Live instrumentation doesn’t stop at guitar, bass and drums. In addition to acoustic instruments there are an increasing number of performers making use of DIY controllers and unique hardware in their performances. NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression) is the premier conference in designing human-computer interfaces and interactions for musical performance.
In 2016 NIME comes to Brisbane gathering researchers and practitioners together around lectures, installations, concerts, demonstrations and workshops at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. The Unconference will be held at The Edge featuring workshops, demonstrations, panels and performances open to the public.
As a warm-up to the event here’s Unconference director Lloyd Barrett talking with local musician Kate Thomas (Feet Teeth, Spirit Bunny) about her augmented instruments and re-purposing of old technology in live performance.
I’d like to you to tell me a little bit about your musical background.
I first started playing piano when I was quite young – maybe 7 or 8? I wanted to learn because my best friend was learning. Then she quit. Then I wanted to quit but Mum wouldn’t let me (on principle). So I got lessons for a few more years, and when I was in my early teens I started to learn drums. I played in a ‘percussion orchestra’ throughout High School. It was a pretty unconventional learning program, none of that formalised AMEB-type stuff, we learned songs and then we played gigs. So performance has always been a big part of what music is for me.
So how did you evolve from that towards more “experimental” live performance?
I chose to go to university to do music because I hadn’t really given life much thought and it seemed like a logical thing to do after finishing school. Due to an admin error I ended up missing out on a position in the Music course in my first year out, so I did a year of Humanities subjects. (That year was awesome and I still draw upon ideas I learned during that year for compositions today.) Studying music at university was a ripper opportunity, but not for any of the reasons that I thought it would be. It was about meeting people and learning a whole new way of listening and thinking about sound. My instrumental skills have progressed at a pretty glacial rate, but the thinking behind what I do, how I approach my performance, composition and collaborative practices is constantly evolving.
I recall seeing you perform in Joel Saunders group in the late 00s.
I met Joel while we were both studying. We didn’t collaborate much while we were at university, but have been involved in a number of bands together since then. Actually, my first gig with Joel was a ‘back-up’ singer accompanying him while he sang along to his iPod in a reading room in a Brisbane City Council library. I didn’t know any of the songs, but by the sound of it neither did he. That show definitely marked a turning point in my musical career. He’s fantastically active, and his approach to music making is inimitable. It’s a real privilege to get to work with the guy.
I understand Feet Teeth, your group with Joel and Paul Young, play improvised music? How does the group come to a consensus about individual contribution and to what degree does the balance of instrumentation define the outcome?
We’ll have different approaches to our rehearsal process and performance frameworks depending on the context of the performance, and any potential collaborators. It’s been a great vehicle for exploration; we’ve worked with dancers, visual artists, installation artists, video artists, poets and of course, other musicians. We just released a new single from one of 2 albums we’re launching in July. Both albums have been extracted from a 10-hour recording session where we had a bunch of friends joining in at various stages of the session.
I understand you are concerned with gesture in a musical and performative sense. Do you find building / hacking your instruments allows you more freedom to explore this area?
Freedom was the idea. It was thwarted by the realisation that there are a whole heap of steps or considerations in the process, and actually a huge body of knowledge associated with each step; e.g. designing and building the sensor interface (electronics and performance gesture transference), mapping gestures to sound (dramaturgical and practical considerations), designing and building a digital audio processing environment, composing for the system and developing a level of fluency with the system that would get me to the point of public performance. So yeah, the idea was freedom but the reality of that process was pretty daunting!
Tell us about your integration of the Commodore 64 in performance. How did you come to use it? How are you using it live? What did you have to do to get it functioning as performative hardware?
The C64s have become my primary compositional and performance tool over the last 5 years. Joel first lent me one and I had no idea what it was. It sat in the corner of my room for 6 months. But once I had figured out how to plug it in, and what it could do….
I play 2 x C64s. The both run ‘Cynthcart’ – a program on cartridge developed by Paul Slocum specifically to convert the C64 into a synth. I send a signal from each console to a small mixer and that’s sent as a single signal to an amp.
How does Spirit Bunny fit into all this? Less improvised? More electronic?
Bam. You said it. I don’t really see the point in being in 2 bands that are making the same kind of music. Spirit Bunny can be really challenging for me. I have a hard time following ‘rules’ when it comes to music; I tend to change my lines on the fly, I don’t mind much if I make mistakes. I can’t really get away with that in SB though – plus we work on making the songs really tight. They sound better tight so I’m motivated to try and stay focussed. I also have a lot more responsibility for the ‘success’ of a song in Spirit Bunny. In a lot of the other bands I’ve played in my parts have been ornamentation; in SB if I get it wrong things get dire fast. So while it can be stressful sometimes, I really like the new challenges. And the music. The music is pretty cool too.
Din Mutations… tell us more about that. Is it more a performative or compositional project?
Din Mutations has been hibernating for a while now, but I hope it will reawaken one day. It’s more centred on performance practice. It’s origins date back to experiments in 2005 – feeling unsatisfied with the laptop as a performance tool I began to dabble in amateur electronics to build my own performance interfaces. It was (is?) an attempt to marry my electronic music composition with my performance practice by ‘augmenting’ acoustic instruments with sensors that control digital sound generating/processing environments.
You also have something of a history hacking hardware for art shows / installations am I right?
I have had a few installation works shown in visual art shows. I love working in different contexts; audiences can react entirely differently to same piece.
Anything else we should know about you? Future plans?
I just started full time work as a classroom teacher in a primary school. It’s awesome and requires heaps of creativity and flexibility. It probably means that my music practice will need to be iced for a bit but I’m ok with that. Creative processes have their own seasons and if I have a lull I know that I’ll come out of that with a bunch of new ideas and experiences to draw on.
NIME conference is presented in Brisbane, Australia from 11-14 July at Griffith University South Bank with the NIME Unconference presented at The Edge on July 15.
You can book for all the Unconference talks and workshops at The Edge, via the What’s On calendar.
Kate Thomas will present as part of the Local Innovators Panel on Friday afternoon at The Edge, and perform with Feet Teeth in the evening.