Translation as Technique: Collaboratively Creating an Electro

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  • Translation as Technique: Collaboratively Creating an Electro-AcousticComposition for Saxophone and Live Video Projection

    Christopher Jette, Kelland Thomas, Javier Villegas, Angus Graeme ForbesCreative Coding Lab, School of Information, Science, Technology & Arts, University of Arizona, {kelland, jvillegas, forbes}


    This paper describes the development of an electro-acousticcomposition, titled v!t!d, which positions the act of trans-lation as the focal point of the creative process. The workis a collaboration between a saxophonist, a composer, andtwo multimedia artists. We begin with a saxophone impro-visation which is translated into a composition featuringsolo saxophone and fixed electronics. The performance ofthis sound composition is translated again with live imageprocessing, where the audio and visual content serve ascontrol signals. We locate translation as an effective toolfor composition and describe work that has inspired thisapproach to our creation processes.


    v!t!d is a work that assumes that the bias of a transcrip-tionist will impart a distinctive perspective on the materialtranslated from one medium to another. In this work, asaxophone improvisation is the seed for translations com-mon to spectralism. The translations serve as materialsused to compose a new work. This new work for saxo-phone and fixed electronics is the source for live imageprocessing. In the live performance the saxophonist andthe processed images of the performer are juxtaposed, pre-senting the audience with a transcription of the visual ex-perience. Each collaborators transcription across medi-ums is an opportunity to impart an interpretation. In thisparadigm, each phase of the process leaves a mark uponthe final work. The spectral translation necessarily navi-gates from the acoustic to digital to domain; and the imagetranslation maps both the live sound data and video streamas control signals for the image processing. This paperwill present an aesthetic context in which the work is lo-cated, followed by works that have inspired our position.The next component of this paper will be a description ofthe processes involved in creating the sound composition,including the compositional strategies and a discussion ofimprovisation in this context. The last section will providea description of the live image processing.

    Copyright: c2014 Christopher Jette et al. This isan open-access article distributed under the terms of the

    Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License, which permits unre-

    stricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original

    author and source are credited.

    Saxophone Improvisation

    Various microphones


    Audio files

    ASAnnotation software

    MIDI files SDIF files

    OpenMusic software

    MIDI files

    Notation software

    Saxophone scoreFixed Electronics

    Audio performance

    Audio performance

    Two video cameras

    Video processing

    Video projection


    Audio Recording


    Audio Composition

    Video Processing

    Figure 1. The stages of translation. This figures shows thefour stages that lead to the final performance.


    The motivation for this work is the realization of a collab-orative process where various artists contribute to a finalwork. The function of translation in this context varieswith each artist. This section will first describe the col-laborative process and the artists involved, followed by anindication of philosophical influences.

    2.1 Collaboration

    The team includes: Kelland Thomas, Christopher Jette,Angus Forbes and Javier Villegas. Kelland Thomas cre-ated the seed improvisation material for the work and per-forms the notated score. Christopher Jette translated therecording, creating the saxophone score and the fixed elec-tronic sounds. Angus Forbes and Javier Villegas developeda video processing technique [1] that used the audio as in-put for creating a visual interpretation of the piece. JavierVillegas also performed the video processing live, adjust-ing control parameters of the visuals during live perfor-mances of v!t!d.


  • 2.2 Translation

    In his essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjaminnotes that translation fails due to the inaccurate transmis-sion of inessential content [2]. The inessential contentthat he references is the material beyond the statement, theartistic method, not the message. This inessential contentconstitutes the voice of an artist, be it the unique soniclanguage of an improvising pianist or the cinematographicchoices of a director. Every stage in the creation of v!t!dis a translation of earlier material. We leverage the idiosyn-cratic perspective of each artist as a compositional tool.We cast translation as a means of codifying the aestheticperspective of the translator. Each collaborator contributessomething to the final work. v!t!d is an assemblage ofperspectives collapsed into a single work.


    v!t!d begins with a supposition that spectral translationis a process whereby the the act of transforming the ma-terial reshapes the output. The basic techniques of spec-tralism are well documented [3] and in our context servesas one of the compositional tools. The process of trans-lation refines spectral translation techniques previously re-ported by the first author [4]. The composed saxophonework is sculpted from multiple translations of the seed ma-terial. Our approach is informed by the perspective of Ger-ard Grisey, who suggested, What, for me, is very impor-tant is to have a sort of ecological attitude toward differ-ent sounds, to just accept them as they are and try to findthe right place or right function for them in the context ofthe piece. [5] This ecological approach to the function ofsounds informs our compositional process. The primacy ofthe sonic character of the source material surpasses othercompositional concerns during the act of composing.

    The formal design of v!t!d is a series of translations.The first translation is that of the improvisers ideas intosound, and this acoustic sound, which is translated to a dig-ital recording (discussed further in sections 3.1 and 4.2.2).The audio is edited by the composer to highlight princi-pal sonic components. This approach of reductive editingis inspired by techniques employed by the acoustic ecol-ogy movement. Barry Truax reports on recordings whereshort segments from each hourly recording over a 24-hourperiod were transparently edited together to create a one-hour experience of that specific soundscape [6]. In v!t!dour goal in editing is to distill the improvisation to a fewsoundbites that encapsulate the different stages of the im-provisation.

    The emphasis on the effects of transcription in each stageelevates the process to an aspect of the creative process.The role of transcription moves away from aspiring to re-alize a faithful recreation and approaches a location withinthe artists technique. Berio suggests this notion when hediscusses the way in which forms of transcription canbecome assimilated into the process of creation. He writes:

    Here we are no longer dealing with transcrip-tion as a genre, but as part of the ups and downs

    of creativity: when, that is, you have a sin-gle musical vision going through different andself-sufficient formulations before arriving atthe definitive realization, decanted from (ordestroying) all the others [7].

    Our work embodies Berios proposition; each collabora-tor in v!t!d translates the previous work with a differ-ent aesthetic intention. Each of the artists concentrates ontranslation as a creative tool when creating their portion ofthe work. This emphasis on translation underlies the workand through discourse among the involved artists, transla-tion became the focal point of artistic exploration.

    3.1 Improvistational Context

    Improvisation is inherently a live act, composed of plansand born of the immediacy of the moment. An improvis-ing performer must bring to bear neuromuscular condition-ing, control, and flexibility on a given instrument, coupledwith a corpus of musical ideas, passages, and structuresculled from a history of practicing and listening. Whetheralone or in a group, musicians generally structure the actof improvisation around constraints of some kind. Saxo-phonists are often embedded in jazz ensembles, where theconstraints are the result of the chord changes and melodicstructure that define the work. Chord changes are oftena key constraint (though not necessarily the only one) forstructuring ones improvisation in a jazz context. In the ab-sence of predefined constraints, whether by convention ordialog among participants, the performer constructs con-straints as part of the process of improvisation itself inorder to create a coherent musical outcome. These con-straints can be cast as feedback loops. A paper by Forbesand Odai discusses improvisation as a means to create anetwork of nested feedback loops. In order to encour-age the emergence of new concepts during improvisationthey invite musicians to think of themselves as guidersof a fluid performance that has its own agency rather thansolely as the creators of it [8].

    In the best case, improvisation results in a performed ut-terance that, even though based on material that has beenpreviously learned and practiced, is sufficiently recombin-ed, reworked and is relevant to the moment of creation soas to seem genuinely novel. The formal architecture of jazzand the curatorial guidance approach informed the creationof the