A Conversation with Tim Perkis

on the Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire
May 1995

Tim Perkis

Tim Perkis has been working in the medium of live electronic and computer sound for many years, performing, exhibiting and recording extensively in North America and Europe. His work has largely been concerned with exploring the emergence of life-like properties in complex systems of interaction. He is the designer of the Hub, a device for enhancing communication between musicians.

The best analogy may be to that of a natural environment: it's amazing to me how the various birds and insects "multiplex" the channel of the outdoor acoustic space, each species differentiating its signal from the others in the space. I'm interested in seeing what kind of ecology may emerge as multiple simultaneous users try to create agents which can be heard. There is a harmony that arises out of each agent just trying to make itself heard among the multiple voices in this acoustic community.

Rasamudra (1994) was first performed at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, July 31, 1994. This piece explores the possibility of making music by simulating the process of biological evolution. Over the course of three hours or more, a computer program running an evolutionary process composes musical phrases. A panel of musical judges make judgments on each phrase, classifying phrases by how well they express the nine rasas or emotional states of the classical Indian tradition. Each performer's judgement is sent to the computer/composing system through foot pedals, as well as communicated to the other performers by hand gestures. The resulting piece of music is built using this phrases,which all end up in a certain family resemblance, sorted by rasa.

Over the course of the afternoon, a structure emerges in the music, through the interaction of chance and judgement: likewise, a structure of understanding and consensus emerges among the players, as they develop a practical language of hand gesture to communicate their perceptions to each other.

Ongoing work continues with The Hub, a computer network band I started in 1985 with composer John Bischoff. In the Hub, individual composer/performers connect separate computer-controlled music systems into a network. Individual composers design pieces for the network, in most cases specifying certain properties of the data which is to be exchanged between players in the piece, but leaving implementation details to the individual players. The players then write computer programs which make musical decisions in keeping with the character of the piece, in response to messages from the other computers in the network. The result is a kind of enhanced improvisation, wherein players and computers share the responsibility for the music's evolution, with no one able to determine the exact outcome, but everyone having influence in setting the direction.

The Hub has also done a good deal of collaborative work in a variety of electronic media, including the 1988 "Hub Renga" collaboration involving poets, live radio and internet, and collaborations with the ROVA saxophone quartet with composer Alvin Curran. The group has recorded and performed widely throughout Europe and North America, and Hub work has been supported by funds from the Rockefeller Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Meet the Composer and the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund.

Judy Malloy

Hi Tim. Anna and I are glad to see you here!

Tim has been developing and implementing innovative, interactive ways of using the Internet to make collaborative music/sounds for many years. Although I had heard of the HUB, the computer network band that Tim Perkis started almost ten years ago with John Bischoff, I didn't met Tim until the Spring of 1993 when we were both on a panel that Anna organized for Computers Freedom & Privacy.

Tim, what brought you to interactive networked music - ie what is your background? What lead you to put computers and music together?

How did the Hub get started?

A lot of big questions, I know, so respond to the parts that interest you.

Douglas Cohen

Yes, those are good questions Judy.

Greetings Tim! It's great to see you here and learn a bit more about what you are doing!

The "Hub Renga," with its inclusion of live poets and the use of the Internet, I find most interesting and would like to hear more about that. It would also be great to hear some brief sound samples from events you've created (I can give you a hand with putting sound files into a format which is compatible with the system here.)

Again, I'm looking forward to your residency!

Pauline Oliveros

Hi Tim!

Glad to see you here. Please join the fun in NewMusNet. It's great to hear about what you are doing.

Anna Couey

Welcome, Tim!

I got my first chance to see the Hub perform at the CA Governor's Conference. The Hub's electronic music is quite wonderful, but in live performance you also get to witness the human interaction involved in the voting process that results in the works - and it's quite different than watching, say, jazz improvisation. You can tell when a vote has passed :-)

I'm really intrigued with the Hub's use of voting as an interactive art strategy - so Tim, I'd love to hear how it entered the Hub's musical practice, and why, and what you think its effect is on your music.

Looking forward to this!

Gary O. Larson

Welcome, Mr. P!

I'll have to dig up that review of the Hub and post it over here (it's part of an endless report I wrote on the recent art and tech conference in Santa Clara), but I doubt that it does justice to the intricacies of the Hub. Speaking of which, I'm wondering to what extent Tim thinks it's necessary/appropriate/desirable/useful to *explain* how the Hub works. I recall a performance that the group did at Phill Niblock's place in NYC a few years ago, in which the audience could watch on an LCD projector the various "messages" that were passed back and forth from one musician to another. Even though most of the text was Greek to me, I thought it greatly enhanced the performance. At least I had a clearer understanding of the essential "interlocking" nature of the Hub's work, in which the musicians not only respond to one another's performance, but actually shape each others' sounds, raising the concept of interactivity to a new level. Or so it seemed to me.

Some artists, I know, are of the opinion that their art should speak for itself, and that reducing their work to a parts list and related technobabble only serves to diminish that work. I guess I disagree, especially in the area of art and technology, wherein the work is often *not* self-explanatory, and about which there are a lot of misconceptions and often a fair amount of resistance. I recall another NYC performance (by another west coaster, come to think of it)--Larry Polansky at Roulette--which in some respects was a complete disaster--the machinery simply wouldn't cooperate that evening, and Larry threw in the towel early--but which worked because (a) Larry spoke intelligently about what he was trying to do, and (b) because of the incredibly thorough program notes (delving into system exclusive MIDI commands on the Yamaha FB-01, and such) that gave us a peek under the hood of computer music.

Well, that's enough for now. It's hardly hospitable, after all, to throw all of this at Tim all at once, but I wanted to add my voice to the welcoming chorus. It's really a treat to have you with us, Tim.

Tim Perkis

I was surprised when I finally was able to get online here, that there was such a welcome waiting for me! Thank you.

I guess I'll first try to answer Anna's specific question about the voting that we sometimes use in the Hub; along the way I'm sure I'll touch upon some of the other more general questions Judy and others have asked.

The Hub grew out of an earlier band, called the League of Automatic Music Composers, that was really constituted in much the same way. We've always been interested in exploring the "emergent behavior" of a system, what happens when you set up a particular situation, with multiple paths of communication and response between people and machines. What is really of interest are the things that emerge BEYOND what was planned: in many pieces a very identifiable identity or musical form would appear which no one had designed. Designing a piece for the group would consist largely of specifying the kind of data to be passed between computers in the group, usually leaving totally unspecified what an individual player would program his system to do with this information.

It's strange, I guess, but I think we were inspired by the ability of the machines to create interesting and unexpected pattern in this way, to extend our definition of the overall system to include what the players were doing as well as what the computers were doing. One transitional piece moving in this direction was called "The Minister of Pitch". Quoting from my own notes on this piece:

"In most ensemble playing, the player of each instrument has some sort of responsibility for a particular aspect of the music: a bassline, keeping a rhythm, playing a main melody, etc. Using the capabilities offered when data is continuously exchanged between players, I organized responsibilities differently: one player's actions control the pitches played by all the players, another controls timing, and another is responsible for setting an overall timbre."

I hope I've made it clear that in most Hub pieces the individual player's computers are all passing information to each other through a central hub computer which serves as a sort of post office, and that each player has programmed his computer to use this information to play his own sound synthesis equipment attached to his own computer. Well, Scot Gresham-Lancaster came up with a piece in which we used this system to just pass text back and forth between players, and the players manually controlled their own instruments (what an idea!), in a long, fairly static improvisation where we talked over this text link during the performance, negotiating transitions and reaching consensus about where to go next.

Since then there have been several works the Hub has done that have touched on this area: I'd say the idea of voting has become one of our main tools in designing pieces. Voting is just one control structure: we have used others, often mixing them, and fine-tuning a piece by modifying the control structures as we work with it in rehearsal.

To me the most interesting thing about the Hub really is not the computer aspect, per se: it's how working in this new technical situation has really opened up the possibility of exploring new modes of collaboration. In fact, I would go so far as to say that THAT is the central point of the Hub's work: each piece is setting up some new mode for collaboration, a new way to make music together.

In response to Gary's comment about explaining how things work to people: It's true, I think it IS something of a problem that we haven't really found the right answer to yet. Many people are interested in knowing more about what's going on: there is a certain visual austerity to a hub performance- but on the other hand, I always feel the problem is that the technology is already demanding too much attention, and I don't want to push it even farther in the "gee whiz: ain't technology grand" direction. In fact, the hub is doing something very traditional: It's really a kind of chamber music ensemble: we're interested in the music we're making, and want to put the focus on that.

Douglas Cohen

A very interesting approach. I like how the collaboration has become a real time, interactive process on the conceptual level (exchanging ideas and possibly voting on them) as well as on the more traditional intuitive level (improvisation).

There seems to be an aspect of theater involved too where you are connected as a networked work group, using the very same tools to communicate which corporate work groups use in their day to day business routine. Is this parallel intentional?

Will it be possible for us to hear a bit of your music?

David Gamper

I get what you mean about the distraction of the gee whiz technology direction from what is happening musically. When we (the Deep Listening Band) use the Expanded Instrument System, there is quite a separation often between what we are physically doing and the aural effect. Some people have to shut their eyes to remove that distraction.

think explaining things helps a little with this. Do you do demos just before performances, or associated with performances? My dream is to be setup, sort of installation style, for so long that anyone gets a chance to try things out, and generally demystify the use of the technology. Of course there will always be some for whom the technology is the only thing of interest. Wish I could have caught you at EI last time! Another time, I hope.

Gary O. Larson

Tim's reference to the "chamber music ensemble" nature of the Hub is an apt one, an allusion that I attempted to make in my mini-review of the group's performance at last February's Arts and Technology conference in California.

From Arts Wire Hub, Item 200, response 3:

"If anyone needed a reminder of that tension between art and commerce to which [Bran] Ferren [of Walt Disney Imagineering], and before him [Andrew] Blau [of the Benton Foundation], had referred, the computer-music group called the Hub was on hand to conclude the lunch-time proceedings. One couldn't have asked for a starker contrast to [John] Sanborn's pop culture insinuations earlier that day: six musicians (John Bischoff, Tim Perkis, Chris Brown, Scot Gresham-Lancaster, Mark Trayle, and Phil Stone), each armed with a computer and various sound-producing gear, with wires everywhere and not a syncopated back-beat nor catchy melody to be found.

For those with an ear for ring modulation and the boundless possibilities of a local area network devoted solely to experimental music (which apparently didn't include the roughly two-thirds of the crowd that began drifting out of the ballroom shortly after the performance began), this was heady stuff indeed. If the musical results were occasionally murky, the conceptual framework--think of the cellist leaning over and plucking a string on the viola the next time you see the Juilliard Quartet--was positively brilliant. Here was a new form of interactive art, in which the artists engage one another quite directly, passing instructions and data from one computer to the next, altering the basic parameters of musical tone and gesture in the process.

"In a recent review of the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp observed that "the need for art that throws things off balance has never been greater, as the margin outside the marketplace continues to shrink." Sadly, given the sorry state of the musical culture in this country, groups like the Hub have little opportunity to "throw things off balance." Thus the A&T organizers should be commended for having the insight--and the temerity--to include this unique ensemble among the conference offerings."

Unlike a traditional chamber music ensemble, however, the Hub isn't "self-explanatory"--or at least I didn't find it so--and thus I appreciated the comments, however brief, that the members of the group offered before each piece. I think the ideal format for a Hub performance would include a pre- or post-performance lecture/demonstration, a chance for gear-heads, Forth programmers, and other social deviants to get a little closer to the machinery. Having said that, however, I must also agree with Tim that it's easy to overemphasize the hardware and software, overlooking the purely aural aspects of a Hub performance--the vast range of sounds and timbres and textures, often surprisingly percussive--that make it so memorable.

Those sounds aren't so easy to talk about, though, lacking as we do a consistent vocabulary to describe purely electronic tones. Nor am I sure that a 30-second sound file will go very far in capturing the range of a Hub performance. Better to spring for one of the Hub's CDs--"The Hub" (Artifact 1002) or "Wrecking Ball" (Artifact 1008). Or, for more pure Perkis, there's "Artificial Horizon" (Artifact 1003, with John Bischoff) or "Rotodoti" (which I haven't managed to track down yet).

Judy Malloy

Thanks Gary!

Anna Couey

Indeed! Thanks to all posters!

Tim, I'm trying to visualize the Hub's creation/performance structure, and am stumbling over a few details. Can you give an example of what type of data might be specified? - is it musical, or something else? And, how much of the design of a piece is pre-programmed, and how much is live?

New modes of collaboration is something I've been interested in exploring with public online systems, as a kind of social sculpture. In the Hub's work, is the collaboration itself part of the art? Do the social connotations of the type of collaboration become part of the meaning of the piece?

Tim Perkis (timper@artifact.com)

To respond to a few different comments:

>Is the parallel with corporate workgroups intentional?

No, in fact, when we began doing this, LANs connecting desktop computers were somewhat rare. It's strange: the idea of having a computer network band seems to have gone from being almost incomprehensible to most people to being completely familiar.

> uploading a sound clip.

I don't understand the value of this. It's a lot of hassle to send and receive, for a tiny and probably misleading effect. I agree: the cd's are a better way to hear the music.

> Do the social connotations of the type of
> collaboration become part of the meaning of the piece?
> Are the pieces pre-programmed or live?

To the first question, definitely yes: I think this really is the most interesting aspect of the work. One thing that these new collaborative technologies afford is the possibility of different modes of collaboration, sometimes allowing very personal and private modes of working to be embedded in a collaborative context. So with the Hub: much of the work is done beforehand, individually, the private work of being a composer; but the strange medium of network band means that even during performance we're acting often more like composers than performing musicians: having a certain distance from the action, making adjustments to the overall shape of things rather than being involved in the immediate "work" of producing sequences of pitches.

Or as in our "hub renga" collaboration with poets using the Well: these people were able to do the private work of writing poetry, at home, alone, while also being engaged in a live performance. It's these new blends of connection & solitude which interest me the most. The changes being wrought by these new situations are not just one making MORE CONNECTION: they are changing the blends of possible activity, redefining conceptions of what is private and what is public work.

> Explaining a typical hub piece.

I often like to use the example of Phil Stone's piece "Is it Borrowing or Stealing?", which is clearer and simpler than most hub pieces. In this piece hub players are asked to each play short melodic phrases; they also report throughout the hub, what they are playing, saving these phrases in a sort of phrase bank. Other players pick up these phrases, transform them in any way they choose, in turn reporting their actions to the "phrase bank."

Most of the features of our typical pieces are at play here: * There are really no pre-planned sequences (in this case there are the seed melodies, but they are transformed beyond recognition quite quickly): the music is all generated on the spot, only rules of transformation are specified.

* The players generally are free to do as they choose: the structure comes about through defining the nature of communication between the players.
* The players also bring to the piece elements of their own work from outside the group context: in this case, each is composing/transforming phrases by means they may have used in other solo algorithmically composed works....
* The specification for the piece evolves in rehearsal: in fact, that is the main thing that goes on in rehearsal: we play, listen, and fine tune the flow of information between players.

Anna Couey

Tim, your comment about being more like composers than musicians in performance reminds me of Robert Edgar's Living Cinema - which brought the creation of cinema from mostly pre-recorded elements into a live performance context. I wonder if this is endemic to interactive artists...:-)

The idea of weaving personal production into public collaboration is very interesting! I've tended to think of my work as encouraging people to participate in a public sphere, to interact there...I like your inclusion of personal creation in the process.

Transcript of A Conversation with Tim Perkis, Item 53, Interactive Art Conference, Arts Wire.
Posted to the Web with participants' permission.

Conversations with Artists