SONiC Fest 2015 – Q&A with app designers Kenneth Kirschner & Joshue Ott

This Fall, ACO presents its second ever SONiC Festival, celebrating the diversity of 21st century music by composers under age 40 with 9 days of concerts. Interval Studios will be creating SONiC Fest’s official app, featuring an interactive sound piece by Kenneth Kirschner and visuals by Joshue Ott.

Kenneth and Joshue were kind enough to give SoundAdvice a Q&A about the app, which is still a work-in-progress.
Composer Kenneth Kirschner. Photo credit: Molly Sheridan
Media artist and programmer Joshue Ott. Photo credit: Rebecca Black

American Composers Orchestra: Can you talk about how the 2015 SONiC Fest app will function and how users will interact with it?

Kenneth Kirschner: Well, we’re still very early on in the process, but I can certainly talk about our ideas for it – with the caveat that we very much expect things to change and evolve a great deal as we go…

Our starting point, and the first approach we want to try out, came out of a conversation we had over lunch a few weeks ago. I’d had this idea of doing a piece for the SONiC app with lots of silence in it, which is something I do a lot – but in this case I wanted to have an interactive component, so that the user would be responsible for triggering the sounds themselves. They’d touch the screen and trigger a big chord of different musicians playing together, then touch elsewhere and trigger another, etc. It would be interactive, but also indeterminate, with a chance element built in, so that each time they played it they’d get a different sequence of sounds. But since I’m envisioning some potentially dissonant material compositionally, I didn’t want the user to go crazy and start triggering new sounds every 2 seconds – it would be a mess! The silence is really key to the structure, and it needs to stay in there somehow. When I brought up this worry with Josh, though, he had a great idea for slowing things down and keeping those silences in there…

Joshue Ott: Drawing and touching will certainly be very important interaction methods for the app, as they are for the upcoming Variant apps that Ken and I are working on. But because the silences are so important for the piece Ken is hoping to make, my idea was to make the user wait a bit before hearing a sound when they touch the screen: each touch would trigger a visual event immediately, but the sound would play only when that visual event finishes. The user thus controls the pacing of audio events to a certain extent, but can’t trigger the next event until its preceding visual sequence has been completed, ensuring a proscribed amount of silence between each of Ken’s sounds. We’d be eschewing instantaneous aural feedback in order to build a delay into the musical response, which could get annoying – but if designed and balanced correctly, we hope it will actually encourage the user to listen and hear the composition better.

KK: But as they say, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. You encounter resistances and blocks as you start doing this sort of work, and the ultimate piece often ends up resembling more the path you follow to get around those obstacles than your early ideas for what you thought it might be. So this is really just a very rough first concept – we don’t know if it will work, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we end up going off in a totally different direction.

ACO: Kenneth, your component, an interactive sound piece, will use sounds and samples sent from the many composers and musicians involved in the festival. What was the inspiration or reason behind creating such an ambitious musical collage? Have you done anything like this before?

KK: I have done something like this before, actually. In 2003, I was invited to contribute a piece to a compilation CD for the record label 12k, and I had the “clever idea” of asking everyone on the anthology to send me sounds that I could build a new piece out of. But then … they all actually sent stuff! And it became this huge responsibility, this huge challenge – but I really loved it, and I think the piece came out pretty well. So I guess I wanted to set another challenge like that for myself.

Another inspiration I should cite was a sound installation work by my colleague Rutger Zuydervelt that I’d participated in a few years back called “Stay Tuned.” He asked an insane number of musicians from all over the world to send him a single note – an A – on their instruments, and he built up all these A’s into a huge installation you could walk through so that it sounded like all these people were in the same room tuning up together. It’s a really fun piece, and it was definitely something I was thinking about as well.

ACO: Joshue, can you talk a little bit about the visuals you are contributing to the app? Do the sounds inform the visuals, or do the visuals inform the sounds, or both?

JO: If we do it right, you won’t be able to tell which is informing which! The visuals for the app are all hand-coded and will be based on my visual instrument, superDraw (the same program I use to make live visuals in performances). My process is to start with superDraw as I listen to audio from the app or rough drafts from Ken. As I’m listening, I adjust the controls and parameters of superDraw until I have a combination of algorithms I like. Once I have something I like, I’ll save a preset and transfer that preset to the iOS version. At that point, I’ll start to make connections between what’s going on aurally and the parameters that affect the visuals.

ACO: What technical challenges do you have to overcome in this interactive art form? Can you explain any areas where creativity is constricted? Any areas where it’s liberated?

KK: I’ve done a lot of work with indeterminate music, which is something I’ve become pretty comfortable with – but interactive music is really new to me, and in truth I’m finding it quite challenging so far. As of right now, Josh and I have done two apps together – variant:Blue and variant:Flare – and both have limited interactivity in terms of the music. Josh is very experienced with interactive work, but I myself just haven’t quite wrapped my mind around it yet; it’s a whole new set of musical challenges and problems that I’m only just beginning to explore. But I know that to do a truly interactive composition, I want to build it from the ground up that way, and think through the interactivity in all aspects of the music – so that it becomes a compelling part of the overall musical experience, not just a gimmick. And for me this SONiC app is an opportunity to take some first steps in that direction.

JO: I’m completely obsessed with my software and interactive artwork being as responsive as possible – meaning it should feel like an extension or augmentation of your thoughts or intentions, rather than software or a device that you’re interacting with. In my work, I strive to find ideal ways for technology to augment human creativity. That said, the amount of variability or freedom in an application like this can be a difficult problem, as too much freedom can let the user make things that look/sound bad, but without enough freedom, the user feels constricted – more like they’re just watching a music video. When I collaborated with Morgan Packard on our audiovisual app Thicket, we went for the feeling of an audiovisual instrument rather than a musical piece – there was a very direct sense of interactivity to it. So far my apps with Ken have been less focused on interactivity. There was a discussion at Eyebeam that Ken and I had with our fellow residents about whether what we are making should be thought of more as “tools” or “experiences.” I consider all of our apps so far to veer more toward the experience side of things. Like the first SONiC app, there will be no controls or parameters for the user to alter. Some people might be upset by this choice, but we feel it allows us more room to actually create a piece that stands on its own artistically.

ACO: Any other sonic or visual glimpses readers can get for the app?

Ken: I can certainly share some of my past pieces that I’ve been looking at for ideas. The piece I did for that 12k anthology – which used sounds from all the other musicians included on the compilation – is called “June 8, 2003”, and it’s freely available on my website.

Another piece of mine I’ve been thinking about during this process is “September 25, 2010”, which uses the sort of “structural silences” that I want to try out as a first approach to the SONiC app. The piece actually started life as a failed sketch, then got turned into an indeterminate composition, and then eventually became a “fixed” piece for my album Twenty Ten – but I have secret dreams of rebuilding it as an indeterminate work yet again. Until then, you can hear it here.

And for (many) more pieces of mine, you can visit my website:

JO: Ken and I are currently working on a series of apps (teaser page here), as well as a residency at Eyebeam (which we’re documenting here).

Here’s a short superDraw video I did for a project on Ken’s music.

We are also involved in an electronic music collective called 00rtcloud.

You can learn about my app Thicket, created with Morgan Packard, here.

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