June 1, 2007
Choreobot evolved out of an independent study of MIDI and max/MSP winter quarter of 2007 under Michael Lachman. To evaluate my progress, Michael required me to complete a patch that could be used in dance. I did not want to create another scenic-sonic dance because that would not advance my creativity. I did not want to create an interactive video or audio patch because that would have been imitation of all the dance performances with max I’ve ever seen. Consequently, I was faced with the challenge of learning MIDI and max/MSP, creating a patch for dance, and overcoming choreographer’s block in ten weeks.
To get below the surface of max and MIDI, I researched how signals operate in computers, MIDI, and max to illuminate the raw materials at my disposal. By capitalizing on my “block,” so to say – in this case, theoretical and conceptual contempt – and reflecting on signal processing (neural or digital), I made associations with Chaos Theory, Schrödinger’s Cat, and Merce Cunningham. A conceptual bridge materialized in my thoughts between uncertainty and the impression that events need not be riddled with conceptual or theoretical schemes in order to be worthwhile. I wanted to create an environment that simulated this – random organization of arbitrary choice.
My decisions emerged in the form of setting the parameters on this performance environment. For example, I had to create the movement commands, set the tempo, control the probability of repetition, and write the structure of the piece. By the end of the quarter, I had a working patch designed for a group of performers, with one command bank, one constant tempo, and no differentiation between phases.
Spring Quarter began, and with nothing to lose, I decided to take a shot at making my independent study patch a solo. I began to see different lenses through which my piece could be perceived. I questioned my artistic integrity on the grounds of what it meant to be an artist creating a confined artificial intelligence to create art for me. I found myself reflecting on how the world in general depends on technology and how dangerously often people choose not to think for themselves. I found myself resorting to choreographic tools that I knew would make the piece successful. I wondered if I was a hypocrite. I realized a potential variable for dismissal of the piece would be comparing VICKI to judson style methods, like calling out commands. I found possibility in the idea that these concerns could be the subject matter of the piece. I fought with the compulsion to address my standpoint on these issues within the structure and presentation of my piece. In the end, I decided to perform the piece, aware of its implications, and trusting that my unanswered questions could be the underpinnings of the piece.
I procured the movement commands from theme and variation tools gained in comp class, read in various books, and the body relationships learned in Barteneiff Fundamentals and Laban Movement Analysis. Each section concentrated on a distinct variation (such as points of support, action and quality, and pathway or shape). The commands facilitated a range of motion and spatial patterns specific to their section. I programmed each section to create an overall phrasing of the entire program. Each section contained variation cues such a “retrograde,” “new front,” and “freeze.” The sections and commands occurred in slightly random temporal progression, internally phrased to produce spatial and qualitative overlaps and dynamic arcs. I allowed for adequate exploration of commands without making it too easy to follow or not easy enough. I played with the vocal tones of the instructor to reduce sonic monotony. I devised commands that allowed for improvisational themes and motifs to emerge in body, effort, shape, and space, so that even though each section had a different theme, there were parts that could be heard, seen, and experienced elsewhere in the piece as a whole – such as “retrograde,” “new front,” and “freeze.” A thread of continuity on some kinesthetic or spatial level would unify the performance of section 1 as a whole.
As I worked with section 1, I began to see that I was crafting dance structure and movement vocabulary in the program, and that one of the byproducts of this was letting the audience in on some of the secret, inside world of dance. Realizing this prompted me to create section 2 – building a combination from scratch. The initial version had three sections: instruction to create 3-5 gestures, instruction to create the correlating number of shapes, and then instruction to vary them both and weave them together. The problem was that I was pulled in too many different directions to remember the movement I was creating. I needed to simplify the piece. Many drafts later, I arrived at the final version, which had six sections (create 3 gestures, vary the gestures, create 3 shapes in different areas, vary the shapes, connect the shapes and gestures, and add actions and parts). This arrangement worked much better because it allowed me the mental space to focus on one movement concept before moving on to the next. It was also more effective for the audience because it started simple and built slowly into complexity.
The final element that I added in was VICKI explaining herself to the audience. I took into consideration that not everyone would know what was going on, and I didn’t see any better way to explain what she was about. It worked well, and I’m glad that I chose to do that. I was also happy with the choice that I made to have her conclude the piece. I thought it should end on a humorous note so that people knew that the piece was supposed to be fun.
After finally catching the programming end up to my artistic vision, I was able to seek feedback. I asked Michelle Geller and Ruben Graciani to watch my piece, and their comments addressed some of the same concerns I encountered. There were three helpful pieces of feedback that I applied from that session. The first was the comment that Ruben made regarding the timing of the overall phrasing. One of my main concerns had been avoiding tonal monotony, and Ruben’s feedback indicated that I had not been entirely successful. He suggested speeding a section up. I had heard feedback from others that they wanted it slower so they could hear the words. I decided that to address both pieces of feedback, I would speed it up even more than it already was (so that there would be no doubt in the audience’s mind that this section was supposed to be nearly impossible) and to change the commands to words that could be heard no matter how quickly they were spoken. Mickie and Ruben agreed that one of the most interesting parts of the performance was watching me struggle. Mickie suggested that I allow the audience to see that more. I kept that suggestion in mind, and the results varied from performance to performance. I spontaneously spoke during each performance, and allowed myself to show my physical fatigue. I didn’t plan to do that ahead of time, but it felt right to allow myself to react. The third piece of feedback was Ruben’s suggestion that I develop the gestures and shapes separately. I did not plan to take that feedback until I worked with the program more over the weekend, and found out that he was right. It was the most effective way for the audience and myself to interact with this part of the program.
EVALUATION OF THE FINAL OUTCOME
My worst critic was myself. My performance goal was to be focused on genuinely being creative with the commands. At times my fear and anxiety were so high that I could feel myself falling into familiar movement choices. There were many good moments when I was in the right frame of mind to make inventive decisions, but it will require a lot more practice before I am capable of examining all the potential of the simple commands. I am pleased with the level of comfort I had reached by the last show. Whether or not I reached a place of movement invention, I was free with my qualitative approach to whatever I did. I found that I used a variety of energies and efforts and was very diverse in how I used the space and the floor. I am please that my hard work in technique and comp has finally shown some results!
If there were one thing that I would experiment more with, it would be the sound in the third section. I never had the time to try other options and other ways of interacting with the sound. I wanted to try creating a bank of sounds that the computer could select from, but there was no time. I also would have liked to experiment with the settings so that there were more moments when that sound played without randomly looping or changing tempo. That would provide some time for me to run the material more seamlessly through the space and dictate my own timing and phrasing. I’d like to continue working on this section so that the final performance is more locomotive and powerful. While it is fun and comical to watch me struggle with the sound, I would like to see what other possibilities there are. For this performance, however, what I did was fine. It was very difficult to follow that sound, and there was entertainment to be had in watching me try.
however… this could become a whole new interface for technique