ICMC: Integrating Mobile Music with Percussion

25 Sep '13

I recently presented a poster and paper at ICMC2013 (International Computer Music Conference) in Perth! Here’s the text of the poster and a link to the paper that went with it!

To introduce computer based instruments into a percussion ensemble with no experience in computer music, Charles Martin developed a series of musical works for percussion, iPhones and iPads.

In each work, the performers used a selection of percussion instruments as well as iOS devices integrated into their setups. The computer music elements running on the iOS devices were composed in Pd and ran as RjDj scenes or as native apps using libpd. The mobile component of each work was designed to be simple to set up and play so that it could be easily used in collaborative music making environments and busy performance schedules.

This poster focuses on the evolving performance practice that emerged in response to different modes of interaction in the three works. While 3p3p and Nordlig Vinter focussed on giving the performers control over generative background soundscapes and effects, Snow Music offered the players direct control over field recordings. Analysis of the rehearsals and performances showed that the balance of interaction in Snow Music produced the most exciting and integrated performance practice.


3p3p running in RjDj on an iPhone 4.

3p3p running in RjDj on an iPhone 4.

3p3p was developed for Ensemble Evolution, Charles Martin’s percussion trio based in Piteå, Sweden from 2010 to 2012. The work consisted of three different RjDj “scenes”, one for each member of the ensemble’s iPhone, and a score that sets down a basic structure for the otherwise improvised work.

To perform 3p3p, two members of the ensemble used mallet percussion instruments with their iPhone while one used a drumset and percussion setup. The three iPhones were connected to a pair of powered speakers via long cables and a small mixer.

The three RjDj scenes each contained two generative compositional elements that could be switched on and off and would react to the phone’s accelerometer. The scenes also featured reverb and pitch-shifting delay effects that processed sound from the phone’s microphone. The prototype interface featured four buttons and an indicator of the accelerometer position.

Rehearsing 3p3p in Piteå

Rehearsing 3p3p in Piteå

As an experiment for putting the phones into the percussionist’s hands, 3p3p had a simple interface that required the phones to be handheld to switch the generative processes and to selectively apply effects to the percussion instruments. The work was performed as part of the Piteå Percussion Repertoire Festival in March 2011.

Nordlig Vinter

Nordlig Vinter is a suite of duo works for marimba, vibraphone and iPhone inspired by the cold, dark and snowy winters of northern Sweden. The suite was developed in Piteå and Canberra in 2011. Three movements of the suite, Ice Drum, Clusters, and Snow Bells have the performers improvise over background compositions generated by an RjDj scene on a single iPhone. The iPhone could be placed on the frame of the vibraphone allowing it to also process audio from DIY pickups or a small microphone attached to the instrument.

In Nordlig Vinter the iPhone component was designed to get the mobile phone out of the performers’ way. Only one wire was required between the PA system and the iPhone and the computer components were triggered with just one switch for each movement allowing the performers to concentrate on improvising. Although a more refined RjDj scene was developed for Nordlig Vinter, the scene was later published as a native iOS app. 

My Nordlig Vinter setup for NIME2013 in Daejeon.

My Nordlig Vinter setup for NIME2013 in Daejeon.

Nordlig Vinter was performed as a duo with Christina Hopgood at Electrofringe 2011 in Newcastle and has been performed several times as a solo for vibraphone and iPhone including at NIME2013 in Daejeon, South Korea. Since the iPhone component of the work is standalone and simple, it could be used in a variety of performance environments as motivation for ensemble and solo improvisations including dance studios, radio stations and lecture theatres. The experimentation enabled by Nordlig Vinter’s iPhone app had a corresponding result in creativity.

Snow Music

Snow Music was the result of artistic research with Ensemble Evolution to jointly discover the performance practice for a new computer instrument: a native iPad app emulating a bowl of amplified snow that can be manipulated with touch gestures. Tapping and sliding the iPad’s screen directly controlled the playback of samples and field recordings of snow. The app also included three generative background soundscapes that could be turned on individually: slow phrases of notes on almglocken, cymbals, and swooshing, wind-like snow sounds.

Snow Music was completely improvised by the ensemble and used two marimbas, one vibraphone, assorted cymbals, two iPads, and one iPhone with the iOS devices directly connected to powered speakers. This piece was created collaboratively by the group over a series of rehearsals where the performers experimented with a variety of setups and musical motivations with feedback rolled into the app development.

Analysis of rehearsal and performance videos showed that direct manipulation of snow samples proved to be more compelling to the performers than control over the generative elements. The performers quickly developed a vocabulary of gestures adapted from percussion: strikes, swipes, rolls and brush-like swirls and the iPads were easily embedded into percussion setups. The simple generative features, however, were subtly used to drive the overall structure of performances.

Snow Music was performed in Ensemble Evolution’s tour of Australia in March 2012 and the published Snow Music app has been used frequently in improvisation projects since then.