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Integra; Sharing Live Music Technologies

John Robert Brown

"We have to think of technology as just another instrument that needs to be played," says Lamberto Coccioli, Head of Music Technology at Birmingham Conservatoire (BC). "Other instruments are standardised. We don't have twenty different types of piano. When a composer writes for the piano he knows exactly what the piano is." Coccioli laughs. He points out that with technology one encounters different operating systems, hardware issues, synthesisers or samplers, different formats, difference in the way files are read. Certain synthesisers are not produced anymore. Some are in museums, or are broken with no spare parts.

Even without these problems, electronic music still lies well outside the mainstream. "Contemporary music does have a niche audience, but music with live electronics is a sub-set of that audience, so it's even smaller! That's a bit worrying," says Coccioli.

Now, together with BC colleague Richard Shrewsbury and the Italian composer Luca Francesconi, Coccioli has launched the Integra project for sharing live music technologies. Integra began its three year life in September 2005. A €1.038m project supported by the EU Commission through the Culture 2000 programme, Integra is mainly about music with live electronics.

So, what is the difference between electro-acoustic music and music with live electronics?

"Electro-acoustic music is mainly taped music," says Coccioli. "Music performed exclusively through loudspeakers. Music with live electronics means that there is interaction between the instrument playing on a stage and the electronic devices. Most of the works in live electronics are dependent on the stage. You might have pre-recorded material, but everything is triggered by the performer. This is a very important difference. In live electronics, technology is part of the performance itself, like playing another instrument, or playing your instrument plus some sort of projection of your own instrument in space and in technology, through the machine. This approach doesn't break the concept of a performance. The ritual element, the theatrical element, stays. But technology becomes part of it. It becomes extremely powerful, yet it doesn't break the magic."

Coccioli explains that because technology evolves so quickly, yesterday's gadget is in the dustbin today, making it difficult to perform today works that were developed ten or fifteen years ago.

"So there was no way of creating a repertoire," he says. "This repertoire was always put together in festivals and special events, but there was never a chance for it to become mainstream. We have to find some sort of balance between the need for complete freedom (from a composer's point of view), and the need to disseminate, to get the music performed.

"Just as you write for instrument combinations that are readily available around the world, the same should happen with technology. You should use tools that are more or less standardised. We are quite open to allow for the integration of, say, bespoke elements that any composer can add. But the architecture, the framework of this software environment that allows you to perform music with live electronics, should be the same everywhere. Then we all gain a whole repertoire that has been abandoned.

"Technology is already way beyond our control and our efforts to give it a meaningful interpretation are clearly doomed. Left to itself, technology is meaningless. This is why I don't see it as a crime towards the composers' freedom if Integra is trying to reduce the space of technology by bringing it back to a simplified, more human dimension, just like another instrument that needs to be learned.

"Many composers today, when they are asked, 'Why are you not writing something with technology?' they tell you, 'I can't be bothered, because I want my music to be performed.' This is one of the reasons why so many gifted composers don't work in the medium."

Coccioli believes that bloated, unnecessarily complex software and hardware, which were once the key to innovation in the sector, are now starting to be regarded for what they are - technology for its own sake, a stressful and useless intrusion in our lives. The very pervasiveness of technology today is quickly driving towards usability models that favour a transparent, seamless integration of machines with the human way of doing things, rather than the other way around.

The project is a collaboration between research centres and professional new music ensembles in Bergen, Copenhagen, Montreal, Oslo, Krakow, Paris, Vilnius, Malmö - and at Birmingham Conservatoire.

"For the first time together on a research project we have research centres and new music ensembles as partners," says Coccioli. "So that whatever is done in terms of research, all is tested in a real concert environment. This makes the whole work flow, from conceiving an environment in software and then testing it - not with a university concert with one performance, but with a real professional music ensemble on an international stage.

"The project will succeed only if we get a lot more partners on board, and more concert organisers to use it. We are presenting the Integra project to a network of all new music ensembles in Europe, at the end of March in Copenhagen. Integra will succeed only if enough research centres, professional ensembles and composers adopt its new software environment, thus allowing for greater diffusion of the existing and new works with live electronics, says Coccioli.

He is optimistic. "Once composers realise that their chances of a performance can grow exponentially because of the Integra environment, they will want to use it all the time."

Visit the Integra Live Website

An edited version of this article first appeard in Classical Music magazine, 4 February 2006. Used by kind permission.
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