Stefan Prins: Hybrid Music

Stefan Prins is a new music composer and improviser (lives in Berlin) who is interested in using digital technology to explore virtual and physical relationships to build hybrid musical forms. His compositions have been played worldwide by a.o. Klangforum Wien, Nadar Ensemble, Nikel Ensemble, Champ d’Action, Ensemble Mosaik, Ensemble Recherche, Trio Accanto, and other new music ensembles. His music has been played on festivals such as the Donaueschinger Musiktage, Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik, the Darmstadt Ferienkurse, Eclat Stuttgart, Ultima Festival Oslo, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Tzlil Meudcan, Wien Modern. Stefan Prins received his PhD from Harvard University under the guidance of Chaya Czernowin and Hans Tutschku. He is artistic co-director of the Belgian ensemble for contemporary music, Nadar Ensemble, was one of the founders of the long-standing collective reFLEXible and plays laptop in the band Ministry of Bad Decisions. Since March 2020 he’s appointed Professor of Composition and director of the Hybrid Music Lab at the Hochschule für Musik “Carl Maria Von Weber” Dresden.

What are your criteria for a good musical composition?

Two elements are important for me as a listener. The first: a sensorial experience that grabs me and fascinates me and the second: a conceptual layer which also talks to me. Not only are these elements important to me by themselves but how they interact is important as well. The sensorial dimension can be purely auditory but can also contain visual, theatrical, or other elements.

Can you name the last piece you’ve listened to that corresponds to those two criteria?

A recent piece that I admire a lot is Scenes from the plastisphere (2018) composed by Rama Gottfried (an American composer who is currently living in Berlin). This piece is really fascinating, Rama calls it “video puppetry”. Musicians play objects — some are human made, some are from nature — while a video captures how they are manipulated and projects this onto a screen. He devised algorithms that use the data from this video feed and translates that into sounds. The objects themselves become instruments. Not only was Rama able to create a very captivating musical and sonic structure through these means, but at the same time it’s also visually really beautiful. The piece draws you in as a sensorial experience, but also conceptually speaks about things that we are experiencing today. For example it refers to the ecological disaster that we’re experiencing.

This text is a redacted extract from the video interview I did with Stefan Prins on 15.9.2020. The full interview can be found here:

What is your musical signature?

This is hard for me to say. It is important to me that a composition has these two dimensions that I already mentioned — sensorial experience and a conceptual layer. I’m very fascinated by technology: how it changes our lives, what it means in today’s world, how it can be used in art, and how we can turn it upside down or do things that are not supposed to be done with it. For me, it is important that, when used, the technology is truly embedded in the composition itself and even reflects on it or makes it clear that this technology is essential to it. So I like to find constructive ways of subverting technology or putting it in different contexts. I use this approach in several pieces of mine, for example in the Piano Hero cycle, Mirror Box Extensions or Generation Kill.

What are the most important technological artifacts for you?

Regarding hardware, I have used smart devices (for example, in pieces Mirror Box Extensions), laptops (in almost all my pieces, and often in different ways: for example, in Infiltrationen the laptops are used to create in real-time playing instructions for the performers), video projectors, game controllers. Of course also loudspeakers, microphones & transducers. Regarding software, Max MSP is very important to me as well as a DAW like Reaper.

Copyright: Stefan Prins, 2020

What is your process of composing?

I often start with a clear conceptual idea and from there I develop the composition. For example, in Generation Kill, the idea was to find a way where the physical presence of a performer and a virtual version of this performer creates a hybrid performer. At the beginning I imagined a situation on the stage with a semi-transparent screen and performers who are controlling those projections through the game controllers. And after this conceptual stage, I started to develop the software (co-created with Josiah Oberholtzer, who did most of the heavy lifting in Max). The software gave a lot of sonic and performative possibilities. And then from there, I developed the interactions with the performers and also the sounds for the live performers. Only then I developed the structure and wrote the score. An important part of the compositional process for me always is the collaboration with the performers. I really love to work with performers who are not shy to experiment a bit with me first in workshop situations, who bring sonic ideas. I almost never write a piece without this feedback with the performers for whom the piece is written.

Is it common practice for you to create new software or other IT solutions for your compositions?

Yes. In the past I did a lot of the programming myself, mainly in Max, but now I’m more and more collaborating with other people who are much more specialized and are much better programmers than me. Collaborating with others also has the advantage that it is easier to broaden your perspective, break habits and embrace new insights, ideas or solutions. So yes there are many pieces for which new software was developed. For example, now I’m developing a piece which will happen partly in the concert hall and partly outside of it. It requires a real-time network of musical interactions. It is clear that we will have to develop some kind of App for the piece in order to be able to work with 5G network technologies, as well as Augmented Reality technology.

How has your music changed in the last 10 years?

A lot of things have influenced me in the past 10 years, but perhaps my time spent as a PhD student at Harvard University was one of the most significant influences in the past 10 years. Four years of studying, taking lessons, and interacting with my inspiring tutors, Chaya Czernowin and Hans Tutschku, and many brilliant colleagues have shaped me a lot. It has given me tools to reflect more about my music, in more dimensions, than before. Besides this, continuous collaborations with some incredible musicians and ensembles have been crucial in how my music has grown in the past 10 years. People like Pieter Matthynssens, Yaron Deutsch, Stephane Ginsburgh, Florian Bogner, the amazing Nadar Ensemble, Nikel Ensemble, Klangforum Wien to name just a few. And I am forgetting many people right now. So if I would have to be more concrete, which is a bit tricky and perhaps more the field of musicologists, I would say (and hope), that my music has gained dimensionality over the past 10 years — that I was able to find a richer musical language and provide a richer overall experience.

What do you fear as a composer the most?

That my music will become irrelevant or I will start to repeat myself over and over again and stop evolving, stop growing. I am not so much worried about how my music will be received, but it’s more about the personal feeling of relevance and connection, not only to the new music community but the world outside.

Why do you still compose?

Simply because I don’t know any other way of living. At this point in my life it’s the only way for me to be happy. It’s like breathing. When I don’t compose for a while, I start to get extremely nervous and grumpy. I love to listen and work with sound. If I don’t compose, I become really unhappy.

What are the biggest changes in music over the last 25 years?

Digital technology — the Internet, laptops, powerful cameras, network technology, smart devices — has been a game-changer. It has not only changed the structure of music or how music is composed, but also the vocabulary and grammar of music. Specific technology brings a specific musical thinking with it as well, for example, there are some pieces by Matthew Shlomowitz or Johannes Kreidler that would completely be unthinkable in the 1980s, because the way of thinking, the cutting and playing with samples is something that really comes from the internet and the entire audio-visual online culture. And another change is that music has become much more multi-, trans- and interdisciplinary over the past years. The borders between different art forms and media have blurred more and more. So the idea of hybridity is something that is very much of today’s music and art. Sometimes it’s impossible to say whether something is a concert piece, performance, or installation.

How has the new music audience changed in the last 25 years?

I think in the 70s, 80s and early 90s music had become very much about music itself and it was often consumed by people who write music or whose occupation is connected to music. So the music community became self-focused. Nowadays I think the new music community is starting to open up to the outside world again. There are many reasons for that, one of them is, I believe, that the composers can create connections with our society through the use of contemporary technology. Another one is the existence of the internet where many people can gain musical experience through its vast multimedia library.

What could be the biggest game-changers in the new music field for the next 10 years?

Technology will keep on changing the music on many levels. 5G, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality. AI, for example, will have an incredible impact on the compositional level as soon as these technologies become available as software packages that everyone can use in a simple way. And if you have your VR headsets you can experience music in a completely different way than you would in a concert hall, which will also change the kind of music people will compose. 5G will eventually make data transmission so quick that it will become possible to create vast and fast networks of data exchange and will up the quality and resolution of any kind of broadcast, so that it’ll be possible to bring the experience of broadcasted/networked music a step closer to experiencing it live. And I’m sure these technologies will have many consequences that are impossible to foresee. All this together will bring new possibilities to the musical ecosystem.

What is the role of new music in society, now?

I would like to think that new music has some kind of impact on listeners. I wouldn’t dare to say that it might change them but that it somehow functions as a window that opens up to new experiences.

What would be your suggestions for younger composers?

Don’t make decisions based on how you think the outside world will react to your music, just make decisions based on what you are interested in exploring yourself or what you think you should do. Take your thinking to the edge and make decisions there. But also take a pause once in a while and reflect on your work. Allow yourself time not to compose. And I would also really advise young composers to look outside of the world of music, in visual arts, dance, art movies and don’t be afraid to look for collaborations there. Never stop questioning yourself.

Selection of works created by Stefan Prins

Inhibition Space #1 (for bass woodwind trio and live-electronics):

Third Space (2016–2018), performed by Klangforum Wien & Bas Wiegers (cond): first 7 minutes:

Generation Kill (2012), performed by Nadar Ensemble:

Not I (2007, rev. 2018): performed by Yaron Deutsch & Stefan Prins:

Improvisation with Peter Jacquemyn (double bass), from our double cd “Cloud Chamber”: