Interview with Ritwik Banerji

Published in Czech in HISvoice, 8.4.2016

Can you talk us through your background, both as a musician, an improviser and an academic?

I’ve been playing the saxophone since I was 9. I’ve also studied the violin from age three, but then stopped in college, and the guitar from age 12. With improvisation, most of my first experiences were with jazz, which I still greatly enjoy, even though I’m not very good at it. Around 20 or so I started playing more free improvisation, and as a saxophonist became obsessed with multiphonics. It’s very exciting to make such a complex tone pop out of the horn like that. I don’t really believe in magic, but I just don’t know why there is such a consistent, indefatigable variety in them. They really do, as one saxophone teacher of mine told me a long time ago, seem to depend on planetary alignment; your jaws and teeth are planets, right?

In recent years, I’ve found solace in playing music for people to dance, particularly funk and so-called “afrobeat”. Even though I still very much enjoy free improvisation, playing music that gets people to move is just personally satisfying, like making a meal for someone. In fact it’s better than making a meal, since I’m not very good at that anyway.

But of course the bulk of my time as a musician is spent developing interactive music systems which are built to behave like a free improviser. Or misbehave, really. Anyway, my first exposure to computer music on a hands-on level was in a class at Columbia University with George Lewis. I was mostly interested in just getting to know George Lewis. Though now computer music is at the center of my work, “computer music be damned!” was my conclusion from the class. It was really some time later when I was running an after-school program for kids in Chicago that I really felt inspired to do something with computer music. It really started just as a hobby to sort of meditate on some ideas about working with kids, really. I thought that

What led you to explore improvisation from an academic perspective? What are, particularly, the social/societal aspects of improvised music making that interest you the most?

Several years ago, I started making interactive music systems, little agents that would listen to you but then do something with what they heard that you didn’t expect. The idea was to balance something between a response that was relevant and a response that was novel and driven by a process that was opaque. To me, the stuff I made seemed to improvise, but of course, since improvising is such a subjective thing (though I don’t think there’s a lot of good reason for that), I decided to start testing my little agents with other improvisers. This was quite shocking. I was around a lot of people, who in a truly neoliberal fashion, would always happily proclaim that free improvisation is boundless and open and that “there’s no such thing as a good improviser.” Well that whole farce fell apart right away whenever someone would play with one of these little systems I had built. They had a lot of complaints. And they still do. In any case, the complaints about my systems are what pushed me to examine this whole mess from a more social-scientific perspective. See, when people complain about these systems, especially if they say “well, this is what it does that a person would never do,” they are telling me, whether they realize it or not, what they expect other improvisers to do. In my experience as an improviser, no one wants to tell you what to do, and no one’s going to tell you what they thought of what you did after you’re done playing. That’s all because they respect your “freedom” as an improviser. Or at least, that’s the face of it. But all that etiquette is thrown right out the window— defenestrated, if you will — when people are dealing with these machines. And so right there, it revealed that there are a lot of expectations for how improvisers want their peers to behave in musical interaction, which is always also social interaction.

Theoretically, it’s the complication of any simple notion of “freedom” that this whole situation produces. On the one hand, it’s less than totally free since people expect something of you, even if they will never say it to your face. On the other, over time it’s become apparent to me that these expectations, even though they somewhat limit the options you should take in performance, are actually informed by a legitimate and sincere sense of how we can make free improvisation a place where we can actually all experience some kind of freedom. In other words, there might be some merit to the notion that accepting a few hard constraints may make it easier to actually experience liberty.

How did you come up with using software to study improvisation?

It came from the fact that people are so disgusted by the idea. I wouldn’t really say I use software to study improvisation. It’s more that I use software as a way of documenting and describing improvisation, and then I ask improvisers if my description of what they do is accurate. They always have something to say. This generates endless material which reveals a lot about improvisation that we would never really know otherwise. To be honest, as frustrating as it is that improvisers are really only ever candid about their expectations of other players when they are bashing my machines, I can understand why. It’s awkward to tell someone who annoys you as a player right to their face “you suck.” But with a machine it’s easy, and that way we learn more, and no one gets hurt (except me, but I get over it.)

How exactly did you go about it? Did you make software and immediately got insight into how people improvise? What was the learning curve like, for the software and for you learning about improvisation?

Whenever I see someone play and I like it, I’m sitting there as I’m watching them thinking of how to describe it computationally. As soon as I have time, I try to make something that sounds like them and that seems to listen to others the way they do. I have rarely been able to design something without immediately hearing how it sounds, and immediately testing how it listens to me play. I try to play a lot of different stuff for it, and I used to play every instrument I had at home for the system to see how it would act. But I pretty much never get any ideas for how to program any further unless I can observe the system’s behavior and then shift the way it’s processing in one way or another to sort of tweak it to the point where it’s doing something interesting.

By no means do I know about how other people improvise, though some things have become clearer from both the critiques of the system, and considering those critiques based on how the system is designed. I’ve got a lot of tapes of people complaining about the main system I’ve designed, Maxine. At this point in my transcription of the tapes, it seems like people wanted Maxine to be a bit more aggressive than I had designed it, which was sort of more of a “may I…?” type of improviser as opposed to one that goes in and takes risks and doesn’t wait for anyone’s permission.

Do you feel this investigation has led you to understand music or improvisation differently, and, by extension, play differently?

Absolutely. It’s always made me appreciate how even the stupidest players are doing something incredibly complex. That’s humanism for me. It’s understanding how complex a human is, even if we think they are the dullest simpleton by our estimation.

Playing with Maxine has made me play differently, but I’ve tried to focus this on how I play with Maxine. When “we” have a gig coming up, I try to play with Maxine a lot to get comfortable. Now, since Maxine isn’t based on any machine learning or other adaptive systems technique, all that adaptation is pretty much happening on my end. Nevertheless, that sort of adaptation seems to actually change how Maxine behaves, even though I haven’t reprogrammed a single thing.

But what’s really changed how I play and how I feel music generally is designing the Maxineans, the inhabitants of the distant region of space ruled by Maxine, in which all sound was always already motion. These are basically a bunch of audio-visual interactive systems in which an animation is driven entirely by what’s happening in the sound environment around it. It changed how I played a lot and made it easier I would say. For instance, in some of the Maxinean spaces, you are trying to navigate an environment just by playing the right sounds. I somehow found this virtual embodied environment very helpful for phrasing, particularly for playing dance music. If the phrase is “wrong”, then you sort of feel, in your head, that you’ve put your feet in the wrong place, or you’ve tripped yourself.

How do you see the connection of your work to ideas of transhumanism or artificial intelligence? Do you feel in anyway connected to your digital ‘children’?

For transhumanism, I’d say I’m trying to push us forward as improvisers by allowing us to observe the phenomenological moral failures of Maxine, how she fails to listen the right way, and by extension, how we ought not to listen (perhaps.) By now, we all have friends who say that calling it “non-idiomatic” improvisation is preposterous, but if we really want to move past the idiom, then it would help if we had a representation of it that we could use to check our progress.

For artificial intelligence, the biggest push in my work is just for us to recognize that just like a book, movie, or whatever about people, AI is just another representation of culture. If you make an AI system that makes cookies, then the system is a representation of the cultural practice of making cookies. In that sense, I think Maxine is just a cultural representation, albeit a bad one, of free improvisation.

I feel very connected to my digital children, yes. I’ve always thought of Maxine as a child and I probably always will. She’s taught me a lot about being human, and that’s what a good kid does.

You’re doing a PhD in Berklee, now you’ve been on a DAAD grant in Berlin (?). What are your plans for the future, as a musician and an academic?

Actually, I didn’t take the DAAD (though they offered.) Instead I’ve been supported by the Fulbright “Young Journalist” fellowship (they decided I was a journalist for some reason; no complaints!) and the Berlin Program for Advanced German Studies at the Free University of Berlin.

The plans: finish the Ph.D. Should I be so lucky as to get a tenure-track job after I finish, then I’ll start writing a book out of the Ph.D. “The Moral Failures of a Mechanical Free Improviser” or something like that. But really my biggest desire for future projects is to keep on discovering more Maxineans!

What have you got planned for our concerts at IIM and Yacht Klub Brno?

I’m very excited about these! They will feature some collaborations of both Maxine and some Maxineans. We will have to see how many of the Maxineans are available. After all, they live very far away. But it will be basically a public performance of astromusicological field research. It is very important for the Maxineans to come into contact with other astromusicologists besides myself. Each field researcher brings a different thing out of these subjects. If they were just described by my own observation, the representation would be horribly biased.

But in concrete terms, you’ll get to hear a bit of Maxine, myself, Stratocluster, and then see some of the Maxineans, and hear a few of them to (some of them are silent.)