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Controller is a system for improvisation for laptop quartet which examines the political dynamics of collective computer improvisation. Laptop ensemble composition provides many possibilities for facilitating democratic interactions among performers and many network music pieces deal with shared sound spaces or shared controllers in order to facilitate collective action. Controller comments on this democratic potential by providing an interface which varies during performance to vary the level of control of participants. The work brings to the foreground for performers and audience the complex underlying group dynamics of interaction, with an ongoing negotiation of ‘who controls what’. The piece creates musical structure out of shifting group dynamics, with political action at the forefront of the compositional design.

The idea behind the piece was to design a networked interface for group improvisation, where performers’ actions are mediated by a central control mechanism which modifies their ability to contribute to a group performance.

The performers are presented with a seemingly consensus based situation by means of (potentially) identical GUIs which control a both shared sound space and the social structures within the group.However this group action is subverted by the mediating control mechanism which modifies throughout the piece the performers’ abilities to contribute to both the sound and social aspects of the piece by means of changing the visibility of elements of the GUI.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 16.01.51

Performance interface in 3 different states.

Interface Design

Controller consists of a simple interface on each performer’s laptop. The interface is used to send control values over the network to set parameter values of a shared sound space. The interfaces are linked over the network in such a way that changing the setting of an interface element on one laptop changes the setting accordingly on all other laptops.

The interface itself consists of three basic types of control: sliders which can be used to control elements of the shared sound space; buttons which switch on and off the sliders of other performers; and knobs which effect the number of control data messages per second sent from a player’s slider to control the shared sound space.


The structure of the performance is shaped by setting the visibility of interface elements for each of the performers through a combination of ‘random’ allocation and ‘special events’. Any one performance always follows the same basic structure of beginning with allocating each player just a small number of sliders, to increasing the number of sliders and rate of change of the allocation of interface elements. Buttons and knobs allowing performers to interact with the social structures appear in the second half of the piece.

Interaction with Sound

The shared sound space which is controlled by the interface is made up of several ‘sound scenes’ which can be crossfaded between using slider 1. Across the sound scenes a combination of both simple and complex mapping of control to parameters is used. For instance one sound scene has very direct correlations between sound and controller and another has very abstract correlations whereby the total sound output is dependent on the cumulative positions of several sliders.

The varying levels of complexity of controlling sounds is designed to require varying levels of team work in order to influence the sound space. In the directly correlated sound scenes one player moving one slider can change the overall sound output, but in the more complex scenes there may need to be some coordination of slider movements between players to have any effect on the sound.

An audience graphic gives audience members an overview of all performers’ interactions with their interfaces.

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Audience visual showing overview of current states of performer interfaces.



The score for Controller can be downloaded here: Controller_score

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