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Music & Movement — Using MIDI With Contemporary Dance

Exploration By Nick Rothwell
Published November 1995

Nick Rothwell had a problem; although he owned an impressive MIDI setup, he found much of it useless when his musical project Cassiel came to provide the music for live dance performances. Here he explains how he solved his problems and adapted his setup to fit in with new requirements.

I started Cassiel early in 1990 as a fairly hi‑tech keyboard‑based project playing Berlin‑school electronic music, but after a live appearance at the 1990 Electronica festival, I became concerned by the lack of visual impact that keyboard‑based acts generate. I knew I wanted some artistic visual focus, but didn't believe that the answer lay in a bigger light show or a rack of slide projectors. I hit upon a solution later that year after attending a breathtaking contemporary dance performance: I became determined to combine electronic music with this kind of dance. By 1992, I was Artistic Director (as well as composer/performer) for a programme of dance at a major venue during one of Edinburgh's spring arts festivals. However, this shift to working with dancers meant a considerable change in my attitudes to gear and how I used it.

The Trouble With Computers...

Contemporary dance is concerned with swift, fluid physical movement; but with computer‑based sequencers, it can take three hours to sequence a five‑minute piece. Furthermore, a lot of the appeal of working in dance is the potential for interaction and improvisation between musician and dancer. The notion of parallel tracks of raw data on different MIDI channels, playing back at a fixed tempo and duration at a specific point in a piece, was totally inappropriate for my new kind of work. I needed the ability to bring parts in and out of the sound score, and control timbres, notes, delays, and effects, at any time, immediately and on cue. Unsurprisingly, my dissatisfaction with sequencers grew rapidly as I became more involved with dance work, and by late 1993 I had abandoned sequencers as compositional and performance tools. My ancient copy of MOTU's Performer is still wheeled out for recording performance data, but that's all.

Problems With Keyboards...

Similar problems arose when I tried to adapt my keyboard rigs for use in dance performances. Keyboards provide a row of switches, suitable only for triggering notes. The lack of real‑time controllers is an oft‑aired criticism, but where that becomes serious is when you need to play and control several sounds or parts of a composition at once. In contrast, consider the performance of percussionists, pianists, guitarists, flautists or vocalists — they all have immediate access to any aspect of performance that their instrument can deliver.

In 1990, the Cassiel rig had been fairly conventional: two Ensoniq VFXs, two Roland D50s and a Juno 106, some outboard modules (a Roland MKS70 and D110, and a Waldorf Microwave), and assorted effects. Back then, the idea had been simple: play everything possible, and sequence the rest (or put it on tape).

But because of problems like those mentioned above, I gradually found myself selling off the gear I had been using, and replacing it with equipment more suited to my new‑found requirements. In 1992, I sold my VFX (largely because of its tendency to crash during rehearsals) and changed my working methods considerably.

...And The Solution

The solution I adopted to all my problems was a combination of hardware and software. The hardware is a Peavey PC1600 fader box (16 faders and 16 buttons) which, for all but the most complex performances, is the only instrument I actually play. And the software is Opcode's object‑orientated MIDI applications generator, Max. It was exactly what I needed to gain proper control of the synth modules and effects I was using, and allowed me to change the nature of my live performances from playing over backing sequences to having an environment of total control, where I could access and play any part of the score in any way I wanted, at any time. Instead of firing up a sequencer and recording linear tracks, I could bolt together software objects and patch panels, mapping faders and buttons to MIDI events and systems in a process of interactive composition (see the 'Get the Max' box for more on using the program live).

The New Setup

Reliability is a key issue in the kind of live work I do. My performance computer is a three‑year‑old Apple PowerBook 140 (with 170 CPU board), which is fine as a Max engine, apart from being rather RAM‑limited; I don't need frills. There have been terrible problems running MIDI applications on some Macs in the last three years, but my heroes in this area are not Apple, but people like Doug Wyatt at Opcode, who reverse‑engineered the PowerBooks' ROM to get the machines working (when I bought my PB140, it was on the understanding that Apple were "working on a fix" to the MIDI problems, while issuing press releases of non‑functional workarounds. Three years on, nothing has been fixed, and I doubt it ever will!).

I use two Korg Wavestation racks — an A/D and an SR are the main synthesis engines. The Wavestations are powerful machines (apart from some blind spots like the weak filtering and naive voice allocation), with good real‑time control and excellent onboard effects, which can be programmed on the fly via SysEx during performance (all done in Max, of course). I have two units in order to get 64 voices and four effects processors, because when I use the vocoders I tend to consume both voices and effects very rapidly.

I do all my programming on the A/D, and have Max code for bouncing patches from there to the SR. I also retain my Waldorf Microwave, since I love the PPG sound, although I've had it for five years and am still learning how best to programme it! Effects are courtesy of a Lexicon LXP1 and LXP5, which are programmed from an MRC controller or Max. A Peavey QFX 4 x 4 effects unit takes care of the bread‑and‑butter effects — you can have four running at once, totally independently. I also took delivery of an Emu UltraProteus recently — it attracted me when I realised that it was an Emu Morpheus with double the sample ROM (including some lovely Proteus 3/World ethnic stuff) and more filter cubes.

Fringe Benefits

During the summer Cassiel appeared live at the Edinburgh Fringe performing two pieces. For both, I had the Max‑based control system, four rack synths (two Wavestations, the UltraProteus and the Microwave) and a few effects processors. Most of the performance was via the fader box, but I did also make sparing use of the Roland PC200 (see the 'Rigs and Portability' box). Audience numbers were respectable, but won't make us rich...

Cassiel can be contacted on the World Wide Web at the following address:

Rigs And Portability

Live work with dance companies requires a rig that is portable and easy to put together — setup and breakdown times can be very short. If the rig comprises a half‑dozen keyboards, 50 cables and requires two hours work to set up, nothing is going to get done. If it's a 6U rack and a fader box and can be put together in five minutes, things are much more relaxed and hassle‑free.

For major performances, I have two CP Eurorack 500 6U rack cases. The first contains my mixer and effects: a Mackie CR1604 is mounted across the top of the case, with the rotopod arranged so that the jacks point upwards. Directly behind the Mackie is an MTR 80‑way jackbay which patches the mixer's aux sends, returns and inserts, allowing the effects to be configured quickly and flexibly. At the front of the case I have my BBE 362NR Sonic Maximizer and noise reduction (usually patched into the main mix), my Lexicon LXP1 and LXP5 side by side, and my Peavey QFX 4 x 4. I leave 1U spare for any other modules I might need.

The second case contains the synths: the Wavestation A/D and SR, the Waldorf Microwave, and another MTR jackbay to snake audio to the Mackie. There's a 400‑series case, converted to a 3U, for my PowerBook and an Opcode Studio 4 MIDI interface/patchbay; the top comes off the case when using the PowerBook. Performance is via the Peavey PC1600 fader box, and I also have a small (4‑octave) Roland PC200 keyboard for situations where I absolutely have to play keys.

That's the full rig, pretty much, and I prefer to use much less; the minimum is probably a 3U for the UltraProteus with Lexicons patched into its send/return jacks (and probably the BBE on the output), and a 3U for the PowerBook and Studio 4, plus the fader box.

Sampling: A Novel Approach

I no longer own a sampler. Samplers still lag behind synthesizers when it comes to real‑time control, though I have plans to get something like an Roland S760 to use for reproducing audio elements from the synths and effects live; basically just as a digital playback machine, although I confess I'm also attracted by its real‑time‑controllable filtering and parametric EQ...

Get The Max: Using Opcode's Max In Performances

My use of a bank of faders for performances might suggest that all I do is mix the volumes of different sounds, but Max allows a lot more than that. For a recent performance I had Max mapping faders to the following: controller data (vector mix, effects), chords (with ranges of the fader selecting different groups of notes), arpeggiation (with faders controlling tempo and note velocity), virtual tape loops (faders acting as record/playback switches), pedal notes (faders turning notes on and off), melodies (fader values mapped to notes in a modal scale), drum machine pattern selection and so on. And since this is all built from an interactive toolkit, I can change mappings, sounds, and mixes during rehearsals and soundchecks, or even in the middle of a performance.

To take an example, in a recent piece I had a fader controlling the level of a MIDI note loop which ends the piece, so that I could fade it manually. Just before the performance, the choreographer decided that the stage should be empty when the music ends. Thirty seconds later, I'd rigged up a ramp generator which I punched in at the end of the piece to allow the dancer and myself to walk offstage during the fade‑out.

The pieces I perform tend to be quite long (maybe 30 minutes) and require new patches and programs to be called up and configured, and new fader routings established, several times during the piece. Needless to say, this can get quite complicated, and while the functionality of the fader box is about right, the ergonomics are not ideal. Accordingly, I am currently looking very seriously at Don Buchla's Thunder MIDI controller as a performance instrument.