THE MAGAZINE – LOS ANGELES REVIEW
by Jacki Apple
A new generation is redefining performance for the twenty-first century in what artist collaboratives are calling “real time cinema,” a synthesis of live action and new imaging technologies. This generation embraces such diverse sensibilities as the kinesthetic frenzy of Big Art Group and the eerie mise-en-scène montages of Sue-C and Laetitia Sonami’s “animations.”
In contrast to SOS’s externalized virtual world, Sue-C and Laetitia Sonami’s Sheepwoman explores the interstices between inner and outer realities. Based on Haruki Murakami’s novels Dance Dance Dance and The Wild Sheep Chase, this piece captures both the illusory nature of perception and the pursuit of what lies beneath the surface where the unseen resides. The medium and the message coalesce, for there is in fact no actual film, only an elusory flow of images manipulated in real time through an overhead projector, or captured by tiny “live” surveillance cameras in miniature model sets. Shadowy black-and-white images of interiors, objects, Japanese street scenes, train stations, airports, and a country road are seen through the narrator’s eyes. They are fleshed out by a soundtrack composed of old on-site recordings in Japanese, sound effects, and Murakami’s words in the narrator’s and Sheepwoman’s voice mixed with music clips from old American and Italian films. It is a film-noir vocabulary of suspense — a dark corridor, lights under a door, a phone ringing, footsteps on gravel (or is it snow?), a squawking bird — a montage of puzzle pieces in which time and memory are malleable. “This is your world . . . your place . . . you are really a part of here . . . tied to everything . . . here’s where it all ties together . . . ,” the Sheepwoman tells us.
In both SOS and Sheepwoman we are left to ponder: where exactly is “here” and what is “real” — urgent questions for our time.
“Nirgendwo in Stuttgart kann man Innovationen im Performance-Bereich so unvermittelt und direkt miterleben, wie das im Cannstatter Römerkastell der Fall ist. (…) Da steht Laetitia Sonami gleich einer Zeremonienmeisterin in einer rituellen Handlung mit ausgestreckten Armen auf der Bühne, dirigiert mit bald raumgreifenden, bald kurzen und eckigen Gebärden unsichtbare und imaginäre Klangquellen, deren Resultate dem Publikum über Surround-Lautsprecher übermittelt werden. Aus denen quäkt, zirpt, plätschert, rauscht und rasselt es, zuweilen deuten sich rhytmische und klangliche Patterns an. Gleich einem musikalischen Ultraschallgerät kann man auf der Videoleinwand die optische Sezierung der Klangwelten verfolgen, während Sonami mit einer melodramatischen Rezitation die Dramaturgie des Gesamten intensiviert. (…)Mit einiger Sicherheit lässt sich prognostizieren, dass computergesteuerte Prozesse der Umsetzung von Bewegung in Klang vor einer beachtlichen Renaissance stehen.“
“Sie scheint ein imaginäres Orchester zu dirigieren oder vielmehr die Klänge selbst mit ihren Händen unmittelbar aus verborgenen Winkeln des Raums hervorzuholen. Nicht ganz zu Unrecht ist Laetitia Sonami deshalb auch schon mit einer Priesterin verglichen worden, die in Kontakt mit dem Unsichtbaren steht. Die Klangereignisse, die so von ihrem silbrig glitzernden Datenhandschuh gesteuert auf einmal im Raum stehen, stammen aus allen nur denkbaren Bereichen, von den Relais der Elektronik bis zu Geräuschen der täglichen Umgebung, alles ganz frei nach dem Diktum John Cages, alles was klingt, sei Musik, sogar die Stille.Darauf dürfte der erste Teil des Titels „The Appearance of Silence / The Invention of Perspective“ anspielen, der über Sonamis Programm am Samstag im Forum Neues Musiktheater im Cannstatter Römerkastell stand, während der zweite sich auf die Konstruktion von Raum bezieht. Indem Sonami den Raum unmittelbar mit ihren Körperbewegungen kurzschließt, schafft sie ein Instrument, das feine Übergänge erlaubt in Bereichen, in die das Schreiben von Noten auf flachem Papier nicht vordringen könnte.“
“Die Conversation selbst – Höhlenmusik mit der Op-Art-Komponente gleißender und erlöschender Glühbirnen – versetzt Klangfarben in rhytmische Aggregatzustände, lässt aus sgreddernden Geräuschen weckerklingelnd den menschlichen Körper erwachen: Es pulsiert, atmet, lebt. Bewegend an Laetitia Sonamis Darbietung ist denn auch der Klang-Körper selbst: die Künstlerin, die wie in einer Elektro-Eurythmie die Klangereignisse modelliert, in den Raum gestikuliert, kniebeugend aus dem Boden schöpft. Das hat seine eigene choreografische Expressivität – und seine Sentimentalität: Jenseits der Technik steht der Mensch.“
Los Angeles Times
Friday, March 14, 2003
by Josef Woodard
SONAMI DISPLAYS SOUND MOTIVATION
In live electronic/digital music, laptoppers usually perch inertly at their command posts, barely acknowledging the presence of stage or audience. Not so Laetitia Sonami, whose “lady’s glove” triggering device enables her to move about the stage with a subversive grace, setting off sonic events with the wave of her hands, minute finger gestures and minimal dance-like motions.
With her trusty laptop off to the side, Sonami gave a captivating performance at CalArts on Wednesday, as part of the school’s Musical Explorations series. For the French-born and Oakland-based Sonami, the integral relationship of sound manipulation to body movement is key. So too is the specific conceptualization of each piece, relying on various sonic parameters, texts and attitudes.
There were three works in Wednesday’s hour-long performance. “Why_dreams like a Loose Engine (Autoportrait)” combined alternately dense and ethereal sounds with a recited text by M. Sumner Carnahan. Live narration, dance movements and real-time sound-summoning blended beautifully.
The sensory ante was upped in “Conversation with w Light Bulb.” Bulbs around and over the stage flashed in syncopation, triggered along with a sound bank generated from altered “digital documents”, such as software and spreadsheets.
Finally, Sonami got rocking with “Has./Had,” a dance music piece on more than one level. Propulsive rhythms hinted at the dance impulse of electronica, but Sonami pushed toward art music by constantly tweaking dynamics and sonic density, from tickling to pummeling. Experimental music is rarely this visceral and engaging.
Los Angeles Times
Friday, May 3, 2002 – MUSIC REVIEW: Spirits of the Electronic World
By MARK SWED, Times Staff Writer
The California EAR Unit investigates the sounds machines make in a loud, fresh program.
… The most ambitious piece was a premiere by Laetitia Sonami, an Oakland-based composer who has been picking up prestigious prizes lately (she just won this year’s Herb Alpert Award in Music). “A Blind Ride” modifies sounds apparently hidden in electronic documents and spreadsheets, over which the musicians improvise. Variously placed lightbulbs illuminate the stage in brief bursts. Who knows quite what she was up to on the darkened stage–framed by four glowing blue dots of lights from the loudspeakers–with her homemade “lady’s glove,” full of embedded sensors that let her control sound and the lightbulbs. Still, Sonami’s electronic, computer-document-derived noises revealed a fascinating papery texture that was not just satisfyingly visceral, but, at least to one writer not always happily glued to his machine, downright comforting. The ensemble played mostly floating fragments that made a beautiful fit with the rustling, swirling electronics.
Montréal, Samedi 10 Février 2001
Prendre un Gant pour le dire – Alain Brunet
Montréal, Samedi 10 Février 2001
Prendre un Gant pour le dire – Alain Brunet
D’origine parisienne, la Californienne Laetitia Sonami a mis au point un gant serti de capteurs sensoriels. Une commande d’ordinateur, en fait. Lorsque le gant de sa conceptrice ratisse l’espace, il déclanche des sons, de la lumière, des mots. Il se passe des choses, aurez-vous saisi.
Pour en saisir d’avantage, il ne vous reste qu’à vous pointer ce soir au Théatre La Chapelle: miss Sonami vous y propose un enchaînement bien senti de “performances-nouvelles”,pour reprendre son expression.
“Je voulais qu’il soit assez sexy, contrairement aux objets habituellement créés pour les espaces virtuels. Je me suis dit que le mien serait influencé par la mode française! En fait, l’idée était de pouvoir exploiter un objet séduisant pour le public, un objet qui permette une gestuelle intéressante dans le cadre d’une performance et, surtout, l’intuition”, explique l’artiste, en direct de son domicile d’Oakland,
“J”avais commencé à travailler avec un gant de cuisine en caoutchouc, et je suis arrivée à créer un instrument assez sophistiqué – déjà vieux dans le monde virtuel; quatre ans, c’est long! J’en inventerai peut-être un autre pour l’avoir en réserve, mais il me faudra éventuellement mettre ce concept de côté et trouver de nouvelles idées de performance.”
La performance lui va comme un gant, est-on tenté d’ajouter…
En plus de créer en toute singularité, Laetitia Sonami enseigne au Arts Institute de San Francisco et gagne sa vie en tant qu’ingénieur de son. Fin des années soixante-dix, elle était venue étudier en Californie de Nord, plus précisément au célèbre Mills College – avec Robert Ashley, Terri Riley et autres célébrissimes avant-gardistes…
“J’y étais allée pour l’électronique, parcequ’on pouvait y construire soi-même sa lutherie. Just do it! Il y avait cette tradition de confection d’instruments amorcée naguère par Harry Partch, qui s’est propagée dans le monde de la musique électronique. J’aime toujours travailler en Californie parceque les technologies y sont très abordables au plan financier. En France, ça coûte tellement cher qu’on ne se mettra pas à construire un système informatique sans vraiment être sûr des résultats.”
La contribution de Laetitia Sonami, selon ses dires, ne tient pas tant dans la complexité de ses outils que dans leur utilisation devant un public.
“Depuis toujours, je suis fascinée par la technologie, mais je tiens à communiquer mes recherches. Il m’importe donc de transcrire les concepts technologiques dans un outil concret, et dans la présentation de cet outil. Trop souvent, on est fasciné par l’outil et on ne réfléchit pas assez au contexte et à la manière de son utilisation”
La perfomer-inventeure travaille seule ou avec d’autres, notamment le saxophoniste John Ingle et l’auteur Melody Sumner Carnahan.
“Certaines pièces sont plus lyriques, plus faciles d’accès; des textes et des sons sont associés à des paysages familiers. D’autres pièces sont plus abstraites, investissent des mondes inconnus. Le mouvement du corps? Ca dépend. Parfois, un type de gestuelle correspond à un type de son, il se peut aussi que le corps agisse presque en opposition. Pour l’auditoire, il n’est pas toujours facile de comprendre ce que le gant peut déclencher.
“Mais il faut que ça demeure un peu mystérieux; même si ce gant est un instrument assez complexe, il pourrait devenir ennuyeux.”
Santa Fe Magazine
by Diane Armitage
Laetitia Sonami: The Fourth Annual Santa Fe International Festival of Electro-Acoustic Music
I sat utterly transfixed during electronic-music composer Laetitia Sonami’s two extraordinary performances. The first one Why _ dreams like a Loose Engine (autoportrait), comprised electronic music, words, and a quasi-dance as Sonami’s expressive use of her body and hands suggested a deliberate choreography. The text by Santa Fe-based writer Sumner Carnahan, helped establish an atmosphere of disquieting melancholy. The piece was a seamless unity of body language, text, theatrical presence, and electronic wizardry.
Tall and statuesque, Sonami was a commanding figure on the stage. As she paced back and forth, bent low to the floor, she gestured energetically with her arms, retreated, or embraced the microphone to deliver Carnahan’s enigmatic prose centered around a protagonist who slips unanchored through an imaginary landscape. Sonami’s resonant voice realized the character of a woman on a train who projects her persona onto the people she meets as she searches for an experience of genuine connection. As composer, Sonami assumed the fragile psyche of this alienated woman. Yet, at the same time she attained a coherent majesty and mastery of the moment as she orchestrated, with a high-tech, interactive glove, her brooding score with its hypnotic, percussive phrases; strident chords; plaintiff wails; and cadenzas of electronic growls, whispers, and surprising passages of tender lyricism.
Her second piece, a work-in-progress called Conversation with a Light Bulb, was more visually theatrical. Hanging on the wall and placed on the floor were a series of bare light bulbs hooked up to a computer system. The sequencing of the flashing bulbs seemed at first to be random, but was actually controlled by her music. Sometimes only a few lights were on; occasionally the stage was in complete darkness of fully lit; but the light, or lack of it, was wedded to the music’s urgency.
The music seemed to be an aural reflection of systematic data gathered from medical monitors and generated by an unseen body. At times Sonami’s music reflected the great pulse of eros bonded with the will to live. At times the sounds were overtaken by the inexorable pull of thanatos, bringing the composer and her audience to the brink of some profoundly mysterious space. Sonami’s work is tough and challenging, yet she damps and drives her electronic system with a fluid, mesmerizing grace.
by Rhama Khazam
Review Steim Touch Festival – The Netherlands : Amsterdam Frascati Theatre
Up on stage, Laetitia Sonami is performing on a strange, glove-like instrument fitted with sensors. With slight hand movements she triggers sampled sounds of motors and processes them live, magically transforming their whirrs and grunts into stark, desolate soundscapes, over which she intones a raw, incisive text by writer Melody Sumner Carnahan. It is a startling and surreal drama that calls for a savvy combination of programming, theatrical and musical skills.
by Matt Steinglas
Still, for artists, the new interfaces carry risks. They can feel gimmicky; their novelty sometimes overwhelms the content of the work. What does it take to make a new art form feel authentic?
Laetitia Sonami has been making music with data gloves since the late 1980s. “Data glove” is an overly dignified therm for her first instruments – a pair of rubber kitchen gloves, the fingertips outfitted with magnetic sensors from window alarms. Sonami wanted to make her instrument more sophisticated, so she turned to STEIM for technical assistance.
She now works with a single left-hand glove, built to her specifications by STEIM-associated digital instrument craftsman Bert Bongers. “The glove itself is made of Lycra mesh,” she days, when I interviewed her at STEIM the day after her performance at Touch. “It was made to measure in Paris by people who do costumes for dancers. The sensors are sewn onto the Lycra. On the tip of the fingers, on top of the nails, there are microswitches – when I press them I can feel some resistance, which is important, because with all of the other sensors I don’t feel an actual feedback. On the other side of the fingertips there are magnetic sensors, with a magnet on the thumb and sensors on the four fingers. By bringing the thumb closer to the other fingers I get varying voltage.”
When you watch Sonami on stage, you are not thinking about any of this. She begins by pulling in a low thrumming noise, waving it in with her fingers, Then she stretches her fingers to make the noise pulse in and out, and twists in some tremolo. Her gestures are careful, tense, and deliberate.
There is nothing gimmicky about what Sonami is doing. This is the only way you coulf play this kind of music. This instrument, in the hands of this performer, makes sense,. It’s a good interface.
It took Sonami 10 years to get to this point. “Michel Waisvisz made it possible for composers like me to continue,” Sonami says. “He and STEIM support people like me, people who are on the fringe.”
Or, perhaps, not so much on the fringe anymore.
Tech: A Soft Touch
Imagine creating a sound collage by waving your arm. With a flick of your wrist, the pitch modulates, and when your fingers bend, the notes’ duration changes. The voice changes entirely at the touch of a fingertip. Playing meaningful, melodic or rhythmic musical arrangements in this manner requires a state of awareness that allows instantaneous action and reaction to every sound and motion you make.
Although it may sound futuristic, this technology exists today in the Lady’s Glove, developed by French composer Laetitia Sonami with the sponsorship of the STEIM Institute (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music). For Sonami, the physical experience of making music is an integral part of the performing and composing process.
A brief history of airplay. In the early 1980s, Tom Zimmerman wired up a cloth glove that, when used as an input device to control the onboard synth in an Atari computer, allowed him to play air guitar. A few years later, Zimmerman and Jaron Lanier invented the DataGlove by adding tracking devices to this controller. Their company, VPL Research, patented and manufactured the hand-gesture recognition device for controlling computer interaction. The DataGlove sold for approximately $8,000.
VPL also licensed the hand-gesture recognition technology to Abrahms Gentile Entertainment, which in turn worked with toy maker Mattel to create the Mattel PowerGlove. After Bytemagazine published the “secret” pin-outs of the $89 PowerGlove, it wasn’t long before musicians were experimenting with the high-tech toy to explore new ways of making music.
From latex to Lycra. Around 1991, Laetitia Sonami developed electronic gloves made of latex rubber, similar to the gloves you may have used to wash dishes. Sonami glued Hall Effect sensors onto the fingertips and a magnet onto the thumb so that when her fingers touched the magnet, a signal was generated. She used a converter to derive MIDI information from this analog signal, which allowed her to trigger sounds. (Hall Effect sensors are a product of American Electronic Components, Inc., a manufacturer of custom sensors, industrial switches and relays, and other electromechanical devices.
Finding Mattel’s inexpensive PowerGlove big and bulky, Sonami decided to create a lighter, more responsive controller. The name “Lady’s Glove” was meant to be more of joke that a fashion statement, but on stage it’s the ultimate in cyber haute couture.
In collaboration with Bert Bongers, Sonami tailored the Lady’s Glove of fine Lycra mesh. The skeletal framework of the glove is composed of turquoise blue plastic rods. All the wiring and circuitry is exposed; ribbon cable runs the length of the performer’s arm, connecting to microswitches embedded in the glove’s fingertips. Many of the Lady’s Glove’s resistance strips and components originally came from cannibalizing a Mattel PowerGlove, to which Bongers and Sonami added ultrasound, pressure, and motion sensors.
Using ultrasound emitters and receivers to decorate her shoes and pad the palms of the gloves, Sonami is able to modulate pitch as a function of the distance between her hands. As Sonami changes the distance from her hand to the floor, the length of the beat cycle is modified in real time. A miniature circuit board that was originally designed to launch emergency airbags in automobiles detects speed and motion, producing a variable voltage from Sonami’s gestures that gets converted into audio.
Mysteries revealed. On the inside of the glove, Hall Effect sensors produce varying voltages that correspond to a preprogrammed set of algorithmic probabilities created in Opcode’s MAX, an object-oriented programming language. Sonami uses MAX to set a threshold so that whenever her fingers pass a certain distance, they trigger an immediate response. That way, she doesn’t have to actually press a mechanical switch. According to Sonami, because of a response limitation of two inches, the Hall Effect devices are difficult to use if you want to measure distance, but they work well for switching.
STEIM’s SensorLab analog-to MIDI converter beltpack translates the electronic and ultrasound signals into MIDI data and relays them to a computer on the side of the stage. Sonami also uses the SensorLab to tune the sensors’ voltage regulation, response time, etc., and to channel them to whatever MIDI controller numbers she needs.
For years, Sonami has been using a Macintosh Powerbook 180 and MAX to handle all the music programming. For example, she wrote an editor to control the parameters of her synthesizers as functions of her movements. She recently upgraded to an Apple Power Mac G3 with MAX, Cycling 74’s MSP, and a Korg SoundLink DRS 1212 I/O card. This new system will eventually be the source for all of her sampled, FM, and additive synthesis sounds.
Harnessing reality. Coordinating the numerous muscular combinations necessary to master the Lady’s Glove is no small feat. Playing in tune requires the concentration of the entire body, with continual motion adjustments for fine-tuning. Sonami gracefully choreographs her unique hand-dance creations, inspired by a cross between East Indian singers and sign language. Watching her constantly adapt to the music she makes, you can clearly see that every composition requires a balance of prearranged physical movement and spontaneous improvisation.
Sonami’s performances interleave sonic layers of industrial, ambient, and rhythmic textures with spoken work to form a provocative, transformative journey. Her on-stage freedom is made possible by the programming of parameters she determines with the computer beforehand. By establishing the relationship between the gestures and the sounds in the software, she is able to listen, shape the sounds, and feel as if she is modeling the air in performance.
Sonami admits that the glove has its share of limitations, but like any other instrument, once you learn to use it, these limitations become part of your musical vocabulary and expression. Ultimately, Sonami hopes to transcend technology altogether for both herself and the audience.
Computer Music Journal
by Eric Marty
San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players and CNMAT in concert – Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
… By far the most interesting performance technology on the program was Laetitia Sonami’s glove. With the Lady’s glove, Ms. Sonami performed her somewhat improvisational Has/Had, which was based on text by Melody Sumner Carnahan and which won the Honorary Prize from the Ars Electronica Festival in 1997. Ms. Sonami combined pre-recorded sounds with live signal processing of her own speech and vocalization, all triggered and manipulated by motion, proximity, and other sensors embedded in her black Lycra glove. The glove’s versatility, sensitivity, and lifelike unpredictability, combined with Ms. Sonami’s intimate familiarity with the controller she developed at STEIM, create the natural behavior so difficult to achieve with electronic instruments-this despite the deliberately electronic quality of much of the sound. The piece toyed with unstable rhythms, the hands drawing a regular pulse toward irregularity, then to the verge of collapse before springing back into stability. The piece was at its most interesting and natural in the gray areas where the ear struggles to find regularity. The rhythmic processes grew out of work by David Wessel’s rhythm research group at CNMAT. The glove controls parameters such as duration and pitch and switches among probability sets that govern rhythmic characteristics. Hand gestures also trigger sampled sounds and effects, sometimes interfering with other controls, resulting in a certain unpredictability that Ms. Sonami must accommodate in her improvisation. Crucial to the glove’s success is Laetitia Sonami’s integration of its kinetic implications into her art Her performance approaches dance, the movement is an integral part of the art, but falls just short of full development. To be fair, it is a subtle dance inspired by the hand language of Indian singers and sign language and would benefit from a smaller hall where its intimacy could be fully appreciated. While the full potential of the gloves, and of Ms. Sonami’s kinetic language would seem to not have been fully realized yet, it is exciting and moving to witness the incubation and cultivation of this very organic art form, which promises to grow even richer and more expressive.
New York Times
June 20, 1997
by Paul Griffiths
Re. Bang-on-a-Can Festival
… Much of the best act was Laetitia Sonami. Wearing a glove hooked up with sensors feeding signals to synthesizers, she stood there and stared at this left hand that swooped, curled and twitched, evoking a variety of graphic sounds from the loudspeakers…
The Village Voice
January 21, 1997
by Kyle Gann
MUSIC SHORT LIST
Part technomystifier, part darkly enchanting performance artist, Sonami tells stories within electronic environments that respond to her every movement. For this gig she’s bringing back her invention the Lady’s Glove, a pressure- and direction-sensitive glove with sensors running up to her elbow, with which she can control 16 computerized functions at once. Her texts are usually by Melody Sumner Carnahan, the result like a half-remembered dream.
Wednesday and Thursday at 8PM, The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Sreet, 255-5793.
The New York Times
January 17, 1997
by Jon Pareles
Hand in Glove: Sounds that Lie Up a Sleeve
Laetitia Sonami plays a unique instrument: the lady’s glove. It’s a sheer, elbow-length, left-handed glove with 16 pressure and motion sensors controlling electronic sounds. Alone onstage at the Kitchen on Wednesday night, she sometimes looked like a human antenna searching the air for sounds, or like a deity summoning earth-shaking rumbles with a brusque gesture. Her pieces are sparse but allusive. conjuring half-remembered dreams; they shimmer into earshot, glide and gradually evaporate. Two pieces mixed pure electronic tones with sampled sounds. In the “She Came Back, Again”, a text recited on tape by its author, Melody Sumner Carnahan, described a surreal contraption:” She contrives a sense of pleasure at the edges of her boundaries.” Ms. Sonami, dwarfed by her own spotlighted shadow, summoned electronic tweets, a sustained minor chord, notes that buzzed and faded away. Gradually, industrial sounds replaced pristine tones: ticking, steam-engine huffing and a Geiger counter crackle, as if the mechanical were taking over. “Has/Had” was improvised with an entirely different sent of sounds: syncopated bass lines fit for a dance record, melodic runs that expanded or contracted with the sweep of n arm, admonitions to “Wake up!”, whirs. metallic rattles, skidding cars. But once again, there was no narrative, only drifting, tapering off and a final glimmer of the opening sounds.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 21, 1996
by Daniel Webster
Music, motion keyed to computers
In the 50 years since ENIAC was born at the University of Pennsylvania, musicians and designers have been invited to adapt the computer to their art.
In programs at Penn on Tuesday marking the computer’s 50th anniversary, artists showed how there were faring with the computer.
French-born musician Laetitia Sonami showed her piece, titled ….and she keeps coming back for more, as an exploration of the relation of gesture and sound. Not quite dance, the piece grows from slight movements Sonami makes while wired and plugged in like a spacewalker. Sound created by software is the invisible force on the stage. Wearing anklets and armbands and a glkove wired with magnets and elaborate electronic gear, she moved arms, hands and feet to create sounds that ranged from high-frequency peeps to an explosion made by an imperious gesture – like Wotan flattening Lunding.
Linked by heavy cable to the computer as she was, her movement vocabulary was contained in hands, fingers and arms. With often tiny gestures, she created organ sounds, altered the voices and dog-barking that existed in the software, called up percussion effects and sound that had its own coherence. Afterward, she explained her process. Although the sound contained in the software remains the same, each performance is different because of the differences in her gestures.
October 20, 1995
by Justin Hayford
The human hand is a powerfully expressive instrument. Consider the lover’s hands, gently caressing, firmly clasping, warmly pressing. Consider the aggressors hands, bundling up in bony gnarled rage, communicating anger more directly than words ever could. Perhaps the hand’s emotional transparency in part explains its centrality in the production of traditional music the hand we use to offer up our hearts also conveys great passion in concerti and sonatas. It transforms the elemental major triad produced by a simple, resonating column of air into the bluesy 12-note chromatic run of a clarinet. Hands can not only increase the number of notes available to a musician but color and shape those notes, giving the violin its vibrato, the guitar its gush, and the piano its pianissimo.
But with electronic music, which can be programmed and sampled, the hands can become nearly irrelevant. A musician friend of mine composes entire scores solely by typing commands into a computer (you don’t need hands to type; a pencil in the mouth will do). To “perform” the piece he presses a button. which he could do just as well with his nose. Perhaps electronic music often feels passionless because even the most sophisticated circuitry is no match for five fingers.
Laetitia Sonami, the French-born, San Francisco-based performance musician, pulls electronic music back from the brink of technological sterility and literally reshapes it with her highly expressive hands. Sonami appeared as part of Randolph Street Gallery and Experimental Sound Studio’s “Sounds Good to Me” series (which concludes this weekend with Chicago installation musician Bill Close). Sonami’s instrument is an elbow-length Lycra glove of her own design with several dozen sensors embedded in it: transducers, ultra-sound detection, an accelerometer, even a mercury switch. Each responds to movement, pressure, or both with electronic signals that travel through wires running along her arm-exposed like colorful raw nerves-to a black box strapped on her back, through a long cable, and finally to several synthesizers programmed to produce a vast array of sonic events.
Through a flick of her thumb every so often, Sonami changes her preprogrammed electronic template, or acoustical palette, so that a particular gesture, curling the right index finger, for example, will produce entirely different sounds (imagine a piano’s 88 keys rearranging themselves 30 times over the course of 20 minutes, and you’ll get some sense of how difficult an instrument Sonami’s glove must be to master). Certain other movements, rotating her hand, for example, or moving it away from her body will bend a note, increase its volume, trigger any number of acoustic embellishments. Put simply, she can create a symphony with a wave of her hand.
Which is precisely what she does in performance. With steely concentration, she seems to conduct the air, extracting from it a rich, ethereal soundscape that feels more discovered than composed. Combining musical tones, sampled instruments, rumblings, twitters, hisses, voices, and even animal noises, Sonami molds sound the way a master sculptor shapes clay, building expressive monuments in fleeting temporality. Her complicated, at times humorous, always haunting compositions seem to tower above her even as she holds them in her two small hands.
“What Happened II” is an intentionally fragmented piece centered around a story by Melody Sumner Carnahan, which Sonami recites into a microphone. In it a woman goes through a series of outlandishly melodramatic relationships seemingly at the speed of light, the speed at which electronic signals travel from Sonami’s fingertips to her synthesizers. As the story goes on and various hand gestures throw interference through the wires, Sonami’s voice begins to decompose. Gradually she moves away from the microphone into a pool of red light, a kind of ghostly pond from which her magic hands pull delicate, seemingly distant tones, most of which appear to scamper away almost as soon as she takes hold of them (occasionally she gestures as though she were literally throwing a sound across the room). Later two programmed voices list the items in several incomplete sets of china fragments of once-valued collections. The missing pieces, we can only assume, broke into shards long ago. The overall effect is one of deep melancholy, of longing for wholeness.
Sonami’s technologically mediated performances cleverly parallel the human inability to experience life except through the mediation of memory life is by definition a fragment. As she says at the end of the piece, portraying an elderly woman who systematically categorizes “the number and quality” of all her pleasant reminiscences, “I’m certain my memory of these things is better than anything I could experience today.” To live an “authentic” moment becomes an impossibility.
“… And She Keeps Coming Back for More,” her most recent piece, relies on at purely musical narrative, beginning with evanescent, high-pitched ripples and then plunging into long, sonorous waves that create a feeling of great expanse. At the center of that expanse stands Sonami, encumbered with wires, tethered to her computer equipment, focusing entirely on her hair-trigger body-instrument. Her rigid, self-imposed confinement; she can’t travel more than a few feet, she can’t make a sudden movement without setting off an avalanche of sound„adds a poignancy that would be entirely missed in a recording. For even as she stands nearly rooted to the spot she discovers great emotional freedom, her arms widening gracefully as if to embrace her music, then cascading down to scoop up the next phrase. She looks as though she were on the verge of taking flight.