Intra-actions: Mark Fell Interviewed by Alec Mapes-Frances

Computation, performance, and human-instrument networks.


INTRA premiere. Serralves, Porto, Portugal, 2017. Image courtesy of Mark Fell.

Mark Fell’s recordings, installations, and performances draw equally from the techno and house music scenes of the ’80s and ’90s and from an interest in algorithmic systems and patterns. His latest record, INTRA (Computer Generated Rhythm for Microtonal Metallophones), emerged from a collaboration with the the Drumming Grupo de Percussão as part of Intermetamorphosis, a series of projects commissioned by the Serralves Museum in Porto, Portugal. Here, Fell departs from the sounds of drum machines and synths that have long populated his music. Instead, INTRA’s eight compositions form an intricately folded architecture of metal—scraped, bowed, tapped, and struck by four performers synchronized to an algorithm.

            —Alec Mapes-Frances

Alec Mapes-FrancesI wanted to begin with the instruments. I know the four sixxen, or metallophones, used in the piece were originally designed and constructed by Iannis Xenakis for his Pléïades (1978). What drew you to the sixxen? And, in what way does INTRA respond, if at all, to Xenakis?

Mark FellWhen I arrived at Serralves for a first site visit, the curator, Pedro Rocha, mentioned a percussion ensemble that might be interesting to work with. So I went over to their studios and had a look at what instruments they had. When I saw and heard the sixxen I felt I could do something interesting with them.

The piece doesn’t really respond to Pléïades other than in the very direct sense that the sixxen was designed for Pléïades. I’m interested in this way of working—not so much concerned with the vocabularies that people associate with the instrument but more with the possibilities of the instrument beyond those vocabularies. For example, when working with professional players on a project in Newcastle recently, I was just focusing on using the instruments like synthesizers, and not really bothered about harmony, melody, and so on. I never studied music and I’m not primarily interested in those things. Sound is the focus.

AMFIn the case of INTRA, the instruments were layered with another technical element: a computer-human-instrument system that realized the work, repurposing the instrument, as you say, beyond its original vocabulary. How did the “computer-human” part of that system function?

MFEach performer listened to a distinct pattern. The pattern is generated using relatively simple processes based upon nested loops of prime numbers. It creates patterns that jump out of step with one another, so that they change in relation to one another over time. They are, however, totally stable, so each player’s pattern is relatively simple, although also rather unusual. But it’s possible to learn it. And that’s what they did. We made about ten or eleven pieces with different sets of parameters and different playing techniques.

AMFFor their performances, there was a real-time element—the players were “programmed” via these audio patterns fed to their headphones.

MFThe system ran in real time from my computer. I basically pressed go and stop, did some count ins and outs, etcetera. And I also sent triggers at various points where I wanted moments of change.

AMFWhat was the background for the Intermetamorphosis project at Serralves that INTRA emerged from? The title of that project evokes some interesting dynamics for me, as does the title of INTRA. In particular, I’m thinking of the “intra-action” that the theorist Karen Barad uses to talk about relations that precede their relata, and wondering if it has any conceptual purchase here.

MFThe term intermetamorphosis refers to a condition whereby people appear to change identity—I mean, the sufferer seems to perceive that the people around them are shifting from one person into another. Although this condition might be quite unpleasant, for me it corresponded with the relatively recent debates in contemporary philosophy about the nature of identity as shifting, rather than fixed. So that became a theme that ran through the works collected together at Serralves, where I attempted to think about how collaborative relationships might be structured.

Actually, I used the title INTRA as a direct reference to Barad’s “intra-action.” The idea of “inter-action” for me simply restates a separation between you, the human, and the environment around you. Human-computer “inter-action” [HCI] means that the human and the computer are separate and there is a dialogue between them. “Intra-action,” however, means the two become fundamentally part of the same thing. As a means of describing what happens when people work with technologies of one sort or another, I think this offers an interesting perspective that differs from the “dialogue” model of human computer relations.


Intermetamorphosis, installation view. Serralves, Porto, Portugal, 2017. Image courtesy of Mark Fell.

AMFThere’s also a ring of Bruno Latour in this: an actor and a network where the subject functions both as an agent and a conduit.

MFI think Latour’s actor-network model is an interesting one. In some circles it’s a bit challenging because his view that technical objects can “act” goes against orthodox philosophical positions. In some ways, for me, it makes perfect sense—what happens in the studio is a complex mixture of people, processes, aesthetic preferences, trial and error, and often not the result of a well-formed plan that is merely executed.

The following story illustrates a Latourian position quite clearly; I’ve told it dozens of times, so your readers might have already heard it. I was talking to Pauline Oliveros’s students about how we make work. One student said, “I start with an idea in my head, then I find the right bits of equipment (effects units and so on) which I connect together to make the idea.” When I asked, “How did the idea get in your head?” he replied, “I connect lots of bits of equipment together until I find something I like.” So the interesting thing is that the equipment is quite clearly an active part of the idea generation. But, when someone is asked to explain the process, the technology is simply relegated to a passive role on the end of a chain of command that is ruled by the original idea. I was so happy about this little exchange with that student. (laughter)

So while I agree with Latour in many ways, it feels a bit like a common sense description of how people engage with the things around them. For example, I’ve often said that most of the structural systems I use in my work are kind of descendants of my early encounters with drum machines and monosynths, and specifically the ways they can be connected together—somehow that logic forms part of my thinking now. 

AMFAt Serralves, you worked with the dance artist Justin F. Kennedy. What was your approach like with him? Have you done much with dance in the past?

MFThe curator at Serralves suggested I work with a dancer and gave me a long list of videos to look at. For some reason I liked Justin’s work. He’s super talented and understands all the references to contemporary electronic music cultures that are in my work. After Serralves we worked together at Bologna Live Arts Week on a new piece, and that was good too. So I’m hoping to do more with him.

Previously I had worked with dancers at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy, NY. The piece, Recursive Frame Analysis (2015), sort of appropriated the work of Brittany Bailey and Burr Johnson. Actually, as the work developed there were some issues around ownership and authorship, which were quite rightly raised. My initial idea was to include their practices almost as found objects, but as the project developed there were some legitimate issues around exploitation, so I abandoned this model. And in the end we fully agreed that the choreographic component should be credited equally to Brittany and Burr. The work turned out great and I was happy to have had the experience. But I think what it taught me is that outside the rhetoric of radical collaborative practices there need to be some careful ethical considerations. I mean, we have inherited a rather conservative legal framework, as well as lots of cultural baggage, and we can’t ignore that.


Folding Tetrahedra and Four-Dimensional Origamis, installation view. Inter Arts Center, Malmo, Sweden, 2017. Image courtesy of Mark Fell.

AMFReturning to those players in Newcastle and the idea of treating instruments like synthesizers, I’m curious whether you feel like you’re purposefully moving away from pure electronics toward more hybrid situations. For instance, there were also the pieces for gamelan you did with Laurie Spiegel.

MFWell, until a few years ago everything I did was synthetic. I sometimes sampled drum machines for percussion sounds. But, generally speaking, most of the sounds were electronically generated and used synthesis rather than sampling. Recently, I’ve been working increasingly with performers and acoustic instruments; I guess there are a few reasons for this. Mainly, it’s just that I like the sound of some acoustic instruments. Like I say, I’ve been treating these just like synthesizers, and even working with people the way I would work with any other technical element—responding to what they do and how they behave.

I’m not working exclusively with acoustic materials—I still make things with synthesizers. It’s just that most of what I make now is for specific spatial environments, using lots of speakers, and it’s difficult to translate this to a stereo recording. One thing I never do is transform acoustic sound using processes other than basic editing. I would never add an effect to an instrument. But this also applies to my work with synthesizers: I tend to make changes to the sound using the synthesis algorithm itself, rather than chains of effects. 

AMFAre certain possibilities opened up in working with acoustic instruments, particularly acoustic players?

MFI’m more interested in the instrument than the skill of the performer. I’ve never really been interested in virtuosic performance, or ideas about embodying emotion, or musical gestures, etcetera. I focus on the sounds the instruments can make.

But, also, I really don’t like the kind of free improv approach to exploring or having a journey through the instruments’ sonic potential. I often have to tell people several times that I’m not interested in change or evolution when recording—I have to ask them to “just do this and do it for five minutes and don’t make any changes.” I ask them to do something as perfectly as possible: don’t aim for variations, aim for exact repetition. In this way, the inevitable variations that do emerge seem less about musical expression.

It’s also nice to work with people. It can be stressful and tiring, but meeting people always seems to take new directions that I had not previously envisaged. And it’s nice to change your goals when you encounter something unexpected.

Mark Fell’s INTRA is available from Boomkat Editions. His installation Protomusic#1 is active at Sage Gateshead in Gateshead, England on selected weekends through September 9, 2018.

Alec Mapes-Frances is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. His latest chapbook, New Lyrics, is forthcoming from Wendy’s Subway.

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