The title of this work, Tympanic Touch (composed in 2017), refers to the tympanic skin of the human auditory system. The work’s composition was guided by the question of how the sensation of touch can be transported through sound and distinguished by the ear. The sounds produced by the musicians for the most part are realized with nine different materials (see figure 1), namely three cardboards with different thicknesses and textures, three sorts of textiles, and three different sorts of sandpaper. Two samples of each material have been cut into small, approximately palm-sized rectangles. Most sounds are produced by the musicians rubbing two samples of the same material against each other, thus rendering its haptic texture—smooth, soft, shaggy, rough and so forth—audible.
A competitive game system underpins this composition. The performers have to select and play the materials according to clearly defined rules. Often this is based on needing to recognize by ear which material their opponent has just used and then responding according to the given rules. A computer monitors their progress, assigning points to the players based on the accuracy of their performance. Whereas the musicians are able to follow their progress and the current score on tablets that they use in place of an ordinary musical score, the game process is hidden from the audience entirely. Spectators are unable to verify whether a particular player has just gained a point or failed an assignment, nor can they ascertain what the musicians’ tasks are in a particular section. In fact, if audience members were unaware that a game system underlies this composition, they probably would not notice any of it.
I have often been asked why I decided to use a relatively intricate game system without making it transparent to the audience. I deliberately chose to hide the system because I believe that otherwise the audience would focus too much on the progress of the game rather than on my main interest in this piece, namely the haptic quality of the materials that is translated into sound qualities. This of course begs the question of why I included the game system in the first place, given that it is not perceptible to the audience. I included it because I am convinced that the game system strongly affects the way the performers play together. I like to compare the use of game systems in musical situations to a form of chamber music. The similarity I see is that chamber musicians usually have a strong awareness of the way each person in a group is playing. Similarly, game systems, especially competitive ones, create a situation where players carefully follow and react to their opponent’s actions. Even if the game system of Tympanic Touch is not recognized as such by the audience, I believe that it still affects the musicians’ performance and the overall musical result.
In public performances of Tympanic Touch, envelopes containing a toothpick and a small sample of one of the nine materials that the musicians are using are placed on the audience’s seats.1 A text printed on the envelope invites audience members to scratch the material with the toothpick during the performance, thus forming an additional sonic texture. The intention is not only to allow them to participate sonically in the performance, but also to offer them the opportunity to enjoy a similar haptic experience to that of the musicians by interacting with the material. Since every envelope contains only one of the nine materials, audience members are also encouraged to exchange their sample with their neighbors.
In calling Tympanic Touch a multisensory work, I refer to the sonic, tactile and visual experience of the nine materials offered to the audience. The visual part is provided in the last section of the piece, when blown-up images of the materials are projected on a large video screen.
GAPPP is funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF as project PEEK AR 364-G24.