Vol. 35 Issue 2 Reviews

KISS 2010: Kyma International Sound Symposium

Casino Baumgarten, Vienna, Austria,  24-26 September 2010.

Reviewed by Silvia Matheus
Berkeley, California, USA

The Second International Kyma Symposium (KISS 2010) took place on 24-26 September 2010 at the Casino Baumgarten in Vienna, in a newly renovated building with grandiose ornamented rooms and decorated ceilings dating from 1890. The Casino Baumgarten became one of the main recording studios in Vienna during the 1960s and 1970s due to its excellent acoustics.

The 60 KISS 2010 presenters and practitioners were sound artists, sound designers, audio engineers, scholars, and educators from Europe, North and South America, Asia, and Australia. They congregated in one of the Casino's exuberant rooms for three days to share knowledge and common interests of the latest Symbolic Sound developments.

Kyma is the software that communicates with (Paca)rana. (Paca)rana is an extraordinary sound processing system with an amazing capability for programming, designing, and processing sound for live performance interaction. For those of you who do not know about it, or want to know more about this powerful system for sound design, visit the company’s Web site (www.symbolicsound.com/Products/).

The conference opened with the keynote speech by the president of Symbolic Sound, Carla Scaletti, entitled "Music is not a language: non-symbolic meaning in sound." Her eloquent and well-researched speech on the theme "symbolic sound" raised many questions, such as: How music is communicated? How sound is represented and understood? Is sound symbolic? Is music a language? Does it contain meaning?

Ms. Scaletti stated that "language, culture, and music are feeding into each other and the environment is not just physical, not just biological, but also cultural." She proposed that music is not a language. But this does not imply that music does not have meaning. Music creates meaning in non-symbolic, non-referential ways. She referred to many authors in the fields of music, cognitive science, philosophy, and language; primary among them Mark Johnson's 2007 book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. If you would like to participate in open discussions on the subject of music, sound symbols, etc., visit this link: www.pphilosophyofsound.org/.

Ms. Scaletti ended the keynote speech with the following statement: "As sound designers and musicians we have direct access to people's minds; in a very deep and direct way, sounds reach people pre-verbally, mapping to experiences and patterns that they learn long before they develop mastering language and critical thinking and filtering. It does matter what kinds of sounds in music we create. Welcome to Kyma Symposium!"

The conference started with warm applause from an eager and impatient crowd anxious to hear the latest in Kyma development. Ms. Scaletti’s speech was well received by the many Kyma practitioners, and had enough content to stimulate thoughts of the importance of sound, symbols, language and culture, and their interrelationships. This conversation on sound and its symbolic meaning sufficiently filled two long days. 

Ms. Scaletti’s presentation was followed by other papers on the same theme: Cristian Vogel’s “Zencoded: What’s inside a sound that has no meaning?;” Hector Bravo Bernard’s “The role of symbols and representation in musical creation: Systems of representation and the flow of information in music. The role of notation in different styles of contemporary musical practice;” Scott Miller’s “Constructing realities with Kyma: An overview of Nelson Goodman’s theory of expression, how sound can function as a symbol system, the acoustmatic vs. the mimetic in aesthetic expression, and analytical and creative applications of this symbol theory in electroacoustic music.”

These talks were followed by another presentation by Ms. Scaletti entitled, “What is New in Kyma?” She gave a short presentation of the latest changes on Kyma since the 2009 symposium in Barcelona (www.osculator.net/2009/09/09/kyma-symposium-2009-in-barcelona/).

The first day of the conference ended with a performance of Nearly Ninety by John Paul Jones. Mr. Jones, bass player for the band Led Zeppelin, played a commissioned piece by choreographer Merce Cunningham in celebration of his 90th birthday. Mr. Jones used Kyma extensively for signal processing. The performance was obsessive, with rapid signal-processing changes juxtaposing and layering each other, reminiscent of rock and roll while taking a much fresher approach. The sounds of the guitar were heavily processed, close to unrecognizable, and never seemed to settle down. Mr. Jones applied many transformations to the guitar. These included: phase and pitch shifts, harmonization, delays, filter sweeps, phase vocoder, additive, FM, granular synthesis, and much more. Additionally, there was an abundance of crescendos with constantly-moving sound effects (mostly in the mid-to-high frequency range), pitch shifting, and thick layers of sounds with few sustained notes in suspense. He completely dominated the Kyma system and the audience. Toward the end of the piece, Mr. Jones created an auditory illusion of pitch ascending infinitely (the Shepard scale) to create a climax and then slowly descending using filter sweeps, finally ending with almost recognizable sounds of the guitar with bits of tonal chords, and melodic phrases turning into noisy, harsh strumming until the end. His performance was very engaging to behold.

The second day of the symposium was full of lectures on philosophy and music. Hannes Raffaseder and Julian Rubisch presented a paper entitled, “GEMMA (Generative Music for Media Application)” that explained how algorithmic and generative composition methods from the field of experimental New Music can be transferred to the applied sector of media production. They are developing a software tool that will simplify the selection and production of media music using an optimized user interface and partially automated composition process. More information is available at the authors’ Web site (gemma.fhstp.ac.at/).

David Moss gave a demonstration on a Kyma controller he has built, which was different from what was announced in his abstract. He built the controller by taking infrared LEDs and attaching them to the ends of two sticks, which he then moved in front of a Nintendo Wiimote, fixed on a stand, communicating with Kyma through OSCulator (www.osculator.net).

Steve Everett gave a paper entitled “Auditory roughness and ecological listening in electroacoustic music,” in which he examined the perceptual conditions for determining musical meaning in electroacoustic compositions.

Jim Brashear’s presentation, “System of Shadows,” offered a non-semantic dialogue and interactive performance environment for trumpet/flugelhorn and Kyma. His presentation focused on the gestural and abstract performance lexicon within “System of Shadows,” positioning the work securely within the realm of real-time, non-semantic dialog and symbolic interchange.

Lowell Pickett’s “The Pentagon” was an experiment using Kyma for live 3-D audio manipulation for a music venue of the future. The purpose of  “The Pentagon” is to present a new type of performance space that provides the audience with a unique social and musical experience in surround sound. The performer is positioned at the center of The Pentagon (in the middle of the audience) and uses Kyma to spatially mix and manipulate audio. Alternatively, an assortment of performers can be positioned around the edges of The Pentagon. This experiment aims to heighten the audience's awareness of the real and virtual spaces around them.

Peter Rantasa’s keynote presentation was on the conference theme: "Symbolic Sound." Beginning with the etymology of the word “symbol,” Mr. Rantasa used semiotic concepts to uncover the "key to decipher the meaning of a sound." He posited the notion that sound is first situated in our bodies; it connects us literally with the environment. Through sound we not only observe, but we are in our world. He illustrated this observation, at the beginning of his talk, with a video of his baby daughter and her reaction to the sound of a vacuum cleaner, and at the end with a quote on the gesture of listening to music by the philosopher Vilem Flusser. For more information about this presentation, and to read abstracts from the symposium, visit the KISS2010 Web site (tonsalon.at/KISS2010/index.php/program/). Videos from talks and concerts may be viewed at the Symbolic Sound Web site (www.symbolicsound.com/Learn/KISS2010).

The pieces presented at the conference were stylistically quite different from each other. There were electroacoustic and electronic music improvisations, DJ-house, Pop/Avant-Garde, Electronic, and live interactions with electronics, voice, acoustic instruments and video using Kyma. It was very encouraging to hear all the different possibilities allowed by Kyma.
The concert night started with Carla Scaletti's piece called Autocatalysis for Kyma and live audience. Ms. Scaletti’s musical environment was controlled by the audience using plastic clickers. The audience sounds were fed into a complex system that generated the piece, controlled the parameters, and activated processes in Kyma. "The piece can only happen with the input from the audience," she said. The audience was energized by the clicking sounds that came in waves against harsh synthetic electronic bursts, sometimes machine-like but interleaved with lyrical organic material. Parameters for each processor were displayed on a large screen as guidance and feedback for the audience. "The sonic environment output emerges as the result of the interaction between the components of the system in a space," stated Ms. Scaletti in the program notes. Her intent was successfully accomplished.

Andrea Young's piece, Insatisfecha for voice and electronics, was inspired by a  Huang O poem from the early 16th century. Ms. Young used her voice and a Wacom tablet with great skill to control processes in Kyma. In Insatisfecha a cacophony of vocal sounds, echoing, stretched-out cries, moving between multiple loudspeakers, was engaging to listen to. The piece had a very rich pallet of vocal sounds interleaved with a delicate, percussive electronic texture. It evolved gradually, imparting a sense of melancholy, uneasiness, and mystery, and then peaceful rest. In all, Insatisfecha was very satisfying to listen to. Thanks to Ms. Young for an inspiring, thoughtful, and engaging piece.

System of Shadows for trumpet/flugelhorn, Kyma, and live electronics is a successful collaboration between composer Brian Belet  and performer Stephen Ruppenthal. The piece takes its inspiration from the three-movement form of a concerto. System of Shadows is a dialog between acoustic and electronic forces. The Kyma system designed by Mr. Belet provides great flexibility for the performer to improvise. The trumpet score is fully notated, but with room for improvisational commentary. The trumpet sounds were passed through a multiplicity of processes, creating a dense, arrhythmic, reverberating texture. The sounds emanated from multiple speakers, taking over the entire room. For this piece, the composer focused on extending the trumpet sounds with multiple variations of the same source, like shadows, as the title implies. These two forces, trumpet and electronics, shifted back and forth, creating an engaging interplay of sonorities.

Soundtracks for Movies that Don’t Yet Exist: Die Taubheit for piano and live electronics was composed by Avi Benjamin. Mr. Benjamin used an acoustic piano, electronic keyboard, continuum fingerboard, Theremin, and Kyma for his piece. It began with a virtuoso performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 32, Opus 111, Movement 1, performed by the composer. Later on in the piece he extended his performance by playing an electronic keyboard, continuum fingerboard, and a Theremin, alternating skillfully between acoustic and electronic instruments. Mr. Benjamin created an environment using Kyma that allowed him to control the harmonic and rhythmic structure of Beethoven's sonata with various types of processing.  His performance skills, originality, and presence captured the attention of the audience. It was great fun to watch and to listen to this piece

Circles by Hector Bravo Bernard for percussion and live electronics is an improvisational piece.  The music was generated live, using very high-pitched sounds with strident, harsh scrapes and long resonances to create a jarring wall of inharmonic sounds. Toward the end of the piece, a cloud of short, punctuated, high-pitched sounds oscillating with percussive low-pitched sounds gradually emanated from the dense texture, transforming this moment into a magical counterpoint. Circles was produced from plate excitation by intervention of different objects. It had a circular form, just as the title implies.

A Sphere of Air is Bound for wind instrument(s) and live electronics by Bruno Liberda is another example of a successful collaboration, between the composer and instrumentalist Stephen Ruppenthal. Mr. Ruppenthal's presence was exuberant, full of energy and plasticity. His compelling performance, with complex and articulated phrases, fast and slow passages, short attacks and long sustains, and modulating pitches, was engaging and exciting to listen to. The trumpet dialogued and complemented the continuously evolving electronic texture. The electronic sounds and the processes used in this piece were carefully designed, contrasting and expanding the acoustic sound of the trumpet. They never seemed predictable. This, and the combination of contrasting timbres against the trumpet, successfully contributed to the development and interest of this piece. In his program notes, Mr. Liberda used the metaphor of weaving a basket to explain how he developed the idea and construction of the work:

[I] start from the most basic steps, namely the selection and processing of the material. The first thing was to choose the right kind of bamboo as material for the weaving. The tough texture of four-to-five-year-old Phyllostachys pubescens, for example, is ideal for making furniture, while the softer texture of three-year-old Phyllostachys makinoi Hayata is easier to weave into a basket. Once the kind of bamboo is selected, it is then ‘cooked’ in soda water to remove the plant's oils, and after that it is ready to be stripped to desired sizes. The stripping is a process that determines the results of the final products. Bamboo weaving is a time-consuming craft, and there is always the chance of making a wrong move that causes one to have to undo ones work and start all over again.

The last day of the conference was devoted to Kyma only.  The participants were eager for this day to come. The early part of the symposium was mostly dedicated to talks on the philosophy of the sounds, so finally it ended with what most participants wanted: Kyma masterclasses!  (that is, Kyma programming and design).

The masterclass was followed by a great dinner and evening concert at Rhiz Bar Modern where many participants from the field of electroacoustic music, electronic music, and ambient music gathered. Rhiz Bar Modernis is located in a fashionable and hip area of Vienna.  The venue looked like a wine cellar, with a good quality sound system The performance space was attached to a bar with thick walls and doors for sound acoustics. The music selection and styles for this concert matched the environment well. We had the presence of masters of synthetic new age music, electronica, avant-garde, DJ, house music, you name it, and all produced using Kyma instruments.

Selected Nebulae by Samuel Pellman was inspired by images taken by the Hubble telescope of objects in deep space. Kyma was used for the surround-sound projection and for the creation of virtual instruments based on physical modeling. The sounds for this piece were mostly medium to low frequencies, smooth wave-like motions with additional rhythmic and melodic patterns "floating in space," with lots of speed variations and delicate washes of high-pitched, melodic patterns in fixed tonal keys. The constant reverberation overpowered the entire room. The sounds complemented the video, which contained images based on mathematical transformations modeled from organic behavior and growth processes. Overall, listening to Selected Nebulae was a pleasant experience.  I just surrendered to the sounds and my imagination flew away from reality right into space!

Pentagon by Lowell Pickett used live remix techniques within the Kyma environment. The composer used melodic songs with repetitive patterns in random juxtaposition, in order to create acoustic spaces and slowly rotate through them.  Some of the songs were vocals accompanied by an acoustic guitar; others were instrumental with focus on the percussion. In order to unify the different pieces into a cohesive performance, and modulate easily between contrasting songs, the individual pieces were organized by their synthesis processes, genre, style, and tonality. The selection of the pieces was tasteful and the remix was engaging to the ear. Mr. Pickett's objective was to heighten the audience's awareness of the virtual space around them.
Just Below the Surface by Teo Lipfert seemed to be concerned with the differences between what people say and what they mean. The composer claimed that sometimes people use precisely defined words, but the words actually mean something else, completely. For this work Mr. Lipfert used underwater video as a metaphor for this experience. Just Below the Surface is an engaging work, poetic with a surreal quality. The video images were processed, but still recognizable.  Reverberated voices of children describing their dreams added another dimension to the video and its background music.  The recording of the video was done under water. The composer states in the program note:  "The visual component of the film begins as an abstract mix of organic elements, none of which visually describe the audio content. As the film progresses the viewers become increasingly aware that they are underneath the surface of the ocean. As the film concludes, a quick cut to recognizable reality signals a sudden awakening."  Just Below the Surface was fluid and magical to see and listen to. The central component of the children recounting their dreams moved me, and transported me from reality to this imaginative world created by the magically and beautifully processed video images.

DJ Cristian Vogel’s RetroInterrupt featured almost 36 minutes of repetitive music accompanied by a video that began with images of scanty dressed, sexually suggestive women. The images were processed using the Processing video software, which made the images less clear as the video progressed. The manipulation of the images was tastefully done. Mr. Vogel's music was persistent, evolving gradually through different stages but still maintaining the focus on rhythm. The remix of the numerous sounds accompanied by a constant beat was vibrant and hypnotic. Mr. Vogel claims that he has a more experimental touch that is not so common in this type of dance music.  I really enjoyed listening to his music environment, but if I had to listen to this kind of music again for 36 minutes in a concert setting it would be too much for me to endure. One feels the need to move the body with the music, or have stimulant to go with it. It was a little bit over the top. Thank you for stopping, Cristian!

We had a great time at Rhiz Bar Modern. Thanks to Bruno Liberda and Peter Rantasa for orchestrating this event with great ability and flair. Overall, the symposium was informative and inspiring for most of the Kyma practitioners. The majority of the participants came to meet Carla and Kurt and learn more about Kyma. But we would have loved to have had Kyma immersion for the entire conference! Unfortunately, only one day was devoted to this. To learn more about what is new with Kyma, visit the company’s Web site for further information (www.symbolicsound.com/).