Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Tim Thompson and his Space Palette Pro

Last night at the Community Music Center, Outsound Presents launched the concert portion of its seventeenth annual New Music Summit, a series of five evening events that will continue throughout this week. The title of the program was Sonic Foundry III: a night of unique invention, because it was the third in an ongoing series providing a showcase for invented instruments. The first set was taken by Tim Thompson, who has brought earlier incarnations of his equipment to the annual Touch the Gear expo that Outsound Presents holds on the Sunday before the Summit concerts begin.

For his concert performance he brought his latest creation, which he calls the Space Palette Pro. Like a palette, it is a flat horizontal surface, which Thompson controls with both hands. There is also a moderately small chromatic keyboard at the front and a display that seems primarily to show how the components of the instrument are configured.

The primary components are four Sensei Morphs arranged roughly as the corners of a square. A Sensei Morph is a rectangular touch-sensitive pad. It can sense multiple points of contact, as well as the pressure applied at each of those points. The Space Palette Pro basically translates input from the Sensei Morphs (and, occasionally, the keyboard) into both audio and video signals, the latter being projected on a large audience-friendly screen.

Ever since my first encounter with Joel Davel’s Marimba Lumina (which he plays in his performances with the Paul Dresher Ensemble), I have been sensitive to the distinction between an “instrument” and a “controller.” Clearly, all musical instruments “control” the creation of sound by virtue of how the performer interacts with an “interface.” However, a controller is basically a source of signals that is independent of the device that takes those signals as input.

Thus, in my personal lexicon I would prefer to call the Space Palette Pro a controller, rather than an instrument. However, this is far from an attempt to demean Thompson’s work. Indeed, to the contrary, it is the only controller I have encountered in which frequently, if not always, the same signals are passed to both audio and video devices. As a result performance consistently results in a smooth coordination between what you hear and what you see, very much in the same vein as the polished visualizations that Stephen Malinowski creates for recordings of classical music.

This is not to suggest that Thompson’s images follow the same sort of note-by-note account that one finds in Malinowski’s videos. Indeed, the very concept of “note” feels somewhat outmoded when one attends to the experience of both listening to and viewing a Thompson performance. I was particularly struck by how Thomson could convert his signals into images that unfold as cascades of a prodigious variety of symmetries. (The mathematical concept of symmetry involves far more than “mirror images.” Indeed, during the Q&A after the performance, I could not resist asking if Thompson had drawn on the systematic classification of symmetry types based on group theory and discussed in Hermann Weyl’s Symmetry monograph. They were not, which led me to admire all the more the extent of Thompson’s visual imagination!)

The performance itself clearly went through a series of episodes, each of which involved different interpretations of the signals from the Sensei Morphs. Thompson’s intuitions about the durations of those episodes could not have been more acute. No episode ever overstayed its welcome. Indeed, my only disappointment was that the performance, as a whole, never really managed to register a “sense of an ending.” At a certain point the flow of control signals ceased, and that was that. Mind you, there are any number of compositions that have this same trait. However, because there was always a clear sense of tonality on the audio side of his signal processing, it was hard to resist that Schenkerian urge to listen for an overall tonic-dominant-tonic cadence.

Nevertheless, Thompson is clearly playing by his own rules, rather than Schenker’s. Those rules are not just about listening but about the integration of listening and viewing. It would not surprise me if those rules go through further refinement as Thompson continues to explore approaches to generating signals that are interpreted for both listening and viewing. Hopefully, there will be future opportunities to observe how his efforts progress.

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