I don’t need my software to be interactive or to offer a “feedback loop” as classical instruments do; I’m fully satisfied with a one-directional control over it.


The decision not to work with prerecorded samples might also be based upon the observation that through the digitalization the entirety of this world's sounds has become available and playable as an artistic footage in global digital media networks at any time and a majority of music producers have started to use this footage as an artistic material on which they base their work. This footage is quite attractive in the sense of its unlimited availability and its variety.
However, since I for a long time have been looking for a way of bringing back liveness or at least some last fragments of liveness into live performances of electronic music – without being conservative – the use of the “human sampler”

brought that liveness and immediateness onto stage. Clearly, there are several more categorical differences between working with a sound archive and working with real musicians, but I will not treat them in this essay.

Southbound / Südwärts

Katryn Hasler playing 'Southbound / Südwärts' (full length)

“Southbound / Südwärts” was the first work being born out of the new real-time sampler in 2009. After a long researching phase, which took place in collaboration with the baritone violinist Katryn Hasler, I fixed the final form as well as the final score for the violinist. The work “Southbound / Südwärts” is in all respects a representative work concerning the clearness of the concept: the violinist generates the sound spectrum while the software tool creates rhythmic patterns out of it. Since the software switch is acting without crossfading or otherwise “smoothing” the violin sound, its sound result is quite rough and direct. What is more, the simple step sequencer gets clearly audible as it repeats one and the same rhythmic pattern (with variations) for the whole duration of the piece. With “Southbound / Südwärts”, I’ve defined the musical language I’ve been working with for the last five years.

What is “composing”?

When working with my real-time sampling tool, the whole process of “composing” itself has become complex in a way: it's not anymore clear, which part of this entire process is the real composing process. Is it the first trying around and improvisational search for unshaped rough sound textures? Is it the following process of structuring and fixing sequences out of these textures, the creation of musical form? Or is it the definition of the score for the instrumentalist who is later on going to provide the sound material? Is it, at the end, the very preceding creation of the software tool itself, the “system” which already consists of several fixations of diverse musical parameters?

The last place (left)

Several pieces followed. I'd like to speak about “The last place (left)” which probably is the most important work that originates from this real-time sampling tool and the conjunctive composing system. This work might even represent the climax of what is possible at all with my real-time sampler in the sense that the simplistic concept and its consequent realization has lead to musical quality and maturity (compared to “Southbound / Südwärts” for instance), which is in a way no more developable. The very first idea of bringing studio methods onto stage has reached its summit. “The last place (left)”, being mainstream because of the use of ostinato patterns and sample loops that bring freezed fragments of the real world into digital music, is at the same time not mainstream because the majority of the used sample loops and ostinatos are not samples but real-time-generated on stage. Certainly, when this music is being recorded on CD, it might be mistaken for sampling music, but is not (this is valid for almost all my works).

THE LAST PLACE (LEFT), 2010, sound excerpt

The living sound library

Being aware of the fact that my real-time sampler was almost fully developed and that I’ve learned how to handle all its parameters by using it for several years, I’ve kept it more or less as it is since 2010 and, instead, I’ve taken a little change of direction. By reflecting again and again the primary concept of my human sampler I’ve become aware of one conceptual aspect: a DJ, during the performance, is able to exchange his vinyl disks over and over; he acts and reacts spontaneously. A sampling artist, when performing live on stage with some commercial or experimental interface, is able to navigate huge sound archives instantly; he as well chooses and mixes his sounds spontaneously, following his own or the audience’s mood. I dreamt of developing my software tool towards a real-time sampler whose sounding content can instantly be controlled and doesn’t follow anymore a predefined form respectively score. Of course I could have changed concept and started to work with archive samples – but it was too important for me to keep the human musicians. I wanted to have a “living sound pool”.

Cut low from above

Ensemble TAG playing 'Cut Low From Above' (excerpt)

With two recent works I’ve introduced a kind of computer-based “guide system”, which is based on a very simple concept: By pressing keys I announce to the musicians instantly what notes to play, whether to play or not and the dynamic range. My role has become totally comparable to a DJ or a sampling artist. In the last work “cut low from above” (which is the music for the theatre piece “Die Wand”, (Theater am Gleis, Winterthur, Switzerland, February 2013), I’ve written about 80 short fragments for the musicians: rough pitches, sounds and some more elaborated phrases. This was the living sound library from which I could choose and combine fragments over and over. In this manner and by adding some pure electronic sounds I’ve created on stage the resulting music parallel to the actor speaking. This concept of real-time control over a living sound library is highly fascinating and versatile; I can’t wait to further enhance it.

Some concluding notes

At this point I choose to end my discussion, since I’m not able and not going to provide an all-embracing scientific paper on electronic music performance; please note that what I’m writing here can be considered neither “universal” nor the “common way” of doing digital music. What I’m describing here is my very personal approach. Instead, I will add some last notes about my work. First, I’d like to say that when I’m working in an installative context (e.g. sound installations in museums) I often try to add some performative elements, for instance a traditional musician creating sound that will be algorithmically transformed into a sound installation (cf. my work “prairies”). On the other hand, when working in the field of music performance, I always attempt to include installative elements in order to render the traditional format of the concert more complex and interesting. The classical instrumentalist performing on stage in my works is not anymore the 19th century virtuoso, he is rather present as a kind of machine-like sculptural human body that represents this very last fragment of the real world whereof I’ve been speaking previously. I like this emerging ambivalence between the installative and the performative. Secondly, I’d like to say that all decisions I’m taking throughout the whole process from composing to performing are always taken based on the consistency of the conceptual idea and – equally important – based on good sounding results and artistic quality. And finally, as I feel that liveness is an important question for artists performing with computers on stage, I’m happy to see the existence of this forum, stimulating the discussion on this topic.

(1) Cf. for instance: Fischer-Lichte, Erika (2004). Ästhetik des Performativen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

(2) Cf. Harenberg, Michael & Weissberg, Daniel (2010). Einleitung. In Harenberg, Michael & Weissberg Daniel (Eds.), Klang (ohne) Körper (pp. 7-17). Bielefeld: Transcript.

(3) Ibid., p. 8.