Yannis Kyriakides on his piece “unmute”

sandris murins
25 composers
Published in
15 min readMay 13, 2024

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Read my interview with expanded music composer Yannis Kyriakides on his piece “unmute”. “unmute” was made in a collaboration with a choreographer Keren Levi as well as partly commissioned by Slagwerk Den Haag which is now called HIIIT. The idea for the piece was to work with sensors. The composer had previously done a piece that used video tracking and he wanted to explore that a bit more in a way of using the space, mapping the space as if it’s really a kind of a time thing in the score so that it’s possible to sort of track through sounds by moving through the space. The piece was created around 2010, so the composer was looking at the new technologies of what they can do beyond video tracking. The composer says that video tracking is great for some things, but for finer movement it sometimes has difficulty separating different people, different users. By searching for different technology, the team decided upon using motion sensors that are on the body. That was the way the idea was conceived and after that it was a matter of finding out how to translate that into a language that works for dance and also for music.

The text version of this interview was created by Armands Stefans Sargsuns.

How many participants were there?

In the piece there are five participants, so there are three dancers and two percussionists. Actually, let’s go back a bit. We realised that we can use these sensors on the hands and specifically we used these we found these ‘myo’ sensors the company of which went liquidated in the meantime. They made this beautiful sensor that also tracks muscle movement, but because it didn’t have the sort of commercial success that the kind of financial backers were after. They thought they would break through into the really corporate world and it didn’t really work there. In a sense it was too sophisticated for that. They sort of folded. A lot of these actual sensors were in the sort of secondhand market, but then you had to hack the software yourself and sort of make something usable with that.

Once we got that going we realised in a way the best way for us to use it was on the hands rather than on any other part of the body. And on one hand not two hands, sometimes people use it that way. We got this idea of having sort of a group of performers that were both, let’s say, musicians that were comfortable moving and dancers that could use their ears, because in a kind of multidisciplinary project like that you have to find people who are comfortable in both of these media. From my point of view as the composer I really wanted dancers who could really hear what’s going on and it’s not as easy as you think. If you write something that’s got different layers, let’s say, you have three people and each one is controlling a different thing, you have to be able to know, “Oh, that’s my sound. I’m controlling that sound.” Casting it, you know, we had to really try and find people who could do that. Still, there were noticeable differences between dancers and musicians, sometimes not good and bad.

I find it also interesting how dancers responded to sound more intuitively, more, let’s say, physically. A musician might sort of listen to a sound and want to try and control it. They are sort of thinking about what they’re doing and listening to what they’re doing with the sound whereas the dancer might want to work on much larger gestures, so I find that quite interesting. I even found myself sometimes during rehearsal saying to saying to the musicians, “Do it how the dancers, how this dancer is doing it,” because they have sort of a slightly nonchalant approach to the sound, so they’re just letting the sound be as it is, but right focused on the their movement, I found these differences interesting. But it was not an easy process, because you had to firstly discover what’s possible, you know, with these things. Then my role as a composer was also a bit like an instrument maker, having to find the limits of the instrument, how and what it will control and constantly mapping it to the, let’s say, the movement characteristics of the people. For the performers themselves there was a lot of insecurity involved. “Oh, is this me? Why is it doing this? It’s not working.” You know, these kinds of things. But we had this kind of a mixed group, so three dancers and two like musicians-percussionists.

Watch full interview:

What was the main concept for the piece?

Once we established kind of the form we wanted to work on, the image came to the mind of this idea of the performers actually speaking with their hands, because I like the idea of using all the sounds in the piece or most of the sounds in a piece related to the human voice or to the voice and that the hand became the only way of speaking. That’s why this whole idea of mute-unmute and I think the original title was “Mute Songs” and then somehow it became “unmute”. It was funny, because that whole word for us was quite strange until Covid came. I mean Covid was a few years after and then we’re so used to this, “Oh, unmute yourself, mute yourself” on Zoom calls and things. It was this idea where the hands are really speaking.

Then we sort of got a bit into this world of languages and what could be a language. I mean, I, myself, have been interested in this idea of the language and music or is musical language? Was language originally music? They were these kinds of ideas and they surface in the piece in the sense that we wanted to, let’s say, play on in the gray areas between what could be music, what could be thought of as communication. You know, like is the, let’s say, metaphor or idea we’re creating on stage the idea of people not having found themselves, not being able to speak, communicating with these uh with these gestures which are being translated into sounds. There were a lot of these kinds of ideas within the piece.

Then we got to the idea of languages which have been extinct or close to extinction or endangered, you know, and then the whole environmental aspect of how quickly languages are being lost partly through technology, partly through modern society, environmental reasons and many reasons actually.

What is the main message of the piece?

I think it’s this idea of the need to communicate something whether it’s with words, whether it’s with gestures, whether it’s with sounds and I feel that’s the kind of emotional feeling you get watching the piece. It’s this extraordinary length that’s been taken to utter something and I think that’s what I also was fascinated by. On one hand, it could be quite a heavy subject in the sense that it’s about the loss of ability to communicate what we lose in the world, but there’s also playfulness in it too, like finding new ways to communicate.

Watch “unmute” trailer:

What was the main sensorial experience you wanted to create?

In the first place, as I said, it was kind of a difficult, but interesting rehearsal process, because it’s such a beautiful, let’s say, intersection between this kind of sound and movement. The fact that you’re moving and your movement is creating the sound it’s like you think to yourself, “Ah, shouldn’t dance always be like this?” There was something so intertwined and organic about that whole process so for the performers there’s this kind of immediacy of that which was so beautiful to work with. I wanted some of that to communicate obviously to the audience that the audience understands very quickly that there is no difference between the kind of movement, playing and that it’s all connected.

Also, what we tried and did in the performance from a sensorial point of view is we have a quad-like, let’s say, surround sound setup so that you also sense the movement of the sound as the often with on this horizontal plane, let’s say, around the body. I would map that sometimes in a spatial way so that when a dancer moves from left to right or back to front you sense it in how the sound is moving in the space as if the dancer is like, let’s say, shoving the sound waves from one place to another. That was also really interesting to try and create that sort of sensorial experience also for the audience. It’s a kind of interaction that is really for the performers, but I wanted to communicate to the audience as well.

What’s funny is that we talk about this, of course, playing an instrument is also moving your body and creating sound in some way, but this sort of removal of both like, well, actually that’s not true, because we did have instruments in the piece we have these metal plates which are hanging and they are used as kind of sound creation objects as well. The sound is manipulated by processing that sound, but this is kind of a very primal way of representing sound in a way with these plates. But the way that this is a traditional instrument is dislocated, it’s removed from the body, so all the musicians and the dancers are playing air instruments in a sense. It kind of focuses that fact on the relation between gesture and sound.

How long was the piece?

It’s about an hour. Actually it started very long, I think the first version was about 80 minutes, because we wanted things to be very slow and we got a bit of negative feedback from the first

audience critics, partly because we were performing in really traditional dance festivals and they didn’t really get it. Then the piece developed and we thought, “Okay, we made it a bit more compact.” I think maybe it’s about 50 to 60 minutes, but maybe it is shorter, I’m not sure.

Was there some kind of dramaturgy in the piece?

Yes, there is. In a way the piece has several scenes in it and the scenes are connected, but I can summarise it like this. In the beginning of the piece it’s sort of this empty landscape, we see these metal sheets, the performers come from the audience as if you know they’re part part of the audience that come onto the stage and then as if they’re finding themselves in this kind of alienating situation where speech is only possible with the hand gestures.

Gradually there’s more and more connection between the dancers that there are these beautiful parts where there’s a lot of contact, also, movement between them. They’re pulling each other and sounds are morphing by how they’re pulling each other. Eventually one by one these metal sheets are lowered and taken away. There is something tragic about that, because somehow throughout the piece you connect the idea of these lost languages with these plates being gradually removed one by one. By the end of the piece one of the percussionists Mariana, one of the last things that happens is she sings a song, so it’s the first time we hear a voice being real voice. The song is actually a song I wrote based on a lost language from the Pacific somewhere that was lost in the 19th century. I made a kind of poem using the words that have been left you know from there, so she sings this song and you could say this meaning about the loss of language is sort of heightened in the dramaturgy a bit.

What was the process of composing the piece?

What I did at first took a month or two, so I wrote some sketches of things. This is often how I compose especially bigger pieces. I might write and test little things, test scenes and there was one thing writing the actual kind of sounds that I wanted and the other thing mapping them on the bodies and getting the performers to play them. That was harder to find and for that I really needed to be in the studio. I mean, I obviously had these sensors in my studio and I was trying them out, but then to communicate that, to rehearse started was a complicated process. I had to be in the rehearsals a lot, most of the time, in fact, which isn’t very common for me, because in these sort of dance or theatre pieces I prefer to just write the music and then come every now and then to the rehearsal. I was there quite a lot tweaking everything, dealing with all the computer stuff. It took about three to four months to get everything done and changing a lot up to the last minute.

I’m still really excited about the project, because of the feeling I remember. As I said, even if it was a very difficult process I had the feeling that we managed to make something totally new that neither of us, the choreographer nor me, had ever created. It was kind of an outside- the-comfort-zone creative experience, but we managed to make something really interdisciplinary which I was still excited about. Actually I did one piece after that with this idea. It is called “Hands”, but I still feel as though it’s something I want to use again. I want to use this kind of technology, see and take it a bit further somehow.

What kind of software did you use?

I used a sensor and the sensor had about 15 data points, so it tracks each of the muscles of the

fingers and it also tracks how much you are, let’s say, stressing the muscle. Then there’s the X, Y, Z position and there’s an accelerometer. All of these data points, especially the accelerometers, you can put like a threshold, like triggers, so you can turn these things into triggers or you can turn things into like just zero to one kind of track trackers. I converted everything to MIDI, in fact. The way we used it is kind of complicated, because we had five of them as most computers can only take one or two Bluetooth inputs from the ‘myo’ sensors. We got the Bluetooth protocol through three raspberry pies, so we had a box of these raspberry pies on the stage picking up all the Bluetooth data and that was good. It was also close to the dancers. Then we sent all the data to a computer running touch designer. That’s because the person I was working with, Darien Brito, that’s the program he likes working with a lot. You can do it with Macs also, but it’s basically just organising all the data, mapping all the data, so he made some very nice software for basically mapping each of these data points and being able to record the data as well in order to reuse later. Once we mapped the data, we sent it as MIDI to this sound processing system called KEMA which is this software designed by Symbolic Sound in America. It’s basically a hardware unit called Pakarana, so it’s basically a computer which does all the sound processing. Actually we had three types of software — we had the raspberry pies, we had a Mac doing all the touch designer stuff and then sending to KEMA which did all the sound processing. We had five metal plates, each with a microphone in the back and sometimes I would use the sound of the metal plates and process it with hand gestures. Other than that it was mostly all like samples and also at the end processed voice, but mostly samples and voice samples that were being granulated, processed, synthesised.

What were the main compositional principles in terms of dealing with sound?

I used a lot of granulation in different ways. Granulation is when you sort of cut up a sound into these particles, move through the particles in different ways and colour the particles in different ways. But also resynthesis. Resynthesis is where I had, let’s say, voice samples, people speaking, sometimes recordings of these lost languages and they’re synthesised, they’re turned into sine waves, that’s the basic analysis. Then I could move through them, morph them in different ways. These are the two basic things I was doing — synthesis and granulation.

Can you imagine the same work without sensors?

That’s an interesting question, because then we go back to that more traditional way of thinking about how we see dancers moving and there is a relation between their movement and the sound, but they’re not creating it. They’re just thinking or responding to it. You could more or less do the same piece. but you would think, “Why are they mimicking the sound all the time?” It would be a strange idea. I think you get a kind of playback idea, I think it would be the same thing as seeing a band just playbacking a track, because they’re not only dancers, they’re also musicians.

Can you imagine the same piece only with the sound?

I often get asked that question in relation to multimedia pieces in general, for example, what would happen if you take away one medium? I get that asked about with my sort of audio visual pieces, with the tech stuff and also with other dance pieces like: can the piece exist on its own? I would say it could. You would get another thing from it and sometimes you might get something rewarding by just listening or just being in a performance, closing your eyes and just listening, but it wouldn’t be the same thing. For instance, this piece I thought about whether to release it as music only and I decided not to, because I decided that actually this piece really just really exists with this kind of moving element that you actually see and experience it. The question of what happens with multimedia works when you take away a medium is kind of interesting and sometimes it’s surprising. Sometimes you find something else.

How did the collaborations shape the piece?

It did quite a lot actually in this case, because in the beginning the choreographer was saying was saying, “Look Yannis you write what you want and I’ll change my movement language to play it,” and then I would say disagree and say, “You move exactly how you want to move and I’m going to map it to the music how I think would work.” It was always about finding this space in between where the movements that she sort of had in mind would make sense with the sounds, let’s say, the sound constellations that I had come up with. I could say that in some way she is also part composer in that way that she sort of shaped the way that the piece was played.

Speaking about the collaboration with the performers, there’s no rule book about how each instrument has to be played. I would watch, for instance, in one case I made a very subtle sound thing. A bit what I was talking about before, about moving the sound, but also changing a bit the sort of pitch as it moved. Then I came to the rehearsal and I saw one of the dancers was just swinging their hand going round and round, and round, and it was making an incredible sound. It wasn’t the sound that I thought they could do, but it was great. It’s them finding ways to also play the instrument that was also quite inspiring.

What would you suggest to other composers who would like to create a dance piece like this?

Good question, because I often find, let’s say, when musicians think about dance that it tends to be quite one-in-one. It’s like when musicians first start to think about other mediums it’s often like one-to-one connections and that’s not often the most interesting. I’m saying this for this piece that we’re talking about like “unmute”. It’s not necessarily a one-to-one relationship, there’s many sorts of things in between. What I mean by one-to-one is the way of translating, let’s say, musical ideas directly into movement. It’s better actually, I think, to get experience in the dance world. Like see how dancers and choreographers think or how theatre people think. Same with film. You don’t have to become an expert filmmaker or an expert choreographer, but you have to understand a bit the discourse and what’s going on in that artistic field to get a sort of sensitivity about what you can do as a composer. I think composers or coming from sound or music we have a specific sensibility and maybe even a specific way of dealing with time structures and the idea of composition. That actually gives us quite a good insight or depth into what can happen in a sort of dramaturgy in a sort of time based medium like dance. Often I find dancers or choreographers look up to composers in the way they can sort of think of larger scale form. But I think to deal with the sort of intricacies and the detail of actual movement you need to have some experiences with choreographers and dancers before you maybe have your own ideas about it.

source: https://www.kyriakides.com/unmute.html

Yannis Kyriakides is a contemporary music composer from Amsterdam, who is looking for ways to create multimedia artworks that problematise the act of listening. He is a founding member of the ensemble Maze, and teaches composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague. He has been featured composer at both Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2007 and November Music 2011. He won the International Gaudeamus Composition prize, French Qwartz Electronic music award, Dutch Toonzetter prize, International Rostrum of Composers Prize, and received an honorary mention in the Prix Ars Electronica.

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