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Rebalancing the discussion on interactivity

Simon Emmerson

Simon Emmerson, attachement


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In two papers presented in 2011 (2011a, 2011b), I suggested that there had been a fundamental misunderstanding on the issues of perceiving interactive processes in music making. Understandably there has been much discussion of the dislocation of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ in many interactive music systems, that is, the apparently arbitrary relationship of instrumental gesture to ‘resultant’ electroacoustic sound. ‘Resultant’ in inverted commas means that we may not perceive the sound as resulting from the instrument or action at all. Some have argued that the perception of causal chains must be reestablished for meaningful interactivity to take place, others that the connections may remain opaque and almost mystical – that it simply doesn’t matter.
I will develop the argument that the listener perceives, first and foremost, effects not causes. The degree to which we might then reconstruct a possible cause from the effects will vary as it always has – but it may be the wrong question. Indeed it may not be needed at all in appreciating the expressive content of the music. That is not to say that the relationship is not important – only that we do not need consciously to uncover it for the music to ‘make sense’. We need to distinguish the functions of composer, performer and audience because each have very different needs in this respect – these may overlap, reconfigure and even disappear. Thus we have composer-performers, improvisers, or group music making without any further participants.
The paper will aim to place the performer back at the centre of the discussion on interactivity. What does the performer need to know, to understand and assimilate? The composer has insufficiently addressed this in recent years, focusing too much on what the audience may experience in the crude terms of ‘getting the message across’ of the cause/effect chains s/he has created. This discussion will allow us to rebalance the language, acknowledging the technology of production on the one hand, while restoring discussion of the expressive potential of the medium on the other – with the performer at the fulcrum.

EMS13 Proceedings