Resonant Automata Take Centre Stage at the SAT

Woulg and Montreal Life Support Enthral Through Clever Instrumentation

  • ‘Empty Vessels’ runs at the Société des arts technologiques from Nov. 12-16. Courtesy Guillaume Bell

  • The piece is created by UK musician Montreal Life Support (David Gardener) and Montreal-based musician Woulg (Greg Debicki). Courtesy Guillaume Bell

The current Société des arts technologiques installation Empty Vessels presents 30 minutes of neural nets, robotics, and ominous vibrations.

The piece is created by UK musician Montreal Life Support (David Gardener) and Montreal-based musician Woulg (Greg Debicki).

The work combines neoclassical with glitch—electronic music working with feedback, clicks and more—to soothe and unnerve. Three cellos under the influence of robot arms perform on command beneath the Satosphere dome, enlivened by protean visuals.

Although they resemble braces more than bows, the intricate appendages, which stood in for live performers, were designed by Gardener himself.

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“It’s probably the most complex thing I’ve decided to build because it’s such a bespoke […] robot, designed entirely just to play the cello,” said Gardener.

The process developed through many iterations. As the robotic arms were limited in their ability to perform, designing them required intimate knowledge of the cello and how to play it. But the rationale behind using them for electronic music stems from Gardener’s taste.

Three cellos under the influence of robot arms perform on command beneath the Satosphere dome. Courtesy Guillaume Bell

“I’ve always found it the most rich sounding instrument. There are so many harmonics in every single note.”

“I guess that’s another interesting part about the project is that the cello is an acoustic instrument that we’re playing electronically,” he said.

“Rather than having just a speaker or a traditional way of playing electronic music, the sound is actually being created in a cabinet, in the empty vessel of the cello where it resonates.”

From Debicki’s side, situating the cello within an electronic piece accommodates opposing mindsets.

“My music for the last 10 years has been really driven by this contrast between noise, distorted violence and this really tender, sad and soft, small beauty thing and sort of smashing them together,” Debicki said. “Well, maybe not smashing—having them together.”

This has been a central thread throughout his work, and you can see it in the performance.

“Rather than having just a speaker or a traditional way of playing electronic music, the sound is actually being created in a cabinet, in the empty vessel of the cello where it resonates.” — David Gardener

Extended tones emerged from the cellos, buffered by digital noise and following abrupt transitions. Like changing a font mid-sentence, the contrasting timbres were almost tactile in their immediacy.

Against tender phrases drawn from an invisible piano, the three automata—machines following coded instructions—played indifferently before the audience like luminescent monsters from a sci-fi film.

The atmosphere wasn’t developed entirely behind the scenes. As processing was concerned,“[A] lot of that was actually dictated by the miking setup and acoustics of the dome,” said Debicki.

“We realized that feedback in here is a very integral part–you have to face it.”

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Feedback has also been on their minds with respect to artificial intelligence. Debicki and Gardener have slightly different motivations for using AI in Empty Vessels in the form of neural nets—computer systems in which information is processed by dynamic, interconnected elements like the human brain.

Debicki pointed out that each new medium brings complications and, with them, new avenues for music and art. Technology like AI expands the creative process. “It’s just really fertile ground for experimentation,” said Debicki.

For Gardener, using AI is “about generating a tool that kind of mirrors your own creativity.”

Although they resemble braces more than bows, the intricate appendages, which stood in for live performers, were designed by Gardener himself. Courtesy Guillaume Bell

“At the end of the day, they’re not clever—they learn from something. If Greg [Debicki] developed one and I developed one, they might be very different.”

“An AI would be an extension of me, which is, I guess, pretty obnoxious,” he laughed.

Debicki views it similarly, but more like creating a digital peer.

“I always try to think of it as a separate entity, a separate composer that I’m working with,” he said.

“The way that different software work for writing music, they afford different types of action. They invite you to work in different ways and push you in different ways, and those are compositional decisions,” said Debicki. “So, for me, it’s helpful to think of it as a collaboration.”

Empty Vessels runs at the SAT between Nov. 12 and 16.

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