Duty explores sonic possibilities and human limits, harnessing the bodily convulsions produced by electrical impulses to control seven performers in a work composed in one octave for fourteen handbells. The title of the work refers both to the movement of a bell and the enforced physical obligation of the performers, and references Pavlovian classical conditioning experiments pairing the sound of a bell with another stimulus to elicit conditioned responses in subjects.
A performative realization of a system where agency is dispersed across people, objects, and the environment, the work creates a distributed system where the artist/composer executes pre-determined motor actions in the performers via electric muscle stimulation (EMS).
A composition converted to MIDI triggers two custom-built EMS devices, which deliver electrical impulses to specific points on the performers’ arms via electrodes attached to their skin, causing their muscles to contract and generating specific involuntary movements at changing velocities.
Variations in voltage, frequency and pulse width dictate different muscular responses in the performers, ranging from unnatural jolts to unnervingly fast movements. Duty uses the induction of involuntary movement to explore the way physical (and psychological) constraint can determine both a musical outcome and extend sonic possibilities. Expanding the potential of the human body beyond conscious control the use of electric muscle stimulation in this context enables experimentation with rhythmic structures and fast movements that the performers would be unable to achieve of their own volition. The ensemble of performers create a unified somatic instrument; a conduit for complex rhythmic soundscapes and visually unnerving movements.
The application of EMS to musical performance provides a novel way to explore the interface between technology and live performance, and raises interesting questions regarding creative agency in the creation of music. The transmogrification of the performers’ body as an input/output device literalizes aspects of musical performance, where musicians frequently describe feeling like conduits or transcribers of a creation that is not their own. A perverse take on Schoenberg’s (1911) claim that “art is born not of ‘I can’ but of ‘I must’”, Duty explores the liminal space between didactic execution and free interpretation inherent in all musical performance.
In a broader sense, Duty questions assumptions about agency and free will both in musical performance and everyday contexts. An enquiry into the nature of agency within systems where cognition is distributed across people, objects and environment through technologies of connection, Duty explores what happens when embodied experience is disrupted or extended, and what kind of agency is created in these distributed systems.
1. The Forest Of Feet and Bass Drums – Ivo Perelman, Matt Maneri, Jar Morris, Gerald Cleaver – Breaking Point – 2015
2. Malor me bat – Garth Knox – D’Amore – 2008
3. Nightsea Wind – Xiu Xiu – Plays the Music of Twin Peaks – 2016
4. View – Klara Lewis – Too – 2016
5. Wanted to Talk – Charlambides – Exile – 2011
6. I’ll Lay a Few Stones On The Hostel Sheets – Vanessa Backness, John Butcher – Respiritus – 1994
7. Backseat of the Galaxy – Richard Poole, Marilyn Crispell, Gary Peacock – In Motion – 2016
8. Philipp – Theo Habicht – 29, 4 Annäherung – 2009
9. Calling Planet Earth/El Is A Sound of Joy – Sun Ra – In Some Far Place: Roma ’77 – 2016
1. Aureole – Jacob Druckman/St. Louis Symphony – Deja Vu/Light Spirit/Aureole – 1982
2. Malachi Favors Maghostut: A Monarch of Creative Music: Parts I & 2 – Wadada Leo Smith, John Lindberg – Celestial Weather – 2015
3. Part Three – Henry Threadgill’s Ensemble Double Up – Old Locks and Irregular Verbs – 2016
4. Baka of the Future – The Dwarfs of East Agouza – Bes – 2016
5. Eternity Promise 1 & 2 – Charles Gayle – Blue Shadows – 1993
6. Composition No. 83 – Anthony Braxton – Two Compositions (Orchestra) 2005 – 2013
7. Standard Candles – Fred Frith, Darren Johnston – Everybody’s Somebody’s Nobody – 2016
1. New World Pygmies – Jemel Monodoc & William Parker – New World Pygmies – 1998
2. Rejoicing New Dreams – Sunny Murray with Sabir Mateen – We Are Not At The Opera – 1998
3. Seraphic Light – Rashied Ali, Louie Belongenis – Rings Of Saturn – 1999
4. V – Alan Silva & William Parker – A Hero’s Welcome: Pieces for Rare Occasions – 1998
5. Wien 2 – Werner Dafeldecker, Cristof Kurzmann, John Tilbury & Stevie Wishart – Dafeldecker, Kurzmann, Tilbury & Wishart – 2009
6. lens – D. Edward Davis/Erik Carlson – Music for Violin – 2014
7. Ziyrab – Pat Thomas – Making Rooms – 2016
8. Return to the East – Charles Tyler Ensemble – Voyage from Jericho – 1978
9. First Things First – Ned Rothenberg, Catherine Jauniaux, Barre Phillips – While You Were Out – 2008