The 2016 QCRC & QCGU Higher Degree Research Symposium The Next Generation of Music Research: In & Beyond the Academy

Title: Drawing on Spatial Design to Understand Musical Creative Practice


I am an architect and a musician. For thirty years I have had practices in spatial design and as a percussionist specializing in the drum kit in contemporary music. As a practitioner in both domains, I have always had an interest in how these domains intersect. As a Phd candidate, I have been given the opportunity to undertake a deep investigation into the bringing together of separate practices into what I call an integrated ‘musico-spatial design practice’ through creative practice.

My presentation will outline the first project of my PhD. The first ‘ImprovScope’ project adopted a generative process of mass drum improvisation across three contexts of contemporary performance to generate a large data set of MIDI drum improvisations that emulate the contexts of contemporary drumming performance. Referring to the work of Pressing (1987) on methods and models of improvisation, the phenomenology of Cobussen, Frisk et al. (2010) ‘Field of Musical Improvisation’ and Breithaupt (1987), Benson (2003), Brown (2006), Berliner (2009), Braasch (2011), the project initially focused on improvisation and the discovery of my personal set of ‘referent’ (Pressing 1987) drum patterns and phrases within a ‘closed (i.e. without significant external stimuli) solo performance context. ‘Referent’ patterns and phrases (riffs) are the ‘go to’ repertoire that has been learnt, referenced, adapted, built up, evolved and stylized over the players’ career.

The founding question to this project became: ‘How can I represent my drum improvisations in a meaningful way to reveal the elements of my individual style?

The research was informed by Pérez-Gómez and Pelletier (1997) concept of the invisible ‘perspectival hinge’ between the representations and the artifact and Gibson (1979), and later, Norman (2013) concept of ‘affordance’ as visual cues as to the function of objects. I developed a series of ‘affordance experiments’ to find ways to understand my drumming creative practice. The project resulted in the creation of a sample set of 170 one-minute drum improvisations across the three contexts. Tracks were recorded, exported in MIDI, .wav and into traditional notation in Musescore. The intrinsic qualities of these media provide limited affordance for facilitating understanding of their meaning, temporal and performance qualities. Traditional notation, in particular, is limiting when it comes to polyrhythmic and complex drumming- especially to someone who has limited traditional notation reading capacities.

The affordance experiment under discussion involved the use of parametric CAD from the domain of spatial design software to provide affordance to understanding my improvisations and to bring into the spatial domain the outcome of split-second decisions on timing, drum selection and phrasing, complex overlays of polyrhythms and subtle velocity changes on the digital drum kit. We developed a Rhinoceros3DTM GrasshopperTM (GH) plugin to build a spatialized notation system that enables spatialization of MIDI drum improvisations in plan, section, elevation, perspective and isometric projections. Parametric digital design, unlike other forms of 3D CAD modeling, (in this case) is based on basic user defined mathematical rules, which can be manipulated to alter 3D virtual objects. These basic user defined mathematical rules are based on the parameters within raw MIDI file reformatted into a comma separated value (.csv) file using the open-source Sekaiju application.

As spatial designers, we interface with design information visually and spatially every day- in the form of drawings, models, written notes and in Computer-Aided Design (CAD). Whilst it is entirely natural for an architect to design an artifact using a hybrid media process (Bermudez and King 2000) of drawings (plan, section, elevation, freehand sketch), physical models (models “of” and models “for” (Kvan and Thilakaratne 2003)) and 2D and 3D CAD, these concepts are novel in the musical where musical notation remains largely in the 2D.

Further research will be discussed wherein the basic spatialized notation system is utilised to compare the improvised drumming responses of drummers from diverse musical backgrounds and experiences. It is contended that, by bringing drum-based improvisation into the spatial domain through parametric CAD software, significant insights are afforded that are otherwise unavailable. The parametric model, as a tool for analysis has a refined capacity to reveal the finer elements of music that constitute an individual’s musical style. Through a process of reflection on ones own practice, the extension of the model to the examination of others and the further extension of the design research into Virtual Reality and 3D printing, a contribution to knowledge is afforded that draws upon the skills of the spatial design to develop understandings of music.


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