For at least two decades composers and choreographers have been working with a variety of technologies to capture the motion of a human body and translate physical gesture into musical gesture. Some of the earliest work in this genre included wiring the human body and tracking the positions of specific limbs and joints, recording the output on a computer, and mapping the resulting data onto an animated figure. Perhaps one of the outstanding examples of this work is Twyla Tharp's "The Catherine Wheel". Made in 1983 as a commission from BBC Television, this dance piece, made specifically as a television work, used such mapping techniques to create an animated figure ultimately superimposed onto the performance space as a virtual dancer. These technologies significantly advanced computer animation techniques, but were neither realtime, nor particularly "human" in their final choreographic stance. Some of the work produced along the way, of which "The Catherine Wheel" is an exemplar, was particularly compelling and successful.
I have coined the term Body Sampling to describe some of the technologies that have grown out of this work. This somewhat reductionist term expresses the driving force behind the work: to a greater or lesser degree, to "sample" the motion of a human body or bodies and use those motions to control a variety of musical or visual systems. It could be argued that any musical instrument is a body sampler, in that it is controlled entirely by human motion using the same argument, the orchestra is then a meta-body sampler, as the motion of its players are in turn controlled by the human gesture of the conductor. There is, however, a qualitative difference in what I mean by this term. The term makes a number of assumptions:
- the piece is genuinely interactive
- physical gesture of the performer is essential to the outcome of the piece
- there is a genuine sense of collaboration between performer and composer
But there is an additional element here: I have chosen to work with these technologies because one of my underlying dissatisfactions in using computers for both sonic and visual creation was the barrier between myself and the gestural output. I have always felt the need for my work to carry the mark of the human body somewhat ironic given that much of my work involves impossibly fast and dense textures. The discovery of body sampling technology allows me to do just that, without the need to develop closely notated scores or rely purely on the typically mechanical, and, well, rather un-physical gesture of the instrumental performer.