Audiovisual Piece for a Broken Consort of Recorded Viols, Octave Virginals, 16mm Film Loop and two Performers

Process is a work commissioned by Petar Milat, director of MaMa, Multimedia Institute Zagreb for the 25th Zagreb Music Biennale and was premiered in a first version in April 2009 at Zagreb’s Mimara Museum. One of the Biennales main topics was Orson Welles shoots Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ in Zagreb, I was invited to create a piece based on that theme.

Since both personalities, Kafka and Welles, as well as the plot itself are monuments, I chose to take them merely as a basic inspiration to tell a story about words, encryption and the travelling of information, creating a rather unique and independent work while leaving behind the underlying claustrophobia, paranoia, questions of guilt, all the Kafkaesque. Process became an entirely mechanical piece, based on digitality, algorithms and code, presented with an ensemble of historical media artefacts and instruments from an era where the act of composing music was still strongly connected to science.

Orson Welles himself stated in an Interview on the BBC in 1962 by Huw Wheldon:

“Do you have any compunction about changing a masterpiece”

“Not at all, because film is quite a different medium. Film should not be a fully illustrated, all talking, all moving version of a printed work, but should be itself, a thing of itself. In that way it uses a novel as a jumping off point from which he will create a completely new work. So no, I have no compunction about changing a book. If you take a serious view of film making, you have to consider that films are not an illustration or an interpretation of a work, but quite as worthwhile as the original.”

There is a specific scene from Welles’ movie that stuck with me the most and became the starting point for Process, Josef K. stumbling through an endless corridor formed by walls of disjointed wooden boards backlit by bright light. The strong black and white contrast of light and shadow causes a flickering effect, to me an allegory of a data stream. With this image in mind, I turned an excerpt of Kafka’s novel – the first lines of the Gatekeeper-Parable – into a ‘hidden’ essence of my piece by translating the text fragment into a long string of binary code, Ones and Zeros.

The Kafka code became the springboard for an audiovisual composition for a quintet of Renaissance instruments, mechanical-acoustic gramophones and a 16mm film loop. The encrypted text fragment is narrated in endless variations by means of sound and light, creating an oneiric state of standstill.

Composing Process from Binairy Code I
Audio: A Broken Consort
I used the string of binary code generated from Kafka’s text excerpt to compose a piece for Renaissance instruments – a Quartet of Viols and the Octave Virginals. Back then such a mixed quintet was referred to as A Broken Consort. The music consists of a series of long sustained notes of various tonal pitches and duration which values are derived directly from the code and assigned to the instruments. It stands in the tradition of Early Minimalism while at the same time taking reference to the classical Piano Quintet.

In a stage of preproduction the score for the Quartet of Viols was performed by myself using the following instruments, each of them being recorded individually:

a Treble Viol
an Alto Viol
a Tenor Viol
a Viola da Gamba

From these recordings I created a series of 32 fragments – Solos, duos, trios and quartets of duration between 32 to 256 seconds by superimposing the instruments’ voices in ProTools applying further algorithmic alternations of the initial Kafka code. The 32 fragments where then cut into 4 double-sided dubplate records, each track on a separate piece of the vinyl, ending in a dedicated run-out groove that physically separates the parts from each other, preventing the next fragment from playing subsequently. Instead each track ends in a locked vinyl loop playing crackling static. The needle has to be released manually, selecting another track from one side of the same record.

During performance the dubplates are played back on four mechanicalacoustic Gramophones from the 1920s. Their self contained construction, comprising a turntable connected to a wind-up spring motor, a tonearm equipped with a soundbox and reading needle plus a horn for acoustic playback, turns them into fully autarchic, mechanical sound reproducers. In order to keep the Gramophone motors running at a constant speed of 78RPM, a performer is permanently in motion between the four machines, winding their spring mechanism up at least every 4 minutes while at the same time selecting random tracks of the Viol Quartet fragments from the records. The arrangement of the four Gramophones in different locations of the performance space results in a multilayered and -dimensional mechanical string quartet that can basically play new variations – this time archived by manual superimposition – for an infinite timespan.

The fifth voice of the composition is played live by a second performer on the Octave Virginals, a small Renaissance clavier. Instead of using the instrument’s keyboard mechanism, its 48 stings are set in permanent vibration by 5 Electromagnets. The choice of strings/notes, the position of the magnets, which is responsible for specific overtone patterns, and the duration of the notes are again defined by the binary code. The electromagnetically played strings of the Virginals form a constantly changing, shimmering tonal band for the Gramophone Strings to ride on, creating further possibilities of interaction.

The sound of the four Gramophones and the Octave Virginals is picked up by microphones to be amplified through a special 6-channel Cinema Loudspeaker System from the 1960s that frames the entire mechanical-acoustic setup and adds another layer of translation, – from acoustically produced sound to electronic signals back to amplified sound – as well as another sound dimension. The open mircophones, the reflections of the acoustic and amplified sound sources in the performance space turn Process into a living organism.

Composing Process from Binairy Code II
Visual: A Long 16mm Film Loop
The visual part for Process is performed by a sculptural setup of two vintage 16 mm Projectors connected by a Film Loop of 24 meters length. The 16 mm Film Loop itself runs through a custom made structure of spools, the Loop Frame located between the two projectors, whereby the long celluloid strip gathers a strong spacial presence. The Loop contains the binary code represented as either a Black (0) or White (1) frame, 3200 images in total. It is played back through both projectors simultaneously at a speed of 24 frames per second, resulting in a soft black and white flicker which is projected with a delay of 2 minutes on two screens set up facing each other while bridging a distance of 12 meters.

Process is presented live as a walk-in installation involving the whole performance space as well as the audience itself. The four Gramophones, the Octave Virginals, the Projectors and the Loop Frame can be experienced by the audience from close by moving freely inside and around the whole setup. Giving these conditions, the composition is fully activated in all its facettes. The individual sound sources can be listened to acoustical, mixing with their amplified signals coming from the loudspeaker system allocated in the space. By changing position, the audience is ‘in control’ of their own mix. Depending on how many people gather around one specific Gramophone, a soft feedback will occur from the loudspeakers. That way the audio unfolds a subtle aspect of interactivity and becomes a ‘living’ organism that includes the performance space and the listeners, while the two performers merely act as media operators who keep the whole process alive and running.

Describing its endless path from projector to projector through the Loop Frame, the 16 mm Film Loop can be experienced from close. The underlying Kafka Code, yet again decoded to Black and White film frames unfolds its beauty as a moving sculpture, an image of time moving forward while repeating its simple statement of On/Off, Yes/No over and over again. The projection screens, the Black and White light flicker shown on them will also display the shadowplay of moving visitors.

Since Process is an endless composition without beginning or end, in an ideal presentation the piece will be fully running while the audience enters and continues playing while the audience is asked to leave the space again. Instead of going to a concert, the audience will attend a state of infatuating standstill.

Process is performed by
Caro Mikalef, virginalist
& Stephan Mathieu, gramophone operator

Process v.2 is available for shows in Europe from December 2012 on.

Please contact me with your ideas,
I look forward to hear from you.

Stephan Mathieu
June 2011

hello @ bitsteam . de

Download Project Sheet
(.pdf / 6.5MB)

In Collaboration with
MaMa, Multimedia Institute Zagreb
25th Zagreb Music Biennale
Cabina Studio Buenos Aires
Sparte4 Saarbrücken

With kind support
Andreas ‘Lupo’ Lubich @ Dubplates and Mastering Berlin
Spot Service Robert Mack Stuttgart
ABC & TaunusFilm Wiesbaden
Kino Achteinhalb Saarbrücken

A Punched Card
contains digital information represented by the presence or absence of holes in predefined positions, first used around 1725

“Ein einfacher Mann vom Lande, kommt eines Tages an die Tür des Gesetzes, bittet um Einlass, welcher ihm jedoch verwährt bleibt, da der Türhüter ihm sagt, dass es zwar möglich sei, aber nicht zu diesem Zeitpunkt, und versucht es immer wieder mit verzweifeltem Bitten um Einlass. Doch er bekommt den Eingang nicht gänzlich verwährt, denn der Türhüter sagt ihm, dass er eintreten kann, er müsse nur mit ”
Excerpt Franz Kafka, Vor dem Gesetz

Text to Binairy