Ecosonic // AWC
Ecosonics → Automatic Writing Circle

From Ecosonic Ensemble to Automatic Writing Circle

1.1 An outline history of the group
It is possible to break the early history of the group into 3 main segments, which coincide with changes in the project at various levels. On a simple grid, the 3 phases are given a character by the place in which meetings took place, first the Mary Ward Centre, then a nomadic period, and then a base at the London College of Communication. These changes in location were also accompanied by changes in the concept of the instrument and the kinds of issue that dominated our discourse.
A brief description of the principal subjects covered in each phase is as follows:
1. The opening phase was motivated by an explicit agenda, to explore the reverse side of Pierre Schaeffer’s theory of the sound object, and uncover the potentials of a ‘relation sociale’ which might open the objet sonore to the politics of community. This was a deliberate bringing together in practice of the theoretical positions outlined in sections one and two, exploring the sociality of group interaction with the effects of mediatisation on sonic material.
The work began in a series of classes that I conducted at the Mary Ward Centre in London between 2004 and 2006. The class was for adult learners, and we used group improvisation and structured exercises (using networked and self-made instruments) to explore the group performance of electronic sound. The classes became increasingly f focused on the specific problems of the relationship between the instrumental interface, the aesthetic motives behind the sounds being produced and the social interaction of the performers. It culminated in the creation of the first version of the Ouija board.
Simultaneously, I had begun working with Stephen Preston in his group, the Ecosonic ensemble, which was devoted to the expansion of the performance possibilities of traditional acoustic instruments through a focus on dialogic and interpersonal interaction. We both felt that our physical capacities in instrumental performance (Baroque flute in Dr Preston’s, cello in my case) could be extended by being placed directly in the service of mutual responsiveness.
These two projects informed each other, and were motivated by very similar ideals—namely that the interpersonal responses of one musician to another could form the basis for a new relationship to sound and to instruments.
2. The second phase involved a deeper examination of the implications of the work in the first phase. Various questions peripheral to the first phase became central in this one. For example, the two following interlinked questions began to assume increasing importance:
To what extent are the goals and ideals of the group linked to an external theory or manifesto, and to what extent are they created out of the interactions of the past and current members of the group?
To what extent does the use of exercises to explore the territory of our interaction become an unconscious constraint, suggesting that all territory can be defined by exercises?
This phase of the work also consisted of an explicit joining of the two groups, the Ecosonic and Ouija, in a series of performances. These maintained the focus on interpersonal response whilst including both electroacoustic sound-making and acoustic instrumental performance. It led to considerable modification of our understanding of the interrelation between the two types of performers.
3. The third phase of the work, which leads up to the current form of the group, involved a succession of breakthroughs. These included changes in many areas: the form of the Ouija board, the design of the software, the relationships between performers, and the conception of structure which guided our performances. Our increasing recognition of the ideological background of many of our judgements led to a greater competence in dealing with and hearing often deeply held differences, not only in an intellectual and verbalised way, but also in the improvisations.
The discussion of these initial changes, and the details of their sonic outcome, is the substance of the following sections.
1.2 Two early histories—Entrainment and ‘the other’
The following two sections cover the first phase of research, and detail the work with two different groups, the acoustic musicians of the ‘Ecosonic’ group, and the adult learners at the Mary Ward centre. I present two initially separate histories, one involving the movement outwards from ‘entrainment’ between musicians into areas outside the immediate dialogue, the second involving a movement from the electroacoustic experience of sound as ‘other’ into the politics of entrainment.
1.2.1 Ecosonic exercises and entrainment.
The ecosonic ensemble grew out of initial research conducted by Dr Stephen Preston into birdsong, (Preston 2004) which had been motivated by the wish to discover ways of performing which matched the freedom and sonic breadth found in bird song. This resulted in the development of the Ecosonic playing technique in which the hexagrams of the I-Ching , whih whare mapped to finger patterns on the Baroque flute. Because they resulted in finger combinations that are not part of traditional scale-based patterns they produce a wide range of unusual timbre, pitch and volume. These can be produced with great fluency and with a stimulating level of unpredictability as some of the combinations place the instrument in an unstable mode of vibration.
At the time that I joined Dr Preston he was working with his pupil, Amara Guitry, on aspects of duetting, inspired by the variety of temporal organisation and synchronisation to be found in the duets of different species of bird.
The tight co-ordination between Guitry and Preston impressed me: it allowed the possibility of listening to their improvisations either as the sound of a single instrument, or as the production of two separate people. My own presence, as a cellist, in the sound-making of these two Baroque flautists, raised obvious questions about the differences between us and the extent to which I could be integrated into their pre-existing and sonically cohesive world. My partially alien presence was an early instance of the contaminating impetus provided by borderline positions, which provided a driving force for many of the changes to come. My effect on the group was partly the consequence of the boost in number of participants from two to three, thus allowing the possibility for somebody to be on the outside, and partly because of the different acoustic and gestural potentials of the cello.

The presence of someone on the borderline, paradoxically in and out of the group, coincided with an increasing focus on what it is to be mutually engaged with another performer, the sense of what it is to be on the ‘inside’ of a group. The creation of an instrumental technique which allowed fluency and rapidity of response began to be seen as a consequence of this need for mutual engagement, rather than as a goal in its own right.
The improvisations were not in an entirely free form, but were designed as exercises intended to explore particular ways of being together. They focused on a variety of different structural elements, centred principally on simultaneity, turn taking, and the gestural and timbral component of an exchange. Two principal themes co-existed: one in which players recognise and authorise each other’s sound making acts through mutual reciprocation, the other in which the presence of an outside or alternate performer disrupts the basis of entrainment. Many exercises were explored, and I shall describe two in particular, which show the diversity of ways in which the influence of an outside or perimeter became recognised in the internal forms of entrainment.
The work of the infant psychologist Daniel Stern has been of particular value in thinking about the nature of these interactions. His book, The First Relationship (1977), is a description of the growing social skills of an infant, from birth up to the age of one year, by which time the baby has learned how to form an enduring internal representation of mother as the cornerstone of a relationship. The internal representation is not made up of a single image but can be understood as a learned sense of what it is like to be with mother, built up from many sessions of play in which there are repeated chunks or packages of interactions.
Through the mutual management and structuring of these packages of interaction the baby learns how to regulate their relationship with mother, manage their own levels of affect and emotion within it, and also learns the basis for wider social relationships.
It should be noted that, as in Bateson’s cybernetic description of the family unit in which the double bind occurs, or Goffman’s situationist analysis of the performance of self discussed in section one, Stern is able to move between an interpretative position which places the individual at the centre of the frame, to one in which relational patterns created within a group are the subject.
In Stern’s detailed exploration of the interactions between mother and child there are two aspects which stand out as having particular significance for the work that occurred in the Ecosonic ensemble and later with the AWC. The first is that in trying to find the minimum unit or segment which made up an interaction Stern always refers to curves of intensity and direction, not simply to separate symbolic chunks. For him, the basic process unit of an interaction is not necessarily the smallest unit of perception in any modality, but rather is the smallest unit in which a temporally dynamic interactive event with a beginning, middle, and end can occur. Such a process unit is like the briefest incident or vignette that can contain a sensory, motor, and affective element of experience and accordingly have signal value as an interpersonal event. A vocal utterance, or the formation-maintenance-decomposition of a facial expression, could define the boundaries of an interpersonal process unit (Stern 1977:122).
Thus the unfolding over time and the intensity of a behaviour, for example a smile, is as significant as any discreet ‘content’ of the action. The boundaries of an event are defined as much by these contours of intensity as by any solid substance. For the work with the acoustic musicians in the Ecosonic ensemble, and later in the work with the group using both acoustic and electroacoustic resources, the awareness of the communicative impact of temporal curves of intensity was central. In changing or modulating the terms on which our mutual engagement occurred the subtle elements of rates of increase and decrease and proportion were as important as any striated structural differentiation. This became particularly relevant when thinking about the relationships between electroacoustically produced sound and that from acoustic instruments.
Stern also gives a detailed analysis of the way that the boundaries of an interaction are maintained through mutual feedback systems. The mutual provision of stimulus is kept within an optimal range, but this optimal range is fluid and flexible. Unlike the feedback system of a thermostat, which has a fixed cut off point, the mother and child negotiate a system that allows them to change the agreed-upon range of stimulation—the optimal range is a moving target.
This is a good description of the processes of interaction which occurred within the ecosonic ensemble and AWC. The tensions within our performances were often generated by the changes in the boundaries within which a sanctioned or authorised regime of entrainment was conducted. Like the mutually regulated interaction between mother and child, our improvisations could be seen as processes of extension to include others within regimes of authorisation which were themselves subject to change.
In the following description of exercises, I detail the way in which the curves of intensity of an outside agent are incorporated in the mutual regulation of the entrainment of an inner group.
1.2.2 Ambient
In this exercise players took turns, one by one, to play a phrase or a single note in response to the sounds around them in the environment. Each player’s turn would begin with silence and end with silence. The initial silence would be a period in which the player could be immersed in the acoustic environment, enabling her to detect sounds beyond the immediate social distance of the group. These sounds might be the activities of other people in the building or of the clicking of light bulbs or external environmental sound like wind or birds. Like a dissolving lump of sugar, the attention of the listener could spread out and notice how all these distant sounds were present at the edge of the performance space, in a sense dissolving the boundaries of performance space as well.
In attempting to reverse this process of dissolution, and reproduce the sonic environment in some instrumental form, the player would pay attention to the relative scale and intensity of the sounds around them. They needed to find ways of articulating the dimensions and multiplicity of the external environment in their physical response and exploitation of the micro-ecology of the instrument.
For example, on the baroque flute there could be a sense in which the slow release of breath provided a background noise easily related to the continuous roar of traffic, whilst the tongue could be acting to produce a secondary and changing white noise within the mouth cavity, perhaps linked to the sighing of wind. The body of the flute, with varied fingerings, could be producing whistle tones (depending on the embouchure of the lips), the fingers could be producing light or darker clicks and taps. The point was not to produce sounds which, if recorded and played back, would be indistinguishable from the acoustic environment. Rather, it was for the player to internalise the sense of scale and relative agitation and movement of these external sounds, and use them as an inspiration to release new complexes of activity and technique.
As a consequence of the musician’s response there was a second, equally important component to the exercise. The awaiting players, the people whose turn would be coming next, would not only be listening to the space around them, but they would also be appreciating the response of the performing musician. Often, whilst awaiting my turn, I would not have a clue about how my body would find a way of performing on my instrument. Then, hearing and seeing somebody else’s approach, I would feel the sympathetic stirrings of imagination and could suddenly imagine how the shaking of an arm at one speed combined with a slackened lower string and taps with the left hand (one finger using a nail and the other the soft pad of the finger tip) would create a similar sonic environment, even if the technique were quite different from the currently playing musician.
Thus, my own response, when it came, would be a stimulating and engaging response to the other musician, as well as a response to our situation in the environment. I could not only use my body to relate to the external environment, but use it as a way of indicating appreciation and echoing another person’s performance.
This exercise allowed a multiple focus to develop, shifting between different kinds of entrainment. One was an attention outwards, into the environmental space, another was a focusing inwards, into the multiplexed activities of bodily/instrumental sound making, and a third was towards a mutually engaging, provocative and stimulating response between musicians. Although not every sound-making act by a musician was novel, the sense of a changed listening relationship with the environment and with each other often was.
A fourth form of entrainment could also be detected, which was the interaction with our classically trained instrumental gestures and habits. The spontaneous responses to each other and to the environment were in negotiation with these learned responses and the sonic values that they related to: we were not forgetting our instrumental training, but engaging with it through other contexts.
1.2.3 Entrained pair and ‘Outsider’
This exercise developed as a consequence of the presence of a third person on the periphery of the closely entrained interchanges of a dyad.
The mutual focus of the dyad was strong, and consisted of rapid matching and small divergences in the way that the sound was being produced. Unlike the ambient exercise described above, the entrained pair responded at high speed, almost without pre-emptive thought.
As a third player, listening to the dyad, I became interested in the way that an awareness of the ‘outsider’ could be brought into the situation. The entrainment of the dyad was obviously compelling and demanded attention but there remained a presence on the periphery of this mutual engagement.
We developed a variety of exercises, for example:
1.Having the entraining pair close together and the outsider physically distant.
2.Allowing the outsider to destabilise the entrained pair, and then to bring about some kind of re-negotiation (an audio example can be found in example 1 of the early period archive).
3.The entrained pair to ignore the outsider, and the outsider to make sounds without intending to disrupt the pair.
4.The outsider as a silent listener: an audience.
5.The outsider to pay attention to the pair (the insiders) and remember their activities, paraphrasing or diarising in some way for the benefit of an audience, or to comment back to the insiders.
These exercises involved a conscious manipulation of focus, both for the people in the dyad and for the person on the periphery. This became particularly evident when everybody had played the part of the outsider. Once having been on the outside and returning to the role of insider it was strangely easy to give the appearance of entraining with the other in the pair whilst also being very aware of the actions and state of the person on the ‘outside’.
The strange mental categories created by this divided attention are worth noting: as an insider one was supposed to give full attention to the other person in the dyad. However, this conscious play at ignoring the person on the periphery seemed to create a second mind that was actually listening to and participating with the outsider, even while exhibiting no obvious sign of this secondary attention. So one became aware of the existence of several frames of reference, even within one’s own attention. For example, it became apparent that the official outsider mirrors a part of one’s own consciousness that is already outside the interaction, but a part that is not fully under our conscious control.
1.2.4 Summary
The exercises conducted with the Ecosonic group of musicians demonstrated the variety of ways in which the focus of entrainment could be shifted. These consisted of movements outwards beyond the immediate relationship between mutually engaged musicians towards environmental sound (or a peripheral musician), and inwards towards a redefinition of the content of the group entrainment, bringing in new ways of being together.
In Stern’s analysis of entrainment there is a description of the way in which Mother-child interactions develop a structure and focus. This first relationship is the learning ground in which we discover ways of making associative patterns which have a social basis, and in which we learn how to form mutually constructed frames around an interaction. It was suggested that, as musicians, we are dealing with more diverse and politically unstable elements of the same framing process, allowing an expanded awareness to come in and reshape the details of our relating.
In this complex process of alignment between performers there is an attention given to the ‘place’ in which these mutual engagements occur—not a fixed location i.e. ‘in me’ (or even which part of a divided mind) or ‘over there’, but a movement of displacement, the interior of the body placed into an exterior space, or the exterior space represented in the micro-ecology of instrumental performance. This creates a paradoxical image of being together, constructed always with something that is not fully present, a trace or a residue of presence.
The exercises provided a pre-defined frame, allowing various aspects of content and behaviour to be explored, but also acted as a potential conceptual block—for in the end entrainment between people is not conducted in the form of exercises or pre-agreed rules. The politics of individual authorities in proposing or analysing an exercise came under increasing scrutiny. We also became more conscious of the fact that language was used to formulate the boundaries and contents of the exercises, and was thus directly implicated in our construction of sonic experiences. In the same way that the presence of an acoustic outsider (as musician or external environment) began to change the mutual engagement of the insiders, so the role of language, as an apparent outsider to our sonic interactions, began to make its presence felt more strongly, and we began to adopt a more flexible and deconstructive approach to its use in our interactions. Some of the ensuing changes are discussed in 3.6.1, detailing the changed role of exercises in our work and a more extensive engagement with writing from an ethnomusicological perspective.
1.3 Mary Ward Group
1.3.1 Initial group instrument
Whilst the main focus of the work with the ecosonic group was on the expansion of the range of material that could be included in the entrained relationship among musicians, the work of the Mary Ward group went in the reverse direction, focusing on the way in which the expanded field of electronically-produced sound could become part of an entrained interaction.
A principal area of research concerned new concepts of instruments, with a particular examination of the link between an individual’s performing body and the sound produced by the group.
An essential difference between the Ecosonic group and the Mary Ward group lay in the role played by the physical instrument: the Ecosonic group played acoustic instruments with a long cultural history, whilst the Mary Ward group had the task of evolving a group instrument that had the dual function of providing ways to articulate particular sounds and also of distinguishing one person from another (and hence allowing processes of entrainment to occur).
Acoustic instruments have always created a tight link between an individual and the sounds produced, furnished by the individual’s unique contact with the instrument. Electronic sounds uncouple this one-to-one relationship: the sounds may have an ambiguous link to a single performer or none at all. This in turn makes the politics of performance more complex because the separate acts of individuals may have no discernable link to the sound emanating from the group.
One of the paradoxes of community is that it is indelibly linked to the notion of separateness: there can be no notion of separateness without one of community. The individuality of separate people needs exposure before ideas of co-regulation, mutuality or reciprocity can have significance. If bodies are merged, or are indistinguishable then this constrains the processes of reciprocation and the exploration of ways of being together.
Nancy uses the example of a face to illustrate the way in which individual exposure plays an explicit part in being together:
“my” face always exposed to others, always turned toward an other and faced by him or her, never facing myself. This is the archi-original impossibility of Narcissus that opens straight away onto the possibility of the political. (Nancy 1991, xxxviii)
Thus, in terms of the sound-making of a group, the instrument provides the face which may be turned to an other, and through which an individual may become present in the political process of being together. The visibility of a performer’s gestures and the link between the gesture and sound produced is the basic ground from which reciprocal sound-making can occur.
However, rather then suggesting that electronic sound should be returned immediately to the orbit of individual instrumental control in order to re-establish the familiar politics of instrumental streaming1, the work carried out at the Mary Ward classes explored a more graded approach. The objective was to find the minimum set of differences that would allow individuals to present themselves to each other, and to engage in processes of exposure and difference within the group. These minimum differences would be concerned with perceptual attributes of the sound (for example aspects of volume, spatial location and timbre) as well as with the kinds of contact that could occur between an individual and the instrument as a consequence of these attributes.
This reductive social strategy is the reverse of the normally imagined sequence of events, in which instruments are designed for maximum individual expressivity. Thus, rather than looking for a restoration of the individual/instrument coupling, I was looking for the first shading or colouration of electronic sound which could indicate mutual engagement in its production. After experiments with diverse networked instruments (see example 4 in the early archive –‘Early networked instruments’) I took the decision that this would be best explored within the conceptual framework offered by a single group instrument which would be unlike existing acoustic instruments, in the sense that the collaborative environment and the individual instrument are merged into one artefact.
Electronic control systems allow the splitting and merging of functions through a network of multiple devices, chips or circuits and create a diverse range of resources for any causative action. At a superficial level this is analogous to the multiplicity of potential auditory sources in electroacoustic sound. The ‘instrument’ that I was thinking of would exploit the same mobility of suggestive intent, and would allow the multiple control actions of the individual performers to be re-attached to the electronic sound, and to each other, in a diversity of ways.
The exploration of minimum sets of difference, and the way that they allow for distinctions to appear in the group, allowed for a rapid way of reducing the number of options that were being explored. The main criterion for any instrument or sound-making method was firstly that it should address the relationships among people. No matter how fascinating or engaging the process appeared in its own right, it would only be explored further if it was helping to articulate the relationships among people.
1.3.2 Precursors and preparatory work for the first Mary Ward Classes
Before beginning the first project with the Mary Ward class, I explored a variety of other group-instruments with a particular focus on those that achieved a balance of complexity between individual, interpersonal and group identities. Insight came from the comparison of two in particular, Soundnet and Daisyphone.
Soundnet is an instrument performed by members of the group Sensorband: Edwin van der Heide, Zbigniew Karkowski, and Atau Tanaka.2 It is a monumental architectural object consisting of a physical network of ropes fixed together by interdependent connections. The performers move through the net using extreme climbing techniques and body gestures that affect the tensions on the ropes. However, no individual performer has exclusive control of the tension sensors attached to the ends of the ropes, and the sounds produced are always a consequence of unpredictable semi-collective activity.
The sonic aspect of the performance emerges from a position somewhere between individual and collective control, and this is emphasised by the use of sounds which avoid individual instrumental connotations, combining recordings of natural sources with DSP processing such as filtering, convolution and waveshaping.
Bongers describes the resulting effect in the following way:
Sensorband has chosen to work with digital recordings of natural sounds. Natural, organic elements are thus put in direct confrontation with technology. The physical nature of movement meeting the virtual nature of the signal processing creates a dynamic situation that directly addresses sound as the fundamental musical material. Through gesture and pure exertion, the performers sculpt raw samples to create sonorities emanating from the huge net. (Bongers 1998)
There is an important element of showmanship to the performance and in these statements, which hold out the promise of a raw, cheek-to-cheek contact between elementary materials. However, one can experience a contrasting effect, one of diminution, in which the physical scale of the installation and the monumental effort and wide suggestive scope of the sounds in fact highlight the lack of complexity in the relationships among the performers. Each performer is constrained in his ability to articulate a unique position in the net by the presence of other performers, and group interaction is given only limited potential for development.
A contrasting approach is taken by Nick Bryan-Kinns in the Daisyphone (Bryan-Kinns 2004) which is an experiment in the creation of a single web-based instrument designed to support group improvisation.
The daisy represents both the instrument and the shared mutual environment. Performers create sounds by filling the head of the daisy with symbols, and an arm sweeps round the daisy activating the sounds in a continuous cycle.
Bryan-Kinns identifies four features of human interaction which make collaboration more efficient and free flowing (Bryan-Kinns 2004). These consist of identity (which establishes who is present in the space), mutual awareness of actions (how the actions of each contributor can be identified), mutual modifiability (each person can modify the contributions of others), and localisation (the ability to reference parts of the joint product).
Soundnet and Daisyphone environments treat the exposure of the individual to others in the group in different ways, with the overall form of the instrument playing a crucial part in providing the context in which these relationships can be articulated. Thus, Soundnet indicates a tension between the individual as potent, muscular, physical presence, and the dwarfing and erosion of individual identity by the uncontrollable sounds emanating from the instrument.
In contrast, the Daisyphone suggests a bucolic space in which limited physical exposure is compensated for by the fullness of its collaborative environment. I was struck by the attempt in Daisyphone to place a high value on mutual engagement, and to make any other complexity subservient to this. This can be seen not as a loss of complexity, but as a gain in terms of diversity. There is the possibility of relatively rich individual action, but there is also the multiple interaction between individuals, which can be mutually enhancing.
The culture represented by each instrument includes all the associations and metaphors set in motion by its presence, including the way that it looks and feels, and the relations of this to the specific interpersonal and individual sound-making actions that it enabled.
Making each of the instruments involved decisions about many contentious details which required resolution or a conscious decision. Examples include the way that microphones and loudspeakers are placed in performance (connected to individual performers or in a more communal position), the role of improvisation or composition in the work, the degree of constraint or control that one player can place on the actions of another, the sound types and sources that would be used (synthesized, location recording, instrumental…).
1.3.3 Moving between hierarchies in the emerging prototypes
I had in mind the large differences between these two group instrumental environments when I began my own explorations with the Mary Ward group, and was aware of the potential need for rapid reshaping of the inner connections and overall ethos of the instrument. The decision that, above all, the instrument should enable mutual engagement between the performers imposed limits and began to create a network of hierarchies through which other, finer details could be viewed. The plural, “hierarchies”, is used deliberately, as there were many different interpretative orders that could be brought to bear and there needed to be speedy ways of initiating movement between one perspective and another.
A crucial factor in maintaining the mobility of the hierarchical structures was through computer programs. My approach to software design builds on the relationship between signal networks and hierarchical text-structures and is discussed, with examples, in appendix 1. The main point is that the programs allow for the rapid evolution of different groups of connections between elements in a signal network, and they do this through the use of a name-space3. Thus the flexibility of text-based, semiotic principles of reference is combined with the physical infrastructure of a signal network. The flexibility and rapidity with which new interconnections could be prototyped, allowing new sonifying potentials to be drawn from any physical, sensor-enabled device, was essential throughout the work. It was significant in the first Mary Ward classes because it allowed the simplest physical materials, such as string and paper, to be used in complex different ways to explore mutual engagement in sound-making.
1.3.4 The first instrument
My work at the Mary Ward centre consisted of a six-week course. The plan was to build an initial group-instrument with the sole intention of understanding its limitations and gaining critical feedback. From this a second, more evolved instrument would be created.
The first instrument was deliberately simple and was designed to be played by four people. It consisted of 4 pieces of string, one USB joystick, a selection of easily modifiable ways of mapping the actions to sounds diffused over four loudspeakers. The four pieces of string were tied to the joystick and each performer could pull on it to change its position.
The first six hour session provided valuable insights:
1. A ‘whole’ sound consists of a unification of many elements, which can be arbitrarily parameterised. There was a need to find a way of allying a ‘whole person’ with a ‘whole sound’, and not with an arbitrary parameterisation of a sound. In one instance we had divided the joystick into separate axes, one representing pitch, and another volume. However, the distribution of these different parameters among people led to difficulty in identifying the author of the resulting sounds, and mutual awareness of actions was reduced.
2. The sharing of a single joystick among four people (each controlling part of the axis) also created a co-dependency which was hard to negotiate. For example, two people pulling in opposite directions on the same axis would cancel each other out, or, on independent axes, one group keeping an amplitude at 0 could prevent anyone else from hearing his output.
We felt that the sense of ‘group’ should not be at the expense of individual action and that there was a need to have autonomy as well as a group reflection of synchrony or difference. A simple example of a system giving more freedom used two joysticks, one for each performer. Each performer could move the joystick freely, but an additional stream of comparative data was generated showing how similar the movements were to each other i.e. how coordinated or identical in terms of direction and speed.
3. The most important insight was that the notion of ‘instrument’ and ‘individual’ seemed to be fused, and that this created problems in sharing an instrument. When thinking about a group instrument a visual/spatial metaphor suggested itself as more appropriate. With a visual field the whole space can represent the whole group, but it is also a space that can be variously subdivided: it can be segmented and interpreted to allow individual representation and interaction in a very fluid and non-intrusive way.
Soundnet (discussed above) was an example of deliberate sonic co-dependency combined with a high level of individual physical exposure. The Daisyphone, on the other hand, was a joint space which allowed considerable individual sonic freedom, but where the bodies of the performers were reduced, virtual entities. For the second phase of the Mary Ward project I wished to create an instrument which combined clear physical presence of one performer to another, whilst also allowing a clear sense of authorship and of individual localisation within a group artefact.
I decided that the group instrument would be designed as a simple surface, such as a table, monitored by a camera, and digitised for analysis. Any changes within the space, created by the bodies or actions of the performers, could be mapped in the software to control the sounds produced. The communal visual field thus creates a metaphoric and practical connection with the electroacoustic field, in which the presence of performers or of individual striated or segmented sonic hierarchies can be variably manifested.
Having arrived at this image of the instrument as a visual field which the performers occupy I read Jolanda Harris’s description of her work with video cameras. The article, inside/out instrument (Harris 2006), describes the distributed nature of a new visual instrumental space, using the word ‘exocentric’ to highlight its difference compared with traditional instrumental contact.
In an exocentric idea of the body/instrument relationship, the instrument is diffused, away from the body but surrounding it and in constant interaction with it. This is conceptually a very different position from the exoskeleton, where the technology meets the body at the skin, sometimes even below the skin, but keeping the body in the focal point. The distributed character of developing technologies, primarily due to their miniaturization, wireless portability and the network infrastructures that have allowed the computer itself to be de- centralized, is directly reflected in the exocentric work. (Harris 2006)
My own preoccupation differed from Harris’s in that I was primarily concerned with the ways in which performers could entrain with each other inside a collective space, but the sense of a distributed visual space which reverses the musician-instrument focus was very similar.
These thoughts led to the construction of the second environment.
1.3.5 The first Ouija board
The performers sit round a table, and can see each other. A camera is suspended above the table, and relays an image of the surface of the table to a computer for analysis. Hand movements trigger and control the sound, whilst four loudspeakers, one at each corner of the table (sometimes extended out to the corners of the performance space), create a localised stereo image behind each performer.
The instrument allowed connections to be made between the gestural, sonic and social space, all three acting together in a cohesive way. From a sonic point of view a structured repertoire of sampled sounds was available to each performer, consisting of a five pairs of sounds, each pair of sounds representing a simple opposition (short long, loud soft). In addition, the five pairs were linked in a continuum, thus representing a more gradual set of changes.
Setting up the points on the table
This abstract sonic structure was made available to the performer by creating a mapping in the space on the surface of the table.
1.In front of each player 5 points were marked, forming a triangle.
2.These points were coded into the computer so that changes of colour that occurred at those points could be used to send messages inside the computer system.
3.The system was set up to recognise two kinds of colour, a blue one (from a vivid piece of paper) and a hand colour.
4.In order to choose which pair of sounds to make available the performer held a green piece of paper over one of the 5 points. The player then put the green paper away and could use his own hands to trigger the samples in the pair.
Figure The Ouija points of an individual performer: a detailed view of the two functions of the points in front of each player.
From the gestural point of view, the binary pair could be triggered together or apart, with the right hand triggering one sound and the left hand the other. For the whole group round the table, right-handed gestures were linked to one sonic extreme and left-handed to another, and this created an easy gestural repertoire around which communicative situations could evolve. The use of the central silence point could be part of an elaborate display of approach. Part of the advantage was that the arm gesture could be seen approaching the moment of triggering, and this approach, through delay, acceleration, and postponement, created the kinds of gradations in expectation which enrich the communicative experience (Stern 1977).
Individual performers had a repertoire of movements which were easy to follow, mimic or contrast by other Ouija players: for example the emphasis of left- and right-handedness, the movements from edge to centre (triggering to silence), and the amount of time dwelling on pitch shifting. The social and sonic significance of ‘invading’ another’s territory was a source of some amusement. Since the points all looked the same and had the same layout the idea of moving your hand over someone’s else’s spots did not carry the same connotations as picking up someone’s instrument, particularly since this incursion did not prevent continued access.
Performances consisted of two sections linked together—the first section involved the creation of original sounds from acoustic sources (assorted percussion instruments, voice, objects in the room, Instruments brought in specially, Piano) which were recorded and split into separate samples according to the syntagmatic and binary pairings chosen by the group in advance.4
The second section consisted of the performance of these sounds on the Ouija board. There was a certain pleasure in seeing how the initial linear performance, with the sounds created and performed in sequence one after the other, was reoriented into the gestural and temporal space of the Ouija board. All sounds could be played together and all players could play together.
For a fuller sense of the qualities of these performances I refer the reader to the set of videos in the early archive, examples 5 to 8.
1.3.6 Reflections on the first Ouija board
Judged in the light of the long-term development of the project, this early version of the Ouija board provided breakthroughs on several levels. I would like to focus on a selection of these, and relate the work with the Mary Ward group to the work with the Ecosonic group.
In the Ecosonic exercises discussed in 1.3.2, Ambient and Outsider, the sonic ‘other’ took two particular forms, the first being that of an external sounding environment and the second that of a musician playing the role of outsider. There is a clear difference between the two: the outside environmental sound does not respond to you, whilst the outside musician clearly could. To put it another way, the process of entrainment and assimilation taking place among the musicians inside the group could extend to include an outside musician, but not the whole environment.
Electroacoustically-generated sound treads a curious intermediate path between these two genres of ‘other’. The sounds can be environmental in the sense that they are generated with no reference to the entrainment of musicians, but they can also be nuanced and steered so as to have a more reciprocal engagement with the inner politics of the group. The diversity of constructs into which electroacoustically-generated sound can be placed is a virtue to be maintained, but is hard to encapsulate in an instrumental form. This is because in crossing between individual instrumental sound and environmental sound there is an ambiguity about the relationship of instruments to human bodies, and sounds to resonating space.
I particularly wished to maintain a sense in which the ‘other’ of electroacoustically-generated sound could be the product of one, several or no people. The evolution of the ‘Ouija board’ instrument, whose existence provided both the group environment and the location for individual action, was a breakthrough since it opened up a way of linking the performance of sound, through the exposure of one person to another, with its manifestation as an electroacoustic other.
Despite the satisfaction of this initial development, the nature of the Ouija as it stood had limitations and problems. Some of these were technological or aesthetic and some were more deeply rooted. In the technological category I would highlight the absence of any direct means by which performers could introduce smooth dynamic contours into the production of sound5, which limited the ability of the performers to entrain with each other. As Stern observed (1977), subtle temporal dynamics are an important part of the flow of reciprocal interaction.
From a visual point of view it should be noted that the instrument looked rather like a card table and made it seem as if the players were playing a game of bridge or poker more than an instrument. As discussed in the analysis of the Soundnet and Daisyphone, the complete range of metaphors or associations brought about by the instrument/environment were an important part of its meaning, and I was keen to unchain a different set of metaphors for the Ouija instrument.
1.3.7 Linking the Ecosonic and Mary Ward groups
A deeper critique of the instrument, similar in nature to the criticism of Ecosonic exercises, was that the reductive strategy guiding its creation was itself the source of limitations. The motivating idea that entrainment among musicians could account for the full experience of a musical situation was brought into question. In both the Ecosonic group and the Mary Ward group the objective had been to expand the range of what could be included in the entrained relationships. My understanding of the Ecosonic group was that the ‘other’ of an outside musician or of an external environment could be appropriated to broaden entrainment, whilst the idea with the Mary Ward group was that the otherness of electroacoustic sound could be brought into group performance.
However, both these constructs underestimate the extent to which musical experience refers to ‘others’ who are beyond entrainment or encapsulation. The community which may exist within a group is under constant fabrication and, as discussed in section two, the otherness of electroacoustic sound is not that of a single autonomous entity.
In confronting the differences between the social processes of entrainment (in which there is a reflexive relationship between mutually engaged subjects) and the electronic sounds of potentially non-human or non-musical origin, there is a negotiation with split identies, however the schizophonic split is no longer a source of disruption to be overcome, but a creative principal which allows new formulations of identity.
The three years following the initial work with the Mary Ward and Ecosonic groups were devoted to a further understanding of these ‘others’ which resist incorporation. The principal approach was through joint work and performances with the ‘Ecosonic Ensemble + Ouija’, which brought the otherness of the opposing group into a working proximity.
The Ouija board group had an odd place inside the wider group, sometimes feeling like a separate group and sometimes like a supplement extending the work of the instrumentalists. The ambiguity of the name reflected this: the Ouija board may include the musicians who were playing it, or the Ecosonic group could consist of all musicians and simply refer to the Ouija as another additional instrument. The research was accompanied by changes in the conception of the Ouija board and of our notions of being together, and this was reflected eventually in a change of name; from ‘Ecosonic Ensemble + Ouija’ to the Automatic Writing Circle.

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