Dialogues (an Interactive Sound Installation for Disklavier Piano)

A combination of short clips from two days of running the installation in the Lobby of the Voxman Music Building at the University of Iowa.

Dialogues is an interactive sound installation centered around a Yamaha Diskalvier piano that is controlled by Max/MSP. During an installation, users are allowed to play the Disklavier. A computer, connected to the Diskalvier with a MIDI to USB converter, analyzes the performance and then plays along using the data collected from the preceding user interaction.

The primary function of the Max/MSP patch is as follows: four types of MIDI information are collected by the computer during any given user interaction. These are the pitches, the velocities, the duration of individual notes, and the time between successive note on events. This data is then used to build third order Markov chains from which the computer either plays along with the human performer or to continues generating musical materials similar in style.

(Markov chains are a powerful tool in algorithmic composition, a tool that I first encountered in the writings of David Cope. In Dialogues, Markov chains are generated using the ml.markov object from the Machine Learning (ML) library for Max, created by Benjamin D. Smith.)

In addition to the Markov chain technique, I also programmed a generative algorithm that uses a pitch class set derived from the word “Disklavier” (0 1 2 3 4 6 7 8 9). The pitch and velocity data collected for Markov chain generation can also be routed to an abstraction that is essentially a duplication of the generative algorithm. Finally, the “seq” object is used to capture a user interaction exactly as it occurred and play it back with either no modulation or only very simple modulations such as changes of tempo and pitch transposition.

Performers were fully allowed to improvise, but I also provided a short score (shown below) from which they may draw inspiration. Interestingly, most players did not choose to play from the score, but instead chose to play some piece that they had already learned in the past and memorized to one extent or another. (Very few chose to actually improvise).

During the first showing of the installation I controlled the patch directly from my computer. Unfortunately, this destroyed nearly all of the atmosphere of mystery that the installation is capable of creating. Thus, I created a Touch-OSC interface for controlling the patch remotely from my iPhone. The results are evident in the first interaction seen in the video above. People would walk by and ask their friends why the piano is playing itself. As they postulated about how it worked I would sometimes turn the patch off entirely in an attempt to entice them to play the Disklavier. At other times (particularly if someone ignored the installation as they passed by) I would use the generative algorithm to play extremely loud, dense, and dissonant materials that even made some people jump or gasp!

Such interactions are indicative of the interesting questions that Dialogues raises about the intersections of installation and performance. That is, during the so-called installation of the piece I was playing the role of observer, making the patch do what I wanted it to do from my phone, generally without the knowledge of the participants interacting with the Disklavier. Because of this, some have suggested that the piece is not a “pure installation” because it requires a person with relatively detailed knowledge of how the patch works to be controlling things behind-the-scenes.

Does my essentially necessitated presence adulterate the installation? Perhaps, but I have found that I am interested in installations which can be left to run on their own, but that also allow for a performative approach. (This is the approach that I have explored since the first showing of Presence in the summer of 2022.) Maybe I am stretching the “accepted academic definition” of installation a bit in assigning pieces like Dialogues to the genre of installation.

If that is true it doesn’t really bother me. As I see it, an installation is a bit like living in an apartment. You move in. You move out. Sometimes you go on a trip somewhere far away and don’t come back for a week or two. When the place is empty it is dead and useless. It is the presence of the dweller that brings it to life, that makes it noisy

The last thought that I shall share here is about the issue of respect for technology. While working on Dialogues I spent many hours playing the Disklaviers at the University of Iowa as I developed and troubleshot my patch. Even at the earliest stages of developing the piece I was surprised by the feelings I got when I went to depress a key and it was unusable because it was already being played by the computer!

In explaining these feelings I typically make an analogy to the etiquette involved in playing four-hand piano duets. It is nearly inevitable (at least during the rehearsal process) that you will bump hands or knock elbows with your fellow player. When this occurs you may apologize to them, or mutually laugh it off, especially if you cause them to make a mistake. Composers and arrangers of four-hand works carefully consider the placement of the players’ hands, in fact, so as to avoid such mishaps as much as possible. The feeling I received when bumping hands or knocking elbows while playing four-hand piano duets is precisely the feeling I got when I attempted to depress the same keys as the computer while creating Dialogues.

This is where respect comes in: I began to actively avoid playing the same notes as the computer. I began to purposefully play in registers that I knew the computer would not play in. I listened closely to what the computer played to fill in its gaps and answer its calls just like I would try to do with a human being.

I, like many other people, have enjoyed rambling conversations about the possibility of a “singularity” event in which some computers may become sentient. Such discussions almost inevitably devolve into fantasies of dystopian futures where machines dominate humans with an unforgiving, authoritarian brutality as depicted in science-fiction movies like The Terminator or The Matrix. While it is sometimes fun to entertain such fantasies, the more that I think about it the more I feel the scenario will be quite the opposite. Truly, I feel that it is much more likely that human beings will subject any potential sentient digital beings to utter slavery without empathy or remorse.

Perhaps, then, it is the place of artists to explore a more symbiotic relationship with the somewhat crude artificial intelligence that currently exists. It is my hope that such symbiosis may adapt itself in a healthy way should artificial intelligences truly begin to approach the status of “beings.”

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