Compositional Field-tests

Ron Pellegrino, November 2000

Compositional field-tests are exercised opportunities for putting your work in front of people and being there in person to get a clearer sense of just what and how much your work communicates to them. For those opportunities to be of any compositional value one also needs to be exercising a mindful presence. Taken together those mindful experiences in abundant variety are far and away the best environment for learning about the human aspects of composition in the arts.

My earliest experiences playing my own music in public came in the context of dance, club, and party bands I put together from the time I was 13 years old. Our music was improvised but never really strayed that far from our sources, fake books full of standard American songs of the 1930s-1950s and the popular danceable music we all heard on the radio. From ages 13-22 as a multi-instrumentalist I led and played in dance, club, and party bands covering the gamut of musical styles and gigs of the 1950s and early 1960s. During that period I spent many hours observing a variety of people responding to music my cohorts and I were making.

When I left that segment of the music world and entered the worlds of professional engagements and university teaching, the opportunities for field-testing multiplied considerably and became significantly deeper. In addition to the worlds of public events and classroom teaching I've always invited selected people into my studios to gauge their responses to whatever work of mine was in progress.

Field-tests in the performance arts are primary sources of information; they come closest to studying the living heart of the matter. What they require is that you have ears to hear and eyes to see, that you´re open to observing, accepting, and considering whatever the nature of the feedback might be. Comparatively, secondary and tertiary sources of compositional information such as recordings and books on history and theory come off as pale reflections of the living process, more like hearsay than actual experience.

With time and effort special observational techniques will evolve depending on whether you're facing the audience or have your back to them. When facing the audience you'll learn to visually read the changing quality and depth of their attention and comprehension relative to what's served up as sound, light, and ideas. When your back is to the audience you learn to rely on your intuition and the nature of what happens in brief sound gaps for gauging audience attention and comprehension. The fact is that I've always felt that the audience feels freer to be themselves when they don't have eye contact with the performer. Both my biggest thrills and disappointments have come with my back to the audience. One of those thrilling moments happened at Oberlin early in the 1970s before an audience full of bused in grade school children. We opened the show with a huge multimedia piece with me positioned in front of the stage playing live on a very large Moog synthesizer with its audio routed out to a quadraphonic sound system. The piece opened with a fairly loud splash of sound whirling around the auditorium that set the children to howling with excitement as if the sound had touched their collective live nerve end. Their teachers were stunned and my spine still tingles when I think about it.

What follows are some the purposes and benefits of field-testing:

The Internet provides a special opportunity for field-testing. On the plus side, it spans the globe and is always turned on. On the minus side, whatever travels over the internet is subject to numerous variables out of your influence short of what you communicate to the downloader via your web site in the form of descriptions and instructions. Despite your best efforts to maintain quality of sound and light, you have virtually no idea what's happening to your music and imagery at the other end of the download. A few months ago I began posting excerpts of some of my video pieces and announcing their availability for download. What follows is some feedback in the form of email messages from a number of people who took the time to download one of my video excerpts, Liquid Light, and send me their responses.

To get a good sense of where these respondents stand relative to the piece you should also read the description of Liquid Light, download the video file, and play it back several times.

The following collection of responses covers the range from those who were able to tune in to the piece to those who were incapable for one reason or another. Always of special interest to me are responses from people incapable of tuning into my work; the response from Aaron Ross fits that category. He's representative of those technical artists who believe that the more complicated you make the process and the more equipment you use the better the art product will be. In other words he's from the bigger/louder/faster school of thought. If you read my description of Liquid Light you'll see that it represents the opposite point of view. Additionally, a few months ago after witnessing a public presentation of the video work of Aaron Ross, video work marked by abusive audio levels and assaultive video strobing, I decided to add another flavor to my Visual Music Flavors piece, a flavor called Rude and Crude. The Rude and Crude flavor refers to work that willfully or unconsciously exceeds the various human psychophysical pain thresholds for the perception of sound and light.

I'm also certain that there was another factor that contributed to his response; a number of times on the iota list I called Aaron on his masterful technique of quoting out of context to create the illusion that one was saying just the opposite of what one was actually saying. One of the serious weaknesses of online discussions is that people with dishonorable tendencies can and do misquote and quote out of context in such a way as to distort what the original writer was conveying and/or to create the illusion that the writer was saying just the opposite of what he was saying. What surprises me is that I'm one of the very few people who'll expose someone practicing that deceit. Often the perpetrator of the deceit interprets the call as an offense. As I said, always of special interest...

Examples of some return on Internet field testing:

The invitational post:

From: Ron Pellegrino <>
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2000 16:11:22 -0700
Subject: [iota] Liquid Light

I recently posted a piece that should be of interest to some of the folks on the iota list. The subject is Feedback: Liquid Light. It includes a set of framegrabs and a video excerpt.

Ron Pellegrino

Date: Mon, 18 Sep 2000 02:49:46 EDT
Subject: Re: is it possible to see...?

Dear Ron-

Enjoyed your piece you just posted!! [Liquid Light] It's amazing how sensitive and responsive just hand movements can be! But most of all, expressive. Many of the movement-sound pieces I've seen are so conceptual that they lose access to the eye-ear-heart path, which for me is where the life exists. The piece you made has many deep moments-congratulations!!

Peter Stetler

From: Sergio Basbaum ?>
To: Ron Pellegrino ?>
Date: Sat, 4 Nov 2000 22:33:03 -300
Subject: your videos

Hi Ron,

I've downloaded "Winter Reflections" and "Liquid Light". These are stunning achievements on the paradigms of visual music and sinaesthetic art. I'd really love to know the complete videos.

I write you based on first impression, without thinking too much, ok?

A first impression makes me say that it is really incredible how you, starting from an absolutely different point (you usually write about Suzanne Langer), came to achieve (in those images) things that artists which have started to work under Fischinger's influence (Whitneys, Belson, etc...) were looking for. I don't mean, of course, that they didn't achieve their goal, neither that your work is the same as theirs. What I mean is that there was a kind of archetypical desire for some type of imagery (abstract, moving, sensual) mixed with a kind of sound with which it is supposed to interact, not reproduce (what you call "mickeymousing"), a mix that should carry certain spiritual meaning (as most artists involved with this are in way or other deeply attracted to spiritual thinking). That's an archetypical idea, that many artists have been pursuing since I don't know when. Those fragments contain all these and much more. I'm touched with their richness and again pushed to know more about your work.

Also, those fragments are clearly achievements of a lifetime work. They're complex, organical, and unexpected. They also have a kind of what people would call today "new-age" touch, but in a deeper way.

I realize the kind of imagery of "Winter..." is in a great measure a consequence of the Artmatic software. I'd like to have an opportunity to see your laser images. Also, I think the appearence of your hand and of the monitor in "Liquid Light" brake the "all abstract" environment usually associated with this kind of work, and make stronger the Ôliquid impression created with the feedback effect. We watched it in family (me, my wife Tereza and our 5 months old Luiza), and Luiza watched it absolutely concentrated, what was a beautiful experience to all of us. I wonder what she may have been feeling/thinking...

There are many questions on your last e-mail I still could talk about, but I thought it was time for me to know a bit more about your work. So, thatÕs what I did. I hope my impressions have some interest. :-)

Hope to hear from you, Best

Sergio Basbaum
researcher Catholic University (PUC-Sao Paulo)

From: Fred Collopy ?>
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2000 21:35:45 -0400
Subject: Re: [iota] Liquid Light


I just looked at LiquidLight. Very nice. I would encourage others to not let size/download time discourage you from having a look. It's well worth the wait. One moment I particularly liked comes when you turn the glass so that it is oblique to the plane of the screen for a moment. It reminded me of that moment when you are lifting bubbles out of a pan with a wand and the structure wants to hold together and break up all at once...liquid. Thanks.

Fred Collopy
Associate Professor, Case Western Reserve University
Ocassional Visiting Scientist, IBM's Watson Research Lab

A classic example of online deceitful misquoting followed by a response:

From: Aaron Ross ?>
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2000 18:47:15 -0700
Subject: [iota] Re: Liquid Light

From Ron Pellegrino's web page:
>it was technically easy to do so anyone
>could do it thus the artistic value of anything
>done with it was greatly diminished.

Video feedback, at its most sophomoric level, is technically easy to set up. However, it is difficult to achieve anything worthwhile, as Ron's example unwittingly illustrates.

Here are some of my video feedback works, for those of you who may be interested. I like to think they are a little more sophisticated than the gee-whiz factor which seems to define most video feedback.

Note that none of the imagery listed above was created with a camera, but rather with a real-time digital video effects device. However, the principle is the same; output feeding input, resulting in a recursive pattern-generation algorithm. I have also created quite a lot of purely analog camera-based video feedback, sometimes involving multiple cameras, monitors, switchers, and synthesizers. For example:


Aaron Ross

From: Ron Pellegrino ?>
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 2000 23:38:41 -0700
Subject: [iota] Quoting out of context

Aaron Ross wrote:
>From Ron Pellegrino's web page:
>>it was technically easy to do so anyone
>>could do it thus the artistic value of anything
>>done with it was greatly diminished.

I'm busy at the moment so at first I was just going to let this issue slide. But it's such an egregious trespass that it needs confronting so it doesn't become part of the fabric of the iota list. Aaron's quote from my piece on Feedback: Liquid Light is masterful example of quoting out of context to create the illusion that I was saying just the opposite of what I was actually saying in the piece.

Here's the context:
"I was introduced to video feedback late in 1971 when I visited the National Center for Experiments in Television (NCET) in San Francisco in preparation for a research stint there. The artists at the NCET (and, I later discovered, other places) referred to feedback as a video whore - it was technically easy to do so anyone could do it thus the artistic value of anything done with it was greatly diminished. I've never accepted that notion because the logic is flawed. Anyone can get sound out of a piano but that doesn't devalue good piano performance. The same logic holds true for video feedback. Furthermore I've often sensed the implicit desire by artists working with emerging technology to keep the circle of users as small as possible - the more exclusive the access to the technology the more valuable the output of that technology, so the thinking goes. Flawed thinking again. A far more productive attitude is to make emerging technology affordable so more people can access it thereby adding their experiences and perspectives to the evolutionary mix. The upshot is not to let anyone discourage you from exploring video feedback systems. The exploratory returns are manifold."

Quoting out of context to completely distort what someone is saying is just being deceptive, just a variation of thinly veiled lying. Such behavior undermines the integrity of the list. It should be avoided completely.

Ron Pellegrino

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