chromasone

Since 1994 I have been developing and refining a unique instrument. Essentially a personalised, gestural MIDI-controller, the Chromasone was conceived to perform electronic music with a highly responsive interface, allowing an unprecedented range of control over numerous sonic parameters, whilst at the same time examining and developing the fundamental issue of performer-system interaction: the two-way process of control and feedback.


I have performed with it at venues including Paradiso, Amsterdam; Podewil, Berlin; Mercat des Flors, Barcelona; and in numerous events in London and the UK including the "HyperEvent" and "Treason of Images" at the South Bank Centre; the Disobey club at the Garage; the 291 Gallery in Hackney; in the Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington and on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall. Collaborative commissions have integrated my performances with Film, Theatre, Video and Contemporary Dance. The Chromasone has been featured on BBC TV's "Tomorrow's World" science programme and many radio broadcasts.

 

background


The idea of 'instrumentality' has always been central to my music, originating with my training as a pianist. As a child I returned from school to improvise for hours on the family piano, the sonic palette of which I had expanded by arranging saucepan lids to be struck while pressing the pedals, hi-hat style. Along with a degree of string 'preparation' and the discovery of the sonic joys of exciting the strings themselves with various objects (I would not learn of Cage until years later) I had created my personal performance tool.


Almost twenty years later, in the midst of a developing professional life as a composer-pianist-keyboardist I witnessed a performance by M. Waisvisz with the "Hands" at an ICMC conference in The Hague. The impact of this on my musical thinking was profound and redefined my ideas about composition and performance irreversibly. Why?


Up to this time the issue of keyboards as tools for articulating electronic sounds was paradoxical and frustrating. I had developed some piano skills. I was totally engaged with the subtle nuances of the acoustic piano, and training had given me the ability to make tiny differentiation of sound through finger dexterity. But where was the portal to the world of electronic sound? What devices were available to articulate, sculpt, to give expression to the sonic resources of an ever increasing choice of synthesis engines, samplers, and signal processors? Plastic keys (essentially on/off switches) and sprung knurled 'mod wheels', maybe a pedal or two and some after-touch, seemed a very crude and unsatisfactory system for constructing a relationship between physical input as a performer, and a dynamic, expressive musical result. Keyboard synthesisers (or MIDI Master Keyboards) and such like did not cut it for me.


The encounter with Waisvisz's world of gestural controllers led me to the Institute of Sonology and subsequently to STEIM, where the generous technical resources and support gave material form to my hopes and ideas for a new, personal solution to how to 'play' electronic sounds.

 

physical description


The original version of the instrument consisted of a pair of Datagloves equipped with ultrasound transmitters. In this system the signals from the fingers' bend sensors and the ultrasound sub-system (for spatial mapping) were combined in a STEIM Sensor-Lab to produce MIDI output for external synthesisers and samplers. The left-right or 'x-axis' mapped to pitch, with a 128-note 'virtual' MIDI keyboard calibrated to the exact dimensions of an acoustic piano. The front-back or 'y-axis' was mapped to volume.


This concept remains at the core of the instrument, but there have been many refinements including the addition of a vertical 'z-axis' for timbral control; extra switches on the gloves, and radical visual design and construction by artist Tim Gravestock, which gives physical definition to the planes of movement through a chromium and perspex structure supporting three radial foot sensors, ultrasound receivers and a 2.1 metre long "pointer". This consists of a thin rod on a pivot which allows the x-axis to be rotated and tilted with respect to the 'y' and 'z' axes: practically speaking, this enables the pitch field to be rescaled with respect to the volume and timbre fields through physical gesture, drastically altering the behaviour of the sonic palette to which the interface is linked. This, in combination with the auxiliary switches and foot sensors gives the Chromasone its unique identity.

 

philosophy


Real, not Virtual
The Chromasone is not a "Mimetic" or "Virtual" piano. It is not a 'Meta-Keyboard' or "Hyper-Piano. Rather, I have taken the ESSENCE of piano performance and articulation, and placed it in a new context, to create a new instrument. The essence is the movement of ten fingers at a certain position in space. This spatial location of the hands is crucial. At any instant it translates to three parameters, as described above, while movement of the hands within the spherical field of action generates timbral trajectories. In combination with the matrix of the finger-mounted switches, the foot-activated switches and the use of the thumbs as continuous controllers, a complex, sophisticated gestural instrument exists.

 

Dimensions
This dimensions of this instrument are significant. It seems to me axiomatic that neuro-muscular control devices must approximate to the range of movement appropriate to our physiology; in other words it seems ludicrous to try to articulate a dynamic range of c.90dB with fader or mouse movement of a few centimetres, especially in a live performance. Musical instruments have evolved to more or less match our range of movements - (sit in an imaginary cello-playing position and feel how the lateral movement of the bowing arm sits comfortably within the full available span, or see how the harpists arms are more or less at full reach to pluck the furthermost strings). A correlation must surely exist between the chosen range of physical movement to control sound parameters, and the neuro-physiological perception of the resulting sound. If you sit at a piano and reach as far to left and right as your arms allow, and then imagine the "missing'" notes by extending the keyboard an octave or so at either end, you will see that you are almost exactly covering the range of human hearing. This is not a coincidence, and was a crucial element in the conception of my instrument, but, I stress, not with mimetic intentions. In the Chromasone the vertical movement parameter is set within limits defined by the maximum upper and lower displacement in which I feel comfortable moving my arms - in fact a little outside this, to create a physical tension at the extremes of the movement range. As this vertical dimension is usually mapped to timbral control (by controlling the cut-off frequency of a filter) this has the effect of spreading the range of timbral control over some 2 metres, affording much more precise differentiation of timbre than offered by the convention of the few millimetres of travel in keyboard "aftertouch". To reverse the situation for the purpose of illustration, would it be satisfactory to control the entire range of audible frequency within the same few millimetres, other than for cheap effects?

 

Corporeality
For maverick composer and instrument-builder Harry Partch, the sheer size of his self-created instruments compelled his musicians to move in a way which he considered a new form of performance: part dance, part theatre. He developed an idea which he called "Corporeality", which has to do with the attitude of the performing musicians on stage, that the musicians have to use their whole bodies in performing, not merely their arms. He liked to think of what he was doing as visual and corporeal, he wanted instruments on stage to be beautiful and he also wanted the musicians to be wholly and actively involved in the whole production. I personally find these aspirations of half a century ago to be quite prophetic and inspiring, as related to modern electronic music performance. His idea of corporeal involvement with the production of music, while hardly an original concept, is significantly at odds with the prevailing performance practice of much 'laptop' based electronic music, which frequently involves a 'performer' essentially programming a computer in front of an audience. I believe that the crucial physicality of the artist - audience interaction is lost in such performances.

 

The Instrument Disappears
Both Waisvisz and Gyorgy Ligeti refer to the art of puppetry as a striking analogy to their respective practice of performance and composition, and having worked with the Chromasone for a few years now I can relate to this. The puppeteer concentrates the attention on the central point of equilibrium of the puppet. Through this highly focused mental/physical state, the puppet becomes animated, and the body, limbs, hands and fingers accrue life. As I understand it the puppeteer is not consciously moving these parts independently, but through his experience and skill the intentions are conveyed through this point of equilibrium. There have been performances where I've felt like both the puppeteer and the puppet, both the deployer of gesture and the responder. When this happens I am experiencing the classic human-machine interaction loop. M.Waisvisz has said :

"During inspired performances I have experienced that a mental/physical state can emerge where a fast closed loop establishes itself between the musical intention, the muscular effort and actions, the mechanical response and the sonic feed back and the perception of this whole loop. This happens so fast that one seems to act immediately in sound and not in 'terms of sound' and not in terms of 'control'. Composition/performance melt into a single state of emerging - timbral - expression" .
(from IRCAM Round Table, Gestural Controllers, Sept.'99)

For me, when this state is reached, something else happens - my awareness of the technology which makes it possible is suspended. I am aware only of the sound world itself, and at times the instrument itself seems to vanish into the thin air from which I coax the sound.

 

reviews


"The star of the show is the "chromasone", an extraordinary device invented by Walter Fabeck". A long, bony chrome keyboard that that rotates and tilts on an axis, it translates gestures into sound...all the noises seem to be massaged from thin air..." (The Independent)


"It is played by a performer wearing "data" gloves, who weaves around the instrument in a macabre dance...Very strange, very Expressionist, very fitting..." (Financial Times)


"Fabeck's self-created Chromasone stole the show with its swiveling and tilting red incandescent keyboard. Triggering samples with ultrasonic sensors, the Chromasone was both a riveting theatrical and an extraordinary auditory experience." (London Calling)

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Playing the Chromasone at the Cybersonica festival, Institute of contemporary Arts, London

 

On stage at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London

 

The swivelling, tilting axis

 

Demonstrating the planes of movement

 

Three radial foot sensors