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  • Writer's pictureGregtheSquare

Post-Digital Post Doc

I've just accepted a 2-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship, beginning this fall 2024 at McGill University Schulich School of Music where I will be collaborating with folks at two fantastic labs: IDMIL and CIRMMT. This year, I've focused on teaching a gigging with little time for composition and research, so it will be a nice change to focus on contributing to the field electroacoustic music.

My project is called "Innovating Instrumental Practice in the Face of the AI Revolution: Expanding Feedback Saxophone as a Post-Digital Instrument." Below you will find my research proposal, I hope this can act as a guide for your own proposals and thinking. Happy reading! (I put in some photos here for fun)

Originality and impact on the development or renewal of the field concerned, and added value compared to doctoral work.

New technologies have lessened the importance of instrumental practice in the musical world. Signs of this trend can be seen in the displacement of live performance by pre-recorded music; the disappearance of music programs, as well as professional orchestras and bands; and the increasing popularity of digital tools. While there has been much research involving cutting-edge software and musical instruments, the rate of change, as well as the flexibility, of digital media lead such work to advance digital practices more so than instrumental technique. The ongoing AI revolution will likely accelerate this trend.

Post-digitalism provides a framework for technologically extending traditional instruments in ways that support the continued relevancy of instrumental practice. As an ethos that embraces the idiosyncrasies, noise, and limitations of physical and digital media, post-digitalism does not fall victim to the perceived or planned obsolescence of modern technologies. My work with feedback saxophone, a novel electroacoustic system I developed during my doctorate, demonstrates the creative potential of this approach. By minimally augmenting the tenor saxophone with common musical equipment, manipulating the saxophone itself conjures malleable acoustic feedback tones, expanding the instrument’s expressive palette.

To innovate, and bolster the importance of, instrumental practice in face of digital hegemony and the AI revolution, I will expand my research in feedback saxophone that began in my doctorate by streamlining its equipment, discovering and developing new techniques, and collaborating with composers to create new works. Presenting the results of this research in written, performance, and audio-visual formats will contribute to saxophone and electroacoustic practice, as well as instrument design. My findings will also demonstrate how post-digitalism can effectively advance instrumental practice and act as a counterpoint to current trends in music technology.

Rather than simply generate more works based off the system I developed during my doctorate, this postdoctoral fellowship will greatly advance the technical underpinnings and understanding of my feedback saxophone system, create composer-friendly guides to aide in its engagement, and better frame feedback saxophone as an intentionally limited, yet virtuosity-capable, augmented instrument.

Problematization of creative and artistic practice, and adequacy of the approach to the objectives pursued.

Since the early 20th century, new technologies have disrupted the ways in which music is made, reducing the cultural significance of instrumental practice. Recorded music broadly eroded the importance of live music, and electronic hardware and software supplanted the primacy of acoustic instruments and instrumental technique (Théberge, 1997). Notwithstanding the economic implications of such changes, instrumental practice has continued to adapt and evolve with innovations in technology.

Now, as the AI revolution matures, the wide-ranging impact that AI is having on the visual arts (Roose, 2022) should be a harbinger for how instrumental practice may be disrupted. Generative AI programs such as Midjourney and Stable Diffusion show how popular art styles can be reduced to a few well written prompts, allowing for an unprecedented degree of innovation in visual art without the involvement of artists themselves. The pace of this disruption was unforeseen and is unprecedented, so it would be prudent to anticipate a similar threat to instrumentalists. Meaningful alternative approaches to instrumental practice must be developed to prepare for this future.

One approach could be a form of musical luddism, but such an attitude would prevent instrumental music from engaging with contemporary societal-technological issues. Another alternative are the “infra-instruments” suggested by Bowyers and Archer (2005), whereby technology is used to transform broken instruments or common objects into musical tools incapable of virtuosic performance. In contrast to infra-instruments are “augmented instruments” that combine acoustic instruments with digital media. However, quickly changing technology and tastes prevent these devices from having a wide impact (McPherson and Kim, 2012) or from fostering virtuosic performances (Palacio-Quintin, 2008). Additionally, the digital augmentations of these instruments often overshadow the acoustic qualities of the “base” instrument. Considering the shortcomings of these approaches, how then can technology be used to effectively advance instrumental practice, while remaining distinct from the ever-growing generative capabilities of digital media and AI?

A path forward is possible through post-digitalism, “an approach to creative work that embraces technologies, be they digital or analogue, software or hardware – including their faults” and whereby the “accidental, the outcast, the ‘noise’ of machines and the ‘idiosyncrasy’ of software processes are brought to the centre of creative practice” (Ferguson and Brown, 2016). D.I.Y. electronic musician and theorist John Richards explains such an ethos comes in reaction to “the vestiges of the digital world: the virtual, wireless, pseudo-modernist design, utilitarianism and seemingly endless possibilities.” This critique, Richards continues, “is not born of nostalgia nor an attempt to re-create the past but is a way of trying to dislodge the ubiquity of digital technology” (2008). Using music technology in such a reactionary way is not new. Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) famously recontextualized the phenomenon of feedback through electric guitar performance, reflecting the tension between notions of justice and the chaos brought about by military technology during the Vietnam War (Barros, 2015). Similarly, by harnessing the sonic error of feedback using common, analogue musical hardware, my research reimagines the saxophone as an electro-mechanical instrument that acts in opposition to prevailing trends in digital culture.

Realism of the completion schedule, feasibility and relevance of the requested completion costs, if applicable.

To help buttress instrumental practice within music’s increasingly digital landscape, I will advance this unique research-creation over four phases: 1) system streamlining, 2) new musical grammar with guides, 3) composer collaborations, 4) recording and concert. Each phase will be documented in video through social media clips, longer improvisation and experimentation videos, and video-blog essays. My research in feedback saxophone has thus far employed a D.I.Y. approach, which is shared by post-digitalism and numerous artistic traditions, and therefore will benefit greatly from collaborating with others as proposed below. This research will closely follow the methodology I employed for my doctoral research, which I termed “problem-practice-exegesis” (Bruce, 2023).

Phase 1: system streamlining My feedback saxophone is based on the material and electronic properties of physical media, meaning it is highly novel but challenging to assemble. While the key system I developed may be applied across most (if not all) tenor saxophones, the amplifiers and effects pedals I use are highly specific: I am unaware if other pedals will work, and only a few inexpensive (but out of production) amplifiers produce the appropriate feedback tones. Moreover, the microphone at the heart of this system is common but is placed in such a way that it produces a limited number of pitches. As it stands, the collection of equipment that my system requires would be of little use for saxophonists outside of this narrow application.

To remedy these shortcomings, I will work with various technologists to adapt the system to use more widely applicable equipment. As the microphone is used to induce feedback and not to amplify the sound of the saxophone, I will devise an affordable microphone setup that can fit in the neck of the instrument. Having worked with setups of this kind, such as for the indeterminate digital feedback work Modes of Interference (Di Scipio, 2006), I know that such placement will facilitate a larger range of feedback pitches. Additionally, I will create a software patch in Max, a visual programming language for audio applications, that mimics the frequency response of my current amplifier and effects pedals. Rather than embrace the near limitless possibilities of Max, however, I will use post-digitalism to map my existing analogue practices to the digital realm. Most musicians engage with electronics through a laptop and using a Max patch does not require a license. Therefore, employing Max along with a new microphone setup will increase the capabilities and accessibility of my system.

Phase 2: new musical grammar, composer guides Having reconstructed the system with new equipment combined with the tenor saxophone, I will then apply the new setup to the baritone and bass saxophones. Systematically moving through common key combinations, I will produce key-to- feedback lists for each instrument. Then, using my previous feedback works as a foundation, I will improvise with each instrument to discover and notate idiomatic musical figures. I will combine the key-to-feedback lists with numerous idiomatic gestures to create composer guides.

Phase 3: composer collaboration, practice, and rehearsal Using these guides, I will collaborate with three composers to write a piece for each feedback system: tenor, baritone, and bass. While the composers work, I will continue to familiarize myself with each system, note further discoveries and idiomatic musical grammar, and prepare to record and perform each work.

Phase 4: recording and performance While I have made studio recordings of feedback saxophone, it remains an open question of how to best record and mix this work. Time will be needed to experiment with the number, types, and placement of microphones. Will additional audio effects be applied? Will the mixing be in service of a documentary recording or something far more “produced”? The nature of the pieces will largely determine the answers to these questions. Working with recording and mixing engineers, as well as video technicians, that are familiar with my research and aesthetic goals will be crucial for success in this regard. Creating audio-video recordings of the new works will prepare me to present them live, in concert.

Though feedback saxophone was the focus of my doctorate, it remains an incredibly rare and under-explored approach to electroacoustic music. As such, developing this research requires an extended timeline as proposed, as well as the resources and support that the Schulich School of Music at McGill University is uniquely suited to provide.

Relevance of planned dissemination activities

This work aims to advance instrumental practice by proposing a technique-centred, material- oriented method of music making that embraces limitations, noise, and idiosyncrasies. Under the umbrella of post-digitalism, the scores and audio-video recordings resulting from this work will demonstrate that such an approach is a fertile means through which new sounds, techniques, and works may be developed. The streamlined feedback system I develop will allow other saxophonists to engage with this research more easily and will open the door for it to be applied to other instruments. The composer guides, compositions, and video documentation will also allow others to continue and expand this niche practice. Moreover, performances and studio recordings will disseminate this research to a broad public. These findings, accompanied by multimedia documentation and dissemination, will contribute to saxophone performance, electroacoustic practice, as well as the burgeoning field of research-creation. These contributions will be indispensable in the pursuit of advancing instrumental practice as digital hegemony increases through generative AI.


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