Christina Lessiak met composer and researcher Artemi-Maria Gioti at the Institute for Electronic Music (IEM) of the University of Music and Performing Arts (KUG) in Graz. Artemi studied at the conservatory for many years and holds a bachelor’s degree in Composition from the University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki/Greece and a master’s degree in Composition-Computer Music from the KUG. Currently she is pursuing her doctoral degree at the IEM.
Christina Lessiak: How did you come to be a composer and artistic researcher?
Artemi-Maria Gioti: I guess my work always had a research component, even when I was not consciously doing artistic research. I am always trying to explore something new in my work and it starts from a concept that I want to examine, which then turns into music. The leap into artistic research was quite easy because I was already working on a conceptual level, examining different research questions in each piece.
Can you give an example of such a concept?
Currently I am the principle investigator of the research project “Inter_agency” (https://interagency.iem.at/) hosted by the IEM. We investigate artificial intelligence from an artistic, or, more precisely, compositional perspective. Research in music AI is usually not done by composers, so we try to explore new questions that kind of push what is possible at the moment or what we have done in the past. I am trying to see in what ways AI can help in developing new compositional concepts and practices. During performances, for example, I have no control over the electronics, which means that everything is left to the interaction between the musician and the computer. This also means that the form of the piece is not fixed, but dynamic. A lot of the creative decision making is left to the musician and to the machine. As a composer, you are not composing sequences of sounds anymore, but behaviors.
What musical piece are you working on at the moment?
I am currently training a Machine Learning algorithm to predict my aesthetic preferences, by feeding it with recorded sounds which I have evaluated based on my subjective preferences. The idea is then to develop a software agent that has an aesthetic bias or aesthetic preferences and when it interacts with the musician it only responds to the things that it finds musically intriguing.
That might generate the question: Who is the author of the piece then?
The musicians and the computer are in a way co-creators, in the sense that each musician will make something else out of the piece. At the same time, I am trying to balance this with my authorial responsibility. It is not improvisation of course. It is a different type of composition where musicians have a free space to experiment with, but this space is defined by me. I am trying to compose pieces that will always sound the way I intended them to sound, even though different versions will vary significantly from each other. I am looking at ways to balance this compositional control and the free decision making of the musicians and the computer.
How is your working process with musicians?
There are certain clichés about what composers and musicians are expected to do. When I start working with a musician I have not worked with before, we immediately run into those clichés. I had a work session with some musicians recently and the first thing they asked me was „How do you want this to sound like?“ and „How do you want me to do this?“. This shows that at first, musicians want to deliver what you imagined. And that is really nice of them, but it does not really fit this concept. We start from there, then I explain the piece to the musicians, and they try it out a few times. Once the musicians are more familiar with the piece, they start to enjoy the freedom of doing different things or playing the piece differently every time. Towards the end of the rehearsal process they stop asking, they do not care anymore, they do their own thing. I have noticed this as a pattern in my collaborations with musicians.
Did such a collaboration process ever fail?
I cannot say it has failed. Musicians seem to take more freedom throughout the process. And this is actually good because they are more engaged. Especially when I am doing recording sessions, which involves recording the same piece many times until you have a good take, it just keeps getting better and better at every take, because they get to know it.
Do you have any role models, or musicians and composers who you relate to and who inspire you?
I am working in computer music, so it is particularly hard to find female role models. But I would say a very interesting composer is Pauline Oliveros, although I am particularly inspired by her nonelectronic works. I also like the work of John Cage. It is hard to single out one person because you appreciate certain aspects of the work of many people.
What would you say if I just asked you what kind of music it is that you are composing?
I do not necessarily like labels. I do not think I would put any label on my music. I think putting labels can be problematic.
Do you have a lot of international artistic networks?
Well, I think most artistic networks are international. I am involved in different things. I love to tour with my colleague Visda Goudarzi, who lives in Chicago. We perform anywhere in the world at this point. And I am also involved in an artist collective which is based in Thessaloniki and consisting of composers, musicians and visual artists.
How does this international collective work?
This is sort of an artist curator thing. We try to curate events or concerts with each other’s works. On our website meta-ksi.com you can find out about our ongoing projects.
Is there any music of yours that one can listen to online?
Yes, there are several videos I have produced. I find it more interesting to produce videos than audio recordings at this point for several reasons. I feel that a lot of the interaction that takes place in my pieces cannot be conveyed just by audio. And I am also trying, as much as I can, to do recordings of pieces by different musicians. For me it is important to observe how different musicians interpret these works because there is a lot of room for interpretation. In a recent piece of mine for piano and double bass called “Converge/Diverge”, the musicians can choose to play in convergence with each other, this means they play very similar sound material, or in divergence, which means that they play very different sound material, or anywhere in between, which I call a negotiation. The computer tries to track, or to understand, when the musicians are converging or diverging. Based on that it triggers different interaction scenarios, different sound responses. In this piece, a lot happens through visual communication between the musicians. It is not predetermined when they converge or when they diverge. It is a dynamic form.
What is the goal of your current project here at the IEM? Is there any at all?
There is no specific goal. I am just hoping to explore as many different applications of artificial intelligence as I can and just do something new every time, which I think is also a purpose of research. It is not about doing the same thing and perfecting it. It is about exploring new territories and trying to be a bit more adventurous.
What are other territories you would like to dive into?
What is becoming more and more interesting to me is looking at creativity as a social process and art as interaction, the way I work with musicians and bringing their decision making into the process of the performance, and, of course, working very closely with them in order to develop a piece in the first place. In the end, the pieces are of course a product of both our contributions. I provide the concept and the general space of possibilities for the musicians to experiment with. But also, their decisions during the performance matter a lot. It is about sharing creative responsibility with others. I am also currently working on a project called “Collaborative Electroacoustic Composition with Intelligent Agents. “ Together with my colleague, Kosmas Giannoutakis, we examine collaborative composition. In this project we have five experienced electroacoustic music composers and we also use machine-learning. They will all work together to produce one piece of electroacoustic music. I am exploring alternative forms of authorship by observing how works of art can emerge through collaboration like this.
What do you think about authorship in your compositions? Does one think about it differently when working in collaborations? Is it obsolete?
If you take authorship completely out of the way, well, then you have improvisation basically. In an improvisation, musicians don’t need a composer to tell them what to do. But I think in that way you lose the expertise of the composers, who have been training to do this their whole life. I like to bring together people with different expertise and make them work together. I am doing my work as a composer, but also letting the musicians be creative in the process of interpretation instead of just being concerned with accuracy and how they are going to play what‘s written in the score as perfectly as possible.
Maybe it is a difference between viewing the musician as a means to an end, like a tool, that shall accomplish what you think of and acknowledging that this person is not neutral but does something on his/her own.
That is a very good point. Nowadays, if you want to have a composition that is perfectly fixed, you can work with computers to accomplish that. This is what electroacoustic composers do, and it is fine. Then you can really have everything where you want it to be. But if you are going to work with a human, why not let them contribute to this through their own creativity and their own expertise and the experience and training they have as musicians? And, of course, let them bring their own subjective interpretation into it. This is why I like to work with good improvisers. But I am not only interested in composer-performer collaboration, but also composer-composer collaboration, which is not all that common even today.
You mean collaborations of composers?
Yes, people composing together. This collaborative electroacoustic composition project is also looking at this aspect, because that does not happen a lot. And there you also have issues with authorship because composers are used to doing things the way they like them. But when you have to work with others, you have to deal with different aesthetics. We want to know if a collective identity will emerge through this process or not and how this is going to work. I think it is a fascinating exercise for a composer to adapt to other people’s material in a composition. They must negotiate, and this is not something that traditionally trained composers are used to, because it is really a one-person-job. That is how we are trained to do that. So, this is very new to them, and especially when they are put together with people that they do not know. In this project, we had a call and selected the composers. It is very interesting to observe their interaction and to see how this network will evolve its own aesthetics in the end.
Were you taught to compose alone as a student?
I do not remember doing anything collaborative. But I think it is important for training and it is important for young composers to develop their own voice and to have their own aesthetics. We are not proposing collaborative composing as the only way to do this, but as an alternative way to think about music making. I think we learn a lot when we work with others, we learn a lot about ourselves, and also we learn to adapt and think in new ways
Thank you very much for the interview!