Jason Freeman photo: GA Tech
Composers in Dialogue
Jason Freeman with Giuseppe Gavazza
Giuseppe Gavazza photo: Lorenzo Mascherpa
Jason Freeman, composer and sound artist, is Professor of Music at Georgia Tech and Chair of the School of Music, College of Design. His artistic practice and academic research focus on the use of technology in collaborative, experimental and accessible musical experiences. Freeman develops pedagogical interventions that extend engagement through meaningful integrations of music and computer technology. His music has been performed at Carnegie Hall, exhibited at ACM SIGGRAPH, published by Universal Edition, broadcast on American Public Media’s Performance Today, and commissioned with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Freeman is an artist capable of mastering technology in personal and original musical creations. Having similar skills and experience myself, and having been involved in the world of artistic and musical research for many years, I know how difficult it is to find complete individuals who can combine the creative/artistic and scientific/technical sides into a single personality. Often composers rely on the advice of skilled and specialized technicians; at other times, people with a very good technical/scientific profile, possessing a good musical competence, use their knowledge and experience to create music. The results can obviously be more or less successful, but the organic nature of a complete and coherent proposal emerges in the originality and accessibility of the works.
The increasing availability of powerful and versatile instruments, accessible for (relative) ease of use and price, is changing the situation: the new generations are often able to completely control the creative and technical process. But the experience acquired during the years in which this mutation towards a reality that seems to me more similar to a prêt à composer than to an artistic ready-made, remains as an irreplaceable heritage, a guarantee of an important and precious maturity. --GG
Aura Satz, The Trope of Musical Stairs - Georgia Tech Laptop Orchestra
Giuseppe Gavazza: Hi Jason, what can you tell us about your project Scoring the City ?
Jason Freeman: Hi Giuseppe! First, I need to be clear that Scoring the City is not my project: it was created by an incredible group led by Gascia Ouzounian (University of Oxford) and John Bingham-Hall (Theatrum Mundi). Their interest was in discovering the intersections between music and urbanism, using musical scores (and especially graphical scores) as boundary objects that facilitate multidisciplinary conversations around urban spaces. They led a series of workshops in Belfast, Beirut, London and Paris where musicians, urban planners, architects, and others gathered together to study changing spaces in those cities and develop graphical scores that represented the spaces and their context.
I came across the project in late 2020 and realized that this collection of graphical scores would be perfect to use with the Georgia Tech Laptop Orchestra, a course I teach for our undergraduate music technology majors in which they learn about audio synthesis, sound design, interaction design, and experimental music performance practices. The students reviewed the score collection (and some background writings by Ouzounian and Bingham-Hall) and chose some of the scores to realize as musical compositions. (Interestingly, the scores had never before been performed.) The students studied the graphical scores and the places that inspired them, debated how to interpret these unusual graphical scores into music, developed the sounds to use in the performance, and rehearsed live performances using their laptops and phones as their instruments. We recorded the performances in a session (but were not able to perform live in concert due to COVID restrictions). We were also very fortunate to have Ouzounian and Bingham-Hall (virtually) visit our class, along with composer Aura Satz, to share their perspectives on the student performances.
Following the example of Scoring the City, my students wanted to develop their own graphical score focusing on our own city of Atlanta. They chose a location in Atlanta, studied it (with some guidance from Mike Dobbins, a professor of city and regional planning here at Georgia Tech), and created their own performance scores, sound designs, and instrument designs. We performed and recorded those pieces in an end-of-semester concert.
Richard Dougherty, Flax Flower - Georgia Tech Laptop Orchestra
GG: As a composer I am interested in the idea of a city as a musical instrument and my questions might be: how can we create a score with this instrument?
JF: The city is an endless source of musical inspiration. We can simply listen to the sounds around us as music (e.g. in works like Max Neuhaus’ “Listen”, where each person’s hand is stamped with the title and the artist leads the audience on a kind of sound walk). We can capture the sounds around us and repurpose them in electroacoustic compositions (e.g. in soundscape composition practice, or in more participatory projects like my own UrbanRemix). We can capture data from the city and use that to generate music (e.g. Tae Hong Park’s CityGram project, where a smart sensor network captures data that is incorporated into different forms of art). Or, as with Scoring the City and the Georgia Tech Laptop Orchestra, we can use the languages of experimental music notation, architecture, and city planning to create visual scores that represent our perspectives on urban places while providing a foundation for others to interpret the city as musical performance.
Sharon Phelan, Lines of Enclosure || Lines of Flight- Georgia Tech Laptop Orchestra
GG: This suggests to me a reflection on the fact that, in the sonic-city, each listener is also a performer; there is no stage/audience separation. And I wonder about the possible practices of improvisation in the city-orchestra as an alternative to the score or as a medium integrated with it.
JF: Yes, absolutely! Performance can be as simple as the decisions we make about how to move through the city (which affect the sounds we hear and our spatial perception of them), or our decisions about how to actively listen to those sounds. The score isn’t a necessary component to “performing” the city, but it is an opportunity to create a collaboration, one that shares the score creator’s perspective of the city with others and invites them to experience the sonic city through the lens of that score.
GG: How can people listen to this score?
JF: I think all of these modes of “scoring” the city come back to the same goals— we want to increase awareness of urban spaces and sounds. We want people to listen more intently to the sounds around them, to look at the spaces around them, to consider the history and context in which these spaces and sounds exist, to develop a greater understanding of their environment, and to feel more invested in that environment.
The ongoing act of “listening to the score,” then, is the heightening of spatial and sonic environmental awareness. All of these other forms of scores are ultimately prompts and contexts for reflection. They challenge us through a visual score, or a data source, or a musical performance, to think intensively about these environments and our relationships to them. Then, hopefully, they also have a longer-lasting impact on our consciousness of our environment.
I want to add that our relationships to space and environment have become particularly problematic over the last year. We have moved through the world less. We have engaged with other people online much more. In many ways, we have become abstracted away from space; we are little boxes on a screen with our location often unknown to others. With that in mind, I think it is particularly important, now, to be deliberate in anchoring ourselves to a place, to raise our awareness about the place where we are. That is one of the reasons I built my laptop orchestra course around this idea of place this year.
Jake Johnson, Sailortown: Sense of Place - Georgia Tech Laptop Orchestra
GG: I am pondering the definition of "listening to the score", a phrase that unifies two actions that, in the "classical" conception, separate performers and listeners. I believe that musicians rather mean "reading a score", which gives sonic body to a musical thought transmitted through notation. I think that learning to listen to the city (or more generally to the world) can [develop] a different awareness for listening to music. This is what happened to me—[I experienced] a fertile exchange between listening to the world as if it were a musical score and listening to music scores as if they were “natural” sounds of the world. Electroacoustic music has largely opened up the perspective of listening. I am convinced that a greater awareness of the environment is achieved through a more conscious approach to listening.
JF: I think you are also getting at the notion of a score itself, and why it exists. When we think of scores in the traditional sense of western classical music, we think of a linear documentation of the musical events (like notes) that constitute the work. The scores we are talking about here, though, come out of a different tradition, the open score. Open scores tend to leave much more creative agency to the performer(s) and rarely spell out all the musical events of the performance in order. These open scores are much better positioned to help musicians and listeners cross the boundaries you describe.
Joshua Chan, Isaac Hong, James Jones, Sean Levine, and Yurui Wu,Centennial Olympic Park - Georgia Tech Laptop Orchestra
GG: Is the city even, as a listening space, the concert hall?
JF: In its most pure form, absolutely. All we have to do is accept that frame and be willing to listen and look at our surroundings as a performance space and to value what happens as art. But that’s often hard to do. We have many other reasons for moving through a city that may not always be compatible with this mindset. So we start to forget this is even possible. And so every once in a while, we need a reminder. Those reminders need some more explicit framing so that we don’t have to do all of the heavy lifting on our own. That can mean bringing the sounds of the city to a more traditional music listening experience, like a concert hall or a music album.
Binary Orchids - Georgia Tech Laptop Orchestra
GG: I totally agree. And again this suggests to me a recall to something else. I mean the phenomenological attitude (for example that of the great conductor Sergiu Celibidache) of those who think that a concert should not (or perhaps can not) be recorded because authenticity exists in the coherent singularity of space and time that creates the “aura", which cannot be reproduced. Hence, the question: Can we use the "hic et nunc" of this concept as an antidote to the "simulacrum" of reproduced music?
JF: I think there are two dimensions to this question. The first is the dichotomy between performed and recorded music. Using the city as a foundation for a musical endeavor opens up new ways of making that music more “live”. Ever-changing data sources could cause music (whether performed or algorithmically rendered) sound different as the city itself changes. Open forms of notation, like those used in Scoring the City, can make each performance radically different from the others, assigning new creative roles to performers and bringing more of their perspectives to the work.
The other dichotomy is less about the musical work and more about our perception of the city itself. The musical interventions I’ve been describing here don’t just raise awareness of the immediate experience of the city, they also raise awareness of its context and history. To illustrate, I’ll share an example from one of the Atlanta-focused projects from my class. This group of students initially decided to focus on a Ferris wheel in the heart of the downtown tourist district. The more they researched the location, though, the more they became aware of the larger context and history of the location (and particularly of its transformation for the Olympics in the 1990s). Their final score (and performance) took the form of a timeline that brought the historical transformation of the space to the foreground, rather than just focusing on the immediate object of interest. These are the kinds of things that music can help us to achieve: to take us beyond the present, to broaden our perspectives, and to raise our awareness.
This Too Shall Pass - Georgia Tech Laptop Orchestra
GG: This is true for me as well, and I would add-- to raise awareness of immediate experience as well as that of a context and its history is one of the main purposes of art.
Thank you very much, Jason, for your thoughts that confirm to me the common interests and a shared vision (or should I say listening). Including the common commitment to teaching on themes that I discover to be similar. Who knows, maybe we can connect our ideas and our students in a common project between a new big American city and some ancient Italian village. Building a long bridge to unite spaces and times, only apparently distant.
Jason Freeman is a Professor of Music at Georgia Tech and Chair of the School of Music. His artistic practice and scholarly research focus on using technology to engage diverse audiences in collaborative, experimental, and accessible musical experiences. He also develops educational interventions in K-12 and higher ed environments that broaden and increase engagement in STEM disciplines through authentic integrations of music and computing. http://scoring.city
Giuseppe Gavazza, a graduate of the University of Turin, is a composer, sound-artist, teacher and researcher. He studied composition, direction, piano, musicology and electronic music and graduated from the Conservatory of Milan. He collaborates with European research centres; since 1999 he is resident composer at ACROE-ICA, Grenoble where he obtained his PhD, is Permanent Researcher at AAU-CRESSON, Grenoble and teaches at Cuneo Music Conservatory.