The Integrated Instrument

AE interviews Per ANders Nilsson
January 31, 2007

On Monday, March 12, EMF presents Natural Artefacts, an electroacoustic improv group featuring Per Anders Nilsson (computer), Ove Johansson (saxophone and computer), and Susanna Lindeborg (piano and computer). We asked Per Anders Nilsson a few questions about electronic improvisation at the intersection of jazz and new music.

AE How did Natural Artefacts get started?

PAN Ove Johansson was my saxophone teacher during the mid-1970s, and we have been close friends ever since. At that time Susanna Lindeborg was Ove's girlfriend, and she and I were also members of the Swedish improvisational group Olle Bäver. In 2001, I received a grant from Göteborg University to develop concepts for using the computer as an instrument in an improvisational group, and it was natural for me to ask Ove and Susanna to join me. Thus, Natural Artefacts was born!

AE You have said the group is "developing a concept where the computer acts as a fully integrated musical instrument". What exactly do you mean by this?

PAN Well, I formulated this sentence, so I suppose I should know ... Our aesthetic preferences tend more toward jazz than toward European modernist music. However, we do attempt to incorporate concepts of various forms of 20th-century art music, such as electroacoustic music, serialism, minimalism, etc., into that larger context of contemporary jazz.

For me, as a computer musician, it's very important to have a musician's point of view, rather than just a composer's, in order to make the computer's output fit with the sound and genre of what we are playing as naturally as possible. For example, I have a background as a saxophone player, with many years' experience playing in different kinds of improv groups. My aim is to develop my programming and playing skills on the computer such that I can achieve the same level of control and flexibility as I have on the saxophone. And yet, still, from time to time the computer feels slow and clumsy--it's still sometimes tricky to respond directly to impulses and initiatives from the other musicians.

AE In what ways is this type of improvisation different from traditional jazz improvisation?

PAN It differs in that my attention is focused on a higher structural level than if I were playing saxophone. I'm not dealing with things like chord changes and melodic development on an event-by-event level. The computer's output is to a certain extent predetermined simply by virtue of the fact I have programmed it, so during a performance, it's much more about playing on a meta level.

For instance, in some pieces the rhythm section consists of a hyper-instrument in the computer, where I control parameters of the bass and drum parts using a Game Pad controller, but the actual behavior of the instruments is generated by a probability distribution of, for instance, intervals and durations.

In other pieces, I record my fellow musicians into the computer and manipulate their sounds in real time.

AE Where do you see the development of this type of music going in the future?

PAN I think that within ten to twenty years, we won’t talk about computers as a special instrument at all. They will be completely integrated and accepted as musical instruments in their own right.

© 2007