Dal Niente and the Magical Gloves!
by Katie Schoepflin
Preparing for and performing the world premiere of Marcin Paczkowski’s Deep Decline at the University of Washington, Oct. 30 was a unique and surreal experience. The prep with my colleagues in Chicago was straight forward as the piece is full of beautiful melodies and phrasing that is intuitive. We were instructed to skip over the large sections that included electronic components as they were reliant upon the software Marcin had been building. I was surprised to find out how prominent and vital a role the electronics played in this piece. There have been times when I’ve felt that strapping on a microphone and playing through some filters made for some cool sound effects, and that was the extent of their purpose. But this piece came to life for me when we started sound checking the electronic sections. After wading through technical difficulties that dominated the first couple of hours of our rehearsal in Seattle, we were rewarded with super powers which Marcin bestowed upon each of us.
Before I get into the super powers, let me set the scene. This was our first rehearsal at UW, after a long, painfully early flight from Chicago. We had no idea what to expect with this piece. First came out the clip-on mics and second, the magical gloves. We each wore a handmade fingerless glove on our right hand which, secured with safety pins, had a sensor inside. The Michael Jackson references began immediately, and ‘Annie are you OK’ became the residency’s theme song (for better or for worse) for the duration of our stay.
Marcin’s sensors react to each performer’s individual movements, and he sets their level of sensitivity according to how much an individual naturally moves while playing. The idea is to have them set in a way that allows the performer to trigger the electronics without having to move wildly about, but not so sensitive that, when sitting still, the sensor will pick up motion from, say, breathing. This was the first soundcheck I had ever participated in where I needed to pretend to play my instrument and I was struck by how cool and comical it was. The temptation was to move a lot more than I would normally. The more I tried to move naturally, the less I felt like I had any concept of how I actually move when I play. They are so tied into each other that doing one without the other feels nonsensical. I feel a tiny bit more sympathetic towards actors who have had to pretend to play instruments in films now that I’ve experienced it myself.
I’d like to state for the record: It is always a good idea to give the conductor a solo. The times when Michael Lewanski has crossed over into performing with the ensemble have all been exciting moments. The first electronics section featured solos by each performer. One after another, we took turns playing short fragments and contorting our own solos with our sensors. This section culminated in a climactic conducting solo, in which Michael controlled the electronics with the velocity and direction of his beating patterns.
Near the end of the piece, recorded material from an earlier section overlapped slightly with our live playing, and the two seamlessly cross-faded into each other. The goal was to disguise that anything was changing. The first real indication the audience had that we were not playing was when we all slowly stopped moving, and the music wound down, dropping in pitch and speed until there was silence. And then we started right back up again, moving, not playing, a row of wind-up toys holding instruments. It was awesome.
A little Q and A with Marcin…
Q: What went into constructing the gloves?
A: Each of the gloves (or adapted headbands actually) contains a custom built circuit that includes a sensor - 3-axis accelerometer, a microcontroller with wireless radio that's transmitting data, and a battery. Information about acceleration (rate of change of the speed of hand's movement) is transmitted continuously to the computer for each of the players, as well as the conductor. I started thinking about using physical gestures for controlling music about 3 years ago, as a way to incorporate my education and activity as a conductor into my computer music practice. In 2013 I created a piece "Restrained meters" jointly with a dancer/choreographer Wilson Mendieta, where he was wearing the sensors and his movement was influencing computer-generated sound. Later I started using sensors myself in a conducting-like project which developed into the piece "...where odd things are kept". Then I used them in the solo percussion piece "Percussivometers", where the player's movements were influencing sound transformations in realtime. So I'd say that it was 3 years of on-off research and development, along with some electronics and programming, that went into making the gloves.
Q: Can you describe any meaning, story, inspiration behind writing this piece?
A: There’s no clear story behind the piece. However, like with any creative process, the piece itself is a mirror of personal experiences, mediated through music. Struggles, frustrations, moments of peace and melancholy all emerge through the elements of the composition.
Q: Is there a relationship between the tonal, gentle melodies and the by-product of the quick, harsh-sounding electronic outbursts?
A: These two are results of 2 different directions of development in the piece. What you describe as harsh-sounding electronic outbursts are developed from my previous experiments with improvisation with the computer and aesthetically relate to those earlier improvising pieces. Now the more tonal section was composed as a "vehicle" to carry the underlying variations of rhythmic density, which were algorithmically structured throughout it. Finally, the more calm nature of this section helped with fusing the acoustic and the computer playback sounds.