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Gaudeamus Award 2019 Nominee

Scott Rubin

After having spent several years studying psychology and music composition, Chicago-based young music pioneer Scott Rubin (1989) has focused his work towards innovative multidisciplinary performances with dancers and motion sensors.

“I’m not really interested in writing music just for musicians at the moment,” Rubin states early on in our interview. Looking at his recent work, this doesn’t come as a shock: apart from an isolated string quartet from last year, all his works from the last years have involved dancers. For Rubin, music and physical movement are inseparable: “I’m fascinated by bodies and how they communicate. When I was little, I practiced martial arts for 8 years. Now I’ve been swing dancing for the past 11 years. I grew up playing viola in orchestras and I always saw conductors as abstract dancers who dance proactively to create music. Unlike the rest of us who normally dance reactively to music. These experiences inform how I think about sound and movement.”

Movement that informs music is an apt description for Rubin’s own work. After starting to improvise with dancers, he quickly became interested in ways for dancers and musicians to interact in analogue and digital spaces. In analogue terms: “How do you follow and lead? How do you support and contrast, and how do you transcend these relationships? How do you relate sound to movement and movement to sound?”

“I’ve found three basic ways to think about it. The first is to interpret the physical motion that you see or the sound that you hear. The second is to consider the manual labour behind the surface level: what is a performer doing to make that movement or sound? Like for example the quick upwards snapping gesture of playing a Bartok pizzicato on a violin. The third is to consider the inner emotion behind the labour. Think of classical ballet: it’s supposed to look weightless and effortless, but it’s hard to hold those postures, it’s painful for the body. So what is the dancer thinking when they’re holding this graceful pose? It’s probably psychologically arduous. Of course, these aren’t the only ways, but this framework has helped me explore many possibilities of interactive behavior.”

To let musicians and dancers influence each other directly and digitally, Rubin uses motion sensors and live electronics, for which he writes complex algorithms that use movement data to control digital signal processing. “I measure acceleration, relative position and the rate of rotation. That data goes into the computer where I can map it to other things, like the parameters of a granulator. I’ve been working on this sort of technique for a few years now. It’s not perfect, and it still needs a lot of changes, but it does what I want it to do for the moment.”

Uninterested in traditional, restrictive roles like ‘composer’ or ‘performer’, Rubin considers his recent works as collaborative interdisciplinary projects, in which he acts as decision maker and sometimes performer. His projects are developed in improvisation workshops in which musicians and movers contribute as much to the material as Rubin himself. The resulting scores, if Rubin makes any, only tell a fraction of the story. They are often just one page with codes referring to the gestures and movement developed in the workshop sessions.

“The scores are just a byproduct of the collaborative process, not the finality. They’re short and designed to be memorized. Dancers embody their movements and perform from memory, so I prefer when musicians do the same.” If that means that most of his pieces are essentially impossible to play for performers that weren’t part of the developing process, it’s not a concern for him: “I’m not thinking about that. I’m mostly thinking about here and now. If I work with new people, we’ll make a new piece together.”