Interview by Franziska Baumann
with Alex Nowitz

Alex Nowitz (PhD), Vocal Performance Artist and Composer, Berlin

Alex Nowitz is a composer and vocal performance artist, improviser, sound artist and musician, furthermore artist-researcher, author and curator from Germany. His compositions comprise vocal and instrumental chamber music, full-length operas, orchestral miniatures, electro-acoustic music, multimedia concert formats as well as music for dance and spoken theatre. Both in his vocal performance art and in his compositions dedicated to others he explores the notion of multivocality. His invention, the Strophonion, is an instrument reminiscent of Michel Waisfisz’s “The Hands”, developed at STEIM Amsterdam. The Strophonion provides buttons for changing functionality and playing different pitches and various types of sensors to measure movements of hands and arms. The data thus obtained is processed and translated into sonic and musical parameters.

Zoom Interview in May 2021: Alex Nowitz in Potsdam and Franziska Baumann in Bern

Vocal Realm

Franziska Baumann: In the context of musical instruments, the voice itself is a special case. It provides us with our most physical and embodied instrument without an external interface, while musical instruments are used as a mediated extension of the body.
Can you describe your vocal realm? What is the voice for you? What inspires you? And in which vocal culture do you feel embedded?

Vocal Realm

Western Idiom and Improvisation Practice

Alex Nowitz: I am socialized in the Western idiom. In my early twenties, I performed with bass, guitar, keyboards and voice in an experimental punk rock band called Volvox. Also, I studied the tenor voice in Germany and the US. Simultaneously I always used to improvise in combination with the voice. My aim is to explore the sonic possibilities using the entire vocal apparatus. For example, twenty years old, I discovered a whistling technique applying the lower lip, unlike the usual whistling technique involving both lips. Since then, I'm applying this technique and keep on refining it until the present day. What helps in doing so is the training I received studying the tenor and countertenor voice and using the voice in the most efficient way. During a typical week of study, I was rehearsing, for example, the "Tamino" arias and the Lieder from Schubert's "Winterreise". During the weekends though, I was performing in clubs in Berlin scratching at the edges of what the voice is able to do. I don't want to miss this period of intensive learning. At that time, in these underground clubs, partly squatted places, heavy smoking was involved. In this period of three to five years, I was constantly challenged, sometimes even over-challenged. But it was during this time, I learned the most about the limits and the mental, physical and psychological conditions that the vocal performer needs to develop. Only if you know the boundaries, you can go ahead and step across them. The exploration per se is the other pillar in my practice. What's interesting to note is that no voice doesn't mean anything. Every expression bears meaning information important to both yourself and those who perceive your performance. It doesn't matter if you present lyrics or if you make up your own gibberish kind of language that refuses linguistic semantics. What matters is to understand that the voice, per se, always brings along emotional information, which also is the case during vocal improvisations and inventions.

FB: You describe your vocal vocabulary of the contemporary Performance Voice in the framework of a vocal taxonomy based on continuous and mutual interactions of four categories: the singing voice, the speaking voice, the extended voice and the disembodied (acousmatic) voice.
Could we say that your approach displays a posthuman ideal in which the "one-register" voice is no longer at the centre with extended techniques on the periphery but in which diverse vocal manifestations are expressed on the same hierarchical levels?

Unlimited Possibilities of Singing Techniques

AN: I wouldn't be able to put it better. I came up with the term' multivocal voice' to describe the practice of applying very different approaches and using various vocal techniques. To make use of those practices, you need to develop a deepened appreciation for each technique and the surrounding culture, some sort of openness in voco-technical (physiological and psychological) and cultural terms.
During my studies, combined with improvisation sessions with musicians and vocal performers in Berlin, I discovered so many different ways of expressing myself applying various aesthetics. Each voice category emphasizes one particular aspect. If we look at the singing voice, the bel canto voice, for example, we must note that it is crucial to project the voice beyond the volume of an orchestra of around 60 people. Other vocal idioms, such as the rock voice, the jazz voice, etc., show different rules and affordances. If you use the microphone, you must no longer focus on the volume. On the contrary, you now can explore soft vocal sounds. What's important to note is that only if you accept and respect those you can develop and build up a variety of different types of voices, all of which are coming from one vocal apparatus. And then, you might realize that the indeed most interesting vocal sounds emerge only then when you allow yourself to go in-between and beyond these voice categories. Concerning singing techniques we have a set of possibilities at our disposal. If you merge those with speaking and extended vocal techniques, the range becomes almost unlimited. You were anyways, coming back to your question about the discourse of posthuman systems theories. What they do is often proclaim a 'new materialism'. This is, in fact, at the core of the concept of the 'multivocal voice' that is, to come up with new sounds and new sound assemblages.

Eclecticism, Sound Morphing, Overcoming a Paradox and The Vision of Understanding Each Other

FB: In this discussion, what is also important to mention about this multivocality approach to cross gradually from one to the another and explore the passages in between. There is this eclecticism around since the eighties where you have a block of this and then a block of that and then another block of this. Cathy Berberian's Stripsody is an example of this. So you have these flavours in nice doses.

Ein Bild, das Person, drinnen, Mann enthält.  Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

AN: Yes, indeed. Cathy Berberian's approach is a role model. Moreover, I am interested not only in juxtaposing different vocal practices one after the other, but also in dissolving the boundaries between the different applied techniques. This is why I'm concerned with questions, such as how can I gradually go from pitch-related to noise-related sounds. How can I blend one sound into the other? This, from a rather abstract starting point, is one way to discover new vocal territory for oneself. It is this idea that matters to me and is a strong driving force during the creation process. Even though I'm failing and not getting where I'm aiming at, due to completely different muscle parts involved, I still pursue and advance the idea of gradual transition. I love the concept of applying different, intertwining techniques to go from one practice to another and see what happens along the way. For example, suppose you go from a deep voice, like the Mongolian singing technique of 'kargyraa', to the Western bel canto singing technique. It is not possible to do it smoothly and gradually because each technique requires completely different muscle parts. Also, there is an octave gap in between. However, nobody stops the experiment and attempts to overcome the paradox. So, even it doesn't seem possible, we can still keep on trying to make it possible. Along this way, a lot of interesting outcome is generated.
The other important aspect of this approach reveals the following question: what tools do we have to gain a better understanding of each other. I claim that human beings, no matter where they come from, no matter their cultural background, could easily understand each other if they'd approach the encounter from a vocal-musical stance. Even though it may sound naïve, the turbulences and problems in the world are often and caused mainly by language issues and twisted facts and circumstances. Emphasizing on the power of sound, on the contrary, I see the field of vocal performance art also as a communication platform that, if applied, could help us to get a better understanding of the Other on different levels. It might be a possibility to come closer to one another.
I return to the characteristics of my practice. Once, during an improvisation piece, let's say I discover an unusual sound that interests me. I try to focus on and follow it, playing with its essential components and exploring its potential. So, in a sense, at this moment, it is the composer who's at work. In fact, to me improvisation is a method of instant composition. Usually, the composer has plenty of time to think about and probe various approaches and possibilities until the final composition is completed and done.
In comparison to that, the beauty of improvisation is that we have absolutely no time. In effect, we are forced to constantly take action and react to whatever comes next. But even in an improvisational setting, we can still apply compositional strategies. In this sense, I'm aiming to bring together improvisational and compositional concepts.

The Amplified Voice, Wii Controllers and The Strophonion

FB: How do you experience the mediatisation of the voice?
Is it an electrified space of vocal expression? Do the disembodied voices become reflections and distortions from the original voice?

AN: As for me, mediatisation starts once the voice is amplified. By doing so, one can already, for example, enhance certain frequencies. In 2007, a turning point in my biography, I was invited by the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM) in Amsterdam to explore the possibilities of new musical interfaces to be used in my vocal performances. I started to apply Wii controllers. The staff at STEIM, the programmer Frank Baldé respectively, gave me two of those together with a very simple patch. Having a pianistic background, I'm familiar with sound control through the haptic sense. So, applying the Wiis didn't seem awkward to me. It was exciting to see and find out what's possible concerning gestural control involving the 3D accelerometers built-in providing data on a continuous basis. I started to sample the voice and used the material as gained right after its recording. So, I practised a lot and, from scratch, developed an idiosyncratic performance practice with all its implications. A negative one was that I strained the wrist of my right hand. A positive outcome was that in 2009 in Gothenburg, I was awarded a prize by the European Promoters for New Music (ECPNM) at the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). In consequence, STEIM offered me the opportunity to research and develop my 'own' instrument starting in 2010. The instrument is called strophonion. It was a long-term project throughout two-years during which the hardware system was designed, developed and created. Meanwhile, the software components were programmed and then constantly tweaked and refined. In December 2018, during the solo performance Moving Tongues: Playing Space, for voice, live electronics (strophonion) and video, the final artistic presentation of my PhD at the University of Arts in Stockholm, the period of designing and developing the instrument came to a preliminary end.

FB: How do you experience the mediated or disembodied voice in relation to your embodied voice? How does the machined voice affect your embodied voice in the sense that you learn from that machine processes?

Playing with Clones and Ghosts

AN: I consider the aural clones of my voice as parts of my original voice simply because I'm still using them during the performance and manipulating them by changing pitches, creating glissandos, changing the sound frequencies, etc. The difference to the live voice is that the aural clones are now controlled by the extremities of hands and arms. There are numerous possibilities to play with the vocal clones applying different sonic and/or musical strategies.

Ein Bild, das Person, drinnen, Wand, Brille enthält.  Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

One particular practice that I'm fond of applying is to make the time spans between recording action and the playing back very short: At the same time I try to realise and repeat this process as quickly as possible. It almost brings me to the verge of losing control. Let me explain this: let's say you are playing the drums with the hands applying alternating left-right movements, so-called paradiddles, and assuming you become very fast, then you end up with various tremolo effects. Similar to this drum roll technique is the practice I am applying when recording and playing back is. Now, if you're using this in a very fast way, you might get results you couldn't have planned ahead. The result ranges from various feedback phenomena to unintended sound constellations. On top of that, I also focus on the very strange merge between the live voice and the recorded voice. So, I am constantly performing and playing with the voice, feeding the machine and playing back the recorded voice continuously.
Let me illustrate the 'ghostly' or spectral connotation of this practice by quoting a paragraph from the 'Letters to Milena' by Franz Kafka. He perfectly describes the communication process as it takes place when writing letters, which is as if ghosts are drinking up the kisses between the communicators. So, writing letters allows all these ghosts to appear while, due to the temporal delay and the distance, the author is no longer in real connection with what s/he expressed in the letter. Kafka writes:
"The easy possibility of writing letters […] must have brought wrack and ruin to the souls of the world. […] Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts and by no means just with the ghost of the addressee but also with one's own ghosts."
Iteminds me of my own practice as described above. What's amazing is that once you create copies of yourself, you are, in a way creating tiny little fragments of yourself. There is a spectral aspect embedded in the practice of sampling your voice and playing it back. It is a bit creepy sometimes. But, of course, if we rehearse and do it over and over again, it loses this haunting effect. If I haven't been practising for a long time, though, I need some time to get into it because it's like putting up multiple mirrors around me that I am 'looking at', which is fascinating and weird at the same time. So what I try to do through the practice and the way I play the live electronics is to create some sort of a 'new' voice merging the live voice with the sampled clone. And this is when a novel, unique kind of voice emerges. So, based on my practice, these are the main aspects of how I see the mediated voice. I have elaborated on these thoughts in an essay called "Intercourse with Ghosts: 'Haunted Territories' revisted" as part of my doctoral dissertation "Monsters I Love: On multivocal arts."
In any way, what's exciting with regard to this practice is that the clone or 'doppelgänger' is dissolving into its live voice, and the live voice is dissolving into its Doppelgänger. That's when it becomes interesting to me. Sometimes on stage, it can happen that the audience can have a hard time telling which is which, asking what is the live voice and what is the mediated one. This confusion is something I deliberately work with for the sake of creating surprising moments. When it comes down to the question of developing and designing the instrument, my aim always was to establish synchronicity between movement and the generated sonic resLinksult. This might be a guarantee for the audience to comprehend the performance practice and to understand how the instrument works. But at some point, depending on the degree of complexity of the created sound and music, the understanding of the instrument as established might get blurred, too. Suppose I am trying to bring together the live voice with its doppelgänger. In that case, the practice can become obscure due to the complexity of all applied manipulations and the high speed used between recording vocal material and immediately playing it back. But that's the beauty of new practices that are able to create a mysterious and thus fascinating momentum.

FB: You have to compose the gesture mappings according to whatever your compositional principle is. Is the gesture itself a constitutional factor when you compose mapping strategies between your embodied and your mediated voice?

AN: Before using live electronics, gesture was a crucial factor for the performance outcome. I always used the hands either as a visual 'amplification' or, better said, intensification of the expression. This way the hands underline what one is doing, like generating the upcoming next sound. It's some sort of support for myself. I'm gesturing right now which helps me finding the right words. It is an enhancement or even an illustration for the audience to get a better idea of what the performer is aiming at. It is a way of transmitting the content to make it more plausible. So, I was using gestures already a lot. To me, it was a very natural step to incorporate gesture-controlled live electronics and, in so doing, steer the sonic and musical process by hands and arms.

Mapping and Sampling Strategies

FB: In your mapping strategies, are there experiential aspects of instruments or other cultural references while composing gestures for the Strophonion? What are the gesture's communicative references?

AN: I elaborated on gestural techniques in my articles "Designing and Playing with The Strophonion" explaining what does what. First of all, there is an instrument approach to the strophonion. To put it simply, there are twelve buttons to playback samples within the range of a whole octave. This octave, of course, can be transposed. In this sense the strophonion works in a traditional way.
On the other hand, there are gestures, such as the left arm movement, controlling sonic and musical parameters on a continuous basis applying ultrasonic distance measurement. Extending the left arm implies that the volume is loud. The left-hand controller close to the hip means zero volume. So, this linear and gradual volume control can be compared with the fader on the mixing desk. However, as opposed to putting up or down the fader, it is a big difference for the audience if the volume control is made visible by the movement of extending the arm. It becomes evident that the movement is related to the parameter volume control.

Furthermore, other gestures, such as the rotating of the right hand, control frequencies, pitches, timbres, etc. I try to be consistent with the mapping of those. So, you may think this is very straightforward, but it is crucial if you want the audience to understand what you are doing and thus comprehend your performance practice. Aiming for synchronicity between motion and the resulting sound is one way to provide an understanding for the practice. Appreciation is made more accessible if the audience member understands the artist's actions.

The core of my practice is to apply a variety of sampling methods. I can either record material in the performance space, my voice or the sounds of the musicians I'm performing with. Or, on the other hand, I can use sounds previously recorded in the studio or elsewhere. For example. I am using the sound of a bass flute playing the concert pitch of 442 Hertz just to have a reference note. And of course, I can play with that, too. It sounds like a regular bass flute in this register, but if I transpose the sound into other octaves, it suddenly sounds like a pipe organ, especially if I play more than one tone and so on. The listener has the chance to follow how the sound can travel. If the sound is transposed 4 or 5 octaves up or down from the original sample, the sound won't refer to the original flute sound anymore. It has become an electronic sound.
Nevertheless, in this way, being able to transpose sounds, the strophonion works like a traditional instrument. But when I'm using the instrument to sample my voice, it reveals a completely different approach, which becomes significant if the live voice gets blurred into its copy. It is the moment when the gestures gain a more abstract meaning leaving the familiar place of what we thought we know what the performer is doing. So, in effect, the instrument's functionality can change very quickly, going back and forth between a traditional approach of playing the instrument applying determined gestures to gain sonic results and the approach of using the instrument in a more jittery way like chance operation. It is one task that I am trying to solve during the performance and allow the audience to follow the track of a controlled way of playing the instrument to a more abstract way of moving on stage. There is the pitch-related practice playing of the instrument and, at the other end, there is what I call the practice of sound dance, which unfolds if full-body movements are involved in controlling the sounds.
FB: In your piece "Untitled", several performance levels refer to birds: there is the gesture reminding of birds, your whistling technique, and sometimes your postures. Together they create a genuine vocabulary that doesn't belong to the instrumental gesture vocabulary. As a composer, you compose mapping strategies and genuine gesture language that define your new organology. In this way, you compose a new instrument. With each piece that you play with a specific gestural approach, you develop a virtual instrument depending on how gestures are connected to sound modification or precomposed samples.
On the other hand, you say that you use the same gesture for the same sound control during a concert so that the audience understands your intention. But you could convert the mappings and make a "Trugschluss"…laughter…
So questions arise on how I am going to play a specific live electronic process. Which gesture I connect to this process. How do I bring this electronic process together with my body?

Ein Bild, das Person, drinnen, Brille enthält.  Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

AN: What I'm aiming at is to define the instrument's basic functionality and avoid re-defining it over and over again for each piece anew. It's a lot of work before even composing and interpreting a piece of music. So at one point during the development process, I decided to stay with one specific set of preferences, because I am not a programmer myself, which means that I always need help if I decide to re-program the software. I decided to stay with one set of preferences instead of re-defining the instrument every time I present a new piece. I always wanted to work like this. If you play the piano, for instance, it always works the same, too. It is the task of the musician to keep the playing of the instrument interesting and surprising. The way we play and make decisions upon the course of music is, as for me, more important than having a new set of features and control parameters available. Also, the question of how we contextualize the sound creation process seems to be crucial, too. In the case of the strophonion I use four up to five different sample buffers allowing a variety of combinations of sounds being played back at the same time. This then strongly determines the final outcome.

FB: When you create a new piece with your patch, and can assign it to any musical parameter you want to play with.

AN: Yes, I could. But I don't change the general mapping any longer. This is what I think belongs to the process of the instrument development. What changes from piece to piece, though, is the selection of applied sounds, if I decide to use pre-recorded ones, and their combinations in the sample buffers. In fact, it is an important component of the compositional work to ask how do I arrange the samples and how are they going to be played back. In this way I have a few options for various different approaches. But the overall fundamental musical functionality of the instrument works and stays always the same. So, even if I could, I do not switch the assignment of ultrasonic distance measurement that, at one point during the development process, I decided to use for volume control. Because this way I can practice the instrument on the same basis which, with regard to the applied movements, forces me to develop a very specific vocabulary. For me, there is no way to get around this. It is important to exactly know what the various components of the instrument (can) do. This then enables me to focus on the aspect of the performance practice that I'm after, that is, 'vocal sound dance' as a novel way of vocal expression in combination with movements of the whole body. Becoming certain about the question how to handle the instrument is an inevitable task of mastering the instrument. It forms the basis on which I can work without constraints and as freely as possible. In this way, you may say, my approach is a very traditional one.

Compositional Strategies for mappings

FB: For me,, the compositional strategies for mappings are an issue that I compose the processes with my body.

AN: Because then you have to answer the questions all over again every time new. Suppose you allow that to happen.

FB: With STEIM's JunXion, I can assign every gesture to every process. But I define several presets. I use the same preset several times, meaning that the same gestures assigned to the same voice modifications can appear in various compositional contexts. And on the other hand, different mappings can be assigned to the same gesture.

AN: So you have a sort of freedom on HOW your gestures are producing sounds.

FB: In the next step, I have to recreate the mapping workflow because JunXion is not supported on a 64bit operating system anymore. I will change to a MAX, which is a huge challenge but will allow new compositional strategies, especially with gestures and movements assigned to spatialized Ambisonic movements. I let the basic Patches program from a very experienced MAX user. With that basic patches, I hopefully will be able to make adjustments myself.
Anyway, I am very interested in the way decisions in mapping strategies are defined and in which way vocalists use gestural sensor interfaces.

Ein Bild, das Person, drinnen, Wand enthält.  Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

AN: There was a point when I was not happy with the performance outcome. I did video recordings of some of my live performances to study their impact on me as a spectator. It turned out that most of the time, I was focused on playing the instrument by applying micro-movements, like finger-hitting-button actions. This is a very musician-like approach. There is nothing wrong with this, but the resulting outcome wasn't what I was after. That's why I invited Berlin-based dancer and choreographer Florencia Lamarca, whom I collaborated with in the past, to work on the overall performance from a dancer's perspective, emphasising the visual aspect and whole-body movements. During the rehearsal period for the project' Haunted Territories' presented at the Radialsystem Berlin in 2018, we worked on the performance aspect that involves the whole body while, at the same time, playing the instrument musically. This helped me a lot to develop the practice of sound dance.

Whole Body Movement – Sounddance

FB: What make gestures with you? Do they change your musical experience?

AN: Absolutely. Once you allow to happen that your senses, as musician, open up to the whole body, you also gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of the gestures you apply. During the process of learning the instrument I became more sensitive to and aware of the overall meaning of the gestural vocabulary. Before that, I was basically 'just' producing sounds. It was all about sampling the voice and the question how to work with the gained material. But after sharpening my awareness of whole-body movements, I came to think that I finally  understood much better the claim of my own practice.

FB: Controlling the music you want to do?

AN: Yes, but this is only one aspect of the whole practice. Once I incorporated whole-body movements in combination with the making and the controlling of music – not only from a musical standpoint but also from a performance standpoint or dancer's perspective – it kind of rounded off the whole thing. Aiming at this holistic approach it felt that it completed the performance practice as I envisioned it from the beginning: a trans-disciplinary performance practice whose components – vocal inventions, music making, sound engineering and dancing – interact and intertwine to give form to a new gestalt of vocal performance art.

FB: Can you say something about the meaning-making of your whole body gestures mapped to your sound because they do not fit any traditional categories anymore. Interfaces and gestural controllers have a completely open relationship between gesture and the resultant sound. There is this complete freedom to assign body movements to sound. Can you say something about the meaning-making aspects in your whole body performance? How does meaning appear in the communication of this specific approach?

AN: It is a difficult question. It touches the core of something that I'm thinking of a lot, but haven't yet found an appropriate language for. Let me refer to Heinrich Kleist who said that the words appear through speaking. Like the French say, the appetite comes by eating, and Kleist says the right words come by speaking and thoughts are manifested through the speech. This is a question that touches a lot of questions that are based in the dance department. These are questions that dancers are concerned with all the time. What is the meaning of gestures in contemporary dance when we are beyond concrete and rather an abstract sound?

FB: But dancers don't create sound.

Changing musical Performance Language and agreements between audience and musical performer

AN: That's true. However, sound can function as some sort of mediator between movement and music creation. In fact, something I'm concerned with a lot is the question on the mediation within the interaction process between body, sound and technology. Who is mediating whom? Or, in other words, who is dominating whom? I think this is an interesting question. As said above, one way to solve this is by adapting our attention to the given situation. This implies that sometimes the focus is on the vocal outcome, other times on the technical realization of playing gesture-controlled live electronics, and again other times the focus is on the movements in the performance space. Each discipline is feeding back into the other while they altogether form the overall performance outcome. I think we need to be aware of this in order to provide the audience with some sort of an agreeable basis. Nonetheless, now, with the advent of new forms of performative expression, our perception needs to change, too. Because we can no longer evaluate these performance practices with the good-old, musico-traditional matrix of 'beautiful tones', 'nice development', etc. We also need to extend the way we look and listen to these performance practices.  

Ein Bild, das Person, Mann, drinnen, Wand enthält.  Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

You see, that is such a difficult question that I am kind of struggling to get to the point where I am aiming at. It is difficult to put it into appropriate words. So far, every movement that I do on stage is motivated by sound making. That is the initial step. But I got another image when I was collaborating with the dancer Florencia. I got a completely different perspective on how the performance is seen and perceived by the audience than just watching a traditional musical performance, a written piece for traditional instruments. What I mean to say is that there are different agreements on which we form an understanding and on which we create meaning, and they are interacting with each other.
On the one hand, there is the gesture related to music-making, on the other the musical result. But then there are also big gestures and whole-body movements. They still contribute to the music-making process, but they also have another expressive quality that tends to belong to the dance realm. The art happens right there if we, as performers, are in control of all these different platforms and, aware of the different underlying agreements while going back and forth between the disciplines. Our duty as performers is to create an agreement first of all between the audience and ourselves. This is already hard to achieve. Also, for us being improvisers, we have a completely different agreement among an audience that is used to listening to improvised music as opposed to an audience that usually only listens to Gustav Mahler's Lied der Erde, just to name an example. There are different agreements already within the musical domain. Now, with regard to extended vocal performance art, we have another agreement to deal with… The audience wants to understand how we do things, and how we create sounds. Everyone knows how a pianist creates sounds by pushing/pressing/touching keys on the piano each of which triggers a hammer that hits the string producing the sound. The agreement there is clear, and the semantics of that agreement is obvious. But with regard to the use of new musical interfaces, our duty is, to a certain degree, to provide an understanding of the overall instrument and to form the basis for an agreement in order to create meaning and thus communicate. Of course, it is possible to say: ok, I will not explain anything. The audience members have to figure it out themselves. It is the artist's choice! But I believe it gives more pleasure to both the audience and the performer if the last one gives some hints about how the instrument works helping the audience to decipher the gestural vocabulary and to match it to the musical or sonic outcome. This then builds the basis on which musical meaning can be produced.

FB: The idea of an agreement gives a great view of how meaning-making is created between the vocal performer playing with a digital interface. Furthermore, I would like to research a kind of taxonomy. How can we think about these agreements? What are the contents and details of these agreements? This, for example, could be "the focus of attention" with which you direct the audience's attention. Or the "clarity of meaning", where you may always take the same gesture for the same musical parameter. "Information density" is another aspect, as with an overload of information, we cannot understand the meaning.

AN: Yes, great examples and terms for summaries. With regard to 'information density' I'd like to add that it creates meaning on its own, so-to-say, even we don't understand it in terms of linguistic semantics. However, it still has the potential to convey information, that is, to create confusion and so forth. In so doing, it creates a semantic value. The deciphering of the actual meaning of it though takes place in a secondary, hermeneutic step and thus belongs to the realm of interpretation.

FB: Like in free improvisation, out of chaos, new structures can evolve. Or the dynamic of intensity in the stream continuum is another aspect.

AN: Yes, indeed. This is a very interesting aspect. Analyzing a video recording of the sound dance practice as I have elaborated over the years, I can now describe how new structures evolve from an alleged chaotic state. In fact, I can tell once and how my attention, during the performance situation, is shifting from dance to sound, from vocal expression to the act of engineering, that is, live recording and playing back. The audience might not be able to see or detect that, but as for me it is clear how the different areas of vocal performance, movement and technical aspects interact. For example, in order to focus on whole-body movements, I need to let go the musical aspect for a tiny little moment. At the same time the applied movement feeds back into the momentum of  sound creation. The only way to master an interdisciplinary performance practice is to gradually shift the performer's attention from one to the other. Sometimes one needs to do things even simultaneously. However, we are human beings we cannot apply multitasking for too long of a period since it is extremely exhausting. Therefore we have to shift our attention and look after our attention span for different tasks. As to me it is intriguing to have the opportunity of going back and forth between the vocal, the music-making and the movement-related parts of a performance. The vocals are always between the body and the clone of the voice, between the dance and the manipulated sonic result. What I'm always coming back to, in this very complex performance situation, is the my own live voice. This, maybe, is the main agreement between the audience and me.

FB: If you play with a dancer, you get another connotation, and also, your gestures create another meaning.

AN: Yes, very good point. By the way, have you seen this short clip of Berlin-based dancer Susanne Martin and me called 'Dr.D. meets Dr. V.' and how we interact?

FB: Yes, it is amusing and absurd. I love it!

AN: This performance has a strong focus on acting. Susanne's core discipline is actually dancing, but she is constantly acting, too. So do I. The scene gets perfectly understood even though one must say that the result may be completely absurd. However, it is very encouraging to see that we can allow ourselves to work across and push the boundaries of artistic disciplines. It's what I think we need to do, too, if we want to expand the field of vocal performance art…

Ein Bild, das Person, drinnen, Wand, Mann enthält.  Automatisch generierte Beschreibung


Schaumspuren (foam traces) begins with a clear sentence, then the individual words are swirled nonsensically, broken down into individual syllables and letters until only word foam remains.

Dissolving consonants
In Dissolving Consonants, the consonants are removed from the words and the information is replaced with angry emotions.

Panache is a good example of an articulation reference. By articulating mouth sounds without sound, we hear his tongue and lips in action.

Mit Strophonion
In Untitled, Alex re-embodies his live recorded samples (From Me) with the gestures related to the live processing of the strophonion. The bird-like motions that he mapped to his gestural system raise the relative intensity of the doubles' meaning. His gestural vocabulary intensifies the focus and the meaning.


Franziska Baumann