Atomic Etudes and Chemical Etudes are both strongly characterized by the interface I use, a Monome 256.1 It consists of sixteen rows of sixteen buttons, adding up to 256 buttons in total, which can be used as switch or toggle buttons. Furthermore, the buttons light up in sixteen degrees of intensity. I use the Monome as an audiovisual instrument: I press its buttons in order to generate input data that are sent to a computer, and I also treat it as a sort of low-resolution screen¬ with sixteen by sixteen pixels. While the Monome is designed to be laid flat on a table, in my performances I hold it vertically just under my chest, similarly to an accordion. I face the audience to ensure that the visual patterns shaped by the lit buttons are perfectly visible (see figure 2).
Atomic Etudes and Chemical Etudes are solo pieces that are both based on geometric patterns that move across the 256 pixels—or buttons—and to which I have to react in specific ways. These low-resolution monochromatic graphics evoke an association with the crude designs of early video games. Although I originally did not explicitly intend to compose these pieces in a retro aesthetic, I gave in to the association—both visually and sonically—and chose synthesis methods that matched the harshness of the three-in-one sound chips typical of early video games. However, the synthesis methods I programmed use neither low bit rates nor sample resolutions, nor are the synthesis methods particularly old fashioned.
I composed Atomic Etudes in 2016. The work was inspired by a visit to the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, USA. Visiting the exhibition, I was flabbergasted to learn that in the 1950s, nuclear tests were performed close enough to Las Vegas for the mushroom clouds to be seen with the naked eye from elevated positions in the city. This even became a tourist attraction: bars and restaurants on the tops of Las Vegas skyscrapers served drinks with apt names such as “Atomic Cocktails” or “La Bomba Grande” while nuclear explosions went off in the distance. Military potency thus served as an entertaining spectacle in the ’Gambling Capital of the World.’
This combination of nuclear destruction and entertainment I find absurd from today’s perspective. This absurdity led me to compose this piece, which is based on the idea of containing a nuclear chain reaction in a game setup. In Atomic Etudes a trajectory of illuminated buttons travels across the Monome. Once it reaches one of the four edges of the screen it bounces off and splits in two trajectories, which then move independently in different directions across the interface. As soon as one of these trajectories reaches the edge, it multiplies again. If this process continues uninhibited, the entire screen is lit up within seconds. The splitting of the trajectories is a simplified simulation of nuclear chain reactions, where a neutron splits an atom, thereby releasing two new neutrons that continue splitting other atoms and thus sustain the chain reaction. In Atomic Etudes, the performer’s task is to contain this multiplication by pressing the buttons at the edge before the trajectory arrives there. If the trajectory reaches the edge while the corresponding buttons are pressed it does not bounce off and split and thus is absorbed. This entire process is accompanied with sounds that are linked to the individual events—the pixels of the crossing trajectories and the pressing of the buttons.
In Chemical Etudes, composed in 2018, growing geometric shapes occupy the 256 pixels. Similarly to Atomic Etudes, the performer’s task is to react to the proliferating geometrical forms in order to prevent them from becoming too complex. To achieve this, particular buttons have to be pressed with precision and accurate timing. Failures are as much part of the piece as successful strikes, however, since failures evoke different sonorities that are equally important for the palette of sounds that characterize the work. Moreover, contrary to the common design of computer games, in Chemical Etudes the player needs to reach a certain number of failures to progress from section to section. Each section introduces a different audiovisual scenario with changed rule sets for the performer.
In both of the Monome pieces, a competitive situation arises between the performer and the game system that runs on the computer. Although the performer predominantly reacts to the chain of events, he or she can still influence the pace of the performance, for example by deliberately slowing down or even delaying the process of containing the growing complexities. In artistic terms, more interesting versions are achieved by exploring and stretching the possibilities that arise through the rule sets, rather than by following the tasks in a straightforward fashion.
1 https://monome.org/, Monome is a small company in upstate New York that produced this particular model in 2011 and 2012. A total of about 150 units were produced.
GAPPP is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF as project PEEK AR 364-G24.