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Java Fuels Doctor Nerve

October 19, 2006

Composer/guitarist/programmer Nick Didkovsky is best known as the leader of Doctor Nerve, a rock-based septet that plays energetic and tightly arranged music that is created with the help of algorithmic computer programs. Using JMSL (Java Music Specification Language) as his compositional toolkit, and its predecessor HMSL (Hierarchical Music Specification Language) before that, his pieces have a strength and emotional impact that explodes the myth that computer-generated works are, by their nature, bland and sterile.

But Doctor Nerve is only one aspect of Didkovsky's busy musical life. His pieces have been performed by the Bang On A Can All-Stars, the Sirius String Quartet, the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, and the Arte Sax Quartet. One of his most recent compositions, "Slim in Beaten Dreamers," is a suite for brass quintet and drum set, commissioned by the Meridian Arts Ensemble and appearing on its latest release, Brink (Channel Classics, 2006).

Didkovsky brings computers into nearly every aspect of the compositional process. For example, the title of the Meridian Arts Ensemble commission, as well as the names of its 15 movements, are anagrams of the ensemble's name, which he generated using Anagram Genius Server.

Didkovsky's work with Doctor Nerve has always intrigued me on both an intellectual and a musical level. So I was excited to get the chance to ask him a few questions about his latest endeavors with JMSL and see what's on the horizon with his band, which has been together for well over two decades. We spoke on the phone in October of 2006.

How did the commission by the Meridian Arts Ensemble come about?
Meridian and I have a relationship that dates back to collaborations we did with Doctor Nerve. I think the first time we collaborated was to record an arrangement that I made of Captain Beefheart's "When It Blows Its Stacks," which we recorded for a Doctor Nerve CD, Every Screaming Ear. This version featured eight horns-the three Nerve horns plus the Meridians. That was really exciting.

We had been bumping into each other and seeing each other's concerts for years before that. We've also shared the stage a couple of times, doing some conducted improvisations, and we've shared a bill at the Knitting Factory. That was the groundwork for this project.

We relate very well to each other's musical sensibilities, ways of working, and musical taste. So I thought it would be cool to focus some energy into writing a piece specifically for Meridian, and they thought that was a good idea. So we applied for a commissioning grant through the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust. The grant was approved, and that's how the project came to be.

Did the group give you any compositional guidelines or suggest things to do or not to do?
No, they did not. We got together for a strategy session where I was really more interested in technical details about what each player can do with their horn, what's hard, what's easy. I was already familiar with them as personal players, so I knew their improvising styles and could sculpt my composition to the people themselves, not just their instruments. We sort of knew mutually where we were at with this piece, so I just went for it.

Could you be a little tougher on them as instrumentalists because they are used to playing more difficult music?
[Laughs.] That's a good way to put it. Yeah, you can get very tough on the Meridian Arts Ensemble. They rise to the occasion. I heard stories from them where they would spend half an hour on three measures of one of my movements, just nailing it. And they do! It's uncanny to hear and see them perform this piece. It's burned into them. It's really a stunning experience.

Did you take a different approach to their composition than you would with, say, a Doctor Nerve piece?
Well, I really wanted to cover the elements I'm interested in when I compose for Doctor Nerve. And most of the sections of the suite that I wrote for Meridian are very rhythmically driven, using tuba and trombone as stand-ins for electric bass. John Ferrari is a killer drum-set player, so I had my rhythm section: I had my bass and drums.

I had already logged a lot of years composing melodically for horns, and creating the sort of hocketing, interactive, fractured rhythmic stuff that I do with Doctor Nerve. And that translated pretty well to Meridian. I really approached the piece with them in mind as personalities. And with their virtuosity I could push an ensemble sensibility farther than I had with Doctor Nerve. Although I think Doctor Nerve has killer players in it, we're not all conservatory-trained musicians. So there were aspects of details and complexity that I could push with this piece that I maybe wouldn't have done so much with Doctor Nerve.

Did the composition influence you to go in any new directions, with Doctor Nerve in particular?
Every time I write a piece, I add to this catalog of new experiments, and their successes and their failures. So every piece I write will inform the next piece that I compose for Doctor Nerve or anybody else. I think by burning in new versions of music-generating software that I designed for this piece, that laid some very concrete groundwork for pieces that I would later compose for Doctor Nerve and other ensembles.

Do the notational features you added to JMSL influence how you work, or are they following what you would normally do?
They very much influence the way I work, because there are a number of different ways of getting at JMSL through this notation. One way of working is where I'll write a program that will generate music from scratch: I'll run the program and I'll listen to it, and if I don't like it I'll run it again. And if I still don't like it, I'll run it again. Then I might hear a germ or a seed of an idea. Or I might hear a finished piece emerge from that program, and that'll end up in notation, which I can then edit and change and develop into a piece (or leave as is if I'm satisfied with it the way it is).

And that was something I could very much do in HMSL, the older software music package that I was using on the Amiga, which JMSL became the evolutionary successor to. What else JMSL made possible, with respect to notation, is that it has a plug-in API. So I can write music-mutating plug-ins that I can access directly from within the notation editor. I can grab a range of music from a staff, I can put it through some sort of musical-transformational filter, and see the changes appear on the staff, right before my eyes. That gets really cool because you can start with some raw material -- you can punch in a melody that you've composed the old-fashioned way -- and then you can start applying musical processes to it and really push the compositional direction into areas that would otherwise be pretty hard to access.

Can you play it back as well as see it?
Oh yeah. You can play it back. You can loop a couple of measures and train your fingers to play it. The notes flash so you can sort of follow the bouncing ball [laughs], which may sound goofy, but when things get gnarly, it's so helpful to stare at the screen with my guitar in my lap and just loop three or four measures of really hard stuff and be guided visually and musically as I'm trying to learn some pretty freaky lines.

Is JMSL available to the public with the notation aspect?
Yes, JMSL can be downloaded. The notational features are in the current version, and there are plug-ins that ship with it. That's new with the last version that I released. It can be downloaded at Algomusic.com.

Even if you're not a Java programmer, you can download it, uncompress it onto your desktop, look for whether the folder says Windows or Mac, double-click on an icon, and up pops a blank score. It all looks very unassuming and innocent. You can put in some notes and listen to them. Then you can start hunting around the menus, and you'll see there are retrograde transforms, and scrambling transforms, Markov-generating transforms — very quickly the user sees that this is sort of a Frankenstein-monster notation program on steroids.

I recently received the CD The Art of the Virtual Rhythmicon (Innova 2006), which presents the work of eight composers who created pieces using Virtual Rhythmicon, your online JSyn instrument. What kind of feedback are you getting from people who use the instrument?
I don't get a lot of direct feedback, because it feels like a grand piano you would find in a public space. People come along and play it. They submit pieces. They might interact with each other, or send an email to their pals: "Hey I just wrote this piece on this Rhythmicon I found on the Web." And they don't really contact me any more than you would contact Steinway.

It really feels like an instrument that is out there in the wild. And it's very gratifying to have it validated that way. It has become an almost tangible instrument with a life of its own and a culture of its own around it. There are hundreds of pieces that have been composed for it and uploaded to the Music Mavericks Web site.

There are thousands of performances by visitors who came along and browsed the archives, and decided to play back something that someone else composed. And the power of it is that when you play back something, you're not playing back some streaming audio piece. You're actually seeing the Rhythmicon perform the piece. So it's almost like you're mounting a roll on a player piano and actually watching the instrument play back somebody else's composition.

And to add more gravy to it, you can overdub. You can start with someone else's composition, then flip the Record button on and begin adding on top of it. It's a very fluid sort of sharing of compositional forms and ideas. And it has a nice community aspect, which I can see from the outside just by visiting it. But people tend not to contact me directly. They just go there and play it.

Do you plan to do any recordings with it that you would release on CD?
What I think I might do is use it for a texture that might find its way into a piece. My relationship to it is more as an instrument builder and a co-composer, because I think that if you design an instrument like that, which has so much musical intelligence built into it, that you are very much persuading a compositional form.

There's still plenty of room for composers to work out their own styles, which is what an instrument should do. But I haven't felt compelled to compose something and put it on a record. I've composed some pieces and put it on the Web site — that makes a lot of sense to me personally. I kind of like the fact that it's live and on the Web.

I heard from Thomas Dimuzio that you were in Switzerland recently, recording a piece.
Oh man, I'm so glad Tom's onboard. This is a piece that was commissioned by the Arte Saxophone Quartet, based in Basel, Switzerland — four really fine players and great improvisers. And they're a very self-motivated ensemble. Over a number of years, they've come up with this idea of approaching their favorite composers and raising the funds personally and commissioning a piece from them. They've created a scene around themselves, which is really remarkable.

When I was on tour with Guigou Chenevier [ex drummer of Etron Fou Leloublan], and we were close enough to Basel, Sascha Armbruster from Arte invited me over to his place. We exchanged some ideas, had a rehearsal, and did a recording of a couple of Doctor Nerve pieces. That was the fodder for their grant application. Six months later they'd raised the funds and wanted to do a piece. So I did.

I invited Thomas Dimuzio to do live signal processing. I'm on guitar and laptop. And the Arte Quartet is doing their thing. The sextet is called "Ice Cream Time," and it will be released on New World Records. It's a great piece — they perform it incredibly well. We recorded it at the Swiss Radio studio, and walked out of there with a hard drive full of sound files and Pro Tools sessions. Now the work of assembling and mixing begins.

What's new with Doctor Nerve?
We premiered four new pieces at Future Fest, a festival of new rock music that was curated by Stefan Zeniuk at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. We were honored to be on that bill. I went on a composing jag and worked up four new tunes for Nerve, which are going to go on the next CD. What we're working toward now is completing a CD's worth of new material and releasing that.

I also want to find a home for a piece that I did with Doctor Nerve and narrator. It's a setting of stories that my friend Chuck O'Meara [formerly known as C.W. Vrtacek] wrote. It's for live narrator, live electronics, and Doctor Nerve being conducted using my improv gestures. The piece is called "The Monkey Farm." We've performed it once and it was an amazing experience.

I never really worked with vocals before in Doctor Nerve, and Chuck's words are really compelling. Very poignant, very powerful reminiscences of childhood. There are these beautiful little, almost Zen koan-like stories. Valeria Vasilevski narrated. She would read the stories and I would conduct her vocalizations, telling her when to read, when not to, and telling the band when to improvise, and how to improvise. It just came together really quickly, and it's a very powerful piece. So I want to get that out on CD too.

Is your music also available online?
I just recently joined the IODA Alliance. It's a music aggregator. You submit your piece to them, and they'll get it out to something like a hundred different digital download sites. My solo CD, Binky Boy (Punos Music, 2005), is now on iTunes, which is cool. A couple of Doctor Nerve records have reverted to my possession, because they went out of print with Cuneiform, so now they're up on iTunes too.

Does it bother you that there won't be a CD-resolution version of these releases out there? Will there only be MP3 versions? Everyone talks about giving up CDs, but then there's all the money we spend on getting full CD-resolution recordings. Do you think there will be a market for CD-quality (or higher-resolution) products?
I think there will. I just bought this double CD of John Cage's 44 Harmonies and this Xenakis Music for Strings CD. And there's just something so fantastic about holding this object in my hand and knowing I've got full-resolution audio. And I'm going to put this into my stereo, I'm going to turn it up, and it's going to sound just ass-kicking. I'm not going to be listening to it on little earbuds. I want a full-bandwidth experience.

There's other music that I'm perfectly happy to listen to on headphones and MP3s or AAC. I don't know if it is just a personal vestige that I still like to hold on to objects, since I grew up with vinyl objects and CD objects, and so I still want objects. Or does the new generation of listeners also covet the value of a real object, or if that's going to disappear. I don't know.

I will say there's something very valuable about the vetting process an artist goes through when they actually have to commit money to putting something out. The sort of threshold of activity that you have to exceed to create an object makes you look at your music more critically.

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