The Radiodrum Meets
AE interviews Andrew Schloss
December 29, 2006
On February 4, EMF presents the Durán/Schloss/Mitri Trio, known for its combining of tradition and hi-tech interactive technology, particularly in Andrew Schloss' performance with the radiodrum. In fact, Schloss is known as a researcher and innovator in computer music technology. So to explore further our interest in relating cultural tradition to today's electronic world, we asked his a few questions.
AE Could you tell us a bit about your experience in Cuba with Afro-Cuban jazz?
AS It all started in 1980 when I went to Cuba for the first time with a group of musicians and dancers from the Bay Area. We went specifically to see what the music scene was like in Cuba, and to go to carnival in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. The musical richness that I found in Cuba at that time completely blew my mind - the cultural wealth of Cuba was beyond my wildest dreams, and the accessibility of Cuba's finest artists was something inconceivable in the US. I met many many fabulous musicians, including Chucho Valdes, who was recording at the EGREM studios in Havana with his group Irakere, and that was it. I was hooked. I vowed to go back as often as I could.
It was electroacoustic music that first enabled me to go back to Cuba. This happened in a strange way: In 1980, I was a student at CCRMA and I happened to come across a list, compiled by UNESCO, of existing electronic music studios in Latin America. On a whim, I took a stack of the first several issues of the Computer Music Journal with me, starting with Volume 1 Number 1. I found the UNESCO office in Havana and dropped them off, not knowing if they would ever reach the right people.
The following year I was at the ICMC at the Venice Biennale, and to my amazement, Cuban composer Juan Blanco was there. He was looking for me - he did receive the journals, and he wanted to invite me to his own biennial festival: "Primavera en Varadero," an electronic music festival he hosted that has been going on for more than 25 years in Cuba, hosted by Juan and his son Enmanuel. I was thrilled to go, and went almost every time it was hosted since 1982. In the early years I was the only American who attended. Later, Max Mathews, Jon Appleton, and many others found their way.
Each time I went to Cuba to perform and participate in this electronic music festival, I always spent an equal amount of time exploring the folklore and jazz scenes in Havana and Matanzas. Many years later, I had the opportunity to direct a major festival of Afrocuban culture (called !Afrocubanismo!) at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada, and invited Chucho Valdes, Irakere, and other luminaries.
My first opportunity to perform with Chucho was in Havana in 1997, at the UNEAC (Union de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba). After that, I performed with Ernan Lopez Nussa at the 2001 ICMC in Havana, and with Hilario Durán in North America. There was also a concert with Brazilian pianist/composer Jovino Santos Neto at CCRMA's newstage festival in 2006.
AE How did your group come together?
AS My first experiments in Latin Jazz and electronic music were in Paris in the late 1980's with pianist/composer Jeff Gardner, who then lived in Paris and now lives in Brazil. We rehearsed "after hours" at IRCAM. After that, I experimented with Cuban pianists as described above. This particular trio actually came together in Winnipeg, at the Winnipeg New Music Festival, in 2001. This is ironic since it is just about the coldest spot in North America, at -40 or so in January. I was invited to perform there, and discovered that pianist Hilario Duran was going to be there at the same time, performing with Canadian flutist Jane Bunnett. So we decided to form a trio with Irene Mitri, a classical violinist who had been studying Cuban Charanga styles. That was our first concert, and it went so well that we continued to work together.
AE How did you get the idea to combine hi tech with traditional music?
AS I started out as a percussionist as a child. Later I became interested in electronic music, especially once I arrived at Bennington College where Joel Chadabe was teaching. In a completely different context, I discovered non-Western music, mostly due to the vast percussion repertory I gradually discovered outside of European traditions. I was astonished at the depth and diversity of what I found. I strove to work in both worlds but I didn't always know how.
It was inevitable that I would try to merge "high-tech" with "low-tech." There are several reasons for this: one is that both operate at a high level of abstraction in certain ways and so they are not as opposite as one might think.
Another key reason is that I wanted to test my electronic apparatus in the most demanding context, and Afrocuban music is about as demanding as you can get rhythmically. In the world of electroacoustic improvisation, there is a often very forgiving or loose sense of time; sometimes it doesn't matter exactly how you interact temporally with the other players. In contrast, the rhythmic fabric of Afrocuban jazz is tremendously tight and exact, and I liked the idea that I could live with these demands.
AE What's the difference between Max Mathews' Radio Baton and what you call the radiodrum?
AS I am very much indebted to Max and to Bob Boie, who made the first version of the instrument in the 1980's at Bell Labs and are still developing it. It's a descendant of the Theremin, in that it uses capacitance to sense the position of two wands. I was immediately fascinated by the possibilities of a 6-degree-of-freedom gesture sensor, and I began right away to experiment with it. During a Fulbright grant to IRCAM in the late 1980's I hooked the Radio Baton up to Max, and found that I had many worlds to explore. Then I worked with David Jaffe on several pieces that used the instrument, such as The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in which I played the acoustic piano solo, controlling a Yamaha Disclavier from the Radio Baton, which was premiered at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in 1998.
But there was a problem - I didn't want to give up the physicality and temporal precision of a percussive instrument. While the Radio Baton is mostly intended for conducting, the radiodrum is designed to optimize percussive gesture sensing and temporal accuracy, allowing me to play it as a percussionist would. Thus, the radiodrum is a variant of the Radio Baton that has different software and partially different hardware. I have developed it over many years, with help from many people, recently including my students.
Ben Nevile, a recent Master's student at the University of Victoria, figured out how to use an audio interface to generate and analyze electromagnetic frequencies (not acoustic waveforms), a very novel and unusual system that I now use. So there is no longer a black box; the antenna and the sticks are connected to the audio inputs and outputs of the audio interface, respectively. It's quite unusual to use an audio interface to generate and analyze radio frequencies!