Written by Jennifer Smith
Classical music performance may tend toward the conservative both in name and in practice, but like any other medium of expression, it’s certainly not impervious to innovation.
Photo courtesy of Delwin Steven Campbell.
Blind Ear Music, a collective of composers and musicians, brings its own newly created software into the equation, allowing composers to create loops of music and hear instant feedback from a live musical ensemble.
“The software allows us to communicate with musicians wirelessly, in real-time,” says composer and Blind Ear Music co-founder, Jakub Ciupinski. “In other words, we can decide what they are going to play on the spot. Basically, the software is just a platform that gives us a lot of possibilities.”
The software, developed by Ciupinski, consists of two distinct interfaces, one controlled by the composer and the other monitored by the players. The composer operates the “Master” program and sends the music out via Wi-Fi, and instead of reading sheet music off a music stand, the players take their cues from laptop computer screens.
The conductor is decidedly absent from a Blind Ear Music performance. Rather, the composer can communicate directly with the musicians through various visual and audial cues. For example, the musical notation displayed on the computer screen can be enhanced with text messages from the composer, better conveying the desired dynamics, expression, technique, etc. Blind Ear Music also equips each musician with earphones and a click-track — an instrumental background track of steady, metronome-style beats that represents the time signature of the composition and keeps the ensemble on tempo. The composer can also control each player’s click-track independently, desynchronizing the group on purpose for musical effects such as phasing and delay.
The look of traditional notation is still present, but it’s been re-imagined for a more contemporary feel. Instead of the note itself being the building block of the piece, Blind Ear Music takes a page out of pop music and makes the “loop” the foundational element of real-time composing, allowing for a blend of composition and improvisation.
“What we’re doing is bringing these little chunks of music and then we mix them on the spot,” Ciupinski says. “It’s flexible enough that we can focus on creating beautiful music [without] being too stuck with the technicality of it. I think it’s a really nice compromise.”
According to the Blind Ear Music website, “loops are short musical phrases that are intended to be repeated and combined to make a larger musical structure.” Before the performance, the composer creates a short loop a few measures in length. During the performance, the composer can instantly hear the interpretation of the loop, as well as the acoustics of the venue, and spontaneously alter the composition. Due to the improvisational nature of a Blind Ear Music performance, the accompanying musicians have to be proficient sight-readers — able play new music at first blush.
“In modern pop music, the concept of a loop is very strong. In some genres of music, especially electronic, it’s the basic building block of every track,” Ciupinski says. “We try to see what will happen if we bring the same concept to classical music.”
Ultimately, this new take on classical music could become a valuable learning tool for aspiring composers. Presently, Blind Ear Music offers a more direct route from creation to realization while treating the audience to a blend of acoustic and electronic elements. Not only can the composer interact with the musical ensemble, but he or she can control electronic music through loudspeakers as well. The software also lends itself to the inclusion of dance, video, and light. Dancers wearing headsets can be cued to start a “dance loop” to accompany the music. Lighting can be manipulated to react to the dynamics of the piece, and video loops can be coordinated with audio loops.
“Sometimes we try to interact with the audience as well so the audience can have some input,” Ciupinski says. “But most of the time, we’re just trying to make good music with this approach. It’s more spontaneous and gives us a lot of freedom.”