Žižek!? - short description


Žižek!? was commissioned for an event about the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, which took place at The Sound Source, Kings Place, London, July, 2009. I was commissioned to write a live alternative soundtrack to Astra Taylor's Žižek! (2005) documentary, which resulted in a computer-mediated-performance for three improvisers performing on piano, double bass and drums. Žižek!? was premiered by Alexander Hawkins (piano), Dominic Lash (double bass) and Javier Carmona (drums). In the performance, each improviser has a laptop in front of them, connected through a computer network, by which the improvisers receive individual written directions, timing instructions, score animations (moving graphical notation) and through headphones an aural score that consists of music they have to interact with (see Piano partBass part and Drum part). The result is a real-time multimedia score that is synchronized with the film and is driven by computer programs written in SuperCollider, including the AlgorithmicScore class (see Žižek!? code). The improvisers receive seven different written directions through the laptop displays, telling them how they should react during the performance:

  1. Silence: Don't play (or stop playing).
  2. Like: Imitate the music coming from the headphones.
  3. With: Play together with the music coming from the headphones.
  4. Free: Free to improvise at will.
  5. Solo: Improvise a solo.
  6. Unlike: Play in opposition to the music coming from the headphones.
  7. Without: Improvise ignoring the sound from the headphones.

The letters of the written directions are also colour coded using the three colours of a traffic light: the Silence direction is always in red, meaning the improvisers should stop playing at that point and the other directions are displayed in green when they should play, and yellow when the Silence direction is about to come. The performers also receive a written indication of which scene of the film is playing at a specific moment in time. The letters of these indications are in blue while a specific scene is playing but turn pink just before the next scene is about to start. In addition to written directions and indications, the multimedia score also includes score animations, which consist of moving graphical scores that convey some type of activity or gesture. Each score animation is deliberately devised for a specific instrument and is open to interpretation by the performer (see Animations Demo). The written directions, audio score and score animations are triggered through a control structure derived from a Midi file of Johannes Ockeghem's Missa Mi-mi. The music of the aural score, to which the improvisers have to react, is based on different types of analysis and processing of the audio of the film; it is not only synchronized to the film's audio, but it is derived from it. The music within the aural score is the result of different types of analysis from the speech, music and other sounds that comprise the film's soundtrack. Pitch and rhythmic material as well as frequency content and dynamics are derived from the analysis of the audio signal of the soundtrack using different techniques, including tempo tracking, onset detection and spectral analysis and are combined/modified through the information obtained from the Ockeghem Midi file. This process generates data structures that control synthesis algorithms or triggers sampled sounds to create the final aural score. The result is an audio score that, while retaining some characteristics of the speech and other sounds from the film, is also allusive to other styles of music as a consequence of the chosen sounds and analysis parameters (see Score Demo). The way in which the improvisers react to the audio score also produces an audible musical result that is related to the characteristics of speech and other sounds in the soundtrack and creates an interaction between the musicians and the sound of the film, which they might carry into the free improvisations.

Žižek!? attempts to find new ways of collaborating with musicians with a background in improvisation by using computer-mediated-performance strategies that take advantage of their strengths as musicians but at the same time working within a pre-composed structure. It does so by reshaping the traditional relationships established between composer and performer through technology by using a multimedia score to transfer musical ideas and intention as well as facilitating certain types of group playing and synchronicity that otherwise would be difficult to achieve. In addition, by giving the improvisers visual directions and aural stimulus, it is possible to direct them towards a certain type of musical behavior and sound world without limiting their creative input into the performance. Furthermore, Žižek!? is devised in such a way that, within a fixed structure, certain details may vary through improvisation, but within the constraints given by the visual and aural score. This computer-mediated-performance shares certain characteristics with generative music: the composer does not specify every detail of the result of the performance but creates the possibility for an infinite number of outcomes which share similar characteristics. Žižek!?  also explores the idea of establishing interpassive relationships between the performers on stage and the technological objects (the laptops in front of them). Like On Violence, this performance is devised in such a way that the technological object remains passive (the laptops do not produce sound or activity that is apparent to the audience) while requiring the performers to remain (hyper)active. The improvisers delegate their passivity to the technological object, giving the semblance of reality to the illusion that they are in control, when they are actually following the demands from the laptops. Finally, Žižek!? deals with the process of appropriation slightly differently from plunderphonics (Oswald) or musica derivate (Barlow). The composer creates a new musical result by appropriating live performances as opposed to creating music through plundered recordings or by writing a score based on derived material from existing music to be realized by either classically trained musicians or mechanical instruments. This is achieved by appropriating the performance of musicians with a background in improvisation and by manipulating the output of their improvisation through the multimedia score. Žižek!? appropriates live performances differently from E-tudes; instead of plundering different types of signals from live performances to create a new composition the process of appropriation starts by choosing living improvisers (rather than recordings, audio and Midi signals of existing music), manipulating/directing their creative output towards a desired musical result. Furthermore, Žižek!? appropriates a film into the performance and superimposes live music on top of its original soundtrack so that the live music performance interferes with the appreciation of film by trying to steal the audience's attention from it. The activity and volume of the improvisation (the music is meant to be louder than conventional film music, sometimes masking the audio of the film) at some points competes with Žižek's own relentlessness as a speaker. At the same time, however, as a consequence of the relationship between the live music and the audio of the soundtrack, the performance amplifies Žižek!? own hyperactivity, suggesting that he is not the analyst but the analysand. The result of the performance as a whole is an overload of information for the audience who, not being able to grasp the whole content of the performance (the meaning of the concepts being discussed, the images of the documentary and performance, as well as the detail in the music) has to give something up –the audience might (consciously or unconsciously) decide to ignore the music in order to try to concentrate on understanding what is being said or might choose to perceive the performance as sound, rendering Žižek's speech as music and detracting from its meaning as language. The audience may also have to come to terms with the impossibility of fully grasping what is presented at them, stop trying to understand all of the different elements of the performance and perhaps give up on it entirely, becoming passive spectators of an ‘empty ritual’