A touchless, magical instrument, worthy accomplice of the original Theremin, that allows for the creation of sonic and visual poetry through manual control of invisible drivers, revealed only by a precise choreography of the hands in space. The modifiers – sliders and switches – are positioned in a virtual, 4-dimensional console, physically detached from any reflecting bodies. Feedback for the performer consists of the choreography’s result itself: sounds from loudspeakers and images from video projectors.
Ever since the beginning of my involvement with electronic music, I have been searching for intuitive ways in which to control my sounds on stage. While I try to avoid performing in front of audiences while glaring at a laptop screen anyway, even bringing a box with sliders and knobs, in addition to the use of mouse and QWERTY keyboard, gives me limited control over the audio. Something important is still missing.
Not only do I find these devices visually uninspiring, but above all they expose to me fundamental issues with the real-time manipulation of electronic sounds. The designs of MIDI controllers based on their acoustic predecessors, such as keyboards and percussion, allow musicians to perform with great expression. However, they do not easily grant continuous manipulation of a sound’s character, one of the most captivating aspects of electronic music. For each aspect requires a dedicated control point – a pedal, slider or other. For an electronic sound to become and stay interesting over time, many parameters will need to be addressed not only simultaneously but also independently and one single performer simply does not have enough fingers, hands and feet to achieve this…
With my violin background, and later, electric bass, I am deeply concerned with the notion of instrumentalism. When we consider acoustical instruments, we can observe a direct relationship between the body movement of the performer and changes in timbre. What’s more, those changes can be evoked from the instrument’s resonating body in a continuous, fluid fashion, implying that different sound aspects are modified concurrently. For a long time, I dreamt of being able to get this one-to-one instrumental relationship available.
From 2007, I started on a path to make this happen – with an elaborate detour in which the electric bass was involved. With the Digital Bass Project, I attached infrared sensors to my instrument which enabled me to change its sounds in real-time by allowing its audio signal to be modulated by the sensors. This way, I could control or trigger audio effects. It was not until I became aware of new, off-the-shelf touch-less (“non-haptic”) technologies from the game industry that I developed hopes for the future. I experimented with attaching a Wii Remote Controller, designed by Nintendo for the Wii game station, to my bass. You can view a performance here. In this project, I was required to be quite mobile on stage so using pedals was not really an option. Soon, I realised that manipulation of pure electronic sounds would require the absence of a body, since a “performance surface” would still bind me to physical limitations.
Then, in 2013, I came across the Leap Motion, an optical hand tracking USB device that captures the movements of the hands with unparalleled accuracy. It looked as if my dreams could become reality. Originally designed to control operating systems via swiping, pointing, clicking, etc. as an alternative to the mouse, the Leap offers substantial amounts of data coming from each hand individually, such as xyz-position, tilt, turn, grab and pinch. Even the fingers are tracked: bones, knuckles, etc. With the first version of an interface of my own design, I recorded Sculpting Hands in 2014:
I subsequently had to put my efforts temporarily to rest because of various composition commissions. In 2016, when I started to investigate the SDK (Software Development Kit) of the device to create my own data capture software in MAX, I found that reliable code had already been developed at IRCAM in Paris, so I could start straight away with building a working interface. It was not until the Corona lockdowns in 2020 that I improved my own code further and by the end of the year, I felt confident enough to do some serious performing with the system.
In developing the instrument, I have been supported by both the Performing Arts Fund NL and the Creative Industries Fund NL.
on November Music
‘I experience music as a purely sonic happening. I can really enjoy a metal band, but also drum ’n bass.
Author: Bas van Putten
22 October 2021
Translated by the Web Master from the original article in Dutch.
His life is a strange journey through time, a giant leap forward from one musical culture to another. His mother was a composer and singer, his father was a pianist accompanying a relay of famous singers. And Jan-Bas Bollen (1961) took to the stage at an early age as a promising violin talent. In 1970, as a 9 year-old, he played in the Oscar Back Violin Competition, and two years later he was studying at the Sweelinck Conservatory of Amsterdam with Herman Krebbers. Then your career is predestined: becoming a concertmaster, solo performances, Sunday morning concerts with Bruch or a concert by Mozart, watched contentedly by a sophisticated audience of aficionado men and women. Followed by a brunch.
Google RotStuk VioolTroep (DaDa Dutch for something like ‘awful piece of violin trash’) on YouTube, for the follow-up and this is what you’ll find:
It is, one might say, Bollen’s reckoning with his past; a kind of autobiographical performance about coming clean. Samples of a recording from his previous life are placed with cool hand gestures into the digital shredder; a death bell sounds in the distance. ‘Study for a piece’, Bollen explains, ‘in which I mangle a radio broadcast of myself playing the violin (ca. 1976). I remember hating the virtuoso piece intensely, hence the title.’
He chose the radical autonomy of the inventor. The unfathomable, invisible instrument that Bollen plays with free-floating hand movements in Rotstuk Viooltroep is of his own invention. His HyperTheremin was named after the instrument invented by the Russian Léon Theremin a century ago and is very similar, at least in operation. The original Theremin consists of a box with two antennas which generates electromagnetic fields manipulated by hand movements. The player controls the volume with one hand and the pitch with the other. The characteristic glissandos sound can often be heard in old science-fiction films; for those not yet familiar with the synthesiser, it sounded otherworldly. Bollen’s HyperTheremin maintains the principle of wireless hand control, but the hand movement is now recorded by infrared cameras with a precision unattainable by Theremins.
More about this in a moment. First, what happened before. Bollen would never become a professional violinist. First came pop music, then the digital age, both of which took hold of him. In 1986, Bollen bought his first computer and learned how to code. In the meantime, he studied composition in Utrecht with Joep Straesser, then composition and electronic music at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague from 1989 to 1993 with Gilius van Bergeijk and Theo Loevendie. “I spent at least 5000 hours in the electronic Stockhausen Studio in The Hague. Learning how to patch, learning how to build circuitry.” He wanted to be able to also perform his electronic works live, but was confronted early on with the limitations of existing interfaces such as keyboards and mixing desks – which would eventually lead him to the HyperTheremin.
“What I always miss strongly in performances of electronic music is the physical element of playing. Take a keyboard, for example. Your hands are bound to the keyboard. By just adjusting a filter, you have already lost one hand. But in order to transform a sound from A to B in an interesting way, you have to be able to change many parameters at once.
Thanks to intensive programming, ‘painstaking work’, Bollen’s software now responds to the slightest movement. In virtual 3D, the hand-scan becomes a kind of meta-controller for both image and sound. Every gesture, every finger, every joint, every fingertip becomes a coordinate in Bollen’s acoustic space directing the musical and visual development process. “I move from one virtual quadrant to another and thus I pull sounds and images in the desired direction. To do this, I use off-the-shelf consumer technology for which there is little creative software. If one wants to use it for something other than what it is intended for, one has to write the code for it oneself.” Additionally, the performance should look good and not resemble a circus act. “So, no hand up – tone up, that kind of cliché. I also find it important that the onstage presence of my laptop is inconspicuous. Hence it’s not in front of me but beside me.
Before this dream came true, his oeuvre shot in all directions. Instrumental music dominated, both in acoustic and electronic form or in combinations of both. He also wrote for more or less conventional line-ups from violin and piano to chamber orchestra, worked a lot with dancers and gradually discovered the new, multimedia reality of the digital age. He also makes ambient albums under the name BazR. After sound came image and in the HyperTheremin-era the visual and the auditory have literally become synthetically fused.
The step toward visuals is not huge. ‘What the digital revolution has meant for the perception of music is a good, if far too broad question, but one of the effects of that revolution has certainly been that at a software level the difference has largely disappeared; it no longer matters whether you work with image or sound.’ He enjoys venturing into the wondrous twilight realms of synaesthetic perception. One of his first Theremin pieces he prophetically called Sculpting Hands – because what those hands sculpt is… sound.
Thanks to this instrument, the division between his past life as a player and his present existence is not absolute either. Common denominator is what he calls his ‘instrumentalism’, a love for playing an instrument as a tool, material or virtual, in physical contact with the resonance source. That was the beauty of the violin, or the bass guitar that he later learned to play, and precisely the big handicap of electronic music by the book. Now that he has solved that problem à titre personnel, he becomes, in a postmodern sense, a player in the classical-romantic tradition of the composing performer, from Mozart to Busoni. By the way, he is only one handshake away from that tradition through his father Thom, who studied in Rome with the Italian pianist/conductor and Busoni pupil Carlo Zecchi.
The distance to his parents has also been reduced. Because now the son of a vocal accompanist and a singer has written a song-cycle himself, sort of. Blight & Beauty for contralto voice, Ensemble Klang (saxophones, trombone, piano, electric guitar, drums) and visuals, lasting just under an hour, consists of seven songs on texts by the Romantic British poets Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charlotte Smith, William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, Lord Byron and John Clare. Their world is familiar from the clichés in which the reading reflexes get stuck. Great nature lyricism, great suffering of life and finitude. Hear the great Shelley bemoan in Lament, the first song of the song-cycle: ‘O world! O life! O time! On whose last steps I climb’. Etcetera.
In his youth, Bollen must have heard dozens of honourable singers singing like this with his father at the grand piano, meticulously phrasing in the delicate literary tradition of the art song and its romantic illusion of infinite beauty. But was it really that?
Bollen read up on it. Eye-openers were Tim Blanning’s The Romantic Revolution, a deconstruction of the tired bourgeois clichés about Romanticism, and Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, ‘about robots, artificial intelligence and Mary Shelley’, who was something more than the wife of poet Percy Shelley; ‘she wrote Frankenstein in 1818’.
He immersed himself in the pastoral world of the farmer’s son John Clare. A new, rough world opened up to him. “Shelley was a real revolutionary, he went to jail for it. The Romantics revolted against the bent rationality and flatness of the eighteenth century. Twentieth-century modernism wrongly dismissed the nineteenth century as dusty. I decided to completely dust those texts down.”
These were punks! And he read about that too in Punk, the whole story. The result is a tempestuous, sometimes noisy piece that does justice to the rebellious element in early Romantic poetry. The ensemble of Blight & Beauty is a band, says Bollen. “The last song, for voice and piano, is actually the only traditional part. There’s a lot of pop in the score, a lot of hip-hop and punk, but also Xenakis and second Viennese school.” Thus, within Bollen’s oeuvre, it also became a summary of an aesthetic panorama that is both expanding and fragmented.
Shelley’s ecstatic exclamations are recited by Bollen in freestyle, with arms wide and ‘mic in the air’. In Sonnet LXV, the soloist can hardly get the words out of her throat. Sometimes, Bollen has the soloist explicitly go against the meter. Repeatedly, the voice remains monotonously stuck on one tone, sometimes for an extra shot of dramatic ‘subtly unstable intonation’. The pathos of the unfathomable sea in Shelley’s Time is hardly touched by the recalcitrant Sprechgesang. Elsewhere, the poetic elevation is submerged in lisping whispering, ‘almost whispering, quasi parlando’. Everything clatters, flickers, creaks and falters.
Whatever it is, the stereotypical Romanticism is far away, and in what remains, nature as a symbol of purity and beauty no longer plays a decisive role. ‘I am interested in ecology, in what happens to our nature, but this song cycle is mainly about the aesthetics of the music and the multimedia totality.What’s missing in the score are the visuals. The images will be horizon-wide, in bright colours. It will be a theatrical concert in which a whole team is involved. The HyperTheremin requires extreme soloism. In Blight & Beauty I’m also looking for instrumentalism again, the direct relationship between how one moves and the sound one creates – but now I’m working with other artists and I really enjoy it.’
He is delighted with the British soloist Elaine Mitchener, who, according to her website, is ‘an experimental vocalist, movement artist and composer whose work encompasses improvisation, contemporary music theatre and performance art’. And she truly is. Such performers are rare. ‘She is classically trained, but she can do anything, from jazz standards to Berio. She really represents the best of several worlds.’ Blessed with the guts and a new, different sound that suits him. ‘I experience music as purely sonic. I can enjoy a metal band enormously, but also drum ’n bass.’
Yet, this piece is ‘not the ultimate middle finger to the tradition of my youth,’ says Bollen that Rotstuk Viooltroep might seem to be, at least in the trauma damaged part of the romantic violin repertoire (which did not prevent him from composing a virtuoso piece for violin and piano nonetheless). ‘You can clearly hear my background as an instrumentalist. I cannot escape that environment; it is and remains a breeding ground. My father was not just a song accompanist, he was a walking encyclopedia of French, German and Italian song. I am infused with the poems that underly the vocal literature and I knew at some point I would have to relate to them.’ One does not selfishly demand an audience’s attention for 60 minutes of music in order to merely flee from vocal recital reflexes. Only in the negative can something be nothing.
But he is not a singer, and singing is the other world for the composer he is today, which, he speculates, is becoming increasingly intolerant of post-romantic musical language. “That’s why I don’t write much for voice. While I am very familiar with its possibilities, I struggle to combine modernist concepts and sounds with a vibrato the width of a minor third. Other composers might give it a go and that is fine with me, but in my own music I think it invariably remains a foreign body.” At the same time he is very fond of Puccini and bel canto. ‘However, I say that as a consumer. If I were asked to write a vocal piece for a great opera star right now, I would have to think hard.’
Maybe it just can’t be done anymore. Since Luciano Berio, who found his wife and muse in Cathy Berberian, composers from Ligeti to Louis Andriessen – to whose memory Blight & Beauty is dedicated – have been tellingly in search of a different, less culturally defined and above all more flexible kind of voice. Bollen is no exception in his preference for someone like Elaine Mitchener. ‘It is also the wrongdoing of composers themselves. If you look at what Ligeti demands from his singers in Nouvelles Aventures, you see how many stages modernism skipped – with little consideration for the voice. It brashly took the step towards the serial and the abstract. We have to reinvent the profession. On the other hand, for example, I have worked very successfully with bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood, one of Stockhausen’s collaborators. He is someone who can think on an instrumental level.’
Bas van Putten is an award-winning Dutch writer, poet, musicologist, journalist and columnist. In 1989 he graduated cum laude from the University of Amsterdam with a degree in musicology. He works as a music journalist for Dutch newspapers and magazines.