a column by
Michel Waisvisz Franca Lohmann©2009
In the ever expanding root structure of improvised musics, the rhizome of jazz still tethers a tight circle of sprouts, buds seemingly more like each other with each generation. This self similar, fractal like expansion, however, from time to time creates mutants – even cyborgs. It was 1969 when a collective of composers and improvisers based in Amsterdam formed the STudio for Electro-Instrumental Music, or STEIM, the mutant offspring of powerful Dutch improvising and composing personalities. The founders, Misha Mengelberg, Louis Andriessen, Peter Schat, Dick Raaijmakers (who has a monograph coming out in English in September of 2009), Jan van Vlijmen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Willem Breuker, and Konrad Boehmer, were attempting to organize themselves and find ways to generate support for their particular compositional and improvisation style – what they considered to be the future of Dutch music. Managing and organizing the numerous pieces of electronic hardware, including mixers and loud speakers, required to work with live electronics at the time demanded a collaborative style. Some of STEIM's first work was supporting untamed electroacoustic theatre and the improvisations of the Instant Composers Pool. So began a venerable institution that this year celebrates its 40th anniversary.
As Kevin Whitehead notes in his exemplary chronicle of the Dutch music scene, New Dutch Swing [Billboard Books, 1998], from its onset STEIM had attitude – it was 'anti-computer, anti-synthesis, and pro-distortion.' Although led by Mengelberg for its early days, the irreverence of the sixties gave way to a glam pragmatism: to make electronic music by touch. It would be Michel Waisvisz who would focus efforts to 'escape the gray experimental and theoretically-biased laboratory environment' with his touch philosophy [Waisvisz, Muziek Actuell, 1986] Having come to music from a musical family (his father Jacques was already a heavy on the Dutch scene), an interest in building shortwave radios and Coltrane's Interstellar Space, Waisvisz developed electronic instruments responsive to very subtle touch that created bizarre, sometimes unpredictable sounds. The analog instruments were called Kraakdoos, or Crackle Boxes, and were hand held mini noise makers whose nuances were learnable, if never quite predictable, allowing them to be used as a tool for improvisation.
It was from this experience, and from sticking his hands into commercial synthesizer's circuitry (check out Steve Lacy's Lump, ICP 016), that Waisvisz developed what he termed his 'Touch' philosophy. The Crackle Boxes worked on the principle that the natural capacitance in the body, or the hands, could alter the circuit of an analog device (touch capacitance is the same principle that Apple exploits to give touch control of its iPhones and iPods) thus creating a 'bent' circuit, if you will. The Touch philosophy became extended to the custom interfaces that STEIM began developing in the early eighties, the earliest attempts using Atari computers with custom software designed by Frank Baldé and with wild names like 'Deviator' and 'Lick Machine'.
Instead of remaining confined, behind stacks of hardware with only sliders or buttons for control, Waisvisz was able to engage the hardware with a sense of embodied purposefulness. Originally designed with Baldé and Bert Bongers, the instrument he developed over years at STEIM was called The Hands. It was composed of semicircular cuts of wood that surround each hand and place several buttons and keys at the finger tips. But it was far more than an ergonomic keyboard. The Hands were also embedded with gyroscopes and distance sensors that allowed the musician to create sound with a wide range of performance gestures on stage. This allowed Waisvisz's body movement and subtle hand motion to be fully integrated into the performance. Allowing musicians to get their hands on the electronic sound itself and to use the memory and inertia of their own bodies was a revolution in electronic music performance.
Physically this facilitates a finer degree of control, a degree of control rivaling that of traditional acoustic instruments. Musically, this allows simultaneous control of multiple layers of sound – any kind of sound. Imagine the layers at play in Anthony Braxton’s quartet music. On the most basic level you have the sounds of the instruments: trumpet, alto sax, bass, and drums. Each layer has clear timbre, range, envelope, as well as dynamics, rhythms, and pitch material (to name but a small sample of parameters). Or consider Interstellar Space by John Coltrane, in this piece his acrobatic arpeggios create a sense of different pitch ranges which, if you will, could be considered layers. Because of the virtuosity and speed with which each note rings out, these registers begin to be heard horizontally. Coltrane knows the ear connects the horizontal motion – a melodic motion – of the different layers. He uses consistent slight variations in timbre – a squeak in the upper register for instance – as a focus of the improvisation. If we think of these layers in both Braxton’s and Coltrane’s music as textures, there is an exertion of gestural control of that texture, be they musical gestures or bodily gestures – whether visible or not – but always heard. Adding this scope to the playing of electronic instruments while adding subtlety through its physical control is STEIM's and Michel Waisvisz's contribution and innovation to the practice of improvised music.
One of the most fascinating and liberating aspects of the approach to music making at STEIM is that STEIM is genuinely genre indifferent. Part of STEIM's mission is to pair musicians with engineers to tackle the musical as well as technical challenges that sit at the very center of the practice of electroacoustic performance. The sound of the music made there and with their assistance is not straight-jacketed by the expectations of a particular convention – there were always already too many competing styles to begin with. Thus by focusing on the way in which interfaces and instruments connect with the musician, and attempting to give the musician tactile control of their own aesthetic, the results vary wildly. From the eccentric trombone and intelligent midi orchestra developed by George Lewis, to the bent and stretched vocal and instrumental samples of Michel Waisvisz's The Hands, to the crackling noise and ripping gestures of Robert Van Heuman's joystick controlled instrument (check out Skiff++ or his duet with cellist and vocalist Audrey Chen).
Van Heumen, the current managing director of STEIM, states, "It feels quite logical to me that the more sound-based, acoustic improv, with it's closeness to objects, has found a place at STEIM. The way I work with live sampling is very much based upon the quality of the acoustic material more than it's pitch or rhythmic content."
Of course the sound of these musics-- free jazz and electroacoustic improvisation-- can have a very different affect, and many listeners would not link them. But this music deserves a hearing next to artists like Anthony Braxton, John Coltrane, and Pharaoh Sanders among others. The list of improvisation and compositional luminaries who have performed and worked with the engineers at STEIM is long: Steve Lacy, Pauline Oliveros, Laetitia Sonami, Richard Barrett, John Rose, Joseph Butch Rovan, Nic Collins (an artistic director from the early 90s), Alvin Lucier, Christine Sehnaoui (the brilliant young saxophonist was in Waisvisz's last group) to name but a few. But one of the most compelling links between these two practices is in the Evan Parker Electroacoustic ensemble with Joel Ryan. Ryan came to STEIM in the mid 80s and immediately deployed his programing knowledge and philosophical perspective to develop his own unique software instruments. Using the interactive software environment Super Collider, Joel made listening instruments that subtly alter the input of a performer. Watching Joel and Evan in duet is a trance like, psychedelic journey, where the influence of Ryan's listening instrument begins slowly, curving around Parker's amazing virtuosity. Slowly the two integrate, and it is Parker that is playing the electronics to create a cyborg blend, a bionic Evan Parker.
STEIM today is still as unpretentious and experimental as ever, but new generations have pulled the technology and music in new ways. It continues to support the cutting edge in experimental theatre, like Jan Trutzschler von Falkenstein's interactive kitchen, hearkening back to the absurdist improvisational theatre of STEIM's roots, where cooks make music by cooking, to composer/performer Henry Vega's group, the Electronic Hammer, a remarkable chamber ensemble with percussionist Diego Espinosa and Vega and Juan Parra controlling the live electronics, to the stars of DJ culture. Just this spring STEIM hosted Otomo, a groundbreaking experimental Japanese DJ and guitarist, and DJ Sniff (Takuro Mizuta Lippit), the turntable improviser, who is also the current artistic director of STEIM.
STEIM's approach to modular, personal, handmade, tactile, electronic music continues to be one of the most fertile future grounds for improvisation, and at a time when young people would rather play guitar hero than guitar, that future is now. Michel Waisvisz 1949-2008.