Belly dancing meets electronic music composition and technology
Credits: Jack Beal
Aurie Hsu is a performer-composer who creates instrumental and electroacoustic music, interactive systems, and collaborates with musical robots. She performs with the Remote electroAcoustic Kinesthetic Sensing (RAKS) system, a wireless sensor interface for dance developed with composer Steven Kemper. Her pieces have been presented at NIME, ICMC, MOCO, Art Basel Miami, SEAMUS, SIGCHI, Ammerman Center for Arts and Technology, and internationally in Belgium, France, and The Netherlands.

Aurie's research has been published in Leonardo Music Journal and conference proceedings including the Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI), the International Workshop on Movement and Computing (MOCO), and the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC). Hsu appears on Oberlin Records and Ravello Records, and is currently Assistant Professor of Computer Music and Digital Arts in TIMARA at the Oberlin Conservatory.

Having been trained as a classical pianist, Aurie started her undergraduate education majoring in piano performance. The young musician didn't do any composition up until the last semester of her senior year, which happened accidentally because she had room in her schedule. "I took a composition 100 level class taught by Randy Coleman and that was my first experience with composing," she says. "I think it was random what brought me there, as random as looking through the course catalog and what class would fit in the time that I had free. I had friends that had taken that class … or had heard of Randy Coleman, so it was probably just a little bit of peer pressure and a little bit of random luck that I stumbled into that class."
There, the students would re-work the composition process by writing pieces based on their senses: for instance, one time Aurie brought five things to toggle like slime and had to play what she felt when touching those objects, or smelling a rose and playing that too. Essentially, "the weirder, the better." Coleman emphasized the not traditionally notated music making, so the students made a lot of graphic scores, which was an entirely new experience for Hsu — being in the piano department, the bulk of her work was centered around the canon.

Nevertheless, when Hsu wanted to perform Cage's piano sonatas and her own piece at her senior recital, her teacher, Mr. Joseph Schwartz, still gave her the green light. This reflects the school's culture, which encourages experimentation and thinking outside the box while still engaging traditions. "When I think back to Oberlin as a college experience, that ethos sticks with me the most, that's what has stayed the same," she adds. That sparked a deeper interest to continue exploring the field, and after graduating from university, Aurie began searching for a graduate electronic music program alongside a piano one. "I wasn't ready to abandon piano performance but had an itch to explore basic other timbres," she says. "[This] already brings you into the sound world of gongs, scraping and resonating strings, so the next logical step is record those, make a piece in electronic domain and combine those together."

Slowly, Hsu moved away from piano performance and began dedicating more and more time to composition and electronic music during her studies at Mills, which has a rich tradition of experimental and improvised music. At the same time, she started studying belly dance and hoped to combine the two areas of interest into a performance. Knowing she wished to pursue a PhD, the young composer looked for a place that would let her do that. University of Virginia's Composition and Computer Technologies program curriculum ended up being the best choice.
Credits: Peter Swendsen
The belly dancing class was also an accident. Invited to one of the classes by her friend, Aurie was "hooked" as it was very diverse. "It was all body types, all gender identities, you had people who were full body tattooed with tons of piercings, just the mom from next door, me, so it was kind of an incredible community that I hadn't come across in other dance classes, really," the composer elaborates. The aspect that she highlights the most, however, is that the fundamental component of the movement of belly dance matches the fundamental components of electronic movement. "For example, the most fundamental building block of electronic music is a sine wave and all of the movement in belly dance is either you doing a sine wave with your arms, torso, hips [and] head," Aurie explains. There's also the correlation of the on/off binary with computers and isolated popping and locking in belly dance.

Having the desire to morph the two fields into one and make a performance out of it, the musician wrote several pieces for belly dance and electronics, sometimes adding other instruments like violin and later including the robotic instruments, mainly collaborating with composer Steven Kemper. Although the initial idea was fixed media, she quickly realized it would be great to have an element of spontaneity. That decision came partly because at the time — in early 2010 when Arduino wasn't around and micro-controllers weren't as affordable and popular — Aurie experimented with basic sensors and used a bluetooth connection to her computer, which only worked in the studio. To solve this issue and capture the fundamental dance gestures, she attached a flex sensor that picked up her torso movements, sewed it into a corset and then sewed an accelerometer to capture hip motion. That became the beginning costuming for the system she performs with.
"The sensors were $15-$20 dollars, and they're small and lightweight. I needed something that was on the body, wasn't going to encumber the movement and could send wireless data to the computer."
The main purpose of analog sensors is to send the data, which, as Hsu describes, is a stream of fast numbers coming into different ports. "You have a huge range that's basically always fluctuating," she elucidates. "All the data are streams of numbers and I think the art happens in the mapping." How do you match those to musical parameters? In electronic music, you can map that to anything whether that be a melody, rhythm or the sound of a lion roaring. You can do anything. "We have lots of different pieces: [the ones] that are more noise-based, we are mapping the movement to physical models that create more static-y, noisy sounds," Aurie tells me. "We have a whole set of songs that are more beat-based … and sometimes the sensors will play a melody over it, so it's a little more straightforward and traditional."

In order to do the actual mapping, the first step is to slow down the data, followed by deciding what range is important to focus on and scale it. After that, Aurie uses specific modules of sounds. "One might be you open and close a filter on a sound, or you're controlling how a sound is synthesized," she says, recounting Chebyshev polynomials, Oscillator Bank, granulator, and other names that sound like they were taken from a sci-fi movie. The data is mapped to these modules that are then applied during practice to determine which sound comes during what movement.
While there is an element of guided improvisation, sequenced sounds, and choreography in each piece, the composer notices that the music and noise still influence and inform the overall movement and she begins to move a different way based on the music she's creating, which in turn impacts the sound and therefore establishes this synergy. "The music style is changing: it's evolving as you're composing, each new piece you make is a new sound world," Aurie thinks. "It's gone a lot less straight belly dance and some derivative that's deeply tied to that movement form but has taken on a life of its own, which I think is the most interesting part."

The composer often incorporates robots — Configured Automated Drumming Instrument (CADI), created by Steven Kemper, to be precise — into the scene too. A series of arms that you can put on any percussion instrument, they were put on a few shakers and tom-tom drums that were suspended behind Aurie. "Sometimes they act on their own and sometimes we are in a duet," she shares. It was a study on the relationship between human and machine based on Donna Haraway's manifesto on cyborgs and cyborg beings, where she talks about a kinship between organism and machine. In the past years, Hsu herself has been exploring the ways in which the two can cooperate and her performances have been a huge part in discovering that connection.
Credits: Lissa Maki
"What happens to the embodied human experience once you have technology in the mix? That is what's most fascinating to me."
While the technologies have been evolving faster every day and have helped implement musical ideas that weren't possible before, Aurie believes that it's important to not let the new advancements inform the music that you write. "I think as long as you have a creative or artistic or musical purpose, you find the technology tools that you need to realize that," she concludes. And if you discover that there are no such tools built, maybe you will create your own, just like George Lucas with Industrial Light Magic (which Disney bought for $4 billion in 2012) when he found out that the visual effects he wanted for Star Wars simply didn't exist.
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