michael gurevich


Michael Gurevich é professor assistente do Performing Arts Technology na Escola de Música, Teatro e Dança da Universidade de Michigan. Com base no Design de Interação, sua pesquisa explora novas possibilidades estéticas e de interação que podem emergir da performance com sistemas computacionais em tempo real. Professor Gurevich também participa ativamente como autor, editor e revisor de diversas conferências das comunidades de computação musical e interação homem-máquina, entre elas o News Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME). Mais sobre seu trabalho pode ser encontrado no seu site.


What is your design process for new interfaces for musical expression (NIME)? Do other people take part in this process? What are their roles?
These days, my approach to design is generally theoretically-motivated, meaning that when I engage in a design activity, it begins with a concept or problem that I am trying to explore or flesh out through design. I would consider this kind of approach to be an instance of practice-based research, in part because I anticipate the work leading to written outcomes as well as performances with the new interface itself. My current Stringtrees project (about which I’ll be presenting a short paper at NIME 2014) is a good example. The idea for the instrument is to explore the balance and distribution of control in a mechatronic musical instrument: How much and what kinds of controls we should to give the performers, and how much and what kinds of controls we should automate?This theoretical basis tends to inform the design process, and to constrain it somewhat. By this I mean that when I get stuck on a problem or am unsure about which direction to go, I refer back to the initial theory or problem in considering how to proceed. This approach can be a bit too constraining at times, because it prevents me from deviating in crazy or unexpected directions, but I think it’s necessary. If I were simply making pieces of art using my instincts or intuitions, I would probably approach design differently, but I don’t have that luxury right now.
On a practical level, I tend to begin with pencil-and-paper sketches. I’m not very good at drawing, but I force myself to sketch out as much as I can in notebooks. (I like to “practice what I preach” and maintain the good habits I try to instill into my students.) I try to consider both the details and the “big picture” scenario of who will be using this instrument, where, and in what context. Physical sketching is also very useful to me, as I’m not the best at visualizing 3-dimensional objects from 2-D representations. I should highlight that pencil-and-paper sketching and physical sketching aren’t sequential steps in the overall design process. They tend to overlap and feed back into one another. I construct physical sketches with whatever materials are at hand: scrap wood, foam core, posterboard, craft sticks, pipe cleaners, instamorph, etc. Usually I try to “pilot” the sensing or actuation scheme I’m thinking of into a physical sketch as a proof of concept. From there, prototypes are built and refined and built and refined, and really, almost nothing I’ve ever done is what I would call “finished.” Some designs are certainly in a state that I would present and perform with, but I think that’s different than “finished.” There is always room for refinement. Even Michel Waisvisz refined The Hands over the years.

For the past few years I have had the pleasure and benefit of being surrounded by groups of brilliant and hardworking students who have collaborated with me on NIME projects. I use the term “collaborate” here deliberately, because I try to give them a voice and a stake in the project. There is of course a bit of asymmetry because the initial idea and problem are is coming from me, but I do give a lot ownership over the direction of the design to other members of the team. We don’t adopt specific roles, and I generally encourage student team members to be responsible for whatever aspects of the project they feel they will make the strongest contribution. For example, I have been working with Simon Alexander-Adams on Stringtrees for the past year. He has become really expert at designing laser-cut parts in Illustrator, and worked out a braking mechanism, the front panel design, and the plectrum-arm, among other things. Actually all of those parts should be plural, because he designed and fabricated several versions of each, which we tried, discussed, critiqued, and refined.


What are the main challenges in designing NIMEs?
It would take a book to answer this question fully, so this will be an incomplete answer. I think the most fundamental challenge is balancing one’s vision as a designer of how a new interface or instrument should be used with a need for sufficient open-endedness to allow unexpected or unanticipated things to happen. This is what musical instrument makers do well. A saxophone has a very strong suggestion of how it should be played, and to a certain degree, most saxophonists play it in roughly the same way. Yet, saxophone players can develop incredibly distinctive styles. People who listen to lots of jazz can often identify a saxophonist from timbre alone, without even speaking to the notes they are playing. What’s more, saxophone players have over the years developed all kinds of ways of making interesting musical sounds with the saxophone beyond the way it was initially intended to be played. I think that this individuality is what a lot of people call “expression,” although I prefer the term “style,” in part because it avoids the emotional or narrative connotations of expression.What is perhaps most important in this example, but probably easiest to overlook, is that these stylistic differences and innovations are predicated on an agreed-upon “normal” way of playing. Musicians and audiences need to understand a ground from which an artist is deviating in order to develop a concept of style and individuality. This is a very general concept, and I think there are lots of ways to achieve it, but I think it is difficult for designers because they are creating both the ground and the possibility space within which performers can play. It is also particularly difficult with digital systems because digital systems tend to emphasize repeatability and quantization.
I think we’re far away from having a robust set of NIMEs that accomplish this goal. Of course, there are other ways we can conceive of NIMEs—alternative models of music, performance, and creativity. However, it seems to me that lots of people in the community want to try to maintain the familiar model. Thinking about how to realize these alternatives is another challenge.


“The NIME we create are not used outside the academia”. What do you think about this statement?
This is probably true in most cases, but I don’t think it’s a problem. In fact, it’s a good thing. Most radio telescopes are not used outside of academia. Most archaeology is not practiced outside of academia. Most musicology is not read outside of academia. Most experimental or new music is not played outside of academia. The measure of social or cultural contribution of academic endeavors is not and should not be their direct adoption or consumption by society at large. One important role of academia is to create an environment for advanced intellectual, critical, and artistic discourse without obligation to the market forces that dictate so much of what goes on in society. In other words, it isn’t incumbent on academics to try to market, manufacture or distribute our creations at a mass scale. But this doesn’t mean that what do has no impact. Many of the advances that occur in academia have profound effects on society at large, but these impacts may be so gradual or diffuse that it can be difficult to trace them back directly to a single source in academia. In other words, I am confident that NIMEs created within academia will have an effect on broader musical culture whether or not the actual devices we create are adopted directly.
We have recently seen a substantial amount of NIME-like activity outside of academia, and it provides a good example of what happens when music control hardware does respond to market forces: commercial music controllers are dominated by largely identical matrices of buttons and faders that are best suited to performing electronic dance music in 4/4 time. What is problematic, or unfortunate, is that society as a whole has little appetite for the kind of music or music performance that would support a robust market for new interfaces for musical expression. But I don’t blame academia for that. As recently as the 1960s, new, experimental music was part of the fabric of cultural discourse (as were literature, poetry, dance, art, and theatre), at least in North America. The same is no longer true, but I don’t think the answer for those of us in the academy to compromise what we do to make it more culturally palatable or commercially viable.We should instead be bringing more young people into our world, turning them on to the creative possibilities of music and technology. It’s actually a pretty easy sell. Once a young person “gets it”—once they understand enough about music and about technology to realize what we are trying to, they are generally hooked. I am continually amazed by the creative and innovative NIME work that my students and former students are doing. Of course, society needs to do its part too, with music education and technological education, but that’s a different story.