I attended the Improvisational Creativity Workshop

I attended the Improvisational Creativity Workshop recently held at Monash University in Prato, Italy, which gathered an international group of interdisciplinary practitioners working in digital performance. In particular, most participants are actively engaged in the design, production and experimental use of idiosyncratic interfaces. Today’s hacking culture and open access to sophisticated hardware and software tools makes creative involvement widely available. After all, the impact of public domain development platforms like Processing and Arduino totally extends into the social realm, way beyond considerations of pure functionality. Building new tools and applying them in creative improvisation implies novel options and psychosocial consequences.

For one example, technology connects people and machines in a hybrid biotope that is neither totally inert nor fully alive. In this light, consider laptop performance; writing a computer program from scratch in front of an audience and debugging/developing the program while listening to it. Sound emerges from the dynamic confrontation of ones private concept about how live music should sound like and the actual real-time implementation of that agenda. Text-based interfaces are generally in operation, programs are written as short blocks of code, using flexible tools like SuperCollider, Extempore or Chuck.

In addition, laptop orchestras have emerged in many countries – as pioneering composer Laurie Spiegel observed a long time ago; the laptop is the new guitar that brings us together for playing and sharing stories around the campfire. Considering the social impact of technology, in the end, new meanings arise not just from the application of procedural thinking expressed in software, but more significantly, from dynamic relationships expressed between people connected in a given community.


Monash University, located in Prato Centre, Prato, Italy, is a European base for research and education … more

The Improvisational Creativity Workshop investigated how digital technologies and artificial intelligence can support and enhance human creativity. Activities included hands-on development of improvisational interfaces, tutorials, and a performance evening.

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Joanne Armitage and Shelly Knotts perform ALGOBABEZ at the Improvisational Creativity Workshop, Prato, Italy, July 21, 2017
As a second example, consider personal software development as a channel to private imagination; the code reflects a personal belief system formalized in the textual format of a particular formal language. We think of creative program development as speculative computing, one often starts with ill-defined ideas and thoughts evolve according to new insight gathered along the way, therefore we improvise, our focus is mobile and conditioned/informed by cognitive momentum in the development-evaluation cycle. Programmers basically talk to themselves while contemplating ideas – we think of them as conceptual machinery – dynamic options of which we assume they might yield fascinating incarnations in image or sound.

Ever since small computers became available in the late 1970’s, the field of computer music opened up to experimentation outside of academia. Setting up improvisational formats with humans and machines listening and responding to each other became a realistic opportunity.

The Improvisational Creativity Workshop included a presentation of Tango, an early sophisticated interactive music system developed by German jazz player Henning Berg. Berg is a self-taught programmer who started learning the C programming language in 1988. As a trombone player, his motivation was informed by the excitement of having a creative partner for live performance.

Henning Berg performing with the Tango interactive music system at the Improvisational Creativity Workshop, Prato, Italy, July 19, 2017
Tango brings into play the metaphor of a room. Any given room represents the organization of software units equipped with a specific functionality like listening and analyzing human input via a microphone and audio to MIDI conversion, player units playing responses echoing selected features of human input, modifiers generating variations of human input and harmony and metronome units, respectively constraining machine output in terms of pitch consonance and beat tracking. Tango is unique as it fully integrates audio and MIDI signals in a common structural ground.

A performance with Tango consists of the exposure of a series of rooms. A single room suggests a collection of particular relationships between what the system hears and what it plays. When closely observing man and machine perform, one may imagine an abstract conversation being developed on the fly – no single partner is in control, we hear the musical initiative floating back and forth between man and machine, at times we perceive clear correlations between contexts suggested by man or machine and sometimes we happen to be perplexed by emergent complexity. In effect, a rewarding aesthetic experience is induced in any attentive listener in the audience. The depth of the experience is associated to the process of continuously balancing expectation and surprise.

— Peter Beyls, July 25, 2017