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Bill Hsu brings musical rhetoric to his improvised interactive animations

Video artist and computer musician Bill Hsu
from the announcement for the Dissident Futures Festival at YBCA

There is rarely anything “standard” about any free improvisation session that tries to take the adjective “free” seriously; but last night’s gig at the Center for New Music probably deserves to be called out as “non-standard.” The featured artist was Bill Hsu, who is perfectly adept at implementing and deploying interactive sound-generation software to a degree where he can jam with a group as capably as if he were playing an acoustic instrument. Last night that group included James Fei alternating among alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, and contrabass clarinet, Gino Robair, working with both a diverse assortment of sound producing objects (some of which were instruments), as well as what seemed like a basic suite of homegrown electronic gear, and an Israeli percussionist whose name was never uttered clearly enough to be distinguished.

Things changed early in the evening, however, when Hsu shifted from sound generation to real-time image generation. It seemed clear that he was “playing” his interactive animation software following the same logic and rhetoric of free improvisation that provided the foundation for his music software performance. It also appeared that microphones had been deployed to allow the sounds of the other performers to be processed as input for at least some of the images that were generated. What was most striking, however, was how Hsu could use visual characteristics such as flow and pulse to achieve animations that probably would have been just as musical had they been displayed in silence. (Nevertheless, it is worth including a warning that Hsu’s approach to pulse could well be hazardous to epileptics.)

Because this work arises from software, there is clearly a logic behind all of Hsu’s animations. However, there also tends to be such a high degree of complexity that much of his work can be taken as a case study in one of philosopher Henri Bergson’s precepts about disorder. That precept is his proposition that what we call disorder amounts to accepting that mind has not yet found order (in the sense of what Friedrich Hayek called “sensory order,” organizing the chaos of raw stimuli into perceived objects). Hsu’s animations invite the mind not only to create such objects but to prioritize them into foreground and background. Thus, when we see masses of small objects flowing as a group across the screen, we also “see” the landscape that induces such flow, even if it is never explicitly depicted.

How does all this “play” in the presence of other musicians improvising on their instruments? In the words of a documentary about choreographer Merce Cunningham, “Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.” What seemed to be most important was that there was never any sense that the members of the group were competing with each other for the foreground. Fei tended to take an almost pointillist approach to working with multiphonics, creating a sparse texture that established context without ever intruding. In a similar manner Robair tended to occupy himself with individual instances of sound, ceding to the images any influences of time-consciousness in the foreground. Even the percussionist tended to work at the level of individual sonorities, even if many of them were sustained, and never had to fall back on any of the usual conventions of rhythm.

The evening as a whole ran for about two hours, including both setup and break time. What was most memorable was that any sense of monotony never intruded on that duration of time. Hsu’s animation work sustained interest from beginning to end, perhaps because there was just the right level of chaos (in the mathematical sense of the word) to trigger creative sensemaking on audience side.