originally published in "Montreal Mirror," October 4, 1990

Victoriaville blurs the line between sound and vision, logic and impulse
by Andrew Jones

For its eighth year, the Festival Internationale Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville is out to deconstruct more than just the boundaries between musical styles.

The stunning, eclectic program accomplishes that easily enough. There's everything from the griot tales of Foday Musa Suso, the hardcore attitude of John Zorn's trio Slan, the subtle pan-African orchestrations of Trevor Watts Moire Music Orchestra, and the breathtaking jazz architecture of Marilyn Crispell.

But this year, the festival organizers are planning to explore other media. Just ask interactive video artist Don Ritter. A professor at the department of design art at Concordia University, Ritter is fascinated by human interface design, or the study of communication between people and machines. Ritter feels the act of creating and performing music with high technology can bridge the gap between human impulse and electronic logic.

"I'm not a musician," says Ritter over tea in his Old Montreal loft. "I've always been envious of the spontaneity that they have, and the way they interact with the media. My background is in painting and sculpture and those media work differently. I do something in my studio alone, and then it gets displayed." "Musicians don't work that way, especially improvisers. They do something the same moment the audience hears it. The spontaneity of the whole creative art is shown. With visual media, the audience doesn't see the creative act, they see the remnants. I decided I didn't want to talk to my paintbrush through my hand; I wanted to talk to it through music. That's human interface design."

And that's where George Lewis comes in. Ritter met the Chicago-born trombonist, improviser and Anthony Braxton disciple in MIT's Media Lab, where, along with Richard Teitlebaum and Robert Dick, they developed "hyperinstruments," new tools for manipulating and humanizing electronic and electroacoustic music.

Ritter's program, which he calls Orpheus, is an "expert" software system-a computer term meaning the computer has a certain amount of intelligence in evaluating data and making decisions based on what it receives. In this case, Orpheus evaluates and electronically responds to Lewis' improvised trombone by suggesting bizarre dada and surrealist images from a bank which has been fed through a digitizer into Ritter's computer.

The interactive system allows for differences in pitch, velocity and timbre, and reacts accordingly. The resulting panoply of sound and vision is arresting, funny and ultimately visionary.

"Electronic media, especially TV and video, is mainly being used for documentary purposes," says Ritter, "not for artistic ones. But these tools have incredible potential."