Garth Paine

Garth Paine
(Photo: Garth Paine)

Garth Paine is an Associate Professor of Digital Sound and Interactive Media at the School of Arts Media and Engineering, Arizona State University where he was interim-director, 2012-14. Paine’s passion for directly experiencing the materiality of sound has produced interactive environments where soundfields are generated through gesture, presence and behavior; music scores for dance works using realtime video tracking and bio-sensing and musical compositions that have been performed across the globe. One example, MAP2, was commissioned by the Musical Instrument Museum, Berlin for their Millennium exhibition (1999/2000) and was awarded a Millennium leaders award by Keyboard Magazine. Paine directs the Acoustic Ecology Lab at Arizona State university, broadening community access to national parks and nature preserves and building communities of citizen scientists and listeners as a response to climate change. Paine is an Al Gore trained Climate Reality Leader. Dr. Paine is regarded as an innovator in the field of interactivity in experimental music and media arts. He was a keynote speaker for the 2016 International NIME conference where he also played a solo opening night concert. Paine's current research centers around the Listen(n) Project, on Acoustic Ecology project that focuses on Field Recording and acousmatic composition and EcoRift, and environmental VR project. Paine will be artist/researcher in residence at IRCAM and ZKM in 2018.

Why do you make music?

Music does really feed my soul – it balances my sanity in a way that nothing else can – if I don’t make music for a while, I get stressed and anxious. I guess for me it is a super important channel of self expression and reflection on the world around me. I also make music because I feel sound is an incredible material – fine, nuanced, subtle, viscous, full of detail and reflective of the environment around me and the emotional interactions and engagement I have with friends, nature and life’s celebrations and struggles. I make music to discover things – the future of music, things about the world and things about myself.

What music do you make?

I make experimental music – I am always interested in exploration and discovery - I have made many interactive musical works drawing on data from weather stations to bio-sensors on dancers. I use electronic manipulation of sound sources in realtime to add to and extend live acoustic instruments. Wishart states that acoustic instruments have a fixed morphology. The live electronic processing makes their morphology dynamic – transforming a single not or instrumental line into a rich multi-dimensional timbre – a shimmering, pulsing set of energy and potential – this kind of dynamic morphology is one of the aspects of my electroacoustic and acousmatic composition that I really enjoy.

How do you make music?

I make music using digital tools – they may be alternative interfaces such as the Karlax, or programming environments such as Max/MSP or the Kyma system. If I am working on an acousmatic work I might be using nature field recordings, which I will analyse and transform into a spectral analysis file – this file can then be resynthesized and manipulated in both the frequency and time domain to make new topologies, new gestures. If I am writing a piece of acoustic instruments and electronics such as my works Shimmering Edge (Bass drum, Snare Drum and live electronics) or Surface Texture (2 bass clarinets, 2 trumpets, flute, viola, d.Bass, percussion, bassoon, electronics and solo cello), then I write the acoustic parts first, then record them and then generate algorithms around those acoustic parts that fill out and add alternative voices to the overall work. If I am writing music for an interactive dance piece then I will work in the dance studio, using Max/MSP and Kyma for sound generation and processing and code directly with the dancers – The Kyma language allows me to work very quickly, plugging in sensor data and normalizing it to the synthesis parameters – I find that working in the studio with the dancers, although it places pressure of speed of coding, it produces a much stronger and better integrated final outcome.

Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?

This is an interesting question – I like to think of music as organised sound. My installation for Tibetan singing bowl robots and resonating cymbals has a set of agents that move around the virtual gallery space driven by brownian motion and activate either the striking action on the bowl or the ringing of the bowl by rotating the bowl against a stick – this creates very pure tones. I see the audience engagement as an experience of a soundfield – I hope that they will engage with the materiality of sound directly in this work by sitting quietly and hearing the soundfield gently shift around them. I don’t think of this work as music per sé. So if not music I would say it is a sonic experience – being immersed in sound as material.

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engi­neer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

I compose and I perform, I write code and develop interactive systems using sensors and microprocessors and I develop algorithms for animation and I am a sound engineer, occasionally recording works for other people and often producing recordings of my own work. I don’t see the need for a single overarching title – I am happy to use the title that fits the role at the time – sometimes composer (which includes coding and technological development) and sometime performer.

What is the cultural context for your work - how are you influenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?

I see myself situated in music but also in digital arts – for me the two are intertwined so much as to be inseparable. I am often asking myself how the ‘digital’ nature of my tools, be they composition or performance tools, determines the kind of music I make, and more importantly offers new potentials for creative expression. For instance, when the computer makes more than 10 trillion decisions per second, what is time in digital music? What is ‘form’ in an interactive composition? What are the constraints of such a system on interaction or improvisation? I am asking myself “what is inherently digital?” – how do we address this new media as a fundamental property of composition and performance.

What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician?

An open mind, An ability to try things you have never learned formally, the desire to self-initiate learning and discovery. I had never programmed a micro-controller until I saw the need in an interactive piece – the web is full of support to engage, learn and deploy solutions for such work. Being open, multi-skilled and engaged in such development is critical to being an innovative and creative digital musician.

What role does hearing play in your work?

Listening is fundamental –sound is a rich, nuanced and multi-dimensional material. Listening is the door to understanding the materiality of sound, beyond the strictures of formalized rules such as voice leading, harmony and counterpoint, beyond instrumentation and orchestration. When a composer starts to think about register for a line, then they start to engage in timbre, in the viscous rich surface and texture of a sound – this engagement is amplified immensely when the composer starts to work in the electronic domain in signal processing and live interactive manipulation – the principal tool in this space is then listening.

What is the importance of listening for a digital musician, and why?

The importance is outlined in the above questions, but when one is dealing with the continuum rather than the lattice (re Wishart), then dynamic morphology becomes the fundamental compositional tool – at this point, the ear becomes the singularly most important adjudicator.

How may machines listen?

They can not. A machine can sense a determined frequency or a change in amplitude of partials or a range of other things, but listening is contextual – it brings into play one’s cultural background, the socio-spatial context of the sound event – listening is a high-dimensional manifold of engagement and response.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

I love the fluid qualities that are facilitated by the digital domain. I love the new interactive potentials, the realtime sonification possibilities of sensors on dancers, the potential for new gestural engagement with sound as material, the energetic qualities of sound that can be reflected through new interfaces and the ever evolving new perspectives. Music and sound composition, performance and production have perhaps never existed in such a rich and fertile period as now.