Bit-makers - with Michelle Agnes Magalhaes

Bit-makers vol.2 is the second serie of interviews of artists about artistic research. The title of the series is a wordplay with "beat-makers", for pulsed music producers. Most of the artists develop their own creative tools, in the form of computer programs producing "bits".




You are currently in residence at Ircam, what is the objective?

It is a residency that is part of the Vertigo - Start Residencies program funded by the European Commission. I responded to a call for proposals issued by ISMM, Interaction Sound Music Movement team at IRCAM, to work with mobile technologies. The idea is to create collective pieces in which the public will participate via mobile phones.

At the present time, I am working on mixed formats, with performers and musicians who invite the public to participate in different ways. As I am particularly interested in body and gestural issues, this interaction with the audience is very much about body and movement. The use of motion sensors on mobile phones seemed to me to be the most natural approach.

Is this a research residency, a composition residency or both?

Both. The project is really based on a collaboration with the team, which is made up of researcher-artists, who therefore also have a mixed profile. The work is very collaborative, both in the development of the tools and in their implementation, which is sometimes a challenge!

For my part, I am on the questioning side, with a desire to renew the musical language. I am curious to see what these tools can change, how they can modify musical practice.

There's an open-mindedness on both sides. That's what I was looking for when I started out, and not to remain isolated in my writing as I used to do. That happens when I start out by putting myself in a situation with the musicians but also by opening myself up to a different approach.

Your role to steer the inquiry and research?

I think we're searching together. Everyone will of course remain connected to their own desires and therefore propose different approaches. It's not a classic collaboration between scientist and artist. Here, everyone is involved in each of these fields. This facilitates  the dialogue.

The relationship is active, dynamic, it is under construction. The team wanted these technologies to be used for artistic purposes and that changed my way of seeing things. Working on a daily basis with sensors ended up changing my perception of sound, because it is constantly connected to the interpretation of data, whether physical or gestural. After a while, my own perception was questioned, and with it my conception of how music is made.

So technology and its use is changing the way you approach music?

Completely. It completely changed my way of seeing, and this was done by working day after day, by building and developing a tool. My work has evolved along with this tool. It's a very pleasant way of doing things. It is together that we have progressed, and simultaneously.

Is it difficult to change one's view of things and not feel guided by technology?

Yeah, it's complicated. But I have an advantage, because beyond the technological aspect, there is a strong physical component in this project. So we are not in a situation where the approach is theoretical, where we work with generated systems for example.

We have three layers of work: the gestural aspect (how to construct the interaction, how to communicate the actions), the performer's body (who will receive the information and carry out the action), and the sensors (who will send these messages to the computer to produce the sound). So I've never been in a situation where the technology was used alone or imagined separately from the action. And that suited me perfectly!

It's not easy to get carried away when you start a job like this, where everything is new and you don't know what it's going to sound like. Sensors are like instruments, you have to learn their language! It's a bit like with a microphone: you don't sing in the same way with or without a microphone, these tools are never neutral.

So for me it was like learning a new language. And above all, I wanted to make sure I didn't simply add the electronic part as a superimposition to the score. I wanted these tools to change my vision of sound.

That's a bit of what happened, I became more and more interested in the question of sound production. Then I asked myself how to create visual or sound units, connected to gesture.

So it's an amplified movement, you wanted to move away from pure writing and this process pushes you to leave your a-priori even more.

I didn't feel like really leaving writing. In our culture it's still very interesting because it allows us to develop our ideas, to go further. And I personally feel that writing gives me freedom. It leaves room for interpretation.

As soon as a text is written, as soon as a score is written, the performer is given complete freedom to interpret it as he or she wishes, and not to remain dependent on watching a video or copying an action.

One of my scores consisted of instructions that the performers could read as they wished. These instructions could be actions to do, or physical sensations to experience, all in a pre-constructed form.

It is this independence that gives the musician that I like to write. It differentiates it from the oral tradition, for example. It's a fascinating field too, but it's more likely to lock you up.

In the end, I didn't want to leave writing but to be able to come back to it with a new perspective. To renew yourself, you have to look at the same object again after I don't know how long, and still be able to marvel at it and find a freshness in it...

Where did this need to take a new look at your writing come from?

I think it was mostly a desire to broaden my vision. It's important for composers to isolate themselves in their world, to stay in the symbolic world, to manipulate symbols and all our writing tools. This brings us to places where oral practices alone cannot take us. It allows us to develop materials in a very unique way. But I was very eager to stay connected to practice and reality, to go back and forth, between the written world and the music played. It's a bit like having moments of daydreaming and being able to go back to reality with extra ideas.

To avoid having to theorize too much and stay in touch with the sound?

Yes that's it, I wanted to get out of a theoretical world. In theory you make a lot of mistakes. And sometimes theory is enough by itself! So I had this desire to keep the two together, theory and practice.

Do you have the feeling that the contemporary music world remains too much in theory and abstraction, and not enough in practice?

To be honest, yes. But I could make enemies saying that! I think we are responsible for this situation. It's not only the composers' fault, but also that of our culture. It tends to value questions of data accumulation, to favor cold data and cold intelligence, the one that is not connected to the body and emotions.

This is the result of Western culture, which continues to separate body and mind. It's very French I think! (laughs)

And that can be complicated, because if you only have personalities like that, especially in our very sophisticated, scholarly niche, you're going to run out of diversity. I don't want to devalue this intelligence, but we can't remain cloistered in it.

Do composers have a major responsibility in this?

I think it's not just our fault, but that it's also the way our society was built. We're in a mindset where people are treated like machines. Knowledge is equivalent to the accumulation of data, wealth is equivalent to the accumulation of goods... So it's almost natural in a pseudo-scientific way of thinking like this to compartmentalize things.

In this context, doesn't working with technology sometimes make you wonder?

Yes, it's very dangerous. You have to be very aware of it first. Because you can overuse a technology that's already very present. You can value it in the wrong way.

But what I like about my work is that it's subversive. I see the artist as someone who will try to bring the audience an experience that will amaze them, from something they have already seen. Looking at an everyday object in a different way. It's all about perception in the end.

That's what fascinated me about working with ISMM; I was interested in using affordable technology, such as mobile phones. And my desire was to make people discover an instrument within their reach, when they didn't even know it was potentially an instrument! That they could find a new relationship with it. That's the only way I think it can give them an experience in which they can feel an active part of society. They have the means, they know that they can hijack a tool that is within their reach, that they can use it in another way.

What attracts you in the fact that the public is an active participant?

When you start a project like this, you start with an idea that's a little romantic... I had a lot of dreams. But when you face reality, you find that thousands of new questions arise. There's a whole device to be created, you have to imagine how to invite the public to interact.

What I've noticed when working with experienced musicians is that they know this field very well. Today, many performers have developed these performance skills which require a very strong physical commitment, and even more than their purely digital virtuosity.

We are still the heirs of a bourgeois music culture, where musicians often remain in their world as if they were chosen, superior beings, and where the separation between the audience and the stage remains very strong. I like the idea of creating bridges between the two.

That's what's a bit subversive. Even without being a professional musician, you can experiment, you can play. The device allows you to move away from the ordinary practice of an instrument, the interactions have been designed for that. And the experience of being able to share and make music with people who don't call themselves musicians is very enriching.

In the end, it is always in this way that one learns: the transmission is from the most experienced to the novice, from the oldest to the youngest. Always. That's how it's done, and not by categorizing people in tiny compartments, by levels...

There is a certain form of humor in your experiments, is this an aspect you wish to present in your work?

It happens in interaction. During a presentation, a member of the audience has been invited to come and interact, and as soon as two people interact, they will try to understand each other and establish means of communication. Very quickly a game of imitations, of diversions is set up. It's quite amusing and spontaneous and leaves room for humor.

I like it very much, because I want art to be alive. And what I like is that, although everything is planned in advance, that everything is designed, built, including the sound universe in which we will evolve, we find in this device great moments of freedom. It's always the same process of giving oneself constraints in order to acquire freedom.

Is humor present in your works? Even in your previous works?

I had this urge, but I didn't know how to approach it, because we don't approach humor directly. I don't try to "do something funny", because it doesn't work on stage. I try rather to leave openings, spaces for the performer to feel comfortable. Humor intervenes at the moment, when something happens unexpectedly, which will create complicity between the actors and the audience.

And it is often because the audience understands that it was not intended that some form of amusement should appear. When the performer takes on this part of the unexpected and makes it a game. It also requires a certain capacity for self-mockery on her or his part, and not to take herself, or himself, seriously, after all. The masks fall off: is this theatre or not? There is room for ambiguity.

It was the performers who introduced me to this possibility of self-mockery. I remember, for example, a piece for piano, in which you have to slide a glass over the strings at one point to produce a high-pitched sound. I wrote the instructions, the actions to be carried out in a neutral way on the score. And the performer arrived with a huge object, a big teapot instead of a glass! I didn't expect this kind of humor but it made me laugh and the audience really appreciated it!

Are there other movements, emotions that you are trying to communicate to the public through your works?

In general, we don't really control what we're going to instigate. We take risks, we accept them, and then we can have surprises, as in the case of this teapot. It's true that the richer the terms we offer to interpreters, the more they can navigate through different interpretations. They are then the ones who will emphasize this or that aspect, the tragic side, or the experimental side...

Again, freedom is given to the performer.

As an artist I wanted to be as complete as possible, so to give in my music a wide range of emotions, to offer the musicians a rich ground. But you don't really have control. You get into the process and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and you often have surprises. Plays that seemed flat to me have been revealed on stage... And conversely, a play that was meant to be dramatic at times can fall flat.

It's to be sincere, finally: I don't set out on a terrain in which I can control everything, I let myself be surprised, and I let myself be carried along by the work that continues after writing. The plays continue, I follow their courses, like an ocean.

Letting oneself be carried along by the work itself is perhaps the hardest thing for an artist. Letting go, not having total control. And try not to be too preoccupied with everything outside: fashions, choices at festivals, trends?

You talk about gesture as an important element, whether it's the gesture captured by the technology or the performer's gesture on the instrument. Does this need for the music to be physical have any meaning for you?

I think it's the action that fascinates me. It takes us back to the realm of the living.

It's also about presence. A full presence, in action. You can do a lot of gestures, a lot of actions without paying attention, without commitment. The body then does not have its full power. While a full, concentrated gesture, that's what fascinates me. The power of a truly lived action. In full consciousness, so to speak.

It is these full actions that allow us to see an incarnation, an expression of the body, without going through the censorship of the mind, without fear of being ridiculous, without fear.

Do you experience these gestures yourself during the composition process?

Yes, constantly. I put myself in the musicians' shoes, and I need these gestures to write.

That brings us back to this question of freedom again. I realized that I was giving the musicians a very limited sound palette. Also because the tool I'm currently working on has a lot of limitations. And the less material you have, the more fantasy you need and the more freedom you have to express yourself.

It's like with children: you give them two cans, a piece of string and they create a whole world with it! In my work, it's like going back to that simplicity. Everything is very limited in terms of materials, the form is very determined, but it's the freedom that is at stake in this kind of situation.

Other than your current work, can you tell us about your music more generally? Are there constants, elements that we find in your different pieces?

I already asked myself that question and that's how I phrased it: what is common to my pieces, and what is left when you take away the technology?

I realized that a lot of times the same type of material is found throughout my parts. I worked a lot on pianos, I developed a whole vocabulary of sounds on the piano - I was a pianist at the beginning. I worked a lot on improvisation, but that's no longer the case.

What I often find is the exploration and exploitation of sound material. I feel that certain types of material have my preference, especially inharmonic phenomena, those related to strings for example. In physics class we learned about harmonic relations, fundamental frequencies, integer multiples, we can see that it's all very beautiful. But in the real world, as soon as the string is a bit tight or the instrument a bit old, or there is a bit of dust, finally things don't go as they should. And it's this irregularity that fascinates me. Especially at the piano, because all these phenomena related to the strings are very unpredictable. I love the world of the prepared piano.

I used the same type of material when I started working with motion sensors. I wanted to go all the way, to know what I could get out of this material. So it all comes together, with the predominance of strings in particular.

Are you inspired by other sources or do you prefer to work on these subjects, on the sound directly?

I like to work on the sound directly. The sound capture gives me a lot of pleasure. I spend a lot of time listening, recording, keeping in touch with my microphones. I consider them a bit like microscopes of the sound vibration!

Of course I let myself be carried away by what I see; maybe in ten years’ time I will have a clearer vision of what influences me. But I remain very attached to physical issues, to questions of the body. My contacts who influence me a lot are dancers, performers, musicians, so they are at the heart of this issue.

As a foreigner living in France, I like to observe cultural diversity, to see what people bring from their culture, including people on the move. And the memory in their bodies. For example, I've noticed that people walk differently depending on their country. So what do they bring back from home? In the way they walk, make a gesture, say something. I am very sensitive to that. You notice all this much better when you come from elsewhere and it puts me in a permanent state of awakening, where my perception is exacerbated. Even the difference in language forces me to communicate often not through words but through looks, gestures?

I like all this very much and I'm probably influenced by it because the music is full of these elements.

How does your work to write a new piece begin?

It's hell! (laughs) At first I'm very scared. At first it's fear talking. And then it's a lot of work to overcome it!

I always start from the unknown, never from an imitation or the continuation of something else. It is only recently that I started to imagine continuities, threads, because I now have enough pieces that suggest a development. So gradually it becomes easier.

I also have a lot of projects proposed by the performers. They come with instruments I don't know. For example, I was invited to write a concerto for sixxen, an instrument invented by Xenakis which is a kind of inharmonic vibraphone. I'd never seen one before in my life. It's like being invited to enter the fantasy world of others! They come with a whole world and it's up to me to create my own front door.

Generally speaking, it's at the beginning a lot of imagination, daydreaming, and research. I imagine the sounds, the context, the places, the profile of the performers... It all depends on the project. At the moment I start directly from the material: I take a small unit and I imagine the whole thing, to build back and forth between the small scale and the large scale. But it's usually quite complicated...

What do your scores look like?

My scores today are more of an "instructions/manual". But I also have scores that are written in the traditional way. I like to write by hand, I like the feel of the pencil on the page.

Some of my scores are graphical and explore issues of layout, especially to leave openings and allow the unexpected to happen. I create situations where the performer can't anticipate everything, even though he or she must have a solid knowledge of the piece.

I try to make visible the different degrees of control one can have: some moments are very determined and very written, others where I feel that one must allow oneself to be influenced by the acoustics of the place, or by the phenomena that will occur there... At other times, the performer can choose his or her path in the score, take one path or another. So I try to show several levels of readings.

Today I dream of working with the world of comics. As I work with sensors, I would like the movements to be illustrated by the drawing. Comic book authors have a way of representing time that doesn't go through the Timeline. This could be very rewarding! I'm very interested to see that different elements can pass through other types of visual representations.

So you’ll need another residence then?

I already have some contacts with publishing houses and artists. But that remains secret for now!

Interviewed by François Vey.