Hands-on v. Hands-off

The distinction Rex Lawson made in the previous post between Pianolas and Recording Pianos is an interesting one, in terms of how they fit (or don’t fit) into the project which been hinting at recently.

This project is provisionally organised along a division between what I am characterising as hand-crafted or hands-on and hands-off material. I’ve been explaining it as follows:

Hands-on: those people producing material using primarily hands-on methods. I’m thinking here of things like live-coding, circuit-bending, etc.

Hands-off: those producing material with self-running systems with only minimal human intervention beyond the initial setting up of the system.

I see this as the work being split into two types, one for “knob twiddlers,” and the other for the more minimally-inclined worker. In both cases a particular focus could be generative software like Supercollider, which allows for both types of activity.

Hands-on/hands-off is obviously something of an artificial distinction – people don’t really restrict themselves to one or the other, but this event is designed to investigate the various options around these different types of work, and to see what kind of productive exchanges you can get when you focus on and contrast these particular aspects of production.

I’m also trying to avoid any forcing of the material into categories like music, noise, sound, visual art, architecture, etc. The principles being dealt with here cross over many disciplines and forms, so I want to leave this as open as possible and let the artists create the distinction with their work.

Returning to the Player Pianos, and Rex’s distinction that the rolls for Pianolas are edited versions of the original musical scores, while rolls for Recording Pianos are created by a machine translating the key presses of a particular pianist into slots on the paper. So, in former case, you have this abstraction which is the musical score, being translated into a new medium of the roll, but essentially they are unchanged in their content. From thence the Pianolist (the player of the Pianola) interprets the playing of the roll using the various means available on the Pianola (speed, tone, strength, etc.). In the latter case, you have the reality of the player’s movements being the players’ realisation of the abstraction of the score, translated into slots on the roll, the idea being that these rolls are then played as-is, without intervention on the part of a Pianolist. In this case at the time of performance you have what aims to be a reproduction, whereas in the former you have an entirely original performance.

In terms of my project, I want to pay attention to this interesting slippage through the roll of the human hand in the process, and more importantly at what stage in the process the hand enters and leaves. For the hands-on work the hand is ever-present to a greater extent, by definition; for the hands-off work, the hand has done it’s work beforehand (as it were) in the preparation, which then almost has a life of its own once it is performed (or performs itself, you could say I suppose).

thinking aloud: listening and making generative music

Why just listen to generative music when you can easily make your own…1

It strikes me that because Generative music is likely different every time it is listened to, the act of listening to it can be accorded the role of creating that particular piece every time, therefore putting listening on a par with making, or even demoting listening as a role for the audience – maybe listening becomes “active,” listening as part of the generative process.

Generative music is the the most adaptable of “live” music – in that it’s always new, always different, no matter if it is a public or private situation, and it’s dependence on mechanical reproduction allows it the portability that “traditional” live music lacks. In terms of community experience, that particular version of the piece could be a shared experienced, in a live performance with an audience, but on a one to one basis it never has the potential to be communal, or shared – every launch of the piece occasions a new version, and unless it is hard coded as a static file cannot be transferred. But hard coding as a static file destroys the nature of the piece as generative.

One might ask what meaning it has if it is always different – where is the piece? This seems an inappropriate clinging onto outmoded forms, given the nature of generative systems, a paradigm for music (and indeed art in general) that may be difficult to maintain. If one must reduce it to such a thing one can look at it from two sides (maybe more). The meaning, the piece, is the method by which the piece is generated, the system, the order, the algorithm. Or, as I suggested above, the meaning is in the reception, but in a very fugitive sense. Static recordings can only be examples, maybe representing practical methods of revenue generation or dissemination, as in the production of documentation for ephemeral works by artists.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, Robin Peckham just posted a link to a piece by Nick Seaver, at the Comparative Media Studies department of MIT, where “he is studying indeterminacy and control in sound transmission, the role of ‘skill’ in aesthetic judgments, and the history of automatic musical instruments.” Nick posted a piece yesterday on his blog, noise for airports, about his research into the Player Piano. He makes an interesting point about “live” music, and its interpretation where the player piano is involved. This definitely relates to my notes above trying to define the “piece” where generative music is concerned:

“Live” music as we think of it today didn’t exist before audio recording—it was impossible for a sound to not be live. The player piano makes things a bit more complicated: is it still live if the notes are all punched on a roll in advance but “interpreted” by a live pianolist? Advertisements showing the ghostly hands of famous pianists on the keys suggested perfect fidelity: the parts of your piano would move exactly how they did when Rachmaninoff or Paderewski played. Would this recording, played on an actual piano, count as “live?” 2

Player Pianos were also an important instrument for the American composer Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote extremely complex pieces using punched paper rolls, pushing the machines to their limits and beyond the limits of the human ear. Sound and performance artist Michael Yuen tells me that:

Nancarrow had to specially alter his player pianos. they were fitted with vacuums to suck air out quicker. There are times when his music calls for 25 notes per sec. That’s a note every 40 msec. The ear can only hear a difference at best at 20msec. Without the turbo charged pianolas, the mechanism pulling the air couldn’t move the hammers and notes go missing. 3

I’d be interested to find out if these machines were popular in China, and if musical production of this sort has influenced the current generations of artists and musicians?

  1. Intermorphic (2010) Mixtikl 2: THE Generative Music & Loop Mixing System. [Online]. Available from:
    http://www.intermorphic.com/ [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  2. Seaver, Nick (2010) OLD MEDIA: INTERACTIVITY AND MECHANICAL MUSIC. noise for airports. Weblog. [Online] Available from: http://noiseforairports.com/post/426858290/old-media-interactivity-and-mechanical-music [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  3. Yuen, Michael (michael.yuen@internode.on.net) (10 February 2010) Re: generative v. hand-crafted. Email to: Sanderson, Edward (cpupro.art@gmail.com).