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Season of the Remix

Composer Elise Kermani talks about revisiting "retro" multimedia performance art; getting young, desk-bound technophiles to move; and remixing Vivaldi by accident.

By Marc Weidenbaum

On the fourth night of the fourth annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival — July 26, 2003 — Elise Kermani, one of the night’s four performers, was one of three of those acts to experience technical difficulties.

The audience was respectful of the glitches, understanding even: Let he who has not accidentally deleted an important word-processing document or email cast the first stone.

Kermani not only accepts accidents as inevitable in multimedia performance; she has developed pieces from chance. Not John Cage’s cosmic brand of invited chance, but from actual uninvited troubles. One of the three compositions she performed that evening at the festival was “Viva,” a remix of a concerto by Vivaldi, whose Four Seasons is such a classical-radio, background-music staple that it is downright disorienting to see his name in the program for a concert of experimental music. (An excerpt of “Viva” is available here on Kermani’s website.)

Talking on the phone from her home in upstate New York a week after the festival, Kermani explained that the inspiration for “Viva” was a skipping CD she had borrowed from her daughter; she found the skipping sound beautiful, and sought to retain it in a composition. She performed two other pieces at the festival: a vocal-based one that used text from Archimedes, and a dance-oriented one that involved video projections. The other performers that evening included Stephen Vitiello, Sean Rooney and the SPL trio.

Kermani has a masters in interdisciplinary arts education from Columbia College in Chicago, Illinois, and she teaches digital media at Hunter College in Manhattan. Her work, which involves music, performance and multimedia, has been performed at Dance Theater Workshop, P.S. 122, the Kitchen, the Knitting Factory and other prominent venues, and she released two various-artists compilations of music by women on the IshtarLab label. That series was called dice, and a third edition has been produced, but she’s looking for a larger label to collaborate on its commercial release. (To hear sound samples, check out the dice three webpage here.)

Kermani’s “Viva” piece collates a number of subjects close to her heart — the basis of new art on slices of history, the impetus of live performance, the promise of technology. Because the original Vivaldi, at just over two minutes in length, is relatively familiar, hearing Kermani’s eight-minute remix provides a window into her creative process. It’s helpful to recognize that she’s not only lengthening the original by repeating segments. To some extent she is compressing it, because she is playing various sections on top of each other, sections that would initially have been heard in sequence. The result glistens, and Kermani was gracious to talk about the way the piece was designed and how it is performed. She also talked about her performance work, her teaching, her taste in software and hardware, and her own musical inventions.

A lightly edited transcript of that conversation appears below.

Marc Weidenbaum: Let’s start off with the Vivaldi piece, “Viva,” which you performed at the recent San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. It’s a remix of a recording of a Vivaldi concerto. Did you listen to several different versions of that specific piece of music before you decided which to use?

Elise Kermani: What happened is, it was an accident. I had taken the CD because my daughter was learning the concerto, and I happened to listen to this particular piece, and it started skipping on my machine, on my CD player, and I thought, “Oh my God, this is so gorgeous.” It was, like, looping itself, and I thought, “Ahh, I have to make a piece based on this.” It started by accident, that I just heard this, and so then I ran upstairs and I began working with this, and looping it in a program called Peak. I have two Mac G4s, so I was looping it on one while I was recording to the other one. What you’re hearing in the final performance is several layers of processing. After I finished the piece, then I started listening to other versions and decided, no, this was the right one.

Weidenbaum: In the version that you perform live, you have multiple copies of various parts of the original piece that you’re playing back?

Kermani: Yes, I have like 13 samples that I’m playing back, alongside two flow-through versions. The actual Vivaldi concerto is only two minutes and 15 seconds long, so I had two flow-through processed versions going, and then I would bring in about 13 different samples live.

Weidenbaum: How many times have you performed it for an audience?

Kermani: This Vivaldi? I had just done it once before, in Woodstock. So, this was the second time, in San Francisco.

Weidenbaum: I was wondering if it might sound different on different nights.

Kermani: Absolutely. And the room makes all the difference. I was in a smaller room in Woodstock, and the reverberations — it sounded like it was coming from different parts of the room. In a big auditorium, where we were [in San Francisco], I didn’t get that sense of really having spatial location as much as I did in the smaller room.

Weidenbaum: The San Francisco performance involved Onadime software, but you originally did it in Peak?

Kermani: The first process was Peak, and I might have brought it into ProTools, and the live performance aspect, only the performing aspect, is Onadime.

Weidenbaum: I was glad that “Viva” was included on the CD that was available for purchase at the concert.

Kermani: Oh, good. Yeah. I guess it works OK as a still piece, too, but I really like the idea that it does change every time.

Weidenbaum: True. When I first heard it live I had no idea where it was going, but now that I’ve heard it on the CD, several dozen times, I know exactly what’s going to happen a minute in, a minute and a half in. In the future, we’ll have an algorithmic version, which is different every time.

Kermani: Wouldn’t that be nice?

Weidenbaum: I was reading about the mythological basis of your work — your research into the origin of the alphabet — and I was wondering if there’s a parallel between your interest in mythology and your basing a contemporary electronic work on a piece of classical music. Do you like being rooted in the past?

Kermani: Definitely. I really love working with old music. I am taken with Vivaldi, and a lot of my performance work has Greek mythology flowing through. The Archimedes piece that I picked as well. I don’t know what to say about that, but there’s so much from the past that can be reworked and looked at again in the present, and I think that’s what I’m doing with that. The Archimedes, I just want to mention, was reworked by a poet in New York. The actual text that I’m using, he distilled — he does what I do in music with poetry, so he used the original Greek translation of the Archimedes and distilled it about three or four times, which in my musical mind would be the processing element. Although instead of making it longer, he actually distilled it into only the necessary words. And that was the text I used.

Weidenbaum: Was my description in my review of the Archimedes piece correct? Are there these two separate segments to the work: the first that’s live and a second when you play back what you’d just performed?

Kermani: Yeah. In this performance I did not play back what I had done, although that’s a really wonderful idea. I don’t have the kind of software to do that, but it’s an intriguing idea. I didn’t have that kind of control in this performance. In fact, I was having a little bit of a problem. You mentioned something about the challenges of performing multimedia live and not only that but in a festival situation, where you have to change the setup [between performers]. And what had happened was they had changed my monitor speakers, so my microphone was feeding back. It was OK, but these are the challenges of live — the setup is so intricate, that if you move one thing, then things are off. Even the color of the projector was not what I had at home, because I had to rent their projector. It’s sort of like a pianist that has to go to a hall with a new piano. You have to adjust to what they have. But what I wanted to mention about the Archimedes was that in the live element, the Onadime software is actually listening to the text and listening to the fricatives of the speech. So, the “s” sounds are coloring it red, like in “let it be supposed” the “s” will be red, and the lower frequencies were programmed to go blue. That was sort of a subtle thing. I don’t think people were noticing. The video was live, the oscilloscope and the processing.

Weidenbaum: So, those images I saw were related to the sound. The colors were related —

Kermani: — to the frequencies of the speech. Which is sort of interesting. It’s not just that my voice goes up, but that each consonant has a certain frequency. The “s” sounds are higher than the “b” sounds. And that’s what it’s listening to, and that’s the crux of this particular piece: listening to the sound of the text and the fricatives of the speech.

Weidenbaum: Some of the earliest electronic music I listened to, as a young adult, was stuff like Philip Glass, or Laurie Anderson, and Brian Eno, and so much of that was multimedia at heart, but it’s largely a music-performance community today. There is a lot of multimedia, but multimedia was much more prevalent in electronic music several decades back. The evening you played you were the only multimedia performance.

Kermani: That’s where it started, with [Robert] Rauschenberg and Robert Ashley …

Weidenbaum: Yeah, the folks on the Lovely Music, Ltd., record label …

Kermani: And this piece is sort of dedicated to them, because it was very tonal, very song-like. I do a lot of things in noise, but I was very aware that this sounded like these guys, this was very sort of retro.

Weidenbaum: The talking.

Kermani: The harmonization of the speech.

Weidenbaum: In the liner notes to the first dice collection, it explains that all the women involved are singers. Is there a vocal aspect to all of your work, including the Vivaldi, or is singing just a part of what you do?

Kermani: I do think that it influences my work now, though I am not solely doing vocal work. There was a time, you know, a 10-year period, where I was doing solely vocal work, and I happened to be described that way, as a vocalist. I think it’s a part of what I do, but it’s not everything. That’s an interesting question. It might influence my work now, now that I’ve been a vocalist, so yes, it probably does come through. Definitely the use of the body is very important. I’m aware that in the Vivaldi I was sort of a prisoner of my laptop. I think when I teach multimedia, I really want to get the students to get up and move, move their bodies. So, there might have been a subliminal thing. First there was movement [in the earlier pieces at the SFEMF performance], and then there was this prisoner locked inside the laptop. I may expand that piece to some sort of sensor that I can play more like a Theremin, to play the Vivaldi.

Weidenbaum: A different input tool. That’s part of why I liked Stephen Vitiello’s performance that evening, in which he used a photocell to pick up light signals from his equipment. I liked the way he was moving —

Kermani: Yeah.

Weidenbaum: — amid all his wires and everything.

Kermani: That was very nice.

Weidenbaum: It had this small performance aspect. It wasn’t apparently scripted, but it seemed dance-like.

Kermani: I thought there was a lot of performance in the festival.

Weidenbaum: I only saw that one night, but I understand there was some costumed theatrics earlier.

Kermani: I was very surprised.

Weidenbaum: You mentioned your teaching. Are your students simply attuned to technology? With your emphasizing performance, it’s as if I’m hearing, “Oh the kids are tech-savvy; it’s more like we have to get them apart from it, ’cause they just sit at their desks.”

Kermani: There are two very different students that I get. I get some that are techno-wizards, and those are the ones that you need to get up and move away from the computer. And then there are some that I have to teach the basics of, you know, saving files and making folders and getting into PhotoShop. All of them know email, and how to get online and search, and that happened in just one year, between last year and this year. Even the foreign students know, now, how to do the basics. So, that’s different. But definitely, just the ergonomics of computers, and being aware how it can be damaging to be in a still position so long. Yeah, I think we can certainly become prisoners of our computers. The whole way it’s set up. In the future I hope we do have computers that allow us to move around the room.

Weidenbaum: Could you talk about your “body chime”?

Kermani: I’ve been using that for ten years. I started using that ten years ago, in 1993, with a piece called Artem(Is) Rising, and then there was a second piece I used it in, Private Eye/Public Hand. Infrared is an energy I’m really interested in. I have used it this past year in installations and performance, for the Ava Project. And what I’m so intrigued about it is that it does pick up body heat, the human body, and I’m talking to a designer about working with light as well, but I’m very interested in the infrared technology. It’s an old instrument, it’s about ten years old, so it looks very clunky, so I’m probably going to get it revamped. That’s my next project, so I can start using it again. It doesn’t look very nice.

Weidenbaum: You’ve done live sampling of actors in Houston, Texas?

Kermani: Oh yeah, that’s right. I haven’t done actors for a while, but I’ve done dancers. That would be the infrared motion sensors, that the dancers’ movement triggers — well, we haven’t done light yet, but it does trigger the sound. The actors, back in 1990 — I can’t believe it was that long ago — that was called THe HearTH, and all these pieces do have ancient texts related to them. This sort of had a Greek element, and a domestic scene where a couple is — let’s see, first she’s making a dinner on stage, and I had microphones on stage picking up the cooking of the meal, and then they sat down and ate the meal, and I was processing everything they were doing, and then they got up and burned the table. I had a theater who allowed me to have fire on stage, which was very cool, and probably wouldn’t happen anymore. And then she gets up and builds a house of sticks. It was sort of like the nursery rhyme, the opposite of the Three Little Pigs. So, that was HearTh, and the sampling of the actors.

Weidenbaum: Could the Vivaldi could be performed with a live group?

Kermani: That’s really good. I’m hoping Vivaldi will allow me to mix it not with a mouse but with a light sensor, and I am working on that. I would love a couple of things: the dancers to have the piece projected through wireless speakers, so they can move the sound. I’m researching directional speakers, and that would be nice, so you’d hear different parts depending on where you are. If we’re talking about dreams, there are these roofless, windowless warehouse spaces in Brooklyn, just beautiful, and you see the Hudson right behind them, and my dream would be to have something like that, where the audience would walk around and experience it.

Weidenbaum: In the past you have listed Roland and DigiTech equipment among your primary tools, but now you use computers. Are those still part of your performance and recording setups, or have you moved entirely to the Mac G4?

Kermani: Depending if it’s local. I will not go on a plane with my keyboard, or my rack.

Weidenbaum: For fear of damaging them?

Kermani: It’s damage, and it’s trying to save my body and my strength and my energy. It’s just way too much. I traveled Europe with my band, with a rack, and it wasn’t so bad, ’cause you had help, but most everything can be done with the laptop. So, the Roland, the keyboard, I use for composition and for tape, but I don’t usually perform with it. But what’s funny is, you bring it down to the laptop, and then you start adding wireless speakers, and you add it back up.

Relayed links: Elise Kermani's IshtarLab Records website. The San Francisco Electronic Music Festival's website. Peak software site. Onadime software site.

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