The Electronic Future of Music:

An Interview with Butch Rovan

Interviewer: Rahma KHAZAM (journalist)
Paris, December 1997

American musician Butch ROVAN is currently doing a two-year stint as a guest researcher/composer at IRCAM in Paris. His musical career has been a varied one to say the least: He used to be the lead singer in a rock 'n' roll band and toured extensively as a saxophone player throughout the eighties before going on to study contemporary music at U.C. Berkeley. Today he is drawing on his long experience as a performer to develop responsive electronic devices that inject the thrill of live performance into electronic music. In this interview he discusses the background of his research as well as his fascinating new invention, a glove that translates gestures into music..
Rahma KHAZAM (RK): You've been playing acoustic instruments for many years. What made you cross over to electronics ?

Butch ROVAN (BR): It all started from my experience as a performer. I [used to be] very active playing in the experimental improv scene, and I was also a composer gradually doing more and more with electronics. At a certain point it was clear that there had to be some way to bridge these two worlds and bring some of the spontaneity of performance into the world of electronic music. In improvisation you're continually trying to think of ways to expand what you can do with your instrument so it was natural to think that I could extend these possibilities with electronics.

RK: What sort of difficulties did you come up against ?

BR: The immediate attraction of electronics is that it opens up incredible timbral possibilities. At IRCAM, for instance, there are so many different projects that are all geared towards sound processing and timbral creation. But at the same time the tools for being expressive in electronic music are limited. The performance element is missing and we need to come up with new ways of relating a performer to a sound-producing device.

RK: So you want to turn electronic devices into real instruments, rather than just have the performer sit in front of his computer. But why is that so important ?

BR: When you try to figure out what you actually do when you play an instrument, you realize that an amazing number of simultaneously co-ordinated muscular actions go into playing it. With an acoustic instrument, the sound is the direct result of a physical action. The gestures are encoded in the sound, and that's the powerful thing about music, its physicality. So my goal is to make a connection between the physical gesture and the electronic sound with the hope that the electronic sound can carry these fingerprints of gesture that make music so expressive. I think we really underestimate the power of that: When we listen to Miles DAVIS play the trumpet, there's a whole world in those trumpet tones.

RK: The disturbing thing about electronic music though is that the gestures aren't related to the sounds that are produced.

BR: Disturbing is a good word for it. I've had that feeling too and I think it's because you feel cheated. It's as if there's a contract between the performer and the audience, and the audience expects certain things. [The French writer] Roland BARTHES talks about the empathetic reaction to performance, where you like a performer because you imagine yourself doing the same thing. In a way, the performer is a vehicle for you.

RK: Whereas people often come away from performances of electronic music with the feeling that they could have listened to the music at home.

BR: Yes, that's where electronic music has totally missed the boat. When I play the saxophone softly, I tend to move my body in a certain way --you tend to play downwards when you play softly-- and even if we were separated by glass and you could only see me doing this, you could probably still get an idea of how I was playing. But in electronic music you don't actually get that. You could have a whole wall of sound and people still wouldn't know what the connection was.

RK: Recently, you've been analyzing the performance gestures of a violinist. What was the outcome of that ?

BR: I built a sensor system for her. [This provides me with data regarding] bow pressure, chin pressure, bow speed, arm angle, etc. Right now I have reached a level of analysis where I can very easily recognize what you'd describe as a romantic violin performance style without seeing or hearing her play--just by looking at the gestural information.

RK: Does that mean that ultimately you might be able to replace the violin player with a computer that's programmed to play lots of different styles ?

BR: That's probably the natural extension of it. The acoustic instrument is a natural starting-point since I'm a performer, but the end result might be to take it to the next level and see if we can come up with an expressive electronic instrument. You'd hope that some time by the end of the twentieth century we'll be able to come up with an electronic instrument that will be as rich and expressive as a violin or a clarinet.

RK: Except that you have to preprogram electronic instruments, so you can't improvise with them as you can with traditional instruments.

BR: Oh listen, they're just like traditional instruments in that respect. There are so many parameters that are already fixed on a saxophone and there's a certain number of keys and a fixed range of timbres it can make. [With electronic instruments you also have] to define a set of possibilities, but no more than when you build an acoustic instrument.

RK: Tell me about the instrument that you've been building. From what I gather, it's a glove fitted with sensors that take the gestural input and feed it into a computer.

BR: What interested me was how to build a device where everything is based on my gestures; in other words, an expressive electronic instrument. Electronics gives you a whole other world which supersedes what the clarinet or saxophone can do.
So the idea was to build something that would allow me to expressively control electronics while playing the clarinet. The end result is that I have this glove I can put on that extends the capabilities of the clarinet by processing the sounds it makes, while allowing me to play normally.

RK: But you also use the glove on its own to trigger sounds from other sources, don't you ?

BR: Yes. I just did a concert in Italy and that was the first time I performed using the glove by itself. It was an amazingly liberating experience, because it was the first time I'd been on stage without a traditional instrument. When you bring a saxophone or clarinet on stage, the audience has certain expectations, and there's the whole history of the instrument and without even playing a single note you've done 50% of the concert in a way. So when you go out there with something that they don't realize is an instrument, they have no preconceptions about the sounds it creates.

RK: What kind of sounds did you produce with the glove ?

BR: My performance was based on a poem. I had previously recorded about a hundred different takes [of myself reading the poem], so all the sounds I used came from that. Roughly, each fingertip of the right hand accessed two sounds depending on how hard I pressed, and the rotation of the hand controlled variations of these sounds as well. [I also used] an infrared beam, and the left hand was working with it, so by moving the left hand I could change the overall behaviour of the sounds: [I had two different modes] where the sounds could either cut each other off or overlap, and I used the left hand to switch between those two modes. I really felt as if I had a soundworld at my fingertips, literally, and in a more poetic sense as well. Then in the second piece, I used the clarinet with the glove.

RK: What was that like ?

BR: I was moving the clarinet throughout the piece and the infrared beam was looking at the end of the clarinet. I divided the infrared beam up into several different zones and I had a lot of different types of sounds depending on which zone I was in or how fast I moved from one zone to another. For instance, if I moved into a certain region I could capture some of my live clarinet sound, and if I moved into another region I could start to play back what I had just played, and play it forwards or backwards just by moving the clarinet.

RK: Various other people have designed gloves. How does your glove compare with the work that has already been done in this field?

BR: There's certainly a whole lineage of people who have been working with gloves, such as Laetitia SONAMI and Michel WAISVITZ, who has developed a device called The Hands. But as far as I know, people have always been concerned with the bending of the fingers, which isn't very precise. Mine are different because they are sensitive on the fingertips, which gives you a lot more control. I was drawn to the idea of using the fingertips because of my background as an instrumentalist. When you play an instrument, the fingertips are the point of contact between you and your instrument.

RK: Are you planning to build any other devices ?

BR: The glove project stems from the desire to capture instrumental technique, and with that in mind, I'm going to build other devices apart from gloves, such as a new kind of mouthpiece. It will be able to function as a normal mouthpiece but also yield a lot of information [about what] the lips do [when you play a wind instrument]. Right now we know very little about what the mouth does, and what's ironic is that this is where all the [sounds] and the very subtle timbral inflections actually happen.

RK: What inspired you to develop these projects ?

BR: I had already been thinking about these ideas at Berkeley, but it was after talking to people at IRCAM and discussing the idea of expressivity with researchers there that I started to realize them. That's what amazed me when I came to IRCAM, that there's an incredible amount of interchange of ideas between people, and it's that informal interchange in the hallway, by the coffee machine, or whatever, that makes it such a fertile place. For instance, I belong to a group on gesture which [grew out of] what had been happening by the coffee machine and turned into something with meetings and guest speakers.

RK: Is all this research into new instruments changing your conception of music?

BR: Well, I think the key to that lies in finding different ways for musicians to interact with sound. Because that very moment of contact between your body and the sound--that moment of friction where those two worlds collide--is the point where creation happens, and I think that you change that relation drastically when you build different types of instruments and interfaces. And at the same time, you change the way you think about sound. I know I would never have written a piece for traditional instruments the way I compose for the glove, because it's really born out of a particular relationship to gestures. [But as far as the performance aspect is concerned], you can have different types of music and different types of audiences, but what really counts is the relationship you have with the audience. There are moments that are like magic, and it's indescribable when it really works. I've had that experience playing guitar in front of a rock 'n' roll crowd and playing clarinet in a contemporary classical music concert, and it really transcends the music and the place. And that's what music is all about in the end.

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