Ask anyone around the University of North Texas College of Music about who's doing the most exciting work in music technology, and the answer will certainly be Professor Joseph “Butch” Rovan. Rovan, the director of UNT's Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia (CEMI), is a former product manager at Opcode and an IRCAM research fellow. He builds unusual controllers that he uses in performances of his music. An accomplished sax and clarinet player, Rovan can also be found performing live with only his custom glove controller in tow; yet the sounds emanating through the hall would lead you to believe you were hearing a large-ensemble performance.
Among his many other projects, Rovan has released a DVD of his mixed-media work, Vis-à-Vis (2001), based on text by Rainer Maria Rilke. The piece combines live and prerecorded electronic sound with live-generated video and a performance by a live vocalist, Katherine Bergeron, who is Rovan's wife and a musicologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Seeing the work performed in concert is memorable: every aspect of the performance — right down to the lighting cues — is beautifully choreographed by Rovan, and Bergeron's performance is stunning. The DVD captures much of that flavor and also enables the viewer to navigate through short annotated segments of the work before tackling the whole.
Rovan's command center in Vis-à-Vis, as in his other works, is a Mac running Cycling '74's Max/MSP. “I'm particularly interested in creating patches that listen to a performer's live input while making some decisions on their own,” Rovan remarks. “The goal is to create an environment in which the singer and computer can interact as a duo, responding to each other's musical decisions.” To help create this sense of dialogue, Rovan intentionally designed some uncertainty — or what he calls “obstinance” — into the interactive electronics.
To generate and control the video, Rovan employs another Mac running Onadime, a video-processing program that uses an object-oriented paradigm reminiscent of Max's. Using Onadime, Rovan built an algorithmic video controller that uses information sent from the audio Mac to generate and control the real-time video projections. Because of the interactive design of the video controller, the visuals are never the same twice.
Rovan and Bergeron produced Vis-à-Vis at home on Bergeron's iMac using Apple's Final Cut Pro authoring software. Bergeron, who did most of the montage, says, “This was our first attempt at creating a DVD, and it was a real learning experience. One thing I can recommend is to be very organized. We filmed the raw material with three cameras over an eight-hour day. At the end we had lots of footage to deal with, along with all the 8-channel audio recorded to ADAT. After choosing the final footage, the corresponding ADAT material was mixed to stereo and ‘flown into’ the Final Cut project, using a simple hand-clap recorded on film as the sync marker. Amazingly, it all worked!”
Rovan's current project is a flute controller for use in a new piece written for virtuoso flutist Elizabeth McNutt. “The controller is a hacked USB game-controller PC board that I sawed in half and retrofitted for the wrist of the flutist. It tracks the motion of the hand in two axes and sends continuous data to Max via the insprock object. It's an experiment to see what can be done with inexpensive materials — I think it's important to make interactive technology accessible and affordable to performers.”