Interactive Ball Games
Music, chance and games
The are already many outcomes of this project; the 2.4 meter interactive ball can be experienced as Sphere of Influence or subject to the vagaries of big ball crowd behaviour. There is also a net ball game -interactive Team Music, pedal organ loudspeaker driven ping pong in Feetball, and gravitational music caused by falling tennis balls in Piano Racket. And in 2016 The Sonic Ball was there in New York to open the new music venue National Sawdust.
The use of games of chance to determine musical content has fascinated composers as different as Mozart in his Musikalisches Würfelspiel, Stravinsky in his stage works based on card games (also his neo-classical wind Octet of 1923), Cage throughout his entire career, and John Zorn in his 'game pieces' (which are in essence structures for improvisers). Richard Strauss spent much of his time playing skat (not improvised jazz vocals but a version of the card game whist); Schoenberg and Britten were very keen on tennis; Prokofiev was a chess master; Mozart was often to be found at the billiard table; Percy Grainger was outstanding at Badminton and possibly the first recorded jogger - sometimes running from concert to concert (once accompanied by 100 Zulu warriors) and even running from stage to back of concert hall and back again, when he had too many bars tacet in a blockbuster piano concerto.
Outside of western music of course, most societies have had their practice of music integrally linked to every ceremonial necessity of their social activities - from birth to death. Also, in many non-western cultures the idea of music without physical movement (dance) would have seemed strange, if not perverse.
Functional music, cultural replacement
In Australia, we live in a country that has the oldest surviving practice of gebrauchsmusik - it is only 50 years since the chief elder of many Aboriginal groups still knew how to sing into existence every significant animate and inanimate object, the keys to survival. It is unlikely that such sophisticated and rich cultures of aurality will ever exist again. But anybody who has ever witnessed an Aboriginal Australian Rules tournament in the Northern Territory will know that 'footie' has gone some way to filling the physical (if not the spiritual) cultural void left by whitefella destruction. This game may have been invented by Victorians, but the Aborigines of the north have seized it with both hands and feet and made it their own. If ballet was this good, I'd go every night. Unfortunately it is for blokes only; it also (sadly) has no music. The women have to make do with basketball or must stick with painting; but there is cause for optimism, painting is still often accompanied by song.
What is it about the ball?
A ball flying through space has an inherent mystery; it replicates our lonely and insecure position in the universe. Any young child seems to recognise the universality and truth of the ball. It's global. All children, even those who show little interest in games or sport, respond to this user-friendly object. Add the random qualities of the oval ball to our philosophical observation, and we approach notions of twentieth century physics - the Uncertainty Principle and Quantum Mechanics. The oval ball may adhere to Newtonian gravity, but its chance bounce-ability gives lie to Einstein's own belief that 'God does not play dice with the Universe'. To football fans the ball verges on being a sacred object; the ball game - a religious rite. Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of the Liverpool soccer club, was once asked if football was a matter of life and death. 'No' he said, 'it's more important than that'.
New musical forms
A casual listen to the programmes of concert hall music, jazz festivals, rock spectacles, or other mainstream genres in 2005 will inform you that very little has changed in the way that most music is structured. There seem to be very few new forms for music (content is an equally unadventurous story, but let's not go there). In classical music, they still haven't got over the sonata form; in jazz they still unthinkingly play the head, the solos, and the head again. In electronic dance music, there is no form; you basically switch it on, mix it with something else, then switch it off again at the end (if you're lucky). Most team games in sport provide a set of fixed macro and mobile structures that can be utilised as a formal basis for sonic compositions. A composition can utilise the basic parameters and agreed dimensions of place, time and space, to notions of technique, base strategy, flexible game plans, sportsmanship, or fooling your opponents (theatre?). All the codes of team games such as football, volleyball, basketball, and netball have the adaptive potential for setting up musical structures with satisfying yet unknown sonic outcomes - in fact I am suggesting that the practice of sport is akin to many methods of group music making such as Gamelan or the antiphonal singing that grew out of the European Renaissance. In the interactive badminton game PERKS, I thought that it would be enough just to have two adequate badminton players simulating the game. As it turned out, the best musical result was achieved by the best players (both in technique and commitment) - faking it wasn't possible.
The ball project
The project will consist of a series of compositions utilising the structures of team sports (such as netball and quadrugby - otherwise known as murderball) and incorporating at least four custom made balls (an Australian Rules football; a Volley ball or Net ball; a huge 3 metre plus ball for a gallery space; a small kindergarten friendly ball). The balls will be fitted with pressure sensors and accelerometers providing continuous controller data streams via radiophonic transmission for interactive software driving audio and visual content. Some games will generate visual and text commentary on the nature of competition and tribalism, and be accompanied by string quartet obligato. Other games will function on an abstract level, concentrating very much on the essence of what it is that makes the ball such a powerful object and icon in our culture. The music generated by the ball will include original composition for sampled choir (The Song Company), the sounds of the body, physical exertion, and the sounds of electronic transmission. A composition for violin and juggler, using the same interactive ball technology, is also planned. This, I hasten to add, is not an exercise in touchy-feely therapy but the rigorous development of a hybrid art form.
A short history of ball games
The Meso-American ball game Pok-A-Tok has been around since 3000 BC; players used their elbows, knees and hips to get a small rubber ball through a hoop. Being an ersatz war situation (like most ball games since), the losers were often summarily executed. In North America, the Indians had their own version of soccer called Pasuckuakohowog. When the British turned up in the 1600s, they noticed similarities to their own crazed inter-town ball tournaments (which often lasted several days). The pitch could be over a mile long, the teams consisted of as many players as possible, the ball or bladder was stuffed with anything animal or vegetable - including body parts of a recent enemy (with grass as the ubiquitous filler), and the games were always extremely violent affairs. The Chinese can also lay claim to the origins of soccer. Around the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, during the Han Dynasty, the army trained by kicking a ball into a smallish net. Almost everyone, including the Greeks and Romans it seems, had their ball games.
The Age of Enlightenment sowed the seeds of humanity's salvation in giving us most of the useful ideas that we associate with a modern rounded society - a franchised democracy, rational behaviour, social equality, wonder at (as opposed to ruling over) the natural world. However it couldn't contain the grab for empire and the pathological exploitation of natural resources - which continues unabated. The Enlightenment has also not prevented the recent backward summersault to about the 12th century as our species' insecurity and evermore desperate plight on our little planet is highlighted in the current burst of reactionary religiosity.
The moon, the earth would be balls in existence and travelling through space whether we were here to observe them or not. Unlike most of our cultural language-dependent notions like money, democracy, religion, etc - playing with a ball-like object could well have existed before language. It is an ontological artefact like none other whether it be a rolling stone or a pig's bladder. After all a wild dog will perceive a moving ball as prey and play with it without understanding the rules of either physics or soccer. Once set in motion, a ball object seems to take on a life of its own. For all intensions and purposes, in the eyes of the wild dog, the ball is alive. The domestic dog can be trained to fetch the ball. But no dog, domestic or wild, can understand what a goal or a try is. Nor does an animal understand that our continued existence on this small finite ball is tenuous - we should however.
Blow the whistle.
Metaphors of music
Music as food, or politics as music, abound throughout literature, but a spontaneous look through the sports pages of The Guardian and the culture pages of The New York Times a few years ago revealed the following:
'For the first 45 minutes, they could find no way through the Hammer's defence; Dicks, often at walking pace, conducting the orchestra with the Croat, Pilic, as leading violinist. Only Carbone looked to have the wit to break the tempo. West Ham's game was too fancy for its own good at times; Dicks would play the 1812 Overture, but a minuet through midfield seems to be Harry Redknapp's preferred melody and, on this evidence, they don't play it well enough.'
'The program for Saturday night's Alice Tully Hall concert described the 'most distinguishing features' of The Double Tenth Junior Hight School in Taichung, Taiwan, as 'the experimental music class and female volleyball team'. The place must therefore be positively jumping with experimental music, and has to be a major force on the Taiwan volleyball circuit, since its orchestra - which were the point of this concert - was most engaging.'
The big question
Why is the ball round? I offer some comments from the great, the good and the other:
Plato: to support the city state and its common purpose.
Darwin: after millions of years of the indeterminately shaped ball, a chance mutation occurred (possibly, I would suggest, on the southern slopes) and, aided by gravitational forces, the superiority of the round over the indeterminate or even square ball became obvious to all hunters and gatherers alike.
Karl Marx: with the codifying of ball games and the limiting of the size and shape of the ball, the British ruling class has seized control of the means of production over the masses. The referee is an instrument of bourgeois oppression and should be overthrown at the earliest opportunity.
Werner Heisenberg: if the ball achieves a certain acceleration, it becomes impossible to say where it actually is on the field of play; somewhat akin to the familiar 'spot the ball' competitions in your local newspaper.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: the 'roundness' is actually encoded into the object 'ball' and can only be perceived when circumstances cause the actualisation of the potential as through the action of 'kicking'. Otherwise it is impossible to say that the ball is indeed 'round'.
Adolf Hitler: unfortunately for the world, I only had one.
Einstein: depending on where you are making your observations, the flight of the ball is curved, thus ipso facto proving my theories on the nature of time, the curvature of space, and the technique required to hit free kicks over 'the wall' in soccer.
Machiavelli: the ball, being the most perfected of shapes, is viewed with admiration and awe by the people. Those invested with authority by the Prince, command their subjects to keep their eyes on the ball at all times; nothing else should be allowed to confuse their attention. By such a method is the prince's stately power maintained.
Picasso: the essence of ball is the cube.
Jean Baudrillard: the ball is an udder that has been milked dry of meaning by people like me. Let's face it, the only real ball is one that appears on television.
Northern Aboriginal Lands Council: the boomerang came first.
The Ball Project is supported in a two year fellowship (2006/7) by The Australia Council, and with generous help from STEIM, Amsterdam.