The VPFI (Virtual/Physical Feedback Instrument) Flute: A Performance Ecosystem

Simon Waters (Designer)

Research output: Non-textual formDesign


The performance 'ecosystem' described draws on the aesthetic and practical influence of Nic Collins, Alvin Lucier and Agostino di Scipio (among others) - all visitors to UEA during the period in which the system was developed. John Bowers (Max/MSP) and David Plans-Casal (PD) – both research supervisees from whom I have learned orders of magnitude more than I was able to impart - were the driving force behind the programming involved, and the positioning of the work, such as it is, with respect to conventional conceptions of 'composition' and 'improvisation', owes most to the perpetual generosity of colleague Jonathan Impett, and to John Tilbury and Eddie Prevost, with whom I've been privileged to work. The theoretical background to the work has achieved public prominence due primarily to the encouragement and support of Franziska Schroeder and Pedro Rebelo (both of SARC, Belfast) who invited me to present papers in the elevated company of Anthony Braxton, Atau Tanaka and Steven Connor (among many others) at Symposia associated with the Sonorities Festival in 2005 and 2006. Michael Alcorn generously gave me time to compose at SARC during study leave in early 2006.

The project is the latest of a long-running series of investigations into different technological interventions into instrumental composition, begun with AfterImage (1993) for baroque flute & tape (Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival), continued by Trace (2000) for clarinet, piano and concealed CD player (Colin Lawson & Peter Hill) and Melt (2006) for marimba & live electronics, and the installation Proxemics: The world is a deaf machine (2006) for loudspeakers, I-Pods and audience (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts). The VPFI Flute and its offshoot Soundspotter flute projects are documented (including video and audio files) at The project represents one of the first instances of public use of Michael Casey's Soundspotter technology (using real-time MPEG7 analysis to allow 'instant' matched responses to performed input) in public performance, and has been developed in collaboration with (PhD supervisee) Casal, who has himself also published and spoken widely at international conferences (NIME, IRCAM, Paris) and performed using the technology in events curated by Waters and others.

Technically, the system is a hybrid of two investigations, the first (chronologically) utilising a physical system in which the amplified signal from an ordinary acoustic concert flute is replayed through a small loudspeaker and transmission line system back into the body of the flute through a plastic tube inserted through the cork in the headjoint of the instrument. Before simply generating acoustic feedback this signal is fed to a variety of interconnected Max/MSP modules which provide pitch shift, signal phase-level delay and flltering/resonance based on physical models of the tube of the flute, in addition to some performance-definable dynamics control. The second utilises Michael Casey's PureData Soundspotter implementation, which uses MPEG7 (rapid correlation between input signal and real-time analysis of massive buffered audio signals – live or from file) which, in conjunction with an evolving evaluation system (Casal), contributes 'matching' material from the buffer in a constant and developing dialogue with the player. The first public manifestation of the software, in a concert I was invited to curate at SARC on 2 February 2006 - Negotiating the Piano, involved three performers – Sebastian Lexer, Shigeto Wada, and David Plans-Casal, all of them virtuosic pianists, and two of them my research supervisees. They provided the most explicit impulse to my continued exploration of the principles investigated in the performances documented here, and I am grateful to all of them.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 03 Feb 2006


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