Features & Columns

Ballet San Jose: Jakub Ciupinski

Jakub Ciupinski creates a strange collaboration with Ballet San Jose
Jakub Ciupinski HANDS ACROSS THE THEREMINS: Composer Jakub prepares for his appearance with Ballet San Jose.

The weekend of April 19-21, Julliard School alumnus Jakub Ciupinski will accompany Ballet San Jose with two Theremins—and he will not be playing them. Instead, he will couple the instruments together, using them as gestural controllers to drive an electronic score, in real time, as the dance unfolds.

The piece, Eighty One, is a world premiere by choreographer Jessica Lang, set specifically for Ballet San Jose's "R/Evolutionary" program to dovetail with Ciupinski's commissioned score. This week, on Wednesday, April 10, Ciupinski will demonstrate the technology and discuss the piece at the ZERO1 Garage in downtown San Jose.

For the uninitiated, the Theremin is a unique instrument, invented in 1928, that works by hand capacitance. That is, the two antennae pick up the player's hand movements. One antenna converts the nearby movement to pitch, while the other converts the movement to amplitude. The player never touches the instrument. As a result, it's easy to make spooky science-fiction soundtracks but more difficult to play a melodic tune with any degree of accuracy.

Ciupinski, however, is using two Theremins in lieu of gestural MIDI controllers—which is to say, he's not playing the Theremins as musical instruments; rather, his hand movements are converted by the Theremins, with the audio then piped to MAX for Live, a hybrid of Ableton Live and MAX, an interactive graphic software environment for control signals. Together, they trigger or generate various components of Ciupinski's electronic score.

Parts of the score are prerecorded, while others are generated organically by the software in real time. The dance, while carefully choreographed, also includes improvisational elements and timing cues for the score. Likewise, while most of the music is precomposed on a macro level, Ciupinski will improvise parts of it on a micro level. As a result, the piece will always be slightly different for each performance. Ciupinski says the key is to maintain a balance between control and improvisation, between structure and variety.

"On many occasions, the dancers follow me, but I'm also following them, in a way," he explained. "I'm looking for certain gestures, or certain phrases, and I'm synchronizing to them. And on a lot of occasions, though, I'm responsible for triggering certain dance events, and the dancers are waiting for specific moments, where I can decide when I will trigger them. It's a hybrid between a traditional piece, prerecorded, with live improvisation and some kind of undetermined events."

For example, Ciupinski can move his hands in one particular way, the Theremin picks up the movement, and routes the audio to MAX for Live, which analyzes the signal in order to control anything Ciupinski wants. Or he can pull his right hand one way in order to alter the amount of reverb or pitch modulation the software applies to sounds organically generated by the signals converted from the movement of his other hand.

If he wants, he can even implement a system to control the stage lighting in real time, or use servo motors to regulate the water fountains in the lobby. Or he could put infrared sensors on the dancers' bodies, or on the floor, and have the dancers interactively control and/or interface with the music.

All of which has been done before, but what's totally new here is the use of two Theremins as gestural controllers. Ciupinski says he did initial research into various sensor technologies, like the scenarios just mentioned, but he found Theremins to be more natural: no messy wires and no interference from other signals nearby.

"I thought about Theremins because they are very organic," he said. "It's not about how close is the certain surface of your hand, it's more about how much flesh of your body is in the proximity of the antennas. And that feels way more organic. And it's extremely sensitive as well. There's just something very convenient about this setup."

Last November, Ciupinski, who lives and works in New York, came to San Jose to rehearse the piece with the ballet. He and Lang worked through ideas, discussed options and now the world premiere is good to go. Start waving your hands.

Composer's Talk

ZERO1 Garage

APRIL 10, 7pm Free