Description / Tech Setup

Project Description

Native Alien is a response-driven creative sonic environment for an improvising solo musician, a co-improvising system that feeds back both generative sounds and score information to the musician, so that both of them co-evolve in their musicking. This long-term project is driven by the search for a software that can “hold its own” in an improvised situation with a human performer.

We live in a world where increasingly fewer people are actually natives. They are born somewhere, but then leave that context to migrate, by force or voluntarily, into situations alien to them – places where they don’t know the rules, where they have to observe what happens, and navigate the hazards and joys of another culture.

This situation is the creative impulse for the Native Alien Project. It confronts a musician with an environment that responds in unpredictable, yet perceptually and musically coherent ways to any musical impulse the musician offers. ‘Native Alien’ creates a mediatized, changed world that takes a musician’s own tradition, her/his musical ‘home’ – and transforms it into a musically alien world.

The music the musician encounters is still can feel uncannily familiar: s/he can easily play with it, as it will adapt to every musical move them musician can make – and yet the system does not react simply as another human musician would. In human comprovisations, there’s always a feeling of togetherness and mutual alliance – sentiments and situations which are absent with a computer, despite the fact that the music the computer plays back is intelligent and intelligible. It’s not that the computer speaks a totally alien language, it’s that the music that it plays is very different.

One could see Native Alien as a musical partner with extended sensibilities and musical superpowers: the system can react to the tiniest sonic fluctuations of a musician’s performance – and can, for example, expand them to a symphonic scale – or transform them into a complex jungle of rhythms. Making music together, the basic gesture of music-making, takes on a new dimension: and as they encounter the most fantastic responses to their playing, musicians needs to find their individual approach to live and make music in this responsive sonic world

In Native Alien, one musician’s imagination is mirrored by 8 independent software agents, and what they make together challenges the way we think about music-making today. The entire piece is based on a technique of composition that Sandeep Bhagwati calls comprovisation, where the relationship between what is composed and what is free lies at the core of the creative process – nothing is ever just an impulse, and yet nothing is pre-determined.

In Native Alien, the computer both improvises sound and generates a score for the player, an on-screen score that shows traces of the players improvisations – and possible future extrapolations. The player can take these score prompts up to build a symphonic structure, by returning to themes and motifs s/he played before – or s/he can use the computer’s extensions of what once was played to guide her/his future improvisation. Thus, the musician and the computer system are mutually interdependent, and create music together in strange creative, comprovisational loops.

Over the past five years, the Native Alien team (Sandeep Bhagwati / Navid Navab / Julian Stein) at matralab have developed advanced compositional, comprovisational and sonic software architectures in close practical collaboration with outstanding solo performers from many different music making traditions. All these musicians are international stars and leaders in their tradition, and recognized for their adventurous spirit and openness to other music traditions. They have been building this research in close dialogue with a research group on machine improvisation at the IRCAM Centre Pompidou in Paris and using the OMax software that listens to and records a solo musician and, through a complex array of files and tags, recomposes what the musician has played, adding melodies that the musician might have played, but didn’t.

The Native Alien team has devised many different higher-level control modules that interact with the OMax core functioning. Some are presets determining software the overall musical behaviour of the software (we call it a “mood”) – skittish and comic (hasya) , assertive and war-like (rudra), or emotional and teary (karuna) are just some of these nine moods, all named after the “rasas” from ancient Indian aesthetic theory. Others yet colour the behaviour of the sound output, synthesizing complex sonic behaviours that are controlled in real-time by the musician’s improvisation. A third level of control modules determine the temporal evolution of the performance, the duration, transition and layering of ‘moods’, the phrasing of the computer’s output and how closely the system follows the playing of the musician – and here anything from virtually instantaneous to time-stretched, from distant echo to compression is possible, and can be influenced during the performance.
All these parameters are in turn controlled by a metascore, the true composition of the Native Alien project. This metascore is a lipogram poem by Sandeep Bhagwati that uses only nine letters of the Roman alphabet. For the purposes of Native Alien, each alphabetical letter stands for a different mood of the system – and thus calls forth its distinct behaviour and sonic characteristics.

The structure of the piece is determined by a letter by letter reading of the score that determines the next mood. But the actual temporal sequence of the music emerges from a complex dance: the performer can request the next mood via a foot pedal. But the systems conductor can decide to delay this request for musical reasons. S/he can also initiate the transition to a new mood before the performer requests it. Moreover, the transition can be instantaneous, like a cut, or it can involve a morphing sequence between the two mood settings of the system, which can create very interesting and unpredictable sonic behaviours.

Native Alien’s real-time score is made of nine musical phrases. At the center of the score display always is a pre-composed phrase by Sandeep Bhagwati that embodies the rasa (mood) of the following section. Each of the nine moods of the piece has a variety of such pre-composed musical phrases, one of which is then randomly displayed when the corresponding letter comes up in the sequence of the poem. The eight surrounding phrases are generative, a real-time transcription of the software’s improvisers. Throughout the performance, the score system notates and stores its improvised musical phrases, re-infusing past elements into the performance. The real-time score thus provides a feedback loop of sonic material first performed by the musician, recomposed and notated by the software and reread by the musician. Each press of the performer’s footswitch or the system conductor’s midikey will re-draw the score display, and selects a new pre-composed seed for the musician.

Currently, Native Alien is a concert system that needs several desktop computers and a spatialized sound-syste to be performed. Full performances usually last between 30 and 50 min. But from the outset, we have always wanted to arrive at a Native Alien app that would allow any musician with mobile devices to play with the system, create their own evolutionary comprovisation from their own practice. Thus Native Alien could become a full-fledged immersive, reactive and inspirational music-minus-one companion that will react and create music together with you, wherever you are and whoever you are with. Unfortunately for our plans, the processing power of mobile devices has yet to reach the speed and depth at which we can begin to implement this system. Nevertheless, the Native Alien team at matralab is currently working to streamline the concert software to a version that could run on a MacBook Pro with multi-channel soundcard.


Technical setup

Provided by the artist:

  • 1 x Mac Pro running the NativeAlien ComputerMusic system
  • 1 x RME UFX Soundcard
  • Various Controllers (3 x FireFox Midi controllers for the computer musicians and custom built footpedal for the soloist)
  • 1 x DPA Supercardioid microphone
  • 1 x MacBook Pro running the NativeAlien score system

Provided by the presenter:

  • Full range multichannel speaker array (choice of 8.1, 6.1, or 4.1 depending on presentation context
  • computer screen on plinth, to function as a score for the musician

Schedule overview :

  • Setup 1 hr
  • Sound check 1.5 hrs
  • On site rehearsal 1 hr
  • Performance 0.5-1 hr
  • Teardown: 20 minutes

2 x Performers (mandatory for touring):

  • Navid Navab (real-time interactive sound)
  • Solo Musician (acoustic instrument)