Live blogging flossie: Pulse Project- touching as listening

(Last year, Flossie was women-only and a bunch of men complained. This year, they bowed to pressure and decided to let anyone attend. I’m the only boy in the room.)
Talk by Michelle Lewis-King, an American who uses SuperCollider(!).
This is based on pulse-reading and some Chinese medicine principles. She has an acupuncture degree.
Occidental medicine is based on cutting apart dead bodies. Whereas Chinese medicine is more ‘alchemistic’, she says. Western medicine is from looking at dead bodies. Chinese medicine is based on feeling living bodies.
Pulses are abstractly linked to a type of music of the spheres.
She started drawing people’s pulses at different depths. This is sonic portraiture.
She found the SuperCollider community to be problematic to ask questions due to differences in ‘architecture’ differences. Some of the tutorials are not easy. She says the book is great because of the diversity of approaches. People at conferences have criticised her code, which is not a fun experience.
The community also provides a lot of support. The programme is free, community oriented and a useful tool.
She’s playing one of her compositions. It’s a pulsing very synthesised sound.
More info: 4th issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies
Twitter @vergevirtual

Kronos Quartet at the Proms

I’ll start with the lows

I’ve been really grumpy about music lately and the at the start of this concert, my heart sank and I thought my grumpiness would continue. My friends and I got the promenade tickets for the arena area of the Royal Albert Hall (which is laid out somewhat like the Globe theatre, such that people stand around the stage). I had reasoned that string quartets were intimate, so it was better to be close. In fact, the acoustic of the hall are such that even standing not that far from the stage, the only sound I could hear was from the speakers. I might as well have been up way above, at least then freed of the burdensome expectations of non-amplified sounds.
The sound seemed slightly off the whole evening. At first, I thought the group lacked intensity, but they certainly looked intense. Somehow, it just wasn’t getting off the stage, lost somewhere in the compression of the audio signal. Lost in the tape backing they had for nearly every piece? Which (can we talk about this?) seemed to be really naff most of the time. There also seemed to be subtle timing issues throughout a lot of the concert and sometimes it just sort of felt like the seams were showing.
Kronos was my favourite string quartet for a long time, largely due to their distinctive bowing, but also due to their willingness to take risks, defy genre, etc. Unfortunately, this has becoming more and more gimicky as of late. One of their pieces, a BBC commission (so it’s not entirely their fault), had a Simon toy in it. The cellist would do a round of it and then play back the pitches in time, along with the other string players who also copied it. Along with tape backing, of course. Some of which seemed to be samples of Radiophonic sounds. I thought I recognised a single bass twang of the Doctor Who theme and I hoped they would just play that rather then the piece they were actually slogging through.

The best bit

However, they also played Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No 4: Amazing Grace, which was the piece I was most looking forward to. I didn’t know the piece, but I know the composer. The piece’s setting is lush Americana – Copland-esque but in a twenty first century context. The piece has a lot of busy-ness in it. It’s Americana glimpsed through the windows of speeding trains and moving cars. America between facebook posts. Constant distraction, the theme fragmented and subsumed in the texture of life. At one point, the violins and viola are busily creating their densely fragmented texture, while barely audibly, the cellist was playing the noted from Amazing Grace on the overtones of the highest parts of his strings. The notes of the melody become metaphor for Grace itself. Something transcendental and beautiful is always going on, giving meaning to a jumbled whole, sometimes so subtly that it’s difficult to perceive. The occasional moments of thematic clarity thus reminded me of tragedy, as that’s when grace becomes most apparent and evident.
It was really really beautiful and I teared up a bit.

The Good

Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No 4 was well-played and my friend Irene especially considered it to be a highlight. It’s a very good piece, but I’m sure I’ve heard the work before and I think it came off a bit better on those previous performances.
I thought the Swedish folk song Tusen tankar was also a high point. The piece was short, unpretentious and well played.
In general, they seemed to warm up and get going over the course of the concert and if they had ended with the last piece on the program, I would have gone home and felt pretty happy about them, but then they played an encore.

The tape part

I like tape (by which I mean any fixed media, like CDs or whatever). I write tape music. I like it when ensembles play along with tape. Tape is great.
Tape music is also sound that doesn’t immediately come from an instrument. So if it’s playing really processed or artificial sounds, that’s perfect, because those sounds couldn’t easily come from an instrument. But when it’s just filling in for a backing band that nobody wanted to pay to hire…. it’s naff. It’s inexcusably naff.
If Kronos wanted to play an encore with a metal band or whatever, I would have thought it surprising and maybe slightly gimicky. But they played an encore with a tape of a rock band. A tape that at one point got really loud with synchronised lights, while the quartet kept sawing away an unchanging string accompaniment. At that point, they played backup to a tape and tried to make it seem ok with lighting tricks. A tape of a rock band, not any kind of acousmatic tape. A let’s-just-play-a-tape-it’s-cheaper.
The high point of the concert was fantastic, but the low point . . .. I give them a mixed review overall.

Composer Control

I am writing this on my phone, so please pardon any typos.

I’ve just gone to see a piece of music, which I won’t mention the name of here. It was an interesting idea and technically competent and well-rehearsed, but it fell a bit flat in performance. The best moment of it was a long pause in the middle. The conductor and performers froze and the audience held its breath, waiting. What would happen next? Was the piece over? Was it still going? I had a composer once tell me that pauses add drama and this was the first time I would agree with that pronouncement.

I had a look at the score afterwards and it had a bar of rest with a fermata over it (that means ‘hold this’) and a asterisk to a footnote that said to hold it much longer than seemed reasonable or necessary. Interestingly, and i would say not coincidentally, this did seem to be the only thing not precisely notated in the work. Everything else about the sound production had been pre-decided by the composer and the ensemble was carrying out his eaxcting instructions.

This does seem to be the dominant theme of 21st century music composition. Composers seem to want complete control over musical output. Some, like Ferneyhough with his total complexity, approach this at an ironic distance. They intentionally overnotate in a way they know is unplayabe, to produce a specific kind of stress in the performer. But more recently, the trend is to overnotate but remain playable with the sincere intention of getting exact performances every time. Or, at least, to control what elements are exactly repeatable and treat the freer parts as one might treat a random generator or a markov chain in a computer program.

I played very briefly in the Royal Improvising Orchestra in the Hague and I have very positive things to say about that experience and the other members of the group. However, the control thing was still evident and creeping in. They had borrowed from another a group a very large set of hand signs, designed so the conductor could tell the supposedly improvising players what to play. Indeed, with those hand signals in use, it was no longer accurate to say that the players were improvising. Instead, the conductor was and were mechanisms for carrying out his musical will. Fortunately, that was only a small aspect of our performance practice. When we were doing this, we all took turns conducting, so we got a tradeoff and still were improvisers, at least some of the time.

I mentioned above being treated as an aspect of a computer program and, indeed, I think that is the source of the current state of affairs. Many younger composers (I’m including myself in this group, so read “younger” as “under 50”) have become reliant on score notation programs and write music without being able to read it very well. With MIDI playback, it is possible to know what notes will sound like together even if you can’t read the chord or find the keys on the piano.

The major drawback on relying on MIDI renditions of our pieces is that they sound like MIDI – they are precise, robotic and unchanging. Pieces that are written to sound good for that kind of playback often don’t work very well with live ensembles. One solution to this dilemma seems to be to treat ensembles more like MIDI playback engines, rather than adapt our style of writing for real conditions. This is a failure of imagination.

Those who are pushing notation and musical ideas in new directions are not so naive as the above paragraph suggests, but we still have become accustomed to being able to control things very precisely. When I write a musical structure into a program, I know it will be followed exactly. when I want randomness, I have to specify it and parametrise it precisely as well. In the world of computer composition, adding randomness and flexibility is extra work.

For humans, it’s the exactness that’s extra work and one that has faint rewards for audiences and for performers. It sucks the life out of pieces. It makes performing dull and overly controlled. It is an unconscious adoption of totalitarian work practices, informed and normalised by the methods of working required for human computer interaction. The fact that most professional ensembles barely schedule any rehearsal time does not help with this phenomenon, as they do not tend to spend the time required to successfully interpret a piece, so we seek to spell it out for them exactly.

Composers would do well to step back and imagine liberating their performers, rather than constraining them. We would also do well by learning to read scores. Computers are fine tolls for writing, but could you imagine a playwright using text-to-speech tools in order to create a play? Imagine what that would do to theatre! I think that’s happening now to music.

But, as in today’s performance, the most magical moments in performance are the ones where performers are empowered. If you don’t think you can trust them, then you’ve picked the wrong performers or written the wrong piece. In the best musical performances, the emotional state of the performer is followed by the emotional state of the audience. Give them something worth following.

The Last Days of Dog

When Xena was first diagnosed, I started trying to think of nice things to do with her. We did some of them. I stuffed her into my bike trailer and took her through the canals into Vicky Park. The thing is that she was still seriously unwell, even if she was functional with pain killers. Her favourite activities almost all involved physical activity, which she had trouble with.

We went on some nice walks, but not long ones. Her favourite low impact activity was always going to parties, so we went to parties. Sonia’s going away party was large and crowded, with densely packed people, all merrily drinking. Xena weaved among them, charming people and nicking unguarded food. She was a social butterfly. As it got very late, I got worried about her getting tired or trampled, so I took her upstairs to chill out. I was exhausted and wanted to go to sleep, in fact. A lost party guest opened the room door and she darted out and rejoined the stragglers, happy to be in the midst of things.
That was probably her happiest night after being diagnosed and I’m glad she got it.
I found a new flat in time for my eviction. Sonia left the country for the year. Xena slowly, but surely kept declining, with brief rallies. Meanwhile, all the pills she was taking meant she needed frequent walks, during the day. And during the middle of the night. She often seemed at her perkiest, happiest and most mobile at 3 AM.
When I finally moved to a ground floor flat, it seemed to greatly increase her mobility. This week, on Tuesday morning, I took her to the park and she actually ran a bit. Wendyl, my new housemate, took her out for a walk, and Xena excitedly tugged on her lead the whole way.
Wednesday, maybe from overdoing it, maybe from just reaching a threshold, she was much more stiff and limped to the park. On previous days, she would often limber up as she walked, even if she got off to a rough start, but that day her limp just got worse and worse. I gave her pain killers and they didn’t help. I accidentally left treats within reach and she left them alone, preferring to lie on the floor. So I called the vet to make an appointment.
Then I fed her every treat in the house whilst waiting for the cab. I knew this would eventually upset her stomach, but I thought she would not actually experience the ill effects of this. But then the vet was running behind and we waited over an hour. She looked miserable from being in the vets’ office, from the pain in her leg, and presumably from an upset stomach.
Because the euphemism is “putting her to sleep,” I assumed it would resemble sleep in some way, but it did not. She did not tire and relax as much as she crumpled.
Vets say these drugs are humane and painless and kind. Anti-death penalty activists say they’re painful and cruel. Somebody here is wrong.
I wish they had sedated her first.
I’ve never seen anyone die before. The dog I had as a kid apparently got into rat poison and died 10 minutes before I arrived to see him. I was not at the bedside of either of my grandmothers or my cousins. My uncle died in his sleep without warning. When my mum died, I was at opera, seeing Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi, feeling unhappy about how the hugging of the leper was treated. My experience of death is funerals and loss and digging my first dog’s grave and fetching my neighbour’s drowned cat from the pond. Xena won’t have grave, won’t have a funeral. The only thing left is to give away all her things.
The vet said I did the right thing. I tried to explain I hadn’t just let it go until she was staggering. That she got suddenly worse. That I hadn’t carried her because I knew that also hurt her shoulder.
Today, I woke up extremely early and got on a train to Birmingham to sound check for a gig I played in this evening. Because my life goes on, at least, even if hers doesn’t.
And when we finished earlier than I expected, I got a train tonight back to London instead of waiting for the morning, as that’s easier, so I was feeling kind of good about it and thought I should send a text to … nobody. There’s nobody waiting for me. There’s nobody who cares if I go back today or tomorrow. I have no particular responsibilities. No job. I am uneeded. I can sleep through the night without having to wake up for a walk. If I reach to my side while I sleep, my bed will be empty and my floor bare. I can go wherever I want and do whatever I want. And if what I want is a walk to the park, I’ll go alone.

I killed my dog today

A while ago, I posted that Xena had cancer. The vet sent me home with steroids and tramadol, a pain killer. Gradually, she needed more and more pain killer until today, when something got much worse overnight and she could barely walk at all.

I called the vet to ask how much it would cost to get a housecall and then I started calling for cabs that would take a dog. I wish I could say something nice or reassuring about her death. I showed up at the vet’s office and they were running more than an hour behind, so Xena lay in the middle of the waiting room floor and looked around nervously. Then she limped around with me to a back room, where she was frightened and hurting. She lay down on a blanket they put out. The vet shaved a section of her leg to give her a shot. She sniffed my eyes where I was crying as he pushed in the injection and just collapsed her head down and had stopped breathing within a moment.

He said she felt no pain, but how would he know that?

I took her collar off and her head flopped easily in my hands. Her body was still warm, her ears still soft, her eyes still open.

I wish I had done it before she got that bad. I wish I hadn’t had to do it at all. It doesn’t matter what I wish.

London Flat Hunting

I am currently house sitting for a council tenant. This is perfectly within the rules for eighteen months. It has been longer than that. I am going to be evicted, but I don’t know when. Ergo, I am looking for a new place to live.
Despite the many tales I’ve been hearing of people being evicted in advance of the Olympics, this seemed to get off to a promising start.

The Art Space

I went on a web site that caters for people looking for a room in a shared housing situation and found something that seemed ideal. It was a live-work space, catered towards artists. I arranged to go look at the rooms, without Xena, as, at the time, the vet still thought she might have a sprain and she was not allowed to walk very far.
The rooms were tiny and seemed overpriced, and the organiser was overwhelmingly hispterish, but the shared space was good and it seemed I could get a ground floor room with my dog. There were 10 rooms going in each warehouse space. Given the prices, I worried my future housemates might be trust-funded artsy wannabes, but then I decided to get over myself. I emailed the organiser the next day and asked to arrange a meeting between him and Xena in order to get the room I liked. He said he did not want to force an injured dog to walk and I could have the room if I wired him the deposit the next day. Alas, I still do not have internet banking and asked to put it off to Monday.
On Monday, I was feeling too glum about Xena’s impending demise to leave the house and warned him I couldn’t do it until Tuesday morning. He wrote back something with a smilely in it and thus on Tuesday morning, I sent the wire, intending to email him saying I had done it when I got home at the end of the day. But, alas, at the end of the day, I found he had emailed me that afternoon to say he had rented the room to somebody else. I had a moment of panic and asked for the last room in the building with a window in it. More than half the rooms he had for rent had no windows or outside light, which I know from experience will mess with my head. This last room was smaller, more money, and up a flight of stairs.
But wait a second? How could the room be gone if I wired him the money that morning? I called him up and he explained, basically, that he had undercapitalised the project. The building owner would not let anyone move in until he paid the full deposit for the entire building, which was not money that he had. Therefore, in order to get things underway, he had decided that whoever sent him deposits first could have whatever room he had for offer. He had promised the same room to three different people and I was not first to prove that I had wired him money, ergo, it couldn’t go to me. I briefly explained that I needed both a window and ground floor access, due to my dog’s mobility issues and he said he would try to see if we could shuffle around a bit, but I would still need to pay the higher rent in that case. I said ok. I have to move. I have a dog. I need a place.
My friends, however, said I should get my deposit back, so I called the landlord and said I didn’t really feel comfortable with how things were going and as I had wired him money for a specific room at a particular price, I would like my money back. He sounded unhappy and I apologised at length for the inconvenience I had caused, but he agreed to return the money. Again, I have no internet banking, so I don’t know if he has done this yet. I have his real name and bank details, so I am confident that my money will get returned.

The Recording Studio

I was cycling past a set of studios that are in high demand and was surprised to see for lease sign on the building. I phoned up and found that the sign was out of date, but the company had several other things on offer. Would I like to live in a three bedroom recording studio around the corner from my current address? Would I! The price was high, but if there were three of us, I could just about do it.
The recording studio turned out to be in the basement of an office building. It was two bedrooms, a small living room, a fantastic kitchen, a large recording area and a control room. The guy previously living there had done it up himself in a kind of haphazard way, which the estate agent kept describing in terms of the ‘architectural vision’ of the DIYer, as if he were an undiscovered Frank Lloyd Wright. The man had not merely stapled budget-rated acoustical foam to all the walls and then decided to cover them with shabby black coverings that did not hide exposed pipes, he had left it unfinished on purpose as part of his great aesthetic.
Indeed, he did seem to love black walls, as the entire studio was black, as was a wall of the living room and was the bathroom. This was a daring choice for a basement apartment with no windows of any kind. But not as daring as the shower.
The shower was attached to the master bedroom, which was really the only proper bedroom, as the other one had hanging sheets instead of a wall separating it from the living room. He had clearly run out of room to put in a shower, so he put in a bath tub, in the interior, windowless, black painted room. The ceiling was not high enough to support a shower. But then inspiration must have struck him. He dug into the ground and made the bathtub deeper. Approximately 5 feet deep, so it was a long, narrow enamelled space that he had put footholds in so one could climb in and out. Or, possibly bleed out the corpse of an animal slaughtered for dinner. I may yet have nightmares about that shower.
With the sound proofing and the black walls it would have made a great SM dungeon if it was not so shabby. As it is, it would make a perfectly great rehearsal space and a nice place to live if I wanted to go slowly insane. Especially if this manifested itself as cannibalism. It has a really nice kitchen.

The Missiles

The Ministry of Defence has decided that the best way to defend the Olympics from terrorists is to put surface-to-air missiles on the top of a gated community in Bow. The people living in the flats under the missiles were not consulted about this and are not pleased to have military weaponry on their roofs. (It turns out that the 4th amendment in the US Constitution is more useful than you might have guessed in the modern age.) Much to my delight and surprise, I actually met two people who live in the missile buildings.
Bow is not London’s most sought-after area, so I asked if ‘gated community’ meant something posh. One of the residents explained that the area was being gentrified street by street. Some squares were very rough and others were fine and others were posh, all right next to each other. The gated area is a posh enclave of 20-something yuppies who are buying their first flat before moving to a more desirable post code. She explained they had not yet gotten beyond the ‘stage’ of doing lots of coke and behaving like children. The missiles on the roof are an accident waiting to happen, she opined.
I asked if there was anything going in my price range, because who doesn’t want to live right underneath an embarrassing military accident? She said there was and then emailed our friend in common a link to an advert for a one room flat. It was more than twice as much as she had estimated the average cost to be and well out of my range.
It’s just as well as can’t afford coke either.

The search continues….

And if you know of a place that wants a not-yet-employed recent graduate and a short-term dog, which is on the ground floor, with a ramp or with a lift, do let me know.

Xena has cancer

Xena has been gradually slowing down for the last year. I thought it was her arthritis at first, but when her limp got bad, I took her to the vet and an x-ray showed that she’s got a tumour in one of her shoulders. He suggested that she might have a few more years if her leg was amputated, but she also might not. As far as they can tell, it hasn’t spread, but they can’t say with certainty and I think it would be a very difficult change for her, since she’s nearly 12.
So, she’s getting pain killers and is home with me. The vet thinks she’ll probably have about 3 good months.
I’m glad that we don’t put dogs through what we put people through.
Xena’s a good dog and has had a good life. She’s been to 10 countries. She’s lived in 3 and in multiple US states. She’s been to parties, weddings, concerts, camping trips, festivals, offices, universities, cars, boats, trains, trams, bicycles and buses.
It would be difficult to overstate how much my life has changed in the decade she’s been my dog. She’s been there for the death of my mum, the end of my software engineering days, the end of my marriage, the entirety of my post-graduate career, my transition, half my time in Holland and all of my time in England.
I’m trying to stay cheerful, since she’s not gone yet and she’s concerned about me being upset. It’s difficult to adjust.
Xena has many friends in many places. If any of you want to come out and see her, I can find a bed or a sofa for you to sleep on.

Engaging and Adjusting

The thing about negative feedback is that it’s extremely useful for knowing how to improve. (Mostly, not counting the guy who wondered if our mothers were proud (I’d like to think mine would be.)) And the topic that stands out most glaringly is audience engagement.
This is a long standing problem for many groups dating back to the start of the genre. Somebody left an anonymous comment on my last post comparing us to “geography teachers.” Scot Gresham-Lancaster wrote that The Hub was compared to air traffic controllers. Their solution was to project their chat window, something we’ve talked about, but never actually implemented. There are papers written about how the use of gestural controllers can bridge this gap, something we have implemented. But what projected chat, gestural control, and synthesised voice all have in common is hiding behind technology.
Thus far, we usually physically hide behind technology as well, sat behind tables, behind laptops and do not tend to talk to the audience. However, not all of our gigs have been this way. When we played at the Sonic Picnic, we were standing and we had a better connection to the audience, I think because we were behind plinths, which are smaller and thus we were more exposed. Other concerts, we’ve talked to the audience and even even have given them some control of our interface at certain events. This also helps.
Performers who have good posture and good engagement are not like that naturally; they practice it like all their other skills. A cellist in a conservatory practices in front of a mirror so ze can see how ze looks while ze plays and adjust accordingly.
Also, it turns out that it wasn’t just me that ‘crashed’ due to user error rather than technical failure. There’s two solutions for this – one is to have a todo list reminding the player what they need to do for every piece and to automate as much of that process as possible. The other is to be more calm and focussed going on stage. When we were getting increasingly nervous waiting to be called on to perform, we could have been taking deep breaths, reassuring each other and finding a point of focus, which is what happens when gigs go really well. Alas, this is not what we did at all.
So, starting next week, we are practising in front of a ‘mirror’ (actually a video projection of ourselves, which we can also watch afterwards to talk about what went right and wrong). We are going to source tall, plinth-like portable tables to stand behind or next to. The composer of every piece will write a short two sentence summary explaining the piece and then, in future, we’ll have microphones at future gigs, such that whoever has the fastest change will announce the piece, say a bit about it and have a few bad jokes like rock bands do between songs. We’re also going to take deep breaths before going on and have check lists to make sure we’re ready for stuff.
On the technical side, I’m going to change the networking code to broadcast to multiple ports, so if SuperCollider does crash and refuse to release the port, the user will not have to restart the computer, just the programme. Also, I’m hoping that 3.5.1 will have some increased stability on networking. My networked interactions tend to crash if left running for long periods of time, which is probably a memory management issue that I’ll attempt to find and fix, but in the mean time, we get everything but that running ahead of going on stage and then start the networking just before the piece and recompile it between pieces. To make the changeover faster, we’ve changed our practice such that who ever is ready to go first just starts and other people catch up, which is something we also need to practice.
A pile of negative feedback, even if uncomfortable, is a tremendous opportunity for improvement. So our last gig was amazingly useful even if not amazingly fun.

Gig Report: The adoration may not be universal

BiLe had two gigs yesterday but I’m just going to talk about the second one. However, first I’m going to talk about some gigs I played a few years ago. One was a cafe gig, or possible several cage gigs. They tend to blend together. I was playing tuba with some free improvisers, including the owner of the cafe. A bunch of people were there talking, we started to play and just about everybody left.
It’s slightly uncomfortable, but it’s well known to anybody who has ever played in a cafe. And there have been times when I’ve meant to have a cup of coffee and talk with friends and then, rather than talk over the music, we’ve moved on when it started. At other times, I’ve been happily surprised by live music and there have been many times I’ve gone out to a cafe specifically to hear the music that was programmed.
The other was in 2004 and I had just started doing live computer pieces in SuperCollider, but they were not interactive, they were live realisations. (I called them “press the button” pieces.) I was testing out a new one at an open mic night at a restaurant. My friend had organised the evening and asked me to play, but it was me and all acoustic guitars. It was a very early version of the piece and it still had some major aesthetic problems, which became glaringly apparent as it played. Many people in the room left to go home over the course of the piece. It was not a cafe, it was a restaurant. People had plates of food in front of them which they apparently abandoned during the longest 11 minutes of my life. (I blogged about this at the time.)
A few things happened as a result of this. One was that a busboy came out and game me a thumbs up, I’m pretty sure because he liked the music, but you never know. Another was that I instantly got much more respect from my colleagues at the university. For my own part, I pledged to become more aware of how listeners may respond to pieces I was working on to try to prevent a repeat of this. And finally, I learned the value of playing things in front of people as part of the path to finishing a piece.
The reasons for the increased respect from my colleagues is slightly complex. Part of it was simple elitism, but I think a part of it was an encouragement to take risks. Being likeable is not enough. Some fantastic music is loved upon first listening. But a lot is hated. A lot of fantastic an important pieces caused riots on their first playing. 4’33” by John Cage, Rite of Spring by Stravinsky and Ballet Mecanique by George Antheil are all well-known examples of this. Of course, causing an uproar does not mean that you’re good. You could just be terrible. But it does mean you’re taking a risk.
Of course, I tend to blunder into risks blindly and be caught a bit by surprise.


Localities can put on their own, independent TED conferences. One in Birmingham decided to invite BiLE and despite having a gig already lined up the same morning, we agreed to to play.
I’d been at the LoveBytes festival in Sheffield (which was excellent) the day before and stayed over. Alas, it turned out that the reason that my hotel room was so cheap was because it was directly over a Reggae club. I think my room must have been right over the bass amp. One song was in the same key as the resonant frequency of the door frame. We woke up early yesterday morning, played a set at a headphone concert at the LoveBytes Festival, and then got on a train back to Birmingham and got to the MAC centre just in time to set up and play another set at TEDx
We waited nervously back stage for our turn, filed in and started to play XYZ by Shelly Knotts. For some reason, there was a lot of crashing. Chris missed the entire piece, trying to recover from a crash. Julien and Shelly both crashed mid-piece, but were able to recover quickly. I did not crash, but I’m the last to come in. It was sparse and a bit stressful, but we got through it. We’ve played that piece a lot previously. It’s not our first piece, but it’s the first we proposed, as we spent our first-ever meeting writing a vague proposal to NIME last year and this was the piece that we played there.
Then we played Sonnation 2 by Julien Guillamat. We’ve only played that piece a couple of times before, but it’s not difficult. I forgot to plug in my faders and spent the first two minutes trying to figure out what was wrong and then recovering, so it also had some sparseness. The end was not as tight as it could be and I smiled a bit at the error, but then it was over and we filed back off stage.
We always have problems with having the right sort of game face for playing live. I’ve been working on my posture, but we still sometimes slip into head resting on arm with elbow on the table. And I should have kept a straight face at the end. I typed some lines into the speech synthesiser to announce piece titles, which is something I’ve seen other bands do at laptop concerts. I have mixed feelings about it. It seemed better than not engaging at all (which is what we usually do, alas) and we didn’t have a microphone.
Afterwards, we went outside to wait for the talks to end so we could break down our gear. It was then that somebody pulled out their smart phone to check Twitter.


The tweets are below in chronological order (oldest first). While it was clear the performance had some technical issues, it had not seemed unusual in any way. We picked pieces that I thought would be accessible. XYZ has computer game elements, including players competing for control of sound parameters and lo-fi game-ish graphics. Sonnations also seems accessible in that is uses live sampling of metallic instruments, something that has worked with Partially Percussive and because it has a physically performative element at the end. Plus it gets nice sounds.
It may be that the difference between reactions to Sonnations and, say, Partially Percussive may have to do with managing audience reactions in some way. The bells do sound nicer than the kitchen hardware, but, because they look like instruments, the audience may be expecting something much more conventionally tonal. They resonances of the metal bowls might be a nice surprise vs the cow bell sounds might be slightly disappointing. Of course, it’s even more likely that the audience would have found the use of kitchen objects to be unbearably pretentious. It may have been better to play Act 2 of the Laptopera as the second piece. It sounds weirder, but the obvious references to spam email, especially the penis-enlargement ones are funny and may have engaged them. Or maybe not. It’s hard to know.
We’re playing at the symphony hall in May and this does have me a bit worried in that I would not have predicted these crashes and I don’t know what caused them. And I’m worried that we might be too brutal for fans of minimalism. It’s caught on much more than other genres of 21st century art music and appeals to a mainstream audience. Just because an audience wants to be challenged a bit, doesn’t mean they want what we do.
On the other hand, as somebody who often specialises in noise music, I’ve never expected to get mass approval or even approval from the majority of people at any given gig. Probably the only exception here is that I’m not usually as directly exposed to audience reaction. And, indeed, there were people who liked it. So maybe it’s a storm in a teacup? It’s impossible to get perspective on things from the stage, as it were.


  • About to find out what a laptop ensemble is at #TEDxBrum @EskimoDalton
  • And the laptop ensemble are (is?) using macbook pros, because they’re the best kind of laptops #ilovemac #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82 (replies)
  • Oh…it’s BILE! Ha! #TEDxBrum @EskimoDalton
  • What a treat. Watch the bham laptop ensamble being streamed live on #tedxbrum websire now x @JoyOfFengShui
  • Using iphone as a sound control device – motion control + music = electro-weirdness! #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • It’s like being stuck INSIDE A LAPTOP right now #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • i got a headache can we get @Flutebox on pls? #tedxbrum @tedxbrum @Flutebox @aerosolali
  • The Birmingham Laptop Ensemble. It could only come out of the University of Birmingham. #tedxbrum #notforme @mrmarksteadman
    • @mrmarksteadman πŸ™‚ @carolinebeavon
    • @carolinebeavon I’m sure it’s all really clever, but just a tad self-indulgent for me @mrmarksteadman
    • @mrmarksteadman I agree. No real musical quality from what I can tell … But then, I went to BCU πŸ˜‰ @carolinebeavon
    • @carolinebeavon That’s kinda my point! Good, no-nonsense uni πŸ˜‰ Sad to have missed @flutebox; will defo check out the @civicolive replay @mrmarksteadman
    • @mrmarksteadman yup. They were great. This … Hmmmm, not a fan @carolinebeavon
    • @carolinebeavon Guess you had to be there. Oh no, you are, sorry. And it continues. *sigh* mrmarksteadman
    • @mrmarksteadman let me out!!!!! πŸ™‚ @carolinebeavon
    • @carolinebeavon OH GOD IT’S SO SMUG! I CAN’T TAKE HOW PLEASED THEY ARE WITH THEMSELVES! (Sorry… just… yeah, sorry.) #tedxbrum @mrmarksteadman
  • Not getting the laptop ensemble – will try harder #tedxbrum @mrspicto
  • I was expecting some form of 8bit electro music. This is not that. #tedxbrum @JAWilletts
  • I think the computers have taken over #tedxbrum @dorvago
  • Very impressive technically, although not sure if it’s supposed to be music? #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
    • @Dr_Bob82 BiLE = sound art ?! @PostFilm
    • @PostFilm I’d agree that it was ‘sound’ but never been a fan of electro-music πŸ™‚ @Dr_Bob82
    • @Dr_Bob82 sound art: I guess it’s just a matter of taste. You don’t hang someone for not liking coffee, anchovies, or cucumber @PostFilm
    • @PostFilm It’s definitely a matter of taste, although occasionally I have felt socially ostracised for not liking coffee πŸ˜‰ @Dr_Bob82
    • @Dr_Bob82 harmony, melody, rhythm are culture- and time-specific; but electroacoustic is so broad now that it’s difficult to generalise @PostFilm
  • @BiLEnsemble > visually Kraftwerk/Modified Toy Orchestra minus suits, audibly Aphex Twin via laptops & remote controls. Madness! #TEDxBrum @asmallfurrybear
  • #TEDxBrum Bored already @Keybored_KATz
  • Horrible feeling that this isn’t going down as expected… Please, some melody for the love of god!! #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • #TEDxBrum Trying to be positive – but really – pass the paracetamol @Pictoontwit
  • Birmingham Laptop Ensemble – using interference to create music! #tedxbrum @CerasellaChis
  • #TEDxBrum I feel very old right now. @Stephen_Griffin
  • It’s like a game, where I don’t know the rules and can’t tell if it’s glitching or not. #tedxbrum @JAWilletts
  • Think there’s some sort of Kinect-type deal going on here as well with controlling the ‘music’ #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • No, sorry I tried but not for me ( laptop ensemble) #TEDxBRUM @mrspicto
  • somebody pls where is nathan @Flutebox come back pls! #tedxbrum @aerosolali
  • #TEDxBrum can Flutebox come back on please @Pictoontwit
  • #tedxbrum not sure what to make of this music @simonjenner
  • @BiLEnsemble > a possible contender for @supersonicfest 2012 line up? #TEDxBrum @asmallfurrybear
  • nah not for me… Seems too out of control & random…β€œ@vixfitzgerald: I don’t get it #TEDxBrum Birmingham laptop ensemble πŸ™ ??” @Soulsailor
  • Like War of the Worlds meets Aphex Twin meets an over-enthusiastic computer geek #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • Anyone else not got a clue what’s going on? Even the performers look disinterested! Smile and nod, smile and nod… #TEDxBrum @MykWilliams
  • Its getting an interesting Twitter reaction. Not sure whether it’s quite a bit too revolutionary. #tedxbrum @JAWilletts
  • As if my head didn’t hurt enough from all the ideas #TEDxBrum crammed in, BiLE start their intense sonic assault @orangejon
  • Birmingham Laptop Ensemble at #TEDxBrum @stanchers
  • #TEDxBrum that made Kraftwerk look pedestrian Stephen_Griffin
  • Birmingham Laptop Orchestra. Industrial grunge synth from the 70s. A little to atonal for me. #tedxbrum @DaveSussman
  • Please. Melody. Just a little bit. I won’t tell the experimentalist musicians that you did it #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • Amazing stuff around here. πŸ™‚ #TEDxBrum @CerasellaChis
  • Talk amongst yourselves. #tedxbrum @mrmarksteadman
  • #TEDxBrum I am sure there mothers are very proud – I am now reflecting on the value or otherwise of a University education @Pictoontwit
  • I feel like this needs an explanation #TEDxBrum @chargedatom
  • Hmm sorry but please don’t “play” another “track” /Birmingham laptop Ensemble ;-( #WTF #TEDxBrum @Soulsailor (replies)
  • WE NEED MOAR COWBELL!: #tedxbrum Dr_Bob82
  • …but i do like the guys stickers on his laptop…. #tedxbrum @aerosolali
  • #TEDxBrum the power of social media – and when you die on your feet even faster @Pictoontwit
  • Really not feeling Laptop Ensemble.I’m afraid at #TEDxBrum even they look bored. @carolinebeavon
  • Wouldn’t it be better to just plug an iPod in. #tedxbrum @dorvago
  • The cowbell is a way too understated instrument, let’s get the cowbell trending too! #TEDxBrum #morecowbell @TEDxBrum
  • Is it possible to rehearse this? #seriousquestion #TEDxBrum @chargedatom
    • @chargedatom I think they’re winging it. Most UoB students do πŸ˜‰ @Dr_Bob82
  • @BiLEnsemble it’s interesting to watch here in the MAC. Physical meets digital, theres so much that could go wrong, it’s working!! #tedxbrum @Ben_R_Murphy
  • If we don’t get more cowbell, we may as well all go home #cowbell #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • Who spiked my drink with acid? Is this real? #TEDxBrum @craiggumbley
  • I for one, was happy to have #8bit of silence Β¦-) #bless RT @mrmarksteadman Talk amongst yourselves. #tedxbrum @Jacattell
  • #TEDxBrum the emperor’s new laptop? @Stephen_Griffin
  • I’m now imagining myself in a rainforest. Away from this. Far away. #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • #TEDxBrum PLEASE STOP @Pictoontwit
  • Britain ‘s not got talent sorry #TEDxBrum @vixfitzgerald
  • One of them must be checking the twitter feed #tedxbrum #multitasking @dorvago
  • Oh dear twitter generated laughter in danger of breaking out now. At least it is a more positive effect than i expected #tedxbrum @mrspicto
  • Ah, so they played instruments at the start, recorded them, now they’ve digitised and resampled them and are playing them back #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • I’m not at #TEDxBrum, but finding the tweets about the “Laptop Ensemble” hilarious. It sounds dreadful (but I bet you all clap at the end). @editorialgirl
  • Ordered chaos; #LOVEIT! MT @Soulsailor nah not for me… Seems too out of control & random… /cc @vixfitzgerald #TEDxBrum @Jacattell
  • #morecowbell #lesscowbell would it make a difference?? #TEDxBrum @chargedatom
  • Massive TUNE! #tedxbrum @n_chalmers
    • @n_chalmers will buy u the CD for ur bday! #tedxbrum @J_K_Schofield
    • @n_chalmers going to download this one after for sure @kathpreston1
  • Twitter is my outlet. Can’t keep straight face. #TEDxBrum @karldoody
  • No one said innovation was going to be easy, right? #TEDxBrum @TEDxBrum
  • #TEDxBrum Warming to BiLE – snugly weird. @Stephen_Griffin
    • @Stephen_Griffin Was that smugly weird? #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • So now the track is on a loop and they’re playing along ‘in real time’ with it. Except it sounds… well… it’s finished now #tedxbrum @Dr_Bob82
  • Balls. #tedxbrum @mrmarksteadman
  • #TEDxBrum …. Laptop Ensemble … Seriously … Is that it πŸ˜‰ @shuhabtrq
  • I want to see more people preoccupied with the stuff BiLE is doing. #TEDxBrum @CerasellaChis
  • Well I liked it… #TEDxBrum @stanchers
  • Brilliant performance from Laptop Ensemble BiLE – enjoyed watching and listening to them on the live stream #TEDxBrum @PostFilm
  • thinks BiLE upset some #tedxbrum delegates who did not want to open up to sound art and opportunity for digital experimentation @PostFilm
  • Skimmed the #TEDxBrum stream – if that sad reaction to @BiLEnsemble is accurate reflection of audience vibe I’m glad I’m not there. @peteashton
    • @peteashton Actually the reception to it IN THE ROOM in the real world was warm. The dissenters were vocal on Twitter. Go figure. @helgahenry
    • @peteashton We don’t know how much info (if any) was given to the audience about what they were listening to. Tweets sounded… surprised. @editorialgirl
    • @editorialgirl Indeed. I just don’t think I’d enjoy being in an audience which is surprised in that way by their work. Which is fine. @peteashton
    • @peteashton if it’s any consolation at all, I was there, at TEDxBrum & I enjoyed BiLE. New to me, a surprise, yes, but in a good way! @KendaLeeG
  • @hellocatfood I think you v can now legitimately claim to be a misunderstood artist now! The #TedxBrum audience just weren’t ready for you. @AndyPryke
  • @gregmcdougall there was a random laptop music segment that didn’t work for me then more awesomeness #TEDxBrum @Soulsailor
  • for me ‘sound art’ is part of the creative “T” in TED. More radical digitral sonic experimentation please from BiLE #tedxbrum @PostFilm
  • Oddest moment today: watching @BiLEnsemble use modern technology to give the audience a scarily accurate experience of tinnitus. #tedxbrum @catharker
  • #tedxBrum @BiLEnsemble have potential. I heard some cool sounding stuff and was a little jazzy. Maybe mix with instruments/samples/beats? @RenewableSave
  • i see bile at #tedxbrum has caused some controversy. i don’t think any performer has an inherent right to have their performance liked. @simonjgray
    • (& i type this as somebody who has made music which is well far from being universally liked. #tedxbrum ) @simonjgray
  • Really enjoyed playing at #lovebytes and #tedxbrum yesterday… as well as the post-TED discussion πŸ˜‰ @BiLEnsemble
    • @BiLEnsemble and we enjoyed you! @TEDxBrum, out of interest, was the #lovebytes performance different? @Ben_R_Murphy
    • @BiLEnsemble well done BiLE performing at #tedxbrum !!!! @InterFace_2012
  • @celesteh obvious there were probs at #TEDxBrum, but I enjoyed the pieces – although was brought up on Harvey’s “Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco” @davidburden
  • BiLE Blog #tedxbrum @PostFilm
  • BiLE’s last piece at #TEDxBrum Quietat points so some mobile signal interference. @Acuity_Design


Dear Editor,

I am writing in regards to your recent headline, HEARD THE ONE ABOUT A SEX SWAP MAN WHO REPLACED A FEMALE COMIC?.
The transgender comic involved in the story is not a man, but a woman, something which you seemed to be aware of when writing the story. Also using the term “sex swap” is derogatory. A better headline would have read, “Have you heard the one about the transgender woman who replaced another female comic?”
The rest of your article seem to be fine and it’s a shame that it had this headline attached. If you have any questions or are in need of advice when writing about transgender people in future, the website for Trans Media Watch has a section in order to advise journalists and editors.
Thank you for your time.