Mask Mirror: how does it work ?


Since I’ve often been asked to explain how does Mask Mirror work I decided to write down a few notes about it. Mask Mirror is an instrument, possibly a musical one, that deals with language. The core of this instrument contains thousands of fragments of language organized in “families” or categories. The members of those families have different sizes, the biggest ones are phrases made up by several words, while the smallest are phonetic particles, sometimes as small as tiny sound granules also organized by families or categories. Each key of my keyboard, corresponds to one of those categories. When I press the “singular nouns” key Mask Mirror says a singular noun. When I press the “plural nouns” key  Mask Mirror says one plural noun and so on. Just in regard to nouns there are hundreds of them in there and each one is a sound sample of my voice that has been pre recorded and stored inside the instrument.

What happens though is that each time I press the key called “plural nouns” I get a different one, at random. It could be shoes, clouds or activists or anything else among the hundreds of options that are stored in there. I have no way to predict it. And this is true for all the categories. So for example if press the key called “adjectives” I could get any random adjective that is already in there like affectionate for example. Right after I can press the “singular nouns” key to find out what is it that is affectionate. Maybe an affectionate dog, aunt, ice cream. In fact I have no way to predict what will come.

In total there are ca. 80 categories, the more “syntactic” ones are divided in three groups: English, Italian and Korean. The “phonetic” ones are all together and do not refer to a specific language. By “syntactic” categories I mean things like “nouns” – singular and plural –  “verbs” – transitive and intransitive – adjectives, adverbs, articles, conjunctions and so on. By “phonetic”categories I mean families or regions of sounds that are somehow close or in between certain vowels or consonants. If I press the key called “o-a” for example I will get a sound that is somehow in between o and a, if not plain o or plain a. Also in this case I have no way to predict what will come since the sound files will be chosen at random. The only thing I can be sure of is that it will be a sound somewhere in between a and o and not e or b or h or else. If you have been wondering what that weird diagram on my homepage is: that is the outline of all categories used by Mask Mirror in it’s current form (2013).

On  a slightly more nerdy level I can say that I programmed this instrument in a software called Max Msp, which on its turn runs inside another software called Ableton Live. If you look at my computer screen you’ll see the Ableton Live interface but the main job is done by Max that runs in the background. This system of categories is the linguistic core of the instrument but things can get more complicated – or more organic, depending on your taste – when I use the same keyboard at the same time to trigger a sampler and several granular engines chopping up and processing a library of vocal sounds. Materials range from clean and meaningful strings of words to completely a-semantic and chaotic clouds of utterances and voice noises.

Given this basic system, when I play with Mask Mirror I always improvise. I use both my voice and Mask Mirror – which also uses a recorded version of my voice – along each other.  I position a mono loudspeaker close to me, roughly at the same height of my head as if it were a second mouth and balance the real and the recorded voices in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish one from the other. Sometimes the two of them integrate into each other giving place to a coherent narration. Other times it is rather a conversation or even a fight. There are many, almost infinite, possibilities of interaction between me and the instrument.

The best condition for me to play with Mask Mirror is that of emptying my head as much as I can before a show and then to start saying the first things that come to my mind. This is just the beginning. I then keep going from there trying to be open that whatever may come or develop. I used to think about Mask Mirror as an instrument that I play along with my voice but now I sometimes think that it is Mask Mirror that plays me or whatever thing inside of me that could be roughly called language. By giving little kicks of randomness it activates other ways to use, play, reconstruct or deconstruct my linguistic abilities. In other words I could also say that Mask Mirror is a drug that I take in order to make my linguistic abilities more malleable up to the point where I can play with them as if they were a musical instrument.

Those of you that have tried meditating may have experienced how hard it could be to try emptying the mind of all ideas.  This is something very difficult and tiring. Tiny new ideas keep popping up every second materializing out of nowhere. Sometimes this process is fast and new ideas are like drips of water falling onto a hot stone and instantly evaporating. But there are always new ones coming. Mask Mirror thrives on this property of the human mind and suggests a practice that we could call reverse meditation where we just grab the first linguistic elements that our mind offers to us and start making something with them.  In fact you or anyone else can alway think of something now and at any given time of awareness. Being able to say it or not is another story but this raw material is alway pouring out of the mind as if it were tap water and it is the stuff a Mask Mirror improvisations usually starts with.

Something I also get asked quite often is how did I come to the idea of building such a thing. The more articulate answer is that I have been shifting from being an instrumentalist and improviser – my first instrument was the soprano saxophone –  to becoming a composer and text-sound artist that very often uses language as a musical material. By shifting from one thing to the other I felt the urge to create a situation where I could benefit from the spontaneous and improvisational freedom that a musical instrument could give me while using my newly chosen materials : voice recordings and montages, interviews, conversations, misunderstandings, translations and – more broadly – sense. Also, by producing radio-art or text-sound pieces I often worked on intricate speech and voice edits both musical and narrative, and wondered if I would have ever been able to build a device allowing me  to do similar things in real time.
In a way the background of my abstract – and not always funny – stand up comedy shows is to be found in many solo concerts I have experienced and enjoyed by saxophonists like Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Anthony Braxton or John Butcher. The difference is that I use language, and language often (but not always) points at something else.

Another – more poetic – answer I sometimes give to this question is that once I had a dream. I know this sounds cheesy and pretentious but it actually happened: this dream was suggesting me to build a mask that had nothing to do with anything. In the sense that if someone can be masked as a pirate, as spiderman or as pinocchio and so on he or she could also be masked as nothing (or nothing specific)  and still be masked. After waking up I wondered what that mask could be and then after some times the idea of this instrument came about.

In certain ways Mask Mirror concerts can be a very psychological business. I am aware that a certain distance from the artwork should be ensured to avoid falling into some self indulgent ruminations. Still there’s no way for me to keep my emotional state away from the game.

What if MaskMirror asks you:

“How are you doing ?”

In a certain way it’s hard not to answer. Even if I am not supposed to say the truth all the time.
There are no rules really but just infinite possibilities and I cannot predict the direction it will take.

Sometimes story lines are short and get severed abruptly as if the god Mercury was shaking the house and the head. Other times stories take off and start developing on their own for a long time with the machine giving more and more serendipitous inputs. Other times again the narrative character gradually dissolves into a musical structure, or I break into song or I find myself peeling off layers of a complex and abstract musical texture until I remain alone, my un-amplified voice telling a simple story to the audience.

Sometimes the machine is perceived as something detached from me giving shape to segments of conversations with me like this one :

The hermit looks at me in the eyes and he said:
“At home”
“Yes, I am at home” and he says :
And I say: “I should go to Peru? Is that what you mean?”
“In six minutes”
“Oh my god.. that’s far away to go to Peru in six minutes! How can I do it ?”
“I should …??”
“I cannot be lazy and get to Peru in six minutes. It’s not possible. I mean if I have to get to Peru in six minutes I have to be everything else than…”

Other times me and the machine start developing a story together as if there would be just one narrator, as in this example :

Station met Peace and they got married. They moved inside a ruin, had sex and soon a child was born. They named the child Significance. One day Significance told Station and Peace: “Dear Parents, I was never able to figure out which one of you two is the mom and which one is the dad”.  Station’s answer was that “sometimes I’m the lady rather than the man”.  To which significance said, “right, that’s what I thought”. Significance moved out right after.

There are situations where the story lines become very fragmented, the language breaks down. Other times the phonetic part of the systems takes over and makes it hard to distinguish entire words in a more organic and noisy flow.

Most of times I perform alone with Mask Mirror but there’s a lot of other situations where I interact with other people. After all this dispositive is a good conversationalist. There’s been duo shows with fellow voice artists as Tomomi Adachi, Christian Kesten and Jennifer Walshe,  the typographer Indre Kilimaite, and most recently I started a collaboration with the the writer T’ae Yong Kim from Seoul. For this occasion I programmed a new module of the instrument with thousands of korean words and due to the fact that my skills in korean are limited I did enjoy the ambiguous situation of having a conversation with someone that speaks a language I don’t understand.

A few times Mask Mirror has been on the radio. The listener cannot see me and has really no clue on whether she or he is listening to me or to the machine. One of my favorite moments with Mask Mirror has been a phone-in show for Kunstradio in Wien where many listeners did call and conversed with Mask Mirror and with me at the same time. Here is a fragment of conversation with one of the listeners of that show :

– What do you think of your grandfather ?
– I have never seen him, I think he was a very important man, he was very beautiful, and he was, I don’t know …
– In an enchanted forest
– What ?
– You can go on
– Are we speaking about an enchanted forest ?
– No, I wanted to hear abut your grandfather
– Oh… I can tell you that my grandfather was, as I told you before, a very important man, just, he was born in the 19th century and he was with blond hair and blue eyes and mustaches, very tall, very elegant
– In Wien
– What ?
– Was he born in Wien ?
– No, no, he was italian
– Oh
– Yes, he was italian, he was born in a very beautiful town on the north of Italy, he was called, you know… Ercole was his name
– Ohh  Mh mh, In the train, yeah
– And, do you want to hear something about my grandmother ?
– No

Up to now you may have found very ambiguous and irritating the way I do not distinguish between music and language while describing Mask Mirror as a sort of musical instrument. Music and language are two very different things you may say, and you would have good reasons to say so. We listen to music with a different ear from the one we use by listening to language and our brain seems to switch between two completely heterogeneous perceptive modes by doing so. Still I play dumb and  pretend to ignore this confusion as if there were no difference, no separation at all.

There are many theoretical distinctions that can be made between language and music – as there are many that can be made in between composition and improvisation – and in one case as I in the other I prefer to leave the demarcation line as vague as possible and just avoid further discussions.

What am I in regard to Mask Mirror – you may ask –  ? A performer ? A composer ? A writer ? A sound poet ? A sound artist ?  The answer I give is simple and just one : I am a musician. And my material is language.

I hope that reading this notes will help in order to better understand how Mask Mirror functions and what I do or try to do with it.  I am nevertheless always available to explain or demonstrate this instrument in person when people ask it to me. Far from being a perfected language machine this is still a rudimentary and unfinished contraption and I am always very happy when other people can take some inspiration from it.

© Alessandro Bosetti, 2014.

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