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Breaking the rules with fidget

Donald Hunt has a unique musical experience at thefidget space, where audience members collaborated to create some unusual sounds. – Artblog editor


In order for music to be great for the listener (objectively speaking), there are certain rules that must be followed, such as chord changes that make sense or carefully constructed instrumentation. But what if rules were thrown out of the window completely to create something fresh? This is just one of the thoughts I had coming out of one of the fidget’s four-part series called “HUMANOPHONE: Toward an Algorithmic Music for Humans” at thefidget space.

peter price megan bridge thefidget space
Peter Price and Megan Bridge (left to right), co-directors of thefidget space

Collaborative rule-breaking

The tension between rules and improvisation is at the heart of much musical practice, but it is unusual to see it played out in the context of a collective audience performance. As a participant, the experience was thought provoking and occasionally frustrating, and I left with a new appreciation for the importance of rules for all of us who listen to and perform music.

The interactive series engages the audience by pairing algorithms with rule-based, generative forms of music to see what music can come out of this spontaneous energy. The goal of this experiment is to create music that merges post-1950 approaches, characterized by experiments with found objects, multiple musical styles, and randomness, with the socially minded aspects of music making that emphasize collaboration.

Cybernetics, cellular automata, change ringing, and experimental music form the basis of the workshop while the intent is to create music as part of a collaborative group. Each of the four sessions led by Thomas Patteson (Professor of Music History at the Curtis Institute of Music) consists of a mix of discussion and workshop performances of model compositions, as well as new works contributed by group members.

Image courtesy of thefidget space
Image courtesy of thefidget space

Alien sounds

There were two parts to this workshop and performance–change ringing and group singing. In our group of six, we started out with a hand bell exercise with notes spanning from F to C (I had the hand bell in the tone of C). We had a row of numbers to follow, and when we were assigned a number to follow that was written down, we rang our individually toned bell each time. A different series of notes were rung as the sequences ran down the page, which proved to be difficult for the workshop that came the week before our session. All of the players rang their bells in unison before slowly diverging as each player rang at his or her own pulse and tempo. These hand bell exercises showed us why computers and electronic instruments, rather than human beings, are used for this type of musical performance.

Next came a singing exercise in which a series of words were assembled for the group to follow. In this instance, each participant chose his or her own starting note beforehand, following that with a new note that he or she heard another member sing. If someone was unable to hear or sing that note in that register, then he or she was free to sing a brand new note. Words were assigned to be sung a certain number of times before moving on to the next one, and people went at their own pace, singing the notes with the text. This particular exercise led to some unpredictably beautiful moments–even if, as a collective unit, we sounded like aliens ready to take over the world.

Patteson made a wonderful point that it is hard to follow rules. Following rules seems to be easy on paper, but the reality is more complex. Making rules more goal-oriented for performers makes it easier to perform and much more satisfying for the audience. This kind of thinking is something I hope is encouraged for the next generation of music makers and listeners–marching to the beat of your own drum has a mighty nice ring to it.

Your last chance to catch this free workshop and performance at Thefidget space is on May 25 at 8PM.