Improvise cum machina 2/2
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. Benjamin Lévy talks about the experience.
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
How did you approach your first work session with Lucas, Nicolas, and Samuel?
Benjamin Lévy: We did a test session with them in studio to explain the different environments with which they could potentially interact: OMax, Somax, DYCI2… They had the choice of using one of them, or a combination of them. They realized that DYCI2, for example, meant that they had to go through a substantial process of pre-composition of the performance. These musicians play a lot of written music on a daily basis and they wanted more freedom, and to free themselves from this formal part, from this "writing" aspect. By common agreement, they chose OMax. A pure OMax, with me at the helm and little prior preparation together. It's a proven system, which meant that we could be spontaneous.
How did you prepare the performance?
B.L.: We had several work sessions - four in all, plus the dress rehearsal before the concert. We can't really talk about rehearsals: it was more a matter of exploring and discovering things together, of finding out what worked and what didn't work. It was also during these sessions that Samuel created his set of ad hoc instruments.
Another challenge during these sessions was balancing the system. There was Nicolas Crosse who, on the electric bass with processing pedals (on an iPad), sent a lot of sound. There were the very strong percussions of Samuel Favre, and the much more discreet playing of Lucas Lipari-Mayer... it was not easy to balance it all.
Our improvisation time was limited to 10 minutes. So I asked them if they wanted us to create a structure. Their answer was no: because of their experience, these musicians already have countless possible structures in mind and they did not feel the need to impose one on themselves beforehand.
We also tried to make a plan - we tested two. But it didn't work. So we didn't agree on a predetermined musical content, and OMax's memory (the library the machine uses to improvise and react to the musicians' proposals) was empty at the beginning of the performance: OMax therefore played only with what the musicians produced on stage.
Photo: Benjamin Lévy, Mécaniques de l'intuition Concert at the Centre Pompidou, March 2021 © Pierre Gondard
Lucas, Nicolas, and Samuel are musicians specializing in so-called "contemporary" music: does this give them a different approach to that adopted by musicians from other backgrounds?
B.L.: Yes, it changes a lot from an aesthetic point of view.
First of all, in the elaboration of structures. Jazz musicians, for example, with whom I frequently work, are very accustomed to giving themselves strong and legible structures that can be summed up in one word: audible. Musicians from the Ensemble intercontemporain, on the other hand, are used to very varied forms, which are not necessarily perceived in an obvious way. The distribution of speech is therefore much more empirical than in jazz, where it is very codified. During certain sessions, everyone played during the full 10 minutes of the improvisation!
As for the sound material, it is very much influenced by the instruments involved. Nicolas likes the low end of the scale. In order to break away from this, Lucas had to play more lyrically and ethereally - which did not prevent him from producing very abstract material.
Samuel, finally, played on another terrain: that of rhythm, in relation to the instruments he chose. And, here again, the rhythm was very different from what is done in jazz. In jazz, you play with a fixed pulse, and the whole challenge with OMax is to manage to deconstruct, to disrupt it. Here, not at all: the pulse is very variable, depending on the timbres that Samuel looks for in his set of different instruments.
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.