Wednesday, May 26, 2010


David Kanaga is a friend, musician and programmer whose musical program, ada(co-designed with musician and programmer Josh Bothun), explores the synaesthetic possibilities of visual music. Visual music describes a synthesis of visual and aural art, or the implementation of musical properties (rhythm, counterpoint, movements, etc.) in silent visual media. Think Stan Brakhage, or fireflies. ada presents an interesting take on visual music because it is interactive, which allows one to play rather than merely listen/see. In this dialogue I conducted with David, we explore the features and possibilities of visual music, focusing on ada. The program is available for free download here.


Your program, "ada", resists classification: it seems to me to be at once a game, an instrument, a composition, and because of its openness, probably  entirely different things to other users. I think it's this multifaceted usability that makes it a particularly creative, and not to mention, useful tool in a cultural environment in which individuals desire a unique, personal experience of the vast universe of information accessible to the senses. 

I'm not quite sure what ada is--it's exploring new territory, for sure. Not entirely new, of course; there have been similar software projects by others that are worth mentioning here: Audiovisual Environment Suite by Golan Levin, Electroplankton by Toshio Iwai, Mono World by kanoguti, and probably more that I've forgotten/don't know about. Similar ideas have also been explored in many non-portable art projects of the past: experimental composition (Cage, Feldman, Cardew, Zorn, etc.), happenings (Kaprow...), installations (don't know much about the history of these...), and, again, probably more; unfortunately, most of these forms are much less accessible (geographically) than a piece of software. I think a big thing that's unique about ada, as well as the other music-software projects that I mentioned, is simply their portability. On a large scale, many ideas like these have been explored, and very successfully. Using the same ideas in mass-distributable software just makes them more accessible... How many times I've seen images/videos of an installation that looks absolutely amazing, but have been disappointed to find that I would need to live in New York or LA to properly experience the work firsthand. So, to address your second point: I think it's this mass-distribution that makes it a particularly creative, and not to mention, useful tool in a cultural environment in which individuals desire a unique, personal experience of the vast universe of information accessible to the senses.

John Cage visual score, from Silence

ada screenshots

"ada" compels its users to explore how visual, aural, and tactile media interplay and coalesce in an interactive, creative way. Youtube, Pandora and other immensely popular websites offer a jointly aural and visual experience, so it is a fact that the web-savvy (or even web-aware) public are adequately conditioned to experience media in this synesthetic way . "ada" provides a medium for people conditioned to consume this way to create this way, which is what makes it, to me, a technologically optimistic statement in the era of information overload. 

It's difficult for me to think of YouTube or Pandora as synesthetic in the same way that ada is. There might be some relationship, but I think that, more than contemporary computer/internet/etc. culture being ready (now) for multi-sensory interactive works like these, humanity has probably always been ready for such things (in one way or another); technology is only just now catching up. Indeed, I suspect that Neanderthals might have enjoyed the game just as much as many humans do today. Even more removed from contemporary human culture, I recently saw a video of a cat playing (and enjoying?) Smule's Magic Piano (more playful music software) on the iPad. I think that, in more ways than one, ada is guided by fairly primitive (meaning the first) aesthetic ideals, and there's undoubtedly a good amount of optimism in this.

I mentioned before that it is difficult to say whether "ada" is a game, an instrument, a composition, a hybrid of those things, or something different entirely. While playing, I   felt like I was simultaneously listening to your music and making my own. It seems authored--as a recording or composition would--in the readymade tones, textures and dynamics at the user's disposal; but numerous potential realizations of that material and the constant engagement of the user permit a great degree of personal creativity (author-ity) on the other end as well. How do you feel "ada" redefines the relationship between producers and consumers of art, and accordingly, the acts of artistic production and consumption? 

The relationship between producers and consumers of art has always been blurry, confusing, and interactive. There's well-articulated theory on this somewhere, I'm sure. The thing that ada does with this blurry relationship is the same thing that all videogames have likewise done: the consumer provides the game with data (is a producer of the data), which is then consumed by processes authored by the producer. I think that in all interactive works, the data provided by the consumer (now, I'll say: the decisions made by the player) should be of central importance to the ultimate meaning of the work. This, of course, is a central tenet of any good game design philosophy, of which there are many... So, the player creates meaning; what does the author do? S/he creates (1) meaningful possibilities for the player, and (2) meaningful processes/systems that operate independently of the player's decisions (but which also can be--and should be--played with). As far as what meaningful means here: that's different for every author, and an individual's understanding of this meaning will form the expressive/authored tone of a given work. Ultimately, these are difficult ideas and questions that, for me, are best explored and answered by working directly with the medium itself. Non-verbal answers, you know?

"ada" is interactive, it is "open", but it definitely places  limitations on the user--particularly in how they can use the product of their use: the unique occurrence of sound and image in time and space that results from their particular interaction with the program. Music software, like Ableton or Garage Band, are interactive and musical, like "ada", but they have a function to capture the user's play, which marks the transition from improvisation to composition; Photoshop is interactive and visual, like "ada", but similarly enables users to capture their creative activity. Having this ability unquestionably alters how people create in those programs. "ada" provides an improvisational creative experience, and limits it to that by omitting the "save" function. How central was the idea of "improvisation" in "ada"? 

The idea was pretty central for me: play shouldn't need to be saved. In most videogames, you can save progress, but not necessarily a recording/document of how exactly you made that progress. I think this is a good thing: to forget, to spend a lot of time forgetting; or rather, to not be encouraged to remember. Josh (the game's other designer) and I talked about having a save feature in the game, which could be used to recall game-states, but not to record the audio itself. I still think this would have been cool, but we didn't get around to it. Half-Life was the first game I played that allowed me to save anywhere, and I saved everywhere. I would shoot an alien, and save. Some say this play style reduces the impact of the game, and it certainly does reduce a kind of impact (challenge), but it creates another kind. There's some music to it, to memory, which I think can be used to great effect in an improvisational context. In John Zorn's game piece Cobra, the Sound Memory cues do wonders with this idea of improvised musical memory. Everyone is improvising freely (or, restricted by other rules), and if a player likes what they hear, they hold their hand to their head, the sign for Sound Memory. Everyone remembers what they are doing, and continues to improvise. Then, any player can recall that sound memory at any time, and everyone goes back to what they were playing when the state was saved. It's really beautiful, and, to me, is a brilliant solution to the eternal conflict (or dance?) between structure/composition and improvisation; here, composition emerges from improvisation.

Does it offer a statement on the aesthetics of recorded music vs. live music?  

Does it? It's a portable/distributable possibility of live music.

If one views "ada" as an open musical composition, interesting structural features become evident that would not if considered solely as a game. I'm thinking in particular about the menu screen. For those who have not yet played, the menu screen presents the user with visual icons hyperlinked to the eight possible "play-spaces" ("levels" implies goals, which the game disregards, and "instrument/visualization/environment/etc" seems too long winded, so please excuse my academic, techno-babble vocabulary, it seems necessary)... 

(People in the games community often say "toys" about this sort of thing. I also prefer "play-spaces," since it's less judgmental, and is broad in a way that is absolutely essential in allowing games to become whatever they want.)

ada menu screen from which to access the "play-spaces"

...You recently gave an "ada" performance (of "ada", using "ada"?) in which you moved from one play-space to another, which seemed to impart a structure of block-like movements. Did you see that performance as a unified statement or did your play in each of the eight distinct spaces constitute a series of performances? The reason I ask is this: I noticed that when the user reaches the menu screen, after pressing the "q" key to stop playing in one play-space and enter another, the music from the previous screen carries onto the menu, soundtracking the transition from one "movement" to another in a way that suggests continuity between play-spaces. Is this meant to connect the eight play-spaces? More broadly, how do you feel the design of "ada" lends itself to performance? What possibilities have you imagined?

Well, the music carrying on into the menu is actually a bug. It wasn't intentional, but worked out nicely. It certainly does connect the play-spaces, though a lot could be done to make them even more connected if that was the goal. As far as my performance goes: I did see it as a "unified statement," as one performance. Of course, I was playing in front of people, so I wanted to give it a musicality throughout that I probably wouldn't have felt compelled to do if I were playing by myself... Alone, I usually play in each space for quite a while. The performance's block structure had as much to do with the fact that I was trying to demo as many of the spaces as possible in 6 minutes as it did with the fact that I actually do like block structures very much :)


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