Earlier this month, we highlighted VJ Manzo’s writing as part of a our book review series. That book Interactive Composition is just part of VJ’s writing output - and his work. I caught up with this busy author/teacher/performer to get a little more information on his recent exploits:
From earlier discussions, I know that you are a music teacher. Where have you taught, and where do you teach now?
I taught in a private K-12 school in NJ, and ran my own after-school music center for about three or four years, then taught at a variety of universities while I finished my graduate studies. Since 2012, I’ve been part of the full-time music faculty at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) where I teach courses in music technology.
It was during my time teaching K-12 music that I started building a collection of resources for implementing diatonic harmony in Max; something I called the Modal Object Library. However, the real connection between Max and my teaching came when I started using Max to explain musical concepts and make it easier for my students to perform and demonstrate those concepts. I began making lots of little patches that allowed my students to play scales, chords, progressions—whatever I was teaching that day—using accessible control interfaces like sensors, buttons, video game controllers, and so on, instead of traditional instruments. Of course, Max is great for this type of thing, so my classroom soon turned into a big interactive installation that I called the electro-acoustic musically interactive room, or EAMIR, where everything the students touched, like the floor tiles for example, made diatonic music through one big Max patch. It was great, and you couldn’t “not make music” in the room because there were even webcams around the room mapping motion to chords! I started putting standalones up on the EAMIR website for my students and their parents, and later other students and teachers, to use on their own computers.
In the Max community, you are probably best known as the author of several books. What led you to want to be a book author in addition to being a teacher?
My experiences using Max in my classroom gave me something to share with other music educators who were interested in incorporating technology in their classrooms. As I found, there was also a fair amount of interest from K-12 music teachers and music professors in the notion of creating new technology to facilitate their own creative projects, be they compositional, performance-related, educational, and so on. For this reason, I developed a software development kit, called the EAMIR SDK, that is essentially a bunch of bpatchers that, when connected, allowed people to make their own modular apps like this things I was doing with EAMIR. You could mix and match control interface modules, mapping modules, and other useful patches.
I was presenting at the College Music Society national conference in 2009 when my editor Norm Hirschy of Oxford University Press first expressed interest in me writing a book on Max. We decided that instead of an all-encompassing text on the use of Max for every conceivable idea under the sun, we should focus the book on using Max to develop projects that facilitate composition, performance, instruction, and research. I wanted to give lots of example patches and other resources through the book’s companion website that people could use as starting points. The result was Max/MSP/Jitter for Music, which is now in press for the second edition, updated for Max 7, ready to be released this summer. Some readers have referred to the book as “using Max to teach music [to others], and music to teach Max [to the reader]”. I am still honored and humbled to have been asked to create a resource for people who were interested in using Max in this manner, and continue to appreciate the feedback I’ve received from Max users in the community.
I’ve always admired professionals that did interesting work and were also able to explain, in some terms, some of the techniques and mechanics behind what they did; not that it's a requisite, but it's valuable information. For example, I appreciate composers who can write compelling music and are also able to speak about how they worked through some non-idiomatic passage or a tricky modulation. Sometimes, as musicians, we can romanticize our creative process and lead people to believe that all of our ideas descend from Mt. Sinai fully conceptualized and ready for the masses. For me, that’s not the case; if I have some musical idea that I’m working on, it means I need to overcome the obstacles when they arise until the piece is finished. The notion of creating musical ideas out of nothing is a little strange, admittedly, and the truth is that for lots of people, the process is intuitive. However, composition, in general, isn't completely mysterious.
When I started working with Max to make interactive compositions, I started discovering some things about my own processes that I considered to be “good practices” or, at least, “good starting points” that I felt were worth sharing with people who were just getting into Max. These were things that I primarily learned just by virtue of writing a lot of patches, lots of music, and troubleshooting my own problems. To me, it’s the same mindset that resulted in general rules about voice leading, or good ensemble writing. We don't keep that information secretive. Instead, we look at composers that do interesting work, recognize things that work in their music, and generate some discussion and vocabulary to describe what they did.
My book Interactive Composition, co-authored with Will Kuhn, combined this sentiment with other ideas about music composition and stylistic nuances. Each chapter of the book has some prep work where we make the compositional/performance tools for a given musical style through Max for Live, and then discuss characteristic compositional ideas citing musical examples from established artists like Brian Eno, Trent Reznor, and Skrillex, among others. Like Max/MSP/Jitter for Music, we also work through projects together in each chapter in a step-by-step fashion, and give lots of extra example projects through the book’s companion website.
How do you find that Max helps in your teaching practice.
I use Max or something I’ve made in Max almost every time I teach. I use Max for everything—even non-musical things like randomly assigning students to project groups, organizing lengthy written narrative (in subpatcher nodes!), and making figures and diagrams. In fact, I used to use Max to synchronize and control the lights and water of my tortoise’s habitat! If I had only one program to use when I teach, it would be Max; if for no other reason, because when I build something step-by-step in front of my classes, I can explain why I’m putting each object into the patch and, by extension, explain its unique function in the overall system. As an instructor, it’s helpful for me to build patches live in front of my students in order to keep the concepts fresh in my mind, and to make sure that I don’t skip steps or move through important topics too quickly.
I used to teach music theory using all sorts of paper handouts with charts and figures, and, for some students, the abstract concepts just weren’t getting through. With Max, however, I was able to make simple apps that visualized and demonstrated how certain scales, for example, yielded certain types of chord sonorities and pointed to various tonal centers; much more interactive than a paper handout! With a little effort, I could then demo the concept during a lecture, and allow students to interact with the standalone app on their own. That's not even mentioning the use of Max when designing research experiments and instruments where a PI may need a specialized piece of software to measure very specific things. In that capacity, I've never had a situation where I couldn't do what I wanted to do with Max.
Before I joined the faculty at WPI, I taught some “Intro to Music Technology” type courses at a few universities. Since Max worked so well for me as a teaching aid when I taught music concepts, I began developing little patches to help me teach “music tech” concepts like synthesis, masking, effects, and so on. In 2013, when I was writing the textbook Foundations of Music Technology, it was obvious to me that the companion software should include all of those classroom-tested Max patches; and it does!
Instead of having to open up some DAW or third-party app to describe, for example, ADSR envelopes, I just load up the FMT app I made in Max and I’ve got an interactive example right there. My editor for that book, Richard Carlin, is thrilled that Oxford doesn’t have to license some third-party app with the book, and we’re both happy that the lessons discussed in each chapter are “software-agnostic”, so to speak; you can use this book to learn music technology concepts using the FMT app as an accompaniment to the text, and then open the DAW of your choice with the concept having already been explained and experienced. There’s a course I developed at WPI called Foundations of Music Technology, and guess what software I use during my lectures? It’s so much easier for me than trying to demonstrate “arming the track for recording” in five or six different DAWs that the students in the class prefer.
In addition to using Max for teaching, how else do you use it? Are you an active performer?
Yes, I am an active performer and I use Max all the time on stage. In fact, before Max for Live existed, I used to perform for years from a Max app I wrote that hosted VSTs to process my live guitar and vocal input, and allowed me to trigger recorded loops with footswitches, and play chordal accompaniment with MIDI foot pedals. I’d do these specialized automated things with effects and processes in the studio, and then have no easy way of recreating them in a live situation, but, of course, Max made all of that possible.
Even now, if I’m performing with Max for Live and Live, I’m mostly using the Max side of things and just using Live for I/O and to host effects. Live provides many options for mapping controls to various devices, but Max for Live makes Live even more customizeable. For example, recently, I switched from Guitar Rig to Bias for my guitar amp simulation, so, now, I’ve got this channel strip of M4L devices that handle all of these automated actions from amp adjustments to toggling effects on and off. The beauty of Max programming is that all of those little actions can then be organized and mapped to a little footpedal. In the early 2000s, when I first decided that I was tired of lugging my 4x12 halfstack to gigs and that I was ready for a more compact performance setup, I daydreamed of having a whole rig in software. Now, I load up a Live session and I’m all ready to go: I know exactly how my programming works, I know for the most part what it’s going to sound like through a PA because I’m going direct, and I don’t have to do nearly as much tap-dancing on guitar pedals as I once did!
For my interactive compositions, programming in Max is very convenient. I try to allow the performers I work with to do what they do best, which is performing their instrument, and put the technical burden on Max, (which really means me!) in terms of processing data in the manner I want, and being consistent and easy to operate in a live setting. For example, last spring, I had a piece for solo electric guitar and computer called Delayed to Rest premiered. From the performer’s point of view, he simply needed to plug his instrument into an audio interface, and read from the score, pressing a small footswitch as indicated. On the other side of his audio cable, a Max patch did all of the processing of the live guitar input; it used the footswitch input to increment through a preset object that controlled the settings for a bunch of specialized delay effects I made. I used Max for Live and Live to prototype the patch during the compositional process, and later moved the M4L device content to its own standalone Max app once the score was finalized. That way, I could just give a standalone app to the performer and not have to worry about whether he had Live on his computer, or if we had the same version. That type of preparation has made soundchecks much easier for me, and doesn’t require performers to troubleshoot or do much of anything besides perform. Of course, some setups can become complicated in terms of microphones and monitoring and so on, but, in general, the stuff going on in Max can really be dummy-proofed if you take the time to dummy-proof it.
What do you think is the most important thing for a person to do if they decide they'd like to learn Max?
Have an idea in mind and dive right in. When I started using Max, I had no programming experience at all. The scale analysis stuff that I did with the Modal Object Library I had tried to do previously with Microsoft Excel…and it was a disaster! I had specific goals that I wanted to achieve and I divided and conquered larger, more complicated tasks into smaller achievable tasks. Then, I started to build a vocabulary of Max objects by way of reading the Help files, and soon starting making own little helper patches, which you can now do easily in Max with “snippets”, to save time. Those helper patches later became part of a larger library that I used and reused to make the EAMIR SDK, and they’re things I use all the time, so that I don’t have to rebuild the same patch every day.
When I first used Max, I thought, “What do you do with this thing?!”, and then I left it alone for a while. Then, I thought about my interests with composition, and the ways I was teaching, and then I had something I wanted Max to help accomplish. Now, when my students get stuck for an idea, I ask them to consider some audience that they care about, such as a family member, or a friend, or a student. Then, think about the types of experiences or activities that tend to “speak to them” or “move them” in some way; are you going to make them laugh, or “wow” them with some impressive technological effect or musical idea, or, perhaps, promote some social cause? Then, think about how you can facilitate that experience or activity, and how can you facilitate that idea using technology, and, specifically, Max?