Mu­sic for chameleons

Myr­iam Bleau at Cur­rents

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Paul Wei­de­man

a glow­ing disc spins, we hear a deep, rhyth­mic sound. Hands ap­pear, turn­ing an­other disc slightly, then an­other, more rapidly, and an ethe­real mu­sic and a crazily mod­u­lated voice join the au­ral mix. As we watch, the hands ma­nip­u­late four light-filled discs, which seem to pro­duce a mes­mer­iz­ing se­quence of chirps, mod­u­lated choral ef­fects, lights, rhyth­mic frag­ments, and vo­cal­iza­tions: a lilt­ing, wa­v­ery voice re­peats the word “re-vol-vers, re-vol-vers, re-vol-vers.” Th­ese are from Myr­iam Bleau’s piece Soft Re­volvers, which she per­forms at El Museo Cul­tural de Santa Fe on Fri­day, June 12, and Satur­day, June 13, at 7 p.m., as part of this year’s Cur­rents In­ter­na­tional New Me­dia Fes­ti­val.

The discs are ac­tu­ally large tops built by the artist. “Most of the pieces that I used for th­ese are things you can buy off the shelf, but the big, clear acrylic discs I had to cut out with a saw,” Bleau said. She spoke with Pasatiempo from Ba­ton Rouge, where she had just per­formed at the 15th In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence on New In­ter­faces for Mu­si­cal Ex­pres­sion.

Bleau, based in Mon­treal, is a mu­si­cian who is in­ter­ested in “cre­at­ing co­he­sive sys­tems that in­te­grate sound, light, and move­ment” and “propos­ing new con­texts for the mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.” Each of her tops has an “in­stru­ment” as­so­ci­ated with it; th­ese can be au­dio sam­ples of a voice, a bass sound, or a per­cus­sive noise. In­side the tops are LED lights, as well as gy­ro­scopes and ac­celerom­e­ters that com­mu­ni­cate wire­lessly with a com­puter. The tops’ mo­tions — fast twirl, slow twirl, hand-as­sisted ro­ta­tion around its edge, a tip­ping thunk — stim­u­late sounds based on mu­si­cal al­go­rithms that Bleau de­signed us­ing the Pure Data vis­ual pro­gram­ming lan­guage. A cam­era planted above the ta­ble projects a blown-up im­age of the artist, tops, and ta­ble onto a screen be­hind her.

Dur­ing the ap­prox­i­mately 20-minute per­for­mance of Soft Re­volvers, the au­di­ence wit­nesses not only the in­de­scrib­able va­ri­ety of noises and jit­tery lights, but the artist’s move­ments — al­ter­nately de­lib­er­ate and dance­like — as she makes de­ci­sions about mo­ti­vat­ing the tops. Some­times she gets a beat go­ing for a few sec­onds, then it’s oblit­er­ated by some­thing new. How­ever, as the “con­cert” pro­ceeds, its over­all char­ac­ter is most rem­i­nis­cent of hip hop.

Bleau said the re­la­tion­ships be­tween her mo­tions and the sounds are very di­rect. “A lot of peo­ple pick up the de­tails of my in­ter­ac­tions. I’m not gen­er­ally in­ter­ested in blurry re­la­tion­ships that are too ro­man­tic for me. When I spin a top, sound starts play­ing. When the tops spin faster, the sam­ples are played at a higher pitch or the rhyth­mic pat­terns will be played faster.

“On stage, I need to han­dle the tops so they don’t fall off the ta­ble or bump into each other at mo­ments that wouldn’t make sense mu­si­cally. I think peo­ple can feel that ten­sion and know what to an­tic­i­pate in my ges­tures since they know the ob­jects’ be­hav­ior well.” Bleau men­tioned a long­stand­ing in­ter­est in us­ing familiar ob­jects in her au­dio­vi­sual projects. The types of move­ments ex­pected from a top, for in­stance, are eas­ily un­der­stand­able be­cause of our as­so­ci­a­tions with the child­hood toy.

There is an in­ter­est­ing con­trast be­tween the “ma­chine” qual­ity of the au­ral and vis­ual phe­nom­ena in Soft Re­volvers and the fact that Bleau’s trig­ger­ing ev­ery­thing with hu­man touch. And she dances to the grooves she cre­ates. “I am def­i­nitely danc­ing to the mu­sic some­times, like a DJ would do. At slow speeds, the tops act more like in­stru­ments and I can do ges­tures like scratch so­los. There’s al­ways a play be­tween back­ground and fore­ground and be­tween solo­ing and what’s hap­pen­ing in the back­ground, so it’s re­ally like a DJ per­for­mance.” Has she done that? “No. I’ve played gui­tar in hip hop bands, but I was never a DJ with turnta­bles.”

Bleau also plays cello and pi­ano and is a com­poser. Her pre­vi­ous works in­clude the com­po­si­tions Mu­sic for a Yoga Class, CAS.IO, and Spin­ning End­less; and the in­stal­la­tion/ per­for­mance pieces Pho­toma­ton, which is based on the con­cept of on/off, and Anti

Cham­bre, an an­i­mated sound-and-light piece pre­sented via a row of par­al­lel flu­o­res­cent lights. She is work­ing on a mas­ter’s de­gree in com­po­si­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Mon­treal; her the­sis sub­ject is an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of per­for­mance-spe­cific mu­si­cal in­ter­faces, such as the one she de­vel­oped for Soft Re­volvers. That piece may seem to be noth­ing but spon­ta­neous, but in fact, it is very struc­tured. “There are clear sec­tions in it, with a pro­gres­sion. I al­ways have room for im­pro­vi­sa­tion in the [struc­ture], be­cause of the un­pre­dictable na­ture of the in­ter­faces. But com­pov­ery sition is al­ways im­por­tant to me. I like to craft the ex­pe­ri­ence. Com­po­si­tion plays an im­por­tant role in ev­ery­thing that I do. The ten­sion and re­lease dy­nam­ics in a per­for­mance can be or­ches­trated to have the strong­est im­pact on the spec­ta­tor, and that’s al­ways what I’m try­ing to achieve.”

In the year or so since she pre­miered Soft Re­volvers, she has evolved the piece in many ways, in­clud­ing the fact that she has be­come much more com­fort­able with the lan­guage of ges­tures needed to an­i­mate the tops. “One thing that is very im­por­tant to me is to be at risk in some way when I per­form, so I al­ways add new el­e­ments so I’m not com­pletely sure what’s go­ing to hap­pen. I want to keep my­self on the edge, and I want the per­for­mance to be as vis­ceral as pos­si­ble. Also, in the per­for­mance, I truly have to run around and make sure the tops don’t fall off, and it can be quite stress­ful, so that also keeps me on the edge.”

One of the fac­tors in her mind when she con­ceived Soft Re­volvers was that so many per­for­mances of elec­tronic mu­sic are vis­ually bor­ing. “I love this mu­sic, and I love lis­ten­ing to it but when­ever I go to a con­cert I’m very frus­trated with how it’s pre­sented. Usu­ally there’s some­body be­hind a lap­top and not re­ally mov­ing and so why are you even on the stage? I’ve been play­ing gui­tar for a long time and I love the au­di­ence re­spond­ing to you. With the tops, some­times I re­ally feel that the au­di­ence is with me and un­der­stands where I’m go­ing, like dur­ing a jazz con­cert.

“I’m try­ing to find ways to per­form the mu­sic live in a way that makes sense. That’s why my projects are not nec­es­sar­ily sim­i­lar from one to an­other be­cause I’m try­ing to an­swer that ques­tion as broadly as pos­si­ble.”

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