Introduction to the 2010 T-Stick Composition Workshops

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Workshop with Luna Pearl Woolf – woolf (2)

The second workshop session with Luna took place at the matralab, on 4 March. I was pleased to see that the conception of her new t-stick piece appears to be almost complete. Luna presented me with a very clear line in terms of the structure of the composition; she had excellent descriptions of both gesture and sound over the course of the composition. Due to the strong theatrical direction in her conception, we have had very interesting talks about the role and presence of the t-stick. In particular, our talks have led to a rethinking of the t-stick as an agent of mediation between human performer and theatrical gesture. I find myself relying less on my usual modes of exciting sound (e.g., framing and fingering, thrusting) and more on using the t-stick as an instrument capable of measuring effort and, thus, a mediator between performer and performer expressivity – effort being one aspect of expressivity.

I proposed that we device at least one ‘effort’ gesture continuum. At one end of the continuum, we have a physical gesture that appears to require little energy exertion while at the other end we have a gesture of great vigour and energy. In between these extremes, we have numerous gestures, each one requiring more effort than the next.

I followed these steps while developing a possible continuum.

1.  I chose physical gestures that required the least and most effort based on musical and theatrical concepts required for Luna’s composition.

Least effort:  horizontal stick / cradling / no movement / no pressure (no squeezing)
Most effort:  continually changing angularity / alternating wide grip and baseball bat position / kayak and  lasso like movements / pulsating squeezes

2.  I categorised the different components of these two gestures (the least and most effort gestures) into four fields:

(1)  Angularity, orientation and position of stick
(2)  Touch or contact
(3)  Expanse of movement, activity
(4)  Squeezing

3.  I looked at these four fields and considered the sensing mechanisms involved in each. For instance, angularity is about measuring tilt via the accelerometers. Squeezing involves the pressure sensor. Measuring the expanse of, say, a lasso gesture requires a reading of combined gyroscope data.

4.  Next, I programmed ‘two’ different algorithms for extracting gesture in each field (e.g., two methods of measuring effort in relation to changes in angularity).  The two algorithms are designed to respond with different sensitivity so that one method is more representative of effort that is exerted in short bursts while the other method indicates a longer energy accumulation, as long as the gesture is repeated/maintained.

A preliminary ‘effort’ gesture continuum is listed here, from least to most effort exertion. One performance goal may be to combine all of these and so, as each gesture is added, there is an accumulation of movements and also exerted effort.

(1) Rolling slowly
(2) Tilting slowly
(3) Movement along the frontal plane (forward and backward motion)
(4) Changing hand position (widening and narrowing) and brushing
(5) Squeezing with a sustained degree of force and/or rapid pulsating squeezes
(6) Spinning: lasso, fan, airplane, majorette
(7) Concentrated and highly vigorous spinning
(8) Throwing

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Adapted t-stick notation (prompt score)

Aspects of traditional music notation (see an example for the t-stick, below), may be adapted for the purpose of creating what I call a ‘prompt score’. This type of notation for the t-stick directs the performer toward a sequence of gestures via a set of symbols that vary quite dramatically in their levels of abstraction.  The instructions in the score range from literal prompts (e.g., shake) to pictorial depiction and standard music notation symbols (see the one-page example illustrated here).

While performing, the prompt score appears as a downward scrolling on-screen graphic that is positioned next to the standard t-stick interface window. The animation of this graphic is controlled by Max/MSP.  A vertical scrolling display – music notation is normally read from left to right, but not in this case – was chosen for two reasons.  First, because the size and lay-out of the t-stick interface window commands two thirds of the laptop screen, only a thin vertical space on the screen is available for the prompt score.  Second, and more importantly, I believe that the full-body movement required to play the t-stick can be better depicted by a score lay-out that, in itself, may more accurately enclose the geometry of the performer’s body. In other words, it is easier to show an image of a standing human form in a vertical window space than in a horizontal – perhaps physically reclining – window.  In addition, I was influenced by the study of Laban dance notation, which also uses a vertically distributed notation system.

To facilitate t-stick notation in this fashion I have included a downloadable package ( or see Software Downloads, on the right) containing templates for OmniGraffle, Word, Pages, Finale and basic JPG files that can be used with any graphics editing software.  I have also included an additional Finale document containing many of the standard music notation symbols used in previous prompt scores. Typically, I create and then export these symbols from Finale, using them in OmniGraffle to assemble the final score.

If you like this way of notating, but you want to use another application, please use a page size of:

405 X 800 (pixels)
=  14.29 X 28.22 (cm)
=  5.626 X 11.11 (inch)

In addition, remember to lay out your symbols and graphics from top to bottom and that each page must be placed ‘below’ the previous page (read from top to bottom). The final version of your score must be an image file that is readable by Max/MSP and also a simple text document containing the time cues for each page.  The time cues should represent the ‘running’ time of the piece (i.e., cumulative time).  Do not concern yourself too much with the formatting of this text document.  However, the following format would be useful:

1, 1 scrollwork_page;
123, 2 scrollwork_page;
137, 3 scrollwork_page;

The first number of each line represents the cumulative time (e.g., 123 = 1 minute, 23 seconds).  The number before “scrollwork_page” is your page number.

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T-stick Notation

The music for the t-stick is represented in two associated forms: a printed musical score and a software graphical interface of my own design. In the printed score, music for the t-stick is notated on a three-line staff (see Example 1). The top and bottom lines of this staff coincide with the top and bottom of the touch sensing range, respectively. The top of the range denotes the end of the instrument that is furthest away from the USB port; the bottom of the range indicates the end nearest to the port.

Musical notes and thin vertical blocks on the staff indicate an approximate placement of single fingers (traditional note-heads) and hand grips (vertical blocks) on the t-stick. The range of sounds is variable and depends upon a musician’s control of timbre, which is indicated by t-stick tablature grids located above the staff. I speak more about the t-stick tablature  notation in relation to Examples 2 and 3, below. A slash through a note-head specifies a thrusting or jabbing motion with the t-stick and consists in: (1) selecting hand position; (2) tilting and rotating the instrument (and one’s own body); and (3) applying a proper degree of force not only in the direction of the jab but also to grip pressure. An encircled ‘X’ below the staff specifies a technique known as a ‘thrust-sustain’, which is an adaptation of the jabbing technique. The thrust-sustain requires a minimum of a 0.75-second preparation time during which the performer must maintain a consistent degree of pressure (on the pressure-sensing side of the DMI) before executing the jabbing movement. The result may be anything from a series of sustained cacophonous bell-like tones to a brittle and woody bubbling, depending on the degree of pressure used. Changes in volume are traditionally notated with standard dynamic symbols:  ƒ  ,  p , crescendo, etc.. In addition, the lv symbol, which is a standard mark for percussion music, is found above the staff and specifies that the sound of the t-stick be allowed to resonate.

The second component of t-stick notation concerns a graphical software interface for displaying a type of dynamically-changing tablature system. I invented both the interface and the tablature system. Generally speaking, the timbre of the t-stick results from both tilt and rotation; however several other factors concomitantly contribute to the resulting sound (e.g., degree and location of surface contact, pressure applied to surface). Symbols (Example 2) appearing on a computer screen and above the staff (Example 3) inform the performer about the current tilt and rotation of the instrument, as well as approximate contact positions (i.e., hand positions). In Example 2, we see three tablature grids. The circle and star contained within each grid correspond to control parameters of multiple synthesisers; the circle is related to one instance and the star, the other. The shaded top left corner of each grid has been used in previous versions of the on-screen interface. The shaded corner can be automated so that it moves from square to square.

During a performance, the grid elements (i.e., circle and star) shift up and down and from side to side corresponding to the physical handling of the t-stick. For instance, tilting the t-stick moves both elements horizontally. The star moves vertically as a result of rotating along the lateral access of the DMI while hand width, combined with hand position along the surface of the DMI, controls the vertical positioning of the circle. During a performance, a musician reads the notated tablature grids in the printed score along with information written on and below the staff. Next, he or she manipulates the t-stick in order to match the on-screen tablature to the notated grids. For instance, the three grids shown in Example 2 correspond to the notated musical score grids of Example 3. Furthermore, dotted lines appear between notated grids in Example 3 and indicate a gradual change from one grid to the next. T-stick playing technique, therefore, requires one to have a swift and accurate grasp of the tablature system so that one can smoothly shift from hand position to hand position while fluidly rotating and tilting the instrument.

One further symbol shown in Example 4 needs clarification. Throughout the development of the DMI, I found notated indications for t-stick orientation to be necessary (Example 4). While composing, I continued to use them even though some similar information was already conveyed by the tablature grids. From my experiences as both composer and performer on the DMI, I have observed that these orientation symbols provide a simple and coherent means of conveying basic tilt and hand position information. For instance, the first symbol of Example 4 specifies holding the t-stick upright (i.e., the top of the t-stick pointing upward) and vertical with the left hand on the bottom and the right hand on the top.

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WITH WINDS (excerpt)

I have been working on a t-stick sound vocabulary that integrates well with winds – wood wind instruments to be more precise – capturing not only sustained ‘wind’ sounds but also a wealth of extended technique sounds (e.g., key clicks, tongue rams, flutter, air noise, etc.). In this video, I hope you will hear various wood wind instruments and also some of the more contemporary extended technique sounds.

Continue reading

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Workshop with David Ogborn – ogborn (2)

On December 13, David Ogborn was in Montreal and so I invited him over for our second workshop session.  I was excited to have him in town and I welcomed him to my ‘home base’ at the matralab.  The first part of our time together was spent on quiet programming – David working on his new breakcore synthesiser while I worked on some gesture extraction algorithms.

In terms of gesture, we are exploring movements that co-ordinate well with David’s musical concepts of rhythmic unity.  For instance, his composition will involve a set of gestures that when combined, stabilise or bring a sort of periodicity to a bank of glitch-influenced sounds; t-stick movement will increase or decrease ‘metricity’, as David is calling it.

During the second half of our meeting, we explored shaking as a means of controlling metricity. I shook non-stop while David looked over the t-stick data streams coming into his custom-built synthesiser.  We made an effort – exerted an effort – to map energy exertion to metricity.  The harder I shook, the more stable the sounds became.  After some reflection, it seems that the ‘inverse’ may make more sense; the harder the shake, the less stable the sounds become.  Work in progress, as usual.

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