Improvise cum machina 1/2
On December 3, during the Grand Soir Numérique at the Philharmonie de Paris during the Biennale Nemo des Arts Numériques, three soloists from the Ensemble intercontemporain (trumpeter Lucas Lipari-Mayer, bassist Nicolas Crosse, and percussionist Samuel Favre) took part for the first time, in the experience of improvising with a machine. In this case, it was the OMax computer environment - the development of which is being pursued by IRCAM's Musical Representations team as part of the REACH project (for Raising co-creativity in cyber-human Musicianship), winner of an ERC Advanced Grant 2019. The machine was piloted by musician Benjamin Lévy, himself a former member of the Musical Representations team. Samuel Favre's impressions...
From left to right: the percussionist Samuel Favre, the bassist Nicolas Crosse, the musician Benjamin Lévy, and the trumpeter Lucas Lipari-Mayeret © IRCAM - Centre Pompidou, photo: Quentin Chevrier
What appealed to you about the idea of improvising with the machine?
Samuel Favre: Nicolas Crosse was the first to know about it, and asked Lucas and me if we wanted to be part of it. Not being a regular improviser, I was intrigued and, probably reassured in a way, by the presence of a machine which seemed to me to bring with it a research and experimentation component, as well as a large part of mystery. Because even if I understood how computers could transform sound, I had never imagined that we could interact with a computer that would act as a creative force.
Several software environments developed by the Musical Representations team were presented to you: OMax, SoMax, Improtech, DYCI2... Why did you choose OMax?
S.F.: Other programs were presented to us, and we became aware of the enormous possibilities they offered. However, to be really effective, they require preparation, elaboration, almost composition. This was not compatible with our desire for free improvisation. Especially since we were only allowed ten minutes on stage, which seemed to us to lack a bit of substance.
How did you imagine and prepare it? What did you investigate and work on during the rehearsals?
S.F.: From the beginning, we focused on pure improvisation. That was important to us. The work was essentially intuitive. Improvisation, listening, proposals... What works well? What doesn't work? We quickly agreed that we wanted to propose a range of sound materials and to get away from very referenced sounds.
At first, I had a jazz drum set, but I quickly abandoned it. For the concert, I had a waterphone, cans, a gong... in short, a motley collection of instruments.
The percussionist Samuel Favre © Ircam - Centre Pompidou, photo : Quentin Chevrier
Were you surprised by the machine's proposals and reactions?
S.F.: Yes, without a doubt! The first tests were very disconcerting.
Did you have the feeling you were really interacting with a machine? How does it differ from improvising with a "human" musician?
S.F.: Yes, there is a real interaction, the machine is really able to speak and interact with the musicians' sound as it uses the same material we play. However, it doesn't understand the groove, and doesn't obey certain musical conventions and feelings that we instinctively use. You can't physically communicate with it - there is no eye contact, no body language.
Are there any aspects of the machine that you would like to see developed?
S.F.: Honestly, we didn't explore the program enough to have any ideas about its development. For me, it was more of an introduction.
If you do this again in the future, do you have any ideas for areas of work that you would like to explore?
S.F.: It must be developed. Why not with the help of a composer. But pure improvisation imposes too many limits on what can be done. To be more meaningful and surprising, the machine needs to be configured.
Interview by Jérémie Szpirglas
Concert retransmis dans l'émission d'Arnaud Merlin, le concert de 20h, sur France musique
This initiative uses the research and software from the REACH project by IRCAM's Musical Representations team directed by Gérard Assayag.