Jan Svenungsson

"Groove Operator", in: Zeitraum Formulations, www.researchcatalogue.net, 2015

At the end of 2012, Florian Dombois invited me to produce a sound work for the György Ligeti Concert Hall at the MUMUTH in Graz. Together with Gerhard Eckel, Florian was organizing a combined concert and conference called Mind the Gap(1), which took place in early March 2013.

I happily took up this challenge and produced a work with the title “Jacques Vaché in Graz”, and this became something that I am proud of. Although this text relates to the genesis of my work, its main focus is on Gerhard Eckel’s “Zeitraum”, a piece that really took me aback when I heard it, and which has continued to stir my thoughts.

The Ligeti Hall is a large box-like space for contemporary music and sound, 32 x 16 x 11 meters in size, with a permanent ceiling rig at 8 meters, from which 33 large loudspeakers descend at locations all over the hall. It has no permanent seats. A mixing desk can feed each speaker individually, and these can be both rotated and shifted vertically. In essence the Ligeti Hall is itself a big instrument. Comparable in its potential for sheer physical output perhaps only to a very large church organ, it doesn’t have the earlier machine’s limitations. Here sound generation is controlled and processed digitally, and thus it is not dependent on any particularities of hardware. How do you create a work for a space like this?

The Mind the Gap invitation had a catch. My piece, as well as the pieces by the other five contributors(2), would have to be presented in two versions: twice in performances at the concert hall – and concurrently in a presentation on the web. Clearly, the two variants of the work would have to be conceptualized differently, so that they would each make sense in such disparate situations. The context of the concert was a meeting of the Society for Artistic Research, while the web space where our virtual projects would be presented was the organization's online platform: the Research Catalogue.

I am primarily a visual artist. When I received Florian’s invitation I realized it must have been triggered by a sound piece I made for another of his events, in Berlin a couple of years earlier. Here he(3) had provided me and some sound artists with a catalogue of samples, each a recording of the “clang” of a particular modernistic sculpture – in the German city of Marl – being hit with a small hammer. I had the idea of letting a piece of music be “played” on these sculptures. I achieved this by cannibalizing the MIDI programming of a (pop) song I had already been working on in Logic, replacing all the original samples (of drums, bass, strings, etc.) with sculpture sounds, some of which I allowed myself to repitch. In this way I managed to create a piece of sculpture music with a steady beat and a multitude of percussive effects, then delivering a Kraftwerk-like “performance” of it at the event. I called my piece “Jacques Vaché in Marl”, with a nod to the original lyrics of the song used, which had dealt with the repercussions of Mr Vaché’s purported suicide in 1919.

For Mind the Gap, I decided to rework and expand this piece from its original two-channel format into a 33-channel version. I painstakingly separated the different sculpture-sounds from each other, assigning a loudspeaker to each. In Ligeti Hall, I imagined, listeners would experience the interacting rhythms, consonances and dissonances of the Marl sculpture configurations in ever new ways, depending on how they chose to move through the loudspeaker-filled space while the piece was playing. On the web, meanwhile, I wanted to present a map of all the loudspeaker positions with a click-and-play function. The visitor to the website, in contrast to the visitor to the hall, would be free to choose his own combination of tracks playing simultaneously, although he would have to manage the synchronisation between them himself, since there would be no master “play” button. Hence, all the components of my composition would be revealed individually and made available on the web. And yet for them to make sense together, and for the actual composition to become accessible, one would need to be present in the hall during a performance.

Before the start of this project I didn’t know Gerhard Eckel, and I didn’t know his work. Our first contact took place about a month before the event in Graz(4), when we communicated via Skype and he helped me with the programming of my web presentation. We were both going to present pieces where the audience members’ movement within the space was to be an important part of the experiential interface. We were thus sharing the problem of how to create on the web a relevant alternative version of this physical and interactive experience (which for me, at this point, existed only in my imagination). Gerhard had already finished his web presentation(5), and when I looked at it... I didn’t really get it. The manipulative possibilities of his loudspeaker map, were not contingent on switching sound sources on and off, but instead were demonstrated by clicking on arrows which moved a red “master dot” to different positions on the map. From each such position, straight lines of unequal lengths were projected from this dot through all the map’s loudspeaker dots, ending in a second dot. Depending on where in the loudspeaker landscape the red dot was located, the primitive rhythm of what sounded like a percussive instrument (a snare drum perhaps) changed from a straight pulse (with the dot in the upper left corner) to a more or less chaotic rattling when the dot was positioned elsewhere in the room. It didn’t seem very interesting to me, moving the dot here and there, although the persistent clatter had a certain hypnotic effect. I still hadn’t met Gerhard in person – and more importantly: I had not yet been to Graz and experienced Ligeti Hall in its physical form.

During the week before the concert/conference I was working in Vienna, which made it easy for me to travel down to Graz for a soundcheck two days before the event. It was truly exciting to step into the György Ligeti Hall in reality, and when I heard my piece played in its proper three-dimensional form for the first time, I felt both humble and thrilled. Until then, I had only been listening to it using headphones, while working on it on my laptop. Yet it sounded not so far off from what I had dared to imagine, and only needed some adjustments: individual loudspeakers required volume adjustment, and in one or two cases it was necessary to switch their channels. Sound artist/scientist Martin Rumori from Graz helped me make these changes. While software and technology had allowed me to control the timbre and microposition of every tick of my composition, I was indeed completely dependent on others when faced with the actual technology of the hall.

Let’s imagine I had chosen to use 33 musicians to perform “Jacques Vaché in Graz” (never mind the logistics of bringing their instruments – the sculptures – from Marl to Graz), and that I had been able to score all their different parts myself: I still would not have had the same control over detail as I had now. On the other hand, in order to produce this alternative musician-based version, I would have needed a much deeper knowledge of the logic and mechanisms of music composition. Computer-based composition (using consumer software like Logic) brokers a strange and seductive marriage between conceptual control and dilettantish enthusiasm. Had I indeed been rehearsing my piece with 33 score-reading musicians, I would now have been dependent on social skills instead of on a technician. What the two different situations would have in common, though, is that once the scheduled concert was over, I would most likely never get to hear my piece in its proper form again.

I was much aware of this transience during the performances that followed, two days later. Moving through the hall while my piece was playing I imagined walking through a vast Marl park(6), encountering sculptures here and there, hearing their sound approach or become more distant. I was constantly aware of variations in the sound’s configuration depending on where I found myself, yet my piece did not fundamentally change depending on the listener’s exact location in the hall. I had chosen one “clang” to be repeated in a steady pulse loudly enough for it to remain present everywhere, independent of one’s position. It was intended as a device connecting fragments of melodic material and expressive structure within the piece. Here and there, the rhythm even had a certain swing to it. When this happened through the interplay of sculptures in speakers far apart, my precise location took on added importance. I had to stay in the “zone”.

The other pieces performed varied in how they took advantage of the hall’s possibilities. Florian used the space like a theatrical stage where (seismic) events took place one after another, at different locations. Others used the setup more like a superb sound system, without necessarily triggering any listener movement. In the end, one composition stood out from all the others: Gerhard’s “Zeitraum”. Its web version had not meant much to me. Here, in its physical form, it was a revelation.

Whereas I had chosen to keep my composition on track by means of a pulse(7), Gerhard’s piece was all about pulse and the construction of rhythm in space, and as a function of space. It wasn’t until I could experience it in the room for which it had been conceived – and outside of which it cannot exist(8), aside from simulations – that I “got” it. Even so, as with all successful art, what I “get” is not necessarily an exact translation of what the artist wanted to produce.

Struggling to describe the construction of “Zeitraum” for this text, I sent an email to Gerhard with questions. This is one of his answers: 

There is a sound every 1/6 of a second from one of the 33 speakers selected at random, with no speaker repeating until at least 31 have been used. Listening to a single speaker, we would hear a percussive sound about every 5.5 seconds on average. But when exactly the sound would come (in that individual speaker) cannot be predicted. You can only be sure that if you hear a sound from a speaker, there will be another one some 5.5 seconds later (but also not completely predictably, it could be one or the other slot of the underlying pulse). On top of the underlying pulse, there is the time alignment applied to every speaker such that the sounds all take the same time to arrive at the "reference position".

and in an answer to a follow-up question about the “time alignment”, he wrote:

Each speaker has an individual delay, with a duration corresponding to the red lines in the diagram (in the web visualisation). Together with the natural flight time (black line), it produces the alignment. These delays are fixed, so the effect of temporal decorrelation would apply to anything you play through the 33 loudspeakers, but with the time alignment the effect is more extreme, both at the reference position and in the opposite corner. The effect is also there without the alignment. It also happened in your piece. Without the alignment it limped a bit less (corresponding to the second diagram). The alignment is a kind of distortion which make the perspective appear "perfect" (as good as possible with respect to the regularity of the timing) from one point of listening.

The keyword here is “reference position”. Close to the upper left corner of the hall there was a circle marked by a spotlight on the floor(9). When you positioned yourself there, the percussive clatter came together to form a clean pulse, though with varying intensities because of the uneven distances to the speakers. It made me think of an old-fashioned train(10). What I understand now is that each speaker had received an individual delay, to compensate for the variation in distance, measured to this precise point. The more you moved away from this point, the more the rhythm fell apart and became disjointed and chaotic. The really interesting aspect of this was that the most enjoyable neighbourhood to linger in was an area just outside of this circle, where something positive happened to the pulse before it began to break down. The reference position may have offered the cleanest rhythm to the brain, but the version of the rhythm which appealed the most to the body was beside it, in a grey zone where reason no longer reigned supreme(11). By changing your position ever so slightly, you moved in and out of a groove.

Groove can appear in all sorts of music, but it is typically associated with popular music having a rhythmic forward drive. Skilful musicians are able to position – in a deliberate but primarily unconscious manner – their accents “around” the metronomic beat, making the rhythm more organic and ultimately more attractive. Making it “move” in the literal sense of the word. Groove is not an intellectual concept. It belongs to a class of sensory expressions or experiences which we are all able to recognise when we encounter them, but which are more or less impossible to translate adequately into words(12). A groove cannot be written into a score, it can only be added in the playing. In the recording studio, producers of all sorts of popular music put much of their effort into worrying about the groove. As music making processes have become increasingly dependent on software during the last decades, much time has been spent on deconstructing the mechanisms of groove using digital technology. The programme I use, Logic, even promises to produce it automatically if I wish. I’m not so sure, however, that this works: in my experience so far, convincing grooves are dependent on human operators. Whether these are playing or programming their instruments is another matter. What is important is their ability to position themselves in just the right spot – outside of the reference position.
This is what made experiencing “Zeitraum” so special. Here was an automated rhythmic construction based on math and a randomizing function – a machine “improvising” from a set of parameters – where we, the audience, found ourselves in charge of the groove. Through the way I positioned myself as a listener in the space, I could micro-manage the delays and tiny dislocations which made the rhythm work on me in an organic manner. Since the construction of the piece as a whole is based on the minute delays created by the varying distances from the listener to the different loudspeakers, not only will audience members’ movement within the space change their perception of the rhythm, but differences in each individual’s sense of rhythm will also impact how – and where – they best experience the groove. The sound produced by the loudspeakers – hypnotic and enjoyable or disjointed and disturbing – offered each of us a tool for self-exploration and reflection.  And I, for one, felt the urge to take “my” groove and use it for further work.

In the context of the Mind the Gap conference and concert, Gerhard had had an obvious advantage over the other performers. Only he had intimate knowledge of the concert’s main “instrument” – the Ligeti Hall. Working on his piece, Gerhard could use the hall as his laboratory. He had been able to test his hypotheses in order to see (or more correctly: hear) whether his predictions regarding the effects of natural and induced delays would prove right or wrong. With test results in hand (and ear), he had been able to adjust his theory accordingly and try again. I can easily imagine others continuing this investigation, using his work as a platform and a point of departure for further inquiry into the possibilities of spatial constructing rhythm and into the changing parameters of groove. And yet “Zeitraum” also had an unmistakeable emotional impact, which motivated the effort on a whole other level. It was moving music – and it created a situation in which you became both the subject and the operator of the groove.

Jan Svenungsson