Forbidden Butch

Forbidden Butch is a fairly simple piece from a technological perspective. Each member of the ensemble uses the same piece of software, which is a joystick controlled FM synthesizer built in Max/MSP. The piece is organized musically through conducted improvisation. This allows for an ensemble of musicians playing a direct control instrument to interact on both an individual and ensemble level.

Forbidden Butch began out of my desire to create an instrument that uses the joystick controllers that we have as part of the LOLs equipment collection. The joysticks are Logitech Extreme 3D joysticks, so all of the software mappings are for this model. The interface of the instrument is fairly straight forward. The y axis of the joystick is mapped to the carrier frequency, the x axis is mapped to the modulating frequency, and the rotation of the joystick is mapped to the amplitude of the modulating oscillator. The paddle is mapped to the FM output gain, the side buttons control delay feedback presets, the top buttons control delay time presets, the hat button adjusts the delay time in 10 ms increments, and the trigger controls a gain multiplier, so that the instrument only makes sound when the trigger is pulled.

Joystick controls

Originally I had planned to devise a notation system for the instrument, which would allow me to compose a fully notated piece. This desire for a fully notated piece was largely fueled by the LOLs lack of fully notated pieces, and my desire to push myself out of my own comfort zone. I am an improviser at heart, and I enjoy establishing musical spaces from which to improvise, but in this case I wanted to deal with the music in notated form. Of course dealing with notated music requires a system of notation for the instruments for which one is composing. Since this joystick instrument has no real tempered pitch reference, standard musical notation is not a very rewarding way to record the composition.

I went through a few different paradigms of test notation, but never did find a system that felt intuitive to both the composer and performer. Most of the ideas felt intuitive to neither the composer nor performer. I tried a couple of different graphic notations that followed the idea of drawing out a shape that would then be recreated on the joystick. These ideas were fairly successful at communicating pitch shapes, but much less successful at communicating time components of the music.

In August of 2010, I travelled to Sant’Anna Aressi on the island of Sardegna, which is politically a part of Italy. I was there to perform on their wonderful jazz festival, and was fortunate to arrive the day before my performance and have a chance to hear Butch Morris (http://www.conduction.us). Mr. Morris does Conductions™, which are conducted improvisations, in which he communicates musical organization to the musicians through an elaborate system of gestures. Many of the specifics or each musical gesture are improvised by the individual performer, but the overall musical shape and form is rigidly controlled by Mr. Morris. It later struck me that conducted improvisation would be a great means of organizing this piece, in that it allows for the fact that it is very difficult to notate specific musical events for these joystick instruments, but it also allows for a coherent organization of the over all musical experience.

Once I decided that the piece would be a conducted improvisation, I drew up a short hand gesture guide to aid in communication between the conductor (me) and the performers.

Hand Signal Guide

Rub belly in circular motion = long tones or drone

Pointing at watch (real or imaginary) = play something with regular rhythm or something rhythmic

Hands like parenthesis = repeat what you are doing

Sweeping hand with palm upward = improvise freely

Open hand, circular motion, palm facing floor = play melodically

Hand perpendicular to floor, fingers wiggling = slightly vary what you are doing now

Other more standard conducting gestures related to dynamics, downbeats, and cutoffs will also be employed, along with some more abstracted gestures that are open to interpretation by the performers.

When I first presented the piece to the LOLs in rehearsal, I had titled it “Battlestar Butch,” with the Battlestar being a reference to the scifi vibe of the joystick controller, and of course Butch being in honor of Butch Morris. At that first rehearsal Prof. Beck commented on how similar the sounds were to the “Forbidden Planet” soundtrack, and offered “Forbidden Butch” as another title option. I liked the sound of it, and it stuck.

We performed the piece with 5 joystick performers and one conductor. Other numbers of performers could work just as well. When the patch opens, there are buttons that allow the performer to select “soprano,” “alto,” or “bass.” These only affect the frequency range of the instrument. We performed the piece with 2 sopranos, 2 altos, and 1 bass.

The piece requires more rehearsal than one might think initially. The greatest issue is that the performers need time to become intimately familiar with the joystick interface. The ability to quickly adjust delay times and feedback settings is crucial, as this allows for sudden and drastic shifts in texture. This familiarity only comes from time spent playing the instrument. It is also important to develop a rapport between the conductor and performers. Even after we had performed the piece a half dozen or more times, I found myself giving verbal instructions during performances. Ideally we would be familiar enough with each other to avoid that, although sometimes it was just a function of me trying to get us to do something that we had never done before.

I found that when I conducted the piece with a consistent shape and structure from rehearsal to performance that it was much more successful. Whenever I tried to follow my improviser’s instincts and find new musical ground during a performance, things were tougher. I think this was due in equal parts to the still developing maturity as improvisers of some members of the ensemble, and my inability to accurately and efficiently communicate what I wanted to happen. All of this would likely be cured with more rehearsal.

A zip file containing both the application and .maxpat version of the software is available here: http://research.jeffalbert.com/software/fb_bundle.zip

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